Interview: Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)
For a while, nobody sounded like Opeth. The Swedish death metal/prog rock hybrid dealt out long, two-tone horror stories in a song form best described as chiaroscuro, alternating between prog-rock ballad and meaty melodic death metal pummel, usually multiple times within the same song. Unlike so many progressive metal bands, Opeth knew how to ride a groove for a satisfying length of time, as well as how to write a good hook. It was a winning formula, one that guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Mikael Åkerfeldt rode to minor stardom on the Roadrunner Records roster.
And then there was nobody good that sounded like Opeth except Opeth. Circa 2009, every D-list, so-called progressive metal band in the world was tossing clean-sung acoustic passages into their songs with utter disregard for, you know, songwriting. At that point in time, Opeth had stopped altering their sound, getting maximum mileage out of the ‘prog’ genre tag without actually progressing their sound. Fortunately, the band was still writing instant-classic albums. So, to these ears, their saccharine knockoffs made Åkerfeldt’s classic Coke formula all the more valuable.
And then Opeth didn’t sound like Opeth. In 2011, Mikael stopped growling, laid off the distortion, and released Heritage, Opeth’s second non-metal album after 2003’s Damnation. It remains a controversial record. It’s not as reviled as, say, Cold Lake or Saint Anger, but invoking its name has the power to conjure vitriol.
Now, Åkerfeldt’s back with a follow-up to that controversial point in his career, and it’s still not metal. But it’s still a great record. I sat down with Åkerfeldt to talk about this turbulent period in his life, the decisions that led to Heritage, his vocal prowess, and, of course. . . vinyl.
I guess the first thing I wanted to ask is if there’s any sort of lyrical theme to Pale Communion?
No, there’s no lyrical theme. Well, there are lyrical themes to each song, but not one thing that the whole thing is about.
It doesn’t seem like people have ever praised you as a lyricist enough.
No. I don’t think I deserve it for my lyrics because I think they’re quite bland. But every now and then I happen onto something good. I think they’re good because they relate back to my personal life. Lyrics became a thing that I wanted to relate back to myself, to get more comfortable singing stuff that I know. It works on some of those records, but I never set out to blow people’s minds with words. I just kind of wrote stuff and it sounded cool. Then I moved on to stuff where it's more personal.
So, the first thing I noticed about Pale Communion was that the album art seems reminiscent of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Was that intentional?
Not really. I have that album, I like that album, but I didn’t really think of that to be honest. I knew that I wanted three pictures, I wanted a triptych for this sleeve. While theirs is a bunch of pictures, I wanted a story through life, through those three paintings. Even if I wasn’t aware of the resemblance to ELP, it's okay with me. You know, it's a record I like, it's something I can relate to musically, so that's cool, but I didn’t really try to pay homage to it.
Your concept was a story through life. Why did you want to visually present the album that way?
Well it's basically because of the lyrical content. The lyrics I wrote for this album are very personal. I have a tendency to worry a lot. Sometimes I create an alternate future in my head of something that could happen, and when I do it's something quite bleak. Everything is going to go down, so to speak. Many of the lyrics are based on those worries. That’s the first thing that popped into my head: a life that you can describe in three pictures. Starts great, ends up like shit.
That mood of anxiety is something you’ve carried forward since the earliest albums, even Orchid is very moody. It's not very aggressive.
No, I guess that’s the thinking. Luckily that type of style works well with the music, and that’s the way I want us to present ourselves, both musically and lyrically. But there’s a difference in my persona from when I was 19 to now when I’m 40. In those days when we did the first album, I didn’t have any worries as far as I can remember. I mean, I didn’t have a job or anything, I was just a dreamer. And with those early records I was just a happy guy, basically, with no concerns. But along the way I got older and I had children. And when you have children you start to worry about things. So I ended up being a worrier. I’m much different now to how I was when I was younger.
You worry more now that you have children?
Oh, definitely yeah. I worry about everything, more concerned about everything, basically. And since I started paying taxes, you know, you kind of worry about things like, how can I support my kids in a way that they will contribute to a better society? And then I worry about my own fatherhood. You know, am I a good parent? I worry about my kids: Is something gonna happen to them? Are they going to get sick, are they going get attacked? How’s school? Those kind of things. I don’t think it's something that’s unique to me just because I’m a musician. I think every parent worries to a certain extent. I just use those worries in order to push myself forward artistically. I also get questions about it all the time. But I think every parent worries.
I think people question it because your children have come up lyrically in your work before. Specifically with Watershed: that record was very much about parenting. That seemed like a theme running through that record.
There is some of that on there. That was the beginning of the phase, lyrically. Watershed was, up to that point, the most personal record I had done, followed by Heritage and this new one, which are very personal. But before Watershed was Ghost Reveries, which was not personal at all. I kind of shied away from writing personal lyrics, because I didn’t want people to know. I also increasingly got more worried, had more things to worry about, I guess. When I did Ghost Reveries and the records before, I was struggling to find something to write about, which is why I ended up doing the concept records that didn’t relate back to my actual life at all. But with the Watershed record and all that came after, it's definitely more private type of stuff.
I feel like sometimes artists make a conscious decision: Like, “I’m an adult now and I need to talk about my feelings.” Was it a decision or was it just something that happened?
Yeah it was something that happened. If I could choose, like if I had a wild imagination or something where I could come up with fantastic stories and then just stick to the music, I would have done that, no doubt. I would rather keep my private life away from the music side, to be honest. I wouldn’t want to write about that private stuff if I didn’t, so to speak, have a better option. But I don’t. I tried, but I came up with juvenile shit that I don’t want to sing. I ended up writing realer things. Like, you know the song “Heir Apparent”? That was one of the first lyrics I wrote like I do now. You know, reading those lyrics, it kind of seems like my style of writing, but it actually means something to me, it's something that can be traced back to my private life, which made me go, That’s interesting, I’ve never really done that before.
I definitely think there has been a second stage of Opeth’s evolution. And some fans are a bit hesitant to follow you into Watershed and Heritage and maybe into Pale Communion, as well. Does that bother you?
Well, you know, you want everybody to like everything you do. That would be great, but that idea is not really anchored in reality. We had a run, a good long run, where it seemed like we could do no wrong. People just loved everything we did. But with Watershed -- I think maybe once we signed to Roadrunner -- we started getting some negative feedback even before we put an album out, people saying we sold out because we signed to Roadrunner or stuff like that, which was new for us at the time. We never had that type of negative feedback prior to the Ghost Reveries record. But once that came out it was kind of 50/50.
There was a lot of praise from reviews and magazines. You know, journalists who listen to a lot of music, who are almost forced to listen to a lot of kinds of music, they have always appreciated what we do, with some exceptions, of course. But fans started questioning what we do around the time of Ghost Reveries. And I understand it. One critique that doesn't bother me are people saying, "It's just not for me.” That’s fine. But when people go into detail and try and decide for us what we should do. . . because it's systemic, you know what I mean? They want us to do something because they want us to do something. I think that becomes a bit selfish, a bit narcissistic, and it can be annoying. But after Heritage, I’m much more used to negative criticism.
I think it's sort of unfair, not of you, but of the listeners.
Yeah, I also sometimes can feel like, Why are they jumping on us? At least we are doing what we want to do! But that’s not what gets a lot of respect these days. Integrity is important, but people can dismiss me talking about integrity and talking about doing what we want to do. People can dismiss that and say, “What you’re doing is shit.” And people have their own taste. People, especially metal people, are very opinionated and they want to spread their opinions as much as they can. People want to make sure that they hate this and that song, this and that album, this and that lyric, this and that member. And that they loved what we did 10 years ago or whatever, and they want to make that perfectly clear, which is both annoying and interesting and uplifting at the same time because I do appreciate that people care. I would rather have that type of negative criticism than [nothing] because nobody cares. I’d rather have some type of reaction, and surely we’ve got that. We’ve got a lot of reactions.
I remember specifically two years ago, you toured. I saw you at St. Andrew’s Hall and it was the tour where you played all the ballads. It was a lot of Heritage material as well, but it was all the ballads from the old records. And “The Throat of Winter,” which I never thought I’d hear you play ever because who the hell even knows you did that song, but I love that song. I think maybe people just weren’t expecting a tour of nothing but the ballads. I think maybe there was some sort of communication breakdown.
(laughs) Yeah, I guess there was. But you know for me, it was a bit of an eye-opener because I figured that part of the band is like all aspects of the band. And if you take one aspect of the band out of the equation for a show, I figured it’s no big deal because we’re playing all these old songs. For that tour, out of the 10-12 songs, however many songs we played, there were only one or two that we had ever played live before. There was a lot of unplayed material both new and old, so I figured that people might think that was interesting. Because we toured so much and we played all the songs from the previous records, all the heavy stuff.
But from pretty early on, I could tell that there were people in the crowd that were pretty upset about the fact that we didn’t play any of the heavier stuff. So it's like if you take this thing out of the equation, then people don’t like you anymore, regardless of what songs you play from the past. We played a song from the first album, but nobody cared, it didn’t matter, because we didn’t do any of the death metal songs. So that was a bit of an eye-opener for me.
I don’t really have many regrets when it comes to how we choose to play our cards, but one thing I regret was that we did that tour because of the fact that people were not happy. And when we’re playing live, I don’t care about artistic type of things, like why we write the music and things like that, I just want everyone to enjoy themselves. When we record a record, it's about what we want to do. But when we go out and play, I want everyone to enjoy themselves. And they weren’t on that tour. So if I have any regrets, it's doing that tour. I don’t think we would do that now.
I know that some fans think that part of the reason you’ve stepped away from extreme metal is that you’re having trouble doing the vocals. Is there any truth in that?
Well, to a certain extent there is a truth to that. I wasn’t really aware of it myself until I heard some recordings that we had done. And I figured, I don’t sound like I usually do. And sometimes when I went off stage, I would have a sore throat, which I never did before. So I figured, What’s wrong with me? Maybe I lost the ability or something. But there was one change that I had made, and that was when we started using in-ear monitors. When we did that, it was like I could hear myself for the first time, and I didn’t like how I sounded. I noticed that I was compensating for my singing, I was singing with a different technique than I was before. I was putting more strain on my throat and I didn’t realize what I was doing was bad. So I’m slowly, gradually, getting back to the old way of singing. And at some of the more recent shows, I like to think I’ve been better. I’m probably worse than I was at the start, but I’m still better than I was [a few years ago]. I can still do them, but in general I’m not as good of a screamer as I was. That early stuff was based on not really hearing what I was doing. I had earplugs when we were in the rehearsal room, so I just did it that way. It was only when we had monitors that I started to have a problem. I still think I can do it. Well, I know I can do it.
I’ve seen full pro-shot videos of Opeth sets after the ballad tour, and you are doing some heavy songs at the end, and they still sound pretty good, but you’re only doing a few growling songs.
We’re doing a lot of them if you compare the Heritage tour to last summer's run of festivals, if you compare 2013 to what we’re doing now, there are a lot more screaming songs. And so far so good. I haven’t lost my voice, which is a good indicator of whether I’m doing it the right way or the wrong way.
Do you still enjoy doing the older stuff? I would imagine the vocal strain might make it less fun.
No, I like it, I enjoy it. You know, being a vocalist, a lot of it has to do with emotion. I sing much better if I feel like I’m in the song and the same goes with the death metal screams. I want to feel like a monster, I want to feel like someone who has died. It’s hard to deliver them the way they should sound if I’m not feeling it, and that’s something different from how I am in life. I’m not the same guy. On those early records, I loved doing those screams, but it got to a point where I couldn’t develop them any more and I started being more interested in developing my clean vocals.
But the darkness hasn’t left. Your new stuff, even the stuff from Heritage and the one song I’ve heard from Pale Communion, they’re still dark songs.
Yeah of course, I mean that’s my taste, that’s never going to change. We wouldn’t have done Heritage or Pale Communion if it didn’t have that side to it. Heritage could never have been a refuge for us, it’s something that reflects my interest in folk and prog-rock and '60s and '70s types of music. But the roots of this band are still metal, death metal, and the dark, brooding type of music that is still my taste. I’ve opened up a little bit to a lighter shade, because in the beginning I shied away from major chords. It was almost like major chords were forbidden, because it sounded happy. But then I realized that if you put major chords and minor chords next to each other it sounded evil. And you can make a sad chord sound sadder if you have a major chord before it, so I’m kind of developing my musicality a bit more. But that taste is still there. I’ve never really liked happy music. Opeth is always going to be somewhat dark.
People always ask you for things you’ve been listening to. And you’ve introduced me, through interviews and stuff, to a lot of groups I really, really like that I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise. Specifically Nick Drake. So I’ve gotta ask, you wanna get off the phone and put in a CD — what is it?
I bought the newest Scott Walker album, if you haven’t heard Scott Walker.
He’s another artist that I started listening to because of an interview of yours. Those are the two big ones, Nick Drake and Scott Walker.
Awesome. He has got his solo career, obviously. . . he was a crooner in the beginning and had a band, The Walker Brothers, and then he did some solo crooning stuff that was also pretty dark. And now he’s doing some avant-garde, experimental stuff. I bought an album that I already have in mono. So I’m gonna listen to the stereo version, which is cool. But one band I can recommend to you is this Italian band called Il Paese dei Balocchi. That’s a fantastic record, very, very strange sounding record for the time, too. It's very. . . I don’t know, I can’t describe it but I love it. When I got it, I played it I don’t know how many times in a row but I just had to play it again and again.
I don’t know if this is the case in Europe, but I know that in America there’s a trend of vinyl becoming a little bit more popular among people of my age. I’ve collected for a few years and I know that a lot more people do, but what's your take? I know a lot of people are buying vinyl, but I don’t know how many of my friends are actually listening to it. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do, and I like it. I mean if it's not a gimmick, if it's something that they do because they’re interesting in the history, or the sound, or experience of those classic records. And I’m hoping that that’s the way it is, that it's not just a gimmick, that people aren’t just into the old-school and vintage and whatever. But there’s also a side to it that I don’t like, because I have a lot more competition.
I’m perfectly honest, I don’t want people to buy vinyl because I want to buy vinyl. I don’t want competition.
I’m sure you know Jack White just released his new record, and he’s a vinyl enthusiast as well, and I guess his record just broke first week vinyl sales. It's interesting to me that the more digital things I have, the more people want something in analog.
It's very easy on the ears. On vinyl, you actually partake in listening, it makes you more focused; for me anyway when I listen to vinyl as opposed listening to something on my iPod. It sounds warmer, it serves the music better than the same record would sound on mp3.
My favorite thing about records is that I can’t skip the tracks. I know that if I aim really well I can get the needle right between the songs, but I don’t want to risk it.
A brilliant thing about vinyl is that you can see when a soft part is coming up because the vinyl looks blacker or darker in those parts. I love it, there’s a lot in my love for vinyl, it goes a lot further than just listening to it. I love the look, I love the sleeves, the different ways that you can present it. You can have a laminate sleeve, you can have a textured sleeve, you can have a blacktop sleeve, you can have a gatefold sleeve. I love the smell of them. I love the way they look. I love the spine. Just looking at my vinyl collection right now I can see, Oh that’s rock ‘n’ roll over there; I can recognize the spines. There’s something logical about them. And I never left it. I never fully went over to CDs, definitely never went over to mp3s. I have a few CDs but I never listen to them.
For a different article, for a different publication, I interviewed the owner of my local mom and pop record store. And he said, and I think you’ll like this quote, "A vinyl album is the most popular art product that anyone has ever produced."
Yeah. And I can buy records because they have beautiful sleeves; I’ve discovered lots of great bands that way. You find a record by chance, not knowing what it is, because it has a beautiful sleeve. And even if it's a shit record, it's still a beautiful sleeve to look at.