This interview originally appeared in the magazine Sea Of Tranquility (Issue #6 – Fall 2000)
A Conversation with Jim Matheos, of the legendary Fates Warning
By James BickersIf there had been no Fates Warning, there would most likely have been no progressive metal. That’s a bold statement, but I believe it’s true. (And likewise, by extension, this magazine would most likely not exist. Sniff!) Although guitarist/composer Jim Matheos plays down his band’s importance in the development of the genre, the fact remains: Fates Warning is – and always has been – one of rock music’s most experimental, groundbreaking, and influential outfits. Their latest opus, the dark Disconnected, was recently released by Metal Blade Records. As with all of their prior works, it’s absolutely essential.
Sea of Tranquility: I’ve spent about a day or two with Disconnected, and my first instinct is that it is a good deal heavier than A Pleasant Shade of Gray. Is that intentional, or would you even agree with that?
Jim Matheos: Yes, I would certainly agree with that, and to a certain degree it was intentional. And as we usually do after a record, we sat down and said “where do we want to go with this one, what do we want to do different.” One thing we were all up for doing is trying to keep a lot of the mood of A Pleasant Shade of Gray, a lot of the dynamics, but definitely try to bring in the more aggressive areas. This took place a little bit in the writing, and equally or maybe a little bit more in the production.
Sea of Tranquility: I recently re-watched your performance at Dynamo, which Metal Blade recently released on DVD, and what strikes me about that performance is that the material from A Pleasant Shade of Gray is so sublime, it seems like it would be very hard to get that kind of crowd engaged into it in a live setting. Was that your experience?
Jim Matheos: Boy, that was a tough decision trying to figure out what the hell to do for that, because it was an opening slot and it was questionable what kind of crowd we’d have. We were kind of in the middle of the bill. So it was a challenge to figure out what to play there – we definitely didn’t want to play all of A Pleasant Shade of Gray. So we kinda spent some time and tried to figure out what would be most accessible for a festival crowd, rearranged it in that direction, closed our eyes and hoped for the best.
Sea of Tranquility: I know you don’t care to talk too much about the meanings behind your lyrics, but can you give us insight into any of the stories on Disconnected?
Jim Matheos: Well, of the seven songs, two are instrumentals, two of the others I wrote the lyrics for, two Ray wrote the lyrics for, and one we collaborated on. So the only songs I could speak to would be my two songs, one of which is “Still Remains,” the longer song. To put it in a nutshell, to put a sixteen-minute song in a nutshell, it deals with a lot of different aspects of the death of my father.
Sea of Tranquility: I see. And when was that?
Jim Matheos: Two years ago. And the other song is called “So,” and probably, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most straightforward songs lyrically that I’ve done. I think you can just read it and assess what it means, there’s not a lot of symbolism in there. It’s just kind of about me. I think everyone can relate to it, hopefully, just being at a point where you’re fed up with everything around you and you need to make some changes.
Sea of Tranquility: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you discussing the story of A Pleasant Shade of Gray. Have you ever spoken about that?
Jim Matheos: No.
Sea of Tranquility: Is there a story there you’d care to talk about?
Jim Matheos: Not really. I’d like to leave it the way it is – a lot of people have interpreted it, and a lot of them have come pretty close to what it is. This much I can say, which I think everyone knows: it’s about someone laying in bed through the early hours of morning and drifting in and out of sleep, dealing with different parts of their life. That’s pretty much as explicit as I’d ever want to get about it.
Sea of Tranquility: I would guess that the greatest frustration of allowing listeners to interpret your work themselves is watching someone get it completely wrong.
Jim Matheos: (laughs) No, that’s more amusing to me, really. That doesn’t bother me.
Sea of Tranquility: Do you spend a lot of time listening to fans – particularly on the internet, I suppose, this huge distributed fanbase?
Jim Matheos: I wouldn’t say I spent a lot of time on it, but I do poke around on some of the Fates sites, some of the general music sites. I find it pretty amusing.
Sea of Tranquility: And again, you never feel the urge to just jump in and rebuke someone?
Jim Matheos: I have felt the urge, more often in the early days, when I first got my computer a few years ago. I never did – I bit my tongue a lot, when I’d see wild rumors or completely wrong information. People talking out of their ass, basically. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’ve seen so much of it, it doesn’t bother me. And I’ve also seen friends of mine in bands who have actually responded to stuff like that, and it ends up being even uglier. It’s best to just stay away from it, remain an uninterested bystander.
Sea of Tranquility: I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of authors, and one thing they pretty much all say is that while they’re writing, they make it a point not to read anything, so as not to allow their style to be tinctured by anyone else. By the same token, do you make it a point not to listen to other music while you’re composing?
Jim Matheos: Absolutely. I thought the question was going to be “do I tend not to read when I’m writing lyrics,” because actually I tend to read a lot, but music I do try to stay away from, particularly anything which is close to what we’re doing, for sure, I stay away from that.
Sea of Tranquility: For instance, how long did A Pleasant Shade of Gray or Disconnected take you to write?
Jim Matheos: Both albums took about a year. A Pleasant Shade of Gray maybe a little bit longer, Disconnected maybe slightly under.
Sea of Tranquility: So for that time, do you try to keep yourself unaware… for instance, there are countless bands that are inspired by you guys, do you make it a point not to listen to any of them during that time?
Jim Matheos: Well, yeah, I can’t say I went a whole year without listening to music, but especially when I’m in the middle of writing, which goes in waves. When I’m trying to come up with new ideas, I really try to stay away from anything that’s current. And that’s not to say that when I’m not writing that I listen to a lot of current music, because I really don’t.
Sea of Tranquility: So to ask the question that you thought I was going to ask – do you read a great deal, fiction or non?
Jim Matheos: Yes, all the time.
Sea of Tranquility: And how much of an influence is what you read on what you write?
Jim Matheos: A lot of poetry that I read in earlier years probably affected my writing style. I can’t really think of anything I’ve read recently that affected my lyrics, subject-matter wise. Certainly style, though.
Sea of Tranquility: What’s the last great book you read?
Jim Matheos: I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, a lot of political stuff. Fiction-wise… I’d say that one of my favorite books, which I just reread recently would be Look Homeward Angel.
Sea of Tranquility: Let’s talk about your guitar style for a little while. I’ve been a fan of yours since Awaken the Guardian, and if I had to describe your changes in guitar style over the years, I’d probably say that you’ve adopted a “less is more” style, that you’ve maybe intentionally simplified your phrasings. It seems to be a leaner style, less showy…
Jim Matheos: Yeah, I think that’s really accurate, actually. And what I play now is more of who I have always been – it’s just in the past few years, maybe starting with Parallels, that I’ve really felt comfortable with leaning back and being who I am. Before, when we were a younger band and we were more competitive, perhaps, I felt more of the urge to be that other person that I’m not. I wouldn’t say I was faking it, but I was pushing it. And I wasn’t really comfortable with what I was doing. Since then, I’ve come to realize that I can say a lot with what I have, and that’s what I should do.
Sea of Tranquility: How much has your acoustic work influenced the change in style… and were you an acoustic player first, or an electric player?
Jim Matheos: Hmm… very very first, I guess I played electric. But I think the strong acoustic leanings come mainly from the fact that it’s so much easier for me around the house to just pick up an acoustic guitar, because there’s always one laying out on the couch. It’s always easy for me to pick it up and doodle with it, whether I’m hanging out with the kid or watching TV or whatever. Whereas the electric, I’ve got to go up to the studio and plug everything in, and it’s more of an effort. So it’s an accessibility thing. And I’ve always been a fan of acoustic music, so it’s always been a huge part of what I do.
Sea of Tranquility: Who are some of the acoustic players who you’ve loved?
Jim Matheos: God, it’s such a long list… but back in the old days I loved John Renbourn. I always loved Al Di Meola’s acoustic stuff even more than his electric stuff… Michael Hedges…
Sea of Tranquility: I would guess Leo Kottke?
Jim Matheos: Yeah, to a certain extent. And a lot of the acoustic playing by some of my favorite guitarists – Steve Morse, Michael Schenker, Alex Lifeson…
Sea of Tranquility: Do you feel that your mindset was different the times when you wrote for one of your acoustic albums, versus writing for Fates? Were you two different people at those times?
Jim Matheos: Yeah, I guess I would have to say that’s true. Just because I have certain parameters for whatever I’m writing for. Writing an all-acoustic thing is a whole different project than writing for Fates. I don’t know if I’m two different people or not, but I certainly have different parameters in mind, and try to stick within those.
Sea of Tranquility: What kind of response did you get from Away With Words?
Jim Matheos: Pretty good, actually. A little better than what I expected, definitely better than the first one. A lot of that comes from the fact that this one was promoted better, it was on Metal Blade all around the world, we got a much better response in Europe this time around. And we also hired an outside publicist to help explore some avenues outside of just Fates Warning fans, which was one of the things I wanted to do. And that was moderately successful.
Sea of Tranquility: So that’ll probably be the one and only Metal Blade album you’ll ever find in the jazz section of a record store, eh?
Jim Matheos: (Laughs) Yeah, or the new age section. It’s pretty weird – you can find it in a lot of places.
Sea of Tranquility: What are your feelings on your legacy – you have this tag of “godfathers of progressive metal” attached to you, and the notion is widely held that you and Dream Theater pretty much invented the genre. What are your feelings on the many, many bands that have been so thoroughly inspired by you?
Jim Matheos: I don’t know, I don’t think about it. We never sat around in the early days and said “let’s start a new kind of music!” We just took our influences and put them together, and this is what came out. If it influenced people or inspired people, that’s great, but that was never what we set out to do. Like I said, if that’s what it’s done, then great, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Still to this day, we just take whatever influences we have and try to make music that impresses ourselves.
Sea of Tranquility: Are there any of the younger progmetal bands that you’re particularly fond of?
Jim Matheos: You know, I don’t hear a lot of them, actually. If you threw a name out at me, I might be able to comment on them, but overall, I don’t listen to this kind of music much.
Sea of Tranquility: Well, when you’re at home or in the car, what kind of music are you more likely to listen to?
Jim Matheos: You know, I can’t really pinpoint any one style of music… Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree, Marillion, classical music, a little bit of jazz, lots of acoustic music. None of the CDs in my car would be anything close to what we play, or what Dream Theater plays.
Sea of Tranquility: I would imagine that’s the case with a lot of artists, especially those who have been doing it for many years – that you have to get away from the stuff sometimes.
Jim Matheos: I would think so.
Sea of Tranquility: I read a brief anecdotal mention of a reunion with Frank Aresti and Joe DiBiase during the recording of Disconnected. Tell me about that.
Jim Matheos: It wasn’t really a reunion, in as far as they didn’t play on the record, but they did come down and visit us. It was great. I’ve talked with Joe on and off, but none of us had really spoken with or seen Frank since he left the band five years ago. We just got in touch with each other a couple of weeks before we went into the studio and said hey, we’re only gonna be a couple of miles away, why don’t you come down. So they came down and hung out while we were mixing the record.
Sea of Tranquility: And do you ever talk to John Arch anymore?
Jim Matheos: I talk to John a lot less frequently than Joe and Frank… we’ll talk maybe 3 or 4 times a year, we’ll catch up.
Sea of Tranquility: At what album in your history were you able to quit the day jobs?
Jim Matheos: Good question… well, it didn’t happen all at the same time. Some of us were more independent than others at certain points, but certainly when Parallels came out.
Sea of Tranquility: And you guys live in different states now, right?
Jim Matheos: Yeah, I live in New Hampshire, and Mark and Ray live in Los Angeles.
Sea of Tranquility: So this is the FedEx style of composition?
Jim Matheos: Yep. And a little bit of phone, and a bit of internet.
Sea of Tranquility: And how does that compare to the way things used to be – everybody together in one room? Which do you prefer?
Jim Matheos: Boy, it’s been so long that we’ve been doing it this way. We’ve been doing it this way since Perfect Symmetry – it was the first record that was written largely through the mail. It’s been so long , I don’t really remember doing it the other way. But I don’t think that working together, every day in a rehearsal room, would be real beneficial to us. I could be wrong, but I’m not real comfortable with that style of songwriting.
Sea of Tranquility: Well, and Perfect Symmetry is one of your most well-received albums. So if that was the first one you wrote by this method…
Jim Matheos: You know, it was kind of a mixture, because at that point, myself, Frank and Joe were all living together. So all the instrumentalists were living together writing the music. Mark was in Los Angeles, and Ray, I don’t remember where he was – probably in San Antonio.
Sea of Tranquility: I assume you don’t ever revisit any of the really old stuff in a live show?
Jim Matheos: The closest we’ve come to doing that was a somewhat chopped up version of “Prelude to Ruin” on tour for the live record.
Sea of Tranquility: What do you feel when you look back on that old stuff, and the production quality of The Spectre Within and Awaken the Guardian…
Jim Matheos: I get a lot of flack for this, particularly in Europe, but I mostly look back on it with embarrassment. It just seems to me to be rather immature. And I try not to offend people with that – I always say that I can certainly understand that fans of the early material love it, and it’s special to them, but for me, from a subjective point of view, looking back on it there’s so many things that I would have done differently. I always relate it to looking back at a picture of yourself fifteen years ago – do you still look the same way, do you wear the same clothes? No, everyone grows and changes. And usually you end up looking at those things and saying “God, what a dork I was I”
Sea of Tranquility: Let me ask you one more question, and I hope this won’t offend you.
Jim Matheos: I’m not easily offended.
Sea of Tranquility: I know for a while there you didn’t grant any interviews.
Jim Matheos: Yes.
Sea of Tranquility: Why are you doing them now?
Jim Matheos: Well, mainly, I didn’t do any press for A Pleasant Shade of Gray And there were two reasons for that: one was that I didn’t want to have to explain the record, and two, it had been so long where the majority, if not all, of the press was being done by myself. So I was saying the same things over and over again, people weren’t getting another viewpoint, and I felt the other guys weren’t having a say, and they were getting a little lazy, to tell you the truth! And you know, the same thing has happened on this record – I said I would do some press, and I’ve done a lot of interviews for this record, and nobody else has done any. So I’ve said just recently that somebody else is going to have to start doing some. I think the worst thing is, particularly in Europe where there’s a lot of press and we do a lot of interviews, you’ll do thirty or forty interviews, and it’s the same questions with the same guy and the same answers every time. It’s good to get some different viewpoints in.
Sea of Tranquility: So you’re avoiding the Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull scenario, where there’s one guy who is thought of as representative of the whole band.
Jim Matheos: Well, I try to. I think there are still a lot of times when people say this is my band. But the other guys are equal and democratic partners.