Christofer Johnsson: “We already have enough material for a trilogy. This is the first one, with epic, bombastic and catchy songs.”
Therion heeft geschiedenis geschreven als Zweedse band die death metal ging injecteren met opera, klassieke muziek en symfonische arrangementen. Zo wisten ze ons altijd te verrassen met innovatieve ideeën. Deze keer echter besloot Christofer Johnsson de beste elementen uit hun muzikaal concept te selecteren op het nieuwe album ‘Leviathan’ om alzo een plaat te maken met de sterkste punten van hun geluid. Het klinkt vertrouwd, maar toch fris. Het creatieve genie Christofer Johnsson – hij woont nu in Malta – is een spraakzame, openhartige man die ons inzage geeft in zijn integere ideeën en slimme levenswandel.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 29 januari 2021
How are you doing Christofer? How do you look back at the creation of Therion’s 17th album ‘Leviathan’?
I am doing fine, thanks. After ‘Beloved Antichrist’ I felt completely empty and I really did not know what to do next. We thought anything we haven’t done is trying to make a record without surprises. We have made fifteen albums and we always did what we want. Sometimes the sales go down and then we make another record and the sales are going up again. We always tried different things. We have always been explorers, but I have done everything I wanted, you know. So the only challenge left was to try to make an album, a so-called ‘classic’ Therion album. The thing was: before ‘Beloved Antichrist’ I could never control my song-writing. I would write whatever I would write, but for ‘Beloved Antichrist’ I had to teach myself how to write in a certain style, because when you write themes for a rock musical, if something happens in a scene, you have to write the music for that scene. You have to write music for a love thing, for a divorce or music that feels like a monologue… very different stuff. So I taught myself how to write in certain directions. What we did now, we tried to catch the essence of the most popular Therion songs. We did not want to copy specific songs or specific albums. We rather wanted to explore the quintessence, the soul of the songs that are most popular and find out why these songs are the most popular ones. Trying to carry on that soul into the new compositions. We found out that there are three different sorts of songs that people like. You have the very epic, bombastic songs, like ‘To Mega Therion’, you have the more pop-like songs like ‘Son Of The Staves Of Time’ and this album ‘Leviathan’ is in that direction. Very epic and grandiose yet catchy. We found another part which is more melancholic and dark. You find a lot of those songs on ‘Vovin’, our most popular album, like ‘Raven Of Dispersion’ and ‘Clavicula Nox’. Or the ‘Draconian’ trilogy: all very melancholic and dark. We wrote enough material for another moody dark album as well. And if you ask the diehard fans, the ones who buy everything as long as there is Therion on it, they often tend to prefer the more experimental, crazy side of Therion or adventurous songs, like ‘Land of Canaan’ or ‘Via Nocturna’, mostly very long tracks with thirty different riffs. When the song starts you have no idea how the song is going to end. Those are actually my favourite songs too. So we have also enough material to make a third album, which is more adventurous and experimental with some progressive stuff too. So we are making a trilogy of albums and ‘Leviathan’ is the first one. We already started to record the second and the third one, now that this one is ready and it seems like we are going to call them ‘Leviathan II’ and III. They kind of belong together. We kept it a secret. We wrote over forty songs. This whole corona thing is very bad, but we always try to take the best out of every situation. If we cannot tour, then let us write music and record.
Was it the original plan to write three albums or did that happen because you had so much time on your hands?
We just got the inspiration and one of the main reasons is that me and Thomas Vikström have really found each other as a song-writing duo. We are a great song-writing team. Sometimes, when I wrote a song in the past, I would never finish it. If I wasn’t happy with it, it wasn’t good enough and I dropped it and did not record it. Now, if I have something which is good, but I’ not sure, maybe Thomas can figure it out and find the last piece of the puzzle. The other way around as well, Thomas sends me anything he writes, even if he has doubts. Sometimes I find something which is great, ‘Great Marquis Of Hell’ is a good example of that. It was a song that would never fit Therion. Too commercial. But I liked the chorus. I wrote new riffs to it and changed some major chords to minor and all of a sudden it sounded great. Then I wrote an intro to it and now it sounds very Therion like, actually most Therion like which is ironic, considering the fact that its original song was too commercial. Another example is ‘Eye Of Algol’. I had the riff and a nice groove, but I thought my vocal melody was too weak. I did not have good ideas for a vocal melody. So I sent it to Thomas and said: here is a song, do whatever you want with it. He wrote exactly the vocal melodies that I was looking for, but I could not find them. I got some extra inspiration and fine-tuned the vocal melodies and finally we had a new song which is my favourite on the record actually. Normally it would remain in de hard driver as unfinished song. I have tons of such material. If I ever run out of inspiration, I still have hundreds of songs that I can send to Thomas, for my whole life. So we wrote a lot together, most of the record actually. I wrote three songs alone: ‘Tuonela’, ‘Azi Dahaka’ and ‘Leviathan’ and he wrote ‘Ten Courts Of Diyu’ and ‘Nocturnal Light’ alone and most of the material for the other records, me and Thomas wrote together.
Does it mean that he lives in Malta too or do you send files?
We send files. He lives in Spain. This album was recorded in Sweden, Israel, Malta, Argentina, USA, England, Germany, Spain and Finland. Nine countries. We had two drummers on the record. Snowy Shaw was recording first and he has crazy ideas. He is very original and really cool and he has a certain style, but he only fit for a few songs. We did not like it on the other songs, so we decided to rerecord it with Björn from Easy Action. He has a completely different background. You know Easy Action, the glam band? They have Kee Marcelo from Europe in their ranks. They were never internationally famous, they were very famous in Sweden back then and then they broke up and Kee Marcelo joined Europe and they made a reunion ten years ago or something and Nalle (Phalsson – Vera), our bass player is playing with them in the reunion line-up. He said you should try Björn. I would never have thought about a glam drummer, but well, why not? He has a very different approach and just because he is playing in a glam band, that does not mean that’s the only thing he knows. He plays very groovy and this part was missing, Snowy was not steady enough, it was too stiff. So we tried with Björn and it really rocked, you know. He uses a lot of percussion, like shakers and even maracas in one song, he uses tambourine a lot. I remember we used tambourine one time, to get a bit of a groove, but Björn is using it in every song. We mixed it very low, so maybe you never think about it, and that’s the whole point: you should not think about it, it is just there to make a groove. It was really cool to get fresh views on how to put drums. Björn’s recording is the best drum sound we ever had. The only problem with everything recording on distance was, that normally you can communicate directly. If someone does a take I don’t like, I can ask to do it once again. Then they just do different, you don’t waste a lot of time. Now if we recorded everything on distance, I had to send them demo tapes with instructions and hope that they understand what I want. In most cases it worked, because everybody is professional, but in other cases I wasn’t happy and had to go back to the studio and rerecord, but that is of course very expensive. You waste a lot of time. So it was a very expensive way of working, but on the other hand also very effective, because once you have recorded drums, bass and rhythm guitars, you can start recording things at the same time. So I am just in the middle, collecting all the files, doing the editing, putting things together… quite stressful with all the time zones on top of that. If they want to know something, you need to be available all the time.
Was it during the corona crisis?
Yes, we started recording in February. The reason why we had to use Vienna Symphonic Instruments library, because it is the best sample library on the planet and even film music is recorded that way these days. It is so good that you don’t hear the difference with an orchestra these days, except for solo instruments. We recorded real violin, but the main reason to use that was not budgetary, it was because of the restrictions we were not allowed to gather an orchestra. The choir was done is Israel, because they did not have restrictions at that time. I was going to record a choir in Malta first, but we only were permitted to gather three people, it would have been a very small choir. But in Israel they did a great job, so we are going to continue working with them. I knew Hellscore and I knew Noa Gruman from the band Scardust, a very good band, progressive. They were our support act in Israel and I was going to ask her anyway for a solo guest appearance, in ‘The Courts Of Diyu’ she does the verses and so we got in contact with the choir.
Leviathan is a certain sea monster and even the next albums are going to be entitled ‘Leviathan’. Is there a reason for this choice?
Yeah, because in 1999 when we just finished recording ‘Deggial’, I had a vision for the next record. I was thinking about calling it Leviathan. Back then we were very much into choosing different dragon related titles, like ‘Vovin’. But then we got into ‘Secrets Of The Ruins’ and it was forgotten. Now when we were thinking of making a classic sounding Therion album, I remembered that name and album title I had in mind back then. For the rest I am not so good with the poetry. ‘Azi Dahaka’ was Per Albinsson’s idea, the guy who wrote the lyrics. I only wrote one lyric. The rest is done by the guy who helped us with ‘Beloved Antichrist’, Per. He is very much into occultism, he knows most of this topic. Most of the time I ask him to write a song about a topic, but this time we had so much songs – over forty – and after a while your head is empty (chuckles). So for a few songs I said to him: I have no idea here, can you come up with a suggestion for the lyric? And ‘Azi Dahaka’ was one of these suggestions. I haven’t read it profoundly, only basic. It is a blank spot, it is not that I was not interested, I just never came across literature about it. Sometimes it is really difficult to find something to write about that suits Therion.
There is one guest I know on the record, Marko Hietala from Nightwish and Tarot in the song ‘Tuonela’, which is Finnish, isn’t it?
Yes, ‘Tuonela’ is the kingdom of the dead in Finnish mythology. Well, two reasons for having Marko. One is that I always liked his voice, since the days of Tarot, you know. We wanted something a bit rougher than Thomas Vikström’s voice as contrast. Actually originally the idea was that Marko should sing the verse and Thomas would sing the lyric. But then Marko recorded the whole song (laughs). He did the verse, bridge and chorus and I actually liked what he did in the chorus more. Thomas said: okay then I do the verse and it finally fits better that way. But we will also release the version with Marko only, as bonus track on the digipak. The other reason was: since it is a Finnish song, about Finnish mythology, we wanted to have a Finnish voice.
Do you know his solo album?
No, to be honest, I am very poorly updated when it comes to new records. I usually find out sooner or later, like now you told me. Like oh, he did a solo album? And I will check it out. I don’t really read or watch music media, even from my old favourite bands, I seldom know when they make a new record. I find out a year later and then buy it.
When corona hit the world, was it a disaster for Therion or didn’t you plan so much concerts at that time?
Well, we were very lucky, because it happened when we were in a recording cycle. You have several cycles: writing, recording, promotion and touring, then you have a period off and then you start again and we were in the process of just about to begin recording. It did not affect us, because everybody was recording in their own country, but in the end the result is good, so it was not a disaster. It costs a little bit more, but we could manage. The problem for us is next year, because we cannot tour when the record is out, but it is not the end of the world. I think we can tour in the autumn. If the tour gets pushed half a year, that is bad, but not a disaster, no. I think it is way worse for the people depending on the live shows like stage workers and guitar techs, drum techs, sound and light engineers, booking agencies, concert halls, merchandise companies who live from bands touring and selling T shirts and the tour bus companies. There are so many companies that will go bankrupt. It is not good for record companies and for bands, but it is not the worst for us. It is the worst for other parts of it. I am sure there will be some bands who are struggling, but if you are a guitar tech and there are no bands touring, then you are basically unemployed and if you don’t know anything else, you have zero income through the lockdown. I feel sorry for them. I am pretty lucky. I have no loans. I have money at the bank. I have income from all past Therion activities, so… Basically, if I would stop making music and sit on my ass for the rest of my life, I won’t be rich, but I’d always have enough money coming in to pay my bills. It gives me a luxury in a way, that maybe not everyone have. I am also lucky because I always bought everybody else out. Nobody has the band and everybody shares it, but I always ran Therion as a company. That means, when we record it they got paid a big amount of money on the recording, they own more money at the time of the album than I do, but in the long run I will have more. And for all the old records, we paid off for the debts. That means now I own everything 100%.
That is very smart of you…
Many musicians think very short term minded. They want to have instant rewards, under the motto: who knows where I will be in the future? And they take the money now. They rather take less money now and be sure what they earn, than getting the promise of making more money in ten years. I always like to invest long term. Every time I invest, I see that if I make that investment, I want it to be profitable over a ten years period or longer.
Who is now the permanent drummer from Therion? Is it Sami or Koleberg or Björn?
No, we don’t have a drummer. Sami was the old drummer after Koleberg, he came back once more. Sami was supposed to play on the record, but he made a bad decision. He is also drum tech for Opeth, another band, and he said he’s going to stop being drum tech and focus on the band and Opeth panicked because he is one of the best drum techs ever and they said: look, we double your salary and they offered him an insane amount of money, because he is taking care of the drums, the keyboards and he is unbearable precious to them. Therefore he said that he was going to remain drum tech, better than playing in a band. He always had a problem with making up his mind, he was there in the beginning and then he stopped and again… as drum tech you are going to be on the road all the time. He made a bad decision I think, because when Koleberg left because he was going to HammerFall, he said okay, I come back then and he was really happy to come back, but it was a bad decision to change his mind again to drum tech for Opeth, because now with corona he is home and broken. He will not be paid at all. That is why we started to record with Shaw and we recorded the rest with Björn.
You can decide on the drum place if touring starts again…
We will be happy if Russian festivals will start to take place again. No matter what anyone else will think of it, when there is a vaccine they will allow concerts, so…but touring on a greater scale will probably only happen in the second half of 2021. Autumn next year. We have plenty of time to figure out who’s going to do the drums. We try to convince Björn from Easy Action but he has young children, so it is difficult to do international touring far away from your kids. We all did it and it is horrible, When my son was six, I had missed half of his birthdays. Everybody in the band had small kids, It is the best job on the planet, but it has some minor sides too. We still have to figure out if Björn is ready to do that. Also his girlfriend has to agree with it. Therefore it is good to be single when you start. When you meet someone later, they already know what they get. We’ll figure it out. Bjorn is going to play on all the songs on the next record and will play on 35% of the songs of the third record. By the time venues will open their doors again, we will have made up our mind, but first the fans have ‘Leviathan’ to dive into and have a good time.