Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt opens up about Opeth's 25 year career, the band's new album Sorceress, and his desire to score a Meryl Streep film one day.
The year 2015 was one of celebration and reflection for Opeth. Just a year before, the Swedish band's 11th album, Pale Communion, was released, which was followed up by an increasingly global touring regimen. Opeth turned 25 in 2015, and its debut LP Orchid turned 20.
As a tribute to Opeth's longevity and success, the band followed up the Pale Communion tour with special concerts that featured no opening acts and a full performance of 2005's Ghost Reveries. At the beginning of 2016 the group issued a complete double album edition of the companion records Deliverance (2002) and Damnation (2003), which were initially released a year apart. In the world of progressive metal, Opeth is one of the biggest players, but even for a group of that repute, the sheer amount of milestones and anniversaries in 2015 was almost too much.
At least, that's what guitarist, lead vocalist, and founding member Mikael Akerfeldt suggests when we speak over the phone in early September, slightly less than a month away from the release of Opeth's 12th record, Sorceress. I ask him about the brief period of time between Pale Communion and Sorceress, which is shorter than the gaps between records like Watershed (2008) and Heritage (2011).
"The reason why there's a shorter span between the records is because we didn't tour so much for Pale Communion," Akerfeldt says. "We did a world tour, which these days is 'not enough,' and then we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the band and toured a little bit doing the Ghost Reveries record. After that, it would have felt awkward to go back on tour for Pale Communion once we had already done the anniversary tour. Besides, I didn't feel like touring any more; I was fed up with it, to be honest.
"We went on a break, and eventually we sat down with our manager to go over what we were going to do for 2016. He said in December 2015 that the best time for us to record would be May 2016, which left me with five or six months to write a record."
As engaging as Opeth is in a live setting, Akerfeldt takes much more naturally to the studio than the stage. "To be perfectly honest, I prefer the creative work to touring. In fact, back in the day, a lot of bands put out two records the same year, or one record a year. I like that a lot more than touring; touring is more 'work' for me, whereas writing and recording records is more fun. It's like a vacation. The actual 'job' part of this business is going on tour, as far as I'm concerned."
Opeth's relationship to touring has evolved over the years. The group's fanbase globally has pronouncedly expanded; on the upcoming Sorceress tour, Opeth will play at massive venues like the Sydney Opera House and Radio City Music Hall. Now 12 albums into their career, the members of Opeth have undeniably become reliable performers and road dogs, but there are parts of touring that never cease to wear Akerfeldt and his bandmates out.
"Touring does get easier, in that we're more comfortable now," he says. "We have a bus, everyone has a bed, we get hotel rooms when there are days off, those kind of things. We can maintain those everyday things when we're on tour now, though back in the day it was much more difficult. But as a bigger band, we have more things to do for press, since there's more interest in the band. More people come to the shows, there's meet-and-greets and signing sessions ... going on tour doesn't just mean that you're going to be on stage for a couple of hours, and all the rest is beer-drinking time. Touring is both more comfortable and more difficult, because there's all this stuff we didn't have to do before."
In response to this, I ask Akerfeldt an odd question that follows from his description of touring as a band that has come to global prominence: does he wish Opeth was getting less attention, if not just to avoid the externalities of fame?
Akerfeldt walks back his description of the rigors of touring just a bit. "There are some times where I miss the innocence of being in a small band that is excited with every new step along the way. Now it feels more like work. The charms of a young band lose their luster when you get more established and well-known. But, you know, I can't complain about anything; it would be unfair to complain about being successful. Being successful is great, of course. But there is a lot of stuff happening that we didn't sign up for, and not just with touring. The whole business side of things for a band that's been around for as long as we have is something I'm not interested in, but the band and me have to be interested in it anyways. Some of the things about being in a band like this are worse when you become successful, but I have nothing to complain about."
Opeth's biggest global appreciation has happened co-terminus with what is to this day the most significant shift in the band's aesthetic. Akerfeldt's clean vocals have been an integral part of the Opeth sound from the beginning. Athough he can growl and scream like a whipped hellhound when he needs to, his clean singing voice is one of the strongest in contemporary metal. Damnation, which features scant guitar distortion and no screamed vocals, remains one of Opeth's finest LPs, and it is perhaps the clearest showcase for Akerfeldt's singing abilities. It would not be until 2011's Heritage, however, that Akerfeldt abandoned screaming on Opeth albums.
Since Heritage, death metal in the traditional sense has played less of a role in Opeth's music. One could argue that it has vanished altogether. In that time the band has emphasized numerous different genre angles on the requisite Opeth sound, drawing on jazz, '60s and '70s progressive rock, and singer/songwriter in further progressing its core sonic. This shift in Opeth's music has been a reliable source of consternation in the metal community, and even amongst some diehard fans of Opeth. But all the ballyhooing in the world couldn't change Akerfeldt's mind.
"There's always going to be people complaining because they think they aren't getting what they want, but what can you do?" Akerfeldt asks, his tone a shrug. "We have changed, but for me personally the most major change that happened three records back was that I stopped screaming. A lot of people want me to scream, which is fine; I can understand that to a certain extent. But I also hope there is more to our sound than just the screams. [Those complaints] can make me confused sometimes."
To those who had grown accustomed to the Opeth sound typified by records like Ghost Reveries, Still Life (1999), and the groundbreaking Blackwater Park (2001), Heritage and its successors can look like an abandonment of a core part of Opeth's style. In Akerfeldt's view, the "change" is just a natural extension of Opeth's songwriting philosophy. "We do what we do. The essence of Opeth, as far as I'm concerned, is change, experimentation. Because all of us love different genres of music so much, it would be impossible and a bit false if we stayed the same just to make a buck or to be popular. Being popular and rich is nice; I don't mind that at all, but I would never be disrespectful to something in my life that I love so much like music. I would never treat it as a way to get ahead, on a fame or financial level. That would be a stain on my love for music.
"What happens, happens," he says. "No fan could talk me or any of the other guys in the band into going back because that's 'what we should be doing.' I know what we should be doing, and it is what we are currently doing."
Much of how one perceives what Opeth does hinges on the definition of the word "progressive." That word, like "metal," is one that Opeth chooses to define on its own terms. In a 2015 interview with Metal Injection, Akerfeldt said of the music on Pale Communion, "I kind of re-evaluated what I think is 'heavy' in the last couple years. Turning up the distortion and tuning down ... doesn't make it heavy to me anymore."
But what of the word "progressive?" Akerfeldt explains that in Opeth's case, the term connotes the band's blending of musical styles. This is different than what most mean when they say "progressive," "prog," or "prog metal." To Akerfeldt, "All those terms are now about describing genre, a 'sound.' In reality, I'm not sure if that's progressive. The actual meaning of progressive is pushing things forward, rather than being a genre. I think one way to achieve that, why I feel Opeth is progressive, is by looking for influences from other types of genres than prog. We listen to pop music, rock, metal, jazz, singer/songwriter. We incorporate all of that into our music."
Prog rock devotees will sometimes argue that prog stands out from other genres by virtue of the top-notch musicianship of its players. For Akerfeldt this misunderstands the aim of genuinely progressive music. "Progressive isn't a nicer word than any other one," he says, "It's just what we are. We aren't up on a high horse proclaiming, 'We're progressive, for real.' It's inevitable that when you're an old metal guy like myself and you're also drawing influence from artists like Joni Mitchell."
Sorceress continues in Opeth's ongoing sonic progression, though the band is taking a measured approach. "We aren't trying to go crazy," Akerfeldt says. "The thing I value the most is the song. It doesn't matter if it's ground-breakingly progressive; if the song is good, I'm happy." There's plenty that's good, and even heavy on Sorceress, which began its existence as a complete demo made by Akerfeldt. "Generally there was no map or plan; I just sat down and wrote songs, hoping for the best. I had a wish that I would come up with something completely different than what I've done before.
"On some parts of the record, that happened," Akerfeldt says. "Some songs are similar to what we've done before but are also breaking new ground. Songs like 'Era' are different than anything we've done before. I did try to maintain diversity from one song to the next."
Much of the progression Sorceress makes in further expanding the Opeth sound happens when the band plays to pre-existing strengths. One of these is Akerfeldt and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson's skill with acoustic guitars, which play an increased role on Sorceress. The Latin-influenced opening instrumental "Persephone" and the pastoral folk ballad "Will O the Wisp" are a reminder that even absent the influence of metal and prog, Opeth would make a great acoustic band. "I do write a lot on acoustic guitar. I've always done that," Akerfeldt says. "For Opeth the acoustic guitars are as important as the electric guitars. We aren't more of an electric band than an acoustic band these days.
"During our first two records, I used to work in a guitar shop that only sold acoustic guitars, which was a general agent for Martin Guitars. My job there did end up changing our sound; we became a band equally focused on acoustic and heavy passages," he adds. The juxtaposition of harsh, downtuned riffing and delicately picked acoustic guitars is one of Opeth's calling cards; songs like Blackwater Park's title cut or Ghost Reveries' opening number "Ghost of Perdition" are a case in point.
The acoustic-centric tracks on Sorceress also bear another quality, one that crops up many times in Opeth's back catalog. Pointing to the examples of "Persephone" and the Middle Eastern minor scales on "The Seventh Sojurn", both of which have the quality of film music, I ask Akerfeldt if he has ever considered scoring a movie. "I would love to, but I don't have the confidence," he confesses. "I wouldn't get in touch with a movie producer and ask if I could write for a film. I have a fair amount of soundtrack records in my collection; I really like the soundtrack to The Omen by Jerry Goldsmith ... so evil!"
Yet film music for is Akerfeldt, an avid record collector, just one tributary of the countless streams of influence from which he draws. "With Opeth -- and not just on Sorceress, but on past ones as well -- there is a cinematic type of quality to the music. So that style has happened before, and it doesn't mean that I'm necessarily listening to soundtrack records at the time."
But what if Akerfeldt had the opportunity to work with any director of his choice? "That's difficult. Preferably something that would be a good film." He then muses a bit, with surprising results: "I would probably do a better job for some sappy romantic film with, you know, Meryl Streep, [laughs] but I'm not sure what directors to go to in that case."
He reveals that I'm not the first to identify his potential skill in writing a film score. "Opeth played a show in Los Angeles once, and there was a guy there writing scores for films -- really big films, mainstream features. I asked him how you get into that world and he said, 'Well, you get connections, and once you're in, you're in.' Maybe he was trying to boost my confidence, but he said to me, 'You've already got it; you could definitely write for a film; you've got that ear.' Still, I'm too shy to approach anyone about that, so I would have to be approached myself." In the meantime, he can continue to imagine some delightful scenarios: "I would jump if one of these big guys like Scorsese asked me to do their movie -- jump on it in a second."
Sorceress' cinematic elements derive in large part from its array of guitar tones, which might be the richest exploration of the instrument on any Opeth record yet. "When it comes to the heavy sounds," he says, "I've come to believe in rolling off the distortion. You get more of the core sound of the strings, and you get more of the person behind the guitar -- it sounds more human. To me it sounds heavier, too. Getting a heavy sound can be as easy as turning the distortion up, but you lose a lot of who is actually playing the instrument."
Opeth may be best known as a kind of heavy metal band, but it's the clean guitar tones where Akerfeldt finds the most comfort. The crepuscular coda to Sorceress's title track and the clean electric leads on "Will O the Wisp" are gorgeous, echoey things. "For the clean tones, we used a lot of Stratocasters, which have a beautiful clean tone. We run those through a Marshall Bluesbreaker, which is an old amp with great reverb. That's the way I play guitar when I'm home; I prefer to play clean, and with reverb. I'm particular when it comes to the clean sound; I know what I like."
Akerfeldt's skill in refining Opeth's signature clean tone has not gone unnoticed, especially by his friends and colleagues. Steven Wilson, who frequently collaborates with Akerfeldt, notably in his producer credits on Blackwater Park, Damnation, and Deliverance, as well as the 2012 collaborative LP Storm Corrosion, has even incorporated Akerfeldt's reverb-centric clean tone into his songwriting on records like The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories). At a 2013 Royal Albert Hall concert, Wilson called this tone (without referring to Akerfeldt specifically) the "Lonely Swede" sound.
"Yes, that's me," Akerfeldt says when I bring that example up. "It is a melancholic type of tone, I suppose. That tone is an example of getting the human sound behind the guitar that I talked about earlier. I'm so particular with that sound; I know exactly what I want out of it." Though Wilson's moniker is a badge of honor for Akerfeldt, he does think aloud, laughing slightly, "I don't know why he said 'lonely' though."
As much as prog is renowned -- and parodied -- for the technical proficiency of its guitar players, Opeth's success has not turned Akerfeldt or Åkesson into mile-a-minute shredders. Both men have probably never had the "nightmare" posed by Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci, who once worried he would play so fast that it would all become one note. "A lot of that flashy type of playing can be impressive, but it's not really musical to me," Akerfeldt says. "One good note is more valuable to me than a million shitty notes. Flashy guitar players will say to me that I only think that because I can't play a million notes, which to their credit is true. But I want to treat the guitar and the guitar solo as musical, not show-offy.
"I can't play fast. There was a time in my life where I wanted to be a shredder, but I lost interest in that when I started finding emotional guitar tones and emotional guitar playing. But also, if we do need fast guitar playing -- sometimes the song does call for it -- then we have Fredrik. Fredrik can play all that shit. He's a fantastic shredder, and he also has beautiful tone and he can play really slowly, almost like the clocks have stopped. We have an artillery in the band; we've got some ammunition for that stuff if we need it. In those circumstances, I would delegate that job to Fredrik."
Akerfeldt may not write songs that collapse into scale runs best reserved for the pages of Guitar World, but he's underselling the fact that just as Opeth has progressed, so has his playing. The songs of Sorceress don't twist and turn in the way that lengthy compositions like "Ghost of Perdition" or "The Leper Affinity" do, but they are examples of refined songwriting. Like Pale Communion before it, Sorceress draws from Opeth's body of work while also heading out in directions heretofore unexplored by the band.
Looking back on Opeth's discography, Akerfeldt has complicated emotions. Akerfelt says he feels "slightly detached" from Opeth's early years: "I feel like it wasn't me who made those records." To illustrate this point, he draws from an illuminating example from metal history: "There's an old rumor about Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe. The rumor goes that he died and he was replaced by a look-alike who claims to be Nikki Sixx. That's a bit like how I feel. Maybe the old guy died and I've been programmed to be the lead singer and guitar player of Opeth." This is not to say that Akerfeldt or the rest of the band have disdain from older Opeth LPs. "I don't feel this way because I don't like those records; I love them, and I still am proud of them, even the first couple of albums," he says.
For Akerfeldt, the feelings he has looking back on his career are no different than the feelings people have when they look back on their younger selves. "The feeling of detachment inevitably comes with age; as you get older, you're not the same, nobody's the same. If people look back on what they were doing ten or 20 years ago, they'd go, 'Huh.' Especially if there's a film or a voice recording; when you encounter these things later on you go, 'Who the fuck is that?' It just happens that I have lots of references to my past."
Mixed emotions about the past have not led to Akerfeldt or his bandmates leaving behind Opeth's greatest achievements. Those who are too easily willing to write Opeth off as "ditching metal" will likely further entrench their dogma after hearing Sorceress, which continues to build on the '70s rock and folk aesthetic that Pale Communion exhibits so expertly. Akerfeldt never screams on the album, though he gets a wail in here and there. But those who are willing to track with Opeth in their ongoing evolution -- one that even predates Heritage -- will find Sorceress a natural and fine extension of the group's inimitable sound. When Akerfeldt sings on "Will O the Wisp", "Time it waits for no one / It heals them when you die / And soon you are forgotten / A whisper within a sigh", he certainly isn't talking about Opeth. Based on how things have gone for these Swedes at this point, it's hard to imagine them ever being forgotten.