Michael Akerfeldt Of Opeth: 'I'm Very Picky With Songwriting'

artist: Opeth date: 12/10/2008 category: interviews
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Michael Akerfeldt Of Opeth: 'I'm Very Picky With Songwriting'
Opeth guitarist Michael Akerfeldt spent some of his youth working in an acoustic guitar shop. The clientele wasn't exactly flocking into the store so he had a lot of time to knock around on the various instruments that lined the walls. It was here he began to develop a unique fingerpicking style that would later come into play when he formed his symphonic metal band. The image that comes to mind is that montage of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Conan the Barbarian movie. Arnold/Conan is forced to push that huge grinding wheel around and around and as time lapses, this scrawny waif is transformed into a bulked up and muscular warrior. A similar picture plays out - this little Swedish boy picking up guitar after guitar, practicing and practicing, until he is unleashed on the world as Michael Akerfeldt. And nowhere are those unique fingerstyle and flatpicking styles more beautifully demonstrated than on Opeth's ninth album titled Watershed. Akerfeldt is part Robert Fripp, part Ritchie Blackmore, and part Greg Lake. His playing spans decades to bring in the qualities of these classic players (and singer) and at the same time invites comparisons to no one. Many bands claim to be marrying disparate elements like orchestral and metal but they rarely achieve true symbiosis. Typically the frills of classical elements simply act as auxiliary components; that is, the various pieces are sort of stacked on top of each other rather than flowing into each other. In Opeth's music, on the Watershed album, the songs are completely self-sufficient as vehicles for guitars/vocals/drums - they don't need the embroideries of strings and keys to stand as wonderfully composed songs. But the addition of these other textures only adds to the dynamics of the various tracks. There is none of the pompousness that tends to adulterate this type of music. When Akerfeldt tells you he digs King Crimson and was influenced by them, you can truly hear Fripp being channeled through his playing. And it is all honest and not thrown in your face through sheer repetition. Michael was just a few minutes away from a live gig. Through the phone, you could hear pre-concert activity going on around him - things being moved around; voices in pitched tones; and people in motion. He ignored all of that and tried to explain who he was and why he did the things he did. UG: There is definitely the sense that you, as a guitarist and songwriter, is actively seeking out modern elements and textures in arrangements and tones. But there is also a very classic rock sound to the band that suggests Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and others. That's not an accidental thing, is it? Michael Akerfeldt: No, I listened a lot to that kind of music, I guess. Generally when I was growing up it was only metal music for me but once I started my band in the early 90s, I got interested in some of the, I guess, progressive rock bands and some of the symphonic rock bands of the 70s and even some psychedelic music. I guess that found its way into our own music. So, you were a fan of King Crimson specifically? A lot of progressive bands will cite Crimson as an influence but you can never hear it in their music. Of course; I'm a big fan of them. I haven't listened so much to their 80s records but from the first album up until that trio with John Wetton, I really dig (Akerfeldt is referring to the Red period with Wetton, Robert Fripp, and Bill Bruford). In your vocals, there is a distinct Greg Lake? Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people said that which is a compliment of course. Oh, definitely. Has singing always been part of your makeup as a musician? No, not really; I was a guitar player when I started playing. I just wanted to play guitar; I never figured I would be a singer or anything. But you know how it is when you're young; with my first band there was nobody else who wanted to sing. So I became the singer kindof. That was Eruption? Yeah, that was Eruption. And since then I just got interested in singing and I think the singing, actually, me becoming a singer, actually helped me to concentrate on songwriting as opposed to guitar solos and that kind of stuff. So now I've become more interested in the actual songwriting than the performance itself if you know what I mean.
"I just wanted to play guitar; I never figured I would be a singer or anything."
On the Watershed CD, there is a bit of copy that reveals the Opeth philosophy. And here's it's paraphrased: Piecing random notes and/or chords together. Listening to the music and even in just speaking with you for a few minutes here, one has the feeling that not a single note ends up on an Opeth album that you haven't scrutinized and examined. (Much laughter) Yeah; I just put something like that on the album, I thought it sounded funny. But obviously I spend a lot of time with the songwriting and I look into every detail. I'm very, very picky with the songwriting, I guess; not so picky with my own performance but the songwriting I want it to be what I consider perfect for the songs. In the philosophy according to Akerfelt that we just talked about, there is a certain amount of randomness on the Watershed album. But that randomness is obviously very carefully constructed. In fact, there are moments where an electric part will break down into an acoustic section and you almost have the feeling that you're taking an ironic look at the metal style of music. Almost like a Zappa piece where he is poking fun at the very style he's playing. Does that make sense whatsoever? It's not like I'm trying to take the piss out of the metal scene or anything; I love heavy metal and that's what I grew up with. But I think it's absolutely necessary for any metal band, in a way, and especially for us to go and listen to outside influences in order to try to get inspiration throughout our own stuff. Otherwise you just end up, I guess, if you only listen to Iron Maiden, I think you're going to sound like Iron Maiden. So I listen to, well we all do, we listen to all sorts of music. And we just figured like we created this band on our own; we got signed based on what we had done; so we don't have any outside interference on what we gonna do musically. It just felt obvious for us, we just gonna play music that we enjoy to play and that for us is blending a lot of styles in; there's no rules if you know what I mean. A huge part of Opeth's style is based on your acoustic guitar playing, and even more specifically, nylon string. Have you always had those acoustic chops? Not always; I always liked like acoustic interludes and stuff like that on the metal albums I grew up listening to. I always liked the ballads but I was into heavy metal mostly so I wanted to play like heavy guitar. After school, I got a job in a guitar store and we only sold acoustic guitars and we barely had any customers so I basically sat around all day playing and I guess I developed a little bit of my fingerpicking playing in that store. And my love for the acoustic guitar, I guess I got from there. And now it's become an important part of our sound, I guess, as (much as) the electric guitar. And basically I write most of the stuff on the acoustic guitar; even the heavy riffs I write on the acoustic guitar. Does the acoustic technique get transferred to the electric? A lot of your electric parts combine pick and fingers and some of the riffs are plucked and that type of thing. Yeah, I guess to some extent, I do. I guess I would have to say I'm somewhat of an unorthodox metal guitar player in that sense. Because it's like when my colleagues, if they use an acoustic guitar, it's like a little effect, you know or something. But for us, it's as much of an important part of the music as anything else. And I guess it changed my approach to the electric guitar, too, and it also changed my approach to writing songs. Once I learned how to play the acoustic guitar a little bit better, I saw that you can do different things. Burden, off the Watershed album, is a brilliant combination of all these elements we've been talking about: The Greg Lake/King Crimson vibem the ballad feel that you dig, and the acoustic guitars. It truly is really different type of sound for a metal band to record. And the rhythm section is really remarkable. I know I've tossed out a lot of ideas here so, let's talk about the feel of the rhythm track. It is so non-metal-like. Yeah, I do have an input into pretty much everything because I demo the songs back home; I have a simple Pro Tools rig set up at my house. So I demo all the songs and I finish all the songs and actually have them sequenced in the same order as I want it to be on the album. So we're listening to the album before we record it really, if you know what I mean. I record it with like a drum machine and it sounds good but obviously it's a drum machine. I'm very interested in drums; as far as I'm concerned drumming in Opeth is one of the most important parts; if the drums are nailed, I can just listen to the drum tracks and I know it's gonna be a good song if you know what I mean. Martin (Axenrot, drummer) and Martin (Mendez, bassist) have a different approach to what they're doing than many other metal bands. Because some of them, like the more extreme metal bands, they just play as fast as they can; they don't take into consideration that you should play with the bass drum and with the snare and with the feel and that kind of stuff. And that's something that basically has always been there for Opeth, I guess. We have a really strong rhythm section; I certainly agree. Burden was actually a little bit of a gimmick song for me; I really like the song but it's pretty far from the most original song I've written. I got the idea when I listened to the Scorpions, the In Trance album it was. There was a song on there called Living and Dying and I've always been a big fan of those big mid-70s metal type of ballads. I just thought like, Fuck, I want to write a song like that. I just wrote that song and I wanted it to sound like a mid-70s. Now that you've described it, you can trace the influence. But there's still something very different and original about it. Oh, that's cool, I really like that. But I think it's not really fashionable or has been fashionable to do songs like that for 30 years. I guess we're bringing it back and we're also mixing it up, our metal influences, with some of the darker, like progressive rocks bands like King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator. And we use a lot of Mellotron on there which also gives you the vibe of King Crimson because they used it a lot, you know. Definitely. When I found out that you had a song called Mellotron Heart I knew this had to be a very unique-thinking band. You use the Mellotron wonderfully and your keyboard player, Per Wiberg, has a real sense of how to integrate those vintage keyboards with all the new synths. Yeah, he's like a blues player; he comes from mostly like a rock/blues background. He's been playing blues for many years and his idols when it comes to keyboards is guys like Vincent Crane from Atomic Rooster and Ken Hensley from Uriah Heep and obviously Jon Lord and those types of guys. On Burden he's actually playing that Purple type of Hammond B3 solo, isn't he? Yeah, exactly.
"We just gonna play music that we enjoy to play and that for us is blending a lot of styles in."
Your solo on Burden was astonishing. It combined the blues and progressive techniques but there was the sense that you had so much more to offer. The problem with most metal guitarists is they display their entire musical vocabulary on any one single solo. In other words, you hear one solo, you've heard them all. With your playing, there is that great feeling of anticipation of What is he going to play next? The soloes in Burden is a tradeoff between me and Fredrik (Akesson). I don't like guitar soloes unless they serve a purpose, unless they make the song better. We'd never throw in a solo because it's supposed to have a guitar solo in a song. But this one was just a buildup for the ending part of that song; it was just perfect that we tradeoff a few soloes and then go into a harmonic type of lead together. I don't know, as far as I'm concerned, the classic way to do it. I don't like guitar players that overplay; I like one note better than a 100 notes if you know what I mean. At the end of Burden, the nylon string guitar goes out of tune and you turn it into a total performance moment. It's very cool. I didn't have an ending for the song; there was a few options to end a nice song like that. Either you end on a high note with a nice chord or a fade out or something. But I just came up with the idea that we should end it in a freaky way and I'm just basically playing this ending lick on the nylon string guitar and I told Fredrik to de-tune the guitar in real time as I was playing. So obviously it sounds very ugly but that was the whole purpose. We didn't know if it would work or not but it did. Fredrik has seamlessly worked his way into Opeth even though this is just his first album with the band. So, a couple questions: What qualities were you seeking in a second guitarist? And why did you feel you needed a backup guitar to flesh out the sound of Opeth? Yeah, basically we like the rhythms we have; they're quite intricate at times and they're written for two guitars. Which is the main reason we need two guitar players and also I want someone who can take the role of lead guitar player. Because I'm singing and playing lead and sometimes it's difficult for me. Besides I'm not anywhere near as accomplished as a guitar player as Fredrik is; he's basically from the shred type of background. Like an Yngwie Malmsteen and those types of guys but he's also a great feel guitar player, if you know what I mean. He hasn't been able to show (that) in his previous bands but now, I think, in Opeth, if you're going to be a guitar player you have to be somewhat versatile, I guess. And he was one of my favorite lead guitar players out of Sweden; and he's very tight with rhythms, too. Usually it's either or but he's very good with both. He also listens to the music. He loves to shred; if I would tell him to shred for 10 minutes, he would and love it. But he also understands the sensitive side of songwriting; that sometimes you can't just go for the throat all the time. He understands dynamics which is something very important for us; so he was perfect. And there are a lot of dynamics in Hex Omega, another one of the tracks from Watershed. Your guitar part during the verse is so musical by itself that you almost don't even need a vocal on top of it. Yeah; I had the first riff which was more of a metal riff but it set the standard for the rest of the song because it had some middle Eastern type of vibe going on. I just got the idea for the verse and from the verse going into the heavier kind of mid-section of the song. I don't know; it just felt right. I let the vocal melody guide the song in a way; there's simple rhythms behind it. But I can certainly understand what you're saying. It's a very simple lick kind of verse but it's also kind of evocative sounding and you feel kind of calm listening to it in a way. It just came out that way, I guess. Hessian Peel is another track featuring nylon acoustic along with the electrics. Is that an electric guitar in the intro? The intro is Hammond organ low E note and I play steel string guitar; it's just something to create a vibe and go into the next part which was somewhat influenced by the band Camel which I listened a lot to. I listened a lot to Camel when I was younger, I guess, and that little lead in the beginning was influenced by them. And then I just went into this verse or whatever you call it; it's almost like a chromatic chord progression. You can do some really interesting things with chromatic chord progressions if it changes from major to minor chords or the other way around. It's a well-used trick for any songwriter but it really worked for this one. You play that lick and then you hit that Eb and it's really striking. It's totally unexpected and that's such a rare quality in music these days. Yeah; I thought it sounded good. It creates a nice vibe for the song and you kind of get sucked into the song by that intro, I think. You're playing Paul Reed Smith guitars on Watershed? Yeah; I played Paul Reed Smith guitars now for around six, seven years now, I think. And I love 'em; they endorse us or we endorse them or whatever you say. They're versatile and they have everything I need. I love the feel of playing Stratocasters and I love the sound from a Gibson and in a way you can get both of those guitars in a PRS; and a little bit more than that. They stay in tune; they're kind of solid in that sense that they don't break which is good if you're touring a lot like we do. And they're beautiful; I don't know, they have everything. The first time I played a PRS, I think the first chord I picked was like an Emaj4 and I was like, Wow, I can actually hear every single string ring in this chord yet it sounds like a full chord. And that was something I never experienced with any guitar. And you run Laney amps? I'm endorsed by Laney, yeah. Was that a throwback to Tony Iommi at all? Well, of course, once they approached me it was like, Yeah, Tony Iommi plays Laneys so they have to be good enough for me. But they've just really supportive of me and given me basically all the support I need. I like guitars and I love the look of guitars but amplifiers I'm not interested in. If somebody said, This is a good amplifier; play it, I'd say, Yeah, sure. Laney is everything I needed; I play a model called GH100L which is basically a normal 100-watt head. It's basically the same as Tony Iommi uses but he's got a signature model; I've just got the simple stock model. Your style is so different than that of the other metal players. As you mentioned before, every note you play has definition and there's so much depth to the sound. As I said, I never practiced scales up and down that much or anything really to be honest. I think if you've got a good tone and a good sense of rhythm, that's all I need for being a songwriter and somewhat of a guitar player too. What I listened to when I was growing up, some of those guitar players I thought was better than the other guys and I guess that kind of molded me in a way. Guys like Ritchie Blackmore and Andy Latimer from Camel and Jerry Donahue, I really like. Basically it was those types of guys; (David) Gilmour of course. I love (Robert) Fripp (laughs).
"I don't really feel the need to have projects on the side because I can put everything I want to into Opeth."
In a way, you are to Opeth as Fripp is to King Crimson. That is, the sort of mainstay, the constant presence while other musicians sometimes come and go. Lineups I see as a negative thing but they do push you forward. Once you get new guys in the band obviously there's something that happens with your sound and you just have to pick up really like and what you haven't heard before in your sound and kind of spinoff on that, if you know what I mean. And that's what we've done with all lineup changes; every lineup changes we had, I always hated them as they happened. But they always made us into a better band. When Opeth releases a new record, it essentially is a Michael Akerfeldt solo record. Would a true solo record be a logical step for you? For me, I can feel like it's a solo record; I don't really feel the need to have projects on the side because I can put everything I want to into Opeth. I virtually write everything that we do and I don't have a big interest in reggae or hip-hop; but if I had, I'm sure I could bring it into Opeth too. But it's still very much a band situation; I rely heavily on the other guys to make this vision or whatever you call it, turn into reality. And they come up things I would never come up with. When we finally put down the real tracks for the bass guitar, Mendez comes up with this amazing stuff I would never in my wildest dreams come up with. Even though I write the songs, they contribute so much that I feel right now I could never manage without them. Then you are more than open to taking suggestions from the other members? Oh, sure, yeah; me and Fredrik actually co-wrote one song on the album called Porcelain Heart. He came with the first riff and I just took care of the rest; and me and Per wrote the song that's not on the album but is on the special edition called Derelict Herds. Yeah, I welcome the input but I feel I have the last say because I'm the only original guy since the beginning and I've always taken care of the songwriting. So if there's something I think is not as good, I just tell them; I also expect them to tell me. So, if Fredrik says to you, Michael, that guitar part is not working, let's try something else, you'll take that to heart? Yes, of course - but it hasn't happened yet! Besides writing and arranging all the songs and playing guitars, you produced Watershed. Was there ever a point where you thought you may have bitten off more than you could chew? Uh, I don't; the way I see it, writing songs and arranging them as I do in my home, the way I do it they are so done by the time we enter the studio, that it's a pre-production that I've been so involved in. I think writing songs and having your finger in every pie when it comes to the songwriting, you become a producer if you know what I mean. But when it comes to how to achieve the sounds that we're looking for, I don't know shit! I just basically tell our engineer, We want good guitar sounds and he's like, OK. We fool around with a few amps and I tell him that's good-sounding or sometimes I say, That doesn't sound good and he says, Well, it will sound good later. So, I really don't have much of a say when I'm working with engineers. But in the end, I'm always happy. Did you have any sense that Opeth would be headed here musically on their ninth album? Orchid was the first album and now eight records later you create Watershed - was there any part of you that could have imagined this is where you'd be as a songwriter and guitarist and bandleader? No; I was 19 when I did the first one. I was just like a kid and we were in a small 16-track studio and recorded and mixed in 12 days and it was just exciting to be in the studio at the time. So I didn't really think forward at all. But if I thought about the future, I probably thought we were gonna be massive (laughs). Penthouse suites; that was the whole vision of rock stardom from when I was growing up. That's the way I thought it works; once you have a record deal, you're set. Obviously it was nothing like that. Not yet anyway. No, not yet! And play all the right notes tonight. Now I'll fuck up a lot! Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2008
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