TARTAREAN DESIRE WEBZINE
This interview with Christofer Johnsson from Therion was done in February 2001 by Boris Van Berlo during the Metalfest in Antwerp, Belgium. It was originally published in the now hibernating Embers webzine.
The historical journey of Sweden's Therion has been long. When they started out in the late 80s they were part of the flourishing death metal underground of the country but eventually their more and more unique way of approaching music resulted in the groundbreaking "Theli" album from where nothing would ever be the same.
What did metal mean to you when you started with the band, and what does it mean for you now?
In the beginning we were an underground band, so we were part of the underground scene. We appeared in fanzines, sold demo tapes. At concerts half of the audience played in other bands... so back then it was basically one big metal-family. Now it is totally different, it is so much bigger, you cannot know everybody personally anymore. But the metal-scene is still were I work and it's my hobby, so it kind of flows together. Because I have no regular job, this is my work, but it is also some kind of hobby, something I would do in my spare time anyway, cause you have a lot of things in common with the people that you work with.
I go to gigs for some bands, but not so often anymore cause I see so many concerts when we are on tour. Like today, with all those packages (Trail Of Tears, Orphanage, After Forever). When I go, it is for bands like Judas Priest, or Accept when they were still around, stuff I grew up with ... maybe I'll go and see AC/DC when they play. I used to go more to gigs, but you get a little bit immune. Like when you go on tour and you have this loud music for one or two months, after that you want to have it quiet when you get back home.
I still buy records though. I bought the new Maiden album, and stuff like that. Keep track of the bands I listened to throughout in the 80's.
Is going to concerts for you different now?
Not in Sweden. We do not sell that many records in Sweden, and Swedish people usually never care so much about famous musicians. Not so much as the rest of Europe anyway.
Normally I go more to concerts of older bands. For the newer bands, I know them and they usually put me on the guest list. But on the other hand it does not make so many difference if you have to pay or not.
Do you still follow the underground scene?
It is hard to say what's underground in these days. Before it was: when you have a demo tape you are underground, if you make a record you are not. Now with all these self-produced CD's it is kind of floating together.
I am very bad with new bands, I do not know many new bands really. I know the bands we've been touring with, like Flowing Tears, they are a very good band, but apart from that no.
There are so many new bands popping out, and I have only something like 600 CD's stored in my record collection, plus the old vinyl. Only a few of those records are from new bands, but when I say new bands, you will probably say they are old, like The Gathering, Amorphis and that type of bands. I like that.
You can also see that love for older bands in the covers that Therion plays: Scorpions, Iron Maiden...
Yeah! Well, about the Scorpions ... I liked them more in the 70's, what they did in the 80's is ok sometimes, some albums, but after that they sank in my opinion.
We play covers either as a tribute to the bands or just because we like it, cause we have fun playing them our self. Like when we used to play "Under Jolly Roger" before. I can't say I was ever a big fan of Running Wild, but I like that song, so we played that song. When you do a cover, it does not necessarily mean that you are a big fan of the band, but it means that you like that song in particular.
There is also an other way of doing covers, like we did recently with "Seawinds" from Accept. That's a damn good song when Accept does it, but it is not one of the best songs. But then it's more about how can I make a Therion song out of this other band's song. I would consider "Seawinds" as a Therion song on our album, but written by Accept. They wrote it first.
Nowadays there are a lot of bands that use influences of classical music in metal. Some of them use it in a way like you do, but others make classical arrangements of their existing songs. What do you think about that?
I think that the Scorpions shouldn't have done it. That's my opinion, because they are totally wrong for that. As for Metallica, it was very professionally made, Michael Kamen is a very professional guy, but I do not think that he understood Metallica's music. Sometimes the orchestration does not fit at all. I think that someone who is a fan of Metallica and who has the classical abilities could have done it much better.
Would you like to do something like that for another band?
When Metallica would have asked me, I would not have said no (laugh), of course not, but I am quite busy with my own stuff...
... like building a studio? I've read that you just finished working on your own studio.
Yes, that's true. We are going to record our next album there. We are going to mix it somewhere else though, because it is newly build, and we do not want to have the responsibility. Mixing a record there is not a problem, but mixing a Therion album might be a problem because we need so many channels for all this classic and choir stuff. That's not for every studio. If we were a guitar based band the mixing would not be a problem. Hopefully we can extend the studio even further until the album after this, so we can mix that one, and then we will also have more experience.
Did you build the studio because it's difficult to find a suitable studio for Therion to record? Or because you wanted to have your own studio where you could work quietly?
The idea was to take a part of the recording budget and put it in the studio instead of paying it to someone else, so afterwards we would still have the studio. We've spent like 115.000 DM on the recording of our last album, and you can get a lot of equipment for that money. Cause we have a very good deal through our management, we paid like half the price for the equipment, and we've got some pretty good stuff.
The idea was to build a Therion studio where we can record our own stuff, so the acoustics are specially made for recordings with an orchestra. We have set primarily in mind that this studio must work very well for classical acoustics.
Do you intend to produce other bands in this studio as well and start a career as an producer like Peter Tägtgren?
I am a totally wrong person for doing that because I have my opinion, the way I want to do it, how it works for me and I don't want to do it any other way. In that point of view I am a little bit like Siggi from Woodhouse: he found his formula, what he likes, and he is doing it that way. This means that the band would have to do it exactly the way I want it or we would have disagreements. So I am not very good for that, and I know it, thus I would never try it.
But our drummer is very good in picking up other peoples ideas, so he will produce other bands at the studio. There will be limited time for it because we will record Therion albums there and we will rehearse there. The studio should however be available two times a year. So I guess there will be a lot of Nuclear Blast bands recording at our studio. But I think that from ten bands who ask, we probably have to say no to nine of them because of the lack of time. We did not build the studio having any commercial interest in it.
Is there a possibility to see Therion again live with an orchestra like on Dynamo 99?
We did that show with a small orchestra. Now I would like to do it with an orchestra two or three times as big, otherwise it doesn't make me happy. I want to take another step each time.
Actually it's a money-question. If we double our record sales we could do it. Unfortunately in the end it always comes down to money. You have to pay all the musicians, you have to draw enough people to fill these big venues, cause without a big place you cannot have a big enough stage to fit all the musicians.
Sometimes I wish that it would be simpler, that we are a three piece band playing AC/DC covers. Life would be simpler then, but I like what we are doing, the way we are doing it.
Haggard is also touring with a big group, so it is possible.
With Haggard it is different, they are all members of the band, so if they don't make money it does not matter cause they do not get paid. They are also not so dependent. I saw them one time when they didn't do the whole set up, they had a lot of people missing but they still could do the concert. We cannot do that, that's our problem. Either we do it or we don't.
Where does your love for classical music come from?
When I was like two or three years old I started listening to Beethoven. My parents didn't really listen that much to classical music, but they had a few records, most of them from Beethoven. They listened more to Abba and that kind of music.
I do not know why, maybe I liked the front cover of the record, but I wanted to hear Beethoven's 5th. I really loved it, and was listening to it over and over again until my mother did not want to hear it anymore and put headphones on me. After that I wasn't so much into classical music, more Abba and stuff like that when I was six years old. And then I became a metal head. So as a early teenager I started listening a little bit to Carl Orff, but it wasn't really a big passion. What happened was that I started listening to a lot of these 70's prog-rock bands who use classical elements in their music. And through that way I got more and more into it. I became curious to find out witch composers affected them, and started to check out things, especially Wagner and Richard Strauss.
I think that around 1996, after we did the Theli album, I started really buying classical records. Before that I had like six of them, and now I have 150 records.
So it was by making classical music myself that I got into it. That's actually strange cause it's the other way round.
Some years ago you wrote the soundtrack for an art-film. Do you have projects like this or others besides Therion?
That soundtrack was a job, I got paid for it, but it was a very fun job. The difference in making something for a film is that you cannot make the music too interesting, cause than you draw the attention from the movie, it's supposed to be in the background. You have to make something atmospheric and nice, but not with catchy melodies and things that draw attention from the main thing, the movie.
From time to time I write some classical things that will probably be used sooner or later for Therion, until a time comes that Therion will not sell enough albums to pay for the production costs of a new album. Cause we have so high production costs we have a much higher level of provisions. If any other band sells 50.000 copies it's like "wow...brilliant". If we sell 50.000 it means we cannot record another album. And I do not want to compromise: if I can use a big orchestra and a big choir on one album, I'm not going back to work with a small orchestra because of the lack of money. That completely kills my inspiration.
So whenever there is no big enough interest in us doing what we do with Therion, I'll probably start making only classical music... write an opera or something.
Do you have an explanation for the fact that there are so many new and good bands coming out of Sweden?
I think that it's mainly because Sweden is quite a wealthy country. Because of that many young people can stay with their parents, they do not have to pay for a home or for food, and they can work some extra or get money from their parents to buy some cheap instruments to start with.
It was like that in my case. I did not have to pay while I was living at home, so I cold use the money I earned to buy equipment and I could concentrate fully on my music.
Another thing is that culture has a priority in Swedish society. When we were a very young band, at the end of the 80's, there were a lot of "cultural unions" that sponsored shows. They set up the show, and it does not matter if little people show up, cause the state pays for the PA and all that. It is such things that make a difference.
When you are more talented you can get a scholarship. However it is very hard for a metal-guitarist to obtain such an scholarship, but if you can play different things like our guitar player Kristian, he can play anything, I think he is the best guitar player in Europe in this category of music, what he does with Therion is nothing compared to what he can.
Is metal as music or way of life more accepted in Sweden than somewhere else?
Metal-music is not really played on radio or television unless the band sells a lot, like Hammerfall, they sold over 50.000 albums in Sweden, that's pretty amazing, so of course if they have a video they will show it on television, next to Madonna. But I would not say that Swedish society has anything in particular positive for metal.
However if you have long hair, it is not a problem to get a job at a bank or so, as long as you put your hair together. So I would say that the society is very tolerant for people that look differently, but the music is not really accepted.
Could you tell us something about the plans for the near future?
We already did some kind of pre-pre production for the new album, and when we finish this mini-tour we are going to make a proper pre-production, and for once we are actually going to rehearse the songs before we record them. Normally I just learn the songs at home and then we go and do it, but now we are going to rehearse together, so it's really going to sound like a band. I think that the recordings will proceed until the end of May, in June we will mix the album and the release will be somewhere in September.
We are not going to play a lot of festivals this summer, only Wacken and a small Swedish festival, but after the release we will start touring again. The plans are that we start in South America, then Mexico and we will do for the first time also dates in the USA, 5 or 6 shows. Also for the first time, some shows in Canada and after that, with no break in between, we will do Europe. Hopefully we can also make Japan, but our sales are not so good there so we will have to wait and see for that.
Now that you mention South America and so on. How is the popularity of Therion outside Europe?
In Mexico we are very popular, we play two times in a row in front of 2000 people, so we could do a third show you know. The last time we played South America was in 95, but I think that we are very popular there. We do not sell so much records because of these pirates, bootleg-tapes, but a considerable amount of people have our albums, in one form or another.
Our popularity in the USA is not so well, but on the other hand that's typical for European bands, no one is doing too well over there. They always come after us, what we listened to 3 years ago seems to be the hottest thing there now, so probably in a few years from now it will be like ... wow gothic metal. Canada I do not know, but I think it's somewhere in between Europe and the USA. I kind of like Canada more, we toured with Voivod and they are very much the same as we are, same mentality, ... anyway, it will be very fun to play in the USA because obviously we have a big deal of fans over there, but it is a big country and everything is spread out, so we are not going by tour bus, we'll have to fly between the shows and do only the major cities. But personally it's going to be a great experience and fun to see the country, cause until now I have only seen New York airport.
Japan is a little bit funny. In Europe and other places you can play to promote yourself, over there it's the opposite. You sell records first, and when you have sold them you go and play for your fans. It's not that you can support a bigger band and get promotion, that's strange. So we need to sell at least over 10.000 copies, but unfortunately the Deggial-CD sold less than the earlier albums. I don't know, maybe they do not like classical music or whatever, but that's the way it is. In Europe it's typically to have this old tradition for classical music, especially in Germany, but actually our latest album did it even better in Holland and Belgium.
Also surprisingly in Poland, where we were hitting number 21 in the national charts. In Russia we sold something like 2000 copies of the Vovin album, which is a lot, it's more than other bands in this genre. And I was told that you have to consider that for those 2000 copies there were probably sold like 20.000 pirate copies. So I guess it would be a very big experience to play there.
Do you think that mp3's or home-copying of CD's have an impact on Therion?
In Germany the record-market went down with 40%, but I think that this effects more the compilations of popular music, like "Absolute Music" and shit like that, cause you do not feel like "Ooh I need to have this album with Absolute Music on it", music that you consume anyway, you like it for one year and then you throw it in the garbage. I would throw it in the garbage immediately, but for the people who like it, they probably copy it.
I also think it strikes harder against the newer bands. When you do not want the album for your collection. Because when you already have like 3 or 4 albums from Iron Maiden or Therion in your collection, you do not want to put a burned one between them, so you probably buy it if you like it. When it comes to new bands, maybe a friend of yours buys the CD and you like the music, but you do not feel that you have to get the original one. That's why it is very hard for independent bands to establish themselves. You can also see this when you look at Nuclear Blast, they sign more older established bands like Helloween, and not so many new bands, cause it's very hard.
I was wondering why the re-issues of your first 3 albums do not have the original artwork?
Because they are not the original releases. We wanted to do something different, like these are other ones, and also because the artwork of the first album really makes me sick. So I wanted to get rid of that one, and if you change that one ... I mean the second one is OK, but it is not brilliant, the third one I like. And because we are releasing them as a box all together we did something so they belong to each other. They have different symbols as outlook: copper, silver and gold ... like good, better, best or whatever.
I have the rights back from the old record companies, and also the films from the artwork, but I wanted to do something new besides making the music available again. I see it like the old times are the old times and that the people who bought the original copies back then should feel that they have a special edition. I like that myself, when I go to a second-hand store with old vinyl and I find a original copy, that's very nice.
So you are a collector?
Yeah, for some bands, not for everything. As from these old prog-bands from the seventies I like the original gatefolds with additional photo’s, or maybe an album that has the lyrics. But I'm not that kind of collector who would pay huge sums for one particular album.
What do you prefer: a package like today with all these different bands (Cascade, Dreadlock Pussy, Thanatos, After Forever, Orphanage and Trail Of Tears), or would you rather be with a band that you choose, like last year with Voivod who are friends of yours?
The last is of course more fun, especially when you share the tour bus with them. But this now is different, these are more like small type festivals. It is fun to see different bands of course, but when you travel for a long while, like you go on tour for two months or so, it's more fun if you can choose the bands. But sometimes if you do not know the band, it can be a surprise, like with "Flowing Tears" on our last tour. I really like their music and they are really cool people.
For the next tour I think that we are going to give the management free hands, because we are going to do it in a different way. We are going to do much fewer shows but make it more big size. Like in Germany normally we would have 10 or 12 dates, sometimes more, now we are going to do 6 this time: play bigger halls, make more show with more stuff on stage. And in that case it is important that we have a second band who draws a different audience too, to fill all those places. So we will visit a lot of countries but only do a few shows. I think 25 shows all over Europe, what is not so much. When we toured with Moonspell on the Vovin album we did 48 shows in Europe, then we played everywhere. Now we are going to do the opposite.
Don't you grow tired of touring?
No, not these days. It's pretty convenient. Things work, you have a good crew that takes care of the stage-stuff so you only have to bother about playing ... and not getting too drunk.
One more question to finish up: how do you look back at the different Therion albums?
I think that all our albums are connected. Every album is connected with the one before it and the one after it in a certain way. Some people say that they see a trilogy with Theli up to Deggial because we started to use the choir. This trilogy thing is something that everyone can fill in for himself. I think that the three first albums where kind of connected, cause in that period we were really a guitar based band. Then Lepaca Kliffoth was a bit on it's own, maybe a little connected to Theli because of the balance between guitars and other things. After Theli there was the quite obvious change that the classical parts became the more dominant parts and the guitars were just another instrument in the orchestra, with a few exceptions like "Flesh Of The Gods" and songs like that, which are heavy metal tracks. But take a song like "Via Nocturna", there the guitar is squeezed into the classical piece. I think that we will have a good balance in the future with these kind of things. I think that the next album will surprise people quite a lot.
I hope so. Thank you very much for this interview.
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