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Opeth Started from the Bottom, Now They're Here

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ui.general.by Jonathan Dick

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For nearly a quarter of a century, Opeth has given metal fans the opportunity to witness the evolution of their music from the distinctively blackened death metal early days to the straight 70s prog-rock worship hinted at in releases like Ghost Reveries and Watershed being fully embraced in 2011’s Heritage. It was an album that, to the very vocal chagrin of many fans, unceremoniously abandoned any semblance of the “extreme” brand of metal on which Opeth had built the vast majority of their fan base. Risk is a funny thing in the music industry, though. Too often the word is given immediate association with presumed brilliance in that an artist simply does it differently to be different. For Opeth, and specifically for its front man and creative nucleus, Mikael Åkerfeldt, those potential risks were indelibly eclipsed by the band’s drive to not only creatively challenge the listener, but to also challenge their own potential as musicians. 

Opeth’s trajectory of style has shown that, for all the well-deserved acclaim and popularity his band may receive, Åkerfeldt is a passionate music fan first and foremost. It’s that same passion which has allowed Åkerfeldt to display an incredibly eclectic creative vision even outside his work with Opeth, from the legendary Brave Murder Day album with Katatonia to the unhinged death metal of Bloodbath to the experimental collaboration of Storm Corrosion with prog rock mastermind Steven Wilson. Their newest album, as of yet untitled, finds Opeth journeying even further into the prog rabbit hole adding vocally harmonic layers to those musical digressions likely to elicit as much comparison as they are debate from fans eager to hear just where the hell Opeth will take them this time. Wherever that may be, it’s guaranteed to be a place born out of Åkerfeldt’s determination and drive to challenge himself and Opeth to continually move the music away from the possibility of stagnation or predictability. 

It’s a creative perspective that’s served Opeth quite well, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s seen the band reward listeners again and again, regardless of whether or not the music is found at its darkest, most abrasive edges or at its most gorgeous and melodically complex. In anticipation of Åkerfeldt curating this year’s Roadburn Festival, Noisey sat down to speak with the vocalist/guitarist about his own personal journey as a musician, the evolution of Opeth’s music, and how he’s seen heavy music change over the last 24 years. 

Noisey: From those first days with Eruption to the upcoming Opeth release, how have you seen yourself evolve both personally and artistically since the first chord or lyric you wrote? 
Mikael Åkerfeldt: Wow. I was 14 when I had that band Eruption. It was a three-piece, and I did write the songs, but we also played some covers. But it was just a learning thing for me, just a fun thing to play together with your pals and play some heavy metal songs. We did some Misfits covers and stuff like that—really simple stuff, and I remember I was just blown away by the fact that you could get these instruments to sound good together. That you could have a drumbeat, a bass guitar that would add to the guitar riffs that I was playing just blew my mind. It was really just innocent fun, basically, in those days, and then now it’s been so many years since, but it’s what I do. It’s what’s kind of shaped my whole personality and my whole life. I owe so much to music. Like I said, it’s become part of my personality. Everybody who knows me knows how important it is for me. I’ve changed so much. It’s impossible to say. But I like to keep that innocence intact a little bit, because I don’t want to get too carried away in the business side of things. I’m interested in the business side of things, but I still value the creativity and the creative side of being in a band more than anything else. I mean, I have a career, so to speak, and we do make a living doing this now, which is fantastic of course, but I like to think it’s never been at the expense of that initial innocence in creativity. It’s still there. 

When you talk about change, I can’t help but think of how metal fans are notoriously fickle when it comes to change and generally welcome it with apprehension. Were those distinct changes in Opeth’s style from death metal to the more progressive rock sound of these last two records something inherently deliberate with you guys, or do you see it as a kind of organic creative growth for Opeth?
Yeah, I mean, it was natural for me. I did try. We did the Watershed record which I thought was a really, really good heavy extreme metal whatever-you-call-it record, and then after that one, I started writing for the tenth album or what eventually became Heritage. I did write a couple of songs that were a continuation of the Watershed album. They were heavy. They were supposed to be death metal ingredients and stuff going on there, but I knew something was not right. I didn’t feel comfortable. I wrote some good things, but I ended up thinking, “Fuck, is this right?” And I ended up deleting two songs and just started from scratch. That’s when I wrote the song called “The Lines In My Hand” from Heritage which was just completely different to what I’d just been working on, and I felt that excitement that I need—that kind of “Wow, this is something interesting, something new for me.” So I think I just saturated and completed the style that we worked on before with Ghost Reveries and Watershed and those kinds of records. I needed some type of change, and it eventually came to me once I realized I was done maybe for the time being, but at least I knew I was done with this style and something had to change. That’s what made me look at things a little bit differently. Once I got going with the writing for Heritage, it was really quick. Less than six months and the album was written. Now we have a new dimension to our sound. 

Was there a different approach with this latest record as opposed to Heritage, and what does Opeth’s writing process generally look like from its genesis to the point where you guys feel comfortable that you’ve created something singular?
Normally when I start writing for a record, I’m a bit nervous. You don’t know whether or not you’re going to be able to come up with something that you like or come up with something at all, to be honest. I was inspired because pretty early on, I wrote a song on the new album—the last song on there, which I ended up being really happy with. So I had some type of guidelines which was more melody, I think. Heritage was somewhat deliberately fucked up all over the place because I love fucked-up-all-over-the-place-type music, but I wanted to do something more melodic with this album, so there’s stronger vocal melodies and more melodies overall for this album. I was pretty consistent with that frame of mind throughout the writing process, so at least I had a plan with this album, and I normally don’t, to be honest. 

What’s been the greatest obstacle for you personally since you first began to play music professionally, and how did you overcome it? 
Well, there’s been many obstacles. Financially, like in the early days with the first four or five records, we didn’t make a penny. And at the same time, I lived with my mom until I was 23 or something like that, which was horrible. There were lots of obstacles. For many years, I think a lot of people just thought I was a dreamer. Like, “You’ll never get to where you want to go,” because of whatever. It sounds boring to bring up finances, but eventually, you have to pay a bill or pay the rent or something like that, then dreams are not enough. You need something else. Our career, though, was still fairly easy, I have to say. We never had to sell ourselves or things like that in order to get a headstart somewhat. We got our first record deal based on a 10-second rehearsal tape so that was easy. That wasn’t a problem. We did three records with them. We didn’t really tour or anything, and we didn’t make any money, but we had three records out that were pretty good and exciting for the time. Then we got a new record deal with a bigger label that was run by an even bigger label that eventually ended up taking us on, and then we got to Roadrunner. Everything on the business side of things has been pretty smooth, but we didn’t make a living until we put out the fifth or sixth album. That was difficult, but the motivation for me was never faltering. It was always there. I could live on canned food. That wasn’t a problem, because music made me happy. But I would have to say, even if it sounds boring, that the biggest obstacle was that I didn’t feel part of society. I couldn’t buy food. I couldn’t buy anything, so I had to borrow money from my mother and stuff like that, so that was a big obstacle for us. I still kept my motivation intact because it was the only thing that made me happy. I couldn’t see myself getting a so-called normal job because it wouldn’t have made me happy. I’m determined in that way that no obstacle is going to stop me. 

There’s certainly a misconception that seems endemic to bands starting up today who see exposure as some measure of success, but the hard reality is that it isn’t easy. The “making it” myth is still pervasive in the music industry. 
That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about quite a lot, actually. I mean, we have made many sacrifices because time will pass by. Band members who have been in this band have felt scared thinking, “OK, what if we don’t make it? Maybe I should just have a security thing. Maybe I should get a job on the side, or maybe I should get a second degree doing this and that just in case,” which I never did because it took time away from my musicality. I made massive sacrifices while I saw many of my friends and even bandmates getting a job or getting another degree or whatever they were doing. I still maintained my focus on the music aspect. I was so determined. There was a time when I was the same. For example, when we did the Blackwater Park record, I didn’t expect anyone to buy it or like it. I didn’t expect anything to happen. But then it did. All of a sudden, we got a tour, and we got a manager, and we got an agent, and it just kind of snowballed from there. But up until then, we spent a good ten years of our career with nothing, and with members leaving, too, and people not having any hope. It was, I would say horrible, but I was happy during that time. It wasn’t easy. 

How have you seen heavy music, or what that term even means anymore, evolve since you first began playing professionally? Does the growing popularity for music seemingly born out of being unpopular possibly provide a new perspective on heavy music?
I think heavy music is one of those things that when it comes to record sales, it still sells copies. It’s far from enough copies for bands or record labels to make a living, so to speak, to make it work. We never sold shitloads of records ever, but enough for us to attract an interest from promoters and stuff like that, so our bread and butter is the touring and has always been like that. We have never depended on record sales to make a living, but luckily I think we at least recoup because we’re still signed [laughs]. But I think heavy music is quite interesting, because there’s a massive interest for it out there, and its audience—quite a lot of metal people are also record collectors and like physical copies of their favorite bands’ records, while maybe some other genres of music don’t have that type of fan base. But it’s still struggling, I think. Record labels have to lay off a lot of people and bands don’t get signed. They put out their music on iTunes and shit like that where you don’t even have a physical copy of the record sometimes, and it’s impossible to spread your music because you’re kind of drowning in a flood of other bands trying to spread their music throughout Facebook and whatever else.

It’s difficult for new bands today, I think. We were just on the verge of this whole kind of change happening. We still had to establish our band before the decline of the record industry, at least to the point where we could go out and tour, and that we were somewhat of a household name. But to be a new band starting out now must be completely maddening. You have to look at different ways of how to spread your music. I think it’s a pipe dream for a band that people are talking about on the internet that it’s a really, really good thing for music. Which, to a certain extent it is, but it’s also very bad for music because of the fact that they have unique finances. In our early days, we needed it. The banking of a record label to get support for getting out there and touring, we needed to borrow from the record label. That would virtually be impossible if you put all your hopes in a Facebook page. I’m sure there’s a few American dream stories like that, where you get discovered because of your Facebook page, and then you have a massively successful artist, but you can’t rely on those things to just happen, of course. First and foremost, if you’re a good band, and you just stick to your idea on how to spread your name further, and if you’re consistent, and if you’re determined, I think eventually people will know. The longer you stay in the game, the more people will know about you eventually. 

It goes back to the innocence you mentioned earlier where the source of motivation is key. 
Yeah, and that’s really important. You can’t go into this line of business, if you will, if you’re just wanting for it to be a business. It can’t just be thinking in business terms. There has to be a determination. I really don’t think you can fool people otherwise, at least not in the metal world. It has to be something pure.

Opeth has had, and continues to have, an enormous influence over musicians from a wide range of genres. Are there any specific musicians today who you listen to and see as challenging and ultimately rewarding their listeners?
There’s a couple of newer bands that I kind of like. Most of my inspiration and most of my fascination when it comes to other artists, you have to go back in time to the old shit. But there’s a girl, her name is Billie Lindahl, who has a band called Promise and the Monster, which basically started out as some type of singer-songwriter thing. She had like, an echo pedal and recorded layers of stuff with this echo pedal. I saw her in a small café, and there was just 15 or so people there, and I was like, “Wow. That was amazing.” And I actually invited her to play Roadburn which I’m curating in Holland in April. She’s gonna play there. I really respect her. There’s a couple of Swedish prog bands that I think are still putting out interesting music. I still consider them new bands like Anekdoten, who started out as a kind of King Crimson tribute band but pretty early on found their own style. They’re putting out some really interesting music. There’s a band called Elephant9 from Norway and Sweden that’s like a psychedelic jam instrumental band that I think are really, really good. When it comes to extreme metal, there’s not so many. I like Ghost. I think Ghost are a really, really good band. They write really good songs. We toured with them, and I guess we’re friends now. Their sound—there’s references, of course, on the first album to Mercyful Fate and maybe Blue Oyster Cult or something like that—but I think with their second album, they have their own sound now. I was really impressed with them when we toured with them because they’re just a really good band. They’ve got swing and groove, and they’re really good musicians. They have fresh ideas, I think, so I like that. I was a late bloomer when it comes to Ghost. I was very skeptical about that because everybody fucking loved them, and all I could hear was the Mercyful Fate riffs. I had to see them live before I could warm up to them, but now I really like them. 

You mentioned Roadburn. It’s a huge festival, and this is your first time curating it. How did you being asked to be the curator this year come about?
Walter, who runs the festival, he approached me many years ago, actually. He said “I really want you to curate Roadburn,” and I think I was offered it a couple of years ago, but I can’t remember why I said no, but whatever it was, it didn’t happen. Then he approached me again, and I said yes. I didn’t really understand. I’ve never been to Roadburn myself. We’ve played that venue a bunch of times with Opeth, so I knew the venue was really nice, and I had a journalist friend of mine who was like, “You have to say yes. This is a great honor for your band and for your profile, and you will have a fucking blast there,” and so I was basically, “OK, well, I’ll consider it,” and once I got there, I had a meeting with Walter, and he basically asked if I would do it, and I said yes. It’s been a little bit of a headache, but it’s also been a lot of fun. I’ve got a budget I get to play around with, and invite whatever bands that I want to, basically, if they fit with the Roadburn idea. I couldn’t get ABBA to reform, unfortunately, but I approached bands that I like that I think would fit the Roadburn audience and the Opeth audience. We’re playing, of course, but I asked bands that I respect, both old and new, but mostly old. So we’re gonna have Magma from France come and play, which is one of my favorite bands. Comus are playing, Goblin are playing, Candlemass are playing, Obliteration from Norway are playing, which is a fairly new death metal band. Promise and the Monster that I just mentioned are playing. Elephant9 are playing, Änglagård are playing, but there’s a shit load, actually [laughs].   

What are the touring plans for the new release, and does the new album have a title yet?
We don’t have a name for the album yet. I want the cover to be finished before I decide on a name, and that’s being worked on as we speak. I always have lots of pressure on me to come up with titles, as you can imagine, but that’s going to happen soon. When it comes to touring, we’re gonna start with Roadburn, which is our next show. After that, I guess we’ll have a little bit of a break before we go into the summer festivals in Europe, which we’re doing quite a few, and then in the middle of summer the album’s gonna be released, and going into the fall I think we’ve talked about our first tour, and I think we’re starting in Europe. Then we’ll obviously come to the States and play. I think we’re going to try and not overplay… for once [laughs]. I’ve been saying this for years. I don’t want to do eight weeks in a row and play first, second, and third markets as it’s called. I want to make the shows fewer but bigger. I want us to make them more exclusive but also in bigger venues. We’ll take that step now and see if that works, but because we’ve been playing every fucking venue in the world. We’ve been playing so many shows, it’s crazy. I just want to calm down a little and do some bigger production shows, and unfortunately, that’s going to mean that some people have to travel, and I’m hoping that they will. But that’s what we’re going to try out. 

 

Jonathan Dick is on Twitter - @steelforbrains

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