A Lasting Heritage: An Interview with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt
Deciding to devote your life to making music or another artistic endeavor has probably always been a difficult decision that entailed making some personal sacrifices. These days the decision to pursue music feels particularly hard, because while technology makes it so we can easily write, record and put music out on the internet, there are seemingly less ways to earn money through songwriting. While I am a firm believer that we should always follow our passions because it makes us live our most rich and vital life, believing this doesn’t make life any easier during the obstacles along the way.
Lately I have been wrestling with my decision to do my music and art with my life, because around me I’ve seen most of my friends get married and live more secure existences than I have been able to create for myself. I know I made the right choice because I literally cannot not make music and art. Yet, money concerns and issues of personal security are obviously important considerations in life. During my worst days over the years I have wondered if it’s all worth it, but just this last week I was reminded that it really is.
On Thursday April 26, I interviewed Mikael Åkerfeldt from the Swedish progressive metal band Opeth. Opeth was performing that night at the Gibson Ampitheatre at Universal CityWalk, with Swedish metal band Ghost and American heavy metal band Mastodon opening. Not only was it my first big interview as a music journalist, which was nerve-wracking enough, but it ended up being with one of my all-time favorite songwriters.
Åkerfeldt was generous, talkative, humble, funny, and kind. He signed albums for me and my photographer and didn’t even rush to his sound check when he was called, but lingered and kept speaking with us. During the last interaction I had with him, before he went to his sound check, he spoke about how he gets nervous about playing Los Angeles because for some reason they always have technical difficulties in the city. It was refreshing to hear a seasoned musician like Åkerfeldt share about his nerves before a show- something all performers deal with at one point or another, but not all like to admit.
Additionally, I came away grateful to hear that Åkerfeldt has struggled with the same issues I have been worrying about lately with my own music. Åkerfeldt described knowing he wanted to be a musician ever since he was a boy. When he first got a record deal at 18 he thought that was the end to his money problems, but it turned out to be just “the opposite.” Over the years he saw many musicians around him quit music to pursue other things or get “real jobs.” He had to ignore people around him calling his music a “hobby.” Despite all the obstacles, he kept doing music because he just couldn’t see himself doing anything else. He even called his years of most struggle, in retrospect, the happiest times of his life.
Opeth, which incorporates death metal, progressive rock, and folk music into their sound, is now world-famous, having put out 10 studio albums and 4 live albums over the course of 22 years. Through the band’s first 12 years, they released 5 albums without much financial success. During those years of struggle, Opeth wrote and recorded some of their best loved albums including Blackwater Park and Still Life. I personally connected to these two aforementioned albums because they musically expressed the angst, struggle, pain and longing I could deeply relate to and struggled to express for myself. I can personally attest that the music they made during that time meant a huge deal and helped me through some difficult times.
Åkerfeldt is perhaps best known for his unique vocal style in which he shifts between guttural death metal vocals and soulful, powerful and, at times, vulnerable clean vocals. It was particularly interesting to me that, during our interview, Åkerfeldt said that he had always wanted to be a guitarist and not necessarily a singer. In my opinion, his vocals are some of the most unique, beautiful, and emotive in rock music today.
Though Opeth always uniquely fused folk and progressive elements with death metal, their newest album Heritage is their greatest departure from the traditional death metal sound into the realms of 1970s-influenced progressive rock, folk, and jazz-fusion with eastern-influences. Åkerfeldt aptly described its sound as “rootsy.” This album has seemed to polarize Opeth fans. I think it’s their strongest record, but I am not personally attached to Opeth remaining a death metal band, as some fans might be. Opeth has always skillfully crafted their albums to be epic journeys through a gambit of human emotions and experience like pain, beauty, loss, love, grief, regret, and rage. With Heritage, Opeth has created their most diverse, mysterious and multi-dimensional emotional soundscape. Seeing the band perform songs from this album live was epic, to say the least.
Opeth’s April 26th Gibson Ampitheatre Show
The evening’s show was a powerful one from start to finish. Swedish metal band Ghost opened with a well-crafted set of their unique, catchy Satanic pop metal. Ghost have kept their identities secret by all wearing identical black-hooded monk robes, with the lead singer in skull makeup and an evil cardinal’s costume. (Åkerfeldt joked with me in his interview that he has been often asked if he is secretly a member of Ghost. On stage during Opeth’s set, he called Ghost “his other band.”) Whoever Ghost are, they play like seasoned pros, with immaculate sound balance and a powerful stage presence. Their melodic 25-minute set, which consisted of songs off of their album Opus Eponymous, was too short in my opinion. Mastodon followed with a crowd-pleasing hour-long set and Opeth concluded the show.
Opeth’s set began with the first three songs from Heritage: “The Devil’s Orchard,” “I Feel the Dark,” and “Slither.” Åkerfeldt’s vocals were at their warmest and bluesy-est in songs like “I Feel the Dark.” The sound design of the set was extremely well-balanced between all the instruments- the two guitars, bass, keyboards and drums. My favorite moment in the set was seeing the vast dynamic changes of “Folklore” performed live, which showcased the skill of each band member, in particular the awesome Martín Méndez on bass. In the middle of the show, the band performed two down-tempo songs: “Windowpane” from Damnation and “Burden” from Watershed. During “Burden,” guitarists Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson performed a gorgeously harmonized guitar solo together. Opeth concluded their show with a crowd-pleasing set of up-tempo songs: “The Lines in My Hand” from Heritage, “Demon of the Fall” from My Arms, Your Hearse, and “Grand Conjuration” from Ghost Reveries. Though the appreciative audience visibly enjoyed all the material, a group of younger fans happily formed a mosh pit when Opeth played their early work.
At the end of the day, I came away inspired by the music and extremely grateful for Åkerfeldt’s willingness to share his humanity with me during our interview. I remember hearing the band Arcade Fire saying something along the lines of their goal was to make their audiences remember the first time they heard music and how inspiring it was. I felt that way after this day, inspired by both Opeth’s music and Åkerfeldt’s determination to keep making music, despite any struggles he encountered along the way. I can’t speak for Åkerfeldt, but I can speak for myself; this day reminded me that the struggle to make music is worth it in the end.
To view some of the interview click here.
You’ve toured to countries you have never been to before for this tour. How has that gone?
We didn’t know what to expect. When you come to places you’ve never been before you don’t know if there’s going to be people coming out, but it was nice. We played in China… just to be there… it was great. Seeing as there are so many people there, we only had 4 or 500 people at the show. You know metal is still… not many bands come to play there. All of those shows are good memories and all of them went well. We did play the Maldives which is like a tropical paradise. We had a few days off on an island. The show was good.. to play in front of Muslim girls in burkas rocking out. There was also a bit of turmoil because the president got overthrown. We had to cancel the show for the first day we were supposed to play and we played the next day. Just before this run we did South America which is always a lot of fun.
How did the new album Heritage evolve? It’s a very different sound for Opeth.
It is different. It is a different sound. There’s a lot of things we did in this record in a slightly different way than we have done before. I personally got really tired of the sound of contemporary metal records. I wanted to do something like a rootsy-sounding record. There’s no more screams- no more guttural-type vocals. It’s more kind of connecting to the music I listen to. I had not been a death metal fan for many years. I more or less stopped listening to that type of music, even when we did the first record. At that time we were still finding out feet in that type of genre. But since then I have just gravitated to something else.
What are you currently listening to?
Well, everything. I’m a record collector. I buy vinyl and through my collecting I come across lots of obscure bands and artists. The whole progressive rock music of the early 70s and psychedelic music of the late 60s is my favorite. Through that type of music you kind of stumble across jazz, fusion and singer songwriter kind of stuff. So I listen to everything and I still listen to a lot of metal music.. mostly the stuff I grew up with like the 70s and 80s bands… some death metal like Morbid Angel… like those classic bands you enjoy when you’ve had a few beers. I listen to everything.
You had drummer Alex Acuña from Weather Report play on Heritage. How did that happen?
It was just luck. We were in the legendary studio in Stockholm… I mean the studio… where Abba did their records. It was just a beautiful place and it was very inspirational to be there. I had a few percussion parts that I had written for this record and it was our drummer who was supposed to play them. We had a drum tech who helped us set up and tune the drums and he said his friend Alex Acuña was in town and he could ask him if he wants to come and play. And we were like “yeah!”. He just came over… this tiny Peruvian guy. He did three takes and pissed off. It was amazing.
I’m a fan but Martín Méndez, our bass player, is a fan. I remember he was recording some bass as Alex came into the studio and Alex was standing behind the studio window just looking at him and when Martín saw him, he just froze. It was great. It really worked with the song “Famine,” and also with the whole concept of this record.
Tell me about your new album Storm Corrosion (which comes out on May 7).
That is a new project I have together with Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree. We’ve been friends for a long time and he worked together with us on a couple of records in the past and he also did the mixing for this last album together with me. Ever since we first met we’ve been talking about writing some music together sometime and it never really materialized until now… because of time I guess. It’s not a rock record. It’s pretty laid-back mostly.
We both like the extremes of music. We like the really soft, beautiful stuff and we also like the ugly, disturbing type of sounds. I guess this is exactly that. There’s a lot of beauty on that record and a lot of really, really ugly things going on. So it’s dynamic without being dynamic in a rock sense. There’s very little drums and drums really help with dynamics. I don’t really know what to compare it to. I like to think it’s a fairly new sound.
I’m surprised it took you both so many years to officially write an album together. (Since first working together in 2001 for Opeth’s album Blackwater Park.)
We were so busy with our respective bands. He’s now currently touring for his solo thing and obviously has Porcupine Tree and I’m touring all the time. So what happened was I went down to visit him and hang out because we’re buddies and see his new house because he bought a new house. We just kind of hung out there for a few days and we gravitated towards the studio after we’d been drinking some wine and we ended up writing the first song on the record that night. The next day we wrote another song and as I was going back home we said I guess we have something here. Over the period of a year or a year and half I went over to visit him five more times. So, we wrote and recorded the demo version of the record in 6 days, you could say. Then we just did some overdubs and exchanged the synthetic strings with a real orchestra playing.
It’s been a long time coming. It was hyped up in the press. Mike Portnoy from Dream Theatre was going to be involved playing drums in the beginning. I believe he said something in some interview that this might happen and it just blew up. All of a sudden we were getting all these questions like when are you going to do this. And at the time we didn’t really have any plans. We waited for that hype to die out.
So Mike Portnoy was not involved?
No, there were so little drums… It would feel a bit strange to ask Mike Portnoy to come in and play the ride cymbal. I am not sure if he would have liked to be a part of this project, to be honest. But me and Mike are still talking about doing something in the future. I’d like to do something because we’re friends too.
Do you remember a moment when you were a kid that first inspired you to be a musician?
Yes… well, metal music was so popular in Sweden. All my friends that I grew up with were into (Iron) Maiden and Scorpions and (Judas) Priest and Kiss and stuff like that at a very early age. I bought my first record when I was six years old, which was an Iron Maiden record. As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a guitar player, not necessarily a singer.
I remember there was a big show on TV in the middle of the night. All the kids could stay up because everybody had to see this show. It was from Dortmund in Germany- a big festival with Ozzy, Quiet Riot, Scorpions, Judas Priest, and Krokus. Everybody watched the show. It was 1983 so I was like 9. I had never seen these people move. I had never seen the guys from Scorpions walk, let alone play guitar. So obviously seeing those guys I was like “this is the coolest thing I have ever seen.” My fan boy-ism just escalated. I got my first guitar from my grandmother, which was an acoustic guitar. I wanted an electric guitar but it was an acoustic guitar. That was what set me off I guess- the metal scene, metal music.
But when I was very young, I was more like I am now, I listened to everything. But then as I got into the metal scene, especially when I started playing, it was just metal and nothing else. But now I am back how I was when I was a boy in a way.
Is there anything that you wish you could have known from the beginning as a young musician? Any wisdom you’d like to share with other musicians?
No not really. I like to find things out as I go along. When we got our first record deal when I was 18 or 19 and I figured… let’s go buy a new car and we’re going to travel the world and this is it, I don’t have to worry about anything anymore. Which was obviously not the case, it was the opposite. The choice to become a musician was a very poor choice when it came to becoming independent. Ever since I started with Opeth in 1990, up until 2002, I was piss poor. I just had this dream and people telling me when are you going to grow up and family members calling it a hobby. Some people say it’s because of my star sign because I am an Aries… so people tell me not to do things and I am just going to do the opposite of what people tell me. I like to learn as I go along.
It’s been slow and gradual whatever success we’ve had… I didn’t quit. We had so many band members passing through the bands and I had friends who were playing they just couldn’t handle it. I always had such this immense love for music that I couldn’t see myself doing something else. Those poor years when I look back on it were the happiest years.
I have never been obsessed with money but it became a problem when you can’t buy food or you don’t have anywhere to live and you don’t have a phone and I don’t have anything, anything really. It was a little bit of a problem but I don’t regret it. I think since we’ve been worked so hard for nothing in a way, in the early days. we kept our feet on the ground. We’re certainly not an overnight success type of band and we never kind of bent over for something or someone. We just did it our way and that’s why we’re here I guess.
I think that’s why you’re respected as much as you are.
There’s a certain amount of respect for this band, I guess. As you get more successful that kind of respect wanes a little bit from some people because they just think you’re a fucking rockstar. But in many ways I’m still the same. I am still the same guy as I was when I was a kid. I never had to grow up as much as some of my friends who got the real jobs.
Photography by Eric Stoner
Videography by Kale Stiles
Special Thanks to OC Art Blog’s Chris Hoff for encouraging me to do this interview.