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Pharaoh's Matt Johnsen: "I just had to grind it out, tossing many riffs into the garbage heap because they were too evocative of something we'd done before"

Interview with Matt Johnsen from Pharaoh
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 18 June 2021, 12:35 AM

It is one of those rare cases where an artist, even a traditionalist, would say what many have been keeping under wraps, down in the darkest pits of resolution. Metal music needs to continue growing and influencing, maintaining tradition is a tough break, but spicing it up makes it relevant for the next generation. Sure, nothing is perfect, it is a process like any other, patience and a lot of work are needed. On the other hand, if one's snooze, the others might lose. The US Metal band Pharaoh, and yes it is stated, surprised with their new album, "The Powers That Be", letting everyone in the new age of Traditional Metal born and raised in the US. Steinmetal had an amazing conversation about it with guitarist Matt Johnsen.

Hello Matt, it is a sheer pleasure to have you for this interview for Metal Temple online Magazine, how has life been treating you kind sir?

As well as can be expected, perhaps better than that.  My family and friends made it through the pandemic more or less unscathed, so I don't have much to complain about.  Plus, I got the Terra Odium album today, and while it's not Spiral Architect (alas), it's as close as we're going to get, and that's reason enough to celebrate!

Honestly sir, I kind of lost you there down the road, it has been nine years since "Bury the Light", and all of a sudden, like a magic show, here you are with a brand new release. Now I know that life as it is can be enough of a reason to take time off but was it truly a time off or perhaps a long writing block or maybe you were simply too busy to get Pharaoh started again?

Time kept on slippin', slippin', slippin' I guess.  From our point of view, this wasn't really very different from the other inter-album gaps - we'd work on some stuff, then someone, for some reason, would get bogged down with something else, and the rest of us would just cool our heels, figuring things would get back on track eventually. And, of course, they did, but these cycles just kept repeating, and before you know it, even we started thinking this was taking a long time.  But every time we got the machine running again, it would groan to a halt soon enough and we wouldn't have much to show for it.

Eventually, I guess once all the drums had been recorded, we tapped into what little reserves of urgency we could muster and a real effort was made to finish the album, and then the pandemic hit.  By that point, though, we knew we were on borrowed time, so we had no choice but to plow through the lockdown and get everything finished the hard way.  Earlier in the process, I would say that yes, I ran into some writer's block, because I really didn't want to make a third album like Be Gone and Bury the Light.  I wanted to find something new to say with Pharaoh, but that's its own challenge, as we're essentially constrained by genre, and while I might have hoped for some kind of creative breakthrough, the reality was a lot less interesting.  I just had to grind it out, tossing many riffs into the garbage heap because they were too evocative of something we'd done before, or because they were just too far out for Pharaoh.  I've saved most of those experiments, though, and will surely revisit them when it comes time to get to work on the sixth album.

With the re-emergence of Pharaoh, at least studio wise with fresh stuff, there has been the pandemic that has been taking its toll for the past year and a half. How have you been dealing with it? What kept you sane all the time, in particular when the lockdowns hit?

I was lucky and never lost my job or anything, but I got to be as bored as everyone else.  I've been ripping my CD collection over the past few years, but since I own over 8000 discs, the effort remains unfinished.  I was able to get a lot done during the lockdowns and I listened to a lot of older albums I hadn't spun in many years, sometimes decades. That was fun! Also, expensive, as I was constantly discovering small holes in discographies that my obsessive collecting disorder demanded be filled. Now's a good time to be a CD collector, though, as everyone is busy buying, re-buying, even re-re-buying LPs at stupidly inflated prices, and ditching their CDs in the process.  But aside from music, I went on a lot of walks with my son, because we both just needed to get out of the house, and that's been great. I'm sick of the pandemic for sure, but it definitely wasn't all bad for me.

Taking everything to the next level, and I do mean everything, you are set to absorb the minds of listeners, whether old schoolers or new age Metal devotees, with the challenging "The Powers That Be". I must say that I was intrigued by the energies. I guess you were pumped up with a lot of hell fire to let out this time around right?

Yeah, there were no shortage of lyrical inspirations!  But musically, I don't think we're that motivated by what goes on around us.  I think the instrumental portions of these songs would have come out similarly had, say, the 2016 election gone the other way.  The lyrics would certainly have been different, though.  Once we started putting words to the music, though, the ideas we had to grapple with definitely affected how we finished the songs, so for sure the final product was shaped by what's been happening in the world these past couple years.

A lot of things happened in the US, other than the pandemic that took the lives of many, this past year. The elections, and everything that happened concerning it, the inner social state of affairs like the Floyd incident and such. It is a lot to take in I can imagine. How did these events lead to the creation of "The Powers That Be"?

It's been dispiriting, living through these last five years, and it's hard not to feel frivolous in spending so much time, money, and effort in making something as insignificant as a heavy metal album.  And, you know, metal is really not comfortable talking about civil rights and social justice.  When I tried to write lyrics to confront the unavoidable these past couple years, I either ended up with something preachy and off-putting, or too deeply couched in metaphor to be intelligible as activism.  I wish I had found the words and the courage to say more than I did.

Essentially, "The Powers That Be" is where you unleash the burden, share the load with everyone to step into your minds and simply try to comprehend. What has been pissing you off then? What are you offering in order to confront the problems?

I think the pandemic has made it clear to a lot of people that we all put up with an enormous amount of bullshit, waste, and injustice in our daily lives under capitalism, and this is where I was best able to channel my musical energies in a meaningful direction.  So much of the last half decade really has been an awakening for many people who can no longer deny the needless suffering heaped on nearly everyone, so that the rottenest few could profit.  That righteous anger is certainly strong fuel for creativity!  Anger isn't action, though, and I don't want to get too carried away bruising myself with pats on the back - we were able to tap into some of that dark energy and make what I think is a very good album but so what?  Who has that helped but us in Pharaoh?  I'm just not sure there's anything we could do with this band that is really going to make any sort of meaningful impact on even the most minor of issues facing society.

In regards to the American society after this past year, do you believe that values were lost, perhaps never to be recovered or rather a lesson was taught and taken into account for the coming future?

The US is being held captive by a death cult which has weaponized the already conservative structure of our government.  For them actually calling the shots, it's a class war.  But, you can't win a class war in a democracy unless you can convince vast swaths of the underclass to fight for the upper class, and the Republican party has achieved this by exploiting religious superstition and naked racism to rile up a base that would rather immiserate black people than help anyone else.

This shit isn't new, but in the past, all this work took place in the subtext of our political dialogue.  Trump just dropped the charade and said the quiet part out loud.  Their problem, though, is that there just aren't enough people shitty enough to maintain their legislative majorities in fair elections, so now the elections must be rigged.  We didn't solve anything by giving our traitorous president the boot, and 2024 might represent the end of the American experiment as we have known it.  It's a grim fucking time to be alive.

Out of all this negativity and desperation, which are understandable of course, is there a light at the end of the tunnel for you personally?

The jury is still out on that.  We're being asked to go back to the way things were two years ago, and it feels like, for the first time in my life, a lot of people are openly questioning whether the way we've been doing things for four decades is really a good idea.  I don't have high hopes that anything will come of this revelation, for society at large, but I've changed, and I don't want to go back to the bad old ways.

"The Powers That Be" set a new standard musically for Pharaoh, from my end of the table, the featured progression of US Metal, the entwining of Heavy and Power Metal made by both by British and American hands, may as well deemed to be the new generation of the 80s heydays of your local scene. Was it, as we say, a natural selection, or simply you set yourself to become more adventurous than ever before?

I love this kind of music so much - my metal indoctrination happened in the late 80s, at the height of the thrash movement, when death metal and black metal and so many other vital subgenres of metal were being born, when power metal in the US meant riffs.  It's the music dearest to me, and I don't think its entirely run its course.  There are still new ideas that can work in the context of this specific form, and personally, I think the musical mission of Pharaoh is to explore these ideas.

Metal has become so cannibalistic - today's metal bands pretty much grew up on exactly the kind of metal they make today. Copies of copies. How can anything grow like that? How can anything get better? I see it as imperative that Pharaoh find ways to keep our music exciting and fresh without having to become something different entirely, and that means bringing in a lot of external influences but molding those ideas into sounds that fit in the historical context of our brand of melodic heavy metal. The idea is not to come up with riffs that Kurdt Vanderhoof might have written in 1989, but to come up with riffs that Kurdt Vanderhoof might have written in 1989 after a time traveler had shown him what metal would become over the succeeding 20 years.  Alternately, imagine what Dream Theater's first album might have sounded like if their prog rock heroes were Magma and King Crimson instead of Kansas and Yes.  That's the kind of alternate history we want to evoke in Pharaoh.

Since the new record takes quite a hefty bite into progression, marching with several contemporary elements by its side, how would you say that this interesting experience improved your songwriting, whether as individuals and as a unit?

Usually, the "progressive" impulse in metal leads to convoluted arrangements, conspicuous music-theory indulgence, and virtuosic playing.  And believe you me, I can get into all that shit!  But that's not what we're into with Pharaoh.  The perfect riff should not inspire the question, "How did he play that?" but "What made him think to do that?"  I don't want or need people to be impressed by Pharaoh; I'd rather they were surprised by Pharaoh.  But the thing is, that's mostly just me.

The interests of the other Pharaohs in pushing envelopes are not nearly so great.  So the real challenge is finding a way for us all to contribute to each song, no matter who wrote it, and to come up with the best way to satisfy all the competing creative goals of our four members.  I can't craft drum beats that are ludicrously over-the-top, but Chris likewise understands that the beats he'd craft on his own, for his own songs, aren't sufficient for Pharaoh.  But we don't really talk about this stuff out loud - it's essentially a conversation that happens asynchronously in the studio, as we each endeavor to meet each other's unspoken expectations for each song.  The miracle of Pharaoh is that this works, in the end.  That's why there has never been a change in our lineup, and there never will be.  Pharaoh is these four guys exactly.  No one else would know how to do it right.

How would you say that "The Powers That Be", upon its creativity and articulate nature, contributed to the chemistry within the band?

This album was recorded more in isolation than any of our other ones, at first just for practical reasons but then later because of the pandemic.  And at least on my part, I tried to embrace that and trust my bandmates to do right by my songs.  I suspect that they sometimes had to do the same where my playing was concerned.  And instead of saying, "Do it this way…" we had to learn to embrace the mystery of how the other guys will interpret our plans and to give each other the permission to chart our own courses through each other's music.

Sometimes, I have to admit, what I got back from Chris Black or Tim was not always what I had in mind or wanted, and occasionally I'd have to rebel against all of my own musical instincts just to allow some of their interpretations to stand, but I always tried, more on this album than any other, to extend the benefit of the doubt, and trust that even when I didn't understand them, my friends' musical instincts are solid and worth indulging.  And I think in every case, I was ultimately swayed to their point of view, even if I initially thought that would be impossible.  In this way, even I was able to be surprised by this album as it took shape.

While surging through diversity, how would you say that more traditional aspects of the band’s Metal heritage were mixed in order to create that special flavor that turned out to be the material of "The Powers That Be"?

Pharaoh is a traditional metal band, with all that that entails.  There are standard tropes and familiar patterns at work here, and these give our songs structure.  We're not trying to re-imagine the pop song template of verses and choruses, but we do like to keep listeners on their toes and to subvert their expectations.  I'm a big fan of the one-and-done riff, something that comes out of left field and knocks you over, but only the once.  I like solos composed as if they were miniature songs of their own.  I like intros that make you stop what you're doing to pay attention, bridges that make you forget what you were even listening to before they carried you away, and outros that don't just end a song but conclude it.  And above all, I like riffs.  Geoff Barton famously wrote, “There are more good riffs in your average single Diamond Head song than there are in the first four Black Sabbath albums," and I've always hoped people would find the same kind of magic in Pharaoh's compositions.

Working with such a respected guitarist as Chewy from the Voivod fame must have been an astonishing experience. I noticed that it was a rather sticky situation that almost didn’t happen, but gladly it did. What is your viewpoint about Chewy’s lead guitar delivery? Would you turn to him again in the future perhaps?

Well, part of the fun of our tradition of guest soloists is that we get to work with someone new each time, so for that reason alone we probably won't call on Chewy for a second solo.  But working with him was amazing, and his solo is fantastic.  I'm a huge proponent of the whammy bar, and Dan really worked it hard.  I very vividly remember the first time I heard Martyr - they had a track on some otherwise terrible compilation CD I got back when I was writing my zine, and I thought they were like the second coming of Obliveon.  I immediately ordered Hopeless Hopes from the band, and it was Daniel who sent the package, also including one of their demo tapes, and I became a Martyr fanboy for life.  Of course, he's also great in Voivod, and he was great in Gorguts, too, because he rules at everything he does.  I'm honored to have had this opportunity to collaborate with him, as I'm honored to have worked with Mike Wead, Mark Reale & Mike Flyntz, Chris Poland, and of course Jim Dofka.  As a metal fan, these guest solos have been just about the most gratifying thing about the Pharaoh experience for me!

Talking about lead guitarists, you also had Jim Dofka coming in to portray his fine abilities on one of the songs. If Dofka has been taking part of the band for some time, why not offer him a spot to create a twin axe? 

You know, I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before, but also: that would never work, ha ha!  Firstly, I think reuniting Tim and Jim in the same band would end in an explosive tragedy, but also, if Jim were in the band, he'd have to dumb everything down so I could play it.  But really, for as much as I love and admire Jim, I strongly suspect that our musical philosophies just wouldn't work together.  And besides, we've both been the lone guitarist in our bands since forever, and once you get used to doing everything yourself, it's nearly impossible to even think of letting some other guy try to record your riffs.  I think Jim is an amazing writer, though, and maybe one day we can attempt some sort of collaborative writing project, but that's probably best left until after Pharaoh is done.

The self-titled, “The Powers That Be” is an amazing presentation of the band’s skills to be relevant and one of the times. As it appears that Metalheads nowadays have complex expectations from their fanned bands. How do you find this song in the matter of songwriting?

This was one of the first songs we worked on, and I wrote most of the major riffs on the spot in Chris Black's rehearsal space in Chicago in 2013.  I was trying to bring some tech-thrash energy to Pharaoh, as I'm very inspired by the likes of Coroner, Realm, and Toxik.  This is a crazy song, and I can imagine some Pharaoh fans not really vibing with it because it's so far from the epic Maideny sound of our first couple records, but personally, I think it's one of the best songs we've ever made.  Tim wrote the lyrics and melodies without any help and presented them to me almost fully formed when it was time to record, and hearing it all together for the first time was a special treat for me.  I love how these guys can make even my own songs feel new to me.

“Freedom” surprised me, a total Running Wild driven tune, an uncanny beast within the thorny field. Where did that tune come from and I know that it has nothing to do with piracy?

Chris Black has a lot of bands, as you probably know, and he's a very prolific writer.  I think usually, he knows from the start if a song is going to be for High Spirits, or Dawnbringer, or whatever, but sometimes he'll write something and have to find a home for it after the fact.  This was one of those songs.  I remember him playing a demo for me when we first started putting things together for this album and I immediately liked it and wanted to do it, but he wasn't sure it was good for Pharaoh.

Eventually he relented, although I think only after taking back another song he designated for Pharaoh that he decided would be better in one of his other projects.  I don't even remember the song, but it probably ended up in High Spirits.  Anyway, yeah, this one was clearly a pastiche made in loving tribute of Running Wild, which is a band at least the Chrises and I love.  I don't think we could do a pirate song in Pharaoh.  It just wouldn't feel right.  Besides, around here, we're under the piratical jurisdiction of Swashbuckle, and I am not about to incur the ire of Admiral Nobeard or Commodore Redrum by horning in on their racket.

 “Waiting To Drown” made me think at first of why it didn’t finish the album, nonetheless, after thinking about it again, it ended up being a shocker and its supposed calm features are more or less a mislead. And I meant that for the better. What can you share about this tune? What made it intense in your bill?

Chris Kerns wrote this very early on, possibly even before Bury the Light was released, and when he presented his demo to me, he wasn't sure we could even find a way to make it work as a Pharaoh song.  His demo didn't have vocals or lyrics - he intentionally left those empty so that one of the other guys in the band could complete the song.  He imagined it could maybe be some sort of interlude or something.  I thought it had an interesting vibe, but after I made my own demo, the song just kind of languished for years.  We didn't do anything with it, really, until it was time to record it for real, and even then, we were nearly done the rest of the album.

I didn't get a microphone to record my acoustic guitar until maybe January of 2020, and just replacing my demo guitars, which were just undistorted electric guitars, with the acoustic made it feel like a new song, and it was only maybe a month later that Tim completed the song one afternoon while I was working during the pandemic.  When I was done work and it was time to record that night, he knocked that song out in under two hours, and I was blown away.  It didn't sound like anything we'd ever done, and it also didn't remind me of any song by any other metal bands.

If we were at all unsure about the song before that, we were totally convinced by then.  We sequenced it where we did only because I thought we couldn't possibly skip the opportunity to pair "Waiting to Drown" with "Lost in the Waves."  Not only do the titles resonate nicely, but the keys of the two songs were complimentary.  We probably wouldn't ever have put it last on the album, because, well, that's just not how Pharaoh ends albums.  There's an old maxim to open with your best song and close with your second best song, and while we don't exactly follow that as iron-clad policy, that's basically how we do it.  The first half of this album is pretty insane - other than "Waiting to Drown," it's pretty much all go-for-the-throat bangers, so the break in the middle is a nice breather, and I think a good way to shift moods and get the listener ready for "Lost in the Waves."

I love how Tim's voice sounds on this one, and the whole thing reminds me a little of those last couple Johnny Cash albums, the ones produced by Rick Rubin.  The song also really humanizes Tim.  He usually sings with such power, and his voice is such an imposing roar, that it would be easy to project on him the kind of cocky, ludicrous swagger I associate with, say, Eric Adams.  But to hear him sing "Waiting to Drown," is to see in Tim in a very different light, one which exposes his frailty and humanity.  I'm really glad that this song came out the way it did.

Looking forward into the coming years, starting from 2022 since this year is a goner, can we expect Pharaoh to remain active in the studio with new stuff?

You all in the press have made it quite clear that nine years is, in fact, too long to wait for more Pharaoh, so I guess we'll have to do something to keep ourselves on track.  I'm not even sure if Tim will still be able to sing like this in 9 years!  We actually have some songs left over from this cycle that we just didn't have time to finish, so we could get a jumpstart with those, but we might also try to maybe record those and a few covers to release as singles, just to keep the ball rolling.  I have a ton of ideas for the next album, and a really good plan for taking Pharaoh to new and exciting places, so, fingers crossed, maybe it won't be so long until the next album.

Matt, simply awesome, thank you for this interview and for your time. I thank you for such exemplary music, you are in your element. All the best. Cheers.

No, thank you!  I love doing press - I spent a long time in the trenches writing reviews and interviewing bands, and it's a blast being on the other side of the table.  So, thanks for your support, and let me say how happy it makes me to know that my music is bringing pleasure to people all over the world.  I owe so much to the bands whose music has shaped me as a man, and to be a part of that tradition is an honor and privilege and you should be just as proud of your contributions to the scene.  Stay heavy!


 



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