JIM MATHEOS Reflects on The Genesis Of KINGS OF MERCIA: “Starting A Band In 2022 Is a Very Different Process Than It Was In The Early Days Of FATES WARNING”

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The combined forces of guitarist Jim Matheos (Fates Warning) and singer Steve Overland (FM) brought us one of the best albums of the year so far. Released on September 23rd, the self-titled debut album of Kings of Mercia counts also with the talents of Simon Phillips (drums) and Joey Vera (bass).

Kings of Mercia was born out of writing sessions that Jim carried out in early 2021. The material was on the AOR vein, which spearheaded the quest for a singer who would do it justice. Enter Steve Overland, who gave his own spin to the material he received, and so a new band was formed. The debut includes heavy songs such as the singles “Liberate Me” and “Wrecking Ball”, and poignant ballads such as “Too Far Gone” and “Everyday Angels”. With excellent production and no shortage of anthemic choruses, the group’s prog-tinged hard rock allows each player to shine on their own instrument, although the obvious spotlight is on vocals and guitars.

Sonic Perspectives collaborator Rodrigo Altaf spoke with Jim Matheos about how each piece of the puzzle came together for Kings of Mercia, and touched on other subjects such as a potential Fates Warning tour, a follow up to Kings of Mercia’s debut, future plans and much more. Find their chat below.

“Kings Of Mercia” Album Artwork

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We are here of course, to discuss your new band Kings of Mercia. I understand you had no idea that the material would go in this direction when you started writing?

Yeah, that’s pretty much true. I was looking for something to do after we did the last Fates Warning record. It came out with the worst timing, because it was right when the pandemic was starting, so I knew there wasn’t gonna be any touring. So I just wanted to keep myself busy and didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do, and just started writing as I do sometimes. The first couple of songs just happened to develop really easily, and I like that direction and decided to follow it.

And it seems more on the hard rock vein than anything else you’ve done. Does that happen with you often – sitting down to write something, and it takes a direction that you never expected?

Sometimes I start writing and if we’re in a Fates Warning cycle, I know I have to write for that band, and I’ll have that in mind. But often when it’s a side project I don’t even know what it’s gonna turn into. That’s really a fun part of it for me when I don’t really know what I’m gonna do, so I can just play my guitar and sometimes I’ll even just like track maybe like a half an hour of me playing guitar with some drums behind or whatever, just improvising, and then I’ll have to suffer through listening to it [laughs]. But, you know, after listening to me noodling around for half an hour, maybe I’ll get one riff or 20 seconds of something of it, so that’s kind of fun exploring that way.

Photo by Mark Cubbedge

Tell me about the choice of band members. Steve Overland is such a great choice for the material, and you also have Simon Phillips on drums and your old partner in crime Joey Vera on bass!

Pretty early on I knew, after I did the first couple songs, that it was gonna be, as you said, kind of more of a straightforward, hard rock kind of thing. Because of that, the vocals were gonna be really key. So I wanted to take my time and find the right fit that I could work with and partner with, and that took some time. It really took a lot of time just for me to decide who I wanted to contact. I made a quite a big list of people that I was thinking about. Some of them I knew would be out of reach or not available, whatever, but I put together a list just to help me kind of frame my mind of where I wanted to go. And so I contacted maybe one or two of them and that wasn’t gonna work out, and I kind of expected that. And then a mutual friend Jeff Wagner suggested Steve, whom I hadn’t listened to in a long time. I was familiar with FM from back in the day because they started up the same time as we did, but I hadn’t kept up with him. And so I checked out some of his more recent output and yeah, I was just blown away with it. And we talked a bit and thought maybe a good idea to combine our two styles – his is much more AOR straightforward and mine is obviously Fates Warning, OSI, Arch/Matheos etc. and we kind of met somewhere in the middle ground there.

Was the whole album recorded remotely? Have you guys had a chance to be in the same room and jam yet?

It’s been all done remotely. I think Steve and I have talked one time via Zoom or whatever it was one time, not even on the phone other than that. But it was all done via email and file transfers.

What’s it like to put a band together in 2022 versus when you first started with Fates Warning back in the day?

[Laughs] It’s completely different. It’s a whole different thing. There’s the technological advances, of course, because we can do these things remote. And of course, there’s the aspect of having 30, 35, close to 40 years of experience for each one of us, for every one of us. We’ve all been down this road many times. It’s kind of important when you get to the stage that you are working with people that are doing it for the right reasons. We’re all on the same path. You don’t really have to hold anybody’s hand. They know they’re there to do a job and they’re gonna get it done. That just comes with experience. But as far as the technological side, it couldn’t be any different, you know? Maybe that’s in some ways good, some ways bad too. I do sometimes miss the aspect of being in a band situation and jamming out ideas. It’s been so long since I’ve done that. It might be a fun experience, might be really terrifying at the same time [to do that again].

Photo by Joel Barrios

Even with Fates Warning? Was the approach in the latest albums to exchange files, or did you jam together?

We haven’t done an album together, like where we’re in the same room jamming, maybe since “Parallels”. Even when we got to “Inside Out”, that was more or less us writing separately, sending tapes through the mail and we would get together before we record. We’d get together and rehearse the songs, but as far as us being in the same room, throwing ideas around, we’d never been that kind of band other than the early days when John Arch was in the band. Once albums like “No Exit” and “Perfect Symmetry” came around, we more or less started writing on our own and just getting together for rehearsals, and that just got more exaggerated as we went on. Even the last couple of Fates records have been all remote and just done file sharing, emails, that kind of thing.

Ok. And I’m curious about the name of the band. I know that Mercia was a region in Brittain, and there are two British guys in the band. Does that some have something to do with it or not?

It really doesn’t, you know, you can’t read too much into that. It’s virtually impossible to come up with an original name these days, because everything is taken. Steve and I probably discussed about 40 or 50 ideas, and neither of us was crazy about any of them, or if one guy liked one, the other guy didn’t like it. And I think, I was just trying to think of maybe an angle along the fact that he’s from England and I’m from New England. Maybe we could combine that somehow. And somehow thinking about those two phrases, I stumbled upon the same Wikipedia page you probably have for Kings of Mercia, and that’s an interesting title, Interesting idea. And Steve liked it, so that became the band name.

The album cover is quite unique too. What does it represent and how did you guys get to that image?

I think with the cover, just like the title or the band, you don’t read too much into it, it’s just a cool image. There’s no symbolism behind. It’s not supposed to mean anything. For me, a lot of great album covers, they just look like a cool piece of art. For this one, we went to a guy named Simon Ward, who’s done a bunch of Marillion covers, one of my favorite bands. I really like the work he’d done on the last Marillion cover, so I contacted him and what I like to do with art these days is find an artist whose work I like and just let them run with it. I don’t go in there and say “well, I like to see a statue with a clown on fire” [laughs], I don’t do that. For me it’s like, you hire somebody that’s gonna do a good job for you. And that’s what we did, and that was completely his idea, and Steve liked it too.

Photo by Joel Barrios

“Wrecking Ball” is the first single and also the album opener, it seems to me like it’s a great choice to open a concert as well if and when you guys decide to play live, right?

Yeah, I could see that. That was kind of the intention on opening a record with it. Yeah. I don’t know if we’re ever gonna get to that stage, but when I’m sequencing a record, I kind of feel like that’s the same thing I want to hear. That first song would be the first song that you would hear if you’re going to see a live show.

I think “Liberate Me”, the second single, carries the Fates Warning DNA a little bit more, at least to my ears. Would you agree with that?

That’s interesting. For me, any of these songs in any of these bands, it’s just hard for me to look at any of it objectively because I work so long and so hard that I can’t. That’s interesting. I never thought of that. That’s an interesting viewpoint you have there.

Let me ask you about the ballads “Too Far Gone” and “Everyday Angels”. I think they’re strategically placed in the album to provide some breathing space between the more high-octane numbers, right? How was Steve’s contribution to these two songs? I know they’re more in the FM territory.

It was pretty much the same process all the way through. I think with “Everyday Angels”, actually, if I remember correctly, it was one of the last songs I brought to the table, and we had all this material, and I think Steve at that point said “Yeah, maybe it’d be good to have something a bit lighter”, because it was leaning towards that more, I’m not gonna say heavy, it’s not obviously heavy, but it was, yeah, high energy. We needed something to break it up a little bit. And so “Everyday Angels”, I had that sitting in my ideas folder for probably 10 years now. I’d never found the right home for it, and just on a whim, since Steve was saying he wanted to try something maybe a little different from the rest of the material, I sent him that one and he latched onto it pretty quickly. And you’re exactly right, it’s strategically placed in the track order. I guess I’m old school when I’m looking at a record I like to stick with it as an LP, although so many people don’t listen to them that way anymore. I still listen to it as side one side too, and I try to build it that way when I’m sequencing a record.

Photo by Mark Cubbedge

As a fan, I only started recently to go back to the scenario of listening to an album in full as opposed to stand alone songs. And it does make a difference!

It really does. I try to do that too, and I can’t, you know, I’m a busy person too, like everybody else these days, and I can’t always do that, but for me it’s so much more rewarding because, the artists that I listen to, they put the time into actually doing the same thing I do. They sequence and they try different sequences and what works best, one song after the next, energy wise, key wise, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. So I try to do that as much as possible when I’m listening to a record.

Yeah, of course. For me it’s like giving the albums and artists due diligence as a fan. It’s like “let me give these guys the listening time that they deserve”.

That’s great. I wish more people did that.

You’re involved in so many projects and bands at the moment. Arch/Matheos, Tuesday The Sky, Kings of Mercia…how do you balance all those things and how do you decide what to focus on next?

I guess the second half of that question is the harder, like, what am I gonna do next? [laughs]. But as far as juggling all of them, I don’t know. From the outside to a person like you or anybody else, maybe it seems like a lot, but to me it doesn’t seem like a lot, you know? I mean, maybe a record of once every year and a half, two years. I’m not touring a lot, even when States were active, we would only do a couple months out of the year. So for me, it’s like a regular day job. I work on music, I put out records. It doesn’t seem overwhelming at any point other than the pressure I put on myself to do something that I’m happy with. But as far as like being prolific or anything like that, I don’t feel overly prolific or that I have a lot of a lot of things I’m juggling. At the same time, it is a struggle, as I said at the beginning, to figure out to do next and what direction I want to go. A lot of times that’s dictated by exactly what I did previously. So if I just did Tuesday The Sky, I’m not gonna want to do something that’s really metal and ambient. I’ll probably want to do something like Kings of Mercia, which is a bit more upbeat after I do that. I’m not gonna want to do something like that. Maybe I wanna do something heavy and progressive. I don’t know. It kind of just depends on where my head space is at after spending so much time on one record.

Photo by Joel Barrios

Your last solo effort, “Halo Effect” it was really different from your previous output. It was something the usual Fates Warning fan like myself is not used to. Do you have any plans to do a follow up to that anytime soon?

I haven’t thought about it. That was really kind of just an experimental thing for me. It was a lot of fun. One of my favorite bands from the early days was Tangerine Dream. So it kind of reminded me that, of that, but doing it with all guitars, I don’t know if it’ll be doing that kind of thing any time soon.

I have a question about your Greek heritage. I asked Ray Alder about you guys always doing such iconic shows in Greece, and he mentioned people love you there, and it’s because of you being of Greek heritage. Has that influenced your musical bringing in any way?

You know, that was nice of Ray to say that. I don’t know that it’s that true. I mean, I certainly do love the fact that I’m Greek. They like that part of it, but I think there’s gotta be more to it than just that, I would hope. [laughs]. I’ve never thought about it from a musical point of view, but it’s something that I’m porud of – you know, being a Greek American. I’ve been proud about that since I was a kid. It was just drilled into me and instilled into me about what my heritage was from very proud Greek parents. So it is something that I take seriously and that I’m proud of. But no, I’ve never thought of it as far as influencing the music, or anything I wanna do in that direction.

I know things are “frozen” with Fates Warning at the moment. Do you guys keep in touch in any way, and is there a plan for a farewell kind of tour? Or do you not want to call it a farewell tour?

We stay in touch all the time. We have like a group text going that we call each other and chat about whatever’s going on. Usually very comical and just amusing each other. It’s the same as it’s always been. So those lines of communication are open and ongoing. I’d love to be able to do some dates. We never got to properly tour on the last record. It’s just at this point, a question of: number one, still a pandemic out there despite what some people think. That’s holding us back a little bit. And schedules, everyone’s busy doing other things. Joey‘s touring a lot with Mercyful Fate. Bobby‘s got his gig with George Strait, so that keeps him very busy. So we’ll see. A lot of things have to line up. I still hope to be able to do some dates for the last record whether or not I would call it a farewell tour or anything like that. I don’t think so, But I would still like to do some dates.

Fingers crossed. And I interviewed Terry Brown a few months ago, and he briefly mentioned that “A Pleasant Shade of Grey” turned 25 years old this year. It was quite a turning point for you and the band in many ways. What kind of memory do you have off that album and of working with Terry?

Well, obviously it wasn’t the first time we worked with Terry. Those days were just surreal. Rush is one of my favorite bands, and to be sitting at the mixing desk with him working on guitar parts and him kind of studying my guitar playing was a bit nerve-wrecking [laughs]. It was amazing. The large part of the success of the “Parallels” record was due to him and getting us to hone our parts down and maybe trim the songs down a little bit. As far as “A Pleasant Shade of Grey”, that’s still probably one of my favorite records recording wise and creative wise. We kind of got to a point in our career where we were just not trying to chase this success anymore. We were just gonna do a record that we want to do, and if it was the last thing we do, at least we’re gonna be really happy with it. And having that kind of attitude was really freeing, going in there and doing it.

Do you kind of feel like you’re responsible for the success of bands like Haken, Leprous and other modern prog metal bands?

No, I don’t, not at all [laughs]. I blame Dream Theater for all that [laughs]. However, you look at it, they’re the ones who broke through. I know Mike Portnoy says that there wouldn’t be a Dream Theater without Fates Warning, and I appreciate that. But no, I mean, it’s them. We’re still, at the end of the day, a very small underground band with a small but dedicated, I admit, very dedicated fan base. But, you know, we’ve never really gotten beyond that. And that’s fine with me.

Photo by Joel Barrios

Back to Kings of Mercia, is there any discussion about touring plans? If and when that happens, what would you play on that tour, aside from the material from the album?

Well, I wouldn’t get to that second question until we figure out the first one, so I’m not gonna worry about that just yet [laughs]. I think I would be open to it, but as we were talking about before, it’s hard enough to get the band like Fates Warning out on the road. A band that’s established, with a dedicated following. It’s hard for us to go out on the road, even in, in non-pandemic times, it’s always a financial struggle. So, you know, putting a new band out there, albeit with players that people know, it’s still new music I don’t think would be financially possible. If something happens and there’s great interest, then I would certainly look at it. And if everyone’s schedules were free, I’m sure we would do it. But it’s not something I’m counting on or even looking for at this point. Maybe if we do a second record down the line, we could look at it, but right now, knowing what I know about the business gets a little unrealistic.

Yeah. It would be challenging. So what’s next for you in the next 6 to 12 months?

Well, I’m working on another record right now that’s kind of more of a slow, ambient thing. I don’t know when that’s gonna come out or what I’m gonna do with it. And then after that, I think we’re gonna do the second Kings of Mercia record. Maybe that’ll come out later next year if we get it done in time, if not the year after that. And then yeah, after that who knows!

I’m keeping my fingers to us for a tour and hopefully a follow up album as well. Jim, thank you so much for the interview. All the best with this release.

Awesome. Thank you very much.

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