If you know a little about the Florida metal scene, then it's quite possible that you have heard of Atheist, but it's also quite possible that you haven't heard any of their music since their three albums have been pretty hard to obtain ever since their release back in the early nineties. Atheist was a band that in many ways musically was years ahead everyone else and unfortunately this resulted in the band disbanding after releasing Elements in 1993. Their unique and innovative blend of death metal, jazz and progressive elements is definitely something that takes time to get accustomed to, but it's worth the effort. Sadly the world wasn't ready for Atheist and their experiments back then, but now it's time for another try. The three albums Piece of Time [1989], Unquestionable Presence [1991] and Elements [1993] have been long out of print, but Relapse Records are about to re-release them and when I was offered the opportunity to talk to founder, guitarist and vocalist Kelly Shaefer I just couldn't say no.

Kelly Shaefer interviewed by PSL

How has the response been so far with regard to the re-issues?
It's been a lot better than expected. Everybody has been really excited about it and it's a really good collection of all the demos and albums. Relapse has done a really good job of putting them tighter with the artwork and new liner notes and new photos. The Roger Patterson demos from Unquestionable Presence. It's a really good package so everybody seems excited about it.

Was it a surprise to you that there still is such an interest for the band?
Yeah, of course. When we originally made these records we never imagined that we would be talking about them 15 years later, because people really didn't understand our music that much back then. So yeah, it's nice and a pleasant surprise that people are embracing it and it played a role in influencing some of the newer metal bands. So yeah, it's a good surprise.

What tricked the idea of re-issuing the Atheist albums?
Just in the process of turning up copies for myself I realized that people were charging over 100 American dollars for them online, so that lead just me to believe that this was all crazy. I don't think people have to pay that much for it, so we gathered together a collection and I started about two and a half years ago trying to find the right label to do a really good job on it. Relapse definitely came to the table with the most enthusiasm and they treat them almost like new releases. That's where it all kind of started and those guys did a really great job and I'm glad to have them out there again.

I remember there were some talk about reissuing them a couple of years ago, how come it has taken so long?
Well, that label kind of folded before they had a chance to come out. So there was a few, maybe 600 copies that went out, but it wasn't properly distributed. These things take time. Atheist was taken advantage of business-wise for many years so before I was going to jump into another deal I wanted to make sure that it was the right situation so it takes a little bit of time, but it's definitely worth it to have it done correctly.

Are you still in touch with the Steve Flynn and Randy Burkey?
Absolutely, we talk all the time. I'm actually producing Steve's new band's demo on August 28th. He's new band is called Gnostic. I'm going to Atlanta to work with him. It will be his first recording since Unquestionable Presence so I think it's going to be really good and people should watch out for it. Initially it will be a part of Starfactory Records, which is my indie label that I just started this year and so we're going to shop the demo around to some labels after its done, so everybody should watch for it for sure.

Have you thought of reforming Atheist?
We'll never make another record, but there is a good chance that if the right situation came up that we would do some festivals next year, maybe. We have been talking about it and everybody is really into it. If the response sort of want us to return then I definitely would like to play those songs again, but for us to make another record would be stupid. I mean that would be sort of jading the integrity of what we made. We're just different people now so we wouldn't possible be able to write that kind of record. I'm not saying that we won't play and record together in the future in a different band. I would love to jam with Flynn and Burkey again. Atheist is Atheist and we want to leave it alone and leave it's legacy alone and not change it by trying to recreate what happened 10-15 years ago.

I read somewhere that you actually reformed the band in 2000 with Randy Burkey and drummer Jason West. Is that correct?
No, that's false. Jason West played in my band Neurotica, but we never reformed Atheist.

Are you involved in other bands/projects at the moment?
Yeah I'm actually in two bands right now. I have one band with the music that I'm writing called Unheard and you can hear that at www.unheardonline.com. We just did a record at the beginning of the year. I'm playing guitar, but we have a different singer. His name is Mike Callahan and used to be with Burial back in the early 90's, a really good death metal band. But it's very Never Say Die era Black Sabbath meets Queen of the Stone Age somewhere along those lines. I'm in another band called Big Machine and we're going to New York next week to play at CBGB's for a big label showcase and you can check that out at www.bigmachinerocks.com. That's what I'm doing now.

Atheist obviously incorporated a lot of different things in the music like for instance jazz. What initially led to the idea of doing that?
We were always big fans of Rush and we were big fans of things that were played loud, jazz and such and we also loved Slayer, Mercyful Fate and Kreator, so it was an natural progression between the love of two different kinds of music that just came together. We just liked to challenge ourselves musically and never play the same thing for very long. Make it an interesting listen for a long period of time rather make it something super simple that you can kind of swallow the first time you listen to it. We wanted it to be really, really interesting and as crazy as possible. As we progressed along we sort of made it more of a challenge for ourselves by writing more progressive stuff. Roger Patterson really spearheaded that whole movement with us by writing some insane bass-lines so we were forced to keep with him and Steve Flynn. They were as a really incredible rhythm section. It was just a natural progression. That was just the way it happened.

Florida was the happening place with regard to death metal in the early 90's and I remember Tampa was called the capital of death metal. How was it to be part of that scene?
It was good times. There was a lot of great death metal coming out of Florida. It's always going to be part of a big movement and I feel that that death metal movement was probably one of the larger of the whole genre in all these years and one of the most productive and one of the most influential with bands like Cynic, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Malevolent Creation, Deicide and the list just goes on. It was good and we had a lot of great shows back then in Tampa. And people I remember going to Europe and people being really excited to one day visit Tampa and visit Morrisound Studios. It was kind of weird, but when you're in it you don't realize until you look back how cool it was. Looking back it was definitely a good time.

Do you think labelling Atheist as being death metal would be a proper tag?
No, of course not. I mean to call Atheist a plain old death metal band would be somebody who never have heard this band. You can't possible sit and listen to that music and say; 'yeah, that's another death metal band'. We incorporated a lot of jazz and progressive music, metal in both the guitar playing, bass plying and drumming. It was definitely death metal rooted, but with tons more to sort of vary it. The jazz sounds were something that was very different back then. A lot of people incorporate progressive stuff these days, but when we were doing it nobody was doing it. So it was deathjazz, brain metal, call it what you like, it was interesting music [laughs].

The keyboard intro on "No Truth" sounds familiar. Did you borrow that from a movie or something?
No, no we wrote that. Randy wrote that actually. It was one of the first things he wrote when he joined up after the As They Slay demo. It's just a great little… it does have a cinematic quality to it. We liked it. It was kind of different at the time. We are fans of intros so he wrote that and it was cool, a really cool thing to have.

In hindsight which of the three albums are you most happy with?
Unquestionable Presence without a doubt. That was the pinnacle for us. I love Elements for a lot of different reasons. My favourite lyrics I ever written are probably on Elements, but the favourite complete album would definitely have to be Questionable Presence.

It must have been tough to carry on after Roger Patterson died in 1991. Did you think of disbanding the band at that time?
Well, of course initially we couldn't imagine how we could go on without Roger. We had a really good conversation about it prior to the accident and we felt strongly that Roger really would have wanted us… We had finished writing the whole album Unquestionable Presence and we just went out on the road and we were ready to come back home and record that album... I know he definitely wanted those songs to be heard so we feel we did the right thing and moving on with Tony Choy who was a friend of Roger and a friend of ours actually. We were really good friends with Cynic. We thought about it for a minute, but we really wanted to get that record out there and I'm glad we did because otherwise the world would never have heard it and we wouldn't be talking on the phone right now and talking about it. I think it helps carry Rogers legacy and helps him be appreciated for the amazing talent that he was.

How did you hook up with Tony Choy?
Tony is great. He's a different animal altogether. A really accomplished player, a really disciplined player. He was the best for the job and I think Roger would have agreed. We were really fortunate that he was available to do that for us. We've always gotten along with Tony really well. He's a good dude.

On Elements you had expanded the line-up with a third guitar player. What were your reasons for doing so?
Well, initially when we started making the record we only had 40 days to write and record the whole thing. I started playing guitar myself along with another guitar player because Randy… At that point Atheist had broken up. Steve Flynn had gone back to college. Randy didn't want to do it anymore and so when I started writing the songs the first week or so of rehearsals it was just me and Frank Emmi and then Randy came down to rehearsals and heard what we were doing and got excited again and decided to come back in, so it was just an idea that we all three would play guitars on the album, but in a live setting I was just going to sing and Frank and Randy would handle the guitars. That was the way it worked out and it just kind of feel together that way.

On Elements you didn't use Scott Burns as producer. Why was that?
Scott wasn't really doing that much anymore. He was kind of burned out on death metal. He had done so many great records and he was moving on to a different chapter in his life. We would work with Mark Pinske who had worked with Frank Zappa and we were all fans of Frank Zappa's music, so we thought it would be great. I had already recorded some stuff up in that studio with my other band Neurotica, so we decided to go up there and the opportunity to was there to work with Mark Pinske and it was in a digital studio and it was the first time that we had worked in a digital format, so we just thought were moving into the future as far as technology and Mark Pinske was a great experience.

Atheist was musically really different from what was released back when the band was still around. Do you feel that you first got the recognition that you so rightfully deserve after the band was dead and buried?
Yeah, definitely that's the case. We never got the appreciation that we get now that's for sure. It took about eight years for people to kind of get, what we were doing and I appreciate it. It just kind of happens, when you're alone at top of a unique genre. Most people would tell me that they didn't understand, so they didn't understand what we were doing, so they didn't like it at that time, but after a number of years went by and people sort of look back on it and other bands were influenced by it, I think we got a lot more attention post-break up than we did while we were together.

It's actually kind of weird because I remember seeing rave reviews of your albums all the time back then.
We got some good reviews. I think a lot of the writers were kind of understanding it, not all of them, but altogether it was just the fans of Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse were just confused by what we were doing, specially in a live setting because there were so many time changes and so many different parts and they just weren't used to that, but as time has gone on now a lot of bands have sort of done it too. Like Meshuggah, Killswitch Engage and all these kind of bands are all using a lot of harmonies, guitars, and a lot of complicated riffing so it makes more sense now than ever. That's why I want these records to be treated like new releases because I feel they stand up against anything that is out there.

Why did Atheist eventually disband?
We just couldn't get along. We were so frustrated about everything that has happened. It was really hard to stay together. We didn't have any support from the label. The fans at that time was confused by us and it was really hard to find a band to tour with, because we were so different, so we became frustrated and decided to call it a day and leave it as it was.

Anything you wish to add to conclude this interview?
Yes, the Atheist website is going to be www.officialatheist.com and it should be up within two or three weeks to coincide with the September 13th reissue date so I hope people will come and check out the website. I'll post a lot of pictures that people never have seen, a lot of information. My email will also be there so I'll be available to answer any questions anyone has. Hopefully people will come over and check it out and please go out and buy the collection. Do your homework, do your metal homework and check it out where the roots of technical metal come from. I hope a lot of the new metal fans will check it out, because it's really important to know where you've been, to know where you're going. I think that what this genre of music lacks is a lot of respect for the roots of where it's coming from, so hopefully people will go back and check these out and se relevance and I appreciate the support very much.

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