Spells And Schedules, A Q&A With Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt

Let’s put it this way: Opeth now aren’t the Opeth of the mid-’90s or the mid-’00s. Older, wiser, better musicians, and better businessmen, Opeth, namely frontman/songwriter/elder statesman Mikael Åkerfeldt, have also changed their sound, if only to equal the bands Åkerfeldt admired as far back as we can all remember. Actually, the change isn’t new. The change dates back to 2011’s often misunderstood, but nonetheless incredible Heritage record, when Opeth closed the chapter on death metal and opened a new one on dark, progressive hard rock. Actually, there’s a ton of heavy metal in there, too. It’s just not pronounced. Now on album number three (twelfth overall), titled Sorceress, in Chapter No Death Metal, the Swedes pick up where Pale Communion left off. The record is, as cliche as it sounds, like the cover art. Colorful, wild, beautiful, yet evil, untoward, and sickening. It’s really an album only Opeth could make. On it, Åkerfeldt continues to impress, his vocals delicate, yearning, like Greg Lake, and rough, as if hewn from Ian Gillan and David Coverdale. Musically, Sorceress is all over the place. It’s heavy, wistful, angry, disquieting, and gorgeous. It’s the kind of album no former death metal band has ever made. Decibel sits down with Åkerfeldt to discuss Sorceress and what’s it’s like, even a glimpse, behind the scenes.

Where did the idea to start your own label, Moderbolaget Records, come from?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: We had been thinking about starting our own label for some time. When the Warner Bros. stuff went down—basically, they stopped caring about us—we talked about all the different options. We discussed signing a new contract with some label. Or doing a license deal with a label, like we’re doing with Nuclear Blast. Or doing a label service deal, which is kind of a new thing, where they give you a buffer to work from. The thing is with the label service is that it’s a defined pool of money, and you have that pool to hire publicists and marketing. Then you split the profits with the label service. This option’s interesting, but it’s also a bit scary. We have our own merch company, O-Merch, where we sign other bands, so we felt having our own label wouldn’t be a bad idea. Having our own label allows us a lot more freedom. If we want to release solo records, we can. If we want to sign bands, we can. So, the label’s been on the inside of my head for some time.

At this point, Opeth is, like it or not, a business. It’s not like the old days where things happen when they happen. Opeth has a schedule now. What’s that like? You’re living between business and art.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: Andy [Farrow], our manager, thinks ahead. I’m more of a live-for-the-day kind of guy. I’m terrible with schedules. My Achilles heel. But Andy’s always ahead. He’s like, “We’re doing the next record in April-May of next year. So, how long do you need to write the record?” I’m like, “I have no idea!” Sometimes it’s quick. Sometimes I can’t come up with anything. It annoys the hell out of me that he’s putting a time frame on something creative and artistic. You have to be creative when you’re creative. That’s when you deliver. In retrospect, it does work like how Andy wants it though. When I have a schedule or a time frame, I am creative. And I deliver. It really works for me to be pushed to be creative. Every time, I’m building something from nothing. Like I’m sitting in my studio and I’m thinking, “OK, what’s next?” I might go to a riff recorded on my iPhone. Anything, really. This time around I didn’t think about what I wanted to do. I was forced to write. But once I started, it was easy. This record, like the last record, didn’t take long to write. Like five or six months.

So, the schedule must get very real at a certain point, right?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: Andy puts it out there like this, “If you don’t deliver the record on this or that date, everything else will fail.” The touring schedule is going to fail. The release schedule is going to fail. Basically, we’re going to fall. Management by intimidation. I don’t believe everything he says. [Laughs] It’s much different now. It’s much easier. I write complete demos. I sequence the songs in the order I want them to be on the record. I do mixing. I do overdubs. Once I’m done, I give copies to the guys so they can listen to the album. They practice to it on their own. When it’s time to go into the studio, everybody does their own thing. It obviously works. Heritage was done in 20 days. Pale Communion was done in two weeks. This one was done in 12 days. Back in the day, we’d spent two weeks on the drums alone. Now, we spend two days on the drums. And bass. Mendes and Axe play live.

And Orchid?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: Orchid was done in two weeks. And that includes the mixing.

What’s the band’s work environment like at this stage?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: Opeth have two rooms. One is a rehearsal room. Next to it is filled with guitars, amps, and whatever. It’s filled with stuff. In the corner, there’s a computer, with a microphone, and a keyboard. That’s my studio corner. I work there. It’s a great environment. It’s not cozy, but I love it. But with Still Life, we didn’t have a rehearsal room. I didn’t even have an amplifier. I remember having to sell a crappy Marshall Valvestate because I needed to pay the rent. That record was written in my flat, where I was living at the time, on a piece of paper. I was playing guitar, writing notes on paper. Whatever the guitar riff sounded like. I had to remember the music back then. I do remember Anders [Nyström] had a Porta-studio and I used that, but it was just for snippets of songs. We didn’t rehearse for Still Life either. The records after that were also done the same way. We rehearsed, wrote, and recorded in the studio. The biggest load I’ve ever had on my shoulders was Deliverance and Damnation. I had nothing done. They were fully completed in the studio. It was terrible. For Ghost Reveries, I had pretty much everything ready before we went into the studio. We might have even rehearsed a little.

What else do you do to keep yourself busy?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: I also write columns for Sweden Rock magazine. I pick records that I know really well. I also pick albums I don’t know very well, like every minute of it. So, I listen to a lot of music. I have to. Because of the column, but also this is what I do. I listen to music.

So, the first time you had me at your place, your record collection was on the walls in the living room. It was like being encased in vinyl.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: All records are still in the living room, which is also where I sleep. So, I’m surrounded by records. It’s the focal point in my life. When people come over, the records are a talking point.

So, Sorceress is an interesting album title. It’s not a common word either. Where did the title originate?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: It comes from a lyric in one of the songs. There’s one song called “Sorceress” and “Sorceress II”, because I couldn’t come up with a better title basically. They are very different from each other. Most of the songs are love songs, but they don’t sound or read that way. If you read the lyrics, they almost are hate songs. But it’s love. It’s the negative aspects of love. The jealously, the bitterness, the paranoia, and the mind games of love. So, one song focuses on the negative side of love. The other is more pleading, genuine love. I was singing something in one of the songs, Sorceress, and it dawned on me that the word, ‘sorceress’, should be the title. I love one-word titles. I’ve had some more complex titles in the past, like My Arms, Your Hearse. So, Sorceress sounded like an album title. Aesthetically, it sounds nice. It works with the concept of the lyrics. Love can be like a disease or a spell. Plus, I had the sleeve already worked out. So, I think it sounds cool, even if it sounds a bit Dungeons & Dragons.

You went back to Rockfield Studios in Wales. Why?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: It’s lovely there. It’s in the sticks. It’s got horses and cows. There’s lots of sheep in Wales. But the studio is just a studio. It’s so beautiful there. So quiet. It’s a residential studio, so we live there while we’re recording. We have chefs for us, too. Three meals a day. So, we can just be there and hang out. We went to studio where we did Pale Communion.

There were times when you were barely communicative after finishing an Opeth record. That’s changed obviously now that you’re more organized or that you have organization behind you.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: There was a time when I came out of recordings a wreck. But now I come out with a wish. I wish it wouldn’t have gone so quickly. There’s an emptiness after I leave the studio. I love writing and recording in the studio. It was great fun. And Rockfield has history. All the Budgie records, all the Queen records, some of the later Sabbath records, even Sepultura recorded there. It’s got a massive rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s still run by the original owner Kingsley Ward, who did the Spring record. The singer of Spring, Pat Moran, engineered Rush’s Farewell to Kings.

So, wait… There’s a specific guest on the new album, right? Didn’t you ask Andy Latimer to do solos on Pale Communion?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: I did ask Andy Latimer to do a solo on Pale Communion. He said yes. But I wrote a solo I loved so much I ended up playing the solo myself. There are no guests [on this album]. There are two spoken word sections. An intro and outro. There are strings on one song. Done by a guy named Will Malone. He did all the strings for the Sabbath records—Sabotage and Technical Ecstacy—in the ‘70s. He was also the producer on the first Iron Maiden record. But now he does strings for pop artists like Joss Stone, The Verve, Depeche Mode. I looked him up, mostly because he was the house engineer for Morgan Studios in the ‘60s. He was also in a few bands. Like Orange Bicycle and Motherlight, which is an amazing band, very acid-drenched and weird. He also had a solo record, which is also amazing and superbly rare. It’s orchestral. The bulk of it is strings. It’s kind of like Nick Drake. I kind of asked him to score the strings on Sorceress, so I could get my foot in to get a third copy of the solo record. He’s the only guest. He said, “I would love to do the song.”

Opeth have three albums without death metal vocals. Clearly, you’ve moved on artistically. Yet, there are still fans who hope that they’ll return. Or, they’ve refused to carry on with you. What’s that like, knowing on every album you lose some, but hopefully win more?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: I understand that we’ve changed. We imprinted a certain style or sound and then we changed it a little bit, but that’s how my favorite artists were. They were unpredictable. I didn’t know what they were doing next. Sometimes, one of their records isn’t my cup of tea, but then something else comes along and you go back to listen to it, and you love it. Music is, as a consumer, more than here and now. Music production should be about here and now. I’ve never thought about what might keep us in the game a bit longer. What the past wanted. What the present wants. I’ve never, ever thought along those lines. The music is always here and now. I’m 42 now. So, I’m not thinking the same way about music when I was 18, 25, and 30. If I was writing like I did back then, I don’t think I would’ve developed at all. That’s a scary thought. That’s a massive comfort zone for some bands. Not Opeth.

** Opeth’s Sorceress is out now on license to Nuclear Blast Records. The record, on vinyl and CD, is available HERE.