By David E. Gehlke
ATHEIST frontman Kelly Shaefer was productive during the throes of Covid. Armed with only a guitar, basic home recording software and speakers atop a child's desk, Shaefer burned the midnight oil throughout lockdown and came away with over a dozen new compositions. While ATHIEST is long overdue for its next studio platter (the band's latest, "Jupiter", was released in 2010),Shaefer quickly realized what he was writing sounded nothing like his main band. The songs were aggressive, brutal, but catchy, even melodic and left enough room for a myriad of vocal ideas, including clean singing, something he hasn't done since his post-ATHEIST band NEUROTICA called it a day in 2002. Unsure of what he had, Shaefer tapped into his vast network of musician friends, including famed but long-retired Morrisound Recording producer/engineer Scott Burns, for their opinion. The consensus from Burns and everyone else was nearly unanimous: Shaefer had a late-career project worth pursuing.
Shaefer's new band is TILL THE DIRT, whose "Outside The Spiral" debut will see the light of day courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records. It marks a bold but logical move for Shaefer, who could very easily continue to milk ATHEIST. Still, as the friendly frontman and technical metal pioneer would tell BLABBERMOUTH.NET, there is a lot more to him than dizzying complexity and jazz-influenced death metal.
Blabbermouth: TILL THE DIRT marks the first time you've performed clean vocals since NEUROTICA. What was it like doing them again? Was it like riding a bike?
Kelly: "In the course of writing these songs, I think one of the first things I noticed was they were different from ATHEIST. I could combine the two without it being pretentious or predictable. You can almost bet that some modern music will have these heavy vocals, then suddenly, clean vocals come in. My clean vocals are a bit different. They're ragged. 'Outside The Spiral' was the first song I wrote. To be able to combine these two was something I always wanted to do. It had to happen naturally. For me, especially without it being thought out, everything about this music and record is not pre-thought. [Laughs] That was the cool thing. It organically found its way back into my life. Extreme metal makes me happy because NEUROTICA was not that kind of band. ATHEIST people didn't want to hear me sing. NEUROTICA fans didn't want to hear me scream. To find a platform of music where I can combine the two and everybody is cool with it is a bonus. I hope everyone is cool with it! [Laughs] It seemed like a natural thing. I also think it's important to have a sense of songwriting catchiness, which is sometimes missing in extreme metal. The clear vocal style lent itself to the music that I was writing. When you say 'clean vocals,' I think everybody reading this will go, 'Ugh. I hate fucking clean vocals!' They are clean vocals from a guy who has been smoking for 35 years. [Laughs] They are clean in the sense of Joe Cocker-clean."
Blabbermouth: Do you have a preference now on which vocal style?
Kelly: "Well, now it's harder to sing. People think it's hard to scream, but it's harder to sing because it's harder on my voice. I have to take care of myself in a live setting more than I would if I was screaming. I will have to get myself in a different headspace on tour to make sure I can pull it off. I probably prefer screaming more than singing because of the sheer aggression. Because the music where I am singing clean in TILL THE DIRT is so aggressive, it will still feel like I'm screaming in a way. The music is moving along at a fast pace. I'm excited to see how it plays out in the live setting and how people react. It's not something any of these folks have seen me do in a live scenario. I did it for so many years in NEUROTICA. There was some aggressive stuff in NEUROTICA with some screaming, but it was minimal. This is a brand-new frontier."
Blabbermouth: Your bread-and-butter is technical music. Did you have to dial it back at all in TILL THE DIRT?
Kelly: "I was writing for ATHEIST when this stuff came up. I felt like it wasn't technical. I didn't feel like it was suitable for ATHEIST. That was the first flag where I thought, 'I don't know what this is. It's not technical or adventurous enough to fit into the ATHEIST template.' It's hard to explain. It stuck out so much that 'Outside The Spiral', it's kind of atmospheric in a way that I don't think would fit into the ATHEIST world. But it was still very heavy. That was the first thing I asked people, 'What do you think of this? I don't know where this fits in.' Then people started giving me an idea of what it felt like to them. They were like, 'I think this is something new.' But I don't think about it. If I think about it, then it becomes pretentious. It's very spontaneous. I was writing different songs each night, which became this wave of songs. It was hard for me to pull out of the TILL THE DIRT songwriting vibe and get back into ATHEIST. I wrote a whole shitload of material that fits into the TILL THE DIRT world. Everything in ATHEIST is tuned to 440. It's much harder to be heavier when tuned to standard. TILL THE DIRT, I played in D tuning. That was a lot of fun. I really loved playing down that low. I also used a really weird tuning that was an E and F-sharp and the rest of the guitar was tuned normally. It was really strange."
Blabbermouth: How did your arm hold up with all this playing? [Editor's note: Shaefer developed tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in the early '90s.]
Kelly: "As long as I sit down, it's cool. Playing live would kill me, but sitting down and playing is effortless as long as I'm not standing. [Laughs]"
Blabbermouth: I always thought that was an underappreciated element of you back in the early days of ATHEIST. You had to play ridiculous material and sing.
Kelly: "That's what caused my problem. [Laughs] I'm glad I don't have to do that now. That was very hard. I didn't think about it at the time. It was a normal scenario, but getting away from it and returning to it would have been difficult. There's too much going on — too many different things at one time. I will say I think one of the best things about ATHEIST these days is having guys playing the material playing it better than I did. It's tighter. Singing and playing as good as I wanted to and as much as I practiced, it still wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. These new guys playing with me play it spot-on. There's no struggle. I can effortlessly sing over it, making it sound much better."
Blabbermouth: With ATHEIST, there was always so much to dig into lyrically. Are you trying to keep the lyrics a bit more relatable and personal in TILL THE DIRT?
Kelly: "Yeah. There are things I would never write about in ATHEIST. Keep in mind while writing that stuff Covid was happening. I was thinking that maybe I don't make it out of this. Being a long-time smoker and all the respiratory issues that were happening — I lost a couple of friends who were in much better shape than I to Covid. There was a terrifying period. Not knowing how this fucking virus is going to affect me. I started thinking about it. You talk about a song like, 'I Want To Watch You Grow Old'. I have a six-year-old son. At the time, he was three. I hope I get to watch him get married and have kids. That's something I would never write about in ATHEIST. It's not a conscious effort to not write about it, but it wouldn't feel right. It's a different headspace. ATHEIST has more headier stuff lyrically. I wouldn't say I like to dip into politics, but that was also inflamed then. The political nature of how Covid was being handled and the state of affairs — the song 'Invitation' is one of my favorite songs because it sounds like how I felt about the world at that time. It was a helpless feeling for a while. I thought, 'How will we get out of this?' It was unprecedented. The lockdown, the masks, how will we be able to tour again? I never felt a lot of despair before and never thought it would happen. It was a unique feeling. I always say that your surroundings and scenarios will dictate your art, whether it's painting or music. The TILL THE DIRT record is a time capsule of how I felt during that time."
Blabbermouth: And that's what made it easier to separate this band from ATHEIST.
Kelly: "It's a totally different animal. It's like a rabid animal. It's much angrier and a lot faster. When you combine that with a little bit of melody, it creates a weird hybrid of sounds. It's always hard when you're known for one particular band. Phil Anselmo goes through it with SUPERJOINT and all the different projects he's in. Everyone is like, 'PANTERA! PANTERA! PANTERA!' But there's a lot more to Phil. He has a lot of other things that he can say musically. Sometimes the fans won't let you do that. I hope people will understand that this is not an ATHEIST record. It's so different. I need people to know that. [Laughs] This is not an ATHEIST cousin or anything. Somebody who is expecting a technical record will be disappointed. This has nothing to do with it. It's hard to do at this stage in my career. I feel lucky that I found this little moment of creativity. I attribute it to that kind of unknown feeling of Covid. A lot of people have a lot of bad things to say about that period. I do, too — a lot of people lost loved ones and businesses and lives changed. For me, one of the defining things was the music that came out of it. There was a lot of good and bad."
Blabbermouth: We'd be remiss if we didn't discuss Scott Burns. What did you learn most from working with Scott again after 29 years?
Kelly: "To believe in myself a little more. I'm always second-guessing certain things, knowing how Scott is and how brutally honest he is. He gave me confidence that I didn't think I had to do something like this. I would second-guess, 'Are clean vocals okay here?' He would say, 'Yes! Don't worry about what anyone else thinks.' It's hard for me because I think about that: 'What's this person going to think?' 'What will these people think?' Just the ability to say, 'Fuck it. Who cares what people think?' It made me feel really good that we were touching on brand-new stuff. Scott has always had his ear on the street. I felt like I was onto something as a result of his encouragement. Getting back into that world of having somebody I could trust to tell me the truth. If I wrote something I thought was great and he didn't think it was great, he would say, 'You're falling away from what it is that's great about this.' It's hard to find people like that. So much lip service surrounds musicians, whether it's family or friends. You need someone who can help you focus and keep you on track. I forgot about how great Scott was at that. People were talking about him 'producing.' Technically, it has nothing to do with mixing. Two totally different things that I don't think people realize. Scott really played a different role than when we worked together in ATHEIST. That side of him was something I wished we would have tapped into more with ATHEIST. I learned that he was a great mix engineer and an incredible producer. He doesn't write songs, but he has a knack. He's one of two people: Borivoj Krgin and Scott Burns, both non-musicians with an incredible ear for all the little things about music. I've never seen anything like that. The guys have no musical ability but know what's going on musically. It's really cool."