INTERVIEW: Christofer Johnsson – Therion

WORDS: Dean Martin

Swedish Symphonic metal band THERION is in the middle of ‘The Best Of’ tour around Europe, UK, and America. They’ve been on the scene since 1987, and fifteen albums later they’re still going, we checked in with them to find out how.

So, you started out as a death metal band, and then switched to be more symphonic, that’s not a small change. Can you tell me about that?

Christofer: WE were actually a very original death metal band, we never really had a standard approach. What we started was very odd for the time being and we always had the idea that we wanted to do something different. Already on our first album we had some keyboards, which I think technically speaking we were the second ever death metal band to do. On the second album we had loads of keyboards, started to experiment with some oriental scales, clean vocal, some more symphonic sounds already. On the third album there was a lot of symphonic stuff, tons of keyboards, and lots of heavy metal influences. I think we were the first death metal band to incorporate heavy metal influences. In some regards I think our third album is the most experimental and then it just continued to develop like that. We had more clean vocals also on the third one. On the fourth one we abandoned the death metal vocals and shouting hardcore voice. Musically, it wasn’t death metal anymore, even though you could still hear the roots. We had opera voices for the first time, even more symphonic, and then on our fifth album, Theli, which was our breakthrough album, there wasn’t much brutal vocals at all. Basically, all death metal elements had been washed away. So it was a natural progression album to album. It was never a decision to do this or that, we just wrote songs.

Do you miss having the death metal side of it?

Christofer: No. If I did I would add it in. No disrespect to those old bands who still keep going but to me death metal was always very youthful really. Teenage music, and having a lot of frustrations and aggressions in the music and when you’re forty-three, a family father who owns a big villa and an estate everything has been incorporated in the band and to do death metal just feels very odd. For me, death metal is a little bit like punk, you know, it’s for the young and the wild. No disrespect to people who listen to it, who are old and whatever, or the bands that kept on doing it but it’s just how I feel. That’s why I don’t write music like that.

Bands like NIGHTWISH and WITHIN TEMPTATION are fairly popular in the mainstream. How do you try and come compete with bands in your same scene?

Christofer: We don’t compete, there’s space for everybody. But it was a great benefit for us that NIGHTWISH came about, we were very influenced in the beginning, among other influences obviously. But they quite fast found their own sound which was a bit more accessible than the THERION sound, I guess. They became bigger, more commercial if you will, but I don’t like the word, I prefer accessible. So they became way bigger than we were and that’s been a really big benefit for us because they sold platinum in Germany, and they created a second wave of this symphonic metal and thanks to that there were a lot of young people, who never would have heard about us in the first place, that found us through NIGHTWISH so I’m very grateful to them. Also, they’re a very good band.

How have you kept your material so fresh after so many years on the scene?

Christofer: Very diverse music taste. If somebody stole my iPhone, they would be afraid and give it back! They would think that it would belong to an entire family. Just being very spontaneous and writing whatever material I like without thinking ‘oh, I wonder if this is gonna fit’ because if you try to write music in a certain style, you limit yourself. The best thing is just to write, try to make the record you’d like to buy, and, very important, not to be afraid of losing your career. If you try to play safe, you become boring. I really like to turn the knife against the throat and take big risks.

How do you feel about the competition within the Swedish metal scene?

Christofer: There’s no competition. I mean, if you like two records you’re not forced to buy one of them and not buy the other one. And you can go to more than one concert. I mean, if there were two concerts in the same city on the same day, you’d have to choose, but it’s very rare that you have this sort of situation. There are very few times when you would be in a competing situation, maybe in some parts of Latin America were people have very little money and there were two concerts, two weekends in a row, people may be forced to choose but apart from these rare circumstances I never saw any competition. It’s not like the Eurovision contest where you have a winner. I think it’s great if there are more good bands. I especially never understood those bands who, like SAXON for instance, who I know from personal experience because our drummer played in a band that were their support act for two tours, that they feel they have competition from support acts. When we have support acts I try to bring the best possible support acts so that our audience get the best possible value for the ticket price and, of course, the whole reason for the to be on tour is to promote themselves so if they do well it makes me happy. I mean, what’s the point in bringing a useless support act, it’d just waste money, of course it should be a band that have a fair chance at winning the heart of our audience. I always try to encourage support acts, give them advice, so they can get the most out of it. I never saw music itself as a competition.

How do you feel the metal scene has changed since the 80s?

Christofer: Well it has become very open minded. I mean in the 80s keyboards were the enemy of humanity if you were a metalhead. I remember when IRON MAIDEN and JUDAS PRIEST used synthesizer guitars we were all feeling so sad about it, the records we were good but they used synthesizer guitars! We were barely able to listen to them! Then when MAIDEN made the Seventh Son album with a keyboard player everybody just hated keyboard players, like your some fucking poser shit. They obviously had to get rid of them. And when Ronnie James Dio had a keyboard player he would be on stage, he would be behind stage. So to go from there to having keyboards as, more or less, mandatory in metal is quite a big development. And the presence of female singers has been changing quite a lot. Before it was very sexualised, like Lee Aaron, I mean Lee Aaron was actually a very good singer; she used to be a jazz singer. There was usually this demand that a girl had to be attractive, and sell their music with that, with the exception of GIRLSCHOOL that were ugly but they kicked arse like hell, they were like the female MOTORHEAD. They were probably the only female band back then who earned their position completely without their looks. But today, it’s the most natural thing ever to have a female fronted band, or if you have a guitar player or bass player that is female it’s no big deal. I think that started a bit with death metal, with BOLT THROWER having a female bass player and not making a big deal out of that. And now we even have female fronted death metal bands, like ARCH ENEMY. So, a lot of things have changed and I would say a lot of things have changed with the music industry which of course affected metal, just like anything else. The album concept, which was really holy in the metal scene, I guess when you made a pop album you just made sure you had the hit songs in the beginning, and when you make a metal album you really tried to make a musical journey, like this has to be the opening track and this has to be the last track. When you had the vinyl you were thinking out you would open the B-side and having a nice flow through the whole thing so the whole Spotify thing and even illegal downloads, I know a lot of people object because there’s a lot of shitty albums so people don’t have to buy the shitty albums to get two songs and I guess that’s one of the few positive aspects but it would have been better if the album had remained and forced bands to make better albums. Unfortunately, the CD has contributed to albums being worse, because when you had ten songs and the album was around forty-five minutes it was easier to make a really good record. Now everybody starts whining if the album’s not sixty minutes with twelve or thirteen songs. I guess a lot of bands have to put in fillers, which is sad. I really like the original vinyl concept, you know, on the other hand, vinyl had a little bit of a revival very much thanks to, I guess the club scene and dance music, but mainly because of metal. Which is cool, people started to care about quality again.

In October you announced that Chiara Malvestiti as your new live singer; how is that going?

Christofer: Extremely well. Very, very well. The problems our singers always have is the upper register, because it’s one thing to do it in a studio but when you do it in a sweaty club with very moist air and cigarette smoke, and god knows what in the air, doing it night after night because we can do ten shows in a row without a day off, that’s when you really have your trial of fire and see what you’re made off. And even Lori (Lewis), who was fabulous, sometimes had problems with some of the upper notes. Chiara has an extremely strong upper range, the songs we would normally a bit into the set for Lori so she would be warmed up, not just for her, for anybody, songs that would just be plain stupid to open a show with, we’re now opening shows with. We can even sound check with. So that’s a great advantage with Chiara. She’s inhumanly strong in the upper register. She’s a sweet girl, she fits into the band, and has a lovely voice. Maybe Lori was a little bit more flexible, she has a lighter voice more suitable for faster movement between the notes. Whereas Chiara has a much bigger and fatter voice. The time she needs to find the note takes a little bit longer with the kind of voice Chiara has and it also takes a little bit longer to go to the next note but it’s much broader and more powerful where Lori was very flexible and could jump around. They’re two different types of sopranos and are suitable for different things in our music so therefore it’s difficult to say one is better than the other but at least it’s easier for us to perform the songs.

How has she influenced the band?

Christofer: No influence, she just sings the songs.

What prompted the Skype guitar lessons with Christian Vidal?

Christofer: You’ll have to ask him, I haven’t really been following that. It’s an interesting concept, a lot of people want guitar lessons from someone who’s experienced in a certain band and for geographical reasons it might be difficult to fulfil it. Guitar teaching is very much about being able to speak and show things real time. It’s not the same thing over Skype, but it’s close enough if you have a big screen and a fast connection.

What are your plans for the rock opera in 2016?

Christofer: The plan is to finish it by summer, at least. If it happens, who knows, but at least that’s the plan! If it does happen, I’ll take the summer off and start recording it which means we should have a studio version of it done by the end of the year. But you have to think, like Jesus Christ Superstar some people will have the studio version, but most people don’t. They just go and see it live. So, obviously our fans will buy the studio version of Jesus Christ Superstar, but your Mum will probably never buy the studio version, she’ll just go and see it live performance.

There’s something special about a live performance.

Christofer: Well, it’s made to be performed live. It’s music theatre so obviously that’s the main aim to be successful there. But for the fans who really like it, there will be a studio version. The aim is also be able to reach the musical audience, if you have a very expensive production, you may have to do a lot of concerts in a row in one place because it costs a lot to transport, set it up, and take it down. Therefore we need to pull more people in, we need to make something that is accessible outside the metal scene. This includes anyone who would want to see Jesus Christ Superstar, my Mum went to see it with me, and it was her suggestion so I suppose your Mum would as well. Everybody’s Mum and Dad.

What’s your favourite country to play in?

Christofer: Oh, I couldn’t say. Latin America is great in terms of audience, you have one of the strongest audiences turn up there. But other countries can be quite dodgy, equipment fails, they’re disorganised and we have to fly between the shows and unless you’re gonna have every second day off you’re gonna have a lot of very early flights and late shows which means you get between two and five hours sleep. It can completely break you down. Europe is very convenient to tour, but fans are a little bit more chilled out here. Eastern Europe is somewhere between Latin America and Western Europe. Poland is great, Romania, Russia, but it’s very much about cities. France in general is not that remarkable, but Paris is always one of the best shows on the tour. London is always very good. Certain cities are really rock cities. Other places are like a good old friend, you always play there, they’re not so wild, but people always show up. A very loyal fan base. They have different ways of appreciating the music, and as an artist, we have different ways of appreciating the audience.