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OPETH (July 2019)



Opeth, a leading figure in Swedish progressive metal, released his thirteenth album, "In Cauda Venenum". On this occasion, we went to meet the charismatic leader Mikael Akerfeldt!
DARIALYS - 06.09.2019 -
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With a career spanning more than 25 years, Opeth is one of the giants of progressive metal. Mikael Akerfeldt's band will release its thirteenth album, "In Cauda Venenum", in September, with a special feature since the album will be released in Swedish and English versions. Back with the charismatic singer and guitarist of the band on the origin of this choice, on his qualities as a musician, and also on the future of the band.

Mikael, the last time we saw each other was in 2007, for the "Watershed" promotion! It was a great day because I met you and it was my child's birthday. I didn't ask you the traditional question we like to ask: what is the question you have been asked too often?

Mikael: For this new album, "what does the name of the album mean?

And in general, on the scale of your career?

"What does the name of this album mean?"

Oh, really?

I find it quite annoying because I often don't know how to answer! It just sounds good!

This new album, "In Cauda Venenum", is surely your most progressive album. Is it a concept album? If so, what is the theme?

It's not a concept album strictly speaking. I grew up with albums like King Diamond's, with a story that evolves from one song to the next. This is also the case for "The Dark Side Of The Moon" and "The Wall". We don't see exactly what the link is between the songs, it's like a life story. In that sense, our album is a concept album. The lyrics are much more contemporary. This is because they were written in Swedish first. But basically, I hadn't planned to write a concept album in particular.

The expression "In Cauda Venenum" seems to indicate that the tone is about to harden at the end. Is that what this title means?

Boring question, let's move on! (Laughs). The best thing is to look at the lyrics. As I first wrote them in Swedish, they are more contemporary as I said. This includes hypocrisy, what people say and what they do. This is a statement that can be made all over the world. I have never been inspired by politics before, but the situation in Sweden is really chaotic. People express their opinions but do not act.

It's the same all over the world. That is why we are going to disappear quickly on this planet.

Yes! I'm placing myself as an observer. In Sweden, we have Greta Thunberg, a teenager who has stopped going to school for the climate. Very good idea! In Sweden, everyone supports it. So do I! With my job, I have to fly. I have no choice. But if it rains in summer, people say to themselves, "Never mind, I'm going to Spain!" The airports are armoured! The media in Sweden say that no one cares about the environment, but no one cares! If it allows them to have a week of sun during their holidays, then so be it for the climate! That's what I'm talking about, this kind of hypocrisy. References to the album name can be found in different parts of the lyrics. I used this title because of a happy coincidence. We already had a scorpion on the cover. "In Cauda Venenum" often refers to a scorpion. The group is presented as a five-headed scorpion. The artwork was finished before it had a title. On the cover, we see a beautiful house that is being swallowed by a demon. I treat each album as potentially the last one, because you never know if you're going to continue, and I want to make sure that you stop on a good note. So that's the idea of this final poison: to end up on a very good album, and once it's over, it's over. That's not what I hope, but you never know.

You said that this may be your last album!

You never know! You never know! I'm not saying it is! But I prepare it as if it were potentially the last.

It's not a common statement for an artist, unless you're 60 or 70, but it's not for you!

Yes, but you have to understand that I don't consider the band as a business. I can't do that. Music is much more important than that. If I can no longer offer the best music I can write, then it's over. It's a threat that hangs over me all the time. It's a threat I'm making to myself.

Does that mean it's hard for you to compose?

Yes. I want to be one with the music. I want to like what I write. I don't want to be focused on the future or success. I focus on the present moment.

You say you don't want to look to the future, but you don't want to look to the past either. Is that why there is no more growl in your songs? Even if some fans regret this recipe?

I'm not trying to please the fans. We are the ones who feel what needs to be done. For growls, of course, this is one of the reasons why there haven't been any since the album "Heritage". If I used new ones, I would be lying to myself. I don't listen to this kind of music anymore.

Are you aware that some early fans are disappointed by this change of style?

Yes, yes, yes! We always play these songs live! When you play concerts, you want everyone to be happy. In terms of creation, I do what I want to do.

Opeth, in the 90s, created a style. Today, this is no longer the case. You play very good progressive rock from the 70s, it's very well done, but you're not the precursors of this style as you were in the style that made you famous.

It doesn't matter to me. I know that the previous albums have been very important to people, and they would love to see us start writing songs like this again. But I've always written for myself and not for the fans. It's just a coincidence that people liked it! I want to keep this reasoning, like when I was writing our first album at 19. On each album, I knew what I wanted. At one point, I reached a point where I no longer wanted to do what we had done until then.

But can we say "never say never"?

Of course we can! (Laughs). But I have to do what I want to do. This must be relevant.

On the album "Sorceress", you said you were inspired by the Italian band Il Paese Dei Balocchi who released their first eponymous album in 1972. We still feel this influence on the new album. Why are you so inspired by this band?

To release such an album in Italy in 1972 with no budget, with unknown musicians who, I think, did nothing after that, managed to have such arrangements, such dynamics... It overwhelmed me. I wondered how they could have written a little masterpiece like this and then disappeared. How did people manage to let them disappear? How is that possible? And what makes Eros Ramazzotti a superstar? You know what I mean?

Is this a tribute from you?

All our albums are a tribute to albums in my collection, roughly speaking. I wouldn't have written this album if I hadn't been a music lover and a big music consumer. I prefer to look for bands like that rather than listen to the radio. That would kill me! (Laughs).

This album is the most symphonic of the ones you've composed. It is very cinematic, with these female voices, on 'Garden Of Earthly Delights' and 'Charlatan'. Did you have any films in mind during the writing of the album?

Not really, no. I wanted to create something that was more than just music. I wanted it to be a trip, which refers to your question about the concept album. I wanted us to say from the beginning that this was not a usual rock album.

If you didn't have a movie in mind, maybe you had pictures?

I have images in my head when I write songs, for some reason I don't know, but it's in the lyrics. Each song has specific lyrics, with its own images and references. However, one of the sentences was inspired by the series "The Handmaid's Tale". It was inspired by a scene that depicts a forced marriage between a young girl and a man. One of the songs was inspired by this scene. It's not something fictional, it's something that happens in real life.

Fredrik's solos (Akesson, the solo guitarist, editor's note) are impressive. Do you give him carte blanche or write them down? Or are there solos you write for him?

I don't force him, but I tell him what I want as a result. I tell him the kind of solo that the song needs, but he writes his solos himself. He is a guitarist turned towards improvisation. Usually I record five, six, or seven of his improvisations, then I tell him what are the good parts that come out and he takes them into account for the final solo. Once I told him to play like Ritchie Blackmore on the song "Slither", which appeared on "Heritage". I told him I needed a Blackmore-style solo, and he told me he could do it. Sometimes I ask him to play jazz, blues, Gary Moore. He can do all that.

On 'The Garroter', there is a flamenco jazz influence, which makes it probably your most eclectic album. Do you always try to surprise the listener, even if you compose primarily for yourself?

Yes, all the same! Even if many surprises are not very well accepted by some who do not fully understand what is happening. I want to develop my writing skills. I want to try things. This band is based on experimentation! Don't be afraid of the fact that some people won't like it.

As time goes by listening to the album, your voice seems more controlled, which gives a convincing result on "Dignity" or "Heart In Hand". You who don't consider yourself a singer strictly speaking, this album proves the opposite! Is it out of false modesty that you say that, or did you work towards that?

Good question! But that's not false modesty, I'm very modest. The singers who make me dream are excellent singers: Paul Rodgers, Freddy Mercury, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie James Dio... I am not like them. Certainly, I am the singer of Opeth. If we took a picture with Ronnie James Dio, David Coverdale and Ian Gillan, I would sit next to them and watch them pose for the picture because that would not be my place. It's the same with the guitar. I wouldn't want to be in the picture.

It seems that you are not fully satisfied with your situation as a musician.

I like writing music and I think I can say that I am a musician, but I am not a great instrumentalist or a great singer. For example, I try to erase the things I don't like in my voice. I want to look like someone else. I don't want to hear myself on the album, a bit like when you hear your voice on an answering machine and you say: "My God, I really have that voice? That's what I'm working on as a singer. I'm trying to get away from that.

This is the first time a singer has ever said that to me! Then why do you sing if you don't consider yourself a good singer?

Because I'm the singer! Even if I asked Ronnie James Dio to sing to our songs, I would be able to tell him: "Hey Ronnie! That's not what I'm looking for!" The good thing about me is that I know what I'm looking for, and I'm going to make it! My voice sounds good, but I don't think it sounds like me. I'm a better singer now than in the past. In any case, I will achieve my goal. It will sound the way I want it to.

The songs 'Lovelorn Crime' and 'Dignity' are reminiscent of Steven Wilson. Could this herald a new collaboration between the two of you, with the release of a new album by Storm Corrosion for example?

Yes, of course it would be possible! There is a lot of talk about it. Maybe I'll see him tonight because I'm going to London. We're talking about a new Storm Corrosion album. The problem, of course, is finding the time. And also, now, people have a reference point with the first album, which was not the case when we released this first album. The people who will buy this album will have expectations. We ourselves would have expectations, whereas when we released our first album, we didn't know if it would work, if it would be shit or if it would be good! Anyway, we didn't expect people to buy this album. There were a lot of sales at the exit. Maybe we'll try it! The labels don't force us, we don't feel obliged to make this album.

You first wrote this album in Swedish, and it must be said that the lyrics go very well on the music, so why did you release an English version?

You have no idea how many times I've been asked that question! But it's not a boring question, it's a very interesting question! I made an English version because I thought it would put a language barrier in some people's minds, so they wouldn't listen to the album.

But if you don't care about the reaction of the fans, why didn't you just release this album in English and say it was your choice?

Because if people didn't listen to this album, there wouldn't even be a reaction from them. I don't care what they think, but I want them to listen to the album. It may be contradictory. In the middle of the writing process, I thought I liked it and wanted people to hear it, and it was a problem for me when I was listening to Italian progressive rock for example. When I was younger, I only wanted to listen to bands whose lyrics I could understand. I was afraid that people would totally skip this album because of the language. I don't care what they think, but I want them to hear it.

But you, your favorite version is the Swedish one?

Yes. I only listen to this one. Maybe because it required us to do the same thing twice. I made the first recording in Swedish, then I did the same thing in English, with different lyrics. The second one is like I lost my innocence. It's like painting over my own painting. The first version has something special about it, the second is a copy, but it is useful for people who would not be able to overcome the language barrier.

Does this mean that now that your audience will get used to hearing you sing in Swedish, the next album could be only in Swedish?

I don't know, but now that we've done it that way, that possibility exists. And it worked!

What were your first reactions to this?

What you said: "Why did you make an English version?"

And that's the best proof that you didn't have to do one!

Yes, but on the one hand I'm just talking to 50 or 100 journalists, while thousands of fans may thank me for the English version. If you listen to the English version first, the Swedish version will seem strange to you. So people will have that choice.

All the ingredients of Opeth's music are present on this album: acoustic guitarists, dissonance on "Heart In Hand", chromatisms on "Dignity", complex riffs like on "Charlatan", but not much metal strictly speaking, except on "Dignity" which reminds Black Sabbath and the introduction of "Next Of Kin". Aren't you afraid to play this album on stage since you like to have fun on stage?

I'm afraid to play these songs on stage, but mostly because of the singing. These songs are difficult for me to sing. They are harder to sing than to play. When you're on tour, you can do five concerts in a row, 2h or 1h30. When we tour, we have to save ourselves, otherwise you do a concert and you can't sing the next day. That's what I'm afraid of.

You have to give 100% of yourself to these songs.

Yes, always. We need to see which songs to play on tour. There are songs I'd really like to play. The others would like us to play everything! I am concerned about how this will happen. Maybe there won't be a problem, maybe there will be. One day, I may be able to sing something but I can't do it the next day and we may have to change the setlist. We need to see this together. I'm concerned about that.

Do you know what the next concert in France of the tour will be?

The concert at the Olympia! In November.

We started this interview by asking you what the question you had been asked too often was. On the contrary, what would you like me to ask you?

I still like questions about the album collection! I know I'm here to promote our new album, but I like to talk about vinyl! I like it when people ask me what was my last discovery, or my last purchase.

And what is your answer?

In Warsaw, I found a record store. There was a rather expensive vinyl, it was the original BO pressing of Rosemary's Baby, and I didn't have it. It is signed Krzysztof Komeda. I also found "Slaves And Masters" by Deep Purple on vinyl.

Did you buy the latest Opeth album in Swedish on vinyl?

No, I would never pay for that!

Because you don't like the voice of their singer?

No, he sucks! He's not a real singer! (Laughs).

Thank you very much!


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