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Åkerfeldt lets out a roar during "Master's Apprentices" off Deliverance during the band's opening slot for Dream Theater at New York City's Terminal 5 on May 21, 2008. Photo by Frank White.
Do you feel that shows your growth as a songwriter—that you work off a lot of different ideas now, versus being more riff-based in the past? Well, I try—I don’t want to get bored. I especially don’t want to sound old. I’m not afraid of getting old. I just don't want to sound old [laughs]. I want to keep it interesting. I enjoy doing micro tweaks—like a miniscule change in the second verse or adding a vocal harmony during the third chorus—that’s where I think I shine. I used to resent that type of attention, but now it’s what can really push a chorus, a song, or an album to another level. I feel like I’ve become more dimensional as a songwriter, but I can't say whether I'm getting better.
Talk about the ever-shifting new tune “River.” I love that song! It’s very unpredictable, which is exactly up my alley. I actually hate predictable songs. You might even confuse that song for something from ’70s classic rock, but it’s Opeth. When I hear a song and know exactly what’s going to happen in each section, I don't like it at all. I want to avoid that as much as I can, and I think that this song—more than any other on the album—shows we’re not confined by boundaries.
The new album has an instrumental, "Goblin," and the previous record had two as well. At what point do you see a song as an instrumental? All the instrumentals I’ve ever recorded have been written as instrumentals from the start. It’s not a coincidence. Especially “Goblin,” which is a tribute to Goblin—an Italian prog-rock outfit that played only instrumentals.
Your music has a very orchestral sound and feel—how do you know when enough is enough? That’s a good question. I’m a believer in whatever sounds good. I don't want it to be messy. On the songs with strings, we deliberately hold back the volume and gain on the electric instruments. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it makes sense now that we talk about it, that a song like “Faith in Others,” when those strings kick in, it’s only drums and bass so the strings are really present. Doing this for over 20 years, I’ve come to realize that to make a part or a song better, you’re usually better off taking something away rather than adding something.
Sometimes with mastering and production in current music, everything gets maxed in a kind of loudness war. Is that something you try to avoid? Yes, definitely. During the Watershed sessions we were in the loudness wars, because I remember mastering that record 11 times. Up to that point, I’d never done more than one master. It was because it was all maxed out and everything was cracking up—it sounded like shit to me. I remember telling the label and master engineer, “This wasn’t how I wanted it to sound. I don’t care if it’s supposed to be loud. We have to pull this back, because it sounds like shit.” I had to play the “It’s my album” card. It was dreadful, but I had to do it.
I don’t like the sound of modern records that much, to be honest, unless they are done with producers and the band looking to their predecessors. If they’re trying to create a new contemporary record with the knowledge of the old days, then I’m really interested. It can sound really good. I tend to get tired of listening to records that are too loud. I lose interest quickly.I also don’t like the drive for things to sound absolutely perfect—with punched-in solos and auto-tuned vocals. I can’t name one song on my favorite records that are perfect. There are times where they sing off key, the guitar player’s not in tune, and the drummer is drunk—all of my favorite records are flawed.
Do you prefer older production styles to digital? To be honest, we’ve recorded on tape in the past, but this new one was done with Pro Tools. It all has to do with techniques of how one records and mixes. If you have a reference from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, you might think of things a bit different. I think a lot of the modern metal bands want their records to sound perfect. The producers and the engineers know how to do that easily, and in my book, that’s a downward spiral.
If you were a full-time producer, what advice would you give to a younger band in any genre? I wouldn’t want to say a thing [laughs]. I don’t want to correct people who think that things should be a certain way. As a musician you shouldn't take any advice. You should trust yourself and eventually you'll finally wake up and do something better than you did last time. You can get help on how to achieve something—like using certain equipment properly or EQ-ing something a particular way—but I believe a true musician shouldn’t take advice and should learn from their experiences..