Johannes Eckerström of Avatar discusses life in a pandemic and the future

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Interview with Avatar

Johannes Eckerström of Avatar, discussing life in a band during the pandemic and other Avatar related musings….

Interview and live photos by Graham Hilling.

The interview was sent just before the Hunter Gatherer European tour was postponed to 2023.


So, I reckon it has been a good while since our last chat on Metal Rules, Black Waltz was just out & the world was a very different place. Just wondered how you guys have coped with Covid and all of the lockdowns?

We have done what we could to keep going, and for most of it I can’t complain too much. Writing, creating, planning, doing the stream… we tried to work with what we could while trying to maintain safety and solidarity. Professionally I think we’ve coped well enough. Emotionally, psychologically I think it has done a great deal with us as with everyone else.

Obviously, no gigs, but have you been able to practice?

The boys did. I live I Finland so I’ve doing it karaoke style with their rehearse room recordings. Beside that we made sure to catch up over Zoom at least once a week. We’ve done everything within our power to remain a band. So far so good.

Have the circumstances allowed a pause for reflection? Has this changed the band or your approach to music (or even life) at all?

It forced a pause rather than allowed it, I’d say. As much as we’ve tried to be business as unusual, it can’t be helped that there were room for pesky thought. There is a paradox in that as much as I’m having the time of my life, there is this hunger of a world eater. This short fast has helped us become sharper, I guess. I think I’ve kind of come full circle with it as far as the band is concerned.

It’s all war from here on out. We’ve been working on music throughout this and as with any other period, life has lent her shadows to our tunes. When it comes to life at large and all that, it probably did help peel away some bullshit, but maybe I would have learned to do even more so out in the wild. Who knows?

The latest album, Hunter Gatherer, came out, maybe, 15 months ago and you’re now about to tour to promote it. I’d like to start with a few questions around the album…

I read that Hunter Gatherer was recorded essentially live in the studio – why did you decide to do that and what do you think it brings to the album that a traditional recording would lack?

Recording live is traditional recording. We did it live for almost a hundred years and then people got confused in the mid 80’s. Ultimately I think the mistake was made when pretty much everything became an overdub. I think you can and should add anything and everything you want in the studio, but if you make music with a drummer and a bass player, on one level or another you’re making music made for people to move to.

That movement will come out of musicians making music together. Let the boys and girls play together and whatever you try to do will come alive tenfold. I think this is why even pretty shitty music from before the late 70’s tend to be pretty fucking good.

“When All But Force Has Failed” seems to summarise a load of things that are wrong with the world at the moment – just taking a step back, how do you feel about the direction of travel at the moment? Are you hopeful or fearful?

Resentful.

In fact, many of the lyrics on the album reflect a dark and quite sad reflection on life at the moment. How do you approach writing lyrics like this?

I enter every session with the full intent of serving the art, and the best I have to give is my honesty. I’m a poor actor. At its best the lyrics and the music are a purge. It’s all about finding another layer of honesty. I’m peeling off skin and flesh, looking for bone marrow. I think the feeling became stronger after Avatar Country, as it was dressed up in such a jolly costume.

It’s as truthful as anything else we’ve done, but at the same time it forced me to ignore a lot of the darkness for the time being. It was deliberate, but in a way, I’m paying the consequences still to this day.

Avatar, perhaps more than some other bands, have a very visual appeal in addition to killer music. When you write, are you also thinking about how the music may translate live or perhaps how a video may be used to promote a given song? I guess the music comes first but I’m interested in how soon the visual aspects become important.

Speaking for myself, if music moves me enough it will create very clear visions. I guess this is normal. Calypso maybe puts you on the beach as Ennio Morricone puts you on the back of a horse. This has become part of my filter for writing and kind of a measuring stick for what we’re doing. The images I see kind of feel like the songs telling me what they are about.

A song done well usually produces a pretty distinct movie in my head. These little movies are sometimes useful when we make music videos, but I’m not the only one with ideas, so it varies. In any case the visual gets triggered very early and creates a feedback loop as the music influences the vision which in return influences the music. What we end up keeping varies and changes a lot.

Jay Rushton produces again, how much influence does he have over the final sound and direction?

Jay helps with direction of course, but he also puts the artist in the driver’s seat, as it should be. He has many strengths. One that stands out is how he helps you deal with the actual work with as high morale as possible. Working your ass off for the result you want doesn’t become very dramatic with him. Another one is that most things seem doable and obtainable when you work with him.

His CV is so varied, and his interest in what he’s doing is so genuine that he has either participated in or observed so many different things being done that he can help you find your way there pretty much no matter what. His inner bullshit translator is also on point so he can engineer his way to that pink, slightly burnt marshmallow sound you’ve been looking for all your life.

How much of a problem was it producing the album during covid (or was most of it completed before the disease really kicked off?)

None at all. We did it right before the pandemic started.

The Avatar videos don’t tend to be your average band in a studio playing a song type affairs, who comes up with the ideas for the videos?

It’s a mix, mostly of Johan Carlén, John and myself.

Is it a collaborative approach with everyone in the band? Looking at some of the production values, they also look like they would take quite some time to produce.

There’s a lot of DIY involved when possible. Some band members not named Johannes are pretty handy. As the scope keeps growing, so is the team involved. It all depends on what’s being done.

Hunter Gatherer was a move back to a darker, heavier sound, this is the first time you’ve been able to perform these songs live in the UK. Are there any songs you are really looking forward to showcasing?

I looked forward to play all of it. We really put a lot of effort into turning the show into one unified composition, both in sights and sounds.

With the dark nature of the album, is the live show changing to reflect the feel of the album?

If you think of Avatar Country as a pornographic experience, I’d say that what we bring on the road this time is erotic. It’s more real, darker, and runs deeper. It’s a slow deliberate built towards a climax. Seeing us in the past was pretty much the same as watching us fuck. Now our show fucks everyone in the room.

How are you guys feeling about playing live again? I think with the last 2 years, fans are hungry for live shows so I’m expecting them to be special but mixed with some understandable caution.

We were able to tour the US this fall, and the energy was different for sure. The caution was there, which is understandable, but I think an even bigger part of it was a sense of appreciation that goes beyond us as band specifically.

This is a pretty long tour, with you guys out for more than 2 months, do you do anything to prepare for such a long stay away from home? I guess this takes a toll, both physically and mentally (especially when the live shows are so full on).

There are breaks though, so it’s fine. But, that being said, the stretch of nonstop shows on the continent will be pretty insane. You exercise, rehearse, practice, and plan. But the only way to really do it and get it right is to be out there and set yourself on fire.

Do you guys normally write when on the road?

A little bit, sure. I can gather ideas as I do in life in general, but it’s not the place to really dig down and finish a song. Sometimes inspiration hits like a happy accident and you capture the moment. But office hours composition time works better at home.

Any concerns over the ongoing covid situation? I know lots of gigs and tours still seem to be being cancelled, the situation seems quite fluid….

As I answer these questions, we were forced to postpone our UK dates until 2023. We want people to be safe, we want to tour, we need to work, we can wait if we must. It’s complex, professionally and emotionally and I just try to go through it without letting it get to me to much. We are ready to go whenever and wherever we can.

Corey Taylor guested on the album and I wondered if you were planning on any future collaborations?

No.

Are there any artists you would really like to work with?

There is a tiny little list, but it’s based on what they can do rather than who they are. It’s mainly people I’ve come to admire lately and not really any childhood heroes. The dynamic there is so strange that I’m pretty sure we all do a better job apart.

Are there any artists you really like to tour with? Any bands you have really enjoyed touring with in the past?

I’ve enjoyed most of the tours and the people on them. I still hope Judas Priest will pick up the phone one of these days. It would be nice to get the chance to do those Iron Maiden shows we were supposed to do two years ago.

Many thanks for your time, really looking forward to the shows and hearing these songs performed live. Cheers!

Thank you.