There are not many singers whose contribution to the mid-90s Metal scene has been as instrumental as that of ex-Iced Earth front man Matt Barlow – a man whose unique pipes have blasted classic compositions, such as “Dante’s Inferno” and “My Own Saviour” and who is now continuing his long and inspirational musical journey under the Ashes Of Ares moniker. Apart from a top frontman, Matt has also proven to be a great interviewee, as you are about to discover. Pretty pleased by the reaction to his band’s debut and with the passion and enthusiasm equivalent to that of a newcomer, Matt talks about all things Metal, including future plans with Ashes Of Ares and a short but to the point assessment of Iced Earth, anno 2013.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi Matt. I am really happy to finally be able to meet you in person. I have been closely following your career since the days when you were fronting Iced Earth and I am happy to see you currently involved in another quality project – namely, Ashes Of Ares. Admittedly, I was a bit sceptical in the beginning as I am not a huge fan of what many people refer to as ‘super groups’ but you guys have exceeded all expectations by releasing a truly stunning album in “Ashes Of Ares”, so well done for that!
Matt: Thank you, thank you very much. To come back to the whole ‘super group’ thing: we are not really a super group – we are just a bunch of guys that simply love doing music, you know? We needed an outlet that was going to be efficient, I guess, for all of us to help combine our personal lives and our other careers and this thing just made sense. Freddy (note: Vidales/guitars & bass) and I really hit it off when I got back in Iced Earth, as he was the bass player of the band, and in time we became really good friends. Now Van (note: Williams/drums, ex-Nevermore), I have known Van since forever, which is from 1995-96. Iced Earth had toured with Nevermore so many times so we became friends along the way. So, we just thought that it would be a good idea, it felt right. Freddy and I talked about doing some stuff together even while we were still in Iced Earth together as Jon (note: Schaffer) also had other projects going on so we thought that it would be cool to write some stuff together and when we both got out of the band it felt like the right thing to do. I was actually working on music, Freddy had worked on some stuff and so when we got together for like a weekend we started writing songs and it just really clicked, man! We were really excited after that so we started sharing files through the Internet and…well, it just felt very organic, you know? It’s weird saying that when you mention the process of sharing files through the Internet but it really did. Freddy sent some stuff to me, I would record something based on the idea and send it back to him to which he would say: “That sounds cool, but can we do this?” to which I would reply: “Sure, I can do that”. Using the tools we had properly, and still being true to the sound we were looking for and the vision we had for this band, all worked out really well. We are extremely happy with it and I know that there are mixed reactions…
- Are there?
Matt: Well, there are some folks and maybe there is, like you said, the ‘super group’ thing that people have a pre-conceived notion of what it should be, or of what have you. Maybe these are Iced Earth fans who wanted the album to sound more like Iced Earth or they wanted it to sound more like Nevermore because of Van’s influence and it didn’t end up sounding enough like Nevermore to them…I don’t know.
- Surely, the strongest point regarding this album is that it borrows elements from both these bands without sounding 100% like any of them. I would assume that none of us would want to have an album segregated between the Iced Earth “section” and the Nevermore “section”, right?
Matt: I agree with that too and, you know, that’s…getting people ready for this record I stated certain things to them. I said: “Well, here’s the deal – I cannot change how my voice sounds or what my influences are”. All these Iced Earth influences that came through are still mine but I was actually able to give them room to expand things a little bit more. I mean, I was the creative entity with regards the lyrics and the vocal melodies in the band anyway. So, I don’t know what the right combination is and I know that I cannot please everybody all the time but I am pretty excited every time I hear people say: “I really enjoyed the record”, as that’s really what we want, you know? We do it for ourselves because as artists we have the need to create and when people recognise our efforts…well, it’s all that we need. It’s cool.
- When you guys decided to start working on material together, did you at any point find yourselves consciously trying to avoid your past band/influences or did you decide to relax and let things take their course?
Matt: It was the latter, really. Again, my vocal style is my vocal style: I can expand upon it a little bit but I cannot change it. I am not going to do something universally different. The stuff that I’ve put into Iced Earth I’ve put my heart into, you know, the same way I have put my heart into Ashes Of Ares and maybe even a little bit more because, again, these are my songs, so to speak, with my lyrics and my vocal melodies…this is my ‘child’, kind of a thing…
- What I will ask you may be unfair but there is no malicious intent behind it – just sheer curiosity. Now that you are working in a band that is not controlled by a strong leading figure like Jon Schaffer, do you feel more free to work on certain ideas – ideas that Iced Earth would perhaps not be able to accommodate?
Matt: Sure – absolutely! I mean, I certainly didn’t have any problem communicating with Freddy as most of the stuff that he gave me to work on I didn’t want to change drastically as I wanted his vision to come through as well. I just wanted to add to it and create something together. The same way with Va,; we didn’t ask Van to change things drastically. We said to him: “Here, man, just do what you do” and that is why the album features so many off-time drum beats – stuff that you probably not going to hear in Iced Earth as what you have here is a drummer that is writing what he feels and is putting it out there. Yeah, we really wanted to take this from the aspect that we have a true collaboration from all three parties involved. We felt that we could do this as Freddy can play all the guitar and bass parts and he was able to explore a lot of new ideas, more so than what he would have done on an Iced Earth record or any other album that would be written by somebody else.
- On a personal level, you certainly haven’t done yourself many favours with regard the vocal themes recorded as you are using your high register notes quite extensively. How are you going to perform that stuff live? Plus, there are so many layers of vocals present that I am sure they will cause you a few headaches when on stage.
Matt: Yeah, it’s tough but I think that there are certain areas in my voice where I feel most comfortable being and I was really trying to keep that in mind when I was writing the stuff. My approach to a lot of the heavier stuff on the album was from just listening to what the fans had said in the past with regards albums like “Alive In Athens” – how much they liked this album because it was so raw. When you are approaching a live setting, you have to approach it a lot differently sometimes than how you would a record. When we did “Alive In Athens”, we did a two and a half hour set each night and that was a lot to do with one’s voice. So yes, you have to approach things a little bit differently. In the studio somebody may say to you: ‘Here – sing this’ and you may be able to sing it the way that person had envisioned it but it may not be how you would be able to perform it live. So I was kind of approaching the music of Ashes Of Ares with that idea in mind – with me wanting to enhance a live feeling as far as my vocals were concerned and also keeping in mind that I wanted to utilise Freddy who is a good vocalist. Now we also have Dean (note: Sternberg/bass – touring member only) who is also a good vocalist so we can do many things live. We can have many vocal layers performed as he has some impressively high registered vocals and Freddy’s voice operates on a nice low register, so we are trying to recreate the material in a live environment, always conscious of the fact that it has to feel organic.
- Well, apart from the trio that recorded the album, which other musicians will be accompanying you on tour?
Matt: Well, Dean Sternberg is our bass player and vocalist, Gio Geraca is our second guitar player. He plays lead guitar as well and has a good collaboration with Freddy as they bounce ideas and riffs back and forth between them. Freddy is our main guy, but him and Gio do bounce things back and forth between them.
- I am sure that if I were to ask most of your fans what they would expect from Ashes Of Ares, especially after the release of such an impressive album, most of them would expect and wish for you to be out all the time touring all around the world – something that, of course cannot happen as you are a serving police officer. With that in mind, is it fair for people to classify Ashes Of Ares as a mere hobby rather than a fully committed band?
Matt: Well, we are going to try and tour as much as we can. There are obviously going to be restrictions and limitations but this is certainly a workable thing. If we get on tours or sections of tours as this one that we are on right now where we can do a nice ten day slot and then stop then we will go for that. When I was touring with Iced Earth back in 2008, 2009 and 2010 we did more tours per year that I had ever done on my first stint with them – it was totally crazy. It was a matter of flexing the schedule around and granted, Iced Earth is a different place as far as guarantees and money are concerned than we are, but hopefully there will be enough demand for us and more bands like Powerwolf to have us on tour with them. We are certainly no ego guys here – we know where we are in the pecking order of things and where it is that we need to be, so we have absolutely no problem opening for bands. I might even prefer it because it takes a little bit of pressure off our shoulders and allows us to kind of ‘slide in there’, perform, do what we do and then get out there and meet the folks who paid money to see us and stuff like that.
- You are, of course, in a privileged position as you are a man of a certain status within the Metal community, as are the other two main guys in the band. That gives you the opportunity to avoid any unnecessary pressure and to do things your way, right? I cannot see any label putting you under pressure to constantly tour to help promote your album when your name alone is the best form of advertisement.
Matt: Sure. I mean, it’s great. I would be naïve to think that we got the deal with Nuclear Blast based on just the strength of our demo, although I do feel that the demo was a solid piece of work and gave them a good idea of where it is that we were going with the band. I know that I have a good name in the business, Van has and Freddy has a good name now too, but we do not intent on resting on our laurels! We are going to do everything that we can to make the record company proud of us and make them increase our budget so that we can produce more records. That is ultimately our goal. We are not here to make a ton of money; if we write a hot song or a hit record that will hit the roof and eventually gives us some cash then it’s awesome (laughs). Cash is great, recognition is also great but we are really here to make solid records and make people happy, you know? We make music for ourselves and for people that like what we do.
- This tour with Powerwolf – you are only participating in the first part of it, right?
Matt: Yes, we are doing ten shows with them.
- Following which – what happens? Any more shows scheduled?
Matt: Well, we are going back to the States to perform a show around the Baltimore area, which is where I come from, in November, and then we are going to look towards doing more shows in 2014. There might be some other shows that may fall into place as we are keen on coming back to Europe and doing a few festivals as this will help us create a power base that will in future allow fans of ours to be able to come and see us in an environment where they can also enjoy seeing many other bands that they might like. I love festivals – I love the whole idea behind them because I think that Metal fans get so much more for their money by being able to go to a certain location and seeing a variety of bands. Metal cruises are also quite awesome. We got to do the first 70,000 Tons Of Metal Cruise with Iced Earth and I am really looking forward to doing that again with Ashes Of Ares as it was a truly great experience. It’s not just great just for the fans but also for the band because we get to hang out with guys that we like and also mingle with the fans.
- Do you not freak out with the idea of being in a relatively confined space surrounded by people that want to talk to you 24/7?
Matt: No, it really is cool man. I actually had my wife on that cruise with us and it was neat. We met old friends and made a lot of new friends too. One of my wife’s good friends is a doctor in Pennsylvania – folks that you really don’t expect to meet on a Metal cruise or whatever, but it was cool, man. Everybody was super polite, super cool and totally aware of other people’s need for personal space. It was a simple case of people bumping into each other saying : “Hi, how are you doing?” – the kind of stuff that sparked off nice conversations. We spent a lot of time talking to people but it was great. It was such a great atmosphere, too. It was also the first cruise they did where they were sold out of alcohol before we even reached the next port (laughs). It was phenomenal!
- As an ex-serviceman myself, I am well aware of all the teasing involved when a person in the team is interested in unusual extra-curricular activities (meaning the music, of course!). I am sure that your Metal escapades must have been the cause of interesting comments on the part of your fellow policemen. Any funny incidents that you care to discuss here with us?
Matt: No. Actually it was kind of one of those things that when I went into the Police Academy I tried to keep a low profile, you know? I didn’t want all the questions and the teasing but as people steadily learned about things and my past and everything, they were really amazingly supportive. People saying “That’s really cool, man, that you were doing this”. They knew that I was doing the Rock’n’Roll things and that obviously the ‘sex and drugs’ aspect wasn’t really a part of it and I really always tried to focus myself towards the music and getting into an established band later in life really helped me with that. When I became a Police Officer I…it was…folks have been extremely supportive of the whole thing and actually one of the songs on the new record “On Warrior’s Wings” is about a colleague of mine who was shot and killed in action. It was not entirely about him but it certainly was inspired by him and the first verse comes from a really heartfelt spot. It was nice because we have a benefit every year in his honour and we had a record released this year for benefit and sales of our CD, all the profits, went to his foundation and will help other people in the community, kids whose scholarship funds we are trying to set. This was really nice and the night after that, at the normal event for that foundation, we had a signed copy of the vinyl version of our album which somebody bought for one hundred and sixty dollars. I mean, it’s pretty cool, man, to have the community in my home town being so supportive of what we do.
- No regrets for having become a member of the Police force then?
Matt: No, none at all. I am really a strong believer in the idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’ – even when it comes to tragedy. Becoming a Police officer, knowing Chad and having him dying the way he did is something that nobody ever wants to have to go through, all the grief and the pain and everything, but it is certainly something that has inspired me and hopefully such a bad incident will inspire other people to try and do good and help others that are less fortunate. I think that this is the best thing that you can do for somebody when they pass away: to honour them in the best way possible.
- Now that the first Ashes Of Ares is recorded and the feedback of the music press and your fans has been analysed and digested do you find yourself motivated enough by what you heard and read so as to perhaps begin working on new material?
Matt: Oh yeah! We are already thinking of another album. We are actually writing stuff as we are going…well, we actually wrote more songs than we actually put on the record. I don’t want people saying: “You could have put more songs on the first record”, or anything like that. We had a budget to work with and also had Nuclear Blast saying: “You are going to do so many songs for the record”, and that’s where we were at. It actually worked our perfectly as far as time was concerned and the space they could take on the CD version. We had so many songs, that Nuclear Blast has to release a double vinyl to accommodate the material as it was considered a fairly lengthy effort. So yes, we are writing, man, we are constantly writing. There are ideas constantly going through my mind and every idea or every concept that presents itself to me, I jot it down and will start working on it. Man, as long as Nuclear Blast gives us a budget, we are doing another one! If this one sells enough they might say: “Yeah, we’ll take the risk”. Sophomore records are always the ones that people put under the microscope, you know.
- The famous ‘difficult second record’ concept, right?
Matt: Yep. We will have to really make sure that we do things right for the people, especially for the people that have really given us so much positive energy from their comments on this first record.
- Matt, this is a question I need to ask because, not only are you the most highly acclaimed and celebrated Iced Earth singer, meaning that your opinion holds much weight, but you still have a deep and meaningful relationship with Jon Schaffer. How do you find Iced Earth anno-2013 and how would you evaluate Stu Block as a singer? Are you happy with the way they are evolving as a band, following your departure?
Matt: Sure! I think that Stu is a logical choice, especially for Jon. Having Stu being a little bit younger, he has a little bit more fire and he certainly has the ability to do a lot of things. I haven’t heard the new record: I haven’t heard any tracks from the new record yet but I would assume that Stu will be adding a lot more of Stu in there. Hopefully Jon is letting him really expand and letting him do what he does best. I know that it’s tough sometimes to do that when you’re a song writer and you’ve got a vision in your mind with regards how you want the songs to sound like or how you want the singer to deliver things, but I think that it will only be better if Stu expands more as Stu, not just with regards Jon’s vision of things.
- Well, Stu certainly has massive shoes to fill, that’s for sure.
Matt: Thank you. I think he’s the right man for the job!
- It’s really great to hear you say that. Matt, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I wish we had more time at our disposal but you need to prepare for the show.
Matt: I definitely do have to prepare, man.
- Good luck with everything & hopefully see you again soon. Enjoy tonight’s show and all you do with Ashes Of Ares.
Matt: Thank you, man – that’s what this is all about! Thank you, brother – take care of yourself.
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