Interview: Mikael Akerfeldt, Opeth

Metal band Opeth enjoying the ride

On stage Mikael Akerfeldt, lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for the Swedish progressive metal band Opeth can switch effortlessly between a clean, mellifluous singing voice and a deep, roaring, guttural scream that sounds like the voice of Satan come to claim your soul. Luckily, the latter voice was not in evidence when I woke up the long-haired singer with a mistimed phone call to his hotel room in Bologna, Italy, to interview him about his group's coming trip to Japan.

"We haven't been to Japan that many times," he answered, shaking off his tiredness from a gig in Rome the previous night, some serious partying, and an early morning bus trip to Bologna. "We've only been twice. We played the Loud Park festival in 2006 and went to three or four shows last year. Tokyo and Osaka are on a different planet. It's so different from Stockholm, but we loved it."

With Opeth's long and distinguished career now covering two decades and nine studio albums, including last year's impressive Watershed, it's surprising that the band has been such an infrequent visitor to a country where prog rock never really went out of fashion. No doubt part of the reason is the proverbially frequent line-up changes that heavy metal bands are subject to.

"In the past I think most of the line-up changes have been happening because people change," Akerfeldt reflected. "People don't want to do this anymore because they get new ideas. It's a risky type of business. I mean for many years we didn't make a penny, which obviously presents a problem if you've got bills to pay. I think some of the group members who have been in the band simply didn't have it in them to be musicians on this level."

Although technically not the most gifted musician himself, Akerfeldt, as the leader and main creative force, feels he can be extremely demanding about the musicianship of those around him, expecting nothing less than perfection from drummer Martin "Axe" Axenrot, bassist Martin Mendez, keyboardist Per Wiberg, and main guitarist Fredrik Akesson, who joined in 2007 to replace long-time Opeth stalwart Peter Lindgren.

Contrary to most people's perceptions, Opeth's music, with its diverse influences, sprawling song structures, sharp changes in tempo, and juxtaposition of hard, explosive, percussive parts with softer, acoustic melodic passages, requires the same kind of precision and intense discipline as conventional classical music. This can be readily understood by listening to Porcelain and Hessian Peel, songs from the latest album that have almost as much sweep and amplitude as symphonic music or Wagnerian opera.

"Generally we try to play the songs as close to the album versions as possible," Akerfeldt explains. "We've become very, very picky. We record all the performances and listen back to them after the show and the difference between what we think is a good show and a bad show is so small that you can barely hear it. Basically, I want the guys to take charge of their positions and do it. It's what they know much better than me. That's always what I've been looking for. I just want to present the songs and obviously some of the songs are quite advanced to play. I've always wanted to surround myself with great musicians, people that are better than me."

While Akerfeldt comes across as a relatively normal bloke, other band members, especially new guitarist Akesson and drummer Axe are quintessential music nerds, guys so totally focused on their jobs in the band that they come across as a bit weird when they're away from their instruments.

"We've had many lineup changes so I don't take anything for granted," Akerfeldt comments. "But as for the five guys who are in the band now, we get along great, we play great. It sounds better than ever. It's just so much better sounding when we play live, to be honest, so I can just relax and concentrate on the big picture. And it just feels so safe playing with a drummer like Axe and with Mendez and Frederik and Per. I can kind of just lean back and enjoy the ride."

Intertnational Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun

13th November, 2011
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