Exclusive interview – hellfest.fr: AVATAR [Johannes Eckerström (vocals)]
“I remember when we played in Paris two years ago, in the middle of the show, everybody was yelling: “Hellfest!!! Hellfest!!!”
Johannes Eckerström – Le Trabendo, Paris – December 5th, 2016
I have the feeling you have been falling in love with French fans for a little bit more than 2 years now. How do you explain that?
We have been coming here for a couple of times before that. Through the years, I mean we have been here in France with Evergrey for instance… I think it was our first time… It was years ago, and also with Obituary a long time ago. But I think the big turnaround for us was a couple of years ago when we were here with Avenged Sevenfold at Le Zénith in Paris. Then I think we finally grabbed French metalheads’ attention. Those things are hard to explain… Why do you specially connect with certain countries? Because France is definitely one of them. It’s great because I also enjoy privately coming to France. We spent some good time yesterday, we went to Père-Lachaise cemetery, of course visiting Jim Morrison’s grave but also Jean De La Fontaine’s grave. You know with our last record Feathers and Flesh, it was very special to go and pay some respect to Jean De La Fontaine. I left my hat to this old man.
Two years ago, you played in Paris at La Flèche d’Or which is a 500 people venue. Tonight, it is a 700 people venue and it is sold out! Lyon’s venue was also sold out 2 days ago and you will play in Strasbourg tomorrow. So next time in Paris, will you play at Le Zenith as a headliner?
Yeah! That would be very nice! We just see how far we can take this now. I mean, this is with us, the way we do our music and the way we want to be as a band, we don’t follow formulas. All our big success came when we stop worrying about the world around us when we write music. So we will continue to not worry about the world around us, but maybe it will lead us to a huge flop (laughter)! But you know, now, we are just here to enjoy it as long as it lasts, and do the best job we can do.
You are supporting your new record Feathers and Flesh on this tour. As a concept album, how is it welcomed by your fans on stage?
It was very important for us, as we were doing a concept album, to not forget and not lose some quality principles about music first. It was very important for us to be driven by the music prior to this. Every song had to work as a standalone track as well. So, song number 4 is not just good because it connects with song number 3. So, it wasn’t very hard to put them on the set list. And the most epic moments on each night is when we play “Eagle Has Landed” and “Night Never Ending” on this tour. People sing along with us, they know the songs, it’s great and… Kind of acrazy thing!
You will close this tour in your hometown, Göteborg, won’t you? Is it important for you?
Yeah! It is very nice, but I don’t remember… I mean I am not sure we decided to do it like this… I think it is just because the bus company is nearby so it is convenient (smiling). But you know, we don’t think like “Hey guys we will play our hometown Göteborg so it has to be our best show ever”. Actually, nowadays, all our shows have to be our best shows ever! In a way, the show in Göteborg will be just another show. It’s just some kind of extra fun you know because more friends can see you… Mum can come and listen also! So it is quite different on that personal level. But the show itself? There is no difference with the others. And also like tonight, I have some friends in Paris, and they are coming tonight, so we will enjoy the show together!
What will be your main plans after this European tour?
We will take a short break, and right after New Year’s Eve, we will have a new video to shoot, and then we will go to play this cruise, ShipRocked, which will start from Miami. I think Avatar would have better fit with the70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise, but it will be fine anyway. It’s very nice to travel to the Bahamas in January, I am not complaining about that (laughing). And after that, we will work on a tour schedule again. And it will be time to start thinking about the next step musically, even though our last album feels pretty new. It was recorded one year ago, so it is somewhere related to the past now. And we all are thinking about the future.
Do you have time to write music when you are touring?
Yes, sometimes. But we don’t demand that from ourselves. If it happens, it happens! You know, you try to capture inspiration when you get it. But the actual focus writing, that process, requires another environment, at least for me. It requires some kind of home environment, some kind of isolation. On tour, your brain power goes to the show, and the stuff around the show, and to put yourself psychologically in a good place to do a good show. You know that means spend time to working out, spend time in having fun, spend time with a day-to-day business…Everything on tour is a slave to the first priority of having a show.
Then you will be back in France next year at Hellfest and it will be your very first time there. What do you know about this festival?
I know… Well,… I remember first when I’ve heard of it…I think it was a year ago, because everyone was there, in a way that everything I wanted to see! I am talking about Opeth, Katatonia, Pain Of Salvation, Anathema…And Black Sabbath! It was just insane to see all these names on the same bill! And I know people who have been there, John (Alfredsson) our drummer has worked there as a tour manager for instance, and he loved it so much! He told us about this special mood you can find at Hellfest. And that is also a very nice place to be. So we have a special feeling about Hellfest. In Sweden, we also have that kind of big festival, such as Sweden Rock. But there is not that kind of “French touch”! I remember when we played in Paris two years ago, in the middle of the show, everybody was yelling: “Hellfest!!! Hellfest!!!”. They wanted us to play Hellfest, so it feels very special because we know we will meet a lot of French metalheads!
Please would you like to look at the line up for next year and comment it?
Oh yeah! I was looking at it before the interview. I am a huge Devin Townsend fan and they play after us, on the same stage, which is perfect! Emperor, I am excited for! I would like to see Opeth again of course, I have never saw Autopsy so I would like to, Obituary we have toured with, they are amazing…I am a big Behemoth fan… Soilwork is always good…Marduk was my favorite black metal band…Pain Of Salvation, I have never saw them…Cryptopsy of course, also Turisas…So I have to stay for three days at Hellfest, that’s the problem! Maybe I will only have the chance to see… Let’s say… Two bands? (smiling). Oh! And Deep Purple, of course! So it’s a lot of good stuff, I hope I could catch at least some of it…But Emperor and Devin Townsend are my top 2 priorities…And Cryptopsy and… (laughter). I just admire them so much for being so extreme, but with a personal groove. It’s a great, great, great band!
Nobody can classify your music into only one specific music style. What are your main musical influences?
I cannot say what our main influences are, because there are so many things in our music style you know. The goal of what we do is to create great metal, but a huge part of those things that inspire us does not come from metal music. For instance, with Feathers and Flesh, I talk a lot about The Beatles, Queen and Pink Floyd. Mostly Queen and The Beatles. Because these bands had a such diversity in their music and in many different things. Like The Beatles’ White Album for instance. It is very hard to define and to pick one because it contains so many different things…If you listen to the song “Blackbird”, you cannot guess that you gonna hear something like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”…or “Back in the USSR”! But all those songs sound like The Beatles. And nothing else. It doesn’t sound even a little bit like The Beach Boys, you know! And that is because their voices and their style of playing are unique. Also, Judas Priest has become more and more influential in terms of groove. And I am becoming a bigger and bigger Judas Priest fan. I am also a very big Blind Guardian and Helloween fan. Rammstein also. Black Sabbath is one of my absolute all times favorite band. We are a metal band, and like every metal band we sound like Black Sabbath! So I think you can hear a bunch of all these bands in our music, and I bring with me a certain way of thinking on that when we do our songs. I think one more time about the atmosphere of our songs, one more time about the melody. If I want to write something catchy, and if it can be played on the radio, that doesn’t hurt our career. But, if you start your morning with thinking “I should write a radio song :(singing) – lalala lala lala lalalalala, baby”… Then I make a conscious effort, you know! But I prefer to be fresh with the music you know. For me, I take a lot of stuff from prog music, I like listening to Anathema for instance, mainly because of the atmosphere of the music itself. This music is very emotional, because it makes me cry (laughing). Same goes to Steven Wilson’s music. It is emotionally so powerful, then prog music influences me a lot.
How did you get the idea about Avatar’s concept, I mean that kind of circus concept?
We get kind of lucky! What happened is that we recorded Black Waltz, our fourth album…But it wasn’t called Black Waltz yet. We just felt like “Ok, we have recorded an amazing album, and something has changed in the way we made music. And we felt it, the way it was produced and recorded”. It was just like we have jumped ten levels in quality. And we had still in mind our objective to achieve that global package. You can call it image if you want, what helped us, but playing in a band is kind of concept art. And therefore everything the band should communicate a same artistic idea that the music does. And that could be something like Kiss or it could be in a way more heavy and serious such as Joe Division, or it can be something much lighter like… I don’t know… Foo Fighters? They just wear jeans and t-shirts, and they have a good time! So, it’s a full package. But we didn’t know what it was, we didn’t even know how we wanted to call the album. One idea was Let It Burn is catchy title! Very simple you know, it also sounds metal, so what could we do? “So what about if we put you, Johannes, in a lake, put some oil on the lake and light a fire. Cool! Let’s do that!” So, we had a photo shoot, trying to get the album cover, so we needed a pyro-technician, and we needed a crazy pyro-technician to put the lake on fire! Then we called an American gentleman, and he let me on fire to take the pictures, and he shown the other things he could do, such as eat glass…whatever, all those crazy things! What we got from that was: ok, all these things are pretty cool but we have that Waltz song…we guessed we would probably call it Black Waltz, but at this moment, it was simply The Waltz. So we decided to do a music video for this song with him, and some other people he worked with just needed a performance video, and they didn’t need the whole band to be there and play. So they only put me in a circus to see how I felt in a circus. They proposed me to be like this scary clown, and dressed like if I was working in this circus. So that was just a character invented for the music video. But we figured out with all this paint on my face, I looked at me in the mirror and I said: “It’s not a character, it’s me!” I felt so at home you know, I felt so right. And just by chance, John asked: “Take pictures! Take pictures!”. So went crazy in front of the camera, and we said: that’s the album cover! So we get lucky, and it was just obvious.
So do you think your character can change in the future? A kind of evolution?
Maybe! Listen: it could be just a commercial suicide to change anything now because a lot of people are enjoying Avatar as a circus act. And we love it! So we will stay like this as long as we love it. As long as there is a meaning to us, as long as it is inspiring for what we are doing with our music. So we have to see how long that lasts! Because I feel very good with Avatar music. Because it is so honest. And I want to keep it being an honest art. If the clown gets in the way of that, then that has to stop. I don’t see it happening, but I don’t know about the future. And it would be ridiculous to say that it can never happen. But it is also wrong to say it will absolutely happen! Time will tell…
How long does it take to make up before a gig?
We usually start getting ready one hour before the gig. We don’t want to be ready for too long, because it is a mental transition, and a part of our ritual, so…Sometimes if I do films for press, then ok… But usually we try to wear something else. You know, if I have to be dressed for the party for five hours, then it is not the same! I lose the intensity of the transition, so one hour / one hour and a half is fine enough. And the time to do our makeup is about half an hour, I think. It depends if I get it at the first time, or if I have to start over. It is not an exact science!
To finish this interview, do you have one last word for HELLFEST fans?
Well, I learnt to say “Faites du bordel” (laughter)! So… “Faites du bordel when we will see you guys at Hellfest!”.
Many thanks to Roger (Replica)