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Interview: Avatar’s Johannes Eckerström on their new album Hunter Gatherer

The Industrial Revolution – you wouldn’t be reading this without it.  What began with steam soon led to internal combustion engines, electricity, computers, and the internet.  Was it something that lifted millions out of poverty and improved humanity’s quality of life, or was it the catalyst for nuclear weapons, factory farming, climate change and data harvesting? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Like many, Avatar vocalist Johannes Eckerström has been pondering this contradiction.  He does not profess to have the answers, but the music the band writes grapples with the topics, nonetheless.  That brings us to their eighth album, Hunter Gatherer, which, according to the Swedes, “Is a study of a clueless humankind’s ever-increasing velocity into an uncertain future. It’s the darkest, most sinister version of the band yet, with studies of cruelty, technology, disdain, and deprivation”.

WE ARE STILL HUNTER GATHERERS

Eckerström says this album was named Hunter Gatherer for obvious reasons. “That is what we were for most of our existence and we have slowly, progressively evolved.  Not as a species, but just our civilisation around us, which has been a recipe for success in terms of a huge chunk of the biomass of this planet now are humans, so we’ve been able to feed and clothe more and breed more than ever,” he says. “So great success for the species but detrimental to the individuals.  When agriculture came about, we got fed more, but we also needed winter storage, someone could steal this, you need a guard, you need a sharper weapon, you need to guard your territory. You need to have more kids and more kids will get sick. (We) live closer to each other (and) we get sicker.

“Fast forward – Industrial Revolution – it’s the same story on steroids. The machines meant that we could feed tonnes more … we’re building this electrical gilded cage around us – just machines – and it’s so detached from what we are as animals.” Saying all this, the musician doesn’t think the solution lies in romanticising the past. “You can’t climb a tree, call yourself a monkey, call it a day and think things will be fine. We have to keep looking forward. As far as the environment goes and tension in the world right now, we’re in this fork in the road where we’re choosing futures. Right now, we’re sitting in this dystopian fucking Fear Factory song. It’s quite cyberpunk right now and we’re choosing between a mix of Mad Max and Terminator 2 or Star Trek. I haven’t seen every episode of every series, but I still know enough about it to say I would prefer the Star Trek version of things. (We have) all this grand perspective and assume that we still aren’t hunter gatherers – the same creature – and homosapiens?”

POT / KETTLE

Eckerström sometimes feels hesitant putting his or the band’s value system bluntly into a song.  “I tried to find the right path to deal with the potential hypocrisy in it where I also need to hold myself accountable. How do I live my life? If I am to point fingers around, yeah, I can feel free to do so, but some of those fingers that point need to be aimed at myself.” He then refers to the new song, “When All But Force Has Failed”, which features the lyrics: Bird carcass with a belly full of plastic / One more year and I’ll be a millionaire. “I think that is a one way to summarise a problematic state of mind that I’m sure I’m not alone with,” he says. “Things are really fucked and then there’s a system around it and a frame around it that makes changing it – taking those radical actions that we would need to do as a species to deal with those issues – very hard.”

HAMMER OR THE SCALPEL?

If it hasn’t become clear yet, all band members – Eckerström, Jonas Jarlsby (guitar), Tim Öhrström (guitar), Henrik Sandelin (bass) and John Alfredsson (drums) – are vegan. With that said, Avatar’s values are still numerous and varied. “The animal perspective – I don’t think there’s a tonne of that specifically on the album, but that kind of way of looking at things influences our view on things in general. This album happened to be human beings more.” As the guys from Gothenburg have grown older, they have moved away from more blatant songs – 2007’s “Schlacht”, which is ‘slaughter’ in German – for example.  “If those (older) albums (and) songs were to be a killer in a horror movie, that would be someone who would bash your skull in with a hammer. It’s violent and gruesome and it’s not very efficient, but yet quite spectacular, and it is what it is.  It takes a lot of splatter.  And now, when we go as aggressive and dark as we do with this album, the killer, if it were to be a horror movie now, is more someone akin to Hannibal Lecter. Someone who knows his way around a scalpel and knows where to make that stab or cut to do the most damage once; it’s more articulate and to the point.”

FROM ANIMAL TO HUMAN

All this talk of humans and animals prompts perhaps an obvious question then – is the COVID-19 pandemic a result of humanity’s dependence and/or exploitation of animals?  “Yes, it is. Fucking exactly. Not in a divine way, obviously,” Eckerström says. “When the Europeans went to North America, the natives got sick and died in droves. Why wasn’t it the other way around? Well, because the native tribal societies of North America they didn’t domesticate animals like that; they didn’t have those breeding grounds for these type of viruses and other diseases to evolve like that and jump into other hosts and make us that kind of sick. Measles, smallpox, whichever you want, pick one, you will dig back in history and they are all connected to domestication of some animal throughout history. And this is another example. I listened to a podcast – his name escapes me – but a science dude who knows more about this than I ever will basically said that as far as the scientist community is concerned, this is a nice little practice round because the big one is around the corner and it will come from our chicken factories and kill many more of us. And if we would be willing to learn something from this would be great. I believe most people will go and order McNuggets as soon as they can leave their homes. They already are. So, be ready for the next one… maybe, sadly, most likely.”

NOT CUTTING LOVED ONES

As Eckerström previously mentioned, he doesn’t consider himself absolved of sin.  He just hopes people can learn.  “I didn’t cut all ties to my family members who eat animal products either and that’s not how it should work anyway. But then I believe if we get to be around in a couple of centuries at some point – how do we look back at it? Slavery, colonialism … we look back now and slap our foreheads.  I think this exploitation, use of animals for everything is another one of those things that we are slowly moving past. Guys and girls who don’t eat meat – we are still very much a minority in the world – but it’s a growing minority. And at some point, a big enough minority can really change the majority opinion on things. The results; the things we see in the world anyway are pointing out that direction.”

GETTING ‘THE NECK’ TO WHISTLE

Talking of plant-based metalheads (bad segue?), Slipknot’s Corey Taylor helped out with three songs while they were recording at LA’s Sphere Studios. “This all came together because we have opened for Slipknot, so we met like that. His wife is a big fan of the band – I can’t understand (laughs). Above all of the things, he is good friends with our producer Jay (Ruston) – they did Stone Sour albums and now his solo thing that just came out. So, through Jay, he asks: ‘Can I come by and hear some tunes?’ He kind of offered and if we were up for it, to maybe do something while he’s there.”  Eckerström says this was a late addition because there was no duet or similar sketched out.  “There are no places where it makes sense to maybe add him in to take a verse or something other than, you know, for bragging rights. So, what came to mind is those first seasons of South Park when they would have celebrity guests (play small parts) … George Clooney would play the dog and Jay Leno would be the cat, so Corey Talor, you can whistle (on “The Secret Door”). He did a much better job than I did on the demo anyway, so it helped the album. We had 85 per cent of the song, but you need 100. So that was about to be thrown in the bin. He was there like, ‘Hey man, no strings attached. Yeah, if you want to listen to this, and if everything anything comes to mind, let us know’. So, he whistled that melody into his phone and sent it to Jay and we started to jam with that and were able to finish the song.” Taylor also did backing vocals on the “Colossus” chorus and has a co-writing credit on the song “Wormhole” for a melodic pre-chorus.

STOP LOOKING FOR THE ‘MAKE IT SOUND METAL BUTTON’

Moving on from the slightly controversial topics of human evils, dietary and ethical concerns, Avatar like to stoke up the odd bit of chatter with their frank views on musicianship.  Indeed, this new material is the second album for which “the foundation for each song … was laid with the band performing altogether” (the first being 2014’s Hail the Apocalypse).  It was also recorded entirely to two-inch tape. That type of process isn’t talked about much these days. “No, but it should, because that is how music was recorded,” he says. “Most of us sound better live if we do our homework, right? Because that is what this music was meant to be. You can divide music into two categories I feel: music that asks you to sit still and listen – an opera, a symphony – take your pick. Then there is music that asks you to stand up and move. Broadly, I start to think of some kind of folk music and dance music and metal belongs there as well – at least most of it. Yes, (in) our dance we get bruised and nosebleeds and stuff but it’s all good – our necks hurt, all good. But still, it’s moving to music and music itself gets more movements when it’s performed live and people play together.

“Our metal is a bit more technically demanding from you, but if you want to put that on record, you still are supposed to be able to nail it live. So do your damn homework and record the way that most of the best stuff ever was recorded. We remember way more albums from the 70s than we do from later for a reason, and that is one of the reasons. More time in the rehearsal room and less screwing around in studio seems to help the music and I wish more bands would do it. It’s also a way to preserve our unique sound. Of course, there are tonnes of brilliant bands that sound nothing like other bands coming out today as well – the horse is not that high that I’m sitting on. But that being said, there is still a problem – there is a ‘make it sound metal button’ somewhere that people push.”

Hunter Gatherer is out August 7 via Century Media Records / Sony Music Australia

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