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For Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, experience breeds success

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Opeth storms into Brooklyn Bowl on October 18.
Annie Zaleski

A few weeks after the release of Opeth’s 12th studio record, Sorceress—the Swedish metal band’s first released on its own imprint, Moderbolaget—vocalist/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt checked in about the band’s approach on the album, being hungover in Vegas and what has kept Opeth together for decades.

How are the U.S. tour dates going so far? It’s going well, I would say. The new songs are working, the old songs are working and the in-between songs are working. So nothing to complain about other than being a long ways from home.

Were there any particular challenges for you guys as you were weaving in the new songs with the old ones and putting together the setlist? Generally, we like to cover as many records as possible from our discography, and we’ve got 12 now. So if we were to play one song from each record, the show would be, I don’t know, two and a half hours or something like that. Besides, if we have a new record out, we want to promote [it] a little bit more than the others. So we’ve got three new songs, and then [we’re] playing some—by Opeth standards—classic songs and a few obscure ones, too, for the diehard fans. But it wasn’t much of a challenge. We just put together a setlist of songs that we thought we played well and that we thought maybe the crowd wants to hear, clocking in just below two hours, which is a decent lengthy set, I think.

What were you going for when you started working on Sorceress? I didn’t have anything particular in mind. There [have] been times right before a writing period where actually I wanted to write a heavy record or a soft record or something like that. But I kind of dropped that in [the last] few years and just focused on writing good songs. It doesn’t matter if it’s heavy or soft, and usually I come up with a little bit of both. So there was no particular direction I wanted to take with the band when we did the Sorceress record, apart from just the question of good songs, which I think is a pretty good idea (laughs).

I like that it definitely has a little bit more of a prog influence, unless I’m imagining that. I think that’s inevitable. One thing that strikes me with this record is that the songs are quite diverse from each other. You know, I don’t think there are any two songs sounding similar on the record. There are some heavy bits on there, but it’s a different type of heavy. There’s lots of different genres that we’ve done in the songs and then between each song, if you know what I mean. But the prog influence is always going to be there. It’s inevitable—we’re a progressive band, so that’s going to happen.

There are so many different textures and sounds to it, yet the record really hangs together. It’s very well-sequenced. Thank you. I hope so. And with our back discography, I think it’s probably fairly easy to understand where we’re coming from.

You produced with Tom Dalgety on Sorceress, and you also worked with him on 2014’s Pale Communion. Why was he the right choice again? What do you like about working with him? Well, he doesn’t really work as a producer so much. He’s an engineer, first and foremost, and then sometimes co-producer secondly. But he’s great. He’s a young guy with old knowledge, you could say. His preferences are that of the older records, and not necessarily the high-tech metal-type sound. When we worked with him on the Pale Communion record, I’d never heard of him. I didn’t know what he was about. But he had a little bit of a c.v., and we checked out some of those bands and it sounded good. He was perfect for the last record, and then we decided that we wanted to work with him again based on that experience.

He’s into microphone techniques—he loves old microphones and loves the sound of some of these classic records that we love and grew up with, as opposed to just using digital stuff and the newest modern equipment. He’s into technique. He’s got knowledge, which is different from a lot of other engineers out there who just want to make it easily. We worked a lot with the microphone technique and talked a lot about the sound that we’re looking for, and he can achieve that. He’s very quick, which also resulted in us recording the record in not even 12 days, which is very fast for us. And he keeps it fun too the whole time. We had a great time recording, and we even had some extra time to go down to the pub and drink lots of beer.

I think a lot of people forget sometimes that making a record should be fun. It doesn’t have to be very serious and tense. You would be surprised how laid-back it was. I keep coming back to drinking beer, but that is what we were doing all the time (laughs). And it’s important for us to stay together. I mean, we’re a unit when we are touring. It’s like the five of us against the world, and it feels like we maintain that when we’re in the studio, everybody supporting one another. Everybody’s present when the other guys are recording, and everybody pitches in with their opinions. It’s really important for us to make it into a collective thing.

Sometimes when people make records by recording things separately you can tell, like there’s a bit of energy lost. We’ve done it this way for the last three or maybe four records. Before, it was more like, “You go in, and I’m going out to the pub.” But now, we went to the pub together and we sat in when everybody’s recording, and everybody’s kind of pep-talking each other. It’s very important, especially after how many years we’ve been together. Working all of the time, it’s really important that we don’t forget the essentials, which is that we’re a band and we’re here together.

You guys also recently started your own imprint, Moderbolaget, to release this record. Why was now the right time to do that? On the previous collaborations that we had with labels, it was always a record contract. Now we signed a license deal, basically licensing to Nuclear Blast for this album. There’s options for one or two more, I think. So it was a good opportunity for us to start our own imprint, because we’ve been talking about that for quite some time. It’s something that we aim to build, like what we did with the merchandise company, which is called OMerch. We started doing it for us, but technically in the future we could sign up other bands. We could use the imprint for solo records or for side projects and stuff like that.

But it’s still in the very beginnings now. We don’t really know what we’re going to do with it. We’re just kind of building the name and building the brand, if you will, without sounding like a corporate dude.

Those imprints give you so much more flexibility in the future to do things. For a band that’s been around for so long as you guys have, that must be so liberating. True. And you also detach yourself from any record label that you’re on. Not that we dislike the roster of Nuclear Blast. I wouldn’t have a problem with just having it say Nuclear Blast on there, but it kind of gives us our own little world. We’re not going to be perhaps lumped together with the rest of the bands on the roster if we have our own imprint. We kind of like that. We want to be part of the family, but we don’t want people to think we’re another Nightwish, if you know what I mean. Some people collect bands on labels—I’ve done that myself—and they expect a certain sound to come from a certain label. We kind of undermine that perception by setting up our own imprint, I think.

Do you have any notable Vegas shows or memories from visiting in the past? We’ve played there a couple of times, and the shows have been good. I don’t remember anything from it other than being hungover, because you’re always down by slots the night before. Fredrik [Åkesson, guitarist] is a bit of a gambler, so I sit next to him and drink beer and watch him play the slots. I have a limit of a hundred bucks. He has a limit of X amount of dollars! (laughs) But I just hang out with him and watch him play blackjack and drink beer. So we end up being drunk, because he will lose all of his money and then he’s going to win it all back, so we’ll be there for hours. And then the next day, we play the show.

To what do you attribute Opeth’s band longevity? We’re serious musicians. We’re in it for the music. We love music. We’re not after a fast buck or the glory or the fame. We do it our way, because we love music and we don’t want anything to corrupt that idea. So far, so good!

Opeth with The Sword. October 18, 7 p.m., $35-$50. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.

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