We haven't heard from Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt in a while, because the band's been on the road in Europe, supporting their most recent album, Heritage. So we called him! We asked him about Opeth's recent "unplugged" show at Union Chapel in London, where they played some surprising cover songs as well as some Heritage tracks that had never been performed live before; what the band's plans are for 2013; how he sees the group's music evolving in the future; and more. Enjoy!
You played what was described as your first-ever “unplugged” show earlier this month at Union Chapel in London, but you were playing electric instruments, so how was it different from a regular Opeth gig?
Well, none of the so-called “unplugged” shows are really unplugged, because there’s always microphones [laughs], even if you’ve got acoustic guitars. But we just played some more mellow stuff, I guess. We’ve got a bunch of those songs, so it was kind of easy for us to do that. The problem we had was that the dB limit in Union Chapel, where we played, was 85 dB, so we had to have the amps on really low. That was the only problem that we noticed, really. Other than that, it was fun. It was a bit like throwing ourselves off a cliff in a way, because out of the 10 or 11 songs that we played, I think half of them were songs we’d never played before. So it was interesting. But it went really well. I was quite happy with it.
One of the songs you played was a cover of “Var Kommer Barnen In” by Hansson de Wolfe United, who are pretty much unknown outside of Sweden. Could you talk about that song a little?
Well, they’re not really all that well known in Sweden, either, because they were active in the early ’80s, and it’s a bit of an odd song—I guess a lot of people expect us to cover a King Crimson song, or a Van der Graaf Generator song or something like that, but I just love that song, you know? I guess I got the idea from Jonas [Renkse], my best friend, in Katatonia, who played me that song. I’d heard it before, but he played it for me and said, “I’d love to cover this song,” and I was like, “Ah, I want to do that too,” because I loved it. So I asked him, “Are you gonna do that?” and he was like, “No, no, no, we’re not gonna do it, you can do it,” so we did it instead. They’re not really well known—it’s a bunch of geeks, basically; I’m not sure what scene they were connected to in the early ’80s, but there were quite a few of those melancholic bands singing in Swedish back in those days, and they were one of them, and they were not really famous. I think they might have reunited to do a tour a couple of years back, I’m not sure what they’re doing. But they’re quite obscure, even in Sweden. And the reason why we did it was not to be really difficult and obscure, it was just that I love the song and everybody in the band thought we could do a really good version of it. Which I think we did. So it was fun to do one of those covers from a band that’s just completely unknown, and as far as I know we’ve never done anything in our native language, apart from the cover that we did a while back for the Watershed record [“Den Ständiga Resan,” by Marie Fredriksson]. We’d definitely never played anything live [in Swedish]. So that was fun.
You're doing two more shows like this, in Germany; are you filming or recording these shows at all?
We bought some type of rig, so we can record every show. I’m not sure if we’re recording every show, but we did record the London show, and we’re probably gonna continue recording whenever we can. But I’m not sure what we’re doing with that stuff, to be honest. It’s always good to have material, and maybe further down the line, if we have a bunch of shows recorded we can pick and choose the best segments of the shows and maybe put something out, but we don’t know yet.
You’ve been touring behind Heritage for over a year now, so in your mind, which of these songs will still be in the set list three or four years from now?
Well, “Devil’s Orchard” is the single, so to speak—it doesn’t mean much in the metal world to put out a single, but we still love playing that song and getting a good reaction. We played “Famine” for the first time on this tour, which I also love playing; it’s really spooky, so that might be in the set, who knows? But generally I think we’re gonna revolve songs from this album in the future, just like we do with other records. But I think “Devil’s Orchard” is definitely gonna be in the set more often than not.
As you say, you do rotate the set pretty often. Are there any songs that you can’t not play, that you have to play every night?
We don’t really feel like that. There are songs we have that go down well every night, like “Deliverance”—it’s basically “Deliverance” that people want to hear. But sometimes we play an obscure set, with songs that might not be as popular as others. It depends. To some extent, I suppose, we aim to please when we play live, but it depends on what we’re doing. Like on the first couple of legs of this tour, we were really consistent in playing a lot of new material and songs that fit together with the new songs. So that, obviously, ended up with us not playing many of the more brutal songs, or heavier songs. But it depends. We’re a bit stubborn. We don’t really go out there and just play the hits, you know; we want to feel that it’s relevant, and whenever you tour, you’re touring for a new record, you’re promoting a record, so we try to focus a little bit on that record when we tour. But today [Wednesday, November 21] is show number 149 for the Heritage tour, and it’s not a brand new record anymore. So we’re mixing it up a lot more on this tour. We’re playing really heavy songs, and songs from Heritage of course, and some softer songs. And on top of that, obviously, we have the so-called “mellow” set that we’re doing.
As the music moves in a more progressive direction, and away from metal, can you ever see Opeth becoming a band that “jams” onstage?
Hard time seeing that happening, to be honest [laughs]. I’m not a really big fan of jams. I remember going to see the Black Crowes play, which I liked their album that they had out at the time, Amorica, with the lady’s crotch on the cover. And they were just jamming, and they didn’t really play any songs off their record, and they seemed really fucked up on whatever they were taking at the time, and I thought it was not…it wasn’t for me. Besides, I’m not a good jamming guitar player, and I can’t stand around singing “Ooh baby” all the time [laughs], so I can’t really see that happening. We’re more song-based, and we’ve always been, so I think that’s what we’re gonna try and do in the future. Even though I love progressive music and ’70s music, and obviously many of those bands’ shows were based on jams, I don’t think that’s going to happen for Opeth, to be honest.
You’re starting a tour of Sweden soon—how big a draw is Opeth at home?
I think we’re probably a bit more of a cult band in Sweden. We’re popular in the big cities—when we play in Stockholm or Gothenburg, or Malmö down south, we can pull a few people out to the shows. But for instance, we’re playing in some of the smaller towns on this tour, and as of two weeks ago we had like 67 tickets sold in wherever it was, you know. So it’s not like we’re the type of band that everybody goes out to see wherever we play. If we keep ourselves in the big cities, we’re fine, but if we go into the smaller cities, we can play pubs, or smaller venues. So we’re not really…I think we’re more well-known than popular, if you know what I mean. The big metal bands in Sweden—it’s still In Flames, you know? In Flames are quite popular in Sweden, Hammerfall are quite popular, Europe can probably pull a few people, but we’re a bit more of a cult band. But pretty much everybody knows who we are. Swedes are not very proud of Opeth, so far.
Your tour ends December 9; what are your plans for 2013? Will you be returning to the US, or will you be writing again?
Yeah, we’re probably returning. We still have a few details to work out, but we were supposed to be in the US in the fall and we didn’t do it, so we’re gonna be in the US in the spring, I think. But it’s not completely settled yet, so I’m not sure—I can’t say 100 percent that we’re gonna be there. But 90 percent sure, we’re going on a North American tour, which will be the last lengthy tour that we do for this record. We’re also doing a few shows down in Australia and Japan and perhaps South America and some summer festivals as well, but generally it’s gonna wind down after May of next year.