Interview by Donna Craddock || Photos by Rob Stuart
Antihero Magazine’s Donna Craddock recently had the opportunity to chat with Johannes Eckerström, the enigmatic frontman of Swedish metal masterminds, Avatar, during their stop in Liverpool.
Hi Johannes! How is the tour going so far?
It’s good! This is just the 4th show, but I think we are stepping up our game every night now. With this being the 4th show, it is usually the time when we hit our stride, but I feel like we hit the ground running this time, so it’s been great. We were sold out yesterday and it’s fun, even in a smaller place like this, that we are still pulling off a production that I don’t think venues like this are used to, which is pretty cool.
I first discovered you two years ago, at Bloodstock festival after you were bumped up to the main stage at the last minute, how did that feel?
At first, we were annoyed, we didn’t realize how good it would be on the main stage. When we were first asked, we said no, because we are stupid! But then we were told to switch – we were grumpy about it because we wanted to play in the dark of the 2nd stage, until we went out on stage and then we were saying, “This was a good idea!!” A lot of people have told us that the first time they heard us was at Bloodstock, so it worked well for us.
Who are your biggest influences musically?
That’s a very big question, we allow ourselves to be influenced by a whole bunch of things, so anything and everything would be one answer! Going back to the roots to what led up to this point, when I was like, 4 or 5 years old, I wanted to be a conductor as my parents were really into classical music, so that was the first time I got hooked on something I thought was cool. My mum showed me a page in a big book of music how they arrange the musicians in a symphonic orchestra, so I would stand on a chair and conduct the different parts of the orchestra. And then, fittingly as we are in Liverpool today, the Beatles were on the TV and I got hooked on them, listening to the old vinyls, and eventually my parents bought me the catalogue of CDs when I was around 8 years old, so it went from classical music to the Beatles and Michael Jackson. There are two bands around the same period who really clicked for me and those were Black Sabbath and Helloween, and those two, at the age of 12, are why I stopped cutting my hair. I was like, “ahh now I know my direction.” And then my journey was like most other young metalheads, getting more and more extreme, black metal, death metal, bands like Immolation, Cryptopsy, that sort of thing.
I read recently you are a huge Devin Townsend fan, have you thought about collaborating with him in the future?
I asked, he said no! It was a really friendly “No.” We were fishing for producers and he has done it, less nowadays, and it just wasn’t for him, he’s a busy person. We met before that, I actually interviewed him, and during that interview it turned out that he had heard us. When I met him, he was like, “Avatar, right?”
Did you squeal?
I kept it together, but I was on the inside!
Who else would be your dream collaborations?
I don’t know, whenever I think of collaborations I usually think about doing something with people I know, old friends, you know?
I suppose you won’t get much time for that nowadays, so it makes sense!
Yeah that’s the problem.
Who do you think your favourite support slots have been? You’ve toured with some big bands, every time I looked at what you guys were up to after Bloodstock, you always seemed to be touring with somebody pretty epic, which one has been the most fun so far?
I think Helloween about 5 years ago, now. They are why I stopped cutting my hair, so when we toured with them, they were really nice, really friendly and generous with a big fan’s questions, so we had a great time together. But you get used to things, bad or good, if they happen all the time you get used to it quickly and it becomes normal, but sometimes you still stop and think, “Wait a minute…this is pretty cool.”
So, what are you plans going forward?
We have this tour. Next year… now that we have finally got to do a long period of headline shows more than opening, we may try and go out with some bigger bands and steal their fans again!
Haha! Yes, I bet that happens quite often!
It’s an opening band’s job, to give the main band a run for their money.
So, what made you go in a conceptual direction with the new album then?
We like to do new things, we like to push ourselves so it’s like we asked ourselves, “what would be hard to do?” And none of us have done a concept album so we said, “right let’s go!” Just finding an artistic challenge, finding another layer of art to add to what we are already doing. That was the starting point. The story and everything grew and came out of that ambition.
Did you sit down and figure out what the story was going to be or did you let it grow on its own?
It was a long thought process, we wrote some riffs but parallell to that I was starting to figure out what the story was. The skeleton of the story I knew, what I wanted to go in it, we built up riff banks and then right as we started to take the songs more seriously, I finished up the story. It’s about finding the right balance between the music and the story.
Did it feel good to do something that different and unexpected?
It felt good because it was a hard thing to do, it was new territory and we pulled it off. It was the hardest album we have made so far and I have said that about every album, and I want to continue to say that about every album. People have taken this album on with open arms and are very positive towards it, so we are doing great. You still have people saying, “Oh, I prefer Hail the Apocalypse,” and I just say, “I love that, too” We wrote it, we still perform it live, it still exists and is still part of who we are, but now we have done that and we have moved onto the next thing. But nothing of the old stuff disappears, it’s around forever.
Where are you going on this tour after you have finished in the UK?
Continental Europe, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. It’s 25 dates altogether.
Will you get Christmas off? Who would you be spending it with?
I’ll be spending it at home in Helsinki with my girlfriend.
The full works? Turkey and all that?
No Turkey, I’m a vegan!
That can’t be easy on the road, ha-ha!
It sucks in England, thank GOD for your immigrants, ha-ha!
Thank you so much for your time, Johannes. I am looking forward to the show tonight!
Me too, thanks for coming!