One day in Avatar Country! Our interview with Avatar´s Johannes Eckerström and a reviewof their concert in Toronto
Swedish metallers Avatar released their new album “Avatar Country” in January 12th. Written
as a homage to guitar player Jonas "Kungen" Jarlsby (aka The King), this is their second concept
album in a row. The band came to Toronto on January 07th, touring in support of new album,
and Lotsofmuzik´s Rodrigo Altaf had a chance to interview singer Johannes Eckerström and
catch the show.
Part 1 – Conversations with a humble servant of the King
In the middle of the afternoon, I was brought into the theater where Avatar was setting up their production, for a chat with vocalist Johannes Eckerström.
Lotsofmuzik: Welcome to Toronto, it´s not Avatar´s first time here, is it?
Johannes Eckerström: No, it´s the second time actually. Toronto was the first city in Canada we visited, so it´s pretty cool that we´re back. It´s moving fast, we were here less than a year ago.
Lotsofmuzik: It´s only 2pm in the afternoon and there are fans outside already in line to see you, so it´s good that you´re back!
JE: It´s all good!
Lotsofmuzik: The new album “Avatar Country” is coming out in a few days, so tells us a bit about the concept of it – it´s an ambitious project!
JE: It´s very ambitious. For the previous album “Feathers & Flesh” we wrote fiction, and it ended up being about failure, death, fear, loss, denial – all those good things [laughs]. For this album we wanted to present facts and speak the truth. As we started to tell the story of Avatar Country and of our King, the album got a whole different vibe. It´s more about strength, victory, joy, power.
Lotsofmuzik: You already started to play the new songs live, so tell us about the stage, and what we can expect of the new tour.
JE: Once you start travelling around the world with a King, it´s not a matter of going on tour, this is a state visit! So we view this as a kind of world fair, or a roadshow, like the ones people did in the early 20th century. It´s important for us to bring a slice of life in Avatar Country with us. What happens is that once the King enters the building, that building becomes a royal castle. So we want the whole evening and everything about it to feel like Avatar Country. And that´s why we´ve been very specific – it´s not a normal metal concert! Of course what we do is a metal performance, but since there are so many aspects of what we want to tell, it´s important that the people we bring along with us fit into that vision and idea to present Avatar Country. That explains why we brought Hellzapoppin´and The Brains [as opening acts]. We wanted something to compliment our metal performance but that would still add their own dimensions to it. We figured that they are very good fits for the whole show.
Lotsofmuzik: Speaking fo the new album, the song “Silent Songs of the King” is an unusual way to wrap it up -it starts with a techno/ambient sound and then evolves into this crazily heavy instrumental…tell us a bit about the decision to put these two tracks together, especially as the closing songs on the album.
JE: It´s all about doing stuff we haven´t done before. The whole point artistically for us is to never write the same songs twice, and also to always explore something new with what we´re doing. Sometimes the result is more extreme than in other cases. It was something we liked and that we felt inspired to do, and it´s a really interesting challenge for us to work on an instrumental which also tells a story. Just like the other songs - they ended up on the album because they communicated something emotionally. That´s how I end up writing lyrics – this made me feel something and it made me envision something, and then I put pen to paper. It all starts with the music, and to have something with all those emotions in an instrumental song is a true challenge. The electronic song is called “Winter Comes When the King Dreams of Snow”, and to me that is exactly what that song sounds like – it sounds like a dream of snow. Likewise, on “The King´s Palace”, to me that is grand architecture in musical form.
Lotsofmuzik: There are heavy songs on the album, such as “A Statue of the King”, but some of them have pop sensibilities, like “The King Wants You”. You even managed to write a country/bluesy song, “The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country”. Did you plan for it to be this diverse, or was it accidental the way the album turned out?
JE: I always thing about the Beatles´ White Album a lot, and what comes to my mind is – why should we back off from anything as songwriters?
Lotsofmuzik: One question from the fans who are lined up outside is: there was a very short period of time between “Feathers & Flesh” (2016) and “Avatar Country” (2018). Was this a thought out plan for the band?
JE: We didn´t count on it being like that, but once we decided on the concept – and that´s the funny part by the way, we didn´t expect to do something conceptual this time – but we felt that the idea of “Avatar Country” was growing, and it was time for us to open the borders to this country. We started working on it, and the vision of it was so clear that at the end it came to no surprise that we were able to finish it so quickly. People play guitar in this band, so there is no shortage of ideas! The whole process took about two months, but the time in the studio was only a couple of weeks. We also need to thank our producer Jay Ruston. His method of recording is not exactly revolutionary, but for us we felt it that way. Usually we recorded all drums, then bass, then guitars and my vocals, and topping it off you put all the shakers and the maracas [laughs]. This time, we did it more or less song by song. Everyone was there at the same time, we kept it fresh and everyone was able to take short breaks here and there. Instead of singing constantly for a week, so it was less physically demanding, but a focused effort.
Lotsofmuzik: The album is a homage to your guitar player – The King! Are you planning to do one concept album for each member of the band?
JE: Of course not! There is only one King, and us humble servants are just honored to be in his presence! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: Some might say that doing two concept albums in a row is commercial suicide – how do you view that in this day and age when a band has to function from a financial standpoint?
JE: We had our biggest headline show yesterday, just as the second concept album in a row was released. [Pink Floyd´s] “Dark Side of the Moon is doing pretty well! Doing a concept album might be commercial suicide if your name is Justin Bieber [laughs], but luckily we grew up listening to metal, and the metal community is interested in quality songs that feels honest and meaningful, and at the same time are fucking heavy. If you do that, there´s always someone out there who will enjoy it. When we decide how to promote an album, what to write on our Facebook, or when we select singles, then we can think commercially. But not when we write that single, because we don´t write singles, we write songs. There´s really no talk in the studio about the demographic outside of what we like. We trust the fact that we were those fifteen year olds that stood in queues outside a venue to be the first in line for Blind Guardian, or Cryptopsy or other bands. If we capture that spirit and the genuine place that made us decide to stop cutting our hair, then other people will also be influenced by us, enjoy our music and decide to not cut their hair anymore!
Lotsofmuzik: Unfortunately I had to have a haircut because interviewing bands is currently my hobby, and I work in an office, but I see your point [laughs].
JE: That’s really unfortunate …if you worked in Helsinki where I live, there are people working in banks who have long hair and neck tattoos, so you´d be fine there [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik: One last question on the album - the song “The King Speaks” that talks about the bowel movements of the King - whose idea was that?
JE: We wanted to put an example there of what a fine public speaker our King is, and this was an important day. The will of the King is the will of the people and vice versa, and so it goes also with the wellbeing of the King and the people. As the king has problems with his bowel movements, we all feel it, and the whole nation was constipated [laughs]! And of course, because of the richness and usefulness of his bowel movements, we also worried about fall´s harvest and how putting the seeds in the ground would be affected when that fine manure would be around. But luckily for the people it all turned out just fine. As you can hear from the audience in the recording, it was a big deal!
Lotsofmuzik: I just finished a book called Running With the Devil, where Van Halen´s manager in the 80´s tells stories of debauchery, drug abuse, groupies, trashing hotel rooms etc. What kind of tales from the road would Avatar´s manager write about? Nothing in the same vein, I can imagine?
JE: There´s probably something [laughs]. But the whole idea that you could play music to impress girls – I had no idea about that as I started to study music. I started taking piano lessons at four years old, then I got into trombone, and playing in orchestras…then I got into metal, and started to play guitar. I was so entrenched in music for the sake of music that the whole “rock star” thing, or the idea that being the singer in a rock band would be different than being a trombone player in an orchestra was not something I considered. In the early stages of the band I was in a relationship, so there was no room for that. There was only a short period of time in my early 20´s when I was like “let´s try this now!” [impress girls]. But I got bored with it very quickly – superficial relationships with human beings do not work well for me, even if I tried to. So I kept my eyes opened for something more lasting, and I´m engaged now. But when we started touring we were eighteen, nineteen years old, so some things definitely happened back then. We partied with famous people and unknown people, so I´m sure there are stories to tell. I´m sure someone fucked someone, and there might have been legal or illegal substances involved, and something broke, and one of us woke up not knowing which town they were in [laughs]. But whatever happened around the music is not what our music is about.
Lotsofmuzik: Seven albums in, you only had one lineup change [Simon Andersson was the guitar player from 2001 to 2011, and was replaced by Tim Öhrström]. Were there challenges to keep it so stable?
JE: I think it was a challenge in the past, because we tried to keep Simon in the band longer than I think we should. Ultimately he left, and it was really about time, because his heart wasn´t in it anymore, he wasn´t part of the camaraderie. He cut his hair, moved to Stockholm, has a grown up job and wears a tie [laughs]. He seems to be doing better. We´re not in touch with each other all the time, but he sometimes talks to Henrik [Sandelin, Bass]. But his mind was somewhere else [towards the end of his tenure].
With Tim, we´ve known each other for a long time. He´s a couple of years younger than the rest of us, but when we first met I was 19 years old, and he might have been 14 or 15 years old. That is of course a much “harder” difference than 31 and 27 [which are our ages now]. Back when we met he was one of our early fans. We knew him as a friend and as someone who had learned to play guitar by playing our songs, so it was very natural to invite him once Simon left. That was after we recorded the album “Black Waltz”, and we had developed a certain attitude about music that manifested itself on that album. When John [Alfredsson, Drums] and I sat with Tim to discuss his help on the first couple of shows, without us even asking he started saying the exact things we were saying about music. Things like “metal is the best thing in the world, and most modern metal bands are disappointingly boring”, “metal can be so good, but when it´s not it´s frustrating” et cetera. And another important thing that people don´t care about enough nowadays is the groove. What people who think about groove don´t understand is that extreme death metal can also be performed with groove. It can have the drive and organic feel to it. Listen to Cryptopsy in their album None So Vile. There´s no metronome there, just these amazing musicians playing organically. The tempo is a bit fluid compared to a rigid, over-edited clicktracked, pre-programmed death metal machine which you risk hearing nowadays. People underestimate the meaning of groove as soon as you get out of the world of funk or the so-called “groove metal”. But we realized that we had to play with a groove also when we play fast songs. We´re not interested in looking or sounding like all the others. We work really hard on trying to do our own thing. Tim was in the same headspace when he joined the bad. When he started writing for an album with us, he gave us the riff for the “Hail the Apocalypse”, for example, so he became an integral part of the band right away, and he fits well with us.
Lotsofmuzik: Gene Simmons recently considered trademarking the devil horns. How long do you think it´s going to take until he decides to trademark stage makeup and sue you guys?
JE: I´m not painted like Gene Simmons though, so I wouldn´t worry. One of the first things I wanted to be when I started with music and metal was to be a singing bass player, just like two of my biggest heroes: Paul McCartney and Gene Simmons. I also stick my tongue out on stage, so his influence is there. I feel like I do it my own way, because that´s what you do with influences, you pick them up and make them your own. I´m not trying to hide the fact that there was a guy in the 70´s who wore makeup and stuck his tongue out, but that´s just a part of the whole puzzle of influences I have. So a lawsuit like that would´t hold out in court, but I wouldn´t mind the publicity – it would make me famous!
Lotsofmuzik: What are your main influences as a singer?
JE: In pure terms of singing, I´d say Devin Townsend is extremely high on that list. You have to try to sing in key, but also use your voice to make it theatrical, so I would also add Tom Waits and Mike Patton. I was well on my way to finding my voice when I started to appreciate Mike Patton. I would also add Lord Worm from Cryptopsy and Ross Dolan from Immolation – also a singing bass player by the way. He and the band Immolation opened the doors of death metal for me because of his articulation – all of a sudden you realize that you can understand what he´s saying! And then of course there are the power metal guys – Hansi Kürsch [singer, Blind Guardian], Michael Kiske [singer, Halloween]…I tried for many years to have that high pitched waaaaaah [laughs] and failed miserably of course. And what fascinates me is how beautiful it can be even when singers are not so great…I usually don´t like when musicians do acting, but I appreciate when actors try to sing, because they really know how to tell a story. In that case the musicianship comes second, but when it´s there on top of it it helps. I heard a David Lynch song the other day, and he just says that “love is important” in that nasal voice of his, but it becomes magical, because of the kind of artist he is and due to the importance of the words. I can appreciate that alongside with more accomplished singers like Dio, Bruce or Michael Jackson. I wanted to be Michael Jackson when I was six years old, by the way. Either him or Hulk Hogan, or a combination of both! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: Thank you so much, and once again, welcome to Canada. I´m looking forward to the show!
JE: Thank you!
NOW Part 2 – A review of Hellzapoppin´, The Brains and Avatar at The Opera House in Toronto (January 07 2018)
If selling out shows in North America is any indication that a band is ready to “make it big”, then Avatar is surely on the right track. Their first show in Toronto was opening for In This Moment in April 2017, and less than a year later, here they are again as headliners now.
After interviewing Johannes I returned to the Opera House at around 07pm, and found the venue completely packed. Looking at the long line at the merchandise stand, I could be sure that no shirts or patches would be left at the end of the night.
Another thing worth mentioning is the Royal Museum of Depictions of the King – a mural for fans to place their art related to the band. Several drawings of varying levels of quality were there, and it seems a cool way to interact with fans.
At 07:30 Hellzapoppin hit the stage, and what followed was a bizarre collection of tricks using chainsaws, blades, knifes, broken glass, fire, freaks, wonders and human curiosities. A fitting opener for the evening, and I found myself wanting to look away but at the same time not wanting to miss it! Knives were swallowed and twisted around, cowbells were hung from a dude´s nose and eyelids, and the crowd cheered in equal doses of disgust and awe.
Canadian psychobilly band The Brains were next. “Take What I Want”, “Misery” and “Screaming” were among the best songs of their set, and the crowd engaged in pogo dancing on many songs. The band pulled no punches and delivered a very energetic set, with the three members ending the show drenched in sweat and deserving a beer.
As the stage was being set for Avatar, I couldn´t help but notice that even the roadies were dressed in medieval clothes. And how fitting it was that they were playing at a place called The Opera House! Granted, this is a far cry from its more famous namesake in Sydney, but the vaudeville theatre architecture was a perfect setting for this concert.
Out of the speakers we could hear a dial switching from station to station, all of which played songs from different styles, all talking about The King. One of the songs I could pick out was Rainbow´s “Kill the King”.
The band comes to the stage, and The King sits on his throne above the drum riser. “Glory to Our King”, the overture of the album is played, doubled up with the fast paced “Legend of the King”. “Let it Burn” comes next, with all band members headbanging, and crowd pleaser “Paint Me Red” started the pogo dancing and moshing. I wouldn´t be surprised to hear “The King Wants You” on the radio, and from the onset, it seems to be the kind of song to be kept on the setlist until they decide to call it quits.
“Puppet Show” brings the circus elements to the stage, and Johannes shows his skills on the trombone. Who knew death metal could have a sense of humour? “Tower” comes next, and it´s a slow burn type of song, which explodes in the end. In each song, all members take on different spots on stage, and it´s clear how well rehearsed the show must be in order to work – musically and visually.
“War Song” was the only “purely” death metal song played – all the others have their nuances, slow and/or funny moments and grooves, and Johannes emphasized. Even a heavy song like “Raven Wine” incorporates jazz and blues halfway through, and brings a much needed breath of fresh air. Johannes clearly dominates the crowd, and between sips from his gasoline gallon, even answered requests from the fans to stick his tongue out.
A few more fan favourites followed, mixed with songs from the new album. Johannes says that “when we played here for the first time we became friends, this time we become family!”. Obviously the crowd went nuts – or as nuts as a Canadian crowd can go – and the show closes with “Hail the Apocalypse”. A night to remember for sure, and this seems like a very promising year for Avatar. Glory to Our King!
Glory To Our King
Legend of the King
Let It Burn
Paint Me Red
The King Wants You
The Eagle Has Landed
Smells Like a Freakshow
A Statue of the King
The King Welcomes You To Avatar Country
Hail the Apocalypse
AVATAR “Avatar Country”
track listing (43:25):
1. Glory to Our King (0:51)
2. Legend of the King (8:18)
3. The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country (5:36)
4. King's Harvest (3:55)
5. The King Wants You (4:20)
6. The King Speaks (3:17)
7. A Statue of the King (3:44)
8. King After King (5:08)
9. Silent Songs of the King Pt. 1: Winter Comes When the King Dreams of Snow (3:34)
10. Silent Songs of the King Pt. 2: The King's Palace (4:37)
Johannes Eckerström - Vocals
John Alfredsson - Drums
Henrik Sandelin - Bass
The King - Guitars
Tim Öhrström - Guitars
Thoughts of No Tomorrow (2006)
Black Waltz (2012)
Hail the Apocalypse (2014)
Feathers & Flesh (2016)
Feathers & Flesh (In His Own Words) (2017)
Avatar Country (2018)
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