Uncovering the Light
Arguably the best of the upcoming traditional metal bands in the United States today is Pharaoh. Bury the Light, their impending full-length on Cruz Del Sur Music, serves to further illustrate this point with even more depth and innovative craftsmanship than displayed with 2008’s Be Gone. Guitar aficionado and former Metal Maniacs scribe Matt Johnsen recently spoke to Teeth of the Divine about the coming to fruition of Bury the Light and all that is Pharaoh.
What have I done here? I’m sorry; I just screwed up my recorder. Give me just a second.
I used to write for Metal Maniacs. Do you remember that magazine?
Of course, yeah.
One time I was doing an interview with Pain of Salvation, and I did the entire interview, and we were wrapping up and saying goodbye, and then I realized that my recorder hadn’t recorded anything.
I had to ask him, “Do you mind if we do the interview again?” It was Daniel Gildenlow, and he graciously said yes. But it actually worked out really well because I couldn’t bear to just, you know, read off the question list again, so I had to make up an entirely new half hour’s worth of questions…
Which took me into, you know, completely different territory. So it ended up being a very cool interview, but it was pretty embarrassing at the end of a 30 or 40 minute chat to have to go, “Uh, can we do this again please?”
[Laughs] Well, I’m glad it worked out for the best. That’s the important thing. But yeah, that would kind of suck.
How long did you write for Metal Maniacs?
I started in ’98, I guess, and I wrote for the magazine until it ended, although near the end I wasn’t doing that much, a few pieces a year. It gets to the point — I also do a fanzine — it got to the point where I’d reviewed like, 1500 or 2000 CDs and done hundreds of interviews and, you know, it all starts, you start saying the same things about completely different albums and it sort of loses some of the fun.
Yeah, I completely understand. 1,500, wow, that’s insane.
Yeah. In each issue of my zine, I would review like, 200 CDs or something like this. I mean, they only came out once a year or something; this is a print ‘zine, old fashioned, and yeah. They pile up.
Yes, they do, good god. I know for a fact then that I’ve read your writing, because I used to read Metal Maniacs pretty religiously when it was still around in the print version, so that’s pretty excellent.
Those were the days.
Indeed. Well, anyway, let’s talk about Pharaoh.
Bury the Light is coming out in the US in March. Now, I have to tell you that personally, to me, Be Gone has been the best metal album of the past five years, and that’s not any sort of exaggeration. So I was really anticipating, you know, hearing the new material.
Great. And we let you down.
[Laughs] You know, I have to be 100 percent honest. Initially, Bury the Light did not hit me the same way that Be Gone did, but after I listened to it a few more times, it’s totally on the same level now. Uh, that didn’t come out very well.
No, I understand. It’s definitely not as immediate an album as Be Gone, and well, for that matter, Be Gone wasn’t as immediate as the album before it, so pretty soon it’s gonna take decades to appreciate a new Pharaoh album.
Hopefully it’s linear and not logarithmic. We’ll be completely unlistenable in the space of, like, three or four years.
I highly doubt that will be the case.
But no, Bury the Light is just as excellent if not better than Be Gone, and I’m still in the initial phases of listening to it. I’ve probably gone through it five times [make that closer to 20 now – JM], but it takes a little bit longer to kind of wrap your head around everything. It’s more complex, it’s more layered, more progressive, so can you tell me, was that a conscious effort to make that jump?
It was. The whole band, I think, is pretty conscious about what we’re doing and where we’re going. It’s not like we’re just following divine inspiration, letting the muse take us where it will, you know? It’s like, we’re all pretty critical consumers of music, and we’re all aware of what happens to bands that just coast on a good idea. There’s a lot of bands, and they put out a good album, and then they pretty much put out that album over and over and over again. You know, some of those retreads can be good; there are bands like that that they’re okay. I mean, there’s a number of good Running Wild albums, and they didn’t progress after the third album or something like that. It’s certainly possible, but that’s not something that Pharaoh would really want to [do]. We do want to move forward with each release, but the problem is, it’s getting harder, you know? The move from After the Fire to The Longest Night, that was a pretty big jump, because we were going from being pretty young, pretty inexperienced, doing our first album, we just got the feel for things. We got comfortable writing for Pharaoh for The Longest Night, and I think that was a fairly mature album, and then we pushed that even farther for Be Gone. But it’s gotten to the point where we’re not likely to push the musicianship much farther because, you know, we’re not kids. We don’t have 10 hours a day to practice. This is about as shreddy as I’m gonna get [laughs]. So we have to think of new ways to, I don’t know if improve upon is the phrase, but to modify the Pharaoh sound in a way that’s enjoyable, unexpected, and still, in some way, conforming to the expectations of people who like Pharaoh. There’s not many bands in the world that can get away with, you know, an Ulver move and just completely reinvent themselves every album or two, or Devin Townsend or something. It’s like, if we want to keep putting out Pharaoh albums, they have to appeal to Pharaoh fans. And I guess kind of our mission with that is to slowly draw them along with us as we explore different sounds and not just the usual Iron Maiden, power metal type riffs that we started with.
So yeah, when we were writing this album, at least when I was writing my parts, I was definitely trying to increase the complexity, increase the density of the harmony, and I guess the sophistication of the arrangements. I think overall it worked out. We’re not really trying to prog band; we’re not trying to push the envelope in terms of how many key changes or time changes we can do in one song. They’re still basically following the pop mode; they still have, for the most part, verses and choruses, and there’s only so much you can do there. But yeah, we definitely wanted to make things a little less conventional this time around.
Right. Well, I think you guys have done an excellent job. And with the 10 Years EP, you guys did some—I hesitate to use the word typical, so we’ll just skip over that word—but you guys did some pretty cool Pharaoh stuff and then you did some covers too, which were obviously a little different from what you guys would normally do, but they still, I thought they fit in perfectly.
Yeah, with the 10 Years EP, it takes some explaining now. All of the songs were recorded basically at the same time as Be Gone; they were written at the same time. And in fact, before we started recording, we weren’t even sure which songs were going to go on the album, which were going on the EP. What happened was we got to a point in the songwriting where [we were] like, there’s too many songs. We can’t put these all out, but they’re good, so why don’t we just record a couple extra covers while we’re there, and then we’ll figure out which songs go on the album, which songs fit better, you know, isolated, and we’ll do it like that. And really, 10 Years should have come out a year or so after Be Gone, and it ended up coming two or three years later for a variety of stupid reasons.
But with the covers…the Slayer cover is actually something that as a band, we were talking about doing very early on. We all love that first Slayer album because, I mean, it’s almost like a New Wave of British Heavy Metal type album. It’s completely unlike everything else Slayer did; it’s roughly melodic, you know. It’s very song oriented. And we thought it would be a cool thing to do, to inject some melody into Slayer, because you’ll hear plenty of death metal bands, and they’ll pick an Iron Maiden or Judas Priest song and essentially denude it of its melody, insofar as they replace its melodic vocals with death vocals. We thought it would be kind of a funny experiment to go in the other direction and take something that’s not melodic and make it more so. So we accomplished that with the Slayer cover by adding mountains of guitar harmonies. I took the rhythm parts, which are just a single guitar part, and made three part harmonies out of almost the entire song, and then we added on that really corny outro, which was in fact an interpretation of the original ending of the song. Our drummer had a bootleg from, like, 1983, from before Show No Mercy came out, and the song ended with a completely different, I mean, had another riff with vocals. We couldn’t make out the vocals, unfortunately, so we didn’t know what to sing there. So we just arranged it instrumentally, and it’s easily the worst riff that Slayer has ever recorded. And they have had riffs, but this riff was just so monumentally stupid, and we thought that it would be great to just take that and to tart it up in the most Blind Guardian way possible. You know, we sort of hope that someday Kerry King would hear it and get pissed. I don’t know if that’s happened. It might be too much to ask, but, you know, one must dare to dream.
So yeah, that’s the Slayer. And then the Coroner song that we did as a seven inch was basically an experiment, only more extreme because, I mean, we really crafted melodies and harmonies for the vocals in that one. And as for New Model Army, they’re just one of my all-time favorite bands, and I discovered them through other metal bands. Anacrusis covered “I Love the World,” and Sepultura covered “The Hunt,” and that’s how I got into that band, so I thought it would be a cool thing to do, to try to expose some new people to what I consider one of the greatest rock groups of all time.
Excellent. And I think that the covers have worked out very well for you guys. Obviously the new, original material is very good too. One question I had was…aren’t you guys all pretty much spread out throughout the place?
Yes, although we’re slowly getting less spread out, I suppose. When we started the band, we were all based in Pennsylvania. So Tim was in Pittsburgh and we were all the way on the other side of the state, so there was a five hour drive between us. But Chris Black and I, we only lived, at the time, maybe 20, 30 minutes apart. Our bassist, Chris Kerns, lives upstate Pennsylvania, so he’s a couple hours away. But then I guess before we finished The Longest Night, Chris Black moved to Chicago, and then shortly after that album, Tim moved to Florida. So for Be Gone and the early parts of the Bury the Light cycle, Tim was down there. But he’s since moved back to Pennsylvania, back to Pittsburgh again. So we’re a little closer, but yeah, we’re not the sort of band that gets together and jams, you know. We’ve never rehearsed — well, that’s not true — we rehearsed one time to write songs for After the Fire. That was the last time we did that.
But the Chrises didn’t even meet Tim until a year after After the Fire came out. Yeah, we don’t see one another very often.
Wow. I’m sure that probably creates some unique challenges in getting material written and all compiled and put together and everything.
Yes and no. It’s pretty easy these days. We all have recording software on our computers, so we write our songs or our riffs or whatever and we can send them to everybody else over the internet, and everybody can work on it that way. You know, I joke that I think one of the secrets to Pharaoh’s success is that we don’t see one another very often [laughs]. Think about all these bands that they’re practically living with one another, and eventually they start driving one another crazy. We don’t really have that problem. I don’t know if we would if we saw one another even once a week, but seeing each other a couple times a year, that seems to work out for us.
That may explain why you guys have been together as a solid unit for as long as you have.
Exactly. And at this point, because everybody in Pharaoh writes, it wouldn’t even be Pharaoh if we changed even a single member. So I think that if somebody decided they didn’t want to do it anymore or the guys decided they couldn’t stand this one dude, I think that we would probably retire Pharaoh. Maybe two or three of us would continue in something else, but it wouldn’t feel the same, and I think that we’ve all agreed that we wouldn’t call it Pharaoh if we did have a lineup change at all.
I see. Now, when it came time to start writing for Bury the Light, was there some sort of theme…I don’t want to use the word theme.
Was there any sort of idea that you guys wanted to come together around?
No, not really. There’s a theme to Be Gone [that] sort of arose after the fact. Because the way we write generally starts with the riffs and the arrangements instrumentally. Lyrics happen sometimes long after the other stuff is completely recorded. But with Be Gone, we were maybe, we were pretty close to actually recording the album and we had a sense of what these songs were going to be about, and a theme did arise. That was kind of one of the ways we windowed out one track to go to the EP, because they just didn’t really fit with the overall tone of Be Gone. With this album we never planned on doing that. I think that that might have been just a little too much pressure on us to try to do something like that again, so we just wrote the songs and let the chips fall where they may. But when we start writing, we do have some sort of high level discussions about kind of where we want the music to go and the sorts of things that we want to do. You know, say we want to have more unique transitions from one riff to the next, more riffs that only appear once, fewer fadeouts, things like that. And then we’ll sort of generally agree that we do want to make things a little more complicated, a little more dense, and we’ll take it from there. We already started talking about the kinds of things we want to do the next time because…it’s hard for me to appraise at this point how different Bury the Light is from Be Gone, but my feeling is that it’s not as huge a jump as you got from The Longest Night to Be Gone. I think that we’re definitely going to try some different things next time and maybe some of the experiments will work and maybe some of them won’t. But we definitely need to do something to make things a little different next time. So, we’ll see.
I think regardless of what it is that you guys come up with the next time around, I think Pharaoh has set a bar.
So I think that anything that you release from this point on, it’s going to be at or above that place, and I think you guys have really gotten to a good point now where we don’t really know what to expect, but we know it’s gonna be good, if that makes sense.
Yeah, but that can be a trap too. The band I always allude to when we get to this kind of discussion is Into Eternity, who are a band that I dearly love. But when you listen to their albums through the first three, it’s just this straight line up. The first album is very good, the second album is great, the third album is just, it’s incredible. It’s, to me, a landmark release. And then the fourth and the fifth albums are kind of just like the third one. It’s not to say that they’re bad albums — they’re not. They’re good, they’re catchy, and I enjoy them. You can hear that this is a band that’s looking for something, that’s trying to find a sound and identity, and then in retrospect we realize that they have completely discovered that on Buried in Oblivion. And then they just kind of rode it out thereafter. And, you know, like I said, there’s bands that can get away with that. At least their albums are enjoyable. I guess they’re not going to be as fulfilling. But that’s the problem we have now. We could probably pretty easily crank out more albums that were very similar to Be Gone or Bury the Light, and I don’t know that that’s something we want to do. It would be fun, it would be easy, but it might not be very satisfying. And like I said, we’re kind of beyond the point where we can count on the improvement coming from just our skill as musicians. We might get a little better, but we’re not going to get a lot better. So now’s the time that we really have to start thinking about what it is that we can do to move the ball forward. We’ll see.
Right. With all the albums you guys have had some guest soloists, and you’ve got some this time as well. So can you talk about how those came about and that sort of thing?
Sure. The guest soloist actually started before After the Fire, when we recorded our demo. We recorded four songs before we did After the Fire, and we did that at a little studio, you know, we were paying by the hour. I had never recorded before and we’re doing these songs and I realize I could use a little help in the solo department [laughs], because otherwise I wasn’t going to get it all done in time. So we had some friends who were around, and Chris Kerns, our bass player, actually played a solo for one of the songs on our demo, and then our friend Bill Palko, who’s to this day in Dawnbringer with Chris Black, he played the final solo in the song “Solar Flight.” But when we recorded the album, Bill had sort of mysteriously disappeared. He was MIA, and I didn’t want to do another solo. We thought it was cool that there were two very distinct solo sections in that song, so I asked my good friend Jim Dofka, and he did this very cool thing. And he actually, since he was out in Pittsburgh with Tim, he got Tim to sing over this solo. It was really a very neat thing. For the second album, when I wrote the song “Sunrise,” I wrote this clean guitar part for a solo and it immediately sounded to me like something from an Ohm album or one of Chris Poland’s solo albums and I thought, this will be really cool for Chris to play here, and I had interviewed him before so I was acquainted with him, so I knew I could get in touch with him and was pretty hopeful that he would do it. So I called him, and sure enough, he did. And that kind of, that’s where the guest soloist really took root. Originally Jim Dofka was not going to do a solo on that album, another friend of mine was going to, but he wasn’t able to at the last minute. I had to call Jim somewhat desperately, “Hey, can you do a solo this weekend?” And he did, and that song, that solo is in “Fighting.” So at that point Jim was on two albums, and two points is a line, so we decided to just keep going with that. So he’s been on every CD we’ve done, but once we go to Be Gone, we thought, you know, we had Chris Poland last time, let’s see who we can get this time. We got the guys from Riot. It was not even a point of discussion that we would have a guest soloist this time, it was just a matter of who it was, and we had a few names that we were sort of banding about. Then I suggested Mike Wead. Everybody’s a big fan of Memento Mori and King Diamond and all the shit that he does, so we thought it was a good idea, and I thought it wouldn’t be that hard. I know a lot of Swedish and Scandinavian writers and musicians, and I figured that it would take me a couple days to track this guy down. It took a while [laughs]. I had to burn through a lot of contacts before I was finally able to get in touch with him, and when I did, it was my friend Teddy Möller, who’s in the band Loch Vostok and a bunch of other bands, he gave me Mike’s cell phone. And I’m like, Christ, I’ve got to call a Swedish dude out of the blue? Say, “Hey, I’m this guy you never heard of, will you play a solo on my album?” Unfortunately I was never able to get through to his cell phone. I don’t know if I left a message or if it was just the Swedish phone system telling me that the number had been disconnected. I had to go back to Teddy and say, “Look, man, cell phone didn’t work. Email the guy or something; make an introduction.” And he did, and I sent the stuff to Mike, and he was like, “Wow, I do a lot of guest solos and usually I charge people, but your shit’s cool so I’ll do it for free” [laughs].
So there you go. I sent him actually two songs; we sent him “Castles in the Sky” and “Burn With Me” and said, pick which one you like, and he said, “I think Castles will suit my style better,” so there you go. So it was that simple. You know, we never get to see these guys when we record; we just send them the tracks, they go to their local studio, they record, they send them back.
So it’s not like we were sitting there watching him do his work, but it’s always a thrilling thing, because, particularly for “Castles in the Sky,” when I wrote that solo section, I kind of labored over it to modulate the keys because I thought that would be a very fun thing to solo over and I had something kind of worked out for it. And then we decided to give it to Mike. So it was like I had sort of a preconceived notion of what the solo there should be, which of course is nothing like what he did, so it took me a little while to wrap my head around it. It’s kind of a thrilling thing in that sense, because it makes it possible for me to experience my own music sort of the same way someone not in the band would, you know? There was at least that tiny thrill of discovery in hearing what this other guy did to the song that I wrote. It was really cool. And again, we got Jim to come back just a killer solo in “Year of the Blizzard.” I think it’s actually the best solo he’s done for us and very atypical of him. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jim Dofka’s stuff, but most of his solos tend to be entirely harmonized, front to back, and they have sort of familiar patterns and sounds. And this one, it’s nothing like that. It’s hardly harmonized; it’s played on a single coil guitar, it’s a great lead. We’ll keep bugging him every time we do an album and who knows who we’ll do for the next thing, but since we’ve had 100% success, I’m starting to think I should aim big.
Maybe I can get Andy Summers from The Police to do it.
There you go.
They’re my favorite band, and that seems about as inaccessible as I can imagine, but you never know. Without Sting he’s just some boring jazz guy [laughs]. Are you familiar with the guitarist Ron Jarzombek [Watchtower, Blotted Science, etc.]?
He’s one of my favorite guitarists and he’s actually a friend of mine. So I could get him to play a guest solo at any time, but the problem is I haven’t written something that’s really worthy of him. Because that guy, he’s like a mad genius, you know? He can cycle through keys like, every half a bar, and I’ve yet to write something that’s maniacal enough, that’s really deserving of his attention. So every album I think, this is the one, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna write the crazy, spastic tech part for Ron to play over; hasn’t happened yet but my fingers are crossed. One of these days I’ll have Ron.
Since you guys have kind of gotten a little closer together, everybody’s moving back toward the same area, what does that mean as far as live performances for Pharaoh in the near future?
Well, we’ve moved into a bold new era as concerns that. I actually rented a rehearsal space, and some semblance of Pharaoh is rehearsing once a week at this point.
Now, it being Pharaoh, it’s never as simple as that. The way it works in Pharaoh is thusly: Chris Kerns is really not available to do live stuff. The nature of his job and I guess his home life, who knows, he doesn’t want to commit to touring and playing out. So sure, no problem, we’ll just find a bassist. That would be the easy thing, not the Pharaoh thing. Now, Chris Black, who is a bassist in like, five other bands, says, ‘I’ll play bass and we’ll find another drummer!’ Okay, you know, that seems harder, but we’ll do it. That’s in fact what we did in 2008, when we played two shows. But now that the drummer we worked with then, he’s no longer really available, I’ve got to get somebody else. So this time we’re using our friend James Goetz, who is from the band Division, who are based out of Virginia. James lives in Baltimore. And for Pharaoh to play live, we also need a second guitarist, and for that purpose we use Matt Crooks, the guy who owns the studio we use, who produces our stuff. So he lives down in D.C., so I rented rehearsal space in Baltimore. It’s like an hour and a half for me, it’s an hour and a half for Matt, James lives right there, so once a week the three of us get together and we’re working up. I mean, by the time we’re done, we’ll have close to an hour and a half of material ready to go, and we’ll bring Tim out occasionally, and a little less occasionally, Chris Black. And there’s the band. And we’re playing a festival in Chicago in May, and that’s really all we have on the calendar right now, but we’re going to so much trouble that I think it’s very likely we will do other shows as well. I don’t know if we’ll just do some sort of local shows, meaning D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, that sort of thing, maybe some other Chicago shows. I know that Enrico at the label would love for us to do some sort of European tour, so that’s a possibility as well. Who knows? We were actually considering doing a ten-day run late last year with Twisted Tower Dire, and it didn’t work out; Tim couldn’t get the time off, so we had to scrap those plans. So it is actually kind of looking like Pharaoh might become something kind of, sort of like a real live band, but I don’t want to jinx it. I feel like at Pinocchio at this point. I want to be a real little boy, so we’ll see.
Yeah, baby steps. Well, the thing with Pharaoh, we don’t need to make money in Pharaoh. That’s not on the agenda. But one of the goals is to not lose money being in Pharaoh. And a lot of times we do get contacted by smaller regional festivals and stuff and we would love to do it, but this isn’t our job to play live, particularly because we don’t live near one another. Just to rehearse involves people taking vacation days, and there’s the travel, so it can end up doing a festival halfway across the country ends up costing nearly a week of vacation days, and those things are precious [laughs].
The festivals we’ve played so far have all pretty graciously covered our expenses, or at least enough that our label would meet them halfway. Far be it for me to sound ungrateful; I appreciate every offer that we get. But that’s the sort of sad reality of it. Younger bands can say, ‘Fuck it,’ you know, quit their job, hop in the van and drive to wherever, but that’s unfortunately not an option for us at this stage in our lives.
That’s completely understandable. Now, one last question, and I really apologize if my internet research has failed me. All the albums that Pharaoh has put out, you guys have got this stone, the gemstone-type thing on the cover. What is the meaning behind this?
The gem’s like our mascot. We have a crystalline Eddie, man. I don’t know. What happened with the gem is when we did the cover for After the Fire, I don’t even know who it was who found J.P. Fournier to do the painting, but we found this guy and his work was really good, and we came up with this concept. We pitched it to him pretty much exactly like it looks. The idea was a sort of post-apocalyptic phoenix kind of thing. It was supposed to be something like a phoenix, the rebirth of civilization after destruction. J.P. was the one who sort of fashioned it into this gem-like thing. We didn’t give that much instruction, and it looked cool and we were happy. When we gave him the cover concept for the next album, I don’t think that it included the gem; I think that again, he did that on his own. I could be wrong about that; it’s possible that Chris could have had the gem in mind. But it wasn’t until the second album cover was painted that the gem really solidified. It wasn’t like our thing from the beginning, it just sort of happened the way that our tradition of guest soloists happened. We did it twice and that was okay. The gem doesn’t actually represent a single thing, but it is sort of a metaphorical construct on every cover, which is to say you can build some meaning into the gem, that it can represent something symbolic in every cover, but it would be different from album to album. So that’s the deal with the gem. It just sort of adds to that package, in the same way that you expect Eddie on every Iron Maiden, or Vic Rattlehead on every Megadeth album. I can’t really think of anybody else who does something…well, I guess Judas Priest does that little symbol that they have on a lot of the album covers. Queensryche, they have a little symbol. It’s one of those things that I think used to happen a little bit more than it does, and we just thought that it was a cool way to add some continuity to all the albums. It’s also a fun thing to challenge J.P. because a lot of times we give this sort of vague description of how the gem is supposed to fit into the overall composition, and then we can just wipe our hands and entrust it to his expertise. He’s really good. We’ve really built up this cool extended family in Pharaoh, because like you said, we’ve never had a lineup change, we’ve had Jim Dofka with us every time, we’ve had Matt Crooks for all the albums for the first one, we’ve had J.P., Enrico at the label. Since the second album, we’ve had this guy named Scott Hoffman do the layout for us. So we’ve had this big stamp on every album, and it brings a consistency to the Pharaoh experience and I think it adds something. What that something is, who could say. But it’s just a lot of heavy metal goodness.
I think I have exhausted my questioning abilities, and I’m sure you have stuff you have to get to this evening…
Just some reading [laughs].
Well, thank you very much for your time, Matt. I appreciate it.
No, thank you. I know it takes a long time to type that shit up…that’s the worst part of the interview.
God, yes it is, but this has been a great interview. So thank you for that.