With the pleasantries out of the way, Mikael leans back and candidly talks about the many fascinating things that have brought the band to where they are today.
So, sit back and let us open the door into the mind of Mr Åkerfeldt…
OD – Congratulations on the new album. I have to ask with the variations on the language options, now that there are bilingual language options available, and you’ve stressed that that original one is the Swedish version, do you feel confident in just doing a Swedish language album going forward?
MIKAEL – I guess it’s possible. It’s such a new album that I’m only concentrating on touring for now. But yeah, it’s very possible that we’ll just do a future album in Swedish. I guess, I could also do one in Spanish, but I have to learn the language first [Laughing].
I’m not sure if I want to get to ‘gimmicky‘ if you know what I mean. Like everything with Opeth, we just do what we feel is right and if doing an album just in Swedish is what feels right going forward, then I guess that’s what will happen.
OD – Of course, you will have the die hard Opeth fans that will have to get both copies of the album, so that’s double the sales.
MIKAEL – Well, yes. Our manager was very happy about that [Laughing]. In actual fact, when you think about it, this is two Opeth albums, and I’m thinking: “Is this a dream for the record label; or is it a nightmare?”
OD – Do you mean two albums for the price of one, for the record label?
MIKAEL – We’ve literally done a ‘two albums for the price of one‘ in the past with ‘Damnation/Deliverance‘ (2015). The record label didn’t like the idea and were thinking we just wanted to get out of the record contract we had with them, but we had to explain to them that it was purely for artistic reasons.
The label stopped me in my tracks until I agreed that the contract stated that is was technically “One” album and we only get the advance for “One” album. So, once that was all agreed, they finally said yes.
So, this time around I think they were happy and only afterwards, I found out they were confused about it.
OD – How so?
MIKAEL – From a marketing perspective. They didn’t really feel comfortable about it at first, and I believe they found it difficult to cater to our wishes.
In America, people will most likely buy only the English speaking version and I think they had a problem with that.
OD – But, I’m guessing it all worked out and when looking back, you have broken new ground with this concept?
MIKAEL – I kind of knew the Swedish version would be a little bit of a problem to some people, even though the band’s favourite and original version is the Swedish one. Some people have a problem with listening to music that’s performed in a different language. I know I did when I was younger.
OD – And then Rammstein came along and changed all of that?
MIKAEL – I was never into them, but very good point. I seriously doubt that most fans have a clue as to what Rammstein are actually singing about.
OD – You’ve said before that you treat every album like it’s gonna be the last one you do. Does this generate any kind of added pressure to the creative process?
MIKAEL – In one way, I approach each album with this in mind because I strive to achieve the very best that I can, but no, it doesn’t really create a lot of pressure. Next year we will have been around for 30 years as a band and when you reach a certain age, I tend to worry less and less about having a career in this line of business.
If this happens to be the last Opeth album we release, then it would be because we die, or if I can’t come up with the goods, so to speak. I wish I had that opinion with everything that I do.
OD – Are you saying that you only feel this when it comes to music?
MIKAEL – Yes, totally. I mean I don’t go around thinking: “This could be my last cup of coffee” [Laughing], but I really strive to do my best with the things I create and as it happens, what I create is music, so I want to endeavour to do the very best that I can for that moment in time.
I like to approach a new record in the sense that it’s not just a product or a means for us to go on tour and sell a product. I think it’s interesting to create new blueprints for what we do and push the limits of our talent as far as we possibly can.
I’ve never made a ‘half-ass‘ attempt at our music and even though some fans and critics will disagree because they don’t like it but to me, that’s not the case. It’s the best I could offer during that time period of my life, and I’ve very proud of the bands legacy.
OD – The legacy of Opeth album covers has become more elaborate, colourful and laced with symbolism over the years. The new one in particular (pic below) seems to be loaded with visual aids that suggest the current mindset of the bands sonic direction. Would you agree that the visual side of things have become more important to you over the years?
MIKAEL – In the beginning, I was always into photographs and the first album ‘Orchid‘ (1995) has an orchid on the cover, and then we get to “Morningrise” and that was a photo of a bridge in Bath (UK), and then when we got to ‘My Arms Your Hearse‘ (1998), and then we realised that most people in this business haven’t a fucking clue at what they are doing.
We started to then take control of things on ‘Still Life‘ (1999). That’s when we started working with (Opeth cover artist) Travis (Smith) and I started exploring my ideas with him and the visual side of things began to take shape.
OD – When you and Travis started working together, did you just leave him to his own devices; or is there some vision that you share with him to create some kind of loose wireframe at first?
MIKAEL – Well, I give a loose idea of what I’m seeing in my minds eye and Travis takes on those ideas and also listens to the music, so there are two levels at play to create the overall cover art.
Take ‘Ghost Reveries’ (2005) for instance, that was a picture that he delivered to me and it had nothing to do with anything on the album. Nothing whatsoever. But it just captured the overall emotion of the album. When I saw it I said; “That’s a nice sleeve, I want it. Let’s go for that one.” The last four albums all have very detailed descriptions and not a free-form thinking approach from Travis.
OD – It’s a great relationship to have and one that seems to be evolving with more confidence as each album is released.
MIKAEL – We actually had a very different design for the new album. It was more of a courtyard with a house in the distance and when I saw that version, I said: “No, it’s not gonna work, we have to start over again!”
OD – Is Travis actually painting these covers, or does he use graphic design software?
MIKAEL – From what I understand, he works on the initial idea on the computer and then he hand paints everything. I try to be as kind as I can with my critical reaction to things that may need to be changed. At the end of the day, it’s our album cover and he’s being paid to do the work.
OD – ‘In Cauda Venenum’ is the longest album in your career and from previous interviews you’ve stated that you found it difficult to stop writing. Did this inspire any thoughts as to a separate project, similar to what you did with Steven Wilson, or perhaps something very different all together?
MIKAEL – Well, there are three bonus tracks, actually there are six when you include the English version from this new album, and to be honest, those tracks are probably my favourite songs from the whole writing sessions.
I wanted the songs to sound like Opeth and in this case they had a different feel and sound to them, so much so, that they just didn’t seem to fit on ‘In Cauda Venenum‘.
OD – Are there plans for those tracks?
MIKAEL – Yes, we’re most likely gonna put them out as 7″s or something like that. We always find a place for things like this, whether it’s another project, or whatever will be the right place for them.
OD – So, you would never shelve them and come back to them for a future album?
MIKAEL – I always like to start with a clean slate on a new album. I don’t like the idea of dipping into the past for something new. I believe that it’s best to look forward, instead of looking back; when I’m writing.
OD – You have a very concise and definite idea of how you go about creating music. Would you say that the foundation of that is based on the concept of the LP, rather than say, CD, MP3 and streaming services?
MIKAEL – I’m a big believer in the album as a format and with regards to our latest album, by my standards, I actually think it’s a bit too long. It’s the longest album we’ve ever released, so I think in terms of a good sequencing for the LP, I had to ‘kill my darlings‘ to have a good album.
I very much think of the physical, tangible aspect of our music being on vinyl and the process of handling it, placing the needle down, turning the album over for side two etc.. All of that configures into the process deciding the track listing; and the over all feel of the album as a physical entity.
OD – Did you experience any issues in the past when trying to produce and release Opeth vinyl, prior to what is being hailed as ‘a big vinyl comeback‘?
MIKAEL – Yes, I had great difficulty in trying to get some of the early stuff released on vinyl, I think it was around our time with Music For Nations.
It was all about the Compact Disc. So now that we are happily releasing our music through the vinyl format, I’m very much aware of the process of using that format to hear the music and that does influence the decision making; when putting the track-listing together.
OD – With the evolution of Opeth’s music, at what point would you say that you found the bands current sound, or the beginning of it? Some would say ‘’My Arms, Your Hearse’, but would it be right to say that in actual fact; it was perfected on ‘Still Life’?
MIKAEL – I would very much agree with that statement. ‘Still Life’ was a big record for us and one of the reasons why…I actually haven’t thought too much about this in a while, but one of the reasons why ‘Still Life’ came out the way it did was because I was distraught with the music scene of that time.
OD – How so?
MIKAEL – Well, like anyone else that get’s to put out a record. I had dreams of stardom and now we’re three records in ‘Still Life‘ being the fourth, I’m thinking; “This ain’t happening!”
I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anywhere to live…well it was like second-hand renting from someone.
OD – What year was this exactly?
MIKAEL – This was around ’97/’98.
OD – So, by my estimation you were witnessing the explosion of ‘Nu-Metal‘ and I’m guessing you’re not a fan [Laughing]?
MIKAEL – Yep! [Laughing] We didn’t have any offers for tours, no booking agents or anyone that seemed to be in any way interested. In fact, between ‘My Arms Your Hearse‘ and ‘Still Life‘, we were barley had a band!
At this time, half the band had left and it was just two of us left. So, I was just beaten down by everything that was happening; and it really took a lot out of me.
Things were really bleak during that time. People in the band were leaving. Like Peter (Lindgren, former bassist/guitarist) left to continue with his education and I decided to stick at the music. I didn’t have a ‘Plan B‘, it just had to be this or nothing!
So, when we did ‘Still Life‘, it’s representable to what we’re doing now and also for the fact that I didn’t believe in getting success or happiness; when you do things by the books.
Also, during that time I was consuming so many other forms of music, it was impossible for me to hold back.
OD – Would you agree that this was an extremely poignant time in your life, both professionally, and personally?
MIKAEL – Yes. It was a very impressionable time for me. Fans of certain albums tend to look back on LP’s and they have a very different perspective on the way things were for the artists that recorded those albums.
It’s like, say, Judas Priest’s ‘Wings of Destiny‘ (1976). That was a time when the band didn’t think they were going anywhere and some of the band members were still living at home with their parents.
It’s so hard to think about these legendary musicians like that. You don’t think about Rob Halford sitting in his bedroom in his parents house, wondering if the band is gonna have to split up or not, but this is the reality.
To some people, ‘Still Life‘ is a legendary record, but in reality at the time, we had Fuck All! [Laughing] We didn’t get any reviews, feedback or any response from anybody. It was like we didn’t exist outside of our own personal lives.
OD – In light of what you have been saying here, when you listen to your discography, such as ‘Still Life‘, does it take you right back to that moment?
MIKAEL – That’s all I feel when I hear it. It’s difficult. I always think about how my private life was. This happens to me even when I hear the title of a record. Many of our records were created under squalor-like circumstances. [Laughing]
OD – It’s so beautifully put. So, you’d say Opeth’s past could be likened to that of Angela’s Ashes, but with a Progressive/ Blackened Death Metal twist ? [Laughing]
MIKAEL – [Laughing] Totally!
OD – Of all of the Opeth album covers which is your least favourite?
MIKAEL – I would have to say ‘Heritage‘ (2011).
OD – Speaking of album covers, what is your all-time favourite cover?
MIKAEL – Black Sabbath debut (1970).
OD – With regards to your own creative endeavours, is there any bucket-list ideas that you wish to complete before you leave this mortal coil?
MIKAEL – I would actually like to score a film soundtrack. I would like to write music to order to see if I can do it. A lot of people are doing it and most people that do it, I ask them and they say: “Oh, it’s totally shit! I’d much rather be on stage performing to a live audience’“.
I’ve had my fix of performing live, and the challenge of writing music to order for movies or TV shows, is something I’d like to try, for sure.
However, my biggest dream does not have anything to do with music. I would love to earn a scuba diver certificate. I’ve never done it before, but there’s just something about it that I’m totally fascinated with.
OD – Is there any reason why you’ve not taking the plunge (forgive the pun) and start taking classes to learn how to do it?
MIKAEL – It’s a time thing. I just haven’t had the time to do it. It’s on my bucket list and I will eventually get around to doing it and when I do…Bye Bye music…. [Laughing]. The next album will be just whale sounds [Laughing].
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