A CONVERSATION WITH METAL LEGEND JOHN ARCH
An interview by Johnny the Fox
Johnny The Fox– Hi John, how are you doing? Thank you so much for doing this interview. As a huge 25-year fan of both your singing and Fates Warning in general, it’s an absolute honor to be able to speak with you today…
John Arch – I am well thank you and I appreciate the kind words and that you like Winter Ethereal!
JTF – First off, congratulations on Winter Ethereal. I assert that this new album is another outstanding, progressive, and dynamic record from you and Jim Matheos. Being that this now the second Arch/Matheos album under your belts, how were the songwriting and recording processes different or similar this time?
JA – Well I guess it would be accurate to say that when Jim and I work together we pretty much approach things the only way we know how and the same way we have always done. We both know our respective roles when it comes to writing. Jim, for the most part, is the impetus as he is the one that writes the musical compositions from wherever he may draw his inspirations from. When Jim feels the song is ready he presents it to me where my job is to interoperate the emotion and energy and find fitting lyrical ideas and vocal melodies to try to compliment each song. I try to put myself in an environment that is conducive to creative thought, which usually is a very quiet place with no distractions and far from the studio. When I feel I am ready to show Jim what I have come up with, I drive up to his studio where we then work on things together until we feel the songs are ready for the early demo recordings. It is along and tedious process so I am over simplifying a bit obviously.
JTF – Fates Warning fans in general tend to be very loyal, but there are also those ardent supporters of either yours or the Ray Alder eras specifically. How has the response been so far to this album from both the Fates Warning faithful and the metal-buying public in general?
JA – haha, Yes I have seen both sides of the usual arguments that tend to surface on social media and there are no shortage of opinions there. Stylistically there are many different elements that differ from the earlier FW music, Arch/Matheos and the post Guardian era FW. Nothing makes me happier than when the fans come together and can enjoy what all of us have done collectively and that does happen quite often, but not always. I consider myself a fan of both eras and can proudly say that all current and past members have remained friends and we all have a mutual respect for one another. We see so often when personnel changes happen in bands that pinning one side against the other has become quite common which is unfortunate. Jim and I have been fortunate that Winter Ethereal has been receiving notable positive response from the likes of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and the fans new and old and we hope it may bridge the gap between the aforementioned divided fan base. If not, that’s ok. I respect the opinions from both sides as long as it in good spirits and done subjectively and with respect to one another. Anyone who can not find a redeeming quality with anything it is usually a reflection on themselves and I try like hell not to take any non constructive negativity personally…
JTF – Many fans, myself included, consider your three albums with Fates Warning to be definitive masterpieces of progressive metal. Can you talk a bit about the nature of the musical bond between you and Jim? What makes your collaborations together unique and special compared to your work apart from each other?
JA – Rewinding back to the early years when we were very young, full of energy, and had an unbridled slightly skewed vision of our future, we were just doing what we all loved to do. It seemed like we were all on the same page and I think we harnessed all that energy and put our focus on music without any constraints or boundaries. As a writer I remember always being inspired by the heavy riffs, guitar harmonies, crazy time signatures, and the ever changing movements of music we were doing and I am still inspired by that approach today. I think the writing chemistry between Jim and I was in sync with that type of writing back then, and I think that made it a special collaborative effort. Having said all that, life changes and people change. As Fates continued on and carried the torch, they made their own way and grew as musicians for the next two plus decades. I think Jim and I still have the creative workmanship between us and when we work together some resemblance of the earlier works may be intertwined with Jim’s current writing style making it sort of a hybrid if you will.
JTF – Much like with Sympathetic Resonance, Winter Ethereal is a complex and dense record musically and lyrically. But there are also some more streamlined and traditionally metallic tracks, such as Vermillion Moons and Solitary Man. How would you describe the differences between the two albums and how this project has evolved musically since 2011?
JA – I don’t want to sound redundant by again mentioning that SR was actually slated or destined to be a Fates record but ended up in the Arch/Matheos bin because of conflicting schedules. Some of the music had already been written minus melodies and lyrics, and the rest of the music together after I committed to the album. When I work with Jim as opposed to Jim and Ray, I believe Jim knows what inspires me and that in turn may influence Jim’s approach. I still think SR is a cohesive album that many enjoy. W.E. was begun with a clean slate and clearly A/M. I mention again that Jim sets the tone with whatever he creates and takes my presence into consideration, but I think this time around we both pushed each other to step beyond our respective real estate and try some things out of our norms. I think in retrospect that it was a positive thing that makes the music more dynamic and reflective on this new album. I am happy that Jim brought such a variety of material to the table for me to work with. Whether it is the modern counterpoint guitar work or the traditional style crunchy straight forward guitars in Vermilion Moons, it all seems to work well together and makes for a diverse sonic listening experience as quoted by some of the fans.
JTF – You are well-noted for your intelligent and literary lyrical approach, as on classic Fates Warning songs such as The Apparition, Guardian, and Giant’s Lore. Has your approach to writing lyrics changed significantly since the mid ’80s? What are a few lyrical moments on Winter Ethereal that you are most proud of and why?
JA – Well thanks for the compliment….. really the foundations and approach I take to writing the lyrics and melodies comes from the same place it did 30 years ago. With the exception of evolving from a mythological/real life based lyrical approach to more currently drawing from real life experience, imagination, and using colorful metaphors and whatever else that can spark imagination and evoke emotion from the listener. If I had to pick one song that I think is more accomplished lyrically.. probably Kindred Spirits. The reason being is that the subject matter could have easily seemed jaded or taboo, especially filling a 13 minute song full of several movements on a sensitive and personal subject matter. I had some doubts but ended up following my instincts and feel that in the end, I am glad I did. It is one of my favorites and so many fans have surely made a connection with the message drawing from their own life experiences and the song has become healing for them which is just what I intended.
JTF – How much more fan feedback do you get in this age of social media than during the old days, when the only way fans could share their love of your music was if they happened to see you in person or wrote you a letter?
JA – This is certainly not a complaint by any stretch, but it can be overwhelming at times in this day and age of social media. I have to remind myself that I choose to be available and accessible to the fans and I do my best to keep up and answer everyone but sometimes it is not possible. Overall the message is still the same whether a hand written letter of the 80’s or real time communication. I have always felt that sometimes it can be very rewarding and I can feel a sense of purpose when someone expresses that the music has had a positive influence or helped them through a difficult time. I can safely say that in the days of snail mail I never got any hate mail because the trolls were to cheap to buy a stamp hahaha, but social media is a weird medium sometimes when you put yourself out there.
JTF – Dating back to your 2003 solo ep/collaboration with Jim, your vocal range, power, and distinctive tone has held up remarkably well. To what do you attribute your longevity and success as a singer?
JA – Well I don’t know. Some have said that not going through the rigors of touring may have helped, and maybe it has, but I do know that the more I sang live the stronger my voice became.. so it is kind of a double edged sword in that respect. I am sure I am not doing myself any favors by not singing for years and then out of the blue singing with intensity. It’s probably not the best thing to do, and I could be a better singer if I was more consistent. When working with Jim I start vocalizing during the writing and the demo process so by the time we start with final recordings I just go with what I have and hope for the best. I live a moderately healthy lifestyle, doing a lot of cycling that keeps my lungs expanded and cardio up and I think that helps. There are so many things that can be destructive to the voice. Being aware of things like acid ref-lux , allergies and bad choices that damage the voice is key and I think it’s good to educate one’s self in this trade. There are a lot of myths out there that are counterproductive.
JTF – One of the highlights of my life as a concert-goer was being lucky enough to see the Awaken the Guardian lineup perform at Progpower in 2016. Describe those shows from your perspective and how it felt to be playing all those timeless songs again after 30 years?
JA – That’s awesome man, I’m glad you could be there! I’ll start by saying that all said and done, the shows were a fantastic experience and a much needed reminder on how fantastic the fans are and how contagious the energy from the fans can be! The reaction from the fans drawing from the music, and what I don’t think the fans realize is how much we on stage are drawing the energy from them and how grateful we felt for that acceptance after so many years. My only regret is that not being a seasoned performer with few shows under my belt, I was hyper focused on the technical side of things where I wish I could have been more confident, relaxed, and more “In the Moment” to fully absorb the experience. I think for a non touring band not being on stage in like, forever, we held it together pretty well and it was cool as hell to resurrect those songs from the past for the fans. It felt great in every way.
JTF – Did the band have any sense of how powerful and magical Awaken the Guardian was when you recorded it? Are you amazed by the legendary status that album has achieved?
JA – I think that at the time we recording ATG we had a sense that it was shaping up to be a good effort. During the recording process there were a lot of things happening spontaneously in the studio that we were excited about. We had always done our homework as individuals as well as a collective unit, so we felt we were prepared before going into the studio. I think we were were all feeling pretty creative and some of the spontaneous things that happened in the late evening hours was some of the best things that happened that really pushed the envelope on this album. After the recording was completed but before mastering, we had a listening party at the studio with some friends and folks from Metal Blade. I remember the reaction was very positive. It wasn’t until after it’s release when we saw we were making a splash in the mags of the day that people were really digging it. Letters were were coming in and we had great reactions from the fans at the live shows. Fast forwarding to the here and now, thirty odd years later, and lots of folks say that it has stood the test of time and the fans that grew up in that era seem to really treasure the good times and the music they carry with them all these years…really profound… and we are really grateful never expecting anything really.
JTF – What are the future goals for Arch/Matheos, and when will North American fans be able to see the Winter Ethereal material performed live?
JA – Fates Warning had been planning the return to writing another album, and actually that has already begun. As for me, I have made some promises in my personal life that I need to be present and accountable for at this time. Somewhat in true fashion, much like I have done in the past, is walk away for a time and hope the ebb and flow of the tide draws me back in for whatever life has in store for me musically when it’s ready. That seems to work for me.
JTF – John, thanks again for your time and all the fantastic music over the years. Best wishes for Winter Ethereal and all your future endeavors.
JA – My pleasure, and thank you.