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Opeth Interview

A Conversation with Vocalist/Guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt

By

Opeth Vocalist/Guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt

Opeth Vocalist/Guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt

Chad Bowar/About.com
Updated October 15, 2011
Opeth raised some eyebrows with their latest CD Heritage. It's very progressive with a '70s feel and no death metal vocals, just clean singing. After their previous CD Watershed, longtime fans of the band weren't surprised with this direction, but it did surprise some that haven't followed their recent output. I was able to interview vocalist/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt on Opeth's bus before their Charlotte, North Carolina show with Katatonia. The photos accompanying the interview are from that show.

Chad Bowar: Congratulations on Heritage cracking the top 20 on the Billboard chart in its debut week. Were you surprised, considering the sorry state of the music industry today?
Mikael Akerfeldt: It's a little bit more than they estimated. I know it means we sold records, but I'm not too impressed with chart positions. It's fun and cool to the people at the record label; it means a lot to them.

Do you put any extra emphasis on doing well in your home country of Sweden?
No. Every market is a priority for us. Sweden can be difficult for bands like us who have an international career. We seem to be forgotten.

What was your mindset going into the songwriting process for Heritage?
I was a bit discouraged with the contemporary metal scene, and I wanted to break away from it even more. I feel we've been on the outskirts of that scene for a a couple of years. I just couldn't see myself writing another album in the same vein as the last couple of records. Thankfully I listen to so many different kinds of music, and writing music has never been a problem. I've always seen Opeth as a band without boundaries. So if it's good and everybody in the band likes it, it's an Opeth record. In the end I sat down and wrote the music that I wanted to hear right now.

Does the record label leave you alone during the process?
Yes. No record label we've been on has ever interfered with the music. They might ask us what the single will be, but that's about it.

How does your songwriting process work?
I write for all the instruments and make demos for the entire record. Just because I write for all the instruments doesn't mean they have to play it exactly. It's what I think sounds good, but if you have a better idea I'd love to hear it. I'm not an accomplished keyboard player or drummer, but I can write for those instruments. I just leave it open for everyone to do what they want to do. The idea in making a good sounding demo for me is to intimidate them a little bit and make them feel like they have to go to that next level.

This is the first album you recorded in Stockholm. When you're deciding where to record, do you pick a city, then a studio, or pick a studio no matter where it might be located?
We pick the studio, then sometimes an engineer. This studio we had been in once recording a Deep Purple song, and we liked the vibe It's a legendary studio and has been there for ages. For once it was nice to work and then go home and sleep in our own beds. I shied away from that in the past, but I don't see why now. It works just as well. It was nice. The engineer was a lovely guy with lots of knowledge who recorded albums back in the day. It was very easy for us.

You recorded the CD digitally, but did you use vintage instruments or microphones to get that vintage '70s vibe that the album has?
Yes. Everything was old. The microphones were used back in the Abba days of the studio. The same with the amps. We used an old Marshall 800 and cranked it up. There's no editing or trickery.

Is it more difficult to duplicate that sound live since you're not using the same vintage equipment?
No. If anything it's easier than if everything were edited and compressed and fixed afterwards. We sound more faithful to the original songs live on this album than anything we've ever done.

Do you usually write more material than is used, then pick the best songs, or do you write only the number of songs needed on an album?
We used to write just what was going on the record. But now you can't put out just the regular album. You have to do special editions and stuff like that. For the last two or three records we had a few extra songs, and for this one we had two extra songs. We had the album sequenced before those songs were written.

Do you pay any attention to reviews of your albums?
Lately I stay away. It's not like I'm going to do things differently. I enjoy a good review and can get irritated and upset with a bad review. Usually we get a lot of good reviews, but I try not to linger on them too much.

Do you think Heritage will have a wider appeal than your past albums, and might appeal to more non-metal fans?
I've never seen the metal label as a stigma. Those are our roots. I don't have a problem with that. I'd like to think metal fans today have more of an open mind, but I'm not sure. Our fans for sure have an open mind, because we've been hinting about an album like this for a long time. It's not a complete surprise. It wasn't an overnight switch. It is different sounding, though.

How did the very unique album artwork for Heritage come about?
It was a collaboration. I came up with the concept and didn't know how to make it into reality. I told Travis Smith, who has done the artwork for us for 12 years or so, what the idea was and gave him some references to old paintings. I knew he could do it, but I didn't know how. It looks like a painting. I love it. There's a lot of reference to the band's history and discography, and the present as well.

How has your new keyboard player Joakim Svalberg fitting into the band?
Very well. He's a great guy and a great musician. He's a very accomplished musician who has worked with many different artists. He also has a great voice. His voice probably fits my voice better than Per's voice, so in that sense it's even better. His dream has been to be part of a collective. Right now he's playing with us, but isn't a permanent member yet. We are hoping that will be the case. This tour is a case of trying each other out.

Earlier this year you played Bonnaroo, which is probably as close to a European style festival as we have in the U.S. Did you get that vibe there?
Definitely. It was massive. It was great. It had everything we recognized from European festivals. I wonder why there aren't more festivals like that here. I do remember how hot it was there, but I enjoyed it. I think we gained some new fans there, and a lot of our fans came out to see us.

You're touring with Katatonia, who you've known for many years.
We toured with them once before. We get along great. Jonas, the singer, is my best friend, so we hang out more than we can do back home. It's great. There's no rivalry or tension or anything.

On this tour you're playing lots of songs from Heritage, and the older songs are all ones with all clean singing and no death growls.
Yes. We're on this tour promoting Heritage, and wanted to pick older songs that fit with the new songs. It made sense for this tour. But once Heritage settles a bit and it's not a brand new album we're promoting, we're going to play more of a mix of stuff. But I think this is refreshing. We've been doing some heavier tours with very little of the calmer stuff.

Do you stick with the same setlist during a tour, or do you switch song order and mix in different songs?
We have a repertoire of maybe 20 songs and play 13 each night. We revolve a couple of songs from show to show.

Is your voice holding up better just doing the clean singing?
So far. I was a bit worried about that. The screams definitely put a strain on my voice.

You and Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) will be releasing an album next year as Storm Corrosion. Give us a preview.
It doesn't sound like either of our bands. I'm not sure if it's completely now and original. There's a lot of soundtrack type music. Both myself and Steven are into '70s music like Tangerine Dream and stuff like that. I wouldn't say it's electronic music, but it has an earthy vibe to it. We have choirs and strings. It's a pretty beautiful record, not very rock sounding.

Did you do all the singing?
No. He's doing most of the vocals. I'm singing on 1 and a half songs, he's singing on 4. Generally I play guitar and some bass and sing, and Steve plays the keyboard and some bass and sings.

With both your busy schedules was it difficult to find time to do it?
No. We're friends. He bought a new place and I went over to see what it was like and to hang. In the back of our minds we knew we might write something, but we wanted to keep it casual and didn't want to stress. If we came up with something on that trip, fine. If not, the next one. We had a couple glasses of wine and went in to see what we could do. We went in and started recording.

Any plans of playing live?
I'm not sure Storm Corrosion is music you can tour with. There's so much going on there. It's not impossible, but I don't see it happening.

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