June 25, 2012 in Interviews
A few months back I was able to talk to Theocracy’s Matt Smith about the release of their latest album As The World Bleeds. Quite a number of us here at BWM are huge Theocracy nuts, and so I was pretty excited to get the chance to talk with him. The audio of the interview is available, and below is posted the text of the interview for ease of reading (it may not be thoroughly proofread, since it’s so long). Hope you all enjoy it!
Listen to the audio version of Dagg’s Matt Smith Interview
So with the As The World Bleeds album, I’ve heard rumors that the songs came from the same writing sessions as the Mirror Of Souls album, is that true?
Some of them did. There was that big five year gap between the first two records. There was a lot of time and I wrote a lot during that time. The main reasons for that, I mean, everything from actually putting a band together, to record label, and writing, learning about recording, there was just a lot going on. Some of the stuff was written at the same time and some of it came after Mirror Of Souls, and there were other ones. I’m really bad about sometimes writing most of a song and not quite finishing it, so I leave it hanging around and move onto other stuff and come back to it later, so that was the case with some of it too, if I remember correctly. They were mostly written but not quite finished up, it’s kinda buried.
Is there still music kicking around from that time, or did get most of it out on the latest record?
It’s pretty much all out now, from then. There’s still some earlier songs that I wrote, because “Martyr”, from Mirror Of Souls- that was one of the first songs I ever wrote and demoed, then I sort of updated it with the band when Mirror Of Souls came around. So there were a few from that era, and there are still some ideas that are pretty good. I’ve got lots of songs from way back then that were demoed when I started to write, but they pretty much all sound like second rate Metallica rip offs. It’s the kind of stuff you write when you first start learning, it just sounds like all your influences. So there may be some stuff from there that may be worth revisiting, but for the most part, the slate is pretty much wiped clean this time, so we’ll mostly be starting fresh.
Talk about what kind of influence having a rhythm guitarist (Jonathan Hinds) and having Val Allen Wood playing lead guitar has had, how did that affect the music on As The World Bleeds?
It was instantaneous when Val and Jarod (bass guitar) joined, and they joined around the same time. Val makes the most obvious difference from what we’ve been before, with the way the solos took a leap forward. Same thing with Jared too: we’ve had so many bass players, but none of them worked out and it was either they didn’t have the dedication or didn’t take it as seriously as the rest of us for a number of reasons. So finally having a bass player we could depend on who would actually learn the material and was really into it, that made a huge difference as well. So immediately after those two joined it felt like, well it was shortly after those two joined that we toured Europe for the first time, so it felt like things went to another level right away. It suddenly felt much more like a real band, a solid live band, and that kind of thing. It changed the whole feeling of the band, and on the record they made a huge difference. As I’ve said before, As The World Bleeds wouldn’t have come out nearly as good as it did without those guys. It was everything from the writing, (even though I wrote the basics of the material) the entire songs in some cases. A lot of the songs I wrote parts of, and then worked with Val and Jon on. It was really great vibration. Even down to the recording when we just laid the drums down, we had all five of us there with live drums, so it had much more of a nice live feel. The record feels more live, and you can tell, and I think a lot of it is due to those guys.
So what would you say the biggest surprise for you was from the reactions to As The World Bleeds?
The biggest surprise for me was the success in the States. Traditionally, the focus has been more European, and the style has been more successful there, generally speaking. So, coming out, I got the e-mail saying we hit the Billboard Heatseeker chart and #2 on Amazon Hard Rock and Metal charts. That stuff came out of the blue, we weren’t expecting that at all, so the biggest surprise was the seeming change of fortune here at home, which is really nice. I guess really it’s sort of a step forward in Europe as well. Shortly before the album came out we toured there for the second time last year, and we all immediately noticed that it was much bigger and better. The first time even though we had a great time and had some great shows, it different show to show. Some cases we’d show up and be playing there with a few other bands and no one would know who we were, so we never knew what to expect. Whereas this time, we got there and the first show (in the Netherlands) was sold out. Every show, it seemed like the crowd was ours. We all kind of looked at each other and said “Wow, this has taken a step forward from last time”. I dunno what it is, if it’s because it’s because we’ve been there before, or because of the shelf life of Mirror Of Souls, or the anticipation for As The World Bleeds, or a combination of all of that. I would definitely say the biggest surprise has been the reaction over here, it’s been awesome.
Is there anything official on the reissue of your self titled debut album?
It’s probably going to happen sooner rather than later. It’s the next thing on the agenda. There’s been some discussion as to how in depth we wanted to get with what we did to the album, but we kno that Ulterium wanted to put it out. Originally we released it on a small metal label, and its long been out of print, but people are still asking for it, so we want re-finish it. Considering I did it all by myself and I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, the sound’s not all that great: I used a drum machine and stuff like that. At that point I said “I’ll have work done to it”. At the same time, I know how fans view albums as snapshots in time, and I’m the same way: a lot of times if you mess too much with things that people have a history with and hold dear, then they don’t like it. So we considered re-recording the whole thing and updating it as a band, as we sound now, because obviously we feel like we could do it so much better. But it’s probably just going to be Shawn putting real drums in and remixing it and to release as is, instead of doing the whole thing. That way we won’t be messing with it too much, but sonically it will be more up to par with our other stuff. We’ll probably also choose 2 or 3 of the songs and rerecord them with the full band, with our current day Theocracy approach to things. That’s where we’re at now, but we haven’t actually started anything, it’ll probably happen pretty soon.
How would you describe the relationship between yourself as a musician, and as a Christian, the lyrics you’re writing?
I decided early on upon the name of Theocracy, long before a CD was ever actually out. I was that kid who was constantly making up fake bands and fake albums while sitting in class. I used to always love that creative part of it. So I had the idea in my mind before it had a name, but I knew early on I wanted to make it a Christian band. First of all, I’m Christian, so that’s going to come through one way or the other on some level. Back in the day I tried to find Christian bands that did sort of what I wanted to hear musically and at the same time had that level of quality to their work, and I really didn’t have a lot of luck. As I’ve said before, I’m sure it’s not that those artists weren’t out there, I was probably looking in the wrong places. Those that I was able to hear at that time when I was looking were all, aside from some good classics, sounded like inferior versions of modern stuff that was on the radio, watered down or just repetitive and lame. So I thought there was a sort of a void there, and so that’s what I wanted Theocracy to be. I wanted the musical integrity and depth like the Queensrÿches of the world that I grew up loving, but in a Christian band, so it came together naturally. Within that framework, we do a lot as far as lyrics are concerned. Even on the new record, you take “Nailed”, which is a historical song, or “Icthus” on the first album, and then “The Gift Of Music”, which is much more personal to me, and then you know, “As The World Bleeds”, the track itself deals with larger concepts. I try to vary it so it’s not one dimensional, and hopefully that comes across as well.
When you sit down to write lyrics, what kind of audience do you see yourself writing to?
Honestly, I don’t even think about that, I have a high level of quality control, or I try to. There’s a lot of rewriting, and I think it’s the same with the music and I work really hard trying to maintain a certain level with the stuff. Being my own biggest critic and the biggest Theocracy fan, it takes a lot for it to get past, or to get my stamp of approval as it were. I don’t really think about what someone else may or may not think or like about it. In 2012 it’s hard to be, there’s no such thing as being completely original so I try to be uniquely derivative. So I try to make it where generally lyrically speaking, I like it best when it’s something I haven’t heard done before. Again, it may be my limited scope, but I try to write about stuff that’s somewhat unique. A lot of times maybe it has been done, for example the last album’s “Writing In The Sand”- there have been a ton of songs written about the “Woman And The Well” (Editors note: Woman caught in adultry) and that story, but from the perspective of one of the guys there holding the stone? I thought that was sort of unique. The same with a song like “Drown”, or “30 Pieces Of Silver” from the new record. They’re based on biblical stories: Peter walking on water or Judas’ betrayal. That’s how they’re framed, and then they take a personal slant of comparing those to situations in my own life or situations that we all go through, metaphorically. So, that’s really my biggest thing lyrically in general: trying to make it original or trying to put a twist on it I haven’t heard before. That’s not always the case though, “On Eagles’ Wings” is just basically a straight praise song, there’s nothing unique or deep going on there. For the most part I try to make it something a little bit different.
What always shocked me on the Mirror Of Souls album was the scream you pulled off in “Laying The Demon To Rest”. What was going on with the composition in that?
Not really any special technique, just a combination of falsetto and…I don’t know, I just kind of do it. It’s just ripping off Edguy or Iron Maiden, or any of those guys I listen to that have those moments every now and again, its not any more thought out than that. It’s funny because those parts get a lot of the attention in that people think they’re hard to pull off live. Those parts aren’t as hard to pull of live as far as more dense, words per minute songs where it’s constantly singing singing singing. The individual high and low parts aren’t that bad depending on the day. There’s definitely some stuff where once we get on the stage every night and do it I think, “why did I put that on the record?” I’ll be more conscious of that in the future, hopefully.
What would your reaction be to secular fans that might marginalize Theocracy for being so overtly Christian?
Well, it happens a lot and it’s bound to happen, even if you just peruse comments on our YouTube videos, you’ll always see a healthy section of that (Editors note: Healthy section of religious debate on YouTube? Say what?). By the same token there are a lot of fans who would give our music a chance because they can see the work that goes into it and can see the high quality level we try to maintain, and even if they don’t believe what we believe, they can respect that. We get all kinds, we get those types of fans, and we get the kind that are real diehards that are also believers and the lyrics mean something personal to them, which is obviously the most satisfying as a creator. Then, on the other extreme, there are those you mentioned who won’t take us seriously because of being a Christian band, and I think that’s more because of what they think that means than anything that’s actually in the music. That just comes with the territory: if you stand for something and put it forward without being ashamed of it, there’s going to be that section of people who automatically dismiss it because they think some other way. It’s always rewarding when people give you a chance and appreciate what you’re doing, but not everybody is going to.
You had mentioned that you had seen much more of a reception in the United States, I know you’re playing Pathfinder Metal Fest, and I’d seen you mention looking for other touring opportunities, are there any talks of a North American tour?
We’re actually talking about that now. If we do it, it’ll be really small, just to be safe, otherwise it’s really risky. We definitely want to do it, even down to our webmaster saying it goes hand in hand with US reception. He was talking about how our web traffic had gone up so much, and sending us the key areas in the States where we seem to get the most traffic. It’ll probably be, if it happens, 4 or 5 shows just to see if anyone shows up, and after that we can go from there. It’s definitely in talks, but I don’t know anything past that. We’re also going to play in the Vapuu Gospel Festival in Finland, Pathfinder Metal Festival like you said, and looking at going back to Europe again, with lots of stuff that’s hopefully in the works. I’d like for this album to have a nice little run, and honestly I’m thrilled with the idea of finally playing other places here in the States because it’s been, well, a couple of things. One, we’ve played shows, but they’ve been really spread out. We’ve played Orlando, Texas, festivals kind of randomly like that, but it’s been sporadic, and that was all before As The World Bleeds. I’m really excited about it, it seems like a blast to me. Anything where you’re going to fork over thousands and thousands of dollars to fly to Europe to take the merch and equipment over there, well, hopefully it’ll be less stressful and a lot of fun, and I want it to happen very soon.
With “As The World Bleeds” and the addition of the guitarist, there was certainly more of a focus on the guitar work. With the hypothetical fourth Theocracy album sometime in the future, do you have any inklings as to what fans could expect on that?
Not really, I have been thinking about that a lot lately, and I have been writing. But it’s all been very very early stages, so it’s kind of too early to say. So I don’t know honestly. I don’t like to go into it with a big plan, but sometimes it helps to have a general roadmap. With this last record, I knew I wanted it to be very song oriented and not, you know, like Mirror Of Souls and having the 24 minute title track. I wanted to get back to something a little more song-oriented, even though there were long songs on here. So I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to seeing where things go. The stuff I’ve written so far is just little: I’ve always got a big stash of riffs and melodies I’ve recorded as they’ve come to me or as I’m playing on an instrument or whatever, but they never have any context until I put stuff together. So that’s really all it’s been at this point: just adding to the ever-growing list of raw parts, and when inspiration strikes, I try to make something of it. Hopefully, those guys will be even more a part of it than they were this time, and I think only good things can come out of it. At the end of the day, no matter what directions we go off with it, we will always have the focus on melodies and drama, just like Theocracy always does. No matter which form it takes, I’m looking forward to it.
One last question that sort of was interesting for me: the chioice to use “As The World Bleeds” as the title track, could you talk about that for a bit?
“As The World Bleeds” was written in that period I was talking about: years ago when I was writing my first songs (“Martyr”, “Sinner”, and that batch and all those demos), there was a song on there called “As The World Bleeds”. It was something totally different, but I always wanted to put it on an album, I always thought it was a strong title. I had always had the idea of putting out an album with that title some day, and at some point, I wrote the title track, and even though I still thought it was a really strong title, it wasn’t completely decided. At some point, Emil from Ulterium Records and I were talking about it over e-mail. With Mirror Of Souls, it was never a question, because that was always the title track and that was how it was going to be. But with writing a more song oriented album focused on individual tracks, it could have gone a number of ways. After talking about it with Emil, he loved it as well and thought it was iconic. It also worked really well for artwork, so we all dug in and decided to go with that for the title track.
Is there anything else you want to say, other thoughts or stuff you’ve always wanted to say in an interview?
I think you guys (Black Wind) had the first review of the album that hit the web as far as I remember, so thanks for that and for the positive feedback your support for us and the album, we hugely appreciate it! The same thing to all the fans! Thanks so much for bringing this album to life: we worked so hard on it, like we do with everything, so its really rewarding to see the way it’s touched people and the way that people have supported it. It’s really exceeded our wildest expectations. Thank you all again!