Interview: Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt
God of extreme prog metal: not just one of the most highly acclaimed songwriters of his genre, a true legend
Mikael Åkerfeldt has a unique position within music. Revered among the world of progressive, extreme, and even classic metal, he and his band, Opeth, are one of the most successful exponents of a genre littered with enduringly well-selling acts. Not only that, though, he’s known critical acclaim for over 20 years and holds the position of being one of the most highly regarded songwriters and guitarists in the metal world.
Having formed Opeth in 1989, Åkerfeldt has released 12 albums with the band (the most recent being Sorceress, which was released in September 2016) and has been the driving force behind the group’s combination of death/black metal and prog/classic rock.
We caught up with Mikael during the tail end of Opeth’s 2017 European tour and discovered that at the beginning of the band’s career, he had to commit every song to memory, as he had no method of recording them – a unique challenge, especially considering that some of the tracks were 20 minutes long…
Opeth have been going for nearly 30 years. Do you have the same fire for this now as you did when you started?
“Probably not, not on tour anyway. When we play that’s the highlight of the day, but other than that I’m not really psyched about it – it’s just the same shit different day! But we hang out and we have a good time. When I was on my first tour, I was like 20, and the first tour we did 20 years ago, I was probably more excited about it. But the creative process in the band is something that I am still excited about, at least as excited and perhaps even more so.”
How does the creative process work in Opeth?
“I write the bulk of the stuff in-between touring cycles. If we have a world tour scheduled I don’t write in-between the tours, I write when everything is done and that’s just two shows away.”
And you’re planning the next album to be out in 2019?
“Ahhh, that’s just something the manager said! He just wants to have something in the diary. When I say ‘we’re going on a break.’ He’s like, ‘you deserve it. So when are you going to do the next album? Can we say 2019?’ So I was like, ‘probably not. But if it makes you feel better then yeah, for sure.’
“But I want to take my time. Because we have been constantly touring and we started fairly late, the record had been out for a while, before we started touring. But ever since we started it has been constant touring. Then straight into writing, recording, press touring. It’s never-ending! But you come to realise after a while, especially when you are not so excited about every tour, that you have the power to say no.”
Do you treat the writing process like a full-time job, or do you have a different method?
“Yeah, I have a good work ethic. I have my children every other week and when they’re with me I leave them at school at 08:00 and then go straight to the studio and I work until… everything I write is shit! And if I don’t have the kids I tend to drop in a bit later. So I don’t force it really, I just tend to come up with something if I spend a certain number of hours in the studio. And even if I erase stuff from the day before that’s still progress.”
Any step forward is a step in the right direction…
“Yeah, I mean, I have erased half a record before. I just wrote lots of stuff and decided to erase it and people were going, ‘that’s insane!’ But that was good for me, that was still progress.”
Do you find writing easy and natural or is it a process you have to break down technically?
“No, I just sit down and I play guitar! Or whatever is at hand. I can’t play piano but I have a keyboard, so if I come up with something that doesn’t work on guitar I try on the keyboard, or I try on the drum pads, I’ll try anything out to see how it goes!
“But sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard. I try not to treat it like a job, it’s a creative process. But touring is more of a job type thing, where you do virtually the same every day. I don’t get too stressed if I don’t come up with something one day, or one month, or six months. I don’t stress out about it, I just hope that, eventually, it will be there. I just need two chords that sound nice and then off I go. If I have that then I can wait another couple of months until I get the next idea.”
Do you hear the other parts, instruments, of the song when you are writing?
“Yeah, I guess I do, but you are romanticising the whole idea. If you could see where I actually work, it is just like ‘oh, is that it ?!’ It’s not cosy, it’s just me sitting there. But yeah, you do hear stuff in your head, I guess. Sometimes I sit in my car when I’m taking the kids to school and I have a melody in my head. I can arrive at the studio and it’s all finished. Then I record it and listen to it and… it’s not a good idea! But then sometimes it’s great.
“When I talk about me writing, because I’m thinking about my idols, like Ritchie Blackmore [Deep Prple], it’s like he’s channelling spirits and comes up with this masterpiece, or whatever. But for me, I just write and every now and then something good comes out of it.”
Who else do you look towards for inspiration?
“It’s different. All the stuff I grew up with, like, I can be inspired by a fucking soap opera! But the music that I consume is rock and prog rock, of course, and some hard rock and metal. But also singer-songwriter stuff. I’ve also started listening to classical and more jazz. It doesn’t mean that I will write classical or jazz songs, but I do try to surround myself with music all of the time and I’m very restless. I want to move on and try other avenues and make myself inspired.”
You mentioned before that you thought Opeth should have been around in the 70s. How do you think you would have sounded if you had been around then?
“Probably not anything like how we sound today because most of our influences are from the 70s. I’m not sure if it would make more sense to be around in the 70s because if we were then we would probably start with skiffle music! It’s more a case that I’m thinking that if I had the knowledge that I had today and then time-travelled back to the 70s. I think that’s basically what I meant by saying that. I think the music then was more interesting, but I think that if you grew up with it you’d find it just as piss poor as I find contemporary music today.”
Are there any contemporary artists that you find interesting?
“I mean there are bands that I respect. But that doesn’t mean that I consume their music. But Steve Wilson [Porcupine Tree], of course, everything he does I’m interested in and I love most of it. Other than that, I’m not sure! But I have so many records back home that I don’t feel that I have the time to go digging around for new music and every time that I’ve tried I’ve been so utterly disappointed, you know, it’s nothing for me. It’s almost like a thing that when I listen to a new band I start listening for the reference, like, ‘oh they have taken that from there.’
“So I don’t really hear that much that’s interesting. But I’m not saying that it’s bad, just that it’s me that is fucked up! And I find so much more from back in the day that I instantly feel is interesting – I thoroughly believe that there was a more open mind to music back then. I think people are more eager to make it.”
Perhaps people now see music as a way to live an extravagant lifestyle?
“I think with artists today that they’re treating music as a way to become famous, as opposed to having this genuine love for music in general, and treat it as a way of becoming famous. Which is fine, I suppose. But me too, when I was a child I had these dreams of becoming successful, but there was also a genuine love for music. And I can’t speak for everyone today but, I don’t know what it is, there’s something lacking for me.”
Do you have a process for writing your lyrics?
“I have different methods, depending on where I was at the time. The first couple of records I just wrote nice stuff that looked good on paper and I didn’t really understand what it meant, and I still do that from time to time. But I wrote a few concept records to get away from that and because I kind of felt embarrassed by being asked that question, because I didn’t know what it was about and I was like, ‘fuck, I have to sort it out!’
“So I wrote a few concept records. And even then I was confused myself about what it meant because it’s so heat-of-the-moment and I forget what it meant. It’s not like a riff that you just don’t forget how to play and you can always pick it up.
“But with a lyric, you have to explain them and to explain them is so much harder for me. And I’m not out to blow anyone’s mind with a clever lyric, and I’m not a good writer with lyrics, sometimes I get lucky and I write something that I think is good. But I don’t have any high opinions about myself when it comes to lyrics. But I wrote a few concept records and then ended up writing about more personal stuff, from the Watershed record onwards, perhaps a little bit before that too, which actually resulted in me getting more criticism about writing shit lyrics. When they actually meant something to me! So it’s ironic, I guess.”