Before Opeth played to a sold-out 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, Sea Of Tranquility's Duncan Glenday met with band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt backstage. When we arrived Mikael was asleep on a bunk trying to shake off a dose of the 'flu, and the first of two supporting bands was doing sound checks downstairs causing the floor and walls to vibrate. To make things really interesting the rep from PRS arrived mid-interview with guitars and promotional items. But Mikael was able to zone out of all those surrounding stimuli and focus on our discussion with the same uncanny concentration that has made him one of metal's consummate professionals.
Duncan Glenday – Sea Of Tranquility : [Thrusts tape machine out awkwardly] I don't know how much of this we'll be able to record, with all the noise down there
Mikael Åkerfeldt – Opeth : Yeah, they've been doing that – it was hard trying to sleep!
SoT : How have things been on the tour, is it going well or have there been any complications?
MÅ : No, not really, it's been very good. Although I've been sick on-and-off, as always on tour. Like if we tour, everybody gets sick.
SoT : Because of the close confines?
MÅ : Yeah – everyone lives together and you're sharing bugs, and then you go from Florida to like Charlotte and it's warm and then cold – and you get sick.
SoT : It seems like you've done a lot of touring the US in the last year or 2 – do your tours pay off by themselves, or are they a loss-leader for CD and DVD sales?
MÅ : Well we pay for our own tours now, we don't get tour support any more, but they want us over here and we've done – I think – four tours here. Now we can afford to pay for the tours ourselves without the tour support, which is nice.
SoT : And the tours are profitable?
MÅ : Oh – I hope so! [laughs] But we're not losing money
SoT : What do you guys do to warm up for a show?
MÅ : Nothing.
SoT : Nothing? You don't have warmup exercises on the guitar, voice exercises, anything like that?
MÅ : Nothing. We should – it always helps – but no.
SoT : Do you wear ear protection when you play?
MÅ : No. [Laughs] I should – but you know, I like to feel what's going on. But the guitar player Peter [points Peter Lindgren, who'd just walked through the room] – he and the keyboard player, they wear specially moulded earplugs which cost like a few hundred dollars and they let through the same frequencies, you know, but everything's just a little bit lower. So I'm planning to get one of those.
SoT : When playing live - what are the major difference between the European fans and the US fans?
MÅ : They're really kind of similar – there's no big difference. We have good crowds.
SoT : The American fans "whoop".
MÅ : Yeah – they're a bit more loud, otherwise it's pretty similar. I get asked that a lot.
SoT : And the European countries – are they all similar, or do you see cultural differences?
MÅ : Well in Italy they sing along with the guitars! The riffs – if there's a guitar melody line, everybody sings that! Pretty cool.
SoT : But doesn't that put you off?
MÅ : Oh yeah – definitely! But I love it!
SoT : The last time you toured was with Porcupine Tree, and you played here, at this club. It struck me there was a huge dichotomy in the fans – they were either here for Porcupine Tree or for Opeth, but very few were here for both bands. How did that play out in the end? Did you win any new fans? Did Porcupine Tree gain any new fans? Or did you lose some because you weren't doing the heavy stuff?
MÅ : I don't think we lost any fans because we tried to promote the show as being the mellow stuff. Some people didn't get that and were probably disappointed, but I don't think we lost anyone. I think both bands gained fans from that tour. Now we find that when it's an all-ages show we have fans from 10 years olds to 60 years old coming in. Because Porcupine Tree has a slightly older fanbase.
SoT : I don't know if you can remember the show you played here – but Steven Wilson seemed to be really pissed-off that night. What the hell got him going?
MÅ : Yeah, yeah - I remember. There were some people who were drunk – one guy in particular was in the bar and kept on screaming out "Come oonnn – play some heavy shit!". And for Steven – you know – being Porcupine Tree and playing in front of die-hard metal fans is not easy!
SoT : I have to tell you – by the way – after your show here last year, there was some drunk on the corner – complaining to anyone who would listen: "I wanted them to play some heavy shit – but they just played fuggin country! " [Laughs]
MÅ : Yeah – you get a lot of those guys, you know, they say they don't like all the music, and they say "You know, Judas Priest fuckin rules". But they don't remember that Judas Priest had loads of ballads. Loads.
SoT : Which is the best band to tour with, musically and socially?
MÅ : Well musically, for me, it's Porcupine Tree. That's one of my favorite bands. And we've toured with Katatonia, which is one of my favorite bands. The funniest tour we've everdone was probably with Paradise Lost. That was great – those people are fun.
SoT : Is Steven Wilson still involved with you guys?
MÅ : Yes. He is our producer, and we are friends, we talk on the phone on a regular basis, but he's in England and I'm in Sweden, we're both working a lot, but as for him being a part of Opeth and producing the next album – it's a yes.
SoT : You guys have roots in stuff like Sabbath and Iron Maiden and so on. What other bands would you consider to be your influences?
MÅ : Well I was pretty much into all of those bands in the '80s metal scene.
SoT : So that wouldn't be Ozzy-era Sabbath – that would be Dio-era, or one of the others?
MÅ : Well it started in the '70s, and I listen to that as well. You know Purple, Zeppelin, Sabbath and Scorpions from the '70s. I was born in '74, so I obviously didn't get into music until the '80s, and Sweden was a big country for heavy metal, so all those bands played there. You know – Scorpions from '72 to '84 I still think were great. And then in the early '90s I started getting into the symphonic rock thing, and prog, and started to collect those bands.
SoT : Yeah – I remember that you had a lot of interest in the earlier '70s progressive scene.
MÅ : Yeah – anything from the big bands – Van Der Graaff Generator, Genesis, King Crimson … and what I'm collecting now, which is obscure English, German and Scandinavial psychadelia.
SoT : Your lineup has been consistent since 1998's My Arms, Your Hearse, if I remember--
MÅ : Yeah – I played bass on that album, but Martin Mendez was in the picture.
SoT : Martin Mendes was born in South America, right?
MÅ : Yes – in Uruguay.
SoT : And does that give Opeth a bit of a leg-up in South America?
MÅ : Well – we've never actually played in South America. But the two Martins [Martin Lopez, drums, and Martin Mendez, bass] are big stars in Uruguay – there are no other international bands there. Lopez, the drummer, was born in Sweden and when he was 7 years old he moved back to Uruguay with his father, and Mendez was his best friend. They both came back to Sweden in ninety … six, or something like that.
SoT : So have Opeth's sales been huge in South America?
MÅ : I have no idea, but in South America it's mostly bootlegs and stuff like that so I don't think the sales have been that great to be honest.
SoT's Duncan Glenday with with Opeth's Mikael ÅkerfeldtSoT : Yeah – I was talking to Jens Johanssen [Malmstein, Dio, Stratovarius, solo] and he was saying that they would play for a crowd of 2,000 people in South America, and every person knew every word to every song – yet that'd only sold like 200 CDs in the whole country! Is that hurting you guys too?
MÅ : Well I don't think South America is a major market for anyone. We've sold a little bit, but it's mainly Europe and America that have good sales.
SoT : Where are you the most popular?
MÅ : Well we've become very popular over here! But between the European Union and America, it's about the same.
SoT : Within Sweden – are you guys like huge stars?
MÅ : No! Everybody in metal knows who we are, we've been nominated for grammys 3 years in a row in Sweden and we've won one – for Deliverance – but we don't do great sales there. Between 6,000 and 10,000. Which is alright, since we only have like 9 million people living there.
SoT : And speaking of living in Sweden – when you were here the last time you mentioned that you were about to get married. Did everything go okay?
MÅ : Yes – I'm married! 15th of August last year.
SoT : Well congratulations!
MÅ : Thank you!
SoT : Now that you're an old married man – has your life changed very much?
MÅ : Well, to be honest, I haven't been home that much!
SoT : And is your wife a metal fan?
MÅ : Yes. She does our web site, and she likes all kinds of music and she's a metal-head.
SoT : What is keeping you busy these days? How do you spend a typical day when away from Opeth? I remember you used to work in a record store.
MÅ : Just take it easy! You know – my wife, my cat, my play-station … I still love to work in the record store, and get some music there. I still keep in touch with the guy who owns it.
SoT : So what do you get there? What music do you play?
MÅ : Ah – everything. I've got a good record collection, and it's just like random Metal, progressive rock, soul. Anything – but not country! [laughs]
SoT : That's not so funny – Anders Iwers [bass guitarist for Swedish post-death metal band Tiamat] told me he's been playing a lot of Johnny Cash lately!
SoT : What do you think were the best albums of 2003 – besides Damnation?
MÅ : Uh – Viva Emptiness by Katatonia, In Absentia – although that might have been 2002.
SoT : I remember that a while ago you were saying there isn't a whole lot of financial reward for being in a band like Opeth. Surely you must have reaped a lot of rewards recently, with the better sales you've had?
MÅ : Yeah – well we live off the music now but for a band like us we have to work, in order to make a living.
SoT : So you don't have the mansions and the Porches yet?
MÅ : No, no – I have a Volvo from 1988! [Laughs] But it's not bad – as long as I can pay my rent and buy food and support my wife – although she's got a job too – and I have to buy records. That's my drug!
SoT : Vinyl?
MÅ : Yes.SoT : Back to your CDs – which albums have sold the most?
MÅ : I would say the last 2.
SoT : More than Blackwater Park?
MÅ : Well – I can't remember if it was Deliverance or Damnation, but when we toured Australia last year, in March, we were told that one of the albums – I can't remember which one – had sold over 90,000 copies. Blackwater Park has done very well, but I don't have any figures.
SoT : Still Life is often thought of as being the best thing you guys have done yet, musically. Would you agree with that?
MÅ : It's one of the best, yes.
SoT : This is almost like the which is your favorite child question – which is your favorite album?
MÅ : Er – hard question – but [hesitates] perhaps Damnation, but it's not what we usually play, so I like it because it's "off". Maybe Still Life or Blackwater Park. Deliverance I have a hard time listening to because it was such a bad recording process.
SoT : I was going to ask about that. You've said a few times that the recording was hell. What went wrong?
MÅ : Well – everything. Everything went wrong. It was a nice studio but the guy didn't know shit and he couldn't help us. So basically we had to take it on ourselves, and we don't know how to do that. We needed an engineer and he couldn't do the job, and he was bombed, passed out on the floor, and the tapes he recorded fucked up I don't know how many times, we had a click-track in the computer and it was all cracked software that he would download from the Internet so it didn't work properly, pretty much all of his stuff was borrowed. And a lot of the time he was just gone– you know, in the pub drinking. So he was just terrible.
SoT : The albums you recorded there – the Deliverance/Damnation albums – are no longer your newest item. The primary reason you're touring now is to promote the DVD – is that right?
MÅ : Well – that's what they say. You know, we want people to buy the DVD. The songs are old, though.
SoT : I haven't received my copy of the DVD yet, and some of the readers of Sea Of Tranquility don't know Opeth that well – so how would you describe the DVD, and what we can expect to see on it?
MÅ : Well, it's basically 3 hours of material, and we recorded a show in London, in Shepherd's Bush Empire which is a nice theater, and it's in two sets – one heavy and one mellow. We start with the mellow set which is basically the whole Damnation album, plus "Harvest" from Blackwater Park. And the heavy set is MFM catalog songs. Because of rights, we had to play songs we'd recorded with MFM.But it's good sound, and the footage is great, and there's a documentary on there which is about an hour long, about the recording of the 2 last albums. It gives insight to how we are on a personal level, because we don't portray ourselves as being cool or anything … that's the last thing we want. We want to be portrayed as we are, and as we work in the studio. So it's a bit geeky sometimes, but funny all the same!
SoT : "Lamentations". What does that mean? I mean I know what the word means – but what does in mean in the context of your music?
MÅ : Well we wanted to call it Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire, but the label said 'No, you need a cool title', so I said yeah, just call it Lamentations.
SoT : Okay – a dark, minor-key sort of word.
MÅ : Yeah. It's one of the words I use a lot in the lyrics, so it's suitable.
SoT : As I recall, you once said live albums are shit because most of it isn't done live, most of it is done in the studio. [Nods] So the obvious question – what about yours?
MÅ : Oh – it's mostly live! The only thing we re-did was the parts that had to be redone. One song the guitar was out of tune, so I had to redo that, and one song – after half the song the guitar dropped out of the recording, so we had to play that again, and I re-did some vocal lines where I was singing out of tune. But the drums and bass are all 100% from the show, and almost all of the guitar is from the actual show. So there are still many mistakes in there!
SoT : Which makes it more personal, doesn't it?
MÅ : Yeah! We wanted to leave them there. If you wanted it to be perfect you could go buy the album. There are parts that aren't good or anything, but you know it's 'charming'. It's definitely a live album, and if you listen to other 'live' albums, ours is really a live recording, and you can hear that on the difficult parts.
SoT : Of all the songs you play live – which is the toughest one to play?
MÅ : Well – once you know the songs it's not hard, but there's a song we're going to play tonight that we've never played live before on this tour, called "The Moor", from Still Life, which is kind of complicated.
SoT : Which song do you enjoy playing the most? Live?
MÅ : [Hesitates] Well if I've got a good voice, then – if you remember on the last tour we did a cover of "Soldier Of Fortune" by Deep Purple? That's a great song to play live. I love it. It depends – a song can be great one night and horrible the next.
SoT : Picking up from that – you said 'if I've got a good voice – the growling. Isn't that a huge strain on your voice?
MÅ : Nope. It's more the singing that's a strain on my voice. That's why I'm worried right now – if I feel a bit sick on tour, it's my normal voice – even though I can hardly talk to you right now, I can still to the screams. So no, it's no strain at all.
SoT : Your songs are generally very dark, almost negative. To what extent is that a reflection of your personality, or does it reflect a vibe that appeals to your audience?
MÅ : That's just my taste in music – I don't think it's a reflection on my personality, but it's been somewhat dark from the get-go. There's happy music, you know, like Stevie Wonder. That's great, and I love it. [Duncan raises eyebrows] Oh yeah! You know even if you play brutal death metal you can't go listening to that stuff all the time. As you get older you open up your perspective a little bit. Otherwise a band won't exist for long.
SoT : The satanic references that you guys have used on stage – presumably that's also part of the image?
MÅ : A gimmick. I'm not into religions at all, but the sign, you know? [Holds up the metal-fan's devil's ears] Everyone says it's the sign of the devil – that's the sign of heavy metal. I think the whole thing about Satan in heavy metal is a gimmick, an image, which suits the music, I think. It's not like any of us are believers in Satan. Although I'm more interested in the satanic thing than in Christianity or any religions Maybe just because it's obscure, and not many people know much about it. It's a gimmick, and it works every time you do a show. People love that stuff.
SoT : It seems that a lot of the death metal or black metal bands have moved away from satanic references to the 'eternal darkness' idea. Would you agree with that? And where do you think it goes from here?
MÅ : I don't know. In the early '90s every band in Scandinavia was a black metal band. They would do the makeup and everyone pretended to be a true Satanist. A couple of years down the line they're like 'Oh – I don't want to have anything to do with that'. I think it's all about growing up. It was a trend, basically, and where it's going from here I'm not sure, but the dark side of metal music is always going to be here.
SoT : In Deliverance, the drums in particular, and some of the other components – it seems to be the most "progressive" thing you've done musically. Weird time signatures, the drums particularly sometimes seem to be jazzy, sometimes they're polyrythmic, sometimes simple metal 4/4 … is that an accurate assessment?
MÅ : Yes, that's true. We like our music to have a lot of dynamics, a lot of things going on in one song. That's what we've been like since the beginning with bold leaps between metal stuff and mellow stuff. And I think music without dynamics would get boring, and you're right, we put a load of those dynamics into Deliverance.
SoT : A lot of bands have emulated you, with the changeover between death and clean vocals Which ones would you say do the best job?
MÅ : I haven't listened to many of those bands. When we started out we thought we'd invented that sound – maybe we did – but the new bands that may have been influenced by us – I don't know those bands.
SoT : Will there be more mellow albums like Damnation?
MÅ : I would never say never, but the next album is going to be more of a crossover between heavy and mellow.
SoT : A lot of your albums stay with a theme – but what about a concept album, like all those '70s prog records?
MÅ : [Smiles] I think the next album will be a concept album. It's funny that you mentioned that Satanism theme, because I think it's going to have an occult concept.
[The PRS rep arrived at this point]
Mikael with a new PRS guitar
Peter Lindgren (guitar) and Martin Mendez (bass) look on
SoT : Are they still giving away guitars?
MÅ : Not giving – we get a good discount.
SoT : What guitars are you guys playing these days?
MÅ : PRS
SoT : Exclusively?
MÅ : I've got a Gibson, and I've got a Martin acoustic guitar. Peter and I have a Les Paul, but it's not my main guitar. And on the first or second album we both played Jacksons.
SoT : Yeah, my son plays a Jackson. Are you still involved in any side projects? And any of the other band members?
Sean Glenday, in an Opeth T-shirt, with Opeth's Mikael ÅkerfeldtMÅ : Not really – and not anything I want to spend time on like Opeth. Well – Per [points to Per Wiberg, across the room] he's not really a part of Opeth, and he's got several bands – Spiritual Beggars is one of his bands – but there are no other side projects.
SoT : There are keyboards on many of your albums –
MÅ : No. Only on Damnation. Oh – and Deliverance.
SoT : Blackwater Park has pianos.
MÅ : Oh yes. Piano.
SoT : But you don't have a permanent keyboard player in your lineup.
MÅ : We're hoping to get him [gestures toward Wiberg], as a fulltime band member.
SoT : He toured with you last time as well – I remember he was way at the back of the stage and you could hardly see him – kind of in the shadows.
MÅ : Well he's so ugly! [Laughs] We hide him behind his long black hair.
SoT : [Laughs] The creative process. I understand that you pretty much write everything within the band? [Nods] How does it work – is it lyrics first, or concept first, or melody? Or a combination of those things?
MÅ : Well – for the last couple of albums it's been lyrics absolutely last. But with My Arms Your Hearse I started with a sort of concept, but usually I enjoy writing music more than lyrics unless I get a great idea.
SoT : And when you write – you don't score it or anything?
MÅ : No – I just play guitar! I've got a little studio, and if I come up with a good idea on my acoustic guitar I'll go into my 'workroom', so to speak, and record that idea. And if you've got a good idea it will develop into something more. One riff could develop into an arrangement, for a certain part, and then I piece everything together, and it's a song! But I don't score anything.
SoT : Do you ever just jam in the studio?
MÅ : Well sometimes – but we rehearse so seldom – like we rehearse a week before we're supposed to go on tour, so we have a pretty intense rehearsal and that's all we're going to play. We don't rehearse for fun anymore, unfortunately!
SoT : I know that your compatriot Roine Stolt, is known for jamming on stage – and those guys have it down to a fine art.
MÅ : Yes they do, but I'm not good at jamming – I'm too shy – he is not. [Laughs] There's one guy on the crew here – he's a fantastic guitar player. He's just "Playing blues in D" and he's off, you know, and it's great. With Opeth it's the songs – and there's not much we can do with the songs. So jamming is fun when it's like blues and stuff like that, but we don't do that.
SoT : How democratic is Opeth when it comes to writing, and the whole creative thing? If one of the guys had to write a song -
MÅ : Well that would be fine, if it's a good song. But I think I'll be the judge of that. [Laughs] I mean writing is tough, and I consider myself to be the writer for the band, and I think the other guys do too. But if someone was to come up with a great song I'd be happy!
SoT : Final question – who does your cover art? And so you sketch out the ideas?
MÅ : Travis Smith, from California. I just tell him what I want it to look like and he can be very weird. Like for Deliverance I told him that I wanted it to look like food, with old furniture, and it was an old couple who lived there but they'd just died.
SoT : That bleak image certainly comes across!
MÅ : Yeah, he's very good.
SoT : Mikael, things are getting busy in here so I'll leave you to prepare for the show. We're really looking forward to it, and I hope this tour is really profitable for you. Thanks for your time, and get well!
MÅ : Thanks – enjoy the show. You'll enjoy Moonspell, too. They're very good.
All photographs taken by Duncan Glenday