The guys behind this constellation probably don’t need an introduction, after all we are speaking about a legendary vocalist whose voice graced three releases by Fates Warning during the eighties, as well as a guitarist who is still the brainchild of the same band. As I have had the opportunity to speak to John Arch before, and loved the last Fates Warning-album just as much as this new opus by Arch/Matheos, I said yes when the chance to chat with Jim Matheos appeared.
The news came in August last year that you had resigned with Metal Blade, but when did you and John decide to do another album together?
– I think it was basically around the middle of 2016 when we started thinking about doing another record. We spent a lot of time together working on the “Awaken The Guardian”-shows and the DVD and live album that followed. I kind of felt that John was itching to do something creatively again. It takes him a long time to get his voice into shape, and as he had done that for the “Awaken The Guardian”-shows, he was ready to start working and I cleared my schedule, Jim explains.
So these gigs were important in getting the whole process with the new Arch/Matheos-album, “Winter Ethereal” started?
– I think so. The main thing for John, is he doesn’t do this for a living. He does a project and then goes off into his own world for the next few years, and when he does that, his voice gets out of shape, and it takes a lot of time and work to get it back into shape. He worked for about a year getting ready for the “Awaken The Guardian”-performances, so he was in good shape. It was easy to set aside my plans for him.
What has been your role in bringing John back, both in the studio as well as on stage?
– You have two completely different issues there. Stage I would say, was a lot more difficult. He hasn’t performed a lot over the years, so it takes a lot to get him out there. It took a bit more convincing, and think a lot of this for him was due to finally being able to perform these songs for fans, who has never been to see them done live before, particularly in Europe. So he had that kind of desire going for him, but it took some extra comforting and pushing by me to get him to do it. The record is different, I think. As I said, he was pretty much ready after the taste of performing and getting the DVD and live material together.
The first full lenght release the guys did together, «Sympathetic Resonance» is already eight years old, but it appears that Jim is not a guy sitting around listening to old releases that he has been a part of.
– I don’t listen to a lot of the past stuff I do, so its hard to give you a current assessment of it. I know I was really happy about it at the time. Anything I do with John, I am usually quite happy with.
You speak about the two of you having to step out of your comfort zones on this album. Was “Sympathetic Resonance ” too much of that, the two of you operating in your comfort zones?
– That’s a good question! I would say, even on that one, we still pushed each other. That’s one of the things I like about working with John, we don’t rest too comfortablly on what we have done in the past. But I would say on that record less so than on the new album, where we really pushed each other. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and really wished to try some new territories. We did a little bit of that on “Symphatetic Resonance” too, but more so on this new record.
I guess it’s when you move outside the comfort zone that you evolve and learn something. What have you learnt from writing this album?
– You know, I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and it’s hard for me to learn new things, but if anything it has to be to trust Johns opinion sometimes more than I do. Secondly, when I feel challenged or uncomfortable, maybe thats a good way for me to explore new areas and try to push myself more into these areas that I don’t usually go onto. I guess that will be it.
As you say, you are a very experienced songwriter, is it difficult for you to trust Johns opinions instead of your own?
– Not so much with John, we have been doing this for a long time and have a very good working relationship, so there are very rare times when we have disagreement on something, and we always come to a compromise. But for the most part, if he feels strongly about something, I take that to heart and kind of reconsider my position and try to look at it from his point of view. He does the same with me, there are very few times when we disagree and almost never when we can’t come to a fair compromise that makes the both of us happy.
Asked about how the guys have pushed their boundaries for this album, Jim starts with what John has done for him.
– One of the big things John has done, is pushing me to write something like “Straight And Narrow”, a song that is really not in my comfort zone with that kind of tempo and that kind of heaviness. The song was something he was itching to do, and he pushed me to write something in that vein, which I wouldn’t normally have done. I am really happy with that song and I am glad he shoved me in that direction. That’s a good example right there. For him, me pushing him to do a song like “Tethered”, the acoustic ballad. He tried to deliver it with more nuanced, laidback vocals for the most parts. It’s something he is not comfortable with, or not the first place he goes to when he is thinking about writing or creating new music.
It’s funny that you mention “Straight And Narrow”, which is the first taster made available from the album. A bold move it seems, as it’s been a long time since you wrote something that aggressive and uptempo? Did you try to surprise people?
– I don’t think it was the intention to try to suprise anyone. John had this idea for a melody line and a title. He kept telling me about this idea throughout the writing process, and I think “Straight And Narrow” was probably one of the last songs to be written. So for quite a few months he was telling me about this idea, and that he wanted me to try to write something uptempo and pretty aggressive all the way through. I took that as a challenge. He wanted to hear something like that, and I wanted to deliver what he was challenging me to do. Challenging in a good way, not that he was saying: “You have to do this”. More that he said he thought I had it in me, if I was able to find it. I don’t think we ever looked at it as we were trying to surprise the fans. We really did it because we wanted to create music we wanted to hear.
The opener “Vermilion Moons” is a wonderful song. Was it an easy choice as the opener of the album?
– John usually leaves the sequencing up to me, and that’s something I am really happy to do and really get involved with. A lot of times on the past couple of records that I have done, wether it is Fates Warning, OSI or this record, I tend to write in sequence. “Vermilion Moons” was actually the first song I wrote for this record, and “Wanderlust” the second and for the most part it pretty much goes in sequence of the way I was writing the songs, with a couple of exceptions.
According to Jim, this doesn’t mean that he has an overview of how he wants the album to sound before he starts writing.
– I only go from one song to the next. I start with saying: What is a good opening song? How do I want to present this record? But I only have that one song in my mind, and I take one step at a timee. When I am done with that, I ask myself what comes next naturally on a record, and I kind of go in that direction.
He draws breath before he continues.
– I mean, this is a loose based concept, it’s not a rule in my writing. But it’s there in the back of my mind. When I am writing the fourth song, I keep thinking: What I have done before this and what will make the album flow nicely?
The album contains more than an hour of music, and that not so long after the last Fates Warning-album was released, another super strong record. There is a spark around these two releases I honestly didn’t excpect, do you feel particularly creative at the moment?
– I don’t. I look at both these records, and I agree with you, I am very happy with them, and I am surprised of myself that I have been able to come up with the material. But going into or during the process, I never feel overly confident or even moderately confident. It’s not till I am done with the record and it’s mixed and maybe even out, that I can say: That was a good piece of work, and I am proud of that. Up until then, I am really trying to save myself, coming up with an idea that doesn’t embarrass me. It’s a really desperate time for me when I am writing.
What is it about these albums that have surprised you?
– I think overall they are strong like you were saying, and they stand the test of time to me, obviously the new one isn’t out yet. Haha! But when I do records, I tend to very quickly find faults with them. Usually right after they’re mixed or right before they’re out, I can start pointing out things I wish I had done differently, that I am not happy with. This goes for everything gI have done, from the very first record all the way to these new albums, but with the last few records there are less of that than normal. Either my standards are being lowered, or I am happier with the stuff that I am putting out.
Asked how writing materal for Arch/Matheos differs from writing for Fates Warning, John Points out that the process isn’t different at all.
– I approach everything, wether its OSI, Arch/Matheos, Fates Warning or solo stuff the same way. It’s basically me going into the studio and casting about for ideas, hopefully I find something I can latch onto and expand on. The one thing I do with Arch/Matheos is that I have to get into the mode of this project. With Arch/Matheos we try to lean more towards the concept of “more is more”, while with Fates Warning, I naturally lean towards the “less is more”-concept, at least as far as prog is concerned. We’re not overly progressive or trying to show a lot of instrumental prowess. With Arch/Matheos I try to put those boundaries down a little bit, I know John likes to expand especially when it comes to vocal melodies, so it takes me a while to get those shoes on and feel comfortable with that, but once that is done, it comes quite naturally.
How would you compare John’s performance on this album to what he has done in the past?
– For me, I think it’s his strongest vocal performance in a couple of areas. One, his writing is a strong as it has ever been. I know he has made a really conscious effort to tone down some of his more wild vocal melody lines, trying to bring things down to a more mid-range area, rather than the very high singing he does a lot. And I also know he really tried to focus on having his tone sound a little bit different. A lot of times in the past, he felt he was very nasally sounding, so he’s really conscious about singing in a certain way where that wouldn’t come out and at the same time really concisous abot the way the vocals were EQ-ed in the final mix. Those are all things that led me to believe this is his best performance ever, that’s pretty amazing when you are speaking about a guy almost 60 years old.
There are lots of different musicians involved in the recording. What has this contributed to an already diverse album?
– I think that anyone of those people that played on one song, very easily could have played on another song. For me, the idea was to just bring in a bunch of different players and get different takes on songs. I had a master list of people I would like to work with, and once I got those reponses back and found out who was really interested and who wasn’t frankly, I portioned those songs I felt were the strongest for each person. A song I would give Joey Vera, might not be the same song I would give to someone like Shawn Malone. Although, I think if I did, it would be a cool result, but a totally different one that I had in my mind. So I really put a lot of time and effort into thinking which song suit each musican best.
From you answer, I understand that there were musicans that you approached, but didn’t manage to get on board?
– Yeah! I will leave it at that. It doesn’t make sense to bring up the names, if they didn’t respond or weren’t interested.
Is the length of the individual songs and therefore also the length of the album something that is outside of your control, or is it something about the way you think when you write that makes the album as long as “Winter Ethereal” turned out?
– I would say that the overall length of the album is in my control, while the overall length of the songs that are contained isn’t so much in my control. The songs tend to write themselves, and when I am writing for John, tend to write longer songs. Again I am going towards the “more is more”-approach. So I tend to send him songs that are long to start with, and then once he gets ahold of them, he never shortens the songs, he always makes them longer. Haha! Hopefully the music inspires him and he has a lot to say lyrically, or he likes a certain part and wants to hear it more so inevitabely when I send him a long song, it becomes longer. For me personally, I would prefer a record to be somewhere under an hour, but it turned out on this one that we had one extra song that we wanted to put on there, that was the song “Tethered” and it put us over the hour mark. We felt it was sequenzing itself right even though it is long, so we went for it. I know John tends to like longer albums, he always have more to say than I do, so we ended up with a little compromise there as well.
According to Jim he had a lot to say when it came to deciding the title of the album, while he has had very little input on the lyrics written by John.
– Occasionally, when John is here in the studio, he asks me if I like a certain word better than another one, or if I have a suggestion to replace a word. The title however, was a huge, long back and forth between John and I. It was probably the biggest discussion we had overall on the whole record. We’re talking about 68 minutes of music, and coming up with the title was by far the hardest thing we had to do. Haha! It came up because we were looking for a title for the song “Tethered”. I thought it was a good, fitting title for that song, and it really hit home with John. He loved it, and thought it really summed up the overall feel and the concept of the record. I was quite unsure about that, and simply wasn’t sure it was a great album title. We went back and forth for a month, and probably exchanged over a hundred ideas, and ended up coming back with “Winter Ethereal” being the best one.
John’s lyrics are open to interpretation and will mean different things to different people. What kind of feelings do they create within you?
– There is a pretty diverse section of lyrics on this album. I tend to like the more personal lyrics, so stuff like S”olitary Man”, “Tethered” and “Never In Your Hands”. Those are all songs that have more meaning to me, because I know they are coming from a more personal space. I guess all of John’s lyrics have that in them, but someone more brightenly and more completely than other one. For songs that aren’t that personal, “Wrath Of The Universe” and “Kindered Spirits” are also amazing lyrics, that latter more on a philosophical level.
What makes you continue to write songs and do albums? Do you ever get tired or is it a different process every time?
– Both! It’s a different process, but I do get tired of it. Everytime I do a record, it’s harder and harder to start working on the next one. Once I get fairly well into, it’s a comfortable place for me, and once I am done with it, I am extremely happy with it for a short time. Maybe that’s what keeps me coming back to doing it, the high you get when you are done with something. It can’t compare to anything else. To be somewhat cynical about it, I guess I can say I don’t know how to do anything else either. I cant’ do anything else. Writing songs is something that means a lot to me, gives me a lot of satisfaction when I feel its done right and it’s something about chasing that high and finishing a song that makes you feel complete.
Are you very critical towards your own work in the wake of an album?
– Yeah, I am extremely critical, and I think that’s one of the things John and I have in common. We are overly critical of our own work. I think that is one thing that keeps me coming back to it, the hope in the back of my mind that I will get everything right this time.
Do you think its possible to write the perfect song?
– Nah, I will keep trying, but I don’t think its possible. If I haven’t done it yet, I don’t think I am going to do it. But hopefully there are some happy accidents along the way, so if I don’t think it’s the best song I have ever written, at least someone else will, or will they will get some joy or comfort out of it.
Jim is not very positive when asked about the possibility of experiencing Arch/Matheos on stage again anytime soon.
– I don’t think so. It’s pretty much up to John at this point, he knows where I am on it. First of all, he has never really felt comfortable on stage, and I think he feels with the last couple of shows based around “Awaken The Guardian”, he put to rest a lot of concerns he had about not being able to perform live. He did it, it took a lot out of him physically and mentally, and personally I don’t think he wants to revisit that again anytime soon. Personally, I hadn’t played the material for so long , and hadn’t been together with that band since we wrote the music for “Awaken The Guardian”. Outside of that, it was just playing another show. It wasn’t a lot of built up tension or anxiety, just the normal amount I would feel when I am performin with Fates Warning. But for John, there was this added tension and anticipation of John Arch singing. He has built this myth around himself, or people have built it up. Can this guy perform live like he does on record? There was a lot of pressure on him, and I can understand why he wouldnt want to go through that again.
So it’s really not that different for you personally to do these kind of shows performing old material compared to when you do an ordinary FW-gig with mostly newer songs?
– Regarding the music itself, there is a couple of things that makes it more difficult. Technically it’s not more difficult, but structurally it’s more difficult, because a lot of the times with the old songs the way we created them, there really was no patter. Instead of doing something the typical four times or two times, we would do it three times or three and a half times. It took a bit of thinking to get into it again, it doesn’t come natural. Another thing for me, is the fact that on that record I play a lot of solos I don’t really play anymore. I had to get into that mood again and do a lot of lead guitar which I am not fully comfortable with. That was another challenge for me. I had to relearn everything, we all did. I had to go through old cassette tapes and old reel to reel tapes, everything I had to find demos of the songs. It took a long time to find out what the hell we were doing on those records before we could start to relearn the songs again. Once that was done, technically it’s not much of a challenge, it was more or less learning the songs that was the hardest part for me.
What do you think about the fact that metal fans tend to worship older releases while things like the last Fates Warning -album goes under the radar of many?
– It used to bother me a lot more than it does now. I kind of take it in stride now. In a certain way I can relate to it, myself. For me, the older stuff of bands is almost always the best, just look at bands like Rush, Black Sabbath or UFO. So I fall in the same category, although I would say that I am not as critical or as openly dismissive as some people are these days, but I guess that’s more a function of how social media works. So I can understand it, and it doesn’t bother me much anymore. People are gonna like what they like. As long as there are some new people liking what we doing, I guess I am fine with that.
What does the near future hold for Fates Warning?
– We just signed a new deal with Metal Blade. We got home last week from the last tour, taking a little time off to rest and recuperate and in a few weeks we will start working on the next record, hopefully out next year.