May 2016 interview by Todd Jolicoeur, photos by mintypics.com
Avatar is a rock band that swirls together different sounds and genres along with a visual component that captivates listeners and fans, especially if you were to watch some of their videos. If you aren't sure who they are, take a read through here and then look them up - you will be glad you did. As they get ready to drop their latest disc, Feathers and Flesh, they are out touring the big festivals and hitting some headline dates. We were able to grab some time from frontman Johannes Eckerström as he prepared for a show in Chatanooga, TN.
Toddstar: Johannes, how are you?
Johannes: Good. How are you?
Toddstar: Excellent, sir. Thank you so much for taking time out for us.
Johannes: My pleasure.
Toddstar: Let's jump right into it. It is a very exciting time for Avatar right now. You guys are a couple weeks away from releasing your latest album, Feathers and Flesh.
Johannes: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It's always strange, because us, the musicians, involved in it, there has been a couple of months since it's been mentally released for me, when you get the master in hand and listen to it and say, "Okay, now it's done." Then I can have my own little release party, and then there always are these couple of months where, "Oh yeah, yeah, the world will hear this too. That's weird," and now we're finally reaching it, so exciting and surprisingly strange times, every time.
Toddstar: That's a great insight. No one's ever really discussed that at length before.
Johannes: You send your kid off to school, like, "Oh yeah, now you're going to go into the world." The sons are going to call and tell me, "I'm eating over at Alan's place." They won't be home for dinner for the first time. It's weird. Nice, but weird.
Toddstar: I can only imagine. You have released a few songs from this album, and it's a concept album. Can you kind of walk us through that process? Concept albums are not really something done very commonly today.
Johannes: No, it's more rare, especially in heavy metal. If you're into prog music, each and every album has some sort of concept tying it together. In metal, the way we are doing it, it feels more rare and getting rarer than ever, because people are being drawn into, I think, that because we can consume things faster and faster, technology allows it, it seems that we also believe that that's the only way people would like it then. Now we are putting something out there that's a bit heavier and will take some more digestion. It's just like with a piece of rye bread, it's better for you. We started doing this, we decided on it because we came right off doing Hail the Apocalypse, and with each album we try to find a new challenge, a new way of making it hard, a new way to keep ourselves on our toes and have a knife to our throats. With Hail the Apocalypse, it was all about recording it live and daring to be that band, daring to believe in ourselves as musicians enough to do that, and that really put us on our toes for that project. With this one, the new challenge then was, again, to make an album that is more than just the greatest hits of that particular year's writing session. The ambition to create the concept album came before the actual concept. Then there was lots of thinking and pondering and contemplating before reaching the conclusion to what this album actually was about. First, because we come from this, we build this all on this circus concept thing that we are doing, my first thought was "We can do as story about a haunted fairgrounds or circus, something like that." When I was having those thoughts, I got bored and basically fell asleep just telling the story to myself. I got bored with that. Then I started to look into many great works of concept album are based on a pre-existing story. Lots of bands have used some novels as their background material to write music around it. I was kind of digging through my mind, "What have I read that has affected me enough to be a suitable source of inspiration to write a whole lot of them around it?" Then I remembered, I think they're called The Emigrants or something in English. It's a Swedish author, Vilhelm Moberg, writes about a farmer's family emigrating to America in the 1800s, something like that. It's an epic and there's so much in there, so I started to look into that, then remembering that Bjorn and Benny from ABBA wrote a musical out of that a long time ago, so it was taken, so moving on. Then I started to be interested in fables as source material. The first initial idea was to use pre-existing fables and just twist around the perspectives and play around with archetypes, because in fables the animals always represent certain personality traits or ideas or whatever, a certain side of human psyche, if you will. The wolf is always big and bad, and the fox is very cunning, and so on. I wanted to play around with that. In that process, the original story of the owl that this album is about, and how she goes to war to stop the sun from rising, and her being destined to fail, and that whole thing, grew out of that. Once that owl came to mind, then the vision locked in, and that became then the key into the music this time. It is very different when you do a concept album. Again, it can't just be the greatest hits of the last year and a half. Suddenly each song is part of the story, and you can't just throw a song away if it doesn't work out. You have to work it until it is good enough to have a place on the album, because you need that song to tell that part of the story. It's been interesting like that. That was the longest answer I gave you.
Toddstar: A thorough answer, and that's the point. Now, when you're writing like this, and you mentioned that you have to rework a song until it works, how different from a song writing standpoint was that for you in putting together the album around a concept where you couldn't throw songs away specifically just because you didn't like the feel of it?
Johannes: I think that very thing, that whole essence that that was the difference. You sit there and... because there's always something you get stuck with that you have. The initial part of process was still pretty similar. Everyone shows up with a bag of riffs, and we show each other, we play around with it. Me as a lyricist, if it's not a concept album, I'm drawn to start working on my vocals and writing stuff on the things that the other guys have done, or I have made, that grants me the greatest vision, that I enjoy the most, or whatever it is that triggers me in that music. This time I was instead on the search for specific emotions, but still, the initial writing process was still very free, still jamming, trying out a bunch of riffs and doing heavy metal, but just it was a different kind of end goal this time, except for it has to be very, very, very good, because that it always has to be. Then suddenly you have this song that you feel like, "Here is a pike in the moor deep down under water. She's here. Okay. She's not in one of the other songs." It's pretty clear. Then you have to mess around. There was one of those where the verse changed a million times, the chorus. The chorus was actually old. It was from a previous album. “Black Waters” is the song I'm talking about. The chorus was an old piece that's been around since at least writing Hail the Apocalypse. We couldn't have that make sense back then, but suddenly it clicked with what's going on now. It's been waiting for this album, basically. Then, before finding that main riff that goes together with that, finding that feel, I think we tried dozens of ideas on it before reaching that point, but we didn't have any choice. We needed to reach that point because the pike was nowhere else to be found, and the pike was in the story. Challenges like that.
Toddstar: It sounds like it was quite the process not only as a lyricist but as a band to try and put this together.
Johannes: Absolutely, and what baffles me so much is when looking back someone asks, "How long did it take to write this?" Then we sit down and count it. We always write here and there. There are always some ideas lying around that you then can use once you get serious. The actual process starts that day when you say, "Okay, now it's serious." That was April last year. This album, it's released two years to the date after Hail the Apocalypse came out. In hindsight, I understood why I was so damn tired, because it was an intense thing, and we recorded in just a little more than a month, which is the time we have usually spent on recording, and just realizing, "Wow, this is 50% more music." It's a longer album, whoops, and a different kind of work with over-dubs and stuff we wanted in there: a live choir, a church organ, some different instruments. It was really a rough process like that, but also very cool that it got to be so intense.
Toddstar: You mentioned how hard it was to put some songs together. Were there any songs on the album that really fell together very easy for you?
Johannes: Yeah. I guess "Night Never-Ending" was one of those. It was also so clear... Once we realized, okay, this is really a major scale happy piece, in the grander scheme of things it kind of forebodes something darker coming, but the song in and of itself, a fight song about the night that never ends that probably is great in an Irish pub, if the Irish pub guests are metal heads. Once we kind of embraced that that is what this is, it was a total relief to write and went pretty quickly. Again, we mentally go to Ireland, and then we just had fun with it. That went pretty fast. I'm sure there's something else, but you remember more the grueling process of writing the rough ones.
Toddstar: You guys did something with this album that you've been very big on your whole career, and that's the visual. You guys have put together some great videos. Is that something you guys, when you were writing the album, you could all see the video playing in your head as the album was coming together?
Johannes: Yes and no. Sometimes mentally you're able to almost write the music video script, and that is probably a good sign, you would think, because then there's a vision in the song. If there's so much going on in the music against you, imagery in front of the eyes so immediately, it's usually a healthy sign. It can be more indirect. The best example of that is, again, "Hail the Apocalypse," the song, it was built around that, when I heard that riff the first time I saw the doomsday prophet, guy with a sign in hand in the middle of the street saying, "The end is coming." That is, again, what "Hail the Apocalypse," the music video also turned out to be about. It's kind of there. We always build the music videos out of the vision that the song was giving initially. The way that we treat our visual side which also is a piece of the art project that is Avatar; it turns out to be an extension of the song, as it should be. We never just stand in a warehouse and play with some strokes and smoke and call it a day. It's always about expanding the music, visualizing the music and visualizing the lyrics. Many times it's a metaphor, but always connected to it.
Toddstar: There's one song in here that I kind of dig, "Tooth, Beak, and Claw." I love the kind of surfer rhythm built and woven into the music. You actually at one point referred to it as death metal you could dance to. Your albums always have a diverse sound to them, and you don't repeat the sound from album to album, which is great as an artist. How can you guys draw from so many different influences and sounds, and put something together that still at the heart of it sounds like Avatar, something like this song, where you get that surfer groove in it?
Johannes: First of all, thank you. I think it's a couple of things that we learned through the years. We started doing this, and we learned through the years never to pretend to be something we're not. At the same time, the diversity comes because we allow ourselves to be diverse, and especially on this album, key reference points and sources of inspiration for this were The Beatles and Queen, and listened to "A Night at the Opera," or listened to, The White Album and tried to pick one song that explains those albums from beginning to end. "Bohemian Rhapsody," which is one of the most iconic songs ever, but does that song tell you so much about the album? It doesn't tell you much about songs like "Good Company," "39," or "Death on Two Legs." White Album, which song represents? Is it not "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"? "Back in the USSR"? What do those songs have to do with "Dear Prudence"? They all sound like Beatles and Queen because it is made by The Beatles and Queen. I don't put us on their level in that sense, but it's definitely something we aspire to reach, just in heavy metal instead.
Toddstar: You've done something that bands like The Beatles or Queen, like you said, not to put yourself on that level, or to remove yourself from that level, but you found what works for you, and you've been able to make it work throughout your career so far. So many bands, like you referred to earlier, everything is so disposable, and everything they do will go 180 in a different direction. When you guys are doing this type of album or this kind of music, do you guys just say, "Listen, this is who we are. Let's not deviate. Our fans like this, and we seem to be getting more and more fans as we go."?
Johannes: We don't worry so much about the concept of getting or keeping fans. That is a result of us writing and playing for each other. I think that is the key to why people, and a certain kind of people, are into us, and keeping into us. I think once you start second guessing what others will think about what you're doing, then you risk playing it safe, or again, risk going into faking something that's not really you. I think if nothing else, that brings a weaker result. You have to dare to believe in what you're doing enough to let that be what it is and not worry too much about trends and stuff. That's the nice thing working the way we do. We don't really have time to learn too much about trends. When I watch movies, I try now to catch up on the silent movie era anyway, and there are still a couple of albums from the 90's and 80's I still haven't checked out that I probably should. We're very good at not following trends anyway.
Toddstar: You're getting ready to go out and tour heavily behind the new disc, even hitting some dates before the album drops. You're coming through Michigan, and you're playing a place that is near and dear to my heart, and I know you guys always get a great reception: The Machine Shop (http://www.themachineshop.info/).
Johannes: I'm actually wearing a Machine Shop shirt right now.
Toddstar: I'm sure Kevin would love to know that. What is it about the Machine Shop? What is it that keeps Avatar coming back?
Johannes: For one, it was one of those places, since the first tour, I guess we did our first headline show in the States there. People show up, and the people running it are great and everything. My favorite thing is that I love venues that have a culture and personality of their own. It is something that is acknowledged in the business, big and small bands. I was in the catering for whichever festival we were at yesterday in Jacksonville. We played this festival. In the catering area I heard "Love your shirt, man. Machine Shop, yeah!" It's a thing. It's definitely a thing in the business, because it is the place it is. Again, it has a culture and value of its own, and we're very happy to be a part of it.
Toddstar: They're very happy to have you as a part of it. As a matter of fact, Jeff the house photographer told me about the last time you were there you brought some candy for everybody to try.
Johannes: Oh, yeah.
Toddstar: He said it was very bitter. I am guessing it wasn't Swedish fish.
Johannes: Yeah, because Swedish fish is not very Swedish. This is a salty, licorice thing called Djungelvral. I just had one of those, actually, and gave them to some Americans who hadn't tried them yet. We always make a point of eating them with people, because otherwise they'll think we're pulling their legs. In Sweden and Finland especially, we love that stuff.
Toddstar: It struck a chord, because he remembered that. When it comes to touring, Johannes, what can the fans expect? Can they expect a good mix of all your albums? Are you guys going to put a lot of your new material out there for them?
Johannes: Now that we have done the concept album, the next step is that Avatar in itself is a concept. Now the challenge lies in integrating our present with our past. It always is about that. This is not a tour where we do the album from beginning to end or anything like that. It's about making a show that makes sense on all level of what Avatar is. Avatar, we are Feathers and Flesh, but we also are Black Waltz, Hail the Apocalypse, and also older things. It's all about finding the mix, finding the balance.
Toddstar: Looking over your catalog right now, what song or two that Avatar's put out so far do you think will always be part of an Avatar set?
Johannes: That's a very good question. I don't know how many shows we have done since Black Waltz came out, where we have not played "Let It Burn" and "Smells Like a Freakshow," for instance, so maybe one of them. We also had songs in the past that we thought were going to be like that, and then we kind of moved on. We bring them back occasionally because we like to change our sets. As of now, I would guess it's one of those two. It's impossible to know. Let's see if we have even more keepers on this one. As long as we keep making albums that we are this proud of and happy with and that we believe people will enjoy as much as we do, then only time can tell.
Toddstar: That's true. I'm a big fan of "The Great Pretender" myself.
Johannes: Ah, yes. That was a staple, that was a standard, for many tours, and then the problem is that we wrote a couple more albums.
Toddstar: I know you're busy, so I've got one more for you before we cut loose, if you don't mind.
Johannes: Yeah, that's fine.
Toddstar: With everything you've done so far, with everything you've done musically, lyrically, as a band, as a composer, if the music industry were to cease tomorrow, what one or two things have you done that you're most proud of, or that you've accomplished that you want to be remembered for at this point?
Johannes: Every day I learn something new about the meaning of the word "integrity," and I try to keep learning that. Doing what we do, it's easy to be tempted and start going astray with that, but I'm starting to reach a point where I can feel pretty proud about that, about integrity. I'm proud that we are doing such a good job as we are, the dedication. That I could bring with me to anything else I might do in life. The way you learn an instrument, if you approach any other skill like that, you will master it fairly quickly. Again, we dared to be ourselves.
Toddstar: That's a testament to anybody, especially in the music industry this day and age.
Johannes: Yeah. There's lots of fake shit going on.
Toddstar: So true. Listen, we really appreciate the time you've given us today, and we wish you well and safe travels until we see you here in Flint, Michigan, at the world famous Machine Shop on May 11th. Again, wish you well with that and everything leading up to the album release.
Johannes: Awesome. Thanks, man, for your time. It's a pleasure.
Toddstar: Thank you so much.
Johannes: See you at The Machine Shop. Take care.
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