Interview: Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos of OSI

[from MadeLoud / May 17, 2009]

In 2003, Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos and Chroma Key keyboardist/vocalist Kevin Moore made a splash in the prog-metal world with the announcement of their new project, OSI.

Office of Strategic Influence quickly asserted the duo as not just another supergroup but an actual full-fledged band in its own right; the follow-up, 2006’s Free, continued the exploration of techno-informed prog-metal, but in a considerably leaner fashion than either member’s résumés suggested was possible, an achievement made all the more interesting with Moore working from Istanbul and Montreal, Matheos working from his home studio in New York and the album sessions consisting mostly of a lot of email attachments. On the eve of the release of their third album, Blood, MadeLoud spoke with the pair about long-distance collaboration and the sleight-of-hand involved in playing the heaviest riff ever.

With you two as far apart as you are, how and when did you decide it was time for a new album?

Kevin Moore: It’s weird. We don’t have meetings [laughs]. We don’t really talk about the future of OSI, we just let it happen naturally. I don’t remember ever saying “Let’s start another album,” for the second one or for this one. It usually happens when he sends me an idea that he’s working on and wants my feedback, and that just starts the ball rolling; we start working from there.

How does the writing process work? Is it really just a back-and-forth throwing of ideas at each other?

KM: It always starts with [Jim’s] ideas. I’m trying to remember if there was an exception on the previous two albums, but for this one it was always: he has ideas and he sends them to me. And they can be anything from really brief to really elaborate, and it’s this remote thing. This album, he did a lot more programming and keyboards, so it varied a lot in terms of what I was doing. Before, he’d send something to me and he’d send a lot of guitar parts, and I’d usually work with editing them, pitching them, and fucking about them different ways, and then programming drums and keyboards. So this time, maybe it was more difficult because if he sent me stuff that already had drums and keyboard parts, and it wasn’t a complete idea, I had to figure out a way to elaborate on it without having that same equipment that he has there.

What kind of gear did you use – not just for the editing and recording, but also for the actual instrumentation?

KM: I use Ableton Live for writing, and even for recording – I recorded my vocals in Live, too. As far as real keyboards, my only real-world keyboard is a Moog Voyager, which I overused on this album because it’s so much fun. [Laughs]

Jim Matheos: For recording, I’m using ProTools [and] a FocusRite Saffire PRO 40 [preamp]. I run everything through that, whether it be the guitars or the keyboards. For guitars, I’d say 90 percent of them are Paul Reed Smith. I got a new hollowbody from them for this record, so I used that a lot on it. It’s got a nice full sound without being overly compressed or saturated, so that’s a lot of the sound of this record. Usually for recording the guitars, I’ll do four or five tracks and I mix all the sounds, so there’s a lot of real amp in there – mostly Mesa Boogie – and layer in some SansAmp on top of it. There’s really no one set way; it’s all experimental for each song. Not just do we want to have a cool song, but a lot of it has to come down to sounds, so we try to get interesting sounds for each songs. We don’t want them to sound the same on every song.

With the first album, you started with the 17-minute track (“The Thing That Never Was”) and cut it up into five smaller songs. Were there any other cases like that where something was broken into other pieces?

JM: I don’t think for OSI I’ve written anything that was very long like that first song. Most have been more concise, especially when I knew that I was writing for OSI. We’ve kind of fallen into a style, so I know where we want to take things. Something like the song “Terminal” from the new record would be an idea where it was completely different when I sent it to him. It was more of a guitar-driven song, and he basically just took one of those guitar chords, asked me to do a couple more chords with the same sound and he assembled the whole thing around that. Or you take something like “False Start,” which is basically the same as when I first did it, except for the vocals and melody lines that he put on it. The rest would be anywhere in between those two.

Kevin, you once described your lyric-writing process as an “audio Rorscach test” of free-associating with the music. Is that still your method, or have you become more deliberate about it?

KM: A little more deliberate about it, yeah. I wanted the lyrics to make sense. [Laughs] I really wrote them down and tried to make them coherent. I didn’t want it to be like “Oh, you get your own impression of the lyrics. Everybody has their own idea!” I wanted to have an idea that I wanted to communicate, and something communicable. But I did use that method here and there when I was trying to come up with lyrics. Just rolling and recording, then playing back and trying to decipher. Because usually that puts you in the right direction as far as sounds, vowel sounds, and stresses on certain syllables. And if you can write some words and lyrics that match that, sometimes it flows really well.

The war/combat/blood motifs have been fairly steady through the OSI records. How early on did you know that would be a continual theme? With the first album it makes sense, but how did you decide to continue with that?

KM: Like I said, there’s really not many decisions made in this operation. [Laughs] I don’t know, it just happens the way it happens. But I think, in general, I think it’s changing. I think the first album is really political, and I’ve backed off slowly, and I think it’s just one aspect of this album, but it’s not the dominating aspect.

How did you decide on Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree as this album’s drummer?

JM: When we decided we were going to use a different drummer, we tried to put together a list of people that we’d like to use. There was one other person aside from Gavin that I was interested in using, but he never got back to us, unfortunately. Or fortunately.

You’re probably not going to say who that was.

JM: [Laughs] I’m not going to say who that was, but he’s in a very, very well-known, huge metal rock band right now. Great drummer. Everyone knows who he is. And it wasn’t Mike, obviously. [ed. note: Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater played drums on the previous two albums but passed on Blood.] But Gavin was up on the list. I’m just a huge fan of his style, and his sound, and I really like the way he approached the songs. So we were real pleased that he was, number one, willing to do it, and that he had a nice hole in his schedule that worked out really well over the last summer.

KM: We worked long-distance, exchanging files. It was pretty laborious, because we’re talking bigger files. For example, when we worked with [Opeth singer] Mikael [Akerfeldt, guest vocalist on “Stockholm”], it was just a one-shot deal because it’s vocals, you know? What are you gonna do? [Laughs] And they sounded great the first time. But with drums, you’re holding together the song and everybody has their own ideas about the way the drums should be, so there was a lot of back and forth, bouncing ideas off of him, exchanging files again and again, and he was really great about it. And that’s how that went.

JM: With Gavin, I think most of the songs (if not all of the songs) we sent with demo drums – programmed drums. For the most part, we usually told him to try to stay away from the programmed drums and come up with his own parts, and he did. So much of that is his taking it in a different direction. There was probably at least one song, maybe two, where we said “We’d like you to keep closer to the programmed drums,” but he had a lot of say in what went on.

This is a much more improvisational method than the music would suggest. Songs in 10 or 7+2 measures usually aren’t so hands-off.

KM: The thing is that somehow, what’s happened between Jim and I musically is that we sort of get the idea of what OSI is. And then once we send stuff to a drummer or a singer, the vibe’s already there – the OSI stuff’s already there, so the person who’s working on it already has an idea of what we’re doing. Of the game we’re playing. [Laughs]

With the first album, everything was tuned down to D, and that was a pretty heavy record. But then with Free, you went down to C# and, in some spots, all the way down to B.

JM: I really like the sound of a down-tuned guitar, as opposed to a 7-string. To me, they sound totally different if you have those nice loose, floppy strings. It’s a real bitch to keep them in tune, stopping every couple measures, retuning and punching back in. Especially for song that’s in B, or even C# is a problem sometimes, especially if you’re doing a lot of fast moving around or high up on the neck. It’s a pain in the ass, but I really like that sound. I don’t think I would ever go to a 7-string.

The riff from “Free,” for example.

JM: The thing with “Free” is that it’s actually played in C#, but there’s a part in the main riff where it goes down lower, and that’s a punch-in. So I had to tune lower for that one riff to do that, and then reassemble the whole thing later. I have no idea, if we played that live, how I would do that.

Jim, you made that pair of acoustic records in the 90s (1993’s First Impressions and 1999’s Away with Words). Have you given thought to doing a third, or is that a closed book?

JM: No, I would love to. Timing is a bit of a factor, and really the whole business side of it is a real problem, too. Especially with the second one where I had a drummer, and I had a violin player, and a great bass player in Michael Manring. You gotta pay these guys and, you know, those aren’t real hot sellers, those records, as much as I like them and enjoy doing them. And those are some of the things that I can still listen to and enjoy. But just from a business point of view, it’s hard to put together.

The first two OSI albums closed with gentler, acoustic numbers, but this time around you really went very far in the opposite direction. Was the album dynamic something you thought about in the beginning?

JM: I think we did want to stay away from the slow acoustic song at the end, just so it doesn’t become a cliché for us. Having said that, I do miss that we don’t have a more strummy, folk-type song somewhere on the record. We had [those] on each of the first two records; “When You’re Ready” and “Standy (Looks Like Rain).” “Hello, Helicopter!” too. I enjoy doing those kinds of songs, and I think Kevin does real justice to them with his voice and lyrics, so I kind of miss that. But, you know, it’s just another chapter for us.