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Interview: Christofer Johnsson (Therion)

Pure metal...interviews

When I realised that my original telephone interview with Johan Niemann, Therion's bass player was inaudible, I was totally devastated! I knew that I had to find another way to ensure that "Gothic Kabbalah", the band's latest effort, was presented through our website, and the opportunity occurred on the 21st of January.

On the ridiculously small backstage area of the London Mean Fiddler, I met with the band's mainman Christofer Johnsson, who proved once again not only to be a very friendly and down to earth artist, but also a man with a clear musical vision.

Therion

It's nice to be able to talk to you again about the new Therion album. It's so different from the last one but so good in so many different ways. A collective effort more than the previous releases? How do you end up talking about this new Therion album? I've read from the press release about all these things happening in between you deciding about making this some time ago, but how did it really end up with you deciding come forth now?

Christofer: I wrote the song "Three Treasures" and I thought it didn't belong to the other songs and maybe it should be left for a record much later but then I thought, well hey, we can do it now, so I checked what the other guys had written, and they had written songs that were going along with it very well and I thought we could work a little bit on this so that's what started it. And that's the reason also why there are so many compositions with the band at the moment. It's because what I wrote was for the next record, so basically I just wrote "Three Treasures" and I thought let's put another in this direction, and we took "Der Mitternachtl÷we" which I wrote, and I had written this other song, "Close Up The Streams" which sounds completely different from Therion as a rule, which could go on this record, it doesn't really fit on this record either but it doesn't fit any worse. And then we decided to take one that Kristian had written for the next record, which is now "Adulruna Rediva" and I completed it with my song-writing and we made a very long song out of it. That song actually doesn't really fit on this record, it sounds more like the next one. It just came about that way.

Don't you find it interesting though, how you have compositions from so many people within the band and still the result, at least to me as a fan, sounds so coherent, you know what I mean? It makes so much sense that a song with some Scorpions influences can be in the same album, the same type of compositions but has a more folky feeling.

Christofer: Folky stuff, that's from Petter. But we all pretty much like the same music and you can hear that. I mean he has Jethro Tull influences that you can hear a lot, and I love Jethro Tull and so that, especially Johan loves Jethro Tull and Kristian also kind of likes it. And we all grew up with the same eighties bands like Iron Maiden and so on with the Maiden influences, some guitar harmonies and so on. I think we have very synchronised musical tastes.

Do you think you kind of took the world by surprise with this new album? What's the reaction from the press so far?

Christofer: Every time there is a new Therion album, there is certain part of the Therion fans that think we are gods coming down from heaven to earth to bring another record out, at the same time there are those who are really stupidly disappointed because we didn't go in the direction they wanted and sometimes even "oh you're betraying your fans by doing this". If you want to have a good laugh, just look at the forums - somebody for instance will say of the title track "oh it's a crap song, it sounds like a single b-side, this is really the song that should not be on the record".

Seriously?!

Christofer: And then somebody else will say, "oh that's the best song". So it's easier to make peace in the Middle East than to please the Therion fans.

Ha ha! You must be joking? You have to admit that!

Christofer: We just do records and people can think what they like. And really, we like it. The good thing is, of course, that we always find new fans and they get new things and possibly we lose a couple of fans. And okay, we just make records we like. But the reactions have so far been quite positive. I think though that mainly we've managed to surprise people who do not normally like Therion. I think, I don't know how the sales have been so far, I cannot predict the sales - it might be a flop, it might be a good one - but I think at least we have a good chance to find an audience which is a bit outside of what we normally do. That's good because if they buy the new record and they really like it maybe they'll give our older stuff a chance you know? Maybe normally they're like "oh I don't like this opera singing kind of thing" but if they like the new record they can be more open-minded. So it's good to bring people into what we do.

The fun thing with the new record is that it's actually very progressive in terms of time signatures, sometimes it's 5/8 counting, and sometimes 7/8, 9/16, a lot of very odd things, it's very jazzy but it's made in a package which is very accessible. You mother could listen to "The Perennial Sophia". It's very soft ballad kind of, but it's 5/8, yet instead of counting 4 you count 5, it's very odd, it's very jazzy chords. It's a little bit like what Kansas did - take a band like King Crimson, that's music for enthusiasts and for musicians - Kansas did the same thing but they did it for everybody. Take a song like "Carry On Wayward Son", everyone can listen, it's a very catchy song and it's a very trick one to play too. Interesting compositions too. And I think we did that better than anybody I know actually, that you can make a song that is so simple to listen to like "The Perennial Sophia" but with these complex structures. Also songs that appear to be very straightforward like "The Falling Stone", they have this whole detail and very tricky stuff in there once in a while - easy to listen to, hard to play.

I think you've got a point there because one of the things I really love about the new album is that the first time I heard it, there were a few things that really captured my imagination straight away. There were certain rhythms I would sing along to from the first listen, but then every time I would listen, even today on my way here, I was discovering new things that my ear didn't really comprehend the first time. So I guess from that point it's a huge success on your part to be able to compose a song like that.

Christofer: But it's not intentional. We never plan things, we just write whatever we write and then we see what happens. So all this analysing we do afterwards, it's never a plan. So that's why I'm really proud of that, we just write songs and it just turns out to be this way. But I think if this record doesn't sell well it will be one of these records that a lot of bands will say is a very under-rated record. It's so hard to say, if you ask the die-hard fans they will say "Secret Of The Runes" is our best record - it's the worst selling record. That's since "Theli". So you never know.

It's a hard thing that people are going to be referring to this album like with Celtic Frost when they released "Into The Pandemonium", nobody really understood the album at the time but as time progressed they probably realise and understand what was behind it.

Christofer: I have hopes that people are going to understand it now. I think it's going to sell well. I think so. Lots of the reviews have been positive, those have been more negative it's usually some home-made webzine or whatever. All the major press has given it very good reviews. In the Swedish media for instance, you have this when all the reviewers give points and they make a list, they have it in Starline and Rock Hard, and then you get an average point and you see who is getting highest, we won it and we were 6 points between us and number 2. That's median points, you know? We're running circles around them. Normally the winning one is a third of a point, or half a point, rarely maybe one point before the second. We were 6 points in front. That means everybody who writes reviews for the magazine who gave points was giving it top points. And the second one was Pain Of Salvation which is a great band. So at least in Sweden in the media it has been, well, beyond what we could comprehend. I mean six points, it's insane. We were winning this with the last record too, it's the second time, but then I think we were 0.3 points from the second place. So at least in Sweden I think we're going to have a big success with it. On the other hand we're not a big band in Sweden so...

But Sweden is not the only place in the world and that's a good thing. How do you find the songs, you've been doing this tour for a few days now so far. How do you see the songs coming across in the live environment?

Christofer: We've rehearsed 7 new songs but we never do more than 5 each night, so we're trying new songs. Some of them work better, some worse. "The Wand Of Abaris" for instance is a song I think that will work live in the future, but doesn't work live now. A lot of people haven't bought the record yet so when you hear the songs for the first time you need catchy upbeat songs to catch their attention so we brought in "Der Mitternachtl÷we" instead of that one. And now we're trying to do "Son Of The Staves Of Time" at a few songs instead of "TOF", so the only songs we do the whole time are "Tuna" and there is one more "I don't know" but never mind. "Tuna" is working very well. Playing new songs there is always a little bit of a down-going in the atmosphere. When we were promoting the "Vovin" album - which is our best-selling record, sold over 125,000 in Europe - we opened up with "The Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah" and there was not much of a reaction and now we can use it as an encore.

So it's always a little bit like that, people are listening rather than jumping around to the new songs. And then next year or next record, next tour, all of a sudden they are classics.

From the people who participated in the recording of the album, the extra musicians, how many of them are accompanying you tonight onstage?

Christofer: Everybody except Hannah, there's a problem because - well I won't go deep into that but her management, I think they are doing very bad decisions, very bad decisions for her. But instead we have Lori Lewis with us from Aesma Daeva, quite a small band actually from USA. But very good singer, very very good singer. So I think it's better actually that it happened the way it happened because otherwise we wouldn't have had Lori and I think Lori is doing a good job.

As far as the band now is concerned are we still talking about you and the Niemann brothers as the main core, and the drummer of course, and all the other musicians are going to be changing from time to time accordingly to whoever you feel more fit to the style of the album?

Christofer: Yeah. We work on a project basis with them. Like with Mats (LevÚn) for instance, we worked on one record before but then he was just singing a little bit and did the world tour. And we said, "well, let's make another record and another tour". We haven't decided anything more than that, but we'll see what he wants to do, what we want to do, and most importantly if it makes sense. On the "Sirius B" record he was singing with a rock and roll voice, that's what most people do, the higher rock and roll voice. This time we wanted him to sing very different, this David Bowie sort of style, this very dark gloomy voice, lots of different styles. It really made sense making a record with him, and to let him contribute, and write some melodies for some songs. "Son of the Staves of Time" which is written by him completely. So a bit more close cooperation. But if we're going to do that again it has to make sense. It has to add something new that makes it worth doing.

It makes sense but I do feel that his voice in this album was I don't know - I don't want to you take it the wrong way - I did appreciate his contribution much more this time around. Even though I love "Sirius B" and "Lemuria" as albums. I don't know why, it just made more sense.

Christofer: Exactly, that's what we think also. I've seen him sing with cover bands and he can do almost anything, from Queensryche, Geoff Tate, to UDO Dirkschneider or Lemmy, all styles. So I felt like he had a Swiss Army knife that broke, and it was a big waste that he never gets to use it. And he himself also, never gets to use it and it was fun for him for once to get the chance to actually use all these voices. So it felt like a natural thing to do. And also with Therion he sang in an operatic style and I saw on the tour that he had a lot of unused capacity. And because of that also it felt natural to let him contribute more to the record because then he knows what he can do instead of me guessing, you know "Can you do it this style?" So it was a really cool thing. And also with Snowy Shaw, I mean everybody knew him as a great drummer but I knew that he was a great singer too from Notre Dame and another project that was never released and I thought it would be a great compilation, we have two of the best singers from Sweden with us, male singers, and Olga Katarina is an absolutely excellent technical singer. Her voice, her regular rock and roll voice but technically she is incredible. Intonation, technique, everything.

One question, obviously with so many things happening as far as music is concerned, it is understandable that most people would focus on the music being played onstage. But reading through the booklet I found your lyrics, once again, are very capturing, very fascinating, even though they don't make clear sense if you know what I mean. Is there a lyrical part of the album, is it more like you expressing yourself in a way that's personal to you and it should stay like this or do you expect people like me who are going to read them to understand what's really behind them?

Christofer: No, no. The lyrics have never tended to be understood. It's a way for me to complete the piece of art. If you write this type of music you cannot sing about sex, drugs and rock and roll, or cheesy love stories, or heavy metal gods come to take the earth by storm, it just doesn't work. So it has to be equally fitting lyrics and then they have to be at a quite high intellectual level. Especially the latest record, it's very abstract. So most people who are into esoteric matters don't get it. There are two academic authorities on the planet that have good knowledge of these themes and one is the lyric writer.

I feel much better now, knowing that! I know that this tour, at least the way it's been addressed so far, it's one month that you're going to be with Grave Digger. But what an interesting package - a band like you and a band like Grave Digger. How did that occur, was it a decision from the label?

Christofer: No, it was a suggestion by the booking agent. To be brutally honest we have lost a little ground in Germany. We still do quite well there, we can play headliners and it's fine, but we have quite a big stage production so we wanted to minimise the amount of smaller shows where we cannot use it because we have a truck for the trailer just so we can bring the stage. This is one of the shows where we don't have it, we left it in France because it's too small, this stage. But we didn't have a choice if we wanted to play London. Actually we had nearly 800 pre-sales so it's going really well. If we had known that we would have coped this well maybe we would have booked a bigger place but it's an unplayed card you know?

Maybe next time?

Christofer: Yeah next time we may play somewhere bigger.

Therion

It does look better, I mean last time you played in a much smaller venue.

Christofer: Yeah, but that was ridiculous, I mean 500 capacity place. But in any case, in Germany we wouldn't have been able to use stage scenery except in one or two places so we thought "let's bring on a band that's very strong in Germany, and strong in Germany only". So therefore Grave Digger was a very good choice. Like last time when we brought Tristania with us, they helped in some places, like when people had to travel very far it makes it more worth the travel, France and Spain I would definitely say they made quite a difference and they made a difference in some other places. But most of the time we had exactly the same fans that would have come anyway. And in Germany it made absolutely zero difference. We could have had local support. It was a nice thing for the fans of course that they could see another great band, Tristania, for the same money. But it didn't help attract people so therefore we thought "This time let's take a band that pulls a completely different crowd so we can move up to bigger venues and use the stage."

So for the remaining of the year, for the summer festivals. I know you're playing Wacken this year, is that true?

Christofer: Uh-huh.

Apart from Wacken, any other festivals where you will be able to use all that extra equipment that you didn't manage to bring with you now?

Christofer: There's one in France, somewhere on the West Coast, and there's one in Belgium, Basle is it? My memory" You'll have to check on the website for the dates.

So what do you expect for the rest of the year with this album, what are your next plans, your future for the next couple of years?

Christofer: Well we're going to tour the whole of 2007, this Europe thing and then some separate shows. We're going to do Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Israel, Greece, for the fly-in shows, and then Latin America from Mexico down to Argentina and Chile and a lot of things in between like Bolivia and Columbia, Salvador, Brazil and Puerto Rico. Then we'll see about the US and Canada. We don't do so well there, in the East Coast of USA and Canada we do well, the rest is not so good. LA is okay, and sometimes but the rest we don't do so well. Maybe we'll put together some package and just do a handful of shows in the places we did well with some other band, you know bigger bands, and just the bigger places after South America and then, I don't know, maybe we'll have the rest off work! We'll see if we get to Japan this time, I really hope so. I think the new record is giving us a better chance to do something there. We really don't sell much records there. So we'll see about that. 2008 we'll have a vacation, and then 2009 start working on the next record.

And should we expect another DVD like the one you released a year ago, which was fantastic by the way? The most complete video"

Christofer: Not another six pack no.

OK (laughs)

Christofer: We won't have the material for that. But we're recording a show in Poland on this tour, because we would like to have it with this line-up and nice scenery and everything. One that's going to be released, I don't know, 2008 sometime.

I do hope you enjoy the show tonight, thank you very much for doing this interview, and I hope it all goes well for the new album because it's really worth it.

Christofer: Thanks.


Interview © January 2007 John Stefanis


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