Every new Opeth release is quite a formidable event in the metal world. And as it happens, the Swedish quintet will deliver their tenth record, entitled Heritage, on 20th September. We met frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt a few hours before he was to tread the boards at Clisson on 19th June, and took this opportunity to ask him a few questions in a very relaxed manner. Said questions revolved around this new album, the departure of keyboardist Per Wiberg and the status of his project with Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree).
But before that, in order to stay true to ourselves, we couldn’t resist talking about an anecdote according to which Mikael was once caught in the toilet doing number two when the show intro started to play : "It’s true and it was one of those rubber shits that never ends! I had to go on stage unfinished but nobody knows… There was another time were everybody had to go to the toilet before the show and somebody clogged the toilet up. We flushed it right before going on stage and shit just came out all over the floor. The intro was running and we were laughing so hard that we couldn’t look cool!" This kind of fecal misadventure would probably have been better suited for Mikael’s other band, Bloodbath, than for the very classy Opeth: " Yeah shit is part of our image", the singer agrees. Maybe Bloodbath should make that the theme of one of their future songs? "Yeah ! Maybe we should. That’s good inspiration."
It had to be said.
Let’s now talk about the band’s new album. What’s pretty certain is that the record is intriguing, mainly because of Mikael’s rather vague comments about it. But in spite of this, the main idea is that Opeth is evolving: "I never heard music like that. So I can’t compare it to other bands. If you want to compare it to another band it has to be us. But still, it’s different. For me it kind of makes sense because I’ve been doing this for such a long time. So it’s not a massive departure for me and for the guys in the band. But for fans, if they are, for example, into My Arm Your Hearse it might be a bit different. But I’m hoping that a lot of people are ready for this type of album from us."
Obviously, nowadays, when somebody uses to words "it’s different" to describe an album, the debate generated by the orientation of Morbid Angel’s latest record jumps to mind. But is that even comparable? "Probably a lot of people will hate it. I haven’t heard the whole Morbid Angel album but I respect bands that do things differently. I think, with David Vincent coming back into the band, a lot of fans expected something extraordinary from them. But obviously a lot of things have been happening for them as persons since 1986. So, you might not like it but I have a huge respect for bands doing different things as opposed to doing the same old shit over and over again. We don’t make albums thinking about the fans too much. We have been fortunate to have people who have accepted what we put out so far. Because we were just doing what we wanted to hear and apparently other people liked it too. So I’m hoping it’s going to be the same for this album."
While we’re at it, what does Mikael think of these fans who start to shout "treachery" whenever a band decides to tread off the path they have beaten themselves? "Well, they wouldn’t be fans if we hadn’t started as a band. We have fans because we did what we wanted. Our success, or whatever you want to call it, is based on the fact that we do what we want as opposed to doing what the fans want. So it doesn’t apply to us."
Another aspect of Heritage’s already mysterious reputation is its bizarre cover artwork. It features a painting that seems to be coming straight from the seventies, and can be compared to what some progressive rock or even psychedelic bands like Genesis or King Crimson could offer. Among other details, the bandmembers’ heads are perched in a tree like so many fruits. Is this painting an accurate representation of the record’s musical orientation? "I guess so. The music is all over the place. It’s hard to define the album and say it sound like this or like that. There are no songs that represent more the album than any other songs. It’s an album as whole. You can’t listen to only one song and you’ll know what the album is going to be like. Because like I said, it’s all over the place." We won’t know any more than that. In truth, the more Mikael talks about this album, the thicker the mystery seems to get.
On another level, Heritage marks a turning point in the band’s life, since it will be Opeth’s last album with keyboardist Per Wiberg, who vacated his post in April: "He was fired. But he was going to leave any ways because he wasn’t happy with us. It’s not like we weren’t friends but I don’t think he felt comfortable playing keyboards with this style of music. He’s more into blues/rock and things like that. He’s got a few projects that he’s been working on over the years. I think he feels more comfortable doing other form of music." Rather strange, considering the indisputable impact his Hammond organ and mellotron have had on the evolution of the band’s sound.
Mikael confesses: "Yeah I can’t really understand it myself but you’ve got to earn your place in this band. If you don’t give of your own – and he didn’t – then you don’t belong with us. It’s as simple as that. I’m too a bit surprised that he didn’t want to play with us" What about Per’s replacement? How does it compare to his predecessor? "Fredrick found him. Actually Per talked about him. They come from the same background more or less. The difference is that Joakim (Svalberg) is a keyboard player while Per wants to play guitar, sing and he wants to take care of the business side of things. He wants to run the ship, so to speak. There was no place to do that in Opeth. He wasn’t confortable just playing my songs I guess. I don’t think he ever connected with the music that we do to the point where he felt that he belonged with us. He was always more interested in doing other things. I’m happy for him if he’s happy but he’s not with us anymore and I’m happy that he’s not with us anymore, based on the fact that he didn’t want to be with us (laughs)."
Let’s now switch to another, but just as intriguing subject: the project Mikael initiated with the mastermind behind one of today’s greatest progressive bands, namely the amazing Steven Wilson. How is that going? "We’ve written six or seven songs. We have a record deal and it’s coming out next year. But we don’t have a name really for it. I guess we’ll have to come up with a name. We want something slightly more creative than the Wilson Akerfeldt Project." Why not The Wilkerfeldt Project, then? "Good call! I’m calling Steven right away!"
Musically speaking, is it easier to label this project’s musical orientation that Heritage’s? "It’s grindcore highly influenced by Scum from Napalm Death (laughs). Well sometimes it sounds like us because when I’m singing it sound a bit like Opeth, I guess, and when he’s singing it sounds a bit like Porcupine Tree. It’s… I don’t know. It’s good! (laughs) The project is just the two of us but we did hire a string section." Well, that slightly contradicts what Steven Wilson already said, since he didn’t seem willing to make any link between this project and their respective bands.
To conclude, during this 2011 edition of Hellfest, we caught the frontman sneaking in Pain Of Salvation’s dressing room. A good opportunity to point out the harmony between the two bands. And yet, Mikael confirms that no musical collaboration is in store. More simply: "We became friends and we’re going to bring them on tour with us in October. I think we have a lot in common, like our love for the Beatles. I respect them. I wasn’t a big fan of Pain Of Salvation until their last album came out. I really like that album. It clicks with me better than the other stuffs that they did. I thought they were a good band before but this album really is something that I listen to, which was not the case with previous albums."
This post is also available in: French