Interview: Johannes Eckerström of Avatar

Like actors on press junkets forced to endure interview after interview where they are pretty much asked the same questions over and over, musicians endure the same process when they are on promotional duties for their latest project. Interviewers wrestle with themselves about finding the perfect intro and keeping it as interesting as possible for the interviewee. Ice-breakers are important, as is having a thick regional accent, because that comes with an apology to the interview subject about said accent, as well as the offer to talk slower. If the accent is Scottish, then it usually opens the door marked “Braveheart: bullshit or not?”, and before long the interview settles down to comedy Scottish accents throughout Hollywood. With Johannes Eckerström of Avatar (vocalist, lyricist, musician) primed and ready to talk about the staggering new album ‘Hunter Gatherer’, it was the perfect ice-breaker.

One of the things that I’m always conscious about is that by the time we speak, you might have already had a barrage of interviews over the weeks and you will have answered the same questions over and over, so it’s good that we started by taking the piss out of Mel Gibson’s accent in Braveheart! A real ice-breaker!

Yes! That definitely helps! I did a Swedish interview where I just kept talking and I went on auto-pilot, and after a couple of minutes of me just talking, the interviewer said, “Oh right, you’ve just answered seven of my questions!” Of course, there will be similarities in the questions asked, but there is nothing wrong with that.

Well there you go then, a different beginning for you, and we didn’t even touch on Christopher Lambert’s accent in Highlander!

(Laughs) Oh, Christopher Lambert!

Yes, we’ll skip the comedic value of his accent and get to the new album ‘Hunter Gatherer’. It was recorded old-school, with all of you being in the same room, was this a decision made at the beginning, or did it naturally happen this way?

That was decided very early on. We did it with ‘Hail The Apocalypse’, and we said at the time, let’s never ever do it differently ever again. And then we did it differently… twice. ‘Feathers & Flesh’ was just a differently arranged album, and the ambition with that album made us want to do it in a studio, thinking in terms of overdubs. It fitted at the time with that one, it was that studio beast type of an album. Then ‘Avatar Country’ was kind of a necessity, because everything happened in a shorter timescale. We wrote it at a shorter pace over a shorter period, and rehearsal was quite limited because of when we wanted to record it when we wanted to release it, that kind of thing. Therefore, everyone was still kind of playing together, getting the drum sound down. We used most kick drum sounds from those takes, and re-did the guitars.

But this time we had a month of rehearsals leading up to going into the studio, and we had more than a year of writing, apart and together, so it had time to grow before we went into the studio. But from here on out, I’m sure we will bump into reasons why we can’t or won’t want to do it like that again, but in general, I’m tempted to say that we will never, ever record any other way other than live again. I’m sure that there will be exceptions to that, because, well… that’s life.

The album was recorded in L.A. with Jay Ruston producing. During your recent online Q&A with Jay, you were very honest and said that you had some prejudices about going to L.A. to work. Once you got there, how quickly did you change your mind about L.A. and what was the main reason for changing your mind?

Well, quite immediately, to be honest, once we knew that we were going there, then you embrace it. Once we got there, it was immediately affirmed that it was the right thing to do. We found it funny that the owner of the studio, who was head engineer, was an Italian born and raised in England. The other engineer was French who had lived in England before moving to the US, Jay is Canadian, and we are Swedish! The culture of the sub-culture of Metal means that we end up having way more in common than what differentiates us.

There is that mentality of assuming that L.A. has that disposable, bubblegum, hair metal attitude…

And that does exist, because those kinds of things are made there. It is the entertainment capital of the world, so therefore all of that is there. The hit factories, the superficial, the back-stabbing, the abusive places; of course they exist. Of course, there are those self-centered douchebags with sunglasses on indoors, but they are not in the studio where the Scandinavian metal band records. L.A. is a humongous city, full of everything, so yeah, we were very wrong.

‘Hunter Gatherer’ is a very heavy, very dark album. After the vaudeville humour of ‘Avatar Country’ was it a conscious decision to make it heavier and darker, or was it natural the way that this evolved?

It was conscious, and it was also natural. As soon as we finished recording ‘Avatar Country’, there was a brief discussion where I said I really want to do something heavier next time. The joking around on ‘Avatar Country’ kind of started, in terms of the music, a tiny bit on ‘Feathers & Flesh’, but then when we got to the later music videos, a couple of them, well… ‘Night Never Ending’ was serious, but ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘New Land’ are quite comedic, in the wrong way. We were touring at the time and we were like, “Oh, we need to show up on a red carpet with a load of bands who are trying to be cool”… and we are showing up in Hawaiian shorts, or doing whatever to not conform, and humour became a weapon to set ourselves apart and to shield us from that world.

So it all started to accumulate a lot, and I think that process of trying to write comedies rather than Greek tragedies, which our albums usually are, we got that out of our system. Writing and recording the album, we were looking forward to committing to the ‘Avatar Country’ theme where every inch of you spoke as if the King was the actual King. We did a fake telephone cue where if people called me they got a lounge version of the intro track from the album. It was really immersive and it was going to be awesome, and then we are going to hate it because we have to do this for up to two years.

So we were anticipating the direction of ‘Hunter Gatherer’, and even if we hadn’t, then I’m sure we would have achieved a very similar result, because having used songwriting as personal therapy since we were teenagers, in a way doing ‘Avatar Country’ felt like not seeing your shrink for two years. Everything had to come out, and we needed this as an outlet, so it was inevitable that we had those intentions. The aesthetic choice of “let’s do some heavy shit” was there right away.

There’s a great deal of variety on ‘Hunter Gatherer’. There’s thrash on there, hardcore death metal growls, some sludge, and the stark piano-driven ‘Gun’, but one thing that it has, from start to finish, is groove. There’s a lot of groove on it. Was this important to the band?

Yes, I think that’s essential in anything that you do. I think you can take this back to ‘Black Waltz’ in 2012, where we had accumulated a balance of hours in a rehearsal room and what that could mean musically. Older, wiser musicians and music teachers have been talking about it, but you just have to do it yourself for a certain amount of time for it to sink in. We discovered that even back in those days, doing a song like ‘Ready for the Ride’, which is a more straightforward death metal song, even in that case we found that…oh, there’s a groove here to be found. That’s the fundamentals of what we do. We are inspired by a lot of extreme metal, as well as a lot of other things from new wave to grindcore. That being said, if we really break it down, what we aspire to do and be is, for me, the Beatles and Black Sabbath. If it’s a great riff, with a great groove, that should create a meaning, an atmosphere in itself. It’s all about the groove, it’s all about a drummer and a bass player who rehearse together and play as a cohesive unit. So yes, it was extremely important for us to have a groove on the album.

What pressures did you put on yourself collectively as a band when you were tackling ‘Hunter Gatherer’? Are you quite tough with each other in the studio?

We don’t need to be so tough with each other because we are really tough on ourselves. We have high standards for each other, but even higher for ourselves. It’s more about being encouraging, because we all hit walls where we don’t feel that we are reaching those high standards that we have set, so it’s more about encouraging and saying, “Hey, you can do this man”. So it’s more common this way than the other way around.

Collectively there is huge pressure, but it’s a pressure that we like. It’s drive, it’s like, how far can we take it? How good can we be? And that’s a fun question to try to answer. You go to bed exhausted, but if you have done something right, then you are pretty satisfied with yourself.

Listening back to the album for the first time in the studio, what was the moment that gave you the most goosebumps?

It actually was ‘Gun’…

It is a stunning track.

I wrote the piano piece myself, but we brought in a girl called Alisha Forrest to record it. She’s classically trained, and she pulled it off in a couple of hours, rather than me taking…well, I can play it, but nailing it with the same sensibilities that she did, that would have taken me much, much longer. But this meant that I got to witness it firsthand. I got to hear something that I wrote from an outside perspective, and that was a total rush. I’m going to practice my ass off so I can do it justice live!

Then I had another mini-moment when entering the studio. The guys have usually recorded their solos when writing them, on the demo versions of the songs, but I hadn’t heard Jonas’s solo on ‘Justice’, because it wasn’t on the demo when we were rehearsing together, so I hadn’t heard it until he started tracking it when I was in the control room with him. So I got to hear one of the guitar solos being played for the first time in complete form, and I was like, that’s an awesome solo! And he looked at me in the way that we do sometimes like I had said..(deadpan) this is better than your other solos. They’re all great, but the others I had heard one place or another, but those two things I got to enjoy from an outside perspective.

Do you revisit an album once it’s finished and out there? For instance, when was the last time that you listened to ‘Avatar Country’?

It’s been a while, but I definitely do it. Sometimes, when you are writing new material, you can get lost in that process and can get fried. It’s a nice reminder to what you have previously done. We write music that we want to hear. Ultimately, it’s a very self-involved thing that we are doing. So it does happen, it comes and goes in waves. I’ve been listening to ‘Hunter Gatherer’ quite a lot, especially when working on things relating to the promotion of it. I’ve been having it on in the headphones, just to stay connected to the thoughts, the emotions, the intentions of what was behind it.

The best thing is that, in a few year’s time, once we move on as people to whatever is ahead of us in our own little lives, then it becomes a photo album, a diary to revisit, and that I really enjoy.

You touched on the theming on ‘Avatar Country’ earlier. Was it hard work staying in “character” for two years? On social media, for instance, whenever anything was posted, it was always in the style of the band addressing the “citizens” of Avatar Country.

Yes, it was hard work towards the end. It was a commitment, and it was easier to commit to something in the beginning rather than the end, but we are pretty disciplined people. In the early stages, I wrote, as a spoof, this pamphlet with instructions about what to do when talking about the King. It was a written thing that I sent out to our management and the people that we work with, so that if they were to post something on social media then they would understand what I was looking for. No-one got it right, so I ended up writing almost everything! There was one guy, David, who tours with us and does our merchandise, and it clicked with him. He was able to find the language that I was after. But otherwise, I worked 99% of every social media post, and any written word to do with “Avatar Country” came from me. And that got pretty old after a while, but, still, the end result was really funny.

The video for ‘Colossus’ reached one million views in its first week, which must have felt special?

It did…

But how special did it feel when the kickstarter campaign for the ‘Avatar Country’ movie reached its target in 90 minutes? That must have been humbling?

Yes, the kickstarter thing, in particular, was harder to wrap your head around because money was involved. It was a transaction before we had released something, so it was based on faith and a promise that we had made, which came with a weird responsibility, as it was business and passion. Once we came to terms with that, it was joy and total gratitude.


Interview: Dave

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