by Niklas Göransson
Reckless abandon and ceremonial oaths — a prosperous career cemented by sacrifice. Christofer Johnsson is a Swedish musician and esotericist known primarily for his work with symphonic metal pioneers Therion.
The following is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #4. The same issue also includes conversations with PROFANATICA, PRIMORDIAL, SOLSTICE, Götz Kühnemund, Louise Brown, KATATONIA, BLACK FUNERAL, COUNTESS, Stockholm Slaughter, MARDUK, and TAAKE.
– We started out as a thrash band but barely managed to get going before I was drawn more towards the new and still very underground style known as death metal. After that genre exploded we began, more or less before everyone else, to experiment with keyboards, mixing in 80s metal and using female vocals, as well as influences from oriental and classical music along with opera. It definitely bears mentioning that we were one hundred percent completely first with replacing the lead singer with an opera choir. And the concept of not having one and the same vocalist. Besides that, I’d say CELTIC FROST pioneered essentially everything else with their ground-breaking 1987 album “Into the Pandemonium”.
I sometimes amuse myself by contemplating moments of destiny; events that, at the time, might not seem life-determining but in retrospect prove to have shaped everything that happened from that point on – anything from impulsive decisions to random meetings. One such moment for both Christofer and the symphonic metal genre at large must’ve been when he in 1995 telephoned Nuclear Blast boss Markus Staiger to plead for the studio budget required to realise his vision of “Theli”.
– I actually didn’t call him to plead for anything but rather to announce my discontinuation of THERION, having found myself at a dead end. Now, this was quite a few years ago so I can’t remember my exact reasoning but, given our less-than-stellar album sales, it wouldn’t have felt realistic to ask for additional funds to finance expensive recordings. That was probably the only point in my adult life when I felt ready to give up on something I truly believed in. I’d already begun the process of forming a new band called THELI – we were meant to play seventies-inspired hard rock, my other musical passion besides the symphonic. It was actually Markus himself who spontaneously proposed that we head into the studio and do whatever had to be done – then send along the bill to Nuclear Blast.
Worthy of note here is that Herr Staiger in his leap of faith had not the faintest clue about what these things cost. Christofer booked Impuls Studio in Hamburg, then hired vocalists, various musicians, and two different choirs.
– They got the shock of a lifetime when the invoices started pouring in. One of the worst-selling bands on the label had suddenly incurred what was by far the biggest recording budget in Nuclear Blast history, so obviously they were getting a bit anxious. 58,000 D-mark would’ve been a fortune to spend, even on their biggest artists at the time. Our contract stipulated 20,000 D-mark, which was already generous for a band whose latest album, “Lepaca Kliffoth” (1995), had sold a meagre 12,000 copies. That was considered weak back then, the limit for when you’d be dropped from the label was at 10,000.
Despite the thrill of finally having attained his musical vision – this was material Christofer had kept lying around for years without being able to properly realise – he was in serious doubt that metal fans would match his enthusiasm. There was a sense of impending doom. Drummer Piotr Wawrzeniuk even enrolled in university studies before the album came out, simply assuming it was going to crash and burn.
– I felt that we had something really special but, simultaneously, I wanted to be realistic and not place my hopes too high. All of our previous efforts besides the debut were considered too eccentric – or, depending on how you see it, before their time – and this one was even more left-field. Bear in mind that since we didn’t have any demo recordings of “Theli”, no one in THERION besides myself even understood how the songs were supposed to sound. At rehearsal, I’d either growl the choir parts or play them on guitar. When the band finally heard the end result, they were shocked. And at least Lars (Rosenberg, bass) was utterly disappointed and thought it sounded like shit. So, besides concerns that the album would sell poorly there were also fears of losing whatever small fanbase we’d managed to scrape together. A “Cold Lake” (CELTIC FROST), sort of. Opera vocals were pretty damn far from cool back in those days.
At the same time, there was a careful optimism; Christofer had noticed how “The Beauty in Black”, an almost goth-rock type song from “Lepaca Kliffoth”, had struck a chord within the metal audience. He sensed that THERION were potentially sitting on something that could work really well.
– So when consoling a panic-stricken Markus Staiger, who rang me almost choking from terror after the last invoices arrived, I swore to him ceremoniously that THERION would become the best-selling act in Nuclear Blast history – which we also did, if only for a short while, with “Vovin”. But in that precise moment of utterance, I genuinely meant it. One could say that, at this particular instance, the visionary and unhinged esoteric warrior-personality conquered the rational Christofer, he who draws conclusions from reason and evidence. Preparing myself to sacrifice everything for my vision, I believe this to have been a magical act that generated power. This attitude would come to define my approach even when the winds were blowing my way and THERION started gaining momentum.
“Theli” was an immediate success, reviews were extremely positive all across the board and the album had twice outsold its predecessor after only a month. In light of their newfound surge in popularity, THERION were offered the coveted support slot for a tour with prolific Finnish metal band AMORPHIS. Since Piotr had begun his university studies and guitarist Jonas Mellberg left the band due to personal reasons, Christofer now faced the unenviable task of finding competent replacement musicians who, on short notice, could learn the songs and then play them for rent-money and free beer. Then he had to find opera singers willing to work under the same premise. As logic dictates, such an offer is likely to attract a certain type of individual. Already dealing with alcoholism within THERION, matters did not improve when even their choir began heeding the call of the rock and roll lifestyle.
– Over the years we’ve had four band members in total – not including session musicians with similar issues – become alcoholics to varying extents. Some with grave problems that caused all sorts of trouble, others with an earlier onset of addiction who managed to keep themselves together. And yes, we hired singers who then started drinking and taking drugs, to the great detriment of both their artistic and social contributions. To accurately portray the level this was on, indulge me in a moment of reminiscence from the first gig. We’d hired a ‘tenor’ called Hasse, some stoner-buddy to a mutual acquaintance in the Stockholm scene. He got the job about a week before the tour kicked off so we were ecstatic to even have found someone at all. The first gig was in Hamburg and as we were about to load our equipment onto the bus, we noticed that Hasse was missing. We were only the supporting act so the driver gave us ten minutes to find him, following which the bus would depart with or without us. Myself and Tommie (Eriksson, SATURNALIA TEMPLE), who back then was my session drummer and unofficial cohort, panicked and took to the streets calling for Hasse at the top of our lungs.
While it was no doubt easy to refrain from laughter at the time, what makes this scene additionally comical is that ‘hasse’ – which is a Swedish nickname for Hans – means ‘hate’ in German.
– No answer, our tenor was nowhere to be found. We finally spotted him, still wearing his stage clothes, passed out on the hood of a car with his shirt buttoned up and sweaty rolls of fat protruding in plain sight. He was completely unconscious and, as I just implied, somewhat corpulent. Consequently, hauling the bloated cadaver back to the bus – which had the motor running, more or less about to leave us behind – proved a rather strenuous undertaking for two stick insects such as myself and Tommie. One could say that even if not every remaining day offered the same level of dramatics, Hasse certainly established his signum that evening. I had little choice but to put up with this carrying-on since I couldn’t offer them any money, the entire premise was more or less, ‘Come along and see Europe from a tour bus while drinking beer.’ Young and naive, I thought we’d become better the more we played together. The truth is that we not only sounded like absolute shit but also got progressively worse as the tour unfolded. What acted in our favour to some extent was that we had a completely new and unique sound, people were impressed we could even perform that material live. We also had a hell of an attitude on stage; like a mighty fucking bulldozer ploughing down the audience, but one driven by a bunch of cocky semi-junkies and drunks. It was probably to our great advantage that most of our audience also liked to party back then.
More mature crowd these days?
– Fact is that I during our latest tour thought several times, ‘Damn, there’s a lot of old people here tonight…’, only to realise, ‘What the hell, they’re my age!’ There was essentially no one under thirty who wasn’t there with their parents, most in attendance were between forty and sixty. It’s been a rude awakening in some ways, realising how one has gone from ‘adolescent and dangerous’ and playing before howling youths to morphing into some kind of middle-aged entertainer, heh. When I see audience members in front of stage who looks like the parent of someone from my generation would’ve looked fifteen years ago, I try to imagine them back in the day – with long hair and heavy attire.
I know quite a few touring metal musicians who are pretty knackered by the time they reach their forties. On the opposite end, I’ve gotten the impression that Christofer – Baudelaire tributes notwithstanding – hasn’t personally led much of a MÖTLEY CRÜE existence on the road.
– I didn’t even drink alcohol until I was twenty so I was in pretty good shape when everything started. From then on, I went pretty hard with binge-drinking every weekend in typical Swedish fashion. However, I came to realise that it was sucking all creative energy straight out of me and, when starting up my first company around 1994, I found a somewhat better balance where creativity and entrepreneurship could be combined with moderate amounts of decadence. We were still partying pretty hard on tour though; booze from breakfast ‘til bedtime. This went on until 1997 when we recorded a gig that was meant to be a live album. I thought it went rather well so upon hearing the damn thing I was absolutely mortified! We sounded dreadful. My self-image took a serious dent from that debacle and since then I haven’t had a drop to drink before a gig.
Something many are unaware of is that Christofer has an extensive background as a practising occultist. He’s been involved in ceremonial magic for several decades, having even written a book in Swedish about the subject as early as 1993.
– Ever since early childhood I’ve had a fascination for the dark and, to a certain extent, the occult. I began experimenting on my own during teenage years but the only thing I managed to do upon achieving any form of result was frighten myself. It wasn’t until I met the right people in the beginning of the nineties that pieces started coming together and I developed a regular practice as well as the courage required to take the proverbial next step. I read a few books but primarily learned through the internal literature of Dragon Rouge as well as from close friends who also practised. My first real revelation came in form of the practical discovery that consciousness and body do not require an active connection. Those early astral experiences would prove to be decisive for my future commitment, shortly followed by the exploration of techniques which allow for control over one’s dreams. The third formative factor was working with kundalini, connecting the spiritual through energetic embodiment gave me huge boosts in both physical and mental energy. All this is what ultimately led me to discover the potential in focusing on the darker aspects of existence.
Christofer is likely to have a rather unique perspective on black metal. While I’ve been led to believe that he was never a big fan, one would have to assume that he became aware of the phenomenon at a rather early stage.
– As a musical style, I haven’t really regarded it differently from any other subgenre of metal. I was really into VENOM and MERCIFUL FATE, though they’re obviously musically different from the later generations of black metal who further explored BATHORY’s rawness. BATHORY in particular is a band I’ve always appreciated a lot – when “Under the Sign…” was released I became a dedicated fan. Shortly thereafter, CELTIC FROST led me to discover HELLHAMMER, which I also listened to a lot. We even jammed “Triumph of Death” with THERION a few times. Also, MORBID’s “December Moon” and GROTESQUE were on frequent rotation in my home so saying that I was never a fan of black metal is simply not true. However, I wasn’t particularly enthused by the second wave of the early 90s, DARKTHRONE and company. It felt too primitive and lo-fi sounding in an artificial way.
Many believe the art form to harbour intrinsically destructive currents so, given my interviewee’s arcane acumen, I thought it might be interesting to hear his take on the matter.
– I doubt music in and of itself can contain either inherently benign or malicious energies; it’s an artistic expression with the ability to entertain and inspire but, ultimately, it’s still nothing more than an amalgamation of rhythms, chords, and melodies. However, I think struggling with poor mental health in surroundings where subcultural peer-pressure allows this to manifest as cool and desirable might be an unfortunate combination. Blackmoon (ex-DARK FUNERAL, NECROPHOBIC), for example, wasn’t doing too well mentally and might not have ended his life if he’d been involved in a different milieu. I’m sure he had plenty of good friends supporting him but, at the same time, these are circles where one is expected to be tough, where destructivity is cultivated and suicide to a certain extent glorified – thinking for example of Pelle Dead from MAYHEM and MORBID.
As for the metaphysical?
– It was to one hundred percent an image from the start, even if Cronos (VENOM) is said to at some point have held an interest in the occult and King Diamond was a LaVey Satanist. As for the subsequent defining generation of black metal – with whom I, as you’re no doubt aware, quarrelled – I never really noticed much interest for either theoretical esotericism or practical magic. ‘Black metal occultist’ was somewhat of a derogatory term among both Swedish and international magical orders around that time. They were primarily teenagers who drank booze and cut their arms whilst listening to BATHORY. It wasn’t until Jon Nödtveidt started MLO that an esoteric movement which was serious both in theory and practice sprang up. MLO had taken obvious influence from Dragon Rouge – before DR there were no orders either working with or even talking about Qliphoth – even if they gravitated more towards the religious aspects and had a significantly more destructive and subversive interpretation.
Christofer first met the DISSECTION main-man in 1989 when Nödtveidt, at fourteen years of age, organised a show in his hometown of Strömstad featuring, among others, THERION and GROTESQUE.
– DISSECTION were never considered black metal but Jon belonged to those circles. We had sporadic telephone contact during the years following that gig, even when all that nonsense with threats back and forth between myself and ‘The Count’ (BURZUM) was underway. I got to hear all the latest gossip, as well as plenty of – correct, it would later turn out – inside-information. Then we ran into each other at an early edition of Wacken and got drunk together. Jon and Vlad also came up to visit Dragon Rouge in Stockholm at some point, and he gave a very serious impression regarding his metaphysical pursuits; something I understand if some people perceive as offensive, given the homicide he was involved in. I also met Jon a few times after he was released from prison and his magical involvement had deepened even further by then. In my opinion, he was very serious in his practice – even if he chose a very radical interpretation of things, which by extension led to his ritualistic suicide.
What about your own esoteric involvement these days?
– Things change when one becomes a parent, buys a house with a garden that requires maintenance and – last but not least – simultaneously has a bunch of different business projects going. There’s quite simply not as much time available for such matters as back in the day. But I try to at the very least keep the cauldron brewing; having once gathered a collection of experiences that left an irrevocable impact, it becomes completely impossible to just let go, even after drastic changes in one’s life situation. I’ve retained the same philosophical and intellectual attitude, but the practice has become slightly less reckless and frequent.
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #4. The same issue also includes conversations with PROFANATICA, PRIMORDIAL, SOLSTICE, Götz Kühnemund, Louise Brown, KATATONIA, BLACK FUNERAL, COUNTESS, Stockholm Slaughter, MARDUK, and TAAKE.