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Conspiracy Theory: An Exclusive Interview With MATT JAMES And MATT COX Of THE RAVEN AGE

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Thursday, May 2, 2019 @ 6:10 AM

"I hate bands that get pigeonholed into niche genres, because I don't like niche genres."

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Live Photo By Shelly Harris

There's palpable excitement in the air as THE RAVEN AGE's long and lanky - and highly charismatic - "new" vocalist Matt James sits on a black sofa in the dark and dim inner sanctum of the aptly named La Boule Noir (The Black Ball) prior to the band's April Fool's Day gig in Paris, where he thoughtfully and thoroughly discusses the recent trajectory of the band with the release of new album Conspiracy, the upcoming touring with IRON MAIDEN in North and South America, and his own past and entry into the RAVEN collective (or conspiracy, pun intended).

Bassist Matt Cox also later joins us to discuss many of the circumstances that have propelled THE RAVEN AGE onward and upward since I first met, interviewed, and reviewed the band at Sonisphere UK back in summer of 2014. The band had just released an EP at the time, and now have two albums (including 2017's Darkness Will Rise) and several European and legs of world tours under their belts, with the changes and growing curve that come along with time and experience.

Additionally, two band members have changed since that time, with Tony Maue on guitar now, instead of Dan Wright (now the band's manager), and the aforementioned Matt James now in as the lead singer and frontman after the amicable departure of Michael Burrough. (Maue and James join founder/guitarist George Harris, drummer Jai Patel, and bassist Cox.)

It is clear as the conversation evolves that the band is just as business savvy and smart (having paid their dues in ways that some might not give them credit for) as they are artistically committed and enthusiastic:

KNAC.COM: According to the Wikipedia, the band in its very first incarnation has been around since 2009, so that would be ten years now.

JAMES: I think they released their first EP back in 2014, something like that. So I think that is when George [Harris] likes to classify it as really being a band.

KNAC.COM: Yes, when I first covered THE RAVEN AGE at Sonsiphere UK, that was 2014, and they had just released that EP. Now it has actually been about 5 years since then! And, obviously, there have been a few changes since then, such as yourself ... And the new album [Conspiracy] is just spectacular. I have a lot of questions about how that came about. How did you come into the picture?

JAMES: It was a little bit of a twist of fate, in terms of a lot of things that came about within a very short period of time. I was in a band previously called WILD LIES, and we came to our natural end at the end of 2017. And, after doing quite a bit for awhile in the music industry, personal relationships that I at the time, with band mates and people I was involved in the industry with, had started to become a bit sour. I was a little jaded by it, a bit fed up, and I was kind of just looking not to do it anymore. I was just going to do session work, and I had a lot of other things lined up. I thought the whole band thing was done, for me. I wasn't really interested. But I knew the guys [in THE RAVEN AGE] for years; we did quite a few shows together, especially in 2016, which crossed over into Europe. We did a lot of festivals together, and we always ran into each other, which was kind of cool. But it was around the end of 2017 when WILD LIES split up.

It was around Christmas time when I remember hearing that they had let go of Mike [Burrough], and that they were looking for other singers. Purely, just out of curiosity, I started speaking to Jai [Patel, drummer], about that, just interested in what had happend sort of thing. Coincidentally, we shared the same producer, called Matt Hyde, who did the latest album and the previous album. He also did a lot of WILD LIES stuff as well, and he said to me, "I think you guys would be a perfect fit together." I'll be honest, I didn't see it at all at first. I am a very different style of singer to Mike, and what I do is very kind of a classic rock kind of voice. My influences are from the 70s, and 80s, and that kind of thing. It was interesting, and my girlfriend went, "It couldn't hurt, and they're a great, great band, why not go and have an audition?" So they sent me over a demo tape of "Angel in Disgrace" and they said, "Would you mind doing some vocals?" I did that, and they seemed to like what they heard, and I was just thinking, let's go for the jam, let's see what happens. I literally wasn't thinking any further than that.

So, they sent me another couple of the songs, and came down and had the rehearsal, and it all felt really, really right, from the first moment we began playing with each other, it felt like we had been doing this for years. We gelled really nicely as musicians, and I was just as surprised as anyone. My style is different, and I said from the get-go, I am not going to go in there and start sounding like Mike; I am going to sound like me, and it sounds the way it sounds. So, it went really well, and they all kept their cards very close to their chest, though. They didn't give too much away. I knew they had been auditioning quite a few singers, and that quite a few had applied. I wasn't even sure myself. Then Dan [Wright], the manager, gave me a phone call the next day, and said, "Look, we really loved your audition. We'd like to offer you the gig, if you'd like it." Wow, that'd gone quick, that had happened really fast. So, before I really even knew what was happening, I was in the band!

KNAC.COM: To go back, you said your background was more into the 70s and 80s kind of thing...

JAMES: Well, that is my influences, mainly. The singers I look up to are singers like Robert Plant, David Coverdale, Dio, those kinds of things. But these guys are a modern style metal band, but I think the fusion of that seems to create something a little different, and people seem to dig that.

KNAC.COM: Yes, I think that fusion is a big part of the appeal of the new album. And what was the time frame of the actual audition?

JAMES: I have trouble keeping my times straight, but the audition actually happened around January of 2018.

KNAC.COM: So, I imagine they were already working on material for the new album then?

JAMES: They were, yeah ... And when I came in, I was really adamant that I didn't want to just be a singer for hire. I wanted to be involved, if they'd let me, on the material for the album. To be honest, George - and all the guys - were really, really cool about it. So, that was another thing that seemed to work out so beautifully. We worked together really well; it was like, automatic. Sometimes, and this is what I am used to, you work with other musicians and you are just not on the same wavelength, or the same page, at all. With George and the other guys, it was just logical that it would go this way or the other. To have that kind of foresight in that way was incredibly refreshing. I didn't come in, per se, and do anything spectacular with the music, as it had already been written. But I came in and I offered little bits here and there. The main thing was the keys to the songs were changed, because the stuff they had done before was originally intended for a lower range. They changed the key and made it higher, to sort of suit my vocal range. Then, I did some collaboration on a song called "Forgotten World", and the main one I kind of worked on with George and Tony was the ballad of the album, "The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships". And we're looking, obviously, to album number three, and maybe do a bit more.

KNAC.COM: I did notice that that particular song was the closest the album got to a love song.

JAMES: Of course, yeah. And we did have to be really, really careful to not let it be just like a stereotypical love song, because it quite easily could have been that. But it definitely is a love song, but it is about a piece of history.

KNAC.COM: Well, the vocals, and especially on that song, sound multi-layered. How were the vocal tracks recorded? Because there is something like echoing, but I don't know if it is called that, it is like...

COX: [who had entered a few minutes earlier, whispers] Delayed.

JAMES: Delayed? I mean, yeah, I don't like over-produced vocals, but I think Matt Hyde, the producer, did a really good job. I wanted to keep the vocals as clean and in your face as possible, but we did a lot of tracking, in terms of harmonies, and back ground vocals, which I love. It is a big part of what I do, and it works great live because sometimes you can record all this different stuff, with all these different voices, and then think, How are we going to do that live? But Matty and Tony both sing, so it hasn't been an issue at all. We can take what we do in the studio and make it work.

KNAC.COM: It might be a little more difficult live, but it can be done.

JAMES: Oh, yeah, totally.

KNAC.COM: Even though most of the songs were already written when you came in, do you know who did most of the writing on those, and how it worked?

JAMES: It was mainly George, and Dan had a lot of input too on a lot of the stuff. Even if there are ideas, it all kind of gets passed through George, which I actually really like, because I think that is what gives it THE RAVEN AGE sound. Obviously Tony has done quite a bit of writing as well. There is a song on the album called, "The Day the World Stood Still", which was entirely Tony's own kind of song. There's been a bit of collaboration, but songs like my own personal favorite on the album, "Grave of the Fireflies", was George's baby, and his masterpiece, which I think has gone down really well. The great thing, on George's part, was he had Tony, who was new, and he had me coming in, and he kind of wanted to collaborate from the get-go, so that we would have this new amalgamation of what THE RAVEN AGE was like. One way it is great is that it really feels like a new thing, like a new band, almost.

KNAC.COM: Was the recording done at Barnyard studio?

JAMES: It was done at George's place, and George is really savvy with the recording side, so we recorded everything there, then it got sent off to Matt Hyde, the producer, who mixed it at his place.

KNAC.COM: Have you been on tour with these guys yet before this?

JAMES: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! So, I did the first tour very shortly after I joined. About a month and a half before I joined, they had already agreed to a tour. So we did a little warm up tour - almost. And then we did the MAIDEN shows in the summer, the European leg. And then we did TREMONTI, at the end of last year. And now we're doing this.

KNAC.COM: So, you are definitely broken into the touring with these guys now. And it looks like you have had some great gigs already on this tour, especially at the Underworld in London - I love that venue! How has it been going?

JAMES: This tour, in particular, has been amazing. Since the album came out, the reception it has been getting is so overwhelming, you can really see that in the ticket sales for the shows. They've all been really well attended, and the crowd has been brilliant. We're on show 10 now.

KNAC.COM: It is probably running smooth now.

JAMES: Yeah! - We haven't had any major hiccups, really. Nothing other than my inner ear monitors going down. I had them maybe eight years, and they finally went - or one of them went, on the last night's show, so now I am using generic rubbish ones. (laughs) But they'll do the job.

KNAC.COM: Well, I imagine there is quite a bit of excitement going on because the new album really is the bomb. I find it to be very cross-genre, and actually really hard to pigeonhole.

JAMES: Exactly. Believe it or not, that is exactly what we want. Not just since I joined this band, but just since doing the rock - metal thing, I hate bands that get pigeonholed into niche genres, because I don't like niche genres. If you look at the bands that are really big in the metal world - like, currently, AVENGED SEVENFOLD, FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH, DISTURBED, and those kinds of bands - you can't really pigeonhole them. They are what they are; they have so many different elements, and I think that is why they capture so many people's attention, because they kind of appeal to everybody in some way. If someone asks what kind of genre we are, I just say "a metal band". And we don't really want to be known as anything more than that.

KNAC.COM: I think the way the vocals are done make it more broadly accessible too.

JAMES: I'd like to think so. That's definitely the thing. We don't do the screaming thing, especially if we can help it. It's just melodies and big riffs. That's it.

KNAC.COM: There are only a few shows left on this European tour. What are you guys doing to gear up for the North and South American tours with MAIDEN later this summer?

JAMES: It starts on July the 15. Even though we are going to have a lot of preparation getting ready for that, I don't think I have had an actual beginning of summer at home in 10 years, because that is when touring usually starts, then you are back home at the end of September, for me, anyway.

KNAC.COM: Well, it will be a giant tour of North and South America soon enough, though. Do you have any vocal concerns?

JAMES: Not really ... I used to. I used to be very precious about my voice and stuff like that, but I've learned over the years to try to go with it as much as I can. The most I have ever done was on this tour, was an hour and twenty minute set, four nights in a row without a day off. That was quite intense. But, there has been no issue on this tour. If there was going to be an issue, I think it would be on a headline tour like this where the set time is obviously longer. At the moment, everything is looking good, and the American tour with MAIDEN, is 40 -45 minutes, and I'm pretty used to that now...If you are having a bit of an off day, there is a way to get through it without it affecting the show too much. You've just gotta know how to use your voice properly. So, I'm not very precious, nowadays anyway! (laughs) You know, I try not to get too drunk before a show, and I don't smoke, so there's that. And there's simple things like drinking water...

KNAC.COM: You have a point about the opening set being shorter, so you should be seasoned, but did you ever have any formal vocal training?

JAMES: I did, when I was younger. When I grew up, I was in choirs and stuff, and originally, I was classically trained. I did some classical stuff while I was in schools. And yeah, I think it is good that I've taken some foundations from that. It is all kind of the same; you just use it in different ways. But the foundations of my earlier stuff still stay with me to this day. So, I had some kind of training in that regard. ... Knowing how to use your voice correctly, especially in this genre of music is very, very important. I think I've got pretty good idea now of the limits and usages of my voice.

KNAC.COM: Knock on wood. (laughs) Well, I figured you had the breathing and all that down pat! (laughs)

JAMES: Yeah, I try the best I can, anyway.

KNAC.COM: Uh-huh. Speaking of the setlist, is it a combination of new and older songs?

JAMES: Yeah, yeah. There are 4 older songs on this tour. And the rest is kind of the new album, which is what the tour is about.

KNAC.COM: I was asking that, because I noticed, when I was listening, that it is the kind of album that could be played in its entirety. It's got the intro, it's got the closure...

JAMES: Oh, yeah, yeah. It flows very nicely, actually. We try to keep that going as much as we can. But even still having the older stuff in there as well, because we know there are a lot of fans that still love the first album, and they'd be pretty pissed if we didn't play any of that as well.

KNAC.COM: Are you anticipating another album yet?

JAMES: Oh, yeah, yeah. We are always anticipating. That time period you talked about, when we get back before the Maiden tour, we're definitely demo-ing stuff for album number three. Because we've got such a hectic year, and it goes past so quickly, that management and everyone already think: Album number three. So, if we have nothing to give to them, it would be like, tough shit! (laughs) So we're already constantly working on new material. And hopefully it will come about after we are back home after this.

KNAC.COM: Well, sometimes it is easier to keep in "The Zone" - or the groove - in doing it, without letting up...

JAMES: Yeah, totally!

KNAC.COM: So, to wrap it up, it is kind of cliched, but what is in the future?

JAMES: It is just constantly trying to build on everything we've done. As I said, the response from this album has just been overwhelming. It's been so positive, and we just want to keep on growing from that. We've had milestones that are obvious, and others that are not quite so obvious. The show at the Underworld the other day, in London, was brilliant, because of the album. It was there to see. So we just want to build on that and keep on going, and hopefully playing bigger venues and attract as much of the globe as we can. We don't just want to stick to Europe and the UK. But we want to do everything we can, and obviously going over to America is important as well. We want to get American audiences on our side, and trying to see as much of the world, and get as much of the world hearing us as we can.

KNAC.COM: I didn't know if you had personally ever toured in the States.

JAMES: I personally haven't but these guys have. So, that is something I am very much looking forward to! I mean I have been to America, and I'd love to see different parts of it.

KNAC.COM: So, you are ready for Prime Time, I think. Is everybody excited? I think you are right on the edge...

JAMES: A few people have said that. So, I hope that happens...

KNAC.COM: And is the Dan you were referring to as your manager, is that Dan Wright, who left the band before Tony Maue came in?

COX: I think he's definitely suited to being our manager and that he enjoys that maybe more than all the touring. He is brilliant and he really knows the business.

JAMES: If you want to get technical, he's got bar graphs, and pie charts, and the way it all works.

COX: And Spotify! Dan is really good at that. Because, obviously Spotify gives you so much in-depth analyses about who your listeners are and all that stuff. And I think that plays a big part in where we go on tours, and what countries. I know it played a big part in this headline tour. We looked at all the demographics, and where our fan base is very strong, and we obviously target those markets for this tour, to create the hype we want behind this album. We hope to get back to some of the other markets later in the year, maybe in a support tour, to carry on building that fan base in those countries.

KNAC.COM: That's the smart way to do it.

COX: And that is what I am saying. Dan is so on the ball with those sorts of things, and looking how we should be touring. It's about working smart, not working hard.

KNAC.COM: Treating it like a well-run business, which it is.

COX: Yes, absolutely. It is important to look at it that way now. It is not the 70s anymore. It is not the band going out and having a great time and playing rock and roll.

JAMES: Or having all the millions too! (laughs)

COX: Or having all the millions, yeah! (laughs) It is a business now.

JAMES: My previous manager at WILD LIES was a lovely guy, and he'd been there and done that, and he brought GUNS N' ROSES to England, and NIRVANA, and he works with massive bands. But he was still living in that time. A lot of the big time record execs are still there as well. They can't understand why their models aren't making money anymore.

COX: I think that comes down to what we did with BMG as well. When we signed the deal for our first album with them, I think it was kind of a bit of an experiment for them. When we looked at our contract with them, it was a really old style record deal; it is not really part of that modern platform. It was like they might have been pushing the boat out to see how this sort of way of dealing with new acts works for them. It was a fairly low-risk investment for them at the time ... It was a publishing deal, essentially. I think a lot of record labels are trying to catch up with bands, but obviously a lot of bands are going down the same route we are now. They're self-producing and they're going on their own labels, because we run such a massive aspect of our own business anyway. Why not run all of it?

KNAC.COM: And the money is made in a different way now than it was before, and from different sources.

COX: Exactly. From completely different sources. Whereas 20 years ago the income would have come primarily from CD sales from shops, now everything is online. That played a key part in why we decided not to distribute our CD in shops, because there is such a huge upfront cost of doing that ... So we are much more pushing out our plays on the streaming platform. Even though the yield is much lower, it is still income for us. The more people that listen to it, the more the business thrives from that, and the bigger the show we can put on as a band. A massive part of our business model is essentially that a lot of the income the band via streaming or touring, or merchandise, is all being reinvested back into our live show, so that the next time we come out, our show is bigger and better, and sounds and looks awesome. We just want to keep growing it.

KNAC.COM: That is interesting. I had wondered why you were on an independent label with the new album.

COX: Yes, it is completely that. The deal we had with BMG, we had so much control over the business anyway. That is the way they wanted to do it. And all the marketing strategies were done by Dan and the team that worked with him back in the UK. The touring schedule was decided between us and our agent, and the release of the album, and the artwork, and the merchandise - and pretty much every aspect you would have for a business in this industry - was all decided and run by us. We just had to run it by BMG to get approval on stuff, and they said, Yeah, Cool, go ahead. While we had an amazing relationship with BMG, in the long term it makes much more sense to do it ourselves, because we were already doing it.

KNAC.COM: And you learned a lot too, I bet.

COX: Oh we learned! We learned a helluva lot from them! And they put us into contact with some really helpful people that we still speak with today. It was a brilliant introduction to how we want to operate as a band. I don't think we'd turn back on this now ... unless something really significant came along that would turn our heads, and create a major opportunity. I'm not sure we'd go down any other route than our own label.

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