Johannes Eckerström, Avatar
I stroll past the Ritz at 4pm and there’s a crowd outside. The sky has threatened snow on and off all day, and the chill in the air is bitter. The doors won’t open for another 2 hours, and yet the people are waiting patiently already for tonight’s spectacle. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Avatar Country.
I’m greeted by frontman Johannes in a cosy dressing room upstairs, whilst the rest of the band flits in and out, preparing for the show. Strikingly tall and mildly mannered, it’s easy to forget he isn’t a clown 24/7 and I’m almost tempted to ask him if the theatrics of fronting Avatar are exhausting for him, the same way Dr Jekyll became exhausted by Mr Hyde. I decide it’s a bullshit question and bite my tongue. My mind wanders to complaints from my Swedish friends, along the lines of “Your accent is stupid, we can’t understand you when you talk” but I’m grateful to be in Avatar Country this evening and I tell Johannes so. Thankfully, he knows what I am saying.
“We were in Birmingham last night, and it’s been great. We’re now on our third show of the tour, so this is the night where we will truly not suck. The end result of the shows has been amazing, but it can take a while for the body to get used to it and warm up to it… I think tonight will be good though”
Avatar Country is a concept album based on the Legend of Avatar Country and the central character the King (guitarist Jonas Jarlsby in all his regal glory). I asked Johannes “What can I do to be a good citizen of Avatar Country? What does the King want from me?” and he almost appears thrown by the line, for about 0.3 of a second before regaining his undeniably cool composition.
“Well of course you just need to support your King in any way possible! Support the message that he puts out to the world. Our King is an all loving, all accepting ruler with most of all a great passion for Heavy Metal. He wants you to full bloom! He wants you to achieve your highest potential! He believes in you!”
I’m impressed by his passionate answer, and steer the conversation towards the recently filmed “Legend of Avatar Country” mini-movie. The project was funded through Kickstarter, with the initial $50,000 goal being reached in a mere 90 minutes. I’m keen to learn if there’s anything new Johannes can tell us about the film.
“What have we even put out there? What do you know! We wrapped up filming right before Christmas and it’s in post-production now. The green screens are turning into actual things. It was a big mix of using actual studio set pieces and practical effects mixed with digital stuff. Despite us having a bigger budget than we’ve ever had before, we were still able to use all of it without actually flying into space. It’s something that John (Alfreddson, drummer) said… we always work really hard on whatever we do, and we always make a point of finding a way to make it hard. Making the album Avatar Country, the end vision of what we wanted it to be was so much clearer than anything we’d done in the past, that made it easy to write. Of course we faced challenges in the studio, but we overcame them relatively quickly compared to other times because we knew what we were looking for. You know, less exploring had to be done this time. It’s kind of fitting that we ended up with a film project with it, to do one of the most challenging things we’ve ever done. Challenging because of the work that goes with it, the hours spent on it in a very short length of time...”
His voice tails for a second, as he realises he’s gone off the actual question and then he smirks.
“In the film, there will be a situation where I will be a stunt hand, and earlier in the film, someone else will be a stunt hand for me… you know… because of logistical issues around the shooting. It’s kind of funny, but yes, there will actually be an Easter Egg in there to discover”
The bands last two albums have had concept themes, and I ask if this is going to be an ongoing thing for Avatar?
“No… or that’s not what we’re talking about now at least. Going back to trying to make things hard, trying to play the game in ‘Hard Mode’ to make it more rewarding, one of the keen reasons that got us starting to think about concept albums back with ’Feathers and Flesh’ was realising none of us knew how to make one. ‘Do you know how to make one?’ ‘No?’ ‘Neither do I. Let’s do it’ and we were trying to figure that all out along the way. As we did it, we started thinking about what the next challenge would be, as we didn’t know. Then we realised… It was time to unveil the truth of our King to the world. This became the thing that we felt the most urgency towards, we want to write about this, and put this out there. It was kind of by accident that we did two concept albums in a row, and whilst I think there are great challenges in doing that, there is also a trap that if you hang up your albums to always be on a concept, that instead of having something to aspire to and climb towards, you can risk turning formulaic and you will always have this thing to hang up the songs on. Both of the albums were a great journey for different reasons. ‘Feathers and Flesh’ was especially therapeutic but now if we were to do it again, instead of having that thing to push us forward it would become something for us to lean back on. Instead of digging deeper when writing lyrics and doing the soul searching, you end up staying on the surface level of that concept. Now is the great challenge of writing an album that is a great album without the songs necessarily having anything to do with each other. You know , after Sgt Pepper there comes the White album.”
Having being raised on a musical diet that featured nothing but The Beatles for many years as a child, I’m delighted at the nod to my musical heritage and ask Johannes if he can explain a little bit about his, and where his love for music all spanned from. After all, Gothenburg has some impressive acts in its musical history (In Flames, At The Gates, Ace of Base…)
“For me personally, I was into music before I knew that being a musician was even a thing. We had a piano at home when I was a kid and I started taking piano lessons when I was about 4 or 5, and when I was 8 years old a friend in school had a program on his family computer where you could write sheet music and input the notes into a MIDI sequencer type thing and it would play it, so one way of us naturally just playing together would be us composing music together. We’d look at what other people had made with their MIDI files and look at that sheet music and figure out what was going on there. That was just a way we’d play. Sometimes we would be Robocop, sometimes we’d watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and sometimes we’d be composers. It all started very childlike, but then around the age of 8 or 9 I had learned that the Beatles were a thing and that planted the first seed right before I became a teenager. Then I got into metal and that was it! But music itself was present since I was very young”
Another mention of my beloved Beatles explains where his love for music began. Johannes words have got me thinking about how well Avatar obviously work together, so I ask him about the challenges of being in band.
“All in all, rather than call it a challenge, our greatest achievement is our ability to get along. We get along, I dare to say, better and better every year. But you know, there are always rough patches as with any deep relationship, as being in a band is. I feel like we were fighting more the first couple of years when we were a little demo band playing in band competitions in youth centres, we were fighting more then than we are now. We have ended up being a stronger unit and we keep on becoming a stronger unit throughout the years. We’ve grown up together, we’ve entered adulthood together, and we as far as I know we’ll enter middle age and grow old together in this band. We’ve been able to very smoothly handle all those transitions from one phase into the next. We have switched one band member, if you go right back you’ll know, but we knew Tim for years before he played with us.”
We keep on the theme of challenges, as I delve into tonight’s set list in a bid to find out what the most difficult song they will perform tonight is.
“Certain songs show up in the set list where they might become an issue, I think, ‘Did we do enough cardio before we came on tour’. ‘Tsar Bomb’ holds that position right now, and actually ‘Tower’ as well. I actually have to remember to go off stage and do this…”
*He makes this absolutely vile choking noise and I recoil just a tad in my seat*
“… and then I spit before I can sing that softly after what happened right before it. That section is right after ‘Tsar Bomb’, its different kinds of intensity after each other. I keep my voice in shape by making noises like that one I just made. And hydration. And sleep. And warm up properly.”
I can sense the tour manager hovering behind me; my time in Avatar Country is almost over. I’ve still got a million questions, about theatrics, and lyrics, and costumes, and shows, and fans, and Sweden, and music. I take a chance on squeezing one more in before we wrap up and ask him what’s left on the musical bucket list.
“In terms of dreaming big, there are many bands in rock and metal that have worked with symphony orchestras, and I would like that, but what I would really love is to do something with a big band. Trombones, trumpets, saxophones… I played in a big band when I was a teenager and I’m a jazz fan. I think certain things that we do musically would make more sense, because jazz is more beat driven and we’ve always made a point with all the melodies we have that we prioritise the groove in our songs, so that should translate really well. In terms of big projects/bucket list type things, that is my main one”
I thank Johannes for his time and conclude the interview with a final “Glory to the king”. As we leave the cosy confines of a small dressing room in Avatar country and fight our way back out through security briefings and box office staff, Johan is talking to me but I can’t hear him. All I can hear is a jazz version of Paint Me Red. Avatar, if you ever read this, make it happen.
Interview by Sarah Cummings on January 18th 2019.