It took five albums for the metal world to start remembering the mischievous and terrifying clown face of Johannes Eckerström – somewhere between Batman’s Joker and Alice Cooper – and of the musicians that accompany him in Avatar. The Swedish band used these five albums to polish their musical and visual identity, juggling between their influences and their desire to set themselves apart. In 2014, Avatar delivered their most personal album to date, Hail The Apocalypse. This new record mixes forward-looking metal and legacy design features, inherited from all those old bands who used to put energy above perfection, as Eckerström explains in the following interview.
Avatar are very keen on riding the wave of their burgeoning fame: one year, almost to the day, after opening for Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch at the Zenith in Paris in November 2013, Avatar was back in the French capital city as headliner at the Flèche d’Or. If you want to know more about the band and their fifth album, dive into the following interview with the quintet’s frontman.
« We started talking about how in metal things always had to be so damn perfect, and when you think about it, it makes no sense because there’s no such thing as perfect music. […] So why would you try to achieve something that is just stupid, to be honest, when you can achieve something so much greater? «
Radio Metal: You guys went to Thailand to record this album. That’s an interesting choice, considering the fact that we don’t know much about the metal scene there. Why did you choose to go to this particular studio?
Johannes Eckerström (vocals): Well, that’s a combination of reasons… Something that we always have sworn ourselves to do is to never really repeat ourselves. That being said we decided to keep on working with our producer that we had on Black Waltz, his name is Tobias Lindell, he usually works with bands like Europe and stuff like that, and since we had the same producer and the same band, we said let’s not have the same studio, so we were really for other ways of doing it. We wanted to do something a bit different like finding a barn lost somewhere in the woods of Sweden, a home studio or something like that. But then Tobias told us he was going to move to Thailand and he wanted to do it over there, and that sounded crazy enough for us, it would be different for almost any band. And we found this great studio called Karma Sound. It’s a great high quality studio, but not so many metal bands go there; Placebo, Jamiroquai and that sort of bands went there, but it’s new for the metal scene, new for us.
Do you know about the metal scene in that country?
Well there are some bands of course. There’s a small underground following for European and Scandinavian metal also over there. We worked with some guys in the studio, and one guy specifically looked to work there because he heard that a Swedish metal band was coming (chuckling). He explained to us that it’s very focused on Bangkok, and it’s a huge, huge city, so there are a couple thousand metal heads there, a small number for such a huge Asian city but, you know, a subculture still lies in the scene. That being said, we haven’t been in Bangkok, we couldn’t explore it by ourselves. We isolated ourselves out in the countryside, working in the album.
I heard that this album was recorded live. Do you think that’s what gives to the album its energy?
Yeah! It’s actually funny how that came to be because it was a last minute decision for us. We had talked about it but we’d also talked about doing it “semi-live”, like what we did on Black Waltz: we do record together, everyone’s there but we would only keep the drum takes, ideas like that. Then on the way over, on the plane, we watched a documentary that Dave Grohl made about the Soundcity studios. Have you seen it?
Yeah, that’s a great documentary!
Yeah, this is a great, great thing. You have all these legends from different fields of music talking about the live recordings and the energy in there. We started talking about how in metal things always had to be so damn perfect, and when you think about it, it makes no sense because there’s no such thing as perfect music. That’s not what music is. You can build a brick wall, and that can be perfect: you can measure it and say “it’s a perfect wall”, but music doesn’t work like that. So why would you try to achieve something that is just stupid, to be honest, when you can achieve something so much greater? So we decided on the way over that, okay, if they can do it, we can do it, let’s do it. And we went there, our producer freaked out for a bit, like: “Oh that’s impossible, we don’t have the time to take such a risk.” But we convinced him to just push the “REC” button and we started to record, and he was convinced. We put ourselves on our toes. We were more on the edge because, when you do this, the guys in the band have to look at each other instead of their feet, and to get in sync with each other. It’s a whole different level of communication and that does give the album a unique energy.
Actually, are there some first takes on this album?
Maybe actually “Get In Line”, that track may be a first take, parts of it at least. I don’t know, we played through every song a bunch of times trying different approaches. We basically entered the studio being 95% done with our stuff, there’s also arrangements in there that made it rare that we would do it on a first take. You figure out so much about a song when you enter the actual, real studio and you move on from making demos on a computer or playing in the rehearse room to being in an actual studio. It’s a different kind of energy and soul that you have to respond to, and sometimes that tales a while.
« We will always force ourselves to evolve and we will never play any safe cards, and that’s the only promise we make to ourselves and to other people about what our future music will sound like. »
Actually, more and more bands try to record their albums in that fashion, in order to get this really organic sound like in the 7O’s. Do you think that people are starting to be fed up with those “too perfect” albums that are being released?
I think so, because now we’ve had 20 years of that thing where, you know, stuff comes and sounds great for a while but then people grow tired of it, whereas people don’t get tired of Led Zeppelin. That being said, even though there are so many retro and nostalgic stuff going on, and usually the bands doing that do it because they wish they were there in the 70’s, I still feel that we just use the best methods that we can use to make our music as great as possible and that it’s very much music made for 2014 and the future. There’s nothing retro about it.
A lot of bands don’t practice too much their instruments because they know that in a studio all can be fixed electronically or with a computer. So, how do you prepare yourselves for such a hard exercise as recording live and playing one song without any mistakes?
You rehearse a lot and you practice a lot, and you make sure that you play things that you can pull off. And then, some mistakes are okay, you know? The human factor is what we are looking for and that is the thing that gives us the energy. If remove every mistake from a mathematical standpoint, then what you have left is one these so-called perfect albums that nobody really ever seem to remember. We didn’t demand that the fast bass drum parts would have exactly the same velocity on every hit with perfect, robotic timing. We wanted you to hear the drummer sweating his ass off to pull off something like that and give it that kind of energy. Same goes with the fact that we don’t blindly follow click tracks on this album. We turn the click on just to see: “Ok, this is the tempo we want to go for”, then we turn it off. The tempo does some changes during the songs this time. It was ok to make mistakes.
At the beginning of its career, Avatar was a pure death metal band but you have diversified your style on the previous album and on this one. There are a lot more clean vocals and we can hear very diverse influences, like Alice Cooper on the song “Murderer” or electronic music on the song “What I Don’t Know” that has this very particular disco feel. Were your tastes in music that wide even at the beginning of the band?
We’re still into it more or less, but we weren’t able to articulate it. When we met and started playing, we were really young and we started to really learn how to play by playing together, and the first common grounds that we found was in the more extreme stuff like technical death metal. We were listening to Cryptopsy at parties and we were really into the Gothenburg sound scene that was done by the generation before us in our hometown. That was something that was a huge influence in the early years. One of the most important thing for us five in Avatar was the creation of The Haunted. But then throughout the years, as we developed as musicians and became a better band we started to really figure out how to do our own thing. The oldest in the band was 19 years old when we went to record in a studio to record Thoughts Of No Tomorrow, so people have been able to follow our development. In the long run it’s a pretty cool thing. With Black Waltz I feel like we finally found our own path in the music that we’re writing and that keeps on going, and we’re developing it even further on Hail The Apocalypse.
What are your non-metal influences?
Yeah, the first band that made me want to be in a band is the Beatles, and they are still one of my absolute favorite. My dad’s record collection introduced me The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who and, you know, 60’s rock, the stuff that later led to metal. Other than that, I love Nine Inch Nails, I love Daft Punk and I love, hum… there are just so many… There are lots and lots of stuff that I do enjoy that is not necessarily metal, but I still consider myself, in my approach to life, in my approach to creating my own music, a metalhead. It’s just that there’s so much more to enjoy around that anyway.
Can we expect Avatar going further into that diversifying way?
It’s always too early to say. The only thing that we know about the next album and the next album after that and so on is that we will never repeat ourselves, and there will always be… We will always force ourselves to evolve and we will never play any safe cards, and that’s the only promise we make to ourselves and to other people about what our future music will sound like. We want to defy and excite ourselves, and will always do this under the flag of metal, if you know what I mean. It’s a metal band. But we also want to be able to redefine what great metal is.
So, I guess we couldn’t expect the band to do a non metal album…
No, not under the name of Avatar. That’s what we are doing best as a group, you know. You can’t press the record button and start playing as great reggae musicians. We’re great at what we do. Our way of communicating and creating is so based on metal, but then, how we define what metal is to us and what we allow ourselves to do with this base of metal, that’s a completely different question. But yeah, we’re not gonna do any reggae album anytime soon! [Laughs]
« A clown is a good way of expressing the inner [nature] what we’re doing; to let out the freak in order to express the freakiness of my mind and the human race. »
The album artwork depicts the band steering their ship through a storm on the open sea with the apocalypse happening all around them. Could this mean that this album was particularly hard to make?
Every album is really hard to make for us because we have these high standards that we want to reach and because it is a group effort in the end. The initiative for each song comes from one of the individuals in the band, but it could be anyone. But then we always finish it up as a group, and that’s journey where we don’t really have a band dictator, it’s not even a democracy that says that we can vote about songs, it has to be five to zero votes on what we do and how we do it, because that is how a song truly becomes an Avatar song and that is, you know, a long process. So it’s always hard to make an album, but it’s also what makes it so rewarding playing in Avatar, the fact that we’re always aiming that high.
Do you think that the most difficult albums to make are the best ones?
Well, first, for us it’s like that, but there are some great punk songs that are written in two minutes and recorded in two and a half. And even some stuff on the album was done pretty fast. “Vultures Fly” actually I think is one of those that, once we had the riff, it went really, really, really fast and everyone was there putting ideas into it and we nailed it quickly, but then there are songs like “Hail The Apocalypse” or “Tower” or “Tsar Bomba”, that took a while longer. And to make it work as an album as a whole and make those songs that took longer to really work together with those songs we wrote in a short time, it’s a challenge.
The video for “Hail The Apocalypse” is presented like an old silent movie. Can you tell us more about your relationship to old movies?
I personally am a huge Charlie Chaplin fan for instance and there’s some other old stuff that I take inspiration from too, like the old Nosferatu. For this particular music video, I see a lot of Charlie Chaplin in it because what it’s about is actually real hysteria, the world is coming to an end and we have to handle people’s expectations, fears, denial and all that. That’s the core story put we present it almost like a comedy. If you look at Modern Times or The Dictator by Charlie Chaplin, you see that they are really, really funny and I feel like they are still funny today… It’s almost been a hundred years and they’re still funny. But they’re about something serious, about something that was going on with the world at the time. I think that’s a really great combination: comedy about something serious. And it fits the song really well.
Everybody makes fun and doesn’t believe the main character of the video. Do you feel close to this character?
I guess I wanted to play the part of the people I’m observing around me more than myself. I may be one of those who listen a little bit closer and I’m interested in trying to understand what’s going on. I take inspiration from the doomsday prophets that I have around me rather than from myself.
Can you tell us more about the clown character you use on stage and on your videos. What pushed you to use this character in the first place?
In the first place it basically started with Black Waltz. We got a chance to work with these sideshow artists that are, you know, putting drills through their noses and eating glass and stuff, and we thought that they could do something that would really fit with the song “Black Waltz”, musically and the vibe of it. And I wanted to figure out a way to make me fit into that context, as I am representing the band in the video, you know, singing the song. And one of those ideas that came – that’s pretty self-explanatory in a way – is the scary clown. And when we worked it out and did the face paint design, I looked in the mirror and something just clicked. Something awoke that I didn’t know was there, and the whole band felt it and realized that this is what we’ve been looking for in our attempt to visualize the music. We now have the means and the tools to really visualize what the music is about.
Are you actually a real clown? I mean a trained clown…
No I’m not [laughs], but I’m thinking about, at some point, going to some kind of clown school and see if there’s some good stuff for the stage that I can do. Now I’m more a clown in spirit than I’m a clown on paper, so to speak, I don’t have a degree.
Do you enjoy watching the world or thinking about the world with a clown’s perspective?
I guess it’s a coping mechanism because this album and what we do in Avatar is really a study in darkness and I’m doing it mainly on my psychological standpoint but also, it has become evident in this album that we take a bit more of a look about what is happening around us and commenting that, and in a way I guess a clown makes it bearable. And so it’s a good way of expressing the inner [nature] what we’re doing; to let out the freak in order to express the freakiness of my mind and the human race. It’s something that makes me… I don’t know if “enjoy” is the word but it definitely makes things more interesting.
Interview conducted in march 2014 by Metal’O Phil.
Retranscription and traduction: Maël Brustlein.
Avatar official website: avatarmetal.com.