Johannes Eckerstrom is considerably bothered with apocalyptic ideas that seem to always linger in his head. So much that they have started to traverse his unconscious state. But he knows it’s just himself getting in his own way.
“God of Sick Dreams,” a single off his band Avatar’s eighth studio release Hunter Gatherer, out via eOne on August 7th, came to life this same way. Eckerstrom had a dream one night about the end of the world and it set a tone for the rest of the songs on the record.
“I have reoccurring vivid dreams of the world ending very violently and suddenly,” Eckerstrom told American Songwriter. “In one of them it was a child I was trying to save and the child was my niece. I picked her up and ran with her trying to get her some place safe, and I realized there was no place safe, then I woke up. It connects with the overarching theme of the album, that we discovered in the process. A lot of the songs deal with being in your own way. Ultimately everything depraved, perverted and harmful to me expressed in dreams came from me, no one is dreaming those dreams for me.”
In a similar creative vein is “Gun” that stands out on the heavy track-list as a song featuring soft piano with provocative lyrics, that took Eckerstrom seven years to complete. The song was reimagined dozens of times over the years as the band didn’t know what to make of it. Initially, a demo recorded on Eckerstrom’s phone with just piano and vocals, it morphed into a power ballad then back into its original form ultimately. The riff was conceived while Eckerstrom was working at a school as a substitute PE teacher. The piano that sat idle in the classroom, begged Eckerstrom to play it, so he did. The sounds of children playing in the background paired with the piano is what drove the song in the beginning and now, adding to the album and band’s theatrical style.
“As we tried to finish it, every version ended up having some kind of distorted rock guitar coming in half way and suddenly it was a power ballad and then we hated it and put it back into the bag of riffs,” Eckerstrom said. “We picked it up on occasion trying to see what to do with it.”
During the band’s last meeting for Hunter Gatherer, drummer John Alfredsson suggested they use it in its original form, which was a tad short for a full song, but the drummer said could have been an “interlude”. To what Eckerstrom replied, “well fuck you I don’t write interludes, I write songs!” After lengthening the simple tune, Avatar settled on it as a minimalistic song and placed it mid-point in the album.
“We let it be what it was in that energy and removed any frills and it became a simpler tune but it took seven years to get to that point,” Eckerstrom said.
The frontman’s nod to the cleaner vocals on “Gun” came from his varied vocabulary in music and desire to experiment, while keeping things challenging but interesting in Avatar. And as fun as it is for him to scream and growl, he also wants to write melodies that are not always possible with heavier vocals.
“You have to find the melody of language and lyrics, rhythmic purpose and some emotions to convey and you want do that without being overly complicated,” he said. “It’s very cool when you do extreme metal vocals with lots of syllables in a short amount of time, but there’s a limit.”
Hunter Gatherer also called for an accomplished producer, Jay Ruston, who has worked on projects with Stone Sour and Anthrax in addition to Avatar’s previous release Avatar Country. But the band felt they didn’t get the whole experience with Ruston, so they came knocking again. However, Avatar was not initially set on traveling to Los Angeles to record with Ruston and was looking at studios in Wales and England that had a connection to Black Sabbath and Queen. But they were looking to record live on tape this time and the European studios they were looking at did not provide the large space they needed to record in the same room and studios in Los Angeles did.
“LA was nice but we didn’t think it would be. We were very hesitant to go at first,” Eckerstrom said. “As a Scandinavian metal band, we had a lot of prejudices, we were expecting LA to be full of self-important people who wear sunglasses indoors. We were of course wrong and really enjoyed our time there.”
“Jay was there from the very inception of Hunter Gatherer,” he added. “And what Jay values is very much in line with what we do. We are into a lot of styles of music and a lot of it overlaps with his but he also brings different perspectives. I really like new wave but I am not as versed in it but Jay was. He really helped enrich the vocabulary of what we were doing and we could all agree on our Iron Maidens, and Slayers, so we completed each other well.”
Ruston also allowed for Avatar to record on tape as opposed to the popular digital format that has been a primary over the last few decades. Avatar was searching for the elusive warmth that everyone describes recordings on tape as. And although Avatar had recorded some of their records digitally, they have also recorded on tape, live like on Hunter Gatherer and agree it’s really the best way to go if you want the music to feel real, flaws and all.
“There’s just no button for that in Pro Tools,” Eckerstrom laughed.
The same goes for recording live instead of separately, part by part, as Eckerstrom explained “there’s no good reason for it and certain things happen to music if you turn off the click track and let the tempo breathe a little and play with each other instead of a machine. It also feels like you’re playing a song and not just part and it comes alive.”
Part of Avatar’s affinity to tracking records live together is their appetite for playing shows. It’s a part of the gig that is incomparable for them because their music was made for that kind of medium and presentation.
“I enjoy the studio more every time, but it can never take away the stage,” Eckerstrom said. “This is music meant for that. I started to see music as either the kind that asks you to sit down and listen or music that demands you to stand up and move and at the end of the day we belong in that category. It’s really dance music. Our dance you might get bruises or your neck might hurt but it’s part of the beauty of it and just another way of moving to music. And that’s where we belong, with our music on stage. Nothing can top that feeling for me.”Hunter Gatherer is out August 7 and you can pre-order a copy here or listen to the current singles such as “God of Sick Dreams” and “Colossus” from the record on Spotify.