Opeth: Swedish Floyd
Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt "I Feel the Dark" off Heritage during their stop at Chicago's Riviera Theater on April 13, 2012, while venturing the US on a co-headlining tour with Mastodon. Photo by Chris Kies.
Opeth frontman and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt doesn’t care much for labels. “I’m really confused about what metal is these days,” he says. “It's difficult for me to talk about. I can appreciate people who say that we’re not a metal band—and I kind of like that because, to me, current metal is stale and boring.”
When the quintet formed in Stockholm, Sweden, in the early ’90s, Åkerfeldt and company churned out three impressive, stop-you-in-your-tracks albums full of crushing rhythms, guttural vocals, and dark themes about religion, death, and the occult. And while the band always experimented with dynamics and tempo shifts, with 1999’s Still Life and even more so with 2001’s Blackwater Park, Opeth started moving away from its intense roots.
“There were five or six years where I was listening to death metal,” Åkerfeldt admits. “It rubbed off on me and I had to glorify that strong influence by making the music I was most passionate about in that given period of my life and career.”
But the path Åkerfeldt has chosen for Opeth since then is one of restless experimentation. He and his rotating cast of combatants have released 11 albums, and throughout, they’ve weaved a Family Circus-like path through aggressive music, swerving to make pit stops with more vulnerable numbers like Damnation’s “In My Time of Need,” veering into acoustic instrumental territory with Heritage’s “Marrow of the Earth,” and experimenting with extended prog voyages like Morningrise’s “Black Rose Immortal.” And on this year’s Pale Communion, they even dabble in straight-up classic rock on tracks such as “River.”
“I really don’t like trying to recreate or reflect on something we’ve already done in Opeth,” Åkerfeldt explains. “People will look at Watershed or Heritage and try to link the musical progression these albums have in common with Pale Communion as a trend towards something defined, but really it’s just a continuation of the band’s life and the music we’ve made and like to hear. We’re not trying to be a certain type of band to capitalize on anything—we’re just Opeth.”
In our recent interview with Åkerfeldt, he also discusses his switch to Marshall amps, why he’d never give advice to another artist, and why he’s not ashamed of the decidedly un-metal tunes on his iPod. Plus, we talk to Opeth lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson about the making of Pale Communion.
Mikael lets out a roar during Opeth's show at New York City's Terminal 5 on May 21, 2008.
Photo by Frank White.
Opeth has always had great dynamics, ranging from prog-rock and soft acoustic jams to death-metal ragers. Is that something you try to balance, or do you just write the songs as they come to you? I don’t think about it too much, but I’m a big fan of dynamics. I’m still a metalhead obviously, but I don’t try to stick myself to a single style just because we’re expected to. The metal in this band will always be there, but I think we’re more than just metal. The definition of metal is much different now. Again, it was never a choice that I made somewhere down the line that I don’t want to write or play metal anymore. It’s just something that happened. Recently, I haven't really been inspired by death metal music, or contemporary death metal music.
It seems to take multiple listens to reveal the full depth of albums like Pale Communion and Heritage. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean—that’s the music I like to listen to. Maybe we’re just in the wrong time or I need to stop making music that I like [laughs]. The music that stays with me is a bit more complex and deep than regular radio squalor or formulaic stuff.
Tell us about writing the 11-minute song “Moon Above, Sun Below.” It was a bit of a weird piece of music. The working title was “Floyd” after Pink Floyd because of how slow the song starts. I remember that I wrote about five or six minutes of it and then called up Fredrik to come down and listen to it. At that time, I wasn’t so happy with the whole song so I left the song unfinished to focus on songs that were further along and already had themes. Three or four weeks passed and Fredrik came back to the studio and said he had the solo ready for “Floyd.” I’d forgotten he was working on it [laughs]. With his solo added to what I started, it was a completely new song.
As I was working on that song, I reverted to my 20-something writing style and disregarded a structure or theme—so I just let this song float, left the riffs on top of each other, added a bunch of musical twists and tempo changes based on riffs I had come up with. I decided to keep it like that. Why not? All the other songs had some kind of structure, so this song’s structure was no structure [laughs].
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..
Fredrik rips into a chord during Opeth's performance of "Slither" during their stop at Chicago's Riviera Theater on April 13, 2012, while venturing the US on a co-headlining tour with Mastodon. Photo by Chris Kies.
The Journey: Opeth’s Fredrik Åkesson on making Pale Communion
This is your third album with Opeth, starting with 2008’s Watershed. What is the working relationship and how does album material unfold when working with Mikael?
Åkesson: Before any studio time, Mikael has all tracks in demo form with guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. When we get the call to rehearse the new material, there are definitely parts that are changed or tweaked—because we’re all creative and Mikael is gracious with our input and trusts our opinion and direction. A lot of times he’ll let us hear his demos and then we’ll go to our homes and work on what we can bring to the song. Mike and I usually sit down and go through all the guitar parts and come up with some new ideas.
This time I put down a solo during the demo stage that actually made the album. The first single, “Cusp of Eternity,” with the long solo, was just improvised during the demo stages. The danger is that when you do a demo solo and everybody listens to it, they get so used to it. If you try to do something different for the actual recording, you’re often stuck with the basic idea that just came out naturally. And on the flip side, on the song “Moon Above, Sun Below,” I worked on that solo for two months at home—on and off again—but I wanted to do something more like a melody that went through everything instead of just burning scales.
There’s some of that more melodic playing on “River,” too.
Oh yeah, definitely—when the song becomes a bit heavier, we bring it back with a more soulful, dulcet solo. The background rhythm is pretty strange and creates an interesting listen, because it goes from major to minor all the time and back a few times. This was something I wanted to incorporate because of how complex it was. I knew it would keep things moving forward.
Gear-wise, did you guys change anything up from the previous recording sessions?
On Watershed we used mainly Marshall JVM heads with various PRS guitars with humbuckers. For Heritage, we used Marshall JCM800s with single-coil pickups because we wanted more string sound, a more open-sounding record rather than a distorted wall. On the newest album we went back to humbuckers, but we only did one main guitar track for each of us—the previous two records we each did two tracks and put them on both sides. But this time we only filled one channel, one side each. We wanted it to sound like old Judas Priest or Thin Lizzy albums where the two guitarists were playing the same thing, but if you listen closely you can hear differences in the tone, pick attack, and sound—we wanted that ’70s and ’80s rock sound. I think it sounds more present and lively that way.
We definitely add some atmospheric and ethereal stuff with delays and modulation pedals, acoustic parts, and solos, but we didn’t feel the doubling of guitar tracks was necessary—you know, too much of anything is not a good thing [laughs]. We have a lot of other instrumentation, like piano, string sections, and a Hammond, organ so we wanted to avoid listener’s fatigue. In a way, it breathes a bit more.
Another change for me was using P-90s for a lot of the rhythm work. And this time, I played through an older plexi Marshall and pretty much did the old Hendrix thing—dimed all the knobs and jumpered the inputs.
What guitars did you use?
I used two P-90 guitars—a ’55 Les Paul Jr. and a PRS P22. All the rhythm parts are with the 1955, because it has a special kind of character to it. It’s aggressive, round, and full, but still retains some articulation through all its noise.
You often have two or more delays in your rig—so how did you use them on this album?
I’m currently using the Way Huge Supa-Puss and the MXR Carbon Copy. The Carbon Copy was used as the standard, short delay. I love that you can turn it up pretty loud, but the repeat is analog, so you can add more volume without getting too messy. With the Super-Puss, it has a gain knob for repeats, and I tweaked that control during the eBow melody on the second track, “Cusp of Eternity.” That delay, more than any pedal I’ve used before, can get a lot of spaced-out stuff—oscillation, atmospheric sounds. I love to experiment with stuff like that. The wackier stuff shows up on parts of “Voice of Treason” and “River.”
What’s your favorite song on the new album?
Probably “Moon Above, Sun Below,” because it’s a long, drawn-out track that builds. It’s like a journey with all sorts of different parts coming in throughout the entire song. The thing that I’m most proud of with this album is that every song is different, but it flows as one, cohesive piece. I’m also really impressed by Mikael's writing on the last track, which is more of a dark, rock ballad.
It is very melodic. It’s not a metal track at all, but a lot of my favorite metal tracks are like that—Sabbath did that a lot. They weren’t afraid to experiment.
Oh yeah. “Planet Caravan” jumps to mind.
Exactly, stuff like that—those are the songs you remember.
Pale Communion’s last song, “Faith in Others,” is probably its softest, but it still has a very dark, ominous vibe. Yeah, it’s one I’m proud of. I think it’s one of those songs with an interesting sound where you know you have something special. When [former Porcupine Tree frontman/guitarist] Steven Wilson told me that he wished he’d written the song, I knew it was a good one! That was the first song I wrote for Pale Communion, so it set the tone for the rest of the album. It’s a special song—it’s depressing and charismatic, and the chord changes are what give it such emotion. I remember playing the original demo to the rest of the band. We all became so somber and quiet—we even cried. That’s when I knew it would be the album closer.
Let’s talk about gear for a bit. Are you still using Laney heads and cabinets? No, I use Marshalls now. I had a long relationship with Laney, but a few years back I met Paul Marshall and he told me he loved our band. He told me backstage after our show, “That's the first time I’ve been at a rock show and I haven’t seen a mosh pit. What the fuck is going on here?” I said, “Well, sorry, but what are you saying?!” He laughed and told us that he wanted to see Marshall stacks behind us onstage. It’s like a childhood dream to have access to their impressive range and history of amplifiers—I couldn’t resist. I was very reluctant to leave Laney, because I’m very loyal and they’ve taken great care of me in the past. But I had to tell them I was sorry and switch. Laney has always been great and that door isn’t closed—just a different chapter for now.
But to answer your question, we used Marshalls in the studio. I mainly used the Satriani JVM head and a handwired, reissued Bluesbreaker combo.
Did you mostly use your signature PRS guitar? Yep, there are plenty of PRS guitars on the record. The PRS is the nicest guitar I’ve ever had—and it has my name on it, too [laughs]. I also used a ’67 Gibson Flying V and two ’60s Stratocasters—one is a near-original ’64, and the other is a ’68 that I put together from random period-correct pieces that I’ve found on tour or online. The original ’64 is on the first verse and solo of “River.” I used a PRS SE Angelus acoustic quite a bit, too.
In this full-set footage from Rock am Ring 2014, Opeth’s dynamic range is on display from the quiet, brooding “Hope Leaves” to the twin-guitar assault of Fredrik and Mikael during the growling, sprint-to-the-finish closer “Blackwater Park.”
Do you have a particular gauge of strings or brand you like to use? I generally play regular .010s from Thomastik-Infeld. I did switch briefly to heavy-bottom .011s when we did Ghost Reveries, because most of the songs were written in dropped-D and dropped-D and a variation of open Dmadd9 tuning [D–A–D–F–A–E], which made the strings a bit too loose with the regular .010s. I was glad to go back, because my hands are too weak [laughs].
Aside from Ghost Reveries, why haven’t you ventured away from standard tuning to give yourself more songwriting options? I like it actually, because to me the guitar sounds the best within standard tuning. Besides, I don’t feel like I've run out of ideas with standard E tuning. The reason why I did that alternate tuning for the Ghost Reveries record was that I needed to find new ways to express myself and push myself. I was listening to acoustic guitar players like Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, and they use a lot of tunings. I also had a bit of an agenda, because I figured with an open tuning I could just put my finger across the six strings, and I’d get chords. That would make it easy for me to come up with things. I found that I could make cool stuff with alternate tunings, and before I knew it, I was experimenting with some really complex stuff. This song called “The Baying of the Hounds” is just insanely difficult to play and I started out just plucking strings with all the frets barred by one finger. I didn’t write the piece to make it difficult, but I’d discovered all these different-sounding chords once I opened up, and I ended up having to do these huge stretches. I’d have no problem going back to an open tuning if I dry up again, but I have plenty more in the E tank.You’re a big collector of vinyl records in all sorts of genres. What would an avid Opeth fan be shocked to see in your collection?
Well, I have two songs by Rihanna on my iPod. When I listen to them, I make sure that other people aren’t around or else I’ll get picked on [laughs]. When people read this—like Fredrik—they’re going to be angry, but I’m not ashamed to have that on my iPod. I’m a believer in good songs—it doesn’t matter what genre it is. I think it would be stupid to restrict yourself to certain genres. I listen to all sorts of music, to be honest. While we did the Still Life record—which is said to be one of our more experimental and groundbreaking records—we were all listening to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. That was the only record that was constantly playing in the studio as we were recording, and I’m not ashamed about that or enjoying Rihanna!