Back in June, Roadrunner held an Opeth press day in Amsterdam and DPRP were invited for an in-person interview with Mikael Akerfeldt. So on a blistering hot summer’s day I made the long trip from Brussels to The American Hotel in Amsterdam for a half-hour of precious time with the man himself. Thirty minutes turned-out to be closer to twenty,but in that short time we spoke quite a bit about Opeth’s forthcoming release Heritage…
Interview by Dave Baird
Dave: Hello Michael, thanks for speaking to Dutch Progressive Rock Page. So, a new Opeth album Heritage, before we get on to the music can we speak a little on the album cover, because this is causing, how can I put it, a shit-storm on the web right now.
Mikael: Hello! Yeah, it is, but also a love-storm!
Dave: Sure, did you expect this kind of reaction?
Mikael: Well I don’t understand how anyone can *not* like the cover, I think it’s fucking amazing!
Dave: It’s fun…
Mikael: Yes, it’s fun, but there’s a big slice of seriousness in it too. Looking at it though, I just find I want to smile; I love it. It’s one of those covers that you can gaze at for quite some time.
Dave: Find new things…
Mikael: Yeah, so I like it. They keywords I gave to Tavis Smith, who did it, apart from when I delivered the concept, look, you imagine the email: “Look Travis, I’m thinking a tree, and I want our heads to be fruit in the tree, and the roots are going down to hell…”, but I said I wanted it to be some kind of cross between Bruegel, who did a painting called The Triumph of Death, which was used on the Black Sabbath Greatest Hits album in 1976; a cross between that and Yellow Submarine.
Dave: Think I’ll have to take a look at Yellow Submarine again then, I missed that bit…
Mikael: It’s colourful!
Dave: Sure. There’s a lot of symbolism, you specified all of these points I assume?
Mikael: Yeah, you know there are some things that I came up with, and when you’re in the heat of the moment things shouldn’t be neglected; I think you should trust your instincts at a time like that, even if you’re not sure about them all the time. But with the cover I could just envision it, knowing of course that it’s going to be a slight departure from our other sleeves that we’ve had. But the last sleeves, even though I liked them, you could have used the Ghost Reveries sleeve on Watershed, and Watershed on the third album, you know, they would have fit. This one I think only works for Heritage.
Dave: Per’s head is falling off the tree, that’s a bit mean isn’t it?
Mikael: Is it? It can’t stay in the tree! He’s not in the band any more, but he’s still on the cover. But that was, like, one of the things, how the fuck are do we solve that? Because we wanted the band on the cover, and he’s not in the band any more. Besides, we now have Joakim (Ed: Svalberg) now playing with us. So how do we solve that? OK, Per is too ripe, so he’s falling off the tree and then there’s a flower coming, symbolizing the next.
Dave: What happened with Per then? If you look at the albums he plays on, he seems to fit very well into the music.
Mikael: Yeah, well, that’s what I would have thought too, but… You know, Per is a lovely guy, a really fun guy, and we got along great, but we didn’t get along on a deeper level. For instance we didn’t talk about what problems might occur in the band; personality things or whatever when somebody’s down. He’s just one of those guys that’s quiet, you know, and you can tell that he’s not happy. And he left the band. He left the band right before we did the 20th anniversary show.
Dave: So he wasn’t booted-out as such?
Mikael: Not at that point, no. And I was like, why? Is it us? Is it the music? He was “No, no, it’s not that”, and I wasn’t sure, I felt that there were parts in our organization that he didn’t like, people in our crew that he didn’t like. So we fired all of those guys that presented a problem and tried to make it as comfortable for him as possible; because he’s in the band and he’s more important than anyone else. We’d had some turmoil in the crew situation with touring so much and you know, he was not that happy. He didn’t want to hang out with the rest of us and he distanced himself from everything.
Looking back I don’t really think that he ever really felt he was part of the band. Like he was always on his way, it was just a matter of time. He was obviously more interested in doing his other bands like Spiritual Beggars, and Mojobone, and the stuff he’s got. But I thought that Opeth would be the perfect thing for him, even if he were to just perceive Opeth as “work” – just play on the albums, play live, that’s the bread-and-butter, and because we have so much time off in-between touring cycles, he would have plenty of time to do whatever it is that he wanted to do. But it got to the point where basically he quit. We made some changes in the organisation and basically begged him to stay. We solved a lot of issues, and of I while he was getting better, I think. But during the process of recording and of the writing of the album (Ed: Heritage) he never said what he thought about the music, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t get involved. I asked him to write, he didn’t deliver anything.
Dave: So in the final analysis was it that he didn’t like the musical direction?
Mikael: Well I only knew afterwards. It was the perfect album for him I thought, for him to play on. And we recorded in a different way and everything, well there were so many things that were different, that would suit him. While we were in the studio recording – I’d written the songs, I’d written the keyboard parts – and I told him like, “This is what I did, but do whatever you want to do. Just make it better”. And he didn’t take that.
Dave: He just played your parts?
Mikael: Just played my parts…
Dave: Well there are a lot of keyboards on the album!
Mikael: Yeah, there are. Well he just played his parts during the recording, you know because it was really happy and fun during the recording until around the time that he started recording Mellotrons. He just sunk into his shell and looked angry; he wasn’t enjoying himself basically. You know we’d been trying so hard to make him comfortable that we now got pissed-off, “What the fuck is his problem? Come on now!”, and it got to the point where… it was over. So a couple of days after the record was done we fired him.
It was like a matter of, actually it feel bad almost to admit it, but we just wanted him to record the parts because nobody else could play them as good as he could, and he recorded everything, but with zero involvement, it felt like. So by the time he was done… “Off you go” we felt like. And I got some panic attacks about that after I fired him. We were writing back and forth, and that’s the only time he ever opened up, in those emails, writing long emails about what he felt. And her said things like “I love the new album, but I’m completely the wrong person to play this type of music”. All sorts of issues – he’s got some problems with something, I don’t know what it is, but he wasn’t happy and I finally asked him if he would have left anyway, and he said “yes”.
Dave: So a new guy coming in who’s going to have to learn all the new stuff and I guess play it pretty much the same, because it’s got a very specific feel – bleak and barren – although I guess that’s pretty much Opeth all-over! But is that all going OK?
Mikael: Oh yeah. He was like, a couple of things, “Do you want me to play this solo exactly like Per did?”, and I was like “No, you’re not Per, play it like you want to play”. If it’s a solo then I think it’s something that’s open for interpretation, he should play it the way he wants to play it. The songs are obviously recorded, so it’s not like he played a Fender Rhodes where it’s supposed to be a… Hold on a second…
(Mikael takes a call from his daughter Melinda, aged 7, who tells him about her tooth coming out…)
Dave: OK, maybe we should move on from keyboard players, I’m not done with the cover art. Skulls, there are skulls, four hairy skulls, previous band members, right?
Mikael: Well all of them that we’ve had in since the beginning.
Dave: That’s why there’s eleven then?
Mikael: Actually I didn’t think about that. I didn’t tell Travis to make it eleven skulls…
Dave: Eleven and three or four with hair. Nine stars plus one sun – number of Opeth studio albums?
Mikael: Again, I didn’t think about that, but Travis probably did!
Dave: So once people have made it through the cover then they’re going to be confronted with this new music. I mean the opening track, Heritage, that must be the most un-Opeth like track of all time. However, you still manage to make it sound like Opeth, what’s the trick?
Mikael: Well that particular song was… well that’s part of the music on Heritage that we have coming from Sweden. That’s how Swedish folk music sounds like, pretty much. It’s not a traditional song, it’s something I wrote thinking of another album that I’ve been influenced by for many years, which was an early 60″s jazz record with just piano and upright bass by a guy called Jan Johansson, the dad of Jens Johansson, the keyboard player, and Anders Johansson, the drummer. It’s the best album ever to come out of Scandinavia and it’s something I’ve listened to on a daily basis, it’s called “Jazz på svenska“, it’s basically Swedish folk music in a jazz environment.
Dave: Seems that a lot of the Swedish artists have been heavily influenced by Swedish folk music, The Flower Kings for instance make the same observations…
Mikael: Well it’s so, so… so fucking Swedish sounding! It sounds like the woods, you know, and the melancholy. I think it’s something that’s in every Swede; if you’re born in Sweden or if you have been living in Sweden for any amount of time then it’s the whole atmosphere, something you’re sucked into. You hear that type of music and you think of Sweden. I just love how it sounds and I want to bring it into Opeth. We had it before in small parts, but never as direct as that song.
Dave: I think at the beginning of The Lotus Eaters, this is the same influence?
Dave: And also at the beginning of Folklore
Mikael: It’s the same
Dave: I was listening to Watershed on the drive up here and I realised that if you were to take The Lotus Eaters and remove all of the metal parts then you actually derive something that sounds a lot like Heritage (Ed: the album)
Mikael: Right. I mean it’s a different album, but if you know our records, know where we’re coming from, then it’s not totally outrageous. For me it makes sense, it’s not strange for me, but obviously I know what we are known for – this cross between extreme metal and, progressive-whatever-you-call-it.
Dave: But it is much more experimental than Damnation, for instance…
Mikael: Oh yeah, definately. There’s some stuff on there that I never written anything remotely like that, and that’s what I like. I like to change? You find a sound for a particular record and then maybe you keep that for several records, but it will only be a matter of time until that sound is saturated and there’s nothing more to do with it. By that time I have to move on.
Dave: Which is what has happened, at this moment in time, with the metal side, you’re a bit sick of it I suppose?
Mikael: Yes I am, I’ve been sick of contemporary metal for some time. But I’m still way into stuff like Judas Priest, I mean I love metal more than any other metal people out there, I love it, but for me metal is not only about distortion. Contemporary metal doesn’t have… it’s not metal to me, it’s not rebelling against… anything whatsoever, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Rebelling against the way metal sounds today, metal productions, rebelling against ourselves a bit. I think it’s healthy.
Dave: I imagine your throat must be looking forward for a bit of a break?
Mikael: Well because we’ve taken the death-metal vocals out for this album I wanted to put a bit more into the clean vocals, and although this does also put a strain on the voice, but it’s fun you know.
Dave: So how are you going to tour this, combined with a Damnation set or still with some metal/growling songs?
Mikael: I don’t know yet. If I could choose it then there wouldn’t be any screaming vocals. We’ve discussed it in the band and even if we did do the tour without screaming vocals then there’s plenty of material from our past we could play. We could make a really interesting set list. The thing is that we’ve been touring the heavy stuff for so many years now and we’re going to do it in the future as well. But Heritage is a special album for us and it deserves to have a special attention.
Dave: DPRP is a prog fanzine, not metal, and I can imagine a lot of our readers that previously didn’t get along with Opeth finding a lot to enjoy with Heritage
Mikael: Yeah, I hope so.
Dave: Conversely, I imagine, there will be a section of the fan-base who will be horrified. On the other hand, it might open up new avenues of music for some.
Mikael: Well yes, if you’re open-minded. It’s a beautiful record I think. If you’re a metal-head and you only like heavy music then I’m pretty sure Opeth wasn’t your band either. I’m sure some of those die-hard fans who don’t open to music other than just metal probably left us.
Dave: Now there are a lot of influences on Heritage, I can recognise: Rainbow, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and I’m sure many more I’m not more personally familiar with. Was this a deliberate strategy to keep these so visible.
Mikael: Yeah well it’s all the music that I’m listening to. I’m not one of those guys to mess around trying to hide my influences and I’m certainly not ashamed of being a big fan of Jethro Tull. So that’s inevitable I think, for me. Strip away the more extreme metal elements and what you’ve got left is obviously us getting closer to these influences. And that’s what I listen to and what I have been listening to for the last 15 years.
Ever since we did the first album I’ve been lost in this type of music, but at the time I was 19, I was just starting out a career as an extreme prog-metal-something and I was really eager to try and make something happen. And besides, even going back to that first album, I still love everything that we’ve done and I don’t think we’ve made any bad decisions in terms of our music. We haven’t done Heritage before, because we still wanted to explore something else. Now we have the confidence and have been around for such a long time, we’ve done ten records, we have some, what would you call it, thick-skin. So we can dare to make a record like this.
It’s a tribute to many of these older bands, of course. But also with our extreme metal past, infusing that with these influences from the 60’s and 70’s is creating something that in parts on the Heritage album I have never heard music like that before, which is the essence of “progressive”, I think, even though perhaps that sounds a bit cocky…
Dave: It must be the bleakest sounding record that Opeth have made, it’s deeply atmospheric and in places quite spooky
Mikael: I think that’s also something coming from my death metal influences, that music is bound to be really dark, and haunting and sort-of spooky, but it can get lost in the production of some of these albums because it’s going to be heavy all the time and it’s getting louder, so it’s hard to feel the dynamics on some of these albums. A death metal group on acoustic guitar is bound to create a different type of atmosphere, we have that of course, but also we’re using the Mellotron a lot which produces quite a spooky sound.
Dave: And a lot of unusual Mellotron patches actually, flutes and stuff
Mikael: Yeah there’s one called PB (ed: ??) Organ that we used a lot, which sounds really spooky, sounds like a “headache” to me, also the pitch and the half-speed function. I played Mellotron on the intro of the song Famine that just sounds like some prayer or something, I could only do that once of course, it can’t be replicated. By no means fine playing, just making some ‘blllleeeehhhhh’ noise.
Dave: You brought Steven (Wilson) back in just for the mixing this time – what was the rationale behind that?
Mikael: Actually I had asked him to be incolved in the previous two albums and he said he would have loved to, but he was really busy with Porcupine Tree. This time round he was free and doing the mix with him, getting his experise and his advice, but I also had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to do with the mix. Before when working with him, when he had an idea I’d be like “Yeah, let’s do that, great!”, this time I was more “No, no, no…”. I’m more comfortable working with him and I also had a clear idea what I wanted to hear. He was catering for my needs and he’d done some stuff, when I got down to his studio, he’d changed some guitar sound and I’d say “No, no, bring it back to the nasty, shitty old Stratocaster sound” and that’s the great thing with Steven, his musical preference is so wide that he undertands everything I tell him. He knows everything about the music I’m listening to it makes it so easy to work with him – a walk in the park.
Dave: OK Michael, thanks for speaking with us and congratulations on a fabulous new album, I’m sure it’s going to be a big hit with the prog fans at least…
Mikael: Thanks very much, see you soon
Upcoming tour dates: USA (with Katatonia)
September 19 – The Palladium – Worcester, MA
September 20 – Webster Theater – Hartford, CT
September 21 – Webster Hall – New York, NY
September 22 – Webster Hall – New York, NY
September 23 – Trocadero – Philadelphia, PA
September 26 – Newport Music Hall – Columbus, OH
September 27 – Expo Five – Louisville, KY
September 28 – Cannery Ballroom – Nashville, TN
September 29 – Amos’ Southend – Charlotte, NC
September 30 – Center Stage – Atlanta, GA
October 1 – House of Blues – Lake Buena Vista, FL
October 3 – Warehouse Live – Houston, TX
October 4 – – Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater – Austin, TX
October 5 – Granada Theater – Dallas, TX
October 6 – The Beaumont Club – Kansas City, MO
October 7 – First Avenue – Minneapolis, MN
October 8 – Burton Cummings – Winnipeg, MB
October 10 – Edmonton Events Centre – Edmonton, AB
October 11 – MacEwan Hall Ballroom – Calgary, AB
October 13 – Commodore Ballroom – Vancouver, BC
October 14 – Knitting Factory Concert House – Spokane, WA
October 15 – Showbox SoDo – Seattle, WA
October 16 – Roseland Theatre – Portland, OR
October 18 – The Warfield – San Francisco, CA
October 19 – Mayan Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
October 20 – House of Blues – San Diego, CA
October 21 – The Fox Theater – Pomona, CA
October 22 – Marquee Theatre – Tempe, AZ
October 24 – The Complex – Salt Lake City, UT
October 25 – Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO
October 27 – The Rave – Milwaukee, WI
October 28 – Vic Theatre – Chicago, IL
October 29 – St. Andrews Hall – Detroit, MI
October 30 – Guelph Concert Theatre – Guelph, ON
October 31 – Mr Smalls Theatre – Millvale, PA
November 1 – Rams Head Live! – Baltimore, MD
Upcoming tour dates: Europe (with Pain of Salvation)
November 8 – Academy, Bristol – UK
November 9 – Academy, Newcastle – UK
November 10 – Picture House, Edinburgh – UK
November 11 – Academy, Manchester – UK
November 12 – Academy, Birmingham – UK
November 13 – Brixton Academy, London – UK
November 15 – 013, Tilburg – The Netherlands
November 16 – Le Bataclan, Paris – France
November 17 – Krakatoa, Bordeaux Merignac – France
November 18 – Santana, Bilbao – Spain
November 19 – Penelope, Madrid – Spain
November 22 – Apolo, Barcelona – Spain
November 23 – Le Rockstore, Montpellier – France
November 24 – Alcatraz, Milan – Italy
November 25 – Les Docks, Lausanne – Switzerland
November 26 – Komplex, Zurich – Switzerland
November 27 – Theater Fabrik, Munich – Germany
November 30 – Longhorn Lka, Stuttgart – Germany
December 1 – Essigfabrik, Cologne – Germany
December 2 – Huxleys, Berlin – Germany
December 3 – Grosse Freiheit, Hamburg – Germany
December 4 – Trädgår´N, Göteborg – Sweden
December 6 – Ice Hall, Helsinki – Finland
December 9 – Scentrum Scene, Oslo – Norway