Åkerfeldt’s extensive knowledge of music, twinned with his laid back, dry sense of humor makes for an insightful look into the mind of one of the genre’s most talented individuals.
OD – Firstly, let us congratulate you on ‘Sorceress’ which once again raises the bar for not only bands of a similar genre but for music as a whole. I get the sense that the band are on a sort of higher plan when it comes to writing and creating these days. Do you find that you have broken off the shackles of a sort of stereotype or predictability with today’s Opeth?
MIKAEL – Well, I would say yes and no. I’m very happy with where we are at the moment, What happened with the change in style was not really a big thing for us, especially for me because I’ve been consuming music that’s different to death metal for a very long time. I’m sure it was a little drastic for the fans.
When we released ‘Heritage‘ (2011) it really was intended to open up a few more doors for us and now as a result of that, I feel freer when I write. I could technically write another “death metal” record but I’m elsewhere right now. So, I’m not really sure if we have discarded the shackles as you said, but I know that there are fans out there that are not with us anymore but I want to play music that makes me happy and right now I’m feeling very free with everything.
As a band, we got really tight after the tour cycle for ‘Heritage‘ which was a very long tour, which we actually started doing before the album was released. We had a considerable portion of the album in the live sets and that was just a trial by fire as we were evolving and playing something different to audiences before the album was released.
Ir really showed a different sensibility to this band that’s been there before but we never really showcased it. That was a huge learning curve for us.
OD – I can only imagine the pressure as the band was changing and also playing this new material to audiences that had not even heard the album.
MIKAEL – Yes indeed! There was a certain level of pressure for sure. I actually remember the first show of the tour and all of us were backstage just thinking “what have we gotten ourselves into?” (laughing) But we came out of that tour, roadworn and better musicians as well as a tighter unit overall. It was liberating in that sense.
I don’t really think about music in terms of what is going to be successful or what the fans will like, for us collectively, that change was well needed. We gained a lot from doing the ‘Heritage‘ tour, as well as the album’s that came after and ultimately became a better band for making the changes. Now, in terms of the songwriting process, I just feel like there are no more boundaries, which is just a fantastic feeling. I’ve always wanted to feel free with my writing and I can safely say that I truly feel that way now.
OD – Would you say that your personal taste in music has changed dramatically over the last few years?
MIKAEL – Well, my taste in music has always been eclectic since as far back as I can remember. When I was writing for the first record I was only 19 years old and felt that I had to do things a certain way. I wasn’t as advanced or as confident as I am now but I always had the passion to let the music become free and follow a natural evolution.
OD – I guess when you were that young there were things that you wanted to include in the music but just decided against as you didn’t know how it was going to be received by the death metal community?
MIKAEL – Yes, that’s so right! We were also finding ourselves as a band and wanted to get our feet on the ladder. Eventually, we landed a record contract and I wanted to be part of that scene and have to say that even though we had just been signed I was already consuming non-extreme music and was pretty much done with it at 19!
I was enjoying some of the records that were coming out during that time, but for me, there was a longing to push the boundaries and try something different. I was getting more and more into the older sound. I was visiting as many record shops as possible and searching through some pretty obscure stuff which I began to consume and listen to which had a profound effect on me.
OD – Here you are with album number 12 and finally having your very own label (Moderbolaget Records) to work under. Did this give you a sense of creative freedom in any way mentally or was it just business as usual?
MIKAEL – Yes, I agree for sure. That’s another aspect of the need to adopt new sounds. I bet Rob Halford (Judas Priest) is thinking “fuck, why did I do some much high-range singing back in the day” (laughing) I can only guess that it’s not easy to do the older you get.
I’m fortunate enough that I can still do the screams when I need too and I enjoy doing them when it’s right for the music. My biggest concern is that I’m going to get bored with music you know? My dream, when I was a young child, was to do this for the rest of my life and the last thing I want to do is ruin it by playing it safe? Hell no!
OD – You finally have your own label ‘Moderbolaget Records‘ and studio. Do you find that this is influencing the creative process even more as you don’t have the record label breathing down your back or producers watching the clock during the writing/recording process?
MIKAEL – Yeah, I mean we’re not on any kind of Metallica levels or anything like that (laughing). To be honest, we didn’t really ever have anyone tell us what to do or pressure us with regards to the creative process of the music and if somebody ever tried to in the past or present, we would just tell them to “fuck off”!
This scene (progressive death metal) has been about the music more than anything else, with a fan-base that’s pretty much from our own age group, who thankfully, just let us get on with it and do our own thing. It’s not like now is the time to start Moderbolaget Records to break free of the control aspect, it was more a natural progression for us.
We don’t look at the label as being like Swan Song (Led Zeppelin) or Apple (The Beatles). Yet! (laughing) We had a bad experience during the last few years with Roadrunner and really just didn’t want to sign another record contract. When we finished up with Roadrunner, the thought of entering a deal with another label just didn’t sit well with me. I was thinking “Why should we sign a new contract? Will it be for something like 10 albums? That’s gonna bring me to my 60’s?” I’m 43 years old now and I just didn’t see the appeal of going down that road at this point in my life.
So we figured, “let’s just start our own label” and if we get back the rights to some of the older records from the label, then that would be fantastic as we can put them out on our own, as well as so our own side projects. Nobody can give us any problems if we want to guest on other albums or if we want to get other musicians to guest with us. It does allow for us to get way more creative freedom which we haven’t even really began to use as we have been so busy putting out “Sorceress“.
The possibilities are endless with the label. We could sign up our own bands, creating a totally unique roster of artists and become suit and tie guys (laughing). So, yeah, we just didn’t really see the point in signing with another label when we could have our own.
The record industry as it looks is not a good place right now anyway, so we ended up looking at several options and from this came a publishing deal with a company in the UK called Kobalt that has kind of like a 50/50 investment with 50/50 agreement on the returns. We were looking at a few offers like that for licensing deals to basically chuck the whole record contact thing down the drain, start the record label and in doing that came the licensing contract with Nuclear Blast.
OD – The relationship you have with Tom Dalgety has been a tremendously successful one, as you venture back to Rockfield Studios for this album. What is it about Tom that brought you back there and would you consider him to be almost a member of the band at this stage?
MIKAEL – First and foremost, working with Tom is just really great fun and we all really enjoy that process with him.
OD – He’s quite a young guy I believe, but has a vast knowledge of classic sounding recording techniques?
MIKAEL – Yeah totally man, he’s like 35 years old and really knows his shit. We had many conversations about various different albums and sounds, just so we could where we were both coming from. I had no idea who he was prior to working with him on ‘Pale Communion‘ and he turned out to be a really great guy to work with. Tom was the engineer on that album and Steven Wilson mixed it, so this time around we figured that we would let Tom handle the mix and see what he can do for ‘Sorceress‘.
OD – Was his [Tom’s] presence a big influence on the end result?
MIKAEL – We came to the studio with pretty much everything the way we wanted it to be and Tom offered some really interesting ideas which were mostly sound stuff, for example, he’s fantastic when it comes to things like drum sounds. Do we want more ambiance on the drum kit or does it need to be a little understated in certain parts etc? Tom is a wizard when it comes to things like that. He was more involved with the sound rather than the songs themselves because they were finished.
I think anyone we work with is very important with reference to the overall finished project. A very important link in the chain so to speak.
OD – I was talking to Steven Wilson earlier this year (see interview here) prior to the release of ‘To The Bone’ and he expressed interest of working on another project with you or perhaps the next stage of ‘Storm Corrosion’, one of the things that Steven mentioned was that you both decided to create something that was totally unexpected. Do you find that you both have a similar approach to composing and writing?
MIKAEL – The similarities between Steven and I are similar in that we are both very open to outside influences when it comes to music and he’s not afraid of trying new and exciting things out. He’s a bit more into the branding side of music than I am. For instance, he is very much focused on the “brand” of Steven Wilson and what does “Steven Wilson” sound like. He has many platforms with regards to his sound and concepts, where’s I just put everything into Opeth, with the exception of Storm Corrosion.
Steven is one of those guys, that is always working and if there’s something that he is not sure of, he stores away to possibly use on another project. He’s very open with his acceptance of different music and is not afraid to venture into uncharted waters, much like me.
OD – You strike me as being very different in terms of personality.
MIKAEL – Yes, totally! (laughing). He’s a great mate of mine but it’s kind of like a concept of the plus and the minus working so well together. We’ve never fought or anything like that. He’s very posh (laughing) and I feel like a street kid next to him. I can tell him something very rude and obnoxious and he’ll have a good laugh which is great. He’s a wonderful guy and we work very well together.
OD – It’s obvious that Opeth are all about pushing forward and delving into new interesting sounds rather than re-hashing the same formula over and over like many bands today. Bearing that in mind, do you think that you have reached the vision of what you always felt Opeth to be or can we expect more experimentation and evolution in the future?
MIKAEL – Yeah, I guess we’ve had a long career with respect to the way bands are these days. I’m not one of those guys that sit’s there with calendar thinking “okay, I need to do this kind of album now and then I have to do that kind of album later“. I really like not knowing what is happening or where the direction of the music is taking us.
When I was starting out, I was just really happy to be in a band and playing music. I was more inclined to look forward with things instead of enjoying the present which is what I tend to do now, with my music career as well as my private life.
Musically, I love being in a position of when people ask me “when do you think the next album is going to be like?” and I’m there thinking “I really don’t know.” In fact, sometimes, I still don’t know until the whole thing is finished. When I write one song a certain way, the next song might be completely different, which I love.
OD – It’s widely reported that you are a fan of the 60’s, 70’s bands due to the experimental element of the music back then. Do you find that the entire business has become homogenized and ultimately bland to a degree?
MIKAEL – I think people back in the day were complaining about categories being slapped on them more than they are today. I personally used to like the philosophy of categories and used to have so much fun with it back in the day with fanzines interviews. I used to invent completely fabricated genres such as “Forest Metal” or “we play dark medieval metal” (laughing).
I have a lot of problems with music today and how people consume it. There is no value left anymore and very little appreciation for the creativity and time process involved in creating music. The fact that you can just “shuffle” through an album in the wrong sequence of tracks that were carefully picked in that order just amazes me. Would you watch the end of a new movie the first time and skip the beginning? It’s the same thing in my opinion.
When people ask us these days what kind of band Opeth is, I just say we are a Rock band (laughing). I’ve lost interest in making up new genres to describe what we do.
OD – You have mentioned that the touring process is somewhat taxing and not your most favorite part of the business. Could you ever see Opeth just becoming a band that releases music with the occasional live show? Much like ETX vocalist (Andy Partrige) who hated touring?
MIKAEL – Honestly? I would love that. I’ve been touring a lot of the last few decades and I have to say that I’ve lost my a desire for attention. The attention whore in me has reached its quota and I’m just more interested in creating music in the studio. If I could survive by just writing and creating music, with a little bit of feedback, I would probably be very happy indeed.
OD – You could do “Opeth – The Hologram Tour“! Just give Wendy (Dio) a call, I’m sure she’ll hook you up!
MIKAEL – Ahh man, we’ve been talking loads about that. (laughing) That would just never happen. Ever! I just like to write in a controlled environment, I’m not an improvised type of player and like to be in control of everything, so, I really love the studio environment because it’s a place where you can create something from nothing and that concept is really fascinating to me and it makes me feel like I’m actually good at something.
When I’m on stage I spend most of my time thinking about how shit I am, so I really need that studio time to make me feel like I’m actually doing something you know? I need to feel like I’m creating something and not just shaking my ass up on stage cracking jokes.
OD – With the news today (November 18th) of the passing of Malcolm Young, it’s just another example of some true iconic musicians leaving this life. What did AC/DC mean to you growing up or did they have any kind of influence on you?
MIKAEL – They were as important as any other band from that era. I was born in ’74, so I really got into the metal/rock bands in the early ’80’s and there were just so many bands at the time. Sabbath, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest etc and I was just thinking to myself at the time, “Wow! There’s just so many bands out there!“.
To be honest with you, I thought AC/DC were a bit too old sounding early on, but I really loved their albums. I think the first thing that caught my attention was ‘For Those About To Rock‘ and I love that song. The rest of the album is just so-so and not their best work. I got into Brian Johnson before Bon Scott, but yes, a very important band.
AC/DC are very much a meat and potatoes kind of band, you know? They have a very simple sound, but in fact, it’s not as easy as you may think. A lot of fans expect Opeth to think of irregular time signatures here and there but sometimes, we just need that four-four beat to make the composition work.
Phil Rudd (AC/DC drummer) is one of Martin Axenrot’s favorite drummers and you know what? To have those basics can be a difficult thing to do for some really technical drummers.
OD – Of all of the accomplishments that you’ve achieved over the years, what is the most you are proud of?
MIKAEL – I would have to say, the longevity of the band. This business is not easy and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult as each year rolls by. We’ve had members come and go over the years and problems with the business side of things which makes me think sometimes “how the hell did we get through that?“.
I was a complete slacker when I was growing up. My grades were average and all I was interested in doing was playing music. I had no real interest in getting a job of any kind and just wanted to create and write music. I guess I’m proud of myself for making the decision of wanted to be a musician and just going for it. I would have been happy with a tin of beans and a guitar if anything else, just as long as I was making music for a living.
From that decision I made 27 years ago to today, It’s hard not be proud of what I have achieved over the years with the band and I just want to keep doing what I love, which is making music that makes me happy and excited.
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