I recently had the opportunity to chat with Opeth’s mastermind Mikael Akerfeldt. We discussed the lyrics and music of the new album Blackwater Park, the touring plans and a side project Mikael plans to do (if the time allows). It ended up being a great conversation. I want to thank Mikael for taking time in his busy schedule to talk with me.
Ultimate Metal: What does “Opeth” mean?
Mikael Akerfeldt: Well it doesn’t really mean anything its not a word or anything. It is taken from this book “The Sunbird” written by this guy called Wilbur Smith and Opeth was like a forgotten City, a City where its inhabitants committed mass suicides like in the deserts of Africa and its often referred to as the City of the Moon.
UM: What first struck me about listening to Blackwater Park was that it is softer and more melancholy than previous albums, is this statement accurate?
MA: Well I think if you compare it to Still Life, its basically a natural progression. I think that this album came out way darker than the last album, both lyrically and musically, and kind of more mysterious this time around. I would not call it melancholy, its just pitch black! Everything is kind of veiled in some kind of darkness.
UM:let’s talk about the lyrics right now, is there a concept to this album?
MA: No, I really didn’t have a concept this time. I felt like I have done that the last couple of albums. I wanted to do something different this time and maybe a bit more personal lyrics because obviously the concepts I come up with are pure fiction. I ended up writing lyrics 10 days before we were supposed to record and I wrote pretty fast; I didn’t spend much time. Basically I ended up using everything I came up with. I just wrote. It is not a concept but you could say that there is a link between the songs because they all pretty much deal with the same kind of subject. Which are basically just personal thoughts taken from some kind of dark subconscious I got. I think all people have got some kind of dark inner thoughts and I kind of brought that forth for the lyrics this time. I found myself being more secluded from everything. I don’t enjoy the company of people that much anymore. I am kind of suspicious of people.
UM: Why is that?
MA: Well, its just because I have had some strange experiences the last couple of years. I don’t trust people; I think they always want to get something out of you. I am more of less disgusted sometimes by people. Its not as bad as it sounds, I kind of spiced up for the lyrics to make it a bit more interesting. In general I loathe people (Laughs). It sounds very strange, I am not a bad bird or anything like that, and I am pretty much a social guy. But it is just one of those feelings that you get once in a while: you feel like everybody is a fucking moron!
UM: I totally agree with you, sometimes I feel that way as well, I just want to be by myself.
MA: Yeah, I think many people have those kinds of feelings. I was kind of lucky to have them as I was writing lyrics, it made it much easier. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. But it went pretty fast and I just wrote for a couple of days. When I heard the master I was kind of surprised by my own thoughts. They kind of ended up a bit more twisted than I expected. I thought to myself people are going to think I am some kind of fucking maniac if they don’t understand what I mean. But still I can totally relate to. I might not be me but it is. (Laughs) Pretty strange, all the songs basically deal with that kind of subject.
UM:far as the music is concerned is there a process you use to write songs?
MA: I have no kind of pattern that I follow when I write music. Basically I play guitar like a couple of hours everyday. I just sit around with the guitar watching television or something playing at the same time. Every now or then you come up with a riff. So I kind of store everything I wrote down. I don’t care to write notes or anything. I got a little 4-track recording device, but I don’t know how it works, so I always write down the riff, like some kind of thing about the riff that makes me remember what it was. Like the “Metallica riff” or the “Lousy riff” or something that makes me remember. Then when I start my riff it just happens that I come up with entire arrangements or parts and sometimes I write a song instantly and sometimes I just piece it together. I went over to a friend’s house this time when I had done the big parts of the music and I recorded the basic song structure. Then I just played them to the band to see what they thought about it. Then we went to the studio because we never rehearsed for it. We rehearse in the studio.
UM: Then how do the other band members contribute?
MA: They don’t really contribute to the writing itself. They contribute with their style of playing which is a big and very important part of all this. It just happens to be me writing everything. It is not that strange of a thing, most bands have one leading person when it comes to writing and in this case it just happens to be me. In the studio we kind of just leave most of the things out. We only have the basic structure written and then we record as fast as we can and then we spend the rest of the time experimenting. Leads, vocal harmonies and stuff like that. Experimenting a lot and that’s what we have been doing. We did the same thing for Still Life, just record the basic song structure and then experimented. It is comfortable for everybody I think. None of us are really key in rehearsing a lot or anything like that. We just want to keep it kind of spontaneous. We want to come out with a record that’s fresh for you; you are not bored with the tracks. With this album Peter and me listened to it in the car back home to Stockholm because we recorded in Gothenburg. We said “Ah! Fuck! I forgot about that section.”
UM: Every single time I have been listening to the album I find something new with each song and I do not get bored with it all. This is also true with all your albums; something new always pops up with each listen.
MA: Yeah basically we try to have lots of subtle little things in the background. Maybe that you didn’t discover in the first listen but with time you will. Also, due to the length of our songs and so many things happening, I think it’s hard to get bored with an Opeth album because it offers you something new every time you listen to it.
UM: Exactly, I mean I can’t understand the people who say some of your songs are too long.
MA: Maybe they don’t have the patience and I cannot stand that. I don’t have the patience for a 3-minute pop song. But I think a serious music lover would probably find something in our music, which will be impressed by them because it is good. But if you just comment on the length of the tracks “Its boring because its long” then I just can’t understand your point because it still a record, its still music and if you just judge by the length of the tracks I just don’t quite understand that.
UM: How did you hook up with Steven Wilson?
MA: Well, I have been a huge fan of Porcupine Tree for a few years. We got in touch because he was doing an interview with a magazine in France. The journalist gave him a copy of Still Life and my email address. I got an email from Steven Wilson saying that he loved the album and we started talking. I met him in London and we discussed doing something together, maybe write some music together and I kind of asked him “Would you be interested in producing Blackwater Park?” and he’s like “Yeah!” So, he came up and worked for us for like two weeks or something.
UM: How was it working with him?
MA: Oh it was very cool. It was like a dream coming true. We never been really interested working with producers overall because we pretty much can manage to produce ourselves. But this time working with a guy like Steven, who is a very musical guy; I would dare to say that he is a genius. He knows every aspect of music; he is a very good lyric writer, he is a very good musician. He basically can play every instrument and he understands everything about us. He can tell if it’s a good drumbeat or not. So we have many things in common. He kind of became a member of the family. We basically worked with him as a producer in terms that we wanted him to come up with some cool ideas, especially with sound. We never really worked a lot with sound in our self-productions. We just kind of set up one sound for the lead guitar and then we go with that for the entire album. This time around he came up with so many weird ideas, which we were happy to use. It was very cool to work with him.
UM: Who’s idea was it for Steven to sing lead in “Bleak”?
MA: Well, it was a little kind of prayer because we wanted to have him in the album even before he came to the studio. So eventually we went to that part and said “Maybe it would be better if you did that part” and he is like “Yeah, I could play it out.” It felt like magic, it was really cool because Peter and me recorded Steven when he sang. Afterwards, jokingly we said to him “That was a bad take”. Once again just to be able to say that to your musical idol is very cool.
UM: The booklet also states that Steven also plays piano and guitar, were in the album does that occur?
MA: The piano is basically in “The Leper Affinity” and in the instrumental track (Patterns in the Ivy). The guitar solo is in “Bleak”; a little Pink Floyd influenced.
UM: The “3 eggs” that Markus Lindberg is credited with adding, what is that all about?
MA: (Laughs) Its also in “Bleak” its the part where the (at this point Mikael makes a maraca type sound). He was a participant in the studio. He had some band as well. So, we heard that and we were like “Could you do that?” I did it at first. The egg is like a little rhythm instrument; it’s like a maraca. I did it a first but I was all tight. So he did it instead. We felt we should credit him in the booklet.
UM: During the first verse of “The Drapery Falls”, while there is the acoustic guitar there is another sound that sounds like a slide guitar. I just love that.
MA: Yes that’s true. That was my intention. That was one of the first songs I wrote for the album. I always thought we should have a slide thing here. I got a slide and I tried to play it at home and it sounded fine. So we did it on the album as well. I think its pretty cool. We must be one of the pioneers in death metal using a slide-bubble-bar-bubble-thing or whatever is called. We also used an E-Bow. We used that a lot on this album and also on Still Life. I bought it for Still Life. We kind of went crazy with it. I love it. We used it everywhere on Still Life and Blackwater Park. But the slide part is only used on “The Drapery Falls”.
UM: Was “Patterns in the Ivy” intended to be an intro piece to “Blackwater Park” or is it just a solo piece?
MA: Not really, we kind of made up that track out to put it somewhere on the album so we didn’t think in those terms. We just wanted to have a little breather in between the tracks. I think since “The Funeral Portrait” is a very heavy track and “Blackwater Park” being the longest song, we needed a little breather in between.
UM: Speaking of “Blackwater Park”, I love how it starts heavy and then goes into a slow interlude. It is a great passage and totally unexpected when I first listened to it.
MA: That’s one of those parts that almost wrote itself instantly. Because when I wrote the riff (Mikael hums the riff), it’s like a Fleetwood Mac riff. From there I wrote all the riffs in like 3 hours. When I started with that riff it just built on by itself. So it was very easy. That acoustic part I think I wrote it initially like a distorted riff. It almost sounded like a stoner rock kind of riff at first. Then I just tried it without the distortion and it just sounded better. I think its one of the heaviest songs we have ever recorded.
UM: How satisfied are you with Blackwater Park? Anything you would change?
MA: No not really, of course you have some mistakes and stuff. But I stopped caring about mistakes; they are supposed to be there. Overall, we are all 100% satisfied with it. Personally, I think it’s right now the best Opeth album but it’s hard to say because it’s the newest one. We haven’t grown tired of it yet. I think it’s definitely a worthy Opeth album.
UM: Do you have a particular favorite song?
MA: “Blackwater Park” is one of my favorites. “The Drapery Falls”, “Bleak”, well all of them are great but it kind of changes like every second week. I remember I wasn’t a 100% certain of the first track (The Leper Affinity) then like 2 weeks later I was like “Fuck it! This rocks!” So basically I kind of care equally for them but “Blackwater Park” is one of the highlights.
UM: Who came up with the cover concept, the band or Travis Smith?
MA: Its Travis. I sent him all the lyrics and some ideas. It was going to be called “Blackwater Park” and we felt that we should have kind of like a Park-theme. He sent loads of pictures; all of them that were high quality and all of them could be used on the cover. But this one was one of the best so that’s basically the reason why we used it. We wanted to create some kind of ghost like feeling with the cover and I think it goes along with the title of the album as well. We were very happy with that. He is a fucking Davinsky.
UM: So is the US tour with Nevermore and Children of Bodom going to occur?
MA: I think it’s going to happen. It seems like it’s already done all we have to do is some calculating on the costs. We are going to do 7 weeks in all.
UM: Who came up with the idea for this tour?
MA: I don’t know. I got an email from the booking agency saying “Would you be interested in going out with Nevermore” and we were like “Yeah, Sure”. Its been on and off for a month, its just when we were in London we put the last pieces in there kind of made it a reality. Its not totally officially yet but its basically 99% done. Before the Nevermore tour we are going to do a couple of gigs with Amorphis as well on the East Coast. We are going to do a couple of festivals there as well.
UM: How excited is the band to finally tour the USA?
MA: Very excited. I don’t think much about the music, the musician in me. It’s more like the tourist. I have been to the States once before so I pretty much look forward to seeing all the cities we are going to. It’s going to be very cool. We had a very cool experience playing in the Milwaukee MetalFest. The crowd was amazing. We hope that we can kind of recreate that on each of the gigs on this tour. But it’s going to be tough because it’s such a long time. We have only done one tour before, back in 1996, so it’s our first big tour in 5 years. I think it’s going to a while to get in the right rhythm.
UM: What kind of set list are you thinking of?
MA: It depends; I think we get 55 minutes on stage each time. So we can pretty much cover each album we have done. But since this is a “Blackwater Park” tour if you will, we have to play at least 2 songs from it. So we are going to play “The Drapery Falls”, “Blackwater Park”, and from the old albums: “White Cluster”, “Demon on the Fall”, “Cadence”, “Advent” and “Forest of October”.
UM: After the problems that took Still Life in being released in the USA is it a great feeling to you and the band that the USA gets the album basically at the same time as Europe?
MA: Yes! It feels good. It’s about time we get something arranged for the States because it’s a very important market for us. It seems like we have loads of fans there. It’s a shame about Still Life but I think it should be out as well. But I am not sure what’s happening with that. Of course, we are very happy that Blackwater Park is coming out properly in the States. We hope it’s going to make a difference. It feels good to release an album at the same time all over the world. We feel like Iron Maiden. (Laughs)
UM: What other plans do you have for the rest of the year?
MA: We are going to be pretty busy. The first thing we have is a little gig here in Sweden with Porcupine Tree. Then we do the US tour and then we fly directly to Holland to do Dynamo and we also are booked for the Wacken Festival in Germany. Also, something called EuroRock in Belgium. Which is the same guy who does Dynamo. Then we will take a little break for the rest of the summer. I think we have a European tour in the fall. It feels good; it’s about time!!
UM: Is Bloodbath going to continue or was it just a one-time thing?
MA: It was meant for just that mini CD we did. But apparently Century Media is screaming for a full-length album. I am not a big part of it. It is basically Anders of Katatonia who handles it. So we are talking of doing songs for a full length and we might record something. So I might consider screaming somewhat on the album! But I really don’t know what’s going to happen.
UM: Are there any other projects you plan on getting involved?
MA: I am planning to do something together with a couple of friends of mine (members of Landberk and Spiritual Beggars). I don’t know what is going to be like but it’s going to be mellow. People have asked me to do an entire acoustic Opeth album. I am not sure that’s going to happen but I am going to do something very mellow as a side project with a couple of friends of mine. I am not sure if it’s going to happen or when! So we are going to try to come up with something cool. It’s going to be a dream as well. One of the guys is a guitar player from Stockholm. He is amazing. I think I will just sing but maybe strum a little something for the guitar.
UM: When you are not doing something musically related what do you do (i.e. hobbies)?
MA: I collect Vinyl’s of obscure 60’s and 70’s stuff. I play Playstation a lot. I have my girlfriend, my friends. Actually my girlfriend and I live together. But mostly I do something that is related to music. That’s my only interest.