DEMONS & WIZARDS: A Return to Battle

INTERVIEW WITH JON SCHAFFER BY KELLEY SIMMS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEREMY SAFFER

Demons & Wizards, the power metal side-project featuring Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer and Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kürsch, has returned after a lengthy hiatus. The band kicked off its A Magical Encounter with Demons & Wizards Tour—its first tour in nearly two decades—in Europe last summer in Saarbrücken, Germany, including a headlining show at Wacken Open Air, while their North American headline tour began in Los Angeles with Lizzy Borden and Tyr as support.

Many fans were super psyched that the band was returning, as they haven’t toured since 2000, and their last album was 2005’s Touched by the Crimson King. Along with Schaffer and Kürsch, the live band features guitarist Jake Dreyer (Witherfall, Iced Earth), bassist Marcus Siepen (Blind Guardian), drummer Fredrik Ehmke (Blind Guardian, Sinbreed), and keyboardist Joost Van Den Broek (After Forever, Ayreon).

Closing out the 13 date US tour at the final night of ProgPower USA in Atlanta, Schaffer explained that the duo were immediately returning to the studio in Tampa Bay, Florida the next day to wrap up sessions on Demons & Wizard’s long-awaited third full-length album, which is scheduled to be released in early 2020.

This is the band’s first tour in nearly two decades, and first ever in North America. What took so long?
Simply, Iced Earth and Blind Guardian. We’re both in very successful bands, we stay really busy on our own, and to get our schedules to line up to a point to be able to make another record. We made the decision a long time ago when it was going to happen again, that we wanted to do it the right way and be able to give it a proper push and spend the time on the songs and everything that we wanted to do. So, this is the moment where our schedules lined up, and we were finally in a position to be able to do it. The album will be out in February, and we’ll see what kind of touring work we can do. We both have Blind Guardian and Iced Earth obligations next year for recording, spending time in the studio, and pre-production. Whatever we do with Demons & Wizards is always going to be limited. I know it’s been 15 years, and we get asked this question all the time, but it’s just simply a matter of time. It’s always been timing. It’s always been this challenge.


“THE ALBUM WILL BE OUT IN FEBRUARY, AND WE’LL SEE WHAT KIND OF TOURING WORK WE CAN DO.”


Former Iced Earth vocalist and your brother-in-law Matt Barlow made a guest appearance one night on this tour in New York to sing on Iced Earth’s “I Died for You.” How far in advance did you plan this?
Matt and I were just on the phone and talking, and it was some time in between the European run and the North American run. And he and my sister came and the kids, and they said, “We want to come see you in New York.” I think Jake Dreyer and I were up one night on the bus talking about it or something that it’d be cool to get Matt to come out. Because he did that in Baltimore with Iced Earth last year, singing the last verse of “Watching Over Me,” and it was a lot of fun. So, I asked him and he was like, “Hell yeah, I’ll do it, man.” So, he came out and we had a great time. I knew the crowd was going to go crazy, but it was just insane. He comes slowly walking out as he sings the second verse of “I Died for You” and the looks on everybody’s faces were like, “What?” Then all of a sudden when he appeared under the stage lights, they just went bananas. So, it was really cool.

The crowd looked like they went absolutely nuts!
They did! Yeah, it was nuts all night, but that was certainly one of the high points for sure. Nobody saw it coming, and that’s why we like doing that kind of stuff. It just depends on which shows people come to. A lot of places we have guests that either have a history with the band or famous guys in other bands or whatever. Sometimes it gets talked about and sometimes there’s no chance, but Matt still remembers all those songs obviously. It’s different when we have a buddy from another band and they come up and play with us or sing with us—that usually takes a little more work.


“IT’S GOING TO HAVE A VERY SERIOUS IMPACT ON PEOPLE. I’M VERY CERTAIN OF THAT.”


You’ve mentioned in previous interviews the reason for not including any of the new songs in the set list on this tour.
Because there would be YouTube videos with poorly recorded cell phone footage, and that’s not what we. After 15 years of no Demons & Wizards, that’s not the impact. The impact needs to be the first video, the first single release. The one we were considering doing live is Wacken had given us the opportunity to make one of the new tracks the theme song of the festival, and we really considered doing it. But the more we thought about it and talked about it, that means we have to play it at all the shows before Wacken and that’s exposure globally and there’s no way to control it. So, let’s just wait. It’s better for the impact to come out with this song, which is the first song we’re going to release, and then we’ll see what happens from there. But it’s going to have a very serious impact on people. I’m very certain of that.

For this tour’s set list, you’re playing songs from Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Demons & Wizards. How hard was it coming up with these tracks spanning all three bands?
The Blind Guardian and Iced Earth part of the set are fun, but I’m fine if we were just focusing completely on Demons & Wizards. It is a cool celebration and it’s a unique take on both sets of songs, because they are going to be different with the different guys performing them the way we do. But it wasn’t hard. It just takes me back to a lot of special memories and stuff like that. We initially talked about “The Bard’s Song,” but I told Hansi that I think that’s too much mellow stuff because there’s a lot of moody and acoustic kind of stuff in Demons & Wizards and I felt like we needed more fast ones. And he wanted to do the Iced Earth song “I Died for You.” He loves the song, so he wanted to do that one. He has to be comfortable with whatever it is we’re going to do from both standpoints. But back in 2000 when we did those first two shows together, we did “A Question of Heaven” and “Travel in Stygian.” And we did “Welcome to Dying” and we did some AC/DC and some Alice Cooper and shit like that because we just didn’t have enough material—it was our first record. It’s just a fun celebration of the friendship of both bands, and then what we’ve created together with Demons & Wizards obviously had legs for a long time, even though we’ve hardly been active.

Demons & Wizards’ touring band is made up of members from both Iced Earth and Blind Guardian. What’s the musical chemistry like between all of its members?
When you speak about Demons & Wizards in the studio and you speak about live, those are always going to be different things because of the way we record. But jamming with Marcus and Frederik is great. They’re great people, and I’ve known Marcus as long as I’ve known Hansi and I’ve known Frederik for 15 years now, but I still consider him the new guy. We never actually jammed before, but it feels great and we have a lot of fun together. The core five of us have a great time together.


“WE’VE GOT TO MAKE IT FUN, MAKE IT EXCLUSIVE, AND KEEP IT AS A SPECIAL EVENT.”


Since both Iced Earth and Blind Guardian are already huge bands, is there even a possibility of making Demons & Wizards’ albums more frequently?
The frequency will pick up some I expect because we’ve signed a contract for two studio records and a live album. We’re going to do at least that within probably the next four to five years. All of that stuff will have been completed. But we will never put Demons & Wizards on the typical album/tour, album/tour cycle hamster wheel. That’s not going to happen. We’ve got to make it fun, make it exclusive, and keep it as a special event. It will not have the frequency of Iced Earth or Blind Guardian, but it will still work. We can’t wait another 19 years. We’re going to be too fucking old, and that’s going to be the bottom line. We’re going to do it more frequent, and I think even Iced Earth and Blind Guardian activities are going to be a little more exclusive and not quite as insane as they were for many years, especially in Iced Earth’s case. It’s going to be a different situation with Demons & Wizards, always.

What’s next, including Iced Earth plans?
I’ve got some other production things going on next year, and Iced Earth will begin songwriting at some point. I’ll probably start messing around a little bit in the studio in January, but I have another production in February and March that I’m going to be doing. And then when we do get this wrapped up, we’ll look at do we want to do some festivals, what do we want to do, and blah, blah, blah. Then we’ll start putting that together. Stu Block [vocalist, Iced Earth] and I have not started doing any songwriting yet. I actually have to write the songs first before I even bring any vocalists that I work with in. I haven’t begun to work on any Iced Earth material because I’ve been focused on Demons & Wizards completely for the last year. But 2020 will be spent working up new Iced Earth material, and I imagine by late in the year, Stu and I will be back working in Independence Hall. Then 2021 is likely for a new Iced Earth release, and I think that’s what Blind Guardian is shooting for also. And in other news of Iced Earth this year, the 20th anniversary of Alive in Athens comes out. We’re finally going to have the album on vinyl for the first time, proper vinyl, not just picture disc, which is what it was back in the day. There’s another 30th anniversary of the first record coming out, and we’re talking about doing something special for that. There’s so much on the agenda. We’ve already recorded and filmed the live album for Demons & Wizards. It’s going to be ready to go whenever we’re ready to put it out there. There’s a lot of shit.