John Arch: Prog Metal Icon + Military Defense Systems Worker — Interview
After splitting from Fates Warning in 1987, John Arch just about disappeared from heavy metal altogether, leaving a brief but lasting legacy as the eccentric voice found on classic and pioneering records in Awaken the Guardian and The Spectre Within.
In 2003, he re-emerged as a solo artist, but his output was kept to a minimum, releasing the two-track, nearly 30-minute long A Twist of Fate EP. Another eight years would go by before he partnered with his former co-conspirator, founding Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos, who also played on the EP, for the 2011 Arch/Matheos record Sympathetic Resonance. The lineup consisted of the current iteration of Fates Warning, save for singer Ray Alder, who replaced Arch in the late '80s and has remained at the post ever since.
The material was actually intended to be the next Fates Warning record and for fans who longed to hear Arch back on a Fates album, their wish was essentially granted. This time, with Winter Ethereal, the newest Arch/Matheos album, was conceived under less duress and confusing circumstances. The nine-track record features a litany of guest musicians from the prog world and the songwriting feels more freeing.
Arch, who turns 60 on May 15, sounds ageless and his signature labyrinthine patterns remind us of what made the Arch/Matheos writing team so dynamic in the first place, dating back to those early Fates Warning records.
In our interview, Arch speaks frankly about not being a full-time singer and some recent health complications that forced him to work through vocal hangups he had never experienced before. We also discuss why he's really only ever written music with Jim Matheos and what makes their connection so strong.
Since he hasn't been touring the world for three or four decades, Arch found alternative means to make a living. For years, he was a carpenter, and here we learn he's been working on military defense systems over the last decade.
Read the interview below and look for Winter Ethereal to come out May 10 on Metal Blade Records.
Your lyrics have always had a flair for mysticism and the fantastic. Here, it seems a little more personal with the use of the first person and using "she" and "her" when referencing female characters. What influenced this dynamic, and is there any kind of significance between this interplay?
In "The Straight and Narrow," I do use "she" metaphorically speaking and I do that a lot — I use characters and metaphors. The female is more of a temptress in the lyrics and I'm metaphorically speaking about turbulent relationships, things I had been through in my life. Although I've been happily married for 30 years, I'm drawing from all time frames of my life.
What about "Solitary Man"? The name of the album is Winter Ethereal and winter always brings a sense of death, loneliness and longing. Is that a reflection of all this?
The album title has very much to do about with what you just said. It’s not so much the correlation or the winter scenery, it's more about the desolation and isolation, death to rebirth; those types of metaphors that make that album title a perfect marriage of words.
"Solitary Man," that was a concept that is, again, biographical. As I get older and as I learn more, I’ve always spread myself so thin with everything in giving myself away. I had to be submissive to everyone, and I'm the kind of person who does more for everybody than I do for myself.
I'll be 60 and I was sitting down and just re-evaluating myself coming to a different place in my life and really thinking what I had done and how I should live my life. And that is where "Solitary Man" came in. I say, sarcastically, I do want to be a solitary man.
I definitely have an extrovert side to myself, but I definitely have an introvert side to myself also where I need to nurture that side and I think I've let that go. I used to do a lot of mountain climbing and a lot of things on my own that were actually my best times; that kind of solace, where I'm able to think and I'm able to get away from the pressures of life and actually communicating with people and it can get so heavy and so burdensome sometimes.
I'm blown away by how you sound exactly like you did 30 years ago. Did not touring heavily help maintain this strength? How often do you sing in your personal life?
My vocal regimen is, unfortunately, lax. The touring thing is a double-edged sword. If I had toured extensively, it may have made me stronger or I could have run into problems. I don't know. I can safely say that there is absolutely no substitute for doing live shows but actually doing live shows.
I'm happy with the results of being my age with Winter Ethereal, but I also had my struggles that nobody saw. I got Lyme Disease just before I went to Germany and that hit me like a ton of bricks. I actually got diagnosed about three or four days [before], and I thought it was nerves. I actually hit the stage with the worst migraine ever.
It actually did something to my voice, and I can't explain it. I know Shania Twain went through this, where she couldn't sing for a couple of years. She couldn't tour. Lyme Disease actually affected my vibrato greatly, and I couldn't understand it. It was almost like being paralyzed. Of course, Lyme affects your nervous system, your musculature and my vibrato is not the diaphragm — it's all musculature and all the larynx. I did the best I could but my vibrato was really not the way it used to be and having the control that I used to have.
As far as pitch is concerned, I end up having problems because I didn't realize it, but I was having acid reflux problems. I went and saw a doctor, and it was making my voice sound raspy. I went and got on medication — there was all kinds of things I was kind of battling, but I finally managed it.
Throughout your entire career you've only made music with Jim Matheos. I know you auditioned for Dream Theater after there was a split with Fates Warning back in the day, but what is it about Jim that you really only want to work with him?
If the opportunity arose... it's all about timing with me because I do work full time. I was approached by Christian Lawrence from Dead by Wednesday [to guest on one song]. I did that and that was kind of stepping outside my box.
To be honest with you, the most brutally honest answer I can give you is a comfort zone working with Jim. We both have the same work ethic.
Jim knows me very well and I know Jim very well on a personal level, but also musically. He knows my inner workings, and he knows what excites me as far as music is concerned. I've had other opportunities, but they weren't anything monumental. In the music world, unfortunately, time is money and things end up costing me a lot of money to do things for people.
In my younger days I can't remember a time, other than the Dream Theater audition, that anything really excited me. I have hundreds and hundreds of cassette tapes and files people have sent me, but nothing really moved me.
In the liner notes, you thanked Todd la Torre from Queensryche. What's your relationship with him like?
I've seen him live many, many times. He treats me really well and we have mutual respect for each other. We've had many conversations on the phone, just talking for hours about personal stuff. Todd's a good friend and he's a hard worker.
I stood onstage and played with the original Queensryche many, many times, alongside Geoff Tate and the guys. I have absolutely no bias toward anybody. I appreciate what Geoff Tate had offered and the music that came from that era. I also love what Queensryche are doing. Their the new album, The Verdict, is killer.
The last thing I want to talk about here is what you actually do for work. You're a carpenter, correct?
Well, I am. I was a cabinet maker, and I made a reproduction for turn-of-the-century furniture to match existing antique furniture. It's what I did for many years, over 20, and then the economy turned bad like 10 years ago it was bad here. So I ended up leaving that job because I didn't think the business was doing well. I saw the writing on the wall.
So actually where I work now, it's a place that manufactures electronics and circuitry for defense systems. My company's circuitry is in the Iron Dome in Jerusalem and Apache fighter helicopters and fighter jets, radar systems and all that.
I'm part of that support group where I get into everything. I repair machinery that actually is part of the processes and I also do carpentry. I pretty much do something different every day. It's a pretty interesting job.
I love the commute. I actually ride my road bike (pedal, not a motorcycle) into work when the weather gets warm. It's like 25 miles each way. Or I ride my Harley in.
I imagine this kind of keeps you creatively fulfilled, while you don't have music at your disposal.
Yes, somewhat. It keeps me challenged. I found that out the hard way. I do enjoy doing a lot of things. I'm on six acres of land here. I have a lot to take care of. I still like the mountain area and winter camping and stuff. So there's not a dull moment. I just got to fix all this broken stuff here. I start doing my mountaineering stuff.
It does nothing that fills a void like music, though. I'm not religious, but I'm kind of blessed in a lot of ways. In the end it's given the fans really what they've asked for. After Sympathetic Resonance, they keep saying they want to follow up. So here we are, years later, but we finally got it done.
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