The Dragon Breaks Down the Temple Wall
CoC chats with Christofer Johnson of Therion
by: Jackie Smit
It's hard to imagine surviving for months on end in the über-cramped environment of the tour bus where I am granted an audience with Therion mastermind Christofer Johnson. But if torture makes for great art, as the saying goes, then he and the rest of the band must have been given a day off, because as most know who have experienced the band's two latest offerings, _Lemuria_ and _Sirius B_, Therion have not so much pushed as completely obliterated the envelope in expanding the vision that first came to fruition on _Theli_ back in 1996.

CoC: Let's start with the new records first of all, Christofer. You used over 150 different musicians to produce _Lemuria_ and _Sirius B_, which is obviously much more than anything you've done before. What prompted you to take it to this level?

Christofer Johnson: Well, it's just how the songs were written -- they needed that. It's the vision that I had in my head. I'm a very spontaneous songwriter, so things just happen in one way or another. We don't sit down and plan anything. The only difference in principle for these albums was that before we would record the music section by section, like string section first, then brass and so on. Then usually we would also record everything three or four times. This time we recorded everything at once, which had its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage was that the acoustics of the room let everything flow together in a very natural way, so we didn't need to simulate anything with reverbs or anything like that. The disadvantage was of course that everyone couldn't have a microphone, which meant that a lot of the music was recorded off its ambient sound, if you know what I mean, and because of that sometimes it's hard to hear some of the detail that's in the music. I don't really think that we'll be able to make it much bigger than this. This is the final step in terms of doing bombastic things. There are other territories for us to explore now.

CoC: So you won't be taking on 300 musicians for the next Therion record then?

CJ: It won't sound different. We used sixteen violins for this record, and if one used more the only difference would be that you hear more volume out of it. You'd feel the effect if you were sitting in a festival hall, because it would definitely sound louder and stronger, but when you record that would be lost.

CoC: It must have been a tremendous challenge for you to record with so many different musicians.

CJ: Organising the score and the notes was the big thing. There were over 1500 pages of notes and score, and there could impossibly not be a copy for each musician -- only for each instrument and for the conductor. I had to think up a way for us to record everything economically, because all the musicians get paid by the hour, and the last thing I wanted was for people to sit around and play for two minutes and just cost us money. So the biggest challenge really was organising things so that we would record and be able to work with the musicians and the instruments that we needed at that particular time. Of course, the conductor wanted to do things differently, so we spent half of the first night that we recorded on, doing things in the way that he wanted to do it. So that got a bit tricky. Also when you record two albums -- it took us almost eleven months to do this and it's difficult to keep the mood up over that period of time. Because we're such spontaneous musicians, we never said that we'd start at a particular point -- we just started recording and stuck with it until it was done.

CoC: And is that spontaneous style always been the manner in which Therion albums get put together?

CJ: Well, obviously there's planning that needs to be done in terms of the physical recording, but in terms of song writing and finishing work on an album, it has always been a case of us doing what we want. _Vovin_ is a great example of that, because with _Theli_ we had our first really successful record in terms of record sales and the label wanted us to do "Theli Part 2", which wasn't going to happen. I refused to do that, and I couldn't do it because I didn't have the inspiration to do that stuff. And then I did _Vovin_, which did double the sales figures, so of course they wanted "Vovin Part 2". We just do whatever feels right at the moment. A great example is _Secret of the Runes_, where we did lose some sales, but I would do it again, because it was the right thing to do. The records we make are what's missing from the music store -- the stuff that no one else makes or wants to make is what we do.

CoC: Do you ever feel like the expectation people place on Therion is too much and that it places too much pressure on the creative process that the band goes through?

CJ: Well, it's like this: you can't teach a dog to shit on command. We just do whatever we like, and as long as we like what we have done, then that's okay. I mean, even though we lost a little in terms of sales figures for _Secret of the Runes_, it still sold very well, so that's really down to being a "luxury problem", you could say. With the level that we record at right now, we do have to sell a minimum of 50000 units in Europe, just to be able to afford to make another record. But _Secret of the Runes_ has done over 60000 in Europe, so we don't have any worries -- we could have stood to drop even more actually and still be okay. Of course, it's fun when things are looking up and when an album is doing well, but it's a secondary thing. As long as we're on that level where we can do what we want to do, I don't see any problems, really. We're not a commercial band anyway -- if that were the case, we would have played something different right from the start. Back when everyone was trying to copy Entombed, we did something of our own with our first record in 1991. Then we started using keyboards when everyone was saying that only poseurs use keyboards, and then on the third album we started using traditional heavy metal influences when people were saying that you couldn't mix traditional metal with death metal -- which a lot of bands obviously went on to make a career out of. So we were always a bit ahead, which made us a bit of strange band. We'd always get really good reviews in the press and our peers always appreciated us -- at least the majority did. And in that sense we were a band who in the beginning appealed more to the press and to musicians; we just seemed to go over the heads of the masses. And for that reason I actually thought that _Theli_ was going to be a massive failure. We didn't sell records because people thought we were strange and then we came along and did an even stranger album, but as it turns out, it was the right strange album at the right time.

CoC: So in the same sense, what are your personal expectations for the new albums?

CJ: Well, I don't expect anything more than to stay at the same level -- maybe go up a little bit, but certainly not to the level where we peaked with _Vovin_.

CoC: One of the main things that strikes a listener about the new material is the extent to which you re-examined some of your earlier influences with the death metal vocals and you also experimented more in terms of taking the classical and operatic influences to an even more prominent level. Did you feel that the platform of two albums gave you more of an opportunity to be more creatively free-thinking?

CJ: Well, the two records are completely separate from each other. We initially sold them together as a gift to the fans, but really they're two entirely different albums. They'll probably always be tied together in some way because they were recorded at the same time and mixed together, but they are separate. And the thing is that we actually had enough material for three albums. We didn't want to record three albums at the same time, because that would have meant being in the studio for one and a half years, and to do them all at different times would have taken fucking ages when you take touring and promotion into account. So we decided that the only reasonable thing to do would be to record two of them together in order to catch up with our productivity and our song writing, and then we could save the songs that we needed for the third one. In that way, it's not an intentional trilogy, but you can look at it as a trilogy because they are connected in that way.

CoC: One of the primary aspects to Therion, particularly on your later efforts, has been your in-depth exploration of mythology and other unusual themes in your lyrics. Talk me through some of the things that you've touched upon this time around.

CJ: Well, most of the lyrics deal with themes that we've done before -- there's no really big difference there. We have a few songs that deal with Greek mythology, and then we have a few more controversial topics as well, such as _Lemuria_, which is supposed to be like the continent to Atlantis and is supposedly somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And then we also have some Russian influences, where we talk about people like Rasputin and a few other Russian mystics. There's "Blood of Kingu", which deals with Babylonian traditions. There are also songs that deal with religious history and looks at the roots of Judeo-Christianity right back to the ancient Egyptians and their worship of the sun god.

CoC: Looking back at your career, when Therion first released albums like _Beyond Sanctorum_ and _Ho Dracon Ho Megas_, did you ever envision taking the band to the bombastic heights that you have taken it over the last few years?

CJ: When we released the first album, I certainly wasn't thinking that. But when we did _Beyond Sanctorum_, we already used some clean male vocals, some female vocals and we introduced a slight touch of keyboard and started experimenting with different scales on the guitars. So the foundation for what we're doing right now, you can already see on those albums. We were always open to ideas from the beginning.

CoC: The big step forward in Therion was always most pronounced -- in my opinion at least -- on _Lepaca Kliffoth_, particularly on "The Beauty in Black".

CJ: Well, that song was actually written for _Ho Dracon Ho Megas_, but because we had an absolutely non-existent budget, we didn't want to ruin the song by cutting any corners. So that song was actually written for the third album, and then when did _Lepaca Kliffoth_ we were able to hire a soprano and a bass-baritone. But on _Ho Dracon Ho Megas_, I think you can already hear that we were doing different things with keyboards and trying new ideas. I didn't have the idea at that time to make it full-blown to the extent that it is now, but the idea of introducing classical elements was already present to some extent very early on. Then in 1994, we didn't release an album and I started to write some songs that ended up being on _Theli_, because for the same reason that we hadn't used "The Beauty in Black" on _Ho Dracon Ho Megas_, we didn't use these songs on _Lepaca Kliffoth_ -- we didn't have the money to make them come out sounding the way they were intended to sound. So, around 1994 you could say, it became more apparent to me what I wanted to do with this band.

CoC: Since _Theli_ you've also dabbled in film scores and, as we've talked about before, taken Therion to some great heights. Right now, what still challenges you as a musician and as a song writer?

CJ: Well, as a musician -- nothing. I stopped practicing in 1995, so for me guitar-playing is more like a hobby than anything else. It's as a composer that I feel most challenged still, and about one and a half years ago I started to write my own opera, which I haven't had much time to work on recently for obvious reasons, so it will be some time before it is completed. That is a great challenge to me though. Another challenge for me is to do something in a way that it's never been done before within the range that we're working in. For example, if AC/DC would write a song that's their biggest hit ever within the style that they have worked in before, that would be a challenge for them. So for us to create something within our style that has somehow been left undone is a great challenge for us. The advantage with Therion is that we're always changing things and we're always progressing, so it's easier to write songs in that sense. Bands like AC/DC, which I have already mentioned, Saxon, Iron Maiden -- they have one style and they're trapped in that style, because if they change then the fans will say that they have betrayed them, because it doesn't live up to the old standard. If they continue to do the same thing, then people will complain that they're being boring. That's a problem that we don't have, so if we were to run out of inspiration, we would just find a different way or a different path to follow. A great example was _Secret of the Runes_. If someone had told me a year and a half before I made that album that I would do a concept album based around Norse mythology and with Swedish lyrics, I would have said: "Never." Swedish lyrics? Never. Norwegian folk music? No way. But all of a sudden, one day I woke up and I had already written about seven songs that are actually on the new records, and I said to myself that I don't want to do that now, I want to do something different.

CoC: Where does your love for classical music and the cultural aspect that you constantly delve into with Therion come from?

CJ: I guess I've always been attracted to that in some way. The first classical music that I was choosing for myself was Beethoven's 5th. My parents only had three classical vinyls -- one was Mozart, which I didn't like. One was another Beethoven, which I also didn't like as much. And then one was the 5th symphony. We had this automatic gramophone where you just pressed a button and it started playing the record, so I would just sit doing that all day until my mother got fed up with me and gave me a set of headphones as a present. So, classical music I discovered very early on. After that, I started getting into other stuff like The Beatles and I discovered heavy metal, and it was actually through progressive rock that I eventually found my way back to classical music. As for other things, I've always been very interested in mystical things, and when I was young I would always read books on mysterious things like dinosaurs and space and things like that. Then of course, as I grew more mature, my interests evolved into more esoteric things.

CoC: Now, I’m sure that you get this question often, but I have to ask: in terms of performing live, will you ever be able to reach a point, do you think, where Therion can start touring with more than just the band and the backing track?

CJ: Well, we have a choir with us and orchestration has to come from a backing track, which we operate through two multi-channel tape decks. But we actually use the raw recordings from that -- from before the stuff actually gets mixed, so it does sound slightly more natural live because it has no effects or EQ on it. I mean, using an orchestra -- I'd love to. If people don't mind paying £100 per ticket, then it would be great. We might be able to do a few special events though. There's actually been some talks with Russia, but we're going to play there with an ordinary setup first and see how big we are there before we try anything, because there would be logistical things like sponsors to consider and I would want it to be a success. We've also had invitations from Latin America, but their organisation there is not up to standard. Maybe later, I don't know. One thing that's slightly more certain at this stage is a potential event in Vienna.

CoC: That almost seems fitting, in a way.

CJ: It will be some sort of benefit, where I think they'll be donating to Austrian children with cancer. I mean, that in itself would be great, where you get to contribute to something that would actually bring about some sort of change in the world, so we'd happily play for free. On the other hand, we'll be playing with an orchestra if that happens, which would be ideal for us.

CoC: Well, thanks a lot for your time. Do you have anything to say to conclude this interview?

CJ: Check out our website on www.megatherion.com and we hope to see all the CoC readers on tour very soon.

(article submitted 31/12/2004)


CHATS
1/7/2007 J Smit Therion: In the Nightside of Eden
3/5/2000 A Bromley Therion: Soothing Opera... to Kill by
9/1/1998 A Bromley Therion: Eloquent Emotions
8/12/1997 A Wasylyk Therion: Melancholic Musical Masters
ALBUMS
1/7/2007 J Smit 7.5 Therion - Gothic Kabbalah
5/31/2004 J Smit 10 Therion - Lemuria / Sirius B
1/14/2002 B Meloon 7 Therion - Secret of the Runes
3/5/2000 P Azevedo 8 Therion - Deggial
6/15/1999 A Wasylyk 7 Therion - Crowning of Atlantis
6/7/1998 P Azevedo 10 Therion - Vovin
8/12/1997 A Wasylyk 7 Therion - A' Arab Zaraq Lucid Dreaming
10/11/1996 A Bromley 10 Therion - Theli
9/2/1995 G Filicetti 10 Therion - Lepaca Kliffoth
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