Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Johannes Eckerstrom from the band Avatar before they played at Club LA in Destin, Florida. It was a race against the clock to reach the club due to it being an hour away and leaving for it an hour before hand. Jim Dodge and I arrived one minute before the interview time and were met by guitarist Jonas Jarlsby at their tour bus (Sorry about the name confusion Jonas). We were then led to the back of the bus where Johannes was sitting down wearing a Ziltoid shirt and looking just a little bit tired. Thankfully he was more than ready to talk and even seemed happy. So, knowing that he would be on stage in about two hours I wasted no time after Jim and I introduced ourselves and I got to asking questions that hopefully for Johannes weren’t too much of a re-hash of previous ones he had been asked before
Interview by Jason Bonton with help from Jim Dodge
MM: To start out with you’ve talked about wrestling in previous interviews so I have to ask, Cactus Jack or Terry Funk?
Johannes Eckerstrom: From the wrestling I had access to growing up so to speak, I saw as a kid slightly more Cactus Jack stuff. I think if I would have had access to other channels as a kid it would have been more Terry Funk honestly.
MM: So what do you love about music?
Johannes: What do I love about music? I don’t know that I love something specifically about music. It’s been in my life since I was a little kid. It’s always been present. I don’t know if I may sound a bit pretentious, what do you love about air? I breathe it.
I started taking piano lessons, or I was given piano lessons since I was four years old and I played a bunch of instruments and I always played something. So it’s always been around and it’s always been very, very present on a daily basis since I was a little child. So it’s hard to say I don’t know what the alternative would have been. In our case as a musician, as a artist, as a songwriter it has become, in our particular medium, a way to communicate things I feel and to make people feel it to. That’s cool.
MM: The band’s sound has changed from your first album and part of it was with a line-up change, but what other factors played into it?
Johannes: There’s been a sound change. It comes down to growing up I guess. We started getting our shit together. As musicians, and artistically, we have become better and better and not just making up notes in a certain order. Now we have started to really come through with the vision with the music which has become more and more important and it’s something more and more we can work with. It’s the abstract things.
MM: If you can narrow it down to one piece of music, what would you say made you want to start playing music?
Johannes: Beethoven. Again when I was four years old I remember seeing things in a book we had at home about music and there was a picture explaining how a symphonic orchestra works and around the same time I was being introduced to classical music from my parents, especially my mother. I got hooked very much immediately on Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It’s as direct as Smoke On the Water (Johannes at this point sings out loud the first eight notes of the symphony as an example.) The power of that. I guess looking back, I don’t want to over mystify my childhood now. But still it was one of the darker pieces I could find at that age. Something was already attractive with that already at that early age. And then wanting to be on stage and play and do music came from there. And then to have a loud audience in front of me came through Hulk Hogan a few years later. The singing came from Michael Jackson when I was about six years old I guess. And slightly after that wanting to do rock n’ roll came from the Beatles. And then it was just a question of hair length and how extreme we got.
MM: When I listen to Hail the Apocalypse but the best way I could describe it is that it sound like a evil fucking circus. What was the writing and recording process like recording for the album?
Johannes: When we write now it’s very much an organized chaos. We are a very collective writing team and we enjoy stealing songs from each other the surroundings. And that’s a nice thing we can very much rely on each other and take the freedom if Jonas (Editor’s note: Jonas Jarlsby plays guitar) does something cool on guitar that makes me feel something I keep on working on it to try and capture that feeling. If he’s into something I have written I know one of the others will pick it up and start molding it into something. So it’s just that collective chaotic experience.
MM: How did your onstage persona come about because it has changed since the band was first formed?
Johannes: Well, it was a happy accident. We did the Black Waltz album and it was the first album to come out here though it was our fourth with Hail the Apocalypse being the fifth. But we’ve been through all these years before and we haven’t been starting off in the states. But we’ve been through a bunch of different phases but we really now have decided to consider everything about the band art. That the visuals should fit the music. The sights, the sounds, the smells, everything should communicate the same thing. It was while experimenting with that that we had one idea for an album cover was me standing in a lake of fire. Now lakes of fire are only cool if they are actually there. So no CGI, no photo shop, no nothing. I stepped out in a lake with lamp oil ( at this point Johannes makes a sound of the oil catching fire). When doing that we had help from a guy in America named Bryce Graves from Texas I believe. He has this sideshow circus group (Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow) and they were touring European festivals that summer and happened to be in Sweden, and happened to be in Gothenburg, and somebody knew someone and he came along to the countryside and lit me on fire. And then he showed some other tricks he could do. Tricks is not the word for it. It’s performing art obviously and everything is real. He ate the glass from a light bulb, drilled into his nose, all that good stuff. And that was just things he and some others could do that was a pretty nice fit to the song Black Waltz. So we figured, okay we can do music and theater together as they seem a perfect fit. And speaking of fit there was a need to fit into that particular context. It would have been too much to have the whole band there performing. You know, performance upon performance upon performance. I wanted to focus on what they did. So it was enough with me walking around singing like Christina Aguilera would. It’s just we needed to fir into that particular context of circus freaks. Scary stuff. Clowns. Scary clowns. Scary clowns are cool. So we did that. And what happened is when we figured how the face paint was supposed to look instead of just slapping on my face it just clicked. It clicked with me and it opened up so many doors for me to express myself. It undressed me really. Something the whole band felt was the face of the music. So we had this frame work for what we wanted to do visually. Conceptually it was all there already. It really was the perfect visualization of the album we just didn’t realize it till this happy accident. The album cover was just some pictures we shot between takes while filming and it turned out to be exactly what we were looking for without knowing it. We never put the lake of fire picture on the cover. It was pretty cool doing it though. It was fun.
MM: Is that part of how you guys got on tour with Mushroomhead because of the similarities, like having a stage show and not just standing there playing music?
Johannes: I think it might have helped. I don’t know the full story actually. There was a situation where we were supposed to be touring more together but we wound up not doing that but for only four shows together. When people are looking for opening acts they look for a bunch of different things. Will they help to sell tickets? Will they be mean to them? Are we a good fit? It’s always when we are in the position to really choose if and when we have a choice of opening bands of course we look for that make the evening great for those who come there. I think we do. This is the second show we’re doing with them and I can only speak for Lynchburg. That was an amazing show for us and their audience is really open to what we are doing.
MM: When you guys are selling out the giant 30,000 seat arenas, who are going to be your opening bands?
Johannes: I would love for our band to reunite. I guess….things are going very fast for us here in the states. We didn’t exist here three years ago pretty much. Our first tour here was one and a half years ago. First time we ever tread on American soil as a band. So it’s been a very fast ride and it’s going really well. Even though that’s true we still have some time left before 30,000 people. Hopefully by that time I look forward it to be a young group to kick our asses. I think that is what every real metalhead should be excited about. That and my girlfriend is a music journalist as well and she interviewed the singer in Overkill, Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, talked about this because they had some really young thrash metal band and said he was more excited about those bands now. You know half their age playing thrash metal and kicking their asses every night and that made him step up his game. So I’m looking forward to that. We’re right in the middle age wise. We’re not getting away being young and cute. On the first album it was like that. We were not even twenty years old many of us when we did our first album. So we had that hype in Europe we had in the beginning. “You’re so young and cool!”And then on the next album: “You’re so young!”Are we still? GOD DAMNIT LISTEN TO THE SOUND! So we’re past that phase but we’re still not thirty yet. So if you’re fifteen and still not as old as we are. I always try to think where is that hip age where nothing is going to stop. I was pretty sure it was twenty five until I turned twenty five and that is when you stop being hip according to kids. But in any case I’m not fifty yet so we’re somewhere in between age wise though. So right now I hope we still fit in the category of young, hungry, and kicking ass and I look forward to getting my ass kicked to get a second wind and I will be the opening band before 30,000 people. Longest answer ever!
MM: A lot of the time being out on the road you truly get to know the band members and the quirks each one has and what pisses them off. What do you do to help relieve the stress of being on the road for months on end?
Johannes: My go to method for handling the stress used be drinking and it worked really great. Now the method for handling the stress is to not drink and that works even better it turns out. You can’t avoid all the factors. We got the chance to tour from a fairly early age, we really liked what we’re doing, and we started to get good at it. We’ve become built to do this. It’s not a problem sleeping in a bunk and sitting in a small space. It works. We can do it. And those bad days you take a little walk you know. Or you disappear in a book or whatever. There are many different things. We have known each other for such a long time and within the band we have definitely worked through so much bullshit with each other. So now it’s not that hard anymore. It’s a walk in the park. This is show number thirteen in a row without a break. Tomorrow is our first day off in two weeks and still we’re fine you know. Now I’ll miss sleep due to staying up playing video games for once. Other than that we’re great. We take care of each other and we take of ourselves. Empathy. It’s good to bring empathy on tour and forgiveness and able to realize you are the one that’s the asshole and not the other guy.
MM: You’ve been able to tour and perform with other bands on different stages and festivals. What band do you personally want to perform with that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
Johannes: I always, selfishly, would say Strapping Young Lad because I’m a huge Devin Townsend fan. I never saw Strapping Young Lad, I’ve seen Devin Townsend three times. I got to interview him actually. So all that is awesome but I never got to see Strapping and I know it will never happen and I respect his integrity in that is how he wants to do it. But I would like to see it. So I would allow that to happen if I could. Otherwise touring with other bands…..I don’t know. It usually turns out most bands are pretty awesome. I already got to tour with Helloween which turned me into a metalhead. So I could say I would love to tour with Judas Priest as well. Something like obviously. I don’t know. I’m more self-centered nowadays with what I want to do on a tour. I want to headline so where we can do the shows we want to do.
MM: What has made you stop and go ‘Wow….that’s really messed up?’
Johannes: Walmart. I’m an avid fan with stuff to fill the fridge and freezer up from Walmart. I don’t know…..right now it’s very US centric when I think about touring because we are in the middle of this. Then I can’t help but think about what I see people put in their carts at Walmart like ‘You can not only drink that you know. You need water!’ It’s stuff like that. The unhealthiness going on here sometimes. Obvious not with everyone. This is an interesting country of extremes to me. Feels like there are twenty percent people that are considered normal and then the rest is divided into two groups who are a lot like ‘Oh my god…..how are you still breathing!’ and ‘Are you in the Olympics?’ I mean people usually get pretty extreme over here either way in direction. Just fucked up stuff.
MM: We covered the fucked up shit, what makes you go ‘Wow…..that’s amazing?’
Johannes: When people say that our music saved their lives I respectfully call bullshit because only you are to save your life if you are on a self destructive path. Everyone who that decided to not cut are survivors and fighters in themselves and I just provided a soundtrack resonating with something already in you. For me it’s important to say that because number one I don’t do this to be appreciated, I do this to get to do this. I do this to be appreciated and not worshiped. I believe music is a powerful and amazing thing and if music can save lives like that. By itself without any outside influence that would mean that it could do damage at that level and then Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest should be in prison for what happened with their lyrics, which obviously they should not. But still I get letters. I got one from a teenager suffering from schizophrenia and dealing with having that…….’Yeah it’s hard for me and that your music cheers me up and that helps keeps me going’. I appreciate that. ‘And here’s a painting of you I did.’ And it was a cool painting. Then it’s like okay that gives what we do more meaning. Even when we try to be nice people, even when we try to be humble, and sharing and giving and have these good little virtues, it’s still a pretty self centered egotistical thing we are doing going around playing music. There’s no lack of people who would like to take this job from us when you think about it. We are being so worshiped in this business and treated as heroes when there are ambulance drivers, nurses, heart surgeons, you know and stuff like that. There are people that know how to build a bridge that a truck can drive across with you know. Art is important and beautiful and great, but art would exist without me. Music would exist without me. It’s not important specifically that I do. It’s self indulgent, self important to people. It pisses me off. Anyway my family needs me too. My girlfriend needs me too. And I need them and stuff. Instead I’m out here. NOT complaining, I’m just saying. What we do is kinda silly sometimes.
Actually I love it. I love to entertain people. I also love doing it in the living room at home when I get the chance. It’s a craft and it’s a professional love. That’s great and that’s good. Why not. It makes people happy. Making people happy is important too.
Just don’t be Bono. Then there’s the space between those two things. In the Swedish version of MAD Magazine there’s what if people with normal jobs behaved like rock stars? And there’s this guy on the street making hotdogs “I LIKED TO DEDICATE THIS TO ALL THE STARVING KIDS IN AFRICA AND And and it will be 5.59 please.” So this child in Africa is like ‘Gee thanks…….’
MM: Final question. What book or film are you looking forward to reading or seeing when you have a break in the tour?
Johannes: Well right now I brought the book The Edda. It’s from the thirteenth century and it’s the primary source about all we know about ancient Norse gods and those stories and legends. So I’m reading that right now. I’m very metal and intellectual at the same time. So that’s what goes on right now.