If a year ago someone told me that I would be talking to the mastermind behind one of the most unique bands that ever walked the earth, I would take it as a really bad joke and probably even knock a few teeth from that clown’s happy face. But hey, what do I know? Here I am talking to Christofer Johnsson about his latest masterpiece "Secrets of the Runes" and wondering how a man without any professional musical education can write 600 pages of such moving and beautiful notes? You think it’s easy? Forget about a full orchestra and choir; try to come up with a "simple track" for any three classical instruments, good luck. That said, dive into magical world of Nordic mythology and absorb the secrets...
I’m holding the first faded version of promotional material... Does illegal distribution present such a big threat to your music or music as a whole?
This is a record company thing so you are really asking a wrong person about that but I kind of understand them a little bit because when you send 300 copies of promo CDs you can be sure that there will be 3 or 4 assholes among those people that will put up an entire album on the internet. MP3s is one-thing because people want a real copy anyway, they are not satisfied with the MP3 quality but some people put up the CD quality, in like a wave format, so people can download them and burn CDs and they just want to prevent it. An the other hand, I noticed that this faded version makes it harder for people to make reviews out of it so, I’m a little bit unsure if it’s creating more problems or actually avoids them. Anyway, like I said this is really a company thing but I guess we’re going to have a discussion about this when we’ll have the next album.
I won’t be making a mistake if I say that "Secrets of the Runes" is a concept album?
Yeah, it’s the first concept album we did and it’s focused around the most central thing in the ancient Nordic mythology. That is Yggdrasil, the world tree. You can see it illustrated on the front cover. There’s one rune for each of these nine runes that it represents. The concept that we did was one song for each of those nine worlds representing one of the worlds and describing lyrically its character inhabitants. We usually have 11 songs on each album, due to the being the number of Kliffoth, and we also squeezed in an epilogue at the end and the prologue at the beginning. The prologue is called ‘Ginnungagap’ and this is the void of creation built in space when fire and ice were merging creating the world and then you have ‘The Secret of the Runes’ the epilogue, the title track of the album. This lyric is describing the quintessence of an entire concept. It’s about when Odin, the God Odin, hanged himself upon the Yggdrasil tree and he traveled through all those nine worlds and he received for each of these nine worlds a rune song.
I guess the writing and recording process was also completely different because this time you used your private studio?
Yeah, well... writing and recording are different things but actually it’s pretty peculiar because I was working on a completely different album and I already had 5 songs written for a completely different theme album and then I just woke up one day and decided to do something Nordic. So, I just laid everything aside, put the other album on ice for the future and started to work on "Secret..." Believe it or not but most of this material was written in a less than two months. So, it just came out all at once. It seemed I had a lot of inspiration sleeping inside of me during the years and once it was awoken, the door was opened everything just came out at this same time.
Yeah, you’re right, we built our own studio and we built it actually especially for this album. So, we spent half a year to build a studio and another two months to record it. It was very different of course I mean, this album is really handmade, it’s very personal because not only we built the studio when we recorded it but we also produced it ourselves and we didn’t have a conductor for the orchestra and choir so I took care about it myself also. It really is a personal album where each of the members could put a lot of its personality into those songs.
Was the Nordic theme the reason for using Swedish lyrics?
Definitely. The Swedish lyrics are something I thought I’d never ever use again but it kind of suited within this concept. Actually, there are only three and a half of the lyrics that are Swedish. One is in German, three and a half are in Swedish and the rest are in English. We used Swedish when it was not very suitable to translate it to English. Some things don’t translate very well and that’s why we kept them in Swedish. That’s why the first song is beginning in English and ending in Swedish, these lines translated to English wouldn’t make any sense.
It seems like you are very satisfied with Tomas’ writing. Are you not interested in writing lyrics?
I’m very comfortable with him doing this because first of all he’s one of my very best friends, we know each other very well and we have this same kind of interests so he basically writes the lyrics that I would like to have, I would like to try to write myself. The main difference is that he’s doing this better. It’s also his main focus, for me the lyrics were always secondary but for him lyrics are the primary thing and he puts much more energy into them that I would ever put in, which of course is affecting the final result. It’s also very comfortable for me because I write the melody lines and he can fit in the words exactly in a way I want it to. For this album I even wrote some, I don’t even know how I should call it, like nonsense lyrics that didn’t mean anything, but by just putting a lot of the words he could understand how I wanted the melodies to be bold compared to the words. How words could color the melody lines. And then he just replaced the nonsense words I put in with lyrics. So, it’s very very comfortable, it’s saves a lot of time, because to me, writing lyrics is something that has to come spontaneously. Sometimes before I could have a song laying down forever before I finally come up with the lyrics, Tomas is doing it really quick.
All lyrics are divided between male and female choirs. Did you feel that this type of expression would better reflect an album’s atmosphere?
Yes, there are not too many vocal solos but actually there are more solos on this album than before. We were never too keen on using solos but compared to "Deggial", our last album, there are quite much more. Also, they often sing at this same time but they don’t sing this same thing and it might seem like male of female choir. I don’t know why, this is not intentional it just turned out this way.
What do you think of Tarja from Nightwish? Would you ever use her voice on one of you albums?
She’s brilliant no doubt about that, but I think, because of two reasons, I wouldn’t want to do this. She’s already in a famous band and it draws a lot of attention; people would go "Oh, the Nightwish singer is singing in Therion." It would be like a circus for the media. People would focus more on that rather than on what we’ve actually achieved. We had this when Dan Swano was doing some singing for us. People didn’t listen so much what we did, well of course a lot of them did, but I think the attention was more his background. And another thing is that even though she’s damn good I don’t have a problem finding someone this same quality or better in most opera houses. She’s very good, no doubt about it, but it’s not like she’s unique. She’s very young also, I mean it’s very hard to find any of the best opera singers that are under 30. When they get 45-50 years old that’s when they sound best in my opinion. So, if you want to get the best ones go for the older ones. They have much more time to develop their voice.
You used to treat guitar as just another instrument... this time on many tracks guitar takes a lead. Was that intentional?
It’s just happened that way but still, as you mentioned, guitar is just another instrument in the orchestra, one of the most important ones of course, but it’s used quite often as a base instrument. This is a Nordic album and when you have this Nordic thing to me it seems like you have to have this element of earth. It has to be a more raw, harsher production. It doesn’t suit with this clean production we had on our last two albums so, it had to be much rawer. We put much more distortion on the guitar and when guitar is much heavier, much noisier we have to give it more place in the production. Yes, indeed there is a little bit more guitar harmonies than before but this somehow came natural by itself working with this type of songs. Since this album is heavier it was natural to use more guitars.
Tell me how different is Therion on CD from Therion in concert?
First of all, we are much heavier live and guitars are even more important. Well, we cannot reproduce exactly what’s on the record live. There’re few songs that we will never play live because that would be a fucking disaster. Some things are so complicated and so advanced that there are no choirs in a world that could do this even with rehearsing. It would be a fucking mess.
For the songs that we do live some guitar stuff and orchestration sound exactly as on the album because we take it from the album and put it on the multi-track machines.
Hiring an orchestra to do live shows is really beyond what we can afford. If the audience would be OK to pay a 100$ for a ticket I wouldn’t have a problem with touring with orchestra but who would pay that? There would be 5 people per show. That’s a problem we have so, we focus on what’s the most important, that is vocals. In Europe, where we do really well, we’re bringing 6-8 people with us for the choir. We’re going to tour South America and Mexico and even though we have this same amount of popularity there or even bigger in some places the extra cost of flying both, people and equipment, forces us to cut down the number of people in the choir. There will be three singers and the rest of the choir stuff would have to come from the track machine as well.
But if we do very well, then organizers will say "oh, Therion drew a lot of people, we made good money," and we can ask for more next time and bring the European concert to South America if everything goes well. As for the USA we not even there yet. Like last year with South America, we had some offers but we turned them down because they were not good enough and we’re not going to go and play for the absolute first time and give the audience some crap. We don’t do that. Same thing with the US, unless we get a decent offer that we can do at least a very good light version of what we do in Europe we won’t go because we don’t do crap shows. Fans deserve better than that. It would be an insult for the people that have waited for so many years to see us to get over there and then do some sloppy shows. So, we just need to raise the record sales a little bit further. The last album is still under 20 thousand in the US and we need to get over 20 thousand before we can seriously discus any possibility of a tour there, unless we would go supporting a bigger band. That would be no problem we would go and support the only problem is what band? With the style of music we are playing I can’t think of any band that would fit.
You are definitely the body and soul of Therion, but it seems like the opposite something you said few years ago, that Therion will never be a fully functional band, has become a reality.
Not really. I mean, there are some permanent members so in a way we are really a band. The people that play guitars, drum and a bass are really a part of the band but on the other hand we’re not really a band because we don’t have a singer. What kind of band is it that doesn’t have a singer? We’d always work with different hired people and it doesn’t really matter where we get those singers from. So, from that perspective we will never be a normal band because we won’t have a singer. But at least as for the foundations, guitars, drum and bass, those people are really permanent members of the musical concept that Therion is and they also have an influence on how we sound as well. Of course being the only original member of the band I will always have a possibility of saying ‘no’ if I don’t like something but we seriously discus everything together. It happened more than once that I had one opinion and they all had another opinion and I listened to them and we did it their way because there were three people thinking one thing and me only differently. So, we are working like a band.
Do you ever plan on using the full potential of your musicians on one of your albums or do you just want to avoid killing yourself at the shows by always watching your fingers?
They are really great musicians and they could play Dream Theater type of stuff if needed, but I think it would be better if they could do some kind of project for that because it doesn’t really fit into Therion. Actually the song that Kristian wrote had a lot of other parts first, there was that guitar masturbation stuff but we had to slaughter the song a little bit because it didn’t really fit into Therion. Once in a while it’s tasteful to have few of these technique things, like with the drums it’s pretty simple most of the time but once in a while you have this pretty tricky little thing coming up. Same thing with guitars but I think it’s good to keep it at that level. Therion is a musical concept mainly because of the compositions not because of the playing. Many bands, like Dream Theater... many people like their songs but personally I don’t like most of their songs. I’m very impressed with their musicianship and I respect them for that but I don’t like their compositions too much. I don’t want Therion to become a progressive rock band. This is not what Therion is about.
Next year marks 15 years of Therion, are there any surprises for the fans like "The Best of…"?
Definitely not "The Best of…." A ‘Best of’ we can do when we retire... maybe for the next generation of fans when we’ll have 16 or 20 Therion albums to choose from maybe then it will be cool to have the best of so they can see what’s up on each one...
So, maybe video or DVD?
We were talking about making a DVD compilation of all the videos clips plus of course some of the stuff we never released. Possibly there could be a few live songs from the last Wacken concert that was filmed but record company didn’t buy the rights for it yet. What’s more...? I think we can film some more during our next tour, maybe some backstage stuff, pictures, I don’t know, naked pictures of the choir [laughs]. We have been talking about a live album also but so far there are no decisions being made.
What about the future of Therion; you always try to push the boundaries, how do you see your music five years from now?
Good question... No clue. I never have a clue. [laughs] I don’t know how our next album will be. I just write music spontaneously, whatever comes out, if I like it I record it and if I like the recording I release it. That’s why it’s still a fun for me because I don’t go into a role like AC\DC that have strictly defined style and they know how they are going to sound like on their next release. I just try to do a record that I would like to buy myself. This is my only rule.
You’ve partially answered this question already, but, is there any chance of seeing you in States?
Actually, it seems like we have a fair offer to do a festival in the US in New Jersey, I think in April. If we play there, we’ll play for an hour or so and we’ll only play the new songs but at least that would be an opportunity to play in the US for a first time.
Let’s hope so.
Entered: 10/17/2001 5:24:41 PM