This was my first interview for Distorted Sound magazine, it was with AVATAR frontman Johannes Eckerström and we chatted about various items such as their latest album, about songs being radio friendly and tales about animals.
How are you doing on this lovely evening?
I’m doing well, now there’s a blue sky outside and here I am trapped at the top of my tower doing press.
You are releasing a new album soon; I noticed that it seems a little more radio friendly than your previous material.
I think it might be to do with the fact we had a wider pallet on this one, it kind of comes with the territory of a concept album so it’s possible it’s more radio friendly. That wasn’t the intention mind. It’s definitely more a dynamic piece so that might be part of it, from a musician’s standpoint in often goes hand in hand with radio airplay so it’s possible.
Actually thinking about it tracks such as “For The Swarm” doesn’t seem friendly for the airwaves.
Yeah exactly, that particular one has a riff then a chorus then a solo then it’s over in less than two minutes. It might not be radio friendly now because it’s too long but in the 1960s that was the right amount of time, if you look at the early Beatles hits a lot of those hit that two minute mark. It’s never a number we look at. I don’t if there’s one on this album but there always seems to be at least one song on every Avatar record so far that is three minutes and thirty three seconds long which is the perfect radio length now. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.
Thing is we let label people choose singles, we don’t write singles. I think if we were to do that it would injure our art.
I guess if you try and write a radio friendly single there are so many things you’ve got to take into account, is that right?
I think that’s a way to compromise while writing and I think that goes against the whole idea what heavy metal is. Like “oh for this album we made really big compromises and the record is pretty OK” like who does that. So trying to make a radio friendly record would mean a lot of compromises, I mean if a song were to be a successful single that’s awesome. However there will always be “I have a great idea but is it radio friendly enough.”
So would you say if you were to write a radio friendly track would it limit your creativity?
Yes exactly, I guess it could be a great challenge for some songwriters I think. You need some kind of framework for yourself to conceptualise your work even if it isn’t a concept album. Either way it is helpful to conceptualise your work, and maybe that’s a brilliant frame to have every song to be three minutes and thirty three seconds long. I don’t think that’s for us.
Going back to your album that I personally enjoyed, who are your personal influences as I could hear pretty much a bit of everything from Doom to the track Black Waters that reminded me of Clutch?
Well I haven’t listened that much to Clutch, the riffing on Black Waters was written by Tim [Öhrström] who has a lot of influences in heavy groove and a lot in his playing so that helped. For that was one song I ran with and we started to work on the song together. For instance there was some influences from the Johnny Cash song God’s Gonna Cut You Down, with this weird dark blues that feels kind of epic. It’s nice when Christian people do it as you get under and over tones that gives you a virtual feel.
So what are your personal favourite songs on the album or do you not have a favourite?
The thing we always say is if you have one favourite there is something wrong with the rest of the album and we have to start over. We’re really hard against ourselves when writing like that, right now some stuff is fun, not in the way of being a favourite song but those containing something a bit different to what we have done.
In this case Sky Burial was fun to create as it was so focused on the orchestral side of it and I did most of the arranging. The satisfaction of doing something completely different and to put it out because I am sure every songwriter writes a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with their main outlets. Sometimes you tend to do something completely different that is connected to your main outlets and in this case the orchestral piece that fits the concept of our heavy metal album.
I really liked the tracks For The Swarm and The Eagle Has Landed, The Eagle Has Landed had circus type feel to it.
Yeah I guess in that sense, it’s interesting. This is the song that breaches the most to the last album so you can see some kind of stronger connection and where people can recognise us. I guess it’s good to have one song where people recognise us and we take them on a trip.
I was particularly interested in the themes on this album, I was wondering what the artwork on the track Fiddler’s Farewell displaying a cricket by a gravestone represented.
So the whole album is a fable about this owl, it’s presented as a one hundred and nine verse epic poem. This was an original story made up by Avatar, one of the ideas to create this fable was to use ideas from existing fables but we put our own twist onto them.
Fiddler’s Farewell for instance started out by being part of that idea. There is a fable called The Grasshopper and The Ant, the ant is working all summer long to provide food for the winter while the grasshopper is playing around in the sun with his fiddle. The ant warns him that while it’s nice and warm now, winter is on the way and they need to prepare for harder times but the grasshopper tells him not to worry. When winter comes the grasshopper is starving and is about to die so the ants give him food. So everyone is fine at the end and he [the grasshopper] learns his lesson, being the kind of story where everyone survives.
In this case, the idea we came up with was around the motive of us not being as good at learning lessons as well as we should and it doesn’t turn into the wisdom when it should. So what if the grasshopper doesn’t learn his lesson, so another summer comes and he’s still playing his fiddle whereas the ant works himself into the grave. Now it’s too late because there is no-one to take the grasshopper in when he’s hungry. In our telling the ant either works herself into a grave or gets stomped to death. In Tooth Beak And Claw there is a battle going on and between that and For The Swarm there’s a battle taking place where the ants are scattering everywhere and this ant gets stomped in the action. This results into a pointless death for no reason whatsoever and winter is coming so this grasshopper won’t survive on his own.
I’ve personally never heard of The Grasshopper and The Ant, is it quite well known?
With fables you are re-visiting childhood memories, I saw this particular fable in some sort of animation. It was based on a children’s book so yeah it’s out there, it isn’t that obscure.
Hearing you talk of that particular fable reminded me of the Disney Pixar film A Bugs Life, but the grasshoppers are bullies rather than friends.
Yeah, that’s a different perspective. When writing fables we use animals ruthlessly and we do whatever we please.
It’s seems to be underrated now, using animals in tales.
If we revive it we would like full credit [laughs]
From what I understand there’s also going to be a book, is this the first time you’ve done something like this?
Yeah it is and it was hard work. It’s not a novel, it’s more like a poetic form that. We decided that one form will give it the fable feel to the whole thing to frame it in an interesting way and we ended up with too much text for an album booklet alone. To release something like this would be desirable; we’re a generation who streams our music now rather than buy the physical copies. This fable book with the release will make sense to people who buy vinyl’s and someone listens to their music on Spotify or anything in-between. In a way it’s new but with old school features that can elevate the album as an art form again.
To round up, what can fans expect from the brand new record?
Well, that’s a good question. It’s a painting with a very wide pallet, that’s for sure but at the same time it was built on the same principle as to what heavy metal is for over forty years now. You think, you write and you think of the best riff you can. Then you figure out what the drummer is supposed to do as it hard to make sense of the record with the right groove where you make sure it’s a good groove and take the solo where it needs to go. To me that’s the simple truth of any form of metal and that is what we have done. We don’t like repeating ourselves or what others have done so we really play around with our influences and our own playing ability.
It’s a journey that begins with Regret and finishes with Sky Burial and after Sky Burial it’s on a loop after that and we start over. A little like Lord Of The Rings where Frodo goes to destroy a ring and then ends up back at the Shire where he thinks, wow things have happened. So it is a trip that I hope people are up for and that they enjoy it.