Therion Talks New Album "Les Fleurs Du Mal" And Upcoming Rock Opera Project
Band Photo: Therion (?)
Championing orchestral metal, the mighty Therion has gone through quite a wild ride over its 25 year long career. From the death metal of “Symphony Masses” to the game changing “Theli” on to the fully symphonic “Vovin” and “Deggial,” Therion has been evolving along with the metal scene and continues to do so today.
The band’s latest output “Les Fleurs Du Mal” (reviewed here) is a collection of Therionized covers of what master mind Christofer Johnsson refers to as “French oldies,” which have been translated into a medium that metalheads and lovers of symphonic music can both enjoy.
“The achievement I’m most proud of is to get French metalheads to go to a metal show and head bang to France Gall,” said Johnsson during a recent chat with Metalunderground.
During our conversation he went to discuss the difficulties involved in getting the album released, which was passed on by Therion’s label. In the full interview below, Johnsson explains how negative comments going viral have actually worked better than press releases, with the album on track to become the highest selling Therion release with no advertising of any kind, and he reveals the band’s next big project will be a rock opera performed like a musical play.
xFiruath: Before talking about the new album, I wanted to ask about that Therion board game that was announced a year or two ago. How did that come about and did that ever come to the U.S. in an English translation?
Christofer: Yeah it’s available in seven languages now I think, and in the U.S. and Canada for sure. The board game manufacturer approached us and said he had a cool idea. He wanted to make a Therion board game and I thought it was pretty cool. I gave some input myself to put the Therion touch on it and we made a short film to support it. It’s actually selling really well. A lot of gamers were suspicious first because they thought “oh, some metal band making a game,” but it’s a really cool game.
xFiruath: Therion is now celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary. What are you guys doing to celebrate, and what have been the major changes you’ve gone through from then to now?
Christofer: “Les Fleur Du Mal” is what we’re doing to celebrate. So for a sort of present to myself I did a cover album. As far as how we’ve changed, it’s been quite a ride. Therion was my first band. Most artists who make it, they try with a couple of bands before they finally get it to work. The third or fourth or fifth band, but Therion was my first band. I played bass for three months and formed a band. Later I switched to guitars, but I had played an instrument for only three months. We were just like any other crappy beginner band, but we held on and became an established band. So when we started we sounded very noisy, like Motorhead, early Metallica, Slayer, that type of stuff. Then we got into death metal and progressed that with keyboards and Middle Eastern influences and opera. The death metal faded away more and more with each record and it’s been a very big evolution from where we started to today, which I guess you would call some sort of opera metal, but that would be to simplify it. We’ve always done something very different from record to record, and sometimes even within an album. The album “Lemuria” has so many different sounds. I guess we have just done exactly what we wanted instead of thinking, “oh we’re this kind of band.” We just write and record with an open mind.
xFiruath: I haven’t heard the original tracks, and I suppose plenty of U.S. fans probably haven’t either, so I’m wondering how you approached the covers for “Les Fleur Du Mal.” Did you stick closely to the source material or diverge quite a bit?
Christofer: The album is a part of an art project and one of the aims for the project is to show that songs aren’t necessarily all that different between music styles. We wanted to change the songs into being Therion, but we didn’t want to change them more than necessary to do that. We wanted to preserve the original feeling as much as possible. I think we did pretty well. For you guys not being French, and including myself I suppose, you don’t have a history. For French people these are oldies. For me its music I enjoy and listen to and there’s actually an underground following of this type of music outside of France. For French people, it may be a bit harder to digest, because it’s their parent’s music. But for people who aren’t French, I guess it’s very exotic and obscure. The achievement I’m most proud of is to get French metalheads to go to a metal show and head bang to France Gall. It’s like, I’m trying to think of an equivalent in the U.S., like the Bee Gees or something like that. If somebody made covers of that sort of music and got them to head bang. We managed to transform these songs. It’s a matter of taste, with every album we do some people don’t like this or that, but the general approach was an album a Therion fan can enjoy.
xFiruath: How is the album doing so far, since this one is being self-released unlike your previous albums, and can you explain how that came about?
Christofer: The sales are doing really well, we’re doing better than the last record even though we don’t have a big label to promote it. There’s a clause in our contract that says you have to write the songs you deliver to the record company yourself. So if you make a cover album, the contract isn’t covered. It’s something that’s up for negotiation. They didn’t quite fancy the record, which is OK. It’s not like if they don’t like the record then it sucks. They didn’t like “Theli,” and most of them were highly skeptical of that album, thinking “What the fuck is this opera stuff?” That was a big breakthrough album and our second best-selling album ever. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything if they don’t like it. You also have to remember, it’s a German record company. Germany and France never had a very good understanding of each other’s culture. I’m trying to think of how to compare it, the U.S. and Canada isn’t really a good comparison, maybe Quebec and the U.S. The way you look upon each other. If you would look at it from the other point of view, imagine Rammstein sending a demo tape to a French record label before they were signed. That French record label would have said, “What the fuck is this? Singing in German that sounds like Adolf or whatever?” There’s no fucking chance in the universe they would release it. Still today Rammstein is selling gold in France, so you can make the impossible possible. This is a little bit like that. We made a cover album of all French songs and gave it to Germans.
xFiruath: What was your label’s reaction to the material?
Christofer: They didn’t think it would sell, they didn’t like it, and they didn’t have to release it because it’s a cover album. They give me an advance, I make a record and deliver them the masters, but now it was like “OK, this is not a regular new album.” So they paid for a master tape but they didn’t like it, and to make things more complicated, when you make a cover album you need to have certain permissions in Europe if you change the composition. In the U.S. and Canada you have a compulsory license, which means if somebody releases something publically, anybody can cover it. Whoever wrote the song they get the cash and that’s it. You have no say, people can record it, change the composition, do whatever they want with it. I told them we could skip all these problems if Nuclear Blast America released it and then imported it to Europe. But that’s a dollar extra per disc, and they want to have business as usual. If they would have loved the album and thought it could sell really well, I guess they would have been more open to alternative solutions. But they are a big label and they are very successful, so they want business as usual. We make a new record, promote it, put out the promo to journalists, tour to promote it, and that’s it – everybody’s happy. But we wanted to do everything different with this record.
xFiruath: How difficult was it to get this album released?
Christofer: It’s a cover album, so we need a lot of permissions, and it’s a French cover album so in France you actually need to get written consent from everybody, even if you don’t change the composition. It’s different in the rest of Europe. So imagine all these aging people who wrote the songs back in the ’60s. Many of these songs were not big hits. So there could be some 80 or 90 year old man who wrote it and doesn’t speak a word of English, and I’ve got to find him and approach him. It’s a lot of work. Some of the composers are dead, so it means their widows or children own the rights, and they don’t know anything about it. They get some letter with a request to use their father’s song, and they would panic and get a lawyer. They don’t know how much it’s worth or if it’s a good deal or whatever, so it’s a total circus for that and it takes a lot of resources. There was no way Nuclear Blast would have done that and it would take ages for me to do it myself. Even on the easy ones where a publisher owns the rights to the song, I would send them demos with the request and half a year later I still wouldn’t have a reply. They were very slow and it’s actually quite strange. Somebody’s knocking at your door saying “Hi, I want to make you and your client money,” but they’re like “Yeah, just stay out there in the rain for half a year and we might open the door and have your money.” No fucking wonder the record business looks the way it does. So I just said, OK, we’re not getting anywhere with this. We tried to compromise a bit with the label, like they wanted us to do a “best-of” album together with “Les Fleur Du Mal,” but it was like no, that wasn’t going to happen. So in the end I just said I would gather the money and buy the master tape back from their desk and do whatever I wanted with it and everybody was happy. They did me a big favor actually, by lending me the money while we did the recording. So when I went to the bank to finance this I had a finished product, which made it easier. I own a house so I took out a mortgage against it and so far it’s been a very good move, business-wise.
xFiruath: How does self-releasing instead of using the label change the dynamics of getting your album out there and covering your costs and all that?
Christofer: I sold the album directly to the fans first, and if you do it that way you have a rate of 1 to 10. So instead of you being an artist and you have a record label, who sends it to a distributor, who sends it to a store, which adds sales tax before it goes to a customer. And I hate to say customer, but it is a business. So we went around that chain and sold straight to the fans, so the fans buying 1 of these records straight from me is like buying 10 albums from a store. We need 50,000 copies sold in Europe to break even. We don’t do that well in the U.S. and Canada, so we don’t really count those, that’s just a bonus on top. It’s European sales we budget for, and then you get some extra cash for licenses in Japan and so on. So we need to sell 50,000 in Europe to keep our business going. If I sell straight to the fans, I only have to sell 5,000. So I press 5,000 for the tour and I sold 4,000 something, which is like selling more than 40,000 copies. Now when I put it into retail I’m recouping pretty fast. By January I’ll be breaking even. This is probably going to be more profitable than any other Therion album. It’s possible because we have such a strong brand and because all the talking around it.
xFiruath: I understand you’ve essentially just been relying on word of mouth to get news about the album out there.
Christofer: Getting people to talk, that’s the best promotion you can ever get. You can buy a full page advertisement in every music magazine on the planet, and it doesn’t give you anything more than telling people “Hey, this band released a record.” If it’s a band you know you might buy the record, but you won’t buy it if there’s no relationship to it just because of an advertisement. But people talking, it gets others curious, and that’s very good promotion. So the whole fuss and story about Nuclear Blast rejecting it, and having to borrow money on my house, these are things that make people talk. We didn’t make any advertisements, and we didn’t send out any promos to journalists before the album was released in Europe, so it was completely unheard of when we did the first show. We sold a couple hundred CDs at that show and one or two fans put it up on the Internet for people to listen. Something I’ve learned is that people are full of shit and need to make some unfair, exaggerated comparison to everything. These people who just hate their lives and are self-proclaimed experts on everything and have to piss on everything on the Internet, they are always the fast ones. When they start to write all that bullshit, we got so much promotion. I mean think of it, if it’s a band you like and somebody says “Hey, the new record is great,” maybe you’ll check it out in a couple of days or whatever. But if somebody makes something spectacularly strange, like Metallica when they did “Lulu,” which is an album that sucks. It’s not the point whether it sucks or not, if you get those kind of reactions, everybody has to check it out now, immediately, thinking “Is there a link where I can listen to this?” Making a cover album with all old French songs makes people really curious, and when you have these Internet idiots immediately and unreasonably attacking it and saying “Therion’s doomed, the band is doomed, the sky is falling” just because somebody made a record they didn’t like. Well that makes anyone with an Internet connection on the entire planet who is even remotely interested in Therion be like “where’s the link, where can I see this?” We also had three video clips that made people talk. That’s the best promotion you can get. I didn’t even spend 1 Euro on promotion and this is still the best promoted Therion album ever. We got something you can’t buy with money. Everybody is talking about it and everybody has an opinion. You love it or hate it.
xFiruath: With this all-covers album not completing your label contract, do you have original material for an upcoming release written, and when do you see that coming down the line?
Christofer: Next up will be a rock opera. I was always very negative towards that term, because I think it’s misleading. A rock opera normally means a musical, and it has nothing to do with opera, or it just means regular rock with a storyline. I want to create a rock opera in the true sense of the word, with opera singers and stages. It’s going to be quite a challenge. Writing music is the easy part. You can write songs and lyrics and characters for whatever you want, but if you actually stage it, that’s a completely different thing. If you’ve got say a love scene, maybe the music is rushing too much, maybe the dialogue is too quick for the actors to give what’s happening justice. We also want to do everything in the production ourselves, like choreography and stage scenery. If we feel we can’t do some of it, we’re open to bringing on someone else for choreography or whatever, but we want to try everything ourselves. But this is completely new to us, so it’s going to take years.
But you never know, once you stage it, if it’s successful, I mean I think Cats has been going since it went up, it’s never been taken down. Some of these musicals are staged for months. I’m not saying Therion will be as popular as Cats or anything like that, I’m just saying you don’t do just one show in the city and then go on to the next one. You build in one city and make a bunch of performances there. It could be for a month or whatever. My idea is to write this rock opera for ourselves and our fans, but the idea is to fund it through the mainstream audience. It’s expensive to do this sort of thing, so if we only relied on Therion fans, we’d have to do one city and then another and another, but it would cost too much to build up all the scenery, then tear it all down and move on from city to city. So it has to be out for a number of shows or it doesn’t pay off. So we need to get the type of audience that would normally go see Jesus Christ Superstar or that sort of thing. We need them interested, and that’s a challenge, because if we perform for Therion fans, they are there for the music mostly. If we write really great music they’ll say they saw it and it ruled, but if we make crap music with a storyline that’s good, they’re still going to say they didn’t like it so much. 80% of it is for the music for Therion fans, but for the mainstream crowd, they’ll be there for the same reason you or I go to the cinema. They go there for the full entertainment. Music is a big part of movies, so it’s important we have good music, but for them the entire experience is what matters, so we need to have a storyline that is absolutely fantastic and gorgeous scenery, or we can’t stand up to the other musicals struggling for people’s cash.
We do have a small advantage, since we’re a metal band doing it, and we have our fans, so we can guarantee we’ll probably sell out the first show. While we’re an established name in the metal scene, we’re absolutely nobody in the musical scene, so when we present this to promoters they have to be able to look at the manuscript and think it’s fabulous. There’s a fine line there, because if you make something too expensive they won’t want it, and I don’t want to have something I spend two or three years writing be rejected because it’s too expensive to produce. We need to create something spectacular with limited means, or do something scalable that can be done smaller or bigger without ruining the show. We have some good connections these days though. There’s an ongoing Queen musical in Spain and Therion has pretty much taken it over because half the band is playing in that musical. We’ll probably start in Spain and then try to branch out into other countries if it does well.
xFiruath: Thank you for your time Christofer, and I’ve been quite enjoying the new album.
Christofer: Well thank you very much, it’s cool to see people being open minded about it. I think out of 56 or so reviews online we’ve had 44 positive ones, so it’s become better than I expected.
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