Pharaoh tries to seek a path less travelled

In a time where metal music can tend to start repeating itself or begin to meld into one gelatinous cube of ‘suck,’ there are a few bands out there who try to punch a hole in that cube. Pharaoh is a Power Metal band from the U.S. that has just released their fourth full length album of allegorical fantasies, and despite a varied, powerful sound, even they admit that the genre’s demands is beginning to wear them down a bit. However, this just grants their resolve to continue to make differential, inspiring music more motivation. I got a chance to talk with Matt Johnsen (guitar) about the new album, their ideas on how to continue making great music, and how performing live clicks, or clashes, with their studio demands on recording new material. 

Hello there. What’s new for Pharaoh these days?
We’re playing live! Well, at least we’re trying. We did two gigs in 2008 in support of ‘Be Gone,’ but then we shifted into composing mode, and the live agenda fell to the wayside. Now, we’re hoping to turn Pharaoh into a real band. We played a show in May which could have gone better, and now we’re playing a show in October in Virginia. If that goes well, we’re going to keep it up and hopefully visit Europe sometime in 2013.

So you guys recently put out your fourth full length album. How are the fans receiving it compared to others?
Very well! We’ve been lucky from the start when it comes to critical response. We always get good reviews. I’m never sure if that’s gonna happen before the albums come out, but it’s still nice when it happens. It’s really going to suck when we finally put out an album no one likes, ha ha!

Fantasy themes have always been a big thing with each new piece of music that is released. What was the focus on ‘Bury The Light’ compared to previous efforts?
Well, in Pharaoh, the fantasy is almost always allegorical. We realize the appeal of purely fantastical lyrics, but they’re hard for us to really get into, unless we code them with hidden (or not-so-hidden) meaning to make them a little more germane to day-to-day life. Even a song like “The Spider’s Thread,” while based on a fictional short story, is still meant to be taken in the philosophical way the story was.

Are there any particular songs that deserve special mention?
I’m quite fond of “The Spider’s Thread,” which has a linear structure. There’s basically only one “chorus” and it’s the outro of the song. I was inspired to arrange the song this way by a pop song, “Stacked Crooked” by The New Pornographers, which is basically all build-up to a single, massive chorus that ends the song. It’s kind of a hard trick to pull off, and I can’t say I managed it with the same aplomb as Carl Newman, but I am satisfied with the results. I also really like “In Your Hands,” which was a fruitful collaboration between myself and Chris Black, who wrote the excellent vocal melodies and the inspirational lyrics.

This is the first album where Pharaoh has done a reprise on a track. Any particular reason why?
We did something similar on ‘Be Gone,’ but it was within a single song. The original ending of “Red Honor” did not repeat the riff from the middle of the song, but Chris Black liked it so much, he demanded I find a way to bring the riff back. The same basic thing happened here, although since the riff he wanted to repeat was already the last one in “The Spider’s Thread;” we decided to just revisit it at the end of the album. Chris has a good ear for the way an album should flow, and I think when you get to the last track on a Pharaoh album, you always know that this is the last song, even if you haven’t looked at the tracklist.

A few years back you did a tribute to Coroner with Canvas Solaris. Were they an inspiration to your music?
Coroner have been inspiring me since I was 14, when I first saw the video to “Masked Jackal” on MTV. I’m lucky, though, that they never inspired me to give up guitar, ha ha! They’re just too damned good. Everyone in the band (well, except Tim, who had never heard of them) are massive Coroner fans, but I think it just took us a good ten years to be good enough to actually cover one of their songs. I’ve tried to write purely Coroner-inspired riffs in the past, and usually, they just don’t sound right for Pharaoh, but one of these days, I’ll crack the code. The main challenge in the “Tunnel of Pain” cover was to turn atonal vocals into a melodic line. I can’t think of another example of a band doing this. It’s sort of the reverse of, say, Arch Enemy covering Iron Maiden.

Ever since you began back in 1997, have you found it easier to come up with new material as the years have gone by, or is it more like, ‘Damn, we’ve done this (idea) already and the fans are begging to have an album every two years! Time is running out…’
Yeah, it gets harder every time, and I feel like this album might be the first where we’re starting to repeat ourselves. We absolutely can’t let that trend continue, so for the fifth album we’ll have to really dig deep and find a way to reinvent Pharaoh without, of course, completely changing the sound. It’s not going to be easy. For that reason, we can barely manage to get albums out every three or four years!

Do you think power metal has changed today in sound and style since the late 90s, or has the core of the music pretty much stayed the same? If it has, when did you notice a difference?
Power metal is in a really sad state these days. There are almost no good bands left. In Europe, power metal has been reduced to its simplest, cheesiest elements. No one makes riffs anymore, and the keyboards do all the heavy lifting. The only good new German power metal band I can think of is Silar Fragment. There are some cool US bands like Holy Grail, but overall, the scene is almost totally fucked. We need a real revival like the one in 97. But, it might take all of the good bands dying first and laying dormant for a few years. That’s how that usually works, right?

Now that the new album is out, any tours in the work, either in the U.S. or internationally?
Our label would love for us to tour Europe, but we need a little more practice playing in the States first. Touring the US would be a mistake – no one would come. But, we could probably make do for a few weeks in Germany. Keep your fingers crossed!

Looking back, do you think the reasons for performing in Pharaoh have changed today than they did when you started out, or did the band pretty much come together and stick to their goal from the start, whether it was to create music, get money, or create something for people to connect to, etc.
Our goal was always to write and record good albums that we like. The definition of “good” has changed, I think, if not radically, but for the most part, we’re still trying to do the same thing we set out to do in 1997 when we started the band. In a sense, playing live is a distraction from this, and if it gets in the way of writing and recording, we’d definitely quit playing live.

After being around for so long, your fan-base must be pretty large. Has there been anything a fan(s) has done that has really impacted the band in a good way to affirm that you’re connecting with people out there, either in the form of a comment, gift, etc?
Ha! I think you’re probably imagining a great deal more of Pharaoh fans than what really exists in nature, but yeah, we do have fans the world over. I love hearing from people from unexpected places, like South Africa or Belarus. It’s great to become pen-pals with those fans who really find something special in Pharaoh. It’s what everyone hopes for when they start releasing music, you know?

Thanks again for your time and again congrats on the new album!
Thank you for your support, and sorry it took me so long to complete this interview! I don’t know what happened! It somehow slipped through the cracks. That’s the problem with email interviews – you can forget them. When the phone rings, there’s no getting around it, ha ha! In any case, thanks again and take care!