Mikael Åkerfeldt – Opeth
Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt on lineup changes, India plans and Pippi LongstockingFeatures, From the Archives October 09, 2008
Progressive heavy metal has found its new poster boys. Tipped as the next big thing by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, Opeth had its beginnings in some classic Scandinavian death metal. Guitarist and vocalist, and the only member who’s been with the band since its inception, Mikael Åkerfeldt, though felt the label didn’t quite fit. Opeth moved away from its death metal sound and wrought a new path for itself. Crushing, distorted riffing now gave way into gentle, haunting guitar interludes; Åkerfeldt’s screaming, growling vocals segued seamlessly into ballad-esque clean vocals and critics were hard put to find a slot for their music. Starting with Orchid in 1995 and moving to Still Life in 1999, Opeth were steadily building themselves a fan base and with the release of Blackwater Park in 2001 produced by Steve Wilson, what many would say is their most groundbreaking album to date, they’d firmly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. In 2003-2004, Opeth undertook their most ambitious project yet, a two-CD compilation of their heaviest and most mellow writings which was eventually released as two separate albums – the brutal Deliverance, and the entirely mellow Damnation. At this point, even the fans were beginning to worry about what direction Opeth’s music was going to take next.
Behind the scenes, all wasn’t quite well with the band either. Members came and went and the biggest blow to Opeth was the departure of drummer Martin Lopez and more recently guitarist and long-time friend Peter Lindgren. At this point a lot of older Opeth fans were seemingly discontent with the band’s constant lineup changes and the next album, Watershed, was seemingly the make-or-break album for the band. But with the release of Watershed in June 2008, Opeth has managed to silence most of its retractors. The album is a blitzkrieg of some of the heaviest parts every written by the band interspersed with some incredibly soulful melodies and even funk and jazz elements that would seem impossible for one band to fit into the same album but as Mikael Åkerfeldt says, “Opeth is a band that takes the impossible and puts it together in such a way that you can’t imagine it being anything else.” Opeth are now touring extensively to promote Watershed and ROLLING STONE India caught up with the band on their Australian tour at Metro City in Perth. Excerpts from the interview:
The first thing that struck me when I heard your latest album, Watershed, was that Opeth seems to have had a lot of fun with this. It seems more experimental, more mischievous almost, compared to the sombre, solemn sound of your earlier albums. Was this a conscious shift to a more energetic sound?
Well, that was the state of mind when we went into the album. We’d been having some problems with lineup changes; we had people leaving. But it was just a fresh start with this album, I guess. I mean, it’s not like we had a meeting before recording the album and said, “This has got to be fun guys, we’re gonna have a good time,” but we had a good time recording it. We had a fresh start with two new guys; we were also quite disciplined and worked on a strict schedule. We had to get things done in a certain amount of time and for some reason that made us feel secure, I think, and we were more calm and relaxed. All the songs were done early this time – usually nothing is done before we go to the studio – but this time it was and so there wasn’t much thinking happening during the actual recording.
How do you guys go about the whole songwriting process?
Well, generally, I write most of the songs. I have a small home studio where I record demos, and that’s basically all there is to it. [Guitarist] Fredrik Åkesson came over and we had a few riffs we collaborated on and we put this and that together and [keyboardist] Per [Wiberg] and I wrote a song called ‘Derelict Herds’ which is one of the bonus tracks. We do jam sometimes, but very rarely does it have any satisfactory result, because we usually end up jamming on some Judas Priest or some blues or something like that. We never, as far as I can remember, really jammed to get a song done. Maybe like an embryo song, but not for this album. But, regardless of the fact that I write most of the stuff, I like to see it as a very democratic process. I don’t just give the rest of the band the demos and say, “These are the songs.” I want them to like it; if they don’t like it, they tell me. Well, they didn’t say that they didn’t like anything this time but I want everyone to be happy and want them to feel like a part of the band and part of the process of making a record and our music. And everybody was doing their parts on their own, anyway.
So there are never any ego clashes…
I guess everyone has an ego to some extent, I know I certainly do but it’s not like I’m a dictator; it doesn’t present a problem.
Watershed seems almost like a journey in time. You have ‘Lotus Eater’ with some Sixties psychedelic influences, ‘Burden’ seems to be a throwback to the rock ballads of the Seventies and the keyboards add this whole Eighties synth vibe to it. Was this planned or is it just your influences showing?
Well, for the last couple of years I’ve been listening to a lot of psychedelic music, to a lot of those bands from the Sixties and I guess that just made an impact on the album. I’ve always like to progress more towards the well-played, jazz-fusion kind of rock and I always felt that some of that Sixties music was big on jazz and I didn’t really understand it then. Obviously, I always liked the Beatles’ songs and then I stumbled upon a few other bands at the same time that were basically psychedelic pop bands and that got me really interested. Soon enough, I was only listening to psychedelic music and I don’t do drugs or anything; it was just sheer musical interest and I guess it rubbed off on the album. ‘Burden,’ however, was obviously calculated. We said, “Let’s do a song that sounds like a late Seventies ballad.” And it does. And it’s not a very original song but it’s good.