“I gotta write what my heart is telling me to": Interview with Matt Moliti, guitarist of Dark Empire

írta Tomka | 2012.06.04.

4 years passed since Dark Empire hit the power metal scene with ‘Humanity Dethroned’, a strong effort in its own right. In the meantime, singers, guitarists and drummers came and went in the band, until Matt Moliti, leader and guitarist of Dark Empire finally found the group’s recent line-up and released his most progressive album ‘till date in the form of ‘From Refuge To Ruin’. We’ve talked about Dark Empire’s line-up changes, carrier, new album and about his guitar playing style with Matt Moliti.

Hard Rock Magazine: 4 years have passed since the previous Dark Empire album. Why did we have to wait so long for the new album?

Matt Moliti: One of the main reasons it took as long as it did to get a new album out was trying to find a suitable replacement for Jens [Carlsson, singer of Persuader and Savage Circus – Tomka]. Ironically, it turned out to be someone who was right under my nose the whole time, but yeah, trying to find a new singer was the main part of it. Besides that, the recording process was delayed due to trying to work around everyone's schedules with day jobs and stuff like that. The writing process started in January 2010 and was completely finished and demoed by August, but the recording process took from September 2010 until August 2011, because we had to do it in bits and pieces.

HRM: Why did Jens leave the band?

Matt: The split with Jens was mutual. We really needed a singer that was in the US in order to start playing live more, and with Jens being in Sweden and also being preoccupied with two other bands, it was really the smartest decision to part ways with him. He's a really cool dude and we're on good terms.

HRM: Urban Breed was the singer of Dark Empire for a short time. How did he get in the picture, and why did he get out of it so soon?

Matt: Urban’s involvement came about via our former guitarist Andrew Atwood. They're really good friends, and when Andrew asked him if he'd like to join, he said yes and sounded very enthusiastic about it. Not long after, it became clear that his ideas about the band were not in line with my creative vision. I'm not a dictator within the framework of the band, but I am the main songwriter and the band is my baby, so I need to work with musicians that are on the same page as I am. Unfortunately, Urban wasn't, and on top of that, he also has very strong ideas about the music he creates as well. So it was best to just split entirely, rather than keep him on singing stuff his heart wasn't into.

HRM: How did you find Brian Larkin? What should the fans know about him, what is his musical background, etc.?

Matt: Brian and I have actually been friends since I was about 16 years old. Apart from being a singer, he is also a phenomenal guitarist, and you can hear his playing at the end of The Cleansing Fires, because that's him taking the 2nd and 4th solos during the trade off part with me. He's also the first person to write vocal lines and lyrics besides me, as he wrote all of his melodies and lyrics for the songs Lest Ye Be Judged and The Cleansing Fires.

HRM: Andrew Atwood, your second guitar player also quitted.  Why did he left and why did you choose not to involve a second guitar player from now on?

Matt: The best way I can put it is that although Andrew and I work well as musicians, we really didn't work well regarding band politics/business decisions. I'm on good terms with him again, but we didn't speak for a really long time. Regarding not having a 2nd guitarist, in the studio it's a little pointless for me, because I can track all of the guitar parts myself. The reason why Andrew worked out is because he was involved in the writing process for From Refuge to Ruin as well (he had co-written the verse riff of The Crimson Portrait with me, as well as the final verse riff of The Cleansing Fires). Live, on the other hand, we do have a new 2nd guitarist. His name's Christian Colabelli, and he's an awesome player who is working out great with us.

HRM: Have you got a full-time drummer right now?

Matt: We still don't, but Matt Graff, who played session on From Refuge to Ruin, is also playing live with us. We are looking for someone more permanent, though.

HRM: You played with Brian live in 2008, but ’From Refuge To Ruin’ was your first collaboration in the studio. How did the work go with him in the studio?

Matt: Brian did a great job in the studio, he tracked the entire album in two days! That's pretty impressive, especially with the harsher/gritty vocal style.

HRM: On the new album you’ve moved forward to the heavier, more complex side of power metal. It feels like sometimes that the progressive side of your music plays the main part, while on ‘Distant Tides’ was more focused on huge melodies and more straightforward parts. What’s your take on this?

Matt: I'd agree with that. Progressive rock music from the 1970s was the music I grew up on, and bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Rush, etc. are among my favorite bands of all time. That side has always been there, but I definitely made a conscious decision to really bring it to the forefront with this album. I think the more progressive songs were always the best ones on the previous Dark Empire albums (like The Forgotten Sin or The Apparition Sequence). I decided to go for a more old school vintage keyboard sound by using a mellotron rather than modern sampled strings/choir, and also using a bit of layered 12-string acoustic guitar parts, which is inspired by Genesis. Apart from that, I really don't listen to a lot of power metal anymore, to be honest, so I'm sure that has also affected the change in style.

HRM: Also, your neoclassical guitar playing style seems to be gone. Is there a particular reason behind that the death and occasional doom metal influences play a greater part than before?

Matt: I think it sounds like that mainly because the music I'm playing over itself is less neoclassical influenced than before. I'm still using a lot of those same scales though, like Phrygian Dominant and Harmonic Minor, although I have been more influenced by jazz/fusion, too. You can really hear that in the solo for Black Hearts Demise, for example. As far as the death and doom metal influence, that’s just the main style of metal that I'm listening to these days. For me, death metal has the least amount of boundaries, and it can go from being really brutal to being very complex and progressive. I feel like when I'm writing, once you open that door, anything goes, really. The best example of that on the new album is The Cleansing Fires, which you can hear has some really soft acoustic parts and at the same time probably some of the heaviest moments on the entire album. Actually, that sort of goes back to the jazz/fusion influence in my lead playing, because the kinds of tonalities in death metal and jazz are actually very similar, so it's appropriate to play that way over those kinds of riffs.

HRM: These days, melting different styles of metal is quite common. Do you see the future of metal music in this cross-genre hybridization?

Matt: I hope so. I understand the need for people to relate to certain genres, but its all heavy metal to me, man. I love Maiden and Sabbath just as much as Death and Carcass and everything in between, you know? I just see it all as colors on a painter’s palette. And if the picture I'm trying to paint needs a certain color to get the point across, I'm gonna use it. I know it probably makes it harder for some people to get into us, but I gotta write what my heart is telling me to.

HRM: Could you tell us about the lyrics of 'From Refuge To Ruin'? Is there a concept running through the album?

Matt: Sort of. I noticed as I started writing lyrics for the first few songs that they all seemed to be centered around the theme of deterioration, of things just falling apart, whether it be society, personal relationships, one's own sanity etc. things going From refuge to ruin. So once I noticed that, I did make a conscious effort to stay with that theme.

HRM: While Jens was the singer of Dark Empire, you worked together through the Internet, and couldn’t practice or play live together too much. Is Dark Empire now a “regular” band in this respect?

Matt: Very much so. We're gonna be hitting the stage for the first time in 4 years next month, and I'm really excited about that. It's probably just going to be regional shows at first, but I'd love to eventually get on a tour or get over to Europe to do some festivals.

HRM: Can we say that Dark Empire is Matt Moliti’s band? How much part do the others play in Dark Empire?

Matt: As I said earlier in the interview, I'm not a dictator, but Dark Empire is my baby and creative vision. But if someone else has something to bring to the table that fits within that vision, we'll use it. Actually, this album has more co-writes than any previous Dark Empire release. I had mentioned Andrew and Brian's contributions earlier, but our bass player Randy Knecht, also co-wrote the verse riff in Black Hearts Demise, and even Urban got himself a writing credit for some of the lyrics at the end of the title track. On Humanity Dethroned I had written everything. I actually really enjoyed just focusing on the music and having Brian work on the vocal parts on his own, and I plan on handing the lyric/vocal melody duties to him even more so in the future.

HRM: How would you describe your guitar-playing style(s)? What “novelties” can we hear from you on 'From Refuge To Ruin'? Is there any new technique or guitar you’ve just tried out?

Matt: I'm definitely into the whole shred guitar thing, but I really think its more important to write a good song, and have the lead guitar work within that framework to compliment the song, rather than just an excuse to show off. Of interest to guitarists, I did start doing multiple right hand finger tapping, which wound up all over the solo sections on this album. I also dabbled a bit with some hybrid picking stuff. As far as instruments, I've switched over to using 7 string guitars, and the whole album was written and recorded with those. I also tune down one whole step (which I've always done). Another interesting thing is the tuning I used for the 12-string guitar on From Refuge to Ruin. I stole it from the Genesis song "the Cinema Show" and it's unique in that the two center string pairs are tuned to intervals, as opposed to octaves, so you fret one pair of strings, but get two different notes. It's pretty cool.

HRM: Which guitarist had the main influence on your playing?

Matt: I think my biggest influences would have to be guys like Michael Romeo, Jeff Loomis, Allan Holdsworth, Alexi Laiho, Yngwie, and Jason Becker. I also get a lot of really cool ideas from players like Greg Howe and Derek Taylor, and one of my recent favorites is Emil Werstler from the band Daath. I've always been really attracted to the more legato style approach to soloing, so being into guys like Romeo, Holdsworth, and Taylor, really helped to develop that.

HRM: I guess the style of Jeff Loomis was a huge influence on FRTR. How do you like his latest solo album?

Matt: Yeah, I love Jeff's playing. He was the main influence for me to start using 7 string guitars, too. I think his new album is awesome, especially the song he did with Ihsahn on vocals. I'd love to hear them write an entire album together.

HRM: You’ve attended the Berklee College of Music. How do your studies influence your songwriting? Do you apply in practice, what you’ve learned in theory there?

Matt: At Berklee I learned a lot about things like harmony and four-part writing, counterpoint, etc. to be honest, though, when I write, at least these days, I'm not thinking about theory at all, I just write whatever sounds good. The theory is there if I'm ever stuck or if I need to figure out what scales work over certain chords, but for the most part, I think it's more important to use your ears and let that dictate what works and what doesn't.

HRM: How should a “layman” picture this school and the feeling of attending this school?

Matt: There is definitely an air of prestige about Berklee, since so many famous musicians have gone there, but, it's still just a school. Walking through the doors at Berklee won't magically make you a better musician. The only thing that does that is lots of hard work, and you can do that with or without a school. Some people learn better in a school environment, though, so a place like Berklee is really nice for that kind of discipline.

HRM: You’re also a guitar teacher. What kind of a role does this play in your life?

Matt: Being a guitar teacher is my full time job, so it plays a pretty big role. Locally, I teach at a franchise called The School of Rock, which is performance based, so besides lessons the kids are put into groups that rehearse and perform live. I usually work with the advanced students and metal heads, and it's really remarkable to see how good some of these kids are, it can be pretty scary, actually. I couldn't do half the stuff I see some of them do at their age! Apart from that I also give lessons on Skype, which is cool, because you can teach anyone in the world that way.

HRM: Do you constantly monitor the new releases in the metal scene? Have you got any new favorites?

Matt: I try to stay on top of things, yeah. Both from established older bands and new upcoming bands as well. Some of my favorite new releases this year have been the new Overkill album, the new one from Asphyx, and of course, Jeff Loomis' new one. Last year I really enjoyed the albums from Symphony X, Mastodon, Obscura, and Decapitated.

HRM: What’s your take on illegal downloading? Does it help a band like Dark Empire, or does it deprive you from the little income you could make from playing music?

Matt: It's a double edged sword for sure. I'm sure it's gotten us some new fans over the years and of course that is great, but at the same time, it can feel like a slap in the face when you put in all that hard work and pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to put an album out, and someone who likes it doesn't bother paying for it. The only thing I say to people is, if you like an artist, support them and buy their music, or buy their merchandise, or see them play live.

HRM: At first I wanted to ask this question point-blank at the beginning of the interview, because it’s rather incomprehensible for me: why haven’t you got a decent homepage? It’s very hard to get information about Dark Empire besides the recent updates of your Facebook profile.

Matt: That has to do a lot with the band being inactive for four years. Now that things are picking up again, it probably does make sense to have a proper homepage again. I do try to stay active on Facebook and I think these days it's really important to have that direct line of communication with your fans.

HRM: What do you know about Hungary? And finally, what’s your message to the Hungarian Dark Empire fans?

Matt: Besides having lots of beautiful women? (laughs) Not too much, I'm afraid. I do know there are some good metal festivals there, if I'm not mistaken. To our fans, thank you so much for your support, it really means a lot. Spread the word, and hopefully someday we'll make it over to Hungary and kick some ass for you guys!

Tomka