AVATAR (English Version - 2016) - Johannes Eckerström (Vocals)

With their latest masterpiece “Feathers & Flesh”, AVATAR sent a strong message to the metal sphere. The richness of the music, so eclectic, the story and the fable, so beautiful. I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to share it with these guys. Lucky for me, Johannes accepted to answer my questions, he is one of the kindest guy I’ve ever met.

SBM: Thank you very much Johannes for giving me a little bit of your time and answering my questions.
First of all how is the tour going so far?

Johannes Eckerström: It has been great! I mean… Tonight’s show is sold out, tomorrow is sold out and apparently yesterday was sold out and so on. It never really happened in the past so… Great!

Indeed a lot of shows are sold out, how do you live this recognition?

Well you know when I’m not in the show, I don’t really know… I live in my own little world, a normal world (Laugh).
But still it’s a great success, it’s sold out, popularity is growing, we’re still not The Beatles, and there’s not many guys in Finland where I live so it’s easy to not be inside of it. And I believe it’s the healthiest thing to do, I mean when we’re back, thinking “Ok these songs were successful”, and we need to record a new album, I would be easy to think “That one was great, let’s do it again!”.
But we never wanted to do that because our success came at the same time as when we said “Let’s never repeat ourselves, let’s try to not find a formula”.

That’s what I really appreciate with AVATAR, you’re always evolving, and with “Feathers & Flesh” it really seems that you summed up you whole carrier.
IF I could travel back in time, ten years in the past from now, when you created AVATAR, and I give you “Feathers and Flesh”, would you recognize your own band? What would you think about this records?

Hum it’s a funny question… No I don’t think I’d recognize AVATAR. Ten years from now “Thoughts of no Tomorrow” just came out. I would be… (Laugh) Proud! And shocked that we would be able to do something like that.
It was a big challenge on the music of “Thoughts of no Tomorrow” as well, but the arrangement there, the way I sing, I would be probably shocked and overwhelmed. And I hope I will feel the same way whatever we do in ten years.

I’m sure you will I you keep challenging yourselves! Look what you’ve done here, you summed up you carrier, you did a concept album, but you pushed things further by writing the fable. Did you know it would be very risky?

No I didn’t know because the personal way I look at risks when we make albums is that we need to take risks, we need to do something that can fail because we need to do something that is hard. Because that’s how we evolve, that’s how we try to make better art everytime. If we were like “Let’s do an album and go on tour” and so on it would be lame, it doesn’t interest any of us.
As an artist you always look for the next great thing you can do… It’s a pretentious comparison but Leonardo Da Vinci did not painted Mona Lisa and said “Oh let’s do ten more”, he did something else.

From an artistic point of view, as you really pushed things further, I just thought “Why haven’t they done a video for each song to illustrate the story”. As your videos are really well thought it would have make sense.

Yeah that was an option, we talked about it but… It’s expensive. Making three minutes of video is expensive, and time consuming. We were in no position to do the whole album like that… My comparison that would have been cool do like Daft Punk for the “Discovery” album; it was a whole anime; and with the animals doing stuff and the book an anime would have been great; Maybe not a Disney movie but something a little darker.
But we realized that it was not possible at this time so instead we had to take it song by song and see how many we can do. When we make each and every one, we take the lyrics and the theme of each song, set them out of the story and just focus on the idea, the message of each individual song.
That is why “The Eagle has Landed” is about this narcissistic liar character, “Night Never Ending” is about such a tragedy but at the same time showing some strange forms of hope in that tragedy. So we use the theme of the songs and make some individual pieces.

That’s the great thing with “Feathers & Flesh”, each song has its own morality and is also a chapter of whole fable. Can explain to us the morality of the story?

It’s just about an owl which tries to defend something that could never be defended. She tries to defend herself from changes in the world, she tries to avoid the inevitable. And the main theme is about how she fails to truly learn something, she got all these lessons, she met all these perspectives: how the bees live their lives, what depression was from the pike, what the wolf felt was important to her.
All these things lead her in different directions and stun her, but at the end of the day, everything goes away, because when we die everything goes away. I think it’s very bleak in that sense.

Yes but a lot of fable are bleak and sad so it doesn’t really matter has long as the morality is understood. By the way, has you said, each song has its own theme. What is the song that has the theme you like most?

Thematically… hum… “Fiddler’s Farewell” is a good example of this, it’s interesting for me because when we wanted to make a concept album, we knew we wanted to make a concept album before we knew the concept. And one idea that lead to this, first, was that I wanted to use fables that already existed and I read “The Grasshopper & The Ant”, an old fable and I wanted to put a dark twist on something preexisting, that was the ambition.
But it could also be “Sky Burial”, where, like on the whole album I think, you were able to sound like the idea of the lyrics. It’s a big challenge especially in metal because metal can be so many things, it’s so emotional in so many ways. Usually some are heavy, some are aggressive, and it was a challenge for me to make sad metal. It’s easy to make it aggressive or proud, pompous and epic, but making it sad or melancholic is another thing and with “Sky Burial”, it really sounds like what it’s about.
And also “Raven Wine” which is so psychedelic and it’s about these ravens getting high from drinking the blood of dead animals, that make sense to me, or again “For the Swarm” is about bees and they’ve got to work work work. There’s a really strong marriage between the theme, the lyrics and the music.

I do agree with you about that, and personally one of my favorite one is “When The Snow Lies Red”, the theme is beautiful, melancholic and the music fits with it with some aggressiveness. It’s really a raging farewell.

There’s sorrow and pride for this character. There’s these amazing things like “I will remember you”, yeah a raging goodbye exactly!

A last word about “Sky Burial” which is, as you said, really melancholic, epic, you even used bells on it. Is it a musical path you’d like explore a little bit more?

Yeah but you know, next time would have to be in different way again, because we did it on this album. “Sky Burial” is a song that gives me pride and satisfaction about how it’s turned out. The cool thing is that bells are real, I like that, the organ is real too, we went into a church and recorded an organist and I got to play the guitar on it.

Oh really?

Yeah basically because I played guitar on the demo. And the guys are really better guitar players than I and I managed to get that sound and we were really happy with it on that part. I didn’t remember what I did or what I used because I just turned and pressed buttons until I liked it.
There was no chance to recreate the sound so we kept the demo track, and that is fun to me. But there’s so much to do with the orchestral stuff, except for the violin which is digital, and arrangementwise it went great I think but we also set a limit to what we can do soundwise. And it’s another step to be able to technically, like studio production wise, get something orchestral even better, and that’s what I’d like to explore.
I used to play the trombone so I read notes, so I have to practice more and do more about orchestral arrangements because I find it very fun to do, I’d love to do more of that.

Looking forward to hear that! So you play guitar, you play trombone, and it sems like the musical background of the band is very diversified.

Well as everybody went to school, did music in high school, so most of us have played a little bit of everything at least. I used to play the trombone and I was in a big band, our drummer especially was always thrown into learning the jazz beat and stuff. So it has been mixed-up, when we were kids were learned a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and what you keep exploring on your own.
So there’s two parallel journeys I guess for us as musicians: the music you discover at home, on your free time and makes you buy an electric guitar or a double bass drum; and in parallel with that you have also music from teachers who are like “Ok it’s now time to play music in church for Christmas”. So I think all of us made two journeys at the same time, teachers told us what to do and they were great teachers, I liked being told what to learn from them.

And what journey has brought the make-up? I mean you’ve been wearing it since “Black Waltz”, it was linked to the theme at that time but now it seems that it just became the image of the band.
First of all, you seem very kind and calm as we speak here. But when you’re the clown on stage you seem devilish and crazy. Do you use “him” as a mask to evacuate anger or frustrations?

Well I never felt it was a mask, it feel it was another way around, it feels as I’m getting almost undressed. It’s not that I can hide because if I go on stage the way I am, people eyes are on me, they look at me, and I don’t have a stage name you know; Alice Cooper is a character, what I do when I’m dressed up is not a character, it’s Johannes Eckerström and it’s just an opportunity to be another part of me, to express another part of me. So the painted face is more about undressing than getting dressed.

Will you, one day, get rid of this?

We don’t know, we don’t wanna do anything forced but it’s still exciting, still interesting, it still makes sense with that role I take, what I do there, telling the stories, that’s why I’m there in the middle of the animals that I created around me (He is showing his face on the cover of the album). So as long as it makes sense we’re not done exploring it, but if at some point it becomes just a stupid gimmick we would have to change it.
I’m sure a management would found it a terrible career choice to remove it, but to overstay your welcome and become a joke with it, especially to yourself, seems like a bigger danger.

I totally agree with you about that, wise band decision. You seem to have create a true democracy into the band. You’re even credited like this: “Written & performed by AVATAR”. There’s no individuality here, is it really like that?

Well yeah but of course some songs are mostly done by one or two people in the band. There’s always the one who comes with the first thing in a song, so it’s a little bit his song in a way. For example: “Regrets” and “House of Eternal Hunt” are more Tim’s songs but I think, if I remember well that Jonas wrote the first riff and I think that all the arranging, throwing things around and turning it to the song it is has a lot to do with us as a group. And I think the solo part is from Jonas as well… IF I remember! Because here’s also the think that shows that we do it as a band: we attempt to forget, if you’d have another member of the band here he would remember a lot of the writing differently because it becomes very blurry to me.
Sky Burial” for example is a song made more by one of us, but that’s more rare. If we go like this, “House of Eternal Hunt” is a Tim song, but everybody does a million things, “New Land” would be a Johannes song, although I came with a totally different song first. You know it was my idea, from that we worked together on others ideas for a song, then we took out my idea and the other stuff left.
It’s basically like that: from an idea, we jam around, for example “When the Snow lies Red” is another Tim song in that sense, he has written some pieces but we didn’t know what was the verse, what was the chorus etc… So we talked about it, played it, we tried different things, it was everyone’s idea there. After we talked about it Tim said “Ok I’ll be right back” and he has done most of the fixing of the song but it was also through the discussion of all five of us, just as if he got homework to do. I don’t remember when we started like that, I think it was with the third album.

That explains why the line-up is stable, you’re working as a democracy, you understand each other and no one’s above the others.

No exactly and you know, sometimes it’s very hard and frustrating but it always works out in the end. I think that all of us can feel like “Why don’t they get this? Idiots! I should have sold the project” (Laugh). You know, just here and there, because it’s intense what we do and it’s extremely intense to be so many working with it.

I trust your words on that! Groups decisions can sometimes be mind crushing! Tell me, will you release a DVD of that tour, or is there a plan?

No, not on this tour… Maybe one day although it could seem crazy but DVD feels ancient…

Actually yeah, somehow it old fashioned.

I guess we’ll put something on Netflix! (Laugh)

(Laugh) Why not ??

(Laugh) We would definitely want to film our show because visuals are also art to us.

Ok so I hope you’ll do it one day with a special show!
Right before we end I have one last stupid question (I show him a picture on my phone). Do you know what this is?

Yeah it’s little owl…

Yeah exactly! And you killed it in your story! I don’t appreciate that! Come on it’s so cute!!

(Laugh) Well in real life I’m an adoptive parent of an owl in a rescue center in Whales. You have to remember that as it’s a fable, animals represent human trades, human characteristics. All animals are a part of my brain, a part of me, so therefore also awful people, but yeah I felt also it when I wrote it. I’m really far away from someone who’s into killing animals.

And that’s always nice to hear! As I said, that was my last question, so I leave you the final words if you want to conclude or say something to the french fans, it’s up to you.

Well it only works in the context on stage but I was taught what to tell people in France during the show and it’s “Faites du bordel”! (T.N: Make a mess). So… “Come here and faites du bordel!”.

Well I think tonight it’ll be a great “Bordel”! Thank you again Johannes for you time and your kindness! Really hope to see you soon!

Thank you man! See you!
Critique : SBM
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