The singer-guitarist discusses recording the band's first album in Swedish and managing fan expectations.
Mikael Akerfeldt is raving about the tuna on his plate. He knows that’s he tired from the press that he has been doing and that he’s really hungry. But he’s pretty sure that he’s eating the best tuna he’s ever had, while we’re dining in a seafood-focused restaurant in New York’s Times Square.
Akerfeldt’s also enjoying several beers during a lengthy conversation with Billboard about In Cauda Venenum, the 13th studio album in his band Opeth’s catalog, which arrived Sept. 27 (Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast). He’s not sweating the superstition related to the number, but he does admit while we converse during the late-summer evening to feeling apprehensive about the group’s latest aural change-up.
Since the Swedish act debuted in 1995 with Orchid, it has traversed a path that began in the realms of black and death metal; meandered through folk, classic rock and psychedelic territories; and now comfortably resides at a crossroads where they all intersect. For In Cauda Venenum, the twist is that Akerfeldt recorded his vocals in Swedish and dubbed a second copy with English lyrics. (The only Swedish-language recording Opeth had previously done was a cover of the title track to Den Standiga Resan, a solo album by Roxette singer Marie Fredriksson.)
The idea had innocuous beginnings -- it occurred to him as he dropped his daughters off at school. “It wasn’t like a cool reason why I wanted [to do it]. It wasn’t a lyrical reason,” explains Akerfeldt. “I usually like to have an idea; something new for each new album that we do is going to be this or that. And whether I stick to the idea or not, that’s irrelevant. I just need to get going, and this time around, it was the Swedish language.”
He didn’t start by writing lyrics though. Instead, he penned the music (“As I always do, pretty much: Just sit around and wait and drink coffee and play guitar") first, with the vocal melodies and words coming later. Following this muse proved fruitful, because he had so much fun that he couldn’t stop writing -- even though he usually stops when he has 50-odd minutes’ worth of material. “I wrote more for this album than I had ever done,” he recalls. “We ended up with three bonus tracks.”
Akerfeldt says the rest of Opeth was unconcerned when he told them about the idea. It was only after they heard a few demos that they realized they were recorded in Swedish, too. “That was one of my concerns: whether it’s going to stick out or not. Because I really didn’t want it to stick out,” he says. “I just wanted it to be like business as usual, only that it’s a different language.” (The existence of In Cauda Venenum was also an eye-opener for his bandmates because Akerfeldt was supposed to be on sabbatical, so they didn’t know that he was writing new music.)
The vocals are the only difference between the two versions of In Cauda Venenum. Akerfeldt’s phrasing for his clean singing is often velvety, making the Swedish blend in so well that it’s not immediately noticeable. He made the English copy based on the insecurity that “people would skip on this album because they didn’t understand the language.” He need not have worried: The record bowed at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart and No. 9 on Top Rock Albums, having debuted with 10,000 units, according to Nielsen Music. (Opeth has sold a career total of 982,000 albums and generated 71.5 million streams to date in the States.) The album also rang in at No. 13 on the U.K. Official Albums Chart.
The set's title, which is in Latin so it can work for both records, translates to “poison in the tail” -- and the album artwork, designed by renowned metal illustrator Travis Smith, reflects this element of danger. The cover depicts a Victorian house with each Opeth member silhouetted in a window. (As a private joke, their manager’s face is on the statue in the water fountain, which is a peeing boy.) Akerfeldt explains that the gatefold shows the building sitting atop a demon’s tongue, “like it’s going to swallow the house, meaning… an unpleasant, nasty surprise at the end.”
Asked to compare 2016 predecessor Sorceress with the record, Akerfeldt calls the former an “easier album,” in that “it has some straight-ahead rock moments. Their song structures aren’t as elaborate; there’s not as much strings.” By contrast, he describes In Cauda Venenum as “a schizophrenic listen” that may be “difficult” to absorb, because of its variety. While it’s not that off-kilter, it does volley between deeply emotive pieces like “Minnets Yta/Lovelorn Crime,” which is borne aloft by soaring notes that are now an Opeth calling card, and harder-charging, get-your-groove-on jams like “Svekets Prins/Dignity” and “Charlatan.” As a whole, it’s a satisfying listen that shows Opeth once again combining disparate genres in a compelling style that’s all its own.
Akerfeldt doesn’t want his music to be a vehicle for his politics, but he’s not immune from observing the problems in Sweden’s political arena, which to him “is full of hypocrites, basically, who say one thing and do another.” He was particularly disturbed by last year’s general election, where, as he describes it, “social democrats teamed up with right-wings to [remain] in power.” A couple of songs, like first single “Hjartat Vet Vad Handen Gor/Heart in Hand,” “are about those types of contradictions and those double standards. I never wrote it in a way that I’m trying to push my social democratic views on anyone or any controversial ideas I might have. I wouldn’t want to be that guy that pushes those ideas. But I wrote about that hypocrisy.”
Watch the visualizer video for “Hjartat Vet Vad Handen Gor/Heart in Hand" below:
What was more important to him was that In Cauda Venenum had emotive material that made listeners want to weep, which is a hallmark of music he personally loves. “I want to tug at the heartstrings a little bit more because ultimately, that’s my favorite type of music, [the kind] that makes you feel something else than you want to bang your head and drink a beer," he explains. "I want this to be a soundtrack to important events in your life. Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I can’t control.”
What an Opeth album does or does not do is a debate that Akerfeldt is well aware of, and it’s discussion propelled by the band’s musical evolution. With 2011’s ultra-progressive Heritage, he heard how people questioned if Opeth was still metal. “I had to kind of suss out, ‘What did these people think was metal? Are they my age? Younger? Older? What is metal to me?’ ” He conversed with various fans, and he eventually concluded that “the general idea of what heavy metal is doesn’t really apply to me anymore.”
The realization points to a larger conversation of what exactly is metal, and how one’s identification with it fuels expectations of the artists who create it. And Akerfeldt recognizes how important it is for people to count themselves as followers of a certain genre because that’s who he was as a young headbanger. Now that he’s decades into his career, he attributes his change in attitude to an inevitable part of aging. His wide-ranging taste in music factors into his considering Opeth to be more of a “genreless” band, although he knows it’s not categorized as such.
“I don’t really think in those lines that we have to fit in somewhere,” he says. “I think many of our fans, especially the younger fans, feel that they want to fit in as a metalhead. And then I started questioning, ‘Well, is it important to me that I’m still metal?’ No, it’s not. But I don’t want to be schooled by some fucking snotty kid telling me that, ‘You know the new Killswitch Engage? That’s real metal, and you’re not.’ ”
Although his attitude is sanguine, he’s not so laid-back that he takes Opeth’s existence for granted: For the last decade, he has approached each album as possibly the last. “Because you never know, and it’s good for me to think that way because it keeps me on my toes," he explains. "It has me from not getting lazy and just throwing any old shit out: ‘Here you go, motherfuckers.’”
However, he also does enjoy that fans never know what to expect. “I like the fact that our listeners are never [sure], and I don’t want them to ever feel secure that we’re going to deliver what they expect or what they want. We might as well deliver something that they think is absolute fucking shit, but we will always think, ‘This is what we want to do.’ ”
What if Opeth delivered three straight albums that made fans say, “This is all shit”?
“To some fans, we probably have already, and more than three,” Akerfeldt responds with his trademark drollness. “If you’re just a straight-on death metal fan and if you like [2001’s] Blackwater Park or whatever we put out, it might present problems. We might be challenging to the point where it’s not interesting to them anymore, and we just might be shit to them. And that’s fair enough.”
Opeth will tour North America in 202 in support of In Cauda Venenum. For a full list of tour dates, go here.