Seven years after their split-up Florida’s very own ATHEIST is still being named as one of the greatest Death Metal bands to emerge in the 1990’s! Critics often labeled them "Brain Metal", which isn’t too far away from the truth. Kelly Shaefer (guitar / vocals) Steve Flynn (drums), Rand Burkey (guitar) and Roger Patterson (bass) always delivered first class, over the top musicianship, combined with sheer brutality. With the release of their 1988 debut "Piece Of Time" these guys already created a totally unique style on their own, that later on got adopted by several other bands (including wellknown names such as PESTILENCE, GORGUTS or CYNIC). A style that nowadays is better known as Techno Death Metal. But ATHEIST unfortunately never really got the attention they deserved and their future didn’t look too bright when their phenomenal bassplayer Roger Patterson was tragically killed in an accident while the band was on their first tour of the States with Candlemass in 1990. Despite this big loss they decided to continue on with ex-CYNIC (and later PESTILENCE) bassist Tony Choy, released two more albums ("Unquestionable Presence" in 1991 and "Elements" in 1993) until they finally called the quits in 1993. Today only lead singer Kelly Shaefer is still involved in music, fronting a band called NEUROTICA, which musically won’t really be of interest for all you narrow minded Death Metal lunatics. But as the entire ATHEIST backcatalogue has just been re-issued (remastered, with several previously unreleased demo- & live-tracks, rare photos and extensive liner notes), we thought the timing is perfectly right to invite you on a journey back in time, letting KELLY SHAEFER tell you the whole story once and for all…
Kelly: "I was born in Norwood Ohio, outside Cincinnati. Lived in Ohio till I was 9, and then moved to Florida which was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met some cool people, and enrolled in a performing arts High School, because I have always been an artist. I used to draw and paint a lot as a kid. I really enjoyed it until I went to that school where I discovered the guitar. Spent two years dropping acid and smoking’ dope and learning to play. My life has not been the same since! We toured Sweden and Norway in 1988 and did a U.S. tour of 34 shows with a band called CANDLEMASS. The tour went great. We hopped off our tour bus in L.A and hopped into our band equipment van to make the trek back to Florida . Our crew guy Ron had driven 29 hours and was very tired so our other crew guy Carl started driving and at about 10:00 am. Just outside of New Orleans, we were all awakened as our van was flipping down the highway. One of my very best friends and one of the most amazingly talented bass players I’ll ever know was killed! This was a horrible time for us. We spent the next four months trying to figure out how to deal with a loss of this magnitude, and what was the right thing to do? Since Roger had written so much of the new ATHEIST record we felt we had to record it. So we hooked up with Tony Choy from a Miami based band called CYNIC. They were our good friends and even better musicians. Tony knew it would be difficult because Rogers stuff was very hard to play! We recorded the record and were very proud of it, and we know Roger would have been proud as well. We still love and miss him very much. In the following three years, we went on to do a full world tour for our second release, "Unquestionable Presence" but in 1992, drummer Steve Flynn decided to go to college. That left me in limbo of what to do. So I decided maybe I would work on my singing skills, and try to put together a new band and this band would be NEUROTICA. The early stages of the band were interrupted by another ATHEIST album "Elements", and a tour in 1993. This album was written and recorded in only 40 days and was a pivotal time for me because it helped me realize a happy medium for what I would end up doing with NEUROTICA. When I returned from Europe in late ’93, I started writing new stuff like crazy. ATHEIST was done, and NEUROTICA was on! I started looking for guitar players so I could just sing and not play guitar live. I hooked up with Shawn, who is just full of life and an amazing person, not to mention a stellar guitar player. We then hooked up with G.J. and then Mike and then Clay. Now this was gonna be killer! Since ’94, we have spent a lot of time writing, and making demos. We had about 55 songs by the time we hooked up with Brian Johnson and Doug Kaye. That brings us up to date. Although I don’t play guitar live, I do play often at rehearsals for writing. Lyrically, I love to write about things in an abstract way. It leaves the songs wide open for interpretation. I enjoy singing just as much as playing guitar. It is way harder to sing than to play guitar, for me anyway. I felt the need to tell you that whole story of ATHEIST because it is a big part of who I became in NEUROTICA! Folks that read my entire page, thank you for being interested enough to care. If you see me on the road this year, please come up and introduce yourself, I would love to meet you all!"
To kick things off, let’s go back in time quite a bit… When did you start playing music? Was R.A.V.A.G.E. your first band? When exactly did you start R.A.V.A.G.E.? Was the line-up similar to what was to become ATHEIST later on?
"Well we all started playing in like 1983 and by 1985 we had a band , then called R.A.V.A.G.E., and yes that was our first "real" band, we all sort of learned together to play our instruments, the line up changed just a bit, we originally had a guy named Mark playing guitar before Rand, as well as another guy who just in the band for a few days, named Gary Lightner but the main focus as far as the line up goes was basically me, Roger, Rand and Steve."
You mentioned to me in an old interview that Roger, Steve and yourself all went to the same school and that you met each other there… But how did you get together with Rand, who’s originally from Pennsylvania?
"Well its kind of confusing, you see we actually had Rand in the band before Roger joined, myself and Steve Flynn knew of Roger and we also knew he was in a band called AGGRESSOR but we could not get him away at first, so me and Rand and Steve and another singer named Scrappy played covers and a few originals, we played cool covers though, like TROUBLE, EXODUS, SLAYER, old ANTHRAX etc. and then we we played a show in our hometown and Roger and his brother came to the show, and we realised that we had known each other from school, and the rest was history, right after that is when we really started the band, as we came to know it, we had a short time when we kicked Rand out, but then we got him back on a permanent basis."
Why did you spell your bandname with dots in between the letters? Was it a shortened form of something?
"Yes and its very cheesy, hahaha. But we had to do that so that we were not confused with this band from Illinois called RAVAGE, and they had a sort of DOKKEN sound, and as you could imagine, we did not want that confusion, so we made it stand for Raging Atheists Vowing A Gory End. And then finally we just decided to change it to ATHEIST."
I also got another tape of yours through a tapetrader which is supposed to be called "Hell Hath No Fury" (from November ’87) which features ‘Hell Hath No Mercy’, ‘Beyond’ and ‘On They Slay’… What can you tell us about that?
"Well I can tell you it sounded like SHIT! I have no idea how that one even got out to the traders. It was done in one afternoon, in a sub par studio, and we really just went and did it cause we had Rand back in the band and we wanted to have his solos on the tunes. We did not know that we were gonna get to do an album at that point."
How did you hook up with Borivoj Krgin back in those days? He obviously supported you guys in a lot of ways, didn’t he?
"Well we owe him everything, he was the one who got us our deal, and he really was the one who got us out to all the people, and made sure that the world new about ATHEIST, and he was just so influential to what we were doing. And let me tell you he is the only writer I know that does not play music, but has a very real sense of what things are supposed to sound like, I have and will always have a huge respect for that man, he was a fucking visionary!!! And a brilliant writer."
This "Raging Death" compilation album – when and how did that come about? I only know that Borivoj founded Godly Records for it… So, tell us more about the origin of that compilation and why you decided to use ‘On They Slay’ and ‘Brain Damage’ instead of ‘Undefiled Wisdom’ (which was also on your second demo)?!
"That compilation came out in early 1988 I think, and it was put together with another guy named Marty Eager. They were just putting together a compilation featuring some of the better demos they had come across, and it ended up producing some of the top bands to come in this genre. It was their choice of which songs they wanted on the compilation, so they chose to exclude ‘Undefiled Wisdom’."
Your third demo "Beyond" (which came out in 1988 if I’m right) – was that already released under the ATHEIST moniker? What made you go for a different name at the time, who came up with it and did it cause any confusion among old friends and supporters of R.A.V.A.G.E.?
"Well that was right after that compilation came out, and we wanted a new demo of some of the stuff that we had been working on, and coupled with the fact that we had just changed our name which is always a pain in the ass, we wanted to get the word out you know?? There was not a whole lot of confusion, we really did not achieve much until after we became ATHEIST and released that demo, it ended up being the most popular demo on the Metal Forces demo list for over a year, that was very very cool."
Borivoj then also got you the deal with Mean Machine Records, a label that I’ve never really been familiar with… So, did they release any other bands, apart from ATHEIST? Who was running that company?
"It was a subsidiary of a label called 3 Cherries which had alot of Pop artists on it. And I guess Bori hooked with the president of that label and convinced him to let him start this Death Metal label called of course Godly Records, and a management company of the same name. And the first thing he did was sign us, and SEPULTURA, to a management contract. And then we went on to do "Piece Of Time" with them, and after that we were sold to Active / Music For Nations for a worldwide deal, at that point Metal Blade licensed the record in the States."
It was also a little surprise that such an unknown company had worked out a license deal overhere in Europe with the Music For Nations sublabel Active Records – have you been aware of that already when you signed with them?
"Yes at the time we figured we would be the priority at that label, and keep in mind they had Bernard Doe and Dave Constable running the label, and at the time they were very popular writers for many publications, and we thought since they were so heavily connected to the scene, that they would do a really good job. Roadrunner wanted the band really bad, but we chose Active, which ended up being a HUGE mistake."
Why didn’t you re-record ‘Chose Your Death’ and ‘Brain Damage’ for "Piece Of Time"? Did you feel that ‘No Truth’ and ‘On They Slay’ were superior demo tunes, more worthy to get an album feature?
"Actually ‘Choose Your Death’ is on the "Piece Of Time" record, its called ‘Life’ we just changed the name. And ‘Brain Damage’ was a little to immature for the "Piece" album I think, and Bori also felt that way."
The album did really well for you, especially overhere in Europe, and as far as I remember you sold approx. 15.000 units in the first two weeks already. Did you expect something like that? How many copies were you able to sell of each of your albums in total?
"Well, yes we were sooo blown away by that, actually we did not believe them hahaha. They called and said we did 15.000 in the first week, and I was like "WHAT", that cannot be right, how did that happen?? Hahaha, but its true, it did really well, and the press we recieved for that record was unreal. Well I would love to tell you how many we ended up selling, but we were never given the proper statements, or records on our record sales. Active Records was a fucking joke of a label. And as you might guess we were never paid for most of the albums we made."
You also helped out SEPULTURA at the time, when they were recording their "Beneath The Remains" album, by writing a couple of lyrics and singing backing vocals… Unfortunately they only used your lyrics to ‘Stronger Than Hate’, so what happened to the other stuff you wrote?
"Well I would not say unfortunatley… I think I sent them 2 songs, Bori had called me up one day and said, "Hey these guys are from Brasil and they do not speak very good English, so their lyrics were a bit basic…", so I wrote 2 songs worth of lyrics, and they ended up using the one, and changing the name of the song to ‘Stronger Than Hate’. It was originally called ‘Blood On My Hands’ (there’s some trivia for ya) and then when they came to Tampa to do vocals and mix the record , I went up there and sang the tune for Max, and he basically just worked out the words that he could say, and they changed a few others so he could fit them in. Scott Burns really pulled that together nicely."
Some of the lyrics on "Piece Of Time" were dealing with reincarnation and I remember that you told me back then, that you really believe in all that… Do you still do or has your point of view changed over the years?
"No I still have the same beliefs, I don’t however, write that much about it, as I used to, but that will always be my view, cause in my opinion that’s the way it is!!!! Hahaha."
The label promoted "Piece Of Time" with the slogan "Death Metal with a difference" and as far as I remember, you weren’t really happy about that as you already didn’t really feel comfortable with the term ‘Death Metal’ anymore at that time…. So, do you think the label somehow put you in a wrong corner and created a lot of wrong expectations when it came to your next musical activities?
"Well I think at the time I was a little dissapointed, we felt that we were more than just a Death Metal band, but years later I realise that it was needed to prepare people for the intensity of the band, and the fact is we were a Death Metal band, but a freaky Jazz / Death Metal band. I think they all did what they thought would best sell the record."
The ‘SS’ logo on Roger’s jacket didn’t really do good for you either… I remember that you even had some trouble with DEATH because of that… Would you like to tell us about that?
"We actually had a problem with Germany, hahaha. You see, here is how it is. You must know Roger to fully understand this scenario. Roger was a big KISS fan, and they of course early on had that in their logo. He truly did not have the knowledge to know that that symbol was highly offensive to alot of people, and rightly so, but he really did not intend to EVER harm anyone or offend anyone, he was NOT A NAZI!!!! But at the time Chuck from DEATH decided, since he did not like us anyway, to take a few stabs at us in the press, and our fued started way before that and for many different reasons. All that has been resolved over the years, and we all wish Chuck all the best with his recovery, but Roger really did not know what that symbol meant!!!!!! We are of course "stupid yanks" hahaha."
A little confusing was your announcement in March 1990 that you were about to sign with Roadrunner Records, shortly after "Piece Of Time" came out. So, what went wrong with Mean Machine? But as far as I know that Roadrunner deal never really happened and you stayed with Active / MFN, didn’t you? Or did you go with Roadracer in the US?
"Monte Conner from Roadrunner came to the studio while we were recording the "Unquestionable Presence" album and yes he was very interested in the band, but it never really materialized cause we were such a strange band, and at the time most of the Death Metal bands were doing very straight forward Death Metal, so people were a litlle confused by our music. And he was hearing rough mixes of some songs from the "Unquestionable Presence" album and as you could well imagine he was like "WHOA! this shit is too crazy!!", hahaha but most people did not get the ATHEIST music until about 5 years later, then it started to make sense hahaha!"
When exactly did your musical influences change? I mean, when you started out you named SLAYER, MERCYFUL FATE, old JUDAS PRIEST and RUSH as your main influences. Later on it became JANE’S ADDICTION, FAITH NO MORE and even Jazz… Do you think that being brandmarked as a (Death) Metal band did hurt your musical evolution and that your old fans neither weren’t able nor willing to follow you? Bands like PESTILENCE or CYNIC obviously had similar problems…
"Well at the time of naming my earlier influences, there was no JANES ADDICTION or FAITH NO MORE, so iI could not have named them as an influence on me, but I don’t think that it hurt our evolution, I mean lets face it we were a Death Metal band at the core, but we had alot of diversity in our Death Metal. I think at the time it was snubbed cause no one cared that we wanted to play our instruments at the highest skill level possible, cause at the time they were all happy just bashing away at basic arrangements etc. But as time moved along, those bands found it to be quite boring to keep playing at the same level, and then you started seeing bands like CYNIC (who I love!) and then PESTILENCE who made a piss poor attempt at being tech and then in the coming years came GORGUTS ("Obscura") and MESHUGGAH etc and many other bands coming out with this sort of technical sound, and now and only now are people willing to swallow the ATHEIST music, so that’s why we are re-issuing the 3 albums again."
Your next two albums "Unquestionable Presence" and "Elements" were the logical musical evolution for you guys – more and more sophisticated, less catchy and of course with less Death Metal elements… How did people react on it? I mean, I know that the critics have been overwhelming in several magazines, but I doubt that the sales were as well, so tell us about it…
"Well as I said before I have no idea what happened sales wise after "Piece Of Time", cause the label just never provided us with statements, but I have no regrets on anything we ever recorded, my only regret is that Roger is not still alive, he was a big part of "Unquestionable Presence", and I think that he would have loved the possiblities that the "Elements" album had going for it. Oddly enough most people thought that "Elements" was too technical, and we actually made a consious effort to tone it back a bit, and try to make it a little easier to listen to, but still the writers wrote that we were "grown men caught in our own guitar strings, and that we were so technical that we were up our own ass…" hahaha, but the kids are all I care about, and they love all 3 records, "Unquestionable" being the most popular of the 3, I would guess that it sold more than any of them, but keep in mind that elements was NEVER properly promoted!"
I guess the most tragical event in your career must’ve been Roger’s deadly accident… Did you already think about a band split up at that point already?
"Well our biggest concern after losing Roger, aside from missing him terribly was, where we would find a bass player that could even think of playing those bass lines correctly, we had all the music written for "Unquestionable Presence" and we had only half of it demoed, you see oddly enough we had a conversation about what we would do if something were to happen to one of us, the night before the accident, and Roger said in no uncertain terms that he would want us to go on, and we all basically said that, so there was never a doubt that we would continue on IF WE COULD!! But man to find someone to play the shit we had prepared for "Unquestionable Presence", was going to be almost impossible, there was so much speed involved with the technicality that it excluded alot of Jazz type bass players, cause they did not have the endurance to play like that. We finally settled on Rogers friend and ours Tony Choy who I think did a great job on the album."
When you continued on with CYNIC’s bassplayer, was it still the same for you guys, from the musical point of view, or was the old magic gone?
"Well of course it was never gonna be the same, I mean Roger was a one of a kind, simple as that, truly one of the most talented bass players I have ever heard, but yes it was hard to find that magic, but really we did not need to until we did the elements album, cause it was already written, the album I mean, you know, the magic was all ready to be recorded, we just needed to make sure that we did the tricks correctly hahaha."
Unfortunately I never managed to see you guys live overhere as announced shows / tours got cancelled for one reason or another… Do you remember what kind of problems occurred at the time?
"Well after the accident, we struggled with the bass player position, cause while we were recording the "Unquestionable Presence" album PESTILENCE was in the same studio getting ready to make their new album and they heard what we were doing, and suddenly decided they wanted to try to be a technical band, so they asked Tony Choy to play on the album, and then they proceeded to fire their bass player right there in the studio, and then adding insult to injury, they offered Tony Choy more money than we had to offer, to get him to go on tour with them which put us out in the cold. I mean shit it was already difficult to find Tony, and now these fuckers were gonna try to steal our bass player, and I told Patrick,I said "Hey man, we did not fire our bass player asshole, he was fucking killed you fucking prick!, you know what our situation is Patrick, how the fuck could you do that???" he knew that it was gonna ruin any chance we had of touring on the record, cause Tony had to go to Holland to rehearse with them, so that left us without a bass player for touring possibilities. And that is where the problems began. We did the best we could finding Darren Mcfarland to do the CANNIBAL CORPSE tour in the States, but it was just not the same, Tony was going to be the closest thing we would have to replace Roger, and by offering Tony money that ATHEIST did not have to offer, we lost him for the touring that we did do for that album, it really messed up alot of shit, and that’s why I am being so vocal about it, I think the way he handled that pisses me off."
But you did play some shows overhere with BENEDICTION, which I consider a really controversial package (the straight forward Death Metal guys on one side and the highly technical on the other)… Did it work out for you? What kind of memories do you have on that tour?
"Nothing but fond memories of that tour man, we had a blast for the most part, I mean its true that most of the BENEDICTION fans were not understanding what we were coming with, you know what I mean, but they were very receptive to it though, unlike CANNIBAL CORPSE fans in the States, plus there were alot of ATHEIST people at those shows as well, that had waited a really long time to see the band, and I think it was so unfortunate that it was not the real ATHEIST, the drummer was not good enough to be trying to fill Steve Flynn’s shoes that’s for sure, but he was the best choice at the time. the BENEDICTION guys were so very respectful to us, and they basically paid for us to be on that tour, which was amazing of them, we really did not have much tour support at that point in our record deal. So it was great to be able to go over, there were some really great shows towards the end of the tour, in Holland where the drummer really did a good job of pulling off songs like ‘Mother Man’ and shit like that."
When and why did you split up and what have you guys done ever since? Any chance for a re-union or a new studio album?
"Well that’s the big question right now, I have alot on my plate with NEUROTICA right now so touring will be difficult right now, but I talked with Steve and Rand about doing some new tunes,and I think it will happen here in the next few weeks, we are really just curious to see where it would have gone after "Unquestionable Presence", and I do not know what will happen from there, if the people want to see ATHEIST then I am sure that we can pull it together for some festivals maybe, I think it would be great fun to jam with sSeve and the boys again, we will have to see what the reaction is to the re-issues."
Tell us a bit more about the re-issues of the ATHEIST albums. What made you go for it and what kind of extra stuff will people get now?
"Its gonna be great, the first record "Piece Of Time" has 6 bonus tracks on it from the demos, and all are remastered and sounding much better than the originals, and the demo’s which were never released except for the "Raging Death" tunes, sound better remastered as well, but they were put on there as a representation of where the band was, and where the sound ended up. The next 2 will also have bonus tracks from the demo sessions of "Unquestionable Presence", with Roger playing the bass lines, as well as maybe some live tracks, all in all its gonna be great cause there are tons of photos and bonus liner notes, it’s gonna be a great way to sort of send the band off into the sunset properly!"
Anything else you’d like to add here?
"We thank and love you all for the endless support of our band over the last 10 years, and thanks you for showing such a warm respect for Roger Patterson, we hope to make some more music that you will dig in the future. Cheers !!!!!!!"