Interview: Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt talks about the recording of “Watershed,” new band members and life on the road

Fredrik Akesson, Martin Axenrot, Mikael Akerfeldt, Per Wiberg and Martin Mendez

Opeth, from left: Fredrik Akesson, Martin Axenrot, Mikael Akerfeldt, Per Wiberg and Martin Mendez

Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt says “Watershed,” the band’s ninth opus, isn’t a concept album. But there was definitely a “concept” driving the songwriting process.

“This one was all personal lyrics,” Akerfeldt said, during a phone interview before a Sept. 23 concert in Cleveland. “But there was no concept between the songs. It’s based on what happened in my life during the past few years.”

“What happened” to Akerfeldt was both wonderful and terribly difficult. Last October, Akerfeldt and his wife, Anna, welcomed their second child, Ebba Maria. That was the wonderful part — but it did get Akerfeldt thinking about the state of the world and the passing of time.

By the time Ebba’s was born, the difficult moments had already passed. The first came in May 2006, when longtime drummer Martin Lopez, who had played on every Opeth album since “My Arms, Your Hearse,” left the band due to health problems. The second fell on May of 2007, when guitarist Peter Lindgren (who had played with Akerfeldt since before Opeth was officially a band), hung up his guitar to pursue a career outside music.

“The lineup changes did influence me to write, and the fact that I became a dad,” Akerfeldt said. “I’m more of a sensitive person and protective person … It doesn’t take much to be disgusted with your surroundings, especially when you have kids.

“It made me write lyrics that are pretty negative about society,” Akerfeldt said. “… I’m scared all the time, I’m afraid of everything. I’m also more aware of my mortality.”

Out of such dark thoughts, Akerfeldt crafted “Watershed,” a monumental album that builds on the band’s sound while continuing to expand it in new directions. From the quiet opening of “Coil” to the huge closing chords of “Hex Omega,” “Watershed” swings between breathtaking beauty and searing rage in the space of a few seconds. The album also pushes the boundaries of metal beyond what people might expect, to include jazz, folk music and “Kansas” style classic rock in the death metal mix.

“The Lotus Eater” speeds like a freight train for several minutes of blast-beats and alternating clean and growled vocals – before keyboardist Per Wiberg shifts the action with an organ riff not too far away from jazz, “Burden” is a soaring ballad with an acoustic coda that slowly, intentionally collapses into musical disarray, like the final groan of a dying music box. “Porcelain Heart” is as brooding and dark as anything in the band’s catalogue – at least until the five minute mark, where the song gives way to acoustic beauty, Akerfeldt’s “clean” vocals and, believe it or not, an oboe.

“Watershed” is the first album recorded since Lindgren and Lopez’s departure. To replace Lopez, Akerfeldt tapped Martin Axenrot, who had played with Witchery and Bloodbath and had sat in for Lopez during the lengthy “Ghost Reveries” tour. As lead guitarist, Akerfeldt recruited Fredrik Akesson, who had been fired from Arch Enemy (to make way for returning member Christopher Amott) just as Akerfeldt began searching for someone to replace Lindgren.

Some longtime fans were sad to see Lindgren and Lopez go – but worries that the departures would hobble Opeth musically were unnecessary.

Akerfeldt and Lindgren are both solid guitar players, but Akesson is a master soloist, who adds a fury to already thoroughly blackened tracks like “Heir Apparent.” Axenrot proved he was more than up to the task of replacing Lopez during the “Ghost Reveries” tour, and doesn’t disappoint on the new album. Axenrot blasts his way through “Watershed,” especially on “Heir Apparent,” “The Lotus Eater” and the startling “Porcelain Heart,” where Axenrot solos frenetically, increasing speed as the band crunches through the sludge-filled main riff.

Akerfeldt said he didn’t alter his songwriting for Akesson or Axenrot, but said he was inspired to find ways to display their talent.

“The first song I wrote, I wanted them to show off a little,” Akerfeldt said. To the naysayers who were lamenting the lineup changes, “I wanted to show them these guys can play,” he said.

“It didn’t really influence my songwriting other than that,” Akerfeldt said. “In a way, I’ve been writing music without thinking about who was playing it.”

Like the albums that came before, “Watershed” effortlessly mixes light and darkness, with Akerfeldt switching between “clean” vocals and a glass-shattering death metal roar in a heartbeat. The alternating sun and shadows in the songs is not a product of design, Akerfeldt said.

“The dynamics of the songs are very important to me and always have been, but I generally don’t think too much – ‘time for a soft part,’ or ‘time for a heavy part,'” Akerfeldt said.

Despite the complexity of many of Opeth’s songs, the band members aren’t studio rats, creating musical confections that can’t be reproduced live.

“I think the most complex song is “The Lotus Eater,” and we play it every night,” Akerfeldt said. “I don’t think we’ve ever written a song that’s too complex to play (live). Recording an album, I would never add stuff if we can’t play it. When you play live, you realize (the song).”

Success has been a blessing, but it has come with a price. The band toured extensively for “Ghost Reveries,” keeping Akerfeldt and company away from wives, girlfriends and families back in Sweden for about two years. When asked how being a family man has changed his perspective on touring, Akerfeldt said he almost hopes there will come a time when the band is less in demand, so they can cut back on extensive stints on the road.

“I enjoy the shows. I don’t enjoy the traveling,” Akerfeldt said. “… It’s painfully obvious I’m away from my family more than I should be. You can’t get away from the feeling that you’re away from them. It’s not fun. It’s horrible, and at some point, I’m going to ease down on the touring.

“I’m a musician, that’s never going to change, but (touring is) quite grueling to think about,” he said. “… But, I still love playing shows.”

At concerts, Akerfeldt seems to be having a good time, smiling, joking and even answering shouted questions from the audience. It just comes naturally, Akerfeldt said – and is much better than being the stereotypical, ego-inflated rock star, who barely acknowledges the fans in the pit.

“If I feel good, I talk (smack),” Akerfeldt said. “It makes the whole experience more personal. We’re just regular people who like playing music.”

Opeth is in the midst of a large fall tour of the U.S. The band will perform at Bogart’s in Cincinnati – headlining the show with support from High on Fire and Baroness – on Thursday Oct. 23.

“I’m pretty bad at selling out shows,” Akerfeldt said. It’s not a lot of fireworks or costumes, it us playing. People like us because of our songs more than anything else. We really don’t need anything other than the songs.”

www.myspace.com/opeth

Also, former “Metal Maniacs” editor Jeff Wagner discusses Opeth and other progressive metal bands, in a lenghty interview below (look for it in the Metalliblather category) . A review of “Watershed” can also be found in the Reviews category.

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