Johannes Eckerström (vocals) & John Alfredsson (drums)
There is no denying that in the music industry, the opportunity to break into the mainstream tabloids is a task that is becoming forever more tedious. However, despite already releasing over five albums and picking up a notable amount of "buzz" within their home country of Sweden, Avatar's latest release Hail The Apocalypse has finally raised the Gothenburg outfit from barley filling the small confines of the Camden Barfly, to becoming a regular appearance in metal publications and co-headlining the respectable Islington Academy.
Despite Avatar's discography spanning just under a decade and gaining a good following within mainland Europe, it is easy to see that although they have eventually been warmly welcomed into the metal mainstream, breaking through into the UK and US was still easier said than done, especially according to lead vocalist Johannes Eckerström, "For all these years prior to this turn around, we all said that the UK sucks. Maybe we've been billed on the wrong tours to actually have a shot, or maybe we didn't have our stuff together the way we do today artistically. So there were all these reasons, but at the end of the day, whatever tour we were on, the roughest shows were in the UK. But now suddenly, it's a complete turn around, even in the States we didn't exist, there weren't even any rough shows to have, there were zero, we weren't even out there. But then we got a record deal and we thought they would put us on some showcase out there, where people wouldn't turn up to it and then we would go back home and brag about it to our friends that we had played in the States and not tell them how it actually went. But then it ended up going really well, so we are enjoying it, but we are very cautious."
However that is not to say this sudden success happened over night and what's refreshing about Avatar is that they know it. When discussing the breakthrough in the UK and US, Eckerström refers to the revelation the band had when they realised it had happened, "It definitely says something about the people we are working with and that its one of those things you unfortunately don't think about until it happens, like having a great promoter, having a great whatever... and having all these things really helped us, that's if your music is good of course! If your music is shit, nothing helps!"
“ We are used to being the underdog ”
- Johannes Eckerström
As Eckerström and drummer John Alfredsson sit in their intimate dressing room, away from the stress of last minute show preparations, it's easy to see their excitement to get out on stage at a venue that is a significant upgrade in their fortunes so far. But with recent appearances at festivals such as Download Festival, Bloodstock and the recent Knotfest, playing venues like Islington Academy is quite the reduction in size, playing to 500 people instead, of the 15,000 only months before, "It is a different kind of challenge to do these shows," relates Alfredsson, "Like tonight's show, they already know us, so it becomes more about how are we going to surprise them? That's a totally different challenge. The worst thing that could ever happen is that we bring these 500 people into this room and we disappoint them, that is my nightmare and I will never allow that to happen." But band icon Johannes does appear to have a his own take on the festival shows, "Even if we have a good headline tour, doing our own thing, I can't get on a festival stage thinking that the audience is already convinced, I want ten thousand people going 'merr' at first, I want that challenge. As a band that is always trying to reach the next level and all that, we are used to being the underdog. I mean the wonderful term 'I have loved this band for years, they were amazing' that's cool! But 'I've just heard this band today and just from this concert, this thirty minutes, I'm a life long fan from now on', that reaction, is just a huge satisfaction, so I just like surprising people."
Although 2014 has been Avatar's most exciting and arguably important year to date, with the release of their sixth album, various festival slots, and headlining venues across the UK, possibly the most important UK show for Avatar was the last minute addition to last year's Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch show at Wembley Arena. Acting as a platform to the masses, some may say the this was a blessing to the Swedish outfit and the same feelings are shared by Johannes, "it was such a last minute thing that we got to be on the tour, we lost all the promotion prior to being on the tour, you know all the posters, we really came on out of nowhere! I mean to be a surprise guest at Wembley is kinda, when you think about it, is really messed up and we have become messed up from that I think."
When looking at how far Avatar have come since their breakthrough show at Wembley just over a year ago, it's impressive to see such a relatively young band work so hard to get the recognition they deserve and what is even more surprising is the healthy relationship between band members that spend so much time with one another. As Johannes gleefully states, "I think we are just as tight as we were at the beginning of the year. We have known each other for quite some time already, so it's no news. At home we were so dedicated to writing, that we were seeing each other a lot anyway, so for us it didn't make too much of a difference. I feel like for us it gets easier and easier to tour together, its not like when we first spent two and a half weeks together in a tour bus, we almost killed each other then, however from then on it's only been better."
And back at that early formation of Avatar just under a decade ago, it was the formation of countless other teenage bands that helped shape what Avatar are today, as Alfredsson states, "The best competition we ever had was when we were kids playing in Gothenburg on the metal scene, where everyone in a band also had long hair and there would be thousands of bands competing. That's how we all learnt how to play music properly." And even though Johannes adds that he was "wrongfully accused of shutting down the power for a band that couldn't handle the competition", it's inspiring to see how a hard working, relentless band, managed to work their way to the top. Now co-headlining an extensive UK tour, the unified Swedish underdogs are taking the UK by storm and still relishing the competition, "We are still very competitive, but in a friendly way, like if they [The Defiled, the tour's co-headliners] are doing a good job, then we want to do an even better and I'm sure they think they same."
Although the element of competition has no doubt pushed Avatar to be the best they can be, there is also no arguing that the recent inclusion of live theatrics, an eccentric front man and stage make up has edged Avatar further into the public eye. Although for many fans, this is the defining element of the band, it has not always been present throughout the history of Avatar, "We did three albums before Black Waltz where it wasn't like that, but it grew over the years and I think the turning point was we started thinking more conceptually. We treat every aspect of the band as art, not just the music but also the visual side of it too. We keep in super control of the music videos we make nowadays and we wanted to make everything fit and most importantly find the face of the music. So it was an ambition that was there long before, and Black Waltz was the first time we actually succeeded."
And they still have ambitions for future shows, as Johannes states, "My biggest dream is that I want to do the Michael Jackson or Rammstein concert where you re-enact all the music videos; I would like to do that. But at the same time, it is an artistic happening, it's a concept art thing and to do some stuff that we visualize we need more lamps." And although John states the importance of funding, that doesn't seem to faze Johannes on how the band will engage the audience, "I feel like the most important special effect or theatrical aspect on stage is your eyes and the biggest pyro is the riff and we start there. I may be super wrong and maybe no one would show up but I feel confident in our music that 80% of the people tonight would show up to an Avatar concert if I were in ugly shorts on stage, I believe in our music that much, right or wrong I don't know, but that's how I feel about it. But more stage theatrics would be a fun thing to add to our live visions once the shows get bigger."
To any fan of Avatar, each member is as important as the last, but anyone who is unfamiliar with the band will undoubtedly be attracted to the bizarre character of Eckerström. With taking on the responsibilities of band figure head and the persona of a young Alice Cooper-type character, there must be a toll on such a young person, as Johannes humbly states, "at the beginning it was the weirdest shit ever having an album cover with my face on it, then t-shirts with my face, not our faces, but mine. You build this character and you choose this way of visualizing it, so I technically work double in the band. If we were in Iron Maiden I would be both Bruce Dickenson and Eddie, and from that perspective it became less weird, and responsibility wise, I feel as we are being taken more seriously and we are taking what we do more seriously, honestly it's becoming more and more important to me. I also don't take certain steps, for example we are not a political band and as far as I can be I am not political, even within the band we try not to be even if we are throwing new things around and being diverse. I try to put the band's agenda before my own, because that is the reason I am being interviewed and get to write music in the first place." When a band has that one iconic member, whether it is Slash, Ozzy or even Angus Young, it is very easy for the remaining members to feel left out or unimportant. However as Alfredsson interjects, that is certainly no the case, "we know each other so well, there are really no divas in the band and Johannes is probably the least diva personality in the band. So you know, no body feels stepped on, there is nothing like that; there are no egos at all."
“ there is always new greatness to be achieved ”
- Johannes Eckerström
During Avatar's past year, with the various festival slots and the seemingly never-ending touring, it is sometimes easy to forget that a new album has been released. Much like many bands, as well as the excitement of producing a new album there are also various precautions that if not taken can arguably destroy a band's reputation and these are clearly followed in the Avatar camp, "We have a thing that we will never replicate our own recording process. Out of necessity, because we don't want to get comfortable. The challenge with having your own audience or headline/co-headline show it still, like tonight's, the same thing we remind ourselves during recording, we don't want to repeat ourselves, we don't want to lean back on something we have already done and achieved, as there is always new greatness to be achieved." Alfredsson further adds, "It's more finding the direction of the song writing, where to take the album, the album is an art instead of a collection of individual songs."
On Hail The Apocalypse, it is evident that the topic of writing was always going to be of interest. Effortlessly tangling together heavy metal, dark lyrical themes and circus themed sound effects, is a concept that is captivating and also unsettling. Eckerström declares that "the humour, the fun and the colourful aspects of the circus theme brings energy to us and helps us be able to deal with such dark themes, it makes it bearable. Especially with Hail the Apocalypse, which was lyrically extremely dark, and the human mind needs ways to deal with stuff like that and to bring those things inside of a circus tent, is just a healthy way to deal with it I guess. It comes kind of natural actually, the whole circus theme, it just builds a framework where we can be very creative and when we are being creative, we stare into darkness."
With a vibrant and relentless band such as Avatar finally hitting the UK scene, it goes to show that with hard work, any band can achieve their goals. A seemingly down to earth band like this should reassure that bands still go through the tough times and that development is a natural part of life. With a fan base forever increasing and the press becoming more infatuated with the Swedish outfit, fans might soon see the theatrical show Avatar deserve.
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