"The King appreciates your call. There are currently many people calling. Please hold. Glory to our king." That's what Revolver hears when Avatar vocalist Johannes Eckerström plays back the outgoing message on the Swedish metal outfit's two interview hotlines — one domestic, one international — which have been set up for journalists who wish to speak with the band. "It's quite necessary," Eckerström assures us. "It's quite hectic at the royal castle these days, so we try to make it as easy and comfortable for callers as possible."
Royal castle? The King? WTF? As it turns out, these monarchical trappings are all tied in to Avatar's latest record, Avatar Country. Like the band's 2016 album, Feathers & Flesh — which was based on a fable written by Eckerström — it's a concept record. This time, all the songs are about the king of Avatar Country, whom Eckerström insists is a very real person lording over a very real place. At the moment, his highness — played by Avatar guitarist Jonas Jarlsby in the videos for Avatar Country singles "A Statue of the King" and "The King Wants You" — and the rest of the band are in Columbus, Ohio, where they'll kick off their North American tour. Hence, the royal castle is now magically located in the American Midwest. "Just as any airplane your president would be on becomes Air Force One, of course every building the King enters becomes the king's castle," Eckerström deadpans. "And that's why this is a state visit rather than just a concert: We're bringing a little slice of Avatar Country with us on the road."
Confused yet? So are we. Luckily, Eckerström clears things up (a little bit, anyway) in the interview below, after professing his undying love for Swedish death metal.
YOU GUYS ARE FROM GOTHENBURG, A CITY KNOWN FOR ITS MELODIC DEATH METAL. DID YOU TAKE MUCH INSPIRATION FROM LOCAL BANDS LIKE AT THE GATES, IN FLAMES AND DARK TRANQUILITY
JOHANNES ECKERSTRÖM Absolutely. They are, as you know, one generation older than us and therefore we were the kids who went to those shows and listened to those albums, which came out during crucial periods of our young lives. What happens when you have so many local success stories, both commercially and artistically, is that you see that you can be from this place and make it. They went to the same schools as us and hung out at the same places. Once we turned 18, we would go to the same bars.
As much as I feel like a "scene" is an abstract word, there are always bands in Gothenburg and we are extra-confident because we are from there. You have to be good and you have to be able to perform well — there are no shortcuts for that in Gothenburg or in Sweden in general — but at the same time, people might be more likely to give you that first listen.
IT REALLY IS INCREDIBLE HOW MUCH FANTASTIC METAL HAS COME OUT OF SWEDEN …
Sweden has been a music nation since ABBA, and now we are the world's third largest exporter of music after the United States and the U.K. But the United States has, what, 300 million people? The U.K. has 56 million people. Sweden is a nation of only 10 million, and we're number three on the list. But when you think specifically of metal, you have Opeth, Meshuggah, In Flames, Avatar, Sabaton, Ghost, Entombed … I could keep going, obviously, but they all turn out to be very influential and important for the direction this music has taken since the Eighties with Bathory. Sweden has consistently produced bands that have an effect on what happens overall with metal music. When you add in the pop songwriters, it becomes even bigger. Whenever I check, there's at least one song in the Top 10 written by a Swede, but there's usually multiple like that. Katy Perry comes to Stockholm, you know …
AVATAR ISN'T A DEATH METAL BAND ANYMORE, BUT DO YOU THINK OF YOURSELVES AS PART OF AN ONGOING TRADITION OF SWEDISH EXTREME MUSIC?
We tune our guitars the way we tune them and learned to play the way we play because we grew up learning songs by the Haunted and In Flames. That shaped what kind of musicians we became. We went to their shows and realized we needed to practice in the dark so we could learn how to headbang without looking at our instruments. The Haunted, in particular, played a huge role in how we approach things and what we consider a good riff. But then at some point you realize you don't want to sound like those bands — you want to sound like yourself — and you begin to really push yourself forward.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE SWEDISH DEATH METAL RECORD?
My absolute number one album by far on a list like that would have to be The Haunted Made Me Do It by the Haunted. I was 14 or 15 when that came out, and now I listen to it with different ears than I had back then, but all those feelings I got from it as an adolescent are still there. At the same time, I hear other layers that make me even more impressed than before — like the production on that album. It is so high energy and it feels so real. To be that melodic but also have that much aggression, I think it's extraordinary.
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR NEW ALBUM. WHAT'S THE INSPIRATION BEHIND AVATAR COUNTRY?
After doing Feathers & Flesh, a great album based around fiction but also about failure, sadness, death, loss, fear — a very dark story — we felt it was time to do something where we spoke the truth. So we decided to shape our music to reveal the truth of our King and open the borders to Avatar Country. Musically, therefore, the direction became more about strength, victory, hope — even joy in places. So it's the yang to the yin of previous albums in many ways.
SO THE KING IS A REAL PERSON?
Yes, he plays lead guitar in Avatar. You'll see him up on his throne at the beginning of the concerts. You can touch him, talk to him; see him. When he sits there wearing his crown, he is definitely a king. So the King is very real indeed.
SO THE KING IS JONAS JARLSBY? I THOUGHT HE WAS JUST PLAYING THE CHARACTER OF THE KING IN YOUR NEW VIDEOS.
Well, we usually say "The King" nowadays, but … yes. It's him.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE THAT HE WOULD BE THE KING?
Kings become kings usually through destiny calling and birthright. If you look at the band, he's the only true king. With Avatar Country being a monarchy, there really was no need for an election. Why waste time on an election when your leader has a hundred percent approval rating?
SO THIS IS A MANIFEST DESTINY SITUATION.
Yes, exactly. This is what he was born to do. He was born to be the King, and he's quite a benevolent one. I think he's very comfortable in his position, as we all are when we find our own roles in how to serve our King. I think that goes for everyone.
IF JONAS IS THE KING, WHAT DOES THAT MAKE THE REST OF THE BAND? DO YOU HAVE OFFICIAL POSITIONS IN THE ROYAL COURT?
That's kind of open-ended in a way. First and foremost, we are the King's elite orchestra. And I do occasionally act as official spokesman for the King, like I am right now. But more than anything we are just his loyal subjects who try to do whatever we can to please him because what pleases the King pleases us.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT THAT THE KING IS A LEAD GUITAR PLAYER?
Avatar Country, as a society, is built so much on sound, and this sound has a great impact on people outside of our borders as well. Music plays a very meaningful role in people's lives in the United States, for instance, but in Avatar Country it's a crucial element. It's really the air we breathe. Our main export is metal. Therefore, the sound of an electric guitar is central to our existence. So it would be hard for me to imagine the King being anything other than a lead guitar player.
WHO RESIDES IN AVATAR COUNTRY? IS IT JUST THE BAND AND YOUR FANS?
The King loves everyone, so anyone can become a citizen of Avatar Country. The home page that's being built for that [process] has been delayed a bit — it's been hectic within the bureaucracy of the royal castle — but everyone can become a citizen of Avatar Country. We do accept dual or even triple citizenship. You can remain a faithful American and still be a citizen of Avatar Country.
IT SOUNDS LIKE THE KING HAS A VERY ENLIGHTENED VIEW WHEN IT COMES TO THE INHABITANTS OF AVATAR COUNTRY. USUALLY A MONARCH HAS SUBJECTS, NOT CITIZENS.
Of course the people are his royal subjects in a way. The idea of a monarchy is ancient, and though Avatar Country is also ancient, we have to keep up with the times. Even though the will of King is the law, the will of the King is the will of the people and the will of the people is the will of the King. There's a very strong connection there. Again, that's why we don't waste time with democracy.
JUST HOW ANCIENT IS AVATAR COUNTRY?
This is quite interesting because it's something that historians in Avatar Country struggle with. In most of the west, we just entered the year 2018. In China, we just entered the Year of the Dog. In Avatar Country, it's the Year of the King — as it was last year and the year before. Next year will be the Year of the King as well. It's always the Year of the King, so when we find dusty old documents in the royal library, everything is dated in the Year of the King. We just don't know which Year of the King it is.
YOU'VE SEEN THESE DOCUMENTS?
Yes. Take for example our new song "King After King." It tells the story of how the King once fell in battle. According to his will he was buried next to his soldiers, and they set his horse free. The horse went galloping up into the mountains at dawn. At dusk, the horse returned with the King on its back, which begs a couple of questions: Did he die at all? Is this a clone, a twin brother, an ancient alien? What our top academics are leaning towards is that this is a case of reincarnation.
HE'S A ZOMBIE?
Well, maybe. But he looks very fresh and smells very nice, so I think that is kind of off the table. If you look at history, you have similar stories of people being buried and rising from the grave in a glorious manner. In Christianity, you have Jesus Christ, for instance. And we know our King is very inspiring, so we are positive that the tales of our King inspired the tales of Jesus Christ — meaning the King is a bit over 2,000 years old. But this idea of resurrection goes back to ancient Egypt, before Jesus, so that would make the King at least 4,000 years old. But we don't really know because he ascended the throne in the Year of the King.
THE ALBUM'S SPOKEN INTERLUDE, "THE KING SPEAKS," REFERS TO A ROYAL ENEMA. HOW OFTEN DOES THIS EVENT TAKE PLACE IN AVATAR COUNTRY?
Usually it flows very well without the help of an enema, so it was trying times for us. That's why, if you listen to the recording, the crowd was so overjoyed. Though, granted, the citizens of Avatar Country are usually overjoyed. But we were extra overjoyed to learn that the King was no longer constipated.