Therion – The Leviathan ApproachesSunday, 24th January 2021
A band that has always moved forward to the beat of their own drum, Therion has built up quite a discography over the 30+ years they have been around for. Evolving and twisting their sound, and challenging listeners to keep up the pace. Leviathan then comes as a change in tone, as the group decided to challenge themselves to deliver a release that now looks to deliver something more akin to what fans would want. An intriguing avenue that we were happy to chat with founder Christofer Johnsson about and hear his perspective on. We also take a look back at Theli, what has allowed the band to be so successful, as well as some problems that will affect bands after the COVID-19 dust settles.
Dead Rhetoric: Beloved Antichrist was a colossal undertaking. What are your thoughts on it, now that we are three years removed from it?
Christofer Johnsson: Beloved Antichrist was a rock musical, like Jesus Christ Superstar, but with opera vocals. It hasn’t been staged yet, so you are basically hearing a rock musical soundtrack for something that hasn’t been staged yet. It’s a little frustrating because we were just about ready to start it in Mexico when the coronavirus started. So who knows when it is going to happen now. People haven’t heard the main part of it, its like watching a soundtrack for a movie that you haven’t seen. But we will get back to it sooner or later – there will be an end to this [coronavirus]. We now have a regular album and we have touring for that whenever that can begin, so Beloved Antichrist may have to be pushed quite a bit into the future but we will definitely go back to it.
Beloved Antichrist is the reason that we took this turn with Leviathan, because after that album, I felt very empty. It was my last dream. I didn’t have anything else that I wanted to do – no more visions. I felt empty. I had done everything I wanted to do – what should I do now? Then I had a discussion with Thomas Vikström on the phone and we talked about Therion historically and Therion now. We had this talk about one thing that Therion never did. For all of these years, Therion always did what the band wanted to do. We never took into consideration what the record label or even the fans wanted. We would just do what we wanted to do. If we were lucky, we would sell some records. If we were not so lucky, we would sell less records. The consequence was that record sales were always an up and down between releases. The only thing we never did was try to please the audience. We thought that could be a challenge.
It sounds so easy. Just write some hit songs. But if it was easy, most bands would do that because most bands care more about being famous and earning money – being successful, instead of doing exactly what they want to do. I don’t blame them because it’s a tough business and you want to pay your bills. We were always a bit more eccentric, and not give a toss – just do what we wanted. So we gave ourselves the task of trying to make a classic sounding Therion album. In the beginning it was actually quite difficult. After a while, we got a lot of inspiration, and we wrote about 40 songs. Obviously not every song out of these 40 would be a hit song, but at least 30 or so would be at least album quality material. So we had enough material for three albums. We decided to record a trilogy. Leviathan is actually Leviathan I, because there will be a II and III later.As we speak, we have already recorded most of Leviathan II.
There are 3 different paths that you could take with these songs. One portion of these songs were very direct hit songs, and very bombastic. We felt like we could put together an epic hits album, which is Leviathan I. There there was another phase that felt more dark and melancholic. Still very direct songs, and hit songs, but darker. Those will be on Leviathan II. Then we have the leftovers, which sounds like they are less good, but they are an odd bunch of more experimental songs. Songs that were more accident of birth or spontaneously written, during the time when we were trying to write hit songs. I think we can please everybody – well, not everybody, but we will be able to please the majority of fans with this. There’s a lot of Therion fans that really appreciate that every album sounds different. We have many different styles.
I think those people will prefer Leviathan III. We have some more progressive, and I would say brutal stuff. There are some heavier and faster songs, and longer compositions. Some diehard fans really appreciate songs like “Land of Canaaan” or “Via Nocturna.” So we have a song like that. But I do think that Leviathan I and II will be the more commercially successful ones. If you see the songs that are most popular, it’s usually more direct songs. Shorter songs that are direct and catchy. You can’t please everybody. There are even some fans that think we should go back to playing death metal. Those fans will be eternally disappointed with every new Therion album, that’s a promise [laughs]. I don’t have anything against death metal, but for me it was a youthful thing. I don’t think I could make a death metal song with any sort of credibility.
I don’t have anything negative to say about death metal bands who just continued on – I have nothing but respect for them. But for me, it would be dishonest to do it now. I also don’t think too many people would like it. We were never a big band back then. We sold like 5,000 copies back in the day when we were a death metal band. It’s easy to think sometimes, and I seldom read what people write on the internet, but every time you release something new, you can look around and see some reactions. It’s easy to think, if you see multiple comments about something that more people want that. But it’s not. If 5 people write something, that means 5 people have that opinion.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking at some other interviews you have done, Leviathan was recorded all over the world due to coronavirus. Did it make additional hurdles for you to get it to sound the way that you wanted it to?
Johnsson: It was both good and bad actually. Normally, I am always present during all of the recording so that I have direct control. Now I had to trust people. I had to send them demo tapes and instructions and trust that they could do a good job and interpret the instructions correctly. In some regards, it was actually a really good experience because they became more creative and had more freedom. But in some ways, it was really not good. We were supposed to record the drums first, but he didn’t really deliver what we wanted in the end. There were some songs that were good, but we had to rerecord most of the drums. That was one negative thing. There were also a few times that I had to send some things back to be done again, but given the circumstances, I would say that it was a creative and new way of working.
One good aspect of it would be that I could record multiple things at the same time. I could have a Hammond organ recording in Sweden at the same time as Christian Vidal was recording some guitar solos in Argentina, and we had a choir in Israel. We also had soloists in the US and Spain and other countries. I didn’t have to do one thing at a time. We could speed up the process by recording more than one thing at once. Another really good thing was that it kept my ears fresh. Honestly, when you go into a production and you listen to drums for a week. Then you listen to two days of bass, then you get a week of guitars. Then you work with vocals, orchestration, and choirs. Then you have to listen to the mix. When you start with the mix and you are just EQing drums and stuff, it really wears on you. When you are done with production, you are completely exhausted. You don’t want to see a studio for another year or two. But now, since my ears were always fresh – I didn’t have to listen to all of the raw material being created, just the finished take, it was so easy to just continue with the mix production immediately.
From that perspective I really liked working this way. I think in the future, it could be a combination. When we rerecorded the drums, there was really no need for me to sit there with him. He knows exactly what I want and he gave me some perfect takes. If he had any doubts, he would just facetime me and ask. So I think this has actually added another dimension to recording that I would never have dared to do, as I’m a bit of a control freak. I’d rather fly people in and have control of the process than just let someone rent a commercial studio and just do a take and hope for the best. It really worked out well with most of the people involved, so I think the future will be a combination of this way of working and the old way of working.
Dead Rhetoric: To me, Therion has always pushed boundaries. What do you feel makes up your sound – what is the essence of it?
Johnsson: I don’t know, we are just a very spontaneous band that writes songs that we like. We have a very broad musical taste. There is a very wide range of influences – I think that is the secret sauce in Therion. We don’t just sit and listen to metal bands and write metal songs. We listen to all sorts of weird, old music that gives us odd influences. I can give you an example. The song “Eye of Algol,” is influenced by Bathory, Venom, Pentagram, Genesis, a Swedish country singer from the ‘70s, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, and Bach. If the fans would know where all of these things came from, they would not want to listen to us [laughs]. It’s not very cool, but that’s the secret to why we sound the way we do. It’s the same thing with Thomas Vikström. He has very broad influences too. When you put things like this into metal, you get a completely different angle.
You can take some different ingredients and put them on a sandwich so that you can taste the individual parts – or like a pizza. You can see all of the things on it and taste them. But we don’t work that way. When we blend things, it’s more like baking bread. You can’t taste the flour or the egg separately in bread. It blends to a new entity. I think that’s why we can get away with all of these odd influences, because they are blended in so well. It’s not like you hear a Bathory riff and then hear Aretha Franklin singing on top of it. That would be the pizza way. Since we are doing it the bread way…or like making sausage. You have no idea what’s in the sausage, and you don’t want to know, you just eat it and shut up.
You could also hear this when we did the Les Fleurs du mal album. They were covers of female French pop songs from the ‘60s. We succeeded so well that I think there’s a lot of fans that don’t even think it’s a cover album. That’s pretty odd actually. You can look at Spotify – it’s the most streamed Therion album. I don’t know how I feel about that [laughs]. This cover album is actually more popular than our regular albums. But at the same time, half of our fans seem to hate it. So it’s typical Therion in a way, as it stirs up a lot of emotion. But my point was, that if you can take those songs and Therion-ize them so well that even our own fans mistake them for original compositions, then it’s not too farfetched to understand how we can incorporate those influences and blend them in.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s been 25 years since you released Theli. What do you recall about the time surrounding its release?
Johnsson: To be honest, I thought it would be a big flop. We always had a lot of respect for music journalists and band colleagues in the metal scene, and everyone always said our albums were so great. But we didn’t sell any albums. We would make record after record and it would be a…not a flop, since we were an underground band with a small following, but the record companies would have higher expectations. They would listen to it and say that it was great and that we would sell a lot. Each time, it wouldn’t sell. The main reason and explanation was that it was too odd. It has the potential, but perhaps it was too odd to really sell. But when we did Theli, it was even more odd. To me, it was a highway to self-destruction. If it didn’t sell before, how could we sell this with opera, choirs, and more. It was not going to sell. Another part of me, not the rational part but the more emotional part, thought that they were fucking good songs. We had made a fantastic record. In a different world, this would be selling like hell. Then all of a sudden, I guess it was a matter of timing. People were feeling fed up with death metal, since it wasn’t really progressing. Black metal was also stagnating. Thrash was long ago very boring, and grunge was losing its pace too. People wanted something new.
We came at the right time with Theli. If it had been released in 1993, it would have just been another strange record that no one bought. But at that moment, people needed something new. That’s also why Hammerfall made it. People needed something new and they wanted some nostalgia. I remember when they signed to Nuclear Blast, they were mocked. “You signed this bullshit? This ‘80s crap?” But people wanted something different than from what was going on at the time. So you had Therion doing something new, you had Moonspell doing this gothic thing, Tiamat was doing something new with Wildhoney – it was an explosion of new influences. Just like death metal was doing something new in the ‘80s and thrash was something refreshing from all of these hair bands and heavy metal was going on decline. It’s always like that. There’s something new, and then you have a 5 or so year period where the scene blossoms, and then people get bored. It could also be a generational thing – you have a younger generation and they don’t want to listen to the same music as the old farts. They want something new.
It was a peculiar moment because we were the odd bird, then all of a sudden we were on the front page of all of the music magazines. We were also always living on basically nothing. I had been living off music since ’92, but it was like I was living in a tiny one room flat in a bad neighborhood and paying my rent for a month and had absolutely no idea how to pay for the next month. It was going from month to month. I couldn’t afford a car, and I couldn’t even afford to go on the subway. I had to sneak in without paying because I was so broke. So all of a sudden, most of my problems were solved overnight. it wasn’t like we were getting rich or anything, but I could afford to buy a car and pay on the subway at least. I moved to a 2-room flat in a little better neighborhood.
Also, we had a budget. That was the big problem. When we didn’t sell records, obviously we did not get a good budget. It was always very frustrating. I had these big visions of what I wanted to do, but I would have to compromise away most of my ideas since the budget wasn’t there to do what I wanted. Everything was rushed in the studio, and things were not getting the best – it was about seeing what we could get with what he had. All of a sudden, we sold a lot of records and I could choose where I wanted to record, what I wanted on the record, and it was no problem to get an orchestra or stay as long as I needed in the studio without stress. For creativity, it was the best thing ever. All of a sudden, I had the luxury to do whatever I wanted and get paid for it.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been doing Therion for over 30 years at this point. Do you feel that there’s been something that has been key to the band’s longevity and success?
Johnsson: We just did what popped up in our mind at the moment. We have been blessed in that even when the sales were down, we still had a high minimum level. Secret of the Runes, for instance, was considered to be a flop at the time, but it still sold 50,000 copies in Europe. By today’s standards, that sounds very good but then it was different. You would be dropped by the record label if you didn’t sell 10,000 copies in Europe. Today, I think Nightwish would sell millions and now they sell a hundred thousand copies – it doesn’t mean you are less successful, people just listen to music in different ways. Even by the standards back then, 50,000 in Europe wasn’t that bad. We still did reasonably well even when they weren’t received as well as the others.
But then again, with time, sometimes history gives you the right. Secret of the Runes was considered boring because it only had opera vocals – no metal or rock ones. It was weird, with Swedish lyrics. I think we were the first established band to use a ‘weird’ native language. It would always be English or maybe German, but to sing in Swedish, unless you were some underground Swedish folk metal band, it would be unthinkable. We were heavily criticized for that. But with time, it became one of our most popular records. 10 years later, we were paid extra to make a tour playing that entire album. Sometimes it just takes a while for things to sink in with people.
Dead Rhetoric: Given the way things are right now, are there any plans for 2021?
Johnsson: We are going to stay in the studio and keep recording. Whenever this chaos comes to an end, we will have a couple of albums in our pockets ready to pull out. The whole thing with coronavirus restrictions is much deeper than people think when it comes to the music business. The obvious thing is that you have restricted gatherings so there are no concerts, but it’s not so easy to just remove the restrictions and just start touring again. You have an ecosystem around the band. The most obvious thing is the venues. A lot of venues will be bankrupt since they have rent to pay and there are no concerts. But there’s much more. Stage techs for instance. When you are an artist, you have a lot of incomes – you sell music, merch, you get royalties, songwriting money, there are many streams of income. If you lose one, you can focus on other things and compensate for it. It’s not a problem for most bands, unless you are a band that don’t sell as many records and are on the road all the time. For a band like Therion, I actually earn more from the records than playing live. So ironically, I will earn more from coronavirus. But it’s not about earning money, it’s about having fun. I want to play live, because it’s a big passion about what we do.
But to get back to the topic, you have stage techs, light techs, sound engineers, monitor techs, all these people who don’t have an income all of a sudden. Not everyone is 20 years old and living with parents. You have a lot of middle aged people with a mortgage and families to feed. They lose their home without an income. So they have to get another job. If they get another job, and then the touring starts to come back to life, would they dare to lose that job to go on tour? I don’t think so. It will be very hard for bands to find techs to go out on tour. Then you have merchandise companies. They sell maybe 75% of their t-shirts to bands on tour. They go bust. A company we used to work with, I sent an email to them a few weeks ago and I just didn’t get an answer because they don’t exist anymore. There are a lot of companies that we have used since the 90s and all of a sudden they aren’t there.
Then there are tour bus companies. Those double-decker buses are expensive. I would guess most of the tour bus companies maybe get loans to finance these buses, which means that they need to get money to finance it. So if those buses aren’t moving for a few weeks, it’s not good. If they don’t roll for a few months, it’s probably a disaster. If they don’t roll for half a year, how can they still exist as a company? It’s going to be hard to get a tour bus. Ironically, it will be easier for the more dodgy bus companies who have some old shit bus that is paid for. We will probably have to tour in buses that we normally wouldn’t be going in. the worn out tour buses where everything is broken and dirty/dodgy. They can probably charge an arm and a leg for them too, since there won’t be much to choose from. So we will have to go in odd directions and be robbed, and be happy that we were one of the bands that go a bus at all.
There’s other stuff too, like booking agents too. They have no incomes at all now. Tour managers, management companies – there will be so much that just disappears. People think that right now is the big thing – there can’t be any tours. But I think that the big problem will be when touring starts again, and you have every band on the planet trying to tour at once, climbing over each other to get tour dates that are available and the old tour buses that are still there. I see two options. One option is to team up with other bands and make some indoor mini-festival tours where you have big name bands working together and sharing as much as possible. I have heard of a lot of other bands trying to do that this way. The other way is to just sit out and wait for the dust to settle and maybe tour for Leviathan II, and not be a part of the chaos.