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Musically and conceptually, there are few metal groups today who can match the ambition of Therion. Combining rock and classical forms is nothing new to the average metal musician, but Christofer Johnsson and Co. take that relationship to a new level. Therion's compositional approach melds traditional heavy metal with rather non-conventional classical / operatic vocal arrangements. They top it off with an intelligent, well-researched lyrical emphasis on religious, mythological and esoteric topics, ranging from pre-Christian European beliefs to the practically extinct languages of the ancient Near East. The latest album 'The Secret of the Runes' is, in fact, a "concept" record that draws heavily upon the old Nordic account of creation and the meaning of the magical "runes." What the hell are these "runes?" Christofer was nice enough to call Metal Update from Sweden in the wee hours of the morning to answer that and many other questions in a rather interesting conversation.

METAL UPDATE: Therion started out as more traditional thrash or death metal and moved towards a more "symphonic" style around the time of the 'Theli' album. What prompted that? What made you decide to use more classical elements and the choral part? Where did that influence come from?

CHRISTOFER JOHNSSON: It's actually been there more or less from the beginning. I mean, today a lot of people say, "Well, you started as a standard death metal band." But again, I think of that back then, we were not standard, you know? There have been so many things happening with the death metal since that time, that when you compare it altogether now and listen to the Therion albums, yeah, it's standard death metal. But when we wrote those songs in the 80's, the band was formed in '87, they were actually very progressive. Even when we released our debut 1991, those songs were old then, but even though they were considered to be very progressive back then. So, our aim has always been to be progressive, to do something different. So, we never changed in our approach to making music. The music style has developed and changed through the years, but the attitude toward it has always been the same - go our own way and don't do what everyone else does. I mean, this was very recently that we actually started to play this now. When we started in '87, we started playing something like, how can I describe that, a mixture between Motorhead, old Venom, old Metallica, old Slayer, you know, some mixture between that. We played that for a couple of months, but then we got really bored with it and we wanted to do something new. So, we started to play death metal. This was in '88, I think. Where we come from, there were no other death metal bands there and even worldwid, how many albums do you have from '88 that's death metal? So, that was when we planted the seed of what we are today. It's just, fuck everything else, and do whatever we like. Everyone else tried to play this kind of Bay Area thrash metal back then. So, when we started to play death metal, people thought, "Woah, what's that noise?" Yeah, well, we tried to develop the death metal style as well, you know, to put in some chords and variations that were not, at this time at least, very common or even existing at all in death metal. Even on the first album, we had some small keyboard. They were just very, very background things in two songs - nothing big - but when we did the second album, we actually started to use quite a lot of keyboard. We used some clean male vocals. We used some female singing - a lot of things that you can find in so-called gothic bands today, but this we did in 1992. So, that idea is very old for us. . . I think people regarded us as too weird, you know, too strange. A lot of musicians like us, and we always had very good reviews, and the music journalists always loved us. I think we even had better reviews back then than now. When we did the third album, we started to experiment with some heavy metal stuff, you know, adding classic 80's heavy metal to the death metal style. I tried to vary the vocals a bit more, and we started to use classic keyboard shit. I liked to use keyboards in a way that they should sound like an orchestra. At this point, we couldn't afford any real orchestra, but, you know, we were kind of going classic but sampling some keyboards. We also used some Arabic influences and a lot of different strange forms of folk music. So, a lot of elements that you can find today, you can already find back then in 1993. So, it's really nothing new. It's just that we continue to develop this concept even further and bring it to a new dimension. It's pretty funny because there were a lot of bands that said, "You cannot put this heavy metal stuff into death metal." And when we started to use keyboards then, "Hey, keyboards are just for poseurs. No real death metal band is using keyboards." Some of those bands are using keyboards today so, pretty funny. Especially, I mean, back then, if someone would have said, "Hey, all the black metal bands will use keyboards in the future." I mean, back then people said, "Well, black metal, that's blasphemy." No one would have believed it. Therion, Tiamat and, I guess, The Gathering, and even Paradise Lost started this "gothic" thing . But it wasn't until 1996 when we did the 'Theli' album where Therion actually really had the big success. We're not doing anything more progressive on that album than we did before, but then, at this point, suddenly everyone started to talk about the band and saying we were so "progressive" and doing something different. . .


MU: You still listen to classical music, right?

CJ: Oh, yeah, yeah, classical music is such, well, actually more opera, but both opera and classical music is over fifty-percent of what I listen to.

MU: Where were you first exposed to classical music?

CJ: Well, actually, the very first experience was Beethoven, when I was probably three-years-old. I was so small that I couldn't even put on the vinyl myself, but my parents didn't listen that much to classical music, unfortunately. They just had a few vinyls, and I didn't like the other ones so much. It was just the Fifth Symphony from Beethoven that I was really hooked on, the A-side with this (sings "da-da-da-dum"). The beginning was my favorite and I listened to it over and over again. So, my parents were absolutely sure I was gonna be a classical conductor or something. Then I got into The Beatles much later, and after Beatles came heavy metal and, I guess, my parents completely had given up the thought of me becoming something related to classical. But somehow the circle gets closed and the classical gets into the music of Therion. However, my influence when we introduced these classical things in the beginning of Therion was mainly from progressive rock bands in the 70's that used classical elements. It wasn't from classical music, itself. I have to admit that when we did 'Theli', I only had maybe six or seven classical records at home. I have Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." I have a compilation with some "Best Of" pieces from Richard Wagner, and I have a few Beethoven and a few more things, oh, yeah, some Vivaldi and some Stravinsky, but that was about it. Actually, this was very much due to music journalists asking, "What's your favorite classical composer?" I started to realize, damn, I don't really have much classical CD's, you know? Maybe I should check something more out. I started to get some more CD's of Stravinsky, because that was one of my favorite composers, and also Richard Wagner, which was until Liszt, my favorite opera composer. Suddenly I got completely sold on it. So, now I would say my favorite music of all, in fact, to pick one CD, it would probably be one of the Richard Wagner operas. . .

MU: The ideas on the new record 'Secret of the Runes' stem from Scandinavian religion and folklore.

CJ: Yeah, the old Nordic tradition, actually. There were no countries back then. Sweden, Norway and Denmark were more like the same culture back then, and even Iceland. I mean, Iceland was populated by mainly Norwegian vikings.

MU: What are "runes" and what do you do with them? What is their relation to religious or spiritual practice?

CJ: This is a pretty interesting question, very good question, because the runes are more known against, how do you put this, among the common people, at least in Europe. They are more known as an alphabet. They are like the ancient Greek alphabet, or an obsolete alphabet that you don't use anymore. But regarding what you asked about the religious use, this is the interesting thing, because they were actually magical seals. They were used only as these religious magical seals in the beginning, and much, much later, they started to use them to write words with. It's pretty interesting because there's twenty-four runes in the rune row, or the rune alphabet, you could say, but rune row is the correct word. I think there is five or six of them that they have never, ever found written words with. They only found it on magical. . . it is likely to find them on an old magical drum, or something like that. They used them for protectors, protection of seal, or just the spiritual power of the sign. But there's a few of them that were actually never used to write words with and, even so, these were phonetical signs. They were not like a regular alphabet. Each of these symbols is actually a sound. But when you have a, let's say, "g" you can say "George" then it's (pronounces a soft "g"), or if you say "garage" then it's a (pronounces a hard "g"). You don't have anything that way. A sign, or a rune, is always the same sound. So, basically, they were writing with the symbols in the same way as the speech. So, that's a big difference between an alphabet and the runes. The most interesting thing is that they actually started to use them only as religious, magical signs and symbols, and much later when Christianity came, they started to write more with it. The more influence from Christianity that came here, the more they get forgotten. I think in the seventeenth century there were still a few distant parts in the very countryside of Sweden where they were still used a little bit. I think the military of Sweden, actually, used it to encrypt messages a few hundred years ago when we were in war with Russia because it started to get forgotten among the average people. So, if a Russian would capture one of their soldiers or messengers, he couldn't read the message.


MU: On the new record, there's a related theme. Most of the titles end with "heim." What does that mean?

CJ: It means "home" in ancient Swedish, or ancient Scandinavian. So, yeah, there's nine worlds, and we did one song for each of these worlds, except that there is a Prologue and an Epilogue as well. "Ginnungagap", the first song, is a prologue. This is the void of creation where the world was created in this duality between fire and ice, and then you have the first word "Midgard" and the second one "Asgard" and this "gard" at the end, it means basically "garden," you know? So, "Midgard" in ancient Swedish would be "the garden in the middle" and "Asgard" would be "the garden of the Aesir gods" and "heim," yeah, it simply means "home." For instance, the fifth song, "Schwarzalbenheim," - "Schwarzalben" is the "black elf." So, that's the "home of the black elves." Actually, that's a pretty interesting word. The black elves are the ones that forged the sacred weapons for the gods. So, they are living in the system of caves inside of a black mountain, and they have done the spear for Odin, and they did the very famous hammer of Thor and all those things, according to mythology.

MU: Now, the lyrics on the record, correct me if I'm wrong, all of them are in Swedish except for "Schwarzalbenheim" which is in German, is that correct?

CJ: Yeah, besides the English.

MU: What made you go with German for the one track?

CJ: Actually, I always wanted to do something in German because it's very, very bad to sing in English, actually, for opera singers. The vocabulary doesn't fit. Italian goes very well. German goes very well. Even French kind of works, if you pronounce the "r's" like (makes rolling sound) and not, you know, in the back of the throat (makes sound) like they do in modern French. Even Russian is also good, but English is terrible. I mean, when you have rock singing or metal singing, English is usually the best language, but for opera singers, it's terrible. It lies wrong in the mouth, especially for the sopranos that go really high. It tends to get really muddy. I always wanted to do it in opera language, but I've never been very influenced by Italian language, because I don't understand it, basically not a word. But German is pretty close to Swedish. Actually, English is also a Germanian language. English, German and the Scandinavian languages are bound together. So, if you speak very well in English, and you speak Swedish, it's very easy to learn German.

MU: How do you have time to study all of this, or do you get a lot of help from other people?

CJ: Well, I don't write lyrics anymore myself since a couple of albums. I think 'Theli' was the last album I did some lyrics for. I did the translation for the Akkadic because at that time I was reading about ancient Mesopotamian religion. So, I had a few dictionaries at home, and I had been studying it a little bit. I don't remember that much now, but, actually, I think this lyric anyway was probably awful from a grammar point-of-view. On the other hand, there's no one alive that still speaks Akkadic today. So, I guess I can survive, but the guy who did the lyrics, he's a, what the fuck you call it in English, his academic title?

MU: Is it Thomas Karlsson?

CJ: Yeah. I think you call it a master's degree in English. Yeah, a master's degree, that's what he calls it, in religion history. So, he's been studying at the university, all these old languages and, I mean, you don't speak them all fluently. He had to use a dictionary to find out a lot of words but, he has the basic idea of it. Yeah, he's been responsible for that.

MU: Are you going to hit the United States in support of the new album?

CJ: Unfortunately not. We finished the touring for this album, already. We toured in October and November, and we have the same problem like always. The USA is a very big country, and we don't sell enough. We're a lot of people in the band, so we're more expensive to book than a regular band. Even in Europe, we have trouble with that, you know? We actually need higher fees than a band at our size would be worth, normally, because we bring so many people on tour. We're ten people on stage, and we need more stage crew than the regular band because of that, also. It's a bit of trouble, but at least each album we're doing is doing a little bit better in the States. So, I haven't given up on it, yet. If we could push this album just a little bit further, like reaching twenty-thousand in the States or something, then there is a really good chance we could do it next time.

MU: Did you go anywhere this year that you had not been to before?

CJ: Yeah, actually, a couple of places. We've been to South America before and to Mexico two times before, but this time we had a few countries which were new to us like Bolivia, for instance. I had no idea that we were popular there, or Columbia. I mean, Columbia, they have a bloody civil war in that country, you know? I didn't think they would put up metal concerts, but we played and, actually, there was a huge amount of people showing up. We also played Brazil. I always knew we were doing pretty well there, but we somehow never. . . So, this time we did Brazil, as well as Argentina and Chile, which we did earlier - and it's a great experience - and Mexico is getting better all the time. Normally, we just play Mexico City and a second city, sometimes, or a couple of shows in Mexico City. But this time we actually did a small tour that was four shows. We played (sounds like "Chihuahua"), I think it was called, this city, just at the border to Texas, and a few US fans actually came over. It was very close to El Paso, you know, some guys came over from there. I think that's the closest we've been to doing shows in the States. We were actually supposed to do this festival in New Jersey. But, since I think it's the same guy who does the Milwaukee Metal Festival, and, to put it straight, everyone says he's an asshole and, you know, all the bands that fly overseas go there and play fifteen minutes and shit like that - it's not worth it. So, our management said that none of the bands he's working for is ever gonna play any of those festivals because of, you know, getting stood-up so many times. And, especially if you do a show where you lose money, you do it for the fans and because you want to finally get over there and do a show, you're not gonna be happy if you get to play fifteen or ten minutes. It never works in most festivals. I was really looking forward to doing that show, but we're not even considering it. It's really strange. I mean, there's not a huge metal scene in the States, but it's very genuine. The people who are into metal remain loyal. It seems that people are traveling a lot for those festivals. So, I don't get it why no one else is putting up festivals, you know? I mean, in Europe there's so many of them. Festivals come and go, and in the States you have these two ones. There really should be a market for a few more ones. If someone would just pull it off and make it work, you know, like even close to the European standard of it. . . I think everyone would go to that festival.

MU: Actually, last year Cathedral got screwed. They played like twenty minutes, or three songs. Lee Dorian (Cathedral) was totally pissed and everything.

CJ: Yeah, like so many other bands. I mean, Immortal played barely fifteen minutes, you know? They played three songs as well, but their songs were shorter. I mean, once in a while you have fuck-ups in European festivals, too, but then, the organizer really apologizes for it, and you have an explanation. It doesn't happen because the organizer doesn't give a shit. That's a difference, you know? Everyone is trying their hardest over here and, it's a competition between other festivals. If you get a bad name, you know, the bands won't play at the festival again and the people will not go to it. So, people really try thier hardest. Imagine the Dynamo, when they started. It was a really small festival, but then they reached a peak a few years ago, like ten years ago. They had over 100,000 people going there. Imagine just having over a 100,000 metalheads that wanna drink beer. They wanna eat something. They wanna take a shit. They wanna take a piss, all these things, all the logistic things around it - what an incredible work. And then not to mention having five or six stages with so many bands. I mean, there were always problems, but somehow it worked. How hard can it be to make a festival with five-thousand people. . . you know, like the Milwaukee Metal Festival, it's just because the guy don't fucking care, that's why. That's what's pissed everyone off so much. It could be so great. I mean, five-thousand people, it's very easy to handle if you have the experience of a bigger festival, and it's only like one or two stages, you know? It's not really a problem. It's just a matter of effort, and also, I mean, people are prepared to pay the ticket price. It's not a financial problem, either. It's just a problem of caring. Exactly that is what pisses everyone off.

MU: A lot of the themes that are associated with Therion are pretty unique. It's pretty heady stuff. Do you ever feel like you're alienating people, or do you think, "Oh, man, I hope people get this?" Do you get some good feedback about what you're doing?

CJ: Well, basically, it's a pretty boring answer. I just do the record I would like to buy, you know? I just write the songs that I happen to like and record it. Whatever the recording turns out to be, that's what I have to live with and that's what everyone else has to live with. I'm just lucky that people lately bought a record and liked what we did.


MU: Nuclear Blast, your record label, recently started issuing faded versions of their promos. . .

CJ: Oh, yeah, actually, they only did that with ours and with Lacrimosa's, I think. It is a new thing they started, but it really sucks. I mean, they're not gonna pull that again, at least not with a Therion album.

MU: I believe the promos for the new Immortal record were also faded, and I assume that was done to prevent massive pirating, is that correct?

CJ: Yeah, that was their idea. I mean, I understand how you think, but it was a bad idea, really. I remember when we did the 'Deggial' album, my younger brother, he downloaded the entire album before I, the guy who recorded the album, had a copy of the promo. So, that's how fast it goes, and I guess they wanted to prevent that. I mean, when you send it out to music journalists and say one out of a hundred is an asshole, and he puts it out on the Internet, you know. . . I'm not talking about mp3's. He downloaded it with, I'd say, wav-file quality, like CD quality, with a broadband. It takes two days for the mail from Germany to Stockholm, Sweden, where I live, and within these two days, some asshole was putting up the entire album on the Internet, in full quality. Of course, that's annoying, but that's the disadvantage of the Internet, and there's so many good advantages that you have to live with the disadvantages. Making faded versions, I don't think it's really helping the problem. Everyone that is trying to give reviews on the album cannot lose the feeling, if you're really into the song and suddenly you have the song fade. . . At least with our version, it's only the last thirty seconds that are faded. I know with the Lacrimosa CD, it's something like the last one-and-a-half minutes or something. I know it myself because they just sent me the promo of Lacrimosa and I was really curious about it. I really like the CD, and it was really annoying when the songs were fading off in the middle, and I was actually thinking of that. I mean, if I was making a review out of this, then I would be so pissed off. So, I have complete understanding that no music journalist would have any sort of appreciation for this. So, no matter what, at least when we make another Therion album, it's not gonna be faded. That's for sure.

MU: I would gather most of the responses towards the music, themes and lyrics are overwhelmingly positive?

CJ: Yeah, the most is, but sometimes, especially now on the Internet, any jerk can write something and put it on a home page and, well, there's a lot of really, really good home pages. It's a good and bad thing. This is actually giving a lot of people the opportunity to put something published, without being very rich. So, this has really enriched the scene, also. A lot of really good writers now get the opportunity to spread their stuff to a lot of people. But it also has been a lot of people that are basically failure musicians that are trying to take out their bitterness on all kinds of bands, somehow. At least it's how I've been interpreting it, especially I read a few negative ones about the "classic" approach we have, you know? It's like, "Oh, well, it's not classic. It doesn't sound like Beethoven." Oh, no, it doesn't sound like Beethoven, because we never intended to. And when you use drums and bass and guitar, everything tends to be more square-like, because rock music is very square-like. You cannot have it "floating" like in classic, because it's not classic. This is a crossover thing and you get the beat and the groove from the rock music or the metal music. . . and the powerful thing from the opera. That's the mixture. That's how it's intended to be. But there's always these people that've been going to a lot of schools and when they just sit on their ass, not getting anywhere, they probably get annoyed. . . I don't know. . . they put in a lot of things in the review trying to show how much they know about the topic or, at least, how much they think they know about it. Again, to my favorite composer, Richard Wagner, this guy didn't have much education in music. He had very basic education, but he was basically self-taught, and no other composer has been influencing the opera scene as much as him. Even all the modern film music is so much inspired by Richard Wagner. So, it really proves that you don't need to go to a school to learn these things. It's inside of your head, and inside of your heart. Of course, it's not negative. I'm not taking a shit on all the people that go to music school and learn something. I mean, maybe it would have enriched me to do that, as well, but sometimes there's these type of people that, you know, they take it just too seriously, I think.


review of Therion 'Secret Of The Runes'

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