Tuesday, April 10, 2012
interview with Pharaoh (U.S.)
The guys from Pharaoh understand very well what makes a good metal song. Once you hear the album, it’s clear they are something like scientists of heavy metal songwriting.
“Bury the Light” is their new album and it is quality metal music from beginning to end. The main thing is intelligently constructed, compact and memorable songs that will be appreciated by listeners who demand real talent in the playing and seriously good singing: whether it is Tim Aymar’s singing or Matt Johnsen’s guitars or simply the awesome songs.
If you are picky and demand talent and great songs, you will find that Pharaoh is all those things.
Matt (guitar) explains the band’s take on metal.
So, “Bury the Light.” Another Pharaoh album. Another display of quality, catchy traditional heavy metal. I was midway through the second listen, when it clicked and then it was on! How do you keep doing this? Are you adding an addictive secret ingredient?
Matt Johnsen: We're very self-critical. Two of the guys in the band were longtime metal journalists who spent many years thinking about what, exactly, makes a metal album good. I guess that kind of introspection has paid off in terms of our songwriting. On the other hand, it makes everything take a long damned time to finish. It's pretty satisfying to write a song, and pretty much anything you make with your own hands is going to appeal to you at some level. The secret is being able to back up and ask, "Yes, it was fun to write and fun to make, but will it be fun for the people who didn't make it?" I think a lot of bands fall into this trap. They write a song, they have fun doing it, they have fun playing it, and so they assume it's a fun song, when it's not. We never make that assumption.
“The Year of the Blizzard” is a hit with this zine! That’s pretty much a perfect song right there. It’s also your longest track. Do you have any insight into the song that you can tell us about? I have to ask, do you agree that that riff that begins at 1:10, after the acoustic part, sounds Rush-inspired? “Temples of Syrinx”, anyone?! Are you offended by the reference? Too cool for Rush?
Ha, no. I didn't write the song (it was Chris Black's baby through and through) but as soon as I heard his demo riffs, I said, "You know, that sounds exactly like Rush." Although, on further reflection, it could also be a Who riff, which is probably where Rush got the idea. But yeah, there's no getting around the fact that this song looks backwards to the 70s for its inspirations, which is new for Pharaoh. It was a blast to record, because I got to use a ton of different guitars to achieve all those textures. I think I used six different guitars throughout the course of this song! And finally, no, we're not too cool for Rush. Rush rules hard.
Tim’s voice has a midrange tone that gives it a melodic appeal. Has he ever taken singing lessons? How old was he when he discovered he could sing?
Tim has taken lessons, and has in fact taught vocal lessons. He has a pretty firm grip on the technicalities of singing. He's also been singing FOREVER. I never heard them (not sure if they ever recorded), but his first band was called Overlord and I think he was in his teens then. I have, however, seen the promo photo, and Tim was an adorable little scamp. Lord knows how he turned out so bad, ha ha!
Did you ever wonder, “How are we going to top (previous album) ‘Be Gone’?” Did you go through a dry spell? How many guitars are playing in a song like “The Spider’s Thread”? Are there four or five guitars going at any one given time, like after the :30 second mark, with those melodies? How many guitars is that? Can two guitar achieve that?
Two guitars cannot achieve that, no. I believe there are five distinct guitar parts there (two rhythm parts and three melody parts) although it might only be two melody parts. It's been a while since I tracked it!
And yes, I wondered how we could top Be Gone. I also wondered how we could top The Longest Night, and I'm sure I'll wonder if we can top Bury the Light. My problem after Be Gone was, "what can I do now that will be different?" and to the extent that I went through a dry spell, it was that I had a hard time coming up with riffs that didn't sound too much like the ones on Be Gone. Eventually, I had to admit that we had come to a sort of plateau with Be Gone, and that to make the SONGS different, I would have to add more textural elements and hope those were enough to compensate for some riffs that were relatively similar to Be Gone riffs. In the end, I think it worked, but I don't think I can do it again, so I'm going to have to come up with some really clever new ideas for the fifth album.
Do you think it’s disingenuous for gore metal bands, who are like 105 years old, to write lyrics about zombies and horror movies clichés? “Hmm, let’s see, I have written literally hundreds of song lyrics about zombies, but I guess I gotta keep selling the same product, unless I wanna get a job at the local factory. OK! Zombies, it is!!” Can people in their mid-40s really be “inspired” or “excited” about zombie lyrics, and zombies and corpses on the cover of their albums?
I think you're mistaken if you think there are any gore grind musicians that DON'T have day jobs! That shit doesn't pay the bills.
Regarding your question, though, there are two possible scenarios, and the one you described is probably the preferable one, the cynical one. Less pleasant is the notion that these 50-year-old men ARE still that emotionally and intellectually invested in zombies and knife rape. You have to wonder, also, whom they envision as the target audience for their lyrics: are they singing to the other 50 year old manchildren, or do they imagine they're singing to the modern equivalent of their pimply teenaged selves, hunched
over back issues of Fangoria listening to Autopsy record in their headphones. Heavy metal was invented and framed as adolescents' music, but over the course of its 40-year run, it has become an adult music almost against its will. I think too many metal musicians who got into this style as teenagers still imagine they're making and selling music for teenagers, when in reality, they're making music for other adults. I have to think the quality of metal lyrics, or at least the sophistication, would increase if that wisdom would sink in en masse. It probably won't, though.
Having said that, how do y’all go about your lyrics. Are they just afterthoughts? And don’t stupid lyrics bring down the work and effort put by the guitar player, bass and drummer into a song? How do you construct your lyrics? Your lyrics tend to be indirect, but still not too weird.
They're an afterthought in the literal sense, as they're almost always written after the music. But, we don't shortchange the lyrics on account of their order in the songwriting process. Personally, I try to write lyrics about things that matter to me, be they political or personal subjects. At the same time, especially when writing political lyrics, I think its important not to instantly date myself with specific references. We can all think of some corny old thrash song that harps on about Ronald Regan or Margaret Thatcher or Mikhail Gorbechev. So, I personally try to write allegorical lyrics that are thinly veiled political screeds that can be read on a more typical "metal" level without drawing back that veil.
"The Wolves" is not about wolves, therefore, but if you don't feel like reading into it, well, it still makes some kind of sense. Everyone in Pharaoh writes lyrics, and I'm sure everyone has their own process and philosophy when it comes to writing, but I think we're a rare group to have four guys who can all write intelligent and meaningful words.
Is “Graveyard of Empires” about the war in Afghanistan? Awesome, job. Pharaoh telling it like it is. Imperialism sucks.
It is about Afghanistan, and while it's about the U.S. today, it could be about the U.S.S.R. 20 years ago, or Great Britain 170 years ago or, probably, China in 40 years. It never fucking ends for that country. I'm pretty strongly anti-war in the general sense, but this engagement specifically was a stupid idea from the start (if not quite as stupid as the war in Iraq. We're on a tear with our foreign policy, as you can tell.) To be honest, though, I wrote the song around the title, because that's a pretty badass heavy metal title, I think you'll agree! The day I needed to start working on those lyrics I saw the phrase used in some editorial, and I was off to the races. Better than calling it "Aukland's Folly", for sure.
Making music in a band that has a cult following is thankless work. No money, no fame, no fancy hotels, no rock star treatment. Just the pleasure of doing what you love. So, why do YOU do this? What drives you inside to make music that only a cult following loves? I’d have you headline Wacken, if I could!
It's not so thankless. It's under-thanked, though, ha ha! Pharaoh does alright. We get great reviews, we sell pretty well, and we don't actually lose money in Pharaoh. We make a little. Not much, but we basically don't lose money. This explains, however, why we don't play live so much.
There are so many bands out there willing and eager to lose money to play, that festivals and booking agents would be stupid to throw too much money away on bands that refused to play for free. It is a bit infuriating when some trendy band-of-the-month who are essentially like Pharaoh, but much worse, gets a lot of attention, but it's a fool's game to worry too much about that sort of thing. We get to write and record records, paid for by someone else, and release them to a world that has at least a reasonable number of people who appreciate the effort. As hobbies go, Pharaoh is pretty fulfilling. That said, if you know someone at Wacken, hook us up!
What do y’all as a band think about the radical idea of recording WITHOUT triggered drums, sound replacement of instruments, looping, vocal programs and other things that “perfect” human performances?
I think those are all noble goals! But, Pharaoh doesn't really live by them. We only have so much money and time available for recording, so some shortcuts are taken here and there. It's best to not be obvious about such things. A lot of bands these days, you can actually hear that they only recorded a riff once, then just copied and pasted it. Drum editing has gotten completely out of hand. And don't get me started onauto-tune (we don't tune Tim at all. I make that sorry bastard get it right on his side of the microphone!). But for Pharaoh to make albums at the level we do without any postproduction trickery would require us to rehearse 5 nights a week for months on end, and we simply can't do that.
If you can't tell when it's all said and done, then it doesn't really matter. Sometimes, it's best to not see how the sausage is made.
What can your listeners do to show support for your band?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about shirts. We have only one design for sale now, but we will have two more in the next couple months.
We are currently scheduled to play the Ragnarokkr fest outside of Chicago on May 18, along with Virgin Steele, Brocas Helm, Voltax, Slauter Xtroyes, and a bunch of other cool bands. We'll also do some east coast shows in the summer, and anyone who wants to see Pharaoh in their remote part of the world need only pony up enough to get us there without us having to break the bank!
Thanks for your support, and for an excellent interview! THE END.