An Extremely Unquestionable Presence: An Interview with Atheist

"There's this misconception, when you're 40 you're old ... In music you get better. It's not a physical sportwe're not playing football." Photo: Amanda Vouglas

The history of Atheist, a revolutionary extreme metal band that created forward thinking, technically engrossing and emotionally empowering music, is a storied one. They hit the scene in 1988 and soon released their debut Piece of Time and its quick successor Unquestionable Presence to much fanfare in the flourishing Florida death metal scene. Tragedy hit the band in 1991 as original bassist and key member Roger Patterson was killed in a touring van accident. The band’s 1993 album Elements reflected an emotionally split and shattered band that wanted to call it quits, but due to label obligations they cranked out the third album. Atheist broke up in 1994, but their albums grew in popularity and the band attained legendary metal status as their fan base grew, despite the lack of a tour schedule or any current releases. After years of inactivity, Atheist reunited in 2005 and finally released their fourth album, Jupiter, in November 2010. I got to talk to one of Atheist’s founding members, vocalist (and former guitarist) Kelly Shaefer, about the band past and present.

SLUG: It almost seems like there is a trend of band reunions lately. Some may say it’s for money, but I think it’s a completely different reason for metal bands because there isn’t really much money to be made. What do you think about the trend?
Shaefer: Let’s keep things in perspective: We [reunited] in 2005, back before Cynic and [any other band] got back together, we just came back in a different way. We didn’t come back with a new record until now—it started with re-issues of the old albums and then the reunion shows/tours. It would appear that’s it’s a comeback, but really it’s a storm that had been brewing long before most everybody else got back together. We just needed to get reacquainted with each other and remind ourselves of what it was that we loved about the music. It’s certainly not for the money, that’s absolutely the most ridiculous statement somebody could make. Anybody that plays this music knows we aren’t rich. We’re very wealthy in experience, and that’s it. It’s really about the art and doing it for all the right reasons—that’s what keeps it underground.

SLUG: Do you think the resurgence of a lot of the older metal bands is good for the metal scene?
Shaefer: I actually do in some instances, like Testament’s new record is amazing—they came back with fire. You can’t come back and rest on your old laurels—you sort of have to have something to say that’s relevant to this decade. If you do, it will translate to the people listening. There’s probably been a 50/50 split on the bands that have come back and done strong records. It’s good because it reminds everyone about the fundamentals. It’s also an interesting experience to watch people transcend a couple of decades and reapply the same techniques that built this scene. If they do it in a unique way that’s influenced a lot of bands, why not come back and take a stab at it? It depends on who you are. There’s certainly this misconception that when you’re 40 you’re old, and I think that’s ridiculous. In music you just get better and better. It’s not a physical sport—we’re not playing football. I can play better than I ever have, I can write better than I ever have, so why wouldn’t I continue to make music that’s relevant?

: I personally think a lot of the technical death metal stuff now has been influenced by what Atheist did. Where do you see Atheist’s place in the current climate of metal?
Shaefer: I see us being a different thing than just technical. There are many bands that are far more technical than us and play stuff that’s way harder to play, but the stuff that we’re orchestrating is what makes us technical. The accumulation of the four parts almost like a machine—working together but actually playing different things all the time—we’re sort of better at that than we are at creating “bet you can’t play that” kind of riffs. I think our biggest goal was to take this kind of metal to a different place. We can all play our asses off and play a bunch of notes and impress everyone and do what’s expected of us, but we wanted to offer something new. I think there is a lot of complexity in the music and that the vocals somehow pull it together and allows you to sort of grab on and hang on through the four minute ride that is an Atheist song. It used to be that it would take many listens to get it, and it still is that way—it’s a complicated listen. We’ve been used to that and people not getting our music from the first and second listen. You’re not supposed to get the record when you first hear it anyway, you’re supposed to spend time with it and find new things each time you listen to it. I think our position in history is the same as it’s always it’s been. It kind of dictated itself or we wouldn’t be making a new record.

SLUG:  The lyrics for Jupiter feature some anti-religious stuff among other things—it seems like you had a lot to say. What inspired you lyrically?
Shaefer: It’s not as simple as ‘God is crap and the bible is stupid.’ “Fraudulent Cloth” deals with my discontent with the Catholic Church and the Vatican and the way they handled the molestation of the kids. Jupiter is more about the parallels of my beliefs. I believe in the Earth and the Sun and the moon, and that’s sort of God to me. I really don’t like organized thoughts, as I answer only to the Sun, the Moon and the Earth so I’m second to Sun so to speak, and Jupiter is second in size to the Sun. Jupiter as a planet is very mysterious and weird. It doesn’t really have a surface—it’s all gasses and molecules and the great red spots—all this anger with 11,000 mile an hour winds, so I found a lot of parallels between the band and my beliefs with Jupiter, so I wrote “Second to Sun” about that. “Live and Live Again” is about evolution, which is painfully obvious to everybody that has a brain—it’s just odd to me that evolution is even in question. “Faux King Christ” is straight down the middle: Why do people live their lives for this invisible sort of story that was told so many years ago? It’s like a mental illness when I watch television and I see the fanaticism around religion, and when it starts to affect my life that pisses me off. You’re entitled to believe whatever you want, but when you start putting it in school and putting it into every aspect of my life and I have to be subjected to it all the time, I don’t think that’s any better having a Satanist running around and knocking on people’s doors. These stories are misinterpreted hugely—I often say that I could show somebody one of my songs and ask them what they thought it was about and get ten different answers. Imagine if you put hundreds of years in between [the songs and the interpretations] how misinterpreted they would be. Those stories that are in the bible are great stories and there are a lot of great things that happened, but for people to interpret them today and apply them to life is ridiculous. I choose to live my life differently and so it’s just a presentation of my disbelief in how people are able to relinquish all control like “I just give my life to the lord and savior Jesus Christ.” “Faux King Christ” is just about a play on words and a continuation of my early thoughts back in the old days—obviously I had a lot of disdain. Religion is at the root of all wars and that organized train of thought just kind of complicates everybody’s life. Since I last made an Atheist record, I had to get that out of me a bit after 20 years built up.

For those that think all death metal sounds the same, Atheist, new and old, offers up a heaping hunk of contradiction to the misconception. Death metal is not just blood, guts and hail Satan or just a cacophony of gurgled vocals, super down-tuned guitars and blasting drum beats. It’s not as simple as a melody and a riff and rhythm here and there with pleasing vocal choruses. Atheist has always created challenging extreme music. Whatever you may have heard about the new album, forget it all and form your own opinions.