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A conversation with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt on new album, Jim Carrey, & ‘Stranger Things’

Posted by on September 27, 2019

Today (27th), Opeth’s overall thirteenth studio effort, In Cauda Venenum, has finally arrived (order here). The follow-up to 2016’s Sorceress continues the group’s evolved progressive style. For those who were hoping to hear a return of the heavier 2008 Watershed era and earlier, could potentially be disappointed. However, for those who have adapted and embraced these Swedish progressive metal giants’ new direction, will consider In Cauda Venenum one of their emotionally heaviest albums as well as ambitious providing the record is available in two languages: English and Swedish. We caught up with Mikael Åkerfeldt to discuss in great detail on their latest offering, using Jim Carrey as a metaphor to the band’s changed direction, revealed his favorite Sorceress songs, and more. 

 

You had mentioned heavy to you isn’t always about screaming vocals and harsh elements such as that,  it’s more about the emotion. With that being said, how heavy to you is In Cauda Venenum?
Emotionally, it’s super heavy, it’s a real heavy thing, but the traditional heaviness, I guess it’s kind of heavy, in parts. I heard heavier music than our new album, but there are some heavy parts, some metally parts. The emotional heaviness, however, that’s the one I like the most. In that sense, it’s rather, really heavy, I would say.

 

Speaking of the emotional heavy, I’ve heard a lot of that in “Lovelorn Crime.” That to me hit the spot. Can you talk more about that song?
Yeah, I mean that’s a love lyric, or lost love lyrics rather, and a pretty basic track. I kind of just wanted to write a nice piano ballad, no frills, just a nice normal song. But I wanted it to be big, pompous, epic and tugging at the heart, you know? I had imagined in the beginning with piano rhythm and the drums coming in exactly like I’d imagined, and then I kind of worked my way to a Pink Floydian type of vibe in the end, and lots of orchestration. It’s quite overblown and pompous, but underneath it’s a very simple song. Overall, I wanted to have that I think. With many songs on the record I wanted them to be songs that could potentially make people cry. That’s what I was looking for, basically.

 

 

That one, as simple as it may have been, I had a bit of the crying feel.
Yeah. That’s what I was after. I didn’t sit around crying writing these songs, but I love music that could make me cry, or that makes me cry, and it happens often. That’s the stuff, when you think of a memory in your life and that’s brought forth through some music that you hear all of a sudden, you’re thinking of something that happened. It could be good and bad things, but that will make you get all emotional. Music does that to me. That’s the music I wanted to at least try and see if I could write that. I have no idea whether I succeeded or not. That’s not really up to me to say that. I love these songs. I think they’re some of my best.

 

I think it’s a very powerful album and I felt a lot of variations of emotional intensity. The song “Next of Kin” reminded me a little bit about your previous album, the Sorceress. It somehow felt like some unintentional continuation. How would you compare the two albums?
I love that record. There’s parts on there, the more obscure songs from The Sorceress are my favorite. There’s a song called Sorceress 2 on there, which I really like, and a song called A Fleeting Glance, I think it’s really cool. We never played those live and nobody ever comes up to me saying that’s their favorite song, but those are my favorite songs. But it’s overall more of a Sorceress is a bit more straightforward I think, even if it’s not in comparison to other straight forward bands, if you know what I mean. It’s all over the place. But for us it’s a bit more straightforward. There’s some gimmicky metal riffs on there, which are cool.

But this one is really a field where I am. That’s the stuff that I really love, the big epic type of things. “Next of Kin” is one of those big tracks, it almost sounds like a Broadway musical at times to me, that song, which I don’t think I’ve done before. I never compared to my own music to a Broadway musical before, but that’s closer at least. But it’s the stuff I like. I love Sorceress too, but I wouldn’t want to do a record that’s too similar to that. I always want to move on and I think we did with this one.

 

 

 

 

It’s funny that you mentioned that, because the opening for this new album reminded me of the TV series Stranger Things.
Yes. Yeah, it’s called a Strange Things keyboard. It’s basically an arpeggiator, it’s called. You play a chord on the keyboard and it jumps between the notes of the chord. That’s how they did that in Stranger Things. And it’s almost inevitable that you get that effect. It’s almost like they trademarked it, but they didn’t. I said let’s put on an arpeggiator on this part, see what happens. I think I was the only one who had seen Stranger Things, because I mean that show was made for people my age, kind of feels like, and kids of course today. And lo and behold, it sounded a bit like Stranger Things. I like that show, but it wasn’t a tribute, and I don’t think it was a rip off either because they don’t have a trademark sound, just for those notes.

 

 

 

Of course. I’m not saying that you copied it or anything like that. It was unexpected and that was the first thing that came to my mind hearing the album open. I’m said to myself, “Wow, I feel like I’m in a Stranger Things episode.”
But that’s a good feeling, right?

 

Yeah, it was. It got me all pumped for the rest of the album and then the next song (“Dignity”) surprised me and I said, “Okay, here’s Opeth now, I get it.”
Yeah. I do steal a lot of things. You know, I’m quite open with when I mix something from other bands and artists. But this one, it sounds a little like Stranger Things, I agree, but I wasn’t really inspired by them.

 

I wanted to ask, when you released the single “Heart in Hand,” I believe you mentioned that the song included a mistake that was out of everybody’s control and you kept it  in there and it turned out to be one of the best parts of the song. It made me wonder, are there any other songs that this has happened to you before?
When we started stuff breaks down, Normally that’s not a good thing. We were just lucky with that, just how that noise sounded, and we decided to keep it in there. In fact I jumped out of my chair, like yes, save it, save it! And it was just noise. But I’m like that. When I hear something, I can’t really explain why I like things like that. I don’t think we had any, not that I can remember, any happy bad surprises like that, that made the record into something that we could have written, or a song or part. One thing that happened was, it was two songs on the record that I had decided they’re going to be B sides, they’re not even going to be included. But I also was smart enough to say, luckily, to everybody in the band, let’s wait and pick the songs for the record until it’s recorded. Both the song “Continuum” and “Universal Truth” were B sides to begin with, and then they came out so great that they became A sides, so to speak.

 

What was the turning point for you as an artist, when you changed your sound from being heavy, death metal to progressive?
I guess I was done with the real heavy death metal, heavy, when we had done the Watershed tour. I was kind of over it, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why, butit’s an odd comparison. I don’t know why it came to mind, but Jim Carrey was over being fucking Pet Detective and he did, what’s it called? What’s that love …

 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
That one, and Truman Show, you know what I mean? He’s done with the silly faces and-

 

And being type cast.
Yeah. So that’s basically how I felt. I was done with that type of stuff. I needed to go somewhere else in order to … I won’t say survive because that’s too big a word, but-

 

To love your job?
Yeah, I didn’t want to be a puppet in a fucking wheel that we had designed and we’re going to be stuck in there. I wanted to keep that freedom that I do whatever I want, because that’s why I started with music, to write the music that I liked. I was done with Watershed and then I kind of looked down elsewhere. And by doing that I got closer to the music that I was actually listening to in my private time, and it was glorious to me. It was a big, big relief for me that I could write music that was still relevant to me, if you know what I mean. And I achieved that by changing a few things, and to me it still sounded like Opeth. Now it’s how many years later, we’re still here. People talk about our change. For me, that was a happy moment.

 

The Jim Carrey metaphor or comparison makes complete sense. I think that’s a really good way to explain it.
Yeah. I don’t know why, never said that before. It just popped into my head. Maybe it’s because I watched Pet Detective with my daughters the other day, and they loved it, but they have never watched a serious film yet. And I kept thinking like, wow, he was really crazy in these films. And I saw that Eternal Sunshine, and that made me cry, that film. And the Truman Show, and … What the fuck is that one called? Man on the Moon, the documentary. I was like, wow, he’s a fucking amazing actor. He can make you laugh, he can make you cry. I started thinking about that as I was watching Ace Ventura. It just popped in my head now.

 

It makes complete sense now. Another thing that I thought was interesting on this album was the fact that you released it in two different languages. How is that process, as a vocalist, to put out one album in both languages?
Yeah, I’ve never done that before. We’re not the first band to do that. It’s been done a few times before by other successful bands. My inspiration for it was, in retrospect, once I cracked the idea that that’s what I should do, I was of course looking who’d done it before me, and there was one band that was obvious. It’s a Swedish band called Life that put out a record in 1970, a really, really superb record. It was both in Swedish and English, and the English version was meant to be exported, for them to try and build a career outside of Sweden. And that failed. I don’t think those copies were ever sold in the shops, anyway, but I have both versions back home. I felt like maybe I should could do something like that.

But the original idea was to just make a Swedish record. Then as I was writing, I felt that, wow, I’m really happy with this music. Wonder if people are going to pass on this one because they won’t understand what I’m singing. Maybe it’s better to do an English version too for those people. Because I used to be like that myself. I couldn’t listen to music with lyrics I couldn’t understand. So you could say it’s a decision based on insecurity, and I translated all the lyrics into English and got it fairly right, fairly correct, and then recorded an English vocals for it. It was fun, but it was also a fact that I was copying an already existing piece of music. So it feels less innocent to me than the Swedish version.

 

 

 

It sounds like we should listen to the Swedish version first, then the English.
Yeah, I mean that I’m not going to dictate that-

 

No, of course not.
Yeah. I mean a lot of people have … I’m in the US right now doing press and talking to people, and most of them started with English version, and some of them then went to the Swedish version, and the ones that did said, wow, it’s a new album. It’s like two albums, two different albums because of the language thing. I can’t say that that’s the case. I don’t really know. But for me, if I could decide for everyone to pick up the record, I would say, yeah, play the Swedish version first. But it’s up to, to each his own, so to speak.

 

That’s right. And I guess, because you have Psycho Las Vegas coming up this weekend, are you going to play any songs in the Swedish language or English for the new album?
We’re not playing any new songs yet. I guess we have two new songs out, meaning four new songs, both languages, but we want to present these songs, the first time we present them live is going to be when we have complete control of a show, and festivals most of the time you’re pushed on stage without a sound check. You don’t have your light show, you don’t have that security that at least I and the rest of the guys I think do feel that we need when we’re going to present these songs live for the first time. It has to be like, shit, that was good. That was amazing. It can’t be a bad sound. It can’t be that we’re insecure because we can’t hear ourselves on stage. Everything has to be more secure. So we decided pretty early on that we’re not going to play any new songs until we go on tour for this. As far as I’m concerned, we’re still on the Sorceress tour, kind of, playing songs up to the Sorceress record and some older stuff too.

 

 

It makes sense. I know you guys are very particular with your live shows, and I can see that in how large festivals can be. Speaking of shows, you guys performed in two iconic locations in the US over the last few years, such as Radio City Music Hall and Red Rocks. I don’t think it can get any more special after those two locations, but are there any places that you’d like to perform and haven’t yet?
Yeah, there’s a few. In New York I’d like to be in the Carnegie Hall. Would love that. 

 

Is there anything else that you wanted to say or add about the new album?
Shit, I don’t know. It feels like it’s still mine, but I know it’s beginning to not be mine anymore. It’s everybody’s. I’m stressing a little bit about that. We’re still working on ironing out some problems that we have with the pressing plant for the vinyl. I haven’t seen a finished version of the album yet, so I’m still kind of pretending that it’s mine. I haven’t really learned how to talk about this record yet, to be honest. So I don’t know.

 

Each project, each album for you is like having a new child in a way.
I guess. It’s almost like I judge … When I think back to get a correct timeline, I often compare it to whatever record we had out or coming out. So they’re important to me, especially if I’m writing them, and when they’re released and becomes everybody’s property I kind of move on. I kind of send the child to an orphanage or something.

 

You let it roam free into the world.
Yeah, pretty much. It’s grown up. But I’m still kind of pretending it’s mine, even though it’s about to piss off.

 

 

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