Opeth’s Day Out
The India trip marks a Watershed for the band and the country in more ways than one
It’s fifteen minutes before showtime. Outside the crowd is getting restive. Chants of “Opeth, Opeth” are shattered by hysterical screams every few minutes when the sound technicians walk across the stage ”“ at this point any glimpse of a white-skinned person is sending the crowd into paroxysms. Backstage, things couldn’t be more different. Drummer Martin “Axe” Axenrot is fast asleep on a plastic chair with his head thrown back and mouth open, while keyboardist Per Wiberg has been texting non-stop for the last half hour. Martin Mendez, bassist, is hard at work practising his scales as is guitarist Fredrick Ã…kesson, whose concentration is broken when the door swings open and snatches of “Opeth, Opeth” float in (“It sounds like there’s a lot of people out there; I’m nervous,” he says). And Mikael Ã…kerfeldt, the voice and face of the band, is singing ”˜Ain’t No Sunshine’ in the tiny bathroom, giving his vocal cords a stretch for the two-hour setlist they have ahead of them. Finally, the sound technicians walk in to announce that everything’s ready. The members take a collective breath, line up single-file at the door and walk out to the deafening roar of ten thousand cheering fans.
It was a busy two days for Opeth that culminated in the show at IIT-Madras’ annual college festival, Saarang. On day one, the band was out getting some essential India experience at the temples in Mahabalipuram and was still reeling from the sensory overload that the country heaped on them. “The temples were interesting but there were children begging there and I’m just thinking ”˜I have children this age.’ It was uncomfortable,” grimaces Ã…kerfeldt but Ã…kesson is loving it. “I’m completely in India mode now. I wish I had a few more days here. There’s so much to see and do and eat! The Indian accent makes me happy!” he says. They’ve only just returned from their Mahabalipuram trip and it’s time for a press conference in a room packed to bursting with fans posing as journalists. The band gets a standing ovation as they walk into the conference room and they’re taken aback by their seeming popularity. A few months ago, Ã…kerfeldt confessed to having no idea about the metal scene in India. “People always say, ”˜Come down, you have so many fans here,’ but you can never be sure till you actually get there. I don’t want to go somewhere and find out I’m playing for an audience of two.”
A few years ago, places like India were nowhere on the tour maps of foreign bands but falling CD sales and profit margins are driving bands to touring harder and longer, taking them further away from their comfort zones, and Opeth is no exception, something that is brought up repeatedly at the press conference. Ã…kerfeldt helms the conference, fielding questions with a mix of wit and sarcasm (when asked to comment on the fact that Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater and Shawn Drover of Megadeth voted Watershed as one of the best albums of 2008, Ã…kerfeldt retorts, “They have good taste.”) while the others with the exception of Ã…kesson, seem uncomfortable with the attention. Drummer Axe’s gentle stutter becomes more pronounced when forced to answer a question and Per Wiberg does an excellent imitation of a wall while Mendez just smiles. Ã…kerfeldt on the other hand straddles the fine line between confidence and arrogance with ease, answering questions in his usual no-bull manner, even the most uncomfortable ones like why close friend and former guitarist Peter Lindgren left the band (“He was talking about the Peace Corps and the war and he wanted to see what was out there ”“ which is great work ”“ but his commitment to the band was fading. Then again, music is our job and this is what feeds us and whatever you’re doing you ought to be able to give your full commitment to. So he had to leave but I’m happy for him.”) They wrap up the day by judging an amateur band contest and amusedly hand out trophies to the starstruck winners, and if they’re exhausted after just one day, they’re not showing it. They get mobbed everywhere they go but they concede to it with good grace, even when it involves signing hairy fans’ chests.
Day two is just as packed as the first. The band arrives an hour late for soundcheck ”“ “Typical Opeth,” laments Mick Thornton, the band’s tour manager ”“ which means soundcheck begins after noon under the unforgiving Chennai sun. After three scorching hours on stage the band are all vivid shades of lobster but despite the peeling noses and smarting skin there’s much goofing around backstage, as Axe slathers his face with sunscreen, two hours too late. “Fuckin’ pinup boy,” Ã…kerfeldt teases and Axe pulls a Baywatch pose for the benefit of those watching. They have yet another meet-and-greet session scheduled before the show and now the band is beginning to look a little weary. ”˜Very tired, very sleepy,” says an unusually morose Mendez, who recently became a father and is seemingly homesick. The meet-and-greet is yet another jostle-fest but it’s all in a day’s work for the band as they make their way back to their guesthouse, to their run-down room with peeling walls, basic furniture and no toilet-paper in the bathroom, to try and get some shut eye before their gig, less than two hours away.
Back at the show, all traces of weariness have disappeared as Opeth launch into a song from their new album Watershed; a roar of approval greets ”˜Heir Apparent’ and the enthusiasm never flags through the two-hour set, the audience signing and chanting along to Opeth’s older songs like ”˜Bleak,’ ”˜Deliverance,’ and ”˜Hope Leaves,’ peppered with Ã…kerfeldt’s increasingly ridiculous comments which the crowd is lapping up. The show turns out great, barring an incident with the sponsors which culminates in a screaming match between the manager and the organisers immediately after the show. The band’s encore was cut into by the sponsors to launch a new touchphone model and in the process they dropped banners over the Opeth backdrop and played some electronic music in the middle of the set ”“ sacrilege, according to the band and its management. A fuming Opeth is escorted out of the arena and back to the guesthouse, leaving some of the organisers holding their hands in their heads.
But all is forgotten and forgiven, save some venom for the sponsors, at the after-party in their dilapidated room, the floor of which is slick with spilt beer and what looks suspiciously like blood. (“We shot a video for Bloodbath (Mikael’s other band) and they covered us in fake blood, like this sticky syrup, and I didn’t wash my shoes after that,” Axe grins, explaining the mess.) Mellowed by beer, the band is proclaiming its love for the organisers, the monkeys and the deer that litter the campus, the country and the food. The night disappears in a haze of smoke, alcohol and conversation that covers everything from why Ã…kerfeldt would never take the job of the President of the United States to why they have pictures of Axe wearing what looks like underwear on his head. It’s almost time for their flight back to Bangalore and then to London and the band is drifting off to their respective beds with promises to return with a bigger gig in the country. “Next time we’ll stay longer,” promises Ã…kesson with the love light in his eyes, “I want to learn the Indian music scale, jam with other musicians, eat more Indian food”¦ we’re definitely coming back.”