John Arch, founding member of the pioneering progressive metal band Fates Warning, has a well-earned reputation for his distictive vocal sound and range along with complex and thought-provoking lyrics.
On the genre-defining Awaken the Guardian release in 1986 this was done through mythological references and metaphors. On his last three releases, his solo ep A Twist of Fate followed by Arch/Matheos' debut Sympathetic Resonance and new release Winter Ethereal, he has used more real-life experiences and emotions to connect with the listener.
Photographer and writer Mark Cubbedge had a chance to speak with John for Maximum Metal about why he continues to produce music as he nears his 60th birthday, the songwriting process, and his inspiration and back story to writing Winter Ethereal.
"Sometimes in the studio when I am singing something spontaneous happens or when you are actually at your most relaxed state something natural happens that is better than what you had originally."
Mark Cubbedge: John you are always very generous with your time and I want to thank you for that. I know you have a lot of commitments at this juncture and I am grateful you agreed to spend some of it with me talking about the May 10 release of the new Arch/Matheos record Winter Ethereal.
John Arch: Anytime Mark, you know that.
MC: You all have released three singles so far from the record, "Straight and Narrow", "Wanderlust", and "Tethered". The feedback I've seen so far has been extremely positive. What's your perspective on the public's reception thus far and how does that land on you?
JA: I said to myself that I would try to stay away from social media to see the reaction and just let it be. But as your curiosity peaks you're always curious as to what the reaction is going to be from the fans. Coming right out of the gate with a video I thought was a great idea -- and on a side note I think it is great the Metal Blade family is standing behind us with the Arch/Matheos project and really going the extra mile and making a financial commitment, with their time and everything. Everything I have seen so far -- there is always going to be folks who aren't even into this type of music and their name will be something like "deathdoom" on their post, and so there are going to be some disparaging comments and there are going to be some mediocre comments that have absolutely nothing to do with music. But having said that the majority, 99 percent of what I have seen so far, with "Wanderlust" being released as audio only and "Straight and Narrow" being the first video it has been really, really good across the board. And my feelings about that is I'm very excited. Of course the way I approach things with my Type A personality before I even start something like writing another album there is always that looming question in the back of your mind, "Are we going to be able to pull something off? Are Jim and I going to be able to have the creative chemistry between us?" We never take anything for granted. Having said that the early indicators are that the fans are really digging it and that makes me very happy and relieved.
MC: I know you've gotten a number of comments from fans over the years about how your lyrics have impacted them in such a positive and profound way, whether that was off of Awaken the Guardian or songs like "Incense and Myrrh" from Sympathetic Resonance. How much does that type of feedback play into your decision to continue writing and releasing music?
JA: I think it is huge. There has to be a series of motivating factors in this day and age even to pursue music. It's become difficult -- it never was easy but it is becoming more difficult financially and all of the other aspects of it. I think you hit it on the head with what motivates me. Obviously I am not living in Beverly Hills here. We're making a meager living, so it's never been about that. It's never been about trying to seek attention or any kind of fame or glory. It really has always been about what's at the roots of music since I was a kid playing guitar, singing in a folk group and then forming my own bands and being a singer and guitar player in a band, so it's always about the music.
And most importantly, what you hit on, is through the years, we're talking about 35 years or whatever, there have been so many times I've been approached whether it is on the road or whether it is through social media or back before we had social media I would get letters in the mail. It was from the fans and from the fan base and they would express to me, for instance, we'll go back to Awaken the Guardian and we'll pick a song like "Exodus" or especially "Guardian". I would get responses from people and they would share a part of their life story with me on difficult times they have gone through and I can elaborate on hundreds of stories but I will condense it and say that we all go through difficult times and the bottom line is the music somehow transcended through countries and around the world, really, and it kind of connected with the listener on many levels and it brought them comfort. The bottom line is expressing through my lyrics a lot of times I delve into the emotional content on human qualities and how deeply people feel things. The folks relate to it and they feel like they are not alone. They appreciate that and they felt comfort and it got them through a lot of things. That is the motivating factor for me. Over the years that's what it has has been. The positive feedback and the camaraderie between the listeners -- with themselves and with me -- it's actually made my life much richer being able to do this and then actually feel productive and have something to offer in the music world.
MC: I'd like to get into some of the details of your songwriting for Winter Ethereal. Specifically as it relates to how much time and effort you put into researching some of your topics and even the word choices you make. There's so much depth there in storytelling. I spent 30 minutes the other night reading a chunk of the book of Revelations to dig into "Vermilion Moons" and I can't tell you how much time I've put into reading about the events surrounding Chernobyl to really get a better understanding of "Pitch Black Prism". Do you actively make time during the writing process to really research what you are writing about?
JA: There are some songs that the research I needed to do was kind of within me with life experiences. Obviously I veered away from the mythological writings of Awaken the Guardian, although those lyrics are jam packed with mythological references and metaphors it's still very real-life based. Many messages in those lyrics.
So when we moved to A Twist of Fate, Sympathetic Resonance and Winter Ethereal I used more real-life experiences and emotions to try to connect with the listener rather than mythology. So each individual song as I approach it, I guess the way Jim and I have always written, Jim is the impetus because he takes from wherever he goes into his inner workings to bring forth these musical compositions for me to hear. They are structured as far as what he will intend for verses, choruses, bridges, etc., but then it is my job to put headphones on and listen to the music he has given me over and over and over to the point where I am saturated with it. I need to absorb it.
Deep into the night sometimes when I am just about to get up for work and I still have the headphones on and I haven't slept; I guess there is some kind of chemistry between us and the way we work. Maybe most people work this way, I don't know, but I take it and I try to interpret what Jim is trying to say with his musical compositions by the flow of the music, by the emotion of the music, by the energy of the music. I just close my eyes and somewhere in between the dream kind of state and reality it just lets my mind wander. Usually, eventually, I'll get a little kindling, a little fire of a flame, and it could be something lyrically, it could be something melodically and it could be an idea for a song, the way a song moves. It must hit me a certain way.
Let's take "Tethered" for instance. That song Jim presented me late in the game. We almost didn't have time to get "Tethered" in but I really wanted to get that song done. Those melody lines came before anything. I was just humming the melody lines and I was surfing on the waves of his music. Then I came up with the lyrics after. There is no rhyme or reason on which comes first. The melody lines are very important to the lyrics because of the way I love to syncopate the lyrics and I like to write the melody lines over Jim's compositions, kind of like dancing around things. I don't like boring and I don't like mundane. I like to keep things very interesting. So the lyrics kind of dance with the melody lines. There are multiple layers going on there. It makes it very interesting to left-brained listeners and it confuses a lot of right-brained people. It's how we think sometimes and how we perceive something.
I had to do quite a bit of research on "Pitch Black Prism", for instance. That was a very interesting song. I don't know to describe listening to that for the first time. It's kind of dark, but very melodic and interesting. I saw some pictures of Chernobyl dolls online and I know some of it is staged but I also had learned there is so much to that Chernobyl story that the majority of the population don't even know about. From what I heard we were seeing things on our satellite going on and everything was hush-hush over there (Russia) and they wanted to keep it quiet but it was impossible; they couldn't. So, I had some of the song written and oddly enough because I took the Chernobyl doll and I turned that into a character that I was using to express myself. I came across on the internet a story by a gentleman named Yuri and he describes a fantastical, real, true-life story of him and his orchestra -- maybe 4 players and a ballerina -- that were hired by the Russian government and sent right into the heart of Chernobyl to a hall to entertain the dying -- and they were dying. As Yuri was describing this performance he describes the ballerina dancing the dance of her life because she knew they weren't going to survive. They all knew they weren't going to survive. The generator that was running cut off in the middle of this performance yet they continued. During this, children were coming in from the fields with flowers for this beautiful ballerina to lay at her feet. To their utter amazement the children were actually glowing in the dark with the flowers already wilting and the ballerina was spinning and her hair was just gently floating in the air down to the ground. It sounds really tragic but I tried to make it a theatrical, beautiful composition as much as possible. Yuri describes after the performance he manages to escape by stealing a car and missing the checkpoints, but he was totally blind by the time he got to his destination. Unfortunately the rest of his band mates all perished.
There was more research into the documentary called The Russian Woodpecker, which is an amazing documentary to see anyway. So many different flavors in the song for the listener. What I said gives a little insight into the facets of the lyrical content that takes so many twists and turns that make that song a pretty rich story line.
Dying Swan pose
MC: A couple of other things in "Pitch Black Prism" stand out to me. First I can't say words like "immolation" are at the top of most people's vocabulary, but yet I can't think of a more perfect word for how you use it in the song. Secondly phrases like "Dying Swan" have such a double meaning in the song -- on the surface you see the dancer as this beautiful and graceful figure who is literally dancing with death, but it is also a formal name for a beautiful ballet pose. These types of things aren't by chance so I'm curious as to how much you labor over getting the exact right words or phrases as you are writing all while making it fit in with the music?
I do labor over pretty much everything, the lyrics and the melody lines. I have to be brutally honest, thank God we do have computers in front of us and I am always looking in a thesaurus. You really need to find the right words to express yourself. And you need the right words to fit the melody lines and the flow of the melody lines. Sometimes four-syllable words work fantastic, sometimes they don't and you need a three-syllable word to try and describe what you are saying. It's constant, constant work and I do labor over all of that. It's safe to say from Day 1, if we add up the days from when we first started on this up until we were going to wind this down it's going to be two years. In all of that time Jim and I we both work very, very similarly with what our jobs are. It's down to the wire, down to the last minute that we are changing things, that I am changing lyrics, that I am finding better meanings.
It's a labor of love. It's like pieces of a puzzle sometimes. Sometimes one word at a time, sometimes it's one phrase, one line at a time. Maybe we'll get as much as half a chorus. Sometimes in the studio when I am singing something spontaneous happens or when you are actually at your most relaxed state something natural happens that is better than what you had originally.
MC: You and Jim have this long-standing relationship and challenging or pushing each other to make the best product you possibly can.
JA: I don't think anyone goes up to a studio and there aren't these times of stress and locking horns, per se. This album especially, as far as I can remember, there were some intense moments during the recording process or whatever that maybe I saw something different than Jim, and Jim maybe felt really strongly about something that I felt the opposite about. What it comes down to is whether we have to kind of walk away for a little bit, or drop it or move onto something else and come back to it. Maybe Jim likes part A and I like part B and then somehow we have to put together a compromise on part C. Maybe a different movement that we worked on and it ends up being better than what we both originally thought. It is about compromise. I know sometime compromise isn't easy and there were some struggles, but in the end thank God we aren't going to let something like that ruin a friendship and it actually ends up working out better in the long run.
There are certain things Jim likes and then I really like when the music takes all these twists and turns. I love simplicity when simplicity is done very well. It has to be done very well.
With this album you can probably hear that my vocals, Jim did reign me in a little bit and I am glad he did. Because there are some times where I may take the more acrobatic vocal route whereas what complements the song better is something a little bit less intrusive. That happened quite a bit on this album where during the demo process I would do some melody lines or whatever, actually some of the first that I did, and Jim really liked them and then I went to change them and he was like, 'No, don't change that, don't go up high there. The way you did it the first time really complemented the music better,' so that's what I did. I took the less flightly vocal lines than I wanted to. And then on the other end the same thing with Jim. Jim started doing his guitar leads and they were intended to be for the demos only and he was going to have other guest guitarists do the leads but I said, 'Jim these leads that you are doing I love them. They are really melodic'. Jim has a great melodic sense and I tried talking him into it. 'Keep that original guitar solo, it's really, really good.' And then the next time I'd come back up and he'd change it and I was like, 'No, no don't change that. It was so great the first time.' So maybe we would end up with a little bit of a hybrid but he kept most of the content of his leads.
I think that set the tone where Jim actually did almost all the leads on this album using his guitar layering and very tasteful leads that I really liked and I am glad that he kept them. We brought a little of our own personal taste to this record, but really the bottom line is the music itself. We really wanted to do what complemented the music and not try to overshadow the compositions.
MC: Earlier you mentioned the song "Tethered" and I'd like to explore that a little bit here. That's another one of the songs that is so well written and so human in its experiences. I know you like to leave the interpretations of the songs somewhat open to the listener but is there anything you care to share about that song?
JA: I think that song surprised me more than anything. Listening to what Jim had written I kind of liked it right off the bat because it was very different. I hate to say this but it almost has like a U2 guitar part -- the echoing guitar part at the beginning. That's what I mean as far as when something simplistic is written but it is done really well. That's a good example I think with "Tethered". It's not a technically advanced song. It's simplicity but it is really well done in my estimation. I listened to that for the first time and I was really anxious to do that song and I was disappointed we might not get to it. I kept pleading with Jim that I really wanted to work on this because it is something totally different for me. I definitely have to step outside of the mind box because of the anatomy of my voice. You know how I sing it's in the medium to higher registry and singing things that are low are difficult for me because I don't rehearse that a lot. Not that this song is low by any stretch but there are parts where the dynamics of singing a little bit softer had to be there.
Again I have to take Jim and interpret what his inner workings are saying here and if I came out here balls to the wall trying to sing something over it where it wasn't dynamic and it was too aggressive it wouldn't have worked. It had to be a certain way. There are guidelines and constraints you have to stay within and it was hard for me but in the end the melody lines came for the song first just through humming the melody lines and the lyrics came after.
The lyrical content of this song just sounded very, and I hate to use the word because I am overusing it, but it seemed ethereal. I do mention that word in the song because of the way that it flowed, it's a song-from-the-heart kind of a song, kind of an other-worldy song. I just imagined it; it's not so much based on my personal inner workings. I think the strongest connection I have is sometimes during your daily life you think of your loved ones and you start to think of how you appreciate your loved ones and what they do for you and you imagine what would you do without them. That was probably the impetus for the lyrical direction that I took on this. Right now it's sort of imaginary because, of course, I've felt loss and I've felt pain, but I am talking at a level where you are living in the real world and you are also not living in the real world because your mind is elsewhere and it is living in the past with someone that you had spent a majority of your life with or had a special relationship with that you have lost. So, this is a song about loss.
Again I am using metaphorical meanings and I am using words that dance with the music so there is nothing definitive as far as an experience but it's real life. Much like in "Kindred Spirits" what I sing about is drawn from real-life experience that we all feel and it is pain. And it is about not letting go, but not in a bad way. It's about holding on to something that is near and dear to you and has become a part of you. It's really a human trait we have and it's called empathy. And it is called that deep connection we have in the human experience and loss. And I just tried to put it into words to complement what Jim had come up with as a composition for this song.
MC: You kind of led me perfectly into talking about "Kindred Spirits". Both "Tethered" and "Kindred Spirits" are songs I think will really resonate well with people. With "Kindred Spirits", obviously, it is dog related but it seems to go deeper into rescue animals and animal abuse in general. There is a lot to unpack in the song. What did you really draw on when you were writing this song?
JA: I had to refer back to Jim hitting me with a 13-minute song (laughs) and all the twists and turns the music was taking and all the movement that goes on here. When I first started closing my eyes and started thinking about what does this song mean and how is it moving me emotionally and what are some potential things I could think about. I think it is a little bit of life experiences. Being on social media and having personal life experiences to draw from, I have also been an animal lover and have had German Shepherds and I deeply remember when it comes time, you know what I mean, a deep sense of loss and a sense of responsibility when it comes to that time where it is the end of days for our beloved animals.
It started with an idea, and of course I see on social media it's incredible how animals they weave themselves into the fabric of our being. I see it every day when people lose their animals they feel absolutely lost and helpless.
When I started writing the lyrics for it I was questioning myself, 'Is this a topic that is jaded or something that I should write about?' I didn't know how to feel about it. But the more I got into it, during the first and second verses, the power I was feeling with it and the way the direction of the lyrics started flowing I felt really good about it. It's one of those times you take a chance and say, 'OK I respect whatever the listener is going to feel and I feel that I want to go through with this and follow that direction.'
There are so many movements in this song and it's about a lot of thing. As you mentioned about rescues, yes that's pretty much what the first passage is about. When you read the lyrics it is about imagining all the pictures I have seen in the media and how animals are abused, and there are people that exist on this planet that have absolutely no empathy and are wired totally different. And hence animal abuse. It starts the story line of a rescue, which I have done before -- we have done rescue for our cats and dog -- so it's taking an animal that has been broken, and of course you can imagine all the imagery like tied to a tree or beaten or left in the dark, and how it absolutely destroys the spirit of that animal. So we take that spirit and we describe a rescue and how anxious the animals that come home with you are and then you start to build a life with your new friend and how the animal is so grateful and is all about building trust again. When you say rescue you are giving that animal a permanent home and a viable life and from that point on it's like a life story condensed in a song. All the rewards that come from what that animal gives to you 100-fold again and sometimes humans can't give that to you and that's why we have such a special connection with them.
It wasn't designed to be a sad song, although there are parts that are sad no question about it. That is life and sometimes when I describe it I don't pull punches. Is there pain involved? Yes, there is pain involved. I wanted it to be an inspirational song and I think it does that like in the choruses it starts to build and you think it is done and it starts to build even more. Listening to the song it elevates me. The music elevates me with the great players and Jim's great writing and the lyrics and the melody lines it just lifts me to a higher place. It is sad but it is also inspiring and hopefully it builds awareness, too. It does take the turn at the end where it makes that connection that nothing lasts forever and we don't last forever. So, while we are here be kind to each other and while we have our animals be kind to them.
I mention in the song, too, some say the animals don't feel love or they don't they feel anything at all, and I know for sure that's just not the case. You can see in in their eyes. There is a lot going on in this song and this one has become my favorite song.
John it is always a privilege to share some time with you. I appreciate that very much. Again Winter Ethereal is out May 10 on Metal Blade records.
JA: Thank you Mark. I always appreciate talking to you. Also, thank you to all the fans for their unwavering support through all the years.