IN FLAMES and AVATAR singers talk Gothenburg metal, challenging fans, shared heroes | Revolver

IN FLAMES and AVATAR singers talk Gothenburg metal, challenging fans, shared heroes

Anders Fridén and Johannes Eckerström took different paths out of the same world
avatar in flames SPLIT USE, Johan Carlen (Avatar) and Travis Shinn (In Flames)
Avatar's Johannes Eckerström and In Flames' Anders Fridén
photograph by Johan Carlen (Avatar) and Travis Shinn (In Flames)

"I am super proud that so many bands from Gothenburg are still out in the world and creating," says In Flames frontman Anders Fridén. "Even though we all started with something called 'metal,' we've all taken different paths."

In Flames, of course, are veterans of the mid-Nineties Gothenburg, Sweden, scene — which included At the Gates and Dark Tranquillity — that defined, exported and popularized what we now know as melodic death metal. But the influence of In Flames and their cohorts extends well beyond their metallic subgenre — as Avatar singer Johannes Eckerström can attest.

"In Flames were showing the way for us when we were growing up in the Gothenburg area," Eckerström explains. "In our case, geographically, we had many bands around. But I think In Flames were the number one band to show us: You can be from here and make it."

In Flames live UNCROPPED , Travis Shinn
In Flames
photograph by Travis Shinn

Born a little over a decade apart, Fridén and Eckerström have much different memories of, and experiences with, the Gothenburg music scene, and no metal fan would ever confuse Avatar's theatrical heavy-metal epics with In Flames' exquisitely forged melodeath assaults. And yet, the two bands retain a powerful bond between them.

"In Flames and Avatar, we have that connection, even though it's been a while since we toured together or hung out or even saw each other," Fridén explains. "It is a camaraderie and mutual respect that exists without having to hold hands and talk every fucking day. [Laughs] Every time I see their name out there, I feel really proud; because while we don't sound the same, we definitely come from the same place and the same 'bowl of riffs,' or whatever you want to call it."

Avatar have been active for two decades, and In Flames for three — yet both bands sound as vital and inspired as ever on their forthcoming new albums. In Flames' 14th and latest, Foregone (which drops February 10th), is being hailed as a melodeath return to form, hearkening back to classic work like 1996's genre-defining The Jester Race after a run of albums that dipped more into alt-metal territory. Meanwhile, Avatar's ninth album, Dance Devil Dance (which arrives February 17th), ditches the more conceptual leanings of their last few records in favor of an anthemic, go-for-the-jugular approach.

As both bands prepare to hit the road in support of their latest efforts, we thought this would be the perfect time to reunite Fridén and Eckerström via Zoom. What resulted was a fascinating discussion of these Gothenburgers' artistic journeys: from shared musical roots and life-changing shows to the importance of making boundary-pushing art that creates "waves for the future." Read that illuminating conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Avatar full band 2022 UNCROPPED , Johan Carlen
photograph by Johan Carlen

JOHANNES ECKERSTRÖM I think I can start this, though I will probably make Anders uncomfortable with the amount of praise I can spew over In Flames. [Laughs] We're both from the Gothenburg area, but we're talking Lindome and Billdal, which are even better places to grow up in than the actual city. We are suburb kids…

In our lives and musically, In Flames have been a very, very big deal. My first introduction [to them] was through my older brother with [2000's] Clayman. I already had been listening to more traditional heavy metal, the more melodic stuff, power metal and … had also gotten introduced to more extreme metal by older, cooler friends: Immolation, Atheist and whatnot. Hearing In Flames bridged that gap. They were like the missing link, showing one way you can put all the things you like together. Melodic death metal — that's where it all came together for us in Avatar.

The short list of the most important influences from where our songwriting started would be four bands: Fellow Gothenburgers the Haunted, Iron Maiden, Cryptopsy and In Flames. My first audition for Avatar was screaming "Clay Man" into a microphone connected to a little guitar practice amp … And one of our first big opportunities … was a Scandinavian tour opening for them. I don't think we were ready to truly capitalize on it for ourselves, but we got a little bit of a swim in the deep end of the pond, playing for big audiences and just having a great time. So yeah, In Flames have meant so much for us in a multitude of ways. What did we mean for you, Anders? [Laughs]

ANDERS FRIDÉN Ha! Thank you. It means a lot to hear it, because it's the same as how other bands were extremely important to us. Like, when we saw that Entombed got a record deal [for 1990's] Left Hand Path. And if we're talking Gothenburg, when we saw At the Gates gaining traction, and then all of a sudden we had record labels interested in what we do. Gothenburg is not a big city, and when we started it was such a small scene. We were only a few dudes that were doing this. You mentioned Immolation — I don't know if you saw them when they played at [Gothenburg underground club] Valvet…

ECKERSTRÖM No, Valvet is before my time.

FRIDÉN When they played Valvet it was to like 150 people, but that place was so important to the Gothenburg scene. So when I look at what we have done, it's not about a single song or a single album … it's more like we made a mark. We did something with our music and traveled the world. And you guys and the people after you and after them, that's the same thing. This is how we continue to explore and create this music — and if we can create waves for the future, it's awesome.

ECKERSTRÖM Exactly. … I think we are just slightly over a decade in age difference between us. I imagine that the idea of what Gothenburg was growing up, in terms of the music scene, was quite different for you than for me. I don't even know if you would have thought, Yeah, we're a scene, when you and your friends hung out and your bands were trading members?

FRIDÉN Oh, we had no idea until journalists started asking us about it, or they put the tag on it. This is pre-internet, so news didn't travel as fast; and we had no idea what we were doing. Like you said, we were just blending styles, and all of a sudden this comes out. And of course, you are hanging out with your buddies, and you borrow or steal from each other and it all ends up being sort of similar. But I think with all the Gothenburg bands, we all have a unique style.

ECKERSTRÖM Exactly. All these bands have always looked for a way to do something different. I think the environment that grows around people can be either that — or the opposite, where it becomes very conservative, like, "OK, this is the thing that metal is supposed to be, now and forever." The bands from our environment evolved and changed a lot … which at the time became a source of debates. But I think for us it was for the better. In our world, [In Flames' 2002 album] Reroute to Remain was such a huge change: You sang a couple of extra notes in some choruses and … Was that allowed? [Laughs] It was the subject of major discussions …

A pivotal concert for us was Kåren [a club in Gothenburg] when Soilwork opened for you. It was a lesson learned in like, you know, evolving is not only fine and OK, but necessary and important. There's no point in pretending to be 20 and write an album like a 20-year-old when you're sitting at a different place in life.

In Flames Anders Friden portrait UNCROPPED , Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

FRIDÉN It's even impossible to do it, because you're not being true to yourself. That's the main thing — just stay true to yourself. Of course, if you have a long career, things will certainly change. I don't want to do the same thing again and again. No, I want to move forward. I want challenges. I want to, you know, give listeners something to debate. [Laughs] And that's fine. When you create an album and give it to the public, it's open for debates. If I'm satisfied with the album, it doesn't bother me.

ECKERSTRÖM When we truly had grown enough as people to say, "Hey, we like it; it's OK if everyone hates it. We can go home!" [Laughs] That became a recipe for better music.

FRIDÉN I think people will see through it if you're not true to yourself. But something we can't forget here, and which I can't stress enough, is also that you guys wouldn't be where you are today — or us — if not for working really hard and being out there touring and really fighting … That's why the pandemic was really hard, at least for me. … My whole grown-up life I've been out touring and recording and touring. … So that was really hard. But that's another story.

FRIDÉN Well, we were just a bunch of friends from the same neighborhoods south of Gothenburg that started listening to heavy metal. I was 10 years old when I got into hard-rock music, you know, and then I wanted something heavier. [Laughs] And it grew into thrash and death and grind; you wanted something that was more extreme all the time. And as you grow older and were able to go to shows … then you wanna be part of a scene yourself. You're like, "Let's form a band! Let's do it!" You take your baby steps. It sounds horrible at first, but whatever; you have to go through that. … Back in that era with metal, it felt like you could do whatever; like, just go crazy! And then it was later in life that I realized, Oh, there's so many rules. You can't be this, or you can't do that… But I really fell in love with heavy metal because I thought it was such an open genre.

ECKERSTRÖM Metal really came into my life when I was 12. I have an older brother, and there was the pivotal moment of borrowing [Helloween's] Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part II from him, and then I stopped cutting my hair around that time. But musically, I had been put in front of a piano by my parents when I was five. I had gravitated towards music in general my whole childhood. But with metal it was exactly that journey: You hear someone [sing] "WAAAAAAA!!!" and then a while later you hear someone [scream] "AGGGGHHHH!!!" and it's like, "Oh, this is where I live!" [Laughs]

Anders, I've seen you mention it, and I know Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth has talked about it, too. And I've spoken to a couple of other people about how when you old-timers — if I may [Laughs] — were starting out, Swedish television late one night aired the [1983] Dortmund Festival from Germany. It was like Iron Maiden, Priest, Michael Schenker Group, Krokus and stuff. And everybody from Sweden who later played in bands remembers sitting up late or taping that concert and being shaped by that. I am so fascinated by that.

Avatar Johannes portrait UNCROPPED, Johan Carlen
photograph by Johan Carlen

FRIDÉN It was such an important show. That's where I heard Scorpions for the first time; Def Leppard, Krokus, MSG, Ozzy, who else? Iron Maiden, of course. I think a friend of mine taped it for me on VHS. You can still find it on YouTube, at least parts of it, but this was a key building block in the Swedish metal evolution. … I kind of miss those days when everything felt completely new. The first time I heard Kreator, I was like, "What the fuck is this? I don't know if I like it, but I think I do and I want to hear more!" Back then me and the drummer from Dark Tranquillity always traded tapes. The first time we heard Death it was like, "Oh no, this can't be done by humans. This is like a computer!" [Laughs] It was so, so far-off anything that we heard. It wasn't love at first, but it was extremely intriguing. 

ECKERSTRÖM I don't know if it sounds pretentious, but in order to do to metal what metal has done to us, you wanna try to do something new and add to the conversation. There has already been so much amazing metal in each era — but I also have to remind myself that there was a time when British Steel was brand new and sounded like nothing else. So my Judas Priest fandom demands of me to at least have the ambition to [try] something that feels cutting edge.

For our music to actually feel like metal to me, we don't let the pedals or the equipment do too much heavy lifting. There needs to be a physical aspect to what we do. It has to hurt the back a little bit to sing. [Laughs] You don't want so much distortion that you don't really need to beat the shit out of the guitar to create that sound. We need to have a sound that requires some hard hitting to it.

FRIDÉN Yeah, we're not trying to play the fastest or the heaviest … [but] it has to feel right, that's the important thing. [Making an album] is a very organic process. [Guitarist] Björn [Gelotte] and me are the main songwriters and when we write together I feed off his energy and vice versa. … I hate coming back to the pandemic, but all the frustration and anger, and the feeling of being away from your family, friends, fans and the group of people that you travel the world with … we poured that into this new album. And I don't wanna take away anything from anyone whose been in In Flames before, but obviously the band sounds a little bit different today, because it's a different constellation of people … 

ECKERSTRÖM As it has to — like, in your case, having gone through these [lineup] changes as of late. … It has to be allowed to change with the people, the new contributors.

FRIDÉN Yeah, I don't think it's fair to other people to tell them, "OK, you have to act exactly like the person before you." Our drummer [Tanner Wayne], he's a racehorse — let him run, you know? … And obviously having Chris Broderick now in the band, too — he's an amazing guitar player, so you don't tell him to just play power chords. I mean, that would be stupid. [Laughs]

ECKERSTRÖM The writing for our album started in the midst of the pandemic, and I think for the band collectively it was a tougher engine to start. I personally started to play this game with myself where it was like, "Oh, we have all this time. I can finally do something else." I created a little folder in the computer called Solo, and I allowed myself to put more ideas into that one. But then a weird thing happened: As soon as I started to feel good in there … the four other [Avatar] guys were the first ones that I couldn't wait to show it to and ask them, "Hey, what do you guys think?" I kind of tried to sidetrack myself … but it fell [back] into the Avatar thing. When we finally recorded the album, last spring, we went to my family's cabin and rebuilt an extra house there on the property into a studio with rented equipment. It was just the five of us and Jay Ruston, the producer, together for most of it, which was amazing.

The time before that [for 2020's Hunter Gatherer], we went to L.A. to an amazing studio, Sphere Studios. … But as great as that was, when you have all these high-tech, top-notch options, it's hard not to go for them. I wondered if we, at least on an emotional level, lost a bit of grit and dirt doing it like that. So with this album it was like, "Let's take the risk and record it in a way that is more challenging technically." Then it just so happened that because the house doesn't stand on a real foundation, the tiny room we put the drums in sounded 10 times bigger; the building shook and it helped the low end somehow. [Laughs] So it ended up sounding as great as anything.

FRIDÉN Is that house still a studio?

EKERSTRÖM No, it's a three-bedroom little house. We just rented the studio equipment from Crehate Studio outside of Gothenburg, and moved all the stuff into it.

FRIDÉN That's very cool. I really like that idea: It happens there and then, and you cannot recreate it. You capture a moment of time … like a photograph. We've done it that way, as well. This was the third time we did the L.A. experience. I do love going there because we have all these friends around, and you work like 24-7 with music and you don't have the distractions from … don't get me wrong, I love my family, but I want to live and breathe the music when I create the music. It's that important; I don't wanna have any distractions. … We rent a house, me and Björn, and we go there because I live in Stockholm and he lives in Gothenburg, so we don't really see each other when we're home. And then we build a small demo studio in the house, and as soon music is done, we go to [producer] Howard Benson's studio and we record the songs that we have.

EKERSTRÖM L.A. is a cool place for recording because the entertainment industries, including the music industry, have made such a mark on the city. You meet way more people throughout a day when you're there that make you feel legitimized, I guess, about doing what you do. It makes it real, somehow. I did enjoy it! [Laughs]

FRIDÉN Also, you can't forget that we get away from Sweden in that time of year which is usually cold and rainy and wet — and you can go to L.A. and wear shorts. [Laughs]

EKERSTRÖM Yeah. Shorts are good for the recording process. [Laughs]

EKERSTRÖM I think it's not for us to say. Like, I think I can tell you more about In Flames' mark on metal than Anders can. Because I went out and bought the albums, you know? He only made them; he has no idea. [Laughs] In our case, I just hope that the time, money and energy that people spend on us — the emotion that they put towards us — they will feel that it's been worthwhile.

FRIDÉN To talk about you guys from an outside perspective, definitely something that you should be proud of is that you have a sound that's yours. When people listen to you, they will say "This is Avatar." They don't have to guess and get it on, like, their fifth guess.

EKERSTRÖM That's cool. Thank you!

FRIDÉN And then I think the same for us — at the end of the day we created a sound that traveled the world from the suburbs of Gothenburg. … Like, how is that possible, you know? It makes me proud when I see a mom or dad bring their kids to the show. We will be the introduction for them as Scorpions or Kreator or Death was for me. And they will go, "Oh, it's possible," and they will create a band and get into music. Music gave me so much; it can't be overstated. So if we leave something for the next generation, that makes me happier than a No. 1 album or whatever, you know what I mean?