Therion's mastermind Christofer Johnsson has been surprising fans with interesting, uncommon ideas ever since they appeared on the metal map and nothing about this band has ever been predictable, but "Beloved Antichrist" is definitely his biggest and most complex project thus far. With its soundtrack spanning 3 CDs this rock opera was written primarily for stage production and when they finally make it happen, the theatrical performances will no doubt be amazing to watch, and not just for Therion fans. We tried to cover all aspects of this monumental work in our extensive interview, and Christofer was happy to discuss it in detail.
The storyline of "Beloved Antichrist" is based on Vladimir Solovyov's "A Short Tale of the Antichrist". What inspired you to use that book as a background for your rock opera?
Well, originally I wanted to make a classical opera, it was like 2003 or something and the idea was to use Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita". But it's a little too long and complex story to make it one opera, it would require a quadrilogy, like Wagner's "Ring" or something, like four operas to tell this tale. So, I thought, "Let's do something shorter" and I was very much into Russian literature at that time and I thought, ""A Short Tale of Antichrist" should be good."" I wanted something dark, you know? I cannot make an opera based on a love story or a comedy, it's not what I write. But anyway, I abandoned the idea of making a classical opera. I wrote some highlights but I never completed it and in 2012 I had the idea to just recycle the material and make a Therion opera instead. So, that's the background of it. But there's not much left from the original story actually. We changed the beginning, we changed the end and in the book there are no female characters, so we added new characters and made one male into female, and once you bring out the knife and start cutting up the story, there's no end to it. So, we just changed most things. We owe our story to Soloviov, we would never make our story without him, so in that way we rightfully should say it's inspired and partly based on it, but if you look into the details, I think there are just like three-four scenes that are pretty much from the book.
So, were you only interested in Russian literature?
No, I love German literature as well, I'm a big fan of Herman Hesse, but I don't think Herman Hesse would make it very well into an opera, he's too reflective and complicated. Maybe "Steppenwolf", but that would be very limiting in terms of public entertainment.
So, you were looking for something that would appeal to broader audience?
Yes, we wanted to make something very broad because if you're gonna stage this you need insane amounts of money and that means it's not enough with our fans' money, we need their mom and dad's money as well. So, we need to make something that appeals to wider audience. If you put up a musical production you can't just do it one day and then go to the next city, next night, you know, like you're doing with rock production. You need to run it at least one week in each city to make it worthwhile. If we are doing it in places where we are very popular, maybe our fans will sell out the first show, but what about the other six? So, we need to appeal to wider audience and therefor it needs to be good quality but broad production. It's like movies. There are many movies that are great quality movies that appeal to almost everybody, like "Lord of the Rings" or something like that. So, we're not quite there yet, on a Tolkien level, but at least I think we created a story which pretty much anybody could see just for entertainment, without previously knowing the band. Therefor the music has also been adapted to that. It has to be very accessible. The fans, they would of course listen to the CD first and know everything about it before they go, but the average musical consumer, I hate the word consumer when I speak about music, but that's how it is, would not do that. They don't know who Therion are and they don't give a shit who Therion are, it's just an evening of entertainment as an alternative to going to the cinema and watching a movie. So, the music has to be very direct, not necessarily commercial, but very accessible, so that you can watch it for the first time and get it, like "Jesus Christ Superstar" which is brilliant in its accessibility.
Albums with politics or religion-related lyrics often divide fans, based on their political or religious views. Did you take into account that it might happen with "Beloved Antichrist"?
No, we removed all the edges from the story. I think everyone, a Satanist and a Christian and an atheist can equally get pleasure out of watching it. Of course, some religious people, they find a problem in everything, you cannot please everybody. Some religious crackpots will of course complain, because of the simple fact that somebody makes entertainment and includes Antichrist. And of course, there will be some Christian intellectuals who think we're terrible people for taking this story and changing it but this is regarding a handful of fruitcakes, I don't think anybody's gonna really make a big deal. Of course, the fans will be divided like every time we make a record, "This is not what I wanted!" But if you look on Internet, since maybe 2001 when people started to write on Internet forums, if you would see the comments it would look like we've never made a successful album. People who are displeased are more likely to express their views. Like from the YouTube videos that we've posted now for instance, it will be like 50% of the comments will be negative, but if you see how many people have actually liked it or disliked, 90% liked it. So, that's how it is, there will always be some people complaining that it's too long or it's not long enough or too commercial, or the guitars are not like they wanted it, I don't like the cover or my haemorrhoids ache so I just need to complain about something. Internet is paradise for idiots to express themselves. If they expressed themselves the same way at a local pub, it would be like, "Why don't you shut up?" But in the Internet they can call themselves like Metal Invader From Hell or whatever and write idiotic comments and wank off if two people like their comments. It's quite sad really.
You have dozens of characters on the album, sung by, I think 15 singers. How did you approach the selection process? Did you hold any auditions?
Well, I've been working with a lot of singers over the years so I had a list of people that I really wanted to work with, but the problem was that many of them were very young when I worked with them. Now they're middle-aged like me and they are involved in productions all over the planet. Marika Schoenberg for instance, she's in Germany, involved in an opera production there. So, they weren't available. They were interested, everybody I asked, but nobody could just leave what they had in their hands at the moment and just fly over to do it. So, we had to go with recommendations from the singers that we did use and try that first, because they have a lot of insight information. So, we found basically all of the singers via recommendations. And Linnéa was also doing some music classes for opera singing and the teacher there had a lot of recommendations from young stars of tomorrow, you could call that, like the guy who sang Satan for instance, Erik Rosenius, he will be one of the big stars in 10 years from now. I mean he's like 22, 23 and his voice is fully mature, really amazing, one of the best singers I've worked with. And then we were also fortunate to have Marcus Jupither, who is a big star in Sweden, a baritone. He doesn't get out of bed for less than 4,000 Euro per day and he's a childhood friend of Thomas Vikström our singer, so he said, "Oh, of course I'm gonna sing on it," and when we discussed the cash he said, "Oh, whatever, just pay me what you pay everybody else." I expected three days, two days at least for him to record his stuff, he just showed up and nailed everything in one day. So, he's famous for a reason.
Were you the sole writer and arranger of all material or did you collaborate on this project with other writers?
I wrote 80% of the music and the other guys wrote the rest and we worked with an author for the libretto. It's not really my thing. I helped out a little bit. I usually write some sort of sketches, like nonsense lyrics first, so that he would understand the flow of the words that should sound nice. And sometimes I came up with some pretty catchy sentences just by pure coincidence and he kept some of them. But in effect, 98% was written by him and then we did some small changes also while recording. But 98% was written by a guy called Per Albinsson, Swedish author.
You kind of abandoned the more aggressive elements of Therion and the vocals are only operatic this time. Why?
Oh, we did that before, "Secret of the Runes" had only opera vocals and on "Deggial" there was basically one song that didn't have opera vocals. So, it's normal for us. We wanted to create a bridge between opera and rock music so it would be weird if we had rock singers in the middle of it. But Thomas who's doing the Antichrist, he sings opera but we intentionally pushed it a little bit towards rock singing style, like a hybrid sometimes, to get more character. After all, he's the Antichrist. But it's an opera, so it should be opera singers.
When writing stuff for "Beloved Antichrist", did you take into consideration that people play music in the background these days, while your album can only be fully appreciated by sitting down and going through the whole 3,5 hours of music?
It's a musical, it's written for a stage performance, for theatre so, it's like a movie, you're supposed to see it. If somebody wants to listen to a movie soundtrack, it's their choice if they want to sit down and focus or do the dishes while listening to it. This is not an album. Like "Jesus Christ Superstar", you can also buy that on a CD, but it's not an album. The only reason we released it on a CD first is because of financial resources. It cost us like 100,000 Euro to record it and I don't have that kind of money so we had to ask the record label for cash. And if you ask the record label for cash you have to deliver a record. Otherwise the most logical thing would have been to stage it and then later you could buy the CD, just like you can buy a soundtrack after a movie. If people want to listen to it as a record they can just take the scenes they like and put them together and make one CD. You don't have to listen to all three of them in the row. You can listen to one at a time or burn your own CD or make a Spotify list or iTunes list, whatever and listen to the relevant parts. A lot of the music is displaying what is happening on stage, just like a movie soundtrack. I mean, if there's a love scene you can't have a song that sounds like "To Mega Therion" obviously, or like "The Palace Ball", it's a dancing scene in a ballroom, so obviously the music is in that direction too. But if you break it down I would say there's probably at least 10-12 tracks that work as standalone songs for a regular Therion album, so people can just compile them if they want.
What did the Nuclear Blast guys say when you pitched them the idea of a 3-album metal opera?
They're used to my crazy ideas, so they were OK. We have the best record label on the planet. They always let me do anything I want. They never said no. The only time they had some conditions was when we made the French cover album "Les Fleurs du Mal", because of copyright reasons. It's a nightmare to cover French artists, because you need a written permission from everybody. And since we covered songs from the '60s and '70s it means some of the composers are dead and their kids have inherited it and they don't know if it's worth 10 euro or 100,000 euro. They're just like, "Oh, some big band contacted me." So, there would be lawyers, and for the composers still alive they could be like 90 years old and not speak a word of English, it would be a nightmare. I got permissions for 3 songs, then I gave up. So, they just told me, "Come with a paper with all the permissions and we'll release the CD." So, they actually didn't even say no to that. So, every time since "Lemuria" and "Sirius B" we always did something different, like two albums at a time or a double CD or something out of the ordinary. They're always very co-operative and we appreciate it.
So, as "Beloved Antichrist" was written for the stage, how will you make it work logistically? It's dozens of people you need to take care of...
Money. It's really expensive. My idea is to franchise it, to find a production company that have the logistics, the know-how, the money and they can just make it their next production. That means it would be not Therion performing, but that's not so important. "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a great example. If you're going to see "Jesus Christ Superstar" you're not gonna be like, "Oh, where's Ian Gillan?" just because he sang on the recording in '72 or whenever it was. So, it's not such a big deal. In a way I would actually prefer to just sit in the front row with a glass of champagne and just watch the premiere. Maybe co-direct it, just to make sure they don't blow it totally. I'm quite open to different interpretations, even to make a version with rock vocals instead of opera vocals. It's not so important, as long as it's professional. If I have to do it myself, which is the alternative, I'd need to do insane amount of research. Because not only there are many things we need, there are many things we don't know that we need, because we never did this. I know I would need a stage designer, a stage builder, people who know how to assemble and disassemble the stage, to move it, to operate it technically, so we have four people only for the stage. Then you have somebody to design the clothes, someone who can make them, sew them, and then you need people who dress the actors, because it's usually complicated, it's a lot of costumes, they need to be kept somewhere, you need to transport them, then the make-up for the people. 15 singers, they need to eat, sleep somewhere, be transported, be somewhere before and after the performances. It's insane logistics. And then you have also things like the dramaturgy, to make it a good theatre. You can't just take it and say, "Oh, sing the role", you need somebody who knows how to display the story. And then of course a director who can be responsible for the whole thing, the production manager to take care of all the practical things, you need the stage manager to take care of the musical thing, you need a regular light engineer for the on-stage lighting and you need the light engineers who follow the individual singers with a spotlight and it just goes on and on. This is just a spontaneous list of things that we would need. So yeah, I'd be very happy if I don't have to do it. The first question a potential investor would ask is, "How much money you need and for what?" And I don't know how much a production like this costs per evening if you do a whole season, how much a clothing designer costs, no idea. So, I would probably need to do research for months just to know how much cash we need. So, fingers crossed we'll just find somebody who can just license the production.
How much harder is it to write music for orchestra, as compared to writing a straight-forward metal album, where you have like three or four instruments?
Well, you need to know how an instrument works. That goes for guitar too. I mean, Linnéa, she can't play guitar, so when she writes stuff and she programs the guitars, it's funny, because she doesn't know how to play guitar. So, you need to have some sort of basic knowledge on each instrument. Like, you have a theoretical range but it doesn't mean they sound good everywhere in the range and some things may not be suitable to play in that range. The best way, and that's how I did it, you start in small scale. On the "Vovin" album we had only a small string orchestra, string quartet, so you know, it's easier to read about instruments and you try different things and if they don't sound good you change it and next time you know a bit more. On "Deggial" I had a few woodwinds and a horn, so I learned a bit more and on "Secret of the Runes" I worked with full orchestra. I'm totally selftaught. I bought a book called "General Music Teaching" or something like that, in Swedish, where I just have transposition schedules, because some instruments, they transpose, like you don't play the same note like you write. Like you have, French horn, they transpose depending on which clef it is, you have English horn which is an alt version of an oboe's transposing and so on. So, I have the range and a short description of the instrument. One typical beginner's mistake for instance is that you put double bass in octaves with the cello, but double bass cannot follow the lowest notes, unless you have a 5-string double bass which we actually had on "Lemuria" and "Sirius B" because of that. So, there are some things you need to learn, but it's not harder than taking a driving licence. I think the hardest thing is to write good songs. And that's hard if you sit with a guitar and it's hard if you have an orchestra. If you write crap, it will be crap no matter what cosmetics you put on it. You know, take an acoustic guitar and play your song. If it sounds good, then you wrote something nice, but if it needs all the other stuff on top to be good, then maybe it's more cosmetics than a good song.
What are your favourite operas or movie scores, your favourite composers?
When it comes to opera I'm pretty much focused on Wagner. I like Richard Strauss as well. My idea of the staging is actually inspired by "The Fiery Angel" from Prokofiev. I love Prokofiev, but "The Fiery Angel" is not one of his best compositions at all. But the staging is wonderful. I mean if you take Prokofiev's symphonies and ballets, they are fantastic. The "Romeo and Juliet" ballet is outstanding. But when it comes to opera I'm very much Wagner only and I don't like Italian opera too much, it's too happy, ridiculous love stories. And the Russian operas are to hysteric, it just drives me insane. I like French grand opera though like Meyerbeer, but Meyerbeer sounds like a poor man's version of Wagner's "Rienzi", so I'd rather listen to "Rienzi". They actually call "Rienzi" the best Meyerbeer opera, because it sounds totally Meyerbeer style, he didn't find his own style yet because he was so young. Strauss, I wouldn't listen so much to a Strauss opera on a CD, but I really enjoy them when I see them live. "Ariadne auf Naxos" or "Elektra", even "Rosenkavalier", but it's something you bring your girlfriend to maybe.
Trends come and go, but symphonic metal seems to have its own niche. There are always fans who are into this kind of music. Do you have an explanation for this?
Well, the trend is definitely over, if you think about heavy metal in the '90s, it's not as bad, but it's somewhere there. It's starting to come back a little bit but for many years it's been like being Status Quo at the same time when W.A.S.P. released their first album, you know? Old men made another album. I really notice difference with media. When we made "Sitra Ahra", even before anybody heard the record, it was like half the interest. All of a sudden people are like, "Oh, they're still around, they're still making records?" Not as bad as Saxon or Motörhead in the '90s when nobody cared. But there's definitely been a difference, you can totally tell when the trend was disappearing at that time. But it's like, you have fans and then they get older and make a career, they start families and they have other things to think about. And then you have the next musical generation, not their kids but the next musical generation, they don't want to listen to what the ones before listened to, because they're old and boring. But then your fans become 40+ and they're like, "Woah, I'm getting bald" or if you're a woman, "Woah, my ass is getting fat" and everybody's like, "Woah, I need to get beer and metal again, I used to be young and cool and tough and wild, where did my life go?" And then you get a revival, a nostalgy trend. You can see Iron Maiden, they pulled like 10,000 people in Stockholm when they played there in the '80s, in the '90s they would play like a hall for 3,000 people maybe and now they pull 50,000. They sold a 50,000-capacity stadium in less than 3 hours. The only one that sold this stadium faster was Bruce Springsteen, particularly on the "Born in the USA" tour. Beside that, nobody else sold it out faster than Iron Maiden. They're bigger than Kiss with make-up, they're bigger than anybody. I mean, the only thing that could be bigger would be like ABBA reunion or something like that, so they are the best example. But also, you can see Saxon, I mean I saw them play a club in Stockholm for like 300 people in the '90s and all of a sudden they headline Wacken. So, it's always like you benefit from a trend for a number of years, then it would be like a desert walk where people think you're old and not relevant anymore, of course, your fans still like you but they're busy with other things and the young people think you're old and boring. And then all of a sudden you become classic. And the first time I noticed it was a few years when we were asked to do a best-of tour. I thought, "Best-of tour? That's for old bands. Oh, we've been around for almost 30 years, people regard us as old." And to do a tour and just play classics and people just go and listen, that's the first sign that the period after the trend is coming to an end. I think we're seeing the light in the tunnel a little bit now. But you're right, it hasn't been this, like when punk was out, nobody listened to punk and with heavy metal, people laughed at heavy metal in the '90s, "What? You listen to heavy metal?" it was never that bad with symphonic metal. So in that regard we've been lucky.
You've probably been asked this question a thousand times, but why did you abandon your death metal roots early in your career?
It's a weird question and I get it a lot. But you know, death metal for us, that's not how we started. We started in '87 and we played like a mixture between early Metallica, like "Kill 'em All" Metallica with some early Slayer with Motörhead and Venom, something like that, very noisy with distorted bass and everything. And when we started to play death metal around '88 that was actually something new and fresh. That was a progressive thing. I mean, how many death metal bands were there in '88? Of course, there were bands before us, way before us, Death, Autopsy or Morbid Angel, we were not pioneers in that way, but there were still like very few bands and we were one of the first Swedish bands, like Grave, Merciless were before us but you know, we were really there in the start. So, we always had the idea of doing something new, from the very beginning. To do death metal was something new. And then we just continued to mix with things and we were probably the first death metal band that got away with using keyboards. Nocturnus, they used keyboards before us, but everybody hated them and when they played show, people threw things at the keyboard player. So, to my knowledge we were the first death metal band that actually used keyboards in the melodic way and got away with it. Even though a lot of people called us posers too because of that. And then The Gathering was releasing their first album almost at the same time as we did and they used a lot of keyboards and clean female vocals, those things. So, when we made our second album we were a weird, very experimental band, we were never considered a death metal band. But times change, you know? When Jimi Hendrix put amplifiers on maximum and the fuzz box at maximum it would be a small thing today, but back then it was a revolution. Or when some of the guitar players started playing neoclassical scales, it was a revolution, today everybody does it. So, what we did then was very brave and everybody was like "Wow!", but today people don't think about it that way. They listen to old records and go, "Oh, so you were like death metal band?" But back then we were avant-garde. And the third album was considered crazy, we mixed '80s heavy metal with death metal, I experimented with the voice also, we had classical sounding keyboards, we had oriental music and back then people called it camel music or kebab music and so on. Today it's the most common thing on the planet. So, we were considered too weird even to tour with other bands. We tried to get tours but we didn't fit anywhere. And when we did "Lepaca Kliffoth" we were also like totally weird. We were on Nuclear Blast at that time and they tried to find us a tour but we couldn't fit with any band. Today you make crossovers and anybody can fit with anybody but then it was really strict and conservative. So, death metal bands said, "Well, Therion, they completely lost it", other bands said, "You're too brutal and weird." And the whole thing with symphonic stuff, we had some opera voices, the only one that did that before us was my inspiration, Celtic Frost and they were considered totally weird. It was the only band we could have toured with if they would have been around I guess. Or Voivod maybe...
It was the 30th birthday of Therion last year. Did you celebrate it in any way?
There were too many things to do. We finished the opera and there wasn't time to do anything else. Also, I got hernia in the neck, so I didn't even know if I could continue my career. I couldn't use my right hand at all, I couldn't even brush my teeth or eat. So, I had to learn how to use my left hand to work with a computer and in the middle of the production it was like the worst possible timing. It didn't look like I would be able to play guitar again. But I flew to Moscow in Russia and I got specialist help there, as you know Sweden is completely fucked beyond recognition these days, nothing works, kinda like a third world country, but with the highest taxes. So, the rock opera is the celebration and I'm really relieved that I managed to put it all together.