OPETH: An Interview with MIKAEL ÅKERFELDT

Mikael Akerfeldt

Whenever Opeth announce an album, the band’s fans divide in two groups: the first one being excited for the phase they traced with the release of 2011’s Heritage, and the other one that refuses to accept the route the Swedish band took, back then.

Opeth’s new release, Sorceress, is their twelfth record which brought the change of label. They parted ways with Roadrunner Records, and formed their “mother-label” Moderbolaget Records, an imprint of Nuclear Blast. Once again, the quintet returned to the Rockfield Studios in Wales to track the new material with the help of producer and engineer Tom Dalgety.

Prog Sphere talked with the mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt, whom we found in Oklahoma, where Opeth was scheduled to play on October 12. The show is the part of the North American tour in support of Sorceress.

First of all, congratulations on the new great album. It is another amazing effort in the band’s discography. 

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Thank you.

This interview finds you in Oklahoma City where you play tonight. The show is part of the ongoing North American tour where you promote the new album Sorceress. How was the reception from audiences on new songs, considering that there has been ten shows so far?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: It’s been very good, actually. It’s been better than I can remember this time around. There’s people yelling out for the new songs when we play which is a first time that has ever happened when we put out a new record, and been touring for the new record. And basically no one ever yells out for the new songs, but this time there’s been people yelling for songs from the new record which is — it’s good. And the songs that we do play go down really well, I think.

Speaking of Sorceress, it’s been out for over a week and it already topped the charts in Germany, UK, Australia and The Netherlands. How does it feel to see that kind of feedback after a challenging, tiring process such writing a record?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Well I don’t really care so much about charts, but it obviously tells a little bit of the fact that people go out and get the record, you know what I mean. So that makes us happy of course that there’s somebody who wants the actual record that we’ve been working so hard on, so to speak. It feels good. But chart positions, it’s just something for the ego, it’s very important for the record labels and the management knowing once we get a good chart positioning — it’s success, if you know what I mean, on a commercial level. But for us in the band, I mean of course the higher the better, but it’s not like we’re gonna go, like, drink lots of champagne because of a chart position. It doesn’t matter so much for us, but of course it makes me happy that people actually want to buy our record in these days.

Opeth 2016

The overall vibe that Sorceress give away is that it feels more folksy and stripped down compared with Heritage and Pale Communion. With what kind of plan did you approach writing for the new album?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: I didn’t really have any plans, I just wanted to write some good songs basically. And in the middle of songwriting process I found that there’s no two songs sounding, like, similar. The songs were jumping between genres a lot, and I wanted to maintain that throughout the songwriting. Each song is very different from the next. I wanted to maintain that idea, which I think I did to a certain extent. That became my agenda — if I didn’t have an agenda before, I would then just write the best possible songs that I could. Then I got an agenda later on, it allowed me to be a bit more free-form with my musical thinking, and I guess I wanted to separate the sound between the songs much more than I’ve done before. So that became a little bit of the agenda after a while, but in the beginning when I started writing I did not know what I wanted to do. I just wrote, and you know, eventually I stumbled upon something I found interesting and continued doing that. But after a while, like I said, I felt maybe this is the agenda for this record to separate the songs, to separate the sound a bit.

I believe that the new album was written in Sweden, is that right? 

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Yeah, everything was written in my home studio in Sweden.

So to follow up my previous question… Sorceress was recorded at the Rockfield Studios in Wales, known for its ambient, besides the fact some great albums were cooked in there. Would you tell that being in such a setting shaped the sound or gave the album a bit of that folk warmness, or coldness, considering the weather up there in UK?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Not sure, to be honest. I mean, we were there for the Pale Communion record too, in the same studio. That worked well. I think that’s the reason we went back because we had such a good experience there with the Pale Communion record. We went there back again, and we worked with the same engineer who was also mixing the record now. But I’m not sure on how environment would impact my songwriting, or the sound of the record. You know, it’s kind of romantic feeling to think that because of the beautiful landscape, beautiful scenery where the studio is located that it would have an impact on the record. But I’m not really sure, to be honest. I can’t say “if it wasn’t for Wales this record wouldn’t sound like that, or this song wouldn’t sound like that.” I can’t really answer that, to be honest. But it’s a great place, we also go there because everybody’s got their own room, you know, it’s like a residential studio because everybody’s got their own room, own bathroom. So it’s a little bit like a resort to a certain extent. It’s like a holiday there, even when working.

When I mentioned Wales and with the fact that the new album was recorded there, I cannot but think of Led Zeppelin who used a well known cottage, which name I won’t dare to say here, to record some of the songs from Led Zeppelin III, and some that later appeared on Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti and Coda albums. Not that it has something to do with Sorceress, but I thought that it would be cool to digress and mention it considering that both Opeth and Zeppelin are all-time favorites. Have you been there?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: You mean Headley Grange? (ed. obviously I didn’t mean Headley Grange, but Bron-Yr-Aur) No, I’ve never been there. That’s residiential, that’s the house, a mansion or something. It’s legendary now because Led Zeppelin recorded a bunch of records there. I wouldn’t mind going there as a tourist. [laughs] I’m not sure how would that help us, to be honest, because from what I heard from interviews with Jimmy Page it’s cold, and it’s moldy, and not very pleasant there. But their records are famous for the great drum sound that they got in the hall in Headley Grange. We didn’t go to Rockfield because of its rock history at all. We just went there because it was a good studio and that we would get out of the city and get some peace, which is, I think, what we need. And Headley Grange, if we go there, it would only be because of Led Zeppelin having recorded there, and I’m not sure if that’s a good reason enough to go there.

Opeth

Sorceress was produced by Tom Dalgety who worked with the likes such as Queen and Rush. Having him at the helm, how did it shape the final outcome?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Tom is pretty young guy and he’s got a new knowledge, he is very fast, very efficient. But he loves old recording techniques and stuff like that. So it’s very pleasant to work with him for us, he has those same type of references. We can speak freely and he knows what we mean, you know, if we are looking for a specific sound he can fix it, basically. So it’s very pleasant to work with him that way and we became good friends in the process, as well. So that’s why we decided to let him mix this album, what he didn’t do with the Pale Communion record. He just engineered that one, and now he engineered, and mixed, and co-produced this record, so it was a good choice on our behalf. I think it sounds good, just because he has the same references as we do.

The songs on Sorceress deal with the negative aspects of love. It does feel a bit contradictory to put love and negativity in the same context. Would you elaborate a bit on how these two inspired you to write songs about this topic?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Well, I didn’t plan ahead what I wanted to write about, I didn’t feel that I have anything in particular to say. So I just started writing lyrics and after a while I found out that that’s what came out. You know, some more personal experience and thoughts that I’ve had in the past couple of years. It’s been a bit of a rough time for me, but I never intended to write those types of lyrics. You know I’m perfectly content writing about nothing at all, to be honest. I don’t really have anything to say, but that was what came out. At least half of the songs kinda deal with those topics, and the other half deals with other things. But yeah, it did inspire me to certain extent, but I didn’t necessarily want to write those lyrics.

Many songs from Sorceress recall and pay tribute to various influences and bands such Jethro Tull, The Wilde Flowers, Moody Blues… What did you listen to during the writing stages of the new album, and in which way it influenced the final result?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Yeah, I listen to music all the time when I’m back home, and I guess it inspires me. You know I have a history of making references to bands that I like, bands that I listen to for years and years. Even from the very early records, I started doing that. That’s a little bit of a gimmick thing, I guess. But yeah, I listen to a lot of music. I listened to a lot of Jethro Tull, for instance, since you mentioned them. I listened to a lot of John Coltrane too, Mahavishnu Orchestra and bands like that. But there wasn’t any specific artist that inspired me more than anything else, as far as I remember. I was just consuming music as I normally do, to be honest.

One of the songs, “The Seventh Sojourn” includes a string section that was arranged by Wil Malone who previously worked with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. The way you reached out to him is kind of funny. Would you tell me more about it?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Well, yeah. [laughs] I’m a fan of his, I’ve been a fan of his for a couple of years. He’s quite obscure artist, not a lot of people know about him. But he did some records, like solo records in early 1970s. Like he did one album that’s difficult to find, but I managed to track down a copy of that one.  And I was just kind of fooling around, see if he was still active, and so I searched on the Internet after him, and he had a web page and there was like a contact thing, so I could email him, which I did. And the intention was, in the beginning, to ask him about his solo records basically. But I felt a bit stupid doing that, so I kinda threw it in if he would be interested in scoring strings for a song. And at the time I didn’t even have the song, I was just wondering if he would be interested in working with us. And he said yes. And he didn’t really answer my questions about his solo record at all, to be honest. I still have to ask him about that, but he did say yes to working with us and he did a great job in scoring the strings for “The Seventh Sojourn,” which is what the song is called. So that was great, and I actually invited him to the Wembley show that we are doing later in this year, so I’ll get to ask him about his music then.

Another song that I would love to ask you about from the new album is “Era.” It connects very well with Deep Purple, especially in the organ department where late Jon Lord is the master of his own craft. Would you tell that Deep Purple inspired this one?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Well that song was one of the later one, and it wasn’t, I wasn’t really channeling Deep Purple for that song. It turned out to me more like 1980s heavy metal song. I didn’t have those references, but it kind of sounded a bit like that, with the big chorus and strong vocal line, stuff like that. Stuff like Europe and Skid Row, if you know what I mean. Winger, you know those types of bands. [laughs] Which I do like, but I didn’t intend to write a song inspired by that, but it kind of reminds me more of 1980s American metal than it does with Deep Purple. But Deep Purple is one of those influences that are in our DNA since we were kids. So they are always gonna be there. But this song, in particular, sounds a bit more ‘80s to me.

Mikael Åkerfeldt (photo from the Book of Opeth, credits: Christer Lorichs)

Mikael Åkerfeldt (photo from the Book of Opeth, credits: Christer Lorichs)

It’s always been the case with Opeth to include great bonus tracks along with the standard album edition. And that continues with Sorceress. What can you tell me about “The Ward” and “Spring MCMLXXIV” (1974)? If I am not wrong Spring 1974 is when you were born, so what is it about? You say at the end of the song “Should be fun.”

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Yeah, that was just a fun kind of title, because I knew that there were gonna be bonus tracks. We had a little bit more fun with them, so to speak. They became a bit more experimental and it didn’t matter so much what style they were. I wrote the first one, which was a little bit of, you know, glancing over to jazz music and a Uriah Heep type of chorus, and it became much better than I anticipated, to be honest. And “Spring MCMLXXIV” — that’s correct I was born in April 1974 — that was just a title I threw in there, because I couldn’t come up with anything better. [laughs] The lyrics don’t really deal with anything, but sound of the song — it sounds like driving a car in the 70’s. So it sounded like it was a fitting title because of that. So that’s why I ended up naming the song “Spring MCMLXXIV.”

Sorceress is the first Opeth album released on your own label Moderbolaget Records, which is an imprint of Nuclear Blast. What led you to venturing into this side of business? Did you complete your deal with Roadrunner?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Well, we’re done with Roadrunner, and we don’t have a record contract with Nuclear Blast, it’s a license contract that we have with them, which is the first time we have the license contract with the record label like that. So that gave us the opportunity to start our own label which is something that we’ve talked about for a number of years. It could be a vehicle that we could use if we want to do side projects or solo projects, or reissues of our own records, or even sing up other bands in the future. But it’s so brand new now so we are only using it for this record and we will see where we are going to take it next. We haven’t decided on that yet.

So there is also a possibility that some other releases will be put out through Moderbolaget?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Yeah, we could technically do that, of course. Right now, we’re kind of using it the same way as we are using our merchandising company because we have control over our own t-shirts and stuff like that. It’s called Omerch, and we’ve been doing that for bunch of years now. So that was started to take care of our own t-shirts as opposed to working with the middle men, so to speak. We started the record imprint with the same intentions, but technically we are on the contract with Nuclear Blast, but it’s a different type of contract.

Moderbolaget Records

One thing that Opeth is known for is that you always challenge yourselves to write records that are different and totally on their own. Does it come from the urge to progress or is it usually a conscious decision to pursue certain direction?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: It’s a little bit of everything. I mean, this band thrive on experimentation, and I think it’s essential for us and for me as a songwriter. Because I get so very bored quickly, I need to move forward. I could not be a musician, I would be ashamed of myself if nothing happened in 26 years. I wouldn’t feel like a real musician. For me, musicianship is about exploring other avenues and not getting stuck in a situation where you can just think your career. That’s utterly boring, uninteresting and chickenshit, if you ask me. I wanna move forward, and of course we’re gonna step on a few people’s toes doing that. A lot of people might not be on the same page as us, but I can’t care about that because if I start caring about that I will just be another businessman. And I don’t wanna be a businessman, I want to be a musician.

In an interview I did with Steven Wilson he told me that he doesn’t see a point of releasing albums just in the sake of putting out new music if it’s not for answering a creative challenge and making the actual progress. So you are sharing his opinion on that, too.

Mikael Åkerfeldt: That’s how it is. I couldn’t live with myself; my love, passion for music would be corrupted by interest in money, or making a career. I can’t put the two together. I mean, the fact that we live of the music, that we are professional musicians — I think it’s okay in our case because we never compromised with the music, we never compromised with anything. It’s been a result of us doing what we want to do. So we are in a very fortunate situation like that. But I could not simply live with myself if I, all of a sudden, started caring about maintaining a career

Now with the release of three studio albums which don’t include any growl vocals, and considering that Opeth is a band with different phases, what will your approach be like when selecting which songs to perform live in the future?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: We perform the heavy songs with the screaming vocals every night. It’s not like I’m ashamed or anything, or regret anything. I love those records too, and they are part of our discography just as much as the last record. They are as important as the last record, and I know that there are fans out there who want to hear those songs. So when it comes to playing live, yes we will do them. I’ll do those songs and I will scream my fucking ass off, if you know what I mean. But when it comes to recording music — it’s today, we don’t look back, we don’t look in the rear mirror and try to do something we did ten years ago because it’s not interesting to me. Unless I come up with new music that I love as much and that requires that type of vocals I’ll do that again on record. But right now I can’t really foresee that happening.

It’s known that you are an avid vinyl collector and that you own a big collection of obscure releases from the 1960s and 1970s. Living in the age of Internet and technology where Spotify and other companies rule the music business, do you think that the term “obscurity” in music looses its value? Do you think that the albums released nowadays will have an opportunity to be “listed” as obscurities in 30 years from now?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: I do collect obscure records, but that’s not only because they are obscure, because there is a lot of unknown bands that are really, really good and that I love. So that’s my first interest, it’s always the quality of the music. The it doesn’t matter so much if it’s obscure. It just happens to me that I have a special fascination for that type of music. And when it comes to how it is today, there is a lot to decide about the music scene today. Everybody can put out a record, and everybody can find a record by an obscure band. But in my case, I want to buy the original pressing, I want to listen to it as it was intended, as it sounded back in the day. I wouldn’t be completely happy with hearing a MP3 of a record from 1971. I wanna hear the original vinyl on an old turntable, and that’s how I enjoy music. Because I think you pay more attention to music that way, and I listen in a different way.

Mikael Akerfeldt vinyl collection

You’ve been pretty much loyal to Opeth in the last few years except for the Storm Corrosion album you did with Steven. Have you guys been talking about doing another record? Is there a possibility for that to happen down the road?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: There is a possibility, yes. We talked about that a lot actually, but it’s one of those things, because there is no pressure, we don’t need to do it. There is no need for us to write music ever again, unless we want to. Storm Corrosion is the result of us hanging out, basically. It was a labour of love, we were approaching music that none of us have really done before. If we hang out again and start writing music — yes, maybe there will be a Storm Corrosion record. We wouldn’t be sad if there wasn’t another record, but I would be very happy as well if we did another one. But I don’t linger on it. It’s not super important to us, it’s just if we feel like we’ll do it.

With the new album out and extensive touring that will take place in the coming months, what other plans do you have?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: When it comes to work everything is full with playing live and touring, and stuff like that, which I don’t really like that much anymore, to be honest. So all the time I have in between it’s gonna be spent with my children and my girlfriend. So that’s all plans that I have.

I would love to tell you something that may sound really funny but it is true… Since I was a teenager, and considering that I am now in my 30s, it was my dream to do interviews with Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation and Opeth. I have already completed the interviews with the first three in the past, and having this one with you now, I can tell that one of my life goals is right here. 

Mikael Åkerfeldt: That’s great. [laughs]

Have you ever been in a similar situation? What are some of your life goals except for managing what you call “70s porn director” look?

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Well this might sound odd, but one of my dreams is to open up a record shop. That’s really what I want to do. I worked in a record shop once and I loved it, I absolutely loved it. It’s more of a dream to me than actually being a musician, I think. [laughs] I love music, I love writing music but it’s so difficult today. Sometimes it feels like you pay more than you earn when you are a musician, and I don’t mean financially, I mean spiritually and physically. I’m not afraid of loosing the career with the band at all, I’m not afraid of it. And if I do or if I choose to, I will open up a record shop. That’s been a life-long dream for me or that’s probably the next big thing that I would do.

If that ever happens, I’ll make sure to visit it.

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Thank you.

Thank you very much for the opportunity and good luck with the tour and everything else that comes along.

Mikael Åkerfeldt: Cheers! Thank you very much.

Opeth’s new studio album Sorceress is out now via Moderbolaget Records / Nuclear Blast. Read our review of Sorceress here.

Opeth - North American tour

Opeth - European tour

Cover photo: Olle Carlsson

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