Avatar is one of the most ambitious and unique bands in the metal scene right now. They exhibit a tenacity for pushing the genre into diverse and interesting new directions. In 2018, they released Avatar Country. This was a humorous and lighthearted concept album based on a mythical kingdom ruled by their guitar player – where heavy metal reigns supreme. It was an inside joke created by the band on tour that they invited their fans to be in on. This album was beloved by fans but as of 2020, Avatar has taken a much different and much darker direction with the release of their new album Hunter Gatherer back in early August. The fun AC/DC meets groove metal sound of Avatar Country has been replaced by what Avatar consider to be the darkest and heaviest album of their career. This new chapter for the band features industrial extreme metal riffs, death growls and themes about an apocalyptic future and human evolution run amok. Prior to the release of the album, we sat down for a Zoom Virtua-Interview with Avatar’s frontman – Johannes Eckerström. We talked about Avatar’s shift from comedy to total darkness, the tour bus jokes that inspired Avatar Country, the involvement of Slipknot’s Corey Taylor on the new album, South Park, prison fetishes and messing around on the red carpet.
RX Music’s Michael Primiani and Johannes Eckerström. (There’s really no way of taking a good Zoom call screen-cap, alright?)
RX Music: Hey Johannes, how are ya?
Johannes Eckerström: I’m good. How are you?
RXM: Pretty good, man. How’s your day going?
JE: It’s been good. It’s been productive and sunny and summer like, can’t complain. Having a bit of what you call a “food coma” in English right? Just had my dinner. So yeah, everything is excellent here. How are you?
RXM: It’s about what? 4PM in Sweden?
JE: 5PM. I’m in Finland.
RXM: It is 10AM here in Toronto, Canada. I’m doing good man. Having some morning coffee and excited to be talking to you. How have you guys been holding up during COVID-19?
JE: Safe and healthy, all in all, same with family members and all that. As a band, we have this far been able to stay busy in spite of what’s going on in the world. And we just passed the point in which the first canceled shows were supposed to happen, so to speak. I guess I feel that aspect of it more. But we’re trying to think of different ways to stay busy and again, in all the ways that truly matter – we are doing okay in this. And were able to do some kind of work, so can’t complain too much.
RXM: Good to hear. Yeah, I think we’re all missing live music this summer so much. It’s so weird to have a summer where you don’t have concerts to go to. And you’re just seeing all the shows you had tickets to come up delayed or postponed or whatever… (I had tickets to Hall & Oates, Deftones, The Beach Boys, George Clanton with The Garden, Men I Trust and Andy Shauf all in delay postponement purgatory currently – MP)
JE: It’s…what can you say? I guess.
RXM: Before we dive in and talk about your new record, Hunter Gatherer, your last album, Avatar Country (2018) was a huge success, and it was very unique. Although it was a heavy metal record, it was also lighthearted and fun. It was very much a comedy record as well. You guys created a concept album about a mythical land where your guitarist is the ruler of a kingdom. Where does an idea like that come from?
JE: An inside joke. It started with Jonas [Jarlsby] adding “Kungen” – which is Swedish for “the king” – as a middle name on Facebook way back. We’re talking more than 10 years ago. It was to annoy his friends, because it’s a douchey choice to say “call me King”. That was the joke. I found it funny and it was later picked up by other guys and other bands that we toured with and it slowly morphed into an actual nickname for him. Then little gags started to happen in the vein of the silly things you do on the road to kill time and crack each other up. If he went into a room, we’d all applaud ‘the king is here!” and he’d do the whole British Queen wave…
RXM: Oh is that where the comes from? I saw him do that in the music video for “The King Welcomes You to Avatar Country”.
This bluesy, Southern rock influenced video is a fun look into the local watering hole in the mythical land of “Avatar Country” and begins with Jonas doing the monarchical wave
JE: Yeah! At some point when we were working on the album, he came in and said “guys I have a present for you”. And he had framed and signed a picture of himself. You know, it started there as this kind of [king] joke and that was later combined with a throwaway line that I kept using when addressing the audience from the stage like, “well hey Toronto, this is Toronto no more!” “Tonight. This is ‘Avatar Country’ and your asses belong to me” or something. Stuff along those lines, just a thing to say. But then the idea of “Avatar Country” stuck. Jonas being a king stuck. We made a flag and we started listening to “Hail and Kill” by Manowar before every show for a year. That all became this melting pot of a period where we were very heavy metal oriented in what we were listening to and in our mood, and it was kind of that Dragon slaying heavy metal…
Medieval fantasy metal at its finest!
JE: And that’s combined with a period where we just started to not conform, I guess. Humor became important for us. We showed up on some red carpets surrounded by bands with sunglasses indoors trying to look cool. But we showed up with truck stop sunglasses, Three Wolf Moon t-shirts, blue bathing shorts and sandals with socks. It’s quite a harmless way of saying “fuck you” and it’s interesting to see always who will get it and who doesn’t. So we use humor a lot like some weapon, sword and shield when facing the world as a band. It felt like it built and built and built and then at some point we needed to get the dragon slaying and the humor and the king and everything out of our system. We were very inclined and inspired to do this crazy thing [Avatar Country].
Avatar embracing their goofy side by wearing matching Three Wolf Moon meme t-shirts on the red carpet of the 2017 Alt Press Music Awards. Photo Credit: Graham Fielder, Alt Press
RXM: That’s awesome and it’s funny that every song on that album is all about “the king”. Every title has “the king” in it. It kind of shows like how far you guys are willing to push this inside joke. This joke not only spawned an album and a whole tour, as well as a whole chapter in your band’s life, but also a movie. What was it like making a movie?
As you can see, every song is about King Jonas!
JE: Hard. There was a Kickstarter campaign that basically started from an idea we had since day one to create a storyline based on all the meat of the songs. All the songs with vocals on the album, at least. And then to turn them into a film out of the storyline throughout the music videos. We had the budget from the labels to do three music videos, which is already plenty. But we wanted to do more. So we asked for more from our fans and that goal was tripled. And as it was tripled, then you could fill in a bit of the blanks between the songs and just make more happen. In the grand scheme of things it is still an extremely low budget film, in terms of just what it costs to make actual movies. So it was intense. It was a lot of fun and it was a special time. But also we were all very hands on. If you see some branches with leaves moving in the background or you see snow falling or wind blowing – know that outside of the frame there’s a band member holding a fan or something. It was all very hands on and low budget. It was a lot of fun. It was interesting to make a movie that was really just for us and the Kickstarter backers. I don’t think it makes much sense for people outside of that realm. But it was never meant to make sense outside of that realm. It’s a love letter to heavy metal and a big ass thank you to everyone who’s made the whole “Avatar Country” experience what it was because the reason it worked so well was that people were willing to play that game with us for two years. So it’s amazing for that reason.
Stream Avatar’s metal odyssey feature film here
RXM: This new album of yours, Hunter Gatherer, it’s been described as the darkest album of Avatar’s career. So what is the process like shifting from a comedy era of the band to this new, very dark era for the band?
JE: It was actually an easy shift to make because we kind of got it out of our system to do this humor thing. Once Avatar Country was recorded, we knew everything upcoming was going to be part of the “Avatar Country” saga. From the Facebook posts, to everything else. And we also knew right away pretty much that likely our next album’s going to be kind of heavy, right? So we knew we were heading there. Speaking for myself at least, I’ve grown up using writing and composing as a form of therapy. Doing that “Avatar Country” thing that had such a big, specific purpose outside of any form of self-expression or self-realization, it was like going two years without talking to a shrink. The darkness that came out on the new album became more compact for that reason. I felt like we built up a storage of things that needed to come out and needed to come out in a different form than it had in the past. I think that some parts of this album are the most aggressive stuff since Schlacht (2007). However, there is a big difference when you [make an album like that] in your late teens/early 20s and when you do it in your 30s. You can make an analogy with murderers in a horror movie. With Schlacht, doing something aggressive back then feels like a murderer would be someone who would [crudely] bash your skull in with a hammer. It’s not a lot of precision. It’s kind of gruesome and inefficient yet, quite spectacular in its own way. And now when you’re a bit older, and you revisit that thing maybe with less edginess or angsty-ness but still use the aggression to express something. Now, the murderer has evolved into a more Hannibal Lecter style. More so a killer who knows his way around a scalpel and can do the most damage with one step or one incision. You know, more efficiently so that it is very articulate in its aggression.
According to Johannes, aggression in Avatar’s music came out in years past as brutal yet messy mallet to the face from a murderer like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to a now methodical and focused incision from a more refined murderer like Hannibal Lecter
RXM: I definitely hear that on songs such as “God of Sick Dreams” and “Silence in the Age of Apes”. It’s very focused. It has that sort of industrial kind of element. Especially on the beginning of “Silence in the Age of Apes”. It sort of reminded me of Fear Factory in that regard.
Avatar’s fast paced and frantic single “Silence in the Age of Apes” – which opens with a dark industrial beginning
JE: Yeah, good ear! I like Fear Factory. They were my gateway drug into extreme metal. I think they were the ones to kind of push me over the edge when a friend lent me Demanufacture (1995).
Fear Factory’s Demanufacture is an early inspiration for Avatar and Hunter Gatherer preaches a similar message of a techno-apocalypse.
RXM: Great album.
JE: It really is.
RXM: So right now there are three singles out from the album, all of them carry a theme that it’s our responsibility to decide how the future will play out. But is this a story about humanity having no hope in the face of an uncertain future? Or is there a hope amidst the chaos?
JE: I wouldn’t have bothered even talking about this if I thought there was absolutely no hope. But it’s still just more of an expression of things as they are now. And one aspect of what’s going on right now is a sense of that fork in the road and one path leads us to Mad Max or Terminator 2 and the other one to Star Trek, you know. Ultimately, the album’s called Hunter Gatherer because that is what we are in our nature. That’s what evolution designed us to be. And then our engineering skills and our complex ways of communicating and everything unique about the human brain did the rest and to such an extent that we are now so detached from our natural habitats. Our quick evolution has been a great recipe for success for the species, but many times at the cost of individual quality of life. Now we live in a period where our individual quality of life thing has gotten better potentially, but yet planet is on fire. There’s a lot of tension in the world. The album deals with that realization that we live in that dark dystopian cyberpunk future that bands like Fear Factory warned us about 25 years ago. We’re there. We arrived. This is the future. This is that future. We’re trying to deal with that and just general, what it means to be human. But then also on a personal level, what it means to be me right now, you know?
RXM: I’m sure a lot of people are wondering, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor is featured on a number of these songs. What was it like to work with him and why should fans expect the unexpected when it comes to his cameos?
Hunter Gatherer features vocals from Slipknot’s Corey Taylor – another band known for impressive and engaging stage theatrics. Source: NME.
JE: I’ve been fairly open with exactly what he’s doing. So I don’t know how unexpected it will be at this point. I think even “working with” is a strong word because we have met before. We have opened for Slipknot and his wife in particular is a big fan of ours. And he has also done a whole lot of stuff with Jay Ruston, who produced Hunter Gatherer. We recorded the album in LA and Corey and his wife asked if they could come by, hear some songs and hang out a bit. Then we ended up asking Corey “do you want to do some backing vocals and shout along to this thing, sing this middle melody here” and so on. Then the main event of course is that he whistles on a song called “A Secret Door”. Although this album doesn’t have any humor in its execution and what the songs are about and everything, this was too funny. We’re huge South Park fans, and in the early seasons, they had George Clooney and Jay Leno on the show, but Clooney was a dog and Leno was a cat. So we have Corey Taylor, this heavy metal icon of the modern era and blah, blah, blah, blah. And we go – yeah, motherfucker whistle!
George Clooney expressed interest in voicing a character on South Park in the early days of the show. Show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker thought it would be funny to have the movie star in the smallest role possible – making barking noises for a dog in a first season episode
JE: He loved the idea. And the thing is, he did a better job [whistling] than I did on the demo. So it actually helped and you can’t not take it seriously when you’re standing in front of the microphone. You still want to do a good job. It’s still music, you know? So it worked out very well. So I’m grateful for that. Again, I wouldn’t even call it that “we worked together” but he was there. We had some fun and the fun ended up sounding really good.
“A Secret Door” off Hunter Gatherer – featuring the whistling talents of Slipknot’s Corey Taylor
RXM: I think that little fact tidbit about the album is enough to make all metalheads just unanimously have a laugh. It’s pretty funny.
JE: Yeah, you know, we always try to add something new to the conversation.
Additionally, Taylor provides backing vocals on the catchy yet pounding chorus of the song “Colossus”
RXM: Avatar is a band that is known for their live shows. For “Avatar Country”, between the makeup, the costumes, the onstage throne and sparklers coming out of guitars – when fans come to see you guys live, it’s equal parts concert and also theater. When Avatar tour’s Hunter Gatherer – whenever that is going to be – how will your costumes and stage show change to reflect your new sound on this album?
Avatar’s elaborate costumes and stage show for the Avatar Country era are on full display here
JE: Well, the costumes have been revealed today. They’re suspender overalls, like work clothes. They fit an artistic interpretation of what would be something to wear in the dystopian hellscape of a future, where everyone is trapped in a hamster wheel. But while at the same time carry a certain sense of sexual taboo. Also, more than anything, they start to be something we can move around in more easily. They don’t breathe at all, so it will be very wet and disgusting, but we’re used to that. I’d still like to think that I can roll around a bit more comfortably on a floor and squat in these clothes [in contrast to other costumes we have worn].
Avatar make dystopian work slacks look good! Source: Avatar’s Facebook Page
JE: As far as the stage show goes, Avatar Country was almost pornographic in the sense that it was all out there. Not leaving much to the imagination, the show quite mechanically did the job for you. It was like an opera as well, in the ambitious stage build. So if that was a pornographic opera, now we’re looking to create an erotic black box theater. Through this way, we hope to create a more deeper emotional reaction. More suggestive, more building emotions from the ground up. It’s a bit abstract at this stage, but it’s just different ways of approaching a presentation. If you have a musical or an opera, you build very ambitious stages. But then you have the kind of theater that happens in a black box theater, where you roll out the park bench on the stage and you’re in the park. If you roll out the couch, you’re in a living room. You work with imagination and with actual performers to create something. And with that comes, you know, just simply a darker vibe overall. There will be a redesign of the light show as well. It’s great to do those ambitious stage builds, and I don’t think history will show that “Avatar Country” was the biggest or craziest stage we have ever built, you know, but for the time being, it’s about now. The more elaborate stage builds create a certain sense of distance, in a way and we want to get closer to the audience again, while maintaining all the theatrical aspects.
RXM: That sounds awesome and very unique. And I will say, in these new music videos when you contrast them to Avatar Country, you’re a lot scarier!
JE: Oh good. I’m glad to hear.
RXM: Oh my gosh, in “Silence in the Age of Apes”, you sort of reminded me of Marilyn Manson in the “Antichrist Superstar” days.
JE: My wife will be happy to hear. She has been saying for a while that I got too friendly with “Avatar Country”, in my presentation.
RXM: It’s really cool how you guys can just shift from one era to the next. It keeps it fresh, and it keeps it exciting. So my last question here is a bit of a lighthearted one. If “Avatar Country’ was a real place, (it is a real place) what could you be thrown in prison for doing and then also what would get you your own holiday and a blessing from the king?
JE: Oh, to get a holiday, I guess if you just asked the king for it he will grant one. I’m pretty sure. The King is very friendly. He’s based on a person that is very friendly in real life. And I don’t know, what would you be thrown in prison for? I guess if you have some kind of strange prison fetish, we will be glad to help you realize your fantasies in that sense. You know, it’s a very allowing place for consenting adults to explore things as well. As it is a country full of heavy metal love, there’s very little need for the court system. It’s not in use very often for that reason.
RXM: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thank you so much. I appreciate this time out of your day. Stay safe and all the best for the album release!
JE: I appreciate it. Thank you very much, man.
While the Canadian/American border remains closed due to COVID-19, there is a place where the drinks are cold, peace and harmony are the laws of the land and heavy metal fills the air. Mom and Dad, I’m going to Avatar Country! All hail the king! I’d like my own holiday, please.
You can stream Avatar’s new album Hunter Gatherer below: