We recently joined Opeth main man Mikael Åkerfeldt for an afternoon of record-shopping at the famed Amoeba Records in Hollywood, California, and drinking at a restaurant across the street. The beer was flowing, as was the conversation — so much so, in fact, that we had to split up our extensive chat into two parts. If you haven't read part one already, do so here, and then pick up the action below with the continuation of our in-depth talk with the prog-rock musician on Swedish lyrics, Swedish politics, unsophisticated death metal and why Opeth's new album, In Cauda Venenum, could be Åkerfeldt's last.
YOU RECORDED THE VOCALS FOR THE NEW ALBUM IN TWO LANGUAGES, BUT THE INITIAL IDEA WAS TO JUST DO IT IN SWEDISH. WHY DID YOU WANT TO DO THAT?
MIKAEL ÅKERFELDT Doing it in Swedish was just an idea that popped into my head like, "Maybe I should fry my egg in the morning instead of boiling it." It wasn't any deeper than that. And I figured the music climate has changed so much, does it really matter which language it's in? That was it. And it didn't have me writing more lyrics — it just had me writing more music. And the music didn't sound more Swedish or anything like that. But it was a gateway that opened, and it was fun.
DOING IT ENGLISH WAS LIKE HEDGING YOUR BETS, BECAUSE YOU USUALLY DO IT THAT WAY.
Yeah. I'm not regretting that, but a lot of people here [in the U.S.] are saying they only listened to the English version. So I was proven right, in a way. I can say a thousand times that the Swedish version is the original version, but it's up to people to choose. I can just hope that they check out both versions. But I do think the Swedish version is slightly better — only because it was first. It's more innocent. With the English version, regardless of what you think about it, that's me trying to copy a vocal line I had done in another language. So it's less exciting to me.
YOU OBVIOUSLY HAD TO DO SOME TRANSLATING, BUT WAS IT DIFFICULT TO MAKE THE WORDS FIT PHONETICALLY?
It wasn't that bad, actually. The translation took one evening. Doing the vocals took three or four of days because there's so much vocal harmonies on the thing. We were like, "Oh, we forgot this one!" It was a lot of work, in that sense. But it wasn't overpowering — it was cool. And I go for it when I'm in the studio, so I lost my voice on the first song. I came in the next day all hoarse, so we did some of the softer vocals. But it's true that some vowels are more difficult to sing than others — which I only realized when I was in the vocal booth actually doing it. [Laughs] Sometimes I'd have to re-write it to make it easier to sing.
WHEN YOU'RE TALKING WITH ME, ARE YOU THINKING IN ENGLISH? OR ARE YOU THINKING IN SWEDISH AND DOING A QUICK TRANSLATION?
Very good question! Am I thinking at all? [Laughs] I probably am. What language do you dream in? I can't say. It's not necessary to for me to think about it. If there was a Swedish person here who said something, I could go right into Swedish and then back to you in English. But I hadn't thought of that, to be honest.
I STUMPED YOU WITH ONE.
THAT'LL PROBABLY BE THE ONLY ONE.
We'll see. [Laughs] But for example, the best way to do a good show is to not think. Whenever I start thinking about the next lyric, I fuck up. So I fix my eyes on our sound engineer and our light guy out there, because they're safety. To them, I'm just Mikael. I'm not a performer. I look at them and sing without thinking. And I remember everything.
COME TO THINK OF IT, I HAVEN'T ACTUALLY SEEN THE LYRICS TO THE NEW ALBUM. ARE THE SONGS RELATED IN ANY WAY THEMATICALLY?
No, but I probably could've said yes. [Laughs] It was not written as a concept record, but with that said, it could be — like Dark Side of the Moon. When I listen to that, I don't understand the concept. There are some recurring themes that kind of tie it together, but lyrically I'm not really sure what it's about. It's not as clear as some King Diamond records. But I would say the lyrics are more contemporary and about "real" things, I guess.
YOU MADE A LITTLE PROMOTIONAL VIDEO IN WHICH YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT THE FIRST SINGLE, "HEART IN HAND," AND HOW YOU WERE THINKING ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD WHEN YOU WROTE IT. WHAT DO YOU THINK PUT YOU IN THAT MINDSET?
The lyrics are about modern Swedish society, the double standards, the hypocrisy — I think I got inspired by the election that we had last year, which was a shambles.
SOME HARDCORE RIGHT-WINGERS GOT INTO SWEDISH PARLIAMENT.
Yes, the right-wingers got in. My party is the Social Democrats. I guess you would call them the "lefties," but they're not as lefty as the lefties. They're working class types, and I voted with them. But they teamed up with some people who definitely lean more to the right, just to stay in power. I felt cheated, as did the voters who went more to the right, because they were teaming up with the Social Democrats. Politicians are a great example of people just talking shit all the time.
LIKE THE PEOPLE DRINKING ALL YOUR BEER IN THE DRESSING ROOM.
Exactly. So that inspired that song, and I went back to my childhood in the end, where there's no concern in the world. You think that summer lasts forever. Your toys are there, you have your secret places in the woods, and all that.
DOES THAT SEEM MORE APPEALING AS YOU GET OLDER?
I'm very nostalgic — mostly about how un-worried you were when you were a kid. I was just talking earlier about that series Chernobyl that recently came out. That incident happened in '86, when I was 12. I didn't care. You're playing with your friends. Life's easy. And now it's not. You worry constantly, especially with kids. You worry and you're also a voter and a taxpayer and you get irritated about things you never heard of when you're a kid. I wanted to convey that in the song.
YOU OBVIOUSLY TAKE OPETH'S MUSIC VERY SERIOUSLY, BUT IN RECENT YEARS YOU SEEM TO BE TAKING THE BAND'S IMAGE LESS SERIOUSLY. I'M THINKING OF THE COVER OF HERITAGE, WHICH FEATURES THE BAND MEMBERS' FACES IN A TREE, AND A DRAWING ON THE INSIDE OF THE NEW ALBUM, IN WHICH THE BAND MEMBERS' HEADS ARE ON A SCORPION.
Yes. I'm sick and tired of the macho metal band photos. I'm not like that. The Watershed record was the first time we ugli-fied ourselves. If you look at the back of the record, there's a face in a fortress, and it's a mix of all of our faces put into one. It just happened to be a very, very ugly guy. We call him "Jorge."
I FEEL LIKE THAT MUST TIE IN SOMEHOW WITH OPETH'S PROGRESSION AWAY FROM DEATH METAL OVER THE YEARS. WHAT HAS THAT BEEN LIKE FOR YOU? WAS THERE SIMPLY A MOMENT WHEN YOU SAID, "I DON'T WANNA DO THAT ANYMORE?"
Pretty much, actually. The last death metal I bought because I was interested was Domination by Morbid Angel. That's 1995 — a long time ago now. I'm not saying it's just been bad releases since then — of course not — but that's the last time I felt like I wanted to hear what's new. And Morbid Angel was always ahead of the other death-metal bands. I saw David Vincent just the other week and I thought, "There he is — the death-metal king." And I tell him, "You're the fucking best. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have a band."
So death metal certainly means a lot to me. But our death metal, if you will, culminated with the Watershed album. And then I was done with it. I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't do anything better. I wasn't listening to anything with screaming vocals anymore, apart from the old shit. So I wanted to get closer to the person I am. You saw the records I bought — there wasn't any death metal in there. Dokken was the closest. [Laughs] I have to go back to Jim Carrey ...
WHO KNEW HE WAS SUCH A WISE GURU?
Exactly! He did funny films — Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber and all that. And then he is doing Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], he is doing Man on the Moon.
Yeah. He can still be funny when he wants to. And I can still play death metal when I want to — I do when we play live — but it just came to a screeching halt. And I almost made a mistake. I almost wrote another record like Watershed, but I was stopped by Martín Méndez, our bass player. He said, "This is not what you should be writing."
WAS EVERYONE IN THE BAND ON BOARD WITH MOVING AWAY FROM DEATH METAL?
I think Fredrik, who had only been on one album at that point, was a bit shocked. Because he's a metal guy. But not the other guys. We bonded so much during the writing of Heritage. But I did write a good 30 or 40 minutes of Watershed-type Opeth music. But when Martín spoke up I just said, "Thank you," and deleted it. And started Heritage.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU PUT ON A DEATH-METAL RECORD FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE?
I can't remember, but I know what bands it would be. It was either Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark, Morbid Angel's Altars Of Madness, one of the first two Entombed albums or one of the first two Autopsy albums. So if we would ever return to death metal, it would be pure death metal, because that's the stuff I like. I don't like bands that sound like us. I like Repulsion, you know?
YOU DON'T LISTEN TO NEW DEATH METAL.
No. But I was part of Bloodbath, and that was like new death metal.
I SAW YOU PLAY WITH BLOODBATH AT HELLFEST MANY YEARS AGO. I REMEMBER YOU WERE WEARING SUNGLASSES ONSTAGE, BUT IT WAS VERY LATE AT NIGHT.
[Laughs] Do you know why I was wearing shades?
BECAUSE YOU WERE DRUNK?
No, because I had lyrics taped to the floor.
THAT'S FANTASTIC. YOU SEEMED LIKE YOU WERE ENJOYING YOURSELF.
I loved it. That's the kind of death metal I like. No sophistication. Not sophisticated like we were, if you know what you mean. [Laughs]
YOU PLAY SOPHISTICATED MUSIC NOW, EVEN THOUGH IT'S NOT DEATH METAL. DOES THAT EVER FEEL LIKE A BURDEN? DO YOU EVER WANNA JUST WRITE AN AC/DC RIFF?
AC/DC is fun to listen to — and fun to play. When I do something like that in the rehearsal room, it's all smiles. Everybody loves it. But if we would record it, there would be nothing there. I have eclectic taste in music. There are simple songs in our discography, but I embellish them and make them sound not simple. A lot of people are like, "How can you remember everything? It's so complex!" But it's not to me. It's not like Suffocation. [Laughs]
YOU'VE SAID YOU TREAT EVERY OPETH RECORD AS IF IT COULD BE YOUR LAST — AND THAT HELPS MOTIVATE YOU TO DO YOUR BEST WRITING. BUT HAVE YOU EVER SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED ENDING THE BAND?
I've had talks with the other guys a million times, and they hate it when I do this. I say, "OK, we're going on a break. I'm not sure what's happening in the future, but you should really do other projects." They weren't doing anything else aside from Opeth, but now they are. I just wanted to make sure that if it's over with the band, they're sorted, so to speak. I don't want it to be over, but maybe sometime I'm gonna sit down to write and it's all shit. Or I don't feel it. And then it's over. I'm not saying that's gonna happen, but it might. It's not that I'm too old to rock & roll, but it has to be fun and it has to be fantastic. If not, it's over. But right now we're golden.