Talking with Jim Matheos in not just another interview with a musician. It mostly seems like having the chance to speak with the guy responsible for many introverted trips and conversations with yourself after listening to his music and reading his lyrics. Now, as the really great new album, called “Theories Of Flight” is about to be released he let us know a few things about its creation, about the band’s musical direction and about the status of the projects he’s part of.
Hello Jim. How are you doing?
It’s a great pleasure to have the chance to speak with you. It’s no secret that you have some really loyal fans here in Greece and I happen to be one of them.
Ah, thank you!
Let’s go straight to your new album. I consider it to be your best effort in the last fifteen years, meaning since “Disconnected”. How do you feel about it?
Yeah we’re really happy about it. It’s hard for me to look at it objectively and say if it’s better than others, but we’re happy with it. I think it’s a strong record, so ask me in a few years and I’ll tell you where I think it falls in the category of best or worst
This time – thankfully – it didn’t take you ten years from album to album, but just three. Were things easier this time around for you?
No I wouldn’t say they were easier, it’s always pretty much the same process for me. The big difference is that going after the “FWX” we knew we had to have a break for a while and explore some side projects and things like that. We didn’t know that it was going to be nine or ten years, but once we decided to come back to Fates Warning and do “Darkness” we knew that we wanted to keep going for a while and make this our main focus. It was a smooth process, we like that record and we liked the response. The band was on a really good vibe and we just wanted to keep that going, so the idea was to get this record out as quick as possible. Two-three years is pretty quick by our standards.
“Theories Of Flight” seems like a continuation of “Darkness In A Different Light” only way better. Could it be because the new lineup (with Bobby) is more cohesive now?
Yeah, certainly I think that’s part of it. Although it’s only our second record, we’ve been playing together with this lineup since about 2005-2006 I think, so a good ten years of playing together live shows we’ve gotten to know each other well and anticipate what each other want to do. So, it’s a strong lineup. I think this is a follow-up to “Darkness” but I agree with you I think it is a stronger record and a lot of it has to do with us being together for so long.
I can’t avoid mentioning that Ray sounds amazing on the new album. I think he’s in the better form I’ve heard him in years. Do you agree? If yes, why do you think his performance shines on this album?
I totally agree! For me, I would say it’s his strongest performance on record, and I don’t know what the real reason is… If you ask him and you ask me, there’s nothing that he’s doing different… Maybe he has a newfound confidence in his voice, he’s happy singing in the range that he is singing now and he’s not trying to hit those ultra-high notes anymore. And I like it better how he’s singing now… I totally agree I think this is a really strong performance on his part.
One thing I love about this album – and about Fates Warning in general – is that you never seem to be out dated. For example the vocal line in the chorus of “From The Rooftops” kind of reminded some modern stuff like Killswitch Engage. Is it just me or could it be true?
You know, honestly, I’ve never heard a song by Killswitch Engage, so it would be hard for me to comment on it. Personally, I don’t listen to a lot of modern music or at least metal music, so where those influences come from I don’t know other than to say that we’re always trying to reinvent ourselves and do something new and not repeat ourselves. As far as outside influences, I really can’t think of any that may have crept into the music.
“Seven Stars” is definitely a standout track… a potential hit in a parallel world, haha. Is it kind of your “Point Of View” in 2016? Is there still room for a hit single in this day and age of music?
Well, if you define single hit the way we did twenty years ago certainly not. That’s just another aspect of what Fates Warning does. ?n all of our records we’ve always tried to have the longer, more progressive songs, but ?’m also fascinated and interested in doing these shorter, catchier if you will type of songs.
It’s not a question of me trying to get a hit single or having any pressure from the record company, it’s just another aspect of the song form that we like. So, we explore those and we explore the longer songs. If this one gets some airplay or some video play or anything like that that would be great for us, but it’s certainly not what we intend.
Now that you mention long songs, where does your heart lie as a songwriter, in the longer songs or in these shorter songs?
I can’t pick, I really like both. They’re both challenging in their ways and they’re both satisfying in their ways. In some aspects I would say that the shorter songs, something like “Seven Stars” are harder to write than the longer songs because you have more confines in those kinds of songs, while on longer songs you’re able to stretch out a little bit and you don’t really have the requirements of any kind of form that you have to fill. So, it’s a bit more free.
So, I would say the shorter songs for me personally are a little more difficult, but I like them all. I can be just as happy writing or listening to a two minute song with no chord changes as I can listen to a twenty minute song that has a hundred different changes.
One of my favorite tracks is “White Flag” cause it reminds me every single day not to give up, despite of what’s hitting me lately. And it’s one of the most metal tracks you’ve written as well. How did this song come about and what does it mean to you?
Well those are Ray’s lyrics, but I would agree with you, that’s my interpretation of it too. He’s speaking specifically to someone in that song, but the message is the same as what you’re saying. No matter what life throws at you don’t give up, keep pressing forward and don’t give up, don’t let them know that you’re hurt. Just keep going and you’ll persevere.
Musically, I think that going into that one I wanted to write something heavier. Something to me that’s always fascinating to explore and challenging is writing a song where as much as possible you have two guitars on the left and right side doing different things, so that was the feature of the song for me. If you listen to it, especially with headphones you’ll notice that the left and right guitar are playing a lot of counterpoint to each other, that’s something that always interests me as a listener and as a writer.
How come Ray handled almost all the lyrics? With all respect to Ray – he seems to have done a great job – you’re one of the best lyricists out there, so I’d like to know what kept you away from turning your thoughts into words.
Well, thank you very much for the compliment. I do take lyric writing very seriously, it’s not just something I write down and just say “well, here’s the lyric, here’s the song, let me see what can I write about today”. It really comes the other way around, I have to have something that’s in my head that I need to get out. And when that happens and I’m happy – or I shouldn’t say happy – I’m willing to spend the time and try to get these thoughts onto paper. If there’s nothing for me that I feel strongly about writing, then I don’t want to be forced into it, because I think the result will not be up to my standards.
So there’s that aspect of it, and there’s also the aspect that I think is important as much as possible to have the singer writing the lyrics, because he is the one that has to sing them and interpret them. I’ve been lucky and I think that Ray does a great job, a fantastic job interpreting my lyrics, but I think he does an even better job interpreting his own lyrics. So, I like to give him the opportunity to do that and I think he’s gotten better and better over the years, I think these are probably his strongest lyrics and his strongest melody lines.
You’ve written lyrics for “Ghosts Of Home” that was the initial title of the album, while the track was called “Home Again”. Let us know a few more things about how moving all the time as a child had an impact on you. It’s also the most adventurous track of the album music wise…
Yeah, I think I knew going into the song that this was going to be the song that I was going to write the lyrics for and I basically had the rough idea of the subject matter that I wanted to explore. So I knew that it was going to have to be very adventurous musically and go through so many different movements to get across what I wanted to say.
Basically, what you just mentioned is the topic, me moving around a lot as a child and the last few years thinking about that, delving into it and asking myself questions about what kind of effect that had on me as an adult.
You know, these answers are more personal to me that I’m not going to get into, and the song after “Ghosts Of Home” is called “Theories Of Flight” and it basically asks a lot of the same questions that I’ve been asking myself and even in the song those questions are left unanswered. That’s for a purpose, I don’t really want to answer them, at least in public, I want the questions to be known but the answers are more personal and everyone can come up with their own answers.
The title of the album came from the artwork, but also is the title of the instrumental track that closes the album. How are all these connected?
Like I said, the “Theories Of Flight” song is a continuation of “Ghosts Of Home”, it’s an instrumental, it’s made up with the music and the spoken part where there’s someone asking basically a lot of the same questions I’ve been asking myself over the past few years about this experience of moving and being uprooted frequently as a child. Again, I wanted to place those questions out there but not necessarily answer them.
The way I saw this song coming together was seeing the questions being answered rather than verbally, by the music that’s in the song.
You seem to bend towards the metal side of your music. There are some of the most aggressive themes you’ve presented in the recent history of the band. How do you explain it?
Well, I guess I go through phases. I don’t know what leads those phases, but I’ve gone through them during my career. I guess if you look at it everyone goes through phases but I’ve gone through phases that were heavy, some were more progressive, some were more commercial… I don’t really know what the answer is to that, a lot of it has to do with a reaction to the previous thing I did.
Very often you’ll find that if I do one type of record, let’s say “Inside Out”, I want to go to a complete different direction on the next record and do something like “A Pleasant Shade Of Grey”. On these two records, “Darkness” and “Theories Of Flight” I don’t see them being as drastically different, but I think this one does approach the more metal side from the writing but a big part of it also is the production, it’s a lot more modern sounding, a lot more guitar driven so that adds even more emphasis to the metal side of things.
The new Fates Warning music is mostly guitar-driven, would you see keyboards coming back anytime soon? I still believe that keys gave a great atmospheric element on both “A Pleasant Shade Of Grey” and “Disconnected”…
I don’t know, I think again going back to what I just said I go through various phases, and those were phases in my career where I wanted to explore more with keyboards and then I got into the O.S.I. project which really let me explore that to full extent. And I have to say, honestly, I’m kind of over it now, at least for the time being. I never know what’s going to happen in the future, let alone to the next record.
But for now, I’m confident and comfortable writing for guitar, but I tend to write different guitar parts within a song, like we were talking about “White Flag” where a lot of the time the two guitars are doing two different things and I tend to keep that more with guitars now than doing a guitar and a keyboard, that’s just where my headspace is at this particular time.
Has maybe Bobby’s drumming affected the songwriting process and direction of the band? What’s his contribution overall?
Sure, I think it definitely has! Absolutely, for sure! Just like when Mark came into the band it allowed us to go into a more progressive almost jazzy influence sometimes. When Bobby came into this band that led us to go into a more metal direction for sure, there’s no denying that.
Maybe your collaboration with John Arch on the Arch/Matheos project has… awaken the metal guy (not the guardian, haha) in you. Could it be true?
That I would say is less true. Most of the music for that record was written before John was even on board for the project. In fact a lot of those songs were written for what was intended to be the next Fates Warning record, so really the directional change predates the collaboration with John.
“Sympathetic Resonance” was a blast! Should we expect a follow up?
Well, I’d certainly love to, I love working with John as much as I love working with Kevin in O.S.I.. Those are things that I really enjoy doing because it gives me a chance to do something outside of Fates Warning and it allows me to collaborate with people who I really admire and like working with.
Having said that, there’s no plans right now, it’s hard to get John motivated musically, because he has so many other things going on outside of his musical life, so whenever he’s ready to do one, I’m ready, he knows that but there’s nothing on schedule right now.
Really, how was it performing “Awaken The Guardian” in its entirety after so many years? If someone told you about it 10 or 15 years ago I’m sure you’d call him crazy…
Haha, that was fantastic! It was a great time for all of us. Not only fun to just play those songs for fans who never got to see us playing them, but it was also great fun to get together with my old friends and relive the past a little bit. It’s not something I would like to do for a long tour, but for a couple times it’s been great fun and a great experience. If you told me maybe ten years ago I might have believed you, but much past that I would probably have laughed at you…
Could we hope for a show in Greece as well? I know people here would die to see it…
I don’t think so to be honest. I would love to do it if we had an opportunity to do this show with that lineup. I would be more than happy to do it. For me it’s important that those songs from that era are played as much as possible with that lineup, but in particular with John on vocals. It just doesn’t feel right to do those songs with this current lineup and Ray on vocals, they are drastically different singers, I don’t think it works as well.
What’s O.S.I.’s status? Is there any new album in the works?
No, as I just said it’s the same situation with John. Kevin and I are both busy doing other things. I believe Kevin is experimenting and working on some Chroma Key material right now, so who knows… In the future I would love to do it and if it happens that’s great, but there are no plans right now. My main focus for at least the rest of this year and probably next year is going to be Fates Warning.
I’ve been listening to your two solo albums lately and they’re so great! Would you consider releasing another instrumental/acoustic solo album again? I think it’d be awesome.
Thank you! Again I would love to do this, it’s just a matter of time for me to do everything that I want to do. That’s another thing I would love to do and if I ever find time, we’ll see!
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of my favorite Fates Warning album, “A Pleasant Shade Of Grey”. Would you consider doing anything about that?
I would definitely consider it last year, when we did the reissue, which was a lot of fun and that was pretty much celebrating the 20-year anniversary. We talked about doing some live shows for it like we did for “Parallels” and “Awaken The Guardian”, but the logistics of it are very difficult with Mark being busy and Kevin being busy. So to bring it over with that lineup would be very hard at this point, and I’m not sure I want to do it with a different lineup. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s probably going to happen in the near future anyway.
I guess you must have noticed by now, that we want you to do many things! (laughs)
I do, and I appreciate that! I’m glad, I wish I could do more, sometimes I feel that I’m too lazy and that I don’t do enough!
There are already rumors that you’ll visit us later this year with Fates Warning. Can you confirm anything?
I can’t! I don’t even know where these rumors are coming from! I think it’s probably not a big secret that Greece is my favorite place to play and I think everyone’s in the band favorite place as well, so whenever there’s an opportunity that makes sense for us to come over, we’re glad to be there. But as of right now there are no solid plans. If we do tour for this record, for sure we’ll be back to Greece.
Before we close the interview, I’d like to know if you are into new progressive music, do you follow the scene or any new bands?
I really don’t! There’s a few bands that I still listen to that are considered modern, something like Katatonia would be considered modern and I’m in love with that band… But more and more what I listen to is really outside of progressive and even outside of metal and to some extent outside of guitar-driven music. It’s either acoustic music or keyboard music, electronic, all kinds of different things but I tend not to listen to a lot of metal or even rock really.
Thank you for your time and your music, it was a great pleasure talking to you!