In late 2009, I conducted a telephone interview with Mikael Akerfeldt, the leader of Opeth. He was in Italy and I was in Saitama. The entire interview lasted about twenty-five minutes. Here are the first twenty minutes or so, with an exceptionally high “y’know count” both by the interviewee (65) and the interviewer (11). I guess we really hit it off.
CBL: Is that Mikael Akerfeldt?
CBL: Hello. This is Colin Liddell.
CBL: I’m phoning from Japan.
CBL: From the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun.
MA: I know, but weren’t you supposed to call 12:30?
CBL: Well, yeh, but there was a problem, eh, with, eh, with giving me your number. I didn’t get your number until about an hour ago then since then I’ve been phoning a few times and there’s been no answer, so there’s been a bit of a mix up somewhere.
CBL: Is it OK to speak now?
MA: How long is it going to take, d’you think?
CBL: Probably about fifteen twenty minutes.
MA: OK, that’s cool. Hold on a second. Thank you.
MA: OK, I’m sorry. I was sleeping. We had a rough night.
CBL: I see, so, eh, right now are you, eh, going around touring?
MA: Yeh, we’re out on a tour called Progressive Nation with Dream Theater.
MA: Big Elf and a band called Unexpect, which is basically an initiative from Mike Portnoy, the drummer from Dream Theater put this together. So we’re just basically winding down. We only have another – let’s see – three shows before we’re finished.
CBL: Right, where are you at the moment?
MA: Right now we’re in Bologna in Italy.
CBL: Aha, so… where did you just play?
MA: Ah, we played Rome last night.
CBL: So, how was that? Did anything interesting happen?
MA: Ah, we’ve been to Italy many times and it’s always been pretty good for us here, and especially Rome, eh, which for some reason we’ve neglected – many times we come to Italy we haven’t had shows there for some reason, but it’s always great. And yesterday’s show, I think, was one of the best of the tour for me personally.
CBL: So, what went right?
MA: Ah, it’s just y’know I think it’s more in your head to be honest y’know like the way you play. We’re so picky these days that if there’s one mistake that I hear the show is more or less ruined, y’know what I mean?
MA: Which is horrible, but it’s also, yeh, the interaction with the crowd when everything just clicks and you feel like. y’know. it’s like a... I don’t know... some, y’know, magic. It’s always good and it’s always good fun to play the shows but sometimes it’s not as fun as other times, y’know.
CBL: The article I’m doing about you is to prepare, eh, for your coming to Japan.
CBL: And I’m wondering, em, how often you’ve been to Japan and what are your impressions eh so far?
MA: We haven’t been that many times. We’ve only been twice. We played the Loud Park festival in 2006 and went to 3 or 4 shows last year and it was amazing, y’know. I’ve been hearing so much about playing in Japan and just being there as a tourist y’know It’s been [garbled] and myself and when we finally made it over it was fantastic, y’know. So well arranged, everything so professional and they take really good care of you once you’re there y’know, and the fans are really nice and respectful, the food is awesome, and y’know, its y’know, I think Tokyo and Osaka are y’know it felt a bit like it’s on a different planet if y’know what I mean. It’s so different from Stockholm but I loved it, y’know, I loved it.
CBL: Yeh, eh any problems coming to Japan cos I mean, eh, a lot of, eh, you’ve got tattoos and a lot of the band members have got tattoos and like in certain establishments people with, eh, tataoos, eh, can scare or freak people out?
MA: Ah we didn’t see anything of that, y’know, I’m sure, y’know, like most metal and rock bands today get tattoos. I think, I don’t think that represents that much of a problem. We certainly didn’t hear anything about that. They they took great care of us to be honest and obviously some nights we got really drunk and obnoxious but and it was, y’know, they didn’t seem to be that irritated with us, y’know.
CBL: Do you remember what sort of places you were going to, eh, for drinking?
MA: Well, we went to a couple of different restaurants and also in, ah, in, ah, we went to – what’s it called? – the Rock Rock, the Rock Rock bar in, ah, is it Osaka, Nagoya? I can’t remember, but I was just there I had a few beers, y’know, and it’s just one of those places that apparently you’re supposed to go to, eh, but otherwise we sat in the cafe in the hotel and had a couple of beers.
CBL: Right. Now you you’ve obviously got quite a long career and, y’know, in that time there’s been quite a lot of line up changes and is this sort of something that, eh, gets associated with, eh a lot of hard rock or heavy metal bands – these continuous line up changes – em, so could you maybe tell me a little bit about that? What’s been going on with all the line up changes and, eh, how about the line up now? Ha, have you finally settled on a, y’know, very solid line up?
MA: Well, I like to think we have, y’know, but since we’ve had many line up changes I don’t take anything for granted, but as for the five guys who are in the band now, we’re, we’re, y’know, get along great we play great. It sounds better than ever. And it just no denying, y’know, it’s just so much better sounding when we play live to be honest. And in the past, y’know, I think most of the line up changes have, y’know, been happening because people change, y’know. People don’t want to do this anymore because they get new ideas they, y’know, it’s a risky type of business, I mean, y’know, for many years we didn’t make a penny, which obviously presents a problem if you’ve got bills to pay and rent and shit like that and food of course, y’know. Um, so, I think some of the group members who have been in the band simply didn’t have it in them to be musicians on this level...
CBL: Yeh, um, I was looking at the DVD that’s, eh, connected to the Watershed, uh, LP, and I got the impression that you, you’re a relatively kind of normal creative guy and you’ve surrounded yourself with these very kind of intensely focused musicians now, like, you’ve got a very good drummer, eh, the keyboardist is very good at what he does – everybody’s sort of very technically proficient and very, very focused and almost autisticly so, and you’re in the middle of all that.
MA: Yeh, I know but that’s, y’know, that’s… It’s basically what I’ve been looking for. [garbled] me both as a player and a songwriter have developed during the years and some of the guys have been in the band but they didn’t develop, if you know what I mean. They didn’t push themselves to the next level.
CBL: You mean they didn’t develop as musicians or creatively?
MA: Both. Well, mostly as musicians, y’know, because I want all the guys in the band – even though I write most of the songs, y’know, almost everything – I want the guys to take their positions, to take charge of their positions and do it, y’know, as if, y’know, it’s position, if you know what I mean. I don’t interfere, y’know, It’s what they know much better than me. That’s always what I’ve been looking for. I just want to present the songs and obviously some of the songs are quite advanced to play I guess but, y’know, em, I think I’ve always wanted to surround myself with great musicians, but people that are better than me if you know what I mean.
CBL: Yeh, in terms of technical proficiency.
MA: Yeh, so I can just relax and concentrate on the thing, y’know, more or less. And it just feels so safe playing with a drummer like Axe and with Mendez and Frederick and Per. It’s just never... I can always kind of just lean back and enjoy the ride if you know what I mean, when we play live; when in the past, there’s always been ups and downs. You’re not sure where the one is and, y’know, everything’s a bit more chaotic, y’know, and now it’s just, y’know, everybody’s in charge of their own position in the band I think.
CBL: Yeh. This is, this is something that a lot of people who don’t really know about heavy metal are actually quite surprised at that, y’know, you have to be very, very precise about what you’re doing and there’s very little room for mistakes or... And there’s almost... Like when you’re performing there’s very... there’s almost no improvisation, yeh?
MA: No, we don’t improvise much, and if we are improvisation, its specific that we have made like ‘OK this minute or two in this song, we improvise a little bit, y’know, in the key of whatever.’ But, generally, we try to play the songs as close to the album versions if you know what I mean, and we’ve become very, very picky, as I’ve said. We record all the performances and listen back to them after the show and the difference between what we think is a good show and a bad show is so small that you can barely hear it, you know what I mean?
CBL: Yeh. Yeh...
MA: Which is strange, I guess.
CBL: Yeh, maybe, you notice it a lot more than the audiences, I guess.
MA: Yeh, we all have like – especially on this tour – we all have some like the in-ear monitors if you know what that is. Basically we have a little like a thing in your ear and that’s your monitor. That’s what you hear and everything’s so close and dry, and if somebody plays a bum note it really, y’know, shines through if you know what I mean.
MA: Eh, right now we’re extremely picky. It’s just a... if you want to play a more or less flawless show.
CBL: Yeh, but isn’t that kind of... doesn’t that work against the basic ethos of rock, which is supposed to be this kind of rebellious, eh, wild experience for a lot of people, and you’re completely the opposite of that because you’re so focused, so precise – mistakes are just not allowed, y’know what I mean? It’s just a... There’s a paradox there, isn’t there?
MA: There is, and we’re completely ‘unrock’ in that sense, but it’s not like mistakes are not allowed. It’s just that they really, y’know, affect you in a negative way when you hear them so clearly.
MA: If you know what I mean. And it affects your self-confidence, like if I sing a bum note, and ‘oh my god, the next vocal line I’ll have to concentrate more’ and you become like more nervous and less relaxed if you know what I mean.
CBL: Yeh. So it affects the whole feeling that you generate and emit?
MA: I think if you were to put an ear monitor on a band like – I don’t know – to make an extreme example like the Sex Pistols. They would go fucking hell, we have to shape up, y’know.
CBL: Yaha, so it’s a lack of awareness?
MA: Yeh, I think it is because we thought we were good before and we were just talking about this the other night, eh, me and my bass player. We’re like why don’t we ever like – so rarely these days – why don’t we ever go offstage and like... The band would absolutely kill us. And I said well it’s because every night [garbled] and in the past we were so shit in comparison to what we are now, but if we made a halfway decent gig it sounds so awful if you know what I mean, but now the level of our performance is so high that it’s… I don’t know... It’s been evened out into… I don’t know, something that doesn’t, y’know, you never feel like you did really perfect a perfect show.
CBL: Yes, this… So you’ll never be perfect?
CBL: Yeh, now, um, I noticed that, yeh, one of the songs on, on Watershed, the song Burden, eh, I think near the end you kinda like detune the guitars, and so you’re kinda like purposely introducing a kinda element of, eh, bad playing in a sense, aren’t you?
MA: Yeh, but that was like just a little production feature [garbled] and that’s like, even though I’m telling you that we’re perfectionists on stage – and that’s probably the case – but that’s not something we want to. We really kinda lose people. I’m not… Like, I don’t yell at anyone if they play bad or anything, and I still think, um, y’know, we still have it in us, y’know. It’s not like we are a slick band in that sense, y’know – still love the ugly when it comes to music, and the chaotic, I still love it, if you know what I mean, but y’know in its place. I don’t want it like going on all the time. I want to [static] and that’s just an example of that, that we have this beautiful slick sentimental ballad and basically I just felt like we should destroy it a little bit by doing that detuning of the guitar at the end.
CBL: Yeh, so it’s sort of controlled chaos?
MA: Yeh, Yeh exactly.
CBL: Yes, cos this is, ah, something I get a sense of from your music is y’know, y’ y’do have em… The music has a lot of amplitude, y’know, you do have very quiet acoustic and melodic bits and you have this, the kinda growly, eh, singing and the kind of, em, really heavy thrash style juxtaposed with each other, and that kind of creates a feeling of chaos in the audience, but from your side it’s very controlled isn’t it?
MA: It is, y’know, and that’s basically I think for, for a person who’s never heard us before , never heard…I don’t know if I can really mention any bands…Like if you see us for the first time – you never heard the band, I’m sure it could be a pretty, em, odd experience, y’know, and you’re like, ‘What the fuck is this? What’s going on?’ But that’s just the result of our influences and we’re… We started out being a metal band and during the years we just picked up all these different influences from other styles of music, and today basically the metal that we write is generated by inspiration that we got from non-metal music.
CBL: So who’s been a big influence on you in sort of changing your course in that way?
MA: Well personally I… Obviously all those metal bands that I’ve [garbled] me to play the guitar and all that stuff but when I write I rarely listen to metal. It’s mostly… I listen to…um, um, I’m really much into psychedelic music like Sixties.
CBL: So, so, what’re you listening to recently, or the last few days?
MA: Well the last few days, well, I don’t know, I’ve been listening to all sorts of things like, like, now, what’s playing before I fell asleep was a girl called Sheila McDonald, from… I think she was Irish, like a singer-songwriter from Ireland.
CBL: Or Scottish, yeh.
MA: Yeh, might be Scottish. I listen a lot to Miles. I listen a lot to the Zombies, they’re one of my favourite bands.
MA: The Zombies.
CBL: Oh yeh.
MA: And, y’know, like the progressive rock from the 70s as well, and, y’know, everything, like Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, and Tim Buckley’s an idol of mine, Joni Mitchell, and just very much into…
CBL: It’s just sort of shocking to hear these names, really, y’know, really…
MA: Oh yeh!
CBL: Like Nick Drake and so on, yeh, and the, y’know, obviously, you start the last album Watershed with a very kind of, em, low-key, gentle number as well, and then the, y’know, that just… People probably think they’ve bought the wrong album, y’know, what I mean?
MA: Yes, but, y’know, that’s what I like about it. We’ve been going for 20 years now and I don’t want people to feel like they know where they have us, if you know what I mean. They can never have us in their pocket like…they buy an album and it’s a hundred percent safe that they’re gonna love it, if you know what I mean. I wanna, I want it to be unpredictable, not unreliable when it comes to the quality of the music, but unpredictable if you know what I mean.
MA: And I think we have a good chance of being a band like that because of the fact that we have so much of that rare influence.
CBL: Yeh, eh, but also there is a lot of aggression and energy and anger in, in, ah, heavy metal, and I’m sure that when you were a lot younger you probably felt like that. How about now? Do you still have that kind of, that kind of rage feeling inside?
MA: No I don’t and maybe it’s, y’know, maybe the music is my outlet that I’m not so very, y’know, like a eclectic pretentious person who would say that’s certainly the case but, em, I don’t get like [garbled] or anything or like… I’m a very calm person, and it might be because I have the music as an out for all the negative emotions, but, y’know, I put positive emotions into the music too, y’know, and, um, I wouldn’t say like I was … if it wasn’t for the music that I’d be killing people, y’know…
CBL: Yeh, but there’s this kinda, y’know, often people think that Swedish people are quite gentle, nice people, but obviously there is also a kind of dark side as well isn’t there?
MA: Yeh, I guess so. We have one of the highest suicide rates and that kind of stuff, but I really wouldn’t know. Sweden for me has always been a regular, like the most normal country on the planet if you know what I mean. There’s nothing really abnormal about Sweden as a whole. It’s just, y’know, everything’s working, everybody’s minding their own business, y’know, and that kind of stuff but…
CBL: It sounds boring.
MA: Yeh, a little bit.
CBL: That can irritate people too, can’t it?
MA: Probably, y’know, and that’s the thing that a lot of people who move abroad… It’s something we call the “Jantelagen,” which basically means that you shouldn’t be happy with your job.
CBL: So, what’s that expression again?
CBL: “Yank de large?”
MA: “Jantelagen” is what we say. I don’t really know where it comes from, but basically you shouldn’t think your something if you know what I mean.
CBL: Yeh, so you shouldn’t think you’re something. You shouldn’t be too full of yourself, like that?
MA: Exactly. They hate that. Swedish people hate that, y’know, It really – how do you say – sticks like it burns, like for people to see… For Swedish people to see, like, a Swedish person going abroad and making a great success with music or something you love to do it, it’s lots of jealousy. You’re supposed to be working your ass off in the factory and you’re gonna be grumpy and you’re gonna be drunk on the weekend, y’know, and...
CBL: Very similar to my native Scotland I have to say, yeh.
MA: Well, I would guess, y’know.