A chat with Therion mastermind Christofer Johnsson

During the Motörhead performance at Graspop, I had a chat with Christofer Johnsson, the man behind Therion. It was mainly to inquire about the new band lineup and the album to come, but the discussion brought up some other details, some funny, some personal. Hope you’ll enjoy them and be pleasantly surprised by the album that they are going to release soon.

Me: I want to ask you about the new line-up of the band. You have only played together for the recent Mexico shows. How do you feel about them and the band chemistry at this point?

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Christofer Johnsson and Christian Vidal of Therion, live at Graspop Metal Meeting 2010
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / StudioRock

CJ: It works excellent. Of course, every time you make a new tour the first shows are a bit shaky until everybody finds their pace. It is the same no matter the line up. When we did the Gothic Kabbalah tour, the first show was terrible. But now it all goes very well. The show we had today (a.n. the one at Graspop) went very good.

Me: Was there anything organised for tonight when it comes to the show itself, or was it spontaneous and everyone did what they felt like? For example, I saw Thomas doing some sort of Irish dance on stage

CJ: We just do whatever. I had a migraine before so I actually did something terrible. I took some medicines, but the whole show could have been screwed so I am happy about how it ended up. I was hearing birds singing in my head at times because of the migraine.

Me: What about the new guys catching up with the old stuff? How difficult is it for them?

CJ: Christian Vidal, the new guitar player, is very true to Kristian Niemann’s solos so when he plays them, he does it with a great deal of respect. I think that’s very cool. I think Kristian would be very happy to hear this.

The bass player and the drummer, they are a bit more rock’n roll than the guys we had before, more groovy, more straight. Johan Niemann, the old bass player, and the previous drummer were more of progressive rock players. The new guys have played in AC/DC-like cover bands, so their style is a bit more straight forward, but I think it suits Therion at the point we are now. Plus, they manage to do the old stuff excellent as well.

Me: Did the new guys get a chance to talk to Kristian, Johan or Peter or they just listen and learn?

CJ: No, they just listened to the record. They are professional musicians and they don’t need that. It is enough to listen to the record.

Me: A few words about the new album that you are going to release in September. It is mastered already, as far as I know. How do you feel about the final result?

CJ: Yes, the mastering is done by now, I am very happy with it. As always, every new Therion album is going to have such different reactions, since we change so much from album to album. Gothic Kabbalah was quite a big change so people had very strong opinions about that. Some considered it awesome, some crap. It is going to be the same, some will consider it the best thing we ever did, some will be disappointed because they expected some other direction. But in general I can tell you that we’ve been fooling you guys all these years. You have been listening to the kind of music that your parents used to listen to, it’s just that we wrapped it in a way to fool you into thinking it is modern music. But in reality you are listening to the 70s rock. The new record actually sounds like the music we listen to. A lot of things influence me such that when I listen to it I just end up writing music. I even happen to steal things that I really like. For example, I stole from the 70s’ Scorpions and feels like a little tribute, especially when something is very good but you think it is very underrated and people don’t understand how good it is. You take something, make a verse or the chorus out of it, or the intro. Like the song Melez for example, the beginning I stole from a song called They need a million from Scorpions’ album Fly to the rainbow, 1974. At that time I was so much into 70s Scorpions. Some people found it hard to believe when I mentioned the influence.

Me: But a lot of musicians go back to the music they grew up with and get influenced by them

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Christofer Johnsson of Therion, live at Graspop Metal Meeting 2010
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / StudioRock

CJ: Well, people only actually knew of the much bigger artists back then and thought they wrote everything originally. Actually they stole like hell. There’s a really good youtube clip with Ritchie Blackmore who, after few beers, says that this song was stolen from that band, this from that band, and we played it like that, etc.

Me: What about AC/DC? Because, in my opinion, the intro of Enter Vril-Ya sounds very much like an AC/DC song.

CJ: We love AC/DC. But actually this song is more influenced by Accept — Princess of the dawn. It’s not stolen, but it’s very similar.

Me: More about the album. You said you have started a trilogy or actually a Quadrilogy (n.a. Chris has explained more in detail on Therion’s website here)

CJ: Actually, with the Gothic Kabbalah it became a quadrilogy. Some of the songs are very old, even from 2000. I mean it’s the same pool of songs we had for Lemuria and Sirius B that I started to write about the time after Deggial. There are also a few songs that are new, since we took some of the existing songs and put them on Gothic Kabbalah instead, like Adulruna Rediviva and Der Mitternachtslöwe. They were taken from this record and given the fact that Adulruna is so long, we ended up with much space for this album. Then we had four new written songs. We recorded fourteen songs and eleven made it on the record.

Me: So, if you happen to wake up with new ideas, you can say you’re already working on a new album?

CJ: Yea, it is very spontaneous, it just needs to be the right moment for it.

Me: Is there going to be a cover song, since you usually happen to come out with one?

CJ: We haven’t decided yet. We’ll see how it feels at the tour moment.

Me: You wouldn’t have to pay for the rights to play someone else song?

CJ: Anybody can play any song they like. There’s no rock artist to require permission. I mean somebody would play your song and you make money out of it.

Me: How were the last gigs in Mexico?

CJ: They’re always great. There’s no other country on the planet where we are bigger than in Mexico. We didn’t have a new album, we almost sold out two shows in a row. There’s no other country where we do better. Overall, South America is very good for us. We pulled 5000 people in Ecuador and these numbers don’t happen often in Europe. We also do well in Russia or some Eastern European countries. Like for example, we had 4000 people in Romania last time. Only in USA we do pretty shitty.

Me: You have such a long list of countries for the tour at the end of the year, but Romania is not among them. And I know you had a very good relation with the people from Aquarius Foundation.

CJ: They didn’t find sponsors. The management and the booking agent are looking for another organiser in Romania. It was on the list, but it’s not on the confirmed list. But Aquarius, they are not organisers, they have other things as their main focus. They are huge fans of Therion, they are lovely people, but they didn’t manage to get sponsors. Not the best of times in Romania now.

Me: Did you get to listen to any of the support bands?

CJ: No, I haven’t checked them out yet. I am going to listen to them when they play. It is going to be a surprise. But I know we usually end up with good support bands. I actually did the management for a while and checked the support bands myself, but now I am completely out of it. It is not a good thing when you’re doing the management and you are a band member because you are sitting on two chairs at the same time. It always creates social problems, as sometimes you have to be the manager and other times a band member.

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Thomas Vikström of Therion, playing at Graspop Metal Meeting 2010
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / StudioRock

Me: Did it also mean way more work?

CJ: Yea, it’s also too much work and I’m fuckin’ too old for that. I have a little son now and can’t just work that much. My ex girlfriend told me that before the last tour I actually worked 18 hours per day, 7 days a week. I had six hours sleep. I was eating in front of the computer. But it doesn’t get fun after a while, and that’s one of the reasons why we lost the lineup, we lost a little bit of the sparkle. We were tired of things, I was completely worn out. Things just became a routine. It shouldn’t be like playing, getting paid and everything is fine. So we have to make sure that this doesn’t happen with the new lineup, that we don’t burn ourselves out and we have enough time outside touring.

Me: Now you have a recording studio yourself?

CJ: Yea, it is made only for recording. I made it in a way that you cannot really mix there. You could but it wouldn’t be good. I like to go somewhere else for mixing. The Polar studios were excellent and I don’t think I’m gonna mix anywhere else, ever.

Me: Does the studio steal any of your time? Do you handle other bands there?

CJ: No, it’s a private studio. Maybe if it had been like a favour or if I had a good producer with another band. I don’t want to be a producer myself, but if I hear something that is fuckin' amazing and they would ask me, and if they had a proper budget… It would be very frustrating to work with a budget that you cannot do what you want with. I actually produced the new Therion record. It took a very long time, but I am very happy with the outcome. The whole production is made from a different perspective. The problem with Therion production is that you don’t hear everything that I wrote. There are too many things. You come up with one thing, something else disappears, you put that back, and so on. It just raises the level of different things until you can’t raise it any more. And in the end there will be things that I’ve spent weeks of working on details and you won’t be able to hear on the record. There is not room for everything. So this time I worked from the perspective of having room. Not of getting the heaviest sound or whatever it took. It’s more of a 70s type of production. For some people it will take a while to get used to the production, because it doesn’t sound modern at all. It sounds like 20 years old, sounds very analogue. It is not analogue, but we used any mean possible on the planet to make a digital recording sound analogue. Especially on the drums.

Me: What languages will we hear?

CJ: I think it’s only English, Hebrew and some Swedish. But only a few words. The lyrics are strange, you know. People will have something to figure about. It’s going to keep the Therion Society busy for a while. Some of the lyrics are very cryptic and I am never going to explain those. That’s the whole point, to leave it open to interpretations.

Me: So now you have a little baby. How is this affecting your time, how do you divide your schedule now?

CJ: It takes a lot of your time, especially at this age. And since I’m going to be so much away on the tour, I am trying to spend a lot of time with him now, so he doesn’t forget me when I’m away. It is very fascinating to see. First they scream, shit and eat all the time, and then you see how they develop a personality of their own. When he was eight months old he opened to learn my Iphone and made calls. And once, out of all the numbers in the world he managed to call the mobile psychiatric care. I didn’t even know there was such a thing and imagine how it sounded when the mother got the phone from him and excused herself to them. He started walking and exploring everything.

Me: Is he into music? Playing any instruments?

CJ: He is into music and he has some small instruments that he uses. He is very noisy.

Me: Does he get to listen to your music? How does he react to that?

CJ: Not much, maybe a little bit of the new record, but he doesn’t make a difference between that and other stuff. He likes very melodic music. I think all kids do that.

Me: Are you going to stay and watch Aerosmith here at Graspop?

CJ: Actually I don’t like Aerosmith. I have respect for them, they are very good at what they’re doing, but I don’t like the songs. If it would be a best of CD with a few songs and if I could skip some of the songs… I never bought a record of theirs and I never will. Their best 5 songs would be enough. It’s the same with Led Zeppelin. I never understood what’s the big deal with them. They did some really good songs but…

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Therion, ending their Graspop Metal Meeting 2010 with a bow
Photo: Andrea Chirulescu / StudioRock

We went on chatting for a little while, but it was more stuff related to the new album and some details that people would find on the Therion Society, hence they can’t be published.


By Andrea Chirulescu