Long live The King, but the time has come for Avatar to leave Avatar Country behind and get to work on a new album. Just before the holidays, Loudwire was invited to producer Jay Ruston's San Fernando Valley studio to catch up with Avatar as they continued the progress of recording their next album. For the Swedish rockers, this marked their first excursion recording in the U.S., deciding to make the leap after forming a strong bond with Ruston.
Upon arrival, the band members were in the midst of recording the instrumental parts of a brand new song, a sludgy still untitled track that leaned in the realm of Alice in Chains' killer low end but also referenced a Black Sabbath vibe. Suggestions on the approach were tossed around the room in both English and Swedish by the band members, with a few sharp jabs shared amongst Ruston and the bandmates, who had now spent the better part of the month working at the Los Angeles studio and clearly knew how to have fun in motivating each other.
As guitarists Jonas Jarlsby and Tim Ohrstrom, bassist Henrik Sandelin and drummer John Alfredsson shuffled back to the performance room, singer Johannes Eckerström remained in the studio booth side on his laptop, with the canine companion Grey lying next to him, humming melodies and contemplating lyrical ideas for the track.
After several takes trying to key in on certain elements while recording to tape for the new record, the final performance delivered a looser feel that allowed for more experimentation, as Eckerström joked, "Tim got bored." But even as the take eventually veered, it sparked further discussion of options and how they could work off each other and gave Ruston plenty to work with in putting the track together.
Stopping down for a bit, Ruston and the band members then shared five new songs they've laid down with vocals so far over the month, a diverse collection of tracks that definitely take on a heavier and darker feel than their previous Avatar Country album, though incorporating some of the theatricality, heavy beats, stellar musicianship and pure aggression we've come to expect from Avatar's music.
As the tracks are previewed one after the other, the band members are clearly into what's been laid down so far. "Scream Into the Void," in particular, has Jonas and John air drumming and guitaring respectively during the playback.
The group members share favorite South Park moments between song playbacks, serve up a few inside jokes and genuinely seem to enjoy getting a chance to share the music with an outsider for the first time. Here are a few things we learned during our studio visit and interview with Avatar.
1. "The new record is more hate mail than love letters."
That's how Eckerström described his hopes for the new record with Full Metal Jackie earlier last year, and that approach still holds true now that recording has begun. Coming off a pair of concept albums, Avatar are definitely fine with moving back toward doing a more traditional album, and it's whole heartedly got more of an edge to it.
"Avatar Country, we wanted to see if we could do comedy. That was a big challenge to us. It was funny and we wanted to see if we could make something funny, but it still had to be awesome and resonate with us in terms of what the core of being a metal band should be about for us. But it was humorous for us, and now it’s important for us to do something devoid of humor," says Eckerström.
"There is no joking around with this and it pulls us back into reality. It deals more with darkness, sadness, detachment, alienation and the anxiety of thinking of the world at large. It’s all these things that don’t necessarily fit into the 'let’s write this love letter to heavy metal and share our inside joke that we call Jonas the King.'"
The singer says after being so invested in the whole conceptual idea of the last two albums, it's natural to not want to repeat themselves. He adds, "When everything is great I have less of a need to process that. Nobody goes to their shrink to talk about how great they feel, and I think that explains our need to create and consume our darker art."
2. Though not a concept album, there are things learned that they've brought forward.
"This one is not a concept album, and it was very important to us that we feel like every song is its own little universe, but there’s still an emotion thread, a vibe," says Eckerström.
"I think that to know at all that there’s a goal in front of us of what we want this album to be, though right now it may be more abstract or multi-faceted in terms of what the songs are about, that definitely came from working on two concept albums. I think it’s now a lot of accumulated experience and improved ability to articulate ourselves through things that are very abstract in the beginning, we can now find a more concrete language and method for after having done those two albums."
3. This is the "last" album, but so is every other record past and future.
While the band very much has a future, they prefer to approach each record as if it's their last. "We still want that feeling as teenagers doing their first album, that we only have one shot at this. That is the most important emotion of all for us when we make an album," says Eckerström. "We always view the current album we’re working on as being our last, cause if it were to be our last, what would we want it to be? It’s just so important to keep that hunger in it."
The singer says it's a great approach to have and thanks to the vast world of musical knowledge out there, you can keep that "beginner" feeling for your entire career so long as you continue to explore. He adds that with the new album, he's discovered new tricks with harmony, using chords in a certain way and finding specific techniques in how to perform that have made it new for him, but perhaps the most intriguing thing about his approach to the new album is that it's coming from a more emotionally vulnerable place.
"I'm trying to put across certain emotions that maybe, myself as a lyricist, maybe I wasn’t comfortable with in the past," says the singer. "Saying there’s something wrong over there is different than turning a finger and pointing it at yourself. It takes some maturity to start to do that and maybe revisit places I was at in the past and shine a more honest light upon it. It’s full of those things that I have never done before, we have never done before and thus it’s completely different again."
4. Avatar are a band of brothers, both in life and creatively.
"We, as a band, keep getting told that we are very unique in our camaraderie. We’re in our early 30s now, and we started learning to play as teenagers, so we went through a good chunk of our puberty together and our 20s and we’ve really grown up with each other and survived the transition into each new phase with each other," says Eckerström. "I enjoy the company of the band more than ever, and I always enjoyed it, but it’s now coming as a realization what all these accumulated years mean."
On a professional front, the band picking apart the approach to a song we witnessed earlier was indicative of the creative process, according to Eckerström. "We all kind of claim ownership of each other’s songs very early on. Now, it’s kind of become that I write an absolute majority of the words that are there, but that’s not a rule. It’s happened that we’ve had changes suggested and implemented by the others. The lyrics may start with me, but it’s something that the band does and must claim ownership of and the same with vocals. A good example is in the new song 'Colossus,' the pre-chorus vocal line is written by Henrik. He came up with that. We just really work as a unit very early on."
He adds, "All songs recorded now, they've all started as a song idea or nearly complete songs by me, Jonas or Tim, but when we come back together, we as a five-piece unit are exchanging ideas and coming together on what's written."
5. The group initially had a prejudice about recording in the U.S.
America, and more specifically Los Angeles, was somewhere Avatar had once never thought they'd record. Eckerström admits, laughing, "I’m not a Motley Crue fan, and I’m not interested in being part of a pop music factory. There was just this prejudice, like we used to laugh about people wearing sunglasses indoors who aren’t Ray Charles. We thought, 'Why do we want to be surrounded by that vibe. We’ll hate it.'"
They also initially had reservations about working with Ruston given his American background until they actually met him. Eckerström laughingly recalls grumbling, "'I’m not going to America for an L.A. producer, grr, grr, grr, we’re a Scandinavian metal band.' So we weren’t sure about it, but then we met Jay and we clicked immediately."
Once in L.A., Eckerström got cabin fever while devoting so much time to the new record and decided to take in the environment one day. He got quite the workout in the process. He explained that he took an Uber to Griffith Park and then proceeded to march his way into Hollywood.
He recalls, "I had so much restlessness, I was almost marching, feeling a little out of breath, and eventually came upon the Walk of Fame. Then it’s like, 'Hey, Paul McCartney, Leno, hey, here’s all of it. (photo snaps) And frankly, Greta Garbo, she’s Swedish and I’m a fan, so, I got some pictures of that. And, oh, there’s the Chinese Theater, I’ve seen this on TV. Then I looked at the map again, Rainbow Bar and Grill, well, that’s kind of far and they don’t open until 5. Screw it, I’ll walk there.' So I was marching through Hollywood for four-and-a-half hours."
He also had to hit the Whisky-a-Go-Go, as his wife had taught him everything he knew about The Doors. "The U.S. doesn’t have thousand year old buildings, but in terms of stuff that has had a huge impact on my life and stuff in pop culture and therefore culture, it’s got plenty of things," says Eckerström. "Suddenly you feel like you can smell Jim Morrison’s hair."
6. Jay Ruston is the man!
Ruston initially mixed a pair of albums for Avatar before the band decided they wanted him to produce their Avatar Country record. That evolving relationship led to their eventual decision to travel to America to work with him again on the forthcoming effort.
"We are really on the same wavelength as people and our value system and our sense of humor. On top of that, he didn’t break his nose going to Morbid Angel shows. Plus we have a core agreement on thrash and heavy metal and the stuff that he grew up with that we also enjoy," says Eckerström.
They also credit Ruston's sensibilities in helping them achieve some reference points musically that they perhaps weren't as well versed in.
7. Somehow, both Gojira and Leonard Cohen influenced the new record
Eckerström calls out Gojira as a more modern influence on the group and what they're doing of late. "They’re a great live band, but they’re also able to find their own expression and they’re able to do something that we find important that we’re always trying to achieve as well, which is why we try to record fairly complicated music live, is that they are so groovy," says Eckerström.
"Extreme bands many times don’t talk enough about groove. A death metal riff, fast double kick drums, should groove as well. I just feel like they can be so avant-garde and still package it so well. It’s just articulated so well artistically in how they perform it that it becomes catchy. In the world where Gojira operates, their songs are hits. That’s how I hear them, because it’s just so well made, so well performed and so well articulated that it goes straight to the ears and the heart. They are a great inspiration to us for that reason."
As for Cohen, "I’m such a huge fan," Eckerström shares, adding that Cohen has taught him to try trust the poetry of his music. "Even the stuff I don’t get right away that he’s trying to say, I get it in a way that resonates with me. It becomes universal and it’s very poetic. And he has this great storytelling quality."
He continues, "It’s that storytelling quality that you hear more in folk, ’60s music and country, but not the kind currently played on the radio over here – it's more Willie Nelson, the Highwaymen, Dolly Parton – and in metal I would add Blind Guardian because they tell a richer story. I just want more of that, so that’s why [some of the music] has a more clear narrative."
The vocalist adds that he also went through a Swedish punk phase that lends itself to a specific song on the album.
The first song played during the preview was "Colossus," a track that makes an impression out of the gate with its opening siren giving way to brutally heavy drumming and a more electronic sounding vibe. It's a fist-pumper of a track, dealing with one's demons.
Eckerstrom points to "Colossus" as one of two tracks previewed that is taking a darker view on our future and the reliance on technology to eventually be a salvation for us moving forward as a society.
This is one of the more diverse songs on the record and one in which those who enjoy the band's theatrical nature will clearly enjoy. Sandelin provides some killer low end moments early on, with the track eventually transitioning into full on guttural metal fury. The musicianship is on display with a chaotic late song jam intensifying toward the finish, then pulling back significantly for a goosebump-raising piano finale.
"Child" falls more into the storytelling vein that Eckerström spoke of earlier.
"Thematically, the lyrics come from a place of an era in psychiatry where hysteria was considered an illness that women would have and the cure would be a lobotomy for an unruly woman," says the singer. "So it’s that side of the story and there’s a child involved, hence the title. If you paint a bigger picture with it, it’s when a child is being kept away from the process of loss or mourning and the damaging effects of that."
He continues, "That’s one of those doing something that’s completely devoid of humor, dealing with sadness and how sadness and anger kind of live wall to wall when we have been wronged and not knowing where to direct the pain."
10. "Scream Into the Void"
This high energy rocker opens with very punchy and prominent drumming from John Alfredsson, then is bolstered by aggressive guitar. The song is definitely one that will keep the pulse racing for listeners, and it has a bit of a nostalgic feel to it as well.
Eckerström references Ruston's influence here, feeling that the track had a "new wave" element to it that Ruston helped them achieve. "It would work in an ‘80s movie training montage," says the singer. "Jay has great understanding of that as well, so he brings those reference points to the table that we’re into but we don’t have the deep knowledge and understanding of that he might."
11. "Silence in the Age of Apes"
This is one of the more diverse and elaborate tracks you'll hear from the band, both musically and thematically.
It begins more in that hardcore punk vein before venturing in a more thrash metal direction. "Silence" is a certain pit-starter at shows, but has shifts between melody and pure feverish heaviness. The band really finds their groove on the song, and a specially recorded group vocal adds some punches in places that give the track that something special.
Eckerström revealed that the group vocal actually came from the final date they played with Babymetal during a show in San Francisco last fall. They decided to do a couple of takes with microphones picking up the audience.
"It was so cool. It was a goosebump moment onstage. There were a couple of thousand people there I think. We did it four to five times, so we got a backup vocal session out of eight to 10,000 people," says the singer.
The track also includes a riff that Eckerström wrote in 2006 or 2007 that had been lying round, while the rest of the song features much newer parts.
Speaking of the groove that permeates the song, he adds, "I guess that’s a really good example of finding groove in something more extreme, and it’s something where the emotion is hopefully articulated ... When a riff and a groove starts to work, it’s not enough that I want to bang my head, it really should paint an image. I don’t have synesthesia, but I want a riff to trigger my imagination or connect me to an emotion that was waiting to find its place."
The vocalist says an inspiration for the song came from reading Yuval Noah Harari's book "Sapiens" and examining the phenomena of history.
Speaking of the heady concept, he states, "We want to solve things, but we need to solve it fast and no matter what happens we won’t be able to go back to something to fix it. That’s just not how things work. So it feels like we have to put all of the money on red and go all in. We just need to head to the future as soon as possible because our salvation is something that is in the realm of science fiction today. Thoughts like that have influenced a lot of the writing for the album."
He later continues, "We’re just building our universe around all this technology which is so fucked up but at the same time so necessary to do in order to keep up with as ethical creatures. It’s a really tricky equation, but somewhere there lies the only solution I’m guaranteed to believe in, because we’re not going back to the Stone Age. It’s complicated because in our nature, biologically, we haven’t been farmers or industrial creatures in the information age long enough for it to really affect our DNA. We are hunter-gatherers still trying to come to terms with everything we’ve built around us."
12. "Secret Door" and Corey "Whistling" Taylor
Avatar have a guest that came out to help on their upcoming album. Slipknot and Stone Sour favorite Corey Taylor appears on the song "Secret Door," but perhaps not in the way that you'd expect. Though not as heavy as the other preview tracks, it does have moments of System of a Down-esque chaos to it. However, one of the catchier parts of the song is when Taylor whistles a part that repeats later in the track as well.
The Taylor connection comes not only through Ruston who has produced Stone Sour in the past, but the group has friends in common with Taylor's wife. "He heard that we were out here and working with his buddy Jay, so we had him come down to the studio and hear some things. He was like, 'If they want me to throw my voice onto something, that would be cool.' So it started there," says Eckerström.
So how did the Taylor cameo end up being a whistling part? Though it's a darker record, the group didn't lose their sense of humor and thought a nod to one of their favorite shows might be the way to go.
"We were talking about being fans of South Park in there and one of the funniest things they did was Jay Leno is a guest star and gets to play a cat. 'Meow.' That’s brilliant. And Jerry Seinfeld’s agent was insulted and turned down the opportunity of him playing Turkey No. 2 in a way old Thanksgiving episode," recalled Eckerström.
"So, we thought Corey 'Fucking' Taylor, yeah, he can whistle. And as a matter of fact, he did it better than we could have. I whistled on the demo and the high notes were too high for me. So it’s funny that it’s a thing that we also really actually needed."
But they didn't just welcome Taylor for his whistling talents. Avatar haven't really collaborated in the past and decided to take advantage of the opportunity of having Taylor around to have him offer insights on some of their songs that were just missing something.
Of one piece, Eckerström reveals, "He came with some suggestions and upon those suggestions we built and added and it ended up being this tiny piece that might have been missing. We’ll see how we feel in a couple of days about it. So a very simple, spontaneous writing collaboration happened. The suggestion that he gave, it took the song in one direction and once we got that far trying out his idea, we took two more steps in that direction."
13. Work is continuing into 2020, and a release this year is expected.
Avatar were expected to wrap up their U.S. visit just before Christmas with some time off before the New Year. The group would then finish up recording, and Eckerström laying down more vocals on the remaining tracks back home in January.
When asked for a timeline, the singer revealed, "Late spring, I think" for the new album, adding that summer or fall tour would likely follow.
Check out more photos from our studio visit with Avatar in the gallery below.
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