Interview: THERION’s Christofer Johnsson On ‘Leviathan’

Interview/ Words by Camilla Astrid Strand

After releasing the epic and unexpected 3-CD rock opera that was ‘Beloved Antichrist’ in 2018, Swedish Symphonic Metal band Therion have always travelled their own path, exploring different musical avenues and reinventing and reimagining metal along the way. With their 17th studio album ‘Leviathan,’ released on 22nd January 2021 through Nuclear Blast, Therion have set out to capture the best of their hit songs, and it’s the first of a trilogy of albums where Therion reflects back into the past whilst moving forward into the future.

I had the chance to speak with guitarist and mastermind, Christofer Johnsson on their latest release and more.

Is Leviathan a sort of love letter to your fans?

“A love letter, no, I wouldn’t say a love letter but we are trying to give them what they want for a change.  Therion was always doing what we want to do over the years, we’ve never cared at all what the record company wanted or what the fans wanted.

We would have a vision of what we wanted to do, and we would know that certain steps we would take would be less popular but we would still do it because that’s what we wanted to do. As a consequence of that our record sales would go up and down like a freaking rollercoaster, but we were fine with that.

What we did with ‘Beloved Antichrist’ which was an Operatic Rock Musical, we felt that that was the last big thing we wanted to do, that was the last dream that we still had, and there was nothing left to do in terms of challenges and doing something radical and new. So we had a phone conversation, me and Thomas Vikström the singer, and we realised that there is actually one thing we had never did you know, we never tried to please the fans. It sounds so easy like ‘Oh, we are this very super artistic band and we can put ourselves in the previous style and do what we want’ but really honestly, it is not fucking easy to give people what they want. I mean, it’s not so easy to just grab the guitar and write a hit song, you know, maybe it’s just an excuse because you can’t do it. So we thought, let’s have a challenge, this will be a great challenge, let’s try to make a record the way we think the fans would want it you know. Let’s try to make a classic sounding Therion hits album, and see if we are able to pull it off. It’s more a challenge rather than a love letter. In the beginning it was really really difficult, we were moving very slow, but then all of a sudden, the gates just opened and we wrote I think over 40 songs. We were shocked and we realised that at least 34 to 35 songs are good enough for a record and we have enough material for 3 albums, so it was kind of unexpected.”

Would it really be unexpected because of how large ‘Beloved Antichrist’ was?

“Yeah, but that was written over many years, and we wrote these 40 songs in basically one year.” 

‘Leviathan’ is the first in the trilogy, and it’s the album of the Hit Songs. Do you mean they follow conventional song structure? What do you mean when you say this album is the ‘Hit Songs’?  

“I just mean they are more likely to be popular, because when we listen through the Therion catalogue and try to see what songs are most popular, and try to figure out what’s the secret sauce of these songs. Why are these songs in particular the most popular ones? And if you want to make a music theory analysis it’s very difficult to find the secret sauce because all of the famous songs sound very different. They could have been written by different bands. So therefore, we realised the only thing these songs really have in common is the fact they are the most popular songs. It’s about writing very memorable melodies, very catchy songs, maybe a little more straight forward. That’s the only thing they could have in common, that they are a bit more straight forward. So, we were just trying to write very direct songs, and get to the point songs. It’s like Slayer ‘Reign in Blood’ for instance, there was an interview with Kerry King about it and he said well we just tried to cut the crap and get to the point, no long intros, it’s just like 1, 2, 3, 4, boom and the songs just run over you like a truck and then comes the next song and the next song. So maybe a little bit having that in mind you know, cut the crap and get to the point.

And other than that, it’s more like trying to suck up the quintessence of the more popular songs and try to write new songs in a similar spirit without copying them. In the end you know it has to be songs that we love also, we would never record and release something that we don’t put our quality stamp on them. It was a different type of challenge and now we just have to wait for the fan’s judgement, because in the end, they are the judges in this. We said we were going to try to make a record to please the fans, and if the fans are not pleased than obviously, we have failed, and if the fans are pleased than we have got it right.

But we wrote enough material for three albums and we decided to make a trilogy. You can’t please everybody obviously, so we decided to make a different flavour of the records and we have grouped the songs. So ‘Leviathan 1’ which is released now, it’s a little bit more bombastic and epic, while ‘Leviathan 2’ will be a bit more dark and melancholy. But they are both very straight forwardly hit songs for the most of it.

‘Leviathan 3’ is a compilation of all the garnish that remains, which makes it a very diverse record. You have some heavier tracks; you have some more adventurous tracks that were kind of accidents of birth along the road. You also have some folky stuff, you have some more progressive stuff, so yeah, I think those Therion fans who always fancied the more adventurous side of the band and who didn’t think that the hits songs were the big deal of Therion will probably be more pleased with ‘Leviathan 3’. There will be some people who will be disappointed, the people who liked our death metal album, they will die disappointed waiting for a Therion death metal album, but besides that very small group, I think everybody will find one ‘Leviathan’ record that will suit their needs.”

And how was the process of recording during COVID?

“Very very different! They shut down the airport where I live in Malta, so I couldn’t fly myself out or fly anybody in, so we had to record everything on distance. Being scattered over the planet, that was a bit of a challenge. Also, recording choir was complicated because restrictions in most countries meant you couldn’t gather enough people to record a choir. Luckily there was a gap between the restrictions in Israel, we recorded choir in Israel, and the rest of the record was recorded in Malta, Finland, Spain, USA, Argentina, Germany, the UK, Israel and Sweden.  

There were good and bad things recording in this manner though, the obvious negative thing is that you don’t have the direct control of the recording process. You can’t be there with the singer and grow into what you want. Usually, I waste a lot of time by having wild ideas of what I want and we try different things, and then you say “ah sorry, that’s no good, let’s try a different thing.” But when you rent a commercial studio like you had to do now, you have to know what you want to do because you can’t waste time like you can with your own studio. And I would have to send demos and instructions on what I wanted. They would then spend a good half a day or a good full day to record the song that I wanted, and in the end, I sometimes changed my mind anyway, so they would have to book the studio again and re-do it, which is of course frustrating for them, wasting a day or half a day to record something that isn’t going to be used. And very expensive for me having to pay for a commercial studio. If you rent a commercial studio for 3-4 months, you would get a good deal, if you just rent a day or two here and there you always pay the premium.

But on the good side, it was possible for me to record multiple things at the same time.  I remember having Hammond organ recording in Sweden at the same time as we were recorded choir in Israel, guitar solos in Argentina and solo violin in Germany. So that was good and also it keeps me fresh because normally I have to be there and listen to every fucking crap thing until we nail the recording with every instrument. You know that when the drummer is done after a few weeks and then he’s exhausted and going ‘ah good, we nailed it’ and then he goes home and then in comes the bass player, and then when the bass player leaves, I spend two weeks with the guitars, and then with singers, orchestration, choir and then there’s the mix, there’s the mastering. So after a regular album recording I’m mentally exhausted and my ears are tired so, I don’t want to hear the words studio for another two years.

But now people just send me the final takes and I was fresh and I was fine, so we took a week off after the mastering was done and then said, lets continue to record, just bring it on you know. We’ve already nailed half of ‘Leviathan 2’ and even the drums for ‘Leviathan 3’.

So we are going to finish ‘Leviathan 2’ this spring, and then maybe continue immediately and finish ‘Leviathan 3’. We are going to have two finished album recordings in our pockets ready to just pull out whenever needed and we can adapt to the situation because the only thing we know for sure is that nobody knows anything.

They’ve moved all the festivals from last summer to this summer and nobody knows if they are going to happen. Nobody is stupid enough trying to book a tour up to the summer, but even now, I don’t know. I don’t know if any touring will happen because the European Union is not too unified in the restrictions, so every country has different rules. Even if you are allowed to tour some countries, you may not be able to route the tour properly because some countries will have bans.

You also have the thing with the whole ecosystem around the live playing which has totally collapsed, because people think about the restrictions of the bands not being able to play, but they forget sometimes that you have venues disappearing because they go bust. You have tour agencies, you have the road crews, stage techs, sound engineers that have to get different jobs to not lose their homes. Tour bus companies, you know, it costs a fortune to build a tour bus and if it doesn’t roll all the time, it doesn’t generate money, it’s going to go bankrupt. So it’s going to be hard to find crew, it’s going to be hard to find tour busses, be hard to find venues, and to make it even worse, once the restrictions are gone, every single band on the planet that made records meanwhile, they going to try to tour at the same time! It’s going to be total chaos, total chaos. So, we are just going to take a step back and see what happens. If worse comes to worse, we don’t tour ‘Leviathan 1’, we just tour ‘Leviathan 2’ because I don’t want to be part of the chaos.

But we have a strategy though, we are talking with another band. Possibly instead of doing two headline tours, we could merge the tours and do one tour together, and do things that we normally wouldn’t do. We could share crews, share tour bus, the tour dates you know, and be a bit humble and just do whatever is needed to get the stuff going. If it doesn’t work, we just chuck the whole thing out and wait for the dust to settle.”

Well, I just have to say, Australia is doing well with COVID, so we’d love it if you could come down our way, you were last here in 2018?

“Yeah, but to be really honest, it took us over 30 years to get to Australia, and it was a series of events that made it possible. We’re not big enough there that it works to just fly in from Europe.  We are a very expensive band to move, so I don’t think it’s going to be possible anytime soon to do it again. We had an absolute thrill being there, and I’m so grateful for everybody who showed up, I mean the audience was amazing. It was actually a dream of mine to go to Australia as a country since I was kid.  Once I saw Australia on TV, and I was like 4 or 5 years old or something and I was telling my neighbours “We are going to move!”  ‘Oh where? “Oh, to Australia!!!” It was because of that scene on the tv that I wanted to go there. So, it was a really big thing to get to Australia. But realistically speaking I don’t see its going to happen anytime soon. It’s the same thing with the US. We toured the US twice, and we did well in some places, but for most places, it really doesn’t work. We are touring Latin America, we are touring Europe and we are touring well, China actually is doing pretty well, Russia is doing pretty well. These are the areas we normally tour. But you never know. You should never say never!”

I wanted to ask you, the songs on the album. They explore a whole bunch of different mythologies is that right?

“Yeah, it’s like usual, there is a lot of different mythologies and esoteric shit that we have been exploring lyrically, that’s normal. I think the only new thing is that on Ten Courts of Diyu we are going into the Chinese Buddhist esoteric realm, the Ten Courts of Diyu are the 10 stages of Hell. Also, that song musically goes into the Far East which is something we didn’t do before. We got as far as India before but never really the Far East. Other than that, it’s a typical Therion record I would say. The Leaf on the Oak of Far has got the Celtic God Camulus. Tuonela is the realm of the dead in the old Finnish mythology, and Die Wellen Der Zeit which is about the Germanic Goddess Nerthus, and so on and so on, so it’s very traditional Therion in that sense also. If you’re going to make a classic Therion album, it’s going to be classic in every sense.”

I wanted to tell you my favourite song on the album is Psalm of Retribution, is that about Sefirot?

“Qliphoth rather, it’s the dark side of the Kabbalah you can say. That song is also special because we used Mats Levén (ex-Therion) on vocals. There’s always a bit nostalgia around the fact that we’ve used a lot of different singers over the years, and some of them have made a bigger imprint than others, and there’s been a lot of wishes that we’ve used Mats Levén on our songs, and I don’t like the kind of holistic thing of ‘oh let’s use them just for the sake of making people happy.’ But in this song, it really felt like he would be perfect, so yeah, let’s bring in Mats. I guess a lot people are particularly pleased about that.”

When you talk of Kabbalah the one person I always think of is Madonna, I wanted to ask you, though this is a bit of a random question; what do you think about Madonna?

“Well, she was a very impressive artist in the 80’s going her own way. The music might not be my cup of tea but I just like what she did. In the 90’s she made a song called Frozen, that was a really good song. I kind of always admired her for taking care of the business herself, being a good business woman and being an artist with a lot of integrity. And it’s not really the kind of music I would buy and listen to at home but she’s one of those artists you can really respect for what they’ve achieved. I mean, I’m a huge fan of ABBA and The Beatles and stuff like that.

I think that she’s a good role model also, I mean you can see in the metal scene, before the 90’s there were very few women in the metal scene, and if you were a girl band it was really a thing like yeah there’s a girl, like Girlschool was like a female version of Motorhead, I always loved them, but other than that it was really difficult.

But with the 90’s it kind of changed, first it was this thing with the ‘Female Fronted Band’ but after a while it became ridiculous to say that because what does The Gathering and Arch Enemy have in common musically more than the singer having a pair of tits? It became ridiculous in that way. But I think you need role models, and when young girls growing up with bands where the women being not only singers but also playing instruments, they get inspired and they can see – Hey I can do that too! And I think Madonna did a very important thing there, you don’t have to be just this cute girl who doesn’t understand anything and just sings the songs you know, and let the manager take care of everything. She inspired people to see, hey, if you are smart, you can take care of this yourself, you can be independent, and those things are very important, I think.

I mean you can see in many countries where you have the boom of metal bands, people usually ask me ‘why did you have this boom of death metal bands in Sweden all of a sudden? And then they have the Norwegian Black metal and then they have the Finnish sound, and it’s usually because your young. When I grew up in the 80’s we had almost no role models. We had Europe who made it, and they were like ‘woah a big band who actually made it’. Candlemass was doing quite okay but you know they was smaller. But when Entombed made it, they were our age, you know, they were working class people from the suburbs just like the rest of us, so it was like, they can do it – we can do it!  And then one just triggered another, so basically everybody who likes death metal starts pick up the guitar or bass or sing and play drums or whatever, so this thing with role modelling cannot be underestimated. It’s always triggering people.” 

You can purchase/ listen to ‘Leviathan’ here – Apple iTunes link

Christofer Johnsson (guitars)
Christian Vidal (guitars)
Nalle Phalsson (bass)
Thomas Vikström (Vocals)
Johan Koleberg (Drums)

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With thanks to Nuclear Blast

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