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Interview with Opeth lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson

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Check out the song: "Slither"



I sat down for a good chat with Fredrik, Opeth's newest member (since 2007) on the last day of the "Heritage Tour". We talked about the latest album and its musical elements and hidden symbolism, losing Per Wiberg as a keyboardist, and the overall crazy genius that is Opeth.

As a Swedish band, is it any different touring in the US vs. Europe?
Fredrik: Yeah, I think so. With Opeth, Mikael interacts with the crowd a lot and sometimes it develops into some sort of stand-up comedy. It works really well here in the States, but maybe in Germany, the jokes don't come across that well. So in that aspect, it's different. But not all countries in Europe, because they're all different – some people speak better English. People scream more stuff too in the shows here (in the US), comments about the song, which song they wanna have played. How wild the crowds are varies from city to city too.

Congratulations on Heritage, your 10th studio album! Did you have a role, as a guitarist, in picking the themes of the album? I notice a lot of them revolve around darkness and evil.

Fredrik: Mikael wrote most of the stuff. We co-wrote one track, "Pyre", a bonus track on the special edition, and Mike had a vision for the album at a pretty early stage; he told us there wasn't going to be any growling on it, and at first I was like, "Oh, are you sure?" but when I heard the music, it was pretty obvious that there wasn't any room for it, and it'd be pretty cheesy to put in on there. For the guitar parts, when it comes to solos, I can do pretty much what I wanna do. We share tastes on what we think is suitable. We do argue sometimes but I think that's healthy for a band, when everybody's not sitting around saying "yes" all the time.

Exactly! Of course, this is a very different album from Watershed. There’s so much variety within tracks but still there's a very unifying concept – everything sounds super psychedelic. What was the writing and recording process for you like, as a guitarist?
Fredrik: Well, we wanted to do an album that sounded earthy and we didn't use any sound replacements or any editing at all. We wanted to do it old-school. We did record on Protools digitally but the console was from '73, the studio's been around since 1960, we had an echo room there which adds to the atmosphere of the sound. The recording process started with Mendez and Axe (bassist and drummer) who played their tracks live, along with a demo tape, because Mike does really good demos. The demos he makes are almost as good quality as the albums. So you get the whole picture of the song when you play – we did that on Watershed too and it works well. Initially we wanted to record everyone live but it's kinda impossible with the arrangement of the song because we jump between electric and acoustic guitars. The keyboards, we had a real Hammond B3 with a Leslie, only the old-school real deal, Mellotrons which were quite heavily featured on the album, a Windsor piano, and an old grand piano which ABBA used – Joakim was playing that on the song "Heritage".


And there were other instruments as well, like the flute on "Famine".
Fredrik: Yeah, there're two guests on "Famine" – Alex Acuña, he used to play with Weather Report; he played drums then. He was in Stockholm and he did a percussion clinic. The guy who helped us out with Axe's drums said, "I heard you need some percussion; Alex Acuña is in town." And Mendez has been listening to him since he was 12 years old. So he (Alex) came in and nailed it in two takes – he was like an old wizard. He used some spooky sounds too like old dried goat's feet. And on the flute is Björn J:son Lindh; he used to do orchestrations for ABBA in the Swedish 70's prog rock scene; he was very big.

I imagine all of you must be on the same wavelength then musically to be able to write and record such complex material? On this album, there were some songs that changed key and time signatures every 10 bars or so.
Fredrik: I guess you have to learn piece by piece and glue it all together. Sometimes Mike's time signatures are quite different – even though they can be on a straight beat, he always goes on the off-beat. Takes awhile to get his vision, his way of guitar-playing, but we’re pretty used to his strange stuff [Laughs].

What are your influences as a musician?
Fredrik: The guy that made me practice was Mikael Schenker. When I was a kid, I saw him on TV and I wanted to practice a lot more. Before him, it was Ace Frehley, Angus Young who got me to start playing guitar. After that, Yngwie released his first album and that was inspiring back then; I was 16 when that came out. Uli Roth, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, James Hetfield… so many guitar players. I listened to more guitar players when I started out. I try to find inspiration from other instruments, even the guys I'm playing with instead of trying to analyze other guitar players now, hopefully to get a more unique style.

Did you have to change your influences for this album?
Fredrik: No, not really. There was a lot of classic stuff on this album, for instance the song "Slither".

I was just thinking about that!
Fredrik: It's a tribute to Ronnie James Dio. It sounds very similar to early Rainbow tracks from the Dio era of Rainbow. It started off as a gimmick, but Mike and I said, "Well, we have to do something that sounds like Ritchie Blackmore." So, we did. In a way, "Heritage" connects with the music because the album is called Heritage and it's about the musical heritage. You also get the Swedish folk tones in the intro track and also "Folklore" especially.

Travis Smith did the artwork for this album cover (and every album artwork since Still Life). Did you guys have a lot of input for that?
Fredrik: Oh yeah. It actually started with our manager, Andy. He said, *mimics his voice* "I see a tree". Mike had this long night where he slept and dreamt a lot of weird dreams, woke up and he had the basic idea for the concept – the city that's on fire symbolizing the decline of civilization. I dunno about the people walking up to the tree; they're trying to collect our heads or something. There're nine stars in the sky, symbolizing the nine previous Opeth albums and the sun is Heritage, the tenth. And you have the skulls beneath the tree that symbolizes the past members in the band – it's the exact amount. And Per's head is falling off the tree because he's on the album but he's not in the band anymore unfortunately. The roots that go down to the Devil in hell represent our death metal roots.

That's really cool. Even the first track that was the sneak peek available online, "The Devil's Orchard", and the "tasting of the forbidden fruit" concept; I thought that was really clever.
Fredrik: I'm really happy with it. It's cool because the other designs that Travis did for the previous albums were very different from this one. We wanted to be more like a 70's kind of oil painting. It's very colorful but still dark and spooky. It's a bit evil [Laughs].

So was this album a bittersweet one with Per's departure?
Fredrik: Well, it started great in the studio with Per on the Hammond organ. Then, in the middle of the session, he didn't seem very happy or into it. I think he wanted to do something else. Maybe it's personal stuff. But he actually wanted to leave the band two years ago, and we convinced him to stay. This time around, when he was like that, it was time to go our separate ways. But he has his own band where he plays guitar and sings. So maybe he needed to do something new musically too.

Check out the song: "The Devil's Orchard"


What is it like performing with the new keyboardist, Joakim? Is it a very different vibe?
Fredrik: He works great. He plays well, an ambitious guy with his sounds. He sings well too. So between me, him and Mike, we do three-part harmonies.

That's good to hear! What was it like working with Steven Wilson again in the production? Did he have a role in the psychedelic turn the band took?
Fredrik: No, not really. He more or less mixed the album; he wasn't in the studio when we recorded it. Mikael was the producer, and the guys in the band too – everybody had their say. And also Janne Hansson (who engineered Heritage), who we recorded with, was a cool guy to bounce ideas with. But the only thing we did with Steve was talk about sounds and stuff. Mikael went over and did the vocals at Steven's studio, apart from one track, so maybe they worked a little bit together there. When they worked together last time, Steven played the piano and sang a bit more, more production, but this time around he mostly mixed the album. Of course, he had a lot of production ideas for the sound, and he did a great job for this album.

Are you ever given a hard time for the lack of screaming the new album?
Fredrik: There are some haters, absolutely, but I thought it was gonna be worse on this tour. The reception's been really good. I think most Opeth fans get this album. Some people don't. Maybe it takes a few more listens for them. I mean, you can always go back and listen to Deliverance. We don't wanna do the same album again and repeat ourselves, and it's the tenth album, it's a special one. I know Mikael wrote a couple of songs that were more or less a continuation of Watershed, and he just deleted them, and those were really cool. I think it takes people a little time to accept it; I can understand if you're a metal fan and you want. *growls* but it's not like we stepped away from our past. For this tour, we do a different set, we have an acoustic set, it's more mellow but definitely has its heavy moments. Next tour we need to do something different. You never know what the next album is gonna sound like. It could be a very aggressive album – Mikael hasn't said that he will never do growls in the future. And even tonight, they're playing a song with Bloodbath!

Any messages for your loyal fans?
Fredrik: To anyone that's been on this tour, I hope you enjoyed it and I definitely hope you like the new album and…ROCK ON!
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