After a silence of 4 years they're back with the amazing album bury the light. With this album they proved that power metal doesn't have to be a pile of cheesy clichés. So when we were offered to do an interview with them who are we to refuse an opportunity like that.
1. I'm not going to lie; you guys made an amazing album and showed the world that power metal can be more than just piling up a bunch of overused metal clichés. But tell me how do you guys start writing songs?
Matt Johnsen: Thanks so much for the kind words! It’s certainly a mission of ours to avoid cliché, to demonstrate that melodic metal still has room to grow without simply reworking the old ideas over and over again. Our songs start privately, with one member writing most of the riffs and the arrangement. In my case, I’ll present a more-or-less finished instrumental piece, with the guitar, bass, and drum parts worked out and the arrangement finalized. Then I’ll have the song off to Tim or Chris Black to write vocal melodies and/or lyrics. I think my songs tend to come out best when Tim writes the melodies and Chris writes the lyrics, as with “Telepath” or “In Your Hands.” Chris, for his part, tends to finish songs completely, including the words, whereas Chris Kerns will sometimes do that, and sometimes write just a bare skeleton of a song, offering it to me or Chris to finish with riffs and arrangement ideas. We’re not a “rehearsing” band, so all of these collaborations are long-distance, but over the years we’ve gotten pretty efficient at working this way
2. I assume that you can't live from the band yet so is it hard to combine your work with this band?
MJ: Not really. I work as a software developer, so my hours are regular and my pay is good. It’s a career that allows a lot of free time for hobbies like the band. To be able to make a commensurate living from Pharaoh, we’d have to sell something like 100,000 albums a year and tour regularly, which just isn’t ever going to happen!
3. Around 4 years have passed since your previous full-length. Was it hard to get back in the writing and recording state of mind?
MJ: It never seems as long to us as it does to the fans, I assume, ha ha! The thing is, Pharaoh basically never stops – we just do everything slowly. After Be Gone, we did some live shows, and the rehearsals for that occupied most of my music-related time. Then we had to finish the Ten Years EP. And more or less as soon as that was done (although it took a long time then to actually come out) we started writing for the new album, which itself took a long time to record. I wish we could compress the schedule and get these things out a little faster, but it seems like we’re stuck in first gear forever. We get there eventually, though, and that’s what matters!
4. I've noticed that Pharaoh doesn't play live very often, how come?
MJ: Because it’s a pain in the ass! We don’t live near one another, for starters. The closest guy to me is Chris Kerns, but he’s a two hour drive away, and in any case, he’s not able to commit to live performances. But, instead of finding an external bassist, our drummer, Chris Black (who lives in Chicago, about 2000km from me), plays bass. So, then we need to find another drummer. Right now, that role is being played by James Goetz of the band Division. And finally, we need a second guitarist for the live shows. Matt Crooks, our longtime engineer and producer, is our live rhythm guitarist, but he lives in Washington DC (about 350 km from me). So, I have to teach him his parts, rehearse with James to get him up to speed, and then we occasionally bring Chris Black in. Tim lives about 500 km from me in Pittsburgh, and has a difficult work schedule to deal with. So, you can see that getting everyone together to rehearse is really quite a challenge. On top of all that, Pharaoh music is HARD! That said, we’re rehearsing now for a gig in May at a small festival in Chicago, and we’re hoping to parlay that effort into some actual touring later in the summer/fall, possibly including some time in Europe. Nothing’s worked out yet, but we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to take Pharaoh on the road, for real.
5. Is it hard to be an US power metal band because power metal is way less popular in the US than in Europe or am I mistaken?
MJ: It’s harder to make money, I guess, and of course harder to tour. If we were based in Germany, I think we’d tour pretty regularly, because the audience is there. In the US, there are a lot of metal fans, but they’re spread out over a massively huge land mass. Except in a few very big cities, you just don’t see enough metalheads in one area to sustain a band like Pharaoh. But, that’s how it’s been as long as we’ve been a band, so we don’t worry about it much. We just concentrate on writing and recording the best possible albums.
6. After poking around a bit on the internet I've discovered you were in Control Denied together with the legendary Chuck Schuldiner. How was that?
TA: Before Control Denied, I was in a band with Jim Dofka called Psycho Scream, and we were writing some great material together and turning a lot of heads, but the lineup kept falling out on us. So, we got our demos together and started searching for more well know bands that were missing a singer and guitarist, or individuals to fill out our lineup. Chuck Schuldiner got one of the demos contacted us, needing a singer. So, I auditioned in '97 and took the position. It was a couple years later when he got the contract from Nuclear Blast to record The Fragile Art Of Existence, with the agreement that he would first do a final Death album and tour. Between the audition and returning to do the work, I met Matt Johnsen and sang a couple of songs for them in the studio, which wound up on compilation CDs. Then, on February 1st, , 1999 I arrived in Orlando, FL once again to finish up demos for the new songs he'd written, and hold rehearsals with the band before leaving for Tampa to record at Morrisound. Exactly 2 weeks into it, my youngest brother died. I went home for the funeral and returned a few days before packing up the gear and heading to Tampa. About 2 weeks into that, Chuck started complaining of severe headaches and numbness in his hand. By the time the record was released, he had been diagnosed with a brain stem tumor, which canceled our touring plans and eventually lead to his demise. Between the release of the CD and Chuck's passing, I was asked to sing on Pharaoh's first full length CD After The Fire and I've been the voice of Pharaoh ever since. So the answer to your question I guess, is – on one hand it was a major accomplishment getting the job, and recording alongside some of the best musicians in the world, being considered one of them, and having our record released on a huge label, which was always my goal in being a musician; on the other hand it was devastating to lose Chuck, who, by then, had become a very close friend.
7. Has your time with Control Denied have any influence on what you do with Pharaoh now?
TA: My experience from day one has an influence on how I do things with any project, so yes, it does. One thing that has stuck with me since then, is the method of tracking my vocals, which I picked up from Jim Morris. We do it very close to the same way when MJ and I track me for Pharaoh.
8. I've noticed you write for metal maniacs, how did you end up there?
MJ: Well, Metal Maniacs sadly doesn’t exist anymore, but I did write there for about 10 years. I actually owe that gig to Chris Black, who started writing there a year or two before me. We both did zines before (and during) the Metal Maniacs years. At one point the editor wanted to do a series on the instruments of heavy metal. He played bass, and Chris played drums, but weirdly no one else on the staff played guitar. So, Chris suggested I come in for the piece, and that assignment led to others, and pretty soon I was in pretty much every issue. It was fun while it lasted, although as you know, it’s pretty easy to get burned out on reviews and interviews. I’d like to get back into writing one of these days, but as I grow older, it gets harder and harder to find those extra few hours per week.
9. Any chance we'll be seeing you guys in Europe anytime soon? Or even better in Belgium?
MJ: Like I said, we’d like to do some European touring, but nothing’s set in stone. So, if you know any good promoters who’d like to work with Pharaoh, get them in touch with us, and who knows? We might even play Belgium! Thanks for the support, and stay heavy!