INTERVIEW: Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt

Opeth have always been a little left of centre, especially when taking the iconic sounds of death metal out of the 90s and into the naughties and infusing it with a progressive edge. But nowhere has that prog influence been more inspired – and even jarring – than on their new album, Heritage. There’s barely a hint of metal to be found on the album and absolutely no death growling anywhere. In its place there’s distorted organ, nylon string guitar, and – you’re not gonna believe this – fully authentic 1970s-style jazz fusion in the style of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Mikael Åkerfeldt explains the abrupt change in style…

There’s an obvious fusion feel to a lot of the material on Heritage. Where did that come from?

We’ve been listening to not only fusion but all sorts of music. And the fusion aspect comes from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham… I listened to Alphonse Mouzon, the drummer who was with Larry Coryell in The Eleventh House; some Herbie Hancock; the Headhunters, who are a mix of free-form and jazz and pop and whatever. But we listened to all styles of music. Some influences are more there than others, but I think we’ve been quite taken by the sounds of fusion for quite some time now, all of us.

How did you write it? Fusion is very ‘musician’ music.

I write everything on my own. I’m not really a good keyboard player, although I’m learning and I would love to be better. But with Opeth I can play what I want to hear, and I can play it fairly well. But I really, really rely on the other guys to make it proper for the actual recording once we go into the studio. I make demos of everything, and the demos, if I do say so myself, they’re pretty fucking good-sounding! I work a lot on the drums. Every ghost hit on the snare has got to be there. Everything’s there. So I want to have a splendid demo that I can present to the other guys so they should almost feel intimidated! I tell them, “You make it better than this and we have a real fucking thing going here!” And they always do! I think it’s inspirational for them to get that kind of level from the demos. Once they come up with something it’s gonna be fucking outrageous.

It must be great to have musicians who are professional enough to deal with that!

Yeah! I surround myself with really, really good musicians, but they are also more than metal musicians. They listen to all sorts of music, they’re interested in their own instruments and in developing their skills for those instruments. That’s been the case since the beginning. We always aimed to be fairly competent musicians because it makes experimentation so much easier. I mean, we could not have been doing this album with just a bunch of musicians who can only play metal. It’d be physically impossible.

Where did you record? 

It was recorded in a studio called Atlantis. It used to be called Metronome Studios back in the 60s and 70s and it was tied in with the Metronome record label. ABBA recorded all their albums there, up until they opened their own studios. So it’s got history in the walls, basically. You walk in there and you fell… something. I don’t know what it is exactly but you feel something in there. So it’s a magical place, I think, and it’s a great studio. It has everything. We recorded onto computer but they’ve got the tapes, the old Neve desk. Everything in there is top of the line from the old school. There are not many new things in there. Just lots of cool old stuff in there.

Well even if you recorded it to computer, there’s a live feel there that makes it sound and feel like an old album. 

The drums and bass are recorded live. There’s no editing, and we only punched in during breaks. We recorded digitally but we recorded as if we were working with a problematic old tape recorder. That’s how we approached this entire thing. We wanted to move quickly, so we didn’t put all the licks and recordings under the microscope: if it sounded good, it was good. It was as simple as that. So we recorded the drums and bass live, then myself and Frederik alternated on the rhythm guitars. I did my part then he did his part. I recorded most of the acoustic guitars. It would be difficult for us to do it all live because we’d be jumping between so many different types of guitars in the same track. Then everybody put on their own parts, basically. But there’s little to no studio trickery with this recording. We just had good old mics and a good performance.

It’s such a diverse album. It’d be a trip to see the whole thing performed live. Is that something you’d consider?

Yeah, maybe. When we play live, I love to see bands doing whole albums. I love it. I think it’s a cool concept. But there’s always that portion of the crowd that want to hear other stuff. So it’s going to be a pretty unique tour once we go out. It’s going to be a lot of focus on this record. We’re also going to be playing some of the old stuff, but stuff that fits in with Heritage. And we’re probably gonna rearrange some of those old songs so that they fit in better.

There’s a total lack of death growls on this album. Was that a conscious decision? Or was it something that the material called for? 

Yeah, the songs came out the way they did. I wasn’t really writing thinking “I’m gonna come up with death metal,” or anything connected with that type of vocals. I was just writing songs wanting to get closer to my influences, the stuff I listen to, and they’re not really death metal at this point. I listen to a lot of 60s and 70s type of music, and I wanted to get closer to all of those influences. That’s why the album is all over the place. There’s not a song that you can play to someone and say “Okay, now you’ve heard that song, you know what the whole album is going to sound like.” It’s all over the place. I guess we saturated the sound we had on the Ghost Reveries and Watershed albums, which was more of a mix between death metal and the progressive, and I don’t think we could have taken that further. I don’t think I could make better music in that style than I did on Watershed, so it was time for a change. Death metal was not part of that change right now. Maybe we’ll come back to it in the future, who knows!

Well as you say, there’s no one song that sums Heritage up, but at the same time there’s a feeling that you get from the overall thing once you’ve listened to it two or three times. 

That’s how I like my music. I like albums. I don’t buy an album for one song. I like to listen to the whole piece. And this is certainly one of those records. We don’t have any key songs on there. There’s a song that we’re going to put out as a single but it’s by no means the most representative song. The label picked it, and I was indifferent to the choice of song because I like them all equally.

“Slither” is a really cool song.

That’s a tribute to Ronnie James Dio! It’s as simple as that. The working title was “Kill The Queen.” It’s a gimmick, it’s not the most original song I’ve ever written, of course. But we’re all massive fans of Rainbow and massive fans of Ronnie. When he passed away it was like a member of my family. He’d always been there. And I was insanely affected by his passing. I was really down and he really meant something to me. So I wrote this song as a tribute to him, but it started as a little bit of a gimmick, like a little bit of a joke, playing that lick. But I finished writing the song and I listened to it and I thought, “This is not a bad song… it’s a good song!” And it sounds a lot like Rainbow, which can never be a bad thing. So we just made it like a tribute to him.

Another song I really dig is “Häxprocess.”

That’s my favourite song on the album! I don’t know where I got that lick from. How the hell did I come up with that stuff? But it was just one of those songs that was a ballad and a rock song at the same time. It’s played with mostly a nylon-string guitar but it’s quite uptempo, it’s quite happening. And it’s quite dark in the beginning as well. I think it’s one of the more emotional songs on the album. I like the mix of all the songs, but this one is the best, I think. it just sounds amazing.

And it feels like it’s at a perfect point on the album. It belongs right where it is. 

Yeah. That’s very important to me, the sequencing of the songs. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the mixing of these songs. And I was mixing this album with Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree) I had a few ideas, and he was the one who wanted us to put “Devil’s Orchard” as the first real song on the album after the intro. So we had a few things to say, but this song feels like it should be in that very spot.

I also really like the placement of “Folklore,” which is a bit of an epic, and then you get sort of led gently out of the album after that with “Marrow Of The Earth.” What’s the vocal sound on “Folklore?”

It’s a Leslie on the first verse. We used some vocal effects on there, like a milder version of the famous telephone voice, with a little bit more treble and bass to it. But other than that it was the same. We tried to not experiment too much but to have a nice vocal sound that cuts through if there’s a lot of things happening. And have a nice, warm, close sound. It’s atmospheric and I really love it.

And what guitars did you use on the album? It sounds like a lot of single coil tones.

Yeah. There are lots of Fender Stratocasters on the album. There are Telecasters on the album and lots of PRS guitars, including the acoustic Angelus, which was the first time I used that one. We had the Starla on there, which is almost like an SG, to be honest, with a Bigsby. And we also had a Gibson SG, a Black Beauty Les Paul, a Ramirez classical guitar, all sorts of stuff. And we had a Marshall JCM800 amp that we used for most of the distorted stuff. We had an old Gibson combo, I don’t know how old it was but it looked like it was from the second world war – and also a Fender Deluxe. And a bunch of pedals. We had a guy come down with all these Russian pedals. He was collecting pedals, all sorts of strange pedals.

Did you use your PRS SE signature model on the sessions? 

No, I don’t think I use it on the album, but I had the one that it was based on, a Modern Eagle.

The signature model is a cool guitar. 

It’s a lovely, lovely guitar. It’s a very meat-and-potatoes kind of guitar. I could have very easily used it. I had it there in the studio but I don’t remember if we used it or not. This album wasn’t really calling out for the fat humbucker song. It was more of the single coil sound. So there’s lots of Strat on there. I have five or six Strats. I just love them.

Do you have the more traditional ones or are you into the modern American Deluxe stuff?

I love the old ones. I have an original ’75, a ’62 Reissue, a ’68 Heavy Relic, two 1970 Reissues, one Japanese ’72 Reissue… We had one original ’62 in the studio and one reissue, and we used them both. For some reason the original ’62 had a stacked humbucker in the bridge. I was like, “That’s heresy!” but we used that a little bit.

Heritage is out through Roadrunner[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]The album can be purchased from JB Hi Fi

This is an extended version of an interview that was published in Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]

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