OSI’s Jim Matheos Speaks To SonicAbuse

Any fan of forward thinking, intelligent and musically ambitious progressive rock should have come across the mighty OSI by now. Featuring the combined talents of Jim Matheos and Kevin Moore along with an assorted cast of guest musicians that has included such luminaries as Steven Wilson, Mike Portnoy, Gavin Harrison and Mikael Akerfeldt, OSI have been responsible for some truly great records, not least their wonderful debut (special editions of which included a brilliant cover of ‘set the controls for the heart of the sun’) and their most recent effort ‘Fire make thunder’ which was recently released via Metal Blade records.

Quite what makes OSI so special is hard to pinpoint exactly. Their music is very much that of mood and atmosphere rather than attention grabbing theatrics and muscular riffs; although the band are more than capable of going for the jugular when they deem it necessary; and Kevin’s lyrics have a haunting quality, particularly on their latest venture, that stays with the listener long after the album is over, but even so the many layers and textures of OSI’s music are so hard to dissect that it’s never easy to state exactly what makes each release so special. Equally, there is the air of mystery from a band who have never set foot on stage, appearing only every few years with a new release before disappearing back to their respective lives leaving fans hoping in vain for a chance to see the band in the flesh all of which has only added to the legend of OSI and the expectation that one day they might perform for real.

In this special interview with Jim Matheos, we talk about the formation of the new record, the possibility of touring and the inspiration behind one of modern progressive rock’s most enigmatic bands. Read on and discover the person at the heart of OSI…

Fire make thunder is your fourth full-length album, how do you think this piece of work develops upon your previous albums?

You know that’s always a really hard question for me to answer – being so close to it and having worked on it for a year and a half, two years, so it’s really hard for me to look at it objectively until I get a few years away from it. But I would say that this one, after ‘blood’ that came out a few years ago, Kevin and I started to become more comfortable with the way we work… not so much tension, I guess, in the way we write and work together so this one became easier I think and we kind of… didn’t really question ourselves, we had a game plan from the beginning and yeah I think it just came out a lot easier than the previous one.

You’ve worked with a variety of guests, particularly vocalists,  on your albums – Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt come in,  and I was wondering what did you feel bringing in different voices and influences added to the albums and why did you decide to go it alone this time out?

Right, well usually like you said the reason that comes about is… we’ll have a piece of music we’ll want to work on and for whatever reason Kevin might not feel comfortable with it vocally… maybe he doesn’t think his voice’ll do it justice, or maybe he doesn’t have an appropriate melody for it but nonetheless we still want to work on it and he still likes the music so, that’s most often the case when we look for outside guests in the vocal department. This time around working on the music it just didn’t come up that we were in that situation. All the songs, with the exception of that one instrumental, came together and Kevin felt comfortable sitting there and writing the melody lines, so we just didn’t find that we needed to go to an outside guest appearance.

From what I’ve read about the way that you’ve worked in the past you do a lot of your work remotely, sharing ideas over the net and transferring files that way – is that the method you used for the new album as well?

Yeah –it’s more than primarily done that way – I’d say it’s pretty much 95% done that way. There’s always the occasion where we’ll get together for the mix and we’ll do some fine tuning or a little bit more writing, or arranging… or in the case of Kevin sometimes he’ll do a final vocal in the studio or something. But by the time we get there it’s pretty well buttoned up and that’s just the process of us working on stuff on our own and going back and forth – yeah.

What do you feel are the comparative advantages/disadvantages of working in this way?

Well, the advantage is for me – I like to take my time with music and work on something, then let it sit for a couple of days and see how I feel about it… see if it grows on me or if it gets stale after a few days. I don’t like to… come up with ideas on the spot and commit to them at that point, I like to let them ferment for a bit. Even before I send them to Kevin I like to make sure I’m comfortable with it. I like to do things fairly complete and usually when I send out the demos it’s a complete song with drums and bass and all that kind of stuff, so that takes time and I think I’m much more comfortable, working that way, trying different ideas here at home and I’m not being exposed to having a bunch of people watching me try different ideas and perhaps fall on my face. I guess the downside is just that lack of immediacy. It can take quite a long time for us to put a song together that way – it can take months actually because we both go through that same kind of process where we take our time when it’s our turn to work on a song; we can take our time and it can take quite a long time, so there’s not that immediacy of the feedback you get when you try something right in a room.

Gavin Harrison is back again on drums following his performance on ‘Blood’ – how did you decided upon working with Gavin in the first place and how easy is it for him to fit in OSI with his other projects?

Well for these two records it happened… I think it was just coincidence that he had holes in his schedule. I don’t recall on either record having to wait too long. I know there were a couple of times with this record he had to work on a couple of songs, then split and do something else and then come back and do a bit of work, but it was nothing drastic you know… And also, again, the way we’re doing things, getting back to the whole digital thing here, it allows him that freedom and he’s got his own studio back at home and he does everything there so he can work on his day off and then go do a tour or another record and then come back to this very shortly as opposed to us flying him over here and booking studio time and everything so that’s another huge benefit for us. As long as he’s got one or two days off somewhere then he can work on them and that’s very much to our benefit as well.

In the past you’ve talked about your lyrical influences as being rather personal but ‘fire make thunder’ seems to be more outward focused – what influenced you this time round and did you have any themes or concepts in mind when you were creating the music?

To the first part regarding lyrics that’s pretty much Kevin’s department… actually it’s 100% Kevin’s department so I can’t comment on that too much other than just my own interpretation. But I think he’s the same on this record, I don’t think he can really write anything besides very personal lyrics other than when he couches it in different terms and it seems like he does… maybe speaking of something more general I think he still comes at it from a very personal level although that’s just my interpretation of it.

The second part, again, I don’t write the lyrics, but I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where Kevin has presented the lyrics and then I’ve written the music around it. I know there have been situations where I’ve given him music and he’s worked on some pre-existing lyrics or poems that he had and put it to that music. But, for me, it’s just more of a question, especially with this band as opposed to some of the other things I do, Fates or other bands… a lot of it does come down to working with sounds so as opposed to working with Fates Warning where we’ll try to work on some interesting riffs and build a song around that, often with this band it does start with a sound… a guitar sound, a keyboard sound, a weird kind of loop or something like that and try to build the song around that. So a little bit of a different approach for me, which is maybe what keeps it fresh and different for me as well and not always having to start from a guitar point of view and come up with an interesting chord change or riff or something like that.

For me, one of the things I like about the progressive genre, and about the work that OSI have done is that your albums have always flowed really well and I was wondering, when you get the songs done, how long do you spend on the sequencing and organisation of the album to make it a complete piece of work?

Well I’m glad you said that, that’s a great compliment for me because me personally, I spend way too much time sequencing records and it’s ridiculous how obsessive I can get about it, trying every which way and listening to the songs over and over again, which gets hard because they lose their… you know it becomes very subjective and you can’t listen to them with a fresh point of view anymore. But, yeah a lot of time is spent on that. Kevin as well… we both bounce ideas back and forth and that often makes it that much harder because often we have different ideas about how songs should flow or what the different sequence should be… but yeah we spend a lot of time on that.

Do you find that as part of that process, songs, or parts of songs, become edited or changed in certain ways?

Usually by the time we get to the sequencing problem the songs are done and recorded and they’re just at the mastering stage where they have to be sequenced together so I can’t really recall anything off hand where we’ve had to change something musically when it got to the sequence part… No, I don’t really think so, it’s just a question of writing the songs that we think make a good record and then we’ll try to fit it together later on.

Recently, particularly, with downloading, iTunes there has been talk… certain bands have publicly said that they’re moving away from the idea of making albums whilst in contrast you had Pink Floyd saying, for a long time, that they didn’t want their music on iTunes because it went against the way that they created their art and for you guys… has the downloading issue had an impact, or is it something that you steer clear of or use to your advantage…

Personally I’m a bit old fashioned. I would prefer that people listen to the songs in the way that they’re intended because as I just said we spend a lot of time working on the sequencing and getting the songs to flow one to the next. So I don’t think you get the full experience by listening to a song here or there or in a different order. Obviously it’s your choice to do that, but I think for certain artists, they spend so much time creating a whole product, a whole listening experience from the recording to the sequencing to the artwork, I think you’re missing out on part of it if you just choose to listen to a song here or there and I try to go for the whole experience the artist is trying to present and I try to do that as a listener myself. I don’t like to download just occasional songs, especially for certain artists, there are a lot of artists, like you said, who really put a lot of effort into the whole package and the whole experience and I try to put my faith in that artist and see what they’re trying to get across in the way that they trying to get it across.

…and as part of that process that comes with the artwork that albums are packaged with. From your first record which came in that funky book with the passport style motif to the new one with the really cool cover – how much are you involved in that process of packaging and creating the finished article?

It’s been different from record to record – the first one I think we had a lot of input on, the following two probably not so much other than maybe we took the artist and we always have the yes or no say on which photos and how everything’s assembled. This one we tried to stand back a bit, but we still wanted very strong artwork and packaging so we looked around and tried to find an artist that we could trust and let them go with it. So we didn’t have a lot of input as far as producing ideas for the artist to work with, but we always have final approval and if we don’t like something we’ll ask for a change, but this one was done completely by the artist that we hired.

You started out on Inside out, you’re now on Metal blade – what sort of factors are important to you when you come to choose a label to work with?

There are a bunch of different things – there’s distribution, there’s what kind of advance… what kind of money they can give you; what kind of support they may give you if you’re going to be doing any kind of touring. There are so many different things to consider and with this record we were approached by Metal Blade and I’ve always had a long relationship with them and they just offered us a better deal.

You mentioned the magical word ‘touring’, I know in the past you’ve said that it’s not something that you’d do lightly, but I was wondering if it was anything you’d thought about… maybe a limited tour or a one-off show where you would actually step out on stage with OSI?

Yeah – this is about the point in every album cycle where we have meetings and we talk about it and I would say at this point that we’re probably more serious about it than we ever have been in the past. A one off show is not likely just because of the expenses involved – the only way to really make it work from a financial point of view would be to do enough gigs so that we could cover the cost of the pre-production which would be fairly elaborate with flying people to rehearsals and whatever production we’re going to have involved so there’d have to be a number of shows just to break even. But, it’s something that we’re looking at now and Kevin is keen to do something together and in fact I’m going to have a meeting with him on the phone in a few hours to discuss it.

Traditionally progressive rock in particular does attract quite big productions – are there any specific ambitions, maybe something you’ve had in your wildest dreams that you’d like to be part of your show…

Well I think the band is a very visual thing so I think as a minimum to have some screens up there showing images, maybe some of the videos we’ve done, because I don’t see this as music where the four or five of us could get up there and entertain everyone with our great stage moves or anything – I think it’s going to be a lot more emotional than that.

On the first record you covered ‘set the controls for the heart of the sun’ on the bonus disc – are there any covers you would consider or would like to do?

There are so many – it would take forever to go over them… there was also a cover of ‘Christian brothers’, the Elliot Smith song on ‘blood’ so that’s quite a difference right there from Pink Floyd to Elliot Smith – but yeah everything in between. I’d absolutely love to do another Floyd song, there’re so many to choose from that would be good covers, yeah I mean, there are just tons and Kevin and I have quite different musical tastes, some of it overlaps, but we could do album after album of covers between us if we had time!

Given that you’re a very busy musician working on a number of different things, as a fan do you still find time to explore new bands and artist and have there been any bands recently that have particularly caught your attention?

Yeah – I still really enjoy listening to music and not a lot of it is the kind of music I do with OSI and Fates Warning it’s usually something else… usually a different genre, but I still enjoy it quite a lot and I still get excited when I find a band or artist that’s doing something – I still get that spark when I hear something new – yeah, it still gets me going!

My final question then – four albums down the line, you’ve spent quite a lot of time on OSI and developed some really rich albums. What ambitions do you still have for OSI?

I think I would really love to take this on the road – something we keep trying to do and I think we’re close to getting it together this time and I think it’s maybe the one element that’s missing with this band, that could take it to the next level and really enable us to make this even more of a long-term career so that’s my main focus right now.

Main photo – Melissa Sepanic

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