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Interviews Theocracy

Interview with Matt Smith (Guitar)

Interview conducted by Caspian

Date online: May 8, 2009

Seeing as I'm not a particularly big fan of Power Metal- especially the ridiculously melodic kind that's often played these days- the idea of a proggy, melodic Power Metal band wasn't something that had me extremely interested. One quick download out of curiousity, though, and I was hooked! Theocracy do a thoroughly entertaining take on Power Metal; heaps of super catchy vocal lines combined with intricate guitar playing, all with a surprising (and very satisfying) emphasis on crunchy, melodic and consistently awesome riffing. Mirror of Souls was one of my favourite records of 2008, and Theocracy are a band that certainly deserves more attention. I had a chat with their guitarist and frontman Matt Smith a few days ago.

Caspian: Let's start with a really boring, clichéd sort of question. What are your influences?

Matt Smith: All sorts of stuff. Nothing too unusual. On the metal front I like a lot of classic bands; Iron Maiden, Metallica, that kind of thing, some melodic Power Metal, Sonata Arctica and the like, some Progressive Metal bands like Fates Warning. Aside from that I like a lot of soundtracks and a little bit of classical.

C: You obviously enjoy throwing some sort of symphonic sections around into your music. I'm thinking of parts like in The Serpents Kiss from your first album, it's a very kind of, I dunno baroque, very sort of epic bridge. What's some of the classical you like? Do you listen to a lot of it? Here's your chance to sound all high brow and pretentious.

MS: Actually, to be honest with you, not very much. The orchestral and symphonic stuff from me is more movie soundtracks, but even that's a small percentage of my usual listening. Normally it's just based off metal stuff that's been influenced from that kind of thing, more so than from the original source.

C: When I first contacted you guys, you were about to go on the road. Do you guys play live very often? Is Theocracy more of a live band, or a studio project?

MS: It's becoming more and more of a live band. We've mostly just played local shows around... We live in this small town called Athens, a small college town that's about an hour or so out of Atlanta. We've played a reasonable amount of shows around here and Atlanta, and recently we've started to branch out. We went a long while without shows because our bassist quit the band to go back to school. So, once he stepped down we didn't really play for a while.

But in the last few months we've stepped it back up; we've got a new guitar player called Val Allen Wood, and that's really taken the live thing to a whole new level. Him joining enables me to step away from an instrument to concentrate on singing live which is what I always to do anyway. It's a lot more fun to play now, and we've finally started playing shows outside of the local area. We're going to Switzerland next month, it's very exciting!

I feel our live shows are getting better and better and we're continuing to work on it. In the future you'll see a lot more shows.

C: You've got a very layered sound on your albums, lots of vocal overdubs, lots of guitar layers, keyboards, that choir effect (note: like Blind Guardian, not like a normal choir) that you're pretty fond off… How easy is it pulling that sound off live? Is there any reliance on a laptop off the side of the stage, that sort of thing? So, uh, can you pull all your layers off?

MS: heh, no, not all the layers. Live's a different thing, it's more about the energy, trying to make the songs work well on a live setting. We're not going to be able to pull out a choir when we play live; it's more about making sure the other guys sing the important harmonies in the choir section and things like that. I think the songs work really well live, a lot more stripped down, a lot more energetic, probably. But yeah, I'm pretty happy with the way our stuff translates live.

The only thing we really play back is the keyboard stuff, keyboard intros and stuff like that. Anything that we have enough people in the band to do live, we'll try to do it and not rely on any kind of playback. I don't like, you know, vocal playback of recorded choirs and stuff like that. I mean, some bands do that. But it's always going to be a little bit different live, so you've just got to do what you can with the people you have, heh.

C: One thing I was wondering about was the production on your newer album.. I mean, your first album was just you in your home recording studio and, well, you could kind of tell that (nervous laughter). But in this new album, well, the rhythm guitar is just absolutely crushing. I'm a sucker for great rhythm guitar, so I'm wondering if you'd be willing to get all nerdy about that, how it was recorded, etc.

MS: Yeah, you're speaking my language now. I'm a big rhythm guitar guy, even though I don't play it live anymore. I really enjoy playing rhythm guitar and love rhythm guitar sounds. And I'd totally agree with you, you can definitely see the difference between the two albums, production-wise. This new album was done in my studio too; I spent a lot of time recording local bands and practicing and doing demos and I just learnt so much in the time between the two albums and I think you can really hear it sonically. I went through so much stuff (guess he means equipment- Caspian) and on the record I think it was a combination of a Krank Krankenstein head and a Peavey 6515+. Those two amps were blended together and made the rhythm guitar tone. And I'm glad you like it, that's a good compliment coming from a fellow rhythm guitarist nerd (laughs)

C: Yeah, you were saying you love rhythm guitar, and that was one of my questions.. On Metal-Archives you guys are listed as "Epic Progressive Power Metal", that's your genre, according to them. With that kind of thing you'd be expecting some, you know, some 5 or 6 minutes solos, but you just really seem to prefer riffs; it's just riff after riff after riff, which is great. Yeah, I'm not really sure if I have much of a question here, just talk about how much you prefer riffing over lead guitaring, I guess?

MS: To be honest with you, it's more about my limitations as a player. That's part of it anyway; I get bored with guitar solos that don't add anything. I love a good guitar solo, but I never really liked the traditional thing where it's all "hey, here's the guitar solo break, we'll go off for a minute and then return to the sound after that". So it's a combination of that and not being a very good lead player (laughs).

Like, I was talking about Val, our new guitar player, and he's a sick player, he's an amazing player, you know, he's really young, he's just turned 20 and he's already off the charts technically, big into music theory and really into lead playing. But the good thing about him is that he fits right in with us, he doesn't force anything. I mean, he has chops for days. Probably a lot of people that age, a lot of younger kids feel the need to play on top of everything and show off or whatever, he's just fit right into what we've been doing, because he likes a lot of the same things I like in lead guitar, not stepping on the song itself and always playing things that are appropriate for the song, and, you know, it sounds like a bit of a cliché but in this case he's a very, uh, a very sensible player with a great sense of melody and always plays for the song, so on the next album I'm sure you'll hear a few more ripping solos, but there won't be anything forced, any solos just there for the sake of a solo.

C: Just wondering about your 24 minute epic "Mirror of Souls". I'm just wondering what your songwriting process is, and how writing the title track was all that different?

MS: The writing process... Well, I try to stockpile ideas. I usually have a mini disc recorder, or even just a cellphone, just whenever I have a melody or an idea, just recording it so I can remember it for a while. And then... Well, it's sort of done on a song by song basis. I usually have a riff or a melody that I think could be kind of an anchor, the main riff to center a song around of whatever. Then most of the time I'll think of... I have this list of lyrical ideas or something that's on my mind and I'll just go off from there. The title track wasn't really all that different from the others as far as the method... It just kept on getting longer and longer, that's all.

The only real difference was that with that one I was trying to tell a story, you know, a metaphorical story and just trying to work it around that. So that was a lot of fun, it was definitely challenging. It was one of those things were when I first had the idea, I knew it would be an epic song, fairly long, but I had no idea it would be that long. I originally thought it would be as long as Serpents Kiss or something like that (around 12 minutes) but the story was fleshed out and I realized that, you know, I needed to bring it back around and finish the story and I just had more and more musical ideas. It became apparent that it was just going to go on and on, so, well, it was just a matter of making sure that it flowed well and felt cohesive but that it didn't feel repetitive. You know the old trick, if you're going to write a long song make sure it doesn't feel long.

C: Are you guys playing that live often, or just segments of it?

MS: We've played part 3 of it; the last 8 minutes or so, we've played that a couple of times and we've played the full thing one time at a local headlining show we did, and it actually went pretty well, you know, considering the length. It's always tricky, you know, playing a song that long, especially when people don't know it. So it's pretty risky, but this time it seemed to go pretty well. Our next couple of shows we don't really have the set time to play the whole thing and play the other stuff we want to play, but we don't want to leave it out completely. So we'll probably just go back to doing the 3rd part of it like we've done before. But I'm sure in the future we'll pull the whole thing out again, hopefully (laughs).

C: Yeah, do you find that when you're playing live you prefer your shorter, punchier songs or those ones with the big instrumental sections?

MS: It just depends on the audience. Especially for a small band like us, I mean we're playing a vast variety of shows, from festivals to, you know, really small local shows. I think you have to gauge it by what you expect the audience to be like. If you know you're going to play to a bunch of school kids at some underage place or whatever you don't necessarily want to whip out all the 12 minute or 20 minute songs, because they're going to get bored. Whereas if it's a show were you going to have a lot of your fans there who expect to hear certain things then you can tailor it around that. But at the point where we are now, where we're still a fairly small band and still trying to grow the thing, well it's sort of by a case to case basis.

C: A bit of a controversial question, maybe: How well do you think Christianity fits in with metal? In my opinion the more aggressive genres like Black Metal and Death Metal, it kind of clashes with what's meant to be, you know, a peaceful, loving religion, "Blessed are the Meek" etc. Do you think this still applies, at some level, to your music? Do you think it applies at all? Can the aggressive, individualistic strains of metal ever really work in harmony with Christian lyrics?

MS: Good question. I think so, I definitely think so. I just think it depends on the way it's done and the way it's presented. I agree with you on a lot of those styles. It seems.. Well, it's a band to band thing, depends how it's done, but a lot of it seems forced or it doesn't fit. I think it really depends on what you write about and how you approach it.

Christian life has struggles and questions.. Anybody who thinks that Christianity is just happiness and roses hasn't really done their homework, because there's a lot of tough things about it too, and a lot of natural questions. I think it's just about the way it's presented; I mean no one wants to think they're sung down to from some sort of pedestal. I think... I think I've said this before but it's really about honesty. You know, fans in general, no matter where they're coming from, they appreciate honesty. A lot of feedback from our stuff, even from people who aren't Christians or don't relate to what we write about, they appreciate the way it's done, they appreciate that they're not, I guess, belittled. The songs are about different aspects and ideas and, you know, I'm big on the idea of trying to make music and lyrics fit together real well.

So when I have a lyrical idea, like, say, the lyrics for "On Eagles Wings" which is basically just a praise song, more or less being happy and thankful kind of thing, that song wouldn't work over, say, a slow and droning musical base whereas "Laying the Demon to Rest" or something like that might. I guess I'm not, uh, super qualified to write an opinion on it because I wrote the song, but in our case I think it sits very naturally, to answer your question, yeah, I'm very big on trying to make sure that that's the case, no matter the lyrical content. But I agree with you, when you get bands screaming incomprehensibly "Jesus loves you" it comes off as a little hokey or weird, but I definitely think you can do it right as long as you use common sense about it.

C: The other thing I was kind of asking was metal, even if it's very melodic stuff like yours, it's a pretty harsh sounding genre. In a way, would you say that's inherently anti-Christian? Would you say just music can be inherently anti-Christian?

MS: I don't think so. I don't feel like music in and of itself can be, well, it can be emotional, but I don't think music by itself can be good or evil, if it's strictly music, in terms of any style. I can see where you're coming from and what you mean, but being a metal fan that's what I've listened to my whole life, and to me, well, I just like the melodic stuff, so to me I don't see it as harsh or nihilistic or anything like it. It just gets me pumped, it gets me excited and gets the adrenaline going in a good way. So for me I see is a positive thing, but then again I'm big on melodies so I'm not listening to much of the super harsh stuff. But I think it's what you do with it, I don't think it can be inherently evil or inherently good. I think it's up to the creators, and their intent, and how they mould it into the bigger picture.

C: Talking about lyrics, I've noticed you seem to prefer narratives, like in Healing Hand, Eagles Wings, the title track on your newest, most of your songs tend to tell stories more than most modern writers. So just wondering if you have any particularly special lyrical influences?

MS: To be honest with you, the only guy who ever, when I was young, the only guy I would really say was a lyrical influence was James Hetfield. And that was more, even though subject matter and style is obviously different, it was just the way he would phrase things. I'm sure I've been subconsciously influenced by others writers and stuff like that but out of all the bands I've liked he's the only one I actually took cues from as far as, well, I can't think of any specific examples, but it's just like "If I phrased this like this, it won't sound as powerful as if I were to phrase it this way", just things like that, as far as things like word choice and turns of phrase, that's really the only influence I can name consciously. But that being said, there's load of lyricists who I love and appreciate what they do.

C: I've always felt Hetfield was a pretty underrated lyricist. I don't know, I'm a pretty huge Hetfield fan myself, but he never seemed to get any attention for it, even though he's really effective at what he does. Maybe not the new album though...

MS: I agree, especially back in the day. And Justice for All, and that sort of era. It was just.. the way the lyrics were phrased really fit the power of the music. I guess that's what I was trying to say; that's what I was trying to do. Sometimes you'll hear a band were, you know, it just sounds silly together, the lyrics and the music. You know, like if you're trying to have this big, bombastic and epic sounding music, you want to the lyrics to sound, you know, big, epic and bombastic.

C: Well, I guess that's it, I'm out of questions. So, if you have anything to say to Metal Crypt readers, I guess now's your chance.

MS: Awesome. Well, just thanks to everybody for the positive feedback, and uh, thanks for checking it out, hope you enjoy it, and thanks to you guys for getting up early in the morning and giving me a call.

Other information about Theocracy on this site
Review: Theocracy
Review: Mirror of Souls
Review: Ghost Ship
Review: Ghost Ship

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