Interview with Christofer Johnsson of Therion
Band Photo: Therion (?)
On Wednesday, September 14th I went to BBkings in New York City, NY to see Therion and Beyond the Embrace. Though it as been a while since the concert since I’ve been ill. I have finally been well enough and had the time to post this interview. I had the opportunity to interview guitarist and songwriter, Christofer Johnsson, of Therion. Talking with Christofer Johnsson gave me a lot of insight into my own song writing process. I felt such a musical connection I couldn’t provide much else to say except to stare and nod. He said things I think about all the time when I make music. In addition he gave me a different outlook on the purpose of creating music. I hope this interview gives some insight to you as a reader as it did for me as an interviewer.
zMETALlica (Zack): What’s it like to finally tour the US after nearly 20 years?
Christofer Johnsson: It’s a mixed experience. We’re doing 35 shows in the US and Canada, which is quite a lot for our type of sales. So we’re doing a lot of small places. Somehow what we intended to do, really go everywhere, [so] nobody has to say, ‘I never had the chance to see Therion.’ Well except people who lived in New Orleans…that show was pretty canceled. But I think they have more things to worry about than a show. But we really wanted to play everywhere and we’re doing that and so it’s fun and something new and a new crowd. I think for future touring we’d make it a little more compact, but it’s fun to really go everywhere.
Zack: Have you been to the US before the tour, or is this your first time?
Christofer Johnsson: Na.
Zack: Do you have time between shows to explore the cities?
Christofer Johnsson: Not usually, no. [We] haven’t been, besides today.
Zack: What was it like?
Christofer Johnsson: I’m not a big fan of big cities, my favorite place in the world [has] mountains, big fields, [not] much people, no pollution, clean water, clean air, that’s what my type of [place] is.
Zack: Me too.
Christofer Johnsson: I can never live in a city like this. It would drive me crazy after a week.
Zack: Too much noise as well.
Christofer Johnsson: Too much noise, too much pollution, water tastes like a swimming pool coming from a tap and everything is just bottled in plastic it’s not really [my type of city]. There are worse cities as well, [but] big cities in general I can’t stand, too many people.
Zack: Originally you played death metal and then went to the more symphonic stuff you do now, why the sudden change and experimentation?
Christofer Johnsson: Well actually the reason we started to play death metal was that we wanted to do something different. When we formed the band in ’87, we did something [which was], then, a mixture between Motorhead [and] old venom. In ’88 I talked to some bassists and guitarists and we started to play death metal and we changed the name to Therion as well. The whole idea was to do something new. There wasn’t many death metal bands around in ’88 and certainly not in Sweden. There were a couple of bands before us, but it was something very new and exciting, everyone was still into thrash metal or heavy metal. We started a progressive half with that and then we started to mix in elements that nobody did with death metal. Everybody just played power chords; we added major chords and minor chords, some other jazzy chords, which [are] hard to hear with all that distortion, [the poor] production, and some rhythms that were very unorthodox. Even on the first record, we had some keyboards, more like a background thing, but we used keyboards. We were not closed minded to using such a thing, which most other bands were. On the second album, we had a lot of keyboards, some Arabic and Persian scales and a lot of really odd things. So, really, from the start we did something different in our own time. Today when you look upon it you may say, standard death metal, but you have to judge every album by it’s own time. We were really ahead of everything we did. When we started to mix in some heavy metal into the death metal style later in the third record, much more melody, people said ‘there’s no future in that’. In Flames made a career out of precisely that. All the bands that thought we were posers for using keyboards, today, every evil black metal band could not exist without a keyboard player. So, we were pretty much ahead of our time and it was a natural development to seek new ways.
Zack: You mentioned keyboards a lot, but what inspired you to involve a choir?
Christofer Johnsson: Well, on the fourth album, I started to experiment with other types of oracle. I had the soprano and the bass baritone doing a few leads and I was happy with that. Meanwhile I had been writing a lot of songs that were arranged for choirs, different choirs. Like a rock choir you can hear on The Siren of the Woods and in Remembrance it’s an opera chior. The problem earlier was just a cash thing. We finally had the cash for it and did the Theli album and started to sell a lot of records, so all our financial problems were solved from there on. The whole idea, I don’t know, I always listen to classical music, I got into opera later as well. I’m very fond of ‘70s progressive symphonic bands they were very open minded to use orchestra, sometimes use choir arrangements. Some heavy metal bands [out] there like Manowar, for instance, the use of choir is just as an extra touch already on their first record in ’81. I always liked those things, the epic parts from heavy metal bands. Take Ozzy Osbourne for instance, Diary of a Madman, some choirs there, just does an extra effect or touch, but I thought why not make that a main theme.
Zack: Yeah, so what inspired you to bring them on tour, besides being able to afford it?
Christofer Johnsson: We’ve toured with the choir for many years now. As soon as we could afford it we brought them with us, but it’s different people singing on the record compared to singing live, though because traditional opera singers aren’t very fond of traveling in a tour bus with a bunch of long hair wankers; no they don’t wanna do that. We actually had one opera singer and a musicologist on one of the Theli tours, but it was really miserable traveling with them. The soloist we have now she’s a real opera singer, well she’s educating herself as an opera singer, but the others they’re more rock singers that can sing this type of stuff.
Zack: That’s cool, do they actually like the music, or is it like ‘yeah it’s another gig, I get paid for it’
Christofer Johnsson: No, they enjoy it.
Zack: That’s good.
Christofer Johnsson: That’s the thing often; they listen to rock music and that sort of stuff.
Zack: You mentioned that there are different people on the albums than there is live, I noticed there hasn’t been a steady line up for Therion.
Christofer Johnsson: Please be true, the bass player and the drummer have been with the band since ’99, that’s 6 years. And at the core of the band, it was only drummers that were dropped then. Two guitarists, bassist and the drummer, that’s the only real band. Everything else is supposed to be hired. It doesn’t matter. Take composition, if you write a symphony it doesn’t matter whose playing it, you have the notes, you have the scores and somebody else can conduct it, somebody else can perform it. A little bit like that with Therion. We’re not really like a band; we’re more like a concept with a few permanent members. As a fact, we don’t have a permanent singer.
Zack: Yeah I noticed that, more what I was going towards.
Christofer Johnsson: Who’s the singer of iron maiden? Bruce Dickinson. Who’s the singer of Therion? Choir. No one knows.
Zack: Has any of this affected the writing? As far as different members coming in and out. Or do you just write the stuff and then they play it?
Christofer Johnsson: I just write the stuff, then I need people who are skilled and who have the character I need.
Zack: How do you go about writing the songs? Do you use a keyboard? Guitar? Computer? What’s your method? Do you just think of it and tell them what to play?
Christofer Johnsson: Not really a method. Music comes from the head. If I have music in my head I can use whatever. There are instruments I can play, guitar, keyboard, whatever. If I’m at home I’ll probably make a down sketch, like memorial writing in audio just to remember the song that I used. Usually a metronome [is used] just for the pace, but the melody is there in the keyboards and put [in] the guitar of course. Behind that I usually don’t program drums or anything like that.
Zack: So you usually write down your ideas on a piece of paper?
Christofer Johnsson: I could do that if there’s nothing else around, but if I have a laptop or at home I have a home studio obviously I’d prefer doing the recording.
Zack: How did you choose the name Therion?
Christofer Johnsson: Originally, we were called Mega Therion and we stole that from Celtic Frost’s album with the same title because we were huge Celtic Frost fans. Then we changed the name to Therion. At the time we took the name, we actually had no clue what it meant. Later, we found out that the meaning fit quite well where we were heading.
Zack: What do you hate most about recording and touring? Or do you enjoy them both?
Christofer Johnsson: I like both, but it would be boring to just do one. I prefer being in the studio because then you can create something new. Touring is fun, but it is more like a hobby I’m getting paid for here. I could continue to just make records and not tour, but only tour and not make records wouldn’t make sense in the long run.
Zack: How do you feel about downloading music?
Christofer Johnsson: It’s a good way of getting a preview of stuff and checking out stuff. Of course there are legal downloads [such as] I-tunes music store. Metal fans are quality aware. They won’t put up with an mp3 or AAC quality. They want real stuff. Except in those countries that it’s not really an option. Some places in Latin America they just cannot afford to buy the records. If they can download and still enjoy the music, why not? We’re not losing anything anyway; they couldn’t have bought it, so then I think, ‘go ahead download it’.
Zack: Do you think it has really helped promote Therion in the US?
Christofer Johnsson: It helps people in countries where they couldn’t afford it otherwise. Some of his friends could buy it and then burn it, but otherwise they can download it. It just helps the sales quicker. When we have a new album out we have the core fans who will buy it [because] it says Therion on it. Then you have the people who might want to listen to it first, from that perspective it’s okay and it’s good that they can download it and check it out first. I guess it is a small help if somebody heard a song somewhere [and thought], “oh Therion, that sounds cool.” Later they check it out and download the new stuff and they realize “oh I like this,” and go and buy a couple of albums. Sure it is some sort of help, but I wouldn’t consider it a major help, not for the sort of band we are.
Zack: Any advise to musicians or songwriters?
Christofer Johnsson: Do the music you like yourself. That’s what I did. I created records that I [thought] were missing in the record store. There was a gap in the record store and nobody so it’s my job to do it. I am mixing the different things I am listening to. I am listening to a lot of 70s stuff, as I mentioned. I grew up with 80s heavy metal and I’ve very much into opera and classical music and a lot of different folk music styles. I mix whatever I like and make a record I would like to hear. I think that’s the best way of doing it as a composer or songwriter; not to think about what other people would like to hear. If you are lucky your music taste is similar to a lot of other people. I think very few of the people who think of what others want to hear are going to reach success any way because it will just be a plastic copy of others.
Zack: Right, well said. Any for musicians?
Christofer Johnsson: As for musicians, you should ask the other guitar player to start practicing in an unlikely time [laughs]. It’s just a hobby [for me], I play five minutes before we go on stage sometimes. We rehearse a couple of days before the tour. [For the] album recording I didn’t touch the guitar for around one year. [I] literally didn’t touch the guitar. Practiced the guitar at home for two weeks then made my parts on the record. Guitar playing is more of hobby for me, it’s just another instrument.
Zack: That’s what it is for me. I write a lot of songs and people tell me I’m a sloppy guitarist, I don’t care because I use it as a tool to write not as saying I want to be an awesome guitarist.
Christofer Johnsson: Well at around ’95 legend rock band. There’s already legend rock, [such as] Malmsteen, great guitar player. It’s like bicycling, I’m a fairly good rhythm guitar player and I can do some harmony leads and so on just for the fun of it. I really don’t have an ambition of guitar playing, as long as I can do what I do and it sounds good, then fine. Christian, for instance, he’s practicing 4 hours, 5 hours a day always, even on fucking Christmas Eve before he goes to his parents he would practice. He is developing a unique style [by] mixing a lot of other styles to form his own thing. He is really good; he can play whatever style, from death metal to 70s blues, to whatever. He really has an ambition for the instrument, which really makes a great completion [for the band] because if we ever need any bad ass guitar playing then he’ll take care of that.
Zack: So what can be expected of you in the future?
Christofer Johnsson: we’ll be releasing our first DVD in March of next year , it will be a multiple disc. Multiple disc meaning more than two, there will be a lot of discs. [It will be] the best value for money that you ever saw on DVD. We’ll start recording our next record sometime next year , so it should be out in the summer.
Zack: Thank you for this interview.
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