You have recently released the follower for 'After The Fire' from 2003! The reactions on the first album were promising and the scored high in most reviews. How are the reactions on the new album so far?
The response has been great so far, thanks! I think it's fair to speak for the whole band by saying that we are very pleased with the album.
On 'The Longest Night' you keep to the 80's heavy metal sound in combination with modern influences and the album is more or less a logical continuance of the debut. In how far do you think the two albums differ?
We've become better songwriters since then, simply due to practice and age. And we have all become better musicians as well. But I think the biggest difference between the two albums is in the production. We basically produced 'After the Fire' ourselves gradually over a long period of time and there were limitations inherent in that process, both technically and creatively. In Matt Crooks we were lucky to find a very skilled producer who was familiar and experienced with this kind of music and who knew what recording techniques would lead us to the album we all wanted to make. Perhaps even more importantly, he was very motivating to us individually in the studio, making sure we performed to the best of our abilities. He's a guitarist himself, so I think the collaboration between him and Matt Johnsen was particularly effective, which is great, because the guitars and vocals are really what do the heavy lifting in our songs. So, the new album is creatively a logical step down the path of 'After the Fire', but the process of recording it was much more rigorous and ultimately far more satisfying, I think as well for ourselves as for the listeners.
Tim Aymar joined when the writing-process of the debut was already started. Of course he put his mark on the album by his incredible voice, but was his contribution limited compared to 'The Longest Night'?
I would say his contribution was greater on the new album, yes. For the debut, he did contribute lyrics to two of the songs, whereas with the new album, I believe he wrote about half of the lyrics. It's hard to quantify individual contributions to any great extent. Everything you're hearing is very much a group effort. But when it comes to Tim, his voice is what makes us sound like Pharaoh more than any other single element. Without Tim there wouldn't be Pharaoh, so in that regard, his contribution is everything.
You started the band in 1997 to prove that heavy metal was still alive. Back in those days black metal had become very popular, so it was a bit unusual to play heavy metal. In the past few years heavy and power metal have gained a huge popularity and there are more and more bands in the scene. What is your opinion about all these new heavy metal bands that sound alike and in what way do you think Pharaoh distinguishes itself from the huge amount of bands in the market?
I don't think we make any special effort to stand apart from the overpopulated power metal field. It just happens naturally. We were never a part of that boom and we're not really a part of any particular clique of bands nowadays either. To this point, our albums are our entire existence. We have no concerts, videos, or even T-shirts for sale. You can barely even find a photo of us. So I think we have a different approach to the market. We do things our own way.
But we also have a different approach to our music from many bands, because we are writing only with the intentions of making the best possible album. We don't think about singles, whether a song will “work” in a live setting or whether we'll even be able to play it, because we don't have to. So we approach our business differently because we approach our music differently, and vice versa. It works for us and, while not by design, it does help set us apart from the power metal band that was formed yesterday.
While listening to 'The Longest Night', the name Iron Maiden kept popping into my head, mostly because of Tim's vocal technique, which in my opinion have lot similarities with Bruce Dickinson's. In a song like 'Fighting' there are more modern influences. Am I correct that Iron Maiden has been the main influence on Pharaoh's music?
Actually, it was a Saxon album playing at the moment I had the idea for Pharaoh, but I know what you mean. A lot of people were first exposed to Pharaoh by our cover of 'Aces High', so I guess the association will be there forever in some people's minds. Chris Kerns (the band's bass player – Nima) was just saying today that we could make a death metal album and some people would still say we sound like Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden represents the perfection of heavy metal for a lot of people, so it's always a compliment to be compared musically to them. They have influenced us, of course, and they have influenced a lot of other bands like Angra and Helloween that in turn stoke our flames as well. A lot of it can really be boiled down to their aggressive rock rhythms, musicianship and melodic development using the Aeolian mode. This is a good basis for any metal band. In some sense, it defines the style. But I really feel that these devices carried us as far as they could on 'After the Fire' and now we have established the Pharaoh sound to be more far-reaching. The song 'Endlessly' is a perfect example. I'd like to think that it's easily compared to Iron Maiden in terms of its craftsmanship and sheen. But in examining the actual elements of that song, the comparison breaks down. You won't find much double bass drumming or ninth chords in the riffing on 'Killers' for example. Nor would you find such emotional lyrical content. So yes, there's pure Maiden in our palette, there's Maiden via other bands in our palette, but I'd like to think that the comparison now refers more to the familiar goose bumps on the listener's neck rather than the actual sounds he or she is hearing. The sensation of unfiltered heavy metal being injected straight into the eternal memory...
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Chris Poland (ex-Megadeth) has contributed to the album, in the opening song 'Sunrise'. He is of course a remarkable player, but since he hasn't been doing much with metal lately, what made you choose him?
Matt Johnsen actually wrote that passage specifically for Chris Poland. Chris has been one of Matt's favourite guitarists for many years, obviously because of his work on 'Peace Sells…' but also Damn The Machine and now OHM. Chris's innovative concepts and skill in executing them made this section of 'Sunrise' a perfect opportunity and we were happy to have him accept the invitation to perform as a guest. He actually sent us two different solos. What a professional!
Now that we're talking about guitar players, Matt Johnsen has put an outstanding performance and played all the guitars for the album. Are you going to hire a second guitar player for live shows? I think without a second player there will be a gap in the music, especially during the solos.
We would absolutely need a second guitarist to perform. Even then, we have to be very deliberate in selecting songs, because even with two guitars there will still be some gaps. Instrumentation, or rather lack of instrumentation, will be a strong factor in deciding the eventual Pharaoh live set list. Wouldn't it be great if Chris Poland came to jam with us?
That would be indeed something. But let's talk about something else. According to the song titles and the beautiful artwork I can conclude that you're mostly dealing with fantasy. What can you tell us about the lyrical concept? Is Pharaoh trying to deliver a message to the listener?
Fantasy, yes, but we are not singing about mythological lands and races, science fiction or that kind of thing. We are interested in escapism, because that is what metal music does for us. It unlocks our imaginations. It allows us to disconnect from the reality our normal perceptions construe and instead become part of a more meaningful reality. Our message to the listener is to do the same, tonight and every night.
I can imagine that the totally insane political situation in the world and the influence of the US-government on things like fighting terrorism and things like that would be a great source of inspiration for both songs and lyrics. Do you think that heavy metal should involve politics? In how far do you think the two can cross each other's paths?
I guess they can cross as much or as little as a composer wishes and of course you have the listener, the most important reagent in the artistic equation, who might project his or her own meaning onto a song that's completely different from the composer's own understanding or intentions. Personally, I'm not taking much inspiration from “current events” when writing for Pharaoh. My own sociological, political, and philosophical ideals would probably be considered extreme by a lot of people, which means they would probably translate quite well into heavy metal lyrics, but at the same time, I don't want to create something so fixed in reality. At least not right now. I'm not sure that using current events to illustrate my personal beliefs would be logical in Pharaoh. I'll leave it to the experts in Bad Religion and Napalm Death.
Cruz Del Sur is relatively a small label. Do you think they have the capability of giving Pharaoh the support and promotion it needs for an international breakthrough and maybe festival shows outside the US?
Absolutely. On for example Nuclear Blast, we would be a low priority band amongst the dozens on their roster. We would have nowhere near the level of creative control that we enjoy working with Cruz Del Sur. And for organizational matters, it's extremely rare not to have an email to the label answered on the same day. Of course, Cruz Del Sur does not have the same buying power as the major independents when it comes to high-profile advertising and other promotion, but more importantly, they genuinely believe in their bands on an artistic level and they concentrate on bringing every single release to its largest possible audience. This will help them succeed in the long run, because they will have a back-catalogue that has been cultivated based on its merit as art, not its conformity to a trend that has since passed.
The band's website www.solarflight.net is named after one of the songs on the debut. Don't you think it would have been better to put the band name in the URL? Because I think there is still a great interest in Egypt and the pharaohs, so when someone searches for 'Pharaoh', he can end up on your website and get interested in the music.
Ha! I had not thought about this. I think we decided at the time of buying our domain name that because www.pharaoh.com was taken, and we didn't want pharaohband.com or pharaohrocks.com (can you imagine?), that we'd just use our flagship song instead. Anyone who comes to Pharaoh looking for Egyptian lore would be disappointed anyway! It's just a memorable, powerful name.
Tell us the band's plans. Is there a chance that we get to see you in Europe anytime soon?
A small chance, maybe. This year we are going to make an effort in earnest to get into a rehearsal room together and see whether we are actually any good! There seems to be more and more interest in the possibility of Pharaoh as a live act. Both from our fans and from ourselves, so that is encouraging and we ought to give it a shot. Assuming it works, obviously we'd be very eager to greet the European fans as soon as possible. And we'll be looking for you, Nima, to spread the word to the Dutch fans! In fact, we will tell them ourselves that you are buying the beers for the whole crowd when Pharaoh makes its Dutch debut!
Which means I'm doomed and broke! Yikes!!! Thanks a lot Chris!!!