Welcome to day two of my “5 Days of Penance” road to blog writing salvation. Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing OSI founder and guitarist Jim Matheos about OSI’s upcoming album, Fire Make Thunder, due out March 27. We also talked about the Internet revolutionizing long-distance song writing, album packaging, and studio habits. Below you’ll find a partial, mostly-complete transcript of our interview. That’s right – mostly complete.
There were a few interesting tidbits from this interview that were not included in the transcript, partially because of space but mostly because of two soon-to-be-murdered parakeets that decided they wanted to exponentially increase the noise pollution in my house and effectively cut poor Jim Matheos out of the mix. Anyway, I found out that Jim has never even met Gavin Harrison in person (once again, the wonders of the Internet) and that his favorite progressive albums this year were Opeth’s Heritage and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning. I feel validated. And, stay tuned for an update on Jim’s extremely metal hairdo:
Progulator: You’ve got this album coming up on March 27. Do you guys realize that you’ve released a record every three years like clockwork?
Jim Matheos: Everyone’s been telling me that. It’s not really something we planned, it just happens that every couple of years our schedules free up and we’re itching to do another one.
Prog: Is there any kind of concept or story that’s related to the record?
JM: Not really. Definitely not musically, and conceptually with the lyrics I think there might be a few songs that are similar topic-wise. You’d really have to talk to Kevin (Moore) specifically about the lyrics, but no, it’s definitely not a concept album or even a theme album. There are just a couple different subjects he touches upon, I think.
Prog: I’ve had a chance to kind of listen to it, and I have noticed that even if the concept lyrically isn’t the same, I’ve noticed a really nice flow and it almost seems like the songs almost do have almost a melding effect, at least in musical concepts. Do you guys think that way when you write?
JM: Again you know, not consciously as far as trying to make it sound like a concept record. But I do think this record, compared to some of the previous ones, has a pretty consistent mood throughout. That’s something we really worked hard on with this one, spent a lot of time trying to even, you know, coming down to sequencing the songs. I think that goes a long way to that effect. That’s kind of cool that you picked up on that, because that was really something we had in mind.
Prog: So I read about the distance recording process where you guys aren’t in the same room. Gavin does all his stuff in the UK. Can you give me a better idea of how the songwriting went down between you and Kevin specifically?
JM: It’s pretty much the same process we’ve used on all the records, with the exception of the first one, which is a bit more in-studio writing or at least arranging. It can work a couple different ways but typically the way it will work is I have a pile of ideas here at home, and by idea it can be anywhere from a chord progression to a complete demoed-out song with drums and keyboards and bass and loops and all that stuff. It can be anything in between. And I’ll usually start off by sending a bunch of those to Kevin. When we start a record I can send him four or five, ten song ideas. Then he’ll go through those and he’ll pick which ones that he thinks he can add to; a lot of it comes down to what he likes, a lot of it comes down to what he thinks he can do things with lyrically and vocally. So he’ll whittle those down and start working on a few of the ideas and when he gets something that he likes, he’ll send it back to me and I’ll give him my comments, and then we just really kind of start narrowing down those ideas and expanding on them, so it’s just usually a long process of back and forth like that.
Prog: And obviously something that’s been significantly aided by the Internet, I’m assuming?
JM: Yeah. I don’t think we could have done this, say, back in the ‘80s. Well, we did it with Fates (Warning) back in the ‘80s. It was done through the mail and phone rather than the Internet, so it was basically the same kind of process but just took a lot longer.
Prog: So demoing on some tapes, mailing them back and forth, that kind of stuff?
JM: Yeah, and if it’s really urgent you get the guy on the phone and just put your phone up to the speakers and say, “what do you think of this?” And if you really, really want to be technical you can get two phones so you can hear it in stereo.
Prog: Haha! Nice. So what kind of stuff have you been listening to, reading, or watching recently that may have had an influence on the direction of the album?
JM: Since I don’t write the lyrics, I don’t think anything that I’m reading would have any influence on my writing of the music. And even what I listen to I hope doesn’t really influence it, although subjectively it might come through. I listen to a lot of different stuff; it could be anything from heavy, Opeth-type things to old school metal that I still listen to a lot to electronic influences, classical, bluegrass – a lot of different things. Any one day, depending on what my mood is, I could be listening to those, and maybe that does seep into my sub-conscious and that’s why I tend to be a bit more eclectic in the things I do.
Prog: What does contribute to the uniqueness of this project?
JM: I think a lot of it comes down to Kevin and I both having a wide range of influences – they’re wide, but I don’t think they overlap a lot. Kevin’s got this wide range of influences, some of which I’m also influenced by, but a lot of things I’m probably not. And the same with me; I’ve got this really wide range of influences, and some of them overlap into Kevin’s but there’s a lot of things that he probably doesn’t listen to. We draw on all of those. So I think that this project, out of all the things I do, is the most difficult to pigeon-hole – whether it’s prog, or metal, or electronic, or alternative, and hopefully it’s a lot of those things.
Prog: I know it’s early, and this is probably going to change plenty of times this year, but what’s your favorite track on the album and why?
JM: Those are really hard questions, as you realize. It’s hard because I love all the songs, I really do. If we didn’t like them or love them we wouldn’t put them on the record. We’re never looking through material and saying, “ah, I guess this one will do.” For the whole process we go through – working on these songs, recording them and writing them and mixing them… you really have to be in love with a song to go through that process. I just can’t see myself being lukewarm on a song and spending a year with it every day. They’re all my favorites. But if I had to pick one’s that I am still really fond of, I’d say Cold Call, Indian Curse and probably Invisible Men just because I think that’s a good summary of what OSI is about, with all those influences I just mentioned wrapped into the one long song.
Prog: You’ve got plenty of side projects going on, by coincidence this is a once-every-three-years thing… what is the biggest factor that keeps this project from getting stale, or sounding like every other OSI record?
JM: I think it’s a conscious effort. Whether it be this project or Fates (Warning) or Arch/Matheos, it’s a lot of work to do these records. It’s got to be interesting on our part. I think Kevin and I are both the same, we wouldn’t have the energy to do it if it was just doing the same thing. We both love music and we want to create music, so if it’s just doing something we’ve already done a hundred times before, I don’t think either of us would have the energy to spend the amount of time we do on these records. It really just comes from satisfying our own need to be creative and express things.
Prog: Is there some kind of story behind deciding to name the group after the infamous and generally shady Office of Strategic Influence?
JM: Probably just what you know already. The whole project came together just shortly after 9/11, so all that stuff was in the news and it was certainly on Kevin’s mind. It was his idea and he was really heavily into politics at the time and following the whole thing, and as you said it was a pretty shady organization. We just mentioned it as an idea and thought it was kind of cool, so we went with that whole “covert operation” look and feel for the first record.
Prog: What’s your opinion on album packaging, artwork and liner notes?
JM: Well, I guess I have several opinions on that. It’s certainly become a lot more important now, with the whole downloading/stealing of music. It seems like you really need to step it up and offer a little bit more in the way of packaging so people will be more persuaded to go out and buy the whole package. It’s unfortunate at the same time, even in the CD format, that things have become so small. I still appreciate the days of LP’s where you get the full package, which is a lot more interesting I think. It’s something you have to do within the CD format, but it’s also harder to do since you have such limited space to work with. People are just getting used to getting more for their dollar, and to persuade them to spend that dollar on something you have to be willing to give them more – whether it be extended packaging, extra songs, dinner and a movie… whatever you have to do.
Prog: What’s the strangest studio habit or ritual that you have during the recording process?
JM: Haha! I actually have many. I tend to be a little OCD. I’ve used the same guitar since recording A Pleasant Shade of Gray [Fates Warning, 1997], so I guess that would be one.
JM: That’s just one cable that I bring everywhere with me – it’s got to be with me in the studio. I’ve even used it live.
Prog: How many times have you fixed it or soldered it?
JM: Never. It’s in pretty good shape. That’s why it’s my lucky cable.
Prog: Cool, cool. Speaking of gear, if you had to pick a favorite piece right now… maybe not a favorite piece but a piece you’ve been using a lot recently, what would that be?
JM: Again, I tend to be a creature of habit, so I’ve been using a lot of the same gear for a long time. Probably the one thing I’ve had the longest in my rack would be a Mesa Boogie Mark IV amp that I’ve been using since 1994. I pretty much use it on every recording and I used to take it out live with me – I don’t take it out much anymore. It’s a workhorse that I’d be hard-pressed to do without.
Prog: This is going to sound like a strange question, but for the visual acuity of our readers, how’s Jim’s lettuce doing these day. How’s your hair looking?
JM: It’s fine. That’s an odd question. Still holding’ up.
See, quasi-loyal readers! The hair is still metal, and Jim’s still metal! Buy the record!