By David E. Gehlke
THERION founder, mastermind, songwriter and guitarist Christofer Johnsson has never been one to skirt philosophical topics when chatting about his band. Johnsson certainly has the perspective, having conceptualized and codified symphonic metal in the mid-1990s, well before it became a regular thing. His career journey has included its share of triumphs, notably 1996’s groundbreaking “Theli” and the indispensable 2004 “Lemuria/Sirius B” and 2007 “Gothic Kabbalah” albums, each of which could be described as THERION‘s masterworks. THERION also has a few misses in its discography, particularly during its more adventurous bouts, but Johnsson has been forthcoming behind the band’s recent “Leviathan” trilogy: They were written to make THERION fans happy.
Such an admission could have thrown cold water on THERION‘s artistic pursuits, but it’s difficult to argue with the results of the three “Leviathan” albums. They are stocked with bravado, high drama and heavy orchestration that essentially made THERION who they are today. As Johnsson admits, THERION doesn’t have much more to prove, which is why the creation of the “Leviathan” albums has proved so satisfying. Such candor — and more — was on deck when BLABBERMOUTH.NET rang Johnsson at his Malta homestead.
Blabbermouth: You spent nearly your entire career on Nuclear Blast. What led to the move to Napalm Records?
Christofer: “Technically, THERION was dropped by Nuclear Blast, but they offered us a new deal at the same time. We’ve renewed the contract a few times since we signed with them in ’94. We renewed the contract when we were at the top of our career. To be honest, we were quite overpaid. They went along with us. Then they said after ‘Leviathan II’, ‘We’d like to offer this contract.’ Technically, they needed to drop us to offer the new contract. There were a few things I wasn’t happy with. I don’t want to say anything negative because they did so much for me. I love that label for everything they’ve done. I’m eternally grateful. I felt disloyal looking at other labels, but the thing that made a difference to me was vinyl. I’m financially independent. I don’t need to do this for the sake of the money. I love it; I love music. To have a release on vinyl these days when streaming is taking over is cool. Vinyl is filling up some of the void. I grew up with vinyl. In the beginning, when we released a CD, it was like, ‘We released a record.’ But it was a CD. We got used to that, but we are releasing an album with a big cover. It was like, ‘This is a real record.’ Nuclear Blast was bought by Believe [Digital], who owns TuneCore. It’s in their interest to promote streaming. They see vinyl and CDs as something to milk while it’s there. For them, the future is streaming. They’re making a lot of the calls. A lot of people at Nuclear Blast that we knew were replaced by people chosen by Believe. They have different priorities. If you want to go along with that, where streaming is the future, they’re the best label to be on. For me, it’s an emotional thing. With ‘Leviathan II’, it was over 11 months of wait time to press vinyl. That’s not acceptable. We gave them the master tape at the end of the year or the beginning of the following. Then they said, ‘We’re going to need until September.’ I was like, ‘Fuck!’ It was going to feel weird. We usually finish the record, then the three or four months you’d have earlier before the release was always a long wait, but now it was, ‘We have to wait until the end of September?’ Halfway through, they said, ‘It’s not going to work. It’s going to be the end of October.’ When the end of October came, they said, ‘Sorry. We don’t have the vinyl.’ They said it was going to be released later in November. There were 11 and a half months to have the vinyl delivered.
“Napalm had been bugging me for a decade, at least. They’d contact me and say, ‘We’re big fans of the band. Let us know if you’re ever out of the contract with Nuclear Blast. Please, let us give you an offer.’ I thought, ‘Okay. We’re dropped. Let’s have a look around.’ I spoke with Napalm and spoke about the vinyl thing. I said, ‘What about vinyl?’ They said they were going to buy their own vinyl press. They said their pressing time was two weeks. I thought, ‘Eleven months or two weeks?’ Then they offered us a really good deal; so did Nuclear Blast. They were good in different ways. They were both good deals. Nuclear Blast is a great label. We’ve known these people for so many years, but they could not guarantee there would be no bullshit for the vinyl. That was the thing that made me think, ‘Okay. Let’s go for this.’ Actually, Atomic Fire, which consists of ex-Nuclear Blast employees, they were also in the loop and gave an offer. They also bought their own vinyl plant. At the end, I flipped a coin between Napalm and them. Napalm is a great label and has done a really good job. It is weird but a bit refreshing to do something new after three decades.”
Blabbermouth: You stated many times throughout the years that Nuclear Blast let you do whatever you wanted. Will you have the same luxury here?
Christofer: “That was the first thing I put on the table. I said, ‘This is what I’m used to. If this doesn’t work, we don’t need to talk.’ They said, ‘Sure.’ I have one hundred percent artistic freedom. No one is listening to demos or having any thoughts on what we should do. They get what they get. Our job is to make the record; their job is to sell it. That’s how it was with Nuclear Blast. So far, it’s the same with Napalm.”
Blabbermouth: The third installment of the “Leviathan” series feels the heaviest, without going back to your early death metal days. Are you satisfied with how all three turned out?
Christofer: “The idea was to give the fans what they want for a change after all these years of doing what we wanted. People can buy the records if they want. If not, it’s not a big deal. That’s why our record sales always went up and down. We thought after we had done everything we wanted to do, we wanted to give the fans what they wanted. It sounds fucking easy, but if it was easy, why doesn’t IRON MAIDEN grab their guitars and write another ‘Run To The Hills’? Why doesn’t JUDAS PRIEST write another ‘Breaking The Law’? It’s not easy. To say that in advance, promising that, you’re promising a lot. If you make a record that doesn’t do well, normally, you can get away with it. It’s like, ‘People didn’t understand what we were trying to do.’ Or, ‘We wanted to try something new.’ You can wash your hands: ‘Oh, people didn’t get it.’ Or, ‘We made a great record, but our fans didn’t like it.’ But if you say, ‘We are going to make a record our fans will like,’ you’ll look pretty bad if the record doesn’t sell. That’s what we wanted. We work best when we’re painted into a corner. Let’s see how the fuck we’re going to get out of this! It worked really well. Funnily enough, it became three records instead of one.”
Blabbermouth: Thomas [Vikström] is by far the longest-tenured THERION singer. What has enabled the two of you to work so well together for so long?
Christofer: “It’s more fun each time. If you go into his role, it’s really cool how he got into the band. It was in 2007 and he was going to replace Mats Levén as a live singer. He didn’t know THERION. He knew the name. We weren’t really big in Sweden after we turned into symphonic metal, but in the early days, when we were death metal, we were kind of known. He thought we were a death metal band. [Laughs] I called him up and he said, ‘I can’t sing that type of stuff.’ I said, ‘No! We sound completely different.’ I sent him seven CDs or something. [Laughs] He got a whole pile of CDs and took the first one in the pile. He listened to half a song, then called me back and said, ‘I’ll take the job. I heard the first song and was totally sold.’ Musically, we clicked from the very first second. We have a very different background. I come from the death metal scene. He comes from the melodic metal and rock scene. He came from a band called TALK OF THE TOWN that went Gold in Sweden, but they weren’t cool. They were like WINGER or BON JOVI or EUROPE. Then, he became the singer of CANDLEMASS. I knew him from there and thought he did a great job. He was an opera singer and a rock singer. He could do the Messiah Marcolin stuff well and the rock stuff well, too. He was always in the back of my mind. When we finally got together, we realized that prior to what I did in the early days of THERION and what he did in TALK OF THE TOWN, we had a lot in common. We’re both fans of MANOWAR, MAIDEN, JUDAS PRIEST, ACCEPT and all that. We’re both fans of the ’70s stuff like QUEEN. We like pop stuff like ABBA and THE BEATLES. We like the oldies from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. That became the bridge between classical music and popular music. They would do simple compositions but perform them with a symphonic orchestra. We became musical soulmates. I like some extreme metal and he likes some commercial stuff, but ninety percent, we have similar tastes, but we have a different way of approaching things, which is good for our compositions. I’m a guitar player, but I always thought of vocals as an instrument. When you write for a symphonic orchestra, you write for instruments you don’t know how to play. Since he’s a singer, he’s thinking more organically, but when he tries to do guitar stuff, it’s not good. We complete each other. He can write good chord-based stuff, but it’s not riffs.
“I actually had this discussion recently with another interviewer, but a lot of bands don’t do riffs these days. A lot of songs are chord-based and vocal-based. Either they play chords or do something rhythmic. Then, you have a vocal melody. If you listen to ’80s metal, which is what defines metal, it’s riff-based. It’s something you want to play air guitar to. Most of the metal songs are nothing you want to play air guitar to. They can be really good songs. I’m not taking the piss on that. It’s not the same music style. If you listen to THERION, it’s more metal, even if we don’t have loud guitars. That’s something that annoys me. People think if you put a lot of distortion on the guitar and make it loud, it’s metal. You can take Justin Bieber and put some power chords on it, but is it metal? No. It’s Justin Bieber.”
Blabbermouth: Do you want to elaborate on your recent post about artificial intelligence and how your fans have reacted?
Christofer: “I’ve had mostly positive reactions. Swedish mainstream media even wrote an article based on what I wrote, which was interesting. I think metal people will view it quite differently. Even though it’s not the same sub-culture in the ’80s, there’s still a strong current in metal that needs to be real. MÖTLEY CRÜE is a good example. When they were exposed for playing to a playback, people reacted badly. And if you remember MILLI VANILLI, of course, there was a lot of outrage. There will still be people saying, ‘I don’t give a shit. They’re good-looking people. Who gives a shit?’ That would never work in the metal scene. People who listen to regular pop music don’t care as much. At least a huge part of the metal community would, on pure principle, never listen to something computer-generated. They want real art, even if the AI creation would be better. I can listen to it when I’m curious, but it would feel weird to get emotionally attached to something created by software. At the end of the day, it’s not going to affect me that much. You like what you like. You’re not going to like the records you like today less because there’s another record coming tomorrow, whether AI or a human makes it. You’ll like the old records anyway. I don’t think it will be a big issue for me.”
Blabbermouth: You’ve been doing THERION for 35 years and have released 19 studio albums. What is there left to accomplish?
Christofer: “I can’t think of anything when it comes to THERION. We’re going to do more THERION albums, but I’m going to have to think about what to do next. But since I’ve done everything I’ve wanted and I’m financially independent, it’s okay to be an entertainer. If I don’t think of another challenge, maybe I’ll write songs people will want to hear. There’s no shame in that. Personally, I want to do a heavy metal album. Like [former THIN LIZZY guitarist] Gary Moore when he did ‘Still Got The Blues’. He started as a blues artist. He wanted to go back to the blues. Then you have Adrian Smith [IRON MAIDEN], who is with the Kotzen guy [Richie]. He was dreaming about the stuff he did as a kid. You have a lot of metal in THERION. Still, I think I owe the 11-year-old Christofer Johnsson a heavy metal album he was dreaming about when he was looking at posters of ACCEPT, IRON MAIDEN, JUDAS PRIEST and MOTÖRHEAD. I made a different version of it. I still fulfilled my dream but in a different way. I want to do it purely how I was dreaming about it back then. Writing heavy metal riffs — that’s the smallest of my problems. I sat down for two weeks and wrote a heavy metal album! We even started recording it. We recorded all the drums, bass and guitars. I’m going to figure out who to have on vocals, then go shopping with it. If a label doesn’t wants it, I don’t give a shit. I’ll release it myself.”
Photo credit: Mina Karadzic
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