MUSIC INTERVIEW: AVATAR
Photo Credit: Johan Carlén
When it comes to modern metal bands, there aren’t too many frontmen who can overtake AVATAR’s Johannes Eckerström, both in terms of energy and stage presence, as well as vocal range. With the launch of their new album, Hunter Gatherer, quickly approaching, we caught up with the Swedish singer to talk about their new material, how it sounds compared to their previous work, and about other things, including Disney, Ennio Morricone, and Swedish indie pop.
So, Johannes, we’re here to talk about the new AVATAR record, Hunter Gatherer. We listened to the album a good few times before this interview, it’s really good!
What determined AVATAR to work with [producer] Jay Ruston again, five years after Hail The Apocalypse?
Hail the Apocalypse was the first one that he mixed with us. Since then, he ended up mixing all of them, and Avatar Country was the first one he produced with us. The short answer is that we ended up really liking him, and we really gelled as people, in [terms of] what we value, what we like and what we laugh at. We turned out to have a lot in common. That being said, we had made a habit in the past to switch producers, that has been our philosophy in the past, just as a part of the whole thing [with] finding new challenges, changing things up so you don’t get too formulaic. We also felt that Avatar Country, because of what that album was, and how far down the road we already were once Jay came into the picture, I don’t feel like we got the full Jay Ruston experience as far as producing goes. So we wanted to make at least Hunter Gatherer [with him], so that we could have him from start to finish, and really collaborate throughout the whole process. So, a combination of it going really well the time before, and us wanting to do something more representative of him and do the whole trip together.
We must say, it really paid off, since Hunter Gatherer is a really different animal compared to Avatar Country, it’s like apples and oranges!
Yeah, definitely. But that was always by design. Avatar Country is the weird one in our discography, and will always be. The big challenge there – I guess there were two big challenges. One was to try to make something that was funny. We’re not comedians per se, but we knew what made us laugh, so essentially it’s a big inside joke that we invited everyone into. The other great challenge was that, to make a concept album, but where everything you did was part of the concept, where it became this weird “performance art” thing, to stay true to the whole theme even in interviews, onstage, on social media, all of those things. But yeah, if the rest of our albums are a bunch of oranges, Avatar Country is definitely an apple!
[Laughs] The only thing about Avatar Country is that we didn’t get to experience it live, because we couldn’t get to any shows, and AVATAR didn’t come to Romania during that tour.
Yeah, we’re slowly pushing our way east throughout Europe. Doing the first show is always the biggest challenge. We had made it as far as to finally headline in Hungary, and immediately sold out. Once you’ve done it once, you show the promoters, you show the agents, “See? We told you so! Now, can we go again, please?”, and no-one will stop you. That project goes on, and we hope to push to Romania soon [giggles]. It’s sad that it is like that, but it is what it is.
Yeah, if anything we might just come to Budapest next time you roll around, because the city we live in, Cluj, is closer to it than Bucharest, six to eight hours by train.
Still a bit of a trek, but yeah, it could work! And Budapest is a cool city!
It’s also similar to Cluj, because this part of Romania was part of Austro-Hungary. But anyway, now we’re beside the point [laughs].
I could go on that subject for a long time. I find all of that history, and the history of your region very fascinating, because it waves back and forth so much.
Now that the Avatar Country album cycle is over and that concept is done, will those songs see the light of day again?
Yes, of course. Avatar Country, as an album project, is dead, or we’ve moved on, but the songs are there, it’s still part of us, it’s not deleted from history. So it will be revisited onstage and we will create contexts for it.
We were going to ask about the collaboration with Corey Taylor, but we think you answered that, that it was through Jay Ruston.
Exactly, correct, so that is already out there [laughs].
Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
Erm… I don’t know. Way back when, before we toured and got to know each other, I did reach out to Devin Townsend about it. The years [in which] he produced, he did it as a job, for money, but the way he operates, and his emotional attachment to music and songwriting is extremely taxing for him, to get involved with other people’s writing, that was one thing. And look at the output of that man, and how much he has going on in his projects.
Yeah, exactly. It steals time from what he’s doing. So I don’t see that happening. If you take Corey Taylor as an example, he did the stuff he did because it came naturally and it was a funny thing to do when he was visiting, but there was nothing on the album that was designed to be a collaboration, per se. It would depend on when we write songs, if we feel like “here, it would sound great if someone would do something on this”, or “wouldn’t be cooler with an instrument we don’t play”, those kinds of collaborations. I think more in terms of live choirs, or…
Or symphony shows?
Actually, here’s my real answer: rather than symphonies, I’d like to work with a big band. Saxophones, trombones, trumpets, and all that. I think it would fit better with our music, and it hasn’t been done to the extent that symphony orchestras were with metal bands. I think there’s something way more musically challenging and interesting for me. I grew up playing the trombone, and I used to play in a big band, so if I had a dream project in terms of working with an orchestra, I’d rather go in that direction.
Okay, so, onto the album itself now: we found A Secret Door to be a really surprising song. It’s very much a whole rollercoaster in terms of the sounds that it goes through. What was the inspiration behind it? The whistling part especially reminded us of an Ennio Morricone song.
Yeah, of course there’s an Ennio Morricone fandom within the band. I used to have a compilation album that I would listen to a lot when I was a teenager, and watch a bunch of his movies, mainly for the music, the spaghetti westerns and all that. But, in the case of A Secret Door, I think I was reminded about whistling being an interesting thing thanks to this Swedish dude… and now I’ll have to double-check his name, good thing I’m on another computer, what was his name? Björn Olson, there we go. He’s up in northern Sweden, and he does some kind of pop music that fits well into Swedish beer commercials, or to be played inside H&M. It’s mostly instrumental, and then some whistling. Then, Sweden’s biggest domestic pop star is stealing all of his stuff. He does weird animals, too! He sampled some seagulls, and made a weird metal album with a bunch of metal dudes, but he’s usually an indie pop dude, it’s very interesting! But yeah, his songs with whistling put that back on my radar. Other than that, as it usually is for me and for us as a band, you cannot try and combine ten influences, or ten sources of inspiration at the same time. Part of me was thinking, with the verses, about the choruses of The Unforgiven by Metallica, for instance, which isn’t super similar but it makes sense in my head. There’s a bit of System of a Down, a bit of Amon Amarth… I love the whole Amon Amarth main riff, especially on stuff that’s a bit older…
Like Twilight of the Thunder God.
Exactly, or even older, like Sound of Eight Hooves, it’s on The Crusher I think. The riff is a melody, like [hums], but to then combine that style of playing and that energy but go somewhere else with the drums. That guitar melody is also used as a vocal melody in the chorus. There, suddenly, it gets to roll that again, it brings me into a world of more angsty Swedish indie pop, that we have a lot of up here, and most of it doesn’t get exported. There are some of those bands, that it’s almost punk, it’s very much self-made bands that barely know how to play, but are full of energy and were all teenagers in the ‘90s. To have that energy, that kind of high emotional thing, but played in a metal way, with this Amon Amarth vibe in it, I like combining things like that. Musically, inspiration comes from a lot of places, and it’s tied together by this kind of puzzle throughout the song. So, in the heavy part, the rhythm guitar chords are the same chords as in the verse, so they connect like that. The chorus melody that I sing is essentially 99% the same as the riff guitar in the heavy part, so that half of the riff goes into the verse, the other half goes into the chorus, but in the chorus there are different chords underneath. I like how it becomes a chain, where everything is linked to each other somehow. I like puzzles like that, especially when you work with really dynamic songs, because you still don’t want it too dynamic, and it shouldn’t mean all over the place, because then you should write two different songs instead.
Yeah! We also think Child is a sort of puzzle in the same sense as A Secret Door, because that also goes through different phases you don’t expect.
That was actually one of the more challenging [songs] for that reason. The heavy riff was pretty old, Jonas [Jarlsby, guitarist] came up with that a bunch of years ago. We had done some things through the years with it, but when the time came to write other parts and do vocals, we never quite pulled it off, until Jonas came up with the chorus and then that magic happened. For me, when it comes to lyrics, my favourite moment and my way of measuring my perceived quality of a riff is when I close my eyes, I hear it and I see something. It gets very visual, and I can use that as a starting point for the lyrics, whatever I see there.
But it was weird with Child, because if you go back to something like Hail the Apocalypse, you hear the riff and go “oh, the world is ending! Someone is holding a sign saying ‘The world is ending!’ and then the bombs fall” – that makes sense with that riff. For whatever reason, with Child, and especially the chorus, I saw an early 20th century, affluent family – kind of like Victorian England, but a bit later – those vibes of a home. It’s an era where if a woman speaks up, if she’s unhappy, different in any shape and form, she would be deemed “hysterical”, and the “cure” would be lobotomy. So, I see this household, in a structure that is so damaged, that people do all of these things to help someone, under the guise of “helping” that person. It’s that story, of that woman, and the woman is a mother, so then we have the child. I always see a problem when it comes to loss, and mourning, if a child is excluded from that, or if a child is denied their own rights to live through their own trauma and deal with it. The child’s feelings around the things happening to the mother, didn’t quite happen. At the funeral, everyone’s talking behind the child’s back. The chorus is basically that child dealing with it the way children deal with everything in life – they play. That’s how they process and figure out life around them, they play. The child is, of course, completely powerless, as children are, and therefore can only pretend to run away. That whole complexity – now I’ll go back to what I was actually going to talk about [laughs] – between the chorus, and the heavy, badass, riff. Then there’s that big hole in between the verse. Storywise, thematically, what it was supposed to be, was there in all versions, but musically we had so many different verses on it. Some leaning more towards the heaviness of the main riff, which didn’t quite work, it became too emotionally cold, sometimes it became too cute, because we figured “it needs to be melodic, but it has to have the right essence of it”.
I especially remember a discussion we had in the studio – I had come up with a different melody for a while there, that both producer Jay and John [Alfredsson, drummer] really liked, but I, after having written it, had to argue against it. One thing I’ve learned a lot about, and have been thinking about, is if you do melodic stuff, the melody in itself should tell the story of the lyrics. There needs to be a truth to the music that speaks and shares the same truth as the words do, otherwise what’s the point of lyrics. The best example in history is probably Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You can play that melody, and it kind of takes you where the lyrics take you, because it makes that big [singing] “Somewhere”, a big jump, and it gets sadder and smaller throughout that phrase: [sings again] “Way up high” [continues to hum melody and lyrics]. It turns out it was something you heard about once, and it isn’t quite there, and that is when you go back home in the melody. Perfect description. Or you have Beethoven, you don’t need to know the German words, [singing Ode to Joy] “Freude, schöner Götterfunken!”, you get the fucking point from the theme, you know? That should be true to heavy metal and everything as well. With that, I argued against a nice little melody to do another nice little melody, and now it almost feels like a musical, but a really heavy one, and that we always find interesting. Anyway, there’s too little melody in what people call “melodic” nowadays. It’s a bit different in European metal, I must say, obviously, but it has been changing here too. Melodic music isn’t melodic enough, and if it is, it’s very cheaply so, usually. Of course, there are thousands of exceptions to this, but if you just watch the overall trend of melodies in metal and rock, they find the three notes that sound good when the singer sings them, and they hammer them home in a way where it’s like “yeah, but your melody is not really telling a story”. Everything is just [hums generic beat], that’s probably a song! It’s fine if you can say certain things with that, but if everything is like that, [sings to that generic beat again] “I broke up with you and I’m sad!”, “We are gonna party tonight!” Everything’s in that tiny field of things that people think has worked on radio. If that’s our melodic material right now, we’re in trouble, and we want to fight that.
One other thing that we like about Child, as you mentioned the verses, is the feel that it ends up having, because it’s almost like a cross between a western and swing, it’s got that very bouncy feeling, like [hums along].
Yeah, I can see villagers singing it in a Disney movie, almost – “There was a funeral as we”, progressing from a whisper to shouting it out.
Sort of like The Mob Song in Beauty and the Beast!
[Laughs] Yes, exactly like that!
What was the thought process behind the album cover, the whole “plasma-cannon-mouth-thing”?
Well, one way of describing the theme of the album – to the extent that it has a theme, because it’s not a concept album, but it all makes sense as a unit, in hindsight – is the exploration of our inner nature. The fact that we are hunter-gatherers, and the same homo sapiens we were back then, but now the world is crazy around us, and we are very detached from that world. It’s still our inner being coming out, whatever’s inside of you that comes out in the form of a primal scream, that’s the simplest way of looking at the cover. There’s also a connection to the band name, “avatar”, to be the manifestation of a god, meaning to have all of this powerful, hidden potential in you. So, to have that superpower-looking thing that lives inside, well, me for the album cover, represents that as well. But it’s, again, this hunter-gatherer we are, trying to understand our inner nature and how it relates to the world today, and also to understand our inner abilities and our great potential – to destroy, or to build.
Another song that we’ve heard you mention in other interviews that took a long while to figure out and put out, was Gun. How would that fit into the live component of AVATAR? Up until now, the only song that sort of “deviated” from everything you do live was Tower, and even that was just sombre in itself, but still kind of fit, whereas Gun is even more sombre and more tragic in sound compared to everything. How is that going to fit?
I’m not worried at all, actually. When we work on setlists we can spend a long time and be very analytical about it, probably more than we need, but that’s just how we are as people, because there’s always a lot of people working on it, it takes a lot of laps around the block before we’ve got it exactly the way we want it. But, you know, to compose a setlist is to compose a long song in itself. When we do heavy stuff, we want it to feel as heavy as possible, we want there to be a point to it and that’s where dynamic comes in. For instance, if maybe we’ve done two-thirds of a setlist, and there’s been some heavy stuff leading up to it, which hopefully means headbanging, moshing, screaming. Hopefully, that whole “primal” reaction of the audience has left them kind of raw and vulnerable, ready to open up a bit, and also in need to have a breather. In that state, to go for the more vulnerable things, mellow, melancholic… The fact that the heavy stuff is so heavy, opens up for that to really reach someone, and once you’ve had have that moment, the beautiful thing is to then play something REALLY heavy right after, or maybe even something more festive, because then you’ve got that breather, you got to work something, and you’re ready to explode again.
So I think it’s actually pretty easy, especially since it’s so gentle of a song – musically gentle, thematically and emotionally it’s very heavy. But that’s the point, I guess, that’s how we get you, that’s how that kind of song gets a person. Then what happens is that I hope there will be a sense of working through your emotions, that makes you ready for the rest. Maybe it’s two-thirds into a concert, just one third left, it’s the beginning of the end, and then we pick one of those songs we have played for years that people really like and makes you jump, and we play Let it Burn after, or something. So people are like “oh, thank God, YEAH!” and they’re ready to go again. I think it becomes more powerful in a live setting because it will be so incredibly naked. It ended up the way it ended up because it felt the most powerful like that. It took seven years to write (as you’ve pointed out – you’ve done your research, which I appreciate! [laughs]) – and for the longest time, many versions of that song got heavier during the middle. But then it felt like Bon Jovi, Bed of Roses or something, [hums piano melody then heavy dissonant riff], then it’s “ugh, we ruined it, throw it away!” Seven years of ruining it until we realised that a song like that functions the same way as a heavy song, the way we’re thinking about it, and we had to remind ourselves “let this song be what it is”. Stay in that emotion, that vibe, even if it’s really dynamic, and it has clean parts, distorted parts, acoustic parts, that’s beside the point. Emotionally, stay in the story you’re trying to tell, and that made the song smaller and smaller, which made it feel bigger and bigger. So yeah, now I have to practise more piano, to do that live!
We were actually going to ask if it’s you playing the piano on the recording, or if it’s a session player.
Yeah, we had a session player for that who came in and she was great. I wrote all the parts, but I ordered a piano now, because I don’t have a piano in my home, which has limited my chances to practise. I can play instruments [well] enough to write stuff for AVATAR, play a waltz for old people, but there’s a different level that we look for on an album, which I might be able to reach soon, as soon as the piano arrives. But she was classically trained, and she was able to do that whole thing where there’s no click track, the tempo really flows to achieve the melody, the way it does in classical music. She had that naturally, so well, and it led to a better result on the album. Now I have something to aspire to as a piano player, she really nailed it.
Yeah, she definitely did. Finally, a quick question so we’ll finish quickly and won’t keep you any longer: what song are you most looking forward to performing live, off Hunter Gatherer?
Gun, because it will be the most challenging and different – and the other guys agree, because they will get a break!
Well, Johannes, thank you very much for this opportunity, we had a great time speaking with you, take care and see you soon!
Thank you, I really enjoyed this, take care!
AVATAR‘s new album Hunter Gatherer is due for release on 7th August 2020 via Century Media Records, available to pre-order HERE.
Interview by: Florin Petrut