Most of our readers know Matt Barlow as the former vocalist of Iced Earth. He showed incredible range and passion in that band. However, for the last decade Barlow has partnered with another former Iced Earth member Freddie Vidales in the group Ashes Of Ares. After releasing two full-length albums and an EP, the duo return with their third LP, Emperors And Fools.
Emperors And Fools was another collaborative effort between Barlow and Vidales with Barlow handling most of the lyrics and vocals and Vidales writing most of the music. The two brought in guest members to complete the lineup. Among these guest include another former Iced Earth vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens for a track. In the following interview, Barlow breaks down writing and recording Emperors And Fools, as well as detailing working with Tim Owens and other guests.
Darren Cowan: The album was recently released. What kind of feedback are you getting?
Matt Barlow: It’s all been pretty good. There are some detractors, some folks that maybe don’t like our style, compared too much to Iced Earth, maybe. Don’t like me. Whatever. I think you’re going to get that with anything, but I think most of the fan base we’ve established are saying its our strongest record so far. That’s good. We should be getting stronger as we go along, obviously. Hopefully, we never plateau. That can happen, too. Freddie (Vidales) and I write for Freddie and I. We write for ourselves in the experiences we have in writing and growing together as writers. I think we are getting more solid. We feel each other out as far as direction we are going and what we’re best at. We sort of encourage each other to do better, and I think that’s the main thing. It’s certainly a good thing.
I really like having a partner to write with. I think it makes me a better writer and hopefully Freddie feels the same way. With that, hopefully we’ll continue to get better. Hopefully, we’ll continue to shine and spotlight the things we do best individually. Freddie is the main musician in the band, in the writing process, as far as that’s concerned. Hopefully, he can push me to do more vocally, as well, to add to the story. We approach everything as what is going to be the best thing for a song, not so much what it’s going to do for me individually as a song writer or individually for Freddie as a musician. We’re trying to do the best things for the songs because that’s our gig. We’re not trying be “look at me!” We want the songs to sound good — the ideas, the stories, the sound to resonate with folks. Hopefully, we will continue to do that. That’s a long-winded way to answer your question. For the most part, I think everyone is into what we are doing.
I would think so. It has similarities to Iced Earth, and I would think that’s what people want.
We’re certainly not trying to do that (laughs). I think that sometimes people equate my voice with Iced Earth, which I’m fine with. I’m certainly proud of my time in Iced Earth, but I’m just trying to do me and that’s it. Certainly, the songs on this record tend to be a little thrashier, a little bit more Bay-area vibe. I was kind of vibing off of that when Freddie gave me the stuff. I think I was kind of latching on to that a little bit more. We didn’t go, “Hey, let’s make this record sound like Iced Earth.” We were trying to make these individual songs sound the best that they could. It ended up sounding a little more thrashy like I said a little more Bay-area to me, which I know for a fact is not really Iced Earth’s sound.
I don’t think Jon (Schaffer) was ever inspired to go for that sound. He was never that guy. I don’t know what happened, man, I just think as I was doing this Freddie and I work in a pretty organic fashion. We let the song build on its own. I send him files. He sends me files. He sends me stuff back with stuff added on or changed. I send him stuff added on or changed. It’s like an ebb and flow when we’re in the writing process. I certainly don’t have a problem with people equating it to Iced Earth, but we didn’t go “Hey, let’s make an Iced Earth record.” That was certainly not our goal at all. Whatever anyone’s interpretation is as long as they like it that’s the main thing for us. If they don’t that sucks. You win some, you lose some, you know?
That’s your voice, so wherever you go, I think you’re going to get that comparison, unless you start singing death metal.
Yeah, that’s not going to happen, man. I get a little gruff in there, but whenever I need some death metal vocals I let Freddie take care of that.
It’s a collaborative effort, but are there ever times you don’t see eye to eye and get mad at each other?
Not at all. I think Freddie and I have enough respect for what each other does that we give it a listen, we give it a try, like I said about the growly vocals. I might say, “This could really use some growly vocals here. Can you track some of that?” Yeah, because that’s right in his ballpark. That’s right in his wheelhouse because he’s done death metal vocals before. If we feel like it adds anything to a song, we’re going to go for it. If Freddie comes to me and says he thinks it needs something, I’m certainly going to do as he asks. It’s the same way for him. If I say “I think a part needs something, like for instance the call and answer part in “Gone.” I told him, “Hey man, I really think we need this call and answer part in “Gone,” so can you sing back what I’m doing with a guitar in the next line?,” and back and fourth. So, we get that kind of cool vibe. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a guitar player. I still know what I think sounds good, and I’m going to give my input on that. He’s going to give his input on vocal stuff. It’s all good, man. It all works out in the end.
In Iced Earth, Jon wrote the music and the lyrics, right?
Some, yeah. Probably the majority of. I wrote vocals and lyrics for Iced Earth songs, too.
How does your writing style compare to Jon? Do you write on similar topics? Do you think the topics on this album would fit on an Iced Earth album?
I don’t know. I just write whatever I feel like writing. Whatever works for me. Sometimes when I’m approaching a song I have lyrics written. Sometimes Freddie gives me a song and I’m vibing off of it and I just go with that. It just depends. There is really no real method to the madness as far as creating the lyrics and the vocal melody. It just kind of works out one way or another.
Are these songs related lyrically? Is this a concept album?
No, not at all. There are some themes that may run through a record that we have sometimes. If I’m vibing off a certain thing or whatever there may be some thematic stuff in there. We haven’t done a concept yet. The closest thing to a concept was the last record. We had three songs that blended together into a kind of trilogy, but that was about it as far as conceptual. We’ve never done a full conceptual record.
Why did you name the album Emperors And Fools? How does the artwork and title track fit with this album title?
The title is actually inspired by the film version of The Count of Monte Cristo with Jim Caviezel. There is a moment in there where Napoleon just gave a letter to Edmond Dantes to take to what he called a friend, it was a family friend or whatever. It was a letter he wanted him to take off the island of Elba, which was of course was Napoleon’s prison for lack of a better term. I guess that would be the term. Dantes didn’t know he was taking orders that he was going to escape from Elba and launch a new offensive, so when Dantes left with the letter, Napoleon was talking to one of his subordinates and Napoleon said, “We are all just kings and pawns, emperors and fools.”
Obviously, Dantes was being the fool because he didn’t know he was taking this letter telling Napoleon’s army he was going to be marching soon and escaping from Elba. I just thought that line was really telling and related in a lot of ways throughout history because that’s typically what has happened. You have people in power that treat lesser with disregard. That’s kind of what the song is about. That’s really the main idea of the song.
Of course, with the artwork on the front of the record, when we were discussing the album we hadn’t determined what the title of the record was going to be, so Freddie and I decided to go with Emperors and Fools being the title and with that being the title track of the record. We approached the theme with Kamil (Pietruczynik) as far as doing the artwork using the opposite side of that phrase “kings and pawns, emperors and fools.” We just went and did a mighty chessboard with kings on one side and pawns being the other, and of course the pawns being crushed by the kings. We used Ares as a center focal point as the king. Also, another one of our characters, the One-Eyed King, is off to the side of Ares and various, other kings. That’s kind of what we were going with as far as the visual for the record.
Do you ever get ideas and write lyrics based on some of the things you see at your job as a police officer?
Not really. Obviously, I can see bad stuff all day long. I do see good stuff too, obviously with that job. The thing is for me music is more of an escape. Whenever I’m writing stuff, I’m trying to escape my reality in a lot of ways. I do appreciate and enjoy things. I enjoy history. I tend to enjoy writing about the dark side of humanity. It’s just one of those things that fascinate me. One of the cool things about Stephen King’s writing is he writes a lot of stuff about the supernatural, monsters and things like that, but at the end of the day the most monstrous thing always tends to be humans, the darkness that comes out of ordinary people when put into extraordinary circumstances. That’s the kind of stuff that I like as well. I think the whole concept is fascinating. I like to write in dualities a lot of times. I’ve never witnessed something on the job and thought, “Oh, I got to write a song about that!” That’s not really my thing. Even if I was inspired by something I did in my career, I would never come out and go “blah, here we go!”
I also tend to write stuff that tends to be, for a lack of a better term, vague, so the listener can fill in the blanks a little bit. That’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about songs from other people. I never really wanted to go too far into what our concept was because I’ve always thought self-interpretation is a cool thing about music. Yeah, it’s nice sometimes to know a little bit, but also self-interpretation as a listener I think is really important because it allows you to be a little, I don’t want to say “manipulated” by the artist, I’m not exactly sure how to put it in these terms, but a little more hands off by the artists and let the music give you a feeling maybe you can lock into.
It’s cool too to have a song that’s “hey, this is what that’s about, that’s how it is” and yadda, yadda, yadda, but I just think it’s cool to have a song you just don’t know 100 percent what it’s about, and you can kind of fill in the blanks. You can fill in the story a little bit. That way it doesn’t necessarily pull you in a political direction one way or another. You’re just the listener, you’re interpreting it and it makes you feel good or feel a certain way, whatever that is. Typically, people who listen to our kind of music—a little heavier and darker stuff—it makes you feel good, but in a different way than “I’m walking on Sunshine.” That sort of vibe.
You and Freddie formed the band in 2012, so it’s been ten years.
Yeah man, it’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade.
That was after you both left Iced Earth. What album or albums did you two play together on? Did you form a bond with him while playing on those albums?
The funny thing is we didn’t actually play together on a record. Freddie came in after I came on board for doing live shows. I had already done the last Something Wicked record with Jon, who had done all my tracks, so when we were getting ready to go on tour, Jon had been looking for somebody. Freddie was the bass player for live shows. We went on tour and hit it off really well, actually. We spent a lot of time together, hanging out, walking around different places in Europe and just chilling out, so we got to know each other really well. Like I said, we just hit it off. We had a lot of things in common. We see things much the same way in a lot of things, but we never played on a record.
I left prior to the next record coming out with Stu (Block) on it. Freddie played on that one. That was it. He toured with that record and toured with Stu. He bailed shortly after they did the tour and promotion for that record. We had talked about maybe doing a side project or something like that prior to me leaving. He understood why I left Iced Earth, as most people did, so it wasn’t anything like, “I’m out, screw you guys!” It wasn’t anything like that. I just couldn’t do it full-time. I had too much invested in my career in law enforcement and my family and I couldn’t be on the road for nine months out of the year or whatever it was going to take to sustain the band. That’s what it comes down to.
At that point the music industry was really changing, as I’m sure you are aware. Bands don’t make money making records anymore. Maybe the labels do. I hope our label makes money putting our stuff out, but we don’t make any money. We don’t make any money on writing royalties or anything like that. It’s very infinitesimal the money we would make for writing credits. For musicians, it’s all in the touring anymore, selling T-shirts…travelling T-shirt salesman. I certainly appreciate that and understand maybe more than some how difficult that is, but I certainly saw the writing on the wall years before that. It’s like a distance memory now. Nobody remembers Napster and all that stuff, that whole beginning of the end for writing artists. The writing was there. It was definitely on the wall. As long as you have people just downloading music for free, artists aren’t going to get paid. It sucks, but that is the reality of it. Of course, it was going to revert back to musicians getting paid for live shows and not for writing records.
We are extremely happy to be on R.O.A.R. (Rock Of Angels Records) because those guys understand the situation. They understand our situation as far as my career and Freddie’s career. Obviously, our budget is not huge. I don’t think any budgets are huge anymore. Certainly, ours is not. We understand their limitations and they understand ours. We produced as much of the record as we can on our own at our home studios so we can afford to pay some folks to do the mixing and mastering and pay some folks for guest musicians spots like Tim (Owens) or Bill (Hudson) or Will (Arnett). Every bit of the money that comes from the record label for our record goes into the record. It doesn’t go into our pockets. We are here for the music and that’s it. That’s our main thing.
You mentioned guest musicians. Van Williams (ex-Nevermore) is a guest on the album. He used to be a member of the band, but he left in 2017. Why is he in this role as a guest?
Because he was able to do it. We are happy to have him. When he left the band he had other obligations as far as family. He also had other musical opportunities as well with the band Ghost Ship Octavius that he is in. We are happy to have him. He is a great drummer! It’s better he is where he is, certainly financially, because he probably cost a big chunk of the budget. Like I said, Freddie and I don’t get paid. Van got paid as well as all the other musicians that performed on the record. It’s probably more financially feasible for him to be a guest musician than be a member of the band because we’re doing the music for the music’s sake. Like I said, we’re happy to have him, happy to pay him to do the record or to do records. We will continue to do so if he is available. Last year when we did the Throne Of Iniquity EP. He was not available for that, so we hired another musician. It just works out better.
For Freddie and I it probably works out better for the writing as well because we can be a little more efficient with it. Freddie can write and program drums for the writing process to go a little bit quicker. That was one of the things, we were a little faster putting out another record. Unfortunately, COVID didn’t agree with us on that, so that unfortunately pushed us back on our entire production. We had the record completely written in 2020. The record was completely written and all the tracks were done in 2020. We weren’t able to get into the studio to mix and master until January 2021. Then after that, vinyl production got in the way, so we ended up having to push it back even more. We were going to do a release in late spring/early summer of 2021. Then, it got pushed back to fall, I believe, of 2021. Then, it got pushed back to January 2022, so here we are right now. Freddie and I have been sitting here listening to these songs for a year.
After listening to the album for a year, you were probably ready to get it out to the public.
Yeah, we were really anxious. You sit there and listen to them. You second-guess yourself. You listen and ask yourself, “Is this still good? It’s a year later and I’m still listening to it. Is everything still good? Are we still in the pocket as far as these songs are concerned?” It made us feel really good when it came out and folks were happy, we were happy and our label was happy.
You talked about some of the guest on your album. You mentioned Tim who is on the eleven-minute-long epic track “Monster’s Lament.” How did you connect with him?
We had been in contact, actually, since the last record. We were talking to him about doing a guest spot. He agreed to do it. Things didn’t work out as far as the last record. We were talking about doing the song, and it just didn’t work out. We had a lot of material for the last record. That was one of the things that was going to push us over on the time, so we decided to hold off, keep the song and polish it up. I think “The Iron Throne” was another one we worked on. We had everything pretty much worked up, but didn’t appear on the last record. We had plenty of material for the last one, so we just decided to roll it over into this one.
We knew Freddie and I wanted to continue on writing and producing records, so we rolled that one over into this. It worked really well to get Tim because he was available. Everybody was on friggin’ lockdown, so it worked out. We were happy to have him on there. We were happy to pay him for his time because it’s tough for guys like Tim who are full-time musicians. It’s tough to make money. We were really happy to have him and have Bill and Will Arnett (Sacred Reich) on the record as well. It’s just really cool, man, since they are our friends and we can help them out, as well. They help us out and we help them out. We are buds, so it’s all good.
How did you record the vocals for this song? It sounds like you double-tracked. You probably did more tracks than that. Talk a little about the tracking.
I did a basic outline for the song as far as how the lyrics were going to fit in the framework of the song, basic vocal melodies. I did all of that as a framework. We sent it over to Tim and told him, “Here’s the basic framework,” because he does his work out of his home studio as well. “Here’s the basic framework of what you need to do. Here is your character. This is the idea, the concept of the song. Do you. Just be Tim!” And he did. He killed it. After he did his stuff and sent it back, I was listening to what he did, so I re-tracked my stuff because I just did scratch vocals. I redid my stuff, sort of kept the same intensity and levels. The main thing is we have two characters in the story. We tried to accent the best parts of both of our voices, and create two characters out of the best that we can do. That was kind of the idea behind it, and still create tension and all the things the story requires. Create that emotional element and the tension between the two characters battling inside their own heads. I think that we accomplished that. I hope people dig what we set out to accomplish. That’s obviously up to the listener.
This is obviously a lot more objective take on songs. This one was written by Freddie. He wrote the lyrics to it. He had the concept. He wrote out all the music. He let me do some vocal melody stuff, and pass that on to Tim. Then, Tim did his thing and I did my thing. This is really a nice collaboration between all three of us, but it’s Freddie’s brainchild. This one is more objective than most of our songs. I like the listener to take it in. This one is definitely more of a story, this is laid out, this is what happened. That’s the vibe of the song for sure. It’s pretty cut and dry. It’s one of the worst characters I’ve had to play in a song. It’s certainly a circumstantial thing where circumstances got out of somebody’s control. My character definitely turned out to the be the bad guy in this whole thing.
You didn’t write it, but you still have the idea of duality.
Yeah, a little bit of duality for sure, but this one is more based on the duality of individual characters and what their perceptions are of what is going on. That’s pretty wild. Tim’s character perceives things in a completely different way. He still ends up, essentially, the same fate…he’s more the protagonist for sure. My character is more the antagonist, but their fates intertwine and they end up with the same fates, unfortunately depending on how you’re looking at the story. It’s cool. Again, we were happy to have Tim in doing that and portraying that character.
Ashes Of Ares are primarily a studio band due to both of your schedules. However, you did a tour of the Southwest. Would you do another tour?
Yeah, absolutely. We are gonna try to work on some stuff. I don’t want give anything away at this point, but we are working on angles that we can do stuff like that. It just really depends on our work schedules and what we can do within that framework. We’ll certainly do what we can. Hopefully, we’ll have some backing from some folks and we’ll be able to get out there and sell some T-shirts because that’s what puts gas in the tank.
(interview published February 2, 2022)
Watch Ashes Of Ares – “Gone” Video