Why We Need "Superreality" of Live Rock Shows | Revolver

Why We Need "Superreality" of Live Rock Shows

Waylaid by ongoing pandemic, Avatar's Johannes Eckerström reflects on art of performing
avatar johan carlen horizontal CROP 2020 PRESS, Johan Carlen
photograph by Johan Carlen

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We want to feel that everything is possible. That anything can happen. Is it escapism? I'm not so sure. I think we spend a lot of time lost in the fog of everyday life. Yes, it's real but without any sort of disruption, it starts to feel more like a dream. Living life day in and day out without change is like repeating the same word over and over until it loses all its meaning. I don't think we are trying escape. We are just sounding the foghorn to see if there is someone else out there. If it were a simple question of distraction, Netflix, booze, sleep and jacking off would probably suffice. But it's not about escaping into some mere fantasy. It's the search for a superreality. Through elevation, we hope to find ourselves.

I think this might be one of many reasons why we miss going to shows. Music is food, concerts are feasts, and we are starving. I'm a restless chef with idle hands.

I'm endlessly fascinated by anything that has to do with the stage, especially if it involves interaction with the audience. Sure, I've seen and loved my fair share of musicals, operas and plays. But I'm just a tourist in that world. What I am talking about here is the circus, the gasp, applause and laughter. I am a student of magicians, comedians, pro wrestlers and singers of hard-rocking songs. If you don't mind, I'd like to share some thoughts I've gathered on the subject: the art of the performing arts.

In Sweden, the school dining hall is called skolmatsal, except for in the Gothenburg area. Here it's called bamba. No one knows why. The earliest mention of this is from 1957, but it is thought to have started at least in the Forties. In most schools, bamba also functions as an assembly hall. We had a stage in ours. It was used for various events including talent shows and Christmas concerts. It was also the stage where I first stood as a singer in a heavy-metal band at the tender age of 15.

We didn't have a consistent name, but most of the time I think we were called the Flying Pungs, which is a Swedish-English mashup meaning the flying ballsacks. We were named after a particularly conspicuous piece of graffiti by the Lindome train station depicting a pair of winged testicles. Our setlist on the last day we existed as a group included "Breaking the Law," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "TNT" and "Suicide Solution."

On this particular day, we had an assembly for some kind of larger group project, and for reasons I don't remember, we ended up being asked to play some songs. I think we did "Paranoid" and as much as we remembered of "Iron Man." One of the guitar players, Patrik, showed me his hand. He was shaking as if he was having a seizure. I could barely hold on to the microphone.

There isn't much to the story, really. I am sure every act featured on any festival poster has a similar one. The important little moment came right at the end, as the instrumental part of Sabbath's droning masterpiece started to fizzle out into chaos. As I was being overcome with panic, I looked at the "crowd" (which included my secret crush of that semester), then back at the band, and back at the crowd again. Finally, I interrupted the music by yelling "Thank you!" and raising my hands victoriously. People laughed and applauded, and I got as high as I've ever been. It was so simple, stupid really.

At the same time, it defines the craft in its purest form, as I see it. No matter the circumstances, my job is to see where the audience is at and take them to where I want them to be. We played one-and-a-half songs, we shook like tree branches in a storm, my voice was working itself through the growing pains of puberty, and still as far as I was concerned, we left the stage with a happily applauding audience.

Avatar x Revolver limited-edition 'Hunter Gatherer' picture disc bundle

That doesn't mean that I had understood anything about what I was doing or what I was supposed to do. With Avatar, I spent many years just trying things onstage, growing painstakingly through trial and error. I saw footage of Strapping Young Lad playing their first show in Sweden at Hultsfredsfestivalen and the first words uttered by their frontman, Devin Townsend, was "make some fucking noise, you inbred fucking ugly pieces of fucking shit." To this day, I struggle to accept the idea that Devin can do anything wrong, and at the time, I thought I had just learned the big secret in how to be a great frontman: You insult the audience.

Now, there are some things to be considered here. Devin Townsend is really funny. Strapping Young Lad's music is really angry. Their audience gathered to get a very specific fix. All in all, if you are going to do something onstage, you need to do it all the way and then some. I remember trying this insult angle when we played in Swedish city Alingsås. Turns out that timid anger isn't a great look for the stage. Even crickets found it too awkward to make a noise.

avatar-johan_carlen-3.jpg, Johan Carlen
Avatar, (from left) Johannes Eckerström, Tim Öhrström, Henrik Sandelin, Jonas Jarlsby and John Alfredsson, 2020
photograph by Johan Carlen

All in all, the art of onstage performance is a journey to find yourself. One of my greatest sources of inspiration for this is professional wrestling. Talking about his craft and what they call "ring psychology," professional wrestler turned teacher and promoter Al Snow said wrestlers aren't actors, they are re-actors. If you don't believe me, check out Suburban Commando with Hulk Hogan. An actor should be believable as anything from a serial killer and a gangster boss to a loving husband and a superhero. We are just supposed to be really good at being an amplified version of ourselves — something that can be pretty daunting for a young person in the midst of finding their own identity.

The majority of the most successful pro wrestlers, the ones that became household names, all found something within themselves that they could dial up to 11. The Nature Boy, Ric Flair, has more Rolexes than I've got socks, and Stone Cold Steve Austin doesn't consider "redneck" to be a slur. Yes, it's an act, a gig. But the whole point of the gig is to make your audience believe. The whole point of any type of storytelling is that we want to care. And the whole secret to making someone care is to give a damn about it yourself.

Learning this, from wrestlers and non-wrestlers alike, I slowly stopped worrying about being as cool as a Halford or wild as a Dickinson. Now let me be clear: I still draw a ton of inspiration and might even copy a move or two from my own heroes. I just stopped trying to remove myself and my own quirks from the equation. In fact, I embraced them more and more.

Now, with that foundation in place, let's take a closer look at what wrestlers do better than anyone else. As they tell a story with their bodies on the line, they need to quickly assess where the crowd is at and take control of their emotions. It's all about pacing and it's partly planned and partly improvised on the spot. You know your moves, your gimmicks and your opponent. You have a fair number of tricks up your sleeve, things that have worked in the past. You may have talked over some high spots, and you know the outcome and who goes over who. It's like knowing your songs, your setlist and that joke that cracked the crowd up in New Orleans once. But then you need to listen and learn to go with the flow. You need to be in charge of when the payoff is meant to happen and you can't fake it.

It can also be likened to the work of a stand-up comedian. Writing the joke is just the beginning of the process. The timing and wording can be infinitely fine-tuned night after night. It's a living, breathing thing and there is no perfect, final form. It depends on who's watching you on any given night. Read the room.

A great wrestler needs to be able to talk people in to the building, very much like how a singer in a metal band should be able to talk people into a frenzy. It's called "cutting a promo." You need to make sure people understand what's at stake, what the personal issues are and why you can't wait to put your hands around your opponent's neck. They have to be convinced that this will be the grudge match of a lifetime and that they can't miss it for the world. It's a very dynamic artform and it's about luring people into your world. You perfect it by using your ears as much as your mouth.

I have plenty of time at the moment to just think. The obvious truth is that I'd rather do less thinking and more screaming right now, but the world is at the state it's in and there is little I can do about it. I just wash my hands and try to not swallow the saliva of strangers if I can help it. I'm thinking of what was supposed to be, looking forward to the day it will come to be again. The band is riding a pendulum swinging back and forth between what we want to do and how we want to do it. A big part of Avatar's writing manifests itself as a reaction to what came before. The same goes for everything else. Stage clothes are less uniform this time, designed with the intent to let us move around more freely and feel closer to the audience, more exposed.

The development of the stage itself came to a grinding halt earlier this year for obvious reasons, but the philosophy remains intact. The Avatar Country stage was pornography. It was all in-your-face, leaving very little to your imagination. It was loud and, while invoking strong reactions, I don't think it lent itself to truly moving people as deeply as one could've wished for. Hunter Gatherer, as a concert concept, takes many steps away from the pornographic into what one could liken to something rather erotic (not literally obviously as we'll all keep our pants on).

avatar-johan_carlen-4.jpg, Johan Carlen
photograph by Johan Carlen

Playing with the darkness of the album, the more personal and confrontational sides of the songs, we hope to plant seeds in your dirty minds and have you do half the work. By created spaces where more will be left to your imagination, we hope to take the whole idea of audience participation to the next level. Yngwie Malmsteen once refuted the age-old truth that less is more, calling it bullshit, stating that more obviously is more. As a metalhead, I, of course, agree — up to a certain point. Whatever you do is always at the price of something else. By stripping certain things away, we look to create something more sinister and emotional that we ever have in the past.

We were pretty far down the road working out our ideas before it was put on ice. I think I'll keep some of the more spectacular things to myself for now, but we did indeed have many long discussions with friends of ours who are in the business of building illusions. The real planning was well on its way early in the fall of 2019, and the gist of the light show for many songs, old and new, could already be seen in our light tech's fancy computer programs. The challenge we were facing, and that we still look forward to solving, is to find that sweet spot between a Broadway production and a riot at CBGB. I think we're getting close. The key word is "black box." A minimalistic approach to the basic stage setup to which anything you add will have a stronger effect than things that happen on a stage cluttered with bells and whistles.

Now we have more time to think, which is a blessing and a curse. The most important source of inspiration for anything we do onstage will always be the music. If you don't have the music, everything I've said here is little more than masturbation. And the most important tool at your disposal, aside from the music itself, are your eyes and your own conviction that your words and actions are justified. Man, I really want to get back onstage. There, everything is possible.