With every passing year, more and more people discover Theocracy and fall in love with their lyrically thoughtful and musically epic take on the genre of Power Metal. With the release of their fourth studio album Ghost Ship, Jesus Freak Hideout's own Mark Rice sat down with the band's fronman, founder, and lead vocalist Matt Smith to discuss Theocracy's history, share some of their experiences both in the States and overseas, and talk about some of the inspirations and stories behind some of the album's finest moments...
This interview took place on: October 3, 2016.
Click here for Theocracy's Artist Profile page.
Matt Smith: Well, in terms of actual releases, the first album came out at the very end of 2003. But I almost don't even think of it that way because it is all that I've ever wanted to do. I was a huge Metal fan as a kid, and also a Christian, and especially back then, a lot of the Christian Metal stuff that I was aware of was… not up my alley, I guess I would say. And that is not to say there weren't plenty of bands out there that would have been, but I just wasn't familiar with them. It was either too cheesy for me, or it was too growly, y'know, Death Metal kind of stuff. And I couldn't quite find something in-between that sounded like what I liked.
I always wanted to write songs. It was what I'd always wanted to do, even as a kid in school, I would make up fake bands and fake album track listings, and write lyrics, even before I could play an instrument. And so all that stuff sort of coalesced, and I basically kept writing songs and trying to get better and better at it and made demos and wanted to record something that I would want to listen to. And that is how it started, and then there was a guy named Deron Blevins, who is still a friend of mine, who had a small label at the time that was based in Virginia that was called MetalAges. And he heard, or I guess I sent him a couple of the demo songs, and he really liked them and he wanted to put it out as an album. So that was why the first album was very amateur, y'know, drum machine and recording was… iffy, and performance was iffy, and I didn't really know what I was doing because I was just trying to document these demos as I was writing them and that eventually became the album. So, yeah, I guess it has officially existed on disc since the very end of 2003, but it was in my head for many years before then.
Matt: Well, growing up, there was a lot of Southern Gospel in the house, and we would sing in church, which is probably where my ear for harmony came from. When I discovered Metal, I loved the power and intensity of it, and Queensryche was the band that really set me on a new trajectory. I was blown away by the complexity and intelligence of what they were doing, and it opened a whole new world for me. I got into some of the thrash stuff like Metallica and Megadeth, which formed my love of rhythm guitar, as well as more progressive bands like Dream Theater and Fates Warning, which introduced me to odd time signatures and unorthodox arrangements. I also discovered European melodic power metal bands like Sonata Arctica, Edguy and Nightwish, and I loved the huge choruses and goosebump melodies of those bands. All of these influences helped to form what I do today, and while Theocracy doesn't sound exactly like any one of those bands, you can hear the influences here and there.
Matt: Thanks! Yeah, y'know, it took forever to think of a name. Years and years I was writing these songs and I didn't have a name for the band, and I was just having faith that hopefully something good would click in my mind. And eventually it did, and it's... I think it was at church, honestly. The pastor mentioned the word "theocracy" in a message, and then at some point I started thinking, "What about this word in terms of a personal life or approach as opposed to a government?" Y'know, a heart ruled by God in the bigger picture as opposed to a country or whatever. And so I started to think about it in those terms, and then wrote the song "Theocracy," which was about that, and I just thought it was a great name. And especially nowadays as things have gotten so polarized politically and people want to put a political spin on everything, I'm sure that name scared people off as they think we're some kind of crazy radicals or something. But it's not that at all. So that's pretty much the story behind it.
Matt: Well, I always wanted it to be a band. The solo thing was sheerly out of necessity because, y'know, here in Georgia, especially [since] I grew up on a farm out in the country in the middle of nowhere. So finding anyone else who liked Metal at all, let alone the kind of stuff we do as a Christian band, and can play it was almost impossible, so I was like, "Well, if this is going to happen I guess I've gotta do it myself." So that is how it happened. And then shortly after the first album was released, I found out that Shawn Benson, who eventually became our drummer, had lived literally, probably about three minutes up the street from me the who time and I just didn't know it (Mark: Who knew!) Yeah, yeah *chuckles*. So I was introduced to him through my cousin who was a friend of his and one of our early bass players. And we hooked up first of all, and then Jon Hinds, our guitarist, he has been a big fan of the first album and lived in Atlanta, and he had contacted me about getting together to jam, and so we had him over, so by the second album, Mirror Of Souls, it was a three-piece. But I'd always wanted it to be a five-piece, and I was still playing guitar, and I just wanted to be able to concentrate on singing live instead of having to do both, because that is no fun at all (chuckles). So by the time the As The World Bleeds Tour rolled around, Jared had joined and Val had joined on lead guitarist, so I was able to leave the guitar stuff to those guys and just worry about singing live. So it was sort of a slow development to the full five-price thing, but I'm happy with where we are now.
Matt: Well, eventually MetalAges folded in Virginia. It was a long way between their first two albums, so once I had a few of the songs recorded, I sent a cd with, I think it was three songs or something, to various labels in the hope that some of them would be interested, And actually, I had sent it to… I forget the label now, but it was a different European label who said they couldn't take any new acts on, or wasn't interested or something, but the guy was friends with Emil [Westerdahl] from Ulterium, and he knew Emil was a big fan of the first album, and so he might be interested for Ulterium. So he put us in contact, and Emil was really excited about signing us up for Ulterium and releasing Mirror of Souls, and we've been together ever since.
It is nice because I… I guess it is sort of an old cliché about the artist and the businessman or whatever, but I could not possibly be less interested in that side of things, and my eyes glaze over at any mention of anything like that, so it is nice to have someone there in our corner who is legitimately a big fan of the music and loves it and shares the same beliefs, so we're all on the same page and he's been great, so we're very happy with Ulterium so far.
Matt: Y'know, I couldn't really speak to that because… well, we're heading over to Europe for our fourth tour over there, so we've been over there a lot and that is where most of our attention has been, but it has been very… well, all that tour stuff and whatnot is very organized for us before we get there, so I don't know, in terms of blowback and pig picture stuff [I don't know], but I would imagine that surely there probably is. I mean, when you think about the history and just how, even looking at the old buildings, I'm sure there is the same kind of butting of heads or dichotomy or whatever you want to call it as we have over here, probably, between traditionalism and more modern approaches, but I haven't really run into it personally with what we do over there so far.
Matt: Well, there are more of them in Europe for what we do so far. But that seems to be changing. There seems to be a lot of interest in us doing a full tour over here because we've only really done one-off shows, y'know? Most of them have been around Atlanta, but we've played in Texas and random places around. So we always kick around the idea of putting together something a little more large scale, and hopefully it will happen next year. Nothing too big, we'll have to start small. Y'know, it's tough because obviously the States are so spread out. In Europe it is a lot easier to plan things, and I think in Europe it is, at least historically, but maybe that is changing as traditional things like radio seem to be going away and whatnot, but it seems to be less trend-driven over there in terms of what is hot at the moment, and things like that. So the audience is… I hesitate to say "more dependable" because that sounds like a criticism of the States. But consistency, y'know? They don't seem to be chasing after whatever is popular at the moment very often, so we get to see a steady growth every time we've gone over, and it's been really cool.
As someone who has been completely not-tuned into the business side of things or whatever, that is a nice way to very specifically gauge the growth of the band, I guess. We went over the first time, and half the shows nobody knew who we were, or they were there to see another band on the bill. And the second time we went over our T-Shirts were all over the place, and the third time we went over, we were headlining and selling out and things like that, so it's kind of nice to go back to the same places and see a lot of the same people and get to see how things have grown. But, y'know, As The World Bleeds hit the Billboard Heatseekers chart over here in 2011, so I think things are catching on here to. And the shows we have played here have been great. It's just a matter of getting out and getting to the people. So, I don't know how much of a difference there is in terms of the individual fans themselves, y'know? I think we would have to have more experience under our belts in the US to really answer that.
Matt: Not at all. I actually like to hear that kind of thing because it is hard for me being in the middle of it to have any idea yet how it compares to past stuff. I would say this album was actually… probably had the least amount of planning or thought, in terms of what I wanted to achieve going in, or something like that. Because initially I had played around with this concept album idea and some things for that that I was thinking about doing, but I ended up pulling the plug on that because I just didn't want to force anything and it didn't feel like it was coming together like I had hoped. So, eventually it turned into, y'know, "We have to have an album out, so here are the ten songs that we've got." And they seemed to fit together ok. So here it is, as maybe previous albums had more of a… not planned out or whatever, but I guess I could kind of envision what they were going to be earlier on in the process. So yeah, it wasn't really intention. I do like the variety, and I do see what you mean. I know songs like "Around the World and Back" could be… or has kind of a poppy sound or poppy edge or whatever. But it's just the stuff that I came up with and felt was strong enough for the album. So that is how that ended up fitting together.
I guess if there was any intent or anything going in, I guess I did like having a few shorter songs and not so much super-long stuff since we've got so much of that now. It's like, what are you going to play live? Especially now we have to play "I Am," and that is one of the ten minute tracks, and then, there are only so many of those that you can fit in a set list. So I was happy that so many of these came out shorter. And the other thing I would say was definitely intentional was cutting the overall length of the album. I think it is between 50 and 55 minutes, which I think is the perfect length. I think when it is over, you kind of want to play it again. It is not quite as exhausting. And I know some people love some of those, y'know, double-album, 160 minutes, pack-as-much-as-you-can [albums], but to me, I like the brevity. That is the length I've shot for all four times, and I've always ended up going over, but this time we finally nailed it. Bus aside from that it's kind of what just came out.
Matt: Well, the thing that started out was a totally different concept idea, so it is really completely unrelated. And this ended up not as a concept album, but there is a theme that pops up quite a bit, and I've noticed this kind of thread… y'know as much as I love As The World Bleeds, and I love the messages and stand by it, much of it was pretty harsh. And I think it was a needed message, but I guess I like to change it up every time, and I liked the idea of following that up with something really encouraging and really positive and that is what was really on my heart this time. And Ghost Ship specifically, a lot of that was inspired by talking to fans and meeting people and meeting kids and looking for somewhere to fit in, and kind of the idea of the misfit and people who aren't cool like me for my whole life, how God can use people like us to do things in spite of ourselves, basically. And there is a place where you fit in and can be used for powerful things regardless of how you feel. And so that thread is most prominent obviously in "Ghost Ship," the title track, but it also pops up quite often through the album even aside from that, in a song like "Castaway." And there is a lot of that sort of thread of positivity, and encouragements of being able to be used in spite of not being one of the cool kids, so to speak. So that is probably the closest we've got to a theme this time around.
Matt: Yeah, that's one of my favorites. And actually, that one probably has one of the least "stories" behind in as far as any sort of inspiration or anything specific behind it, I was just… I like the idea of doing an anti-suicide song like that, and making it a story, but I wrote the lyrics pretty quickly (for me anyway) just for the demo so the other guys could hear it, and I kind of assumed that it was a little too cheesy, and that I would change it eventually before we recorded it for real. But the other guys seemed to like them, and I asked them, "well, should we change these, or do you think it's all right?" And the other guys seemed to like them, so I just left them as they were.
That was a really early one, so that song has been around for quite a while, so I'm trying to really remember the initial spark behind writing it, but that was really all there was. It was just kind of a fictional story, not based on anyone I knew, but just on archetypes and trying to get that message of hope and anti-suicide thing across. Y'know, when you are approaching a specific issue like that, there are a number of ways you can do it, and it is hard not to make it either really tacky or really overly preachy, or whatever, so the easiest way to pull it off, at least for me anyways, was to paint it as a fictional story. Maybe this is you, maybe this is not you, maybe this is someone you know, maybe there are pieces of you in these characters, but that is really how that one came together.
Matt: Yeah, "Wishing Well" was a… so we've done with Ulterium, we've done two charity songs under this banner called Project Aegis. And it's basically songs that I wrote that we recruited different singers and different instrumentalists, and we released a song and sold it with all proceeds going to… well the first one, I don't know if you know Pastor Bob Beeman and his Sanctuary Outreach in Nashville (Mark: Yeah, I think I've heard of him), yeah, so the first one went to them, and the second one was for homeless and refugee families in Greece, which is where Emil from Ulterium lives. And "Wishing Well" was originally a song that I wrote for that. I wrote it at the same time as one of the other songs, and I was like, "I think I like this, I think I'll hold onto it for Theocracy."
So, I started thinking about words versus actions, and I that this… you know the line "a penny for the wishing well", I was thinking about it in terms of wishing someone well, and how that's not even worth a penny. Like, it's worth nothing, basically, if you just wish someone well, and go on with your life when you run into people in need. And this is all…everything I write is speaking to me personally, and it starts with me feeling guilty or convicted about not doing enough to help. In this case, it was probably specifically homelessness, because that was what we were dealing with on that first charity song when I wrote it. So I was thinking about that and how often am I guilty of running into people and wishing them well and going on instead of actually doing anything within my power to actually make a difference. So I was thinking about that and that cool play on words that that was, and that song basically developed from there.
Matt: "The Wonder of it All," I liked the idea of writing a song that was nothing but paradoxes. Biblical paradoxes, like "The weak will be strong," and things like that. Y'know, I went through a list and was like, "Is it possible to fill up a song with nothing but these ideas that seem to not make sense or seem to be contradictory in the eyes of the world or at face value, but have a deeper meaning. And so that's what that song was.
I really researched it pretty heavily and I remember just pages and pages of making these lists of all these paradoxes and what they could mean and how they could be worked in. And again, with something like that, you run the risk of coming off as gimmicky and cheesy or something like that, but I thought it worked well. It was something that I hadn't seen done before in that way.
And then musically, that was one… well, some of those riffs had been around for quite a while too. That's one of those aggressive, thrashy songs on the album, and I like how it starts off just kind of nuts for a couple minutes in terms of the riffs and the drumming, and then it takes off in this big soaring chorus. So there is a lot wrapped up in that song, so I think people will like that one.
Matt: Yeah, "Easter" is my favorite. "Easter" is actually my second-favorite song that I've written. It'll be hard for me to like something more than "Mirror Of Souls" the song, because that was just such a big moment for me story-wise, because I'm not very good at characters and stories and stuff, and so, I'm still really proud of that one and touched by it, but "Easter" is right there too. I love that song. There are so many songs written about the Resurrection and things like that, but, I was thinking about specifically in the days immediately after the Crucifixion and the Disciples and the followers of Jesus and how the kind of hopelessness at the time… most of them had forgotten anything he had said about promises about rising again and all of that. I'm sure that seemed too far-fetched, probably, I mean, even though they had seen miracles and everything else. So I was thinking, "What would it be like to be at that moment of time and in that position where it seems like you've given your life for this, and you've followed this person to the dead, basically, and you were expecting a new kingdom and all of this, but now all that is gone?" It seems like it was a complete waste of time, "What do we do now?" It was for nothing. So I was thinking about that specific moment in time, and I wanted to write a song from that perspective. And I love the changes that it goes through. I love the middle section with the orchestration and then the big acoustic singalong at the end, which I think is kind of different for us, and very emotional. So that's the one that, for me, if I had to pick a favorite.
Matt: Oh, man. There are so many levels to that question. I mean, obviously, putting so much work into something like this, I want people to hear it, so people actually knowing that the album exists and having a good run, I guess, in the traditional sense would be nice. I mean, even now, it just kind of seems like this has been the longest space between finishing the album and having the first reviews come in or anything. I'm just dying for people to hear it. So, to have it continue to grow, being able to tour on it, more shows, have it spread around. And then the other side of that is having it speak to people. And as the songwriter and as the person who puts most of this together, that's what gets me going. Y'know, I like playing shows, [but] I'm not huge on touring. It's very stressful for me. It's a lot of day-to-day hoping I'm going to have a voice the next day and I'm gonna be able to get a lot of sleep, or whatever. Enough to keep from getting sick, and things like that. But what I always come back to and what makes it worth it every time is the people I meet after shows. Y'know, "Twist of Fate" made someone decide not to commit suicide, and "Laying The Demon To Rest" was "this song saved our marriage," and all this stuff people say that is like, completely mind-blowing from a songwriter's point of view, because, like I mentioned earlier, all I've ever tried to do is write what I need to hear and what touches me personally, and when you hear things like that, it's like "Wow, this is far beyond anything I could have pulled off myself." And that is really what keeps me going. So ultimately to me, hearing more things like that. The fans that I was talking about, people who inspired me to write Ghost Ship, and that kind of positive feeling, if I hear a feedback that this song… y'know, "Thanks for doing that and thanks for kind of putting this into words," and same with "Currency." Those, to me, are the things that make an album a success. For what we do, clearly if we were interested in fame and money and the typical things, we wouldn't be in a Christian Power Metal band, or whatever. So to me that doesn't play into it at all. It's all about feedback and all about the songs and being used to minister and speak to people in a way that, even as much as I hope that happens, it's usually just ways beyond whatever I can imagine, so for me that would be the biggest success.
Matt: Man, so many things. I guess the biggest thing for me is… and this is always the ongoing struggle of my life is that I'm such a control freak with things, and so letting go, trusting God… and I know it sounds like such a cliché, but people like me, that is very difficult. Whether it be drummer situations, are we going to have a drummer going forward for the tour, and is this going to work out? And I'm by nature a worrier. It's me just trying to control everything and making everything work so desperately. So, I guess trusting God and being able to step back and say, "Lord, if you want this to happen, you're going to have to do it and I have to take myself completely out of the equation and trust that you will provide a way for this to happen, if it is your will, and if not, then I have to accept that." So that's always the ongoing struggle for me, and whether it be, like I was saying, personnel situations with a drummer and things like that, or mores specific things with the album release or life in general.
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