Opeth Frontman Mikael Akerfeldt: ‘A Part of Me Doesn’t Care What People Expect’
Swedish metallers’ mainman on their new album ‘Sorceress’, how he gets his mojo on stage and his friendship with Steven Wilson
Mikael Akerfeldt, in his endearing Swedish accent, is often blunt and often funny. And even if he’s talking to you over the phone from Stockholm, you can just picture the frontman of Swedish prog band Opeth smile when he says something like “As far as I’m concerned, there should be two genres–good music and shit music.”
He’s predictably blunt even when he talks about Opeth shooting a music video for the song “Era,” off their 12th full-length album Sorceress. “I feel like a complete fucking fake doing those kind of things. I’ve done it a few times and it’s just horrible,” says Akerfeldt. But he agrees it’s always been a promotional tool. “Era” in particular, with its Eighties metal-influenced breakneck riffage, is probably a surprise for fans.
A founding member of the band, Akerfeldt has taken Opeth from the dark realms of progressive death metal to a more cerebral classic prog rock sound that is now filling arenas and raised their chart positions since 2008’s Watershed but he hates categorizations. He recalls the time Opeth was called “a thinking man’s metal band”. “I’m not sure what that means. It’s probably used by narcissists, if you know what I mean. Opeth fans with narcissistic tendencies,” he says with a laugh.
A few weeks ahead of the release of Sorceress via Nuclear Blast Records and the culmination of their tour of North America and Europe through October and November, Akerfeldt spoke exclusively to ROLLING STONE India about the recording process, being on stage and whether they’ve got any offers to play in India since their last show in 2012, at Summer Storm Festival in Bengaluru.
You’re playing the Wembley Arena in London and the Sydney Opera House in the coming months – is Opeth now an arena rock band?
We played Wembley before, but only as support, for [American prog band] Dream Theater, a few years back. We’ve played some of these venues. The biggest venue we ever headlined… fuck, I don’t even know. The previous big venue we headlined was probably Royal Albert Hall.
What point did it feel Opeth is ready for those venues reserved for arena rock bands?
I’m not sure we’re ready for those arena venues as headliners. They’ll be awesome, they’ll be fantastic, I think, but I prefer to play smaller theaters, for some reason. I guess it sounds like a cliché, because a lot of bands will tell you they like to do the intimate thing of clubs. I do love that, actually. It makes it feel more human, you know? When you’re on big stages and big places, it kind of makes you feel a little detached.
But these shows will do us well. They work all the times, at least as a promotional tool. You play Wembley and you come back and they’ll say, ‘Oh they played Wembley last time. They must be great!’ [laughs]. So we’ll see what happens. It’ll be a nice experience, it’s a nice memory.
What was it like recording Sorceress at Rockfield Studios in Wales? How different is it for a band like Opeth to book a residential studio?
It was great, I love it there. It’s like a resort, if that makes sense. It’s in the middle of the countryside and it’s a farm, basically. It’s got stables and horses. It’s very peaceful, very quiet. I think for all of us, with the exception of our drummer [Martin Axenrot] who lives out in the countryside, the rest of us live in the capital cities and we’re surrounded by noise all the time. Subways, the people, cars – all that kind of stuff. It was extremely nice just to be there. Obviously, working there was then made so much easier. It was so calm.
We really got together. Everyone was there all the time, watching one another recording and having dinner, breakfast and lunch together, going out for the occasional beer together. It’s like holiday more than work, just that you have to remind yourself that you’re actually working.
How do you feel when you get out of that environment and get back to normal life? Especially once an album is finished.
You go into a bubble when you’re recording. You focus all your strengths, at least I do. I work as a producer of sorts and I’m so focused during a recording that I’m most exhausted but also left with a feeling of emptiness when it’s done, because I love being in the studio. I love recording records – it’s my absolute favorite part of this job, if you can call it a job.
There’s some emptiness, but obviously, being away from home means I’m away from my children and my girlfriend. Obviously, I don’t want to be away from them at all. It’s always nice to come back. If I’m happy with the work that we’ve been doing, coming home is just great for me.
You were saying in an interview how self-imposed pressure to work on an album really helps you get on it–which albums were really difficult to push yourself on?
That’s easy. If you read into the time we made Deliverance and Damnation, those records were horrible for me. I was responsible for writing all the music and I must have had a superior confidence at the time, because we went into the studio with no finished music, no finished songs or lyrics or no plans. We hadn’t rehearsed. It was awful.
It was the complete opposite to Sorceress… that recording was shit, if I may be so blunt. The one after, Ghost Reveries, was just shit to record. Some of the results were good, anyway. But it was stressful for me.
In many ways, when it comes to recording to those albums, it was basically no fun. It was just horror. I would not want to time travel back to that studio, that year, that month, that day.
You had Wil Malone co-produce this album, but what does your role as a producer extend to?
A lot of people don’t know what a producer means. Especially in metal, a lot of people think that the producer is the one who fixes the sound. That’s partly true, but that’s not all of it. I work as a producer–and I produce everything when I’m writing the songs – I write for all the instruments and I record–really good sounding, if I may say so, demos that includes all the instruments. I even arrange the demos in the order I want them to be on the record. So by the time we go into the studio, most of it is already produced. Then I step into a different side of being a producer, which is basically saying, ‘That take was good on the drums’ or ‘That was a good take on the guitar solo’.
You have a lot of rare piano and keyboards on this new album–where did you source them from?
I won’t say rare. We have some stuff that belongs to the band, to Joakim [Svalberg], our keyboard player. We have a few mellotrons–we have two digital mellotrons and one analog mellotron. He has more. For the recording, we borrowed a DC Hammond Organ, which is basically the same as the B3 Hammond Organ. It’s a Deep Purple-type model and also we borrowed a Fender Rhoads Electric Piano and that’s owned by Rockfield.
There was the guy who rented us the Hammond Organ also gave out his electric harpsicord, which we’ve never used before. We used it on one song [“A Fleeting Glance”], which was really fun, because it was made in 1965 or something and you have to tune it manually with a tuning peg. It was very interesting to figure out how it would work. We didn’t even know how to record the sound. We were just shooting from the hip, but it sounds great.
Which song is going to surprise your listeners–both old and new–on Sorceress?
Well, I hope that all the songs are going to be somewhat surprising. It’s difficult to say. I don’t really know what people expect. A part of me doesn’t care what people expect. We have got so much shit in the last few years that I can let go of being excited about reactions from fans. I still find it sweet that people love our new record, if they love a few songs, that’s great. I don’t think too much about it, really.
Opeth was once called the “thinking man’s metal band.” What’s the strangest way you’ve heard journalists or fans describe your music?
We’ve been called everything. Forest metal–I heard that, whatever that is. It sounds pretty cool. I don’t mind if it would stay as a genre at, say, record stores or whatever. You know, ‘Where can I find Opeth?’
‘Oh, they’re in the forest metal group’.
What are you usually thinking when you’re on stage?
I’m nervous. In the first couple of minutes, something makes me think I want to go off stage, and wander off and disappear. But after a while, I start enjoying myself, hopefully. I get pumped up by it. It’s an influx of adrenaline. When you’re up there and sometimes you get feedback, you feel great and pumped up. It’s a great feeling. I spend a lot of time thinking of the next song. Like, ‘Are there any difficult passages in the next song?’, ‘Do I know the lyrics to the next song?’ Once I start thinking about those things, I usually fuck up. It’s much better for me to not think at all.
But you mostly overcome that as the set progresses?
After a while, it kind of fades away. There’s so many things that can go wrong and so many things that have gone wrong when we’ve played live before. It makes me feel… you’re supposed to exude some type of confidence. You’re a rocker and that kind of stuff, but I’m not like one of those guys. When I’m on stage, I’m usually forcing myself to become a bit of a flamboyant… whatever. But there’s a very thin line between feeling very small and feeling very big on stage.
We must have. We talk about a lot of things, but I can’t remember specifically the conversation about playing in India. He asks me sometimes, because we’ve covered more areas of the world than what he did with [Wilson’s progressive rock band] Porcupine Tree and his solo act. I remember him asking about Australia recently, because he’s never been there.
There’s always a lot of stuff on the Internet that talks about your friendship with Steven. Have you ever come across any of it?
You mean like when people make fun of us and stuff and they try to portray us as a gay couple? He’s a really good friend of mine but I certainly wouldn’t fuck him.
Have you guys had any offers since the two shows you played all those years ago?
India usually means one show. So those things are quite easily scheduled. You fly in, play the show and then you fly out. But the problem is that because it’s expensive and just one show, it depends on the fee. We usually don’t go and play where we’d lose money, you know what I mean?
Playing in India for us, we’ve had amazing experiences playing there–I don’t know how many times we’ve been there, three times? No, two times. It was fantastic. Everybody wants to go back, of course. But it all comes down to if the fee is good enough for us to afford it.