In their 26 years together, the only thing as steady as Opeth's quality has been their growth. 2011's Heritage signaled the most tectonic shift, with Sweden's premier progressive death metal act suddenly vaporizing the bear-roar vocals and leaning all the way into their prog side. 2014's Pale Communion continued the adventure masterfully, and this Friday's Sorceress, Opeth's 12th studio album, is—spoiler alert—equally stellar.
Fuse spoke with 42-year-old vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt about why he's never written lyrics in Swedish, seriousness vs. fun in metal, and exactly how unamused his daughters are with his stardom.
Fuse: Congratulations on Sorceress. Have you felt the need to beckon fans along as your sound has changed, or are you not really fussed with it, just leave them to pick
up the trail or leave it?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: I'm not really bothered. I mean, I love our fans, what can I say? We've been around for 26 years and I'm not sure how many fans have been there since the beginning. Overall we have respect for them, but it kind of ends when it comes to what we're gonna do on the creative side. We just do what we want to do, basically. It's been the same since the beginning, and I figure that's our style. We don't necessarily use this band to try to gain popularity or to be successful. That's nice, of course—it's easy for me to say that now that I'm fairly successful, but we've never done music for that reason. I don't really care what fans think, but I love it if they like it.
There a big divide in metal between being serious and being fun. Your albums have always been pretty straight-faced, but
at your shows you seem to be having a great time, you're chatty, there's a
lighter atmosphere in the room. Is that dichotomy something you've looked at
over the years?
I've been exposed to that quite a few times. I've been forced in photo sessions to look serious—and equally I've been forced to look like, "Give us a funny face." And I don't like either. When we're playing live, I want it to be fun, because I get tense. I'm a bit nervous when I walk up onstage, and that type of talk works as a means for me to calm down. And somehow everybody calms down. It feels like if I say something stupid onstage, it kinda brings it from those types of superstar, hero type figures that some people think we are, to just being a couple guys onstage, which makes me much more comfortable.
Besides, if we get rid of that type of rock-star thing, they will forgive us for fucking up onstage too [laughs]. But for sure, to answer your question, yes, I've seen that type of distance between the serious metal people who would never smile because it's not cool enough, and the other side.
Do you see Opeth on one side or the other?
We're somewhere in between, I guess. We don't really think too much about it. The music is always gonna be serious. There's some humor on the records, I guess, musically and in the artwork, at least on the later records. The music is very serious for us. I don't make fun, ha-ha type music. I've never been interested in that type of stuff. But you mix it up a little bit.
Do you ever write lyrics in Swedish and translate them?
I don't think I've written a lyric in Swedish ever, to be honest. I might have tried back in the day at some point, to write something that I fully understood in Swedish, and then translate it into English, but it didn't come out right. My lyrics overall, I guess they're quite pretentious at times, but I don't feel so pretentious when I write in English. If I write in my native tongue, it's like, "Oh my god, who the fuck do I think I am?" So it's very difficult for me. And I might write equally stupid and cringe-worthy lyrics in English, but at least I'm not completely aware of it, because it's not my first language.
But I think most Opeth fans would agree that in this band music comes first and lyrics second. Of course, part of the music is what I'm singing—if I'm having a vocal line, it's helpful if the lyric I'm singing is good. I think our fans who have English as their native tongue are quite forgiving. I might have like grammatical errors or write something superbly pretentious and stupid, and they're like, "Aww, it's fine, he's Swedish, they don't know better."
The Gothenburg bands, you guys and Meshuggah
sucked me into metal as a kid. I always wondered how and why you were all writing songs in English in the early '90s.
Swedish...I mean, our language is... you know, the fucking Muppets made fun of Swedish forever, the Swedish Chef and all that stuff. These bands you mentioned, we're all pretty much the same age, born in the '70s and grew up with metal and fell in love with metal. And every single band we listened to, it didn't matter if they came out of Germany or from Switzerland or Sweden, everybody was singing in English. So I don't think anybody really even discussed whether we're gonna sing in Swedish or in English. It was a set decision before anybody even talked about it: The lyrics are gonna be in English. And Swedish people are generally quite known for speaking English quite well. When I went to school, ages ago now, I started learning English in second or third grade—third, I think—and same for everybody from my year. So everybody's quite advanced.
So this one's called Sorceress. Do you have an iconic sorceress in your head?
Not an iconic one. In the U.S., touring back in the day, I used to pick up '60s [and] '70s horror films from Amoeba Records, especially, in L.A., pick these DVDs up for fairly cheap. So I used to watch those, but it was the whole imagery of that, and that word resonated with me for some reason once I wrote it in a lyric. I figured that's a good title, actually. But I wouldn't say I have a particular sorceress in mind, it's more of a collective word for...I don't want to say evil women, but I'll say evil women anyway.
You're playing Radio City Music Hall in New York this weekend, the day after the album drops. That's a prestigious place.
It is. I mean, we're doing some of those prestigious places, and we've done some in the past, too. I think it's cool. That's actually a decision from the management—they want to book us into these venues as a promotional tool to a certain extent, but also what happened as we played Royal Albert Hall and stuff like that, it kind of opens the gate for bands like us, if you know what I mean. We have, if I may say so myself, pioneered some of these venues when it comes to more heavy music, and after us there's a shitload of bands coming in. I'm pretty sure we're gonna see that more and more. Not just Radio City Music Hall, but especially Sydney Opera House, which was difficult for us to get. We asked them before and they said no, like, "Bands of your kind don't play the Opera House." But now they've somehow said yes.
Do you have a different feeling when you're backstage there or when the show's getting close? Do you feel out of place at
all, is it just another show?
I always feel out of place. But that's a paradox, because those posh, nice venues, they usually have shit dressing rooms. Like, tiny fucking shit dressing rooms you can barely get in with the whole band. And once you step out onstage it's all beautiful, but backstage it's usually quite miserable.
Do you mean you only feel out of place at these fussier venues, or in
No, all venues. But I feel out of place on the subway. I'm perhaps not normal that way. But, yeah—I don't feel I belong anywhere, really.
What are some situations people might be surprised to know you find uncomfortable?
Well, the stage is one. Oh, there's one place I feel actually comfortable, in my home, of course. Or in my girlfriend's home, and in the studio. I love being in the studio. But onstage, not comfortable really. Backstage, on the tour bus where there's lots of people, especially if you're on tour and there's lots of people who know who I am, I get uncomfortable. But I also get uncomfortable where there's lots of people who don't know who I am, so I guess...[laughs]. I think I might I have to go to some therapy.
What do your daughters think of your music?
They're indifferent. They don't necessarily like my music—I think my youngest daughter said it bluntly, like, "I don't like your music." Ah, I love you too.
My older daughter I think is secretly proud. She usually checks out which song is the most popular on Spotify, the song that has the most plays, or whatever. But none of them are interested in our music, really. I brought them out to shows, festivals, and I can be onstage and I have them get a seat on the side of the stage so they can watch. And then I start playing, and I feel like, "Okay, we're doing well, it's sounding good, Daddy's cool." And I look over to them and they're just looking down into their cell phones. They don't think I'm cool at all. And they think my music sucks. But I make good pancakes.
Did you ever think about being a parent and a musician at the same
time, what it would be like?
No, it was a scary thought. When I was younger and I was a musician, I felt like a kid, or I felt childish, because I didn't have much education to fall back on, I didn't have a good job, I didn't make any money. So I felt like a child for longer than the people in my school. Having kids felt a bit like on the same level as going to Mars, pretty much. But then my best friend had a child, which is my godson, actually, and that set off, as it usually does, it kind of set off a trend. I saw that he was fucking more miserable than I was, and I figured, if he can do it, I can have kids. And lo and behold.
Watch Mikael Åkerfeldt in conversation with Fuse in 2013: