In this time we had the pleasure to talk a little with the mind behind Opeth, Mr. Mikael Åkerfeldt; it’s said that behind a great musician there must be hidden a great man and in this room we tried to deepen the acquaintance other than his art. Enjoy the reading!
Hello! welcome on MetalPit Mikael, it’s so nice talking to you, thank you for this opportunity.
For the 20th anniversary of “Blackwater Park” – one of metal’s finest records – you released a limited edition remaster on vinyl. Do you consider yourselves analogical music lovers or do you gladly embrace the technological innovations of the digital era?
I think we don’t have a choice, I’d say I’m a vinyl guy, and I prefer to experience music from an analog source, rather than from a digital one. Even if it’s not that convenient, especially while traveling, I feel to be paying more respect to the music when I’m playing it from the record, so, according to my personal taste, I definitely prefer analog, I like listening to music in a physical format. But of course we must reach out to more people through the digital platforms like Spotify; I am not really against them anymore, there was a time I thought they were all shit to be honest, but now it’s the reality and this way we reached out a lot more people we might not have had a chance to reach with vinyl and CD only.
One of Opeth’s distinctive features is dissonance; who writes down the rawest and most jarring dissonant riffs between you and Fredrik?
I have always been the main writer in Opeth ever since the beginning. I guess – despite Fredrik liking dissonance very much too – it was me being inspired from the Canadian band Voivod, which was very important to me (I grew up with them!) and had a lot of dissonance in their music, which had me wondering “how do they do that?” you know; those were the bigging plants for me at the beginning and since I’ve been the main songwriter I guess I’m the one who comes up with most of the riffs. Although, when Fredrik writes riffs, he usually uses to incorporate a lot of dissonance, which is appreciated.
You’ve always had a very personal style, but the “gap” between Blackwater Park and the previous album is sharp; did Steven Wilson’s arrival give a more progressive inspiration to the band or the time for this evolution was ripe already?
It’s funny for you to say that, because I always kind of connect Still Life with its successor Blackwater Park. For me they’re almost similar, but I also can tell there are many differences between them. I mean musically they’re written a similar way but production-wise they’re quite different. I think that’s something that I have to give credit to Steven Wilson, he came in to help us produce this record [Blackwater Park] and made us achieve sonic goals that we didn’t know how to achieve.
Do you mean sound-wise?
Yes, you can say that he embellished our music a lot more than what we could do without him. That’s what was missing in Still Life and almost all the records before. There’s definitely a “before and after” Blackwater Park going on in Opeth’s career. I think we became more daring with the production and also, at some extent, with songwriting after Blackwater Park.
Speaking in terms of before and after: before using PRS guitars, which guitar model was your favourite? What made you change it?
That’s a good question, actually. To be honest in the beginning I played what I could afford: I didn’t have money, really (laughs), I had a Yamaha guitar I produced the first two records with for most of the time; then I bought a custom-made pretty ugly guitar called Paul Chandler, do you know it? I love that guitar – and lastly I borrowed one of Peter’s Randy Rhoades-style Jackson guitars for a while. For Blackwater Park I had just bought my first PRS from the guitar player in Katatonia; from that moment onwards, I have always been using PRS guitars in the studio and occasionally a Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson SG or a Les Paul, I can say Blackwater Park was the beginning of the PRS era.
If Opeth were to re-record all of their albums without distortion, which one would be more accurately classified as jazz?
Ah good question, my god… To be honest, I have to think quickly now but I think the most suitable would be either the first one or the second one, either Orchid or Morningrise, definitely not Blackwater Park.
“The Sorceress” has been unsettling; for those who are used to “Godhead’s Lament” ’s Opeth this psychedelia and the bass that reminds a kind of mantra sinking in your bones, result into a fascinating turn. Besides the title track, the whole work seems like being born from an inspiration which is way different from the previous ones; is there anything specific that inspired this synergy of words and sounds, anything that led you to this mutation?
That’s a good question, I’m rating your questions now (laughs) but that’s difficult to say; for me, the inspiration behind all of the music that I compose is 70% other music that is from other artists, also lyrics from other artists, and 30% me I think. That “synergy” comes from all of my different influences from so many different genres, one of the reasons Opeth sounds like we do, and ultimately the reason why we achieved our success, is that we were a metal band at times or a death metal band, or sometimes a progressive outfit – this is due to the fact we don’t really consume the music that we play, you know what I mean. So, especially when I was writing for Still Life and Blackwater Park, I was almost exclusively listening to other genres of music which had nothing to do with Opeth’s sound: for instance a song like “The Drapery Falls” was inspired by Stevie Wonder, I was playing a lot of Stevie Wonder’s music, especially from his record “Innervisions”. For us, the ultimate key for success is to reach out for influences that don’t really have anything to do with your own sound. The same goes for lyrics actually: lyrically, I didn’t gather inspiration from gothic literature, I got it from other lyrics by other artists or in some occasions from poetry.
Now time for some personal questions: is there anything in your “bucket list” you’d like to achieve, both in your personal life and musical career, in the future?
Good question! Your questions are good (laughs). “Bucket list” is such a modern word… I have always wanted to own a record shop. Always since I started. I’m not sure if that’s really going to happen, for now it’s still an idea I’m sharing with a musical colleague of mine who has got a record shop. It’s not really on a bucket list, let’s say it’s more like a little dream to own a record shop with my girlfriend. I’d like to own a place in which people can have a cup of coffee while listening to great music and we’ll have the chance to play some great records… just like a hub for music lovers. That’s one of my dreams but other than that… I’m a dad, my life is not just about “me” anymore, I wish my daughters will be happy women. When I was young I was focused on what I wanted but now that I am old, I’m concerned about people around me. I wanna make sure that people around me are happy. People open up shops all the time, it’s definitely not impossible but it is so difficult to find vinyls on the market nowadays. I’d like to create my own “favourite” shop so it has to be very specific and it doesn’t necessarily have to be money-oriented, I don’t need to pay my rent off it! It would just make me happy to work there.
Have you ever experienced such a difficult moment in your life that made you consider giving up on music? Eventually, what made you keep on?
Well, I’d dare say at least a thousand times over the years. When you’re a musician like I am… Musicians are strangely vulnerable, many of them, especially if they’re the greatest ones. There are musicians who just play other’s music and they haven’t really got to work, but those who write their own music are almost in an isolated position: you have many many doubts about everything that you do and whether it’s right, or if it is what you really want to do. It gets so easily tarnished that it’s almost scary to start writing for something new if you know what I mean. What if you don’t come up with something? What if it’s not that good? You’re so scared of fitting into what you’ve always done. So, it’s very strange and a bit pathetic, actually (laughs).
It’s a difficult choice to make, you have a private life too.
Because you invest so much in it, I’ve got a normal job too, being a musician is not a normal 8-hour shift job, where you go to work and then you go back home and it’s finished. You never leave the thoughts, it’s like constantly thinking about what you’re doing, you’re never actually “leaving” work. I’m not worried about my own persona, in that sense, or about the way I’d like to be perceived, it’s more like something that comes from within, your relationship with yourself. That’s why I say it’s pathetic; I’m so sensitive, vulnerable and insecure and all these types of things. It’s difficult to explain.
I’d say that more than being pathetic, maybe you’re just a human being.
Well, yeah, that’s true, but a lot of humans’ lives revolve around what they do and what defines their person. When you’re a musician there is this kind of sense that you’re supposed to be “thankful” and happy about everything, having built everything in your life around your own ideas and not being hired by someone else. So, a lot of people think that you have nothing to complain about, you should be happy when you’re living off what you love. It’s a sort of invincible pressure. It’s difficult to say, I’m not complaining, it’s just a weird position to be in when you are a creative musician and a writer, it’s not as easy as it might seem.
Many years after your experience with Katatonia, what are your best cherished memories? Would you consider collaborating with the band again in the future?
I’m not sure. I talked to Jonas [Renske, lead singer] two days ago, he’s my best friend since we were 17/18 or something like that so over 30 years. I don’t think we are going to collaborate on something like what was seen in the past, where I’ve been singing in the Katatonia records, but we’d more likely start a new project. We’re more into making something new, we talk about the old times because me and Jonas have had all sorts of bands across the years, also a country one, so you never know.
Just a last question and I’m leaving you free: is there a song that could be considered your “guilty pleasure” you must absolutely listen to with no people around?
No, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures when it comes to music, I’m not ashamed of anything when it comes to what type of music I listen to, really. I used to care when I was younger, when I wanted to fit in, but now I’m 47 so I believe there are no such things as “guilty pleasures”
So, this was my last question, I strongly hope to meet you in person at your next show in Rome, in 2022.
I’m sure we will, I’d like to play at the Colosseum in the future, that wonderful building… Hopefully. I really want to play there!
That would be mesmerizing! Thank you very much for being with us.
Thanks to you, have a nice day!