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Christofer Johnsson: “’Pazuzu’ and ‘Alchemy Of The Soul’ were actually not written for Therion. They were written for Alice Cooper and there is a story behind this…

Het gaat vlot met de nieuwe trilogie van Therion. Het eerste deel werd uitgebracht in januari 2021, eind 2022 kunnen we ‘Leviathan II’ verwelkomen. Het tweede deel van deze trilogie focust meer op de duistere kant van de band, maar toch hapt dit allemaal lekker weg. En bandleider Christopher Johnsson zit nooit verlegen om uitleg te geven over zijn activiteiten, dus ook deze keer was het gesprek met deze sympathieke spraakwaterval de moeite waard om te noteren.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 24 januari 2022

Hi Christofer, how are you doing?
I am fine. I am living in Malta these days as you know and it is warm and I am enjoying life. Temperatures are already going down to minus in Sweden, so I am happy here.

We have the second part of ‘Leviathan’ coming out. I remember the first part was focused on the catchy and popular side of Therion, but this should be darker, if I remember well what you told me the former time?
Yes, it is like a darker version of the first one. If you listen to both albums next to each other, I think the most important difference is that the second part is a bit more gloomy and darker than the first one, but everything is in the eye of the beholder I guess. But it still is a hit album, there are still some songs that are hit songs, you know. This time we only have more dark songs, like ‘Hades And Elysium’ and I think ‘Cavern Cold As Ice’ is a pretty dark song. ‘Lunar Coloured Field’ is also pretty dark.

The second song ‘Litany Of The Fallen’ is very catchy. It is well done with the choirs.
It is the hit song of the album I think. It is one of my favourites too.

It reminded me a little bit of the style of Sabaton…
Sabaton? That is the first time I hear that. I heard a lot, it sounds like this or that. To me it sounds like Ozzy Osbourne. If you listen to the end of ‘Diary Of A Madman’, they have a similar time signature, on odd time signature. I think Sabaton would never use an odd time signature, they are very straight, but if you hear the bridge within the opening riff, it is 1, 2; 3 – 1 2 3 4 5… so it is like ¾ like in waltz, but it changes to 5 later and 5 is an odd time signature. So it is 3 to 5, which is actually very progressive, but the melody is so catchy and easy that my mom can listen to it, so that is kind of the trick. It is like prog for the masses. Everybody can listen to Kansas ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’, because it is also so catchy song. You can say it is hit prog in a way. Then in the verses you have this… I don’t even know what it is called or the name of the chord because I am not the school type of guy, I am not an educated musician, but we always call it the Jimi Hendrix chord when we play it, which is an old jazz chord that Jimi Hendrix made famous in the rock scene. Many records after 1972 have used that chord. For metal bands it is a very odd chord. That and also you have the minus, the suspended chord, which is nothing remarkable and strange, but it is not what most modern metal or evil metal bands use. It is a kind of sad chord. So if you look at the guitars, it is quite different. Then the chorus is actually very poppy – a lot of people said Abba and I kind of agree on that – but I heard so many things. Some said Nightwish, you said Sabaton, others mentioned Epica… People make their own associations, but in the end of the day, it is pretty commercial song, so it can probably be related to a lot of commercial bands.

Yes, but I was talking about the choir vocals and the chorus with that comparison with Sabaton…
We actually used a new recording technique. We recorded each choir member separately, individually, instead of recording them all together and that is how they made choirs in the seventies. You have a band with a few singers and they build up a choir, like Queen and Abba. With female singers it sounds like Abba, with male singers like Queen. I always wanted to try that, but it is a very time consuming and very expensive way of working, because you have to pay people to do the same thing so many times, but it was cool to have a musical experiment even though we tried to write hit albums and give the fans what they want, we think it is important to experiment a little bit during the recording process. With ‘Leviathan I’ we were forced to record separately and everything on distance in different countries, so I thought let us try some new ways of working on ‘Leviathan II’.

But this time it was not due to the restrictions of the pandemic?
No this time we continued to record on distance, partly because recording ‘Leviation I’ and ‘II’ and ‘III’ is a total mess, a mishmash of recordings, like we have already recorded some of the drums for ‘Leviathan III’ while ‘recording ‘Leviathan I’, everything is total mishmash concerning the recordings. So we are already in the soup so to speak, we cannot get out of it, we need to continue the same way we started to record. Right now it is organized chaos, but if you try to do it in another way, it would be a chaos. So this three albums were written together and we record them all in the same way.

So that means that we hear the same team on every album, I guess?
Well, they are mixed differently, so we have a little bit of sound character on every album, but the drums are recorded in the same studio. Guitars and bass we tried to run through different amplifiers. You record the parts separately and then you can have this clean signal going through any amplifier later in the mix, instead of recording from the first time in the amplifier. By doing that, I can record a guitar here in Malta and I can send it to a studio in New Zealand, the unique amplifier that I need the sound of, so they can run the signal through the amplifier, but the microphones are different. It is my playing, but they are using the amplifier there. Then they can mix it there or send it back to me or whatever. It is called reamp. You split the signals and you have one signal going into one amp when you record, because you need to have the feel of recording, later you reamp through another amplifier. Sometimes or most of the time you do it as a safety thing, but for us now it has become a recording method in order to start from scratch. We don’t even decide how the guitar sound is going to be until it is time for the mix. Actually reamping is something people have been doing since the seventies, it is nothing new, but if we did it, the recordings became much easier, because you can just send a file.

A special song is ‘Lucifuge Rofocale’…
That happens when Abba and Voivod meet (chuckles). We have two death metal singers singing different things at the same time in one speaker each. We have a couple of songs where we have very multiple choirs singing different stuff. The guitar solo at the end of the song is one of my favourite guitar solos. I liked it so much that I had the choir sing along with the solo. It was not originally intended at all, but I just love that melodic part and since he nailed the guitar solo before the choir, it was nice to let the choir sing along.

From the melancholic songs, ‘Hades And Elysium’ stands out…
That one is a little bit inspired by Björk, specifically one song: ‘Bachelorette’. I am not a big Björk fan, I like that song and maybe ‘Army Of Me’: two songs I like. I respect her, but it is not really my cup of tea. Yet especially ‘Bachelorettet’ is a great song, with that piano, it is a little bit inspired by that. It is not normally what I would play, but ‘Bachelorette’ is a very good song. It would be a very good metal song if somebody covers it actually.

‘Pazuzu’ is a good choice for a second single and video clip…
Yes, that song is kind of special, because that song and ‘Alchemy Of The Soul’ were actually not written for Therion. They were written for Alice Cooper actually and there is a story behind this. I was calling Thomas (Vikström – zang – VM) for something completely different. When I spoke to him on the phone, he said: ‘You have no idea what I am doing right now!’. I said: ‘no, tell me’ and he said: ‘I am writing songs for Alice Cooper’. I said: ‘No way! How did that happen?’ and I found out there was some guy with the right connections and they put together a song writing team and they have found out that Alice Cooper would be making like a ‘vintage album’ with Detroit stories. They put together a song writing team to have the right songs for it and Thomas is a huge Alice Cooper fan. He likes the old stuff. His songs were okay, but not quite there. I said: as a fan of Alice Cooper, from a retro album I would have expected something better. So I told him exactly that and I am normally not the kind of guy that would push myself on someone, or force myself into something, but this time it was really like someone tried to close the door and I put my leg in there you know (laughs). I said: Thomas, you and me together can write a lot better songs than this. He gave it a shot and he wrote immediately three very good songs and I think it would have been brilliant for Alice Cooper, but nothing happened with that contact guy and we tried some other contacts, like the guitarist and the producer, but meanwhile ‘Detroit Stories’ came out and I guess they already had the songs they wanted at the time we contacted them. We never heard something back from it, but these songs were too good to let them down. I see it as a total win-win situation, because if they had used any of the songs that would have made me so happy that I probably would have taken the CD in the coffin when they burry me, because I am a huge Alice Cooper fan. But now that they did not use them, we didn’t lost anything, because we wrote three good songs that we would never have written otherwise. One of the songs is a very rocky song, a kind of ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ type of song, very difficult to transform it into Therion. I had to rewrite the vocals of ‘Pazuzu’, they are now completely different from the Cooper version, but if you study the guitar playing, you will see that this is not metal, this is seventies hard rock.

In ‘Pazuzu’ we also have a guest singer: Erik Mårtensson from Eclipse…
Yes, because he mixed ‘Leviathan I’ and ‘II’ and he is going to mix the third one. I think Eclipse is a great band and he is a really good singer. I think he is one of the most underrated singers. I mean, everybody says he is good, but I don’t think they realize how good. I even did not understand how good he was, because with changing the vocal lines I really did not know who I wanted to sing it. So we tried a lot of different singers but they did not get where I wanted it, but with Erik, he really blew us away with the vocals. So good. In the chorus it sounded a little bit too much like melodic hard rock, AOR. It was good, but it wasn’t Therion, so we kept it for the bridge and others sang the chorus. But still it was too good to throw it away, so the AOR version is bonus on the digipak. We wanted to show it to the people. I was so blown away by his vocals, so when I tried to solve another vocal problem, which I had in ‘Aeon Of Maat’ I called him too, because I had originally planned LG Petrov from Entombed to sing, but we were never really close. We just bumped in to each other on festivals or gigs. Back in the eighties we used to hang out a bit, but the next years we did not have much contact, so I didn’t know that he had cancer. By the time I was up to contact him and ask him to sing a bit, I heard that he had died. So that was quite a shock.

I have written down raw Mats Levén vocals…
He could have done it too, but he would not have done it as brutal. He has a raspy voice, but not a brutal voice. I wanted it brutal. Blacky Lawless more than Mats Levén. But Erik made the perfect thing there and he sings so good heavy metal. I should write a heavy metal album and force Erik to sing. I am definitely going to ask him to sing more stuff, that is for sure.

Could you actually play concerts in the meantime?
I think you missed some information, but I actually cancelled the EU tour a week or two weeks ago. Well, postponed is a better word I guess, because of complicated reasons, but the basic thing is that it was a very risky tour from the beginning because of the tour bus prices and things. We had to pay 63.000 euros for a tour bus for one month, that is three times what I paid in 2018. So already when I got the sheet on my desk, I looked at it and said pfff I am not sure this is going to work. I thought okay, we have a new booking agent, tour offers to open for bigger bands, so I thought I cannot sign to a new booking agent and say no to everything, so we tried to make this work and also for the fans. So I decided let us cut down all the comfort, no luxury on this tour, and we will share the tour bus with support act, which we normally don’t do, we have our own bus, but okay we can even squeeze two support acts in one bus okay? But the big problem afterwards was, that if the energy prizes – because we made this deal at the beginning of the year – and then with the war the prizes were skyrocking and with this winter the prizes are going to skyrock again, the bus company would never give us the bus and make a loss, so they will come to a point when they say ‘we need 65.000 euros or we will cancel the bus. And we had really big problems with the booking agent when we did the Hellfest. That was the only thing they did with us and I was really disappointed about how they handle financial things and stuff. I would have any way fired them after the tour, but I cannot go through this risky project with a business partner we don’t trust. So I had to cancel and fire them immediately. It is not the first time ever we cancelled a tour, so pff, it sucks but it has to be done and on top of everything if it wasn’t bad enough as it is already, we had two other things coming up. The German corona restrictions, they want to play us with masks, only Germany, the other countries are more relaxed. I am not going to play a fucking concert with a mask. This was not yet decided by Germany, but it was hanging in the air. That was another track and with this type of budget if Germany would cancel two shows, it is not like we don’t earn money, we will loose money. On top of all this, in this energy crisis, in some countries they warn that people cannot heat their homes next winter. When you cannot heat homes or the industry has to shut down because they have a lack of energy, I doubt they are going to allow concerts. That is another risk and it was just getting too much. Sometimes you have to realize that you have to back off, you know.

What are the nearby plans now actually?
We are going to go to Latin America in January and we will fly because everything is normal there. I think we have already booked 16 shows in Mexico. Since I have to fly everybody to Malta for rehearsals, we are going to do a VIP show in Malta. I organize it myself for a local college. People can fly in and see the show. It will be very small because Malta is very small. Maybe 200 people will show up locally. We will have a meet and greet before the show and everybody can have a ticket in advance and they can hang out with the band after the show and have a beer. That will be on January the 13th. We also going to do the show in Athens, because some shows are better paid than others.