Matt Smith, front man of Theocracy, met with me recently for a talk about the band’s history, the acceptance of progressive power metal in North America, being a misfit, and about their outstanding new release, Ghost Ship.
Dave: Indie Mission Music is joined by Theocracy frontman Matt Smith. Great to have you here, Matt.
Matt: Thank you so much, Dave. It’s good to be here.
Dave: Could you share about the roots of Theocracy? I’d like to hear about how you chose the band name.
Matt: Well, it’s funny, you know. I’d been writing songs for so long, ‘cause all I’d ever really wanted was to be a songwriter. I had this vision of eventually turning it into a band. It was for probably four or five years that I had this in my mind. You know, I didn’t want to settle and I just couldn’t think of a band name. The word “theocracy” came to my attention by a pastor at church. I thought, “that’s an interesting concept and a cool-sounding word for a band name”. I was thinking about the meaning of the word and I thought, “well, what if—instead of a government headed by God—we made this a personal thing”. You know, trying to live a life by God’s principles—that kind of approach instead of anything political.
Dave: You had mentioned about being only a songwriter. Were you thinking about just writing the songs, but not performing them yourself?
Matt: Well, I didn’t really know what was going to happen with them. I mean, songwriting has been my passion and main interest. Performance and everything else has always been secondary. Really the first reason I picked up a guitar was so I could write songs, because I was already writing lyrics…I guess at that point it was more poetry. Even in school, I would make up fake albums and tracks listings and fake bands and things like that. (laughs) So, the creative part was what was always so appealing to me. And then eventually I liked the idea of starting my own band.
Dave: Well, you talk about someone who has talent. On the first Theocracy release, the self-titled, it was just you doing all the instruments and vocals. It’s great to be a multi-instrumentalist, but wasn’t that a stretch for you to record that album?
Matt: It was and it was funny because it was strictly out of necessity. Those songs were put down as demos. I’d finally written a batch of songs that I was really proud of. The other part of this was that I was always really into the recording part in the studio. I love the sound of records and the art and the mystery of making albums. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by that. So, I was just wanting to get good quality. I guess I should say good quality in quotes, (laughs) because it was pretty amateur at the time, but they were the best versions that I could do. There was a guy that I knew named Darren Blevins who had a small metal label in Virginia called Metal Ages and I sent him a couple of the demos to see what he thought. He decided that he want to release them as an album, so that became the first album.
It wasn’t envisioned as being a solo project or anything—I just wanted to record versions of these songs. I was growing up in the middle of nowhere outside of Athens Georgia, in kind of a farm country area. I didn’t know anyone else who played metal—let alone the kind of stuff we did. So, I thought if I want to record them, I’d better figure out how to do it myself.
Dave: It’s funny that you mentioned about where you live, because progressive power metal is so popular in Europe, but I really can’t imagine that the state of Georgia gives you a big fan base—how do you manage that?
Matt: Well, you would be correct. I’m in Athens—I’ve lived there my whole life. It’s a college town and has the reputation as a reputation for being a great music town. And it does have a great music scene, but it’s very much college rock. I mean, R.E.M., B-52’s: those are the big bands that have come out of here. As far as what we do, there’s never been any attention paid to us, but it’s all sort of worked out—I don’t really think about it that much or worry about it.
Once we hooked up with Ulterium Records, in Sweden, for our second album, Mirror Of Souls, they immediately concentrated on Europe as far as the touring stuff. We’ve played over there much more than we have here, but it’s worked out OK. You know, if I were to let my ego get out of control or something, when I pick up the local music magazines and there’s no mention of our new album coming out or anything like that, it could get a little frustrating. But, I really don’t worry about it because that stuff is all out of my control. We have people around the world who care about what we do and we’re very fortunate and thankful to be in that position. It doesn’t really matter where they are or how that comes about, we’re just happy that people listen.
Dave: You made a statement a number of years ago. Where you said, “I think the most creative, inspiring, and groundbreaking people in the world should be believers, [meaning Christians] and as a whole we’re seriously dropping the ball on that front”. Where are the problems and what does it take to improve the music scene?
Matt: Wow, that’s a good question. For me, that was really one of the reasons that I wanted to start Theocracy. Anything I say on this topic, I don’t want to come across as if we’re doing something that is lacking or filling a void or anything like that, because I just try to write songs. It’s not for me to say—I can only speak from my experiences.
You know, as a kid and a Christian, I was looking for bands that kind of had the quality that a lot of the secular bands had. I was looking for a Christian band that was intelligent like Queensrÿche—and bands like that, that I loved. I don’t want to say that they weren’t out there. They probably were, I just wasn’t looking in the right place. You know, all the heavier Christian music I came across, in that period, seemed to fall into one of two camps: it was either the death metal angle, growly screamy sort of thing, which wasn’t what I was looking for; the other was kind of second-rate rip-off attempts of whatever was on the radio. Like, really blatant stuff. You’d hear the first five seconds of something and it would be like, “Oh, this is trying to be the Christian KoЯn” or what whatever it was. It just immediately seemed second rate to me and I didn’t like that. So I thought, “What if I just try to write the songs that I would want to listen to; write from the heart and see what comes out naturally; try to approach song topics from a unique angle or something that I hadn’t seen done before”. I made a statement early on, which I’ve had to live up to for the rest of my career. I promised to never put out an inferior or second-rate track on an album. That’s really important to me. We try to put everything we possibly can into these albums and that makes it take so much longer. We don’t have a lot of material out there partially because of that, but quality goes a long way. I think people can tell when you’re sincere and put as much effort into things as we try to. It’s a cliché, but you really can’t worry about what other people think. Every day I’m so thankful that there are people who appreciate what we do and love the albums. You know, I’m the one that has to live with these things (laughs) and so it would be very tough for me to have something that I know is not quite up to Theocracy standards, quality-wise. All of these thoughts sort of coalesce when I think about this topic.
Dave: Since you spoke about the quality of the recordings and the length of time that takes: Your albums are spread so far apart—I guess it averages 4 or 5 years between them—has that ever made you concerned about losing your fan base, or are they just more patient than I am?
Matt: So far they’re pretty patient—we’re lucky in that regard. There are a number of factors. Part of that is what I mentioned earlier about quality and it just taking time. Then there’s the real world factors that play into it: jobs, travel, life situations. We’re all fairly close to each other—we’re all within two hours of each other. But everyone has different day jobs and a lot of the guys travel for work. Even trying to get everyone in the same room for rehearsal almost takes an act of Congress. (laughs) I always say that’s the hardest part of being in a band. So that slows things down significantly as well. It is frustrating and I know people get frustrated—I definitely understand that. But, I would rather have fewer releases, all at a certain level of quality, rater than saturate the market. I’ve seen a lot of bands that creatively just seem to burn out. That’s a huge fear of mine. I really do think that creativity is a limited well. There are only so many times you can go to that well without blatantly repeating yourself or kind of losing the spark. I’ve just seen it happen too many times.
Dave: We were talking about the wait between albums, but I guess we don’t have to wait any more, because the new Theocracy album Ghost Ship released October 28th. What was it like pulling everybody back into the studio for this recording?
Matt: It was funny because, you know, despite having been five years since the last new album and two or three years since the re-release of the debut, it’s taken so long, but it was also rushed. You know, because the label said, “Look, if we’re going to have an album out and do this tour, it’s got to be by this date” and so forth. Then it was like, well we’d better get cracking; these are the 10 songs that I’ve got so we got to hit the ground running. It was kind of rushed, but it was good. I guess the one kind of bummer about this album is that that, you know on As The World Bleeds, we had much more time together. Get in a room together and work out arrangements and work on the writing and things like that. So, I’d kind of assumed that the next album would continue in that vein. Actually, Ghost Ship, was much more like a solo thing again, in terms of the writing and the time spent it was almost exclusively me because of the scheduling thing. It happened so quickly. The only time we could get together was to work on arrangements a little bit, finish writing a couple of the songs, and for everyone to record his part. It would have been nice to have a little more collaborative time, but it just didn’t work out that way because of scheduling, but it was fine. Recording is always just a completely draining, exhausting process on every possible level. Many, many, many months and years with almost no sleep and mental exhaustion—everything you can imagine. I still find myself putting the album on—I enjoy listening to it myself. That’s a good sign I think. That’s all I could really hope for in this situation, I guess.
Dave: You’re almost making sound as if Ghost Ship doesn’t meet Matt Smith’s high standards.
Matt: Oh, no, no, no! I’m thrilled with it. I really am. It’s just so exhausting to get to the point where it meets those standards. But we got there, and then like I said, I still enjoy listening to it and that’s a good sign. Obviously I’m my harshest critic and it’s standing the test of time with me. I don’t know what it is about this album. I’ve gone on record many as saying that I will never say “this is our best album” or one of those typical musician clichés that you hear all the time.
Dave: All the time.
Matt: All the time, yeah. I’ll never do that. I never have and I never will, but I do think Ghost Ship stands up there, right with the others. One thing about this album is that when I play it, I want to put it on again. That’s partially because of the songs and partly because of the length. I think it’s between 50 and 55 minutes which I think is the perfect length for an album. On all of our albums I’ve tried to achieve that length, but always end up going about 10 minutes over. This time we finally got it right in that perfect sweet spot. You know some albums, you play them and it ends up being an exhausting experience. With Ghost Ship, I always find myself wanting to play it again. I’m very proud and happy with it.
Dave: Speaking about the length of albums, Theocracy often has these monstrously long songs. Many are in the ten minute plus range—you even have one that’s over 22 minutes! Do long songs tell a different story than a short one?
Matt: It depends on the song. It sounds sort of silly to say, but the song dictates what it wants to do and where it wants to go, as far as length and things like that. It depends on the approach and the story you’re telling. You mentioned “Mirror Of Souls” being almost 23 minutes. You know, I remember when I started working on that, I thought I was going to be eight or 10 minutes. Then it kind of kept going. As the story developed and needed to go here and there and then be wrapped up…it just needed that amount of time. And Ghost Ship, another cool thing about it to me is that we didn’t go quite as far in that long song direction. We have one that’s almost 10 minutes, but aside from that, for us at least, they’re a fairly reasonable length, which is nice. After certain period of time, when you’ve got so many long songs and you start thinking about live shows, there’re only so many of those that you can play. (laughs) It’s nice have a some more reasonable length material as well.
Dave: True enough. At some shows 22 and a half minutes is your complete set (laughs).
Matt : It’s true, its true. Yeah!
Dave: Something else that I’ve found when I’m listening to “Ghost Ship” is that it seems the hard songs are even harder and the softer tracks are even softer. I guess I’m thinking of “Wishing Well” which has Theocracy’s guitarist, Val, bringing out this awesome solo on the track. Was that something Theocracy was aiming for, or am I losing my mind and reading the album all wrong?
Matt: No, no, I think what you’re saying is accurate, but it wasn’t anything intentional at all.
It’s funny because I would say that Ghost Ship is the album that probably had the least preconceived plan, just because of the time. When I started writing I was thinking about doing this as kind of a concept idea. That ended up not quite working out. I didn’t want to force anything so I kind of put that on the shelf. So, I was writing these other songs at the same time that I didn’t know what they were to be yet, then suddenly we were up against the deadline. So it was like, “well these are the 10 songs that we have and these work well together”—that’s what ended up being Ghost Ship. It had probably the least amount of planning because I never knew what it was going to be. I don’t think that what you said it isn’t accurate, but it wasn’t intentional—it’s just how it came out, I guess.
Dave: On Ghost Ship you’ve included a seriously great ballad, “Around the World and Back”. Do you think this is opening up another side of the band?
Matt: I don’t know about that. I was a little nervous. You know, I love the song, and I didn’t know if the guys would think it was too soft or something, but they actually loved it—particularly John. He was attached to it right away and asked if he could play the solo on it. Other people that I let hear the demos, as I was working on the material, really seemed to gravitate towards that song, as well—they felt it was special some how. I knew it was solid and I was proud of it. I was happy that the guys liked it as well and wanted to record it. (laughs) As simple as that.
Dave: We talked earlier about how songs are stories—what kind of message does Theocracy want to get across on Ghost Ship?
Matt: Well, I think As the World Bleeds was often kind of harsh in its message, which I stand by as I think it was a needed message. That was kind of in the back of my mind and I wanted to do something, you know, maybe a little more encouraging or positive this time around.
Consciously or subconsciously, this album is quite uplifting for the most part and has that thread running through it. You know, there are themes that tend to reoccur here and there. I mean, the title track, “Ghost Ship”, was really inspired by conversations that we were having with people after shows. We met so many kids. You could tell that they were looking for a place to fit in. I could totally relate to that because I was never the cool kid at all—I was always a little bit of an outcast and I was thinking about that and how, throughout history, a lot of times it was the non-cool kids, the outcasts, misfits or the unusual people who have ended up making a big difference. You know, from a Christian perspective, that stuff is all throughout history—you don’t have to look any further than the disciples of Jesus. Fishermen, tax collectors and the most normal—quote unquote—unremarkable people of that time ended up shaking the world. And were used in such powerful ways. So that was kind of on my mind.
I was talking to a buddy of mine about the same thing and he said, “Yeah, you know, the kids of this generation are so desperately looking for a way to make a difference”. All of these things were rattling around in my head. That’s eventually where the idea for Ghost Ship came from: there is a place where all the dead to the world and misfits fit in and can be used in a powerful way. So, I wanted to write something as an anthem—that’s how the title track came about. There are other songs that are not too far off that thread: “Castaway” is a song about doing the right thing, regardless of consequences, even when you lose so-called friends for standing up for something you believe in; “Currency In a Bankrupt World” is basically an anti-suicide song; Ghost Ship carries this theme of encouragement and lifting people. If there’s any recurring thread on the album, its that.
Dave: And what about that misfit label? Does that still fit into Matt Smith’s world?
Matt: Oh yeah. Absolutely. (laughs) As much as ever. I’m just in my own little world doing my thing and fortunately some other people come along for the ride. So I’m thankful for that.
Dave: Matt, thanks for joining IVM for this talk. I really appreciate your time and best of luck with Ghost Ship.
Matt: Thanks for your kind words about the album, Dave. And thanks for having me in for a talk.
Find Ghost Ship from Theocracy at all digital outlets.
About the interviewer: Dave Hawkins is host of The Antidote, a syndicated weekly radio broadcast featuring interviews with innovative artists who share a Christian worldview.