An in depth interview with Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth
Dom Walsh and Mike Ainscoe caught up with Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth before their show in Manchester to discuss everything from collecting records, ABBA, beer, looking forward, and having to write some ‘shit’ as part of the writing process.
LTW: Mikael, thank you for taking some time to speak to us.
MÅ: No Worries.
LTW: What’s the one thing you get asked the most?
MÅ: Usually that one! No, when there’s a new album out people usually ask about the songwriting process and how long it took to record the album. That’s a pretty popular question.
LTW: We wanted to ask you about the interview in Prog Magazine (Issue 81). It’s an excellent interview.
MÅ: I haven’t read it, but I was quite embarrassed actually. I was in a record shop in Stockholm and my mum was on the phone and I looked down and I was standing right next to that cover and I thought ‘Look at me!’
LTW: Do you still have the cape?!
MÅ: No…I don’t have the red pants either!
LTW: It was a very revealing interview, and you talked about touring. Obviously it’s a lengthy process and you do a lot of record shopping don’t you? Have you been shopping in Manchester?
MÅ: Yes. I went to Vinyl Exchange, Vinyl Revival, some other place in a three story shopping centre (Afflecks Palace) and Piccadilly Records.
LTW: Did you manage to buy anything?
MÅ: I bought a bunch! Nothing spectacular in terms of stuff I didn’t have before. I tend to buy records over and over again. I bought a Charlie Mingus record I didn’t have, but that’s more for my girlfriend; a Colosseum album which I have, Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys with the puppets on the sleeve which I have a couple of copies of. I can’t remember going shopping that much in Manchester, so this was probably my best trip.
LTW: Have you got any favourite record shops in the world? Is there any city that you go to and you think ‘I’ve got to go here to see what they’ve got?’
MÅ: I’ve been to so many! Oddly enough, Brussels is the one. They have lots of second hand record shops there with fair priced records within walking distance so you can just go find stuff; so that’s a good place. I generally like to go out in the sticks, to smaller towns if there’s a record shop there. There isn’t too much competition.
LTW: There’s a local place in Bolton called X-Records which is just full of records piled up from floor to ceiling and you could spend a day in there crate-digging.
MÅ: Those are the shops I love. We have one in Stockholm that translates into ‘Nostalgia Palace’ they sell toys, movie posters and records. There’s only vinyl there; no CD’s. And it’s massive!
LTW: When you buy double copies of records, are the kind of person that buys a version to keep and one to play?
MÅ: For some…I have a lot of records…I love my records…I have some that are dearer to me than others. Then there are records like The White Album by The Beatles which are all numbered and each copy is unique; I have a lot of those. In my collection, there are two or three that are low numbers meaning early copies and then I have a section where I keep all the double copies that I have. I don’t really know why I buy them but I trade records. When it’s someone’s birthday and I’m invited to the party, they know they’re going to get a record! Most people appreciate the gift of a record but it’s an expensive habit – I was fortunate to start collecting early so I picked up lots of stuff when lots of people were throwing out LPs and changing to CDs. My parents had records but a lot of their records we’re not for me. They had Supremes records and stuff like that. It’s not bad but it’s not for me.
LTW: Are there any records in your collection that people would be surprised that you own?
MÅ: Probably, because my taste in music is so wide. I have some soundtracks. I have some 70’s porn soundtracks which have beautiful, beautiful music on them. I have ABBA stuff but I’m not sure that’s a surprise.
LTW: Everyone has ABBA!
LTW: They’re amazing songs. Ghost covered I’m A Marionette and it didn’t sound like an ABBA song at all.
MÅ: It’s pretty evil. It’s a great sounding song.
LTW: Could Opeth ever do anything like that?!
MÅ: No – ABBA is untouchable for me. In the same way as The Beatles are untouchable for me.
LTW: That’s interesting…one of our local bands, Elbow, has just covered Golden Slumbers for a Christmas advert.
MÅ: I know Elbow! I have a record of theirs which might be surprising to some. Golden Slumbers is a beautiful song. Elbow is a band that I think is good.
LTW: they’ve really grafted to get where they are. They’ve been around for years but now they’re selling the Arena out in Manchester whenever they play here.
MÅ: I think they’re in the shadow of other Manchester bands in Sweden, but they’re a good band.
LTW: Are there any Manchester bands that you’re a fan of?
MÅ: I haven’t really. I have a few Joy Division albums but I’m not a big fan. Are there any Manchester prog bands?!
LTW: You might know Amplifier and Oceansize.
MÅ: We’ve toured with Amplifier. I haven’t listened to Oceansize but our tour manager used to look after them. They got a song on an advert for cell phones and made a bomb!
LTW: Can we ask you about wine and beer? How did the Opeth beer come about?
MÅ: I’m really just a big drinker! I try to calm down a bit now! I was a bit reluctant to do those things. Everyone is doing it now. We got an offer early on to do wine with some Italian wine producer. We went to a wine tasting where they were showing us all the different things, but that didn’t happen. In the space between that offer and our beer a lot of bands but out beers, wines, whiskies and tobacco and I thought we shouldn’t just jump on the bandwagon but then we got an offer from Northern Monk in Leeds. I’d never heard of them but they wanted to do a beer.
Fredrik (Åkesson – Opeth guitarist) and Axe (Martin “Axe” Axenrot – Opeth drummer) went over the brewery and participated in bringing together our beer. We had two beers actually. One was a stout which was strong and one was the IPA (Communion Pale Ale). I love the IPA. We have a couple of cases on the bus. The decision to do the beer was a manager decision though…you should do beer! So I thought, why not…as long as a get a few cans! We’re not complete connoisseurs though. We’re just the type of people that love drinking beer! We’re not snobs! We’re actually at BrewDog after the show tonight DJ’ing. I like their Punk IPA.
LTW: They have some crazy beers…Tactical Nuclear Penguin is about 32%abv!
MÅ: Oh, fucking hell! I want a low percentage because I want to drink a lot. Small cans and low percentage. Tactical Nuclear Penguin sounds like a psychedelic band!
LTW: Tell us a bit about the orchestra work you did? You gave a few songs away with the CD as part of the issue of Prog magazine last month?
MÅ: Oh right…yeah…it was done in Plovdiv in Bulgaria; same as Anathema and some other bands. Our manager uses us as his guinea pigs and sends us out to do weird things. It was a stressful experience but fun in one way. The conductor didn’t speak much English so communication was a problem. He never got in touch about arrangements for the songs and we went to rehearsals the day before with the orchestra and nobody knew what was happening. He had the arrangements but hadn’t let us know. We started playing and they came in and it took me by surprise. Then they went out of sync with the band. I made some notes and corrections and we did the show which was alright but not fantastic. Part of the show was nice and majestic with the choirs and stuff but it didn’t completely click; maybe 40-50%. We recorded it but I didn’t want to spend too much time with it because I wasn’t completely happy with it…the groundwork. So we put it out as the free CD.
LTW: Would you revisit doing something like that but build it from the ground up yourself?
MÅ: I guess that would be interesting but I don’t think it will happen. Our music is interesting and vast enough as it is and could end up a mess. I thought parts of that show were a mess.
LTW: Were there any particular highlights from the show though?
MÅ: We played a song for the very first time with the orchestra from Pale Communion; Voice Of Treason. That was cool as that song actually had an arrangement already written by Dave Stewart who worked with us on that record. So the first time we performed it, it was as close to the original as we could do it. That was cool, and probably the highlight. Dave Stewart also worked with Anathema and Steve (Wilson).
LTW: Speaking of Steven Wilson, are there any plans to go back and do another Storm Corrosion album?
MÅ: Yes. We’ve talked about that a lot. We loved the album and it was a lot of fun. Ever since it came out we’ve talked about it but it comes down to time. He is busy with his projects and myself with Opeth. This is the last little run we’re doing before we go on a break that’s hopefully going to lead up to a new album, but other projects as well and Storm Corrosion could be one of them.
LTW: Steven Wilson has some lovely things to say about you in Prog magazine. As does Steve Hackett.
MÅ: They should!
LTW: So has Mike Portnoy…but you haven’t worked with Mike? He must be one of the few people who you haven’t but could potentially work with?
MÅ: We’re going work together at some point but he’s also very busy. I love Mike, he’s a great guy but he just wants to tick me off his bucket list! We’ve talked about it since I first met him…but what?! Something heavy he always says! I’ve been doing heavy music for a long, long time.
LTW: Would you ever go back to older collaborations and revisit them live? For example, Brave Murder Day with Katatonia. Maybe for a one off live performance or something like that?
MÅ: I’m not into those kinds of things. I get shitloads of offers but the reason I’m on that Katatonia record is because they needed me in those days. It wasn’t that we wanted some sticker on the album with ‘the singer from Opeth’ on the cover. My friend, Jonas (Renkse, Katatonia singer), had lost his voice and he couldn’t do the screams. He asked me and I said why not, because they basically didn’t have a singer. For the next couple of records I ended up co-producing the vocals because he was going from clean vocals to screamed vocals and he was a bit shy so I helped him and them out with that. That’s how that worked really, it wasn’t really a project. It was just ‘we’re in the shit, can you help us out?’
LTW: You stepped aside from Bloodbath as it wasn’t much fun anymore for you…is that right?
MÅ: Kind of. They’re fun records really. They wanted to tour a lot, treat the project as a band and become more serious. It was serious. We put out records and EPs but I didn’t have time to commit to the touring so I decided to jump ship rather than leave them on hold.
LTW: Do you feel like the heavier material is behind you now? Are you happy with the direction Opeth is in now?
MÅ: For the time being, the heavier stuff is behind us. I prefer playing the newer songs to the older songs. We still do older song, but it’s a completely different thing. You isolate yourself a bit more when you play those older songs and listen only to what you’re doing as opposed to what we’re doing if you know what I mean. It’s not to say the newer songs are better or anything like that but we sound more together and it’s more fun playing the newer songs. I’ve been doing death metal since I was a child so it’s not super interesting for me anymore. People say ‘Can’t you just play something heavy?’ I just think ‘Why?’ Just to satisfy who? This band is based on satisfying what we want to do.
LTW: Iron Maiden is a good example of changing styles. Their records have got progressively more progressive and they’re not making Run To The Hills and The Trooper on each record.
MÅ: It would be difficult for any band to just go back and do that same thing again. I’m not interested in bands that sound like they did in 1982. If that’s what you want to do that’s fine but I’m not interested in looking in the rear view mirror where our music is concerned.
LTW: Do you feel an obligation to play those older songs live? With the setlist you tend to pick a few new tracks and cherry pick one track from selected albums?
MÅ: Yeah. We do that. It’s not our own integrity that’s at stake when we play live. It’s a fun evening with your mates. The way we do that is to try and please as many punters as we can.
LTW: Was it your choice to bring Enslaved on tour?
MÅ: We’ve toured with before. We always said we should do it again as we’re good friends. But I got an email saying ‘UK on tour with Enslaved?’ I said yes straight away!
LTW: They’ve also got more progressive in their sound. It’s like the older you get the more mature your sound gets?
MÅ: That’s true. They were a black metal band when they started. I think it’s good for any band moves on like that. It makes me happy. There are bands I don’t particularly like. I won’t name, names; that just do the same stuff over and over again because it’s what the fans want to hear. I respect that. I also wonder what goes on in their heads…it’s just this shit again! I don’t want to be bored with our own creation. We had the power to start this band and I hope we have the power to finish the band. We should have the power to do whatever we want.
LTW: Once you start to get bored, it starts to sound boring…
MÅ: I agree. I don’t want that; especially with the records. Playing live you get a lot for free because of adrenaline and stuff but sometimes even then you just want it to be over with!
LTW: Do you keep the set list the same on tour or do you change it up each night?
MÅ: We don’t change it every night but if we get bored of playing a song we’ll pick something else. Or if my voice fucks up we’ll alter the set if my voice isn’t going to do well, just to have a show.
LTW: In other interviews you’ve mentioned that you have to write some shit to get the shit out of the way?
MÅ: Sometimes I’m lucky and I like most of the stuff I write. Quite often I go out on tour a lot the when I come to work on music I have to relearn the technical bits in the studio. I have to write the shit to get the shit out of the way. It’s part of the writing process to get the absolute shit out of the way. Sometimes, in theory, songs could work but when you put it down and record it you realise it’s horrible. It is, for me, essential to write a lot of bad stuff because it moves you forward.
We’d once again like to thank Mikael for his time in talking to us.
You can read the Louder review of the Opeth gig in Manchester here