Interview date

3 novembre 2010


Blaster of Muppets


Interview Christofer Johnsson (face to face)

Hi Christofer, thank you for spending some time with me just before the show. How’s the new tour going, so far?

Hi! It’s going very well, thank you! We have fantastic shows and a great time.

Was it deliberate to make your latest album sound a bit more like “Lemuria” than the more recent “Gothic Kabbalah”?

Well, the new album comes from the same pool of songs that we had written for “Lemuria” and “Sirius B”. We had written songs for three albums, but it was too much to record at the same time, so we recorded "Lemuria" and "Sirius B" at the same time and saved "Sitra Ahra" for later. So most of the stuff on “Sitra Ahra” is quite old. So,it’s no coincidence… and the sound itself, we tried to make very vintage. I really dislike modern productions.

Speaking of modern productions, some fans were not satisfied with “Gothic Kabbalah” which sounded different and more modern than the previous albums…

Every time we make a new record, we have this kind of reaction. First, there are lots of complaints, and then, two years later, it’s a classic! For example, even “Secret of the Runes” which was kind of a big flop back then is now among the die-hard fans’ favourites.

I suppose it happens every time you try something new. Some old fans will be disappointed and you’ll probably get new fans in the process.

Exactly, it’s in the nature of changing a lot between records… we are satisfied with what we do. We just write the albums we want to buy. Some people asked us if we were still satisfied with the production of “Gothic Kabbalah”… Of course! I think it’s the best album we did until then. I need to be honest with that. You hear a lot of bands say their new album is the best they've ever made, but if it’s a flop and you confront them with it the next time, they say: “Oh yeah, yeah… you’re right, it wasn’t that good… but the new one…”. “Gothic Kabbalah”, even though it sold over 50 000 in Europe, was our worst selling album since “Lepaca Kliffoth”… so it was a significant drop in sales but I will always defend it saying it’s the best album we did up till then. You can’t change your opinion afterwards, depending on the sales…

I was not trying to say that you should regret anything, in my opinion “Gothic Kabbalah” is one of the best albums you have ever made, but you know, sometimes your tastes evolve, you change, and years later you think that if you’d have to do it again, you’d do things differently…

Yes, of course. I can actually understand why some people like it less, because we used opera vocals mostly, ten years prior to that, and all of a sudden you have a record where you have opera singing as well but often opera and rock singers together. It is a different direction… but there are also people who thought Therion was too operatic for their taste and liked that one more than anything else we did… So, you know, you please some people and you displease others, it’s always like that. But we did exactly the album we wanted to do, and that is what’s important for me.

According to you, what are the major differences between “Sitra Ahra” and the previous records? What are the new things you tried on this one?

Well, as the songs were from the same pool of songs we used for “Lemuria” and” Sirius B”, it’s not that different from these albums… but we did very different things with the production. We tried to have a very vintage production to make it sound analogue.
One way of working that, for me, was a huge difference was that, you know for the last few records I always had that problem: I couldn’t hear everything. There’s too much going on and you can’t hear everything at the same time. It would be like: “I can’t hear the strings enough, please bring them up” and the engineer would bring them up… and then I would say “Ok, that’s fine, now I hear the strings but the woodwinds are too weak…” and so on with the guitars, the drums, etc. and in the end, you have raised everything until you are at the same point where you were before, except that everything is now louder! Now, I have more or less accepted the fact that you can’t always hear everything that you’ve composed. Some things will be weak… but we managed to beat it this time by having a new way of working. Instead of doing a typical mix based on powerful drums, bass or guitars, you know making the basics very powerful and then trying to squeeze an orchestra, everything was kind of neutral. The goal was to find a space in the song for everything first, not trying to make it sound good. First, we tried to put everything in a way so you could actually hear everything, and then, when it’s there, you try to improve the whole picture and make it sound very good. So, of course, you have to sacrifice a bit of the individuality of some instruments to focus on what’s more important for the entire thing. In the end, you can say, listening to a particular passage, that it's not the best guitar sound you've heard for instance... but the whole thing sounds so much nicer.
Also, I think the orchestra is better played than ever. Before, we would always do it “prima vista” which means the musicians didn’t practise before, they just got to see the score when they were in the studio, they did a few takes and… “Ok, it’s not getting any better, so let’s keep this and do the next one”. This time, we worked with people who work and are used to record in a studio, they do this for a living, especially the string players, they do nothing else, they don’t give live concerts or anything, they only record rock or pop music in the studio… A lot of orchestras I worked with before, they had never been in a studio before, they had never had headphones on them, all of this was new to them. So with the musicians we worked with on “Sitra Ahra”, we did in one day what we would normally do in three days. And their first attempt was often better than the fourth or the fifth of the previous musicians… And also, you could speak to them like you would speak to rock musicians. Of course, you notate everything on the score, but there are things that are very difficult to explain with notes. So I could say “Can you hear this bass thing going on there? Can you try to hook on to this feeling?”. If you tried and said that to a regular symphonic orchestra, they would say “What? What are you talking about?”. So, they are flexible in a completely different way. I regret every second of my life I worked with anybody else but them.
And of course, there are new instruments like we always do. We tried exotic things like a Tibetan singing bowl that I played myself, some harmonica, French accordion actually… we had never used that before.
One more thing that we did was to mix the album differently. Normally, you would sit and work with a song until you think you can’t get it any better. And then, you work with the next song, and you do the whole record… and only if there’s something very exceptional you would go back and remix the song. And then, later you would listen to it again and said “Shit, there are things we could have done better”, but it’s too late. What we did this time, we mixed the song but we wouldn’t waste too much time on it, we would just be like “Ok, this is a good mix”, and then we would leave it, and continue with the next song… and meanwhile we would listen a lot to the old mixes of the album, and we actually had enough time to find out what was actually not so good and go back and remix them. Every song was actually mixed twice, some songs were actually mixed four or five times. It’s a very expensive way of working, you spend much more time and money… but then you really got some things right that you normally wouldn’t, and then realise later when it’s too late.

Many musicians you used to work with until the end of the previous tour have now left the band. What happened exactly?

Let’s put it this way, everything has a best before date. Like “Drink this milk before this date” and you can drink this a bit after this date, but it was best before… I think we did the best we could together, and we probably could have made a few more good albums together… but our aim has never been to make “good” albums, but to make fantastic albums! Because if we don’t think our albums are fantastic, how can we expect anybody else to think that? We were just very self-aware. We never had really big conflicts or anything like that… Maybe Johan and Kasper would have liked the more vintage direction on “Sitra Ahra”, maybe Kristian would be less happy with it… but, you know, we could have coped with it, we could have made compromises… You know, this is nothing new, there are always things you don’t agree with, and there are always compromises, in every band… But this time, we felt that it would be slightly downhill. We did some remarkable things together, so why start going downhill and not stop things when we had great fun together? So, it was like that, no big argument. The only thing that was a little bit of an issue was the method of working. I really like to create things out of chaos, I work best with a knife against my throat… I guess that after five studio albums together and God knows how many concerts and DVDs we did, we got a little bit convenient. That’s how I realized that maybe, we were getting close to that expiration date. For example, Kristian would record guitars after work… and work during daytime and record guitars in the evening, that’s not I work. You should focus completely on it. And this is the kind of things we could have made compromises with… we wouldn’t have argued about it, but I started to wonder if the fire was still 100%. So I said “We go for it hundred percent, if you’re ninety four, that’s not good enough!”. We had a meeting and they told me I was right, that they weren’t really hundred percent anymore, and that maybe I should continue alone if I wanted to work this way… Kristian doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, he’s worked on the new Demonoid album for three years… So yeah, different perspectives and expectations…

And what happened with Snowy Shaw? He very recently left the band and came back soon afterwards…

Well, Snowy has never been a permanent member of the band, he’s always been a hired hand. When somebody’s hired, he doesn’t have the same obligations… Of course, we were disappointed when we found out he wouldn’t do the tour because he was involved somewhere else… but then, he got in touch with Thomas Vikström and said “Sorry, I made the biggest mistake of my life, is that ok if I come back?”. So, we said ok, let’s forget about the past… Of course, leaving like that was a stupid thing to do, but everybody makes mistakes sometimes… It’s a good thing he’s come back, I think he really belongs with Therion.

Since the beginning of the 2000’s, you’ve been generous in terms of live albums or DVDs (“Live in Midgard”, “Celebrators of Becoming”, “Live Gothic”, “The Miskolc Experience”). Have you got some more live recordings coming our way?

We actually recorded something on the twenty year anniversary tour we did three years ago. We recorded one of the concerts, it still needs some mixing and editing before we release it. But I thing we saturated the market for DVD even though these are really different. “Celebrators of Becoming” is more like a historical disc, “Live Gothic” had no choir, four singers and was more theatrical and very different, “The Miskolc Experience” was completely different again, with the orchestra and most of the songs not being Therion songs… But the last show we recorded is not similar but in the same vein than “Live Gothic”, so I think it’s good to wait for a while so there’s more demand for it.

In your lyrics, you like to explore themes related to mysticism, legends, mythology... Would you like to explore different topics in the future?

(Smiling) Therion with love lyrics? No… I think the lyrics suit very well the things we do. They are very suitable for this kind of music.

If you had to recommend three Therion albums to someone who doesn’t know the band, which one would you choose?

The latest one, “Vovin” because it’s the most accessible one and the best selling album we did… and probably “Secret of the Runes”, because according to our die-hard fans, it’s our best.

You’ve worked with many talented musicians and singers. Are there any musicians you’d love to work with on a future album?

I tried to get Lori Linstruth on my record, but she rejected the offer. Well (he turns around to see who’s there and smiles)… it’s a good thing for Christian (Vidal) because he got the job! (laughs) In the end, I think Christian actually suits the band better but my dream guitar player was Lori Linstruth, she plays like Uli Jon Roth… the demo she made was absolutely fantastic. I told her it’s an open door, if she wants to make a guest solo on a future album…

We know you’re a big Accept fan, what do you think of their return with their new singer?

Yeah, I think… close but no cigar. I mean, it’s the vocals… He’s doing a good job, I don’t want to pick on him… He really shouts at the top of his voice, you hear it’s not his natural singing. Udo can’t sing any other way, that’s the way he sounds. Here, it sounds like somebody imitating… it sounds strange and unnatural. It’s not bad… but it doesn’t make me wanna dance.

Besides Accept, what bands or albums influenced you the most and contributed to forge the Therion sound?

In the beginning, lots of bands like Paradise Lost, The Gathering, Tiamat, Moonspell… and of course, we would never have sounded the way we did without Celtic Frost and their album “Into The Pandemonium”. That’s a very important album. More personally, Uli Jon Roth’s “Beyond The Astral Skies” was a huge eye-opener. And we listened to prog and symphony rock bands from the 70’s, Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep… And surprisingly, we haven’t actually talked about it yet, the Yé-Yé music! I listen to a lot of very good old French songs… You know, it’s like our cover of “Summernight City”, a lot of people don’t know it’s an Abba song. They just think “Strange lyrics, but I like the song!” and it’s a disco song from the 70’s… And I’m sure a lot of songs from France Gall, like “Poupée de son” for instance, would be easy to cover and nobody would know except people in France. Sylvie Vartan too… not everything of course, there are shitty songs, but when you find the right song… and the good thing is there are fucking stupid lyrics and I will never find out! I also like some stuff from Marie Laforêt… We could make a whole cover album out of that and, except French people, nobody would ever know. They would think these are our songs… because it’s all in the package, how you wrap things. I’ve learnt that all over the years: how you package a product is more important than the content. Some people hate Abba, they say it’s fucking stupid disco… and they headbang to our version of “Summernight City” and don’t even know it’s Abba!

I was going to ask you which guitar player you admired the most but I suppose the answer is Uli Jon Roth.

I’m not really a person who cares much about guitar players but he would be of the few ones… Lori Linstruth… I think… Malcom Young. A lot of people don’t understand how important the rhythm guitar player is, they focus so much on the solo stuff. You know if you listen to AC/DC cover bands, 99,9999% of them play it right but it doesn’t make you wanna move when you hear it. AC/DC can play one chord and four beats on the drums and it’s like “Yeah!! Rock’n’Roll!!”… It doesn’t happen with many bands. And there’s also Ritchie Blackmore. I think he’s a piece of shit solo player… when he composes them, they’re nice, when he improvises, which he does a lot, it just sounds like shit! But his riffs, his rhythm guitar is fucking excellent… it’s one of the reasons why Deep Purple was so good… and Rainbow.

Waldemar Sorychta already collaborated with Therion on “Vovin” and “Crowning of Atlantis” years ago and he’s back on “Sitra Ahra” and on this tour. Do you consider extending this collaboration after the tour?

No. He gave me a hand on the album, and now he’s just helping out with the bass on the tour because our bass player is… well… (he hesitates)

Not available?

Well, frankly speaking, he’s an alcoholic and he can’t pull it off. He’s still in the band; we’ll see what’s gonna happen in the future… he did a fantastic job on the album. I’ve never heard anybody play so good on a record, but he just can’t pull it off live.

Do you plan to give more concerts with a symphonic orchestra, like you did for the Miskolc show, in the future?

It costs 150 000€ so… no. You need sponsors, you need to rehearse for two weeks with the orchestra, of course the band needs to rehearse before that… it’s one hell of a project! It’s a month of work, shitloads of cash, and somebody needs to work full time finding sponsors… if somebody came with a finished offer like “Ok, we have this offer, we take care of everything”, we’d say “Ok, sure, we can do it”. But I’m not gonna try to organise anything myself.

I'll let you conclude this interview.

It’s great to be back in France. I mean, it’s a funny situation… It used to be like Germany was the Heavy Metal country and France was the weird country where nobody became famous… except Paris that was always good. Paris was the exception… and Strasburg because it was close to the border and half of the audience would be German anyway. Now, we play two shows in Germany for the only reason that it’s on the way to somewhere else, otherwise we wouldn’t play one show there. Now, France has become the Heavy Metal country, that’s very unexpected.

You’re one of the few bands that can play several shows in France. On this tour, you play in six different cities in France, that’s amazing. Most of the bands just play in Paris.

Before the Lemuria tour, we would just play a couple of dates, sometimes Lille because it’s close to Belgium. And we did the Lemuria/Sirius B tour, there were eight shows in France! I told the booking agent “Eight shows in France!? You must be fucking kidding! Who’s gonna show up?” and he said “No, no, no… things have changed in France. It will be fine, trust me”. I said “Yeah, whatever…”… we played, and then he was right! Every show was sold out… All eight! So, yes, something changed in France. You know, in Germany, it’s not only for us, every band I speak with, they say “Germany, yeah… we do a show there of we have to, if it’s on our way from France to Poland or something…” It’s really strange, the market has completely died there.

Thank you very much; it was very nice talking to you.

My pleasure.

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