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Heavy Stuff! An Interview with Opeth Leader, Mikael Åkerfeldt

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, June 2, 2008 @ 10:02 PM

"I got an e-mail from Rick Rubin the other day, just to say hello. I'm hoping it wasn't like a scam, these days you never know (laughs)."

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Memorial Day in our nation's capitol presents all manner of "America, fuck yeah!" distractions: Parades, monuments and memorials aplenty and the Rolling Thunder Review, which brought thousands of bikers and cycles to town. If you're a flag-waving patriot, this was the place to be. But if you're a Swedish metal musician in town to play a show that night, who cares? Especially when the guy whose company makes the guitars you play and endorse invites you out to his factory and estate along the Chesapeake Bay. So after Stockholm's Opeth rolled into D.C. to play the tony DAR Constitution Hall as part of Dream Theater's Progressive Nation tour - which included Between The Buried and Me and 3 - band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson skipped town to go meet Paul Reed Smith, owner of PRS Guitars, which is based in Stevensville, Md.

"We were invited to Paul Reed's house so I couldn't miss the opportunity," Åkerfeldt said. "We went to the factory, obviously no one was there, but it was like two kids in the candy shop, so to speak (laughs). Then we went to his house. It was very nice, nice house, nice gardens, by the sea. He's a nice guy actually."

Then the guys came back, met up with the rest of Opeth and delivered a bludgeoning hour-long set that kicked off with the ferocious "Demon of the Fall" and showcased a hulking new number - "Heir Apparent" - from their ninth album, Watershed, that was due out June 3. Not a bad way to spend the day.

The Progressive Nation tour and Watershed album showcase Opeth's latest line-up, which includes Åkesson - who replaced guitarist Peter Lindgren, who left last year after 15 years saying he could no longer give 100 percent to the band - and Martin "Axe" Axenrot - who took over for longtime drummer Martin Lopez, who left in 2006 after suffering a series of anxiety attacks on tour. Keyboardist Per Wiberg, himself a fairly recent addition to the band having joined in 2005, and longtime bassist Martin Mendez round out a line up Åkerfeldt has been holding together since 1990.

And they continue Opeth's standard for daring and diversity that has made them one of most unconventional and utterly unique death metal-oriented bands almost since the beginning. Watershed, again, features an epic soundscape that fuses death metal brutality with traditional metal and elements of classic rock, prog, folk and even jazz, making for the kind of jarring contrasts and unexpected twists - opening with the acoustic "Coil," the electro-funk freakout amid the full-on metal fury of "The Lotus Eater," the anthemic, death metal-free "Porcelain Heart," the violent midsection of the otherwise lounge-like "Hessian Peel" - that you just can't find anywhere else.

On the band's tour bus after the show, Åkerfeldt talked about the new album, new line-up and his relatively new role as father and family man - he and his wife now have two young daughters - Opeth's standing as a "death metal" band and his on-again/off-again role fronting the more traditional death metal concern Bloodbath.

KNAC.COM: While you were at Paul Reed Smith's with Fredrik, what were the other guys doing?

ÅKERFELDT: I don't know what they did, but they were out drinking last night. So I guess they were sleeping (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Your tour manager said you spent last night in Bedford, Pa., I guess going drinking is about all there is to do there?

ÅKERFELDT: Yeah, there was a steakhouse across from our hotel, but other than that there was one bar. They went to that, I didn't because of this [points to his throat, which is somewhat hoarse]. It's my second cold on this run. It's because of these things [points to the air conditioning on the bus].

KNAC.COM: Other than that, how's the tour been going?

ÅKERFELDT: Good. We've played some nice places. The purpose of this tour, in a way, is to tap into the Dream Theater crowd, but we have a lot of our own fans coming out to these shows. Some nights you can tell that we've won some new fans over.

KNAC.COM: You're playing a brutal set, did you contemplate playing something more progressive?

ÅKERFELDT: No. We can't really compete when it comes to off-beat time signatures and widdly-widdly stuff that Dream Theater does. [Dream Theater drummer Mike] Portnoy asked me what kind of set we were going to do, and I said we were doing the heavy stuff. And he was like "fuck," because it's got to be tough coming on after we've beaten everyone's brains in (laughs). But that's what we wanted to do on this tour. We only have an hour, so we wanted to make the most of it.

KNAC.COM: You did do a mellower set when you toured with Porcupine Tree a couple years ago, was that out of deference to Steve Wilson, who was producing your albums at the time?

"Somehow I felt like I had more freedom writing this time around and we ended up having stuff in there that we probably wouldn't have used before. Like there's a funk kind of riff in 'The Lotus Eater.' It's a bit humorous in a way. It's serious, but if I were not in the band and was listening to the album, I would think 'Well, they seem to be enjoying themselves doing this.' Where we'd always been miserable in the past."
ÅKERFELDT: No, it was because we had the new album out at the time, Damnation, which was the mellow counterpart to Deliverance, and it's a short album so we said we could play the whole thing and play some older softer songs. And obviously Porcupine took advantage of that and pulled out their heavier songs (laughs) so they were heavier than us. So we did learn something of a lesson there. But I enjoyed that tour a lot.

KNAC.COM: After this, you've got a pretty busy schedule, European festivals, Asia, Israel, Australia and then back to the states?

ÅKERFELDT: We're going to tour a lot, we're booked for the rest of the year, and for a lot of next year as well. It won't be as tough a slog as last time where we were out almost constantly for a year and a half. The European tour we're doing is not all that long, we're doing select cities. And I'm not sure if we're going to be doing a second and third leg in America, although it is a big country and there is a demand for us for some reason (laughs). When we come back again we'll start on the 15th of September and go to Oct. 26.

We could tour forever if we wanted to. We just want to promote the album properly. We don't want to overplay certain areas, which I think we did to a certain extent last time. But we've had some good results from those tours. We see a lot of people coming out to our shows. Basically, everywhere we play we never have to be worried if somebody's going to show up.

KNAC.COM: Now that you've got two kids have you gotten comfortable with the work/family situation, or is that something you'll always be adjusting to?

ÅKERFELDT: Well, you never get comfortable leaving home. It's always horrible. Even before I had my kids I never liked leaving home, the first week is on tour is always horrible. It takes some time to adjust. But my wife is very supportive and my oldest daughter understands what I'm doing a little bit more now. But she's saying things like "if you're going away you can't play with me dad." And that's just like a dagger in your heart.

It really hurts, but I don't really have a choice. It's either doing this or being miserable changing tires. Somewhere down the line we'll probably cut down on the touring, but I can't see myself having a regular job.

KNAC.COM: Obviously it's got to be great that good things are happening for Opeth now, it's too bad this didn't happen 10 years ago when you were young and free, so to speak?

ÅKERFELDT: Yeah. But it puts a bit more perspective on what you're actually doing. We're not out to party anymore, that's not our main motivation. We're out to support the album, the touring thing has become a little bit more of job in a way, even though we love being on stage and playing every night, that's awesome. But all the things around it, like being on the bus, it's not great anymore.

We're all kind of touristy, we like seeing the sights and everything. But generally when we come to any city there's always something for us to do - like work! Interviews or promo stuff, signings, all kinds of stuff. So it's rare that we have a real day off and when we do it's usually in a place like last night. Bedford, Pa., where there's what? Tumbleweeds?

KNAC.COM: That would that explain the sleeve of Wiffle golf balls over there?

ÅKERFELDT: Exactly. Sometimes you have to make your own fun. Or there's always that [points to the six packs of beer and bottles of assorted liquor across from the golf balls.]

KNAC.COM: Turning to the new album, so far I've heard "The Lotus Eater" "Porcelain Heart" and the song you played tonight, "Heir Apparent," is that a fairly representative sample of the album as a whole?

ÅKERFELDT: It's kind of hard to say one song best represents the album. It's an album album, it doesn't have key songs, as far as I'm concerned. There's a few favorites that I have, but I can only speak for myself. I think you need to get the through the whole thing, because it is meant to be taken as a whole.

KNAC.COM: Your MySpace album blurbs says Watershed "takes Opeth where it's never gone before." How so?

ÅKERFELDT: It's different, I guess. The original idea for the album was to make a metal version of Scott Walker's The Drift, which is the most influential album I've heard in the last 10 years. But I couldn't really do it, it's like a pipe dream in a way. I usually come up with the best stuff when I don't really think about it too much, or I don't push myself in certain directions. And we've got two new members in the band. Somehow I felt like I had more freedom writing this time around and we ended up having stuff in there that we probably wouldn't have used before. Like there's a funk kind of riff in 'The Lotus Eater.' It's a bit humorous in a way. It's serious, but if I were not in the band and was listening to the album, I would think "Well, they seem to be enjoying themselves doing this." Where we'd always been miserable in the past.

KNAC.COM: For those who have no idea who Scott Walker is or what The Drift is, who is he and what is it?

ÅKERFELDT: Well, he's a crooner, basically. He got famous in the '60s with the Walker Brothers, they had a massive hit with "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" and he became a solo artist and did a string of records and all of them are great. And then he disappeared for a while. He resurfaced in the '80s and he put out an album called Climate of Hunter on Virgin Records and it's really difficult to listen to. And then he disappeared for another 10 years and then put out an album called Tilt, which was just very dark crooner type music with all kinds of weird orchestrations.

And he disappeared again and then came back again and put out The Drift, which basically doesn't sound like anything I'd ever heard. It's the most disturbing piece of music I've ever heard, and I listen to death metal and some people are like "that's so dark and evil" and it's nothing in comparison. This basically scares you.

KNAC.COM: How were you thinking of re-interpreting that in a metal way?

ÅKERFELDT: Just disharmonic chords with weird vocals. But maybe that would work for one song. I also like to write melodies - and what do you do with them?After nine albums I know I can't stick with one idea, it's impossible, even if I say I'm going to do a whatever, I've never been able to stick to it. So I soon abandoned those plans of doing a metal record of The Drift and I ended up writing without thinking.

KNAC.COM: When you were describing Opeth as a "death metal band" onstage before you seemed almost apologetic. Was that because of the crowd, which was mostly prog-metal fans, or do you genuinely feel that way?

ÅKERFELDT: I guess it's kind of disarming the whole thing. People have this idea of death metal musicians being childish kids with a rough upbringing who aren't really interested in music, they are just lashing out. And they don't see it as a respected art form or music form as jazz or classical, so it's a bit tongue in cheek. But I still love it. It's a great way to express aggression, there's no other music that can express aggression like metal music.

But it's good to have a diverse crowd, that's what we like to have. And maybe some people who came to the show tonight thinking death metal was shit changed their minds a little bit after seeing us. And if not, that's OK. We are what we are.

KNAC.COM: I spoke last week with Ihsahn from Emperor and we talked about your collaboration on his solo album. What did you make of the experience?

ÅKERFELDT: I did it while we were recording in our album, just one night. He sent me a digital copy of the music for the song and the lyrics and said "knock yourself out, do whatever you want to do." I was really tired, it was the middle of the night when I did it, but it came out fine and most importantly he was very happy with it.

I love him, he's a good friend of mine, and we're very much in the same situation. He's got two kids now and a wife and he's fronting a metal band, or at least he used to be. And we're basically the same age, so we've got a lot in common. And we've been around for a long time, we've kind of got past the kind of rebellious thing of being in a metal band, now we're just musicians. At least that's the way I see it.

KNAC.COM: I've got a copy of Lords of Chaos in my backpack that I'd lent to a friend, and in there he's a spokesman of sorts for the old "satanic black metal" underground, even though he had nothing to do with the "chaos" that went on back in the day.

ÅKERFELDT: Yeah, now he listens to classical music. When we meet we talk about Priest or whatever and have a beer. That's in the past, and as much as people still sort of hold onto that ideal, he's moved on. For some reason, people want to lump us in with that was well, which I can't really understand. We were never really involved, we came from Sweden and we don't really have many black metal bands, although there are some [notably Marduk, whose guitarist Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson also was a member of Norway's horrific Abruptum back in the day and was accepted into the scene to the point that he allegedly was given fragments of Mayhem singer Dead's skull after his spectacular shotgun suicide in 1991]. In fact, some Swedish bands got threats from the Norwegians, but it was all a gimmick, I think; it's just some people took it to extremes.

We were accepted by those guys, but that was because we were kind of obscure, a fairly unique sounding bands that had high-pitched screams at the time, so they thought we were a black metal band. But at the time, I looked like a hippie, but we didn't have any pictures. So the guys from Mayhem, some of the others, they all liked us, but if they would have seen the way we looked they probably would have wanted to kill us too.

KNAC.COM: What is your status with Bloodbath?

ÅKERFELDT: I'm still going to sing with them. We're doing an album now, they've put down the basic tracks and I have to write lyrics on this tour. But I'll do the vocals when I come back home this summer. And we're doing two shows, one in Germany and one in Finland. I kind of regret saying yes to that because it's going to be a fucking hassle because we have to rehearse first and I'll be playing all over the place with Opeth. But Jonas [Renkse, Bloodbath ringleader who is also the frontman of Katatonia ] is my best friend, and it's fun. I don't see it as a band, I see it as a fun thing.

KNAC.COM: Is that how you came to know Axe?

ÅKERFELDT: No. They did an album I didn't play on [Resurrection Through Carnage, which Hypocrisy's Peter Tagtgren sang on] which was when Martin joined the band. I actually met him at a festival, Sweden Rock, and he was introduced to me by the guitar player in The Haunted [Patrik Jensen], who has a band with him, Witchery. But what he's done with Bloodbath and Witchery doesn't really say much about how versatile a drummer he is.

When I met him we were a bit drunk, and I asked him "What do you listen to, what drummers do you like?" And he didn't mention any metal drummers, it was Billy Cobham and Gene Krupa, Ian Paice. So I knew that he could swing. He's like a machine. Like tonight, after the show, he was lifting weights. He's like a little psychopath, in a way, but he can play and play. For the drum takes in the studio for this album he played nonstop for 10 hours straight in the studio. And when he couldn't get this part down, he just wouldn't let go.

KNAC.COM: Did you know Fredrik before he came onboard?

ÅKERFELDT: Yeah. I won't have people in the band I don't know a little. We met a few years ago when I saw him in a pub in Stockholm with a band playing covers, Priest and King Diamond. And I knew who he was, I knew about his past with Talisman and stuff, and we hung out at a festival after that and we talked about him giving me guitar lessons.

The whole thing with Peter, I could basically see that he wasn't going to stick around with us. So I was secretly auditioning Fredrik at this stage, without mentioning it to anyone, somehow without knowing it myself. We started jamming at my house and I showed him a few new riffs to see if he could play them, and when Peter gave me the call and left, I was already prepared.

KNAC.COM: Fredrik's come into a couple pretty tough situations, replaced Mike Amott's brother in Arch Enemy and essentially replacing your musical brother in Opeth.

ÅKERFELDT: He's a dedicated musician. He dropped out of school because he just wanted to play guitar, he went to L.A. and tried to get the whole Yngwie Malmsteen thing happening and he just devoted his life early on to playing guitar. So it's never been a problem replacing Chris Amott or replacing Peter. He's a professional and he's very good at what he does.

The only hangups people can have is just the physical make up of the band - it's not Peter and it's not Lopez in the band anymore, people our fans were familiar with seeing. The music is intact and he's a better guitar player than Peter was and he's a better writer to the extent that he writes alone. Peter never wrote alone. We wrote together for the first couple albums and it was basically us feeding off of each other playing and when I started writing alone, he stopped writing.

So he's a better musician for this band, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I wouldn't have hired people in the band and then sat around thinking it was better before. Every lineup change we've made has made us a better band, as far as I'm concerned.

KNAC.COM: Before you mentioned about the freedom you felt writing with the two new band members. They must have brought a different flavor to it in interpreting that music in the studio?

ÅKERFELDT: Axe was a bit shy in the studio, he kind of looked to me for advice. And I was always like "do whatever you want." But we worked closely on the drums. All the other guys recorded their parts on their own, without me being there, which was a first. I was always there before watching them playing so I knew exactly what notes they were playing on the album. It was a great feeling for me, a great relief that they don't really need me when they are playing their own parts. That's always been the case, but I've been such a control freak.

This way everyone had a little bit more space to breathe and kind experiment with their own parts. So all I did was approve the takes that everyone did at the end of the day and it sounds good and that's the only thing that matters. And Fredrik, I told him, "you can take care of these parts and do these solos, you're the lead guitar player now." So it was great, it was a great experience recording this album. Good for me, because I could go back home every night.

KNAC.COM: Was that part of the reason for stepping back?

ÅKERFELDT: Yeah, they don't need it, I don't need it and the album won't suffer. I got to spend a lot more time with my family that I ordinarily would not have, so it was good all the way around. And we were very well prepared, which we hadn't been in the past. We would basically go straight into the studio without any rehearsals and to some extent without songs. This time we had everything rehearsed for five weeks, everybody had the songs, I had all the songs written, demoed and sequenced in the right order. So it was like calculated. Obviously while you're in the studio there is brainstorming and being creative on the spot as well, which is kind of the fun part of recording an album.

KNAC.COM: There had been talk of you doing some sort of acoustic one-off thing with Dream Theater during this tour that didn't end up happening, but since you and Portnoy seem to have established a connection, do you see doing something together down the road.

ÅKERFELDT: He's much more intense than I am, he's much more of a workaholic and I think he can deliver creative input on the spot wherever he is, on tour or wherever, whereas I am just a zombie on tour. I have to have nothing on my schedule if I'm going to be creative. But I think something will probably happen. We have talked about it, and it basically started out being me and Steve Wilson doing some music together, which we've talked about for, what? 10 years, almost. And Portnoy heard about it and said "you need a drummer, right?" And it was like, "yeah, I guess so."

Me and Portnoy never talked about writing together. We just said that this project, the three of us, should happen. And it all comes down to me and Steve writing songs. In a way, I could just be a rhythm player without any input because Steve is also working all the time. Both of those guys seem to have a constant calling to write, but I don't. I write when I have to (laughs). I like it that way. When I have to sit down and write an album, it's easy. But I can't push myself to write on tour.

KNAC.COM: Now that you're seen as a "respected musician" are there any other collaborations or projects in the works?

ÅKERFELDT: (Laughs) I don't really need collaborations, but I get asked constantly to be part of this project or that. I get asked by people and I'm like "what the fuck, how do you know about us? And why do you like it?" We've been in the business for such a long time that you end up meeting some people you wouldn't normally meet. I got an e-mail from Rick Rubin the other day, just to say hello. I'm hoping it wasn't like a scam, these days you never know (laughs). But it's weird, more people seem to know us than I ever would have imagined. And I guess there are worse problems to have.

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