Avatar has recently embarked on their European tour to expand the borders of their nation and spread the word of the king. Thankfully I had been given the opportunity to interview Johannes Eckerström the afternoon before their show in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. And so I set off to meet Johannes and ask him a few questions…
As I arrived a little early, I waited outside for any sign of the crew. During my waiting, Old Kerry McKee exited the venue, looking for a Keymusic store. Explaining that I wasn’t from the area and that I couldn’t go off on an adventure to help him, he thanked me anyways as he confidently walked off into what later appeared to be the (completely) wrong direction. A few minutes later Johannes came out of the tour bus and we were guided into the green room.
Regarding Avatar Country: The process, what was the build-up that lead to it?
Well, we knew about Avatar Country for a long time before this album came to be and we knew about our king for a long time before we started to write a tribute to his story. If you look in a couple of our older albums in the list of people we give thanks to, you’ll see that many of them end with “special thanks to Kungen”, which means “special thanks to the king”. If you look at the New Land music video and what we’ve brought on stage before Avatar Country came out, you’ll see that we already had our flag. So it was not so much about figuring out what to tell people. It was just this sensation of “it’s time to tell people the truth and open up the borders to our nation”. So the process was mainly about feeling when the time was right. And as we felt the time was right now, everything pretty much wrote itself. We’ve never been this fast writing an album as we were this time.
Then again, this album has less songs as what we’re used to from earlier albums.
Well, less conventional, like, metal songs with a chorus and stuff, yeah. But the thing is that The King Speaks still needs to be made and the national anthem still needs to be made, arranged and recorded and the instrumentals…. Except for me, but for the other guys it’s still just as much work to make that happen. So it’s not like you suddenly get away from the commitment of making an album by having less conventional songs. We just felt that it was the right amount of ‘stuff’ on there to tell the story the way it needed to be told. And I think it’s made in the best possible way as a full album. Because the total length of it is 42, 43 minutes… That’s an album, you know?
Yeah, but I heard a lot of fans had mixed feeling because there were only “6 songs” on it.
Yeah, I get it, but at the same time, I think all those people who say that, really liked the album and they want more of it, but it’s not always about the quantity of things and that more of something automatically makes it better. I think this album has about the same length as Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album, which also contains an instrumental.
In a few weeks you’re scheduled for a festival called Paaspop. Have you seen the line-up?
Yeah, now I don’t remember it, but it’s very eclectic, isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s a very odd line-up and I was honestly surprised to see Avatar on that list.
It’s very- I think it was cool. Like, there are those festivals that mix genres wilder than others. I remember growing up; the year I turned 19 I went to Roskilde festival in Denmark, which is a huge one that people in the metal world don’t talk about that much. Because it’s more multi-genre. The year I was there Black Sabbath played, The Haunted played, Isis –oh boy were they unlucky with naming their band– played and stuff like that, but Foo Fighters were there too and all these electronic acts and Efterklang from Denmark and it’s supercool and that is -at least it was back then- 70,000 people, and a festival that has been around as long as Woodstock, you know? So there are those type of festivals and I really like them. And I get the feeling that Paaspop is closer to that experience than Wacken and stuff, which I love even more, but still.
When it comes to nicknames, we all know that Jonas has one, but I also recall from an older interview that Tim also has a nickname which isn’t as often mentioned. I think it was because he was the youngest person in the band?
There’s no actively used nickname for Tim. Neither for me. I’ve went through my whole life with rarely having a nickname. Some people just stick some stuff on. For some people it works really well up to a level where you rarely use their real name. but the thing is, you also have to remember that our king is a king and none of us others are kings and it would be hard to call anyone of us something on the level of calling him the king.
So Tim’s nickname didn’t stick for that long.
Going back to the tour you did with The Last Band… You did a prank on them which was quite elaborate. Now I’ve heard you tell the short version of the story during a different interview, but a few months ago I personally spoke with Alex and Dennis from The Last Band and they told me that the day it went down in the bus, one of the band members wasn’t there.
No, no, indeed. He was out on the phone with his girlfriend. But that was an easy fix. We just did the prank with only him again. Meaning that the rest of the guys, they would have to sit with their faces hidden in their hands, in shame, as if we caught them doing something stupid. And he got on, and so for him it was even worse I think.
Because the others were in on the prank as well
I heard from Dennis that he was actually worried that he might have done it.
Yeah, exactly. And the thing is that it was Fredrik that was the guy that had to catch up and when we asked “Who would you thought who would’ve done it?” he replied “Oh, Dennis.” And Dennis went: “Hey! Actually I can’t blame you, I thought I did it too.”
When it comes to making a set list, do you have any favorite songs that you like to push into a set list?
Hmm, No. There’s a very boring, common answer, but the thing is with our songs that it feels like your children in a way. I can have some extra soft spots for songs that at the time of making them were more of a challenge, not so much technically, but writing-wise. “Can we do a song like this?” Tower and Sky Burial would be two strong examples of that. Otherwise, every time you put a song in the set list that isn’t one of those that we have to and totally should play song like Let It Burn – and we love doing Let It Burn live, so it’s not that – but when we get to put War Song back in the set list or Raven Wine, that is – at least for a while – extra exciting. But the point is, it is that because we haven’t done them in a while. Now that we’ve done those for a while they are just as fun, or boring to play as Let It Burn.
Tim and Jonas have been doing many guitar playthroughs for Guitar World, which left me wondering: When can we see that kind of stuff from other band members? In particular John, as he has this machine-like movement when he’s performing and I find it very interesting to watch.
That’s a good question. I guess when a drummer magazine asks for it and we have the time to comply.
Or perhaps, like, Meinl?
Yeah, exactly. No, whenever there’s an interest for it but it’s something that – actually – it’s also like, in terms of guitar playthroughs we also did it for songs before Guitar World asked for it. I think they did Hail The Apocalypse for instance and stuff. And we did that on our own. But it’s always a bigger affair to shoot and record drums. To do it on the road… The drum kit is kind of occupied on stage now being built and being worked with. So it takes more to prepare and do it on the road… and at home… I don’t know. It would be cool if we could find the time for it. But I think it’s something that someone needs to ask for it specifically like a magazine or something.
Because then the situation is more optimal.
Looking at all the things you’ve done in the past and how you always want to keep challenging yourself to keep growing and do new things… You’ve recorded a reversed music video for Torn Apart, a one-take for The Eagle Has Landed, two concepts albums, a fable, influenced your music with a sort of surfer-vibe with Tooth, Beak & Claw and that’s all incredible, but now we’re wondering: What’s the next step?
We don’t know. And that’s the beauty of it. We throw ideas around and people are always writing riffs. Meaning I also… you know. Tim has shown some cool stuff. I think because we have an album with so much light now – To sing about the king is a joyful affair, means you end up with an album full of life and hope… Most of it – which means that whatever darkness we need to get out of our systems kind of gets built up during the time of writing this. So I say: Maybe something darker. But what that means exactly, I don’t know. I just know that every time it’s going to be different. Because that’s the most – to me – the most important thing when we bring out a new album: That it actually is a new album. Because there is a difference between making “a new album” and “another album”.
I read somewhere that you eventually want to do some kind of “big orchestra” album?
Yeah. I was actually talking to someone about it yesterday. The thing is, there are so many bands that have done the “symphonic thing”, you know. And to record with a proper symphonic orchestra like Dimmu Borgir or Nightwish, or a million more others –Metallica, actually – and then weirder examples, like KISS–
And on a smaller scale, like Apocalyptica.
Yeah, exactly. So you have all of those, but looking at our musical background, where we come from. For instance how I grew up with playing the trombone and I was in a big band for a while, instead of using a symphonic orchestra I could imagine us working with some kind of big band orchestra and do a big band arrangement of things. I feel like in metal that would be a fresh approach and that it would fit us when I consider that – you know, when people think about groove in metal a lot of people usually only think about the song “Walk” by Pantera… Pretty much. And I think that’s a total misconception and the thing is also that the greatest death metal bands also have a great groove. Morbid Angel is one of the grooviest things I’ve ever seen live. That’s how we approach the word “groove”. And, you know, even if you do blast beats, there should be something in there that makes you nod your heads as if you were listening to AC/DC. That is an approach and attitude that would fit great in a big band setting and we have a – At least, I have a – certain interest in Jazz in general, you know. So I think that could fit us well.
Now have you ever thought about making a movie as a next just to get back at James Cameron and call it “Avatar 2/Too”?
We would be so sued. I was hoping that he would sue us about the name so we could change our band name to “Terminator 2”. But, no… Well, actually. The thing is, at some point we did actually talk about making a movie and there’s a “yes and no” thing to that because making a movie has, in so many parts of it, little to do with doing music. Making a music video is one thing because it is all framed around it, but to make a full-fledged movie is so much work, and also budget-wise a huge project to make it good…. There we would really need, on a completely different level, outside help to make it happen. And for that reason it’s something I’d like to do one day, but it’s not something I’d look for as a next immediate thing to do.
But I have read somewhere that you were planning to do a music video for every conventional song on Avatar Country?
Yeah. And then you can link those together and you can see that The King Wants You is part 4 and so that makes you question “where’s part 1, 2, 3” and so on. And that’s the whole idea. So yeah, that’s something. But that’s still not trying to build a narrative of a full feature film.
So we’re not going to see any kind of Tenacious D-style movie any time soon?
Not any time soon, but who knows…
Considering you have experience with performing on many different stages, of which some do not have any space reserved for barriers and security in-between the crowd and the stage, how do you feel about crowd surfers?
Well, if you get on the stage, our crew has our blessing to bring people down from the stage. No matter what it takes. For a couple of reasons. Number one: We’re not just there for that one person and at some point you kind of start ruining the show. And number two: I’m not driving around a gilded Ferrari all the time so if something breaks on stage, it would be a bitch to fix. And number three about having people on stage who aren’t supposed to be on stage: Dimebag Darrel. I don’t think about it that very much and it’s extremely unlikely to happen and we’re not being paranoid… But it’s also stupid to be stupid. Then, about crowd surfing… I feel like… I don’t know. Somewhere there’s this thin line that you can cross and I don’t know where it is. It’s different from show to show and person to person. Like, there’s just those shows where there’s the same guy up floating ten times and his foot keeps hitting the same girl in front row in the head every time and that guy kind of starts to feel like an asshole after a while. But before you reach that point it’s just ‘good old fun’. But if it’s the same person over and over again, it just starts to get old after a while. But at the same time it IS a metal show and it tends to be part of it. It’s hard to balance because it being unbalanced is sometimes part of the point, so it’s hard to know- Like, we want people to express themselves the way they see fit, but we also don’t want people to hurt others.
Regarding touring, are there any major differences you’ve noticed between touring in the US and Europe? Any specific places you really look forward to?
Most of all I look forward to go to places where I haven’t been or haven’t been in a while, stuff like that. We’re doing our first Finnish festival this summer for instance, and that is a high point I’m looking forward to a lot. And then there are places where we get to do bigger shows than in others, like here in Belgium as tonight is sold out and the French shows were huge. There are some countries where we have reached further down the road than in others. But I don’t really make a differentiation between those… I don’t want to punish the early adaptors in places where we are a bit newer to the scene than in others. In terms of differences in touring, the most of them are not on when you’re on stage but some practical things. Like, what you end up eating – IF you end up eating – and just how things look around you. For instance, the United States is built around people driving really far a lot, which I don’t think is a great idea for most people. But it means it’s perfect for touring. How the truck stops look, how the Wall Mart is open all night long and all these practical things… like, it’s easier to find parking for our tour bus in the United States than in most of Europe. Because they (the US) don’t have cities built one thousand years ago. The streets were always wide enough to bring a horse and carriage through there. Meaning it was wide enough for horses to walk next to each other without scaring each other, so the infrastructure of American cities was already – even before cars – made for wheeled vehicles. And if you play in one of these beautiful 1500-years old Italian cities where everything is just touching history… That’s a bitch to park in.
And when it comes to shipping things over between the continents for the tour, how does that work? Is there stuff you leave behind or do you take everything with you?
We did this year, for this tour we filled up a container, put it on a ship and while we were having time off, that was sailing across the Atlantic. I guess we’re going to start having to do this like that always from now on, except if we start to build everything double. Because if we have a really, really cool thing in Europe or in the United States, we don’t want to have a big crowd on the other continent to miss out on it.
Because I remember seeing that you had this huge outfit for Queen of Blades during one of the American tours and I noticed you didn’t bring it along for the shows in Europe.
No, indeed. Back then we didn’t have it in Europe. Also because at the time – Now Europe has been catching up a lot – most venue sizes made it possible to do that in a different way there most of the time. But, with the stuff we’re using now, there are venues both in Europe and in the United States where we are able to pull it off. So now it makes sense.
Are there any bands you’d really like to tour with for a first or again considering the recent material they’ve been releasing?
Hmmm… I like the new Judas Priest album as I’m a huge Judas Priest fan, so maybe that. But otherwise, I don’t know… The huge bands that I’m a fan of, that would be very practical to open for because they are very huge. So, if the question is “Would you like to open up for Iron Maiden?” the answer is yes. Other than that, I’m not sure. Like, I really enjoy what we are doing right now with Hellzapoppin and Old Kerry McKee, because he is an old, old friend of ours. And I like that we have built a package that tells the full story of Avatar Country and not just deliver it through metal. And they really add to the evening in a way by being something different. So I’m really happy with what we’re doing right now actually.
Do you still try to keep up with the material that bands you’ve previously toured with release? Like Killus or The Last Band?
Yeah. On occasion when I see that something new has come out of course I’ll check it out. Like when The Last Band put our band members in their music video, so.
And with that, our interview came to an end. Johannes went on to prepare for that night’s show and I went back to my car to put on my very own warpaint, change outfit and prepare for the show as well. On my way back I spotted Henrik and Kungen, having made some purchases at the Zeeman which was conveniently located across from that night’s venue. Later that night I asked Old Kerry McKee if he managed to find the Keymusic store, to which his confused response was: “How did you know?” After having explained that it was me whom he asked directions from, he laughed and admitted he didn’t recognize me due to my ‘outfit’ change. He followed it up by saying that he eventually managed to find it, but got lost on the way back, taking the scenic route back to the venue.