Matt Johnsen Discusses Pharaoh's New Album And The Music Scene
As Pharaoh's fourth album, "Bury the Light," will be unveiled on March 6th in the U.S. (February 24th in Europe), it is hard to fathom that this Philadelphia power metal band is going on seventeen years of existence. But much can be attributed to all of the members of Pharaoh being vocal about creating quality power metal for the sake of doing so, trudging on all these years for the love of what they do despite not achieving great commercial success. "Bury the Light" is the logical progression from Pharaoh's last one, "Be Gone," and unleashes ten tracks of epic power metal that will further cement this band's status as one of the best traditional metal bands currently out there. Streaming the new track "Castles in the Sky" here on Metal Underground recently, we also caught up with cerebral and quirky Pharaoh guitarist Matt Johnsen to get his take on the new album, the band and the metal community as a whole.
Sonictherapy: I find it particularly interesting that you and the drummer met through magazine and fanzine journalism you both did, especially since you both wrote for the same magazine I used to be at - Metal Maniacs. I take it the editor there at the time was Jeff Wagner, no?
Matt Johnsen: Chris started writing for the mag before I did, and he also had a zine before I did. He met Jeff when Jeff worked at Relapse. Chris did an internship with the label when he was in high school, I believe. Then I met Chris through our zines, and he was the one who recommended me to Jeff, who was co-editor with Mike G. At first I was tapped to write an article about guitar, as an instrument of metal, and then my first interview piece was with Sodom. Back then, in the 90s, a lot of bands didn't have their own official web pages, so it was up to fans to create a web presence for them. I did pages for Scanner and Sodom, and so I was in a unique position to contact and interrogate Tom Angelripper. I had been reading Metal Maniacs from basically the time I started listening to metal in 88, so it was a huge, exctiting deal for me to be published there.
Sonic: Tell us a bit about your journalism days, and if Jeff talked about including you in his "Mean Deviation" book of progressive metal....
MJ: I helped Jeff when he was writing his book by burning him dozens of CDs and providing concert photos that I had taken. While familiar with the prog metal scene that flourished in the late 90s, he wasn't as deep into it as I was, so there were a lot of bands in that Dream Theater knockoff mode that he had heard of, but hadn't heard, so I burned him discs by the likes of Dreamscape, Gone, Sunblaze, Stonehenge, etc. But, we never talked about Pharaoh, because while I think Pharaoh has some prog tendencies, we're still too straight-forward to really qualify as a prog metal band. As for the journalism days, well, I had a blast, wrote a ton (about 1500, by my count) of CD reviews, and interviewed at least a hundred bands. It was fun, but eventually, you get sick of transcribing 2 hour phone conversations, and by the end, it was hard to think of new things to say in a 300 word CD review. I'd like to get back to writing eventually, but right now I'm too busy with other things.
Sonic: Both of you were writing articles and in different bands when you started Pharaoh together. Tell us about that and what it is like to look at the music world from both sides of the fence....as both a journalist and a musician? If you went back to journalism now, would you have a harder time rendering an opinion on another band's music?
MJ: I think because we wrote about metal so extensively, we both approach the creative act very analytically. Believe me, even when we put out our first album, I knew I would have to answer to the fact that I had shit on a lot of other bands' music! I listen to, and have heard, so many bands that I do feel a special need to differentiate my music from the stuff I've heard elsewhere, and I know at the same time that Pharaoh is going to be placed by people in the know along the broad continuum of what's come before. It would probably be easier to work if I wasn't always thinking about these things, but perhaps this is also how we're able to maintain the quality of our releases. I don't think going back would be hard, except that I would still have the problem of having already said it all. I would have to find a new way to talk about metal in order to make going back to journalism worth the trouble.
Sonic: Going back in Pharaoh's history, you have stuck with, and re-signed a deal with, practically the same label throughout your history....Icarus became Cruz Del Sur when the label moved base to Italy. Do you get much better treatment on this label than you would on an American Indie? Would they overlook you or give you a raw deal? I know you have mentioned that some American labels give bands a raw deal.
MJ: We're treated like kings on Cruz del Sur, so it's not hard to stick around! I doubt the other bands on the label have it as good as we do, because we were literally the first band Enrico signed to the label. We're his precious little snowflakes, ha ha! We talked with other labels before resigning to CdS, and even though the theoretical possibilities might have been more lucrative, it was hard to imagine retooling the way Pharaoh works in order to meet the demands of a bigger label. We're never going to make a living off Pharaoh, and we've developed a way of getting things done that dovetails with what Cruz del Sur expects of us. Maybe it would be good to shake things up with another label, although we decided that in all likelihood it would kill the band.
Sonic: You did the "Ten Years" EP almost as an anniversary-of-the-band project, and it finally got released in 2011. Was doing this EP a way of putting out material that wasn't textbook Pharaoh in power metal sound? You have some very interesting interpretations of Slayer's "Tormentor" and New Model Army's "White Light." Then again, you like many different kinds of metal, don't you? You even recorded Coroner's "Tunnel of Pain" for a 7" once.
MJ: No, the title of the EP has nothing to do with the time the band has been around, although when the song was WRITTEN, we had only existed for 10 years. The EP, in truth, should have come out in 2009, but a variety of annoying and boring setbacks delayed it until 2011. It was not meant as an experimental exercise, either - we simply knew when we were writing "Be Gone" that we had too much material for just the LP, so we decided on doing an EP at the same time. We added the covers just to pad out the running length. The Slayer and Coroner songs, both being metal songs, are not SO much of a stretch, although sure, they're not bands you'd immediately expect a power metal band to cover. We tried to beef them up and Pharaohfy them with layered harmony guitars, although we didn't mess with the arrangements. "White Light" was just a chance for us to introduce New Model Army to some new metalheads, the way Anacrusis and Sepultura introduced me to the band. Again, we didn't go nuts reworking the song, but it's clearly a metal song as we did it. We do love a lot of different kinds of music, and if we had the luxury of doing Pharaoh full time, believe me, we'd cover all sorts of crazy crap. I'd love to do a Bolt Thrower song, make it melodic. It would probably piss off Gavin, but I bet Karl would appreciate it. He did wear a Forbidden shirt in the photo for "IVth Crusade!"
Sonic: Your first two albums were classic power metal in that Saint or Omen vein, but starting with "Be Gone" you went a much more progressive and complex way. Instead of all those Iron Maiden comparisons that you are so used to, you'll probably be getting more Fates Warning and progressive comparisons with this one. I think you get the Iron Maiden comparisons because of Tim's vocal power.
MJ: You'd think, but no, everyone still compares us to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Go figure. Yeah, Fates Warning is probably an apt comparison, and I do love that band dearly, but there is still the difference that FW is clearly TRYING to be a progressive band, where we are merely injecting prog tendencies into otherwise straightforward metal. Honestly, it's a little hard to think of many bands to occupy the exact niche Pharaoh does, although it would also be a stretch to suggest we're breaking any new ground. I think in the million-monkey experiment of metal, we just lucked into something that just happens to be a bit different from what the other monkeys are doing.
Sonic: You have a long standing tradition of getting guest musicians from the circles you travel in while writing or touring. This time, I have noticed on the new single you are streaming, "Castles in the Sky," that you have Mikael Wikstrom (Mike Wead) from King Diamond accompanying you on guitar. Tell us a little about your collaborations.
MJ: We've had Jim Dofka on every CD, because he's a good friend and a great guitarist, but the tradition of having other guests happened somewhat by accident. When I wrote the song "Sunrise" for "The Longest Night," I realized immediately that the clean section would benefit greatly from a Chris Poland solo. I had interviewed Chris for my zine before, so I was pretty sure I could get in touch with him, and thankfully he agreed to do the solo. That sort of opened the floodgates. There was never a question about whether we would find another interesting guest for "Be Gone," or for the new album. On "Be Gone," we got the Riot dudes, Mark Reale and Mike Flyntz, and yeah, on this album, we landed Mike Wead. I've been a huge fan of Mike for almost as long as I've been listening to metal. I bought the first Hexenhaus album (on cassette, naturally!) when it was new, and that first Memento Mori album is a desert island disc for me. It was kind of tricky to track Mike down, but I made a friend-of-a-friend connection (via Teddy Moller of Loch Vostock, FKU, and about 200 other bands) and Mike graciously agreed to do it. So far, we're batting 1000 with guest soloists, so perhaps we should aim high for album 5. I wonder if I could get Andy Summers from The Police? Hmmm.
Sonic: Your past album, "Be Gone," seemed to be more of a theme of doing away with things like that track about suicide. "Bury the Light" looks to have a unifying theme of darkness, yet it's lyrically diverse. There are songs ranging from a snowy armageddon to an Afghan war parable. Is the theme that mankind really has learned nothing? Expand a bit upon your new album.
MJ: If "Be Gone" was saying, "Things are going to get really bad, really soon," "Bury the Light" says, "Told you so." It's darker, but resignedly so. But, unlike "Be Gone," there isn't really any kind of overarching theme to "Bury the Light." The lyrics came out as they did, and we didn't worry about how they fit. That said, I'm not personally a pessimistic guy. I write miserable lyrics, but in the end, I think people will sort shit out and do the right thing. The problem is not that people never do the right thing, it's that they never do the right thing FIRST.
Sonic: "Bury the Light" is much more intricate musically than even "Be Gone," but your guitar leads give it that immediate recognition factor of Pharaoh. I only heard one slow track, most being agressive or epic. I expected the existential lyrics, since I know you have never been a fan of overindulgent power metal with cheesy themes.
MJ: Well, we're all getting old, so it's hard to even consider singing about dragons and ancient forests of elves! As for the intricacy, that was by design, although I don't know how much more intricate we can get before we disappear up our own asses. I don't foresee us ever "stripping down" though, so the next album will just have to be complex in other ways, be it texturally or harmonically or whatever. We'll see, I suppose! I can guarantee more slow songs the next time around, but they'll be slow like "Confessor" - slow and complicated!
Sonic: I noticed that you reprieved the song "The Spider's Thread" at the end of the album. Is there a special meaning behind that? Do you think that you will be doing that animated video that you thought about doing for the song, or too much is involved in that?
MJ: The guys I know who had the ability to animate the video got laid off from their animation studios, and so they no longer really have the equipment and technology to do the video. Maybe someday. As for the reprise, well, it basically amounted to Chris Black demanding to bring that riff back, as it's really only played once in "The Spider's Thread." That song was an experiment in linear writing. There's only one chorus, and it's the outro. The whole song is build-up. We worked out the arrangement for the transition from In Your Hands to the reprise when we were recording drums, and it came out perfectly. We pride ourselves in the flow of our albums, and I think in all cases, when the last song comes on, even if you didn't look at the track list, you'd KNOW it was the end. The reprise fulfills that role nicely.
Sonic: Your albums contain complex musicianship, yet I have heard that all of you in Pharaoh rehearse very little. How do you manage to put the songs together without spending much time in the studio? Plus you have jobs and live far away from each other.
MJ: We don't rehearse at all before recording. It's everyone's job to learn their parts. That said, all the songs are fully demoed (instrumentally, and with programmed drums) so that there really aren't any surprises when it comes time to record for real. It isn't easy, though, what with our "real life" schedules and all that, which is why it takes us so fucking long to make an album!
Sonic: You will be playing at the Ragnarokkr Festival in Joliet this May. I looked at the roster of bands on that and saw Virgin Steele and...gasp, Brocas Helm. Now there's a name I hadn't heard since the 80's. It would appear that classic power metal is making a resurgence in the U.S. these days, and isn't just an isolated appeal for Europeans. Your thoughts?
MJ: Well, it's hard to say. There are some cool bands playing that fest, but it's not like there are going to be 5000 people there. It'll be intimate, as I think the appeal of this music is still rather limited. Amusingly, if it were a fest of new bands playing a retro form of this music, it would probably be a smashing success, in the way more people show up to a Municipal Waste show than to a Whiplash show (whom I saw last night, with Morbid Saint of all bands!) No matter, though, I'm pretty excited myself to see Brocas Helm. That band is awesome.
Sonic: I found it humorous that you put on your FB page that you've saved the fans a boatload of cash by not playing in their hometown so that they can save and go to the gig. This brings up the point that you have mentioned that you've only had a couple of gigs the past decade? One thing's for sure, this must make you be able to look at things freshly most of the time and not get burnt out...keep it in an art perspective instead of business.
MJ: We're actually rehearsing as something like a real band for this gig. It's complicated, though, in the way all Pharaoh activities are. Our bassist, Chris Kerns, can't commit to the live shows, so our drummer, Chris Black, plays bass and we find another drummer. We also need a second guitarist, and that role is filled by out producer, Matt Crooks. Matt lives in DC, and I live outside of Philly, and for this round of shows, we're using James Goetz of the band Division for drums. James lives in Baltimore, so I rented a room in that city, and he, Matt, and I get together once a week to rehearse. We'll bring in Chris and Tim once a month for full band rehearsals, as well. Since we're putting so much effort into this, we're going to try to do more shows, maybe even do a proper (if small) tour. No one can predict the future, but the odds are good that Pharaoh will become an actual live band in 2012. Miracles never cease. But, we'll always treat it as art (or at least a hobby) and not a business because there's no money in this game.
Sonic: As you are releasing "Bury the Light" in February, what are your thoughts about being an integral part of Pharaoh all these years? In what ways have you changed since the inception of the band?
MJ: Pharaoh has always been about writing music at the highest level, and this will always be the emphasis. Lord knows how the live experiment will work out, but we'll always put the focus on recording. And while some things have changed, the basic pattern for how we work remains as it has since the beginning. Write riffs, share demos, hash everything else out at the last minute. It might not be the most efficient way, but it's the Pharaoh way.
Sonic: Thank you for your time Matt. Anything you would like to expand upon that hasn't been brought up already?
MJ: No, this was a great set of questions, and I thank you heartily for that! If anyone wants to know more, they should get in touch with us via the usual internet methods, and we'll be happy to explain anything else. We're not so big that we can't shoot the shit with fans, and probably we never will be. We're okay with that as long as you guys are! Thanks again!
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