Even though it hasn't received tons of media attention, Theocracy's self-titled debut was one of the most exciting symphonic metal discs released in 2003 and garnered some votes in SoT's prog-metal album-of-the-year poll. And it's no wonder. Everything on this outstanding slab o' symphonic metal from the vocals and 70-track choirs; to the guitars, keyboards and orchestration; to the production, engineering and mixing was done by one guy: 26-year-old Matt Smith, who told Sea of Tranquility writer Michael Popke that he's been scheming and dreaming about Theocracy "my whole life." The album's overtly-Christian lyrics will likely be embraced by some listeners and disdained by others, but as Smith writes on his web site, "When you're dealing with the most powerful and serious subject matter in existence, you can't back it up with weak music it just doesn't work."
To find out more about Theocracy, the album, click here.
To find out more about Theocracy, the one-man, God-praising, head-banging machine, read on
Sea of Tranquility: What kind of response has the album been receiving? Has the response been in line with your expectations?
Matt Smith:It's actually been better than I could have hoped. Almost everything has been really positive so far. I had no idea what to expect. Of course, I hoped people would like it, but it seems that the people who like it really like it a lot and the people who don't simply don't like this kind of metal. I haven't seen very many "on the fence" kind of reactions, which is a very good thing. We're hoping to really take some
steps forward in European distribution in 2004, which would help out a lot, as the European response has been pretty big so far. I've been very blessed, and
am so thankful for the way things have gone since the release.
SoT: Your bio on the Theocracy web site says that you've always been drawn to heavier bands, specifically citing Queensryche and Iron Maiden's Steve Harris. What are some of your other musical and lyrical influences?
MS: Oh, there are so many. I don't really have lyrical influences, as that's pretty much a personal thing, but (Metallica's James) Hetfield was kind of a lyrical "teacher" to me when I first started seriously writing just in terms of how to phrase things, knowing what's cheesy and clichι and what to avoid in terms of lyrical style, and how to make things sound epic and powerful. So I took what I learned from him and kind of did it my way. And it's the same thing with musical influences. So many songwriters just blow me away that I could spend the rest of this interview going through them.
Edguy's (and Avantasia's) Tobias Sammet is one of the best songwriters out there today. He is a master of melody and knows how to arrange things for maximum impact. Tuomas Holopainen from Nightwish is another whose style I love. Tony Kakko from Sonata Arctica, same thing. You can see that my main influences are more toward the power-metal side than the prog side, just because I'm attracted to massive, soaring and majestic melodies. I do have lots of prog influences, but I'm not a good enough instrumentalist for that to manifest itself directly as much as it comes out in the long songs and unorthodox arrangements. But I love both styles, for sure. There are also some thrash influences in my guitar playing, specifically Hetfield and (Megadeth's Dave) Mustaine.
One of my new favorite songwriters, whom I just discovered this year, is Neal Morse. I don't normally go for lighter prog-rock stuff, but Testimony was the album of the year for me this year. His songwriting and the emotion portrayed are just incredible.
SoT: How would you describe the songs you wrote early in your music career? And what year was Theocracy officially born?
MS: The songwriting wasn't miles away from where it is today, but it was a bit more thrashy and immature. You start out sounding just like your influences, and kind of grow from there. Some of the songs were almost excuses to showcase 50 million riffs more so than actual songs with any real focus, but that's just immaturity. And the vocals were pretty bad, but back then I considered myself more of a guitar player than a singer, and now it's the opposite.
Still, I don't want to shortchange some of that stuff, because it was the best I could do at the time, and I think some good songs came from that period. But I wouldn't call that "early in my career" as much as "before I had a career." This debut Theocracy album represents the beginning of my career to me. I mean I've been writing songs since high school, but it's all been in preparation for this album.
SoT: Why do you think the other players in the early version of Theocracy eventually left to pursue outside interests? Are any of them actively making music today?
MS: Well, you have to understand that Theocracy wasn't really an "official" project at that point. I didn't have a name for the project or any real specific goals; it was more a case of jamming in the garage with your buddies, writing songs, that kind of thing. I knew that I wanted to take it farther, but those future plans were just dreams in my head at that point. So when other people I'd played with drifted away, it wasn't like there was a big meeting and a press release or anything. There wasn't really officially a "band" to leave at that point. It was just people growing up, moving, all that stuff. I know that the main guy who I played with is planning to go into the ministry and is getting married sometime this year. We still talk from time to time, but I'm not really sure about anyone else.
SoT: How did you go about teaching yourself modern recording techniques? And were you playing live gigs at the time to help finance your own home studio?
MS: No, but I did work some extra jobs here and there so I could buy some studio stuff. My recording knowledge is still growing and growing, and I just learned by trial and error. I started out with a little 4-track cassette recorder, then moved up to an 8-track, then to 16-track digital. I'm actually in the process of overhauling my studio right now to a full-on computer-based deal. But I just recorded more and more stuff, learned as I went along, and slowly got better at it. The Internet holds a wealth of information about audio engineering, and even though it's something you have to learn by doing, it's nice to be able to talk to those who have made a career out of it.
I'm also fortunate enough to be in a situation where I can get ahold of some fellow musicians whom I respect. I've gotten great recording advice from Michael Romeo (Symphony X), Tobias Sammet (Edguy), Thomas Youngblood (Kamelot), Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon). I'm a huge fan of all those guys, so it's such a thrill that they're willing to help me out on my own stuff. Plus I read up on all that stuff every day. I'm really into that side of it and trying to increase my knowledge. It's not something I would be interested in doing as a career, though; I would hate that. But for my own music, it's a lot of fun. I still have so much to learn about all that stuff.
SoT: Are any of the songs that were on the three-song EP also included on the new album?
MS: No, but there are songs that pre-date that EP by several years. "Sinner" was the first Theocracy song ever written, and "The Healing Hand" was one of the earliest, as well. "Twist of Fate" is also several years old. However, I do plan to include two of the three songs from the EP on the next album; I'll probably tweak a few things in the arrangements, but they're some of the better songs I've written, I think. It will be great to hear them re-recorded and sounding the way they should.
SoT: It's tough for me to imagine how you begin to make all of the disparate pieces of a Theocracy song come together and sound so majestic and complete. Take me through the process of creating a Theocracy song with all of those various tracks. What comes first, the lyrics or the music? How long does it take to record a song like, say, "The Serpent's Kiss"?
MS: It's a very, very complicated process. And it's usually pretty long and painstaking,
though some songs come quicker than others. I wish I had it down to more of a science, but it usually ends up being pretty haphazard. The music almost always comes first. I'll start with raw materials; I'm always recording cool guitar riffs I come up with. Or good vocal melodies that pop into my head. Or keyboard parts, whatever.
Sometimes I write stuff while playing guitar, sometimes while playing around on a keyboard, and sometimes parts of it are just in my head and I have to figure them out. So I basically record everything I come up with that seems like it might be usable onto a little dictation-style recorder, just so I have enough stuff to work with and so I don't forget anything. Sometimes when I listen back to some of the ideas, I'm like, "Why did I bother recording this crap?" But there's also a lot of, "Wow, that's pretty cool. I don't even remember coming up with that."
And then the way it comes together from there is different for different songs. Since you mentioned "The Serpent's Kiss," I'll use that as an example. I remember that the chorus just came to me out of the blue, and I literally started singing, "What we have done/What we have seen ..." or something very similar, which is pretty unusual because it's almost always just the melody at first. I think God must have had His hand in that one, since it came with words, too. And I remember I was like, "I don't even know what this means," but I sang it into my little tape recorder anyway, and of course later on I found that it fit perfectly with the lyrical idea I had. I remember the "Whoa oh oh" part after the choruses came to me when I was driving along one day, so I recorded it, as well. The main riff in the ending section, the Maiden-ish one in B that kicks in after the quiet part with all the voices and soundbytes, was something I'd come up with a long time before. Lots of the other riffs and musical segments in the middle instrumental were little pieces I'd come up with at various times.
Fortunately, somehow I can usually identify how a certain part needs to be used "That should be a chorus" or "That should be a song's main riff" or "That will be great in an instrumental section" and somehow certain parts end up gravitating towards each other.
Once I get a few strong parts working well together, I feel like I've pretty much got a song. It may be the main guitar riff and a chorus melody, or a verse idea, or whatever. And eventually, this shell of a song will start to feel like it belongs with a lyrical idea I've had. (I have a notebook that I write song titles and lyric ideas or lines in.) That's when it really comes to life and it just goes from there. I can usually tell what type of song should go with what lyrical concept. At that point, I can kind of start to see the big picture, and from then on it becomes mostly mental. "How am I going to get from this verse to this chorus?" That part can be really fun or really frustrating, because I always want to make sure everything sounds smooth and well thought-out, and that it makes sense melodically. It has to flow. So that's usually when I'll go to the guitar or keyboard and just work it out, working on chord progressions or whatever, and turning it from the skeleton of a song into an actual song.
It doesn't always have to be an instrument though; sometimes it's just a mental battle. I remember with the song "Theocracy," I was in a rush to get it done because it was kind of a last-second addition to the album. I had to be done writing in a couple of days, so I went to a park and just sat on a bench and thought it through, piecing it together in my head and dictating little notes into my recorder. Sometimes that's what it takes. So much of it is always mental. When I'm writing, I'm constantly thinking about arrangements. No
matter what I'm doing, it's always in the back of my mind, every hour of every day. I obsess over it.
Anyway, after I have most of the music squared away, I usually work on the lyrics. I'll usually have some of the key lines down by that point, but I still have to write the majority of it, and usually some of it comes pretty easily and some of it I struggle with. I usually end up with all of the lyrics written except for two lines or something, and they'll be at random parts of the song and I just won't be able to come up with anything good to fit the rhyme scheme, which is frustrating. With lyrics, I have to just kind of write a bunch of stuff and then come back to it later and see if it holds up. Usually it holds up pretty well, but some lines are like, "Um, no." So I have to rewrite a bunch of stuff, too. It's amazing what a fresh perspective does for you. It doesn't always work like that, though. Occasionally for a shorter song, I'll have the music done but will go for awhile not having a clue what the title will be or what the lyrics will be about. So that's always pretty scary.
See, I told you it was a complicated process (laughs).
SoT: How long did it take to complete the entire album, from conception and recording to production and graphics?
MS: My whole life. It took a year and a half from the time I started recording, but some of the ideas and conception and writing were taking place years and years before. It was like everything was leading up to this album, for almost as long as I can remember. That's why it's so precious to me.
SoT: What was the most challenging piece of music you created for the debut?
MS: Some of the faster lead guitar parts were terribly hard to play, because I'm not very good at that kind of thing at all. As for the writing, it's hard to remember at this point. Something like "The Serpent's Kiss" will always take a long time, just because of the
sheer magnitude of it and the amount of musical ideas that have to be molded into one flowing composition. I seem to remember that I really struggled with "Ichthus," but I'm not positive. It seems like it took a long time to fit that one together - even
though it's short and pretty simple. So you can never tell.
SoT: Do you think the strong religious imagery on the album will help or hinder it? For example, Neal Morse's Testimony has scored high marks from many fans who nevertheless say they don't agree with the album's message. Is it possible for music to overshadow lyrics? Are you concerned that may happen with Theocracy?
MS: I've had a lot of people tell me that they love the album despite not being Christian. I think that's great. I didn't create the album for Christians; I created it for anyone who likes music. At the same time, I'm not going to back down from my beliefs or what I want to say just to make people happy. But I think fans of this kind of music are a little more intelligent, a little more discerning overall, anyway. You don't see progressive metal on MTV or hear it on the radio. The fans are people who are willing to dig a little bit deeper and see that there is more challenging and intelligent stuff out there than the drivel on the radio, so that already says something for them. It's not surprising that people don't always dismiss it straightaway because of the subject matter even if they don't agree with it, per se. I've caught some flack for it, of course, but that comes with the territory and is perfectly fine.
SoT: What is the marketing plan for Theocracy?
MS: I usually let the label (MetalAges Records) handle the marketing stuff; it just isn't my thing and I've got enough on my plate with interviews and working on the studio and working on new music not to mention a full-time job. My main concern is that we get the disc into a lot of European retailers; there have been a lot of people overseas asking for the disc because they're hesitant to use mail-order. So hopefully that will start to change this year. As for U.S. retailers, you can find the disc in some small stores, but almost all of our sales have been Internet sales. Still, we're using a distribution company that has talked about getting it into some big chains, but I'll believe that when I see it. Who really goes into Best Buy looking for the newest power-metal release? U.S. fans of this kind of music are so accustomed to having to buy all their music online now, anyway, that unless you're Dream Theater or somebody, it's pretty much the norm. Still, I definitely want to make a dent in the bigger retail chains here in the States. It can't hurt.
SoT: What's the status of your goal to put together a touring band? What are the logistics of making this music come alive onstage?
MS: I've honestly been too busy to think much about it. I've been contacted by people from everywhere from Florida to California to the Carolinas to here in Georgia about playing, so that's certainly a good sign, but I haven't had time to jam with anyone or pursue anything yet.
SoT: What kind of timeline are you on? Have you already begun working on the second album?
MS: I've got some songs written, and a bunch of ideas. I'll probably start seriously writing before too long, but I'm trying to get the studio situation ironed out first. I want to have it set up so I can record as I go along and as I write instead of having
to drag it out so long. I want the next album to be done at a more comfortable pace; this
first one almost killed me.
SoT: Do you see Theocracy evolving along the same lines as a project like Ayreon, in which Arjen Lucassen does most of the writing, playing and producing, and then invites other musicians and vocalists to make guest appearances? Or do you relish the role of creating everything completely on your own?
MS: As of now, it's really neither of those. I would like for Theocracy to eventually become a real band where we could play shows more so than a "guest appearance" scenario. It was nice to have sole creative control, but having to play everything is not something I want to go through again. God's blessed me greatly thus far; I'll just have to trust Him to work it out in the best way when the time comes to take that next step. I have absolutely no idea what the future holds.
To keep on eye on Theocracy's future, click www.theocracymusic.com.