Matt Smith From Theocracy Opens Up In Nashville Before World-Exclusive Show
As a nearly identical long-haired brunette body double for actor Neil Patrick Harris, it’s not surprising that Theocracy vocalist and main songwriter Matt Smith gets noticed by everyone whenever he walks in the room. What is surprising, however, is how his charisma and vocal bravado is saved almost entirely for the stage, along with his leather pants and red button-down shirt. The soft-spoken and calm Matt Smith in front of me in jeans, Vans, and a sweatshirt in the upstairs backstage of The Rutledge on the 15th is telling me that he’s practicing vocal rest for the show ahead of him – a demanding one, at that.
He is about to lead the Theocracy boys in the performing of their sprawling 2011 power metal blowout of an album, “As the World Bleeds,” in its entirety that Friday night to a warm Nashville, TN crowd. A show report from the night can be found here. Moreover, the show is going to be filmed and streamed on a UStream feed to the rest of the world, as part of a “Sanctuary From The Streets” benefit show, with proceeds going towards buying meals for the homeless in Nashville. Despite his warning that he wouldn’t be very chatty that night, he made time before the show for an interview with me. He talked about “As the World Bleeds,” stacking vocal tracks in the studio, and the release of the re-mixed self-titled Theocracy debut, among other things.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): So, this is a world exclusive event, technically – The first time you’ve played “As the World Bleeds” in its entirety. That’s not really an easy thing to pull off. When I heard the announcement, I thought “Really?” What made you want to take that on?
Matt Smith: Well, it’s actually a couple of things. First of all, we think that the album works well that way. We like the flow of it, and we’ve always wanted to do that. The original plan was, our last European tour was supposed to be after the album was out. We were going to try and play it all the way through pretty regularly. As happens, things ended up being delayed, so it wasn’t out by the time we went over there. We did play pretty much all of the songs, except “I Am,” but we had to keep it to a couple of new ones a night.
We’ve been looking for an opportunity to do this for awhile. We talked about doing it at home, either in Atlanta or Athens. It seemed to have some good interest, but once we heard about this show, and since it was going to be a fundraiser and special event anyway, we thought that would be a nice way to add another special angle to it. It’s a little more of a central location, as far as the southeast is concerned, than middle-of-nowhere in Georgia. Big choirs and orchestras and all that, that’s where the people here have to help us out. We have a little bit of the keyboard tracks and background spots. We’ll see how it goes – it’ll be a bit more stripped down, but I like that more about live performances.
Frank: It gets stripped to its core, so that you can see all the essential parts. Would you perform it again all the way through if this goes well?
Matt: Sure! Well, we’d love to. It makes sense. We’ll see how it goes, but I don’t see why not. It depends on scheduling and how much we’ll be playing before the next album comes around. Who knows if it will happen again? I will certainly be for it, but we’ll just have to see.
Frank: Was there ever talk about doing a live DVD at all?
Matt: It’s sort of been thrown around, but nothing really concrete. We actually talked about this show and thought that that would be a good opportunity for it. We found out that there was going to be a film crew here filming the whole thing. It turns out they’re only going to be doing a few songs, because his crew is spread out over the country. We will be filming some stuff tonight. As far as what will happen with it, we’ll have to see.
Frank: What are the other surprises hinted at in your press statement about the show?
Matt: The plan is to do “Mirror of Souls,” the song, all the way through afterwards. If we’re still standing. It’s one of those things where we’ll play it by ear and see where it goes. That’s kind of the more nerve-wracking of the feats tonight. We did do that one time forever ago when I was still playing guitar, I think we were a three-piece. It’s been awhile. It’s a lot of lyrics to remember.
Frank: I imagine it’s a lot more comfortable now that it’s a five-piece.
Matt: Definitely. That’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s nice to be able to just focus on that instead of trying to do twenty things at once.
Frank: About the record, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of choir and vocal parts. What is the highest number of vocal parts that you’ve stacked on top of each other on that album?
Matt: On “As the World Bleeds”?
Frank: On “As the World Bleeds.”
Matt: I don’t know. Normally, for the big choirs, it’s in the thirty-to-forty-voice range, but I’ve done upwards of seventy-something, but that’s in the counterpoint sections. There are four or so different things going on. The middle of “I Am,” where it goes into the counterpoint sections, those aren’t all choirs, so there probably wasn’t that many tracks, but probably one of those sections had the most. I couldn’t tell you exactly how many, but usually the counterpoint’s where it gets kind of ridiculous.
Frank: Have you been feeling a sort of one-upsmanship among guys like yourself and Devin Townsend, who uses upwards of a hundred voices stacked up?
Matt: No. I mean, it’s tough enough earlier, like we were talking about. You’ve got to be careful, because you’re going to lose some of that in the live performance stuff. I don’t like to use a lot of backing tracks. A couple of the big choirs of “I Am” will have some backing tracks going, but that’s pretty much it. I don’t mind backing tracks for keyboards and stuff, but for vocals, I try to keep it minimal. The more you add that stuff on record, the more it can come back and bite you if it sounds too different live.
Frank: For the music video for “Hide in the Fairytale” -- that was your first music video, of course – how was the experience shooting it?
Matt: It was good! You always hear about shoots are such long days. It was a long day, but it wasn’t that bad. The whole experience was really good. The only bad thing was that there were sync issues on the first release of the video. When I think about that video, all I think of is the two weeks of non-stop emails back and forth of “It looks fine on my computer,” “oh, it’s lagging on this computer,” “well, on my mom’s computer, it plays fine,” you know…
They launched the video and half the people said it was fine, but half said it was out of sync. They had to pull it down and try to fix it. Sadly, that was the enduring thought about that video for me, but the actual experience of shooting the video was fine.
Frank: Gotcha. On that topic, Steven Wilson (the mainman of Porcupine Tree) had said in a recent interview that whenever he’s done with an album, he’s not able to experience it like a fan would – he’s just too involved with knowing what’s behind each little part. Do you get that way with your productions or can you distance yourself and see it from a fan’s perspective, still?
Matt: It takes awhile. You can, but for me, it takes a little while. I think I’ve never really been one of these guys who, once I finish an album, don’t want to hear it ever again. I enjoyed working on it, and I enjoy hearing the finished product – listening to it and hearing how it came out. In that sense, I can experience it as a fan. It sort of goes in cycles. It takes a little while to be able to come back and hear it like that.
As time goes by a couple years later, you start to hear things you wish you’d done different, but that’s just how it is with anything. I don’t really worry about it. Albums are snapshots in time.
Frank: That’s true. Back with the music video, was there any significance to why everyone seemed to be in the dark a lot of the times with a white background?
Matt: Not really. That was just a stylistic choice the director made. [There were] a couple of different shots of us in the room and different angles of that. Then you had the old guy and the conceptual footage a little bit, and then there were the solo shots of the white background. We just thought it looked pretty cool! (laughs)
Frank: Oh it definitely looked cool!
Matt: I’m sure that Dan, the director, had something in mind, but I just remember him talking about how cool it looked for solos.
Frank: Lyrically, with the biblical parallels, "As the World Bleeds" kind of reads like a collection of stories. Did you have a greater message behind the album or did you piece this album together with the idea that the songs would be their own important individual stories?
Matt: It was really individual this time, especially after “Mirror of Souls,” with the twenty-four-minute track. What I was trying to do in writing it, I remember, was going for a ‘Theocracy’s greatest hits’ kind of thing. Not commercially, but just in a sense of one of those records like… I don’t know, it’s hard to know what to compare it to, because I’m also thinking of stuff that also happened to be a million times more commercially successful than we could ever be.
The first Boston record, where all the fans know every song on that record, or like ‘Master of Puppets’, just where it’s all killer, no filler. Everything stands alone, and not necessarily tied together. Every song can legitimately be someone’s favorite for the album. That’s what we were going for this time.
Frank: They’re very different, stylistically.
Matt: We try to do that. I don’t like to listen to the same thing for an hour.
Frank: Given the fact that you’ve worked both angles – designed an album around a concept and then having an album of each song being its own thing – do you think it’s more important to give listeners one specific message or give listeners the tools to construct whatever message they want?
Matt: I always write with a specific message in mind. It has to be something that touches me or challenges me or has been on my mind. It’s never just completely abstract. But I also like to, in the way the lyrics are phrased, not make it so hit-you-over-the-head obvious. A song like “Altar to the Unknown God” from this album, which is based on a passage out of acts, that’s a straightforward historical thing. Some of the other tracks are a little more personal or have a more abstract side to them, so it really depends on the song.
Frank: Back to the debut album. There hasn’t really been any word since November about when there will be a release date set for the re-mixed re-release of it. Is there a release date set now?
Matt: It’s completely done as of yesterday, ready to go off for mastering. Basically now, it’s just up to me uploading files. I’m going to go ahead and try to do that this weekend so that it will be mastered. It just took awhile to get ahold of the original artwork and write some new liner notes and things like that. We’ve just been working on detail work, but for all intents and purposes, it is done. It’s really up to the label when they want it to happen. (laughs)
Frank: Are there any thoughts of an exclusive show centered around that album?
Matt: Not as of now, but I would be up for it for sure. We’ve definitely talked about revisiting that stuff. We’ve talked about “wow, we should really play this live” or that we’ve never played it before and it’d be fun to play. There are no plans, but I wouldn’t count it out if we’d be able to.
Frank: You guys have played ProgPower USA VII, the pre-show?
Matt: The pre-show, yeah.
Frank: Would you guys ever be interested in playing ProgPower again?
Matt: I would love to! Anytime he (ProgPower USA organizer Glenn Harveston) wants! In fact, I think Emil from Ulterium, our label, has contacted him about it a couple of times. This is Atlanta we’re talking about, so we’re ready whenever he is! (laughs)
Frank: Lastly, what does being ‘progressive’ mean to you these days? It’s fairly nebulous.
Matt: I’ve never been one of the people who think ‘progressive music’ means not doing the same thing from album to album, because you hear that argument thrown around. There are a lot of progressive bands if that’s the case. To me, it’s always been more of a style – had more to do with odd time signatures and long songs. I don’t even really consider us a prog band, for sure. I think we have elements of that, but we’re not that level of musicians – Symphony X, Dream Theater. It’s just not what we’re about.
I like sprinkling that stuff in here and there, the sort of progressive wacky stuff for fifteen seconds in “I Am”, but then it goes onto something else. I’m a prog fan. I really like a lot of those bands. To me, in terms of the definition, I think of long songs and complex instrumentation, so that’s how I personally define that.
Frank: You guys are definitely approaching prog by that definition!
Matt: I certainly take it as a compliment to be lumped in with that. Like I said, it’s hard to picture us on the insane level as some of the super players out there. Hey, we definitely have elements of it, so it’s a compliment if people consider us that!
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