Many bands lay claim to being genuine musical innovators and trend setters. However Christofer Johnsson and his band Therion are definitely one of a small group who have always achieved this goal by having the confidence and nerve to push their musical boundaries. Constantly creating new genre paths which other bands have gone on to follow. For an amazing 25 years Therion have combined different styles of metal music with classical and operatic themes, continually reshaping and altering their approach. However with their new album Les Fleurs Du Mal, Christofer looks set to push his band's limits even further than before. The man himself spoke to Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid to look through 25 years of the past and many more years into the future of Therion.
Hi Christofer, thanks for taking the time to speak to Sea of Tranquility. Amazingly 2012 sees the 25th anniversary of Therion. Looking back to the early years when you started out as Blitzkrieg can you believe that your band is still going, stronger than ever, two and a half decades later?
In the very beginning my only aim was only to have a band to play with and at that time I think I never thought beyond dreaming about having a record deal. I had just turned 15 when I formed the band and I was still in primary school.
Therion's music has evolved and grown hugely throughout its 25 years. What is it that's motivated you to write and create such genre blurring, innovative music?
I've always had a very broad music taste and I guess that's coloured the music I've written. I never took any decisions to go in any particular direction, I just wrote songs I liked and recorded them.
As a composer, how difficult was the transition from writing songs firmly within the metal genre, into broader, far reaching epic music that incorporates classical elements, opera and orchestras?
The actual writing was not hard; I simply heard the music in my head. The tricky part was to arrange the songs and learn how the instruments work and how to notate the music for them. When I worked with two classical singers for the first time on the Lepaca Kliffoth album in 1995, I simply played the melodies on keyboard and had them sing it. Not very professional, but it worked. Next time I wanted to use a choir and more complex arrangements, so I realised it needed to be notated. I played it in a midi program and printed out a score for the Theli album recordings in 1996, but the score was useless, so we had to redo it in the studio! The guy there did it for me and from that I learnt how it should look. If someone shows me something once, I know how to do it myself next time, so for the A'arab Zaraq Lucid Dreaming recordings the year after, I had a score that was almost correct. Then by the time we did Vovin I had no problem with the vocal scores, but we started to use a small string orchestra. Again I turned up with a score that needed some corrections and I learnt how these instruments work - I worked together with a jazz bass player called Jan Kazda for that recording and he helped me out with correcting the mistakes, and then for Deggial, I wanted to use brass and woodwind as well. Woodwind was easy, but the brass needed to be transposed in the notations, a new experience for me. Jan did that for the recording and when planning for Secret Of The Runes, I simply bought a book with all the info on how the instruments in an orchestra work and I've done it all by myself ever since!
Going right back to the time that you were seriously expanding the band's music through albums such as Symphony Masses in 1993 and Lepaca Kliffoth in 1995, how difficult was it to convince people of the vision you had?
It was impossible to convince people. These albums sold next to nothing back then. A few thousand copies each for our three first albums, and then I think Symphony Masses did 7,000 or something. Lepaca Kliffoth did a bit better with around 15,000 copies sold in Europe, but given the massive promotion from Nuclear Blast, who had just signed us for that record and our first proper tour supporting Annihilator; it was not regarded as good sales. Those were the days when the record market was fantastic and a label of Nuclear Blast's size would drop a band they'd just signed if they didn't sell at least 10,000 copies from their first release.
How important was it to you to record Theli, an album which in a way really set the ball rolling for the Therion sound?
Theli was partly consisting of songs that could have been on Lepaca Kliffoth, but we didn't have a budget for a renting a choir then, so I had to save them - just like I had saved "Beauty In Black" for Lepaca Kliffoth instead of putting it on Symphony Masses. Theli for me was musically extremely important, but I never expected it to sell, as it was even more odd than our previous stuff. Before that album there would be a small core of diehard fans that eroded away with each release, but we'd find new ones as well and slowly grow a tiny bit each year. With Theli we lost 75% of our previous fan base, but we gained a new one much greater, with sales exploding to over 100,000 copies in Europe alone. We were all of a sudden hip and the latest thing. We went from being a weirdo band to a trend setter and recognized innovator.
Did you have the same difficulty convincing classically trained musicians to get involved with what was in essence a heavy metal band?
No, they were always very cool. Not until the Lemuria/Sirius B recordings, then there was one guy in the choir that was an asshole and did a shit job not caring. He was sent home. Oh and when we played live with an orchestra in Romania and Hungary some years later, there were a few uninspired faces, but the majority were cool, especially in Hungary.
By 1998's Vovin album, everything really seemed to have clicked into place for Therion, with the album going on to sell extremely well, especially in Europe. Why do you think that album resonated with so many people?
Two reasons. One - it had a clean polished production and very catchy or straight forward songs, allowing it to appeal to a wider audience. Two - when you make a boom with an album, you have tons of people who don't buy it, but listen to it at parties, friend's places, see you at festivals and so on. They like the stuff but aren't huge fans. When the label then promotes your next album, they put a massive push behind it and those people are then more likely to buy it. When the hype is over, they are somewhere else.
Again 2000's Deggial album saw Therion make even further expansions with their sound, with the addition of brass and woodwind, joined to a heavier guitar attack. How much of a challenge was it to make such a diverse album, yet still stay true to the Therion sound?
As usual, I just wrote songs I liked and recorded them. No big deal. But the album was different with longer and more complex compositions like "Via Nocturna" and it was a challenge to get the classic musicians to understand the feeling I wanted to have. The record has some of our best songs, but no "hit song", so we didn't make any video clips that time - a clear mark that we do what we like and that we were not affected by the big success of Vovin, by trying to go more commercial.
Then with Secret Of The Runes, Lemuria and Sirius B, you recorded three albums in quick succession. How did you manage to come up with so much material of such a complex nature, in such a short space of time?
Secret Of The Runes was written in just two months, but I had two songs that I thought didn't fit in with Therion and I then had ideas for a side project. When I played the songs to Kristian Niemann, who was our guitarist at the time, he simply said "This is Therion - no fucking side project!". As those songs had a Nordic touch I had the idea for a Nordic concept album and those songs just slipped out of me. After that I kept being productive and the other guys in the band also wrote a lot of stuff, so therefore we had tons of songs the next time we went into the studio.
How did you decide which songs should go on which album?
Well, Secret... was a separate thing. But when we were making Lemuria/Sirius B we had enough material for three albums. We called them X - Sirius B, Y - Lemuria and Z - Sitra Ahra. We opted for recording X and Y at the same time and saved Z for the future. For Sirius B we intended to use more straight forward and bombastic metal songs, like "Blood of Kingu" plus some more poppy stuff like "Son of the Sun", while Sitra Ahra was supposed to have the longer and more complex compositions like "Land of Caanan", "Kings of Edom" and "Adulruna Rediviva". That left Lemuria as the "left over" album in this trilogy, which actually made it the most diverse of the three. After the recordings, we swapped some songs between Lemuria and Sirius B, which made them a bit closer to each other sound wise, but more varied as individual albums on their own. However before we did Sitra Ahra, we got the idea of making a modern progressive metal album - Gothic Kabbalah - and we "stole" the songs "Adulruna Rediviva" and "Mitternachts löwe" from the not yet recorded Sitra Ahra. By that theft Gothic Kabbalah became a cousin to the three siblings in the trilogy!
When Gothic Kabbalah was released, one of the biggest talking points was your decision to retire from singing with the band. What made you come to this decision?
I had in practise already done that ten years earlier, so it wasn't much of a big deal. I had done some minor singing on Lemuria in 2005, but that was the first thing I had sung on a record since 1996. When I decided to give up singing, the only real effect was the two or three songs live that I normally would sing some minor parts on. I was very surprised how much of a deal was made out of it in the music media.
While there have been many contributors to the Therion sound over the years, the 2010 Sitra Ahra album saw the band's core line-up change quite significantly. What were the reasons behind that?
We did our second, failed, US/Canada tour and we were already quite mellow. Previously to that we'd done extensive touring in Europe and Latin America and ended a long world tour doing two months of small club shows with next to no technical facilities - which is logic for a band pulling 150 to 200 people to most of their shows. We came home tired and with a 10,000 Krona debt from the tour. There had also been a negative atmosphere in the band, as there were some money issues that had not been communicated properly - partly my fault and partly our managements fault. Then more or less straight after coming home, we had to start rehearsing a complete new live set - with three hours of songs! Just some weeks later we would be on the road again doing this massive set in a pretentious 20 year anniversary tour, with a completely new type of stage show as well. We fucked up the first two shows not even knowing the songs well enough, due to lack of proper rehearsal time in between the tours, meaning we had to continue to rehearse on the soundchecks. After that we sounded good, but the long set was wearing people down and I recall Kristian Niemann [guitarist] coming to me asking if we could cut down the set by half an hour or something. I saw how tired the band were and understood them, but it had been promised we'd do this massive set and we had sold tickets on that premise, I thought it was unfair to start giving fans less for their money in the middle of the tour. Plus it would be me, being the main face of the band, having to answer for it. Since I could pull it off, being the most running around and head banging guy in that line-up back then, I simply said "Don't be such a bunch of pussies, if I can do it, you guys can do it". I was very tired and worn out myself, so I guess that made me irritated and less friendly in my tone, but it was of course not a nice way of speaking to a tired band mate. So the atmosphere reached a very low point in the band. Everyone was exhausted and burnt out after the tour. I told the band I needed a year off to get back into shape, which was not met with enthusiasm. The other guys wanted to do a lot of festivals and needed the cash, but I simply said no. The shows on that last tour had done well, but our extravagant stage show and other expensive things for that tour had drained the budget and I lost money on that tour. Then along with losing cash on the US/Canada tour I realized I'd not be able to make it financially with one year off. At which stage I got a very well paid offer to do an exclusive festival in Poland. When I spoke with the guys about doing this one festival, they were pissed off and didn't want to do it and told me I should make up my mind if I wanted to have a year off or not. I understood them, but I really had to do the festival and I said I could do it with a stand in line-up if I needed to. I guess that broke the last spark we still had left and I asked them to consider whether Therion really was something they still felt 100% committed to. I wasn't OK with 90%, I wanted the full energy. They then had a meeting and came to the conclusion that it was better they moved on and I got a new line-up. We could have taken a longer break and had a talk and continued together, but it felt like the fire had turned into just a glow and the inspiration was lost.
So this brings us to your new album Les Fleurs Du Mal. The album is based on the controversial poetry of Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, whose poems were banned for many, many years. What was it about Baudelaire and his "Flowers Of Evil" poems that so inspired you?
It was the reaction from the public to his works. Like the fact that six of his poems were banned from 1857 until 1949.
The album is predominantly sung in French. How difficult was that for you to achieve and is there a possibility that it may prove a stumbling block for some listeners?
One of the guest singers is French and the other one has studied French, so actually it was easy. Lori Lewis has done some French studies as a part of her opera training. She knows French pronunciation well, even if she doesn't understand all words. It required extra effort, but she did a splendid job. For Thomas Vikstrom it was very tricky, he didn't speak a word of French, so we had an interpreter and vocal coach who would guide and correct every word he sang. It took ages nailing it and it was extremely hard for him. French is not an easy language and we wanted it to sound perfect, without an accent and all the songs are covers of old French songs. Our intentions are never to reach listeners; our intentions are to do what we want to do. Selling records and reaching many listeners is a great bonus, but never the main aim. I also think not caring so much about sales has kept the band fresh during all these years.
You've released the album independently from your record label Nuclear Blast. What are the reasons that made them unprepared to be involved with Les Fleurs Du Mal?
They just didn't like it and didn't believe in the idea. Being a covers album, it is a lot more risky and a lot of more work in terms of copyright stuff. They weren't very up for it and as it is a cover album, there's a clause in the contract saying they don't have to release it, it's subject to negotiations. After some attempts at compromising, I just felt we were heading for a deal no one would be really happy with. Nuclear Blast have always been extremely generous and supportive of me, so I was very keen on keeping a top relationship with them and not pushing them. We are still signed to Nuclear Blast for many albums and I didn't want to celebrate our 25 year anniversary by making our great relationship cooler. So I offered to buy back the master tapes and do it on my own instead and they agreed that this was the best for everyone.
I believe that Les Feurs Du Mal is just the beginning of a joint "Rock-Opera" and "Art-Project" for Therion, which will involve far more than just music. You've been reasonably secretive about what that will fully entail. What can you tell us about it?
You should not mix up the rock opera and the art project. Those are two different things. Les Fleurs du Mal is a part of an art project that will continue till the end of the year. The rock opera is something we will be working with in the future and yes, it will be a direct mix between rock or metal and opera, staged like a musical or opera. Unlike anything else we've seen so far.
So there will be visual, performance and other forms of art included in this project?
Does this mean that we will see much less recording, or touring activity for the band in the foreseeable future?
Yes - for several years.
Do you think that there is a desire from either the metal audience, or opera goers, for this kind of innovative hybrid project?
Most of our diehard fans seem to prefer our longest and most complex compositions, so I have a feeling at least those guys will be roaring with joy for this project.
Is there a possibility that if the opera itself becomes a big success for Therion, that the band as a "normal" touring and recording entity will in essence cease to exist?
There is an end to everything, but there is a risk there will be many years of no regular Therion activity - besides some festivals in the summers. We've no idea how long this is all going to take; we've never done it before. Some years we assume. In retrospect you could say that we have always been headed in this direction, but I guess we should actually pull it off before saying that.
You have already been out on tour to promote Les Fleurs Du Mal. How has the new material been received by the band's fans?
The tour was a mixture of a regular 25 year anniversary tour, doing a lot of rare and unexpected songs we normally don't do and a tour to introduce the Art Project which Les Fleurs Du Mal is a main part of. Live, the new songs felt quite similar to how new song are generally received, the exception being the first show on the tour when no one had a clue of how it would sound. Then the crowd was mainly listening. The reactions were great though.
The album itself is a bit controversial, but more than 75% of the reviews have been good and it is selling better than Sitra Ahra in most places, so...
I know that on this tour you hoped to interact with your fans in a far more regular and face-to-face manner than you ever have before. How did that go and did you enjoy the experience?
It was a great experience. Although in the beginning of the tour and at some very busy shows, I ended up being an assistant merchandiser helping the poor girl shovelling out hundreds of CD's to the fans each night. We also had old left over items with us for sale, so it was really not a one person job these evenings. But that was a great experience too and the fans could see for themselves that I'm a self made man, not afraid of getting some dirt on my hands and doing whatever job needs to be done if I have to. I don't know anyone else in a band at this size that would do that actually.
So, how will you keep the Therion name in the public domain during the long creative process that will take place for your new project?
There were three years between the release of Secret Of The Runes and Lemuria/Sirius B, so I don't think we'll be forgotten. Once the rock opera is being advertised we'll be in the spotlight again.
Well, that's all my questions Christofer. Thanks for taking the time to answer them. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Yes, stay around for another 25 years, we will! Follow what we are up to at www.megatherion.com
(Click here to read our reviews of World in Front of Me)