Pharaoh is in focus now with their new album Bury The Light on the shelves. We would like to get more info about how things are going in Pharaoh, and Matt Johnsen kindly answers out questions.
Please tell us about how you started the band? And also why you choose the name Pharaoh for the band?
The band arose from a conversation between two death metal guys at a party in 1997. Chris Black (Dawnbringer) and Keith Barnard (Final Prayer) were hanging out when someone put Saxon's Unleash The Beast on the stereo, and it so captivated these guys that they resolved to form a new band to play classic melodic metal. I had known Chris through the zine scene (he did an excellent zine called Word Of Mouth, and I had just put out the first issue of my zine Feast Or Famine), and he knew I played guitar and was into power metal, so he emailed me and asked if I wanted to play in this new idea of a band. I was not that interested in just playing old Saxon and Iron Maiden style metal, but I wasn't doing anything else, so I said, "Sure!". A few days later, the three of us got together at Keith's apartment and knocked out the song which would ultimately be called Slaves on our debut. As for the name, Chris had already chosen it by the time he asked me to join. He's a big picture thinker, that guy. It's simple, it's majestic, and, most importantly, it hadn't been taken, ha ha!
When did you actually start to write songs for Bury The Light?
We all work at different paces and on different schedules. As always, Chris Kerns was the first guy to submit his material. I think he had demoed Cry And The Wolves before we had even finished recording the Ten Years EP. I write more slowly, and somewhat constantly, so as soon as Ten Years was in the can, I was working on new material. Chris Black has a lot of bands, and he has to a lot time for songwriting for each one, so he was the last to turn in his songs. Of course, these submissions are really just the beginning, because then the rest of the band has to make their adjustments and add their input. But, I would say we were well into the writing by early 2010, and finished by August of 2010, which is when we recorded the drums. The song In Your Hands was written the week before, and The Year Of The Blizzard was done not much before that.
Was the songwriting difficult or easier than what you experienced earlier?
I think it gets a little harder every time, because with each album, there are fewer ideas left to explore, and it becomes more of a challenge to write something new that doesn't repeat something you recorded for an earlier album. The song Graveyard Of Empires took me months and months of pretty much constant tweaking to finish. But then again, I wrote In Your Hands in two or three days. I guess it all depends on the song, as always!
Do you write songs as a band? or is there a main songwriter?
Both, actually! We're a very collaborative band, but the collaboration happens in phases. We don't live near each other, so we can't just bash out ideas in the rehearsal space. When I write, I'll complete the instrumental portion of the song, writing and demoing the guitars, bass, and drum beats, and then usually I'll hand that to Tim for vocal melodies. Sometimes he also writes the lyrics, but a lot of times, he hands the melodies to Chris Black for words. And of course, sometimes I write everything myself, but that's not too common – usually just one song per album. Chris Black tends to write everything himself, although he'll frequently allow me to make changes. For instance, he wrote words and music to Burn With Me, but as he's not as good a guitarist as I am, some of the riffs were rather too simple, so I spiced them up a bit for a songwriting credit. But, he wrote the entirety of The Year Of The Blizzard on his own. Chris Kerns will sometimes turn in a fully completed song, but other times he'll submit a skeleton of an arrangement, and one of the other guys in the band will flesh it out with riffs and ideas. This time around, he and I collaborated on the riffs in Cry, while Tim wrote the melody and Chris Black wrote the words. But, Kerns wrote all the riffs and arrangements in The Wolves (and even suggested the title) and I wrote the melodies and words. It's a little different every time, but every album is uniquely the product of all four of us.
What inspires you to write music/lyrics?
Personally, I almost always write about politics, and the ways people treat one another. I took a bit of a detour from that this time with The Spider's Thread, which is an adaptation of a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Tim's lyrics are sometimes political, but they're always personal. Chris Black is harder to pin down; he writes about a lot of things, and he's rarely on-the-nose with his lyrics, so there could be a lot of meanings. You'd have to ask him!
By the way: what bands/artists made you start playing? And which bands/artists are you listening to these days?
I got into metal with the usual bands: Metallica, Megadeth, Metal Church, and other bands that don't start with the letter M. But I quickly developed a taste for the more extreme and technical bands, from Coroner to Cynic to Watchtower. In the mid-90s I was obsessed with European power metal like Rage, Scanner, Blind Guardian, and so forth. I still love the style, but there are very few bands doing it well anymore. Solar Fragment is a new power metal band that I like, and Orden Ogan are cool, too. I'm a big fan of the US power metal band Holy Grail, and I love the sci-fi thrashers Vektor. I listen to all kinds of metal, really pretty much every style there is. But I also listen to a lot of jazz (particularly the spacy fusion from the early 70s), some prog rock (like the almighty Magma from France), and tons of power pop (especially the skinny-tie bands from the US and UK in the late 70s/early 80s).
How long did the recordings take? Where did you record Bury The Light? And who produced the album?
Our last three albums have all been recorded with Matt Crooks (ex-Division, Fool's Game) in his home studio. We take a long time to record, but that's mainly a product of having to work around real-life schedules. This album was interrupted by the births of sons for Matt and our drummer. Matt and I take co-producer credits, because I'm there for the recording of everyone's parts, and it's mainly my job to make sure everyone plays with passion and precision. Matt Crooks makes sure it all sounds good.
Who did this interesting artwork you have? And how is it tied to the album title?
All of our art is done by JP Fournier, who has also done covers for Edguy, Immortal, and Dragonforce. He's done more paintings for Pharaoh than for any other band, and we really consider him to be our Derek Riggs. We couldn't imagine a Pharaoh album without his art on the front. All of our album covers feature a gemlike thing which was more or less JP's creation. This time it's the sarcophagus that's breaking apart in the foreground. We based the title on a recurring theme in our lyrics, which tend to cast 'the light' as a bad thing. Not in the way you'd expect from, say, a black metal band, who are embracing 'evil' (or some cartoon-ish variation thereon). For whatever reason, we keep making the light the source of evil in our lyrics, and when we realized that we didn't have a song title that could sum up the entire album, we came up with this title to do that work.
Which songs do you think represent Bury The Light in the best way? And why?
Castles In The Sky is classic Pharaoh in our complex mode. Lots of riffs, lots of twists and turns, and a virtuosic vocal performance. The Year Of The Blizzard, meanwhile, is Pharaoh at our most epic, and also our most rocking. If you listen to just those tunes, you will get a pretty good snapshot of the album as a whole, but of course we hope you'll stick around for the other 7 songs!
Will you do a video? Which songs would you like to visualize?
It's not likely we'll do a video, because it's just not in the budget. We talked with an animator about bringing The Spider's Thread to life, because its imagery is so cinematic to begin with. But, he lost his job and his access to the gear and software needed to complete this project, and at this point, it seems unlikely that we'll ever do it. But, who knows? I think Burn With Me would make for a good video, because the lyrics allow a lot of room for interpretation.
Please tell us a little about how you developed that style with songs containing both fast and more relaxed metal within them?
Part of it is practical, insofar as Chris Black has never been the kind of drummer who could ride out 16th notes on the kick drums for 5 minutes! But also, this kind of drumming is boring, and we think that dynamics are sadly lacking in most metal. We try to cram all of the action and changes of an Iron Maiden epic into five minute songs. Who has time for 14 minute snoozers anyway?
I guess you already got some feedback. Are you satisfied so far?
Yeah, the critical consensus is that the album is an artistic success. We've always gotten very good reviews, but even so, when we put out a new album and we read so many good reviews by journalists who have never heard the band before, it makes us happy. We obviously record music for people to hear it (otherwise we could all just play at home and save ourselves a lot of time and money!) so it's great that there are people the world over who enjoy our music.
What about playing live? Anything new on the way?
Actually, we are rehearsing to play live this summer. We only have one small festival gig booked for Chicago in May, but we're putting so much effort into rehearsing that it would be dumb to only do the one show. We'd love to do a short tour of Germany, because realistically, that's where the action is for a band like Pharaoh. We don't have anything lined up as yet, but hopefully we'll be able to get over the pond for a week or two in the fall. Keep your fingers crossed!
Do you plan to record some live footage - not talking about Pro Shots - for YouTube or similar platforms?
We might do that just in our rehearsal space, just to get something out there, and to prove that we're able to play this stuff live! When we do our show, hopefully we'll get some video as well.
Talking about the internet.... Social network is both a blessing and a curse. What's your opinion about it?
I'm a Facebook denier, so this isn't my problem, ha ha! I know that Chris Black and Tim maintain a presence for us there. I am the guy in charge of MySpace, but that's not a very active platform for social activity anymore. It's mainly a place to listen to MP3s, I guess. I think staying in touch with your fans is important, and I handle all of the fan email and whatnot. If I ever decided to give in and sign up for Facebook, it will probably be to connect with Pharaoh fans. I'm pretty sure I'm still friends with everyone important from high school, ha ha!
What's next on your schedule? Anything you want to add to the interview?
My personal schedule? I'm going to see the Norwegian pop band Team Me tonight in New York City. I think it's their first US gig ever. But, I know that's not what you meant. For Pharaoh, we're concentrating on the live presentation and promoting the album release. I have a lot of ideas for new songs already, though, and with any luck, the next album won't take 4 years to materialize. Thanks for your support, and for keeping heavy metal vibrant. Take care!
That was great to get your point of view, Matt. Best of luck in the future.