THERION's Christofer Johnsson - "I‘m Willing To Risk My Career With Every Record"
November 27, 2012, 4 years ago
Thinking outside the box is exactly what Sweden’s symphonic metal band THERION does. Led by mastermind/guitarist/composer Christofer Johnsson, Therion is undoubtably one of the most unique and adventurous bands around - willing to explore any form of music that they see fit, which combines classical music with heavy metal. They are the type of band that thrives itself on taking risks. Celebrating its 25th year anniversary, Therion will release its 15th full-length album, Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers Of Evil), a covers album of ’60s/’70s French pop songs based on poet Charles Baudelaire’s most famous publication. Beginning as a death metal band called BLITZKRIEG in 1987 influenced by SLAYER, METALLICA and CELTIC FROST, the band soon changed its name to Therion, after Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion album. Johnson had also been heavily influenced by Classical music, mostly by composer Richard Wagner, and by their fifth album, Theli, the band had finally hit its stride by creating a bombastic and operatic album with orchestral arrangements and choir passages, which was mostly unheard of for a metal band at the time. Through email, Johnsson took time out to answer some important questions about the band and its new album.
BraveWords.com: Therion typically started out as a death metal band. How was the transition from then to what the band has become?
Christofer Johnsson: "When we started, we sounded like a mixture of Metallica’s Kill ’Em All mixed with VENOM, Slayer and MOTÖRHEAD. Very noisy and not very sophisticated. Then I got very much into death metal and the songwriting went in that direction. But we would from scratch blend in things that were unorthodox; odd drum patterns, major chords, old-time rock influences and some keyboards. On the second album, there would be lots of it and also Middle Eastern musical influences, clean vocals and symphonic elements. Then we just kept adding on new stuff with each record until there wasn't any death metal left. There was never any plan or specific event leading up to it, it just fell off with time."
BraveWords.com: Was there a certain time period or an album in which you finally noticed the now-trademark Therion sound?
Christofer Johnsson: "When I did Symphony Masses, I tried to experiment with my vocals to see if I could sound different and fit with more melodic tracks. I felt it coming, that regular grunting would not work in the long run. Lepaca Kliffoth had some more shouting type of vocals that would fit great in some songs, but was maybe less successful in others. I really felt at this point that this would be as far as we could go on the track based on my voice. Using a Classical soprano and bass baritone on two of the songs successfully (same soprano as Celtic Frost had used on Into the Pandemonium) would open up Pandora’s Box and marked the end of my inspiration to go on as a band with me as a vocalist. Fortunately, it worked out with Theli big time and we got new fans, because half of the fan base we had already hated the new direction. The rest is history, I guess."
BraveWords.com: By the time Theli came out, did the band finally hit its stride with the direction you wanted it to go in?
Christofer Johnsson: "Yes. We went from a band that were famous underground, but more widely regarded as some sort of odd, weird band to a band selling loads of records and setting a new standard in the ’90s metal scene. Starting the symphonic metal trend that would go on for 15 years."
?BraveWords.com: Which types of music and bands had a profound effect on you?
Christofer Johnsson: "Celtic Frost had an essential influence. Long before them I was shaped by ’80s heavy metal; ACCEPT, JUDAS PRIEST and IRON MAIDEN were the biggest impacts. But also MANOWAR, OZZY and W.A.S.P. are examples of music that effected me significantly. Then there were the ’70s bands as well; BLACK SABBATH, DEEP PURPLE and URIAH HEEP really shaped me much, too. I was never trapped into one type of hard rock, but rather listened to all sorts of bands. Also Venom and Mötörhead as the years went by. Then came thrash metal and Metallica and Slayer were two important parts of what influenced me when I formed the band. We were called Blitzkrieg in the beginning due to Metallica’s cover on the B-side of the Creeping Death maxi-EP. Then I discovered Celtic Frost and it just changed everything. I bought Morbid Tales, accidentally put on the B-side first and while the opening riff of 'Procreation Of The Wicked' played, something changed fundamentally for me. Later, their album Into the Pandemonium would be my guiding star for understanding how to connect influences of odd musk into extreme metal. Discovering VOIVOD, ’70s SCORPIONS and ULI JON ROTH's solo albums were other groundbreaking happenings in my timeline."
BraveWords.com: I really liked the Demonoid project with yourself and the Niemann brothers. It was heavier and it allowed you to step out of the Therion musical frame a bit more. Was it meant to be for one album only?
Christofer Johnsson: "For me, it was just a project and I said from scratch that I didn't want to tour or play concerts. The other guys wanted to do more with it, so we agreed they should find another singer and go on. The band continued without me, but so far (in five years time) they didn't manage to pull their shit together enough to make a record. Too bad, I would have been thrilled to hear their next thing."
?BraveWords.com: Were you disappointed with your US tours? Was there just not enough support to warrant you coming back to North America?
Christofer Johnsson: "It was an interesting experience the first time in 2005. We played both really good shows and godforsaken shit-holes that no one not living there would miss if it was nuked. But overall, we didn't have enough support to tour as headliners over there. Basically, we did well on the East and West coasts in the US and in Quebec in Canada. 2007 I had the idea we'd be doing only those places again and see if we could build it up further. Unfortunately, I was talked into the stupid idea of tying it all together with shows in the middle and before I knew it we had a another full blown tour. I knew inside of me it wouldn't work well, but was sweet-talked into doing it on the premises that it 'works different over there.' Of course it didn't. The US market is different for sure, but the principle is the same everywhere - you go in a van and play support act for a bigger band again and again until you've carved yourself into the scene. But I felt I was too old to go over the same thing again as I once had done in Europe. And the other guys had got into the band in the middle of our huge success in Europe - big headline shows, good cash and fancy tour busses - so they were not likely to do something like that either. Plus, what would be funding it would be my royalties from European sales. So I really wanted to believe that there would be some sort of short cut. That is what made me agree on a decision that was irrational from all I have learnt over the years. The 2007 tour did worse than the 2005 one with that idea of touring USA/Canada got ditched once and for all. I was totally taken by surprise when the ProgPower Festival gave us an offer that was financially sustainable enough to bring us over for a one-off gig at their excellent festival. The only scenarios I can imagine playing the US again would be a similar event. In Canada we do well in Quebec, so I guess a festival there could be an option as well. Or if Les Fleurs Du Mal would do exceptionally well, we'd be able to make a few headline dates."
BraveWords.com: There’s a lot of unexpected aspects to Les Fleurs Du Mal and you’ve always been a musical risk-taker. Is this release the ultimate risk for you at the moment?
Christofer Johnsson: "When Thomas Vikström joined the band, I told him I‘m willing to risk my career with every record. I also said to him once that I think bands unwilling to risk their career for something they believe in don't deserve one. That's the Therion spirit. The album is selling like hot cakes on the tour and the pre-sales are doing really good. It looks like it will be doing better than Sitra Ahra, even though I'm releasing it all by myself. So as risky as it seemed from the beginning, my bold attitude has paid off once more."
BraveWords.com: You’ve been with Nuclear Blast since 1995’s Lepaca Kliffoth, but why did you decide to totally finance the new album yourself?
Christofer Johnsson: "First of all, they didn't like the record. That in itself doesn't necessarily mean that much - as long as we continue to sell well. They also didn't like Theli very much when they got the master tape to it and that was a smashing hit. So I guess my case is proven by that as well. But now it's not a regular release, it's a cover album and a 25 year anniversary album being a part of an art project. So it got too weird for them, I guess. But the main issue is that we don't have compulsory license by law in Europe as you do in US and Canada. So it was too much of a hassle for them. They are also these days a huge label and have a well working machinery and I guess my ideas of how to promote the project fell too much outside of how they prefer to work. In the end, we tried to make different compromises to come up with a solution. But I felt no one was really happy and as I really love NB and appreciate all they did for us over the years, I felt I’d rather not ruin our great relationship and simply offered to buy back the master tape and release it myself instead (to go to another label for our home territory Europe would have been unthinkable - we are a NB band). I would have preferred to have the album released by NB and saved myself from all the work involved with running a record company, but things are the way they are. I still see great satisfaction in proving that the album is doing well and to show all the doomsayers that I knew what I was talking about while taking the risk."