Interview With Mikael Akerfeldt Of Opeth In Seattle At The Progressive Nation Tour
Band Photo: Opeth (?)
Swedish melodic death metal band Opeth just finished playing with Arch Enemy in the UK on the Metal Defenders of the Faith Tour and are currently touring the US alongside Dream Theater for the Progressive Nation Tour. Opeth has recently gone through several major line-up changes, switching out their drummer, adding on a full time keyboard player, and losing sixteen year member Peter Lindgren. Their upcoming album "Watershed" will be released in the US in early June. I sat down with front man Mikael Akerfeldt in their swanky tour bus on the Seattle stop of the Progressive Nation Tour and we talked about how he started in music and what’s currently going on with Opeth.
xFiruath: When you do these kinds of interviews do you usually get more annoying press types who have never heard your music or do you usually get hardcore death metal fans?
Mikael: Usually we get people who know a little bit about us, and metal in general but it certainly happens that you meet journalists who don’t have a fucking clue.
xFiruath: How did you get started playing guitar and what made you want to be a musician?
Mikael: Well, I grew up in, you know I was born in 1974 so I grew up pretty much in the eighties, you know with the metal bands of the eighties and I was big metal fan from early on. It was huge in Sweden. You were either into heavy metal or synth, like you know New Romantics that kind of thing, Ultravox, Thompson Twins, and that kind of shit. All of my friends were into metal and I just developed a love for guitars early on, and I was a fan of the guitar players. In the bands I listened to like the Scorpions and (Iron) Maiden and (Judas) Priest, the guitar players of all those bands were my heroes, as opposed to the front man. So I guess I picked up an acoustic guitar, I got it from my grandmother when I was very young. So I started playing a little bit, and you know…
xFiruath: Just went from there?
Mikael: Yeah, pretty much went from there. I got my first electric guitar, I bought for like forty bucks.
xFiruath: I understand you worked in a guitar shop for a long time?
Mikael: Yeah I did, but that was way later on. I got my first electric guitar when I was twelve, maybe a Les Paul copy, and that’s when I started playing for real. Then I just basically formed my band in the late eighties.
xFiruath: You made a personal dream of mine come true when I heard you would be doing vocals on the new Ihsahn solo album. How did you meet Ihsahn and how did you guys get started doing music together?
Mikael: Well the first time I met him was in ’96 or ’97. I was in England doing something for the record label Candlelight, they (Emperor) were on the same label so they were touring for their second album "Anthems (to the Welkin at Dusk)" and I went to see the gig and I met the guys and hung out with them. They were nice guys. It was in the middle of the black metal boom and I didn’t know what to expect because I was just a regular dude, and they were pretty much kind of more involved with the, you know…
xFiruath: Church burnings and all that…
Mikael: Yeah, but they were just like me pretty much. We’ve kind of had sporadic contact since. I met him at Wacken a couple of years back and then he did his first solo album and he said that we should do something together. Then when he said he’s going to do another one he said maybe you could sing a little bit. He sent me a song and the lyrics and told me to just do whatever I wanted and…
xFiruath: See where it goes?
Mikael: Yeah, I just did it in like one night when we were in the studio on the last album.
xFiruath: Katatonia is working on a new album, any chance you are going to be involved with that?
Mikael: No, no those days are over. You know Jonas (Renske, lead singer of Katatonia) is my best friend but they don’t really need me anymore. The only reason I worked with them in the first place is that I was a session guitar player for them when they did their first album. We did a few gigs, and you know we hung out a lot. Obviously I was also singing on a couple of releases and then they asked me to help out with the vocals for a couple of albums, but you know, they don’t really need me anymore.
xFiruath: So that’s all passed.
xFiruath: So you guys just finished the Metal Defenders of the Faith tour over in Europe. Was it awkward having Frederik (Akesson, Opeth’s newly acquired guitar player) there with his old band Arch Enemy also playing or was it all cool with them?
Mikael: No, it wasn’t really all cool, but it was like in the beginning a little bit I guess, it wasn’t exactly – his dismissal wasn’t like on…
xFiruath: Not on the best of terms?
Mikael: No, it wasn’t on good terms, it was a bit ugly because he heard that Chris (Amott, former and current guitar player for Arch Enemy) was coming back on an interview on the radio while they were in South America so it was kind of ugly and I guess he was a bit upset, you know, but he went on to better things. For him, he liked playing in Arch Enemy but what he told me is that “I liked being in Arch Enemy but Opeth is a band I buy the records for.” He was a big fan of the band. The first gigs were slightly cold in the beginning, but you know I don’t have a problem with those guys. Mike Amott came in and he was hanging out with us a lot on this tour actually and with Frederik so it was cool.
xFiruath: You guys did a video for the new song "The Porcelain Heart". I understand that you weren’t entirely happy with the last video for "The Grand Conjuration" or maybe you guys weren’t so involved with it? It seemed like fan reaction was a lot more positive to this one, did you like this one better?
Mikael: Yeah, I don’t really have a problem with the first one it just looks like nothing you know, you just show up and that’s it. This new one is better, it suits the music better and the whole imagery of the band better I think. Obviously Lasse (Hoile, Danish director), who did this one, he knows a little bit more of our background and he been with us when we’d been on tour with Porcupine Tree so we got to know him a little. Yeah, I like this one, it fits our image, whatever that is.
xFiruath: You guys are keeping a pretty tight schedule doing the Progressive Nation tour and then doing headlining tours of the “off” days, so how’s it going so far, is it pretty crazy?
Mikael: Nah, it’s calm, it’s a calm start for us. We’ve just done three gigs, two Californian dates and one yesterday in Portland we did on our own with Between the Buried and Me and Three so it’s cool, calm, relaxed. Not all the pressure is on us so it’s kind of nice, you know, when you’re not doing headlining tours. The Dream Theater guys are real cool…
xFiruath: It seems like Opeth is a good fit for Dream Theater and Between the Buried and Me.
Mikael: Yeah I guess, you know, Mike Portnoy’s (Dream Theater drummer) been asking me a couple of times if we could tour with them but it’s never been possible for some reason, we’ve just been doing other stuff or whatever. It’s nice to finally happen. I wasn’t familiar with the other two bands. They are really nice guys and they seem like good bands but I haven’t really check them out yet but I’m gonna.
xFiruath: You did the producing on your new album "Watershed" but before you usually had someone else doing that, so how was that?
Mikael: No, we’ve actually always done the producing on our own, Steve (Wilson) has always been involved but he’s always come in when we start with the spicing up of the guitar leads or the vocals, especially the clean vocals. So he’s never been involved with an entire production, it’s always been a band produced effort, and I guess I’ve always kind of been the main producer of it since I write the stuff…
xFiruath: So it’s kind of old hat for you?
Mikael: Yeah, you know, it’s just a matter of trying to top whatever demos you’ve done, trying to reach that idea that you had about each song. It’s never really presented a problem. I don’t think we’re one of those bands that really heavily rely on producers. The whole thing with Steven to begin with was a little bit of an experiment but we really enjoy working with him. He’s also musically, you know I like his music, I like his idea on music, and I couldn’t work with a producer if I didn’t like his music or what his preferences are if you know what I mean. Steven and I, even though we come from completely different backgrounds, we have kind of similar ideas on what good music is.
xFiruath: I’ve noticed there are a lot of differences in the new songs from previous albums like doing the clean singing over the blast beats, what brought you to do that?
Mikael: Well I had the riff and the clean singing first. I tried out a few different drum beats for the demos, I have the Easy Drummer thing for Pro Tools, so I thought why not you know…
xFiruath: Just give it a shot?
Mikael: Yeah it sounded cool…
xFiruath: It sounded awesome.
Mikael: It doesn’t sound ridiculous, it doesn’t sound like outrageous to me. It sounds pretty, sure, like…
xFiruath: It fits.
Mikael: Yeah I think on paper it might be more kind of like “wow” than it actually sounds, I think it sounds normal.
xFiruath: Are you going to be playing any of the new "Watershed" songs on this tour?
Mikael: We’re doing one, it’s just you know the albums not out yet, even though it’s leaked and everything, we’re saving up, we’re playing one song to you know…
xFiruath: Kind of give a taste.
Mikael: Yeah I guess and once the albums out I think we’ll concentrate more on promoting that record live and play like three songs or something.
xFiruath: Will you be doing a headlining tour to promote the new album later?
Mikael: Oh sure, we’ll do plenty. This is a good setup for the album, doing Defenders of the Faith and this tour prior to the release of the record creates a buzz around the band and the record I guess, so once the albums out were probably going to do a bunch of headlining tours. I think at least two or three in the States and one or two in Europe, you know, keeping busy.
xFiruath: Of all the songs you play, what is your favorite to play live?
Mikael: The new one, and "Wreath" from the "Deliverance" record. We never played it prior to the UK gigs ever, we didn’t even rehearse it, so I didn’t really have an opinion about the song, but it’s a really cool song, I really like it, especially live, it’s brutal. We picked it out, we basically have a custom done set for this tour because with Dream Theater you can’t really compete with the kind of tricky passages when it comes to those guys so we’re just going for the Neanderthal, kind of brutal thing…
xFiruath: Get the blood pumping?
Mikael: Yeah so that’s basically it, we are playing one slower song but overall we’re concentrating on heavy stuff.
xFiruath: With Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead releasing albums online without a record label and Metallica talking about doing the same thing, do you see Opeth or death metal in general going this route?
Mikael: Well, not online only, we’ll probably do an iTunes release or whatever, but you know I’m old school and I buy records, if I want to buy the new Metallica album I’d be fucking devastated if I could just download it. So I like the physical copies…
xFiruath: You’re a big fan of vinyl I hear.
Mikael: I love vinyl but I buy new music on CD unless I can buy the vinyl as well, so I can’t feel at home with that whole downloading thing…
xFiruath: Got to have it in your hand?
Mikael: Yeah, I don’t understand the people who want it on their computer. But we’re doing as many formats as we can, you know, we have like three or four formats coming out. There’s regular version, special edition CD, double, vinyl, I guess iTunes and that sort of stuff. But it’s the whole thing about being in a band with a record label, you want a fucking album in your hands when it’s done. If somebody from the record label called and said “Ok, your albums been released just login to this or that” I’d be like what?
xFiruath: Yeah, where’s the insert, where’s the case?
Mikael: Yeah, I hate it. I understand that’s the way it goes these days. If one day it comes to we aren’t having a physical product I’ll fucking leave the business. The whole kind of thing about having a record is the physical copy. If not for the fans, if they just make five copies for us in the band that’s enough.
xFiruath: Yeah the record store is kind of an iconic image in metal, you go down to the record store and get a new CD.
Mikael: Yeah, that’s kind of in the past now. I think it’s horrible, it sucks. But people are different you know, people have different opinions on what type of formats they want their music in. Some people are happy with their iPods, you know I love the iPod but I’ve gotta have the physical thing in alphabetical order back home, but that’s just me I guess.
xFiruath: When you aren’t playing music what do you listen to and what kind of shows do you like to go to?
Mikael: Well I listen to all sorts of music, you know I collect vinyl records. (The tour manager Beau has been poking his head in for the last few questions signaling that the interview needs to come to an end. He opens the door now and knocks on it) It’s fine Beau. I collect vinyl records and I just listen to a lot of whatever I’m buying on Ebay or at a record store or whatever, all sorts of things really. I don’t really listen to contemporary metal to be honest, unless something is recommended to me. I don’t think the metal scene today is really for me. There are a couple of good bands, a couple of really interesting ones but I tend to listen to old stuff. As for shows I go to, you know, if Maiden is coming to town or Judas Priest or Tool, I’ve got to see Tool or Porcupine Tree. I like to go to shows, I go to all sorts of things (chuckles), if I’m on the guest list.
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