Very soon, they will bring their Metal circus of the wacky kind to the US – and you better don’t miss it! In June/July, Avatar will be back on European stages to celebrate the supreme ruler of Avatar country (tour dates). After a relaxed night in Los Angeles, front man and master-of-cereminy Johannes Eckerström took some time to answer a few questions from us.
How come you live in Helsinki now and the band still does not play more often in Finland?
The location of band members has little to do with where they get the most attention. I am however trying to be more hands on when it comes to promoting us here. For instance before our show at Nosturi I ran around myself putting up posters. While doing I listened to the Jester Race, which brought me right back to having done the same in Gothenburg when I was 17. It was pretty awesome actually. What can be said at this point is that after many false starts in Finland, it finally feels like we are breaking the door open and it will not take as long for us to return as it did this time. In regards to people we work with, Finland is finally on the map.
I was surprised about your declaration of love for Helsinki at your last gig in Finland in February. So why didn’t you enjoy your old home town as much as you enjoy the new one? (In my case it’s pretty easy to explain, a female Metalhead is still very exotic in an Austrian Alpine town …)
I didn’t mean to compare the two where I like one more than the other. But I will say that it went very fast to feel at home here, thanks to the friends I’ve made and the town in general. It’s also true that I feel that metal has a more mainstream position in Finland in general, even to this day.
My description of your stage persona was “a mix of Joker, IT clown and circus director from hell” – would you agree to that, and what was really the inspiration for this character?
As far as what I do is to be considered a character, which is something I don’t really do myself, those three examples are absolutely part of the blend. You could add the lads from a clockwork orange, Freddie Mercury, Rob Halford and many others to it as well. The main idea of what I do I get from professional wrestling. The persona you create is little more than an amplified version of yourself. It really is all about reflecting the songs and they focus on certain parts of me and us and put extra weight on certain emotions. Me dressing up is all about communicating that.
Why did you record a song in German language, and do you plan more of that?
We first did one in Swedish on Black Waltz and this kind of carried on the tradition. In both cases it started with being stuck with the song, knowing it needed something but not being able to figure out what. Switching language opened up for a different expression and attitude. It was also fun to work on some death metal with my mother.
How do you keep your voice in shape, especially on a long tour?
It’s easier on long tours actually as your days are built around the performance. Aside from doing your homework the recipe is actually fairly simple. Hydration, cardio, proper warm up and sleep.
The Legend of Avatar Country movie – how far has this project proceeded, when would it be finished?
We are working to have it out after summer. All the shooting, except for one short scene, was all done last year. Now it’s editing and making the green screens come alive that is keeping our small team (one guy – Johan Carlén) occupied.
I had the impression the whole live show follows a certain story line – is that the case?
Not really. The narrative is purely musical and emotional. We spend a lot of time figuring out the right way to get from point A to point B and it kind of is divided in chapters, but it isn’t tied to a certain story in terms of lyrics or plot.
The concept of Avatar country, what inspired you to that?
His glorious majesty the King himself. Avatar Country has been a well kept secret for some years, and the reason we felt the time was right to unveil it was that the world seemed to be ready. It ended up being a great opportunity for us to put something out with a generally more positive vibe than what we usually do.
Avatar country doesn’t seem to be too far away from some politics in real life (unfortunately) – your comments on that?
I am not sure I fully understand this question. In terms of a message, the King says he loves you and wants you to succeed, whoever and wherever you are. We rarely talk politics in a very specific manner. We are quite open with being vegans, standing on the side of the LGBT community, promoting tolerance and some form of humanism, but when its’ election time in Sweden, most of us vote on different parties. Specifically to this album, there is of course a big dose of satire in regards to propaganda, censorship and totalitarian leadership. It comes with the territory of writing songs about a glorious leader. We however decided to tone those things down a bit since what was happening in the world right around the time of writing and recording meant that the album would have ended up being too topical and tied to a certain time period. That is why we ended up focusing on a message of tolerance and a world of fun more than we first planned on.
What inspired you to your costumes and make-up, did everybody create an individual style or is it part of the overall concept created by just one person?
The make up I have talked about many time in the past, but the short version is that we got lucky when trying to figure out what I was supposed to do during the Black Waltz music video. It clicked and we felt we had finally figured out what our music looked like. Everything else has been a collective effort and evolutionary process, always with the goal in mind to accurately represent the music.
So basically none of you want to be recognized in every day life?
That ship has sailed a long time ago. We don’t have stage names. We are who we are and this is how we choose to express ourselves.
What are you doing “in real life” – how different are your jobs to the Avatar Country / R’n’R lifestyle?
We are actually getting closer to do this full time finally. I don’t know if I would consider anyone of us having a R’n’R lifestyle. When going to a day job I guess the biggest difference is you do something someone else told you to do and the work days are shorter. I have always made sure to work with things I see value and meaning in doing, so I have worked with kids and teenagers a lot as well as elderly. The vibe is obviously very different but the dedication to do a good job and something that actually matters is all the same.
If you could work with an artist on a new album or live show, living or dead, who would that be?
I wonder how George Martin would’ve handled producing a metal band?
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
We have made a point of working with different producers a lot and therefore I don’t think there is a typical day for us. Once we hit the studio we really work as a collective. That might be the common thread.
Do you have certain routines, and do you rehearse more often before going to studio recordings? Or do you come up with new stuff in the studio, how spontaneous is the creation process?
As time has gone by I think we have learned to trust our instincts more and be more spontaneous in the studio, but we try to finish the songs as much as possible before we record. Rehearsals are absolutely amped up beforehand. In a perfect world when time allows it we want to be able to play our stuff in our sleep. We have reached a certain level where the routines change with the project. Certain routines for writing, certain routines for recording and touring. It’s project based.
How has your life changed in the recent 5 years?
Aside from having moved to a different country, I’d say the band requires more time and we have the possibility to allocate more time to it.
The most absurd thing that happened to the band (on tour, at a festival)?
Of course crazy things can and will happen all the time when you travel as much as we do, but I don’t find that unique to be in a band. The strangest thing if you think about it is that at the end of our work day people applaud us. Few people get to experience that the way artists do. Nurses and teachers, factory workers and bus drivers all clock out in silence. It’s absurd how we are elevated for what we do, but it comes with the territory and sometimes it can be fun.
Where and in which condition did you wake up this morning?
Well rested in a hotel in LA. We missed our flight yesterday so we got stuck here 24 hours extra.
What does a typical day on tour look like for you? Do you even have time for some sightseeing or is all your time filled with e.g. interviews?
Towards the end of a album cycle there is usually less press. The big thing I want to do with my days aside from going on stage is getting my workout in and call home. Everything else is secondary to the show, but we do try to see things or do stuff that give the days some meaning. This is our lives and you can’t put everything on hold just because you’re on the road. Life is too short for that.
How big is your tour crew, who else besides the band is part of it?
Tour manager, front of house, light tech, stage manager, guitar tech(s), monitor/drum tech, merchandise manager… I thing that is it at this point.
Do you have any song you have played so often you rather would not play it any more – but can’t because this is your “Smoke on the Water”?
No. We haven’t played for 40 years yet. Besides, the live show is about the relationship to the crowd and those type of songs are always magical live.
You have been together in this formation (almost) since 2003 – how did / do you manage to get along, especially when being on tour?
I think we all were just determined enough to move the band forward that when there were conflicts, we powered through. With time we have grown incredible bonds between us. We really grew up together.
And finally: Can Metal save the world?
No, but it would provide a great soundtrack. Great people can save the world and metalhead are usually pretty awesome.
Band photos: Johan Carlén, Klaudia Weber