Atheist were one of the first bands to create truly technical metal music. This band used elements of thrash, death metal, prog rock, jazz-fusion, and latin styles, to come up with a sound that was like no other. Along with bands like Watchtower, Cynic, and Death, Atheist helped to create a lust for technical metal that saw no boudaries, now called progressive metal, and surely influenced modern day bands like Dream Theater, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Andromeda, and Between the Buried and Me. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with guitarist/vocalist Kelly Shaeffer to talk about the history of the band, the recent catalog reissues from Relapse Records, and the possible future of this highly influential band.
Read on for the full interview!
Sea of Tranquility: Can you talk a little bit about the final days of the band, and why you decided to call it quits after 3 very influential and "ahead of it's time" albums?
Kelly Shaeffer: Well we just had done all we could to keep it together after losing Roger Patterson (bass), and we were also having trouble getting our music to people. We did not have a really good label situation, as they did not understand what we were doing and well... it was just time to call it a day. We were really proud of the Elements record, and we wished they would have "got it" but they did not and neither did the press so the reviews were less than spectacular. Today it's an entirely different situation, I have had some of the same writers years later tell me how much they fucked that one up by not understanding the quality of the music until they grew up a bit (laughs!). Now technical metal is a mainstay, but when we paved the road it was a ghost town!
SoT: How much of a blow was it to not only lose a friend in Roger Patterson, but a talented bass player and important cog in the Atheist machine? (Roger died in a bus accident)
Kelly: Well it was as difficult as anything could be you know? We were devastated and still are devastated about it. It was one of the most tragic things I have experienced in this particular "Piece of Time" ...Pun Intended.
SoT: Can you explain how the writing changed around the time of the second album Unquestionable Presence? There's a remarkable difference in the maturity and complexity of the songs on that album compared to the debut.
Kelly: I think we had fallen upon our formula after writing the last few tunes for Piece of Time (debut) and we just kept trying to out do each song as we wrote. Roger was really starting to peak as a player along with Steve Flynn (drums), and me and Rand (guitar) were just painting on top of this amazing rhythm machine of Flynn and Patterson. Had we gone on with that lineup it would have been the sickest shit ever! Those guys were just on fire technically, but we always managed to keep it heavy and brutal as well I think.
SoT: Did Atheist consider themselves a death metal band, or perhaps more of a thrash or progressive metal band?
Kelly: We were a lot of things, so maybe we were "Mutt" metal, who knows about tags you know. We would go from a full on Slayer part to a section of progressive jazz with heavy ass guitars, coupled with bloody screams! It was a blast to confuse people, and that we did! We considered ourselves ATHEIST.
SoT: Was Tony Choy (bassist from Cynic) responsible for bringing more of the fusion and Latin jazz influences into the band?
Kelly: Most definitley for the album "Elements"! He of course is latin so.. he grew up with all of those rhythms, andf so it was second nature for him to add that element. But truly Steve Flynn was taking lessons in latin jazz with this cat in Florida before we started writing for Unquestionable Presence, and so all of the timbales, and strange stuff like in "An Incarnations Dream", there was a lot of latin stylings in that tune.
SoT: It was pretty unique to have 2 lefthanded guitarists in the band-can you talk a little about the styles of both you and Rand (especially Rand's unique way of playing the guitar upside down) your influences, who handled most of the lead work, and what prompted the band to add a third guitar player for the 3rd album?
Kelly: Yes it is a right handed world so it was hard to be a lefty guitar player, and for rand it's the reason he was sort of forced to play literally upside down, his parents had a music shop when he was a kid so he just naturally had to flip the guitar upside down, and he went on to continue playing that way. So if you can imagine what a freak show we were live, cause not only were people confused by the music, but then you have this kid playing crazy technical shit UPSIDE DOWN! It was insane. He is still one of the finest guitar players I know! On the first 2 records we traded solos, you can tell the difference between the two of us easily. He was a far superior scalesman. My solos were very bluesy and boxy from a scale standpoint. As far as the 3rd guitar on Elements-when I first pulled the trigger on the fact that we were gonna do this we had as is known now 40 days to write and record this record SO rand initially was not on board. Me and Frank Emmi started writing right away for a week solid before he decided to not be stubborn and pissy and come jam with us again and try to make take on our most technical feat yet! Making a record in that short of time, so we just all three played on the record, but live it was handled by just the two of them.
SoT: Why do you think that Atheist never really "made it", while other bands like Death plowed ahead and actually became quite successful, at least as far as an extreme metal band can?
Kelly: Well it depends on what you mean by "made it". Atheist has a legacy and integrity that 100,000 records could never match! I would not trade it for the world. We broke new musical ground man! Thats worth it's weight in gold to us. Death was an exception, Chuck was also a ground breaker, the true father of death metal in my opinion, but many bands came and popped off for a minute and then just sort of hung around and sold maybe 10-25 thousanmd records and big fucking deal, you get a check if your lucky for 1000 bucks and then its over, and you never really carve your place in metal history.
You just get lumped in with a movement. Atheist stands alone in my opinion with a one of a kind sound, thats priceless!
SoT: Which of the Atheist albums is the most special to you and why?
Kelly: Unquestionable Presence, for so many reasons, not limited to it being Roger's final work, as well as the fact that top to bottom that record crushes both technically and brutally. Some of my favorite lyrics are on that as well, "Mother Man", "Brains", "The Formative Years", etc. The drumming is still some of the sickest shit ever recorded, and this was before pro tools kiddos!! They were live, all 1 takes! There is only one thing that I do not like about that record, and that is the cover.
SoT: What are you and the rest of the band doing these days?
Kelly: Tony has been with Code 305, a latin pop group outta Miami, Steve Flynn was gone for 10 years as he started a family, but has now returned with an amazing new band called GNOSTIC. I am actually representing them with my company "Starrfactory". We should get an album out for them in 2006, it's very heavy and very technical, and he is writing new chapters in technicality with this and it's only at the demo stage right now, we expect it to do really well, check it out the link @ my website www.kellyshaefer.com .
And well I of course had a great run with NEUROTICA which released 3 records from 1997-2002 and capped with the Ozzfest 2002 tour around the U.S..Those records will be re-issued this year through starrfactory as well. I also have been working with Brian Johnson from AC/DC on a band called Big Machine. You can also check out the link for that at my website.
SoT: Any truth to the rumors of an Atheist reunion?
Kelly: Yes, in fact we are close to finalizing some select festival appearances in Europe in 2006 -it promises to be huge! With the original recording lineup from U.P. myself, Choy, Flynn and Burkey!! Watch for news on that at www.officialatheist.com soon!!!!
SoT: What do you think of the Relapse reissues/remasters of the albums? Nice job right?
Kelly: Exceptional! Could not have asked for a better job.
SoT: Of the current metal/progressive rock scene, are there any bands that stick out in your eyes as doing something special?
Kelly: Well sure, it's a long list. I love a lot of different kinds of music so I could go on and on per genre. I have stayed very close to the streets and I love discovering new bands just like I did when I was 15 you know? A list of a few but not limited to OPETH, DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN, MASTODON, and SLIPKNOT (who has a GREAT drummer in JOEY JORDINSON). GORGUTS was a great band. I am interested in this new band from France called Maladaptive, they are doing some interesting shit. But my favorite shit for the last 8 years is STONER ROCK! I am a huge fan of Kyuss, Atomic Bitchwax, Hermano, and more.
SoT: Would you say that even though Atheist never became a household name, the band greatly influenced a lot of modern day technical & progressive metal bands.
Kelly: Without a doubt, and we are proud of that fact. Atheist has always been a bit of a secret, but the secret is gonna be out now that the re-issues are on the streets again. So we hope that people will dig into the trilogy of records and crank that shit!
SoT: Thanks a lot Kelly!
Kelly: Thank you! And all you readers out there, turn your friends on to Atheist, and keep it interesting musicians!!!! Thanks see you in Europe next year!! cheers !!!!
Photos courtesty of the Atheist Website