Athens, Georgia is home to Theocracy and its unique brand of epic melodic power metal with progressive overtones. Theocracy started as a project in that founding member Matt Smith handled all aspects of the recording process of its self-titled debut from 2003, including lead and choir vocals, rhythm, lead, acoustic and bass guitar, keyboards, orchestration and drum programming. Later rounding out its line up with the addition of a drummer (Shawn Benson) and second guitarist (Jon Hinds), Theocracy signed with Ulterium Records prior to releasing its sophomore album Mirror Of Souls in the fall of 2008. Angelic Warlord recently had the privilege of interviewing Matt, who offers insight into the writing and recording process for Mirror Of Souls, the future of Theocracy and his views on the music scene in general as well.
I would like start by talking about the background of Theocracy. When did you develop the vision for Theocracy? And what inspired you to start the project? Also, what does Theocracy mean?
There wasn’t really any one moment where I decided to start; it feels more like I’ve never NOT been working towards this. I started writing songs in high school and always wanted to have a band, and eventually my creative endeavors developed into Theocracy. So in some ways, you could say the vision has been there since I started writing songs. A theocracy is a government ruled directly by God, and for us it means “Theocracy within,” as explained in the title track to the first album. In other words, trying to live by God’s principles instead of just living selfishly.
I would also like to know more about your musical background. What are your musical influences? And what bands did you listen to while growing up?
Everything from the classic Metal stuff like Maiden and Metallica to the more progressive side (Fates Warning, etc.) to European Power Metal (Sonata Arctica, etc.). I’ve tried not to copy any one artist, but I think you can hear bits and pieces of my various influences throughout my writing.
What led to drummer Shawn Benson and guitarist Jon Hinds joining the ranks of Theocracy? Do you plan to add any new members in the future?
Well, I had always wanted Theocracy to be a real band, even before the first album; it just took awhile to find other members. It was great when Shawn and Jon came along, because they really bring a whole new energy and dimension to the band, and I think you can hear this on the album. We’re looking for a new bass player at the moment, and I’d also like to find another guitarist so I can just concentrate on singing when we play live.
Theocracy recently released its sophomore album Mirror Of Souls. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us a bit more about Mirror Of Souls, specifically the writing and recording process.
It was painstaking and frustrating and long and arduous, just like every cliché childbirth analogy you’ve ever heard, haha! Seriously though, it was a lot of hard work and not always fun, but we’re very happy with the end result. We recorded it at my studio, and I gained a ton of audio engineering experience between the first album and this one (and especially during this one), so the two albums are like night and day sonically. But I don’t know if I want to do everything again next time, because this one almost killed me!
What are your feelings about Mirror Of Souls? Are you happy with the way the album turned out? And how has the response been so far?
Very happy. I still really enjoy listening to it, even though there are things I can nitpick about it that bug me now--but I think that’s the case with any artist. I’m not one of these, “Now that it’s done, I never want to hear it again” guys. When I write, I’m writing as a fan, and trying to come up with songs that I would want to listen to. So I really enjoy the album, just from the perspective of an outside listener, now that I’ve had time to step away from it a little bit.
What are your favorite songs off Mirror Of Souls and why?
Well, my favorite is definitely “Mirror of Souls” itself--that’s my favorite song I’ve ever written, and probably my favorite I ever will write. That one was a big deal for me--not just because it’s so long, but it tells a story and I think the music fits with the pace and feel of the story perfectly. I said everything I originally set out to say in that song, and I feel like it showcases all the aspects of our sound in a single song. I love all the songs though--if I had to choose a favorite besides the title track, I’d probably say “Absolution Day.”
How much importance do you place on lyrical content when writing a Theocracy song? And where do you get your subject matters from?
It’s very important to me. I’m always trying to make sure the lyrics and music complement each other perfectly, even in the beginning stages. Like the story from “The Writing in the Sand” felt like it needed to be powerful and mid-tempo, whereas something like “On Eagles’ Wings” worked well fast, majestic and energetic. The subject matter just depends; sometimes it can be straight stories from the Bible or history, or things that have happened to me or to people close to me. It’s just whatever’s on my mind at that point.
Give us some details about the cover of the album. What is the basic concept behind the artwork?
The cover was done by Robert Wilson (www.deathisgain.com), who really saved the day, because the initial artwork hadn’t really worked out. Robert did a character enters the Hall of Truth at the very end. I think it’s a great cover, and very much in the spirit of covers of the 70s and 80s that had a little mystique to them and made you want to listen to the album to see what it was all about.
It was five years between the release of the self-titled debut and Mirror Of Souls. What led to such a long wait between albums? And what challenges and obstacles did you face along the way?
Well, we got a lineup together and started playing a lot of shows, which of course took some time. The songwriting also took a while--I wrote a lot of songs during this period, and I don’t always write fast because I like to take a lot of care with the arrangements. We also built a small recording studio, and I spent a lot of time learning, practicing and working on audio engineering (both for Theocracy and for other local bands), because I wanted this album to sound extra great. And then of course the actual recording took quite a long time, both because the music is very layered and detailed, and because we all work full-time jobs in addition to Theocracy, so the time we were able to work on the album was limited. Finally, we had issues with another label planning to release the album, which meant almost a year of waiting before Ulterium showed up and saved us, so that was a lot of wasted time. Add all that up, and five years comes and goes pretty fast!
What led to Theocracy signing with Ulterium Records?
A recommendation from some other contacts put me in touch with Emil, the owner of Ulterium. He was a fan and really understood what we’re all about. Ulterium has been fantastic so far, and we can tell they really believe in the record. It’s been a great experience to this point, and they’ve really been working hard on the promotion.
What is in the future for Theocracy? Have you started work on the third album? And when do you anticipate it being released? Any specific songs you can talk about?
We haven’t started recording it, but I wrote most of it during the same period as Mirror of Souls. We don’t really have a timeline yet, but I’d like to release it not too long after this one, to make up for lost time. Whereas this album was kind of centered around the big, epic title track, the next one will probably be more focused on really strong standalone songs. Sort of like a Theocracy “greatest hits” package--not in a commercial sense, as we’re not changing styles or anything like that, but just as far as every song being really catchy and memorable. I can give you a few titles: “Hide in the Fairytale,” “Nailed,” and “Drown.”
What are your views on the current music scene in general? Also, how is the internet and mp3 downloads impacting the music industry?
Well, it’s definitely impacted things in a huge way. It’s a weird time for music right now...well, I’d say it’s a weird time for everything. There’s too much of everything--too many bands, too many albums, too much information all the time. You’re seeing fewer album releases treated as big events, because of the influx...it’s almost a “here this week, forgotten next week” thing, which is sad. And a lot of times, people have forgotten about an album by the time it’s released, because it leaked three months earlier. Very strange days we live in.
You made the following statement at the Theocracy forum: “When I was growing up, I wanted so badly to find good Metal with an intelligent approach to Christianity and an ambivalence towards trends, but all I could ever find in the Christian shops was either screamy bands (not my thing), bands trying to sound exactly like whatever happened to be on top of the secular charts at the time (embarrassing and second-rate), or completely shallow and repetitive fluff.” Would you please elaborate upon that statement. Specifically, how does Theocracy fill some of these voids?
Just by writing from the heart and having a fresh approach to things. I mean, we’re obviously not trying to musically re-invent the wheel here, and you can certainly hear our influences, but we also don’t sound like a copycat of any one band. We worked so hard on this album; it’s our passion and our lifeblood. We didn’t start a band because we wanted to be cool like so-and-so and make money. Our songs aren’t trendy, and our lyrics hopefully make people think about certain concepts in a new way. I think you can hear the struggles and hear a realness there--a human element that you don’t get from a lot of the typical Christian stuff.
Would you please expand upon the following statement you made as well: “I think the most creative, inspiring and groundbreaking people in the world should be believers, and as a whole we're seriously dropping the ball on that front.”
Yeah, I really believe that. I think Christians should be leaders in art, science, philanthropy, charity, and all kinds of good works--we should be good examples for everyone. Unfortunately though, that’s not often the case. There’s actually a song about that very subject written for the third album, called “Light of the World.”
I would like to close by thanking you for honoring Angelic Warlord with this interview. Do you have any last words you would like to offer our readers?
Just a huge “thank you” for supporting Theocracy, and for being patient with us during the long break between albums. We hope you enjoy Mirror of Souls and find it worth the wait! And it was a big honor to do this interview; I enjoyed it--some interesting questions, so thanks!