PHARAOH - THE LONGEST NIGHT - CRUZ DEL SUR
PHARAOH - BE GONE - CRUZ DEL SUR
On the occasion of the release of Pharaoh’s third album, Be Gone, Ali “The Metallian” spoke with Matt Johnsen, the band’s guitarist and found an engaged and articulate conversation partner at the other end of the line. Matt, who completes the band with singer Tim Aymar, bassist Chris kerns and drummer Chris Black, spoke candidly about the music business, other bands, business, touring and of course Be Gone, which is being received with above average reactions especially in Germany. - 14.06.2008
MATT JOHNSEN: Actually, it was because of zines that the band even exists. Around 1997, I started my own fanzine called Feast Or Famine. I put out one issue and I was at a local record shop that carries heavy metal. There was a copy of another zine there called Word Of Mouth. I picked it up. There were interviews with Tad Morose and a bunch of cool underground bands that I didn’t know anybody in my area knew about. I emailed the guy who did it - he lived 25 minutes from me. That was Chris Black. We became friends. It was only because he knew me through the zine that when he decided to start a band that played melodic traditional metal - at the time he was playing death metal mainly - that he asked me to join on guitar. The three of us got together and that was Pharaoh. He actually got me a gig running for Metal Maniacs magazine. He worked there and they needed somebody to write an article about heavy metal and guitar. Then the editor knew that I was really into the band Sodom, the opportunity came up, and they asked me to do an article on that band. I wrote for them pretty regularly in the late '90s and beginning of this decade, but it has trickled down. Music journalism, now, is an adjunct hobby to my larger metal obsession.
METALLIAN: Obvious question, Matt, why the name Pharaoh?
MATT JOHNSEN: By the time of the very first Pharaoh rehearsal Chris Black had decided the name would be ”˜Pharaoh.’ I don’t know what specifically inspired him to pick that name, but in many ways it is the perfect heavy metal name. It is a single word, but it is not a single syllable. There are only so many good single-syllable bands. It is easy to remember and has all the connotations of kingliness and grandeur. The band Nile notwithstanding, in 1997 the first thing you would remember is the cover of Iron Maiden’s Powerslave when you say you are the metal band Pharaoh. I think that tied into it. We did some research and couldn’t find any bands that had done anything of note under the name Pharaoh. It turns out there was an East German band called Pharao without the ”˜h’ at the end. We actually decided right from the beginning that we would never write any songs about Egypt! That would be too obvious. Except Chris Black and I forgot to tell Chris Kerns that and he went and wrote By The Night Sky, which is all about pharaohs, Egypt and pyramid building! It was a good song, so we didn’t give him any crap, but we said “from now on... no more Egypt.” We never intended to be the power metal Nile or anything like that.
METALLIAN: The titles for your first two albums make sense as far as metal titles go, but why is the new one called Be Gone?
MATT JOHNSEN: We decided which song would be the title track for the first two albums after we had written everything. The title Be Gone was decided almost before we had any songs however. Chris Kerns likes to write songs. He is anal-retentive about the way he creates music. He is less hands-on about the creation of the albums. He writes some songs, but other than that, he does little. He wrote Buried At Sea. The concept is that the oceans of the world decide they have had enough of people and rise and drown everybody. I thought that was an interesting concept. Right about that time, I was reading about Aztec and Mayan culture. I had this one-off idea for a cover. It is not really what the cover turned out to be because in my original vision the art was a wide landscape. It was set in a dense jungle with a Mayan monument, a stella which is like an obelisk. It would have carved in it the gem we have on our covers. It was supposed to represent nature reclaiming civilization. Chris Black thought it was awesome and said it would tie into this title - Be Gone - he already had. That concept informed the story of the album. It all became about conflict and reclamation. By separating the words it became more existential.
METALLIAN: Reading the lyrics one would think the song itself is about a ghost.
MATT JOHNSEN: No, actually those were the last lyrics to be written for the album. That song is just a heavy metal suicide song. Someone decides this is not working out anymore and kills himself. It culminates the entire album, which is about conflict - in most cases between two different parties, but here it was about being and nothingness and here it comes out in favour of nothingness. We already have a ghost story on the last album called Like A Ghost.
METALLIAN: How is a US metal band signed to an Italian label? Did you have a demo to begin?
MATT JOHNSEN: It is even weirder than an American band being signed to an Italian label. We were originally signed to an Argentinean label called Icarus. Chris Black had a death metal band called Dawnbringer. That band was around since 1995 and had an EP and an album. They were looking for a label for their third album. Dawnbringer was underground; it’s not the sort of band that Nuclear Blast would sign. So, when Chris Black was looking for someone to release the next Dawnbringer he had to dig pretty deep in the underground. Somehow, he found this label in Argentina called Icarus. Then Pharaoh came into being and we recorded a demo. Chris Black had his own label and we recorded a song for an Iron Maiden tribute album called Maiden America for his label. The hook was that it was a double-disc with the first being the cover songs and the second being the bands’ own original songs. Unlike all those tribute albums, it served a function. It wasn’t one of those terrible albums that Dwell Records used to release. No one was interested in the bands that did the covers. Maybe it was obsessive-compulsive that people even bought those albums. I don’t know. Maiden America served the function of a real compilation. We recorded Aces High and a song called Solar Flight plus two other songs. We didn’t have time to get Tim to sing on those last two so our first demo had two instrumental songs. Although our first album came out in 2003 it was pretty much written by 1998. The demo came out in 1998. It was at the beginning of the third wave of power metal. The only label that got back to us was Metal Blade. They told us to record more songs and send it to them. We thought, “yeah, whatever.” Chris was in touch with Icarus Records in Argentina with Dawnbringer and sent the Pharaoh demo for them to check out. Enrico Leccese, who owns Cruz Del Sur, lived in Argentina at the time and was a partner in Icarus Records at the time. Enrico loved it and wanted to sign us. They even offered us a good deal. We signed to Icarus Records. Then in 1999 the Argentinean economy crashed. We had begun recording our album. Then Enrico decided to bail on Argentina. Enrico is Italian and moved back to Rome. There was some difficulty between Enrico and the other partner. There was money owed. So they called it even by Enrico taking Pharaoh. He started Cruz Del Sur back in Rome. We are the house band. The catalogue number of After The Fire is Cruz 01. Cruz Del Sur has turned into a pretty cool label. Pharaoh and Cruz Del Sur move together. Our histories coincide. Technically, we are no longer obligated to Cruz Del Sur - it was a three-album deal - but I can’t see us going anywhere else.
Metal Blade is the worst. I would never sign to Metal Blade. They are a legendary fucking rip off label. I don’t understand... they are not as bad as Massacre or Mausoleum, but they are still fucking bad. Nobody leaves Metal Blade happy about it. You look at the production value of their CDs and it is so low. It looks like Brian Slagel did the layout in Microsoft Word. The new bands on Metal Blade get nothing and have to pay for everything themselves. They have to recoup everything from manufacturing costs to... it’s just a load of horseshit. That label is such a rip-off and it is sad. At one time, Metal Blade represented a creative force in the industry. Now they just suck. Now they are this horrible trend jumpers; whatever is hot and happening right now they sign the seventh best copy of it. When we sent out that first demo had Metal Blade written back saying they want to sign us right away who knows what kind of a stupid shitty record deal we would have had. Who knows that Pharaoh would even exist? The support of Cruz Del Sur has been fundamental to the success of Pharaoh. We work in a peculiar way. We don’t rehearse. We don’t play out live. We take a long damn time to make our albums. Cruz Del Sur has always been totally supportive. They have always put a lot of money into our recording budget, into the artwork and the design. If it were Metal Blade, we would be just another jackass on the pile. We would be second fiddle to Cellador. Can you imagine anything with less dignity?
METALLIAN: What do you have against Cellador?
MATT JOHNSEN: Ah, they are fine. I understand they are nice guys. I just don’t think they are a very good band. They are the Omaha equivalent of Dragonforce, which is shameful on so many levels (laughs).
METALLIAN: Isn’t Dragonforce funny?
MATT JOHNSEN: Well, they are to be laughed at. I don’t know if that is what you mean. I despise Dragonforce much more than Cellador. Dragonforce is just the most awful calculated shit. They are so bad. Their songs are offensively stupid to me. They have obviously been modelled after Helloween and that sort of a thing and that is what I listened to. I was always into bands like Secrecy, Conception and Rage. It is a proud tradition. I even liked some of the happier bands from Germany, obscure bands like Chroming Rose or Heaven’s Gate. Dragonforce is like Spinal Tap. It is like every bad cliché of power metal is in Dragonforce times ten. I mean I don’t hold anything against anyone who likes Dragonforce either. It is just that I don’t get it. Their ongoing popularity is perplexing to me. It highlights the randomness of the heavy metal industry.
METALLIAN: They are the leading providers of ballerina metal.
MATT JOHNSEN: That may be so, but I don’t know if I would want to provide that service. It’s like someone’s got to provide toilet seats too.
METALLIAN: Speaking earlier of Metal Blade, it reminds me of an old interview where a musician whose band was on Black Mark was relating how Black Mark owner Boss had told him that the band owes money to the label when the band had called enquiring for their royalties!
MATT JOHNSEN: The way the record industry works is so perverse. It is impossible to feel bad for record labels when illegal downloading is screwing them. They are just thieves. It is this bizarre system set up in an alternate universe that doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. What is the function of the record label other than to take the risk by fronting the money and that sort of thing? Every single thing they do you have to pay them back. Take out a bank loan and you would not have this problem. Ostensibly the label can bring this better bla bla bla to marketing and... but it’s like they never do. Black Mark is a well-known label and unless you are Bathory being on Black Mark gets you nothing. Our record deal would be the envy of pretty much any band I could think of in terms of how we get paid. We don’t sell millions of records so we don’t make millions of dollars, but if we did, we would make millions of dollars, which is something that only Metallica can claim. Nothing makes you want to break out the guillotines and start marching around than tales of the music industry.
METALLIAN: How do you respond to the opinion that Be Gone could have benefited from a better production?
MATT JOHNSEN: Well, we are very happy with the production of the new album. It is funny though because we got a review like that from Germany’s Rock Hard. Götz Kühnemund gave us a nine-point-five out of ten and he said if the album were produced by Martin Birch we would have a ten-star all-time classic on our hands. I sent this to our producer Matt Crooks and said “you are no Martin Birch.” We have limited resources. We record in a fairly inefficient fashion. I think Be Gone sounds pretty good. With Pharaoh I frequently have a three-part harmony just in the rhythm guitars. Then we have two to four additional harmonies on top of that. It is a complaint levied against Blind Guardian. There is so much going on that is hard to focus on it. I don’t think it sounds like any other album out there. The next album will be better sounding, but I am happy with the way this one sounds. Martin Crooks used to play in a band called Division.
METALLIAN: What is your reaction to all the Iced Earth comparisons you get?
MATT JOHNSEN: Well, actually we normally hear that we sound just like Iron Maiden. At the same time, well, our first album sounds like Iron Maiden. Our new album I wouldn’t say so much; except it still has twin guitar harmonies and many bands do that and no one gets labelled Iron Maiden knock offs like we do! We got lumped into that with that first album. There are worse bands we could be compared to all the time. I know it really frustrates our bass player, Chris Kerns. He wrote By The Night Sky, which is a very Maiden-esque epic. For the new album he went out of his way to not write anything that sounds like Iron Maiden. That song, Cover Your Eyes And Pray, is his tribute to Bathory. That song is supposed to evoke the Viking period of Bathory and yet I have seen reviews that say it has a Maiden-esque gallop (laughs). It sounds like Bathory! How far from Maiden can we get? Chris jokes that we could put out a brutal death metal album and people would say it sounds like Maiden.
As for Iced Earth, I don’t think we sound in any meaningful way like Iced Earth except we are an American power metal band that has a thrashy edge. Anyway, Iced Earth is a cool band. I mean they were, they are kinda boring now, but I have quite a few Iced Earth albums. I think Something Wicked... is a really cool album. I think Burnt Offering is a really cool album. If people want to compare us to Iced Earth I think they are a well-regarded band. It is not killing me. I know that we don’t sound that much like them. I think we are a better band than Iced Earth. I think we have a lot more originality from song to song and from album to album. Whatever. That is how it works. You can only speak about one band by comparing them to another and they are as good a touch-point as another I would say.
METALLIAN: You have an EP on the way.
MATT JOHNSEN: It is our anniversary EP. That is why we call it 10 Years. When we started recording the stuff it was ten years since the band started. By the time it comes out it will be eleven (laughs). What are you going to do? You can’t nitpick. When we were writing for the album we realized we had too much stuff. We could have crammed it all onto the album, but then we would have 75-minute album and nobody wants that. Nobody does albums that long that are good. It just doesn’t happen. We had certain songs that were good, but didn’t fit with the vibe. Then there were songs we expressly wrote just to put them on the EP. We just recorded a couple of cover tunes. It is like a stopgap thing to tie people over until the net album, which likely will not come out until early 2010.
The EP was originally due early 2009, but Be Gone is selling really well, particularly in Germany, so Enrico likes to strike while the iron’s hot and he has asked if we could get it done for release this year. It might come out in November. I find it very difficult to stick to timelines with Pharaoh. We all have jobs. I try to maintain a regular life as well. We are going to try to record all the vocals in July and August. We should be able to finish up in September at MCR.
Pharaoh is playing its second-ever show at a Chicago festival called Alehorn Of Power on August 9th. The band is also releasing a split 7” tribute to Coroner with Canvas Solaris. Pharaoh will be performing Tunnel Of Pain, while Canvas Solaris is covering the instrumental Arc-lite. The 7” is due in September through Chris Black’s label Planet Metal. More news and information can be found at http://www.solarflight.net.
If you enjoyed this, read Blind Guardian