Metal-Rules.comís interview with Opethís Mikael Akerfeldt

Interviewed by Jeff Kent, March 2001

One of the benefits of getting ďolderĒ is that more of the bands today have followed a parallel musical path to mine. Opeth is a perfect example as they loved Iron Maiden early on and then moved into more Progressive genres; always trying to capture their new influences in the music. On the verge of releasing their fifth album, Blackwater Park, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt took the time to call me from his native Sweden. As youíll see, I may be new to the band, but Iíve fallen for them and Iíve fallen hard.


You have the upper hand here because Iím a newfound Opeth fan. Iím a clean slate. Be gentle.

[Laughs] Thatís nice.

 

I canít stop listening to Blackwater Park and it makes me mad at myself for not taking everyoneís advice to listen to Opeth earlier.

Thatís cool, Iím glad.

 

Iím working my way backward through your back catalog now.

Youíre probably going to like at least Still Life, the album before this one and the one before that.

 

Do you see yourself progressing in a definite direction or are you just going where the music takes you?

Depends, for the last couple of albums we havenít done much touring so Iíve had a lot of time in between recordings to write therefore we put out an album each year. I pretty much let the music take whatever it wants to go. I donít think much about it I just write; we use the stuff thatís good.

 

It sounds like most of it is riff writing, adding riffs together to create these almost epic songs.

Some songs are put together like that where I didnít know I had two sections that would go well together until I actually tried it. Some parts I wrote entire arrangements and songs at once.

 

My favorite part of the album is that twisted dissonant little acoustic guitar melody at the beginning of ďBleak.Ē

Yeah, I know what you mean. I love that stuff as well, that disharmonic stuff, especially with an acoustic guitar. Iím very fond of that.

 

 

Did working with Steven Wilson add a lot to the record? Since Iím really only familiar with the last two albums, I can hear a distinct difference between the two.

Well Steven Wilson is a big idol of ours both as a producer and with his band Porcupine Tree, Iíve been listening to them for a pretty long time now. To work together with him made us maximize our performance because we really wanted to impress him. Heíd never produced a Metal band before and it was a big experience for him, so I think he was a bit nervous as well. He produced all the vocals and lead guitars with us. He also helped out writing vocal harmonies and stuff like that, we also used him because we knew he was very good with sound. Weíd never really experimented a lot with sound for the guitars, but we knew what he was capable of. Every idea we had we asked him if he could do it and he fixed everything as well as coming in with some weird ideas himself, which we liked and ended up using.

 

Was he familiar with your music going into the project?

Yeah, he was the one who contacted me actually. He got a copy of Still Life when he did an interview with a journalist whoís a friend of mine. My friend knew that I was a big Porcupine Tree fan, so he gave him the Still Life album and my email address. So then I got an email from Steven which said he thought it was one of the best albums heíd heard. Then we started talking about doing an album together and I met him in London to ask him if he wanted to produce what would be Blackwater Park and he said he would.

 

He plays all of the acoustic piano on the album, right?

Yes.

 

I think that adds a whole new dimension.

It does. Weíve used piano before on our third album My Arms Your Hearse, but I was doing it all and Iím not a piano player in the same way as Steven. He can pretty much play every instrument. We wanted to add something special; also to get him featured on the album, we got him singing a couple of lines as well and he played one guitar solo.

 

Do you think heíll go back to Porcupine Tree having learned something from Opeth?

Oh yeah. We were doing press in London where he lives and he invited us to dinner and he played a couple of new demos of Porcupine Tree, and it was Metal. He said, ďcan you hear the Opeth influence?Ē I was pretty blown away.

 

Thatís excellent.

Yeah, weíre turning more into Porcupine Tree and theyíre turning more into Opeth, so weíre thinking about changing names [laughs].

 

Everything ends up blending together into one thing simply called Music.

Well people love to categorize and they ask me what they should call Opethís music and I tell them Iíd like it to be categorized under ďGood Music.Ē

 

In describing your music I tend to use the word beautiful a lot, which not everyone understands after theyíve heard you. Thereís definitely that full rich sound.

Iím glad you think so.

 

It sounds like your clean vocal style is improving each album. Is that something that youíve worked on, or does it just happen with experience?

I donít practice anything and we donít rehearse. I never do any kind of practicing between recordings. I just kind of talk myself into getting better since the last album.

 

Do you foresee going to a completely clean vocal style?

I donít know, I think what makes Opeth is the combination of the two vocal styles.

 

The whole album is an exercise in dynamics.

Yes and thatís what weíre all about. Weíve always been about that and itís one of the most important parts of our music. That goes for the vocal styles as well. I think it creates some kind of special dynamic because the screaming is one of the most extreme styles there is and if you combine it with the normal singing you can create some terrific dynamics there?

 

Is it hard to play a whole song like that live when you have that many shifts? Does it take away from your energy flow in the song?

Itís not hard for us, weíre used to it now. Weíve done five albums and even a couple of gigs so weíre used to that. Iíd say itís the same for us as it is for any other band playing their stuff. Itís so normal for us that we never really stop to consider what weíre doing.

 

Most people donít realize that you can have quiet parts that are just as intense as the loud and heavy parts. Itís not only about volume.

Yeah, people donít really think in those terms. Youíre pretty much the first person that ever understood it.

 

A lot of bands are starting to do that. A band like Pain of Salvation does a similar thing.

Iíve never heard them. A lot of people are telling me about them, but Iíve never heard them; I should have to check them out.

 

So youíre coming back to America this year.

Yeah, pretty much for the entire months of April and May weíre going to be in the States and Canada.

 

Are you looking forward to it? I know last year you only got to play the one show in Milwaukee.

Yeah, weíre looking forward to it very much actually. Weíre looking forward to the whole touring thing because we havenít really toured since í96. So itís been five years since our last tour. Itís going to be an interesting experience for us, not only because we havenít done it in a while, but weíll just enjoy being in America. Itís always one of those countries that you want to see properly. You laugh, but itís like that for Scandinavians. All the cities weíre going to have those fucking classic names like Dallas, itís going to be amazing.

 

Since itís been so long, do you know what bands are out there that would go well with your style?

I have no idea. Pretty much we donít care what bands we play with as long as we get our stage time. Obviously if itís bands we like personally itís going to better. I donít know any of the guys in Nevermore, I got a couple of emails from the singer; I donít know him personally, but I like their music so thatís a good start.

 

They do a lot with dynamics too, which is good because many bands today just try to be as extreme as they can for as long as they can.

How many times can you hear that? Fast music is not exciting, I think with dynamics you can be way more extreme. If you just play fast all the time you canít tell exactly how fast it is.

 

Have you always liked those dissonant harmonies?

Yeah, Iím very interested in that. I was a huge Voivod fan a couple of years back; they had many different chords the same with Coroner, I love Coroner. Basically the strange choice of notes came from like Led Zeppelin III.

 

Today it seems like more bands are combining influences rather than emulating one specific band or sound and sometime theyíre sounds that you wouldnít expect to work together.

I think there are a lot of bands out there who have dropped what they thought they wanted to do and just started experimenting a bit more. Thatís what makes a band grow I think.

 

If it results in albums like Blackwater Park then Iím all for it.

[Laughs] Yeah, me too.

 

The cover is equally suited to the music.

Yeah, itís nice. I love the cover. Itís Travis Smith who did it again, he did the Still Life album as well and he did the new Nevermore. Heís done a lot of covers and I think heís the best artwork guy around right now. Heís like aÖ painter [laughs].

 

Heís a ďrealĒ artist, not just some guy who does album covers.

He should be very well known I think. Heís starting to some recognition and heís got a lot of jobs through this.

 

Do you think that after the acoustic guitar and the piano you might progress to using strings?

Thatíd be interesting, but it would pretty much have us unable to perform the songs live unless we had the other musicians with us. Weíre such a small band that we couldnít afford to travel with an orchestra or something, itís just too expensive. But it would be very interesting to do an album like that. I may do some of that in my little side project where Iíll be able to use instruments Iíve never used before. Itís like an itching I have to create something apart from metal.

 

Will it just be you?

No, itís going to be a keyboards and by that I mean Mellotrons and Fender Rhodes, stuff like that, the guy from Spiritual Beggars [Per Wiberg]. Me and him and a guitar player whoís been in a couple of Swedish bands that are totally obscure. Heís one of my favorite guitar players of all time.

 

More of an ambient record?

Itís going to be very mellow, but very, very dark and very if I may say so, beautiful. Itís going to be like Simon and Garfunkel type harmony vocals.

 

I guess thatíll give you a chance to work on your clean vocals.

Yeah and itís an itching I have. Iíve been doing five Metal albums now and I just want to try this out and play with different musicians as well.

 

What kind of expectations do you have for the tour?

I think weíre pretty much going to see all the fans who have been with us since the beginning and maybe some new people who have heard our name and heard good things. But I think the bigger part of the audiences will be fans that have been aching to see us for a long time, six or seven years. Since weíve never done a tour of the States I think all of our fans are going to show up of course, but hopefully we can snitch one or two from the Nevermore crowd as well. At the one gig we did in Milwaukee the response from the crowd was just amazing, so I have high expectations for the tour.

 

Itís a big country.

It is, and Iím sure weíre going to have our ups and downs at shows, but I wasnít to see the States as a tourist as well. Itís been a dream of mine to rent a car or something and drive maybe from the East Coast to the West Coast with my best friend Jonathan [Renske], who is the lead singer from Katatonia. We want to go down to those redneck places just see everything. Maybe meet the Amish people [laughs].

 

I donít know that theyíre familiar with your music, but you never know.

No, I donít think so either, and no you never know, but I doubt it.

 

Judging from the studio diaries at your website, it looks like you try and have all the songs ready, at least in your head. Doe sit take a long time to get them to come out the way you want with little or no rehearsal?

I pretty much have all the basic structures written before we go into the studio and Iíll send out tapes of demos for the rest of the guys. We leave a lot of space though for adding things in the studio because itís more interesting to experiment in the studio, which weíve done for the last few albums, itís where you come up with some of the best things I think. Itís a very inspirational place to work. I also wanted the other guys to come in and contribute with their own style since they donít write the material. Also when you come out of the studio you have a fresh product. Not only for the fans, but also for yourself as a listener as well. When we did the first album we were so well rehearsed that when we listened to the finished album there were no surprises in there for us. Now we can listen to Blackwater Park on the drive back home to Stockholm and say, ďohhh, I forgot about that riff, that was pretty cool.Ē

 

How much of it gets done in one take? Are there parts that are improvised on the spot and end up on the record?

Some of it, but most of it is written and then we record it. We can come up with something and then half a minute later weíve put it on tape. We hung out in the mixing room doing the lead guitars and thought about what we should add like certain harmonies or a strange sound effect. We tried everything out and when we found something that was good, we used it.

 

So you donít have any limits as to what youíll use to get a specific sound.

Not at all.

 

A lot of Metal bands feel limited by what they can and canít use.

Weíve never felt that we had any boundaries, if we like it we just do it, we donít care.

 

How did you get that cool guitar sound at the end of ďBleak?Ē

I LOVE that. Thatís Steven who came up with it. Basically I think we told him that we wanted the guitar to kind of fall to pieces. He just put that sound on it. We were laughing so hard because itís so ugly. Then again it has a nice effect with the ugliest guitar sound on the album coming in contact with the next song ďHarvest,Ē which opens up with a beautiful acoustic guitar.

 

The other thing that would have been cool would have been to use it as the last track on the album and let it go on seemingly forever. I could listen to that ugly sound for a long time; thereís actually a lot of music in it.

Yeah, but we had the song ďBlackwater ParkĒ and we wanted it to be the last track. Itís the classic way to have the last track be the title track.

 

Do you see whole albums almost as suites that work together, even if theyíre not concept albums?

Kind of, yeah. I feel that every song on there is equally important. Everything that we record ends up on the album, so we want to have it one hundred percent perfect.

 

So instead of having fifteen four-minute songs, you have six or seven ten-minute songs.

We donít want to spend time working on songs that we know from the start are not as good as the others. If I have a basic song structure that Iím not a hundred percent satisfied with I make it one hundred percent in the studio with the ďspices.Ē We know what we like and what we donít like.

 

Some of the best moments on the album are those shifts between two sections that donít sound like they should work.

Yes, thatís what we enjoy doing, putting together stuff that shouldnít go together.

Do you have any Classical influences?

Not really, I listen occasionally to Classical music, but not that often.

 

Do you listen to any of the contemporary Scandinavian Folk music?

Not straight Folk music, it has to be some kind of Folk Rock.

 

Bands like Hoven Droven and Hedningarna?

Yeah, theyíre pretty cool. We have tons of bands like that in Sweden that mix modern music with more traditional Folk music.

 

I was thinking back to the idea of using strings and an instrument like a Cello is perfect for your sound.

Weíve been thinking about that for a long time, but I donít want to over do stuff. There was a time when we did the second album where I was in an almost pretentious state of mind and I wanted to have everything on there. But I think it was a good choice to keep it subtle. We always wanted to have the four of us in the band doing everything on the album and we never really used any guests until Steven Wilson for this album. Weíre still a Metal band. We never used keyboard or anything to make certain ďsounds.Ē I think the guitar is very much an underrated instrument because people think theyíre done exploring the guitar. I think thereís so much you can do with one thatís never been done before. People ask me all the time whoís playing the keyboards and I tell them there are none, itís all done with guitars. You can experiment so much with a guitar that itís not necessary to use keyboards. Itís easy to create some kind of atmosphere by turning on a keyboard, punching a button and playing a chord. Weíve never been about disguising our music with some kind of cheap atmosphere.

 

Do you ever get a really cool guitar sound by accident and then find youíre unable to recreate it later?

Yeah, we record at night sometimes and I record all my solos alone. I wanted to switch the sound a bit, so I went over to the amplifier and turned the knobs a bit, but then I couldnít remember what the initial settings were, the sound I was supposed to have, so I got some strange sounds from there. Just a simple thing like turning the volume down on the guitar. I had full distortion for doing solos, but then I turned the volume down on the guitar and did the solo for ďHarvestĒ with that sound.

 

Do you prefer to stick to simple changes like that or do you use a lot of effects?

We use effects, but simple changes are still very effective if done right. Steven came up with a lot of the effects, so I donít know what they were. He was using Pro Tools, the softwareÖthing, I donít know anything about it, but he came up with some really cool sound with some plug-ins he used.

 

Are there guitarists you listen to who continue to surprise you? Guys like Bill Frisell the Jazz guitarist or Robert Fripp?

I donít like when people experiment too much, I still want to hear the guitarists themselves. I like Fripp and what heís done in the past and some of what heís doing now, but I prefer hard guitar players. One of my favorite guitarists aside from that Swedish guy that Iíll be working with is Andy Latimer, the guitarist in Camel. This guy called Jerry Donahue who is a Bluegrass guitarist basically; heís doing demonstrations for Modern Guitarist I think and he used to be in Fairport Convention.

 

Do you know who Bill Frisell is?

Iíve heard the name.

 

He has a very distinct sound. You can tell itís him by one note.

Ok, thatís what I like.

 

Have you heard the band Naked City?

Yeah, oh yeah! Is that him?! Oh shit! Iíve been listening to them, the guy who ran our first record label, candlelight, he was a very big fan of Naked City and he played us some of their stuff and itís just amazing. Iím not sure if I think itís good, but Iím absorbed in it. Itís almost funny because itís so extreme. They had one song where they put in like thirty different music styles in one song it went from Jazz to Grind MetalÖ

 

Mhm, its called ďSpeedfreaks,Ē and Iíve seen them do it live.

You must have been laughing.

 

It was great and the funny part is that most of them are very unassuming, almost boring looking.

And theyíre a bit older. Are they American?

Yeah.

Shit yeah, I was laughing when I first heard it because I didnít know if it was a joke or not, but I could definitely tell that they knew their instruments. I have to check it out more now. I came to think of another guitar player that I really, really like. Ritchie Blackmore. Heís got the tone, you can hear instantly itís him.

 

Do you ever just jam?

No, we rehearse so rarely that we canít waste time doing that. Which is a shame because I love it. Itís also hard to do when you have two guitarists. Iím more of a jam guy than Peter is, but Iíve had some jams with the two Martins. It was funny, but it always turned into some kind of blues because when you jam thatís really the only thing you can do and enjoy. It wouldnít be fun to jam Grind Core stuff.

 

Do you stretch any of the songs out when you play them live?

No, we donít jam anything live. Our songs are pretty much jammed and ready. Itís something I regret a bit because as I said I love to do it. We have a track called ďCredenceĒ that has a jam ending, so we might do something with that, since weíre going to play it live.

 

Do you have a setlist for the upcoming tour already?

Yeah, weíre gonna go for the safe cards. Since we rehearse so rarely weíre going to go with the stuff we know by heart and not try something we havenít played in ten years. Weíll do our standard set with the new songs added in.

 

How much of Blackwater Park will be included?

I think two songs. We want to cover every album and since we only have an hour onstage we want to do at least one song from each album. Itís not only a Blackwater Park tour itís more like a OrchidMorningriseMyArmsYourHearseStillLifeBlackwaterPark tour.

 

Itís the Opeth tour.

Thatís what people want to see and we want to give it to them.


Thanks to Jeff Kent from Promethean Crusade for contributing this interview. Be sure to check out the zine! Goto prometheancrusade.com for more information on how to subscribe!


©2001 Metal Rules!!

Return to top of page

All rights reserved and contents ©2001
Keeping the Metal Faith Since 1995.

This page last updated on:
Saturday, March 10, 2001