DATE OF INTERVIEW:
9th February 2018
Therion have been a legendary name for over two decades, and remain so to this day. Releasing two seminal albums during the nineties - 1996's 'Theli' and 1998's 'Vovin' - they succeeded in popularising and spawning a still flourishing, ever-growing symphonic metal scene. With each new album release, they've continued their enthralling musical journey over the years as undisputed hegemonists of the subgenre they pioneered, with the uber talented Christofer Johnson perpetuating the essence of the band through his fertile creative ingenuity. And with the release of a new triple album in 2018, 'Beloved Antichrist', the soundtrack to an envisioned operatic rock/metal musical, Therion have upped the ante once again. An indisputable masterpiece, it has the potential to be another game changer. Metal Discovery spent a very pleasant half an hour with Christofer, on his temporary tour bus (after the last one caught fire), to find out more about this momentous new work…
METAL DISCOVERY: Firstly, and most importantly, how’s the neck now? I gather this is your first run of shows since the injury…
CHRISTOFER: It’s not good… it will never be good but it’s incredibly much better than it used to be. But it is what it is. I can play… I can pretty much do everything, except I can’t lift heavy stuff and I can headbang. That may sound trivial but when you’ve been headbanging for thirty years… you play with your whole body, you know. You practice to headbang while playing because it’s difficult, but once you’ve learnt it…
(Christofer Johnsson on the new Therion triple album, 'Beloved Antichrist')
"...it just grew into this monster."
Christofer Johnsson on his tour bus, 9th February 2018
Photograph copyright © 2018 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: It’s an instinct to headbang on stage.
CHRISTOFER: Somebody puts on an AC/DC song and your natural reaction is to move your head and bang your head!
MD: [Laughs] Exactly, yeah!
CHRISTOFER: If somebody throws a ball, your natural reaction is to catch the ball.
MD: If you’re into metal, it’s hardcoded into your very being to headbang, isn’t it, I guess.
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, I guess it will take a while. So, I’m wearing the hat on stage all the whole time; the whole set. Normally, I just have it for a song or two and then remove it, as it’s a nice entrance, but, now, I keep it on the whole set as a reminder. So, whenever I take off the hat, then you know that I’ve finally learnt it!
MD: Massive congrats on ‘Beloved Antichrist’… it got a ten out of ten from me, in my review…
MD: It’s absolutely incredible. How good does it feel to have such a momentous work finally complete? … and now out there… released today, actually! Tonight will be like a kind of release party!
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, suitable for this venue… it’s quite small!
CHRISTOFER: To be brutally honest, I just feel relieved because we never planned it to be this big. We thought it would be an hour and twenty minutes or an hour and a half… you know, something like that, or maybe two hours at the longest, but it just grew. It takes time to tell a story with melodies so, all of a sudden, we had four hours of music. And we were like – what are we gonna do with four hours of music? It’s too long. People are gonna go into a coma trying to listen to it! And not to mention trying to record four hours. So, I decided to cut it down to three and a half hours. And we recorded three and a half and, after listening to the mix, I thought even three and a half is too long, so we removed… we have a lot of unreleased stuff now. So, we removed a lot of scenes and shortened down some scenes, so we ended up with three hours and four minutes, and even that is insanely long.
MD: When it hits stages as a full theatre production, is it going to be the full four hours, or three and a half hours?
CHRISTOFER: No, three hours and four minutes.
MD: So, this is what it is?
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, there are deleted scenes. But I’m thinking, maybe for the theatrical version, to shorten it down even more, to really remove every scene which is not essential for the story, because we need a mainstream crowd to finance this. You can’t move from town to town with this type of production. You need to do a week in each town, because it will take one day to build it up and one day to break it down and a day to transport it. So, you need to do at least four shows in a row and then move on.
MD: So, you’ll have lots of mini residencies in theatres?
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, something like that. But, as you see in musical productions, they do whole seasons in one place because you have so many singers who need to learn the set; and you need stage designers; stage builders; people who know how to operate the stage… the logistics are insane. I mean, just for fifteen singers, they need make up; they need to be fed; they need to be transported; they need to stay somewhere. So, this is insanely large and it’s not something you just pull out of your back pocket and do. So, to get investors on board, we need to attract a wider audience. It will never work with just a metal audience. We could sell out, maybe, one show but not four in a row.
So, if you would remove those scenes that are less relevant, and they also happen to be those that are the heaviest ones, we would make it more streamlined. And it’s a matter of making it happen or not. So, I’m sure people will have opinions, like, “Oh, why remove this or that scene?” But, it’s like, either it happens or it doesn’t.
MD: So, the album’s like a director’s cut, almost?
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, it is a director’s cut. And it’s a bit funny to release this first and do the staging later. It’s like having the movie soundtrack first and then the movie.
MD: Which does happen, sometimes.
CHRISTOFER: But the reality in our case is that no one would invest money into this without knowing how it sounds. So, we would need to record it and, given it cost us around a hundred thousand Euros to record this, we need to go to the record company, and they need a product to sell. They can’t just lend us a hundred thousand Euros for whenever we get this going. So, you record and then you deliver a product. That’s why it’s released as an album now, but I think a lot of people don’t understand it that way. They think of it as an album, so I usually try to compare it with ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’… not because it reminds of that one, musically, but conceptually.
MD: But the antithesis of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, because yours is about the antichrist.
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, of course. Actually, the working title was ‘Antichrist Superstar’ before we had the real title. Because nobody would say, “‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, oh, that’s an awesome album.” Everybody understands it’s an audio version of the musical, or like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Cats’ or whatever.
MD: And I guess you’re not Andrew Lloyd Webber, so they’re not going to give you four months in the West End just on the basis of the fact you’re written an album and you want it on a stage.
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, but when ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was written, it was 1970 or something, he wasn’t famous then. He just came out of nowhere and started. And, also, ‘Rock of Ages’, as a musical, started very small in just one place and it grew up. So, I do believe, if you deliver something good, you can just start in London or Paris or something and grow out of there. But, the more I think about it, I want to franchise it. I want to have a production company that buy this and make it their next production, because they already have the money; they have the experience; they have the stuff; with the knowhow, instead of me trying to figure this out… which could be disastrous.
MD: It could be the start of a new career. You could become the Swedish Andrew Lloyd Webber!
CHRISTOFER: To be honest, he’s very good, but I think he’s more famous than skilled, to be honest. I mean, it’s really good what he’s doing - don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to point a finger at him, he’s really good – but, I think, he made a career because most of the other musical composers are so bad. Because good composers tend to go to the classical scene. Musicals have a very bad status among classical composers. Like disco music among rockers in the seventies. So, I think he benefitted from that and, well, I could benefit from that! [Laughs]
MD: Well, I think musical theatre can fall into the trap of being very cheesy but ‘Beloved Antichrist’ sounds more refined and sophisticated, so were you conscious not to fall into that cheesy musical trap? For me, it sounds like a sophisticated work of art.
CHRISTOFER: We wanted to truly make a bridge between classical music and rock music. And, sometimes it’s only classical, and sometimes it’s only rock music or metal, and sometimes it really is a hybrid. I’m also a little bit inspired by how Deep Purple did it with their ‘Concerto for Group and Orchestra’.
MD: They were the first ever metal band to do that, weren’t they.
CHRISTOFER: Yeah. In the beginning, they’re antagonists, you know – one is playing and then the other one taking over. And then they start cross-breeding a bit and, at the end, they meld together, as one. And I think Jon Lord made it brilliantly.
MD: His background was classical, wasn’t it.
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, but he was not so experienced in it. He only wrote a few things for a string quartet before. He never wrote for a full orchestra. And, if you watch the DVD version of it, his commentary is very interesting. He was an educated musician, whereas I’m completely self-taught but, still, I think we had a little bit of the same feelings. I remember when I recorded ‘Lemuria’ and ‘Sirius B’, I was going down to Czech Republic with three thousand pages of score. And, you know, some lad from the suburb of Stockholm with a lot of score and no education whatsoever, and you have these famous conductors and everything , and it’s very overwhelming that now I’m composing for a hundred and fifty people. If I blew it and we had to correct something, we’d have a hundred and fifty people sitting there, costing money every minute. So, it’s not cheap to make mistakes. Out of three thousand pages, I made two errors.
CHRISTOFER: So, that was a relief!
MD: Those are both great albums as well, so it all paid off.
CHRISTOFER: When we recorded, I just took them section by section, so it was easy to communicate and didn’t cost us money and we would pay them for the whole day, anyway. So, I remember, when I watched that DVD, I recognised myself in it, on a different level.
MD: I gather the genesis of the ‘Beloved Antichrist’ project can be traced back to the early 2000s, when you started writing a straight opera, and then you decided a few years ago to start working on it in a more Therion based context, with metal and the rock elements…
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, because I blew it. I can write classical highlights but I can’t write what people usually refer to as the boring parts. The music you need to bridge the highlights and something called the recitative – a mixture between singing and talking, which Wagner used a lot, it’s a way of bringing the story onwards, faster. Because, if you sing everything, with proper melodies, it takes forever to tell a story. That’s why we grew so much, trying to do this. So, when I wrote stuff with recitative, I was very judgemental about my own material – “This is not good enough; this is boring”… and so on and so forth.
I got to a point where I stopped writing. So, I didn’t write for a number of years and, in 2012, I just asked myself, “Why am I doing this? What are my motives? Do I need to prove something to anybody or to myself? Why’s it so important to make a classical album?” And I didn’t have any answers. Just, “I don’t know, it’s just an idea. Okay, so then it’s not a big deal, so let’s just solve this for the best. Just Therion-ise what you have and do something with the music.” And that’s how the idea was born – “Why not make a Therion opera? It could be a good idea.” And then it just grew into this monster.
MD: Writing that much material, I can’t begin to imagine… I mean, I put in my review, I hope you don’t mind, but I called you “crazy”!
CHRISTOFER: Oh, we are!
MD: But then, in the next sentence, I called you “a genius”, because I think there’s a fine line between insanity and genius. To embark on a project of this scope is crazy, but the results speak for themselves… you must be a genius. It’s worked so amazingly well.
CHRISTOFER: In a way, we were more naïve than crazy because we didn’t expect it to be that big!
CHRISTOFER: We just got ourselves caught in it and had to do what was necessary to get out of it. I mean, you hit the big drum and tell everybody with trumpet fanfares, “We’re making a rock opera”… then you can’t just say, “Sorry, we blew it.”!
CHRISTOFER: You have to finish it. We even made this opera preview tour, where we played a couple of the first compositions so, well, we have to stick to our word. But the trickiest thing, really, was that to write a big amount of music is not so hard; to write a big amount of good music is harder… but the hardest thing is if you have certain guidelines. Because, normally, we write a song and, well, “I like the song, let’s record it and put it on the record.” That’s the end of it. Here, you have a lot of scenes. In the beginning, it’s easier. Somebody writes something and, “Could this fit somewhere?” You find a scene for it, adapt the music and it could work. But, the more you write, in the end, you end up with those scenes that nobody really feels like writing. The scenes that require music that is very different from what we normally would write. Like ‘The Palace Ball’ for instance. It’s a dancing scene… it obviously cannot sound like ‘To Mega Therion’, so it has to be a completely different style. Or ‘Jewels From Afar’, it’s a romantic love scene under the stars – it has to be major, and hopeful, and beautiful at the same time. You can’t write something like ‘Lemuria’ in minor and sad, you know, it’s not how love songs are.
So, it’s difficult for us to write certain scenes and the fewer you have left, the harder it gets. The last few scenes, it’s like, “Okay, who’s up for this last one?”… “Not me”… “Not me”… Like ‘Shoot Them Down!’, how do you write music for a street revolution, fighting scene, whatever… you know, starting to rebel against the antichrist? So, we ended up with Motörhead-goes-opera! A rock ‘n’ roll thing. So, it’s really difficult to do that with credibility, that people can watch it and it looks natural. Out of the forty six scenes, there’s only one, and I’m not gonna say which one, that I feel we could have done better in terms of fitting it to the scene. But, in that case, I really like the composition; it’s a good song, but that’s the only one that, yeah, didn’t fit a hundred per cent. It works but it could have been better.
MD: I wrote in my review that, “Some might claim the strength of the material on offer here is variable, but to judge one track against another would be fallacious and entirely missing the point. It would be like watching only what you'd consider to be the best scenes from a movie and ignoring all the narrative devices deployed that build-up to give those certain key scenes a more emphatic emotional impact.” I guess you have a standard album, and people might focus on three or four standout tracks, but you can’t do that with ‘Beloved Antichrist’. It needs listening to in its entirety for the whole thing to make sense. I don’t think there are any weak tracks, but I think some tracks build up to other tracks, if you know what I mean.
CHRISTOFER: Well, all the music makes sense in its context. I think people might not understand some of the music unless they understand what’s going on. Like ‘Burning the Palace’, for instance, which is very fiery and then, all of a sudden, from one second to the other, it goes into triumphant music. And, if you don’t know what happens on stage, it may appear odd. So, I think, once you’ve seen it on stage once, so you know what everything is, then you can enjoy it in any way. I guess some people watch YouTube for their favourite scenes from movies, also… like ‘Deliverance’… [Laughs]… everybody laughs about that scene. I mean, the movie was so and so, but knows it because of “squeal like a pig”. Or some ‘Lord of the Rings’ scenes or whatever…
MD: But those big scenes in movies, I think they have much more emotional impact if you watch them within the context of the movie they’re supposed to be watched in. And I think it’s the same thing for your album, where those big songs have more impact within the context of the pieces building up to them.
CHRISTOFER: Yeah, and when you have the CD version with the scene description, we really try to do our best to paint a mental picture for people, so they can have an idea of what’s going on. So, at least it’s like reading a book and get your pictures in your head, and have your music with it. If you listen to some streaming service like Spotify or something, then I think it’s harder to get into because you may miss the point. It’s very old fashioned English and, especially, a lot of fans in Latin America, I don’t think people understand what’s going on, just by the lyrics. And, without the scene description… well, if you’re a very literate person, you can probably figure it out, anyway, but, I think for the average Joe, it’s very important to have the scene descriptions to see what we want them to see.