Pharaoh – Shining Power Beacon Part II

Sunday, 31st March 2013

(This content originally appeared on Blistering.com)

This is the second part of Matt’s chat with Pharaoh, who in our humble estimation, are one of the best melodic metal bands North America has to offer. As you see below, Matt and Matt Johnsen covered quite a bit of ground, so if you’d like to get caught up, click here.

Blistering.com: Had you re-signed with Cruz Del Sur Music before that EP came out?

Johnsen: No, and that’s another interesting point here. What happened basically was our deal was up with the Be Gone album. We were no longer obligated to do another recording with Cruz Del Sur Music, but we had a handshake agreement to put out the Ten Years EP. Because we took so long to get this stuff done, we started getting offers from all these other labels. There was this empty spot and we talked to some other people. It was a difficult period for Pharaoh, even though we are not a high-drama band. There were camps in the band that wanted to sign with a bigger label and others who thought we should stick with Cruz Del Sur Music. We decided that while a bigger label could certainly push more CD’s out there, it was going to change the entire dynamic of the Pharaoh work ethic.

On Cruz Del Sur, we are given total freedom, if we take four years to do an album, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m sure Enrico [Leccesse, Cruz del Sur owner] would like us to put out more material in say half the time, but no one is breathing down our neck, threatening to drop us or withhold our money. When we looked at a lot of these other contracts, they would specify after you deliver one album when they would have to hear demos for the next. There was no way we could deliver this. There would possibly be an inherent boost in sales because of moving to a bigger, better distributor, a little more push promotionally, the things that make a band bigger start with the band. You have to make a lot of commitments that it wasn’t clear Pharaoh was ready to make. We are never going to make a living off of this band. There comes a point in which you have to make a little more money but far below abject poverty. I was afraid we would sign with the other label, get a bigger advance but owe more money in recoupable expenses. We would put out the album and be a small band on a big label, the whole thing would fizzle out and it would cause frustrations in the band and break up but leave us with one album stranded on a different label.

We thought about the way we do things, and Cruz works for us best. We were the first release on the label, it was really the best thing. The things we need to grow the band we can do on Cruz Del Sur. We aren’t the best-selling band on the label, While Heaven Wept have sold more, and I think Atlantean Kodex have done better as well. It’s not Enrico’s ability to move CD’s that cause this, maybe it is natural limits that a band like Pharaoh can sell. It came down to what was going to make us happiest as hobbyists. I think the contract is still not fully signed- because we don’t live in the same area together. I believe it’s somewhere in Tim’s house under a pile of papers…

Blistering.com: Speaking of Tim [Aymar] and his vocals, are there times that he surprises you with some of the melodies that he comes up with on the albums?

Johnsen: This is the thing: In a lot of bands the guitarist writes everything, but as a singer it’s tough to write for the voice. Tim has a very different way of thinking about melodies, so my first choice is to hand him the music and ask him to lay down a melody. He has a strange musical mind; he’s a very clever guy when it comes to that type of stuff. I think if he has a failing there it’s that he can be a little too ambitious. Some of these vocal parts that he writes are really hard. “Castles in the Sky,” that’s the only song on this album that he wrote the melodies and all the lyrics to. That was the hardest song on the album to sing, he was complaining about it and I told him he had no one to blame for it but yourself [laughs]. It always works out in the end. One of the things that makes Pharaoh what it is would be the fact that everyone contributes, everyone writes and is a part of what goes into the songs. It’s an interesting challenge to find words that fit and have to fit in the same melodies and meter.

Blistering.com: You got the chance to branch out with the Fools Game album a few years ago- will there be a second record in the future from this act?

Johnsen: Oh yes, absolutely. Just two weekends ago I went to Matt Crooks studio for drum sessions for the new album. This time around it will be Hunter Ginn from Canvas Solaris doing the drums for the second Fools Game record. John Macaluso wasn’t available, so I got in touch with Hunter. He really drilled those songs inside and out, which is very different from the way John works which was listening to them once or twice in the car, then thinking about how to play them in the studio. There’s something to be said about working on material in a pre-meditated fashion. So Hunter, Matt and I were able to write some material together in rehearsals, which is something I haven’t had a lot of experience doing since high school. I was pulling riffs out, there are a few other songs that are more collaborative. Matt isn’t taking on any more work until this album is finished – I would expect it to be out by the beginning of 2013.

Blistering.com: What are your feelings about the passing of guitarist Mark Reale from Riot, and what were some of your favorite memories through the years?

Johnsen: It was a huge bummer. I was kind of surprised at how young he was, because he looked terrible. He had been battling that disease for so long. When you look at what Riot accomplished album to album through the years, everything they released was good to awesome. There aren’t that many artists who put out that many albums period- and especially in metal. It was really sad- when Mark and Mike did solos for us we didn’t work directly with them in the studio. But when the Thundersteel lineup first reunited in Texas, my wife and I and Chris Black plus his wife flew there to see this show. It was a small club and we hung out after the show- I had primarily dealt with Mike Flyntz because Mark didn’t have e-mail. So I found Mike and he introduced us to Mark, and reminded him of the solos they did for our Pharaoh album. Mark looked at me and said, “Wow man- you are a really great guitar player!”. That was very high praise- he didn’t have a lot to say because he was in discomfort a large part of the day. It’s a bummer in a lot of ways because I don’t know if Riot is going to go on- you have to feel bad for Mike because he’s been the second guitar player since the 1990’s and he’s a killer guitar player. I hope they continue in some way as a group- whatever lineup, they had a chemistry.

Blistering.com: Where do you see the metal scene headed in 2012? We all know that more people are downloading music than purchasing it…

Johnsen: That’s just the way of the world. If we were kids at 14 now, we would not even consider paying for music. There are so many more entertainment options that are competing for your dollar. It’s a complicated thing- it’s easier and easier to record an album cheaper on your own, so despite the fact that album sales are at an all-time low, record production is at an all-time high. This suggests from an economic point of view that the people who are willing to create the content are willing to do it for less than nothing- because you put in all of this money on your own for no gain. For myself, I don’t have any expectations to make any money from Pharaoh – fortunately we do make a little money it’s enough to put in the band account for shirts, fly people around for promotional pictures, it’s there. What I want out of Pharaoh is to record music that I like to hear and other people will appreciate.

We are very fortunate to have a label that supports that – the recording and manufacturing is all taken care of by the label. What it will be like in 10 years who knows. I obviously have a gigantic CD collection and I’m sure at some point I will have to suck it up and begin paying to download my music – things I’m going to want are not going to come out on CD. I don’t really worry about it – it’s a bummer. People spend money on cable, cell phones, video games – you have to pay for unlimited data in so many places.

Blistering.com: Will Pharaoh be performing more in a live capacity for 2012? If so, is it true you’ll have to adopt a different lineup for the live performances?

Johnsen: We are going to do more shows – we are doing the Ragnarokkr Metal Apocalypse festival in Chicago soon, it’s got Virgin Steele, Brocas Helm, Damien Thorne, and some other groups. We booked that because we thought it would be a nice, low stress affair. It’s not the same as going to Germany and playing your first gig in front of thousands of people at a festival- we expect a couple hundred people to play in front of. In order to do that we have to do a modified lineup, our bassist Chris Kerns is not available for live shows. The schedule of his life doesn’t allow for it. Our drummer Chris Black plays bass in every other band he’s in, so he’ll do that live, which means we have to find another drummer. We finally settled on James Goetz from Division to play drums, and Matt Crooks will be our second guitarist. For the first time we are rehearsing regularly even though Tim is in Pittsburgh and Chris is in Chicago. Matt, James and myself rehearse together at a space in Baltimore once a week, which is nice. Booking tours will be Chris’ thing- it’s my job to make sure the band is ready to go. Enrico mentioned we may be able to get a touring situation in Europe – I would do this as long as we can just make our expenses and for the experience.

Blistering.com: I know the challenge is to get enough vacation time between all the band members and their careers to make it worth your while.

Johnsen: You would think with the dollar being cheaper it would be better to fly to Europe, but it’s not. I am going to the Keep It True festival in Germany and its $900 for one person to go over there. Multiply that by five and you have to sell a lot of tickets to recoup your expenses. One thing that definitely not many people appreciate is a lot of the European bands can get subsidies to play the United States. A lot of the Scandinavian bands can get money from the government to spread their country’s culture. The first time I saw the band Tyr, I thought it was the coolest thing. We’ve seen them now eight times, because the government of the Faroe Islands considers them their number one export. So they get free money to spread the culture to North America. But they have a competitive leg up on us.

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