“You get desensitized to many things when you’re in the circus life.”

There is only one rock show in the world that features a ringmaster who eats fire before the opening act, and on February 11 that show had its final performance in the United States. Avatar, Sweden’s answer to the world’s cries for a fresh take on rock and roll, brought their Avatar Country tour to Grand Rapids to honor their king and spread his message. It was more of a state visit than a tour stop, but also more of a circus than a state stop. It was one of a kind.

In the hours before doors, Avatar vocalist Johannes Eckerström was busy packing in one of the three green rooms behind the venue’s main stage. His band was preparing for the final performance on the North American leg of their 2018 world tour, a nationwide trek that has been supported by The Brains and a traveling sideshow known as Hellzapoppin, and he was doing his best to focus on the task at hand. “It’s a challenge to keep your mind in the here and now when you’re so close to the next step,” he said. “Until show time you must try to mentally remain in this moment because I’m already picturing the gates, the airport, the customs to getting home.”

For the last five weeks, Eckerström and the rest of Avatar had been celebrating the release of Avatar Country, the group’s seventh studio album. The tour shares the album’s name and serves as a state visit for the land of Avatar, with each stop offering citizens of Earth a one night only audience with the King of Avatar Country set to the songs that tell his story. The entire evening is meant to be an invitation of sorts to those who have always believed there must be a better way to live life, and it includes production unlike anything else currently being offered in music today. There was a traveling art show featuring work from the group’s globe fan base, carnival games, costumed merchandise sellers, and an elaborate stage presentation.

“Now in particular as things are so different since we chose to open up the borders of our country and reveal the truth of our king,” Johannes explained. “Suddenly this is no longer something we do under the guise of a heavy metal band tour, this is now a state visit and of an old world fair thing, and I don’t know what’s going on anymore but this early 20th-century thing of countries just showing ‘this is us.’ This tour, this show, is our world fair. Everyone enters the venue, and you enter Avatar Country, and you cross the borders into our land, and everything is built around that and our glorious king.”

Avatar Country offers citizenship, but Eckerström claims all those interested must first pass a simple test. “If you love the king and if you want to be a citizen, you already passed the test, you are a citizen. You feel it in your heart.”

The commitment Eckerström has to his character and the message Avatar Country promotes is admirable, enviable even. To hear him speak of his creation and the community it has bred around the globe is humbling. Of course, he never takes any credit, choosing instead to keep the focus on the land of Avatar, its king, and his mission to spread the message of his homeland.

He speaks of his king’s greatness, saying “I sometimes see questions of whether or not it’s old-fashioned and anti-democratic to have a monarchy? And I say yes if your choice of leadership is normal human beings. But we are dealing with our demigod, and he’s the only leader in the whole world that has a 100% approval rating among his citizens, so having public elections would just be a waste of a nice afternoon off. There’s no real reason for us to have it because that love and that connection our king has to his people is so unique. I didn’t really need to, regarding lyrics, need to seek my king’s approval because our king also encourages creativity among his people as well. That’s connected to why we’re called Avatar. An Avatar means a god who manifests himself on Earth in a human or animal form, so a god in disguise, thus Avatar is always a story of finding and unleashing your inner potential. The king really wants to see people nurturing that more divine side of themselves and hence he wants us to come up with cool shit in the studio.”

Eckerström and his bandmates have been creating that cool shit since the dawn of the new millennium. Though they have only been visiting the states for the last half-decade, the band has long been considered a musical force of nature in other parts of the world. In discussions with American rock bands and promoters over the last several years, this writer has been told to pay attention to Eckerström’s work no less than two dozen times. Name a rock band, any rock band, and it’s likely someone in that group loves – and more than likely promotes – Avatar.

When all this is brought up Eckerström recoils ever-so-slightly in a way that says he isn’t comfortable talking about the positive things people say about him. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate compliments or believe in himself, but he is never the focal point of the music he creates. Avatar is more significant than himself, and whenever the conversation turns too personal Eckerström finds a way to bring things back to the big picture.

“People have been saying nice things about us, and we’ve had nice support from people in the business but particularly drummers for whatever reason. It’s people like Mike Portnoy and Vinnie Paul, two legendary drummers. So, apparently, we are not just a band’s band, but we are a drummer’s band.”

The support of the rock community at large may have helped propel Avatar into the spotlight, but the band’s dedication to their craft gave them lasting appeal. In a world where increasingly few acts stay together long enough to release more than three or four records, Avatar continues to grow with each release without succumbing to repetition.

“One important thing in our case is a commitment to reinvention,” Eckerström explains. “We write purely for ourselves first and foremost, and we figure we are the demographic. If we like it, if all five of us are into it, the chances are that more people will be and if it’s a total flop and failure, there are only five people in the world that have to live with that failure for the rest of their lives. If you don’t like the album, you can move on and listen to another album that you like more. If the show disappointed you, you can go and watch a different show next time. The only one who has to deal with consequences of that for real is us in the band, and therefore that’s the main thing we worry about. We make music for ourselves. I do believe that we tend to listen a bit more to our albums than many other artists, or at least more than most would admit to doing. That is step one for us, to revisit what we’ve already done. Success, for me, comes when I’ve finished whatever I’ve set out to accomplish.”

A thunderous boom from the other side of the green room wall informed those backstage that the show was about to begin.

“Have you seen Hellzapoppin?,” Eckerström asks. “You should.”

A self-proclaimed traveling freak show, Hellzapoppin’ is a Circus Sideshow Revue featuring a cast of performers led by The Govna Bryce Graves, a longtime friend of the band. “He set me on fire in a lake once,” Eckerström confesses in a surprisingly monotone voice. He looks up long enough to notice the room is shocked by this admission, before calmly adding, “you get desensitized to many things when you’re in the circus life.”

The crowd wasn’t ready. To be fair, there was no way anyone could be adequately prepared for the sights and sounds Avatar had in store. The semi-frequent use of phrases such as “no fucking way” and “holy shit” being spouted by members of the audience confirmed this to be true. From the glass-eating antics of Hellzapoppin to the psychobilly chaos of The Brains, everything about the opening acts of Avatar’s tour was unpredictable. The crowd hung on every moment, often with their cell phones in hand, and they gave the performers – most unknown to them – the time of day they so rightfully deserved.

Still, nothing either group could present would match what Avatar themselves had in store for the crowd. Speaking to their performance briefly before insisting everyone exit the green room and watch the show, Eckerström optimistically said “I like the feel since we paid attention to everything, it becomes like this old-school variety show thing. I think about in the 50s before when the Johnny Cash’s and Elvis Presley’s were in the world, they could be on the billing with a magician and then two kids doing nursery rhymes and a family harmonic vocal group and then it’s Elvis Presley king of rock and roll and after that it’s bingo. That kind of weird variety show thing. Ed Sullivan Show. I think we captured that vibe, which again, gives it multiple dimensions which is a good way of representing Avatar Country at this time.“

As Hellzapoppin’s Bryce Graves said at the end of each act that night, “just wait until you see what they do next.”

All photos were taken on February 11, 2018 at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, MI.