Interview by Alan Daly
© Olga Kuzmenko
Photos by Olga Kuzmenko
Alan: It’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome back to Dublin. You’ve been here a few times before.
Johannes: Yeah, thanks!
Alan: But the last time we saw you was at Bloodstock in 2014 where you guys got unexpectedly promoted to the main stage. How did that come about, and how was it for you?
Johannes: Well, if I remember correctly, it was Graveyard who were supposed to have that slot, but they had a plane delay, so we were first asked to switch stage [from the Sophie second stage]. We were a bit naive about what it would mean to play on the main stage, but we just heard “play four hours earlier”. So we were like, “nope”. We didn’t want to do it at first, and then they said “you know this is a good thing. We think you should reconsider.”. But still, no. But then the thirds time it was “Either you play the main stage or you’re not playing at all”. But then we went there and it was obviously the greatest thing that could have happened to us that day. But it was fun. It was a special day. Tim [Öhrström, guitarist] was so impressed with the amount of Red Bull we had in our dressing room that he drank six, and then was a mess.
Alan: Do you reckon you picked up some new fans that day or got a social media boost from that appearance?
Johannes: Yeah, definitely, but that’s the nature of the festival. We had done a couple of good things here in Ireland and the UK that turned these islands around for us. It clearly started with opening for Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch in 2013.
Alan: And that was another lucky break for you when David Draiman pulled out of the tour.
Johannes: Exactly. Because we had been here a million times, but never really were able to get that push over the edge to get the ball rolling. But that gave us some audience, and that led to the festivals being interested, and you do the Downloads and the Bloodstocks, and now suddenly there are hundreds of people coming especially to see us here in Dublin. It’s getting better.
Alan: You’re just back from the U.S. From your own experience, how do you find audiences and shows vary on opposite sides of the Atlantic?
Johannes: Different sides of the Atlantic is hard to do a comparison. There’s a lot of diversity across the continent of North America and the United States, but our countries here in Europe are just older. I feel like I see more of a cultural difference on a four-hour car trip. Which means that the Americans are, all in all, more homogenic across the nation, compared to Europe. Say comparing how the Finns do things compared to how Italians do things. If you would put them on a European scale, I guess Americans are close to something like French people. Usually, they are very vocal about the good times. They show it physically. But they also show some regard for their own safety. If you go further south in Europe, around the Mediterranean, people are just explosive.
Alan: You were also in the US in the run-up to the presidential election. You guys like circus themes. What was that like?
Johannes: We didn’t see that much but we had a bus driver who was way too into putting on Fox news. It was hard not to discuss it here and there. I remember we played a show in Houston, and right as we were getting ready, the first debate was on TV. I’m just not used to people talk politics in THAT way, to sink to those levels. It was bizarre. Some people were honestly terrified and now are devastated. I’m not impressed with either of the two candidates. The thing is one of them stood for the same old bullshit and the other one stood for a completely new form of bullshit.
What also scares me is that it’s even more anti-intellectual, anti-thinking, anti-critical thinking populous, and I’m scared of that. And the flip-floppety-flip-flop. In the media reporting, you have Mr. Trump visiting Mr. Obama and he’s suddenly a bit more humble, and Obama says crazy things like “I might just hang around in Washington for a couple of years”. And didn’t he basically have three things… Put Clinton in jail, build a wall and drain the swamp; get rid of lobbyists. So now in his committee, he hired a bunch of lobbyists. Now he calls the Clinton couple good people, and he will accept fences in some areas.
All in all, that might be good, and I hope he will make an 180 degree on environmental stuff. Because that’s one thing that freaks me out. All in all, in my day to day life at home, I don’t think too much about if you have a right or left wing government here in Ireland and I don’t really care so much about American domestic politics. Why should I worry more about their thing than Canada’s thing or Mexico’s thing, and I don’t. But the powerhouse that that nation is, and when they have a climate change denier as their commander in chief, that is terrifying. That is a bad bad thing. That goes beyond left and right wing politics. I don’t think anyone in Sweden is denying that anymore.
Alan: Tonight is the second day of the European leg of your tour. You were in Belfast last night. How was that?
Johannes: Great. It’s interesting from country to country. Our audience is very young when we play there. It almost feels like we’re playing a youth center. And then in some countries, like in the states, at least half of them are our age or older. So those proportions differ from country to country. But it was cool. They were sober. But it was still nice.
Alan: And Feathers & Flesh has been out a couple of months now. You’ve been playing quite a few new tracks in your setlists.
Johannes: We haven’t put a specific number on how much or off what. We are doing our visual, theatrical show and try to step that up and we choose the music to paint a whole picture. So that means that we sometimes risk discriminating against some stuff just because of the context we’re trying to build for one specific show, it might not fit in. Then, of course, those songs that have gathered a couple of million views on YouTube, it doesn’t hurt if they are there. Like Freakshow and Let it Burn and Hail the Apocalypse. Those staples. Which is fine.
Alan: Were there any tracks from Feathers & Flesh that were slow burners, and when you started playing them live they took on a new life?
Johannes: You can tell when you release a video. Especially for a song that is later on the album. Now that ‘Night Never Ending’ came out with its own music video, especially in places where they play metal on the radio, and suddenly the sing-alongs became easier. I’m the same. When I go to see Blind Guardian, I know every single word, and my air guitar is tight. But then I also go and see Anathema, which I also freaking love, but I hope they play like my five favorite songs. So the audience is always a mix and some heard a song on the radio in the background at work, and they will, of course, be more excited about those more pushed tunes. And then the people that go deeper are the ones that crap their pants when we play ‘When The Snow Lies Red’ tonight.
Alan: You mentioned ‘Night Never Ending’, and I saw an interview where you mention a strong Irish connection with that song and liken it to drinking in an Irish pub.
Johannes: Tim came up with the first pieces of that song, and it reminded us of two things; Thin Lizzy, with the twin guitar play. When we were writing we actually told him, you should keep writing on this, just go Lizzy with this, because we’re all Thin Lizzy fans, and he’s a level above that. And also because of the triplet, it’s like an Irish jig. And we get that influence through maybe metal bands that were influenced by that. And of course, Irish pub music and folk music is a thing all over the world. And the Pogues and stuff spread that, and it was in the back of our heads. And the joyous fists in the air thing, just fits with Guinness, doesn’t it?
Alan: Will you get a chance to have a few pints here tonight?
Johannes: I’m drinking a non-alcoholic beverage right now because our setlist is kinda long and some of our songs are kinda hard nowadays. And we have to leave as early as possible to catch a ferry to be in London in time. But when we were here the first time we went to the Guinness museum, so I’ve done that. I indulge in alcohol more when I’m at home because there are so many artists that go crazy on the road, and then be a good nice clean father of children at home. I just enjoy drinking whiskey with my dad and making drinks in my living room for guests. I flip it around. I’m living cleaner on the road. I’m actually dressed like this because I was working out today.
Alan: Back to Feathers & Flesh. It being a concept written as one coherent piece of art, do you foresee a time when you might perform the album live in its entirety?
Johannes: Yeah, absolutely. But there’s no plan to do it right now. I think you have to save it for a ten year anniversary, where each and every song had a chance to grow, and seeing what the album ended up mattering. It makes more sense to do it after a while.
Alan: Because it has an underlying theme and story, maybe doing it now while it’s fresh might be something special. Maybe at a special home show in Sweden or something?
Johannes: What we could do is a few exclusive shows, like at a festival or something, but even though it’s a concept album, Avatar in itself is a concept band. And the challenge was to take these songs out of the context they were specifically written for and have them fit in in this crazy circus thing we’re doing. Because of Avatar onstage, there’s a past a present and a future, you know? Where we can, we try to reinvent some songs on stage. So it would be a specific thing that we might do at some point, but right now, it’s all about the whole package.
Alan: What’s the first song or album that got you into music?
Johannes: My first thing that I remember, where I thought this is something I want to do, was my parents who were, and are, into lots of classical music, and I like Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The bah-bah-bah baaaaaah. And that hooked me. And also we had a book at home, when I was like four years old or something, and there was a picture in there of a symphony orchestra, and there was this guy standing there conducting the orchestra. So I started to stand on the chair in the living room with a spoon from the kitchen, and pretend that I was a conductor.
So that was the first thing. Then I started to get piano lessons when I was five. I’m not good at playing piano, but I played until I was maybe nine or ten and then I played trombone instead. And then after that, hey guitars, and people cheering. That must have been the Beatles, from Dad, and there was something about them on TV and they played ‘She Loves You’, and lightning strikes your brain. Then, of course, it was the time that Michael Jackson came out with Dangerous. He was already in there somewhere. And there was some pro-wrestling mixed into it, like wanting to be Hulk Hogan. In general, doing things where people shout cheerfully at you, standing in the spotlights, seem very attractive. And then it really took a turn and I stopped cutting my hair the day I heard Helloween for the first time. Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 2, ‘Eagle Fly Free’. That’s where everything changed for real.
Alan: How have your influences and inspirations changed over the years?
Johannes: It’s a mix and it comes and goes in waves, how much I’m into the old stuff from the past. I don’t think you ever escape the music that shaped you. Especially when we did an album like Feathers & Flesh that was so diverse, Beatles were a huge point of reference for what we’re doing. Like the White Album, we talk about it a lot. It doesn’t have a key defining track. It’s not like ‘Ace of Spades’, where that song sets it all. But on the White Album, you don’t really have that. Is it ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’? Is it ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’? Is it ‘Dear Prudence’?
There are so many directions, but it all sounds very unmistakably like the Beatles, and we were looking for that. Even on an extreme song, treat it as a song first, and as a showcase of a heavy shit second. The showmanship from Michael Jackson is still with me a lot, and to not just be a songwriter, but to use the word composer, so Beethoven is there. If I discover something new that excites me? Maybe Anathema or Steven Wilson’s last few solo albums Hand. Cannot. Erase. and stuff. It’s really now inspiring me personally to think one more thing about the chords and add something else to the mix. Even if we want to do pretty straight forward, fist in the air, heavy metal, but in the here and now, there still is a progressive way of thinking about things. We don’t necessarily need twenty-minute songs or strange time signatures and stuff like that. I’m a fan of it, but just to approach the song like we want to do something different than what we did last time, and lots of progressive bands inspire me in that sense.
A band that I like more and more every year, is Judas Priest. After a while as a musician, especially for a band like us that have been playing together since we were kids, after a while when you rehearse a bit together you start to feel that groove that the grown-ups have been trying to explain to you, and once you start to appreciate that, you start to appreciate those bands with distinct grooves even more. And Judas Priest is definitely that. On the way over I listened to a compilation album and ‘Breaking The Law’ came on, which is a stupidly simple song, but the groove and drive of it make it way more exciting than it would be to read the sheet music. You know what I mean? And there are lots of bands where I pick up that from nowadays.
Alan: You mentioned a lot of bands there. If there was any one band or musician that you could collaborate or perform with, who would it be?
Johannes: Who would we record our Lulu with, so to speak? [laughs]
Johannes: One thing I would love to do for real and is not just for the sake of answering this question, is work with a big band orchestra. I used to play the trombone, and sometimes for fun. I play a solo with it on the Hail the Apocalypse album. So many bands go and do something with a symphonic orchestra, which is cool, but I don’t know if any metal band has done anything with big band music and I start to think about a couple of our songs and I could totally see how we could do that.
Alan: Your music is already quite quirky or eccentric
Johannes: Exactly. We’ve got some swing-oriented songs. You could add some horns on those. So that’s something I would like to do. Then there’s always duets. I’d like to figure out how to even write a good duet and who would I do that with where it makes sense. I’m a huge Devin Townsend fan, and I enjoyed his reasoning behind adding a female voice like Casualties of Cool, at least 50% is sung by Ché Aimee Dorval. His reasoning behind that is to add a voice that you truly don’t have.
You’ve heard our music, and I like doing a bunch of different voices. I don’t know… What would I have another guy do there? The only thing I could do is find a guy who does something that I already do, but better than me, and that doesn’t sound like fun. [laughs] If one could dream, I would like to work with Björk. I’d have Björk guest-vocal a metal song. I don’t think she would ever do that. I’m a huge fan, but where she’s at with her latest albums, I don’t know if she is, or ever would have been, interested in that. I don’t know her obviously, but I don’t see it happening. But that would be cool.
Alan: Well let’s put it out there. You never know. You mentioned Lulu, so I’ll ask you about Metallica and their long-awaited new album. To draw a comparison, Avatar has released about five videos for your latest album, and you are obviously very into the visual aspect of your art. In the days before Metallica released Hardwired to Self-Destruct, they released a video for every single song and put them out on YouTube.
Johannes: If we had their budget, we would have done that. And we would have done it a couple of months before them because our album came out in May. But, yeah, we don’t have ‘Enter Sandman’ money.
Alan: Do you think it was a good move?
Johannes: I haven’t watched the videos yet, so it’s a question of quality. I have to see if it’s good first. I listened to the album once, and I enjoyed parts of it, but I feel like Testament should be bigger, personally. With all due respect. But if you do something cool with it, of course. I like Daft Punk. Wasn’t it the Discovery album that turned into an anime? If we were in the situation where we could have done this with this concept album project, to make a one hour film for it, we would have. But instead we had to change reasoning, and since we cannot do that, how do we treat music videos in this case, and we chose to not tell the story that the song was written for. So there aren’t a bunch of owls and eagles in every music video, but using the specific theme of the character singing in each song and build the story of the video out of that, but use us in the band instead. But they’re all connected in that they all take place in the Avatar universe. And, yeah, just that they push forward the story of each individual song.
Alan: And Metallica has been around for 35 years or so now. And you guys have been around for 10 to 15. Where would you like to see yourselves in a quarter of a century?
Johannes: Well, I’d like to be proven right in the sense that we have learned a lot about integrity, and seeing that any form of success we have had commercially has been done when we have done what we felt was our best work. And being honest as much as possible and to be ourselves as much as possible. And we’ve been proven right each time. So we have been able to keep a lot of artistic freedom and we are stubborn about it because it’s easy and a risk for bands when they start to lose what’s your own thing to management and record labels. So in 25 years from now, I’d like to still have an interest in what we’re doing and with our artistic freedom, and shitloads of money so we can pursue the projects in whatever way we want. But I don’t want one thing without the other. Fame and success are not interesting to me if I don’t get to do the music exactly the way I want it to be done.
Because this job is really fun if you believe in your art and if you love the songs you’re performing because then you come alive onstage. But I know people that did it for a while and had no problem quitting it to pursue other careers just because they turned into robots as performers. One friend is a great piano player and made a great living playing in hotel bars and that kind of stuff, which is a fine job for a musician to make a good living out of. But he also grew tired of that because it became this four-hour robotic thing, just like any other job. And if I’m going to do just any other job, then I’d rather do just any other job! There’s nothing wrong with a 9-5 existence as long as you like what you’re doing, but there’s a lot of wrong doing this and just put out stale shit into the world. We don’t need that. We need genuine bands.
Alan: And back to the nearer future, what’s coming up for Avatar in 2017?
Johannes: More shows and touring, and since it hasn’t been put up on our Facebook account yet, I can’t announce anything. It’s never up to me. But Euro festivals, US festivals, looking at opportunities to do some opening acts in areas where we need to step it up a bit. For instance, if you look at Dublin now, we’ve reached at least a club level where it’s sustainable for us to go here and everyone that we bring with us gets paid, and we can put on the show we need to, on a level where we are happy with it. But in places where only twenty people know about us, we need to go there with a band whose fans we can steal. So we’re looking into stealing a bunch of fans next year.
Alan: Well thanks for taking the time to chat.
Johannes: Thank you.