THE DEMO CORNER
Garett: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this interview, it is greatly appreciated. I have really been enjoying the new album and am looking forward to hearing some of your thoughts on it.
Matt Johnsen: The reaction has been great, but we were not sure, ourselves, what to think of it when we finished. It’s a difficult album in a lot of ways and not as immediate as our earlier releases. When you spend a lot of time making a thing, it’s hard at first to judge that thing objectively, but we’re coming around to the notion that we made a pretty good record!
Garett: When you began the writing/recording process for Bury the Light, what were some of your goals for the album? Was there anything that you guys were looking to improve upon from your previous albums, or maybe some new influences that you wanted to try and incorporate?
Matt: We always try to expand our sound on every album, and this time around we decided to make music that was more complex than we had in the past. We also wanted more textural elements (like the breaks in “Leave Me Here to Dream,” and “Castles in the Sky,” or the acoustic stretches in “The Year of the Blizzard”). I’m always finding new bands I want to rip off, but the challenge is in ripping them off in a uniquely Pharaohnic way. It wouldn’t sound right to do straight up Magma-style zeuhl in a Pharaoh song, but that ominous break with the snare rolls in “Leave Me Here to Dream” definitely conjures (in my mind) some of the same feelings as Magma’s mid 70s classics. And while you wouldn’t know it unless I told you, the linear, mono-chorused arrangement of “The Spider’s Thread” was inspired by the song “Stacked Crooked” by The New Pornographers, a kind of baroque pop band. I love how that song is basically all build-up, until the final glorious chorus/outro. See the resemblance?
Garett: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the songs on Bury the Light? Which ones are your favorites, and do any of them have an interesting story behind them?
Matt: Probably none of them has an interesting story. We write music, then we write lyrics, then we record it. A singer/songwriter could maybe have funny stories behind his songs when they’re two chords and he wrote them in a Turkish prison or whatever, but Pharaoh’s music is a lot more deliberate and probably a lot less spontaneous. I guess the collaborative pathways can be interesting, the way one guy in the band brings parts of a song to another, but then again, maybe not! My personal favorite song is “In Your Hands,” which was originally titled “The Last Minute” (before it had lyrics) because I wrote it about a week before the recording sessions, fearing that we didn’t have enough songs. The lyrics and melodies were written long after the drums and guitars were recorded, and while it’s pretty simple by Pharaoh standards it’s catchy as hell, thanks to Chris Black’s awesome vocal melodies and lyrics. If I had finished that stuff on my own, it would almost certainly have been a lesser song.
Garett: When I listen to Pharaoh, I hear a band that’s sound is progressive, yet still firmly grounded in the traditions of classic heavy metal. To my ears, this is something that a lot of modern power metal bands lose sight of. Is this something that you guys aim for or more of a natural extension of the band’s influences?
Matt: Well, traditional metal doesn’t have to be old-fashioned, you know? Too many bands who play ‘trad’ metal essentially end up playing reenactments, like old dudes putting on uniforms to re-fight the battle of Gettysburg. There were plenty of great bands in the 80s. We don’t need new bands from the 80s, ha ha! So, while we’re obviously working from the same playbook as the greats of yesteryear, it’s our goal to make music that is a product of its time: I don’t think anyone would say Bury the Light sounds like it could have been made in 1987.
Garett: Every band seems to approach writing and recording their albums in a different way. Can you tell me a little bit about how this process works for Pharaoh? Has it changed over the years, and if so how?
Matt: We usually write on our own, building up the riffs and arrangements singularly. Then when it comes time for vocal lines and lyrics other people will get involved, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Chris Kerns will sometimes give me just fragments of songs with song riffs worked out, but with some gaping holes in the arrangements waiting for my input. And Chris Black tends to write whole songs from top to bottom on his own. Myself, I usually write all the guitar, bass, and drum parts to a song, arrange it, then hand it off to Tim or Chris Black for melodies and lyrics. We don’t rehearse, as we’re mostly a studio band, so this is all done through the internet. We don’t have a single band practice before we record an album. Everyone just learns their parts and I oversee the whole thing to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Garett: The new album features a guest solo by King Diamond guitarist Mike Wead, and past albums have had appearances by Chris Poland and Riot’s Mark Reale (R.I.P.), among others. It almost seems like a tradition for some legendary metal guitarist to appear on each Pharaoh album. Do you have any interesting stories about working with any of these guys?
Matt: Not really, because we don’t get to work with them in a tangible way. We ask for solos, these heroes of ours graciously say yes, we send them rough mixes, they send back recorded solos. I would love one of these days to actually sit in the studio [and] to see the work in progress, but we don’t have the budget to, say, fly me to Sweden to watch Mike Wead play a 30 second solo. I have had the chance to meet, in person, Chris Poland, Mark Reale, and Mike Flyntz, and it was great to have that personal connection. Mark Reale even told me I was an awesome guitar player. I could have fainted!
Garett: I know that Pharaoh was primarily a studio project until a few years ago, and to my knowledge you guys still only play a few shows a year. Do you think that this has hindered the band’s growth in any way? Do you have any plans to tour more extensively in support of Bury the Light?
Matt: It probably hurts our sales a little, yeah. I guess people just take touring bands more seriously, but it’s not like we’d ever make a ton of money on the road. This is still pretty marginal music. We’re happy that people like it, and we can’t complain about the critical reception our records get. That said, we are going to make an effort to play more. We have a gig booked at a small fest in Chicago this spring, and since we’re putting so much effort into rehearsing, we’re hoping to parlay that into some limited touring as well. Maybe Pharaoh will work as a live act and maybe it won’t, but we’re going to find out one way or another this year!
Garett: Which of your previous three albums are you the most proud of? What is it that makes that particular album stand out?
Matt: Probably Be Gone is my favorite, because it’s an album that is totally unique to Pharaoh. No one else could have made that record. We also really improved as musicians on that album. Obviously, I intend for us to continue to grow and progress, but the great leap we made in creating that record was probably bigger than anything we’ll ever be able to manage again.
Garett: What are your thoughts on the current state of the metal scene? How has it changed since you guys first started with Pharaoh, and where to you see things going from here?
Matt: Because we’re not a live band, we’re not really engaged that much in the scene, but the overall picture has changed a lot since we started. We formed in 1997, right at the beginning of what was to be a great renaissance in power metal (Hammerfall and Iron Savior debuted that year, Nocturnal Rites were just taking off, Blind Guardian got a US release the next year, etc.) We had hoped to participate in that dialog, but it never really happened, I guess, and that boom died out pretty fast, devolving into shit like Dragonforce, which is truly dreadful in every way. Nowadays, power metal is dead, replaced by even less-interesting retro trad metal. Hipsters ruin everything.
Garett: Thanks again for the interview, and good luck with the new album. Is there anything else that you would like to add about Pharaoh, metal, or life in general?
Matt: As barbecue goes, nothing can beat hill country style brisket. Of the Lockhart joints, Smitty’s is the best, but Franklin BBQ in Austin is probably the most delicious meat I’ve ever tasted. It’s making me hungry just thinking about it. Too bad it’s about 1600 miles away.
Pharaoh's Matt Johnsen
April 6, 2012
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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA
Label: Cruz Del Sur Music
Genre: Power Metal
Tim Aymar: Vocals
Matt Johnsen: Guitars
Chris Kerns: Bass
Chris Black: Drums
After the Fire (2003)
The Longest Night (2006)
Be Gone (2008)
Tribute to Coroner Split (2010)
Ten Years EP (2011)
Bury the Light (2012)