The Kingdom of Avatar is a much darker place these days.
Amidst a global pandemic and socio-political strife across the globe, Sweden's theatrical-metal juggernauts Avatar have released their eighth studio album Hunter Gatherer, a much darker and brooding followup to the tongue-in-cheek satirical world-building odyssey that was Avatar Country two years prior.
Frontman Johannes Eckerström caught up with Metal Injection to share the drastic shift in tone between albums, a surprising collaboration with Corey Taylor, and the defining bands and albums that influenced Avatar.
On Releasing 'Hunter Gatherer' During COVID-19
I feel like this is one of the most historical times that I've been living through thus far where we can say that a couple of things has happened. When I was in school there was the Berlin Wall falling in 89 . Obviously, history books that kids have in school now, 9/11 is in there … but I guess like the Spanish flu, (COVID-19) is quite significant and from a historical perspective. It's impossible to quantify tragedy against tragedy.
We talk about what are we supposed to do now? Will we put (the album) out this year? Yes, we will, because we were very open and out there with the fact that we were recording it then it would just be silly and, I don't know, dishonest and opportunistic to just hold it up. Artistically that would have been wrong and probably business-wise as well. But it would just not have been the artistic, honest thing to do. There are so many things in the grand scheme of things that we who are healthy and our loved ones are healthy, we are not in a position to complain too much about this.
On the Humor Behind 'Avatar Country'
(Avatar Country) was always supposed to be something humorous. And it was meant to be more satire in terms of the whole glorious leader aspect of it all. We wanted to use more joke of that nature. We all laughed our asses off when we saw that The Dictator, the Sacha Baron Cohen movie. It was a bit more of that and also for a while, a vision of Avatar Country as a less happy place and stuff. But then, you know, Donald Trump started to go to talk to North Korea too much for that to be. It wasn't meant to be topical. Of course you could do political statements, but that is not why we wanted to do that.
We thought it was funny that Jonas was king of Avatar Country. It kind of bummed us out when reality and certain things reflected that side too much that we kind of toned it down. Avatar Country was a more purely happy place, which in hindsight was the right decision to make anyway, because then that whole trip ended up being about Avatar Country and the whole creation of that world and that whole fun and games we had. We have so much to thank the audience for that.
It was important for us to be funny or try to be funny and at least make ourselves laugh, but we knew it was just something we wanted to do once, that Avatar Country was a one time deal. I think that the whole concept at all, just naming every song something with a king and writing about my good friend Jonas in every song, lyrically, it worked for those 42, 43 minutes. For that duration of time, that felt brilliant. But to have done another album with that? Glory to Our King Electric Boogaloo?
On a More Aggressive & Dark Followup
My wife bought a t-shirt saying '2020: directed and written by Stephen King'.
We started this year with those crazy fires in Australia. There were so many sad and negative things on a global scale going on, and this reflects that. But on the other hand, why do I sing about and say the genocide begins with the trees or bird carcass with a belly full of plastic or other little astute observations around this world. I read about bleached coral reefs or garbage islands all that way before 2020. I think about how certain things are going particularly bad around this pandemic, you can trace back to our attitudes to policies and whatnot and the state of the world to before 2020. There were definitely things to say about this whole situation prior to this year. Of course it culminates in this, with everything going on. And that makes me think maybe we should have made another happy album. But It wasn't what we felt like doing this time.
We started a certain musical journey with Black Waltz. That is when we start to describe ourselves as a conceptual band and as a theatrical group and all those different ways of looking at what we were doing. In that trip, we reached Feathers & Flesh, which as an album and the content of what that story is was a dead serious thing. However, while working on it we were playing around with that concept, playing around with a show and as a reaction to what people I think expect from us, the humor started to come.
If you look at the music videos, especially "The Eagle Has Landed", but maybe even more "New Land", it was evident to us that we needed to pull ourselves in that direction, that this what we were inclined on doing. So we got all the humor out of our system and we didn't go back to an earlier album style wise, but we did go back to a fork in the road where at some point we choose one path, which led us down to where we wrote this love letter to heavy metal and had fun and games. The other half of the fork of the road, that road was a step into keep going deeper into exploring darkness.
I think, especially because we did Avatar Country, every album becomes a reaction in one way or another to what you did before. Speaking for myself, I have since a teenager learned to deal with whatever's going on in my life to put that in one way or another into lyrics, into music and arts. And now this little play with a glorious king kind of came in the way, and I think that made the dark side more necessary than ever and probably more compact than ever. I think that's one of the reasons this album ended up the way it did.
On Corey Taylor's Whistle Cameo on 'A Secret Door'
We can't completely not do things to crack ourselves up. We opened for Stone Sour a million years ago, but no real contact was established back then. We were local supporters for a Stockholm show when we were 19 years old. But fast forward to today, it's mainly through our producer Jay Ruston. He has worked with Stone Sour quite a bit and as well with Corey for his solo album. They know each other, Corey's wife is a big Avatar fan, and he kind of learned a bit of us from here and from there. And then we had the opportunity last year to open for Slipknot in France. You start to bump into each other, six degrees of separation becomes five degrees, four degrees, three degrees. And then he was talking to Jay about us and said hey, if I'm in (LA) while you're recording we'd love to come by the studio to hear some stuff and I could lay something down if they're into that. And of course we were.
(Corey) in our little metal bubble, and to a certain degree outside of that bubble, he is a celebrity and definitely more known than we are and in a much bigger band. He'd come and lay something down on the album? Yeah, can you whistle? And he loved that idea. The thing about it is I whistled on the demo. I can whistle but I'm not great, and it's kind of high pitched … and the funny thing is he's like 'ha ha I'm going to whistle'. Then he goes into sound both booth and then what happens is like, 'alright, I'm gonna nail this fucking whistling'. You can't not take it seriously once you stand there. So he did that and then he joined in on some gang vocal stuff. It was a very fun, fun time in the studio. It was a couple hours of him and his wife hanging and listening and shooting the breeze and whistling.
On Crowd-Funded Film 'Legend of Avatar Country'
The spark that started that whole craziness was an inside joke, and then we came up with more funny aspects of it that made us laugh. We wanted to dedicate ourselves and there was this almost 24/7 theatre around it … People might find that completely ridiculous, but our vision for it grew and grew and grew and people were onboard with it and wanted to play with us. And of course, the film became the culmination of that.
As we were filming and there's this scene where whatever weird thing happened and we just look at each other and I guess John said first, this movie will make absolutely no sense to anyone except for us and the Kickstarter backers. This is not made with a wide audience in mind, which was a beautiful thing, you know? I haven't seen any actual reviews of the film online, but I don't think it would get very high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. But for us that it was meant for, and that includes that slice of audience that helped back it, it was this wonderful thing.
On the Influence of Devin Townsend
I guess I heard him for the first on when I was 14. Personally, as a vocalist, he's on Mount Rushmore for me. And artistically, if you look through his whole trip from the first Strapping album up until today, he has evolved so much, dared to change so much. Been true to himself artistically all of the time and done what he felt was necessary to articulate whatever he wanted to express at that time.
I'm a huge fan, so it definitely worked on me, but it seems to me that he has been rewarded career-wise for it. He's been able to keep going despite that sometimes it's death metal, sometimes it's prog, sometimes it's space country. It can be all these different things. From a fans perspective at least, it always seems like he doesn't doubt for a minute and at the end of the day he always ends up doing what he is most inclined to do. To dare to reinvent like that, to redefine what you are about and have that change as you grow older? That is immensely inspiring to me.
On the Albums that Shaped Avatar
If I would try to triangulate what for me personally would be to shape the journey, I guess I would maybe need to use four albums to put four corners of it.
The first would be probably Made Me Do It by The Haunted. Collectively for us as a whole as a group, The Haunted is probably the most important, most influential band for Avatar, because we are still huge fans, but Made Me Do It came out when we were again in our early teens and getting into more extreme music and it's still a perfect, perfect album.
That's what John listened to when he tried to figure out how do you use double kick drums? That's what I listened to for how do I keep screaming without making it hurt and have that high pitched thing? That's was what Jonas was playing when he was learning to play a heavier guitar, and kind of influenced this riffing style of our early album. That was when we schooled ourselves and taught ourselves to be metal musicians. The foundation is so much from The Haunted. Made Me Do It is still up there.
Number two would be Blind Guardian, Imaginations From The Other Side. They always had that roar to make beautiful, melodic, powerful music and for that marriage between the vocals and guitar leads the way they did it. They are like progressive without being progressive, power metal without being power metal. And there's that foundation of actually being a raw, aggressive metal band. You know, the way the rhythm guitars are working in that band, to this day it's still there. The vibe from the early days when there was nothing called power metal.
Another one that goes for the whole band is None So Vile by Cryptopsy … that was one of those things right when we got to know each other in the super early days like when it's just John and Jonas that are still around from when I joined. We were really young and no one could play, but I said check this shit out and showed them None So Vile. Cryptopsy, with that The Book of Suffering EP and everything that they do today, still slays most other extreme stuff to me.
I think as a composition like there is thematically in the music, there's a point to what they're doing. Yes, they are faster and more extreme and better players than most, but they do it in a way where brutality and emotion comes first. At least that's the way I hear it, and they feel like a living, breathing unit. I think they're very much into jazz and they play like that. It's a living, breathing entity in their music. And that's how you do brutality right. And I think most technical death metal, especially in modern technical death metal, becomes too clinical and wants to make sure that people hear every note in a perfected way that makes it sound just clinical and sterile. The final I have to say would be City by Strapping Young Lad, but there are so many.