Opeth are one of the most expansively visionary bands in the Scandinavian metal scene, and with Heritage, they’ve taken a major step forward in declaring their stylistic independence and commitment to following their creative muse. I had the good fortune of meeting Mikael Akerfeldt at an Athens rock festival a few years back, and when I recently traveled to Stockholm, he sent an email congratulating Patti [Smith, for whom Kaye plays guitar — Ed.] on her Polar Prize. I invited him to our show, and he returned the favor a couple of weeks later at New York’s Webster Hall. After soundcheck, where I watched Opeth negotiate the arcane twists and transitions of their latest album, we sat upstairs, and like any intrigued fan in the guise of interviewer, I asked the questions I most wanted to hear answered.
There’s been a lot of discussion among the eMusic Opeth cognoscenti about whether Heritage should be considered a Mikael Akerfeldt solo record or an Opeth record. Is there a difference, and where is the dividing line in the creative process?
I don’t think it’s any more of a solo record than the other records I’ve written for. It is a band, like any other band, where one or two persons are the driving force, so to speak. In this band, it happens to be me. I write almost all the material, and I write for all the instruments too, but since I’m not a keyboard player, or a drummer, sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing. I might write something that’s impossible to play. When I record the demos, I make them very high-level demos, because I want to intimidate the other band members, and make them feel they have to top that. That’s when it really becomes a band. To some extent it’s still a democracy, even if I call the shots (laughs).
How detailed are the demos? When you bring them into rehearsal, are they really scripted, or is there room for the unexpected?
They’re very detailed. This album is a better-sounding, more human version of the demos. I spend a lot of time with the demos, especially with the drums. But it’s been like that ever since the possibility was there, with ProTools and the like. I can’t let things slide. Coming up with the drum beats, if I want to hear ghost notes on the snare, I’ll just keep working on them till they sound as human and as swinging as possible.
For the third and fourth albums, and even a couple of records later, we went into the studio with no material. I wrote everything during the nights, and we recorded during the days — which is interesting in a way, but I reached a point where I didn’t know whether it was good or shit, I was so tired. I think some of those records suffered as a result, even if some of it sounded spontaneous and cool. But it reached a point where I couldn’t do that anymore; I wanted to be more in control of what we were putting out there.
Heritage seems to make a statement about Opeth’s growth, discarding the signifiers of death metal, the growled vocals and rapid-fire bass drum, in favor of more prog-rock elements. Not that Opeth has ever shied from them, but this time you seem to have formally cut the cord that ties you to death metal.
It wasn’t a decision so much as not being able to continue writing in the metal way. I tried to write a couple metal-ly-sounding songs, and they weren’t the worst songs, but it wasn’t from the heart. I can’t just release something to maintain a career. It worried me for a bit. I was fooling myself for a little while, but then I ended up deleting those songs and starting over. And then I started coming up with the songs that ended up on the record, which were different sounding; it was like a floodgate opening.
The only ones who can say what constitutes an Opeth record would be the band. For our 10th album, people are surely expecting something; they expect us to change, and yet they want us to stay the same. What the fuck should I do? Should I just please people? No. It’s the same decision I made when I quit my job in the guitar store to devote myself to music, because it’s my worst nightmare to do something because you’re supposed to do it. I hate people telling me what to do, and I hate feeling boxed in.
It’s not a surprising record if you listen back to Blackwater Park, or even Watershed.
From a production point of view, we’re moving away from the generic contemporary metal productions, and doing something that requires some heart in terms of the performance. In past productions, we’ve perhaps been able to hide behind that wall of sound.
The Scandinavian metal scene is so well defined and insular. How does it feel breaking away from that, and how do you think your audience will react?
I never felt we belonged to any scene — not the Swedish scene, not any scene that has boundaries. I would get restless if we could only move within any specific area of music. If we have any affinity with a Swedish sound, it’s more of the melancholic sound that goes back a hundred years to our folk music, which we’ve also explored.
There are lyrical themes in the metal scene, the metaphysical religious conflict of warring theologies that pits Satan against God. In “The Devil’s Orchard” you say “God is dead.” What is your conception of God?
That particular line was just something I wrote down, to have something to sing. I always come up with something Satanic; that comes with our roots in death metal, and the dark lyrics I lean toward. It came to me as I was demoing the song, and I was going to change it because it was so gimmicky, but it stuck in my head. I don’t believe in God, to be honest, or in the Devil either. I am interested in the occult, and the religious impulse, but I’ve never believed in anything but myself. I don’t know what that makes me…
A musician? Speaking of which, how is your interplay with Frederik Akesson different than your dynamic when Peter Lindgren was in the band? Has it changed the way the guitars interact?
Peter and I, we started the band and learned how to play the guitar at the same time. We tried to have a similar style, but go on our own paths as well. But it got to the point where I was taking more and more of the solo spots, and I was writing the music on my own, and he was overshadowed. After a while I had advanced more than he had. I never wanted to be the lead guitar player; I wanted him to take that role. But when he couldn’t come up with the solo, I ended up doing it. It hurt our collaboration, and I ended up feeling bitter that he didn’t take that spot. When he left the band, and I was looking for a new guitar player, I wanted someone who could just blow me away, and that guy was Frederik. He had a very different style from either me or Peter; he’s basically a shredder and that was really cool, because I suddenly had new colors to paint with. And Frederick was coming from different types of bands, where he never had a chance to play acoustic guitar, so he also had to learn a new way of playing.
Do you have thoughts of life beyond Opeth? Soundtracks, perhaps, or other forms of expression?
To be honest, I would be very stressed. Writing on my own, and without the band, I would become very passive, because I’ve been king of the mountain for so long with Opeth. Everyone in this band has adapted to the way I write. If you start from scratch, that’s a whole other thing. I don’t know how to read music, or understand theory; I can play, and write music, and hear the music in my head.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Slither,” and I found it interesting it’s dedicated to Ronnie James Dio…
The working title for that song was “Kill The Queen,” and Rainbow had a song called “Kill The King.” I had a Strat, and with the distortion it had a kind of Ritchie Blackmore type of sound and all of a sudden I started playing that riff. I kept on writing it, almost as a joke, but when I played it for the guys, we got off on it. It’s by no means the most original song I’ve done, but when Dio passed, he was such a big influence for me, and I grew up with his music. I had a lovely evening with him once when we were on tour, and he was such a gentle man, just the way you want your idols to be.
Your musical tastes are famously all over the place, from Vangelis and the Zombies to Camel. What’s your current obsession? I see you’ve just returned from the local vinyl shop….
I’m stuck in an Alice Cooper period. The two records I listen to a lot these days are Welcome To My Nightmare, which is not the Alice Cooper Band, and Billion Dollar Babies, which is a masterpiece basically. There’s a song called “Sick Things” on the b-side…just amazing. I’ve heard this album my whole life, but that’s the beauty of some of the classic records. You listen to them for years and years, and one day they reach a new dimension. You’re hearing them for the first time, and yet you know what’s coming next.
I was listening to a Rainbow record recently, and I just burst into tears. I don’t know why. Maybe it was something deeper than the music, but that’s something to aspire to. Even it’s just a 10-second snippet, that’s what I want to be able to make people feel when they listen to Opeth.