As Avatar frontman Johannes Eckerström can tell you, going onstage in clown paint is, oddly enough, no joke. Though they started off as a hard-hitting death metal band, the Swedish five-piece’s sound evolved rapidly in the 2010s. By 2012’s Black Waltz, Avatar were finally finding the confidence they needed to determine what they wanted to sound, look, and feel like — which was also when Johannes began wearing his signature harlequin make-up, and adopting the roll of a jester onstage.
“That didn’t come into play until after the album was finished musically,” Johannes explains to The Pit. “I was just supposed to be the clown in the music video for ‘Black Waltz,’ but at the time we had just been trying to figure out a cover for the album, some cool artwork. We were just experimenting, and this was just a happy accident. John [Alfredsson, drums], during the shooting of the video, just yelled, ‘Shoot some pictures, NOW!’ and I just kept doing improv in front of a camera. I found myself there, and there was a strong sensation of, ‘Oh, there I am! Oh, this is what our music looks like!’”
But wearing face paint in front of a camera is one thing — doing it in front of a crowd is very different. And yet, with the band’s confidence growing as they began to define their unorthodox musical style, Johannes decided to take the look live, where it quickly became part of Avatar’s standout personality as a group.
“Doing it onstage for the first time was weird, because I’d go onstage in this huge leather coat and executioner’s hood for the first song — and then for the second song, I’d march out looking like I did in the music video,” he says. “People laughed, but it wasn’t mean-spirited in hindsight. It wasn’t that they were pointing and laughing, it was, ‘Ho ho! What the fuck is this?’ And I felt like a fucking clown at first! But after the first show, we did for another show, then two more shows, then I started figuring it out. I still figure it out, show by show, to this day.
“That’s also the reason I keep looking like that, and we as a band keep looking like that,” he continues. “It still makes sense, it still, individually, on each album, keeps representing where we’re at in any given moment. Black Waltz is very straightforward — hello, it’s a circus, here’s a ticket, big smile. Hail The Apocalypse, that jester’s out on the open sea, and yet it sort of makes sense somehow. He can be a crazy captain. Feathers and Flesh, look at how I’m so entangled in that tale. A jester can also be that storyteller. Then I’m the jester at the King’s court for Avatar Country.
“With Hunter Gatherer, it almost becomes war paint — but then again, it always sort of was. Painting your face can mean many things. The obvious idea is that it makes you a clown, but it turns out that there’s so much more to it than that.”
Avatar’s latest album Hunter Gatherer is out now on eOne.
Words by Chris Krovatin