Interview: Pharaoh Overlord
We were just aiming to make a full album, and because of the lineup and the instrumentation we had, it turned out then to be quite electronic. The idea of colliding different worlds is very tempting and refreshing, as it brings in a possibility of finding something hidden or unknown.
Pharaoh Overlord have just released their brilliant new album 6, a record which marries the bands synth led soundscapes with the vocals of guest singer Aaron Turner. Gavin Brown had a chat with the band to hear how this collaboration happened and their shared musical history with Aaron (featuring a contribution from the man himself) as well as musical highlights, touring with Sleep and what several of the band’s other group Circle are up to next.
E&D: Your new album 6 is out very soon. How did the recording and creation of the album go?
PO: Most music on the album was made in January 2020. We wanted to have the album released for our tour with OM in May, and we had only one weekend to record it. Jussi had made some demos and based on those we recorded and produced the material. We had the album almost ready when the pandemic started to hit and our tour got cancelled. After this we had no hurry and we decided to make some adjustments to it, made the instrumental part ready and then asked Aaron to make some vocals for some songs. Aaron got inspired by the material and ended up making all the songs, and that’s when the album found its final shape.
E&D: Where did the idea of working with Aaron Turner on this Pharaoh Overlord album come from in the first place?
PO: We got Aaron to feature on the previous album 5, and wanted to collaborate with him again.
E&D: You worked with Aaron, Faith Coloccia and Nate Newton in Split Cranium. How was it working on that?
PO: Split Cranium is a kind of On/Off project, an outlet for our love for hardcore music. The first album (2012) with a bit different lineup came out of Jussi’s and Aaron’s conversations on the Isis/Circle tour in 2009, and the 2nd album with this lineup came in 2018. We love the spirit in this project, working with these people we are like humble fanboys taking part in a dream project. For the second album we wanted to have the classic big guitar sound, and started working on it in Pori, Finland. We soon found out the sound was not up to industry standards, so we sent Jussi to America. In the end the guitars were recorded in just 2 days, so Jussi decided to have a little holiday as well. While searching for some Grateful Dead rarities in a record store in San Francisco, he accidentally bumped into a friendly deadhead, who offered him a ride to go to see the band with him in Santa Clara, California on the same night. It was a perfect ending for this recording trip.
E&D: Are there any plans for any further Split Cranium music?
PO: Now that you reminded us, it might be a good time to start to make some riffs!
E&D: Aaron has worked with Circle too, do you feel comfortable working with him on any musical project?
PO: We have a great respect for each other, so it’s always a pleasure to work with him. We think we first met in 2006 at Supersonic Festival in Birmingham. Or so we thought until we asked Aaron about his recollections:
“At Supersonic festival in 2006 I saw all of Circle huddled on a couch somewhere in the backstage zone replete with leather, spikes and dazzling regalia. I wanted to go up and profess my deep love for their music, but they looked quite scary, so I just waved and walked by. Several years later I found out they were some of the nicest sweetest people ever, contrary to my first impression. I discovered their music initially from the Raunio album around the time of its release in 2002, and shortly became obsessed with their music. Not long after the (un)meeting at Supersonic, Jussi and I started exchanging emails, trading records, discussing releases, etc. This eventually led to our touring together, first in 2009 I think? And then the first recorded (and still unreleased) collaboration occurred in 2010 I believe. It’s been non-stop magic since then.”
E&D: Do you have any plans to work together again in the future?
PO: For sure, we’d love to work with Aaron in as many projects as possible.
E&D: Were you familiar with Aaron’s music before you started working together?
PO: Jussi has been following Aaron’s label Hydra Head Records and the artists since the beginning from the early 90s. In 2009 Circle toured together with Isis in Europe, and since then we have been exchanging ideas and making music together.
E&D: Was the marrying of cinematic and expansive music and heavy vocals your goal from the start of making this album and was it also always your plan to go with a heavier sound in terms of vocals for this album?
PO: Not at all. We didn’t have any preconceptions at the beginning. We were just aiming to make a full album, and because of the lineup and the instrumentation we had, it turned out then to be quite electronic. The idea of colliding different worlds is very tempting and refreshing, as it brings in a possibility of finding something hidden or unknown. If Aaron would be an opera singer, this album would sound very different, but probably we would still have done it!
E&D: What has the feedback been like for 6 so far?
PO: The feedback has been really good. There’s been a lot of positive reviews and even long analyses that find different hidden layers from the music and throw in references we’ve never thought we’d have.
E&D: What has been the biggest influence on 6 and the sound of Pharaoh Overlord as a whole?
PO: The biggest influence on Pharaoh Overlord from the beginning has definitely been Can. Their ability to slide from collective experimentation to chart pop and back is very inspiring. With this album we didn’t have any clear idea what it could sound like. It is more like a result of everything we have done recently with Pharaoh Overlord and the other projects as well. Currently we’ve been producing music together as the ”Pharaoh Overlord Synthesizer Club” and through this we have explored the world of producing at the Ektro Studios. Recently we have produced an album for a project called SAKSET with Veli-Matti Äijälä, the singer from the legendary Finnish hardcore band Terveet Kädet. He’s also a pioneer in the experimental scene in Finland, and has been releasing electronic music since the end 70’s. We are also working on Jussi’s solo material and some other projects as well.
E&D: Have you had any thoughts about any possible new material at the moment or are you firmly concentrating on 6 just now?
PO: We are already making some new music with the same kind of set up and mood. As we accidentally found this “Italo Metal” sound, we want to explore it a bit further. But even when we are planning and concepting something, it always turns out very differently. So the next album will probably and hopefully not sound like this anyhow.
E&D: When live music starts to return, do you hope to bring the sound of 6 to the stage, hopefully with Aaron?
PO: Yes definitely! We only hope it doesn’t take too long as we might have developed a new sound by then.
E&D: How do you think that the songs from 6 will translate to the live arena?
PO: With the 5 album and tour we made a very portable live setup that we’ll use on the forthcoming shows as well. We are really obsessed with aesthetics and gear optimising, a bit like Ralf Hutter trying to find the most aerodynamic particle for his bicycle. So a big part of planning the show is to think of how could we minimize everything unnecessary without sacrificing the sound. That’s how we ended up playing without a guitar amplifier. For the drums we only have a snare drum, 1 cymbal, hi-hats and an electronic bass drum with a sample from Prince’s drum machine, the LinnDrum. The synths, the bass and the 808 drum machine are coming from a small pocket sampler and the show is built around this setup. This minimalistic Dieter Rams gear obsession is luckily balanced by the maximal sound of our live sound engineer Antti “Yngwie” Uusimäki.
E&D: How was the experience of touring with Sleep last year and what were some of the highlights?
PO: It was definitely one of the best tours we have done. Sleep and their sweet crew were incredibly nice to us and we got a lot of new friends and new fans from the tour. We felt like we are part of their extended family. It was also conceptually and aesthetically really pleasing to play in big arenas in front of a Sleep’s huge wall of Orange amplifiers with our minimal ”My First Sony” equipment that could fit in two suitcases. Actually we are still really hyped about that tour. Recently we were heartbroken to hear about the passing of John Hopkins, who was the tour manager and the sound engineer on the tour. Even when he was super busy running the shows every night he built a special relationship with us and always had time to discuss music and life with us. He will be dearly missed.
E&D: You were due to tour in Europe with OM this year which obviously didn’t happen. Are those dates being rescheduled for next year?
PO: Some of the shows are rescheduled, but we don’t yet know what’s going to happen. We also had a tour planned with Old Man Gloom, but this also got cancelled.
E&D: How did Pharaoh Overlord start as a band?
PO: We met for the first time in 1996 when Tomi’s electronic band Aavikko was supporting Circle in Helsinki. We started discussing krautrock, NEU! and Can and found out we have a similar way of thinking. On the same night Tomi already played synthesizer with Circle on stage and soon joined the band as their second drummer. In the year 2000 Jussi got an idea about starting a new band and Tomi joined in. When recording the first album, Janne Westerlund, who had just recruited to Circle, joined in for the guitar. This was the lineup for the first three albums. We then started to expand the lineup and until 2019 the lineup was 6-7 persons with 3 guitars. The lineup diminished again to the current duo when we got the invite to play on the Sleep tour in 2019, but the others were unable to make the tour so we “hijacked“ the band.
E&D: Do you like having the freedom to make such different albums and experiment with different sounds constantly with Pharaoh Overlord?
PO: To get excited about new music, movies or artwork is a feeling we cherish and we try to transform this feeling to our music as well. With our latest albums we think we have found again a new concept that we want to explore more. In the end, we are quite limited with our playing styles, so finding new ways to adapt is always very interesting. Sometimes somebody might ask why we couldn’t do similar music again that we did 20 years ago, but even if we’d like to, it seems we can’t as we are not the same people anymore.
E&D: How else have you been keeping busy during this lockdown period?
PO: We’ve been quite active making and producing new music. Jussi has been building his home studio in Pori, and it’s almost ready now.
E&D: What music have you been enjoying throughout the year?
PO: Here’s some of the favourites, from many genres: Newcleus, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Egyptian Lover, Kali Malone, Messiah (US), Cybotron, Harold Budd, Wytch Hazel, Ellen Arkbro, Bobby O, Alexander Robotnick, Philip Glass, Patrick Cowley, Planet Patrol…
E&D: Are there any plans for new Circle material in the future?
PO: We have been making an album with our hero Richard Dawson for some time now. It should be ready quite soon!
E&D: What are your hopes for the new year for Pharaoh Overlord?
PO: Making new music, finding new ideas, get inspired and inspire others.