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Fates Warning’s Jim Matheos Talks ‘Theories of Flight’ Album, Writing Process + Performing With Different Lineups

Photo By: Stephanie Cabral
Photo By: Stephanie Cabral

Fates Warning have released their 12th studio album, Theories of Flight, one of the finest albums in the progressive metal act’s 30-plus-year career. We had the opportunity to speak with lone remaining founding member, chief songwriter and producer, Jim Matheos. In this interview, he discussed writing alone and his growing comfort as a producer in the studio as well as what it was like putting forth incredible personal lyrics and more. Check out the chat below:

You’ve admittedly struggled to get out of the gate when it comes time to start writing the album. What were the first songs that you wrote for Theories of Flight and how do they steer the direction for the rest of the album?

Well, yeah they definitely usually steer the rest of the direction. I think I’ve said that before — the first couple… Basically, what you said. The first couple are the hardest to get started and that kind of makes the process a little bit easier and it also points in the direction. I tend to write in sequence, almost all the time. The first two songs I think were “From the Rooftops” and “Seven Stars,” if I remember correctly.

This is what you did for the Arch / Matheos album, too.

Yeah, I like doing that. It helps me get pointed in the right direction and if I close my eyes and think about what I want to hear as an opener for a record and just kind of set the arc for the whole thing from the beginning to the end in my head. It helps me actually. So even though it’s hard to get started, if I have that little bit of format in my head it helps me.

We get a sense of stream of consciousness through your writing of the songs on the album as they’re presented in the order that you wrote them.

Yeah that’s kind of cool and I hope that it’s becoming less frequency these days and I hope that there are some people out there that do listen to records from beginning to end because it is written that way. A lot of times, it’s not written exactly in sequence, there’s a lot of time thinking about sequence when it comes to mastering, so I am still one of those people that likes to listen from front to end.

I don’t like getting everything on the first listen. I like being able to come back and find new things every time.

Those are the records that usually stick with you. For me too. For people that I like, those are the ones that I come back to — even if it doesn’t grab you the first listen, there is something about it that wants you to keep coming back to it and after a while it finally clicks with you.

On this album, there are parts that have an immediate impact on a lot of hooky lines, but there’s so much subtlety going on and the duality of the guitars is something that floors me every time I listen. Especially on “Seven Stars.” Do you have a specific way that you write for each guitar track? One will stop, the other will pick up, it’s kind of like a never-ending state of motion. One is forward, one is behind…

That’s cool. I don’t have a specific way I do that. I’m glad you picked up on that because I spent a lot of time on it. Something I really think is, I wouldn’t say is unique to us, but it is something I try to put it into all of the songs and make the guitar parts more interesting for me as a player and writer and hopefully for people that catch things like that like you did.

It might have to do with the fact that I am not writing for keyboards so much. There was a period in Fates maybe from A Pleasant Shade of Gray and even a little bit on Inside Out where I was a bit more dabbling in keyboards. Then I wanted to start with the last record, Darkness in Different Light, come back to writing for two guitars, but I think I took a lot of those parts that I would have been writing for keyboard and arranged them for guitar. So what you have is a lot of counterpoint guitar parts going on, like you said, some playing in wholes and some playing around each other.

That must be hard to develop considering the rest of the band is spread out across the country and you’re not getting into a room jamming everything out every week. What’s that like for you, trying to develop that more so on your own?

I don’t really know any other way to do it. I think the other way would be hard for me. Getting in a room and jamming with people would be extremely hard for me. It’s not something that I am comfortable doing.

I’ve been doing it this way since the band started really. The only thing that has changed is the method of delivery. Back in the early days, the really early days, it would be me writing at home and coming to a rehearsal and showing the guys the parts and working them out somewhat as a band and then when we got to the ‘90s, late ’80s and ’90s, we spread out a little more and then it was me writing at home and putting things onto a cassette tape and sending those around. It progressed to a four track and sent those around, maybe an ADAT and now it’s the same things through email delivery. It’s pretty much been the same process for me the whole time.

This is the most aggressive Fates Warning material, possibly ever. Ray Alder’s deliveries are incredible powerful, some of his highest singing in a while. Really on “The Light and Shade of Things” specifically.

Right.

Was the intent to continue to develop a heavier direction that you started with the last album?

It wasn’t going into it, but again, I think those first two songs especially “From the Rooftops,” again, doing that song kind of made me interested in pushing us a little bit further in that direction. So it kind of developed organically as the record was taking shape. But from the initial start, no. Usually, when we start a record most often we don’t have a clear direction on where we want to go. We just want to write music that’s interesting to us and we think will hopefully be interesting to other people, but like I said, those directions develop as the record comes along.

On Darkness in a Different Light you and Ray wound up with a lot of commonalities in your lyrics by sheer coincidence. It happened again with the themes on Theories of Flight. You both touched on ghosts. Obviously “The Ghosts of Home” and that was your sole lyrical contribution. It bleeds into the title track at the end with these clips that are kind of buried. It sounds like therapy sessions, asking questions pointed towards childhood where you were moving around a lot at a young age. So you preferring not to be in the spotlight, what was it like putting such personal material out in the open like that?

It was really hard for me, actually. I remember specifically on that song sending Ray the lyrics and asking him what he thought, I said ‘It feels a little weird for me. It’s too close.’ Then the same thing with “Theories of Flight.” I sent it to him and a few people saying, ‘What do you think?’ Looking for outside advice. ‘Am I revealing too much here?’ But everyone kind of calmed me down and said it was okay. Where I would draw the line now, I guess, is talking about them too much because I think I’ve said everything I have to say about those two songs in the lyrics and the music. So going into them any more, I probably wouldn’t want to do, like you said it’s pretty personal.

It’s not really that interesting, going into that much detail anyway. It’s basically — with all my lyrics I try to write something that’s personal to me and hopefully other people can get something out of it and relate it to themselves somehow. Not that you’re asking, but for me to go into more detail about that would just be kind of pointless for me, really. I don’t really want people to know exactly what I’m talking about. As long as they get the general feel and emotion from the lyric and they can relate it to themselves. That’s great for me.

A little over three minutes into “The Ghosts of Home” there’s this bright acoustic melody and then it gently transitions into distortion — like sliding a fader.

After the mellow intro, the heavy part? The whole progressive…

Yeah, about three minutes into it there’s a real bright acoustic melody and then it fades over into – it’s the same, but played with distortion.

Technically it’s a Godan guitar with a Piezo pickup. So it’s got an acoustic sound and a dirty sound, so it’s both playing at the same time.

What’s your favorite song on Theories of Flight?

Ooh, that’s one of those questions where it changes day to day and will probably be different a year from now.

It changes hour to hour for me.

[Laughs] I guess I think even from the beginning one of those songs that I really resonated with “The Light and Shade of Things.” I think the vocals, Ray did an amazing job on it — I like the lyrics and the whole flow of the song. That can change day to day.

That’s my favorite right now, too. There is so much mood in that song, so aggressive during parts then just how the Ray’s voice takes off. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. It feels like Ray is just going to explode and go into a wailing falsetto at times and you just never know where it’s going to go. It’s nice to have a hair-raising album like this.

Yeah, that song in particular has got a lot of what we do in one song. Some of the more moody, mellow parts and more progressive parts or heavy parts it’s got a little bit of everything. I think Ray is the highlight of that song for me.

Now as a producer, what’s it like taking off one hat and exchanging it for another and having a further creative outlet with these songs, then seeing them take on a second life in the studio?

It’s all really one process for me. It’s not a question of wearing two different hats. It all rolls into one job for me. From writing the songs and kind of directing what other people are doing, even logistic wise, when people are ordering their parts and getting that together. It’s one big job for me of writing and delivering a record; I don’t even look at it as two separate things. I don’t think I could separate them.

To me, it’s just what I do. Where it does separate is, is where we bring in a mixing guy like Jens [Bogren]. That’s when people just — be able to step back a little bit and be able to give it to somebody else and give over the reigns of control to somebody else that I can trust and someone’s ear I can appreciate. That’s usually the point where I think it’s good for me to step away from it and get some outside opinions. But up to that point, I don’t even think about it.

Having produced the last three albums and the Arch / Matheos album, do you wish you started producing earlier in your career?

I don’t think I would have been ready for it.

Is it the technology that brought you into it?

It’s a bit of that and I think it’s just myself being comfortable in the recording studio. Not only I think I’d be more comfortable with other instruments in producing as far as getting what I need out of drummers or bass players and things like that. Where as before I felt fairly comfortable with my own parts, but not so much with my other instruments. I think within these last 10 years or so is where I became more comfortable with the overall aspect of everything.

Like a second home.

Yeah.

For the album cover you said that you came across the image and then that’s actually when you generated the title of the album — that was already on the piece of artwork. What were you doing when you came across that?

I was searching for art [laughs]. We decided early on, rather than go the usual route of writing all the songs and having a title and then hiring a designer to come up with a ‘clever’ idea that matches the lyrics, we’ve just done that too many times. This time I just wanted to isolate us from the lyrics and title and just come up with a cool (to me) piece of art.

And I just did a lot of research online and found a bunch of semi-obscure artists, contacted a lot of them, talked to a lot of them and finally came across the piece that’s the cover now. I fell in love with it immediately. I found out after that the title Theories of Flight was part of the piece of art — it was actually on there. Then I thought about what he had been writing lyric wise and it hit me, it’s kind of a much cooler description of a lot of the topics of the songs rather than The Ghosts of Home.

I like how it shows there’s a bird that’s free and then there’s one that’s trapped in an orb or a cage, then after that one it’s free. It’s interesting because the center one is the one that’s caged. Does that have any specific meaning to you?

It really doesn’t. Again, I wanted to get down to something — it maybe does subconsciously, but for me I just look at that piece and I said that’s a great looking piece that would make a great looking cover. We tend to have this thing with birds, so that jumped out at me. I like the title, and that’s really what it came down to. I don’t want to dig too deep into it symbolically. I just liked the piece of art.

You’ve said in the past that you don’t listen to much metal anymore. Are there any heavier influences, or more rock oriented acts that specifically influenced you here? I hear a little bit of Porcupine Tree — it seems like Steven Wilson’s influence has been gradually spreading in prog circles the last few years.

I certainly love his writing and admire everything he does, it’s hard to say if anything has crept into influences. If it does, it does subconsciously and I hope it doesn’t. It’s not something I would really want or to have any kind of contemporary influences influence my writing. It may subconsciously, but nothing I’m aware of. Certainly Steven Wilson is someone I’m a huge admirer of. Opeth, Katatonia, that kind of stuff. I don’t really see those in the music, I hope not anyway.

Having played Awaken the Guardian at the Keep it True festival, did playing with that lineup in return to the purely ‘80s metal sound change your listening habits at all even if just for a nostalgia trip?

Ha, no. Not at all! [laughs] It was fun, it was a great experience. I loved doing it, we’re going to do another one in September but no, for me the only thing it changed for me was having to listen to that record 400 times to remember how to play all that stuff. I don’t really go back to that period and listen to anything. There was a lot of music back then that was influential when we were writing those records, but for some reason it hasn’t stuck with me. I either listen to stuff that’s older than that or stuff that’s contemporary but not so much in the metal category.

When you played that show, what was it like having Frank Aresti back onstage?

It’s great, the whole band. It’s been – that lineup, it’s been close to 30 years. After the initial rehearsals were out of the way it just felt totally comfortable. It’s great playing with not only Frank, but John [Arch] and Steven [Zimmerman], Joe [DiBiase]. It’s great.

Frank specifically because it seems like he wants to be an active part of the band. He played a solo on the album, but he’s got other commitments. It had to be exiting with him specifically because he’s still entrenched in the Fates Warning camp, and to be able to bring him out like that.

Yeah, that was great. The last tour — well, not the last tour, the previous U.S. tour we did, I think in 2013, he came out and did a song or two with us in San Francisco where he lives now. He still has one foot in there and contributes when he can, where he can, it’s great for us.

With so many bands fighting over the rights to their names, assembling different lineups, it’s nice to see everything remains amicable in the Fates Warning camp. You’ve got the current lineup, doing the Awaken the Guardian shows, you have the Arch / Matheos album; it definitely seems like it has a family feel and everyone who’s been involved with the band has respect for everybody else and what they’ve done. Everything coming down to the music, and really no drama, at least airing it publicly.

That’s something I’m proud of, actually. We’ve managed to stay friends, even if things were rough at one time or another. We put things behind us and move on, we’re all still friends. If anything, I like to steer as far away from drama as I can.

Obviously you have the new album to promote, but are there any plans in the pipeline to work with John Arch again?

With so many things I’d like to do outside of Fates Warning and John is among them, or OSI is among them. It all comes down to my schedule and their schedule and then the question of inspiration. In short, the answer is no but I would love to. No solid plans right now, but of course with anything I’m open to anything if John is available or if Kevin [Moore, vocals and keyboards] is available. I’d love to work with either.

With your other project, OSI, it involves a lot more electronic influences than Fates Warning. Not that Fates Warning hasn’t dabbled, but your riffing can be quite similar at times. Are there any moments when you write for either Fates Warning or OSI and you hold onto a riff or a melody for the other band?

I don’t think so. I tend to write for whatever project I’m working on. So if I’m working on an OSI record, I don’t remember coming across something I thought was interesting and saying to myself, this doesn’t fit, better save it for Fates or visa versa. There’s things on this record, songs like that last song we talked about, “Theories of Flight” that could be adapted for an OSI record, Kevin just hasn’t gotten his hands on it. No, I don’t think so. I write for whatever project I’m working on.

It seems like when you write you kind of go into that mode with the intent instead of sitting around with a guitar, noodling around and coming up with ideas — Hey if something pops up, something pops up. It’s a little bit more focused for you, would you say?

It’s definitely more focused, there are those occasions you mentioned where I’m just playing my guitar for whatever reason and I come across something that sounds interesting to me and I’m maybe not working on a project, I’ll record that in some form or fashion and put it in a file folder on the desktop that’s various ideas. So when I get stuck when I am working on a project I can go to those ideas and say, ah here’s an interesting idea I had I haven’t listened to in a long time. That’s happened quite frequently, where I’ve take ideas from there – fill out something I might be working on.

What are your touring plans for the rest of the year and going into 2017? I know we’re hardly halfway through 2016, but…

These days you have to have four months of leeway for touring. If we book something right now we’re looking at towards the end of the year, and we don’t have anything booked right now. We’re looking around, this time we would like to maybe hook up as a support slot for a bigger band. That’s pretty tough, actually. If that doesn’t happen, I’d imagine we’d go out and headline again but that probably wouldn’t be until late this year or early next year. All being worked on right now.

When you select what tours you are going to jump on, since you’re not a huge metal fan, at least in your listening habits. Are you very selective about what bands you choose to tour with?

As far as opening or us supporting someone else?

It could be both!

Opening for us, yeah I do like to make sure — I guess it doesn’t have to be something I’d necessarily listen to but I try to look at it from a fans point of view and I’d hope it’s something that at least most fans would like, whether I like it or not. My tastes are very limited, so if we go by that it’s going to be really hard to find someone. But I do try to take in the whole package and try to make sure it’s going to be interesting for the fans. With us supporting another band, it’s probably a little bit more flexible. Label input comes in a lot there too if they see a package that’s going to work, even if it’s something that I may not necessarily think is going to work – we’ll look at it, as long as it makes sense for everybody.

Thanks to Jim Matheos for the interview. Grab your copy of ‘Theories of Flight’ at Amazon or iTunes and keep up with all band activities at Fates Warning’s Facebook page.

Watch the Lyric Video for Fates Warning’s ‘From the Rooftops’

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