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avatar iv June2018Interview with

Johannes Eckerström (vocals) of Avatar

Swedish Metal band AVATAR are a phenomenon, which is meant to be witnessed during a live show. Their theatrical performance together with their musical prowess is quite something. However, the band from Gothenburg around the charismatic singer Johannes Eckerström have certainly not had the best of luck with their spot on Sunday’s timetable of ROCK AM RING, as they were placed directly against RISE AGAINST, who were pulling the crowds to the main stage in the early evening hours. However, our journalist Christian Beyermann was utterly happy to get the chance to meet a fully costumed Johannes an hour before their gig in the artist’s area of the Nürburgring for an interview.

Reflections of Darkness [RoD]: First of all thanks for taking the time to meet me. So, is this the starting point for your summer festival season? I read you guys started playing Rock im Park the day before yesterday?
Johannes Eckerström [JE]: Yes, we started played at Rock im Park, then yesterday we went to Forta Rock in the Netherlands yesterday, so today is show No. 3, so summer started on June 1st for us.

RoD: And how are you feeling so far?
JE: It is a whirlwind. We only had a three-week break since the last tour, which was the third of this year. But it is incredible how much rust mentally you can gather in three weeks, so that you have to shake the cobwebs from your head on the first show. But that was still good. It sounded good, but the physical effort to make it sound good was crazy.

RoD: So you are scheduled to play some more summer festivals. Are there any particular ones, which you are looking forward to?
JE: Well, I favour different ones for different reasons, and honestly that is all of them. Which is a very diplomatic thing to say. But there are some special ones. I currently live in Finland, and we will play our first Finish festival this year. So that feels special, that’s Rockfest in Hyvinkää, which is outside Helsinki. And on top of that we are going to finish off this 16-day run with Download in Paris. We have been given the opportunity to do something really over-the-top with this one in terms of production. It is also quite over-the-top on these shows, but we will be able to make more things explode and stuff. And they got us a really sweet timeslot. So those things - production value-wise - feel very special. But then everything feels exciting for a reason. So yesterday Forta Rock also felt amazing. The Netherlands has been so good to us. Belgium (Graspop) is one of our best places, and we have got a significant upgrade since… - it must have been last year. There we opened up the main stage, and we arrived like 45 minutes before, because the plane was late, and it was chaos, and it still went well. But now to able to come back immediately and do something way more over-the-top, and to give the audience something that does our band more justice, that feels special. So, there is a reason for everything - and these German ones - my mum is German, so being here always feels special actually. I think we are less than one hour away from where my parents met, and where I was baptized, so it’s cool to be in the neighbourhood.

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RoD: So, you have some history connecting you to this area here, I didn’t know that. So, you mentioned that you have been touring a good part of 2018, so I guess you spend a lot of time playing shows on this or the other side of the Atlantic, so is there like a preference you have for either playing a club show or a festival?
JE: In terms of fun they are all fine for different reasons. Artistically of course, when you headline - and you know we’ve done it in various sizes smaller to bigger - but also when it is a place where we haven’t quite achieved a bigger level, still that is an environment that we are more in control of. So, you know because the setlist is not just queuing songs up in Spotify, it’s more like making a mixtape for a girl you are in love with - like in the Eighties. Putting a show together is an artistic project in and out of itself, so that means a lot.

RoD: So, this festival thing, it is supposed to be this special spirit, so did you do festivals in your ‘previous’ life?
JE: Yeah yeah yeah, I’ve been to Sonar Rock Festival. I went a couple of times. I went to Roskilde festival in Denmark. I never made it to Wacken, which was the Mecca of course. But my older brother did, and I never went, but I also swore “Well, fuck you, I am gonna play there”, which we later did. But I don’t know what it’s like now for people in that age, but when I was 16/17, it was THE thing to do…

RoD: As some coming-of-age thing, or a baptism of sorts.
JE: Yes, that’s what it was. And you gather some life experience. I would argue maybe not that much, but it was awesome. And one of the nice things now of going as an artist of course after a couple of years you start to get to know other bands you toured with and the crew stuff you have been sharing incestuously through the years and stuff. So, this is a situation where you meet, and have sometimes a bit more time to hang out than otherwise. So, it’s a bit of a homecoming party many times - depending on the line-up. But here it’s pretty good, like MESHUGGAH. We have shared crew members with them in the past, and there are bands like that here.

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RoD: So why is it that Scandinavia - or Sweden in particular - is such a fertile breeding ground for Metal bands?
JE: I think one thing is to be noted is that Sweden is a successful music country in general - Metal in particular - but music in general. And there are a couple of things. I think one thing, when growing up, we saw examples of that it could be done. I think that one of the guitar players from HAMMERFALL, when he was younger, he had the same trombone teacher that I had a bunch of years later, and I think his mum worked used to work somewhere, where some musicians mum also worked. So these kids were older, so we did not really cross paths when we were younger, but still they were kids from our neighbourhood, so to speak. And I think even as a small place like Fagersta, they have THE HIVES, so you know, all these different places have examples that say “You can make it, too”. So that’s one thing, that it’s plausible. And because of that many success stories, it’s not really like - so my fiancé is Italian - and that’s why I have quite a few Italian friends - who are deeply into music. And they get from their family the pressure, like “Don’t become a musician. The risks are too big” and whatever, like: “get an education, get a real job”.

Whereas in Sweden, your parents say “yeah, sure, go for it”. That is a valid profession, which is more around. At the same time, you have that state welfare, which means in your Twenties you can afford to fail, there is like that safety net to catch people who didn’t succeed. So, you feel you have the time, you are inspired by people around you, and therefore you also grow up in a competition with other bands. So of course, you are aiming for IRON MAIDEN, or whatever, but in the early days at the youth centre at the “battle of the bands”, you have your friends and “enemies” and other bands, and you go like “Oh, we have to play faster than them”, or “Wow, they are good at moving on stage - I have to start doing that, too”. So you kind of feed off each other. And everyone became better. So, there are certain bands - demo bands - from when we started out, that have influenced our band just as much as THE HAUNTED, or JUDAS PRIEST have because of that. So the quality among teenagers in Sweden at least in our time was very, very high…

RoD: The availability of role models…
JE: Yeah, exactly. Those two years older, wise old men with beards were showing the way on certain things (smirks). So there are so many reasons for this that there is not one clear one, but all these things work together. And then I guess the culture being a bit more introverted means you stay in and enjoy sitting alone and practicing for a bit longer than maybe others, that have nicer beaches, I don’t know.

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RoD: I thought that was more a trait of the Finnish people…
JE: Sweden and Finland are very similar, but that stereotype is more fed in Finland, you know. Of course, once you leave the big cities in any of the Nordic countries, they become very similar in their “Nordicness”…

RoD: Because I read that there is a special verb for “sitting alone in your underwear and drinking”…
JE: Yeah, but that is how their language works, where you put many words together, kind of like German. Like there are these car terms that would have been a sentence in English, but it becomes one word in German. And there are these German words that English speaking people love - like “Weltschmerz”, which are hard to translate, and you have to explain them. So Finnish is similar in that regard.

RoD: So this habit of yours on stage where you drink from a petrol can, is it something you picked up during your youth?
JE: It is actually. That canister has been with me since 2005 I believe. There is a Swedish artist - Thomas Di Leva - who was kind of somewhere between New Age, Pop and Schlager, you know one of those strange ones - every country has someone like this. I try and think of a German example but now I can’t think of anything, but you know. You wonder, does he have street credibility or not? You know he is one amazing singer, but since he is this New Age thing, he claims he is a space flower, and therefore he drank out of those cans you use for watering flowers. And then I would that version, but from hell. That was the joke in the beginning, but now it just stuck with us…

RoD: It’s always fun to watch and makes an impression, I guess. So - you guys enjoy stellar success in the U.S. - so is there anything in particular to what you attribute this success, what made you click with the U.S. audience?
JE: The most important thing that makes a difference, and why we now can see that Europe is catching up dramatically, is that the first time we went over there for real, our label at that time here got a licensing deal for our album ‘Black Waltz‘, and through that our current management heard us and wanted to work with us. And the set-up was, we were lucky in that regard that the people we worked with immediately from the beginning - like in Sweden you start with some friend who starts to book shows for you and then you try yourself - and then you go through those steps. And we have graduated from all those things once we hit the U.S. market - it was a more polished product or more finalized piece of art, depending on how you want to look at it, that was shown to the Americans on the first attempt. So we got a running start there. But then that has kind of spilled over to Europe, and we can see now how we had to travel all the way west, and kind of push our way back east. Because then Great Britain and Ireland and Western Europe started to come around, and now it’s kind of Germany and the Czech Republic, so Central Europe is starting to move…

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RoD: Yes, your Instagram Feed is full of Polish people asking you to play shows there…
JE: Yeah, exactly, so now we are trying to move towards that and we got our first Finnish festival, so we are slowly moving East, and I look forward to playing Kazakhstan in 2025 (laughs)… It’s really how that is working. It is about so many things. Again that album ‘Black Waltz’ was really, really good, and something artistically really clicked. We figured something out about our ideals when it comes to how we wanted to write and how we wanted to be. And there was a much clearer “message” that we started communicating as compared to earlier in our more “learning phase”, that I am still proud of. But you know, you do different kind of arts, you express yourself differently when you are 16 than when you are 20 than when you are 25. So you should be “on the move” as an artist…

RoD: Unless you are DIRE STRAITS or GUNS N’ ROSES or someone like that… So, speaking of developments: Your newest album, would you call it a concept album?
JE: Yeah. Although it was never meant to be one originally, because we did a concept album before that: ‘Feathers or Flesh’. The whole idea, one thing I know for sure is since we did a concept album now, and we always want to change, the next one should not be a concept album. Because it is all about playing the game in hard mode, that “Do you know how to do a concept album” - “No” - “Neither do I” - “Cool, let’s find out” and thereby put pressure on ourselves that we believe improves the quality of the end result of what we are doing. But, now that we know and feel like “Ok, a concept album is like this”, then you can kind of risk resting on that, then it’s suddenly not guaranteed to be the hardest thing you can do. But since we were already leaking information from within the borders of ‘Avatar country’ in terms of flags usage and other stuff and talking about our king. If you look in the booklets of the earlier albums, it’s always ‘Special thanks to Kungen’ (Swedish for ‘King’). So, it was all there, and we felt it was time to do that part for real, and again find a different kind of challenge. And one of the challenges was that this is easily our most positive sounding album I would argue. There is way more hope and life to it than there is usually. And to things like instrumentals and still communicate paint and image without words and all that. So there were still new challenges out there, that kind of motivated us, and you just had to run with the muse. Whatever you are the most inspired to do is what you should do, that is the honest way to go.

RoD: That clearly states your motivation. Because In the age of Spotify and YouTube - so so-called commoditization of music - doing a concept album which is meant to be listened to in one go - is clearly a challenging concept I think…
JE: Yes and no, because music was always I believe a commodity in one way or another. The medium maybe was more solid or how you would consume it. But you know, my parents also had the vinyl singles, such as ‘Yes Sir, I can boogie’, and they had ‘Sgt. Pepper’, so it was not that everything that was consumed by everyone was like PINK FLOYD ‘The Wall’. And even in terms of PINK FLOYD ‘The Wall’ still they had the hits. Most people in this world if they know it, they know the ‘Brick in the Wall’ song. I believe it was more like that than we remember, except that we the people who talk about are anyway the people who are interested in concept albums and stuff. Again, in my Mum’s record collection there are more compilation albums of hits of the Sixties and stuff like that in the old vinyl shelf than there are PINK FLOYD albums. There is one. So I don’t think much changed in those terms.

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RoD: So, you do not have the feeling that the current music generation has a shorter attention span?
JE: No, because people now have been with us since the early days. The people have been around patiently, and we have grown since 2012. And the appreciation for asking for more “Ok, thank you for ‘Let it Burn’. It’s my favourite song. However, can you do ‘Use your tongue’ or something that you haven’t played live yet”. That culture is still there yet, and all the albums are still happening, and the people are very curious and supportive of our new stuff. And I think, Metal is a bit safer in that, since it is a genre so much built on honesty. Because it has survived being very hip to being very non-hip, and now it is independent of trends. So artists and audience have a very honest relationship, at least among the bands that last. So, sure there is some kind of commodity thing going on, but - I don’t know – movies haven’t gotten much shorter, either. It’s an exaggerated thing, maybe we kill our time maybe a little bit more on social media, and that makes it look like that. But still I believe people hear more music than ever, and yes that the selection is wider makes that we are dipping our toes maybe a little bit more. So, I stream most of my music now as well, but in my CD buying days as a teenager buying a great album like ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, and then I would listen the shit out of that, but then I would also by a VIRGIN STEEL album that I heard about. I didn’t quite like it, but it was the only new album I had, so I would listen the shit out of that. So now I can go and stream and find out “Oh, maybe not” and move on to the next one. I don’t maybe have time for things I am not getting super-into.

RoD: So one last question regarding your future plans: Are you intending on keeping that two year-release cycle of new albums?
JE: We just got lucky that it ended up like that, we release things when they are done.

RoD: So no plans for 2020?
JE: Of course, there are plans and ambitions, but there is never a (snaps fingers) “That’s going to happen”…

RoD: Alright, thank you once again for taking the time, and best of luck for your gig this evening!

The live pictures were done during the band’s show at Rock am Ring 2018. Photographer: Elena Arens
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