Opeth’s newest release, Watershed, marks the band’s ninth studio album since their formation in 1990 in Stockholm, Sweden. The band has always been known for their progressive blend of musical styles, combining their death metal foundation with elements of folk, blues, jazz, as well as classical music. Watershed is no exception to this; in fact, it expands their sound in every direction and, in classic Opeth fashion, it also takes the listener for a spin with its intricate, yet graceful dynamic shifts – from quiet, haunting interludes to full-on metal assaults.
The band’s main driving force, as well as the sole member of the original line-up, is songwriter, singer, and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt. I recently had a chance to speak with Mikael at one of the final dates of the 2008 Progressive Nation tour with Dream Theater in Miami, Florida.
IC: How are you, man?
MA: Good. Had a swim, got some food, and I strained my neck yesterday, so I’m kind of…
IC: From all the headbanging?
MA: Yeah, well I did some Lenny Kravitz-style fucked-up shit, so it hurts (laughs). But I’m good.
IC: The Progressive Nation tour is coming to a close. What are your thoughts and feelings looking back on the whole tour?
MA: It was a good tour. Slow start for us, to do this… Yeah, it’s cool. The guys from Dream Theater are cool, all of the other bands are cool. 3 blew my mind. It’s slow, it’s nice.
IC: You’re a family man now, with a second child on the way. How has this changed the whole touring perspective for you, especially with Opeth out on the road significantly more over the past few years?
MA: Well, it’s not fun to leave. I’m crying like a baby days before I’m leaving, but my wife is really supportive of me doing this. In a way, I’m doing what I always wanted to do and while doing that I’m supporting my family, as well. Obviously I’m away a lot when I’m touring, but I’m also home a lot in between touring cycles. Before this tour, and before we started recording this album, I was home for like a year and a half, hanging out with my family. It’s all quality time when I’m back home.
IC: What do you like to do in your off time between the touring, writing, and hanging out with the family?
MA: Mowing the lawn, kind of fixing the roofing, cleaning the house, doing the dishes, fixing food, and going to the playground with my kids, and listening to records…
IC: I want to talk about your signature death metal growl. Is it something that you’ve developed over the years, or did you always have it – just walking around with that deep growl?
MA: I don’t know. I basically started doing it because I thought I could do it, because I wasn’t really a normal singing type of singer. So with my first band, basically we just made a few simple riffs and did some naïve lyrics and screamed. Later on, I came up with something that I wanted to sing over, so I tried that, too, and eventually I was kind of doing both styles.
IC: How would you describe Watershed? How is it different from Ghost Reveries or the other previous releases?
MA: It’s a bit different. It’s a bit more adventurous. There’s a lot of things on there that we haven’t really done before – there’s a little funk-type riff…
IC: Like in ‘Lotus Eater?’
MA: Yeah. We experimented a lot with sound effects, and even more so with different genres of music. We’ve always kind of done that, but it was more clear on this album.
IC: Can you talk a little about how the album came together? You wrote all the material for this one, right?
MA: I wrote everything apart from a few riffs that Fredrik did in the song ‘Porcelain Heart,’ and ‘Derelict Herds’ the bonus song – I wrote that with Per. But the other ones I wrote.
IC: I understand you’re the boss, so to speak.
MA: I’m the boss.
IC: So how much freedom do the other guys have, if they want to bring things in?
MA: They have a lot of freedom. I ask them to come and deliver stuff to me, and I do get – especially from Per – I get a lot of stuff. I guess I’m the judge of what we’re using, unless they deliver a whole song. They basically deliver short arrangements, like a riff or two riffs, and sometimes if I’ve got an idea or I’m working on something and I hear this new thing, it’s kind of hard sometimes to just throw it in. And I don’t want to bring stuff in just to be friendly to them – it has to be something that triggers an idea. But with that said, I can base a whole song from a riff that Fredrik or that Per come up with. I guess it’s a little bit of a touchy subject if I’m saying ‘Ok, I didn’t use your stuff here.’ But it’s still there, it’s not like we lost it. I may use it in the future. I also don’t use a lot of stuff that I come up with – a lot of my own stuff that I think is really good never ends up in anything.
So it all comes down to one particular theme of a song, that I think ‘That’s what we’re building the song from – that particular riff.’ In the case of ‘Porcelain Heart,’ it was the first riff that Fredrik had played to me over the phone. I was like ‘Wow, that’s a really cool riff,’ and we wrote a version of the song and scrapped it, because it wasn’t the right feel – there were some great riffs, but everything was based on that first riff, and it kind of didn’t work. So we did three versions of that song and scrapped two, and ended up with the third one being what’s on the album. So ok, I’m the boss and the main songwriter, but you have to put your ego aside, even I have to do that, when you’re in a band. And it worked, and we still have the ideas. Maybe we’ll bring ‘em in for the next album. Just the other night I couldn’t sleep, I was thinking about one of the riffs that Per wrote for this album that didn’t end up on the record, that I think we might do something with.
IC: How long did the recording process take altogether?
MA: Five weeks. We started on the third of November 2007, and finished like a week or two weeks into January of this year… five weeks, six weeks.
IC: Watershed isn’t out yet, but a lot of people claim to have already heard it. Within the whole MP3 file-sharing debate there are two main arguments at the basic level: that lesser-known bands benefit from the exposure, while bigger bands are hurt in sales. I think Opeth may have been on both sides of the debate. Do you feel that it’s hurting you now, and has it helped you in the past?
MA: I guess to some extent it is hurting us, but I think even more so it’s helping us.
IC: Still helping?
MA: Yeah, I think most of our fans are people who want a physical copy of the album. But I can’t relate to it, because I don’t download myself. I want the record. For me, it’s not a big stretch to pay, whatever it costs, fifteen bucks – that’s not expensive for me. So I think that whole argumentation of CDs being expensive is a bit over the top. I think beer is expensive – and cigarettes, and clothes. But people can’t download that shit, so they just shell out. They go to the bar, get fucked up, and then the next day they have a big hole in their pocket for nothing. So I think everything else is pretty expensive, I don’t think records are that expensive. And I’m not richer than anyone else, I just happen to have music being my top interest.
I can’t relate to the whole downloading thing, but I can understand it in a way, because times change – people are different. But for me, I will never fully embrace it. I think it’s done us a lot of good, spreading our name and stuff. It’s kind of hard to tell if it hurt our sales or not. We’re doing fine.
IC: You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that with all of your albums so far, the sales have been growing consistently. Is that still the case with the previous two?
MA: Yeah. Our best-selling album is the Ghost Reveries album, and then after that it’s Blackwater Park – that’s a popular record. But, I don’t think Deliverance and Damnation sold more than Blackwater Park. It’s been the one that’s been constantly shifting copies, because it ended up in ‘best of’ lists – like ‘best of progressive metal,’ or whatever. So people seem to be interested in that one. It was a very popular record once it came out. Ghost Reveries is our biggest seller, and I would anticipate Watershed to sell more. The price for this one, as far as I know, is pretty cheap. For the record, the regular version is like ten or twelve bucks.
IC: You’ve got a special edition coming out as well.
MA: Yeah, the special edition is a bit more expensive – obviously there’s a lot more stuff on there – DVD, three bonus songs, and the packaging.
IC: The three bonus songs are covers, right?
MA: No, two of the songs are covers and there’s one original song.
IC: I think I heard that you covered ‘Would?’ by Alice in Chains.
MA: Yeah, but that’s not on there. I don’t know what we’re doing with that, you know – it was our least favorite.
MA: But obviously it was the one that people knew, so we got a lot of feedback: ‘Ah, I want to hear that version.’ But, it’s really nothing special. It’s sounds like a lesser version of Alice In Chains (laughs).
IC: Part of the unique sound of Opeth is made up of some of the more complex harmonies that you compose. Did you ever study theory or any kind of harmony in particular?
IC: Do you know the chords that you’re playing?
IC: You just do it all by ear?
MA: Yeah, but that kind of worked for me. Some people say it’s really good to have the theory, and some people say it’s not good to have all the knowledge, because maybe then you’re restricting yourself to what you’re supposed to play, and not to what you want to play. But I think, obviously, it probably wouldn’t hurt me if I got some kind of theory knowledge or whatever of what I’m doing. It can be a bit embarrassing when I’m doing something like this [referring to the lesson portion of our meeting]; you’re gonna ask me for a chord and I’ll say ‘I don’t know.’
IC: It doesn’t hurt your music though.
MA: Well, that’s how it worked for me. I’ve played guitar for a long time, but I’ve never been interested in being a widdly-woo guitar player, really, or being one of the ones who are like ‘Oh, that’s an A7-thing chord.’ No, that’s not interesting – I’m just interested in what I hear, and that has been the guiding light for me since I started. I guess it worked. I did some cool stuff, but I don’t know shit about what I’m doing.
IC: Tell me one thing that you’ve never mentioned before in interviews. It can be a funny story, an experience, or something else about you.
MA: Well, it wasn’t like a big secret, but this is the only thing I can come up with now. It was at a show we did – I had a pair of sneakers that were in pretty bad condition, so I was going to throw them away. I was like ‘Fuck, instead let’s put them on the fuckin’ merch stand and sell ‘em.’ as a joke – like an auction with my shoes. We sold them for two hundred bucks.
IC: Will you keep this business growing (laughs)?
MA: We brought the guy who won the auction on the bus and gave him his money back (laughs) – gave him signed copies of everything. But that was kind of fun.
IC: What are you listening to nowadays?
MA: Anything. Anything good.
IC: Mostly metal?
MA: No. I don’t listen to much metal.
MA: Not contemporary metal. I’m sure there’s a lot of good bands, but I’m not looking for metal right now, and if I am I tend to go back to ‘Holy Diver…’
IC: Not the Killswitch Engage version, I would assume.
MA: No, I’m not a big fan of today’s metal scene, so I don’t really listen to much at all. I got the last Mastodon album, and I thought that was cool, but I don’t like ‘Wow, wow!’ listen. I listen to old stuff. Maybe it’s a phase. Maybe I’ll be sporting the Killswitch Engage shirts and the Shadows Fall, and listen to all that kind of stuff. I’m not saying it’s bad or anything, it’s just not what I listen to.
IC: Is there any advice you could give to aspiring musicians?
MA: I can’t remember where I heard it, but it was a good little quote I heard. Someone said: ‘A real musician doesn’t take advice.’
IC: Except for this!
Special thanks to Chris Dingman for the transcription of this interview.