Avatar: From Hinduism: “When a God manifests itself on Earth in the shape of a human being or an animal. A god in disguise. The hidden potential in the human being.” ~ as explained by Avatar lead vocalist Johannes Eckerström.
Upon arriving at the venue just a few hours before Avatar is scheduled to open the show for heavy metal masked band Mushroomhead (they’ve been touring with them the last few weeks), I exchange texts with the tour manager, and upon his direction make my way to the band’s tour bus. After knocking on the door, I am warmly welcomed in as the tour manager extends his hand and says “Come on in.” I walk up the steps, turn the corner and before me stands a massively tall, skinny Swedish man with long black hair and glasses. I reach out my hand to Avatar frontman Johannes Eckerström and blurt out, “You’re really tall. How tall are you?” (He’s 6’4 by the way). We make our way past the bunks to the back of the Prevost bus and sit down on comfy couches amid some of the “on the road” recording gear (laptops, etc.).
The first topic of discussion? The band’s influences, the starting point for every musical discussion as it helps to delve into what the makes the band who it is. If you know Avatar you know they present themselves as a freaky circus sideshow, and on first impression you might assume that Eckerström had some darker influences. But as a child he progressed from wanting to be Beethoven, then he wanted to be Hulk Hogan, then he decided on Michael Jackson and finally he decided he’d be happiest as one of the Beatles. At the mention of horror movies or the likes of Rob Zombie or Alice Cooper and whether they played a part in influencing their make-up and stage show, he responds, “People always want to talk horror movies with me but truth be told I’m more of a musical fan….Mary Poppins and Singing in the Rain.” Admittedly though, he was influenced by some “heavier” things along the way. “Blind Guardian and Helloween [two German power metal/heavy metal bands] were the two bands which made me want to stop cutting my hair,” says Eckerström.
Avatar’s early days were rooted in melodic death metal, and while they wouldn’t call themselves a death metal band now, Eckerström says they, “Use the extreme stuff to create great groovy metal with our own style.” Their public relations/marketing people label them as one part Black Sabbath, one part Pink Floyd, and Eckerström agrees that yes, both bands influenced them greatly. Particularly they are influenced by Black Sabbath. “The riff is king,” proclaims Eckerström. He points out that Sabbath’s Ironman wouldn’t be the same without its classic riff. “You create a huge riff, and then create everything else around it. Ironman’s slow beat is what makes it the greatest riff in the world. When we build a song, we want to create a great groove around a great riff,” Eckerström explains.
Any band with an ounce of talent can get up on a stage and sing and play instruments, but it takes an extra level of showmanship to create a unique visual performance to accompany it. The Avatar stage show, horror-like make-up and freakshow attire didn’t become part of their persona until after the 2012 album Black Waltz. In producing Black Waltz the band wanted to create something where everything about Avatar fit into the same box. They were experimenting with album covers and other ideas. The band experimented with putting Eckerström in a lake of fire for the song Let It Burn. But when it came to the title track Black Waltz they decided to consult with Bryce Graves, who organizes festivals in Sweden called the Hellzapoppin Sideshow Revue; it’s a sideshow/freakshow. In the midst of producing the video for Black Waltz no one was sure what role Eckerström would play in the circus they were creating. Hellzapoppin organizer Graves showed the band the stuff he could do, which includes drilling through his nose and moving a piece of corn through his nose out through his eye socket, all tricks which appear in the Black Waltz video. The original thought for the role Eckerström could play was as a clown roadie. But at some point in the process they splashed some facepaint on the vocalist and it all clicked. “When I look like this I can do other stuff that I couldn’t do when I was standing there in a Judas Priest shirt trying to look pissed off. This opens up the doors. It undressed me. If you are going to look like a clown you can’t just hide behind sunglasses and pretend to be a rock star. It opened the floodgates. It was the key into us figuring out visually what we had created musically.” And Avatar was never the same, catapulting their success now not only based on their musical talent but also based on their showmanship.
To see some of the influence Bryce Graves and Hellzapoppin had on Avatar’s persona, watch the video for Black Waltz:
About midway through the interview what is supposed to be a 10-15 minute interview turns into a much lengthier discussion (the total interview maxed out at about one hour). Our dialogue veers steeply off course as we both relax back into the couches and start to delve into deep subjects such as TV brainwashing, American vs Swedish culture, and the egocentricity of America. But I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s some depth to Eckerström. Even the meaning behind the band’s name has some depth, though the name is more commonly associated with blue people (Avatar the band was in existence several years before the film of the same name). While Avatar wouldn’t consider itself a political band, it’s clear social commentary makes its way into their music (i.e. Hail the Apocalypse). “We are not a political band, solely for the reasons of not all of us agree with each other,” says Eckerström. He explains the band as individuals have things they are passionate about and feel strongly about, and that it reflects in the lyric writing. “The best riffs are always the ones which give me ambition. It comes from an angle of artistic reflection. The only real agenda is honesty, sincerity and things we are passionate about. What could be perceived as political is leaking into that.”
At this point Eckerström mentions his hesitation about our lengthy discussion, particularly about social issues, and what may be printed or misconstrued. I assure him certain parts of our discussion, particularly those not relevant to the band, are more for my personal interest. But then he admits he won’t read it anyways. As he says, “I don’t have the interest or the time to check into everything. I won’t check on it. Unless it gets sent to me. You can’t walk around Googling yourself.” Eckerström is not only likable, but he has seemed to embrace not caring about what anyone thinks of him. He’s sure enough of what he’s doing that what someone else thinks or says is not going to derail his focus. It’s a key concept to grasp when you’re working in the entertainment industry, and in the eyes of the public, subject to constant scrutiny.
What’s next for Avatar? Eckerström admits his dream was to be big in Japan, and they still haven’t gotten over there. But at this point it’s the United States who reigns as their strongest market. And they feel embraced. Right now they’ll finish up the Mushroomhead tour, head back to Sweden to spend some time with the wives and girlfriends, and THEN a full U.S. headlining tour is in the works. Stay tuned!
For more about Avatar, visit: