Take one look at Avatar and it’s clear they’re here to make a statement and set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd. Their recent co-headline tour with the Defiled brought them out in front of hundreds of new faces every day- a challenge they took on just as fiercely as opening for Avenged Sevenfold in arenas across Europe. I spoke to the band’s clown mascot/front-man Johannes Eckerström to talk about their album writing process, their aptitude for darkness, the stories behind their dangerous music videos, and about practising headbanging in the dark…
Johannes: It’s pretty good I guess. There’s a little less than three weeks left and all in all it will be more or less 100 days of touring when we’re done. We’ve had ten days break when we were at home, but other than that it’s been a pretty intense fall. So I don’t really know how I feel anymore… But it’s all good, I’m fine!
BM: You went to Europe with the Defiled as well but you’ve swapped round and now they’re playing last?
Johannes: Yeah it’s a co-headline all the way, they close up the shows here in the UK and we do mainland Europe with us closing up. But other than that, you know we play the same length of sets and all that and have the same stage privileges; no one has to put their drum kit in front of the other or anything like that.
BM: Your newest album Hail The Apocalypse came out in May, what’s the process you go through when you’re making music?
Johannes: Well, it has started to become a pretty pleasant chaos, because there are multiple songwriters within the band. It has become a very democratic or maybe even anarchistic process. I know lately we have started to find pleasure in stealing each other’s riffs; that is actually the standard procedure. You come up with a couple of ideas, and usually the quality control and the filter it goes through is that if it’s good, something cool, usually someone else in the band wants to work it. The track What I Don’t Know is a clear example of that, Jonas had written some riffs and some ideas that Tim fell in love with, showed me, we worked out the song with it and we got far enough that John wanted to deal with the arrangement and working with the drum parts a bit. Then Jonas showed up two days later and finished it up. Basically it’s just like ‘Oh that’s cool, give it to me’ and then it goes through a chain like that. So that’s pretty chaotic and I don’t know, it’s always this kind of back and forth between doing it very individually as well- some songs are more like that and then we go to a cabin somewhere and do it very collectively…
BM: Did you take a different approach with each album, or is it that way with every album?
Johannes: No, this is how it ended up being this time. I guess that started with the third album really, with the first two, Thoughts Of No Tomorrow and Schlacht, it was way more ‘I have written a song, it is finished, here you go, learn it’ kind of deal, and still you know people change and stuff; we were working on them together while we were rehearsing and learning but it was such a great source of conflict that us as songwriters would arrive with a song and really the doors were as shut as possible, we wanted to change as little as possible. But now it’s more like ‘I have this idea, what do you guys think?’ We use each other in a more constructively now than we did in the past, and with the third album I guess was where we really started to open up, and then with Black Waltz and Hail The Apocalypse were where we really got it rolling, working like that.BM: You supported Avenged Sevenfold last year, and you’ve toured with people like Lacuna Coil, how do massive shows like that compare with playing clubs?
Johannes: I think actually yesterday must have been one of the smaller places that we have played in a while, in a sense that the ceiling was low and the stage was low and people were right in your face and stuff, and I enjoyed that so much more than lots of other stuff we have done. I started to fall for that cliché that the intimacy of a club show is the way to go. Then the challenge is always because I want a club to feel like an arena and I want an arena to feel like a club, and damn right it can feel like that. It’s a certain confidence and a certain approach you need to take in order to do that. But yeah I feel that is something… We have played these festivals with over 10,000 people watching and if it’s done right you know like saying ‘Hey how you doing’ to one person, you can make everybody feel like that.
BM: It’s proving yourself though isn’t it, in bigger places I suppose…
Johannes: Well, it all depends, in a big place the thing is that the more we are in one place the more hysterical we turn. In a concert setting, pretty cool, but in other settings incredibly dangerous… But if you get that spark going and it is a larger crowd then it spreads faster you know because people are getting kind of sucked in and it’s this mass-hysteria thing. Plus if you’re in front of a big crowd you always look cool I guess, I don’t get to look cool if it’s a half-filled tiny club somewhere. As well, now we are touring Europe, some countries we are more ahead in than others. The challenge is not to go and do those big shows like a full large show in Paris that is not the same challenge as doing this half-empty place in Prague. It’s there in Prague that you want to make sure it’s really kick ass, that’s the harder part.
BM: You played at Download and were the first band on the second stage on Sunday…
Johannes: That was fun! I’m impressed people showed up that day.
BM: Did you say it was your first festival appearance in the UK?
Johannes: Yeah, well we did something in the spring which was festival-ish; Hammerfest, but that was Wales, so it was our first festival appearance in England. I think actually I said that, because I went through it and I was like ‘is this our first?!’ So yeah, first English if you count Wales as something else, and I guess we do.
BM: Yeah, how do they compare with European festivals? I don’t know what they’re like compared to crowds in the UK…
Johannes: Well actually, I think it’s pretty similar all over. There are many things about touring England, it’s kind of right in the middle of what it would be if you were touring America or Mainland Europe; it’s got a bit of both going for it. But Download to me, as a festival, felt more like a European festival. It was a nice festival. The only sad part is even larger bands rarely get to play longer than 40-45 minutes there and that’s kind of… I don’t know. I won’t complain but I wouldn’t mind playing longer.BM: Your image is quite striking, you haven’t always worn make up on stage but for the past two albums it’s something you have embraced. Do you find that you often get sceptics that sometimes think ‘wow’ before they’ve even heard you play?
Johannes: Well, the shock factor and being something that could be also off-putting to some people I guess is part of the fun with it. I don’t know, I have disappointingly few haters, but I love it when people try to do that you know; ‘Oh you look like Gene Simmons!’ and I’m like… ‘Well yeah actually why not? I’m a huge fan.’ I mean, I wanted to play bass at first as a kid, of course! And they’re like ‘Oh. Okay.’ I always get the same, if it’s not Gene Simmons it’s Alice Cooper. I mean sure, why not, absolutely. He didn’t do all that many great albums but yeah, he also has paint on his face… Like so many others you know, so sometimes you get those, but it kind of runs of me because I feel like we put it together in our own way. Anyway, I realised we are part of a tradition doing this and it’s not just us, but it’s not just any one single artist ever. I feel its part of a tradition of being the clown, that spans way further back that metal, and then you just try to put it in your own little way.
BM: So do you feel like people ‘get’ what you’re about here, obviously as well as in Sweden where people will know you more?
Johannes: Yeah, well actually lately, it just so happened to be that in the last year or so that we toured… Well actually the last 24 months, we have played way more here in the UK than we have in Sweden. We’re trying to fix that now actually, we were supposed to finish off our tour in Stockholm, but that kind of pissed us off, so we added another show in Gothenburg where we’re actually from, to close up the tour. But I don’t know, people seem to connect with it pretty well all over now. I guess that is because we are more than ever in tune with what we are doing and what we are about.
BM: It’s clear you like pushing boundaries… What is the appeal of that, and the appeal of the dark; almost destruction but beauty at the same time?
Johannes: Pushing boundaries… I don’t necessarily always have to do shocking things, because a shock only lasts so long, but one thing is that already by calling ourselves a metal band, we are putting a specific frame on what we are doing. Other than that, we try to avoid repeating ourselves, or repeating the work of others because that bores us a lot. It should bore audiences way more than it does, when I look what other bands are doing and getting away with, it’s kind of provoking and disgusting to me. Then it’s just… I don’t really know exactly how it started, because then I started to stare into darkness. There’ something to begin with that attracted me and all of us to this music to begin with, so something must have been there. What happens is, at the face what happens is when people get older; some turn away I guess and treat it as a phase of their lives and all that. Then some of us start digging deeper and start to see the more adult side of studying this darkness in us as human being or you know, in everything. I don’t know how to put it really it just happened to be where we ended up I guess, and the kind of person I have become. Again, it’s like at the same time I want to avoid being the ‘token’ dark guy. I read this thing, someone did an incredibly funny children’s picture book kind of thing about Mom with her two kids at the museum. The whole point of it is that she takes the kids to watch all this contemporary weird-ass art and the Mom is bitter because she didn’t become an artist because she had kids. It’s very funny but everything is like ‘What does this mean Mom?!’ and she’s like ‘Well this means everything is sex and God is dead.’ I don’t want to be that guy either! It’s not a gimmick.BM: Do you think there’s something about, not necessarily pushing boundaries, but the darker things or the darker side of life, there has to be some kind of appeal and some kind of draw to it, because there is a lot of people and a lot of bands…
Johannes: Yeah, well I think also the people who are into it don’t think they’re into it still watch the police movies on a Sunday evening, which are always about murders and slaughters, but this is mainstream entertainment. So…
BM: It’s like horror films though, they’re mainstream entertainment.
Johannes: It’s not even horror films. My parents don’t watch horror films but there are still all those cop movies and criminal dramas, I’m sure you have those in England too. Yeah, like those Murders in Midsomer! You know, this reckless killing kind of shit going on everywhere, as entertainment. At least when you start dealing with the kind of stuff we are dealing with you learn something I hope, it’s because I’m interested in human beings that this is happening, I’m interested in myself and the people around me that these subjects come up to begin with and I’m not doing it out of… Well of course what we do is entertainment, but the subject that I choose is not because it’s the most entertaining one, it’s because it’s the most honest thing I can do. So therefore hopefully, we learn something by dealing with this kind of art in particular that we’re doing. That is more than you can say about Midsomer Murders and all that other kind of crap that people who aren’t into metal are dealing with. I don’t know, especially in this country you are full of these lovely, lovely tabloid magazines. I think this paints an even more horrific image of the world than Cannibal Corpse ever could have done.
BM: It’s just more honest.
Johannes: Yeah! That is the whole idea of our work nowadays. I’m trying to dig, that has been the coolest part of our work over the last few years, that we are able to dig down to a new level of honesty that we never realised was there before, you know, you remove more and more bullshit with every album. I hope that journey continues because I’m learning lots about myself. I’m more comfortable looking at myself in the mirror now than I was eight years ago, so I hope it goes on like this.BM: Is authenticity important to you? In the Black Waltz video there’s a lot of things like walking on broken glass and so on, and there’s one of you swimming in a lake of fire.
Johannes: Well, yeah. The story goes like this; we ended up doing the Black Waltz video because I was in a lake of fire. Yes, if we’re going to do this kind of stuff, and you can do it for real it’s just so much more fun honestly, and cooler. Yeah, to have something authentic just matters more. It makes for better movies.
BM: It’s better than Photoshop though, and it’s back to the honesty thing.
Johannes: Yeah! To me at least it was like that. The thing is, when we did Black Waltz, before it was named, we had all the songs we were just figuring out the album covers and everything. We knew this was the album that we wanted to make everything fit, and we started to look at Avatar as art all the way through and then one idea we had was to have me in a lake of fire. We found someone to work with to actually do the actual fire thing with us… then that guy is the guy in the Black Waltz music video who then is drilling in his nose and all that- he was a pyrotechnic for a music video, then he showed us what he could do more than throwing lamp oil and water… and that’s how it all came together actually because we tried to have me fit in within the context of that music video specifically, you know scary clowns are scary; that should work just fine, and then it just clicked with all of us. With me especially, but all of the band just thought ‘Oh well we have found the face of the music now’ so, I now work a double shift as being both singer and a mascot.
BM: The Black Waltz video is quite disturbing…
Johannes: Aw, thank you!
BM: So the last question was, the simultaneous hair whip*, does that take a lot of practice, because it’s awesome?
*Search most live videos on YouTube to see what we are referring to…
Johannes: Thank you! The funny thing about it is, back in the day when we were like 15/16 years, it was mandatory to headbang during rehearsals. I think that is how kids should, and I think most do, do it in the beginning. It did help us because we did this thing where we wanted to give a good show. At first, all we knew about a good show would be to headbang. We were very impressed with our guitar playing so we were banging our heads and playing, you know. Then we started to realise that you can look at people and stuff. But in the beginning headbanging was the whole cool thing, so we did that and we also practised. So we put all the lights out so it was pitch black in the rehearsal room, we would play the song from half tempo and in ten steps up to the full speed of the song, in darkness, while headbanging. Now we rarely do that nowadays, I guess we built a good foundation. As a singer, it didn’t help me a lot. I usually fell asleep during the rehearsal because I was sitting in the dark listening to solos being played incredibly slowly. So we did that, but now what I think is funny if you look at us is two of us- I think it’s me and Henrik- we go the opposite way yeah. So counter-clockwise from where you are but clockwise from where I’m standing. Then Tim and Jonas are doing clockwise for the audience but counter-clockwise for them, and it’s impossible to switch direction; instead of going in circles I end up going in like an awkward egg shape. It’s weird. I’m right handed when it comes to head-banging. I’m right necked, basically!
BM: I’ve tried, I really can’t do it.
Johannes: Practice, in a dark room.
Photos by Erin Moore at Forte Photography