A few months ago, we featured a post celebrating twenty great years of music by Opeth (which you can read here ). Obviously, we have lots of respect for Mikael Åkerfeldt and company. They’re progressive death metal juggernauts who never seem to disappoint fans and critics. Despite numerous great albums, amazing tours and boatloads of positive critical reception, they’re still hard at work, releasing their tenth album Heritage earlier this year. Not too long after our article was published, we were able to put together an interview with the frontman of this iconic band, and it was well worth the wait.
OS: Opeth has been in the metal world for quite some time now, and you’re considered by many to be one of the best metal bands of all time. What helps you put out such great material so consistently?
MÅ: Well, we don’t really regard ourselves in any way as one of the best bands or whatever, we just try to write and record music that we want to hear, and I guess the big difference is that we have a wider range of influences than your regular metal band. I mean, we’ve been around a while of course, but really we’ve just been putting out records we want to listen to, first and foremost, and I guess we’ve just been fortunate that other people like that shit as well.
OS: Speaking of that, the critical reception of Heritage has been pretty great, and it sold pretty well, even though it’s quite different than your other material. How do you feel about the album’s reception so far?
MÅ: I’m pretty happy with it I think, but I don’t really go looking for it. I’m not really seeking approval from anyone. You know, even if I like getting good reviews and people telling me they like the new record, it doesn’t really matter so much for me anymore, I can’t really say why. I love it, you know, and that’s all that matters.…If you go on the Internet looking for some type of approval you’re gonna end up with a lot of shit too, and I don’t really need that in my life right now, to be honest.
OS: I saw that you offered a 5.1 mix of Heritage along with a special bundle, which you’ve also offered for the last couple albums. How did you arrive at the idea to offer these versions?
MÅ: Well, I just recently bought myself a surround system.… I like to offer people who are those type of audiophiles who want to just sit down, listen to the record and get one fucking massive experience because you do get a fantastic experience listening to a good surround mix. You take a record you know and then listen to it again in surround and it’s amazing. It’s like listening to the record for the first time again.… [so]when we put out special editions, we want to have that included.
OS: You’re amidst a tour with Katatonia and we’ve heard reports that you’re playing an interesting set that’s a mix of older and newer material—a bit different than your usual. What thought processes go into what songs you’re going to play for Opeth sets?
MÅ: [I]t’s different from tour to tour, and right now we’re out promoting the new record so it’s more focused on the new record, of course, and of the older songs we’re picking are songs we feel fit the best with the newer songs. There are no screaming-type vocals on this tour, and we’re going back to the third record we did [My Arms, Your Hearse]. But basically every tour is different, and this one is a bit special because we threw out the crispy guitars—out of the twelve or thirteen songs we’re playing on this tour I think we’ve only ever played two or three of them live before, so people have never even really heard this stuff before.…Sometimes there were some hecklers who would be like “Hey, play some heavy stuff you fuckers” or whatever, which I can understand. No one can deny that this is a special type of set list, and it’s up to you whether you’re going to enjoy that or not because we’re not going to change for anyone.
OS: Since you’re touring with Katatonia that would mean that all the members of Bloodbath are on that tour. Have you thought about playing some Bloodbath songs or a Bloodbath mini set on tour?
MÅ: Yeah, we have. Everyone’s here, and we hang out a lot with the Katatonia guys, so we’ve been talking about doing something on the last show or something, but we don’t know yet.
[Note: This actually did happen during the encore of the last show they played on the US tour in Baltimore, MD. You can check out the set list from the show here]
OS: [Describe] the North American tour with Katatonia?
MÅ: It was really good. I mean, I didn’t know really what to expect. I knew that people were going to come out and see us, but with the state of the finances and stuff…it’s pretty fucking amazing that there are so many people coming out. And we have many sold out shows, and I think we only had two shows where the turnout wasn’t great, but those are places where I don’t think we’ve ever really had a good turnout. And it was still decent, having five or six hundred people in Spokane, and I think like seven hundred people in Louisville. And it looked all right, and it was a good crowd—the people that were there really seemed to enjoy it…
OS: Are there any dates that really stick out for you in terms of playing experience?
MÅ: Yeah, a few great shows. We always seem to play well and go down well in Tempe, AZ for whatever reason. Always have great shows there. Some of the bigger shows tend to be, not so much a disappointment, but I never come off stage thinking “WOW, that was a great show.” Like, LA, it was good, but I wasn’t crazy about it. New York shows, yeah they’re all pretty good, but my favorites have been the more unexpected ones like Portland and Tempe. What else… some Canadian shows. I can’t remember. I don’t think we’ve done a bad show, anyway.
OS: So, some people might be surprised to learn that you’re not the biggest theory buff. Do the other members of Opeth know a lot of music theory?
MÅ: Well, they probably know more than me, I don’t even know the names of the chords [laughs]. Even notes on the neck of the guitar, it takes me a while to be like “Oh, that’s a B” you know. I think Fredrik, he’s not educated, but he knows more scales and stuff since he’s a shredder, so he knows a little. I don’t think Méndez knows too much either; he’s more of a “by ear” type of guy. Axe, same thing—he took drumming lessons but I don’t know if he could read drum sheet music or anything. And our keyboard player, he’s pretty experienced; he probably knows most of the theory as well. I never felt that if I knew theory then whatever this part is, I could make it better. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’ve never really ran into trouble with my lack of theory or knowledge. I just go by ear and feel, and that’s what I do.
OS: So, how about the recording of Heritage? How much of it was recorded totally live and what sort of choices did you make regarding different tones and textures on the album?
MÅ: Well, the drums and bass were recorded together, just playing all the parts together to get that foundation, and you can tell (I think). It was meant for all of us to record together, but I guess in retrospect it was unreasonable thinking like that because I wanted to produce this record and in order for me to keep track of it, I can’t be playing and keeping track of my own performance, you know. If we had the foundation of the record, the skeleton if you will, we thought that we could do the rest after and still have a pretty live-sounding record. That’s what we did, and there’s no studio trickery, there’s no editing, the drums—there’s not real punch-ins on the takes that anyone did live. Pretty much everything was done in one take, so to speak. If you messed up, you pretty much started from scratch. If we did punch in, it was when nobody was playing. So, it’s a pretty live-sounding record.
Atlantis Studios is a legendary old studio in Stockholm with good old microphones and the engineer has been there since the 70s and he knows—I mean, like many people including us—he just kind of goes by ear. He has his favorite microphones and we just told him, get a nice good sound and then we just go. It wasn’t really any more pretentious than that. We just relied on our own performances and a good microphone pretty much. For the guitar setup we just had a Marshall two channel JCM 800 you know, which we just used for the rhythm guitars, which were mostly played on Stratocasters, so it had us in the situation where we had to play better and be more focused on our performances than ever before. But we also didn’t want to get too stuck in that shit, you know, we wanted to be a bit—well, not sloppy, but we wanted it to sound more human. We didn’t want to sound like it was machines playing it. Everything we were doing was to make the record sound human, and I think that’s what we got in the end.
OS: You already sort of touched on this, but how did you arrive at the decision to record with Steve Wilson and Janne Hansson?
MÅ: Well, Steven did the mix of the album, and I think I initially asked him to help produce it, but with our schedules it was hard to work out—I think he was on tour or something. He said, “Well, I’ll mix the album with you.” I love working with Steve, you know, he knows what we want and he’s got such a wide array of influences like me and the rest of us that it’s easy to bring out the reference point and he can go “Oh, okay, sure, no problem.” We’re on the same wavelength, I love working with him and he did a great mix on this album even if it was very close. I was very pushy in the mix, I was very hard-headed and I wanted it my way, you know?
OS: Do you have any plans or ideas that you might want to explore as Opeth down the road?
MÅ: No, not really. I’m a pretty day-by-day kind of guy. I don’t really setup goals; maybe some kind of self-defense mechanism because I don’t want to be disappointed or something, but I never really setup goals in my life. The one type of basic vision I ever took, if we’re talking about professional life (obvious I’ve got a wife and kid) was that I quit my job and that I wanted to be a rocker, which obviously had me focused in the way that needed to happen for me to bring this band to the next level. Now that we’re in the middle of it, I mean, we’re a rather successful band by our standards; we make the music, record the music, we tour, the record sells, fans come out to see us. I mean, I’ve reached my goals in many ways, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why I’m so much more relaxed. I don’t care if it ends. I don’t want it to end, but if it does, it’s not as much of a big deal. The only thing that really matters to me now is that if I’m writing more music, which I think I am, it has to move me. Otherwise, I’ll do something else.
OS: Is it really difficult for you guys at this point in your careers, considering you’ve been at it for twenty-one years, to do such long tours so closely together?
MÅ: Yeah, it’s pretty rough. Like, I have my family back home and I have been away from them. Like, today’s my youngest daughter’s birthday so I have to run right off stage after the show to call home and sing happy birthday to her, you know? So yeah, it can be pretty rough sometimes. But, I’m one of those guys that when I get in the mode I might as well do everything. Even though I like and appreciate breaks between tours, I’m still in that mode, so I’d rather just have it be over with—do everything, then just get to relaxing.
If you liked this Q&A, feel free to head over to Opeth’s official homepage to pick yourself up a copy of Heritage and see when Opeth will be playing near you!