Therion (exclusive interview with Christofer by Jan Sohr)

I have met a lot of people that don’t like Therion, I’ve also met a lot of them that like the band, or some of their albums or songs, and I’ve met quite a number of really big fans of Therion. I have never met a person that didn’t agree that this band is original, different, true to themselves and their music, that their songs are thick with atmosphere and their discography so rich and diverse that it doesn’t even matter what kind of rock/metal genres you prefer, if you give it a ‘good listen’, you’ll most definitely find something you will like.
I am very happy to present to you an interview with the person and the constant behind this bands music, Christofer Johnsson.

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1. First I would like to thank you for this interview, I am deeply honored to have a chance to talk to the person whose music was with me for quite some time now and accompanied me in all kinds of situations life threw me in.

You’re welcome!

2. You have a very diverse and rich musical career behind you and, if your latest efforts are any indication, ahead of you. Could you tell us how your involment with music started? What drove you to start a band, was it something you always hoped and planned for?

Since I discovered Beatles at the age of 9, I wanted to be a musician. When I was 14 I went to see some friends of a friend of mine jam and they didn’t have someone playing the bass, so it just turned out I bought a bass and joined in. 3 months later Blitzkrieg (later Therion) was formed together with the guitar player Peter.

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3. From death metal to gradually introducing classical elements and vocals into your music, progressive, rock, cabaret elements, your discography is definitely something to listen to. Tell us how did the changes and transitions in genres occur? Were they connected with some changes in your life? When your music grew was it because you yourself was growing in new directions at that time or did you just want to try something new?

I think my spiritual development made me more open to blend things. And Celtic Frost’s ”Into the Pandemonium” was a great musical inspiration leading the way.

4. No matter which record I take, what song I listen to, whether it’s the early stuff or newer there is always a certain warmth and positivity to your sound. I can take your most brutal songs and they will still fill the room with a positive and warm atmosphere. Is that the result of a consciouss effort or is it something that is just part of your process of creation?

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No idea, must be something that just happened.

5. While we are mentioning the earlier works, how come you are not playing songs from, let’s say, Beyond Sanctorum or …Of Darkness, Lepaca Kliffoth in live shows? Do you think it would not fit with the Therion that came after Theli or that maybe there exists some kind of a divide between fans of the earlier and later stuff?

Two reasons. One is that I stopped singing many years ago. I wouldn’t mind playing some old songs on guitar, but I really don’t feel like singing at all. Second reason is that very few wants to hear it. At least 90% of the audience in a typical Therion crowd would prefer to have a newer song rather than an old one.

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6. Metal has very passionate fans and when they love a band some of them make almost a religion out of it, it isn’t a rarity to see some very strong reactions from fans when their favorite band is taking a different road to explore their creativity. When you slowly departed from brutal vocals and music what were the reactions from the fans at that time? How about the musicians that played with you? Were there any problems which occured?

Back then even a small change like adding some keyboards, using some 80’s heavy metal influence or some middle eastern sound was considered a monumental change, so already with the second album we were regarded as somewhat odd/super original and with the third album there were even people asking me if the band shouldn’t change name because they thought it was so different. So by the time I started to change the vocals, the fans were already used to the fact that each new record would be something new.

Our bassist at the time, Lars, wasn’t too please with the outcome of Theli, he thought it was crap with opera singing.

7. First time I heard about Therion was when I was introduced to Theli, for three months it didn’t leave my discman. As I understand it, Theli is a very important album for Therion. Could you tell us the story behind Theli, and what was involved in its creation? What was going through your mind at that point in your career? I think I read somewhere that Theli was supposed to be a sort of epitaph for Therion, were times so dark for Therion at that time?

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I just wrote those songs I liked like any time before, but some of them was written some year earlier and was saved, as I didn’t have the budget to record them earlier.

The rest of the band had no idea of how it would turn out, as I had no proper demos of the songs, so it was a bit of a shock to them how it turned out.

As Therion never sold much records previously due to being a too odd and flipped out band, I expected Theli to do even worse and me our final album. Fortunately it turned totally the opposite and it became our break through album.

8. Let us move forward a bit, Les Fleurs du Mal. Why wasn’t the album published by Nuclear Blast records, was there some sort of a discord between you two considering this album?

It was mainly a copyright thing. France has different copyright laws for making covers and it would require an insane amount of work to do all the paper work for a European release. My solution was to only release it overseas, where they have more simple copyright laws, and import copies back to Europe. That was too complicated for Nuclear Blast and they anyway didn’t like the who concept, so in order to avoid making our relation bad, I suggested I would release it my self to get it out of their way.

9. You published the album yourself so I get the feeling that it was an important project for you, why was it so important for you to do and publish this album?

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Yes, it’s important to remain experimental and continue to dare to do things that may be provocative. It’s easy to become one of those dinosaurs that just continue to release another album. Therion was also ways a band causing emotions. So when celebrating 25 year anniversary, it felt more logic to release the big talk of the year in the metal scene rather than some boring Best Of compilation.

10. The first time I had the chance to catch you live was in Zadar, Croatia, the unfortunate Metal Melting Summit. The year was 2005, the summer was dreadfully hot, the car had no air conditioning but the spirits were held high with the help of a few albums of Annihilator and the fact that soon we will watch Therion and Rage on the same day. And than happened something…well actually we still don’t know the complete story of what happened. We only know that the organisation dropped the ball somewhere along the line but the main person behind the festival never told the whole story to us and many Croatian fans are still wondering what happened. Would you be willing to shed some light on the whole situation?

The organiser didn’t pay the bands fully, so some wouldn’t have played anyway for that reason. But he also didn’t pay for the PA and the diesel generator delivering the electricity. Some compromise was made, but at some point the generator went out of diesel and there was no money even for more diesel, so that was it as far as I remember it.

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11. Well, I got mine back in 2007, Boogaloo, Zagreb. It was your 20th anniversary and what a show it was. The scenography, the playing, the atmosphere, the setlist. You played the whole Theli album from beginning to the end and it was one of the best live experiences I ever had. It is very obvious I have very fond memories of that concert but what was the show like for you? I remember seeing you shortly after the show and you looked extremely exhausted, you looked like you put everything you had in this performance. Is it like that everytime for you or was this tour a special case since it was the 20th anniversary of the band?

That tour we make two sets and played almost 3 hours. So we were completely exhausted after each show. We also put an insane amount of money on the scenery and it’s the only european headline tour I ever lost cash on (due to the insane production costs). So it’s nice to hear if people appreciate it. :)

12. Just before this tour Gothic Kabbalah came out. I remember browsing the new Terrorizer and noticing a new song from Therion on their compilation CD, it was the shortened version of The Wand of Abaris. I listened to it once, twice, three times, I walked towards the phone, called a friend who is also a fan:
„Hey, come to my house, I got the new Terrorizer.“
„I can’t right now, I got some stuff to do and if I put it off it’ll just pile up on me.“
„It’ll be just 5 minutes, just to hear a song from the compilation CD.“

„We’ll meet up tomor-“

„Therion is making a progressive album.“
„…I’ll be there.“. ☺
When I finally got my hands on the whole album I couldn’t believe, someone took some of my favorite genres and brought them all together in a masterpiece. I still consider Gothic Kabbalah your best work alongside Theli. Tell us the story behind the record, why did you choose to take Therion in this direction? Could you describe the process of creation behind the record?

For me that was a bit of a negative era. I was totally burnt out from the 108 shows long touring of Lemuria/Sirius B. The idea was to do what would be Sitra Ahra, but I felt I wanted to do something different in between, I had some songs going in a more progressive direction. So I just told the guys what I wanted to do and then they could come up with material in that direction, it was just some spontaneous idea (like always). This style was much closer to their hearts, so it was easier for them to write than in the passed.

As I was totally burt out, I didn’t feel like sitting 2 weeks writing score, so I decided to try something new and bought Vienna Symphonic Library, the most advanced and expensive sample library on the planet (used for much of the film music you hear). I needed a new challenge and it was fun trying something new.

We also decided to record with a mobile studio, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple did for some of their classic albums. The mix was done with Stefan Glaumann at Toytown, our first time working with some star producer. The result was a very polished and compressed production.

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13. Are there any plans to make a record like Gothic Kabbalah ever again? Would you like to make something like it again?

We never plan too far ahead. We just do what ever feel right at the moment and until we have completed the current project we are involved with, we never what is gonna happen next after that.

But generally speaking, we did 15 albums so far. Did we ever make the same album twice?

14. Could you tell us how the writing of lyrics in Therion works? Many lyrics are provided by Thomas Karlsson as far as I know, do you apply any changes to them? Do you write the lyrics together and how do you choose what the next album will be about and whether it will be a conceptual album?

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The last 15 years we have worked in a way where I first write a nonsense lyric for the song and then Thomas replace it with real words. Sometimes I come up with the topic of the lyric, sometimes also the title, sometimes it’s totally his ideas.

It’s seldom that I change something. Some words a few times has happened in Therion.

With Luciferian Light Orchestra I did some smaller contributions to some parts.

15. After Gothic Kabbalah a process occured which, I imagine, can’t be easy for any band. Although you are no stranger to changing members and ‘standing alone’ in Therion I have the feeling that with those members it was a special case. Are you still in contact with each other? Has, at anytime, an idea to revisit your musical relationship in perhaps a different project crossed your mind?

It was a very special line-up and because of that it was also important that we didn’t get things degenerate. After having done the best we could together and felt we lost the spark, it was the right thing to do. I’ve had some small contacts with all of them over the years, but we never had the idea to make music together, I don’t see anything like that happen. One should never say never, but for sure not anytime soon (the upcoming years).

16. Recently Luciferian Light Orchestra came out and me and a good friend of mine were just talking, while listening to it, how no matter what you do you seem incapable to play one dishonest and unemotional note. In a time when many bands are putting out automated albums for the sake of business, how do you manage to stay true to art?

Thank you for the flattery. ;)

I just write songs I like and try to make the record that I would have liked to buy if I was a fan. And hope for the best, that the fans will like it.

17. In a world where the consensus is that it is very economically unwise to be an artist and where economically wise decisions are more and more sold as the only acceptable wisdom in life, why do you do it? Why isn’t it more appealing to be a banker or a lawyer, or somehting similar? Do you not find comfort in a financial security positions and choices like that offer? ☺

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I actually made most of my money via stock trade. I built my villa with money I made from Apple stocks. But I also made good cash from music (that’s how I got cash to invest in stocks), so I have no complaints there. The thing is that you can’t just be a good artist, you need to be a good businessman as well. Unfortunately very few artists are. That is one of the reasons why many artists don’t earn any cash. Another reason is that many old artists don’t understand those drastic changes that happened to the music industry with Spotify and that sort of stuff. I may not make much difference to you if you’re AC/DC or Metallica, but, but for artists on an independent level who made a decent living on music before, it may mean difficulties to pay the bills now. I know many great artists who lived from music for decades, but who now need to take a regular job in between the gigs.

18. I noticed Luciferian Light Orchestra will be on tour with Therion, since it is a personal project of yours and your girlfriend Mina is on vocals can the fans expect this sort of a ‘double show’ from you regularly on tours?

Mina was just doing backing vocals and some whispering musically, but has been deeply involved with the marketing of the project. As a photographer and creating and participating in music videos.

It’s expensive and difficult to get good support tours, so I just grabbed the chance as Therion is now going on tour to get an opening spot for free. The idea is to make LLO established enough to go on their own, but right now it’s a support level type of band and then I will try to push them on to as many Therion gigs as possible.

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19. When viewing the whole package, lyrics+music, I notice something slightly different on Gothic Kabbalah, Les Fleurs du Mal and Luciferian Light Orchestra. Like there is a slightly more of a personal touch in them. Is my feeling right or was the lyrics part conducted normaly on those albums like on all others?

But ”Les Fleurs Du Mal” is a cover album… It’s not our lyrics.

Gothic Kabbalah was a concept album, so its therefore a bit different compared to normal. With LLO we tried to make lyrics that are more direct and comprehendible for the average listener, while at the same time have some hidden knowledge in some of them in a Therion type of manner.

20. You’ve been in the music business for quite some time now, could you tell us how it has changed since the 80′s to now? What are the hoops an artist must jump through nowadays to put out an album?

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In the 80’s we were still a demo band in the new born death metal underground, so we didn’t have much contact with the music business.

The 90’s was the golden age for artists, but I never realised it back then. CD’s were the new thing and they were so much cheaper to produce than vinyl, so new record labels popped up everywhere offering new possibilities. Record contracts looked fantastic compared to how they are today. And people were listing to music in a proper stereo, not via cheap iPod earbuds and crap computer or USB-speakers etc. Today most of it is low resolution streamed music via Spotify and similar and YouTube. I feel totally out of phase with that emotionally and artistically, but I’m doing the best I can with the tools I’m given in each situation.

21. Has there been a change in interference from the publishing companies during the making of an album since the 80′s up to today? What kind of pull do they have nowadays?

Real publishing companies has almost disappeared in the independent music scene. Instead it’s just a division of the record company who takes 50% of the songwriting money for doing nothing. It’s not a big problem for older artists like my self, we sit with contracts from the passed, but for new artists it means the biggest income is split in half or sometimes even worse. A real publisher would also give publishing advance payments, today I understand that’s getting more and more rare.

22. There is a very ‘old-school’ sound present on the Luciferian Light Orchestra record. Could you tell us what gear was used and what was the recording process like?

I used a lot of old stuff lying around at my studio that I never had the opportunity to use for Therion. That was great fun and one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I love vintage stuff and from my own musical taste, the sound of the 70’s was the golden era. With LLO, we’re soundwise inspired by the late 60’s up to early 70’s.

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23. You have a distinct style of playing. A lot of influences from older, especially progressive, rock bands can be heard, bands like Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd, Scorpions and many more. Your riffs are melodic but hard at the same time, I miss this in a lot of metal bands today. It is almost like many of them are afraid to be melodic. How do you write your guitar parts? Do you ‘jam’ them out alone and than incorporate them into a song structure, do you write them alongside the whole band or something else?

I usually hear a song in my head and then play around with it on guitar/keyboard/organ. I never wrote music in the rehearsal room with a band, from the very start I always wrote music at home and brought to the rehearsal room or studio.

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24. Could you tell us an interesting story from a live show? Something that first pops into your mind?

In the very beginning of the death metal scene, there would usually be 3-4 bands playing each concerts. The venues where small and the bands playing were usually making up for half the audience as well. In spring 1989, at our very first show under the name Therion (we had made two shows earlier as Blitzkrieg the year before), the bands playing where probably making up for more than 75% of the audience. We were head banging to the other bands until it was our turn to play and then that band would get down in the audience. It was a very special atmosphere back then.

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25. I remember wishing a long time for a live DVD of Therion and than finally, Celebrators of Becoming came out. It still holds up as a great and very complete package of a band and its history to this day. What was involved in making of a such a collection of content? Are there any recordings or interviews which you regret not putting in the final product or that were not able to get in due to various constraints?

After so many years of playing and after talking about it for so many years we had to come up with something rather large and interesting to live up to the expectations. So we used pretty much everything we could that deserved to be released and ended up with that 6 disc.

26. On Theli you used analog keyboards and sounds and many keyboard parts reminded me a bit of Vangelis. It is the only album alongside Kabbalah I noticed a more pronounced use of keyboards, do you to do something similar again?

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For Therion, no idea, I never plan what to do. But in LLO we use only analog keyboards, Hammond organ and mellotron, so you’ll be hearing more of that on future LLO releases.

27. You did a few covers on some of your albums, do you plan to do something like this again, maybe as bonus tracks?

No idea. But it’s not impossible.

28. On A’arab Zaraq – Lucid Dreaming you released songs which were a soundtrack for a film The Golden Rose. What was it like to record something like that? Did the process of writing songs differ greatly compared to the process when writing songs for a regular Therion record?

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It was called ”the Golden Embrace”.

It was a great experience and the director is actually involved with some parts of the rock opera we’re working on. He’s a Swedish author and director.

I had quite free hands with the music, so it wasn’t so much different actually. Except I had to stay within a certain frame to fit with the film. But I was completely exploding with inspiration, so it still went quick.

29. What is in store for Therion in the future?

We have a best of tour booked for this winter, after that we should take a little break and then get started with recording the rock opera we have been writing on for some time now.

30. Thank you again for this interview. Do you have any message for Croatian fans?

Stay metal and hope to play there live again soon.

Jan Sohr

Therion facebook page

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