Interview with: Pharaoh's Matt Johnson

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Pharaoh's Matt Johnson Pharaoh's two albums are somewhat of hidden gems in the melodic metal dept. heavily influenced by Iron Maiden, the band managed to create some of the catchiest, well-played and just plain enjoyable power metal out there. Though probably best known for being the band ex-Control Denied vocalist Tim Aymar sings in, making the two albums as good as they are is definitely a team effort. Guitarist Matt Johnson is one of the elements making this band what it is, an established metal journalist who also wrote for Metal Maniacs, the guy's playing is a main part in the band's untouchable quality. Matt was kind enough to give us an interview, though he is but a few days from getting married…thanks, and congratulations Matt!

Hey Matt, I'd like to start with news about Pharaoh, your website wasn't updated since November 2006, why is that?

Because I’m lazy! I should update it, I know. There is news in Pharaoh-land, to be sure. We’re recording a new album (and EP) right now, and we’ve been confirmed to play Keep It True X in Germany next year. I’ve just been so busy writing and recording music that I’ve neglected the web page (which is also my sole responsibility.) I apologize!

I understand you're in the process of making a new album, what can you tell us about it?

It’s going to be called “Be Gone” and it will have ten or eleven songs. We’re also recording an EP which will follow the release of the album, and it will feature the remaining songs from the sixteen we’re recording, of which three are cover songs. Regarding the album proper, it sounds pretty good to me so far! After every album, I wonder to myself, “Will we be able to write an album better than this one?” I think about this because, of course, every good band eventually fails to improve at some point, and for all I know, what skill I have for writing songs might already be fading. But right now, I don’t think I’m fooling myself to think that “Be Gone” will be Pharaoh’s finest moment to date. It’s our most diverse, and our most collaborative album yet, and everyone’s pushed themselves as writers and musicians. Hopefully this will be an opinion shared by the people who like Pharaoh’s other albums.

Pharoah - The Longest NightAre you still signed with the label that released your first two albums?
Yes, “Be Gone” will be released by Cruz del Sur, although this is the last album that we owe them. It’s certainly possible that we’ll resign with them for albums after this one, but at the very least there will be an opportunity for other labels to get a piece of the Pharaoh pie. We’re happy with how we’ve been treated so far at Cruz del Sur, however, and we’re looking forward to working this third album with them.

The latest update in your website is about Dawnbringer, your drummer's side project, what can you tell us about it?

It’s a death metal band that Chris Black has piloted for many years, starting well before Pharaoh. He recruits various musicians to help him realize his compositions, and for this album, he asked me to play lead guitar. It was a lot of fun, because unlike in Pharaoh, where I can play whatever I want, in Dawnbringer I was obligated to take direction from Chris. He never said, “Play these notes,” but he would say, “I’d like a short solo here, mostly eighth notes, and staccato,” or some such. It was a rewarding challenge. There is no guarantee that a Pharaoh fan would at all enjoy this Dawnbringer album (which is called In Sickness and In Dreams) but open-minded metal fans are encouraged to give it a listen! In addition to Dawnbringer, Chris has yet another band called Superchrist, who play a mix of NWOBHM and Motorhead, and they’ve recently released a new album called “Headbanger.” This is probably more likely to resonate with your average Pharaoh fan, although it’s hardly a sure thing.

Do you guys so any touring in between releases? Did you do any lately?

We have never toured, nor played even a single show. In fact, we have never rehearsed as a group! That said, we are planning some live work in 2008, not the least of which is our debut appearance in Europe at the Keep it True festival, along with such bands as Jag Panzer, Manilla Road, and Razor. It should be fun! We’re hoping to do some other festivals in 2008 as well. Except for the release of the LP and the EP, we don’t plan on working on new music in that year. The process of creating “Be Gone” has been very draining.

More personal stuff, I understand you write for Metal Maniacs, how did you land that gig?

Through Chris Black, actually! He and I both did zines of our own, and he was friends with the guy who ultimately became editor of that magazine, Jeff Wagner (who now works for The End Records.) Chris had been writing for the magazine for a year or two when someone came up with the idea to write a series of articles about the primary instruments of metal. Jeff played bass, so he took that story, and Chris of course played drums, so he took that one, which left only guitar. At the time, there was no one on the Maniacs staff who played this instrument, so Chris suggested to Jeff that I tackle the assignment. I had put out an issue or two of my zine Feast or Famine by that point, so Jeff knew I could write well enough, and he gave me the assignment. That might have turned into a one-off thing, except that shortly thereafter, a new Sodom record came out, and knowing that I was a crazy Sodom fan (I ran the original Sodom web page at that time) he gave me that interview assignment, and pretty soon, I was writing something for every issue. In the past few years, other obligations in life have kept me from really dedicating myself to journalism, but I do still write the occasional interview or review for Metal Maniacs. When an obscure band comes to my attention that I don’t think anyone else will write about, I pitch the idea to my editor, and she usually gives me the gig. It’s a nice arrangement. And actually, after years away from the magazine, Chris Black is also writing for them again. So there are two Pharaohs at Maniacs once more!


Do you center around one specific genre of metal in your writing?
I guess lately I’ve tended to cover progressive and power metal, but I have interviewed plenty of thrash and death metal bands as well. Like I said, I tend to write about less well-known bands. I don’t even remember the last time I talked to a band on Century Media, Nuclear Blast, or Metal Blade!

You also have a blog, do you maintain it on a regular basis?
Well, like the Pharaoh page, my blog has fallen by the wayside. I will probably pick this up again after the Pharaoh album is done. Right now, that project is taking up all of my free time.

Some stuff from you blog, you seem to be very much into prog rock, why didn’t you play in a prog rock band of your own? Why just a metal band?
I have only recently started listening to prog rock, although I have been listening to fusion and jazz for some years now. The biggest obstacle is my lack of talent. Those genres require a greater proficiency on guitar than I can claim, so I have to content myself with my simple metal songs. I have been getting better, though, and it’s my dream to someday have the time to put together a tech-metal band along the lines of Spiral Architect or Watchtower. It could happen soon! My good friend Hunter Ginn from the band Canvas Solaris has promised to play drums, and I have another well-known friend who said he would play bass, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Maybe in 2008 I can make this band happen.

Your album list is one of the first I came across which is lengthier than mine, how many do you own right now?

As of my last update, I have 4124 discs, although this counts box sets or double CDs as one item, and I don’t include my vinyl in this count, either. In any event, it’s a lot of music!

Do you too face the problem of not finding any album you want to listen to? You only pick ones randomly because of the amount?

No, they’re alphabetized so it’s easy to find any given album. But there’s a well-known problem that people have a hard time choosing among too many options, and sometimes I’ll stare at my 16 foot wall of CDs and think, “There’s nothing here that I want to hear!” That’s when I buy some more CDs!

What is the "Camp Naked Terror"? How did that start out?

Ha ha! Some friends of mine host a party every year by this name. The title was inspired by all those cheesy horror movies from the 70s and 80s where a bunch of oversexed teenagers at camp would get chopped up by some psycho killer or another. Originally, this was used as a basis for a costume theme – guests dressed up as either counselors or campers, but always covered in blood or wielding an axe. Every year they tweak the theme a little. I have only actually been to one installation of CNT, though. I always want to go, but for some reason it’s just never possible. I went in 2006, though, when the theme was science fiction.

You have a picture with the V uniforms in there; did you too think that the beginning of Independence Day was a pure case of plagiarism from that TV show?

Yes, I would say so, but Independence Day is really just a horrible mishmash of every bad alien-invasion cliché imaginable. What a shitty film! I actually saw this in the theaters twice, though. I promised some friends that I would go to see it with them, but then another group of friends made plans to see it earlier and they also invited me. So I went to see it with one bunch of people, then I pretended like I had not seen it and went with another bunch of people. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings and admit that I had gone out beforehand when I had promised to see it with them. Silly, huh? Anyway, that second viewing was pure torture.

Are you living proof that it's not just Trekkies that exist, but also Vekkies (or something similar)…?

I’m not that crazy! I just thought it would be a fun costume! Actually, my girlfriend and I bonded very early over our mutual love of this series, although she had not seen it since it had first aired, and her enthusiasm was mostly based on nostalgia. When we bought the DVDs and actually re-watched the show, she was considerably less impressed. But she did like the costume idea, and I think we looked pretty cool. I have never been to a V convention, though, and I don’t own anything signed by Marc Singer. My nerdiness is primarily concentrated on heavy metal.

Since the event started out related to the slasher flicks, are you a horror film fan, and of so, are you more into the classic Italian Giallo or the American slashers of the 80's?

Actually, I am not much of a horror movie fan. I like a few of the classics, of course, and because I know a lot of people who love horror, I’ve seen a lot of the lesser titles, but I’m hardly an expert. I have seen a few Dario Argento movies, and I always like how they look, but they tend to be very badly acted. If I had to pick a favorite horror movie, it would probably be Exorcist III or the first Hellraiser. Believe it or not, I have never seen a single Friday the 13th movie. I’m a poser.

Back to the band, I don't hear of too many projects that have to do with you guys, apart from Dawnbringer, don't Tim, Chris and You play in any other groups?

I’m playing lead guitars in a new project started by Matt Crooks, who owns the studio where Pharaoh records. That band includes Matt on guitar, John Macaluso (Ark, Powermad, Yngwie, etc.) on drums, Lars Jensen (Manticora) behind the mic, and Nick van Dyk (Redemption) on keys. That album is being recorded right now, parallel with Pharaoh, and will probably be out around the same time. This is just a studio project for the time being, although it is possible that we will assemble to play some gigs. We’ll see! Chris Kerns doesn’t have any other projects, and at the moment, neither does Tim, although several people have approached him, for obvious reason. He’s great! I will be doing the next Dawnbringer with Chris, and he continues to play in Superchrist (which is a real band that plays live.)

It always seemed strange to me that a band that released two albums as good as you did was signed to a rather small label, and remained relatively unknown, why do you think that is? Why wasn't the exposure for the band much bigger?

When we started, power metal was just undergoing its revival. I brought the first albums by Rhapsody and Iron Savior, which were new at the time, to the first Pharaoh rehearsal. We had the band up and running very quickly, and we immediately started shopping for a deal, but very few labels were putting too much stock in this possibly short-lived renaissance of melodic metal, so we ended up with a small label. If we had waited until the first album was actually recorded to find a deal, we probably could have gotten ourselves on a bigger label, but we have no regrets. Because we can’t tour, probably a lot of bigger labels will not be interested even if we could deliver the greatest album of all time.

You had guest appearances from Jim Dofka and Chris Poland on your albums, how did get those two to do that?

Jim Dofka is an old friend of mine. I met him actually a few months before Pharaoh was formed. He, of course, introduced me to Tim, who had previously sung in Jim’s band Psycho Scream. They had a bit of a falling out, right around the time Pharaoh needed a singer, and Jim put us in touch. The rest is history. I absolutely adore Jim’s guitar playing, so he will get a guest spot on every Pharaoh album. This I promise! It wouldn’t be the same without him! As for Chris Poland, he’s one of my all-time favorite players. I knew him through my zine, where I interviewed him, and I also wrote about his more recent works in Metal Maniacs. I met him in person at an Ohm show, as well. When I was writing the song “Sunrise,” I wrote a riff that practically demanded a guest spot from Chris, so I asked and he agreed. It was very easy, actually. He did a great job, and that pushed me to write a better solo that I might otherwise have to follow him up. I didn’t want to be totally embarrassed coming after him! We will continue our tradition of guest soloists on the new album, but I don’t want to reveal yet who we’ve gotten. It’s a secret!

Finally, any last messages for the Pharaoh fans reading this?

Thank you for your patience and support. New music is on the way! And if you’re so inclined, you might finally get a chance to see our ugly mugs on stage. The torture never stops!

Alon Miasnikov
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