Opeth in harmony with themselves

You’ll just have to get used to it: Opeth do what they want, and their only limits are set by their own artistic tastes. Whether you subscribe to their musical orientation or not, they simply don’t care. “You have to take it or leave it because we’re not gonna conform to public opinion.”, says leader Mikael Åkerfeldt, accompanied in the following interview by guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, who joined the band in 2007, right when the band started changing directions.

After all, is it the vocals that define the band? The heaviness of the riffs? A well-defined formula? Or rather its very personality, of which we discover the various aspects as time goes by? Everybody knows you have to set routine aside and explore your own desires and abilities in order to properly fulfill your potential. That’s exactly what Opeth are doing today with their new album, Pale Communion, which sounds more like a sequel to Heritage than a return to basics. You’ll have to wait a while longer for them to go back to progressive metal – or maybe you can simply enjoy what Opeth has to offer here and now. According to the two musicians, the only certainty is that they don’t know what next time will bring.

This is only a glimpse of what this illuminating, funny, and rather relaxed interview with Åkerfeldt and his mates has to offer. If you want to know more about the new album, the evolution of the band, its way of thinking, or its aspirations, you’re in the right place.

« If we have boundaries, it’s boundaries we set on ourselves because we simply don’t like hip hop music… So we’re not gonna go there [laughs]. »

Radio Metal: Many people thought that Heritage was a temporary experiment, a bit like Damnation was, and expected the band to return to its progressive death metal style with the follow up. But that didn’t happen as Pale Communion still doesn’t contain any death metal vocals and feels like an evolution from where you left off with Heritage. Did you feel like Heritage opened territories that had still to be explored and improved?

Mikael Åkerfeldt (vocals/guitar): We don’t really know because once Heritage had been done, we started touring before it was released, so the first kind of exposure that we had to how it was going down was in the same circles that we’ve always been, metal circles, playing for metal people. But with that record, eventually and gradually we saw different people coming in the crowd. Not less people, just different people, more of a mixed-up crowd. Even if a lot of people absolutely hated Heritage, there was also a lot of people who absolutely loved it. It didn’t damage us on a commercial level, I don’t think so. Even if that’s what might be portrayed in music media and stuff, like it was a commercial suicide or something like that [laughs], for us it was a really necessary step to take, both creatively and to maintain some life in the band. We’re more afraid of stagnating than experimenting.

Would you say that Heritage was an album thanks to which you really earned your artistic freedom?

Mikael: I think we had it before. We could have done it before. We did the Damnation record, but it was coupled with another heavier record, so people could be like: “That’s fine, they didn’t abandon us yet!” But when you put out your first record, everything after that is gonna come with references, because you have this sound the people have been exposed to. The first exposure of a band comes through the first record, and it provides a reference for everything that comes after that. We always try to be a band without boundaries. If we have boundaries, it’s boundaries we set on ourselves because we simply don’t like hip hop music… So we’re not gonna go there [laughs].

You declared that during the composition process, you were very focused on the melodies. What made you become aware that you needed to concentrate more on melodies this time?

Mikael: This wasn’t something like a conclusion I came to. We’ve always been a fairly melodic band, I think. I wrote a song that was very melodic, the last song on the record. I thought it was nice, and I like to have some type of direction or agenda, whatever you call it, it kinda helps you to write sometimes, so I figured that maybe we should focus a bit more on melodies this time, and mainly on vocal melodies. So the vocals are pretty upfront, they’re the focal point most of the time on this new album. But that part isn’t really unique, we’ve always been quite melodic.

You said that you “were looking at some of the late ’70s and early ’80s production” with this album. Heritage was already very ’70s sounding and this is something more and more bands are looking into nowadays. But why looking back at the past? How does it help moving forward?

Fredrik Åkesson (guitar): I remember we talked about Dio’s Holy Diver because it’s a very upfront, clear, in-your-face type of sound. It didn’t really end up like that, but we talked about late 70s’ hard rock albums and the early 80s’… They have a special warmth to their sound. Later 80s’ have a kind of disgusting sound and the 90s’ was more sterile sounding, I would say, part of it…

Mikael: Yeah. I think it was mostly that many references and influences that we have are from old bands, but we don’t try to be a retro band. And sound wise, we don’t really try to sound old either. Even for Heritage, people were like: “It’s vintage sounding record” and when I’m thinking back on what we did during the recording, there was nothing special. We just set up microphones…

Fredrik: We used different pickups with the guitars, we used a single coil pickup which gives a dirtier sound, if you wanna put it that way. On Pale Communion, we just wanted to get the best sound from each instrument without using editing or sound replacements. It was kind of natural…

Mikael: It wasn’t anything strange. We didn’t deliberately set out to have a vintage sound, but we recorded in what I think is the right and normal way: a couple of microphones set around or in the drums or wherever they’re supposed to be, same with the guitars. You record, and then you have a record. Many metal bands these days spend a lot of time with computerized effects, plug-ins, and they don’t count so much on recording technique because you get a lot of freedom with the technology as it has evolved since let’s say the 70s’ or whatever, the 80s’. It allows bands and musicians to do fairly good sounding production in their boy room, if you know what I mean.

Fredrik: That’s a great tool of course, but we’re fortunate that we could do sort of an “old school” type of recording. Not every band can afford it, maybe.

Mikael: And we also like that. That’s the stuff we grew up with. Albums recorded in a real way, in the same way that we recorded this one and Heritage. Like I said: just get in the studio and do it. It’s not deliberately trying to sound retro.

The album is very elaborated in terms of arrangements and even includes string instrumentation. What was your approach in terms of arrangements and how expensive and demanding was it?

Mikael: [Laughs] I don’t know how expensive, I haven’t seen the bills!

Fredrik: That’s why we did the recording in 14 days: to save up for that! [Laughs]

Mikael: [Laughs] Yeah!

I just said that because for some bands it’s been an issue, something they can’t really do for money reasons…

Mikael: Yeah, it’s an intimidating process. Once I had those two songs I thought required strings, there was never in my mind the thought that we would go for synthetic strings. I wanted the real thing. I wrote the songs like I normally do, and just used something like that [a keyboard] for the demos, just whatever means I had to make the song sound as good as possible. At the end, we exchanged all these synthetic sounds for real ones and that’s when we put the strings and stuff like that. It was not something planned before I started writing. The first song I wrote had a string arrangement and that was just a coincidence. I just wanted to try out what it would sound like because I had never really used it before. I was like: “What’s this?”, clicking around, like: “Uh it sounds alright!”, to see how natural it sounds, if it sounds real if you know what I mean. And I ended up liking what I had written, so that became the song, and it became a song that required strings.

The album was recorded at Rockfield Studios. You mentioned that this is where Queen recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody”…

Mikael: And “Killer Queen”! “Sheer Heart Attack” was done there… “Stone cold crazy” [he sings]

I guess this isn’t anodyne…

Fredrik: A lot of other bands too. Rush did two of their classic albums there, Black Sabbath has been there… Ronnie James Dio did his last album with them there…

Mikael: Oasis… Stone Roses…

Alright! What does this song or this band or these bands represent for you? Was it an inspiration for this album?

Fredrik: Yes of course that was very cool, when we went there with the gear somebody told me that Black Sabbath had rehearsed there before they did their first album, a long time ago… It’s cool to think about it. But in the studio, I don’t think it affected us in a way. It was more nostalgic…

Mikael: It’s not like the walls were dripping with history, it’s just a studio in the end, but the exterior of the studio I think was untouched from back in the days. A farm basically. Horses and cows… Sheep… Sheep fuckers [laughs]… It’s just the hills…

Fredrik: That was beautiful!

Mikael: …Pastures… In the middle of nowhere. It’s close to a tiny town called Monmouthshire which we could walk to. It’s in the Wales but there were English style pubs, so we could have a pint of beer and get drunk if we wanted to. But really, what provided the nice feeling with this recording was the fact that it was on the countryside.

Fredrik: It made us work very focused because we had breakfast, lunch, dinner there, we slept there, and the technician was staying with us as well so we could work late hours.

Mikael: And we all had Jacuzzis.

Fredrik: Yeah. I tried it once.

Mikael: I didn’t even try it.

Fredrik: It was different because when I pulled the curtains aside in the morning, I would see a couple of horses staring at me. It was like that everyday.

Mikael: And also a sheep.

Fredrik: Sheep’s ass! [Laughs]

« With the death metal screams I hit some type of pinnacle, like ‘So what now?’. And it becomes a bit gimmicky for me if I’m just doing it for the sake of doing it. »

You seemed to know what you wanted for this album. Do you usually have a sort of plan in mind?

Mikael: No. It’s just that I write music and I write a lot of music, but I don’t really have much plans until I start writing. Then I know I can take a certain direction. Before I start writing is emptiness. It’s a void of worry, because being a musician, you’re depending on creativity, you have to create something from nothing basically and it can be worrying. It’s very different from a regular job. I don’t even wanna talk about this being a job for us because it’s not really a job, but people go to work everyday, and of course they might get fired, but at least in many cases they have pre-fixed agendas, stuff that they are gonna do, while for us it’s like you work, you do a record, you create something from nothing, you promote the record and then you tour. And then when you’re finished touring, you’re back to square one and you have nothing. So you’re like “OK… Let’s do a record I guess.” And then you’re on to do something that’s relevant…

Fredrik: … that’s not forced…

Mikael: … Exactly. Not forced, for me it has to be profound music. I don’t like simple, shallow stuff. And to get that out can be intimidating. But so far so good. So far, I have put nothing out that I’m ashamed of. But like I said, I didn’t really have any plans before. It’s just emptiness…

It sounds like you have developed your emotional side with your singing, the last song “Faith In Others” is a good example of that. Is this something you have focused on with your voice and wanted to work on?

Mikael: Yeah, I wanna be a good singer! I am a singer almost by accident, that’s just that in my first band, nobody else wanted to sing, so I became the singer like: “OK I’ll do it”, and I got stuck in that position I guess. But before, I had the dynamics of the screams, the screamed vocals, they create a certain dynamic, but in the last two albums there wasn’t any room or there was no need for that type of aggressive vocals. I still wanted to have some dynamics with my singing voice which made me push the voice a little bit, to make it sound a bit more raw if I needed to and also the sensitive-type voice. I wanted to go to both extremes as much as I could. So I guess, yeah [laughs].

Fredrik: I think with each new record Mike takes his clean vocals to a new level, definitely.

Mikael [with a very deep voice]: Yeaaaaah…

By concentrating on your clean singing and putting your death metal growls aside, do you think that maybe deep inside you, you were trying to prove something to yourself as a singer?

Mikael: You’re getting all psychological on me! [Laughs] It’s not a completely irrelevant question, actually. I was not born into death metal, you know. I started with good singers, the hard rock and metal bands. I didn’t really want to be a singer, I wanted to be a lead guitar player, but my preference is that kind of style, the good singers, Dave Coverdale, Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers… Obviously I can’t sing like that, but at least that’s my inspiration. I’ve exhausted the death metal voice… I can still do it, but there was a time when I was good, really good at doing it, so it was like: “OK, where do I go from here? Do I take it deeper or…?” There’s only so many emotions you, or at least I can express with a scream: most of it is anger, frustration, but I wanted more than that, so that’s why I wanted to develop my clean voice. Besides, I was a novice at clean singing. I had no knowledge, no experience, I couldn’t sing basically, but I was always interested and the more I sang, the more I worked when we toured and recorded records I got a bit better, I saw results, while with the death metal screams I hit some type of pinnacle, like “So what now?” And it becomes a bit gimmicky for me if I’m just doing it for the sake of doing it. Besides, the music changed with Heritage, and for me, it would have been equally distasteful to put screams on Heritage and this one than it would have been to put screams on Damnation. So I think it comes down to taste. But a lot of people have focused so much on the fact that [deep voice]: “He’s not screaming anymore so that’s not Opeth anymore!”

Fredrik, you joined the band in 2007 and did only one album in the “old” Opeth style, so to speak. So how do you feel about that, about signing with a progressive death metal band and ending up playing old school prog rock?

Mikael [laughs]: Do you feel fooled?

Fredrik: I finally get to play some death metal and… [Laughs] I really enjoy playing both styles, which we do live. I get to play both things and death metal as well live. I have complete respect for Mike’s vision and I understand his point, he took this to a certain level and Opeth has always been about not repeating ourselves. I appreciate good music for what it is, and I’m really proud of playing both, Heritage style and the old style of course. So I don’t have a problem with it, no! I enjoy it, and who knows what we’re gonna do next?

Mikael: Grindcore!

Fredrik: And also, I’d like to add that it’s great to play with Opeth because I get to explore different styles. It has a broad spectrum of music, that’s challenging, and challenge is good!

« None of us really thought that Heritage was a crazy, bold, courageous move. It was just like: ‘Yeah, why not?’. »

About that, Mikael you seem to be the one who define the musical direction of the band, but how is it within the band, does everybody always follow your musical mood without objecting? Did the changes happen smoothly?

Mikael: It’s been very smooth, I guess. But partly it’s got to do with the fact that the change, from the inside of the band, didn’t seem that crazy. I think that the changes that we made through the years have come across as more crazy from the outside, to the people that hear the music. From the inside, it kind of makes sense I guess. None of us really thought that Heritage was a crazy, bold, courageous move. It was just like: “Yeah, why not?”

Fredrik: It has some really heavy moments, but in a different way…

Mikael: Yeah! And it was also because the references are there, you know. When we did the Heritage record, with songs like “Slither”, which is a complete Rainbow pastiche…

Fredrik: It definitely connects with the roots.

Mikael: Yeah.

Fredrik: … Like [Deep] Purple, Rainbow, even some Swedish folk music songs that I guess we have rooted in our genes in a way because we heard that kind of melodies growing up…

Mikael: And that in turn is the reason why it’s even called Heritage, in a way. It’s not necessarily what some people stressed about like in your first questions there… It wasn’t: “This is our new style.” It’s all temporary. Not saying “we’re gonna leave it”, but we’re not saying we’re not gonna leave it either. It can go either way. That’s the beauty of this band, and you have to take it or leave it because we’re not gonna conform to public opinion.

The album was once again mixed by Steven Wilson and we can definitely hear a connection between the last two Opeth records and Steven Wilson’s solo albums. Would you say that by working and hanging out with him, he has a little bit rubbed off on you in some way?

Mikael: Definitely musically, yeah. I like his music very much and I’ve been a big fan of his music for a long time. He’s been a bit of a mentor for me in a way, like a stepping stone to broaden my style of writing. He turned me onto lots of new music. And in turn, I have to say I think we have been the same for him, because Porcupine Tree had been under the radar for many years until they did In Absentia, which is their heaviest record to date, and which was done directly after we did Blackwater Park. So he got into the heavier side of things through us, and we got into the more progressive and kind of dynamic side of things partly through him. So that type of thing has gone both ways I would say. Even if I regard him as one of the best musicians of our time and as a mentor for me, he has also benefited from this collaboration we’ve had. They’ve gotten more heavy and now he’s got that [he makes the sound] type of riffs which he hadn’t before, so it’s pretty cool both ways.

Pale Communion is the first album to feature keyboard player Joakim Svalberg. What did he bring to the band?

Mikael: Uh, the keyboards? [Laughs] He’s a great musician. Fredrik found him. They knew each other from music class I think or something like that…

Fredrik: Yeah, we were in the same music class once, and also Per, our ex-keyboard player recommended him actually. And we knew him from a very long time before which is cool, but I knew he could play the Hammond organ for instance, and all those things that we need.

Mikael: He’s a very versatile musician. He’s first interaction with us was doing the piano song on Heritage, he played the song “Heritage”, which is a very, very difficult piece, and I was just like: “Play it! Record it.” The first time I heard him play was when we hit the record button.

Fredrik: He’s very ambitious. He practices a lot and pays lots of respect to the original composition, because Mike writes all the keyboard arrangements. Maybe he adds some stuff but…

Mikael: I write for fourteen fingers sometimes but he rearranges it into something that’s actually playable. And he’s, like Fredrik said, very ambitious, very versatile and he’s got good taste and a sensibility to his playing. Again, in this band you need more than just banging… I remember a Cradle Of Filth video where the keyboard player played with hammers. We need a bit of that, but we also need a bit of nice, calm playing and everything in between, and he can do it all.

Interview conducted face to face on May, 14th by Chloé.
Transcription : Chloé.
Questions and introduction : Spaceman.

Opeth official website : Opeth.com

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