Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt Shares His Most Intense Metal Festival Memory
Swedish vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt is a hero to the metal community for many different reasons, depending on who you talk to. As vocalist, he mastered the powerful yet articulated death metal vocal technique in the fellow Swedish supergroup Bloodbath. Åkerfeldt collaborated with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson to procure an experimental and eerie compilation of songs in the project Storm Corrosion where he played musician and composer. Most notably though is his virtuosity in progressive metal band Opeth, where his prolific songwriting and combination death metal and clean vocalization concepts have shifted the elements and gates of metal music for the past 26 years.
Opeth’s discography spans 12 full-length albums, including their latest effort, Sorceress (out on September 30th via Nuclear Blast and imprint Moderbolaget Records). Like previous albums in their discography, the songs on Sorceress are robust, full of layers, stories within stories and beautifully constructed so that they attract a wide array of listeners. The release of the new album is perfectly timed with the band’s performance at San Bernardino’s Ozzfest meets Knotfest music festival at San Manuel Amphitheater this Saturday.
Åkerfeldt spoke with the OC Weekly about songwriting, Opeth’s new album Sorceress, Ozzfest meets Knotfest and the band on the front of his first metal t-shirt.
OC Weekly (Rachael Mattice): Sorceress is the first project under Moderbolaget Records. Where did the inspiration for this label come from?
Technically, it’s more of a Nuclear Blast thing. We were supposed to do another record with Roadrunner Records, but they didn’t want to pay us the full advance. You sign for X amount of records and they are the ones who choose if they want to pick up the option. They did pick up the option for the last record, but they didn’t want to pay the advance that was in the contract, which basically made us free agents. So we left.
My manager and I went around Europe to meet with a lot of record labels, one of them being Nuclear Blast. We didn’t end up signing a regular contract with them, but signed a license contract, which is a bit different. We had talked about setting up our own record label for years. We tried it with our own merchandise and had control of that; we also started signing other bands.
This venture with Moderbolaget Records, as it’s called, might be a similar thing. If we want to put out reissues of our own records, we could do that on our own imprint. We could do solo projects or side projects and even sign other bands. It’s so brand new though that we’re just going to take care of Opeth first and foremost and see what we want to do next. I don’t have any plans to become a record label executive just yet. At least we set it up.
Thanks for pronouncing it for me, by the way. I didn’t want to butcher it in front of a Swede.
That’s fine. Our manager did not like the name because he’s from Yorkshire and he’s like, “I can’t fucking pronounce it.” It doesn’t matter. I liked the name so much because it means “parent label” or “mother label.”
Was the joint release of the record label a way of ensuring that you could stick to your own creative directions?
Not really. We always had creative control and never really had a problem with that. We had a long meeting with the owner of Nuclear Blast and drank beer and talked shit basically. He’s a great character (and an emphasis on character, like myself) to a certain extent. He’s a really cool guy. I knew they wouldn’t interfere and we never had that issue with Roadrunner Records. Nobody ever told us what to do. This imprint we set to see where we’re going to take it.
In your video interview while you were recording and discussing lyrics, you mentioned that you wrote a lot of concept albums because you never had anything to say. You had to make up the stories. But this record is more personal with its lyrics. Do you feel that you’ve experienced more or have finally learned something that you want to relate to with your audience?
I still don’t have anything to say. I find my private life boring and wouldn’t expect anyone to be interested in what goes on in my private life, really. I didn’t necessarily want to write about stuff like that. It was just me working with the songs and I wanted to write lyrics right away as I was demo-ing the songs. I found in the past I’ve been writing some kind of mock lyrics just to have something to sing in the vocal lines. Then I rewrote the lyrics once we had time to record. I always figured the mock lyrics sounded better and better, but they meant absolutely nothing.
This time around I wrote real lyrics right away and I found somewhere mid-way that at least half of the songs on the record dealt with similar things. Many of those things could be relayed back to my private life, to a certain extent. It’s not like an autobiography or anything like that. I had a bit of a tough time in recent years with certain aspects of my life and I felt inspired by those events. The lyrics just came out that way. I didn’t necessarily want to share this. On the contrary, I don’t want to share it at all, but that’s what I wrote. I could always lie when people ask me about them.
What Opeth record represents your peak point of songwriting development?
I would have to say “Still Life,” our fourth record. We shared some kind of adolescent way of thinking about music for that record, I think. It became more experimental and dynamic. It sounded better and we performed better. The concept and lyrics were more interesting than what we had done before that.
I don’t think we were more professional, but it was just my favorite record up until then. I figured we had found a proper sound. There weren’t any bands out there that sounded like we did at that time. There were a few bands that had melody or clean singing and like what we had done back then. I think that record was fresh and like nothing we had heard before.
Taking part in the writing process for all of the various instrumental sections, composition and lyric writing, what part of this process is the most challenging?
I feel like all of it is really challenging for me. I write for all of the different instruments, but I can’t really play the keyboards for instance. I really wish I could play piano. I can’t. I don’t have the work ethic. I couldn’t sit down and teach myself how to play. I’m too restless and too old for that now. I think it’s challenging when I write something that impresses myself and if I write something relevant, honest and makes me feel something. I don’t want to linger forever on a cool riff, it doesn’t make any difference to me. I want to have a full piece of music that feels relevant and is most challenging for me after so many years, records and songs. That’s what I can be nervous about. If it’s not relevant then it’s either over or I have to start again.
Other than Opeth, you’ve done other work with Bloodbath and in Storm Corrosion. With as much writing as you do, it wouldn’t surprise us if you were working on new work for a collaboration. Do you have anything in progress?
Yes, I do actually. Nothing has really materialized yet. These projects involve other people and other bands. I think I had set it out loud and said in 2016 I want to be very productive on a creative level and I had just been asked to participate in a project that involved rock musicians with no official training. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, basically. Musicians without any formal training that are going to write classical music. I was asked to be in a project like that. I wrote that piece and delivered it to the producer. He loved the songs, but I haven’t heard anything for months about it. Not sure if it will materialize or not.
The second project was the Opeth record, which is done. The third project was a thing I wanted to do with a few friends of mine. It’s a project that we intend to sing in Swedish with soft progressive rock, which is somewhat similar to Opeth. There will be more songwriters so it might be more interesting in that way. I’ve written one song for that. I haven’t listened to it in months so I’m not sure if it’s decent or absolute sh*t. I have to revisit it. I’ve done well at that so far.
You’re going to be playing on the “Lemmy” stage at the upcoming Ozzfest Festival. Did any Motorhead albums make it into your catalogue?
When Dio passed away, Heaven and Hell were supposed to play this festival we were also playing. He passed and they told us that we had to play in their spot. We played instead of them and I was standing in the spot at the same time that Dio would have been there had he been alive. This was right after he passed away. I got very emotional about that. I couldn’t shake his death for a long time and was surprised how close he felt.
My first metal t-shirt I got was a Motorhead “Ace of Spades” shirt that was too small for me. I was 10 years old. They have been a constant thing in my life. I’m not sure which album of theirs is my favorite. Probably like “Overkill” or something.
I have to mention that I love Hawkwind too. When he was with them I thought they were amazing. That’s Lemmy too.
I do write columns for a magazine called Sweden Rock Magazine and when he passed they asked me to write a column about Lemmy and I could pick and choose from his discography. This column of mine is based on records. I picked a record which is the first full-length he ever recorded by a band called Sam Gopal’s Dream. Sam Gopal played tabla, which is a percussion instrument and Lemmy was the guitar player and the singer. It’s an absolutely beautiful record. He’s singing soft and he has a beautiful voice which a lot of people don’t know and think he just belts out like “Ace of Spades.” You can hear it on that record from 1969 and it’s amazing. He probably meant more to me than I realized. It’s like losing a family member, to an extent.
You have a pretty short set at Ozzfest, considering most of your songs are pretty lengthy tracks. I’m assuming at least Sorceress will be played since we are so close to the album release date. What past albums will be explored for the set?
I’m not even sure if we are playing a new song. Festivals like Ozzfest we are one of those guys in the periphery and there might be a few fans out there who like our shit. Festivals we just deliver and go off and drink beer. We usually pick songs that might come across to people who have not heard us or who might seduce people to look our way. It’s yet to be decided.
Following this one show in San Bernardino California, you’ll be embarking on a North American tour with The Sword and promoting the new record. What are the plans following that?
We come home for about a week after the North American tour and then start a European tour launching here in Stockholm. Then we have some time off around Christmas. After that we have an Australian and New Zealand tour in February. There are a few more plans but they haven’t been confirmed.
To see Opeth at the upcoming Ozzfest meetings Knotfest music festival, check out the options for tickets here. For bundles, CDs, vinyl and digital download options for Opeth’s new record Sorceress, visit the band’s website. North American tour dates with The Sword can also be found on the band’s website as well as ticket purchasing options.
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