Mikael Åkerfeldt, frontman of proudly progressive Swedish metallers Opeth, is the music lover’s music lover. “I appreciate a good song. It doesn’t matter if it’s One Direction or fuckin’ whoever, I appreciate a good song when I hear it,” he tells Music Feeds over the phone from Stockholm.
Naturally, he doesn’t think much of One Direction — nor 5 Seconds of Summer or “30 Seconds Of Summer” for that matter — but he reserves a particular distaste for people who see fit to criticise Opeth’s more recent albums while subsisting on a musical diet that rarely strays outside of the insular confines of death metal.
Åkerfeldt’s steadfast commitment to exploration and experimentation, which begins with crate-digging for records and often ends with a new Opeth album, has most recently resulted in Pale Communion, the band’s 11th LP, out in Australia today. It’s a music lover’s record, if ever there was one.
Watch: Opeth – Cusp of Eternity
Music Feeds: You’ve stated that you were consciously trying to make a more melodic record this time around. Why was that? Did Faith In Others set the tone for the rest of the writing process?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: Yeah…. yeah, that pretty much sums it up [laughs] That was the first song I wrote. It’s a very melodic song and I always set up some type of idea of what I want the record to be and this time around I figured why not make more of a melodic record?
It can be a lot of bollocks when I’m thinking about what a record’s gonna be like, because I never seem to be able to stick to that original plan, but this time around I could. The record is quite melodic and I guess Faith In Others set the tone for the record. I wanted something emotionally charged and profound, I guess.
But I also wanted it to be a bit playful and I always wanted to keep a melodic sense to the songs.
MF: Why was Cusp of Eternity chosen as the first single?
MA: It’s the easiest song. It’s the most simple, straightforward song, I would guess. It’s not our choice. I couldn’t care less what [the label] pick as a single. The concept of ‘single’ and Opeth is like oil and water to me.
But they immediately went for that song and our old A&R, Monte Conner, who used to be at Roadrunner and is now working for Nuclear Blast, he called me up like, “That’s the obvious pick for single. Great work!” And I was like, “Okay, yeah, maybe it is. I don’t really know.” But it’s the most straightforward song on the record. I would have been fine with whatever.
MF: There’s string arrangements on the new album, Cusp Of Eternity has a choral element. What drives you to that kind of experimentation? Do you run with whatever takes your fancy in the moment or do you ever feel like you’ve been backed into a corner by the scope of your previous work and this is the only way to keep going up?
MA: I wouldn’t say backed into a corner. I’m not intimidated by myself, at all. It’s more like sometimes if I have to listen to something from the back catalog I can be a impressed and a bit puzzled like, “Did I write that shit? How could I write that shit?” But I’ve never felt that I’m a worse writer or less imaginative now than I was.
Some of the compositions might a bit whatever, but it’s usually heat of the moment. I can’t explain it. Had I been religious, I’d be like, “It’s a gift. It’s a gift from God!” But obviously I’m not religious and I think of it more as I love music and I write music, but how I get ideas, they just appear.
I can’t explain it. They just appear. I hear stuff in my head and I try to get close to that idea and make it come out of the speakers. I can’t explain where it comes from, I can’t explain why I do things like this and that.
But one explanation, if I have any, would be that I listen and consume a lot of music and so many different types of music. I think for me it’s really important to broaden myself, since I’m a songwriter. I need to listen to a lot of different kinds of music and get inspiration from there.
MF: What were some of the things you were listening to around the time of Pale Communion?
MA: I collect records, so there’s a lot of shit, a lot of stuff. Since you’re Australian, maybe I’ll impress you with something Australian. I always listen a lot to Masters Apprentices, they’re one of my favourite bands. I love them. Buffalo?
MA: They’re the Australian Black Sabbath. I listen a lot to Italian progressive music, which is a bit more pompous and pretentious, maybe, but lovely all the same. Very melodic. There’s a great Italian band that I discovered called Il Paese dei Balocchi. It’s a great record, I don’t know what it’s called. It’s from 1973.
But I listen to everything. Some of the classics, like Zeppelin or KISS, even. When I’m travelling I listen a lot to The Who. I think The Who is the ultimate travel music.
Watch: The Masters Apprentices – Turn Up Your Radio
MF: Once again there’s no growls this time. We interviewed Buzz Osborne from the Melvins a few months back and he said he feels like the Melvins lose 50 percent of their fans and gain back 50 percent worth of new ones on each album. Do you ever feel like that?
MA: Yeah, I’ve never done the math or had any statistics thrown in front of me, but the reality of the matter is that these days you see more criticism and shit criticism and shit-throwing, because of social media. And it’s easy to think that because someone shit on your new music on the internet, that’s public opinion, but it’s not. It’s not. It doesn’t translate into reality at all.
We still have a lot of people coming to see us, a lot of people coming up to us and saying they love this and that record. But throughout time there’s been some type of a shift in our audience. We still have some hardcore death metal fans that have been able to accept what we’re doing now or doing at the moment.
And there’s a lot of prog fans, there’s a lot of women coming to our shows. Somehow we reach across to women, maybe it’s because of my six-pack and good looks. It’s a diverse crowd these days and I think first and foremost that the people that come to see Opeth and listen to Opeth, male or female, they’re real music lovers.
MF: Have you ever been bothered by that sort of cliched metalhead close-mindedness? Metal fans can be quite stubborn at times.
MA: I can totally relate to it, because I used to be like that myself for a short period of time.
MF: What changed for you?
MA: What changed is I discovered other forms of music and [with] Opeth, I would say, it’s impossible to appreciate the full extent of this band if you only listen to death metal. I mean, how could you like a song like Goblin if you’re not familiar with where that song comes from, if you know what I mean?
I’m not saying people should do this or that, people can do whatever the fuck they want, but I can’t take it seriously if somebody gives criticism without the kind of musical knowledge and the backup of references that go beyond death metal. Of course you’re not gonna like some of the softer songs or the funky bits if you’ve never been exposed to that type of music.
If Opeth is a certain way to you, it’s gonna be difficult to accept and appreciate the more experimental stuff we do. It’s like a big pinch of salt, as you say. I can’t really take it seriously when someone gives us shit based on the fact that we’re not heavy enough or whatever. It’s fine. I can’t stop people voicing their opinion, but it’s not gonna dictate the rules for us.
Watch: Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt Talks Italian Prog with Italians
MF: We loved your One Direction review. Was there anything you wanted to say in the review that was taken out, edited, or that you didn’t remember till later?
MA: Well, I can’t remember what I said in that piece. It was something I did for MetalHammer in the UK. The journalist, Amit, I know him well and he thought it was absolutely hilarious that I went to a One Direction show. Though I did it as a chaperone for my oldest daughter, who’s a big fan of One Direction.
She’s turning 10 soon and the way she consumes music is like ADD. She can’t stick with a song for more than 10 seconds before she changes song. And every now and then I hear 10 seconds of One Direction and I’ve always been like, “That’s a bit shit.”
I appreciate a good song. It doesn’t matter if it’s One Direction or fuckin’ whoever, I appreciate a good song when I hear it. But I couldn’t hear anything that was interesting to me. It sounded as manufactured as it is. So going to this show, part of me expected to have my opinion changed a little bit.
Because the five guys, is it five guys? Five or six guys, I think that they can sing a little bit. I think they can hold a tune, so to speak. The voices are a bit juvenile sounding to me, they sound young. They sound like boys. It was just nothing impressive, really, about the show.
The most impressive thing was the audience, who were just like, the guys did absolutely nothing apart from sing a little bit and then just walk around on a massive stage. And the crowd went fucking ape shit. And I was like, “What happened?” I hear a crowd go [roar] and I turned to my daughter like, “What was that?” And she’s like, “Nothing. They’re just singing.” They just started screaming for no reason, like wow, something happened there. I guess one of the guys looked cute on the big screen or something.
But I’ll tell you one thing, because they had an opening band from Australia. I have to ask my daughter what they were called, hold on a second.
MF: Was it 5 Seconds of Summer?
MA: [muffled Swedish] …5 Seconds of Summer.
MF: Of course.
MA: I think we were in our seats, say, around 6 o’clock and the show was gonna start at 7:30, so we were there really early. And it was the most aggressive commercial campaign, for this Australian band, that I have ever seen.
They have the big screens on the side of the stage and every two minutes, I’m not joking, there was an ad for their new record and then the third minute there was a video for one of the songs and then another ad and then another video.
It was like super aggressive. They were just directing this band towards this massive crowd of 60,000 young girls like, “Okay, you’re gonna like this band now.” They were compelling the crowd to like this band. And at 7:30, 3… 30 Seconds of Summer was on stage and the crowd were fans of them.
MF: It worked.
MA: It fuckin’ worked. They made them their new favourite band.
MF: They brainwashed them.
MA: It’s complete brainwashing! And this band, young guys. The drummer, to be fair, he could play. He seemed to be the tough guy. They were more of a rock band, they played their own instruments, but it was complete bubblegum rock. If you think Green Day is cheesy, take it up like 2000 notches and you get this band. But the crowd was like, “Wow.”
Watch: 5 Seconds Of Summer – Amnesia
MF: Well, moving on to tours that aren’t shit, we recently heard about your tour with In Flames, which sounds like it’s gonna be awesome. Are you looking forward to touring Pale Communion in Australia?
MA: Everywhere, yeah. We love Australia, we always have. Ever since the first time we were there, which I can’t even really remember when that was now. But travelling that distance for some reason feels like you’re travelling away from the fan base [laughs] Travelling away from things that are sure, like travelling 30 hours or whatever it is, and finding that people like you there.
Like the first show we did, we had like a thousand people show up in Sydney. And like, “Wow!” We just went this distance and there’s people who like us here. And ever since then it’s become like a, I don’t want to sound pretentious, but like some type of fuckin’ love affair.
Every time we’ve been there more people come and they’re very into the music and very vocal about what they like. If they don’t like anything, they’re like, “Ah, fuck. That’s fucking shit!” But at the same time also showing their love if they like something. I’m very excited about going to Australia, I love, I fucking love Australia. It’s my favourite country in the world.
MF: Is there a plan in the works? There’s actually rumours of you guys playing our Soundwave Festival.
MA: I said no to that, actually.
MF: You said no, did you?
MA: Yeah, because we can do our own shows there and I think Soundwave is more about… I don’t know, it’s like some fuckin’… I like festivals and we’ve done a few touring festivals, but it’s like some type of weird… It’s not about us, if you know what I mean? When we travel that distance, I wanna be able to give the Opeth fans what they want.
For us to play Soundwave, maybe it would build the band a little bit, maybe we’d come across to music fans who aren’t familiar with us, but… I’m not really interested. I wanna please our fans.
MF: AJ Maddah, the promoter of the festival, he mentioned on Twitter that he would only book you guys if he could give you an 80-minute set, which is longer than your standard festival set. Was there a discussion about accommodating the show that you want to put on?
MA: I don’t think we’re in a position to get an 80-minute set, because in the context of a festival like Soundwave, we’re not gonna be headliners, I don’t think. There’s always bigger bands and specific types of bands headlining that event. So I don’t think we would be granted that time on stage.
And I don’t think our fans would show up if we didn’t have a respectable length to our set. Even if I understand the whole kind of promotional tool that that festival would be. The ideal thing when you’re playing festivals really is to play in front of people who don’t know who the fuck you are and to try and make new fans.
But I kind of lost interest in building the band. I wanna go out and do great shows on our own terms, as opposed to being thrown into a whole fucking machine in the style of Soundwave. I did say no to that festival, but maybe somebody’s gonna twist my arm. And we worked with AJ before and I know him.
We’ll see what happens, but my preference, when it comes to playing in Australia, is always to do our own shows.
MF: And that’s gonna happen?
MA: Early next year, I think.
Opeth’s new album, ‘Pale Communion’, is out today, Friday, 22nd August.