Swedish heavy metal band Avatar may not be top of mind when you think of typical vegans, but like others making the plant-based shift, the band is proving the diet can appeal to anyone.
Vegan diet stereotypes have deep roots in Woodstock-era long-haired rock ‘n’ roll. You know it: that whole counterculture ethos of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out away from mainstream media, politics, and, of course, food. This made healthy and ethical eating trends long ostracized as fringe hippie stuff. But a lot has shifted since the 1960s. Rock ‘n’ roll, for one, has evolved from its hippie roots. And vegan food is no longer relegated to alfalfa sprouts and plates of mashed yeast, either. Today, both are unapologetically in-your-face.
For Avatar frontman Johannes Eckerström, going vegan was a logical extension of the band’s evolution. They kept the typecast hippie/metalhead hair (and pro tip: their secret to lux locks is olive oil). But so much else has changed.
“A big part of the foundation for what became heavy metal came from realizing the hippie movement’s ideas and attitudes didn’t quite cut it for the less privileged,” Eckerström said in an email to LIVEKINDLY. “There is also a deep-rooted sense of wanting to be non-conformist as well as a forced openness to uncomfortable truths and ideas that initially may seem strange.”
One idea that didn’t seem strange to the band was giving up all animal products. The band—Jonas “Kungen” Jarlsby, John Alfredsson, Tim Öhrström, Henrik Sandelinwent, and Eckerström— went vegan about six years ago. “Most of us were vegetarians prior to that,” he says. “Many discussions and exchanges of thoughts went on, also with a little help by a crew member and longtime friend who had gone vegan a while before. As much of a sweaty boys’ locker room as a tour bus can be, I’d like to at least pretend that it’s a place of growth and self-improvement.”
‘Waking Up From the Matrix’
Eckerström says going vegan removed a good amount of cognitive dissonance for the band. “I’ve seen someone liken it to waking up from the Matrix, and I can only agree,” he says. “Avatar’s most important artistic mission is to explore darkness and help us as artists peel away more and more layers of bullshit and self-deprecation from our minds,” Eckerström says.
“A lot of our anger, towards both the world and ourselves, comes from the harm we do to nature and the inhumanity weaved into the fabric of our civilization. Our music acts as a vent, a mirror, a platform of communication, and a place of healing for us, so veganism shows up in multiple places across many songs. It’s a huge part of who we are and therefore what we create.”
That harm humans do to nature—or rather, the exploitation of it—has become increasingly more evident in the first half of 2020. From the climate crisis to the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 550,000 and infected more than 12 million around the world.
Like most infectious diseases, COVID is zoonotic, believed to have started at a wet market in China. And that’s an important point for Eckerström and the members of Avatar. It’s important because of the link to factory farming and the 100 billion-plus animals raised for food every year. Most of these animals are raised in densely-packed factory farms. Not only are the farms breeding grounds for zoonotic disease transmission from animals to humans, like the SARS family viruses, which includes COVID-19, but factory farms and slaughterhouses are also experiencing some of the highest rates of human-to-human exposure. This is because of the cramped working conditions packing workers “elbow to elbow” on processing lines.
“[E]very single pandemic has its origin in our domestication of animals,” Eckerström says. “The really big one is around the corner and it will most likely come from our chicken factories.” He says the benefits of going vegan “keep piling up,” even if you don’t care at all about animals. “I believe a lot of minds can be opened up to the idea of going vegan if we take a more egocentric approach. Once people take the step I’m sure we’ll see empathy and kindness grow as the cognitive dissonance goes away.”
Silence In the Age of Apes
This notion permeates the band’s eighth studio record, Hunter Gatherer, due out next month. Featuring fellow vegan metalhead, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, the album is dark and urgent. The first track, the wholly unsilent “Silence in the Age of Apes” has received rave reviews. Since it debuted on YouTube last month, it’s been viewed more than 1.4 million times.
Avatar’s music is heavy, fast, and disciplined in its frenzy. Eckerström delivers a Marilyn-Manson-meets-Joaquin’s-Joker nightmare in the Johan Carlen-directed video. But it’s not just shock and awe; it’s orchestrated mayhem, meant to explore the biological makeup of humanity. The “hunter” in the album title has nothing to do with any modern notion of the recreational deer hunter. Exkerström says it refers to where evolution took us “long before our complex brain created this life that, albeit very successful at making a lot of us exist, has been devastating on an individual level.”
For Exkerström, diet is very much connected to this concept. “I don’t condemn my ancestors for eating meat during the stone age. Veganism, as I see it, is a modern idea on the pursuit of higher morals and betterment of our lives now and the future of this world. Part of this betterment must be to understand and accept our nature and where we come from.”
He says that while we are the same animals that we’ve been for tens of thousands of years, “everything around us has changed so fast.” And to survive and thrive now, especially in the age of COVID, he says, “it has to change faster.”
But it’s a voluntary process, says Eckerström. “It will only do that if we are willing to understand where we came from and where we are at right now. As far as mother nature is concerned, we are hunter-gatherers. Now we need to find a way to deal with that.”
Hunter Gatherer is Avatar’s contribution to ushering in that “voluntary” evolution. “Silence In the Age of Apes,” Eckerström says, summarizes the album’s overarching theme: “both our ruin and saving grace are dependent on the rapid acceleration of all things.”
Doing What You Think Is Right
At the heart of that rapid acceleration, says Eckerström, is the vegan movement. And to him, that’s not just opting for a Beyond Burger now and then; it is very much a shift in consciousness inasmuch a moral imperative. “Veganism transcends conventional politics for me and I gladly see solutions in line with any and every political and economic leaning,” says Eckerström. “The cows don’t care why less of them need to be raped and murdered, be it capitalistic or socialized changes.”
And if Avatar is out to do anything with its in-your-face music, it’s hoping to be true to its namesake as that not-so-subtle teacher, helping fans open up to another possible way of being. It may be strange and even scary at first, but the band is resolved that that’s where the real change happens—that accelerated voluntary evolution doesn’t often come easy.
“Heavy metal and all its subgenres are, of course, first and foremost a style of music with a certain aesthetic, but if you go a bit deeper, it’s a breeding ground for all kinds of challenging thoughts,” says Eckerström. “It’s also very confrontational. All this points to a subculture that, despite what outside people might think, encourages you to think for yourself and not let any current norm stand in the way of you doing what you think is right.”
Hunter Gatherer is due out August 7th. More info on the Avatar website here.