Latest release: Beloved Antichrist (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.therion.se
Therion is the lifework of guitarist Christofer Johnsson and with thirty years in the business, he has embarked on the most ambitious project of his career. Beloved Antichrist is a sprawling rock opera based on Russian philosopher and poet Vladímir Soloviov’s story A Short Tale of the Antichrist. Johnsson’s three act masterpiece contains 30 different characters and is a truly epic undertaking such that many a rock opera will pale by comparison as far as sheer complexity is concerned. The equally massive tour also saw Therion encapsulating elements of the project into their live set as a means to hopefully soon realise a full theatrical performance. Therion will finally make their way to Australia as a result of these broadening opportunities. Loud Online had an in depth chat to Johnsson about his Therion masterwork and the mindset required to achieve something that for many artists will surely become an incommensurate benchmark for rock operas.
This latest album or project is a monster of a piece of work. How did you do it?
Well for a start and this is a very common misunderstanding, it is not an album. If I told you that about Jesus Christ Superstar or Phantom of the Opera, you would never refer to those as albums. It is an onstage theatrical production that you can also buy as an audio version and that is very important to understanding this because a lot of the music, in fact, almost all of the music is composed to enhance what is going on onstage. When we wrote this music, we had a big schedule so it would be like Act Three, Chapter Two, Scene One and you would have a scene description and what characters were in it. Then you had to compose music for those singers for the length needed to tell that story and in music that enhances what is going on onstage. I mean, obviously there is very different music if it is a battle scene or if it is a love scene. It is like listening to a soundtrack of a movie that you haven’t seen and with only the audio from a movie, you can hear what they speak about but you do not see what is going on in that scene. So I am actually very happy that we managed to get this positive reaction for it with the way it is now. I am thrilled to see the second wave of reactions when people see it in its right context. An example would be a song like ‘Jewels From Afar’ which is very different music from what Therion would normally write. It is a ballad in a major key. That is not what we would write normally but in it right context, I think that this is one of the best songs that I ever wrote. So it is going to be interesting when people get to see this and I don’t know yet how the success of this will be but we know that we will stage it all at least once. If it only happens once, then some diehard fans will be flying to see it and people lucky enough to live in the area will see it. But then we will film it for DVD and Blu-Ray so that people will see it and to see how people relate to this when it is actually the way that it is supposed to be. The reasons that we released it as an audio release firstly financial because to be able to sell this, a as a production to somebody that will put this music on, is to hear it. I cannot give them a big pile of scores, it is not opera. If it was an opera for an opera house I would give them a bunch of scores to read it and say, ‘oh what beautiful music’ or that would say, ‘it’s crap, leave my office,’ but to somebody that makes musicals. They need to hear actual audio and you cannot make a demo for what was originally four hours of music. So I thought, ‘okay, we need cash to do this properly so people can hear what it is supposed to sound like’ and you need quite a lot of money. We spent one hundred thousand Euros but in order to get the money we need to get it from the record company and they need a product that they can sell. They do not do charities therefore we had to record it like an album so they get it and we release it and we have an audio recording to show to concert promoters. That is why it came about this way and since it was released, as an album first, even though it is not an album, we decided to make a regular tour and just play a couple of scenes like regular songs. So we did eighty six concerts in North and South America, in Europe and in Israel as well. We would have been done with this tour now but as a very positive things coming up, we are now doing Australia and China. Actually, it is thanks to the Chinese that it is happening in Australia finally. I have been trying to get to Australia for twenty years. The band has been around for twenty one years but I had the first offer twenty years ago but we were too many people and it was too expensive to fly our equipment over and I had questions like, ‘hey, can you do it with only one singer?’ but that wouldn’t have been fair on them so I would rather wait. We are doing five shows in China now, which is really a lot for being China because the market is not so big there. I mean, a big market but not for metal. As for flying out of China we suggested being flown to Australia instead of back to Europe to check out offers and with China coming up we now had one half of the flight paid so we can finally do it.
As you say, doing a rock opera is an epic undertaking so how do you decide what to put into a live show performance? There is thematic material within it from Vladimir Soloviov’s story so how do you go about filtering it down?
Oh we just did a few more guitar based scenes and it sounds more like regular songs. We did five scenes on the tour that we just did but in Australia and in China we are going to do two of the scenes because for three of the shows in China, we’ve never played there before and for two of the cities in China we only played once whereas in Australia we have never played so we think that people would want the best of sets so we sacrificed a few of the new scenes to put in some more older material so it would really be like a best of where no album is more important than the other. Normally, when you promote a new release you do more songs from that release on that tour but once it is back catalogue you just play what people want to hear from it.
Indeed. Given there is a lot of instrumentation in the new material, does it necessitate using production tapes in the live performance?
Yeah, yeah but this is the same as we have always had because we used orchestra sounds in the mid-nineties. So we are always putting in a backing track as we only did two performances with a full symphonic orchestra and it is a total nightmare organising and very expensive. It would cost at least one hundred to one hundred and twenty thousand dollars to pull that off for one evening with orchestra, you know, paying for rehearsals – we need to go there and rehearse for one week with the orchestra, ahead of the show and it is very, very stressful so for us it is the standard procedure that we have orchestration pre-recorded.
I believe there was an historian, Thomas Karlsson, associated with the lyrics of Therion material?
Thomas Karlsson wrote the regular lyrics in the past but for Beloved Antichrist, it was Per Albinsson who made the libretto for it. He is an author so he writes books whereas Thomas Karlsson is a religious historian. He has a doctorate in the history of religion. He wasn’t interested in doing this, he’s not a story teller, he is more of a poet.
For something as ambitious as this project, when did you know that it was fully completed?
Well, that is a good question. I think that with every album, we do want to re-do things but it is finished. You always want to because you get more ideas but at some point you have to wrap it up and say, ‘okay, let’s mix it now’. With Beloved Antichrist, we had to work in the other direction. Normally you have something and then you get ideas on how you expand it to do this and that or to record something more but with Beloved Antichrist I realised that we weren’t really making demos, they were more like sound sketches in my home studio. I realised, ‘fuck, this is going to be four hours. You can’t fucking record four hours. Who is going to listen to this? People are going to end up in a coma’, so, as it wasn’t possible to do four hours of material, I had to start cutting and I got it down to around three and a half hours so that is what we recorded. Then when I listened to the mix I was like, ‘this is three and a half hours, no, this is not going to work,’ so, I had to slice another half an hour. We cut it down to three hours and four minutes. So that is kind of the director’s cut but when we stage this later it is going to have to be shorter because to be honest, a metal fan into Therion may be able to see a three hour performance but someone else is not going to watch three hours of it. We need to have a broader audience for this because it is so expensive to stage. We may just do one show and fans will have to travel from all over but my ambition is to make this work like a musical such as Phantom of the Opera, that can be staged via franchising by different productions all over the planet. If I succeed in that, that is another thing but that is what I am dreaming about. To achieve that we need to have an accessible product – it doesn’t have to be a commercial product but it needs to be accessible. If say a metal fan’s mother would go to see this she would not sit and listen to the audio version beforehand. She would just go for an evening of entertainment like going to the cinema to see a movie so the music needs to be very direct so that you can relate to it immediately, but also the length and the contest needs to be in a way that people who are not metal heads can relate to it. We will cut away many of the more, for us when we say brutal we’d mean death or black metal but from the mother’s perspective we cut away some of the more brutal songs so it will a little bit more accessible to make something that could work for a broader audience. Let’s face it, in the metal scene, you can be really famous and everybody knows you and you can get away with whatever you want. But, once you step into a different scene, you are nobody and in the musical scene, nobody knows who the fuck Therion is and they don’t give a shit who Therion is, no, it is just an evening of entertainment, who cares who was the director of the movie or the name if the actors. It is just, ‘was it a good movie and was it worth my money going and seeing it?’ so we need to adapt to that if we want to have a chance to make this happen. It boils down to, we need you mother’s cash, ha-ha. We need to have that to make that happen. In the metal scene I have gotten away with so much crazy stuff as I have a very generous and a very understanding record company. So I could just change the style between albums and sales would go up and down between the records and they were just very tolerant and I could do whatever I wanted to satisfy my need for experimenting and development. But here, I just get one shot. You make something that is sellable or you’re going to miss the target and it will all fall into oblivion. So it is kind of a lot of pressure make this a sellable product and I have using that label for my music and for my art. But that is how it is.
Do you feel your approach has change to you thinking in visual terms when creating your music as a director might approach a film?
Yeah, it is a completely different way of thinking and the way we wrote the music, I mean, to make a regular album is so easy, you just write a bunch of songs. It is like, ‘hey, we have a couple of good songs, let’s record them’ and if people like that songs, you release an album. It is a process of write, record, release – done. Here we had the fucking schedule from Hell as it was like something like over fifty scenes that we had to write over fifty songs and you need to write specifically to that scene. You cannot just write whatever you like, you need the song and singing to enhance what is going on onstage. A good example is that it is very easy for us to write for a war scene because yeah, we’re metal heads so we can write war music but to make music for a love scene under the stars it is harder because that is not the stuff that we usually write, you know, that type of music. There were some scenes that we wrote really fast in the beginning that were easy but it was very difficult to wrap it up in the end because we had these few scenes left that nobody could really write the music for. On top of everything, you have only got certain singers. So you must write music now for soprano and for baritone because those at the people in the scene. If you write a great melody it can be, ‘no, this is too high for a baritone,’ so then you need to rewrite to fit that singer. It was really, really complicated. Sometimes you have the text written before so you have to add that melody to a text which is totally not how we work. Normally, we write the music and there is a lyric written and they have to fit into the melody. So it is completely different and I love the challenge because I felt like I was thinking, ‘what can I do next?’ and I need to have the knife against the throat for me to do something really cool. Otherwise I get bored and just do some crap.
I understand that as something like ‘Morning Has Broken’ builds slowly and has soprano in there and then it just changes to a full mix of guitars alongside the orchestral aspects. The mind boggles as to what goes on in your head to get all of that material down and combined.
That is a very good example. For ‘Morning Has Broken’ it is very late in the night and the President of the United States of Europe is completely into this book that he has read that the Antichrist has written and he realises his days are numbered. ‘This guy is brilliant, I have just been elected President but this guy is going to take over.’ He is afraid because he wants to be the President and he is glad this guy is so brilliant but he is sad in a way because he doesn’t want to lose his position. Then his wife comes to comfort him and ask what he is doing at maybe four o’clock in the morning so the music has to really enhance that he is tired and his feelings but then when his wife comes and sings, the music changes a little bit because she is trying to bring him some light and to comfort him. The music has to show that. It is very gloomy, depressive and drank when it is him singing and then when she sings, she is bringing something else into the scene. Then he kind of concludes that she understands, ‘okay, this is how it is’ and then more time has expired so when it ends, morning has broken and they look out to see how the sun has risen, there are people coming into the street and the city is coming to life and the music has to reflect that. If you only listen to that as one song it like, ‘okay, nice song’ but when you see it within context, it is really part of the visual, just like in a movie. I will be thrilled to see how the reactions will be.
How do you feel about your back catalogue in comparison to this latest, epic work?
Well in one way I don’t really see this as a Therion release. I see this as a project done by Therion, it is not a Therion album so I don’t know, if people want to hear music from it I guess we will just play it as a couple of scenes just like regular songs in the future. But the back catalogue is genuine Therion – this is something different that we did. Saying that, after having done this gigantic thing I somehow feel empty like, ‘okay, now, what the fuck should I do next?’ Should I go to Mars and record the first metal album interstellar? What is left to do, you know, standing on heads while recording? It feels like we can’t do anything bigger and more grandiose. We’ve mixed music styles, brought in music from all over the world with all sorts of weird popular music styles so it is really difficult to predict what we will do next. I never knew what would be next though so in 2010 I would not have envisaged considering doing a covers album two years later to celebrate the 25 year anniversary of the band. But we did ” which was a weird cover album [Les Fleurs du Mal] with only French songs from female artists from the sixties and seventies. People have been asking for years if Therion making an opera was a logical step and I was like, ‘pfft, who knows?’ yet all of a sudden one day, the position of the stars are lined up or whatever and so you do something. I have no idea what is on the other side of the hill but maybe it is something interesting however, I never felt empty like this. When I got to the ending of the recording, I didn’t feel happy; I was relieved that is was finally over. We recorded three and half hours of music which is like recording four albums at the same time. It is insane. To make it worse, with fifteen different singers, every time there is a different singer, you have to set things up and do sound checks, set the mood and take some shitty takes before the singer warms up and produces something useable and we’re doing this over and over again. Plus, when you record drums, you know who fed up you are with drums after recording ten songs for one album, imagine recording for three and a half hours of drums – it melts your brain, you die and get reborn in the process for it. Then bass and of course guitars which were the worst because I had this brilliantly insane idea to do massive overdubbing. Accept’s song ‘Balls to the Wall’ is made by sixteen rhythm guitar tracks. You bring down the distortion to very little so it sounds horrible for just one guitar but you build up layers and when you’ve done sixteen, it sounds like that. It is crystal clear but powerful at the same time. A regular single guitar sound might need a lot of distortion which takes up more space in the sound production. I wanted a guitar which doesn’t take up space because there is so much shit going on. It is a brilliant idea to do this. I worked out how to do it after thirty years in the business and to do proper layering using different guitars and amplifiers mixed into the overdubs. We had three different amplifiers and used eighteen overdubs. So, imagine eighteen overdubs on a three and a half hour recording. That means that every guitar you hear throughout it has been played eighteen times. So once you’ve nailed it and recorded it fifteen times then you realise, ‘fuck, I still have two days left of recording’. When this was done I more like in a mental coma and then we decided to do the longest tour we ever did, eighty six concerts back to back. So, I do not know if I feel empty because of exhaustion or because of the artistic reason.
Do you think that writing a significant piece in a major key made it easier to endure the process?
I just don’t like major keys generally. I am a very spontaneous songwriter; we’ve had parts in the past in a major key but not for a full song. Here, the scene demanded it because it was full of hope and love, where it is somebody finding their future wife. When he becomes Antichrist, he has a lot of inner conflict as this is a person who has chosen this path, not born as Antichrist, so he gets possessed by this unholy spirit. He still has his own personality but with this new thing, he is unsure of himself, full of ambition with a lot of darkness but he has love for a regular human being and is afraid of not being understood of what he has become yet there is this woman who somehow understands him although not fully. He is full of hope that there is somebody he can share this new thing with so it has to be in a major key. It has to be beautiful but not too happy, if you see what I mean. It is so complex with what needed to be put into that scene but that is why I am so happy with the composition because it expresses exactly what is need to do. I think it is one of the best songs I have ever written within context.
That is far more philosophical than what I’ve heard from most metal band leaders.
Metal is very special music to me and I grew up on metal, most of my favourite music is metal and I will always listen to metal. Bands like Accept changed my growing up and when I listen to Balls to the Wall or Restless and Wild, I still feel the same way I did when I was ten years old. I’m so happy that my song became a big Accept fan and I never made him listen to it, he just found it himself and he is turning ten now so it is a passing of culture to my next generation. I listen to so much other music as well like classical, opera, folk and good pop music such as Abba and Beatles to old music in the forties that was a bridge between classical music and pop music as it used orchestra but with simple compositions and singers with opera vibrato. So many different types of music have taught me something or touched me in some way. I was never satisfied with one thing so for me it is natural to be into poetry, to go German mountain hiking, listen to folk music in Bavarian mountain cottages, go to the Opera in a suit or be into very loud AC/DC. I love so many very different things. I don’t see a contradiction in that. I’m a huge AC/Dc fan so am looking forward to Australia. We got most of the first two AC/DC albums material here but split up in different releases. My bass player was in an AC/DC tribute band called AB/CD and they also make records in the style of their music. The sad thing is when record companies are hit song oriented because they should release the early albums how it was released in Australia.