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An Underlying Concept: An Exclusive Interview With JOHANNES ECKERSTROM Of AVATAR

By Curt Miller, Editor at Large
Wednesday, April 27, 2016 @ 1:42 PM

"It’s all about bringing a bit of confidence to the table and daring to elevate what you do into proper art."

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Color Band Photo Credit To Johan Carlen

AVATAR in and of itself is a concept. With each release the band adds new layers to its complete audiovisual experience. From dark, vaudevillian imagery to elaborate short-film videos, AVATAR has always worked to shape its material such that everything looks like it sounds and vice versa. As such, it only made sense with its upcoming release Feathers & Flesh that the band would write a concept album, one that tells an elaborate, fantastical story.

Nothing is left to chance in the creation of AVATAR’s material, be it the music or the material that supports it. Ideas are well thought out and concepts emerge from the very disparate backgrounds of the band’s members.

AVATAR vocalist Johannes Eckerström gave some further insight into Feathers & Flesh and the whole AVATAR concept when I had the chance to chat with him recently.

KNAC.COM: Feathers & Flesh is a concept album. You previously stated that, “It’s a fable about an owl who goes to war to stop the sun from rising.” What made you decide to do a concept album?

ECKERSTROM: Creating an album, at least the way we do it, needs to be difficult. We need to find new ways to challenge ourselves each time and take on a task that, in the beginning, we’re not fully confident we can pull off. We’ve come to learn that we do our best work when we feel as though we have knives to our throats. With each album you go through a process that makes you comfortable doing it a particular way. For instance, with Hail The Apocalypse it was about recording it in a live setting with everyone in one room together. We weren’t sure we were good enough musicians to pull that off, but then we did.

This time, since we did the live album, it wasn’t so interesting to do that twice in a row. So yeah, it felt like the appropriate time to create a concept record, the next natural step to take.

KNAC.COM: It’s been rumored that the record’s fable is loosely based on one penned by Jean de La Fontaine’s. If so, on which of his fables is it based, and what about that particular story resonated with you?

ECKERSTROM: That’s actually a misquote. He was a source of inspiration as I started to research fables in general. There’s a term for those who write fables. They’re called “fabulists.” I love that I can call myself a fabulist now.

La Fontaine was important in reviving it in the 17th century. Of course, the use of fables goes back way further than that. The ancient Greeks, like Aesop, used it a lot. The Hindu tradition is full of it, and so on. He kind of revived it and was a big deal. He was a source of inspiration for me, but the album’s story is a completely original work.

KNAC.COM: AVATAR’s sound is very diverse. There are times when the music is very clean and melodic. Other times, the sound is distorted and chunky matched with grinding vocals. How does the band’s riff-driven writing style and its “letting the music play you” mantra serve to shape AVATAR’s unique sound?

ECKERSTROM: Like you said; sometimes there are cleaner, more melodic parts. Other times, there are crazy, brutal sections, but they’re there because we like all those types of music. All of the songs, no matter how diverse, sound like AVATAR. For instance, QUEEN was so diverse. On an album like A Night At The Opera, you go from “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to...)” to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and in between those two songs you’ve got “39” and “Good Company”. It’s insane what’s going on there, but it’s all still QUEEN. That’s something to which we aspire.

We’re metalheads playing within that genre, but we use a very wide definition of the term. You create the best riff that you can and figure out the perfect groove to go along with it. That’s the secret to good heavy metal. BLACK SABBATH’s “Iron Man” is a great example of that principle. We build songs around the riff, but we let inspiration take us where it takes us. We’ve always been diverse as musicians and our palette is pretty wide, especially as a group and what each of us brings into it. For Pete’s sake, as they say, I used to play trombone in a big band. That’s just one example of the diversity of our backgrounds and the types of things from which we draw inspiration. It’s what gives us the confidence to put whatever we feel we should into the music, especially with a concept album. It makes more sense now than ever. There are so many emotions and parts to the story that it makes sense to tell it with a wide variety of lights and shading.

KNAC.COM: Along those lines, in the past AVATAR was known for its elaborate, mini-movie style music videos. You departed from the motif with “Vultures Fly”, choosing instead to do an animated video. That video garnered the band Loudwire’s 2015 Best Rock Video award. Does using animation provide more creative options?

ECKERSTROM: “Vultures Fly” will be the only animated video for a while because we don’t like to repeat ourselves. That’s also a reason why we’re so diverse musically. It’s something that fit that idea, the visuals we created in our minds for that particular song. The one we’re filming now and fighting against the clock to get into post-production is another live action video. We may do another animated video here or there, but the live action ones will always be our main focus.

In other bands the whole audiovisual experience could be described as just being part of the image. It’s that to a point in our case, but we’ve also chosen to view those aspects of what we’re doing as art, as well. They’re something that needs to communicate what the music is communicating. We want to look the way we sound. It’s as simple as that. Doing so is a staple for any of the greats, anyone from SLIPKNOT to ZEPPELIN. They all tend to look the way they sound.

KNAC.COM: In an effort to fully tell the album’s story there’s also a book being made available to coincide with its release. Developing this while touring the previous album, and writing and recording the new one must have been quite a monumental undertaking. Was doing it another way to broaden AVATAR’s total audiovisual experience?

ECKERSTROM: Luckily, it’s not a novel. It tells the fable in the form of an epic poem. It includes the lyrics of the songs, which are the words spoken by the animals in the story. Interwoven within the lyrics and written in a more old-fashion style, the rest of the poem tells the story of what’s going on and what leads from one song to the next. It was too much material to fit into a booklet and we wanted to give the lyrical content of the album the respect it deserved. It’s all about bringing a bit of confidence to the table and daring to elevate what you do into proper art. It’s not just liner notes.

I also like the fact that nowadays some people buy vinyl. Some stream the music. Some buy the CD. Sadly, we don’t sell cassettes, but still there are so many formats today. The book suits itself well to any style of listener. It captures the concept of having an album as something you can physically hold in your hands and that side of the culture. We’re reintroducing that only in a different form, especially to younger fans who may not even have been born when Napster first began. For them, this provides something in addition to just the CD with a release that’s also desirable. It’s pretty cool.

KNAC.COM: AVATAR’s circus freaks imagery may be intended to have a scary undercurrent, but there’s hopefulness to it. The darkness, be it with this album’s concept or the band as a whole, never seems to win out. Does “good” ultimately prevail or is it left to the listener’s interpretation?

ECKERSTROM: There’s definitely hope in parts of this story and some kind of growth happens. If you follow chronologically, though, that is kind of shattered in the end. With “Sky Burial”, the final track of Feathers & Flesh, everyone is dead and no one learns anything. We are, however, aware that the owl has hidden her eggs from the eagle. As far as we know, at this point in the story, there may be someone who lives on and gets to fight another day. We don’t know. In that sense, yeah, maybe there’s a bit of hope.

AVATAR is more about emotions than a certain message. When I want to write a sad song I write about something I think is sad, meaning it’s built from whatever values I carry with me. My ambitions to put across a certain message or values, political or otherwise, are an extremely small part of what we’re doing as a band. It doesn’t have to be hope and direction or hopelessness and no direction either. We focus on specific feelings and situations with each song. I don’t necessarily provide an answer or a solution when I delve into a topic.

We probably offer more sadness, misery and hopelessness, but we just happen to be extremely entertaining while doing it. That’s the fun and confusing part about our band, I guess.

KNAC.COM: Does the “Breakthrough Artist” nomination at the 2016 Metal Hammer Golden God Awards bring with it the feeling that people get it; they get the whole AVATAR concept?

ECKERSTROM: That’s entirely possible. Part of it is that we get ourselves now. When we did our first album Thoughts Of No Tomorrow in 2006, Henrik (Sandelin – bass) was only 17yo. We were not big boys. We’ve taken a lot of different journeys throughout this decade since we started. So, I’m not surprised that it’s taken this long for people to get us because that’s also how long it’s taken for us to get ourselves.

KNAC.COM: Is there significance to the May 13th release date? It was on that same day in 2014 that Hail The Apocalypse was released.

ECKERSTROM: Holy shit! It was? [Laughing] Well, I guess that answers that question. Maybe someone was smart enough to think to do that, but we don’t create deadlines when we write. We hope to be finished by a certain time, but don’t set hard deadlines. In this case, we got lucky and were able to record before the end of the year. I like that it’s being released on a Friday the 13th. It corresponds nicely with the Friday the 13th release of BLACK SABBATH’s eponymous debut album on February 13, 1970. It’s a very heavy metal thing to do.

Before you mentioned that Hail The Apocalypse was also released on May 13th, the date didn’t really hold any sort of significance. It does now.

Johannes Eckerström is a very learned and complex individual. It’s really no surprise, then, that there’s so much to AVATAR’s concept, music, and story. Feathers & Flesh takes metal fans through a very wide range of the genres styles and emotions all while telling an intriguing and insightful tale. Perhaps the characters in the record’s fable are left having learned nothing in the end, but there’s much to be learned from this talented and diverse band. What better time than now for everyone to finally get it?

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