Avatar frontman Johannes Eckerström looks very different in casual mode. When he performs live, he’s a psychotic, face-painted ringmaster who delights in spurring crowds into a frenzy. But offstage, he’s laidback, polite, and disarmingly friendly. His trademark clown make-up is nowhere to be seen and he’s a delightful person with an optimistic outlook. And given the events of the past two years, it’s pretty surprising.
Back in 2019, Avatar looked like they were about to go interstellar. Avatar Country, their seventh album, was embraced by fans and critics alike. They were regularly pulling the crowds in for their live shows, and there were whispers of them becoming a force to be reckoned with. The time was right to deliver a killer follow-up and become heavy metal royalty, but then you-know-what happened and everything came to a halt. There’s a hint of frustration in Johannes’ voice when he talks about this. You can tell he’s thinking of the lost opportunities and delayed tours, but he’s got a sense of perspective too:
“It’s hard to gauge because this happened to everyone…It’s not like loads of other bands still get to do those things instead of us,” he says, “We’re still kinda where we are I guess. Like all people, we feel like time was taken from us, but everyone has plans, and I try not to feel bitter about it. My brother is a teacher and he sees the challenges for all the kids coming back to school. The challenges he faces as a teacher, meaning what was taken from those kids during this period, is something else.”
The pandemic might seem never ending, but there are signs of things returning to normal. When the world finally opens up again, Avatar have plenty of fresh material to showcase. Last August, they released their eighth album, Hunter Gatherer, and have yet to tour it properly. They’ve also been steadily releasing standalone singles as well. The next album is still a way off, but their recent songs haven’t been mere placeholders; they’re fully-formed tracks in their own right.
“Leftovers are the wrong word, but during the writing of the last few years, we always have twice as much material as we actually put out,” he says, “A lot of it you just throw away because it wasn’t good enough, but then you have those songs that are good but don’t quite find a home yet. They made sense in and of themselves, but not as part of Hunter Gatherer.”
He’s not lying. Construction Of Souls for instance, is a sledgehammer of a song, a brutal, pit-igniting melodic-death metal anthem. But So Sang The Hollow is an entirely different cut. It’s still clearly the same band, but it’s slower and more atmospheric. It’s the kind of track that emerges slowly from the mist on Halloween night, and if it were shoe-horned into the Hunter Gatherer tracklist, would stick out badly. But presented as a one-off, it makes plenty of sense.
This way of releasing things also harkens back to an age where singles rather than albums were everything:
“I love a good album as much as anyone,” he says, “I was born in the eighties and grew up as an album listener, but there are not that many generations before us where that was the thing. We talk things like Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper where the album is the epicentre of rock and roll, but before that was all about the singles. What was Elvis Presleys best album? Johnny Cash’s best album from his early days? There is none. With the Beatles you had things like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane which didn’t end up on an album, it was a double A Side…It’s another way to give your music special treatment if you will. It’s like the fifties again. Here’s another single; boom!”
Audiences will get a chance to see these songs live for the first time this coming January as they’ll be returning to America for a series of dates rescheduled from the Autumn (postponed due to a positive Covid test). However, Johannes’ most ambitious plan is an extensive tour of Africa, an area of the world he feels is under-represented in metal.
“There is a completely selfish reason for me doing it in that it’s mainly through the band that I get to explore and experience the world, and I’ve never been to Africa! I also feel it’s an underexposed area and we are underexposed to what’s going on over there; musically, culturally and in general.
“There was a Vice article a few years ago and there’s been little droplets here and there of what is going on. Lately of course, with Northern Africa there’s a lot of stuff. Egypt have a whole renaissance of people rediscovering their history with the help of metal music, but once you cross the Sahara and go further south, it gets a lot more scarce, or at least our knowledge of it does. And it would be so cool to see. The metal aspect, the musician aspect of it…what is going on? What is there to see?”
At the moment, this idea is only hypothetical, but he’s thought about it a great deal. They’d have to find additional funding for a trip that ambitious, and he wants a documentary crew to join them. But he’s also painfully aware of the potential pitfalls and doesn’t want to become another “white saviour” for the continent.
“I would like to go there and learn. I don’t want to be another white guy doing the pompous ‘if I were to go to Africa, it would be special,’” he laughs. “I don’t want to remind people of that film ‘Get Him To The Greek’ and that ‘African Child’ song they had. That’s the exact opposite of what my goals are!”
It’s somewhat telling that our conversation about this idea takes up nearly half the interview. It’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, but the mere fact he talks about it so passionately demonstrates how Johannes is a fan at heart. He wants to discover new bands, explore a world of metal that’s not been looked into, and help bring them to the world’s attention. If anyone can do it, why not the psycho-clown?