When it comes to progressive rock and metal, in this century few bands are held in such high regard as Swedish maestros Opeth. Their chief orchestrator and frontman, Mikael Akerfeldt, is well known not only for his masterful songwriting abilities but also his dry wit and sense of humour. It was Rock Sins’ privilege to catch up with Mikael recently to discuss at length Opeth’s new album Sorceress, their forthcoming special Wembley Arena show, and many other things, so we will hand over to Mikael to begin…
What do you feel distinguishes Sorceress above previous Opeth works?
Well I think that the songs as far as I’m concerned are more diverse within themselves. I think there’s a great diversity to this record that is different. We’ve always been a band with great diversity if I may say so myself but I think that it’s more distinguished on this record from song to song. I made a conscious effort to make each song quite, or very very different, to the one before. I spent a lot of time and effort making each song very different from the one before whereas before I worked on dynamics within the songs. Not saying that they all sound the same because I don’t think they did but now I worked a little bit more with trying to distinguish each song so that it becomes, er, it should be a little bit of a handful To find one song that represents the album. I would hope that no one finds one song that actually represents the album better than any other song.
You say its diffifcult to pick one song that represents the album, so what was the reason behind choosing ‘Sorceress’ as the first single?
When that song was finished I kind of knew that that would be a “hot stitch” to the record label and to everybody involved in the organisation for a so-called ‘single.’ I don’t believe in singles myself, I don’t like singles, if it had been my choice there would be no singles and no advance copies or anything like that but obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about. When I wrote the song I figured right away that this would probably be a hot contender for a single because it’s quite simple, it’s quite heavy, its easy to understand and first and foremost it’s a good song I like to think. But I knew that it would be one of the songs that people would latch onto and push forwards as a first case from the record, I just knew it.
There’s always been a lot of diversity within Opeth’s music but this new single pushes your sound in even more directions, has keeping a unified sound that is recognisably ‘Opeth’ ever a problem when bringing in these more disparate elements?
Well, it’s not so interesting in a way. Okay, it’s cool to keep Opeth’s sound, but it’s not so interesting in another aspect because I am also interested in keeping an Opeth sound for the future if you know what I mean. I don’t necessarily want to linger on the past, or whatever sound we had in the past. I’m a bit more interested in creating a sound that is Opeth today, or maybe for the future, so I don’t spend too much time trying to go through what Opeth actually is. I think as far as I’m concerned Opeth is what we come up with. No matter how weird it is, or how strange it is in comparison to what we’ve done before. I think the essence of what Opeth is has changed so I try to linger a bit more on making an Opeth sound today
What’s the biggest influence in ‘discovering’ or ‘choosing’ a certain sound for each record?
Its different, I mean, I still listen to many of the records that I always listened to like my childhood favourites, like the metal records, the new wave of British Heavy Metal or the 70’s scene with Sabbath and Zeppelin and those types of bands, they’re always going to be the heart of our sound as well as the German scene, the Scorpions, those types of band y’know metal, heavy metal bands from the 70’s and 80’s. But I also, pretty early on, around the time we did the first record started to get an interest in progressive rock, also a lot of that stuff from Britain. We’re Anglophiles I guess this band but from all over the world so that’s what I’ve been collecting a lot and through my collecting I’ve stumbled upon a lot of music of course and it’s very interesting to me to see what distinguishes a band that seemingly could belong in the same genre as other bands but depending on where it comes from see how that type of domestic sound, how that would sound within the different genres that I listen to. I collect progressive rock from all over the world and there’s a big difference when you talk about progressive rock from Scandinavia in comparison to the UK or Germany or Italy and that kinda stuff. So there’s a lot of styles that I have discovered thanks to my interest in progressive rock and also from my interest in that kind of music I gained an interest in jazz and singer-songwriter music and classical music to a certain extent. Y’know that helped me broaden my horizon when it comes to my musical taste and once I have a taste for something its bound to influence me in my own writing I guess. So there’s s many different types of bands and artists that I’ve been listening to over the years but I guess the foundations would be heavy metal.
Are there any instruments you’d like to record with but haven’t had the chance to, or success with yet?
I’m pretty narrow minded actually when it comes to instruments. I don’t really like modern sounds, if you know what I mean, I like some kind of damage. I like when there’s room for flaws in the instruments. I don’t want perfect, there was a point where I wanted perfect, but now I don’t really find perfect interesting. I want to use instruments that either you can hear it’s a human playing, if you know what I mean, or instruments that are old. Usually older instruments come with problems and I want to use those problems to our advantage: instruments going out of tune, that kind of stuff. That they’re breathing instruments so to speak as opposed to sterile modern synthesisers or the perfect model plug in amplifier. I’m not so interested in those kind of things, I’m interested in how the instrument changes and moves and breathes and that kinda stuff. Combined with the human being that’s playing it, it can be really interesting. While I find that the perfect, new, best-technology kind of instruments combined with all that modern editing kinda takes the soul out of recording.
Going back to your question I don’t really know if there’s an instrument I would really want to put on the record that we haven’t yet. We have flutes, strings, all sorts of keyboards. On the last record we used a electric harpsichord which we never used before and that was fun to use that. It was completely out of tune so I had to figure out how to tune it and what sort of sound, like, what was it supposed to sound like? We didn’t even know so there’s a lot of experimentation which makes it all really, really fun I think. But maybe, like, we used it once on one recording it was an organ that you would push air into the organ with your feet. Pump organ I guess they’re called. That has a very… sad sound to me and I’d like to use that, maybe in the future, if I have the chance.
What was the wider philosophy you took when making Sorceress?
Ah, not much, I think for me the only thing that matters is that if I feel something from the music then that’s good apart from if I feel that music is shit… then I wouldn’t go for it. Music, for me, has to invoke some kind of feeling and if I’m moved by music its usually music that’s a bit sad and a bit bleak sounding so that’s the only thing I think about I guess. To write, first and foremost, the music that moves me and it sounds like I have high thoughts of my own compositions in that sense in that I sit around crying as I’m writing this delicious music, that’s not the case but I want it to move me . If I’ve written something and passed it off with a shrug then maybe I should work a bit harder.
How important do you think recording somewhere with the heritage of Rockfield is to the record?
It probably had something to do with it, it’s really hard to pinpoint what the location of the studio did for this record but one thing I know that it did for a fact was that because we all stayed there together and in modern days I mean, a lot of bands are sending files to each other and everybody’s adding their own stuff on to the recordings or whatever but we lived there as a family, or as a cult. We stay there together, we eat there together, we wake up have breakfast together, we’re always together, everybody’s supporting the other guy when he’s recording or whatever all that type of stuff. So it’s like a team effort and Rockfield added to that. There’s little to no distractions, its right in the sticks, there’s nothing around. You could walk into town to grab a pint, that’s a thirty minute walk which we actually did but whilst we did that we also went in together so we did everything together, it was like a secret little sect. Just the peace and quiet helped, I mean, we’re city folk this band. We live in capitals in our respective countries so it’s really nice to get away from the sound of the subway which you’re probably going to hear in a minute, during this conversation. People calling, cell phones and the stress! So Rockfield really helped, being there we recorded the record in twelve days which is really quick. With city distractions I’m fairly sure it would take longer but I’m not sure if we got a specific Rockfield sound.
Given their somewhat extreme reaction in the past, how do you feel the fan reaction has been to Sorceress so far?
Well I wouldn’t know yet but the albums not out. There’s a couple of singles been released, but I’m an internet guy, I’m not really a social media guy so I don’t check the comments and stuff like that but I know I’m going to get stuck at some negative comments and go like “you fucker!” So I kind of try to refrain from seeing what people think. But since the album is not out it’s really difficult to know and even once the album is out I’m not sure if there could be a solid type of overall review anyways. You kinda have to collect everyone who’s got the album in one room and take some kind of survey and only that way could you get an overall view of what people think. Otherwise it’s just impossible. Generally records take some time to get into, you might hate a record today that you love tomorrow. It’s really difficult to say but the reactions so far have been good. From what I’ve seen they’ve been good.
Do you get at all conflicted between writing music for yourself and writing music that you know more traditional fans might be able to get with a bit more?
I’m not interested in writing music for anyone else than myself. Myself first and foremost and the rest of the band secondly and sometimes they may not understand what I’m after but y’know you kinda massage them a little bit and they get into it. As far as that goes once I’m happy and the rest of the other guys in the band are happy we’re gold as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write a song for the fanbase I don’t think it works like that. If you take an example like AC/DC for instance. They’re a bit of a cheap shot to go for AC/DC who’ve virtually been sounding the same their whole career so I wonder why people don’t like slick or switch or fly on the wall. Those records are amazing because they’re quite similar to Back in Black or Highway to Hell and those kinds of records so I don’t think it works like that. You can’t adjust your style of writing in order to gain popularity and stuff like that, I think the only right way to do it as far as I see it is to write for yourself – if you like it perhaps someone else will like it and that’s how we’ve been doing it since the beginning.
You’ve done quite a lot of special events playing classic albums in the past few years; do you ever get worried that this might detract attention from your more recent creative output?
I mean that’s probably the case but I separate the two. There was a time in my life where I wanted to force feed fans the new music and I wanted them to love the new music but I’ve kind of given up on that. As long as nobody interferes when we write the new music and we can do it our own way I’m happy. I separate the creative environment in this band and the live environment in this band – they’re two different things for me. As long as I can be happy and write the music that I want to, hopefully a lot of people will love it as we do, but once we go out on stage I wouldn’t want to be a complete nostalgia act and just play old songs. We always try to mix it up and play new songs with the old songs and especially if we’re on tour for a new record then we try to push that record a little more than the others. These special event shows are quite popular so we do these things every now and again because it’s a good business idea I suppose and I don’t mind doing them either. It brings people to the show to a certain extent that might not have gone otherwise and I guess that’s a bit whoring out but if it brings people to shows… I don’t mind playing those songs. I love playing those old songs too so it’s not a big concern for me. I just want people to have a good time while we’re on stage.
Most of your more special events such as the Roundhouse Tapes, the Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries shows have taken place and even been recorded in London? What is it about London that makes it so good for these kind of shows?
Well we have a long history with London when it comes to live shows. Our first overseas shows were in London, in High Wycombe in London so we have a connection with London that way. Up until now we’ve always been on record labels that are either based in England or in London or have one of their main offices based there. Our management is not from London but are based in Bradford so we usually look at London. As a kind of melting pot of the rock scene in Europe, I would say, that prize goes to London. If we book a show or record a DVD in London or something then we know its going to be a success even before its done but we might as well go to play Paris, if you know what I mean, where we have a strong fanbase and can get a lot of people into a nice venue we might as well do it there. Somehow we have done three DVD’s out of London.
Why the choice of London, Sydney and New York for the Deliverance/Damnation shows?
Same reason. Melting pots, so to speak. New York, again, we’ve been there many times we’ve played lots of venues over there and now we’ve got Radio City Music Hall which is the legendary venue that we’ve looked at for many years and been kind of wanting to get in there and now we’re going to play there. Same with Wembley in London but especially the Opera House. I love those kind of odd, quirky places. That’s like a landmark so to be able to play there is a big honour I would have to say. Those are big, important cities to us. Cities that whenever we play there are people coming to the shows so its common sense that you would adjust the tour and make those special shows in cities of that status.
Do you feel as if Opeth are ambassadors for extreme music having played several more prestigious venues and with an upcoming Wembley show?
What did you say?
Oh I thought you said bastards haha! Well I don’t know in that case, there’s been a couple of bands following in our footsteps when it comes to venues that we’ve picked. We were one of the first to play in the reopened Roundhouse and that’s now become a regular rock venue. A lot of bands play there, the same with the albert hall, we were the first to go in as a metal rock act. I’m sure Sydney Opera House is going to be the same thing. But those decisions are not made by us. They are all made by the management, they are the ones who are building it up on that level I just take care of the music and then I’ll play wherever I’m told to play.
So you don’t think that you have a particular responsibility to represent the genre on that mainstream level?
No I don’t want that pressure, to be honest. We represent ourselves, I don’t want to take the blame for what anyone else is doing really. We do our own thing. I’ve never felt much of an affinity with the metal scene to be honest. There’s not many other bands that I feel really that we connect with in that sense. It’s difficult to say then that we’re ambassadors for people that I don’t feel anything for. Sounds harsh!
How will you be balancing out the Deliverance and Damnation songs in the second set at Wembley?
Well it’ll be two sets with one of those sets consisting of songs from those records. We’re not going to play the full records because the set would be too long I think. The second set is probably going to consist one hour, twenty minutes and will consist one part all deliverance songs and one part all damnation songs so we’ll just pick some fan favourites and some of the old songs we don’t play live as much. Since its just three shows we have to put in a little bit of an effort and play songs that we haven’t played live before or haven’t played much. So that’s how its going to be.
One last question, what would your dream touring line up be?
Difficult… erm, well if it’s going to be bands that I want to go and watch every night then I would prefer to not be a headliner because I want to go and grab a beer and watch the headliner. I’m usually a bit tense before shows and I don’t necessarily want to see another band playing before us. I love Magma from France, seeing them live is an experience so if they would play after us that would be a great touring lineup. Those bands, some of the bigger bands that we’ve played with, childhood heroes like Black Sabbath of course, we played with them and that was amazing of course to play a show, wander off, grab yourself a glass of wine and go watch Black Sabbath! That was an amazing thing so that would be great of course but then again you want some kind of connection too like if we would tour with Black Sabbath then I want access to them. I want to be able to pick their brains and that’s just not going to happen.
Opeth’s new album Sorceress is released on the 30th of September through Nuclear Blast Records. Sorceress can be pre-ordered in a variety of physical formats as well as a digital copy where you can receive the songs already released (Sorceress, The Wilde Flowers and Will O The Wisp) as instant downloads.
Tickets for Opeth’s very special show at London’s SSE Arena Wembley (their biggest ever UK headline performance) can be obtained from Live Nation.