Avatar’s Johannes Eckerstrom Shares Passion for ‘New Land’ Video, Wrestling Influences + More
Avatar are well into supporting their concept album Feathers & Flesh, and the Swedish rockers are preparing to return stateside to continue promoting the disc this spring. Ahead of their forthcoming tour, we had a chance to chat with Avatar frontman Johannes Eckerstrom about the upcoming dates, as well as their highly entertaining and eye-catching new video for "New Land." The vocalist also offered some insight into the research for Feathers & Flesh and shared some unexpected influences when it comes to his stage presence. Check out our chat with Avatar's Johannes Eckerstrom below.
I love the "New Land" video we got here recently. Can you tell me about what inspired it and how it was to shoot that?
So we've been talking for years about doing something that would include stop motion animation. Johan [Carlen], our guy, when it comes to music videos and a one man wrecking crew, he always he wanted do this forever. I wanted to do this forever honestly.
So that was something that was around and we were just in a phase like, "Okay, we want to do one at least one more video for this album" and it was a question between "New Land" and another song. We had a script and a story and a technical concept and everything for this other song, and it just so happened to be that after while we also felt like why don't we rather do "New Land" for the grownup office reasons like blah blah radio might like it, but also like in terms of how we felt we wanted to push it a bit extra out there.
As I'm sure you know, this album is a concept album and I wrote this book as a fable and each song plays a part in the story but we decided early on that we would not do a music video that would be literal depictions of what the song is about in the context on the album. So instead it was all about finding a different metaphor and a different angle on the theme of each individual song and create something new from that. That's what we did with the "The Eagle Has Landed" and "Night Never Ending."
So we start looking at the title and "New Land" explores adventure, into the unknown and in the lyrics people are flying and there's uncertainty and there's some melancholy and there's almost a sense of being lost and we start to think about space. So space felt cool and then on top of that we had develop a certain aesthetic around the band. We are in this imaginary world that moves aesthetically somewhere between science fiction as it looked during the Industrial Revolution and all the way back to creating something steampunk or retro futurist. We are somewhere between the the invention of the steam engine and the invention of the transistor basically.
There we create this kind of aesthetically fancy world. So we start to think about the Georges Melies author's version of going to the moon and the depictions of that and the cinema through this history and just really had a fun time. We were cracking each other up with all these ideas like getting astronomy wrong, like navigating through space with a compass and a rudder and having inaccurate maps, almost to the extent of believing the end of the earth was flat and we fly to another flat planet. We started having fun with that, about how things would have been imagined to be before we got to take a closer look at other places out in space.
From that, this turned into an adventure story, misunderstood astronomy and adding into that story of the song and the emotion of the song, and consciously then kind of trying to do the clash between all these aesthetics, the compass, the space etc. It's funny to us, and I guess funny to others once you stop and think about all this stuff that goes on in the video. But we wanted to play everything straight, still. There should be a real story there when we talk about Apollo 13, the Tom Hanks movie, and the way they did it there and playing this bizarre world -- have it happen in this bizarre version of our world but at the same time, play it all straight.
Then the story grew from there and once we had a treatment written for it, we sent it along to Johan who fleshed out this script. He is also this big fan of sci-fi and loves the old stuff. He modeled all of us as characters, a blend between who we are as people, the dynamic of the band, the roles we play in the band on and off stage. He mixed that with the main cast from Star Trek, the original series.
So, I'm Captain Kirk and Tim is Spock. And then one of us is Scotty and I don't remember the other two, but still the whole dynamic of those characters. And we tried to capture it. Where there's fencing, we had a fencing coach showing us like a few tricks, trying to teach us to do the moves in a correct manner. It's very much like I'm waving my arms around. I'm being very brash and Tim is more restricted in his moves. He just does what he needs to do to block and step and all that, and very like Spock, cold and logical and it's all through the music video, interacting is like that.
That was also another cool thing with this one. We acted more than we ever have done before. We are not professional actors, and I still wouldn't dare to go in somewhere and audition where I would have to actually speak. We are silent movie actors at best, but we got to do more of that here. There was more the cliche of actor asking the director what is my motivation. There was more of that in this one than in any other music video we've done.
I love waiting to see what is going to come from Avatar next in terms of the videos. I know you've worked with Johan Carlen frequently over the years and generated some great videos. If you want to talk about that relationship that you've formed with him and what makes him the go-to guy for your videos.
I guess it was because he lives in Gothenburg. He's from a smaller, rural town a couple of hours away originally, but he moved to the big city of 500,000 people [laughs] to make something of himself as a photographer and general multimedia dude. And he had taken some pictures of bands we knew. He was shopping around and he had this concept basically, he had photoshopped one of the two big bridges in Gothenburg -- our Brooklyn Bridge basically -- and photoshopped it around so it was all overgrown and broken and post-apocalyptic. He was shopping around for some time to see if any band was interested in doing a concept like that. Through friends of friends we started to talk and we spoke about that, but first he was on board as a photographer shooting pictures for Black Waltz. This was before we figured out that hey, I look good in makeup and all that. So, we were experimenting with him and trying different ideas. During this time we were trying to find what actually is the concept of our band -- what are the visuals to go along with the music because we were never really good at nailing that in the past. So, it started like that, because he was shooting some pictures of me in a lake of fire, which was an actual lake that we lit on fire.
We realized that this was a great opportunity to shoot a music video which was "Black Waltz." He was around, he had a camera and he was into those kind of things, so that was it. He was the go-to guy because he was already there to shoot the "Black Waltz" music video. And we've been running with that ever since.
It has just grown. There are a bunch of names in Sweden and internationally for music videos that have some name recognition to them, but we usually don't like other current bands music videos that much. We usually have to look back to the '90s to find [what we like], but, of course, there's cool stuff still coming out, but in most cases you have to go back to the '90s to find the real good things in the art of music videos. So, there are not that many others that we are interested in.
Along this road, we have developed this relationship where we understand each other very well. He and I really get each other's references. Like I said, we both had dreamed of a stop-motion thing, and we both had this special place in our hearts for retro-science fiction. It's just another example that we had all these tastes in common and that we don't just end up standing in a cave, or an empty factory, or whatever, and have a stroboscope and a smoke machine, and try to look like we really, really don't want to crap our pants. There's always that urge to take everything to the next level, which we did with this video. Again, there’s more acting, more people involved. Every time, it looks more and more like something that professionals have been working on. The camera is getting bigger too. That’s my favorite part, that the camera has started to look like cameras look on TV, when they shoot real things, you know?
Going into the Feathers & Flesh album, did you have an idea that you wanted to do a concept album or did it evolve from having some songs that felt like they tied together and deciding to explore that further?
It didn’t come from the music per se, because there’s always someone writing something in the band. Working on the next thing is constant, so the music was there. I guess, with each album cycle, you learn a couple of things that help you. You learn a couple things artistically about everything else, that makes you be able to articulate more abstract things, if that makes sense.
You just get better, hopefully better at being a bit artsy-fartsy, you know? When we started together, we just tried really hard to write songs that don’t suck. We still do that! Then, after a while, you try to write songs that are pretty good and then the next thing is to try to figure out maybe a bit of your own thing and you just build new bricks into the building of what we are about and what we feel we need to achieve.
A concept album was just this next step where we felt, “Do you know how to do that?” “No!” “Neither do I." "Cool! Let’s try!” For a bit there, figuring out the concept, the story, and how it would be presented was running parallel with the music, but they didn’t meet until we had the “Okay, this will be a fable! This will be written like a long poem! This will be about animals in the forest, and it’s like a fairy tale, and it’s magical, and all this.” Yet, we need to do this in a totally badass metal way, with kick-ass riffs.
Once all that was articulated, we started to look at the music we had written up until that point again, and think, “Hmm, wait a minute. Okay, we need a song for the pike, for the depressed pike,” but music was still written independently, you know. You just try to wake up every day, and make your best riffs that you can think of that day. That process has to be allowed to take its time, and be its own thing.
I think it would have constipated us to sit with a guitar in your lap, and say, “Pike - Pike - Pike…” We were more like, “Let’s have ten ideas, and let’s see which is the pikey one - It’s bound to happen.” Then, by accident, you’ve got the wolf-y one, and the owl-y one, during the process.
Because you talk about the pike, the wolf, the owl ... There’s all these different animals that we’re tying in here, I was just wondering how much research went into the different animals before writing? Did you try to study up on the characteristics? Was it more generalizations of what you already knew?
The research, because I’m a geek, was made beforehand unless looking into some things here and there count. There was a bit extra about owls. It was more about just trying to understand what the normal perception of an animal, as a fabled creature, or as a symbol in general, what they tend to mean to people.
For instance, the eagle is usually a symbol of very cool and awesome things, or when you want to portray cool and awesome things. From the Roman Empire to your home country, the eagle is a very important symbol for your perceived awesomeness. Therefore, it was interesting to say, “But what if we turn everything 180 degrees, and instead of being that, it could be a symbol for something else” or, just the other side of the medallion of what it usually symbolized. Because the eagle is this brave symbol of the Roman Empire, and so on and so forth. I guess also Germany still has it, the twin-headed eagle if I remember, like many countries, if that is the way the eagle is viewed, does the eagle ... Maybe this is the way the eagle views itself, and it’s actually a pompous douche, you know?
Back to the pike, it’s actually one that didn’t change that much. The children’s stories I remember, if a pike could speak, it was hiding down in the mud of the moor of the lake, and was either big and dangerous, or was just dark. It was always a dark creature, so there are similarities there, but it was important that the main characters, the antagonist and protagonist, the eagle and owl, were being twisted around a bit with what they usually are.
Owls are usually ... they tend to be wise, you know? Or, if it’s “Winnie the Pooh,” a parody of wisdom, at least over here. In that case, I used more of the simple fact of it being this silent, nocturnal hunter -- the owl as a stealth plane, the way they hunt. They can fly in on a mouse from behind, and the mouse has no idea that it’s coming, because it flies so silently. That’s the apex predator of the night section, that is based more on reality.
Yeah, there was a bunch of research, but it wasn’t important to be faithful to source materials; it was important to mess with the source material. To use the form, the structure and the general idea of a lesson-teaching fable story, but to use all that to kind of do the opposite with it, like a reaction to it.
You talk about the wisdom of the owl, but also maybe, not necessarily learning from the past, from history. How do you see the owl’s journey here mirroring what we see going on in the world today?
Well today or any other given day in recorded history? We have a short memory! We jump on the bandwagon over and over again -- it’s just one example of it. It can be simpler things; it can be our personal lives.
Right now, since I’m trying to get back to the gym on a regular basis, and half of the time, I’m pretty good at it, but the other half I’m not, with all the time spent on New Year’s resolutions, or all the times I’ve been buying chia seeds and stuff to make smoothies in the mornings instead of having cereals. For every time, I should be pretty good at sticking to it by now, but I’m not, because I’m a human being.
It’s very basic things like that, up to - current politics, or past politics - It’s always scary. You shouldn’t read politics news and history articles on the same days; you should try to have a couple of days, and a couple of drinks in between, otherwise it gets very scary, very fast!
Absolutely! I never thought of that, but that’s very true!
Of course, that means that we probably should read tons of history, and check out our current policies all the time, actually. Educating yourself is depressing lots of the time, when it comes to stuff like this.
I know you’re coming here to the States with In this Moment, Motionless and White, Gemini Syndrome playing dates with you this spring. Do you have previous relationships with those bands, and are you fans of the bands you’re about to go on tour with?
We toured with Gemini Syndrome, and that was great! They are great guys, we had a good time together when we were touring all across the States, two years ago, maybe? The years all blur together. There we have a relationship, we know each other and they’re cool guys.
In this Moment, honestly, I don't know that much, really. Of course, now, I’ll check them out a bit, because we’re going to tour together and all that, and I’m sure it will be great, you know? It usually is. Bands tend to get along with other bands, so I’m sure we’ll be fine.
Motionless in White is funny, because it feels like it’s been years in the making. I don’t think we’ve ever met, at least not properly. We might have met, like, “Hey, you guys should meet!” “Oh, hi!” “Hi!” “Okay, gotta go to the next interview” or whatever, but I don’t think we’ve even done that. We even played the same venue in Germany. We were headlining one room, while they were opening for Lacuna Coil in the other, and I don’t know what happened, but we didn’t get to meet there. It’s been talked about. They were introduced just by our management years ago as, “You guys should do something together! This would be a great fit! You guys would get along great, and I think you would share audiences.” All these things, it’s been years in the making with Motionless, so in that sense, it’s cool that it’s finally happening. Then, we’ll see, you know? Touring tends to be fun for people, so I’m sure we’ll have a great time!
This album has been out for a while now, so you’ve had a chance to work some of the material into sets. Favorite song off the new album to play live, and is there anything you’re still wanting to work in that maybe you haven’t gotten in yet?
In terms of having gotten it in yet, yeah, all the songs we haven’t played live yet, I would like to play live at some point. A fun one, from a musician’s point of view is, on this one, “Raven Wine” would be a cool one to tackle, because it’s full of weird things we haven’t done yet. The way I sing it, especially the chorus, is just something we haven’t done quite like that yet and due to the production of it on the album, I'm not sure how much we can recreate live. Well, nowadays, that’s not even hard, we’re not in the '60s, so what stuff do we have to put on the back track, basically?
Also the part I would look forward to the most is, as always, the part where I can get off stage have a sip of water, and watch the other guys sweat blood - that tricky, weird, jazz-fusion, psychedelic part in the middle, you know? I would love that to be part of our set, especially since I wouldn’t have to work that hard for it.
Other than that, I think, all in all, they have all turned out to be good live songs, and it’s something we’re interested in. Actually the other guys in the band talk more about, “How would this work live?” and it’s a very good question to ask yourself, when you want to create good metal. Do you want to bang your head? Do you want to mosh? Do you want to jump? Do you want to put your fists in the air and scream, or sing along? All those are very metal things. I’m not very good at thinking of those things while writing. It happens a bit more by accident for me, but then, the other guys complete me with their style of writing, lots of the time, so we always complete each other.
I don’t know, it’s always fun to do the songs that people start to recognize the earliest, and therefore sing along to the most. In this case, “The Eagle Has Landed” did very well. At the same time, because that becomes such a staple of the set list, and it has a music video, and all that, you selfishly and stupidly, as the artist, always grow a bit - It’s wrong to say -- I grow tired of it; it’s fun every time onstage, but right before going onstage, that’s not the time to go, “Oh, I can’t wait to do ‘Eagle Has Landed!’” Then, I love it, standing there, because it’s a live show - It’s a two-way street, and with the audience, makes it all worthwhile with a song like that.
Then, you know, once we start to do “Fiddler’s Farewell” and slow things down and had that work, it became more exciting, just because it’s a different kind of challenge. It has very little to do with the quality of the song or not. It’s more like the particular style of a song and how comfortable I am performing it. If I’m a little bit comfortable with something, I’m more excited for it. I look forward to it a bit more, so maybe “Fiddler’s Farewell,” on this album, for that reason.
You have such a great stage presence and personality onstage, and you mentioned the band aesthetic as well. Is there anybody you saw growing up that has influenced how you present yourself in terms of the live setting?
Oh yeah, totally. Of course, you have the usual suspects, in a way. I first saw Iron Maiden when I was 16 years old. The whole band, or lineup that Avatar was at the time, went to Stockholm to see them. I'd say Bruce Dickinson, then even more, especially in the later years, Rob Halford. I try to jump around and do a bunch of stuff on stage like Iggy Pop or something like that. I want to be as energetic as possible. I was able to create so much presence, charisma, and intensity with smaller means, and Rob Halford is an excellent example of that. The energy and movement, absolutely he did that, but then it was also, if you look at recordings, tapings from the '80s and stuff, look at his eyes! There’s no pyro in the world, no cool backdrop or whatever, stuff that you could put on stage that would outshine his eyes. That impresses me so much!
Then there’s Freddie Mercury, of course. Michael Jackson played a huge, huge role. I can’t dance, but I would say, 39 percent of what I do onstage is just a very white, a Northern European metalhead’s interpretation of Michael Jackson’s dancing! On top of that, what has inspired, and taught me a lot, is actually a bunch of pro wrestlers.
In particular, I grew up watching WCW. Back in the day when there was WCW, and I just caught up on this week’s Raw last night, but also once I started to discover how they shoot interviews. and all the behind-the-scenes stuff and everything ... You, as musicians, don’t tend to talk so academically or scientifically, whichever way you want to put it, about the live performance, about communicating with an audience, reaching the audience. There are certain things that can’t be said, and certain interesting bits that I learned from a Rob Halford interview here or some Michael Jackson stuff there.
It’s usually, when the artist is speaking, what the artist speaks about the most is usually the music, even a guy like Freddie Mercury, who could probably teach everyone so much about live performance. But wrestlers, they speak about communicating with the crowds, how to convey a feeling, how to make people suspend their disbelief and all these things that you totally can apply to a musical performance as much as you can do in a wrestling match.
Also, just growing up, watching these people, these guys who are always trying to put over the sensation of being larger than life, that fits the metal formula perfectly. Hulk Hogan, back in the day Sting, and Crow-era Sting was definitely [great] ... People ask a lot about how much The Crow inspired me to look the way I look and behave the way I behave. Well, yeah, I liked The Crow, but also I liked the pro wrestler who ripped off the look of The Crow even more! And just a bunch of Jake “The Snake” Roberts interviews taught me a lot!
Our thanks to Avatar's Johannes Eckerstrom for the interview. As stated, the band is returning stateside for a tour with In This Moment, Motionless in White and Gemini Syndrome. See where the band is playing here. And you can currently pick up the 'Feathers & Flesh' album, featuring the current single "New Land," via Amazon and iTunes. Watch the "New Land" video below.
Avatar, "New Land"