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Becoming The Hunter: An Exclusive Interview With JOHANNES ECKERSTRÖM Of AVATAR

By Brian Davis, Contributor
Thursday, December 31, 2020 @ 6:48 AM


"We will go out there, we will conquer and destroy and live out whatever dark urges we have, we will be AVATAR and nothing can stop that from happening, in time."

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Live Photos By Geoff Ketler/Aces High Photography

In the wake of the resounding global success of their brilliant multi-media journey into the theatrical Metal majesty of Avatar Country, Sweden’s AVATAR rushed home not to bask in their success but to immediately delve into their next unique musical endeavor, Hunter Gatherer. Far removed from the humorous affectations at the heart of Avatar Country, vocalist Johannes Eckerström chose to turn an dark and angry eye towards the bitter state of society and the plight of our shared environment. As always the newest AVATAR album is a brilliantly crafted batch of unique and wholly gratifying Metal fit for mass consumption. Historically, now would be the time for AVATAR to unleash their live manifestation of the new album with extensive touring and an immersive live show to nurture this baby into the beast it is but, as is the case for musicians & bands throughout the world for the past year, that is not currently an option. However, rather than mark it off as a tragic loss due to unfortunate & unavoidable circumstance, they put their heads together and devised the ultimate gift for fans across the globe: Four elaborate concerts over the course of four weeks in January 2021 wherein the band will cover the majority of their entire past catalogue brought to larger-than-life status with elaborate stage design, unique settings and theatrical elements of such grand design they could never be realized on tour, aptly titled “Avatar Ages”. It’s a unique and innovative concept, likely a once in a lifetime opportunity to see an exceptional Metal band already known for going above and beyond the average live performance take their infectious material straight into the stratosphere. If you are desperate to scratch the interminable itch left by a lack of live concerts these shows are the closest you’ll come to the real thing anytime soon, and in the meantime you may just witness Metal history in the making.

KNAC.COM: I was really excited for this opportunity, I've been loving the new album Hunter Gatherer and I heard that you're gonna do this awesome thing in January with these four shows. I had to jump in on that so appreciate you taking the time.

ECKERSTRÖM: I appreciate you wanting to talk to me about it. Thanks.

KNAC.COM: First of all I’m curious what the COVID experience is like overseas.

ECKERSTRÖM: Well, living in Helsinki, Finland you watch what's going on over in Sweden with a bit of concern, I guess. Like in my personal life it has been quite a locked down experience, we have had in my family good reason to be among those who have been extra careful, which I think has been the right thing to do. I was listening to Penn Jillette talking on his podcast saying something along the lines of, “I know I'm being too careful. I know I'm exaggerating. I don't know where the line is.” So we've been quite isolated, in a way, but therefore also safe and we have in my household been able to, you know, I haven't been able to tour, obviously, but there have been stuff related to my career that I've been able to keep doing for all the lockdown and the same has been going for my wife. So in that sense we’re in a fortunate position, I guess, but it's been going on 10 months now so yeah…it's kind of crazy.

KNAC.COM: Yeah it's very crazy. And that's kind of the consensus I'm getting, with the last couple of interviews I've done with various artists that's kind of the silver lining that a lot of people are finding - staying home and being safe affords you an eventual opportunity to kind of do some things you didn't really expect to be able to get to. So we find a way to entertain ourselves.

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah like I never write this much music this shortly after an album release (laughs). So there's that, and there's certain things…I think the way we've been doing social media and www.avatarcountry.com and everything are probably things we should have done anyway and that we've been enjoying doing. And we wouldn't have gotten around to do it in this particular way without this crazy thing going on. So, I know it's so weird to talk about, like I say the consensus is that it's been in a way, for some people, I guess an opportunity to do certain things in place of what you were supposed to do. And I also know that my resting pulse is probably at the lowest it has ever been. I've really had time to take care of myself. And since I've been healthy, since my parents and my in-laws have been healthy and all those other things I have been doing in my life, I’m doing fairly okay. I would rather not have a pandemic also speaking for myself, but I've been doing fairly okay, and even reap some kind of general accidental benefit from it and just what it has done to my life. Yes, I didn't get to tour, but I get to see my wife way more this year. And also it's weird to talk about like that because you constantly had to…I don't know, that happens parallel with this tragedy upon tragedy that has is happening all over the world at the same time. That is important to keep in mind, so that is one of those things that makes it really strange that I can say, honestly, “Yeah, I've been writing a ton of songs, yeah I've been doing tons of push ups and yes I've been seeing my wife more than I have without interruption more than I have seen her since I first met her, so those are all kind of good things. But again, people in my circles have been healthy, and those who have caught it got off easy.

KNAC.COM: Yeah. And I agree that - of course it's just a strange thing and knowing in your mind that so many people are having a terrible time, it's a very real thing and that's certainly kind of a sobering thought; but also at the same time I think that's why as humans in general we gravitate towards these kind of adaptations to stay sane, to just feed our Muse still and be creative or do whatever it is in order to be able to withstand that emotional impact.

ECKERSTRÖM: What can we do? We're also not supposed to just lie down flat and give up on everything because tragedies happen, there's a... we have to keep on keeping on at the same time. I guess I worry that I saw that it sounds almost, there's a risk of if I just go on and on about that I've been okay without acknowledging that has not been the case for everyone; far from it. And also just speaking from a situation where again, I've been able to keep working - that hasn't been everyone either, you know? So I don't want to come off as arrogant, though, you know we're oblivious to what other people are going through.

KNAC.COM: The first time I talked to you AVATAR played in Seattle, you were touring for Avatar Country and the night we spoke you had just launched the Kickstarter campaign for finishing the Legend of Avatar Country movie. So that was really interesting because I just kind of tracked the progress of that, and of course watched it several times once you came out with it. I just thought it was an amazing show of support from your fans as well as what you guys did to give back to the fans. What was that experience like for you? That had to have been pretty something unique.

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah I guess it just took 24 hours for us to us to reach our goals, we reached it that day or maybe even triple right away. I don't remember exactly, but certainly there was a very big number on the Kickstarter page, way, way faster than we expected it to be there, and it was great. It was also something that was hard for at least for me to wrap my head around what it meant, you know? It was almost scary, in a way, I was overwhelmed because, as far as to the extent that we deal with our band as a business endeavor, you know, to the extent where there's a business there, it’s pretty straightforward. Like, “Hey, check out our music come to the show, buy a ticket to see the show. If you thought it was great you can buy a T-shirt and come back next time, if we let you down don't buy the T-shirt and don't come back next time" - that's pretty straightforward in terms of the transaction part of it. So fairly simple what's going on and everybody gets it and then we can get that out of the way and start really good times. When you’ve got this Kickstarter thing where the money was more given away to us more in good faith, and with more out of like, “Here is the ‘we believe in you’ money” as opposed to “yeah, we liked your show”. The money came to represent something that felt much bigger than anything money could ever represent, you know what I mean? So, coming to terms with that, and then landing in a feeling of responsibility to…like, “Okay, they believe we can do this. We have been as open and honest as we can with what it is we want to do and try to pull off, and now we have to make sure that we do that. And after coming to terms with it - because you're not supposed to take something like that lightly - after that it was a lot of fun and I felt very grateful and felt very privileged and I guess in a way a good summary that the whole “Avatar Country” thing was so much about fan interaction, us trying to be funny and create this world and all that. It could only ever work if people played along. If you compare it with [the new album] Hunter Gatherer, this one works whether people play along or not. Avatar Country needed…the whole project, the artistic practice endeavor there goes way beyond the songs and the world building, and the make believe of it, and, “Okay Jonas is the King now” and all this silliness was so important to it that the people being into it was such a key thing for it to work. And they were and everything about Avatar Country, the story that started being about, his Royal Majesty the King and blah blah ended up being a story very much about us and our fans, and it was what I’d call a symbiotic thing.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, exactly. And that really is exactly the kind of feel that I get out of it. The fact that you captured this whole world and that it's kind of a microcosm of what the world is between you guys and your fans.

ECKERSTRÖM: Exactly.

KNAC.COM: Plus getting paid in advance on good faith for something you haven't delivered yet, that's probably pretty stressful.

ECKERSTRÖM: It's jarring, but again, it's also a huge, huge compliment you know? But it took a while to reach that, “Oh that's actually very nice and cool!”, it was so shocking; scary, frankly, in the beginning, but then after that we landed on something very positive about it.

KNAC.COM: That's great. And I love the way you guys wrapped up the coverage of that album with the show at Alcatraz. What was that experience like and how did that come about?

ECKERSTRÖM: Well, we have had a good relationship with the promoters over there [in the US] and the people involved with the [Alcatraz Hard Rock & Metal] Festival. They've been really kind to us for quite some time and they actually reached out to us, “Hey, we want to put you in the headliners spot and we want you guys to do something really special.” So we took it from there, it was really good and was also…I don’t know, I'm just pleased with it. Some concerts get recorded, some don't. And you always try your best to your best and the Alcatraz one, I felt, was musically a very good concert, when I hear our vocal performance and just the playing was very good. We had had a couple of big [shows] leading up to Alcatraz, which was good because I think we were kind of comfortable in that environment once we once we arrived. And we just nailed everything that we were supposed to nail. Well actually there is a blooper, but no one knows that; if you don't know what to look for you don't know it. But at the end of it there’s a big Avatar Country Coat of Arms that was supposed to fall in front of Jonas as he waves farewell to the audience. The wind caught it. It ended up flying behind him, which looked cool, that's fine. And we see that happen as we stand up on the trusses and the riser behind the drums and all that. And we see it happen like, “Oops. Ok, I guess we leave. Let's see what Jonas does.” He didn't see it come down, so he doesn't know that it's there even. So he thinks, “Okay, fuck What do I do now? I guess I should walk slowly this way” and he doesn't see it until he walks into it. But it's just a brief second of that and if you don't know what to look for you wouldn't notice it. But aside from that I think we pretty much nailed everything with that show so yeah, it was a nice culmination.

KNAC.COM: And, obviously, with the state of the world right now and not being able to tour, I would assume you guys had some plans for your live shows in there. How are you going to deal with that once things come around, are you still going to support the album in a live touring scenario?

ECKERSTRÖM: Oh yeah that's the idea and like we have, we are penciling in dates and updating Twitter to see what's going on in the world (laughs), but of course we will. And we want to; everything we make ultimately…well, nowadays I really do enjoy being in the studio and that creative process, but it still feels more than anything like a means to an end and the final form of song to us is the way it is being performed in front of an audience. So we have that mindset, but at the same time now with the live streams - it's funny, I really didn't think we were going to do one, and for the longest time I didn't want to. I didn't want to go on stage at an empty concert hall and pretend that people were there, for instance. There's nothing to replace it and it didn't feel enough to do that, because yes, we are theatrical but we're not Theatre in that sense, that part is so important. But then we had discussions, then ideas were presented to me where suddenly we could look at this as an opportunity to perform the songs and visualize stuff in a way that we couldn't pull off on tour, because we don't own an opera house (laughs), because we can only have one stage per show and we can't have four. We can’t rotate, we can't have all these things with elaborate built set pieces and projections and all these crazy throwbacks, and we can't have all of those things going on at once on tour; but on a stationary show we can and we can play what will amount to be like 40 songs or whatever. We can't play for four or five hours per night for that amount of music, but in these streams suddenly we can, and we have this opportunity to do these crazy throwbacks to things that…it's getting harder and harder to squeeze things into the set list with every new album. I personally feel we haven't started to suck yet with our new material, meaning that new material gets a lot of love in our setlist on tour. So it gets harder, but nowadays with live streaming suddenly we can play all kinds of music so suddenly it became an opportunity to do all these things that wouldn't have happened otherwise. It was suddenly extremely cool and I started to get really excited about it; now that part I was missing with audience feels like a challenge again to convey all that emotion without the help of 100 something thousand people to convey that emotion with, now it's just us again like, when we were playing some cafe somewhere when we were teenagers and no one came to see play except for personnel, that is the amount of audience we will have. Back then we were trying to kick ass and play as if we were headlining Rock in Rio or something. So we're going back to that innocence, but people Will be watching; it’s just this crazy exciting thing that I for the longest time wasn't excited about until we found the right angle, the right point of entry.

KNAC.COM: Yeah I agree, I was pretty reluctant when bands started doing the live streams. I mean I've been to so many concerts that it’s just hard to substitute video when you've had so much of the real thing. But then a few bands, like PUSCIFER, did a really kind of innovative…

ECKERSTRÖM: I heard of that one. That’s what the guys in the band said, I missed that one but yeah, I heard that it was really cool. BEHEMOTH I think did a great job. And Devin Townsend, I’m a huge Devin Townsend fan, and he did things in a Devin Townsend kind of way I guess. I think when bands have been able to figure out how to really make this kind of performance that resonates and gels with who they are and what they are…like I feel like the Devin Townsend stuff was very accurate to Devin Townsend style, BEHEMOTH was a very accurate BEHEMOTH thing translated into this form of presentation, and from what I heard of PUSCIFER it was very similar.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, and it was like you said it's just the crew [for an audience]. It was a very elaborate production but they're just kind of in the desert and playing, you wouldn't know the difference. It was very consummate and professional but it is cool to see that it's become kind of a new avenue to explore for bands like yourselves. As you were saying, what band gets to play basically their entire catalogue over however amount of time? Everybody loves the new stuff but there are so many fans of those first few records and they talk about them all the time still, so that's just an extra bonus.

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah, exactly. So I'm really, really excited about this and I'm glad to be. Also I guess there’s this sense of relief there because otherwise we would have to sit around and wait for the day when we could get excited about band things again, you know? Like I said, we've kept on working, we've been doing stuff, but once the album came out you get that, “Okay now what? What are we doing now?” You know, you just scratch yourself and (laughs, smacks his arm like a heroin addict) you want to get a fix somewhere, right? And this became our fix.

KNAC.COM: And that’s awesome. I mean I assume there's got to be kind of a sense of loss coming out with a very solid album that you put so much heart and effort into just to kind of have a roadblock thrown up in front of you when you've got this momentum going.

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah. At the same time though…I don't know if it's something about us being Swedes or the kind of people we are in the band, I don't know what it is but I feel like we got over it somehow. For one there's absolutely nothing you can do about something like this and I feel like that's kind of easier to accept, and also we had to put things in perspective - our shows haven't gone away, they are delayed. And again, the loss of business like it's, you know, you could talk about your loss of your position in the marketplace, but there is no marketplace for this, this happened to everyone. We're not singled out, right? Like it's not something that happened just to us. It happened to us all globally. In terms of personal losses, my parents were supposed to fly over and stay a week with us during the spring, my sister had a baby that I have yet to meet so in the grand scheme of things, these shows, our shows, will happen. We will go out there, we will conquer and destroy and live out whatever dark urges we have, we will be AVATAR and nothing can stop that from happening, in time. And we are just…I don't know, I feel like this ancient creature hibernating, this Balrog, and waiting to be awakened by someone (laughs). And that will happen, that is destined to. We will come like Shiva and dance the world into destruction and rebirth. At the same time I'm missing out on meeting my niece, and that will happen too, but I didn't get to be there in those first couple of weeks or months, you know? It will be great when that happens, but it's just the little time that was stolen from me and stuff like that is stolen from a lot of people. And so, nothing really to complain or to worry about right now. That would be different if we will never ever tour again, but that is not what's going on. I don't think, knock on wood (laughs, knocks his desktop for luck).

KNAC.COM: Right? And again, if there's nothing you can do about it then just dwelling on it is just gonna harvest negative emotion and energy and that doesn't serve any purpose.

ECKERSTRÖM: And of course always doing interviews means talking about it means venting a little bit means also talking about future plans, so it's easier to be optimistic in a discussion like this; then of course I have my moments, as we all do. And here and there it catches up with us all, I guess. I'm sure you know what I mean, where just suddenly you have this, “I really don't want there to be a pandemic anymore. I want to play stuff now” and you really have that energy of wanting to end this now and you cannot put that energy anywhere. So of course I have those moments, especially when you hear another round of bad news arrived and whatever limitations are put on us. But hey, now this vaccine situation looks promising, at least. So that’s something…

KNAC.COM: Yeah, that's something. It'll pass eventually you know, it’s just change. So I was reading a little bit about your inspiration going into Hunter Gatherer and somewhere I saw you mentioned a book called Sapiens by – I’ll probably butcher this, but Yuval Noah Harare. It sounded really interesting, can you elaborate a little on the influence that had on your approach?

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah I think that the under title of that book is A Brief History of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harareis a historian, and he just goes through from the prehistoric days to the here and now and into the future. He offers different a perspective on things and just who we are, what we are, how we ended up where we are right now. And there are so many examples; one big takeaway of it is how it's discussed in the book that for the longest time, all these big changes in our way of life from being nomads, you know hunter gatherers, which we were for the longest time and [is what] evolution wired us to be. When we went from that to being more stationary at the rise of agriculture. That was a great success for us as a species because we start to feed more, but on an individual level it made life worse, our diet became more one sided, and we started to have illnesses and diseases that we didn't have before because we started to live closer together, we started to work the fields instead of climbing trees, searching bushes, hunting things, trapping animals – living the dynamic life of a hunter gatherer. Then we start to have arthritis and issues with our backs and all these problems that we hadn't had before. And as we start to give birth to more children because we need them to work the plows, raising those children means switching from the mother's milk to like some wheat porridge or whatever, at an earlier stage of their lives which affected their immune systems and just the general health of the babies. So, more babies and sicker babies, and the more the sick babies have to travel even more babies get sick. And also, as we start to rely on fewer sources of food and we are more dependent on that specific one, if there is a draught or a flood, if it too cold or too hot or we are in trouble. We also need to store [food] in a different way, and suddenly there's something to steal so we need a guard, we need a wall. Suddenly certain types of lands are more attractive in a way where we have border conflicts, land conflict over land, war on a different scale; all these things happen, but it's a great success for homo sapiens the species because, like any other biological creature, we are here to multiply.

So, it just kept going and then you fast forward to like the Industrial Revolution and you see a similar thing. We build machines that feed us and clothe us and operate those machines, and that's been great for our species but terrible for individuals. Again, we came from everyone being built like an MMA fighter and Tarzan jumping around the trees (laughs). So that's that stone age to becoming farm life. And that is something we walked into the dark factory. And we sort of worked our way longer hours than ever before because now you can work also when it's dark outside. And it's only now, in the last hundred years or so of this post-industrial era, where we really start to figure out how to make life better for more and more people on the planet. Now we do that facing though our own extinction through climate change, and we still have problems to solve. Now see it’s interesting then that this album “Hunter Gatherer” looks a lot at technology, just where we are at right now and where we are going in our more immediate future overall, and that's a theme that comes back a lot on the album. And whatever we're doing right now, we are essentially the same animals who lived as hunter gatherers for the longest time, so our brains are wired in a certain way. The world is being rewired constantly the rules change all the time. We're trying to catch up with it; and we have to because also there's no going back. You can just now climb up the tree and call yourself a monkey and think that it’s going to be the way it was. We are too many, we’re too detached from that, there's just too much of a different world out there and we have to move forward we have to accelerate into the future to solve…the solutions to problems don't lie behind us, I don't think. I think they lie ahead of us, (laughing) I think we have to think Star Trek basically to solve problems, and that is…yeah. See you got me going (laughs). And that is a lot of what's going on on the album thematically comes from those kinds of ideas, and a lot of those ideas came from that book.

KNAC.COM: I like the fact that each song has its own kind of representation or takes on these various elements, taking each one and looking at it and kind of yelling at it or…

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah exactly because some of them are somewhat more explicit like, “Hey it's terrible that I just saw pictures of birds, decaying dead birds with their bellies full of plastic stuff”. Heart wrenching and a very worrying symptom of what's going on, you know, and some songs are very direct on that plane. But then there's also, of course, a more personal side that talks more about stuff I guess I would liken closer to marriage and family and personal life, but it's, but it's all connected. What kind of person you want to be is, to me, connected to what kind of civilization we want to be. And in any case also, when we do these cool things like talking to each other through this little camera here across the Atlantic Ocean and all that, we do this as homo sapiens, as hunter gatherers. I also interact my close relationships as a hunter gatherer or as a homo sapiens in a modern world in a modern ideal relationship and all this confusion, you know, it attacks it on different levels. I guess it all generally tries to deal with some sense of confusion about what's going on.

KNAC.COM: And what I read was you were taking an approach to kind of the symptoms of the universe but also the ownership of the fact that you're part of that and you're subject to these same symptoms and so it was kind of addressing them for your own sake to take accountability for it as well.

ECKERSTRÖM: Exactly, yeah. Accountability became a big word. And I don't know if this is also kind of wishful thinking that, if I write about accountability, maybe I've become more accountable (laughs) maybe I’ll get better at dealing with it. But it's like, you know, in songwriting we do put a lot of our experience into what we write, but it's interesting, now as we are looking at these old songs that we will end up playing on the live stream revisiting the lyrics and, you know, there are some cringy things grammatically sometimes (laughs), but a big part of just seeing that so much of it was not just experiences but kind of hopes and aspirations, or kind of an idea of what you wanted things to be like. And, you know, we put a lot of our wishes and our dreams into our art as well. Like the [self-titled] third album is so full of party and drinking and this decadent way of living that, on one hand was going on, but also the description of it romanticizes it where I almost…again, see I aspired for something along those lines. I know the early stuff was simply much hornier (laughs). And if you look at the really early stuff, stuff written by an awkward little teenager, it was clearly not based on experience. So, back then it was about those things, you know, there was sex and now it's accountability (laughs).

KNAC.COM: (laughing) So now instead of guessing what the experiences are, you're at the point where you're analyzing the actual experience and trying to move forward from that.

ECKERSTRÖM: Yeah, I guess so, and then again my hopes and dreams when I wrote the song when I was 16 was, “I hope I get to touch a boob!” (laughs). Now the hope and aspiration is, “I hope the coming generations will be able to breathe. Breathe.” (Laughs)

KNAC.COM: (Laughing) That’s all, just breathe. (laughs)

ECKERSTRÖM: (Still laughing) I hope that I will be able to see all these things and I want to…I know I'm part of a problem and I want to be part of a solution. It's just funny if you look at songwriting, at the mechanisms, that those things kind of play a similar role in the writing. I don't know what that says, but ultimately it's very banal; I guess we write songs about what's on our minds. And usually things we desire or things we miss are on our minds more than anything else many times, you know. Our desires.


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