For any performer or band, hardcore fans can be both a blessing and a curse – something Opeth, the Swedish progressive-metal band formed in 1990, discovered in 2011, when it shifted from an early, epic death-metal style heard on classic LPs like Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries toward a purer strain of old-school progressive rock on Heritage.
“We made, like, a reverse Bob Dylan, if you know what I mean,” Opeth vocalist and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt said via telephone from London, jokingly comparing the moment his band went soft with the notorious fury unleashed by folk-music purists when Dylan went electric in 1965. “The artists I admire and the bands that I love most are the ones who had different phases of music,” Åkerfeldt said of his band’s continuing evolution. “That’s how I think music should be.”
Five years later – with the more successful Pale Communion (2014), as well as reissues and live shows devoted to its earlier heavy albums under its collective belt, Opeth has convinced its loyal, growing fan base to embrace all things polished and grandiose. With that audience now primed for the September 30th arrival of the band’s newest album, Sorceress, on its new Moderbolaget imprint in partnership with the extreme-metal mainstay Nuclear Blast, Åkerfeldt waxed enthusiastic about the perils of love, the pleasures of recording in Wales and the pastime of scouting out obscure prog-rock LPs on the Internet.
In the press announcement for Sorceress, you say that you were forced to write and work on the record in a hurry, but nothing about it sounds especially rushed. In practical terms, what was the rush?
It’s probably something I said to make it sound cool. But the rush is generally because if I don’t have a deadline, a date where I’m supposed to deliver songs, then I probably will sit at home and listen to records or go out walking. We had a meeting with management, who went, “OK, you have to record in May.” And I was like, “OK, it’s December now, so that gives me six months to write a record, and I have nothing.” That was the rush, basically; I had to start writing when I was told to.
It’s a self-imposed pressure, then.
It is, and it really works for me, somehow. Generally I have a serious problem with authority when people tell me what to do, but in this case, I’ve softened up. It really works for me when people tell me to write the record [laughs].
You recorded Sorceress in the tranquil rural setting of Rockfield Studios in Wales. How do you muster the aggression you need to make heavy music when you’re literally chilling among the cows?
That aggression, I think, is probably just something that’s in me; it doesn’t have anything to do with me being an aggressive person or that I live in an aggressive neighborhood. That said, there’s been a couple of murders around my house. … It’s just that I love hard rock, metal music. That environment in Monmouth, in Wales, I could go there as a tourist just to relax. They should have a spa there – it’s really beautiful. Basically the studio is a farm: There’s horses and stables and shit like that. It’s really peaceful. You can take a 20-minute walk into town, which is more like a village, where there’s a couple of pubs, so you can have a pint of beer or whatever. Other than that, it’s just really quiet and peaceful, which really works for us as a band. I don’t think we work all that well in the city, even though we have recorded a couple of records in the city center. We’ve found our home, I think, with Rockfield Studios. Besides, it’s got the legendary records done there, the Queen records and Rush and whatever, you know.
Do you feel a sense of history when you’re in the building?
I feel something, but I think it might be the smell of mold [laughs].
Sorceress isn’t a concept album, but a number of songs deal with dangerous, even perilous aspects of love. How much are you drawing from life here?
A lot, I would say. I’m not talking about specific people in my past, girlfriends or ex-wives or anything like that. I’ve struggled a little bit in my relationships these last couple of years, and that has inspired me, I think, to write. … Not that I deliberately sat down trying to write these types of lyrics. That’s literally what came out when I started trying to write; it’s only in retrospect that I kind of understood what it’s about.
I was trying to draw inspiration from the negative aspects of love: the jealousy, the mindfucks, the paranoia and everything that comes with what’s ultimately a beautiful feeling. It’s something that I value extremely highly in my life, but it really can have a damaging effect on you, which it did on me.
Do you write lyrics in English, or do you conceive them in your native tongue and then translate?
I had tried to write lyrics in my native tongue, and they sucked – they seemed so pretentious and shit. And I don’t seem pretentious in the same way when I write in English. When I write in Swedish, I can see the pretension. And even if I don’t have any problem being a little bit pretentious, I don’t really know how pretentious I am, since I’m writing in English.
You’ve called the current Opeth lineup the most comfortable band situation you’ve had. How so?
Every band situation I’ve been in had at some point been comfortable, especially in the new stages. In any working environment there’s going to be glitches, there’s going to be problems, and we had that in the past where it kind of escalated into something that was uncontrollable, and that made me personally suffer, made the band suffer, made everyone suffer. This lineup has been together since mid-recording of Heritage [early 2011], so it’s been a few years. It’s all clichés, but it has to be said: Everybody’s pulling the same direction, and has been doing so for quite some time now. I’ve surrounded myself with musicians who decided long ago that they are musicians and that’s that, while in the past there’s always been people in the band that had other priorities in terms of career and what they want to do, what they want to be, who they want to be in the band. Now I’m in the situation where I’ve surrounded myself with fantastic musicians who are kind of grown up, if you know what I mean.
You’ve become a real prog whisperer for your fans lately, directing them toward amazing obscure albums. Talking about Sorceress, you’ve cited a 1972 self-titled LP by the Italian prog band Il Paese dei Balocchi (The Land of Toys). Where do you get your tips?
I’m so happy that you mentioned that record, because I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful record that I just stumbled upon. I buy a lot of records on eBay, for instance. It’s one of those things where new technology really works: If you click on a link on eBay, something figures out what you’re interested in and you get some links on the side. I read a lot of books when it comes to U.K. music – I have a book called The Tapestry of Delights, which has really been valuable for me finding U.K. beat bands and progressive and psychedelic bands. Then there’s [Record Collector Dreams by] an Austrian guy called Hans Pokora, who’s really kind of valuing rare records. It’s divided into countries … there’s the Italian section and the English section, the German section, the U.S. section, all rarities. And basically I kind of judge the book by its cover: If I think a sleeve looks good, I go on YouTube, try to find the band and listen to it, and if I like it, I want to pick up an original copy.
Once you kind of go into that whole prog scene, with the subsidiaries and the small labels that operated around that time, you’re pretty safe, actually. Il Paese dei Balocchi I found because they were on the same record label as other bands that I’d been picking up. It’s really beautiful when you discover these types of bands. You can really tap into the local or the domestic scene at the time. The Italian scene is completely different from the U.S. scene, which is in turn completely different from the Scandinavian scene, et cetera. So you really tap into the domestic sounds of that era, which really interesting to me.
What inspired you to seek out the English producer Wil Malone to pitch in on Sorceress?
Again, record collecting. He did a solo record in 1970, which is horrendously rare. … I paid $2,500, I think, for an original copy. I found that record because [the cover] was shot by a guy called Marcus Keef, who shot the first Black Sabbath cover and the Paranoid cover and a shitload of other stuff. [Malone is] on the cover, sitting there in a robe with a pentagram on it, and I thought, “This is interesting – I’ll have to check it out.” Lo and behold, it’s a beautiful sort of Nick Drake-sounding record with lovely strings. Then I started reading credits on my records, and I found out that he produced the first Iron Maiden record, he arranged the strings for all the Sabbath records from the Seventies. He was also involved when three producers did a record called Motherlight, which came out in 1970, I think, which is insane – you have to check it out. Mike Boback, another producer, is playing this guitar solo, and it’s completely out of key – I’ve never heard anything more out of key – which is, to me, beautiful.
I found his Web page and emailed him – really trying to get more copies of his album [laughs]. I figured, I have to have a good way in here, so maybe I could ask him if he would be interested in working with us. He did the strings for a song called “Seventh Sojourn,” and it was amazing.
When Opeth shifted from an epic strain of death metal toward full-blown prog with Heritage, a sizeable and vocal segment of your audience protested. Are they coming around now that you’ve stayed the course and refined your approach?
I think so … now when we play songs off of Heritage, there’s a lot of people screaming in the crowd. I don’t have Facebook or anything like that, so I don’t really know what people think down to a T, but it seems like people are starting to accept what we’re doing now, and possibly even starting to like it. Of course, there’s a lot of fans who immediately understood where we were going, and just completely followed us and loved it. There’s also new fans that came in with those records. But then there are the older fans, and maybe young fans who like old stuff.
Obviously some people want us to record the records that they want to hear, basically a rehash of Blackwater Park or Ghost Reveries. And it’s impossible for us to do that, so they can complain for all of eternity.
“Obviously some people want us to record the records that they want to hear … And it’s impossible for us to do that, so they can complain for all of eternity.”
But it’s not as if you’ve refuted your past: you’ve toured those two albums in recent years, and put out a deluxe reissue pairing Deliverance and Damnation. How do you feel about those earlier records now, personally?
I still love them, of course. I’m really proud of those records. I don’t shy away from playing those songs. We always go through the set list – “What are we going to play from this album?” – and they’re equally important. The new album, of course I love it more and I’m more interested in that, just because it’s new. But I don’t value it higher, if you know what I mean. It’s just another record in the discography for us, and it’s not more important than Orchid or Morningrise or any of those really early records. It’s just that I’m not the same person I was when I was 19 – I think that’s natural.
Sorceress is the first release through Moderbolaget, your new imprint. What does that name mean, and what is the imprint meant to do for you, creatively?
It means “mother label,” so any record label that we sign to, we are still the mother label [laughs]. We did sign a licensing deal with Nuclear Blast worldwide, so they are the record label, but we have our own imprint. Some people collect catalogs, records from a specific label, and metal people might get confused – “What are Opeth doing on Nuclear Blast?” – so we decided it’s a good time to do this. We might end up doing solo ventures or side projects that would be best put out through an imprint. And eventually, further down the line, maybe I’m going to go down whatever shopping street it is here in London, buy myself a suit and some cigars, and become a record-label boss, and sign up other bands.