A funny thing happened on Twitter earlier this year: Longstanding Swedish band Opeth became a trending topic when details of their new album, Pale Communion were released. Wasn’t this once a Scandinavian metal band with a small but dedicated audience? The buzz confirmed what many have known for a long time: Opeth have moved far away from being just a metal band and ascended to much larger public awareness, as their music has moved far away from metal and into much stranger, proggier territories (a shift first evidenced in earnest on 2011’s Heritage). At the same time, they have kept — actually, grown — a rabid fan base that rivals Rush in terms of dedication. Then, though, in keeping with their tradition of defying expectations and trends (and trending topics), Opeth pushed back the release of Pale Communion by two months — having nothing to do with the album — which was completed on deadline — but reportedly because the band’s brilliant-but-unpredictable frontman was too consumed with writing and recording new music to address such details as album art and promotional stills. Whatever the case, Pale Communion is an unusual and remarkable record, closer to the jazz-fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra than the death metal being made by contemporaries like Carcass. Åkerfeldt and Opeth guitarist Fredrik Åkessonon — who joined the band prior to 2008’s Watershed — sat down with us for a conversation about the new record and the importance of change and risk. While you’re reading, you can listen to the band’s wonderful new single, “Eternal Rains,” which makes immediately apparent the Opeth’s new direction and where it has taken them this time.
STEREOGUM: I understand that Goblin was a pretty big influence on this record. How did that love affair store?
MIKAEL ÅKERFELDT: I’ve liked them for some time now. I came across them through record collecting. I was getting into Italian progressive rock and discovered one band after another. Once I heard about them it was like I knew I would like them. I started buying the horror film soundtracks and pretty much loved everything. Their sound is like Dirty Harry. The musicianship is really good, the songs are good — it’s just cool. The influence on the new album, even if it’s all over the place, is there especially in an instrumental called “Goblin.” That’s directly inspired by them. It started as a jam on tour in North America for sound check. After a few days people were humming the riffs in the corridors and we’d just been jamming it. I figured I should finish it and we ended with this tribute.
STEREOGUM: When you are involved in the process of creation — something that’s inherently positive — how do you deal with the negativity when you decide to change like what happened initially with Heritage?
ÅKERFELDT: I’d like to let it roll off but a lot of times I get pissed because I think it’s unfair and narrow-minded and I think they have bad taste. But you can’t please everyone. There are some people that prefer The Fast And The Furious films over The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver. And to me, that’s about bad taste. I can’t judge it — it is what it is. Even if we put something out that we think is fantastic we can’t expect everyone to share our opinion. Some people get really upset because it’s like you shook the foundation of their world. I try not to let it affect us much. It doesn’t make me happy if people hate us. But I can’t stand if people think we’re some kind of product that’s supposed to deliver one thing, that they are upset because we aren’t doing what they want us to. Some guy even compared listening to our records to going to bakery and ordering your favorite cake. One day, you order your favorite cake and the chef changed the recipe and it isn’t good anymore. What the fuck? There have been lots of strange comparisons drawn to our music. I shouldn’t allow myself to get upset but I do.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like electronic media has legitimized bad taste?
ÅKERFELDT: To a certain extent. Everything is out there and easy to get. The Internet has spawned an impatience and restlessness with albums. Listeners can pick and choose whatever songs they like from records and throw away the rest. That doesn’t resonate with how I view music and art. When it comes to bad taste, I mean, no one can be the sole judge. You have to accept people’s tastes are different. But you can’t dismiss the whole Beatles catalog as shit. When it comes to Opeth, and I don’t want to compare us to any other bands, I think people should be more open minded to change.
STEREOGUM: So when criticisms come about like they did with Heritage does that make you more adamant to do what you want?
ÅKERFELDT: That’s the mindset of our entire band. We’re not easy. We generate problems for our fans sometimes. But I like that they can’t know what they are going to get beforehand. We wrote our most popular records the way we write now. We’re doomed if we try to please the fans. We wouldn’t survive if we studied why people buy our records. We don’t think about the recipe for success. We write what we want to hear.
STEREOGUM: How will people receive the new record?
ÅKERFELDT: Some songs will be subject to hate. I hope people will appreciate that we aren’t playing it safe. I think for a band called metal we have balls. It’s supposed to be rebellious music but I see little rebellion, just people raking in money putting out the same shit out over and over. A lot of bands actually don’t like that stuff and would want other influences in their music. But they are too afraid to fuck up their career. Then, it becomes a job. I won’t let this happen. This will be about our artistic needs and what we want to do. Career is secondary even if bills depend on it.
STEREOGUM: Fredrik, you joined Opeth about seven years ago. He did you find your place in the band and help them evolve?
FREDRIK ÅKESSON: I knew the guys a little from touring with Arch Enemy. But I had to learn Mike’s style. I hadn’t played his acoustic parts. It was overwhelming to get a chance to join a band I was a fan of. Luckily enough I got to record Watershed before touring. We only did one show before that album. So that made me feel more involved. Mike and I hang out when we’re home and off touring and grab a couple of beers. When he’s writing he tends to be very isolated, especially on this album. He’s a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to that and a control freak in a good way. I was recording a lot of ideas for the album and he liked them but on these songs — the sequence just worked. We didn’t get to experiment with more.
STEREOGUM: How did you learn playing style?
ÅKESSON: Playing through the songs and then practicing them at home. I tried to learn them on my own from listening but there is so much going on it’s difficult. Mike just would say: “I did this chorus like this.” There was a lot of practicing because many of the songs are long so there are a lot of riffs to remember. Sometimes, I wonder how we can remember all these riffs. I guess it’s muscle memory. I had to put a lot of time into making every stroke sound even, make everything sound the same level wise.
ÅKERFELDT: Fredrik is an amazing guitar player. He can play almost anything. I hate solos that don’t serve a purpose. Sometimes in the metal world it can be like a shredding competition. Fred can play all that stuff but he has taste and tone. A lot of shredders don’t have tone. I can write a song in any style and tell him my ideas. He has a style on his own but his versatility really contributes. The entire band is like that — so versatile.
STEREOGUM: Fredrik, how has the way you work changed and come to fruition on this record?
ÅKESSON: It’s easier for me to understand Mike’s vision because we’ve been playing together for seven years. Our job is to amplify that vision and contribute with our own styles. But the music has changed as well. With solos, I always try to do things I haven’t done and not repeat myself and make the songs as good as possible. The third song has a long solo that took me a month-and-a-half and a lot of ideas. The second track was more or less improvised with Mike in the studio. I always want to try different stuff. But sometimes with a spontaneous solo — it might be hard to get that better.
STEREOGUM: What makes working with this band different than your old projects?
ÅKESSON: It’s far more challenging. There’s metal stuff, the delicate stuff, the acoustic stuff. A lot of bands have the expectation that they don’t get different. But it’s always about what’s fresh for us. There is always new stuff to learn.
STEREOGUM: Mike, how do you shop for records?
ÅKERFELDT: I only buy vinyl. It’s hard for me to not buy a 16th copy of a record I love. I also want to support record stores. I buy stuff on eBay but that’s the rare and expensive stuff. Record shopping is one of my favorite hobbies. The only things I check on my computer are news sites, eBay and my email.
STEREOGUM: Do you always look for an eclectic pick?
ÅKERFELDT: Some records I buy based on the cover. Others I buy based on the instruments. Sometimes I buy based on titles. I’ve even skipped records based on titles. I’ve said this before but I won’t buy a record with “coconuts” in the title. I also shy away from boogie woogie. I’m generally after good music. But I’m always willing to take a chance. If it looks interesting, I buy it. It’s also a good investment. If I buy a record for $50 I can always get my money back or trade it. I’m very generous with record shops and like to spend a lot of money. I buy records every day.
STEREOGUM: When you tour do you ship a lot back?
ÅKERFELDT: The U.S. is a fantastic country for record shopping. We go to tiny cities and when I find record stores I will find something. In Sweden, we have the shitty Dutch pressed KISS records with none of the stuff in them. You can’t buy Love Gun with the paper gun. Here, I buy every copy I can find. I come home from tour with 500 albums. I need to ship them with the gear.
STEREOGUM: Is that an added expense in touring?
ÅKERFELDT: We try to get it in with the gear and we have been able to get it back without extra shipping. But there have been times I’ve had to buy cases in Guitar Center and play an extra $1,000.
STEREOGUM: There are going to be metal fans who don’t know what to do with this record.
ÅKESSON: I can understand that. We’re fortunate enough to be able to get away with that to an extent. But I hope they will enjoy it and we’re proud and happy of it. It’s heavier than Heritage but it doesn’t have the growling vocals. I think Mike notches up his clean vocals here, though. He developed that part of his performance. We don’t want to repeat ourselves and this is definitely different. We still play a lot of death metal stuff; on the last tour, the majority of the material had heavier growl songs. We enjoy playing that stuff. We’ve been stubborn on tours about not playing growl songs but then end up bringing in the old elements. You never know what’s going to happen.
ÅKERFELDT: We had that reaction with the last record, too, Metal fans can have tunnel vision in terms of what they want, like and expect from bands. So the last record was a curveball. We don’t do things as usual. Some people obviously hated the record and a lot of people fell in love with it. It also attracted a new audience — people that got into the band through Heritage. I’m not worried. I don’t want anyone to hate it but I hope it will become a popular record. When we put out a new record the initial reaction is often that “the last one is better.” It takes a lot of time for things to settle. If you have created a style and then you change it, people get confused. That happened with Heritage but maybe they are more used to it now. You know to expect the unexpected.
STEREOGUM: Mike, what if someone said you had to get rid of your records and only have MP3s.
ÅKERFELDT: I have nightmares about losing my record collection. Now that you’ve brought it up I keep wondering if I turned off the stove at home! I spend so much time playing and reorganizing my vinyl — it’s my greatest hobby. It’s basically given me my life. I owe my life to my record collection.
Pale Communion is out 8/26 via Roadrunner.