As the newest member of Opeth, Fredrik Akesson had some pretty big shoes to fill when he replaced former guitarist Peter Lindgren. With the Swedish band since 1991, Lindgren was responsible for playing such memorable solos as the title track from Deliverance, "When" from the My Arms, Your Hearse album and "Moonlapse Vertigo" from Still Life. Not only did Akesson come into replace the departing Lindgren but he had to learn all of Lindgren's parts from the Blackwater Park albumas well as miscellaneous tracks from the various other recordswhen the entire Blackwater Park album was performed live on the In Live Concert at the Royal Albert Hall recording. Fredrik was more than up to the task and his playing on that recording was not only faithful to the original songs but gave them an even more modern edge.
On Heritage, the band's newest album, Akesson truly stamps his style all over the record with solos on "Haxprocess," "The Devil's Orchard" [first single] and "Slither," the Rainbow/Deep Purple-influenced ode to Ronnie James Dio. Fredrik talked about the new record and what it felt like to be the new kid on the block.
UG: You played in a bunch of metal bands before joining Opeth: Arch Enemy, Talisman, Southpaw, Krux and several others. Do you think you brought any of those elements as a guitarist into Opeth?
Fredrik Akesson: I guess I've been fortunate to play with a lot of different type of bands within metal and they kind of differed from each other quite a lot. But with Arch Enemy for instance, I never did record with them on a record. I don't know really; I wouldn't say so. The lead work I did with Talisman was a very different music also.
As the replacement for Peter Lindgren in Opeth, you must have gone back and listened to all the guitars he recorded on the earlier albums?
Yeah, sure. Since Mikael wrote most of all the Opeth riffs, for me it was more to get into Mikael's style of guitar playing. Apart from Peter's solos, on Deliverance I play Peter's solo note-by-note because I guess the hardcore fans they wanna hear that solo as it is. And I find Peter's solos pretty original some of them have been quite interesting to learn em. But mostly it was about learning Mikael's style because he actually plays the majority of the guitars on all the albums as well. Maybe not on the early ones but the later ones, I think Mikael probably played a little bit more than Peter did.
Your first recording with Opeth was the In Live Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. What was that like playing the entire Blackwater Park album and those songs from the other records?
It's pretty complex stuff but now I've been with the band four-and-a-half years, I feel it's easier for me to understand Mikael's ideas now than in the beginning. I feel more dialed in with the styles and playing the acoustic things. Of course I had to put a lot of time to learn all the stuff. I'm very picky and I want to nail everything as it is. And then if I feel, Well, maybe this part, the second part of this solo, I could just go a bit on my own here and do something. I'll leave open for some room for some spontaneous kind of improvised stuff as well.
Blackwater Park was your favorite Opeth record?
Yeah, absolutely. Still Life is one of my favorites too of the older stuff. A lot of those songs before the anniversary show, a lot of those songs from Blackwater Park, I already knew before that because we'd been playing em. Then again we played a couple songs from the first two records and that was really fun to do new versions with old songs with the new lineup with Ax [Martin Axenrot] on drums. I really enjoyed playing those songs.
How do you learn the older songs?
Usually when we learn a new repertoire, I go to Mike's house and we sit down and go through two, three songs and then we just take it from there basically.
So you'd actually sit there with Mikael and have him show you the riffs and the changes?
Exactly. Because some of that stuff is kind of hard to listen to and beginning when I joined the band I wanted to learn on my own. Then when I meet Mikael, it's like, It's not that chord, it's that one cause there's so much stuff going on with the twin guitars and one guitar is playing that and one is playing that. A lot of times instead of me sitting and trying to learn on my own, just meeting Mikael saves me a lot of time.
You obviously knew about Opeth before joining them. What did you know about their reputation as a band?
I was a fan of the band actually. Opeth had a really good reputation as a band and also the reputation was that the band is really original sounding. We discussed that there was a lot ofI wouldn't saysurprises in music but you never really know what's gonna happen in Opeth; it's not predictable.
Mikael must have had an amazing reputation as a guitarist.
Absolutely. It was kinda weird because Mikael told me when I was playing in a pub in Stockholm and doing Judas Priest and King Diamond covers, he wanted me to give him guitar lessons. And I was like, Dude, get out of hereyou're such a great player, it's embarrassing you saying those things.
Did you give him any lessons?
Actually before I joined the band, me and Mikael went to his house and jammed a bit and he wanted me to teach him some like picking stuff and he taught me a couple of Opeth riffs. So I think in a way he was kind of secretly auditioning me.
Because Opeth had such an enormous reputation certainly Mikael could have chosen any guitar player he wanted to replace Peter Lindgren. What do you think it was about your playing that attracted him?
Well, umm, I find it difficult to praise myself or anything like that but he told me he really liked my tone and he thought I was a bit diverse guitar player. I could play more mellow, soothing stuff and more melancholic and it didn't necessarily have to be full shred all the time. I could do the shredding stuff as well and I knew the acoustic stuff but I did have to put a lot of time working on my fingerpicking acoustic-style when I joined the band. So I think it was a combination of many different ingredients that he liked.
A lot of the guitar players you listen to are more classic-type guitarists: Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmore, Yngwie and people like that. Do you think your style sort of bridges those older guitar players with newer and more modern techniques?
Uli Roth and Frank Marino; I love that stuff. Yeah, maybe you're on the right track there. I do like more modern type of shreddy stuff as well. I was into Racer X and Cacophony was Marty Friedman and Jason Becker and I have kind of a bit of that era too in a way.
Watershed was your first studio album with Opeth. What was that like?
It was a challenge of course but we did rehearse a lot before so I knew the parts really good. And I think Mikael had a lot of trust in me so I did my parts on my own and it wasn't like he was standing by in the back and checking everything. That made me feel maybe a bit more confident that I knew that he knew and just carried on basically.
Mikael encouraged you to experiment with different guitar parts and sounds?
Yeah. Pretty much before we entered the studio, I did solos at Mikael's home studio so we knew what they were gonna be like. I pretty much learned the solos from the demos and polished them a bit you know. There wasn't a lot of improvisation on the Watershed album; more on Heritage some solos were left for the actual recording. It could be dangerous that thing when you do really good demos and you get used to a solo and therefore when you do the actual recording, it's difficult to try to do something new. It's a bit dangerous in a way I think.
You had a bit more freedom on the Heritage album to experiment?
Yeah, but some stuff is pretty like the demo. Like the Slither track what I do is kind of Blackmore-ish. That song was a tribute to Ronnie James Dio and Mikael said, You need to do like a Blackmore-sounding solo and I tried to and it came out pretty cool.
You really did nail that Ritchie Blackmore kind of neo-classical, hard rock feel.
Oh, thank you. And I did a more fusion-kind solo on the song Nepenthe. That one was pretty planned out like on the demo. Mikael wanted to have a fusion-type of solo in that and I just went for it. I'm not like a fusion player but I mixed in a couple of old things and it sounded a bit Allan Holdsworthy.
There are a lot of different sounding solos on the albumthey vary from the straight up metal stuff to pretty outside types of playing.
The solos on the album are very different from each other actually, I think.
If you don't really call yourself a legit fusion player, your solo on Nepenthe had all the elements. It also had a very unorthodox arrangement.
I got to use the whammy bar a little bit there, which I don't do that often to dig up the notes. And Mikael wanted a part that would get crazy and be very unexpected and we actually used two kinds of drum kits on that song. For the jazzier part, Ax is playing on an old Gretsch kit with brushes and then he switches to his DW kit with sticks for that solo part, which was kind of fun. It gets kind of loud when that hits you that section.
You don't have a whammy bar on your PRS.
No, but as soon as I have a guitar with one, I can't stop using it. And also the solo on The Devil's Orchard, that came up in the studio by accident; it was an improvised take. It's pretty short but it adds something to the song.
You have your own PRS Signature model guitarcan you describe it?
I'm a bit of a meat and potato kind of guitar player and I wanted a solid workhorse type of guitar and I bounced ideas off the design of the PRS SE for about one-and-a-half years. The guitar compared to Mike's has a thicker body like my body [laughs]I'm not as skinny as he is. But it's a mahogany body with quilted veneer maple top and the neck is mahogany with an ebony fretboard. The frets are extra fat and it's a single cutaway and it's deeper than the usual cutaway so it's easier to reach those high notes and stuff. The finish on the guitar is unique for this one and it's really dark brownish and from a further distance it could almost look black. And with the quilted top it's a more chaotic kind of pattern in the lines of the wood.
Are you able to describe your guitar sound in Opeth?
I like to have a lot of string sounds; I don't like the pickups when they're too hot. I like to have a sound where you have to fight a little to get the tone. I like to have a sound with a good core. It has to have phantom distortion when I need it but the core is important.
How would your guitar sound different from Mikael's tone?
When it comes to amps and stuff, we sort of have similar tastes. But it's good that we don't use the same exact gear because it probably adds in a live situation that we have slightly different sounds and it makes the whole band sound bigger instead of using exactly the same gear. On this tour, some songs Mike needs to focus on the vocals more so those passages our front-of-house guy widens up my guitar a little bit to make some kind of stereo twist on it.
Do you have any concept about soloing?
When you talk about solos and stuff, I try to do stuff that connects with the song. It doesn't necessarily have to be like, Hey, look at me kind of solo.
On The Devil's Orchard there is a kind of King Crimson feel to the song.
Yeah, absolutely. The solo in a way I thought a little bit about Uli Roth; I wanted to do something that really cut through. I found this wah-wah pedal from this friend of a guy who owns a studio and he built it. It was really plastic, cheap stuff but the sweep was so huge like wahhhhit puked out the notes.
"Apart from Peter's solos, on Deliverance I play Peter's solo note-by-note because I guess the hardcore fans they wanna hear that solo as it is."
The Devil's Orchard is the first single from Heritage but it has a very non-linear type of arrangement. Different parts come in and out and if a song calls for something different, Opeth aren't afraid to experiment.
Exactlynobody should be safe. That's also what I like with Opeth that it's not predictable.
I Feel the Dark was one of the songs built around acoustic guitars. Where did all the acoustic guitars come from on Heritage?
Since the first Opeth record, Mikael has been writingeven the heavier stuffon the acoustic guitar. That's the way he come up with ideas; he just strums at his house in the living room messing around with the acoustic. Then when he finds something he goes down to his studio and records it with electric. So it's always been a bit part of Opeth, I think, the acoustic guitars.
Keyboards are also a big part of the Heritage sound. Is it true keyboardist Per Wiberg has left the band?
Yeah, right at the end of the recording unfortunately he was asked to leave or he left; something. And, yeah, it was a sad thing really. It started off good but he wasn't really as dedicated as the rest of us at the end of the recording. I think he wanted to do something else. I played with Per in his own band called Mojobone, which was more like heavy blues, hard rock/metal stuff. In that band he plays guitar and sings lead. He wanted to do something else and he wanted to leave the band two years and we convinced him to stay. We asked him, Would you have left the band anyways? and he said, Yes. I guess he needed to find a new inspiration playing with something else maybe.
On Haxprocess there are sections that sound almost psychedelic and are reminiscent of jams from bands like Spirit and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Does that make sense?
Mikeal was into a lot of 60s psychedelic stuff like the Zombies and Wishbone Ash and all that stuff. He's always been listening to that and I listen to it as well. He gets into listening to some stuff that I've never listened to before, which is interesting. He has a huge collection of vinyl and a lot of obscure 70s prog rock stuff and really a lot of rare stuff.
Bjorn J:son Linde plays flute on Famine. Were you guys Jethro Tull fans?
Absolutely. Initially Mikael actually mailed Ian Anderson if he could play the flute solo on the song Famine. But he didn't reply and this Swedish guy played on it called Bjorn J:son Linde and he's really big in Sweden and he used to write string arrangements for Abba back in the day. He also used to work with Benny and Bjorn from Abba and he had this 70s kind of prog rock band and did many albums in the 70s. We heard his stuff when we were kids watching kids shows on the television. Music in the 70s was more hippieish and more proggy even with the kids shows. There was some really good music there actually.
Is the album title meant to reflect more organic types of Swedish music? Folk music?
Yeah, there is a bit of Swedish folk song in the album here and there and having Bjorn play on the album is a bit of heritage kind of thing too.
You also had Alex Acuna play percussion on Famine.
The guy who helped us out with the drums said, Alex Acuna is in town doing clinics. I know you need some percussion and if you want I can ask him to come down. He came into the studio and Ax has been listening to him since he was 12 years old and almost shit his pants when he showed up. It was like an old wizard because he laid down two first takes and he had some dried up goat's feet and he made these really spooky sounds. We were super happy about that.
The Lines In My Hand was one of the first songs Mikael wrote for Heritage. It combines acoustic and electric guitars and is built around this tremendous groove. Did this provide a sort of signpost for the songs that followed?
Yeah, actually because Mikael came up with that riff on some of the Heritage tours that we did. So that intro riff was probably the first little thing that got written. It was played on electric guitar originally and yeah, that might have been the seed. Yeah, I think soit's when he saw the vision for the new album in a way that, Wow, we can do it this way.
Mikael's vocals are really passionate and heartfelt and there is none of the growling that has been on earlier albums.
I remember he told me before I had even heard the songs that there wasn't gonna be any growling vocals on this one. I was a bit like, Wow, are you sure about that? But when I heard the stuff I was like, Wow, this is really cool. There is no room for growling vocals on these tracks.
"There is a bit of Swedish folk song in the album here and there and having Bjorn play on the album is a bit of heritage kind of thing too."
So when Mikael first mentioned there wouldn't be those heavier types of vocals you were a bit skeptical? You thought it might have been a mistake?
It just made me go, Ooh, are you really sure about that? But I wouldn't say a mistake cause I like the fact that you don't have to worry about people what they gonna think is playing music with your heart. Cause this is what we sound like now. Before I had heard the songs, it took a while to get used to the idea but as soon as I heard Mike's ideas I was, Yeah, let's do it.
The album opens with Heritage, the piano piece and closes with Marrow Of the Earth, the acoustic guitar instrumental. Are these two tracks meant to act as musical bookends to all the songs between them?
Yeah, you got it right. Exactly. The intro song is very inspired from a Swedish piano player called Jan Johansson who has two sons and is unfortunately dead now [passing away in 1968]. But his son, Jens, used to play keyboards with Yngwie on his earlier stuff and the drummer, Anders, is with a metal band called HammerFall. So that was very much inspired by Jan Hohansson. He did a thing called Jazz In Swedish, which is a classic; really cool melodies there. And Marrow Of the Earth is like the end of the album so it's kind of cool to frame it with opening up with an instrumental and ending it with an instrumental.
Have you been playing the new songs live?
Not all of them; we don't play Haxprocess or Famine but we do play about five of them. We even play a song that Mike and I wrote together called Pyre, which was a bonus track.
What has the response been to the songs from Heritage?
It's kind of funny because we started the tour the day before the album got released and now it's been about two weeks since it's been out and you can notice the difference. People are more aware of the songs now than in the beginning and it seems like they really dig it. It was really interesting to see that change from the beginning when people's faces were, What the hell is this? And now they're more into the songs.
You're such a very accomplished guitarist but have you ever made any mistakes live?
Sometimes it's unavoidable and shit could happen but I try to never do any mistakes. But sometimes like the other day, there was this huge radio station next to the gig and when I pressed my volume pedal, which I use to fade out and fade in a lot of the songs, and when I kicked that in it was like this Brazilian radio show. Really loud! So you can bump into those problems where you have to do like panic-fast solutions. I managed to get the Brazilian radio in the really sensitive parts [laughs]. Sometimes you just gotta laugh about it.
What do you think about some of the other bands out there like Mastodon, Lamb of God and Dream Theater?
I like those bands and I really like Mastodon a lotthey're great and an original band. And Dream Theater's new stuff sounds really cool. I'm playing so much all the time, I don't have time to listen that much to music anymore. It's mainly when I have a few beers in the bus and it's old Iron Maiden and Judas Priest or some old Entombed, Morbid Angel or something like that. Or a bunch of Sabbath and Purple and stuff like that. But I do try to keep track of stuff. But when we're in the studio and we work about 14 hours a day, seven days a week, when I get back home and I just want to clench my head and not listen to music. I do try to listen to records when we're having long flights; that's a good time for me to really dig into some stuff.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"You never really know what's gonna happen in Opeth; it's not predictable."