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Interview: Christofer Jonsson (Therion)

Pure metal...interviews

My first attempt at interviewing Therionís mastermind Christofer Jonsson was almost half a year ago, but due to 'technical reasons', we had to postpone this friendly chat for the 16th of November. This interview took place in the bandís tour bus, which was stationed in the back alley of the London Garage ... definitely not the best venue to host the four friendly Swedes and their numerous choir. This didnít seem to bother Christofer at all, and less than an hour before he was due on stage, he shared his thoughts about the past, present and future with Get Ready to Rock.

Hi Christopher, it is very nice that Iím finally able to meet you in person. Iím sorry that you have to make another interview at such short notice, but I will be as brief as I can. Today is another gig that youíre doing for the promotion of your latest two releases 'Sirius B' and 'Lemuria'. What has the response been like so far?

Christofer: Very good. It has been as expected and even better in some places. The one place that really surprised us was France. Thatís always a very 'tricky' territory, a place that we would normally make only tree shows and mostly around Paris. This time we made seven sold out shows, and the crowds went crazy, soÖitís really a big surprise for us. We also hoped that we would be able to make a big sold out show in London too, in a slightly bigger venue than this one (note: The gig took place in the London Garage which, in my opinion, is not the most suitable place for a band like Therion ... I would really like to know what the promoters were thinking when they booked this venueÖ), but we did manage to make this one a sold out gig, so itís really OK with me.

But yes, itís been a really great tour so far, and if you manage to make a sold out show in the United Kingdom on your first ever headline tour, it opens possibilities for more shows to come in the future. And itís not only London that weíre talking about, but other places like Wales, Northern England and even Ireland. The show in Switzerland was also a bit of a surprise for us. We have played there before and even though the response was good, it was never great. Well, this time it was, so in general we have had a really good response so far.

As far as people in London are concerned, I know that there are quite a lot of them that are pretty frustrated about the choice of the venue, and most of them were not able to attend tonightís show.

Christofer: The thing is that before tonightís show, we have only played in London once before which was in 1998, together with two more bands which were Anathema and Moonspell, and it was not a headline show back then. You understand of course that no one really knew how well we were doing. I estimated, or even hoped, that we would have at least four hundred people, or at worst case scenario three hundred people attending tonightís show. I really donít think that anyone expected that this show would pull up six hundred people, who were actually five hundred and fifty, if you exclude the music press and all the guests.

I also think that it would have been much better if we were to play the Mean Fiddler, but by the time we realised that the response would have been bigger, it was too late to change venues. The tickets pre-sale were not indicating such a thing either. I think that the gig was officially declared sold out something like three days ago, but it was more or less sold out two or three weeks ago. Who knows how many more tickets we would have sold if we were to play in a bigger venueÖmaybe a hundred, or a couple hundred more.

I have been a Therion fan since the release of the album 'Symphony Masses - Ho Drakon Ho Megas'[ (1993), so I believe that I have a really good picture as far as the bandís evolution is concerned. Having said that, I believe that it is really important to say that when I first listened to both 'Sirius B' and 'Lemuria', I was simply blown away! Most of the so-called artists nowadays are struggling to release one decent studio album, yet you manage to come back with not one, but two equally impressive releases!

Christofer: Since you have just mentioned that, let me just say that we had also prepared some music for a third studio album (note: o my God!!!). When we first started recording material for these two albums, we came up with fifty five songs, or music pieces that could be developed if you prefer to use that term. We decided that out of all this music, there were thirty good pieces that we could put on our records. That means that we had material for three records, but releasing three new albums at the same time would have been too much. We would have needed one and a half months in the studioÖno, I mean one and a half years ... I guess that there is a big difference there, isnít it (laughs)?

For these two albums we spent nine months in the studio. If we were to release them one by one, promoting them separately, touring between them, then Iím pretty sure that we would have had another fifty five songs ready by the time we decided to record our third album. The only thing we could do that seemed quite reasonable was to release, promote and record these two albums together. We even put them in a special edition together for the first two or three months, all in the price of one ... reason being that our fans always buy anything that we release, and we wanted the to pay as less as possible (note: how many bands do you know that really care about things like that?). We will probably start recording our next studio album, after the end of the promotion and the tour that weíre doing for 'Sirius B' and 'Lemuria'.

Isnít it true that most of these compositions were recorded after the release of your live album 'Live in Midgard'? I have to admit that I am a little bit confused here.

Cristofer: Well, things are a bit more complicated really. After the release of the 'Deggial' (2000) I started writing material for a new record, and I think that I had something like seven or eight songs ready at the time ... songs that were supposed to be part of the recordings of both 'Sirius B' and 'Lemuria'. Then I woke up one day, and decided that I wanted to make an album based on the Northern mythology, which was the 'Secret of the Runes' (2001).

The funny thing is that I had never considered making such an album before that dayÖWhat Iím saying is that this album that was supposed to be released after 'Deggial' was put on ice. I continued writing songs for that album though, even while recording material for the 'Secret of the Runes'. Both me and him (Krstian Niemann: the bandís second guitarist, who was practising some of his riffs next to Cristofer while this interview was taking place) co-wrote the songs for the album 'Secret of the Runes' ... apart from that they didnít write that much before. The rest of the members started becoming really productive, and in 2002 we were busy promoting the album 'Live in Midgard'. We also had quite a lot of spare time during which we wrote the majority of the songs which are featured in these two albums. And once gain, it is really important to say that we spent more than nine months in the studio, which were actually eleven if you also add the mixing process and the rest of the stuff.

Tell me a few things about the production of the albums. They were both recorded in your home-made studios if I am not mistaken.

Christofer: We built our own studios just before we recorded 'Secret of the Runes'. Thatís where we recorded the drums, bass guitar, lead vocals and most of the operatic vocals for both the new releases. We also recorded there some rear instruments like balalaikas and mandolins. Then I went to Prague to record some parts with the local Philharmonic Orchestra, and the King choir. Finally, in that exact location, we recorded a few more soloists before we moved to our next stop which was Denmark. We went to the oldest church in Copenhagen where we recorded the organ. That was a really amazing experience since we recorded most of our parts during the night, where we had all the peace and quiet that we needed. There was no such thing as noise coming from the streets and it was quite atmospheric.

I guess that youíre quite satisfied with the final result then.

Christofer: Yes, weíre happy. Of course there are always things that you could have done better in every album, but overall we are quite satisfied.

I guess itís in the nature of every artist not to be entirely satisfied with their work. If you start feeling 100% satisfied with what you do, then somethingís definitely wrong there.

Christofer: Yes, but it is never something entirely wrong with what we do. I am very glad to say that it is only small mistakes that bother us most of the times.

My opinion is that the music in both 'Sirius B' and 'Lemuria' is more straightforward than in your previous release 'Secret of the Runes' ... itís 'straighter in your face' music if you understand what Iím saying.

Christofer: That again has to do with the way we chose to handle those three releases. When we wrote our material, we felt that it was quite natural to record three different records. The first one would be a bit more complicated, more progressive, and that will be our next studio release, because it felt more natural for us to make that arrangement. The one that I believe is more melodic and straight forward, but also more bombastic and Heavy Metal is 'Sirius B'. 'Lemuria' is the album that consists of the remaining songs that were left from the two previously mentioned releases, and that makes it the most diverse album of the three.

There are some really catchy songs like 'Typhon' where we used normal Death Metal vocals, but also songs that are influenced by the 70ís symphonic rock bands and also songs like 'The Dreams of Swedenborg', which are influenced by the great Jimi Hendrix. We were also a bit influenced by the music of Laibach, something that is also quite obvious in many of the songs of the album.

To avoid any misunderstanding, Iíd like to state that I like every single song that you wrote for both albums, and that doesnít happen very often with the albums that Iím buying. Still, if I had to choose one song from every album, I would go for 'An Arrow from the Sun' (Lemuria), mainly because of the excellent guitar song thatís presented there, and 'Blood of Kingu' (Sirius B). The music in both songs reminded me of that of a great Greek composer, Vassilis Poledouris (note: Poledouris is the person that wrote the music thatís featured in both Conan movies and is simply brilliant!)

Christofer: I think that you have mentioned that thing half a year ago, when we first talked about the new albums.

My actual question is: have you ever considered writing music as a soundtrack for a movie? You have already made one similar attempt with 'A'arab Zaraq - Lucid Dreaming' (1997).

Christofer: That was not entirely a similar case. I kind of knew the guy who did this project before. I can picture myself doing something like this for a big production, but on the other hand I am not really sure about that. The thing is that if you make a really good classical composition today, you will not really want to waste it on a movie, because nobody is going to remember the movie after a couple of years. On the other hand, if you make it as symphonic music part, then itís a different issue - it will probably become immortal. I have to be honest though. If somebody is willing to give me the resources and allow me to pick up the orchestra and the conductor that I like, it will be an opportunity that I wonít waste. If I do manage to write a symphony, maybe no one would be willing to put it up, you know what I mean? If not a single concert house is interested in my music, then it will only end up being notes in paper. What Iím saying is that I have mixed feelings towards that thing, but if somebody makes me such an offer, I think that I will end up saying yes to it.

That in a way is every musicians dream, isnít it?

Christofer: Yes, unlimited resources or money for a big production...it is a big problem for every musician, and especially us, to find enough money for our productions.

I have never seen the band live before, but my friend from Greece gave me an idea of what I should expect from Therion ... four headbangers playing along with a big choir on stage while Metalheads singing along with business like gentlemen (suit and tie guys) underneath.

Christofer: The problem is that in most places that we toured so far the venues were so small, that you can hardly see the choir on stage. We were really used to steal the 80ís Heavy Metal clichťs ... running around the stage, but now we have to stand still so as not to smash each other while performing our songs (laughs). I donít think that todayís gig will be representative on how we are on stage, but this is a very important show for us. This is a sold out show and weíre the headliners. Since the promoters are making money from us, it means that next time it will be easier to book a bigger venue. We are very satisfied by our promoters, three very lovely ladies, who are doing many things from us like to take us to Ireland and stuff. Next time, we will try to have a proper UK tour, so you understand that tonight we are performing a key show. In 1998, there were two more bands in the bill, so you couldnít really tell which of the bands made the biggest impression or gathered the majority of the fans. I remember though that it was a fantastic show ... we squeezed something like 700 people in the London Underworld (note: quite an achievement if you ask me), which is quite inhuman (laughs).

So how are you going to handle things with the choir today, since the stage of the London Garage is equally small?

Christofer: We will manage to find a way of squashing everybody (laughs).We do not have enough space to put the choir on a special stand or something, so they will have to stand on the back next to the drum kit ... itís more like a Punk way of dealing with the problem (laughs). I was also informed that the monitor system that I had before the show had exploded (??!!??), so we will have to make a few adjustments with the monitors once again, and something tells me that Kristian is the one to pay the price once again (laughs). We will have to improvise a bit in order to make the show going but itís totally worth it. Be sure that we are going to give the exact same performance that we give to every of our shows, so no one can say that we are not doing it for our fans. We do play in small venues from time to time, but I have to admit that everywhere else in Europe, we play in relatively big places.

Therion

Are we going to listen to any of your famous covers tonight? In Greece you performed one for Mercyful Fate and one from Motorhead, is that correct?

Christofer: Yes, itís totally correct, but I think that since weíre in the United Kingdom now, weíre going to do things a little bit different. We are going to play the Motorhead cover first, and than do the Mercyful Fate later (laughs). If there is a great crowd, we normally finish the gig with a Metal cover ... something that we grew up with and that we like it ourselves. If the crowd absolutely doesnít want to go home after that, we will play another one. Our regular show is one hour and forty five minutes, and then, depending on the mood of the crowd, we do our covers.

Do you recall any funny incidents from life on the road these last couple of years? Anything similar to the incident with the Burzum fan, which took place many years ago?

Cristofer: You are talking about the Swedish girl? This is a very boring question for me, and I have answered it maybe a thousand times so far. If I have answered it a thousand times so far, how it is possible that no one read it till now (laughs).

Fair enough, letís skip that one then.

Christofer: It has also nothing to do with touring. We had a very incident in Turkey though, that should be mentioned. We were playing in Ankara, and all of the sudden, the electricity went out so we had to wait backstage in total darkness for over forty minutes. Thatís when we took our female soprano on stage and while the members of the band were holding big flash lights, she was performing Acapella (note: singing without the support of amplifiers. Believe it or not, the exact same thing happened later that night, and even though we were all really angry about it, we really enjoyed this incident). She performed some Schubert and some Hayden that night for our fans, and they really loved it. We had played six songs up to that point, when the electricity started to come and go ... it was not only the venue that was facing that problem, but the entire block. Then we manage to do another four songs before the electricity went off again and that left us with performing a drum solo under the same flash lights before we had to say goodbye and leave (laughs). PrimitiveÖ

You have been with Nuclear Blast for quite a long time now.

Christofer: Yes, it must be since 1994 when we signed a contract with them.

Are you still satisfied with the service that they provide to the band? Do you get the funds that you need in order to record your albums?

Christofer: Yes, we are. When you have unorthodox ideas like we do, recording two albums at the same time for instance, they donít go 'oh no, letís do thinks like everybody else is doing them'. They listen to you and if you have some sort of sensible argument for something that you want to do, and then they say 'yes, letís do it'. They do not whine about things, and we do have 100% artistic freedom in order to do things the way we want them. We donít send them demo tapes or anything ... we donít even tell them how the new material is going to sound like. The transfer all the funds in advance, and then I deal with all the payments for the recording process myself, and whenever the album is finished, I give them the master tape, and thatís it. They donít get to hear anything before hand. I really like it this way, that we have this trust. They do not interfere with our music as it happens to many bands. I would never ever allow any label to tell me how my music should sound like, or what order I will have to put the songs in the album.

What about the Demonoid project? Is that your way of expressing your wildest artistic side?

Christofer: Well, this is actually Kristianís project. It was his and the bass playerís dream to record that album, so I decided to help them realise this dream. I got them in contact with the record label, and I also did the vocals, the lyrics and a few riffs for the album. Musically it is more of a typical Death Metal album. Well, now Iím thirty two years old, and this is my way of saying that Iím not that old to play extreme music (laughs).

So, after the release of your next studio album that is already planned in the near future, what else should we expect from Christofer Johnsson and from Therion?

Christofer: At least one more studio album, and then I really donít know. Either I will never record any other albums, or I will be recording one album every five years or something. It is really hard to keep the quality if you produce albums all the time. Something that I really donít like is all these bands that are around, that become cover bands of themselves like Saxon, Motorhead or even AC/DC and Iron Maiden. Donít get me wrong here, I like them all very much, but they have something in common. A few people buy their new records, and you will find even less people that are willing to say that the new Saxon album is the best that theyíve ever recorded. If there is such a person out there, I would really like to meet him (laughs). These bands release new records partly to have an income, but it is mostly an excuse to go on tour again, and once they do, they play all their old classics. No one is really interested to listen to their new stuff. If I reach that point where no one is interested in the latest Therion release, then Iím done with it ... there will be no point doing it any more. I am not going to go on tour so as to live from songs that I made in the past. If people are not interested in our new stuff, then weíre out of date. I believe that we should stop while we still have our honour intact.

Is there any chance of you serving music from a different post, like becoming a producer or something like that?

Christofer: I will probably concentrate on writing opera and classical music, or even books ... I donít really know.

Well, I wish I had more time to speak to you, because I think that there are a lot of interesting issues that we could discuss about. Thank you for doing this interview. A message to the Therion fans in Great Britain and all over the world?

Christofer: I hope that this tour will be the start of something bigger, and that Britain will become permanent in our touring schedules from now on. We are going to have fun tonight in our sold out show. We hope that the reaction of the crowd will be good, and if we managed to do that in France, I really donít see a reason why it will not happen here too. France beat Germany both in terms of economic profit and crowd reaction, and historically speaking that should not have happened. England had been a really bad market for us for quite a long time, but now you have this new generation of young kids that are not spoiled as much as the older generations. These kids are going to be the foundation of the revival of Metal music in a country that consists of sixty million people. They should listen to Metal music, and not to all that American crap that they have been supporting so far.

I agree with you totally Christofer ... enjoy the show.

Christofer: See you there.


Interview © 2004 John Stefanis


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