The Last Laugh – An Interview with Avatar

Last year, as always, I was trying to find something new to listen. While I have a pretty big collection of music, most of which is composed of bands I love, I’m always trying to fight against the stagnation that can come from sticking to what you know. As an increasingly old person (as I write this I’m getting a prostate exam and changing my dentures) it becomes too easy to just reject the new. This is how I found Avatar and their single for “Black Waltz”. It was an interesting mixture of styles, although definitely metal, and provided with the fix I needed.

Imagine my happiness when I found out that they’d be playing a gig near me, supporting Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Deathpunch. Of course, I was delighted to show up and enjoy their excellent brand of music. I met with Johannes Eckerström, the frontman and singer of this group to get some more info of this up-and-coming band that, I assure you, you have to keep an eye out for.

[quote]We just wanted to do the greatest thing we could do for ourselves.[/quote]

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MB: Alright Johannes, thank you very much for taking the time for being with us here today, really appreciate it.
Avatar (Johannes)
: No problem, it’s a pleasure.

J: There is a visual aspect to Avatar, since Black Waltz onwards, in addition to the sound. This look, in addition to the the corpse paint of Norway and Swedish black metal bands, brings memories of the dark carnival/circus that we’ve seen in the videos for some of the Black Waltz music. What was the inspiration for Avatar’s visual aspect?
A: It was quite simple actually, and it was something that happened almost by chance – we tried out some ideas for an album cover. We had some ideas putting me on the cover, and one of the ideas was me standing in a lake of fire. Now, Photoshop’s not cool, so we needed an actual lake with actual fire. And helping us was a guy named Bryce Graves from a sideshow group called Hellzapoppin and he knew all this freaky stuff – like, he would eat glass and drill through his nose. We decided in a blink of an eye to do a music video with him and his people. We were still pleased with the lake of fire album cover idea, but we needed me to do something to make sense for the video, because their performance fitted in with the song [“Black Waltz”] really well. We needed some final touches on the stuff I do whilst singing to make it fit. And it was just pretty simple – a scary clown is never wrong! Once we figured the makeup up on me and did all that and started shooting, it something clicked in me and with the rest. We thought ‘we should have done this ten years ago’ – it brought out different aspects of me I wasn’t able to bring out before… It was quite organic, actually.

MB: So you think your artistic presence on stage was benefitted by putting on this mask?
A
: A lot, a lot. The first time on stage, I was a bit… I wasn’t scared, but to me putting on a mask makes me feel way more naked. If you go up on stage painted like a clown people are going to look at you, so you better do something. It felt more like undressing, putting more exposure on myself.

MB: do you think it gives you a bit more liberty? Since we’ve mentioned Scandinavian corpse paint, Abbath from Immortal used to mention that corpse paint is used to bring out the inner demons.
A: Yeah, for sure I definitely bring out the inner clown. It really resonates, it becomes easier to portray the songs live the way they’re meant to be portrayed. I guess it all boils down to the fact that we’ve started to figure out that there is a form of concept art to our band; the cover is art, the music’s art, the live performance is art, everything is art that fits under the same umbrella. It’s not just the music, although that’s the main part. The best bands are those in which everything makes sense. This can be your average skate-punk group or even Rammstein; when everything fits it becomes so much better,  the sum becomes better than the parts.

MB: You recently got back from a US tour with Lacuna Coil and Sevendust. Everyone on the tour represents a different genre, Lacuna the more mainstream gothic metal, Sevendust with kind of nu-metal, and you with melodic death metal. Yet you did very well in this tour.
A: Extremely well, beyond well.

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MB: was there a bit of fear on going on a tour with these two headliners, that they were going to drag in fans who were maybe not that much into your type music?
A
: I’m not sure really. As a death metal fan, I don’t consider us death metal. We root our music in extreme music, and that’s what we grew up with. Our first two albums were definitely death metal, it’s always with us, and we’re still definitely some sort of extreme music but now… Death is a death metal band, Obituary is death metal band. We’re death metal fans doing metal.

MB: but Avatar does have a sound that is quite reminiscent of In Flames. Do you agree, is there a parallel there?
A: We had this period at the beginning where our stuff was influenced by melodic death metal (In Flames and The Haunted especially) and also more extreme stuff, especially technical death metal (Cryptopsy). In time, what I can relate to with our predecessors from Gothenburg is not really the sound but the attitude where we all want to pick the best parts of the different stuff we all listen to (for example, Dark Tranquility is a bit of both Helloween and Morbid Angel). I don’t feel that strongly connected to the Gothenburg melodic death metal thing when you start examining closer… we were never part of that generation. We do have the twin guitar leads and stuff like that, but I think that has more to do with the fact we were all listening to Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy.

MB: Setting yourself apart from the Gothenburg melodic death metal scene – do you think that made you a little more accessible when you were touring the US, and would that maybe explain the success you had over there?
A: I like to think that we did some pretty awesome shows! Still, maybe you’re right; the thing is that we’ve had a few years of problems with that [the Gothenburg melodic death metal definition] Sweden, where it didn’t matter if they played ska or hardcore or punk, because as long as they  had distorted guitars they were labelled as part of the Gothenburg style. People decided to hear In Flames or At the Gates no matter what it sounded like. It’s more something that’s bothered us to be honest, without disrespect to those bands of course.

MB: It doesn’t matter what you do, people will always box you in.
A
: Yes, although we don’t feel like that anymore; the kind of riffs and grooves we’re building our music on definitely feel like something else.

MB: You’ve been touring Black Waltz since last year – have you had any time to prepare any new material?
A
: It’s done.

MB: Really?!
A: Yeah, it’s done. We went to Thailand last month and recorded it. It’s being mixed as we speak.

MB: Do you have a name for it yet?
A
: Nope! [laughs] We don’t have names – we have song titles and songs, but we still have to figure out the rest. We were supposed to do this when we came home from Thailand, but we got the tour with a two-week notice.

MB: I agree that, especially since Black Waltz, you’ve been departed a bit from the more traditional melodic death metal sound to something quite different. Does this new unnamed album continue where Black Waltz left off?
A: Yeah, what we found with Black Waltz was definitely our own niche. That album was built more than ever on the idea of ‘let’s do our thing, let’s not repeat ourselves or somebody else.’ It was really with this attitude that the album was made, it was really something that came from the heart. We discovered something pretty cool that we’ve kept on working on with this album. There are some slight changes, such the fact that this album was recorded live: The rhythm guitars, bass and drums were done as a band. We turned off the click track and let the grooves become organic.

MB: Black Waltz was your fourth album, and represented a huge chance for Avatar in terms of success. Before the album, however,  you were thinking about quitting, weren’t you?
A
: Yeah, we weren’t pleased with where we were going; we were painting ourselves into a corner of ‘please mister, like us!’. Finally, we just said ‘fuck that’, where we really started with a fresh mindset where it was just for us, doing the greatest thing we could do for ourselves. That seems to work pretty well in metal, that honesty and sincerity pays off. To date, Black Waltz has been our most sincere and honest album.

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MB: Do you feel before you were trying to please too many people, and that’s why it didn’t succeed?
A
: It doesn’t happen consciously, but when you look back, yeah, there’s always a song that you try to adjust to somebody else’s expectation. We never wrote a whole album like that, but it always taints my whole experience looking back, like ‘but if we changed the vocals like this it could fit on the radio’. And then they picked up another song for radio anyway! So it just soiled the song for me.

MB: There are musicians who joke about it; Tobias Sammet, singer of Edguy and Avantasia, for example, who mentions how in their albums he would just put crappy pop ballads exclusively trying to get on the radio and get rich. Did not work!
You can notice when a band is desperately trying to appeal to more people.
A
: I can blame parts of the third album to be that album for us. Before that we were just kids trying to play as fast as we could and do songs that were as cool as we could. There are still tracks on the third album that I’m really proud of, without a doubt, and I still enjoying listening to them today, but the transition from young and naive, the move from the “making the greatest-hits-of-the-demo-years-album” mindset is always hard. It’s a whole learning process about how to make this change, to start doing things for real without turning into a douchebag. That took a little while for us, but we have found it now.

MB: As your popularity increases, have you found it harder not to become a douchebag?
A:
It’s probably the other way around; we were fighting the most before we ever released our first album, taking care of each others’ egos before we ever went on tour. We were doing it backwards! Knowing what it takes to be where we are now, and knowing what it’ll take to go even further, you stay pretty humble. You realize that there are some great pleasures in touring and performing for people, of course, but I would not want to be here unless it was on my own terms and our terms as a group. For us I think it will get easier.

MB: Now you’ve tasted fame, what is the goal? Where do you want to see Avatar as a band?
A:
well, I want to keep staying good and becoming better, for one. It’d be pretty awesome to be able to set up a retirement fund from band income. I want to keep on doing what we are doing, the way we are doing it, and I would love to make a living out of it. But if we have to cut our hair, or get a synthesiser into the band, if we have to do something that isn’t us… well then, carpentry seems like a nice job too! I’m very rigid on how and why I’m doing this.

MB: Well, Within Temptation last week announced that they’re going to have a rapper on their next album…
A
: Xzibit right? Of all people.

MB: It’s terrible. ‘I heard you like shit on your shit, so here’s Xzibit on Within Temptation’.
A
: [Laughs] Well, the thing is right, if it was somebody like… I dunno…

MB: Like Nobody?
A
: I don’t mind hip-hop, I’m a fan of some stuff… If I could get the people from the Roots, I don’t know their names, but that’s a pretty cool band. Don’t know how well I’d fit them in there, though.

MB: But that’s the thing: one thing is to enjoy hip-hop, the other to enjoy metal. It’s like saying ‘you know that dark period of metal around the late 90s, with shit Limp Bizkit? Let’s bring that back with symphonic metal!’
A: Oh no, no, that’s an awful idea, for sure! But then, you have Rage Against the Machine, you know? Maybe more heavy rock, old-school oriented guitars, but still, they could be accused of starting it all, but they are really, really good. I guess it can be done.
I don’t have any urge or need to have a rapper on our album, but I don’t say no to that phenomenon in itself… but that ‘Pimp My Ride’ guy with Within Temptation?! Ahhh, I don’t know!

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MB: You just finished the album in Thailand. What’s up now for Avatar in the next year?
A
: We get home, start listening to mixes and then start to fight over album titles and figure out an album cover. There’s lots of office rocking to look forward to in December and probably into next year as well. Then the music videos and all that, working with the band as a concept, trying to get it all right. The album should be out sometime during spring; we always say ‘March/April’, and that’s what we all hope and aim for. And, with that, hopefully lots of touring. This tour should have helped reopen some doors in Europe that have been closed to us for quite some time.

MB: What do you mean by that?
A:
Just that we’ve had all these chances over the years and nothing ever really took off.

MB: It definitely did in Scandinavia though.
A
: Yeah, we do fine there. And the US, like I said, has been kickstarted, but Europe… we’re up… and then *splat*. We hope to tour Europe and hopefully make it internationally next year.

MB: You want to try and do European festivals?
A:
Exactly. We’ve never been able to do it for real; we did Metal Daysin Slovenia, the one up in the mountains. Beautiful, but no air! Too high, too little sleep! We’ve still got lots of Europe to do; I want to go to Wacken, man… we all do! It feels promising though.

MB: Well, Black Waltz was a great album, the best of success. You deserve it. Thank you for taking the time.
A:
Thank you, thank you.

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Considered by his mother as the brightest and prettiest boy, J’s interest in metal started in his early teens, listening to bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica (coupled with an embarrassing period in which Marilyn Manson “totally represents me, man”) eventually moving into the realm of power, black, and death metal.
He holds a PhD in law, trains martial arts, practices law, and enjoys coming up with excuses as to why he has to miss work after going to a concert. He also dabbles as a concert photographer, you can see his sub-par work on his instagram.