It’s hard not to be transported when you’re abducted.
Avatar is a notorious kidnapper. The words “my angel” are soft, romantic; they can even be a psalm, pleading or desperate. But, with a distorted twist and a scream, they proclaim a psychotic obsession. In just two words, you know the whole story and you’re there.
Great fields and trees with a frenzied menagerie fighting over the power of the sun, saturating the earth with guts and sorrow, hopes and highs, to unprecedented Metal are violently stitched together with the unexpected.
Nothing is off the table. One moment, addictive riffs are breaking your neck and the next bar could be a slide into a smooth jazz groove, surfin’ city, or a down-home hillbilly harmonica – “Good morning!” This band has a way of expressing themselves with such precision that the listener is compelled to smell the air, taste the soot, hear the screams and experience a song in 3-D.
In rich symbolism or pure fire, in the marrow or on the surface, Avatar is emerging as a beloved habit and master storytellers.
Touring as heavily as Iron Maiden did back in the early ‘80’s, the band is taking stage after stage after stage in Europe and the United States for nearly a year, from festivals to bowling alleys, grabbing audiences by the throat and taking them on a finely-tuned thrill ride. Every album progresses forward to the next level of success from The Black Waltz to Hail the Apocalypse and this year’s conceptual triumph, Feathers and Flesh, to the point of owning the marquee as headliners from time to time.
To many fans, this is just a great band, just lots of fun and great Metal. And who is to disagree? But, to others, they are, indeed, a great band but with much more beneath the big top that they lead on.
Avatar can be as underrated as they are underestimated.
T. Ray Verteramo had a chance to speak with “the dark jester,” Avatar’s principle spokesman and vocalist, Johannes Eckerstrom, to discuss real show under the lights.
RAY: First and foremost, where did Avatar’s extraordinary sense of theater originate? Was this something you all naturally brought together or was this a skill you honed with your musical savvy?
ECKERSTROM: That’s hard to answer. I should say I guess we’re just a bunch of drama queens. One thing that I’m interested in, first and foremost, that I want to achieve with our music is to speak to people emotions, to deliver something that is emotional. Meaning of the songs are first supposed to speak to your heart, if you will, then your brain, then groin area and all that follow. But first it should be that Primal sense of urgency and all that and it’s just simply that a goal we have with what we what we are writing and all that.
And I guess that goes hand-in-hand with growing up, at least I’ve always been the most into music that is over the top emotionally. And whatever that might be like from most bright posits too energetic, hopeful, brutal, death metal, black metal, the darkest of the darkest and just exploring the extremes.
RAY: So, it is just part of your nature and when you started composing together, it just spilled into your compositions?
ECKERSTROM: Yeah I think it’s just the human urge to feel something, to always compose music that makes us feel something. You know, when you put it out like that, it becomes very self-explanatory, but it isn’t for other artists. We never try to write music that we think sounds cool. We never set out to do music that is nice and “loungey,” where you could just lay back and works great with a nice cocktail. So, I think it’s just in the nature of what we were doing, being metal and the kind of music that we grew up with.
RAY: Tell me a little bit about the songwriting process. What’s the dynamic like in the studio?
ECKERSTROM: It’s very interesting, because over the years it has become more and more a collective thing. Like when we started out, we were writing, do the rest then basically all of the music the arrangements the space lines and stuff and we were very like this is our late teens, early twenties – very protective of what we had written. You know, you come to rehearsal and explain to the guys how everything goes and then we could argue for hours before I would even allow John to change one snare drum hit. But with some maturity and some trust, I think we’re becoming better at it. We got more and more loose over the years, it’s a very collective experience. I mean, one of us has to write the first few chords all the song but soon as you got that it’s called, what you would call, community property. It’s very open-ended now-a-days.
And on top of that, when it comes to lyrics, the other guys may say things about them but I’m always right.
But, overall it’s very collective and we try to be very open with the feedback and stuff. Then of course, if I have written something and then I get the most constructive criticism, it still takes them a few hours to where I have to apologize for trying to stab them in the throat and say, “Okay, maybe you had some fair points.” It’s open like that.
RAY: That’s really impressive. Art is inherently selfish, anyway.
ECKERSTOM: Oh, absolutely.
RAY: It’s especially impressive with Avatar because it’s very clear that you are all Alphas. Even though you, Johannes, are unmistakably the MC in every way visually and you can work a crowd with the best of them, it’s still very clear that you’re all made up of very strong personalities. So, how did you manage to start opening up and collaborate? What did you start doing differently to make that happen?
ECKERSTROM: I think ambition was always part of it. There’s always about this thing about Avatar that is hovering above us all, so everything should be aimed towards that.
Avatar is not called “Johannes Eckerstrom’s Avatar” or whichever member you want to put there. We all think what’s best for the band. The band comes first.
It’s kind of an ego disjointing very early on and almost this selfishness of the song writing in the beginning was not really in contradiction to that. It was just that we hadn’t really developed the skill to do it in another way in the beginning.
I would read Paul McCartney’s biography and just envy everything about the collaboration and how they would describe the collaboration around songs and what that would be like and we really wanted that; especially me and Jonas. We’re big Beatles fans, so we wanted to be like Lennon and McCartney.
It just took a while to understand what that method is about. So, I don’t think we were ever against it. The beginning was just a lack of the tools to do it in that way initially. But we were very early on about destroying the individual ego like making that ego part of a bigger puzzle Five egos, the Mega-ego of Avatar and it’s all about that.
You know, first you want to learn how to play guitar then you want to learn to play guitar faster. Then, you want to show people how fast you can play and that goes for all of us in the band. You want to write some cool shit and I’m still a fan of cool shit. I’m still a fan of our early albums. But that’s just one way of doing it it’s a very youthful way of doing it and when we started to reach a point, for lack of a better word, reach a certain maturity, it starts to become more song-oriented, but also bountiful with cool shit because we still have very fast guitar solos.
We still have fairly complicated things and many of the songs, but it’s not so much now for say, wow this is crazy stuff because this is how it feels, this is how this one song feels again because of the emotions that are in there and some of those emotions get articulated with lots of notes performed quickly up and down the fretboard.
RAY: Some of the narrative tools that you use in your songs are just downright Ph.D. shit; it’s the stuff that they teach you in college. For example, like on “Pray the Sun Away,” your rhythm Section, whether or not they realized it, used a classic New Guinea African polyrhythm for the intro.
ECKERSTROM: *laugh* Oh, we did?? *laughs harder*
RAY: You did!
ECKERSTROM: Actually, Jonas [Jarlesby, guitar] wrote it. He had this idea and just had to make sure that because he programs drums on a drum machine for recording the guitars and all that…very consciously, just double-checking that it was humanly possible. He didn’t care if it was hard or easy to play, but he had this idea. And then John was like, “What have you done to me?” What was it? A new…a new Guinea…? What?
RAY: New Guinea African traditional polyrhythm.
ECKERSTROM: I didn’t know this.
RAY: You didn’t know this? If you took a video of African dancing in New Guinea and you lower the volume, then play the intro to pray the Sun away, they’ll pretty much line up. Then when you take that and you put it with the context and the setting, in the open field and the nature, you got shamanism. It sounds very deliberate.
ECKERSTROM: This is a classic case of the “death of the author,” isn’t it? But it was funny how something about music, whether you know it or whether you are aware that certain chords, certain harmonies give you certain sensations. So, a part can be culturally shaped into finding something being more beautiful than other things…Yes that this became a song that is a prayer it is about the Sun it’s all these things, it doesn’t surprise me that you can find a trace of that in something culturally different somewhere else given in innocence more function. I think it’s amazing and very interesting but not that surprising been around the world we hear music in the same way more then we think we do.
It’s truly wonderful to see once again the universality today in Metal I think more than other genres.
RAY: I feel that Metal is much more of a conglomerate. It stems from the sound of the Earth, it’s so primal, much more than country or pop.
ECKERSTROM: I think it’s very possible because it’s global. And because of the primal thing because it’s the most basic form of it I mean yes because there is a lot of stuff going on but it’s about these Primal things that are rhythms, fairly simple rhythms to begin with then suddenly you end up with the New Guinea African polyrhythm or you have Meshuggah…that global accessibility countering western music, which I like, is limited by the fact that its strengths and weakness is that it’s so ingrained into North American culture more specific in the United States.
Metal music is a style that has traveled a lot. So, when it reached Brazil and it started to do Thrash metal there and suddenly started to use whatever their mama sang to them, and then you do the same in Japan, you do the same in Sweden where is Scandinavian folk music has been used. Everyone uses classical music influences, so yeah it’s very open-ended in metal. It just has to be heavy and there should be at least one electric guitar. You can put whatever prefix you want in front of metal and it can be so many things so, yeah, I agree.
RAY: Let’s bring it back to Avatar. You really pulled out all the stops for Feathers and Flesh and you stated in previous interviews that you always like to top yourselves. What are you going to do for an encore?
ECKERSTROM: Find another direction with this — meaning, that’s the idea every time. [On this last album] we learned a lot and I got to learn a lot about concept albums, again those abstract sides of it that I want to bring into whatever is the next thing that we’re doing. And there are some loose ideas at the moment, and I’m fine with letting it’d be a bit loose.
Just yesterday I had an idea. I don’t think it’ll be on this one, but I just realized that so many bands perform with symphonic orchestra. And there are some good and worse examples of this, but so many rock bands are doing this and that gets boring to me. But, I used to play the trombone. That was one of my first instruments as a kid. I took lessons until I was 18 years old and I was in a big band. And I was thinking at some point I would like to do an album with big band because I don’t think a Metal band has done it all the way through. I know that Helloween used some arrangements and some of it had that kind of feel with the saxophonist stuff, but it’s just unbroken ground. I don’t think that’s the next album but that’s just to share a bit of my way of thinking.
RAY: That sounds hot. Have you talked to the band about that yet?
ECKERSTROM: No, not yet. I kind of forgot about the idea until I mentioned it to you now.
RAY: Aw, I feel kind of special. Thanks!
ECKERSTROM: So, now I have to tell them about the whole New Guinea African polyrhythm thing and also about my big band idea.
As for the next one, I also have a vision as a “Robocop part II,” because the first Robocop could possibly be my absolute favorite teen movie. It’s so brilliant. And RoboCop 2 is very, very stupid, which is also fun. But, it’s just this whole idea of if you I have seen many versions of in science fiction or in music videos or in computer games whatever, of this human turning into a machine, like Darth Vader or whatever. I was seeing a similar process, but like a robot being built into a human being. Instead of removing limbs, and putting on this cybernetic blah blah blah blah, doing it the other way around as we should be humanizing ourselves. That’s another idea.
But this is all in the abstract level. There are thoughts going around. These are not the things where I trust that we already are writing riffs and getting ideas for that side, but I want to know what the canvas is going to be made of before I start painting on it.
RAY: And here is where I think we’ve come full circle with Avatar’s drama because there was so much irony and dichotomy in the music, even with your image. I don’t know if you’re aware of it but, in America there is a ‘scary clown’ epidemic going on. Do you think that your image might work against you?
ECKERSTROM: Put it this way, it doesn’t matter if it does or doesn’t because the reason that we have this imagery is because it feels honest about who we are artistically and as entertainers. So, even if it’s a sinking ship, we have to stay on it because it’s our ship. That being said, we are doing very well. A lot of people are into it, so I have nothing to worry about there. People are paying more money for us to come and play than they did two years ago, so I think we’re doing just fine from that perspective.
But that being said, this clown epidemic thing is so incredibly, incredibly stupid. To do a prank around Halloween, that’s one thing, but this way out terrorizing random strangers just feel empowering? I don’t know, there’s something “rapey” about it. I think is if it can go to this extent then it can go viral and more and more people do it. It’s just symptoms of a sick culture.
I really don’t condone violence. I can’t lie and say I didn’t get a kick out of some kids trying to scare some old guy and they get their asses kicked, but I don’t think it’s a good thing. My primal gut reaction to it was like, “Yeah, fuck yeah. Kick their asses!” But, I don’t think violence is a good way of measuring out Justice.
But I’m also a human being. And behind the screen from some safe distance, I can go “Fuck yeah.”