Interview: Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt Talks About the Band's New Album, 'Heritage'
"My screams aren't getting better," says Opeth mainman Mikael Akerfeldt, referring to his decision to include no harsh vocals on the band's new album. "On the contrary, I think I'm a worse screamer than I used to be."
Indeed the band's latest album, Heritage, sees the band taking a decidedly more mellow, progressive approach to their unique brand of metal, drawing more from the back catalogs of Camel and Pink Floyd than any of the band's early death metal influences.
Fans of Orchid may have been a tad confused by the jazz-fusion passages that made their way onto the album in songs like "Nepenthe," but Heritage is still undoubtedly an Opeth record, and a very good one at that.
After extenuating circumstances caused my scheduled interview with Mikael Akerfeldt at the band's second show in as many nights at New York's Webster Hall to be cancelled, I finally caught up with Opeth's mastermind on the road to talk about Heritage, Ronnie James Dio and the odds of Opeth ever doing a reggae album.
What did it mean to you celebrating the band's 20th anniversary with a string of shows last year?
MIKAEL AKERFELDT: It ended up being business as usual in a way, with a small tour. We didn't really intend to do anything like that. The initial idea was just to have some sort of party with the five of us in a bar, but it ended up being some really big shows for us. It was good fun, but it kind of took away from the easy-going initial idea that we had of just playing a few songs at a pub somewhere.
I didn't think about it as some 20 years thing; I just thought of it as a bunch of cool shows.
A lot of people have immediately compared Heritage to Damnation, mainly because of the absense of death metal vocals. Do you think that's a fair comparison?
Yes and no. The only thing that's got anything to do with the Damnation album is the fact that there's no screams on there. I don't think there are many other similarities, to be honest.
[Heritage] is a lot closer, I think, to the music I listen to to gain inspiration. To be honest, I don't really mind what album they compare it to. I guess it's the easy way out, so to speak, to compare it to the Damnation record, but I think the only similarties between those albums in reality is the fact that there's no screams.
At what point in the songwriting process do the albums start to take shape for you? For instance, when writing Heritage, how soon did you realize the album wouldn't have screaming and would be more progressive-rock sounding?
The initial idea was actually to do a modern-sounding... almost like a continuation of Watershed. I wanted to do three-part harmony vocals all the time, like some type of metal version of the Byrds. [laughs] But it didn't really work out. I wrote a couple of songs but I didn't feel that it was interesting enough for me.
So I scrapped a couple of songs that I had been working on and started from scratch, writing a song that became "The Lines in My Hand" on the new record. Which was a really odd song in comparison to anything else I've ever done before.
I got more freedom to do whatever I wanted after writing that song. I kind of new pretty early on that it was going to be an odd album, and at the time I wasn't particularly interested in the most extreme, heavy type of metal, I was more into something else. So I knew pretty early on that it wasn't going to be a super, super extreme metal record.
This record definitely displays the wide range of music that influences you outside of metal. I detect a hint of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour on the song "Folklore," for instance. Who are some of the non-metal players that have really influenced you?
Well, if you're talking guitar players, there are a lot of good guitar players out there. There's acoustic players like Bert Jansch. I like Nick Drake, and Jackson C. Frank. I love Jerry Donahue.
Ritchie Blackmore has always been a big influence for me. I really appreciate his integrity. I might not necessarily be the biggest fan of the Renaissance music he's doing now, but I love an artist or musician who has followed some time of calling, if you know what I mean.
Other than that, there are so many great guitar players out there. Joni Mitchell, I think she's a great guitar player, piano player, songwriter. I've been listening to a lot of her. All sorts of stuff.
Speaking of Ritchie Blackmore, the song "Slither" -- which is dedicated to Ronnie James Dio -- has a pretty distinct Rainbow vibe to it. How much did they consciously influence the direction of that song?
I was just fooling around in my studio, hoping to write something, and I was just playing guitar. At the time I was playing a Stratocaster and basically had a Blackmore type sound that day. I was just fooling around and I came up with this lick and it sounded really cool.
I mean it was a complete Rainbow pastiche, but it felt right because Dio had just passed. It became kind of a tribute to him because he was such a big influence. He was one of those reasons I started getting into metal and hard rock music in the first place. It felt cool to have a song like that on the album, that kind of dynamic, which I like. It's both tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time, that song.
Did any Strats make it onto the album?
Yeah, there's a lot of Strats on the album, actually. I wanted to have a little bit of a thinner rhythm sound, so we would allow the bass guitar to be more in the forefront of the picture. On most metal records, the bass guitar is basically not there. It's like you turn up the bass on that stereo and that's the bass guitar.
On a lot of the songs, the rhythm guitar was done with single-coil pickups. I don't know why, I just felt really fed up with that thick, Mesa Boogie-type guitar sound. I wanted to go the opposite way with this album, and I think it was a good choice with this type of music; you can hear everyone more clearly than ever before.
As I said, I was just fed up with the contemporary metal productions of today. I hate them, to be honest, and I just wanted to do something a little bit different.
But there's all sorts of guitars on there. There's a lot of PRS guitars, some Strats, I even played a Tele. Some Gibsons as well. A lot of nice stuff.
How about in terms of amps and effects?
We used a Marshall 800, two-channel. We borrowed it from a friend. It was a good amp that we liked and it ended up being used on most of the songs. For some of the cleaner stuff, we had a Fender Deluxe; I think it was a Twin Reverb. It had a broken speaker so we had to line it through a different cab.
We also used a really old Gibson amp, like an old transitor. It looks like someone took a shit on it, basically. [laughs] But it sounded lovely! I used it completely dry, but it just sounded very sweet. It must have been from the '50s. We used that a lot on this album.
Line-up changes have been somewhat of a constant thing throughout the band's history. How much do the players in the band at any given time influence the sound of the music, either through their input or you writing a part with them in mind?
I record demos of the songs ... basically I make a demo version of the album. I work a lot on each instrument; I write for the keyboards, the drums and for the guitars, bass and vocals, of course. I try to make it sound as good as I possibly can, and in a way, I want to intimidate the other guys in the band. I want it to sound so good that they feel like, "Wow, if I'm going to top that I'm going to have to come up with something really cool."
And it works. Once they have brought their own personality into this album, and made the album their album as well, it's just beyond anything I could have done. I'm not sure that's good. I don't know how that will work in the long run, but for this album it really, really works.
Is there a particular guitar player you've played with in the band that's really pushed you as a guitarist?
No, not really. I used to see myself as a guitar player a bit more, back in the day. Now I see myself more as a songwriter, and I have no problem giving away guitar parts to Fredrik [Akesson, lead guitar, backing vocals] if I feel that he can do something here. I'm not going to struggle to record a specific part that he could do better.
But I think between the two of us, we're a strong team. We cover a lot of ground between myself and Fredrik. I play all of the acoustic guitar on the record, and he's basically from the shredding type of background and he can play blues, jazz and whatever.
I guess we push each other a little bit, but generally I just want to reach the results I'm after. I'm not thinking of me as a guitar player, I'm thinking of how we make it as good as possible.
Do you offer any direction to Fredrik when it comes to his leads, or is he more or less free to write what he feels would work well for the song?
When I did the demos, like "Slither" for instance, I would say, "I have this song, and we need some type of Blackmore-ish solo right here," and that's what he did. And for the song "Nepenthe," I was like, "Yeah, Allan Holdsworth, please?" [laughs]
But basically I was just giving him ideas. Fredrik is a very good guitar player when it comes to improvisation. I think he did like ten takes of each solo and all of them were different. It was very difficult for me, as I was just listening for the best interest of the song, and it was very difficult for me to choose which one fit the song best, because they were all good. But in the end we both kind of decided on a solo with the best vibe.
A lot of guitar players just focus their guitar solo. It doesn't matter what the song is, they just want to shred. And I want it to be tasteful and nice, and in that way it's really easy for me to work with Fredrik because he understands what we're going for.
I think a lot of bands sort of paint themselves into a corner where they risk alienating fans if they deviate from a standard sound, but Opeth has sort of become an outlet for whatever your creative direction might be. Is there anything you couldn't do within Opeth?
It's pretty open. I feel like we can go anywhere, but there's a couple of directions that wouldn't make much sense, if you know what I mean. For us to do a reggae album [laughs] or do a grindcore record, it's not something that we're gonna do.
I need fulfilment from music. I don't like pointless music. If I'm writing my own music, I want it to be music that I want to hear, that I want to listen to. We don't think in terms of putting out an album and says it's the most brutal, extreme piece of metal ever -- it doesn't say anything to me. That's just words. I like music that I can feel; it's something you can't really explain, it just sort of clicks with you.
As long as I can come up with type kind of music, that's the only thing that matters. If I can't write that type of music, we're not going to continue. So each album is the last one, you could say.
Do you have any idea where things might go next? I think most of the fans are probably wondering if they'll ever hear screams again...
That's impossible to say. I let the music kind of guide me in a sense. But I'm not really interested in those type of vocals these days. I've done them for a long time and I feel that I can't take it further. If I can't develop something, I tend to lose interest in it.
My songwriting is constantly developing and my clean singing is constantly developing -- which makes it much more interesting for me. I've done the most extreme and brutal type of vocals, and it feels like it's behind me.
But that's our roots, so to speak. It's not like I'm turning my back on that, but I'm letting the music guide what type of vocals I'm gonna use. So I can't say, but my screams aren't getting better. On the contrary, I think I'm a worse screamer than I used to be.
Opeth's new album, Heritage, is out now on Roadrunner Records.