With his garish makeup, theatrical swagger and disturbing rictus grin, Avatar's Johannes Eckerström is a force to be reckoned with.
Backed by his art-damaged Scandinavian death-metal band, he's like a combination of Charlie Chaplin and The Joker performing in a prequel to A Clockwork Orange.
In conversation, however, Eckerström comes across as thoughtful and articulate, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and conspicuous lack of menace. A heavy Swedish accent is the only indicator that he's not from these parts.
On their sixth album Feathers & Flesh, which was released back in May, Avatar forgo the dour demeanor of their corpse-painted predecessors, while still showing enthusiasm for the half-century of metal that's gone before. A concept album inspired by the fables of French writer Jean de La Fontaine, it tells the story of an owl who wages war against the rest of the world and attempts to keep the sun from rising. (Spoiler alert: Things do not go well.) Eckerström also wrote a 60-page, 109-verse hardbound book to accompany the deluxe edition.
Musically, the Gothenburg band has taken to forcing incongruous genre elements together like misshapen jigsaw puzzle pieces: a 2/4-time carnival intro. Guttural death-metal verses. Unexpectedly melodic choruses with vocals that evoke Black Sabbath, or Queen, or both.
The results may look nothing like the photo on the box, but they're still kind of cool. Especially in light of the relatively generic death metal that dominated the band's early albums and videos.
"When we started out, we were like, 'Hey, we like melodic death metal! And, uh, other kinds of death metal, as well!'" says the singer with a laugh. "So yeah, those were the best songs we had at the time."
These days, Eckerström and his cohorts are clearly hitting their artistic and commercial stride. At the moment, their "Eagle Has Landed" video is just shy of a million YouTube views. And last week, the group embarked on a 20-city tour of America, which may finally put them on the map here in the States.
In the following interview, Eckerström talks about Avatar's recording sessions with Red Hot Chili Peppers producer Sylvia Massy, Jared Leto's performance in Suicide Squad, and learning not to fear your influences.
Indy: Let's start with the obvious question. What did you think of the new Suicide Squad movie?
Johannes Eckerström: It was okay; some things were pretty cool, and some things were incredibly huge letdowns, because super-hero movies are what they are. I had my Superman cape as a kid, so it's hard not to be drawn into it. But I think Harley Quinn was too much of a protagonist and much too likable. I would rather have seen her being a pure perpetrator, rotten to the core, likable in her awfulness. Like Trevor in the video game Grand Theft Auto.
I should also ask about the film A Clockwork Orange, which has obviously influenced a lot of bands from The Addicts to Blur. Are you one of those bands?
Absolutely. Clockwork Orange definitely played a part, but it's like the intention came one minute after the action. Like I had this cane and a hat and was walking down the street, and everybody was like "Woohoo, Clockwork!" And it was the same with the Joker. We all love the Joker.
How would you rank Jared Leto's Joker compared to Jack Nicholson or the guy who died?
Heath Ledger? [Laughs.] Well, number one on my list would actually be Mark Hamill, who was the voice actor for the animated Joker. After that, I guess it would have to be Heath Ledger — just the different take he had was so amazing.
And Jack Nicholson is for me — like the rest of the world — one of my favorite actors. He had to be good, because it's basically Jack Nicholson playing himself! And I think that if he'd gotten to do it when he was closer to the age he was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it would have been ever better.
I'm not yet sure about Leto. I don't know if it was his acting, or the writing or the directing. It's not like he did anything super-wrong, but the things he was supposed to do didn't really feel right to me.
I don't know. Again, it sounds like I'm a sadistic prick, but just for the sake of the storytelling, I think he should have been a bigger piece of shit against Harley Quinn. I mean, he's an abusive psychotic ass. And maybe he should have been a bit funnier.
On a related topic, when did you start smiling like that? I imagine an elementary school teacher would have been pretty concerned about it.
Really, the first time was in the "Black Waltz" video. It felt like something that'd been lying in hibernation with me for my whole life. Like it was waiting for me.
There's a very dark sense of humor in most of your work. Pretty much all of it, actually. Is there almost a more serious side that fans might not pick up on?
Yeah, there are serious things that are going on. But it cannot be helped that we're a heavy-metal band, and where there's darkness, you also find dark humor. I'll also consciously put in misleading clues that lead people astray.
For instance, we have a song called "The Eagle Has Landed" that some people take as a commentary about the United States. And yes, it is an eagle. And it is a douchebag. And that interpretation is fully possible, but it's not really what the song is about. So it's fun when people write about what it means to them politically.
Musically, the vocal on that song reminds me of Ozzy, but I could also swear I hear traces of early Queen in those choral harmonies that show up in songs like "Swarm."
That's totally on purpose and was a lot of fun to do. I think that once a band finds its own sound, they risk repeating the same song 10 times per year, every year, for the rest of their careers, and that's it.
But Queen was a great example, along with The Beatles, of a band who didn't seem to have too many rules about what it would be okay for them to do. Once we reached the point where we started to trust that we sound like Avatar — because we are who we are, and we cannot be anybody else, anyway — then it became fun to draw upon different sources of inspiration.
So with "Swarm," the heaviest influences are Strapping Young Lad, System of a Down and Queen. I was like: Hey, I want to do one of those things that you see in documentaries, where I get to record I don't know how many overdubs, with all these harmonies and stuff, because I want to give my ego a boner.
Apart from getting to do that, what was it like working with Sylvia Massy?
She once posted on Facebook about wanting to record vocals through a potato. A literal potato. And I think that says it all about her approach to experimentation, and following the muse, and being very unscientific. You know, it was like this alchemy.
But at the same time, she's in total control of that spaceship that is a studio. She knows the bells and whistles, the compressors, the equalization, all those things that I don't understand. I'm just, "Can you press the Sound Good button, please?"
So if you were forced to choose between being in a traditional metal band, or being a performance artist, which one would you pick?
You mean a performance artist like Cirque du Soleil or something?
I was thinking more in terms of an avant-garde conceptual artist. You know, like an artsy disaffected New Yorker.
Oh, okay. No, I'd choose heavy metal at the end of the day. I grew up in the countryside of the Swedish west coast listening to heavy metal, and I'm 30 now and I still haven't cut my hair. And I love Judas Priest's new album, you know?
And so, we may do all these artsy things in our process of creating. But at the dawn and the dusk of the day, it's all about the metal.