Interview Credit: Adrian Hextall (Photographer/Live Gig reporter Myglobalmind Webzine
For a band that describes themselves as a triangular mix of extreme metal, rock ‘n roll and avant-garde it’s difficult to describe the style of Swedish metal band Avatar but it’s a style that needs to be heard and seen live to experience the full carnival sideshow of thundering riffs, groove laden rhythms, both brutal and sublime vocal interludes that bring to mind the spectacle of showmanship pioneered by acts like KISS, Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie and more..
Following a sold out show at The Barfly in London, Myglobalmind were fortunate enough to sit down with vocalist Johannes Eckerstrom and drummer and founder John Alfredsson. As is often the case, the dictaphone these days is an app on my iPhone and said device is placed on the table in front of us.
Johannes: Everybody seems to use the phone as the dictaphone these days. But a few years ago, we saw an interview with ‘Mustach’. The band member was pretty drunk and the journalist’s dictaphone had broken so he puts his iPhone down on the table to record, only to be greeted with a drunken “you dare to bring a fuckin’ Apple in here to interview me and call yourself a journalist????”. (Laughs out loud) How times change.
Unperturbed and moving swiftly on, we start the interview proper, sticking with the dreaded Apple device as the recording medium of choice.
So, you played The Barfly last night in Camden, how was it?
Johannes : Fantastic, sold out. You know things are really changing for us right now, in a very positive way. Last time we were here in the UK, we were opening up for Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch at Wembley (end of 2013) but before that I don’t think anyone would have booked us to play in London. Coming back to London after the Wembley gigs we get a sold out show and the whole crowd is singing back to us, it was a nice bonding experience.
So a good hardcore set of fans there then, not just locals looking for a gig?
Johannes : Totally, real fans there supporting us. Great experience.
Size wise though, a little different to playing arenas like Wembley. You’ve managed to pick up some amazing support slots over the last 12 months and played some pretty big venues. I understand as well that you were invited by Avenged Sevenfold to support them?
Johannes : Yes and we found out that Five Finger Death Punch were also long time fans as well. They all really welcomed us with open arms. It was a great experience. We had a lot more room to dance around the stage as well. And of course we were able to introduce ourselves to the crowd but, we were talking about this yesterday, even if you are playing for just 200, if that 200 are singing your songs back to you then you can feel that they are truly there for us. It’s such a difference it’s hard to explain , it really felt like we were playing to a billion people.
With every album you’ve done to date, the approach and style has been slightly different. The latest album for example (Hail to the Apocalypse) is more accessible to me than say your debut, which was to be blunt, pretty brutal ! This album has some really great breaks in it that allow the music to come through more and also brings some really cool grooves with it as well. There are times that it reminded me of listening to Sepultura’s Roots album for the first time, picking out that tribal groove. There are so many styles in there, what are you going for?
Johannes : The feel of the album is exactly what we were going for. We really didn’t want to repeat ourselves or even repeat what’s already out there. Why would we want to sound like e.g. Judas Priest when there is already a Judas Priest, why should we sound like Rammstein when there is already a Rammstein. Of course we do have a song in German on this album but at least it doesn’t sound like Rammstein.
So yes, we are inspired by all these things, we always want to do something that is metal, that is always the core of it but then we want add some urgency to it that doesn’t sound retro. We want it to sound like metal for 2014 but we want to do it without following trends and instead be the ones setting the trends. It sounds to me very true, very classic in the same way that Judas Priest were true without copying (Judas Priest).
John: Coming back to your comment about the first album and how it was more… brutal! you have to remember that we started this band some 10 years ago when we were only 14 or so and at the time as with every young kid in a band, it’s all about playing fastest. That’s what you’re aiming for, you want to impress, so that’s what we managed to do on the first and second album.
Johannes: We also realised that we would get bored if we continued along the same styles. So we knew we had to change
I suppose you are also challenging the critics as well. By changing your style and adapting, you’re stopping them saying “well this one is very similar to the last” or “it’s very much the same as previous work”.
Johannes: I think with the last album (Black Waltz) we have found our path, our focus, in a way that we hadn’t before. We needed to find a foothold in music and now, here we are, we have stumbled onto something that only belongs to us.
With regards the look and feel of the band, as we sit here today, you’re obviously a little toned down compared to the normal theatrical stage look. Tell us a little bit about the appearance. The sounds and samples that you hear on the album suggest a showman, ringmaster and a carnival feel.
Johannes : Basically what we wanted to do and again almost stumbled upon was just trying to find a visual way to what the music is saying & communicating. The Clown is the foundation for this and it’s something we first set out to achieve with the ‘Black Waltz’ album. Originally it was supposed to be for one track / one video but the idea stuck and, you know, we kind of struck gold.
It gave me the opportunity to portray something I’d never been able to do previously and I wasn’t sure how far I could go with it. So then we tried this live and added some costume changes so that, as I say, we could visualise what the music was saying. So on a couple of songs I’m an anonymous executioner, on another I’m a preacher and it just helps with that visualisation. It’s a great concept as it goes beyond just writing the songs.
Presumably as you increase your fan base it will mean bigger venues and the opportunity for the more theatrical stage sets to go with this look and approach?
John: Of course, the theatrical element is something we have always wanted to do and deliver.
Johannes: We are inspired by a lot of the bands that we love. Especially those bands that are able to put everything together perfectly. And that could be KISS (in the early days), it could be The Hives, it could be Rammstein…. those that deliver the whole package.
Bands that don’t just stand on stage playing their songs but rather those that truly deliver a show?
Johannes: Exactly, we could of course stand on stage in leather jackets and just try to look cool but it would look pretentious. The showmanship and the musicianship goes hand in hand for us.
Additional dates this year.. I assume you have some festival dates coming up?
John: We are playing Download and Bloodstock in the UK this summer. As we are quite a new band to the UK, at Download we are opening the second stage I think so we are happy with the slot.
Johannes: We totally appreciate how the festivals have to organise their days and we are very grateful for the opportunity that playing has afforded us. We have the album out at the right time and we have done some touring so we are in the right place now.
John: If we were touring constantly for the next year I would not mind, I’d be happy.
Talk me through some of the tracks on the album if you would. Having had the opportunity to listen to it a few times now I’ve picked three tracks that for me show a change in styles and give the listener a real sense as to what the music is about. Can we start with the title track and lead single ‘Hail to the Apocalypse’?
Johannes: One of the things about the track is that Tim (Öhrström), our new guitarist (John: He’s not new now..) , well this is the first album he has played on as he joined right after we had released Black Waltz. He helped us write the title track and it’s a good sign and it’s a healthy indication of what part he will play in the band. He presented these riffs to us and we felt that this was something new and a way of playing guitar that we had never heard before. We’d never seen the use of a whammy bar like that before and it created this bone crushing groove and that for me allows me to then write the lyrics. For me when writing the lyrics, I always start with the tracks that give me (in the music) the most emotion or the most emotional content.
With this track, the image that the music gave me was of the man in the news in Hiroshima in 1945 with the sign saying that ‘the end is near’ and of course he was right. It was this tragic thing, this morbid image that gave us the whole feel for the album, a real study of the darkness, throwing light into those dark corners to see what is there. We have have looked more into the world to see what is going on that perhaps we have on previous albums as well. So ‘Hail to the Apocalypse’ definitely sums up what the album is all about.
So Tim, as the latest member / guitarist in the band, with these new riffs he has brought, he has given the rhythm section something new to work with, some new inspirations as well?
Johannes : After the first week of him being with us, we had to just say to him , “stop showing us so much dammed respect and just run with your ideas” (laughs). He’s a great addition to the band.
He’s not just there to play for you, he’s playing with you …
Johannes : yes , yes exactly.
The video for the single is out on YouTube and the VEVO channel for Avatar from March 17th.
Moving onto track 2 on the album, ‘What I Don’t Know’. This track for me was the first indication that something was different and it makes you really sit up and listen.
Johannes : Yes, perfect, that is exactly what we were trying to achieve with track two.
I remember the song writing approach on this and it was so cool. There was lots of stuff written that turned into that song. Jonas (Jarlsby) phase these files and when he was not around one day Tim and I found them, opened them up and basically stole them to create the song. It shows the great way that the band can actually collaborate this way. We do that all of the time in the song writing process and it works really well for us.
John : The chorus was one of those melodies that we had in our heads momentarily “what I don’t know… I don’t know why…” Something that just gave us enough to work with that just caught the moment. It was a great moment where we just realised that it all worked. We didn’t need to make it more difficult.
Johannes: It’s definitely a track that was written with spine and heart rather than with the brain. It’s about dealing with existing / existence and how you realise you don’t know what you don’t know. So very difficult lyrically.
One for the live shows ?
Johannes: We hope so. We’ve been playing Hail.. and ‘Vultures Fly’ on these UK dates but all tracks are written to be performed live.
John : Once the album has been out for a while and people know the songs the we can add more in. It’s no good if they just stand there having to learn a new song live, it’s much better to know what they have already heard.
And the last one … ‘Tower’. Musically it is much more mellow and a great closer to the album.
John : You’ve really picked three different songs here… ‘Tower’ was written when Johannes was away with his girlfriend and just had a guitar and was writing songs.
Johannes : It was something I did one afternoon and had no real intention of writing Avatar songs but this one when I played it to the rest of the band seemed like something we could work on to put on the album. For a while I think we tried to hard to make it a metal song.
John : It was one of those songs where we took maybe 20 attempts and made it sound like so many different things.
Johannes : (laughing) for a while it sounded like Tenacious D , at other times it sounded like Iron Maiden.
John: Eventually though it came all the way back to its original version. We transformed the chorus a little bit but it’s essentially as it started.
Johannes : It was great that we could make it a team effort and turn it finally into something that fits on an Avatar album. It’s a very sinister piece, one that gives you no light, no hope, no peace …. Leaving this person stuck in the tower.
So second major release for you in the US, (first being Black Waltz) how are you managing to progress in the states as I imagine a lot of work to date has been European?
Johannes : We really managed to hit the ground running over there.
John : We managed to meet the right people at the right time when we got there and the videos got very good airplay for us from that album and the tracks did well on radio as well.
Johannes: It was a complete change for us, hearing our music and we think, “what… Our music being played on the radio”. You never would get that in Sweden for example. Although metal gets played it tends not to be those bands that ‘growl’. There is a still a threshold there and when you look at the music that Swedes tend to make, I think there is an opportunity for more extreme music but it’s not there yet.
We’re the third biggest exporting music country in the world after the US and then the UK. Pretty good for a country with a population that is less than London (around 9 million).
John : With the US will will shortly be out there for a 5 week tour and then back for the festivals including Download and Bloodstock.
Johannes : The tour in the states will include some label shows where we open for label mates Pop Evil who are more rock than metal so we will make a few heads explode on those nights.
Where to after the UK, have you had a chance to do much outside of the gigs?
Johannes: We have discovered that on gig days we cannot do very much as we become very unsociable focusing only on the show. We only discovered this recently and when we were in Wales recently for the Hellfest we played at quarter to one in the middle of the night. We got there early and then couldn’t do much and enjoy anything as our focus was on our set and the energy was already stored for it. So we had food but didn’t even get to see any of the other bands play that day. That is why it is good playing earlier at Download as we will finish and we be able to enjoy the other acts.
As musicians I’m sure you’re also fans yourself of particular bands, so who would you go and see live?
Johannes : Behemoth I would have love to have seen but I was out of town when they played at home. I also love to see Amon Amarth and I watched Turisas recently as well.
John : I was at the Behemoth gig that Johannes could not attend but the lighting guy was terrible. I get annoyed very easily by some of the smaller things but that guy really pissed me off and I actually left after 4 songs. He kept blinking the lights into the crowd and in the end you couldn’t see anything going on on stage. It’s things like that, where you know it can be done better that really annoy me.
Johannes : Blinders are cool but they are called blinders for a reason! John designs our lighting for the shows.
John : Behemoth are a very theatrical band as well so it was a real shame when something like this does not work out properly. I guess it’s me a little bit as I am a perfectionist but …
Johannes: I’m really into Devin Townsend as well and look at the way he will try new things and doesn’t feel that he needs to always be playing ‘Strapping Young Lad’ and for him it always works. It is that approach that has meant we feel we can be true to ourselves and play what we feel is right rather than repeating things. I like music from Johnny Cash to Devin Townsend but what I like about all of them is that they experiment, they stay true to themselves and they play the music that they would like to hear rather than what they are told to play. It’s for that reason that things like the X-Factor will never work for me because the music never lasts or comes for the heart.
It’s always a very limited career with maybe one or two albums in most cases. Whereas your fans, as a lot of metal fans do, will stick with you, through albums and always follow you. You can depend on them.
Johannes: And we hope they can depend on us as well. Of course if they start to ask us to repeat ourselves that could be difficult as we’ve said, as you know, that we don’t want to do that.
It just remains for me to say thank you for your time today. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.