Theocracy – All About Gratitude

Thursday, 17th November 2016

Athens, Georgia isn’t exactly a hotbed in the power/progressive metal ranks. More well known as a college town that put the B-52’s and R.E.M. on the musical map, it’s not surprising that Theocracy developed appeal from an international audience due to their stylistic leanings. Blossoming through three full-lengths (of which Mirror of Souls and As the World Bleeds come highly recommended), the latest record Ghost Ship sees the band hone in more on their songwriting craft – playing to their melodic strengths, developing sharp harmonies for choruses while also being adventurous at times during the closer “Easter”, which incorporates acoustic guitars, larger than life choirs, and twin guitar action that brings Savatage and Blind Guardian to the sky.

Preparing to embark on another European tour run, we felt there is no better time than now to contact vocalist Matt Smith and have him fill us in on the history of the band, the challenges regarding scheduling for the group with full-time careers, and a lot of talk about the value (or lack of value) when it comes to the arts these days, even in the explosive internet age. In the interim, be sure to pick up on this catalog especially if you possess a lot of Edguy, Savatage, and Symphony X albums in your collection.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about the evolution of Theocracy – which began in 2003 as a one- man project and has grown into a full band with now four albums under their belts? What type of growing pains have you had to work through?

Matt Smith: That’s a good question. Honestly the hardest thing about being in this band for me is scheduling. There are definitely times that I long for the simplicity of just writing songs in my bedroom and recording demos by myself. That’s nothing at all against the other guys because they obviously make the songs better but it’s just so much trouble to get everyone in the room together at the same time. We all live within two hours of each other, we are not that spread out but everyone has day jobs and works crazy schedules, plus a lot of the guys are travelling for work all the time. Even just rehearsing is next to impossible, so that’s probably the toughest thing.

On the flip side, it’s all worth it- one because we all get along great, I love the guys in the band. As band relationships go, it’s about as easy as it comes. Secondly, they make the songs so much better- they add so much color to the songs. So far beyond anything I could ever do on my own.

Dead Rhetoric: Ghost Ship is the latest Theocracy album – and feels like your best album to date because of its focus and diversity present in terms of the riffing, hooks, and melodies. How did the recordings go this time around, and which songs do you think presented the most challenges in terms of writing or execution?

Smith: First of all, thank you very much- I am very proud of this record and the way it came out. Recording was good- this was strange, because in a way we had to kind of work backwards. The drummer situation wasn’t nailed down, and Shawn (Benson) agreed to play on the album as a session musician. We had to arrange all of that which is fine, but the problem was, we couldn’t wait around for that to start recording so we had to work backwards. We did the vocals first this time- I just recorded them to the demos, and then recorded everything around that. Typically, you would record drums first and then build things up from there. For the sake of time we had to swap things around. Aside from that everything went fine. I do all the engineering and production- I have a buddy of mine, his family has a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere here in Georgia, no one was living there at the moment so we transformed that into a makeshift studio for tracking the drums. That came out great.

I guess “Easter” was the challenge, because that is the big epic- it’s my favorite song on the album. As epic songs tend to be, they take quite a while to develop and put together. It came in sections and I lived with it over quite a long period of time to make sure everything flowed from one part to the other. That was probably the hardest – “Paper Tiger” was the last one we finished, I had the skeleton of the song, the riffs, some of the verses and the chorus but I didn’t know what else we wanted to do so I was kind of kicking that one back and forth with Jon (Hinds) and Val (Allen Wood), contributing our little parts to finish the song. That song was the eleventh-hour song of the record so to speak, in terms of being rushed to get done. In fact, when we tracked drums, the final arrangement of “Paper Tiger” wasn’t actually finished, so it was definitely lagging behind a little bit. So time wise that was the challenge track, but work wise I would say “Easter”.

Dead Rhetoric: “Paper Tiger” contains a very significant line early on – ‘this world is running more demented by the day.’ How do you maintain sanity in a very turbulent world these days – especially given the current political election domestically?

Smith: Oh man, it’s tough. I’ve always just hated politics, I don’t just have the stomach for it. And you are right out there now closer to the madness going on. I touched on a lot of that stuff in “Paper Tiger”, which is kind of funny. I didn’t really want to, I’ve never been a huge fan of bands going political. I was worried about it coming across as some big statement, but that’s just how it goes. I have to write what I feel, and that was coming from my heart and my mind so I had to address it. It’s definitely troubled times now for sure. That song specifically kind of turns it on its head a little bit, more looking at how good we have things, especially as Americans, that we like to complain and constantly be afraid of this big bad monster. Look at our lives in comparison to countries across the world that do have daily problems. I was talking about religious persecution in that song, people being beheaded for their beliefs and their faith- and over here we are acting like we have it hard when a law passes that we don’t agree with. Or someone makes a speech that we don’t like. That’s as close as I like to get to political themes though.

Dead Rhetoric: Which is harder for you – condensing your ideas into short songs or the development and intricacies of the epic tracks like “Mirror of Souls” or this album’s closer “Easter”?

Smith: Hmm… I’m thinking here. I don’t know, because I don’t really think of either of those things as a particular challenge, but it never turns out how I quite expect. “Mirror of Souls” I remember when I had the idea for it and started working on it, it was going to be an eight to twelve-minute song. And then it ended up being twenty-three, so it just grew and grew and I sort of follow the muse where it wants to go. A lot of it depends on what I’m trying to get at lyrically and what I feel needs to be covered, sometimes that will dictate how epic the song is looking in totality. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be condensing things. Sometimes I think it would be cool to have some legitimately short songs- two and a half minutes, but I haven’t been able to get there quite yet.

Dead Rhetoric: Having Christian based lyrical themes – it appears that your philosophy is a multi-level experience where you aren’t necessarily beating people over the head with your story telling, but matches up well to the uplifting nature to the riffing and musicality on display. What do you hope to get across from that perspective – and is that a more difficult process than composing and structuring the music side for Theocracy?

Smith: That’s actually probably the easier part of it. These are the things that I am feeling and I really need to get off of my chest for the sake of my own self, so to speak. That’s where the real inspiration and the drive is. The way I approach it is honesty- people ask about that all the time, but I’ve never gone into it with a feeling of as a Christian band, if this is something that means something to me and that I am struggling with, maybe someone else out there will take it to heart and speak to them as well. And we’ve been very fortunate in that regard that it has happened. I think that’s true for art in general – whether it’s a Christian band or not, whatever perspective they come from, as long as there is a truth to that and something people can identify with- metal fans are pretty smart. If you are faking things they pick up on that pretty quickly, they pick up on emotional attachment and realness. The vast majority of our songs are like that- something that I’m struggling with or that is on my mind or gone through. Occasionally we will do something more topical or historical, like “Nailed”, but there always has to be some sort of emotional connection to it.

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the video shoot for “Ghost Ship” – was it a collaborative process to develop the shots, especially with the timing of the train and panoramic sky/ocean elements? You must be very happy that this video is inching closer to 100,000 views through YouTube…

Smith: Yes, it seems like the video has been received really well so far. All the credit to that goes to Chance White, our director. He was awesome because particularly with the time constraints, it was a very nerve wracking kind of thing. Not to get too deep into it, but more scheduling issues really. Trying to get everyone to show up on the same day, at the same time so we would have to push it back. Once we were able to finally schedule the shoot, the turnaround time was next to nothing. He really did a great job of putting that together and composing all the shots. The train stuff… those trains are running constantly, so he didn’t time anything as far as scheduling. He did an amazing job of capturing what was there and using it to the advantage of the video.

Dead Rhetoric: Would you say you’ve gained better opportunities to establish Theocracy overseas because of your record label base there plus performing in a style that has more European trademarks – or are things improving domestically to establish the band better here as well?

Smith: Actually, both. The first part of your question or statement is definitely true. Historically this kind of music has been more popular overseas. We have spent most of our time touring over there- in fact we are heading back over there in less than a month now. But, starting with As the World Bleeds our last album, it seems like people here are catching on- we hit the Billboard Heatseekers chart with that, and we get a lot of conversations from fans about touring here, coming to this state or that state. We’ve kicked around the idea for quite a while now, and we are talking about it fairly seriously now. Maybe next year we can do a small little test the waters type of US tour and see how things are. Obviously it’s so spread out over here which can make things a little difficult, but things are improving and people seem to be paying attention a bit more.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess the state of the melodic, power, progressive metal scene currently? What pleases you most and what do you think could be improved to make things even stronger overall?

Smith: I guess what pleases me most is it’s great to see older bands that I love like Fates Warning putting out amazing records. Their new album Theories of Flight is one of the best albums of this year, it really made me happy. I don’t have the time that I used to for discovering bands, as much that is out there, it takes a lot of time to keep up with even what my favorite bands are doing. Power metal specifically has seemed to hit a little bit of a lull I guess, at least from what I’m hearing it seems like a lot of those bands have been trying to do different things and sort of find their way a little bit.

It’s hard to say in the internet age there are so many bands out there and so much music- it’s impossible to keep up with it all. I hang on to my favorites and hopefully discover some cool new things along the way.

Dead Rhetoric: What have been one or two of the particular interaction stories with fans that fuel the inspiration for Theocracy to make this record (was the Make A Wish concert in 2014 one of them)? You mention in the bio the hope that people get out of Ghost Ship for ‘the struggling, the broken, and the misfits looking for a place to belong’ – is that what being a musician helps for you to find your proper place and value in the world?

Smith: Great question. Absolutely, so. All I ever really wanted to do was to write songs and so everyday I’m so thankful this is working out. Make a Wish, there are no words to describe that kind of experience. I think we all point to that as the highlight of our career. It still blows my mind to have been asked to do that. Daniel the kid we played for, we’ve stayed in touch and we are friends. I have his CD in my car right now and I’m going to get together with all five guys for the first time to rehearse tonight, and get his CD signed and sent out to him. I’m very thankful for that relationship. A lot of the genuine gratitude of people that we meet- I’m thinking specifically for the last couple of European tours. People coming up to you with tears in their eyes, how much this song has meant to them. Hearing that they decided not to commit suicide after hearing one of our songs, this song saved my friend’s marriage- it’s unbelievable to hear these things.

I was struck the last time by getting fans of all ages, and a lot of younger kids – early to mid-teens, which I think is cool and interesting. A lot of the record was inspired by their kind of searching and hearing their stories about how much the songs helped them through.

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