Mikael Åkerfeldt's first started out playing guitar as far back as 1986. It wasn't long before he assembled his first group [under the name of Eruption] playing death metal covers of Bathory and Death.
It took a friend by the name of David Isberg to open his eyes [and ears] to a band called Mefisto, whose demo tape 'The Puzzle' showed that the combined the use of death metal vocals, acoustic passages and guitar solos could work. It soon sealed the fate of the band, but proved the beginning of a new band called Opeth [whose name was coined after Opet, the city of the moon, in book by author Wilbur Smith].
Although members came and went within Opeth, guitarist Peter Lindgren came into the fold in 1991, and has remained since.
Opeth's debut 'Orchid' was released in 1994, but it was the follow up 'Morningrise' in 1996 that gained the groups initial underground following.
Prior to Opeth's return to the studio, the band acquired both newcomers Martin Lopez [drums] and Martin Mendez [bass]. Although Mendez hadn't had the time to learn the songs [leaving Åkerfeldt to play bass on the album], 'My Arms Your Hearse' was released in 1997, with claims from both press and fans alike as Opeth's best work to date.
After signing a new contract with Peaceville Records [after fulfilling their agreement with Candlelight records], work started for what was to be their 1999 release 'Still Life'. While the album proved to be their most successful at the time, it was 2001's 'Blackwater Park' that placed the band on a whole new plain. Co-producer Steven Wilson [of Porcupine Tree fame] proved to be a major influence on the albums sound and an inspiration to Opeth.
Last year saw Åkerfeldt's bold plan to release the first part of a double album when 'Deliverance' was unveiled to an awaiting legion of fans. Needless to say, the album is not only the best selling album in Opeth's history, but also unanimously well received by everyone.
- I managed to catch up with Mikael Åkerfeldt during a stop over in Graz, Austria [Arnold Schwarzenegger's home town] while on tour with Madder Mortem.
Today is going to be our tenth gig, and we have another four weeks to go. That's a lot. But everything is going pretty good. We're going to Italy and Spain and a couple of gigs in France. We're tired obviously, because we just did a weeks tour in the U.S., and we only had two days off before we started this European tour. This is the biggest tour we had done ever without a doubt. It never ends. We're pretty much booked solid for the next year. It's weird being as busy as this, especially for a slacker like myself!
- Although Opeth's popularity and world acclaim has been a slow and gradual climb, it still takes Mikael by surprise the way 'Deliverance' has been received since its release.
It's been mostly good reviews, and the fans seem to like it. The new material is going down live very well. Everything about it has been going pretty good. We even won the Swedish Grammy in the 'Best Hard Rock' category for 'Deliverance' just the other day! We also won a Swedish radio award too. That's pretty big for a garage band like us. It feels weird to be nominated for awards, especially these sorts of awards because it's not like our background, if you know what I mean. It's so different to what we really are.
- Many would suggest that Opeth have well and truly elevated beyond the 'garage band' status that Mikael associates with the band. However, he insists that Opeth still feel like an underground band.
I definitely feel that Opeth is still an underground band. I don't think its ever going to be a case of where we're thinking that we're superstars or anything. We're still musicians that love to play music, and that's pretty much about it. We don't have any high opinions of ourselves, we just want to have a good time and play the music. I don't worry about anything because I just don't care. I've been doing this for such a long time now, that it feels like I don't really care about anything anymore. I just want to play music, and that's all. I don't care about the business side, I don't care if Opeth is Opeth and I don't care about anything. I just want to have a good time.
- The release of 'Deliverance' was the first part of what Mikael considered a double album. If the albums had came out as Mikael had originally envisioned them, it really would have been a double album is the proper sense of the word.
I think 'Damnation' has been pushed back again. They're going to put it out in May now. It's always been the record company decision to put it out later. My idea was to put it out at the same time as 'Deliverance', but the company wanted some time in between the releases so they could promote them properly. That way we could do interviews for both of them separately. They were both 'hot' albums if you know what I mean. 'Damnation' was originally mean to come out in March I think, but our manager wanted to push it back to May because we are going to be doing so much touring for 'Deliverance', and therefore we wouldn't have time to be home to do interviews for 'Damnation'.
- Down through music history, double albums have always been something seen as a cardinal sin for record labels. Their way of thinking [besides marketing, sales and lack of longevity] is that releasing two albums at the one time may have an overwhelming effect on the audience. It would be the case of giving them too much to swallow in one go.
It crossed my mind, but the two albums are so different that it could be a different band. It's not like it's two hours of the same kind of music. 'Damnation' is like forty minutes long, and sounds totally unlike anything we have ever done in the past. It could be a different band pretty much. It really didn't worry me that much.
- The last time I spoke to Mikael [just after the release of 'Blackwater Park'], he mentioned that the band had only conducted three full band rehearsals before heading into the studio. Much to my surprise [and astonishment], the number was lower for 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation'.
It was only one rehearsal this time. We went through the tricky part, but we had a lot of time in the studio working that out too. I guess it sounds weird, but we've been doing it like that since 'Still Life'. That was also recorded with just one rehearsal before heading into the studio. We're getting used to the fact that we're working a lot of the bits and pieces out in the studio. It's kind of refreshing to work that way because the material doesn't get old to the composer. We're so into the music that we want to surprise ourselves a little bit. When the finished album is out there, we don't know exactly what's on there ourselves. You kind of forget what you've done in the studio. It's like you're a fan and you get the new album from one of your favourite bands. It's pretty interesting to work that way. And it's also interesting to take those kinds of risks, the risk of failing.
- While the majority of press for 'Deliverance' has been in praise for the band, there are some that claim that the band aren't willing to deviate from their original sound and try something new for fear of losing their core fan base.
It's true you know. Of course we have a formula, and it's how I write the songs. I don't see the point of changing if you don't have anything good, or better to change into. We've been playing this kind of music for such a long time that it's become our style. Just as Iron Maiden has a style. But for 'Damnation', there's a drastic change in style for us. I also want to stress that it's a drastic change for that album, and not a drastic change for the future of Opeth. It might be, but I'm not sure at this stage. For the next album, after 'Damnation', it might be something completely different. As for the heavy albums after 'Deliverance', of course they're going to in some terms similar to each other because it's the same band, and the same guy is writing the music. It's only going to be slight changes depending on what influences we have at any given moment when I'm writing new songs.
- There's no denying that 'Deliverance' caters to long time fans of Opeth. However, with the more acoustic sounding 'Damnation', the possibility of it being their biggest seller and bringing a whole host of new fans to the world of Opeth isn't out of the question.
You know I think it probably will sell more copies, if it's available to those people and if it's promoted as a non extreme metal album. I've already done a couple of weird interviews that I wouldn't have done, had it been for 'Deliverance' or any of the earlier albums. I recently did an interview with a big blues magazine from England. He was asking me questions, 'O.K. So why has Opeth become a blues band?' I was a bit surprised because I'm fairly influenced by the blues, but it's not like it's a blues album! I think interviews like that will help maybe get a little more radio play and stuff like that. I think a lot of new people should get into Opeth with the 'Damnation' album. I always thought that there have been parts in Opeth's music that a lot of people could like, and not only metal people. You just see that from what Porcupine Tree did for us. People that are into Porcupine tree, and have never heard a death metal band before, seem to like Opeth now. That was simply from Steven producing our album. I speak to loads of Porcupine Tree fans, and they always tell me that they never listened to metal before. It just goes to show that extreme metal is not as unmusical as some metal fans would like to have it.
- Steven's influence, although not as clear to same, more evident on 'Deliverance' than what it was on 'Blackwater Park'. Not only has Steven helped out on the vocal passages, but he also appears to have helped out on the instrumentation.
Yes, that's true. I think we brought it up an extra step this time around. On 'Blackwater Park', as it was his first production job for Opeth obviously, I think that he may have felt that he didn't want to take up too much space. But this time around, when he came down to the studio, we knew each other better, and we could start work instantly. I was very tired by the time he came in down to the studio, and he helped out a lot. I had pretty much most of the vocal lines completed, but he helped out a lot with the vocal harmonies, some of the keyboards and some weird effects and stuff like that. He appeared a little bit more than he did on 'Blackwater Park'. But on 'Damnation', he's all over that album.
- Mikael mentioned to me last time that the melodic vocals were the hardest part of the album to make, and that doing death metal vocals were something he compared to as 'rapping'. The clean vocals on 'Deliverance' are certainly a marked improvement on previous albums, but Mikael still feels there's a long way to go yet.
It's a very big challenge. Firstly I want to improve my singing with every new release, and secondly, you want to have vocal lines that are just perfect. Maybe even vocal harmonies that are perfect. When we start with the vocals, I subconsciously know that I have to do my best. It's pretty much the most important thing about the whole recording. It goes for both styles of vocals too. Even though I know the screaming technique so well now, I'm still eager to make it even more brutal than ever before. When it comes to the clean vocals, I just want it to be delicate and beautiful and the best I've ever done. Every time I record, I want the best vocals ever! [Laughs] Since I'm not Ronnie James Dio, it's always going to be a bit of stress before I start with the vocal session. You never know how it's going to turn out at the end of the day, but with Steve's help, it's a big help. It's really comfortable to work with him.
- While Steven is credited with co-producing 'Blackwater Park', 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation', his role is limited to areas that his talent are best put to use.
He's not even there for the recording of the death metal vocals. You know, he's not actually involved in the entire production. For all three of the albums, he came to the studio once we have recorded all the drums, guitars and bass. He helps out with the lead guitars, the clean vocals and on 'Damnation's case, the keyboards too.
- Mikael seems comfortable with all his creative energies going solely in Opeth [Bloodbath's 2002 release 'Resurrection Through Carnage' doesn't count as nearly all the material was entirely written by Katatonia's Jonas Renske], but talk has come up about a project forming between Steven and Mikael.
We talk about that all the time, and that's probably going to be my next thing. After all the stuff I've done with Opeth with the recording of two new albums, and all the touring we're going to do, I think we need a lot of time away from each other. That's when I'm going to concentrate on doing something together with Steven. He has a couple of songs that didn't make it to the last Porcupine Tree album [2002's 'In Absentia'] because the other guys in the band thought they were too heavy. We might do something with those. Especially the songs called 'Cut Ribbon'. Steven said he wanted to record it with me. I think we're going to start out with that track and try and write some new material after that.
- Before the collaboration goes ahead though, there's quite a bit of touring that needs to be completed first. Then there's another tour in support of 'Damnation'.
I think we have a two week break in between the tours, in which we have rehearsal schedules for the 'Damnation' tour. But it's not a lot of rest to be honest. I don't see really how we're going to make it! [Laughs] We put it on ourselves pretty much, because of the decision to make two albums. Somehow we have to make it work, but there are a lot of things coming up. We have to do all this touring for 'Deliverance'. By the end of this tour, 'Damnation' comes out, and we have to do press for that, and then tour for that album. It's a lot of work coming up. With the 'Damnation' tour, we plan to play all the songs from the album, as well as doing remakes of elderly mellow tracks. We're thinking of doing things like 'Face Of Melinda', 'The Night And The Silent Water', 'Harvest', 'To Bid You Farewell' and things like that. We're going to bring in a keyboard player, because, as I said, there are a lot of vintage keyboards on 'Damnation'. We're going to have Per Wiberg from the Spiritual Beggars with us. So we're going to concentrate only on the mellow material. It's almost like we have two parallel careers. One is an extreme metal band, and one is a mellow progressive seventies influenced band.
- That parallel career that Mikael mentions looks set to become a permanent thing too.
What I think is going to happen is like has happened with 'Damnation'. Mainstream people will listen to 'Damnation', and like it, and find out that we're actually an extreme metal band. They're pretty much going to be bound to pick up a copy of 'Deliverance', 'Blackwater Park' or any of our earlier albums. I think most of those people are going to like it eventually too. Even though some people might think it's a weird thing for us to do one soft and one heavy album side by side, at the end of the day to be quite honest, I think it's a pretty smart business move! [Laughs] We'll see what happens. I don't know, and to be quite honest, I don't care. I try not to think about it too much about it to be honest. Al I know is that, I personally love both styles. For me, it's not a problem to cross over. It never has been a problem for me, and as for the future of music in Opeth, I have no idea what's going to happen next.
- Travis Smith [who has worked with Opeth and numerous artists over the years] designed both the 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation' covers artwork. The association is anything but clear-cut on both sides when coming up with exact ideas.
I had the idea for the picture for both the covers, but that was pretty much it. I told him about how I wanted a picture that was like a bedroom, with the old furniture. I wanted a very dark, melancholic picture. That's pretty much all I told him, and that's the picture he came up with for the cover and the pictures in the booklet. I like to just give him rough ideas for what we want on the covers, and let him do the rest. He's the artist after all. I want it to be his view, but only influenced by me! [Laughs] The cover for 'Damnation' is very similar to 'Deliverance' actually. It's a picture he sent, and could well have ended up in the 'Deliverance' booklet. We thought it was such a good picture that we decided it should be the cover for 'Damnation'. It's very similar packaging to 'Deliverance', only a bit lighter in colour, whiter actually.
- Opeth have always been very cryptic in regards to their lyrics and album titles. However, the titles for both 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation' are a little more straightforward than at first thought.
It's exactly as you said, one is a 'Ying' and the other a 'Yang' sort of thing. That was the idea from the beginning. The original idea was to actually call the albums 'Deliverance Part I' and 'II', and to have the same cover, but to have one very dark, and one very light. So it's not like we're very far away from the original idea. When I came up with the song title 'Deliverance', I thought it was a good title for the album. That song is very representable for the whole feel of the album. As for 'Damnation', we just wanted the opposite. A friend of mine asked me what the opposite of deliverance was, and straight away I said it was damnation. We all kind of looked at each other, and it was like, 'Yeah. That's the other title!' I like the fact that 'Damnation' is more like a metal title, yet we chose to have the title for our mellow album.
- And like 'Blackwater Park', the title 'The Master's Apprentices' is another salute to another long gone group.
Yes, that was my tribute to Australia. I love that band, so the title had to end up there sometime. I have three of their albums, and as you already know, I only buy vinyl these days. I remember hearing the band all those years ago, and I always thought that it was a really good name for a band. So I basically just ripped it off.
- Which then leads up to the upcoming tour of Australia.
It's one of those places in the world we've all be longing to go, but never could afford it to go there on private cash. Going there on tour is something we all look forward to more than anything else we have ever done. Australia is like…the end of the world! [laughs] Obviously we have loads and loads of fans that have been longing to see us, especially going by the amount of e-mails I get from Australia. We're playing in Perth now too, which is cool. We got so much hate e-mail because we weren't playing there originally.
I think the gigs themselves are going to be good. On top of that, it's like a dream for us to go over there as tourists. We want to see the country and meet the people. Personally I'm very interested in the wildlife. I'm looking forward to doing a bit of safari sight seeing! [laughs] There's nothing in particular I want to see while I'm down there, because I want to see everything. I'd be intrigued just watching a spider crawl up the wall. We're going to be flying every day, because our schedule is pretty much packed. I think Peter has already decided he's going to stay in Australia a few days after all the gigs are finished. I haven't decided yet. It all depends on how much time we have left and what follows after the tour of Australia. It's like once you're there you have to make the best out of it. If we're able to stay a few extra days, then that's a good idea. We're all very hyped up about the whole Australia trip.
I would like to personally thank Mikael Åkerfeldt for his generous time, and Brooke Harry [Zomba Records] for making it possible.
Both albums 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation' are out now on Music For Nations through Zomba Records Australia.