Pharaoh – Rise and Ride

Tuesday, 15th June 2021

Active since the late 90’s, Pharaoh developed their power metal sound during a period when that style fell out of favor outside of the diehards, bands struggling to gain a foothold in the United States due to lack of record deals. Subscribing to a release schedule when they are ready, The Powers That Be is the group’s fifth album, and first in almost a decade. You can expect mesmerizing layers of guitar riffs, energetic rhythm section work, and the versatile and potent melodies of a seasoned outfit who know their abilities. The reliable nature of each record assures appeasement with the faithful, and hopefully will garner a few newcomers to the fold.

We reached out to guitarist Matt Johnsen who is always great to catch up with. You’ll learn more about the work behind the record, thoughts on Cruz Del Sur Music and its owner Enrico, special guest appearances, plus lots of candid discussion on the metal scene and festival landscapes.

Dead Rhetoric: The Powers That Be is the fifth Pharaoh album – and longest wait between records as nine years have elapsed since the last release. Could you bring the readers up to date as to the long gap between records? Outside of the pandemic, did Chris’ productivity and activity with his other bands including the success of High Spirits effect the recording and songwriting schedule?

Matt Johnsen: No. Chris didn’t really have anything to do with that. The thing about this – I know it’s been a long time, but it didn’t feel that long to me. I’m just living my life. We were always going to do another Pharaoh album – we actually started working on it pretty shortly after the last album came out. It gets done in drips and drabs – we all live pretty far from one another, and we have families now. It’s one of these things where, I can’t account for all the time. It’s not like it was never a point where I wasn’t working on Pharaoh in some capacity, but that became months. Once we started getting a push to get things done, then there were a lot of other little life things that came up that slowed us down.

Up until the course of the pandemic, which was a bigger pain in the ass. It didn’t slow us down that much, it just made everything a little harder I guess. But in terms of the other stuff Chris does, that doesn’t really factor into it in the sense that when he was recording the drums, he may have had to put it off for a few months because he was doing some High Spirits stuff. A couple of months to Pharaoh is nothing though. Chris writes a lot of the lyrics and melodies, but he doesn’t write a ton of the music in Pharaoh. Tim has other things going on too. He recorded a full album with a band in Pittsburgh, and he is in another band called Helios that put out a four-song demo. I think they have a whole album ready now.

Dead Rhetoric: There definitely is more of a progressive nature to a lot of the instrumental work between all the players – evident right away on the title track as well as “Lost in the Waves” and “Dying Sun”. Do the band members discuss where you want to go in terms of the songwriting and performances album to album, or do you just start with a clean palate and let your experiences and creativity take over?

Johnsen: We don’t talk about it in a very granular sense I guess. It’s always our mission to do things a little differently on each successive album. Part of what we tried to do this time, the writing was a little more collaborative, a little more face to face. I spent time out in Chicago with Chris Black, he and I jammed out stuff, it’s more me arranging riffs into order, and we wrote new stuff too at the time. It gave us the skeleton of a lot of the songs that are on the album. Once I started making the demos, then I conceived of a way to make this album different than the last and pared down a lot of the guitars. On the last two albums, the guitar arrangements got really dense. Blind Guardian-style – there could be 15 to 20 different guitar parts all at once. The problem we had with that is it’s incredibly hard to mix. A lot of details I put a lot of effort into would just get lost, it’s all distorted guitar. I pared it down as far as I could without making it sound… a less is more thing. It was meant to sound full and busy and complicated, just with fewer moving parts.

In terms of direction, it’s gotten more progressive or melodic, that’s not something we really talk about. It’s what came out. You know I am a big fan of progressive metal and progressive rock, I especially love technical stuff like Watchtower, Spiral Architect, Realm. I would make that kind of music if I could, but I can’t play that well. When I try, I get four or five riffs in and realize it’s just too much trouble (laughs). It’s me that pulls things in more of a progressive direction, and then it’s everybody else. Chris Black’s drumming on this album is phenomenal. He himself said it’s the best drumming he’s done on any album, ever. The best thing for twenty years he’s said about Pharaoh is the free drum lessons (laughs). I make him play stuff on this album he wouldn’t have thought he could do. He has to practice to figure these things out, and commits to it. He knocked it out the park with this one.

I would say that we are probably not going to get more progressive, or more about instrumental breaks and time changes. Because we are a power metal band, I’m trying to inject as much other interests as I can without veering off into this totally new sub-genre of metal.

Dead Rhetoric: So you are conscious of the fact that Pharaoh has specific elements that the major followers want to hear, but try to excite yourselves album to album?

Johnsen: Yes, totally. I always remember when I was younger reading magazines and bands would say the only thing that matters to me is that I’m happy with my own stuff. I always thought that was a cheesy cop out, but it’s not so much that I care if people like where I am headed, it’s that I do have to be happy within myself and try very hard to move the band in some sort of direction with these new elements that alone could alienate the people who have listened in the past. If we lose some fans, I’m okay with that- we’ll do okay in the overall mix. That’s just one of the problems with a niche genre we are in. Everything is hyper specialized. When you are in a band like Pharaoh, there are certain expectations, and you can’t violate people’s expectations. We can change things and lose all our old fans and gain all these new fans, but it sounds like a lot of work. That’s definitely not the plan.

Dead Rhetoric: Once again you feature guest guitar solos with Jim Dofka and Voivod’s Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain – the latter entering at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict with another guest. What do you admire most about each player and what they were able to contribute to this record?

Johnsen: Jim I’ve known about for a really long time. I met Jim at the first Powermad festival in 1997, which is where we met first as well. He gave me the Psycho Scream – Virtual Insanity tape at that, and I immediately fell in love with his writing, his playing, and Tim – who was a big part of that. We became fast friends, talked about music, checking this out. I followed his musical career. He doesn’t release as much as I think he should. He’s a guitar teacher, a session guy, country stuff even. One of the things I love about Jim’s solos is his crazy ability. Nothing that he has ever given to us, I can even kind of play (laughs). For some shows, I’ve learned something that approximates what he did, but it would take me weeks of diligent practicing to learn even the simplest of solos he’s done for us. I know I will get guitar pyrotechnics back from him, at the same time and it has melodic sense, it’s really ace. It’s a fun tradition, he’s been on every album we’ve done, the extended Pharaoh family.

As for Chewy, I’m a huge fan of his since I heard Martyr, long ago. When Warp Zone came out, I corresponded with him back in the day. All the Martyr albums are great, he’s excellent on the one Gorguts album he’s on, he’s amazing in Voivod, he rejuvenated the band. He’s an outside the box thinker musically. I really like what he brought to the title track – he did something wild and outside, but does fit Pharaoh really well. He does a ton of whammy bar tricks, that’s my wheelhouse for guitar solos. I love the fact that he was bending every note he could for us.

Dead Rhetoric: You have consistently had a finger on politics with many Pharaoh songs but walk that delicate line of expressing yourselves on specific issues/matters without coming off as ‘high and mighty’ on the biggest soapbox so to speak. How challenging is that balance, and do you ever worry that you may enter that ‘offensive’ category that could turn certain previous followers off?

Johnsen: I mean, no. I don’t ever worry about that because the way we express our politics in Pharaoh does not generally speak very specific. Really for me, it boils down to a distaste and disgust for right wing reactionary politics. If I write a song that slams the whole time George W. Bush or Donald Trump or whatever and that makes somebody mad, I really don’t care. They can listen to Iced Earth. It isn’t really going to come up, I like writing a lot of political content in these lyrics, but I don’t want to be too specific because number one, the politics of the United States is not the politics of the universe. Or everybody who listen to heavy metal. Considering a lot of our listeners are from Europe, getting into the minutia of American politics would be pretty dumb. If we call out somebody in politics now and then they listen to our music fifteen years later, people are going to be like ‘who is this?’. I find myself thinking all the time and more, how long the history of metal is and how little of it most people know. You and I have been doing this forever, so we both have a passion for the history of this style. When I am reading any of the metal groups on Reddit or something like that, you encounter people all the time that don’t know the differences, this style that existed, or this musician that was in another group. I don’t want to count on people needing to have all this background information politically to follow what we are doing.

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the cover art for The Powers That Be – do you believe that listeners and collectors still care about striking covers in the current musical landscape, especially to make a strong first impression before someone has heard a note of music?

Johnsen: I have no idea what people want or expect out of any of the (stuff) they buy. Again, this is a thing about getting old. Everything is different now about the way everyone consumes media. I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve kept up with it. I don’t do a lot of the stuff that modern people do. I don’t really know that it matters. Everyone still seems to make in general pretty cool covers. It’s just a thing I’ve always associated with albums – they have great artwork.

This particular cover is new for us because every other cover we’ve done was painted by JP Fournier, a pretty well-known cover artist. He did some horrible things last year and he’s in jail now. He killed his father, just horrible. When that happened, I had it on my to do list that month to get in touch with JP and work out the cover. When that happened, it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting JP. Chris and I batted some names about. Neither of us could land on somebody where we both were like, yeah. All of a sudden he sends me an email about Chris Cooper. Chris is an old friend of his, they went to high school together. He painted the first few covers of the Dawnbringer albums, the Maiden America comp which was the first thing Pharaoh was on. He’s a terrific artist, a weird and cool dude. He comes and goes, there have been periods where we didn’t know what he was doing. They were back in touch.

We started with Chris Cooper, he sent us sketches back and forth. Normally with JP we give him a thorough description of what we were after. He threw ideas at us, four or five sketches that were unlike this one. This was based on the last sketch he sent, and we really liked it. When he started putting it together, and this was the one we wanted to go with. He was originally intending to paint it, but after he spent a little time in digital tools, he told us he didn’t have time to do it. It would have taken more months. Personally I prefer painted covers, but I don’t know how much of that is nostalgia. I really liked the design, and it looked like the computer art was pretty good. It still has the compositional feel of something that is painted rather than a typical computer built cover. Remember the nightmares over the 1990’s Magna Carta record label covers? (laughs). That Cairo cover, the sub “Money for Nothing” level 3-D art. I’m happy with Chris, it sucks to change artists. We love the colors that are involved. It has a striking image.

Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel to be one of the flagship bands on Cruz Del Sur Music’s roster – but also one of the more unique bands in terms of style versus the epic/doom-oriented acts that have helped build the label over the last decade? What makes your relationship with Enrico special and enduring?

Johnsen: Pharaoh was the first signing to Cruz Del Sur. We predate the label, as our relationship with Enrico originally was with the label Icarus Records in Argentina. Enrico used to live in Argentina and he was partners with the guy that ran that label. When the Argentina economy collapsed in the 1990’s, Enrico fled the country to go back to his home country of Italy. I am guessing in working out how to extract himself from Icarus, part of the deal is he got to take Pharaoh with him. He started the new label and we were the very first release. We have been with this label from day one.

As this band goes on, we were never formed to be like a working band, touring, all this thing. We just wanted to make albums and good music. As the years have rolled on, one of the themes in Pharaoh is consistency. The same four guys – we’ve never had a lineup change. Since the first record, every other recording has been done with Matt Crooks. We had the same cover artist until we had to change. We have one label. We have a tight family. It’s fun to keep all these streaks alive. If anybody left Pharaoh, it would be the end of Pharaoh as we won’t be replacing anyone. Pharaoh is these four guys. Before the last album came out we were courted by some other labels – and it would have been bigger profile things where we probably would have sold more records. But we wouldn’t have made more money. When reviewing the contracts, we could go to these other people, but we would be one of dozens of bands. Since we aren’t going to tour, we aren’t going to sell as well as the bands that do tour. We are slow to make new albums. We would probably get dropped after making one album because some of these contracts, you need to deliver demos for the next album within nine months from when you deliver the masters for the current album.

When we had the chance to move greener pastures, it didn’t feel like it would be fun or right for the band. We like Enrico personally, he’s a cool guy. We’ve known him for over twenty years now. It’s a comfortable thing. It works for Enrico, we don’t really give him a hard time. Pharaoh can only exist for so much longer, and my hope is everything we ever put out is for Cruz Del Sur. It’s nice to be a part of the family.

In terms of our place on the label, it’s kind of a funny thing. I don’t obsessively follow everything Enrico puts out on the label. I get a lot of that stuff, but I hadn’t noticed the trends and where he was headed over the years. Chris Black brought this up – aside from Slough Feg and us, there aren’t really any old bands on the label at this point. He has younger bands formed after Pharaoh put out their first album. The laser focus that Cruz Del Sur has taken on the epic and doom stuff, happened without me really knowing. We don’t fit in with those bands, but the same kind of people like what we do. It’s cool that Enrico succeeds with these bands.

Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned in a recent email exchange the feeling that the metal scene in general is running low on new ideas – and that in your opinion the good stuff these days is a retro revival of a specific style or period/era of music. Considering the genre is now fifty years old, what needs to occur to spark interest again for the wider audience?

Johnsen: I think about this a lot. And there aren’t any good answers. I wonder how we got here and what can be done. You think about other kinds of music and how they’ve handled the progressive development of their styles. I don’t think it’s a problem just for metal, I think it’s a problem for pop culture, especially music. In particular, anything that’s derived from rock and roll. Because rock and roll is now really old. There are unspoken rules about what it can be, it feels like the shape of it is a triangle but not in the right direction. It’s going towards the corner instead of starting in the corner. The scene is collapsing around these tropes, these conventions, these ideas. It ends up repeating something that is done before.

A lot of that is… when we were younger, when I was in high school and first getting into heavy metal, the music from my parents’ generation seemed impossibly ancient. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones felt like old person music, something I didn’t want anything to do with. Metal felt like something new. A different way to take rock and roll, it’s got its own goals, motivations, it’s doing its thing. Now we are thirty something years after that, the music of today doesn’t sound that different from the music of twenty to thirty years ago. When Master of Puppets came out, that was only twenty years after Sgt. Pepper, right? Twenty years after Master of Puppets happened a while ago, and there are new bands coming out that sound essentially like Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, Anthrax – these bands that did this a long time ago. You can’t blame young people for not knowing fifty years of heavy metal history, at the same time it ends up in this self-perpetuating cycle where all metal musicians listen to is metal. How can you get out of the box that puts you in? Tony Iommi didn’t listen to just metal, Metallica didn’t listen to thrash, these things didn’t exist, they had to make things based on the music they did know. That’s how something new happens.

Nowadays you want to be a metal band, you just listen to other metal bands. I know there are kinds of metal that young people know that I don’t know. Every generation should get their own stuff, but in terms of what I like, born out of the original run of heavy metal, the way I see it the only way it can progress is to bring in elements that were not sourced in metal. That are sourced as far away as possible. Metal, even though it can be a flexible tag – but there are rules, conventions that everyone expects to follow. How do you bring other stuff in and succeed creatively and commercially? I don’t have all the answers for that. The things I try to work into Pharaoh songs – aside from the old school metal influences – I try to bring other things from The Police, the band. Stewart Copeland the drummer, made a huge impact on me musically. The weird syncopation is the heartbeat of me for all rhythm. I know just dealing from the other guys in the band, it’s a strange way of approaching rhythm. Chris Black has a hard time sometimes following where my beats are supposed to go. Tim says, it sounds like we are playing backwards. I like Magma, a French progressive rock band, and that comes in too. Spacey/fusion jazz too. I have to consciously think of different ideas to steal from other kinds of music and fit them into Pharaoh without sounding like I stopped playing metal.

Younger people want to go play shows, be famous, make money. They don’t have as long of a musical history as I do. They have different priorities. People aren’t consciously trying to find a new way for metal, to think of how it’s made and what it’s supposed to sound like and mean. There are still great bands out there – as long as some of them are out there, I’ll find them.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been to numerous festivals in the United States and abroad over the years. Where do you see the differences between audiences here and say at Keep It True in Germany – where many people have often said they feel like they are going in a time warp back to the early 80’s?

Johnsen: Well, you know. I love Keep It True, it’s super fun. And it’s very much in a sense like stepping into a time warp. It’s really hard to compare… it’s hard to compare Europeans and Americans in general. They seem so similar, but when you get to the nitty gritty of how they behave at a festival, it’s a totally different thing. KIT is intentionally retro. The narrowest of niches from this thing. It wouldn’t be much different than if someone had an old school ska festival. A bunch of bands from Jamaica from the 60’s and 70’s. Or bluegrass or country. There isn’t an equivalent in the US to that. Which makes Keep It True a bizarre experience. You will have a band play ProgPower, some band like Pagan’s Mind. They will come here and they are like stars. Everyone knows who they are. But they could play anywhere else in the country and no one would literally know them, because everyone who does know them is there at that festival right at that moment. KIT is similar – they will bring some bands from the 80’s, and people will go apeshit. It’s Medieval Steel. Because it concentrates all these bands, it feels like the old days. All the people left in Europe who know of that band are at Keep It True at that moment.

It’s not the same as like the old Milwaukee Metalfest, or the old New England Hardcore and Metal festival, or Ozzfest. It’s like the Comicon thing, you are among your people so you can just lean into this. Break out the spandex pants, the bullet belts, all the old accessories that you see Keep It True. It’s like a civil war reenactment.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s next on the agenda for Pharaoh over the next year once the record comes out? Has work already begun on the pre-production and collecting of ideas for the next effort, so it won’t be another nine years between releases?

Johnsen: We’ve talked after at least the last couple of albums. Every album comes out after a significant delay from the last one. I’m always like, that took way too long… and we want to get the next album out ASAP. Now we are running out of time. Tim is ten years older than me, and I’m the second oldest guy in the band. The Chris’ are four and seven years younger than me. Tim will be sixty in a few years, and he can’t sing like that forever. It’s astounding that he can still sing like this as is. Compare him to Dio. Dio died when he was sixty-seven. Tim is even throatier than he used to be. He can’t hit the same number of high notes. We can’t wait another nine years – if we wait that long, it’s not going to sound like Tim would be able to do it. Our plan is to do another album, and if that is going to succeed we will have to do it soon. I have started to put things together.

My idea for the next album… in the past I would write full songs, with all the parts and full arrangements, everything is in the right order with no vocal melodies or lyrics. That’s a pain in the ass, making it sound at the end like it was all written together, that’s really challenging. It’s harder than the songwriting process needs to me. I’ve never written from a vocal first perspective, and I think that is what I’m going to try. I want strong vocal hooks, and then write the riffs around that – including the stuff that will go under the hooks. Maybe just a verse and chorus, then come up with riffs, and straighten the whole thing around the flow of the vocals. That’s the plan, I started sketching out ideas. I do my best singing in the shower, so I have a phone and tablet sitting in the bathroom, get out and hum my tunes. I am building a library of tunes and ideas. Take some old riffs, make new riffs, build a couple of songs and keep going. The way Kerns and Chris Black write can be different. The bulk of the song ideas start with me, it will be an interesting process. I will try the general sparseness of guitars we had on this album again. There will be overdubs, but I try to make the regular rhythm parts as nutty as possible. Hopefully we will get something done sooner than that, but I would imagine we can make progress on this to get another release out within five years.

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