The Rise Of Pharaoh
By: Alon Miasnikov
Interview With: Matt Johnsen (Guitar), Pharaoh
Though most people would recognize Pharoah because of vocalist Tim Aymer's past work as vocalist on the famed "Control Denied" album, the band's melodic metal has been carving a name for itself as a force to be reckoned with. The band's second release - The Longest Night, received rave reviews just about everywhere, and we thought talking to guitarist Matt Johnsen is a good idea.
Hey Mat, Let’s start with current events, what is the band doing these days?
We’re slowly writing material for the next album. I’d say we’re about 1/3 of the way done. We don’t want it to take as long between albums 2 and 3 as it did between 1 and 2. Also, we’re preparing to record a split 7” record with our friends from Canvas Solaris. We’re both doing Coroner covers! It’s going to be awesome; Coroner were the best, and covering them is a manly feat, don’t you think?
Have you got any summer festivals lined up as of now?
No, we don’t play out live. We’d like to, but so far, the right opportunity hasn’t come up. The problem is that the various members of Pharaoh don’t live near one another. Our drummer lives in Chicago, and I live near Philadelphia. The other guys also live in the state of Pennsylvania, like me, but Tim lives in Pittsburgh, which is a 5 hour drive from me. It would take a lot of effort to get Pharaoh into fighting form for live shows, and someday I think we’ll do it, but I guess it won’t be this summer. If someone were to invite us to one of the many great European fests, we’d surely get our act together.
From what I read, the reactions to The Longest Night were nothing but great, did you expect such an excellent welcome to the album?
Well, we knew we had a good album on our hands, but still, it was a surprise to see so many great reviews. It’s hard to be objective about an album you wrote and recorded yourself, so we didn’t know for sure if people would like it, and in particular, we didn’t know if it would be received as a proper “modern” album, or yet another retro-throwback (which is not how we want to be considered). It seems that people appreciate that although we have a lot of traditional and old-school influences, we’re still trying to make new music and not just recapture the faded past. We’re all very happy about that.
In what ways would you say it's different than After The Fire?
Well, for starters, it sounds a lot better. But beyond the sonics, I think it’s a much more diverse album that really develops what I think we can now call the Pharaoh sound. There’s less of the overt Maiden references, and more complexity in the songs. Personally, I’ve improved quite a bit as a lead guitarist, and I think the solos on the new album are heads and tails above those on After the Fire.
How do you think working with Mat Crooks affected the outcome?
He made it possible for us to concentrate on the songs and on our playing, and not have to worry about the engineering details. When we recorded After the Fire, we constantly had to be wary of the sound, because the engineer was not very well versed in metal. Matt knows his metal, and he’s very good with his equipment, so we didn’t have to think about the mundane details of the recording. He was really easy to work with, and he got the best performances out of us. Also, he was very helpful when it came time to add the little guitar details that really bring a song to life. He’d say, “Try harmonizing that,” or, “How about a little melody there?” Plus, he’s a lot of fun to be around, so the time I spent in the studio was always amusing (and I spent a LOT of time in the studio!) We couldn’t have made this album with anyone else, and we will definitely work with Matt on the next album as well.
Now some history, how did you guys originally start out?
Chris Black was playing in a sort of death metal band in the mid 90s, and he got the itch to play something more traditional and melodic. He and I had been corresponding for a while through the zine circuit (we both published metal fanzines back then) and when he decided to form this group, he asked if I would be interested in playing guitar. I accepted, and that’s how we started! At the time, we had another guitarist as well, and he co-wrote the song “Slaves” on the first album with Chris and me, but he left after only a few months. Chris brought in our bassist, Chris Kerns, after they met in college, and I roped in Tim through a mutual friend, Jim Dofka. At first Tim was more like a studio member than a full band member, but by the time we finished the first album it was clear that there could be no Pharaoh without Tim, so without any great ceremony he went from session help to full member.
7. In which bands did you play before that?
I hadn’t played in any band since high school. Back then, I played bass in a death metal band called Morbid Fear. This was in the late 80s, early 90s. I recently listened to a tape we made in the garage, and man, did we suck! But there wasn’t a lot of death metal in the suburbs back then, so we had our little fanbase and had a good time. I’m still friends with the guitarist, and we think about recording some of those old songs, just for kicks. It would still suck, but hopefully, it would suck less.
You style of playing and Pharaoh's music has been compared to Iron Maiden's, where you influenced by Maiden's guitarists in your growth as a guitar player?
Believe it or not, I wasn’t, really. Obviously, I liked Maiden, but I didn’t really start collecting all of their albums until I was in my 20s. As a young metalhead learning the ropes in the 80s, I listened to Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Metal Church, and so on. I listened to all sorts of metal from the beginning, so my early music collection (on cassette!) included Death, Queensryche, Coroner, Annihilator, Helloween, Bolt Thrower, and so on. I got into the European power metal scene in the early 90s, listening to Rage, Running Wild, Scanner, Blind Guardian, then Angra and so forth, and this is really the sort of music that shaped the way I play guitar.
The first Iron Maiden song I ever learned to play was Aces High, and that was in 98 with Pharaoh, although before that I could probably have picked out most of The Trooper. But when Pharaoh started, Chris Black said he wanted to play music in the vein of Maiden and Saxon, so early on, I tried to work in that style when I wrote for Pharaoh. You can hear this in the songs “Slaves” and “Solar Flight.” But even by the end of the After the Fire songwriting sessions, I had started bringing my Europower roots into play, and I think this is pretty evident from a song like “Now Is the Time,” which doesn’t sound too Maideny at all, except for the intro. Nowadays, I listen to Maiden as much as the next guy, but when I grab for Maiden, it’s almost always Piece of Mind, Powerslave, or Somewhere in Time.
Are you guys intentionally trying to capture the Iron Maiden vibe in your music?
Like I said, in the beginning we definitely were. And it should be said that both of the Chrises are a lot more into Iron Maiden than I am, and their music tends to reflect that, but after the deluge of Maiden comparisons for After the Fire, we all tried to move away from that a little, without sacrificing the melodic vibe we had established for the band. For the next album, Chris Kerns has told me that he’s not writing any Maidenesque epics like “By the Night Sky,” so I guess the next album will be even less Maideny than The Longest Night, but I will always want to play guitar harmonies, and I’m sure no matter what we write, someone will compare it to Maiden. There are worse fates, I suppose!
How did you guys get Chris Poland to Guest on the album?
I am a crazy Chris Poland fanboy, and as a journalist I’ve done what I can to promote his work, so he knew me from interviews and reviews, and we met once at an Ohm show. I am also friendly with his manager, Steve Bauer, so when I wrote the song Sunrise, I sent an email to Steve asking if maybe Chris would consider playing a guest solo on our disc. Steve asked Chris, Chris said yes, and the rest is history! After we recorded the base tracks for the song, I sent him a CDR. He recorded two solos (so that I could choose) and sent them back on CDR. It was really easy, and his solos were great. We mixed a version of the song with the other solo, but for the moment, that’s a track for the vaults.
Are you still active with any other musical projects?
Chris Black has a lot of fires burning; he sings and plays bass in a punk metal band called Superchrist, and he’s the main creative force in Dawnbringer, an experimental death metal group. He’s had some trouble with the lineup in Superchrist, so I’m going to help him out on their next record, and Dawnbringer is mostly a studio project, so when he recorded his latest album and needed some solos, I was happy to help out. So even though Chris is really the only guy with other projects, I’ve been helping him out a lot.
In what direction do you see the band moving when you start working on your next release?
The songs I’m writing are pretty similar to the songs I wrote for The Longest Night. Maybe they’ll be a little more complex, but otherwise they’ll be pretty simple. We’re trying to write shorter songs, but for me at least, the songs are in control, and who knows if they’ll end up growing longer and longer! When the third album comes out, expect another offering of thrashy American power metal.