by Mark Hensch
The music of Opeth is a rich alchemy indeed---elements of Gothic, Progressive, Doom, and Death metal abound in the band's trademark sound. Somehow mixed into a fine draught of intoxicating majesty and splendor, few other bands in the world are as kingly as the Stockholm, Sweden quintet. Now in the midst of the gigantic Progressive Nation Tour, the stage is set for Opeth to wow new legions of fans the world over. And wow they do---new album "Watershed" is an ambitious potion, concocted from every chapter of the band's timeless, magical sound. I caught up with guitarist Fredrik Akesson and tried to make sense of the musical wizardry afoot.
Mark Hensch for Thrashpit: First of all, thank you so much for devoting some of your time to this interview today. I'm a big fan of your guitaring and Opeth itself, and I greatly appreciate this. Onto the questions. You're a more recent edition into Opeth, having joined the band back in 2007. How did your entrance into Opeth come about?
Fredrik Akesson: Before being in Opeth now, I played with Arch Enemy. I did around 150 shows with them, only touring. I was asked to leave Arch Enemy when the original member of the band wanted to come back. By that time, Mikael (Akerfeldt, vocals/guitars for Opeth) and I were jamming around a bit. I had run into Mikael again when I was still in Arch Enemy and we had toured with Opeth on the Gigantour in 2006. We had met earlier than this though, hanging out and becoming good friends. He first saw me play about five years ago at a pub in Stockholm, Sweden when I was doing some King Diamond and Judas Priest cover tunes. He actually asked me for some guitar lessons after that, which embarrassed me! We were talking on and off over the years about actually jamming, so we finally did that in January of 2008. When he found out I had been asked to leave Arch Enemy in 2007, I got a phone call about two months after that from him and was asked to join the band. I had been a fan of Opeth before that, so it was a very easy decision for me to say yes.
Thrashpit: Being a newer member, perhaps you have a unique perspective on Opeth's career. How do you think the band has evolved and changed over the years?
Fredrik: I think every Opeth record has something new to offer. They always continue developing their sound. I do not think any album Opeth has done has been a repeat of one or the other. Take the new one for example (2008's Watershed). It is slightly different but still has that Opeth sound.
Thrashpit: What do you bring to the table as far as the new album is concerned?
Fredrik: I just do what I do. If I like what I'm hearing in my ears, and the other guys like it too, then that's the first goal. Other than that, I think I like to add a bit of the rawness to the sound. It is really up to the listener to decide.
Thrashpit: Let's talk about the new album, Watershed. What inspired the album's name and what are some of its central themes?
Fredrik: In one way, Watershed is a kind of gimmick thing, like a fresh start for the band. With the member changes and all, that is one way it could be true. I think it has more meaning to it than that, but this is a record I know for a fact that Mikael takes very personally. He did not write the lyrics as a concept album. He has decided not to talk about them in interviews, so it would be wrong for me to speculate.
Thrashpit: Maybe it is just me, but having heard an advance copy of Watershed I can safely say that the new stuff has a darker, more aggressive atmosphere than on the last album, 2005's Ghost Reveries. Do you think this is a fair interpretation, and why or why not?
Fredrik: I think that is cool. I think the second and third tracks on the new album ("Heir Apparent" and "The Lotus Eater") are, in some respects, the most brutal stuff and the fastest stuff Opeth has ever done. I would probably say they are more technical too. There is also a lot of atmosphere on this record in all of the songs. There is this song, "Hessian Peel," which starts off as a beautiful track and then ends up as this kind of rotten, dirty, evil song. Another big difference with this album is the fact we use real strings and instruments---cellos, oboes, flutes, English horns, etc. At least to me, when we have used the real thing instead of keyboards on the demos, it sounds like a movie soundtrack or something. Beyond this, I think the atmosphere on this album is more psychedelic in some ways. Opeth is not about being a business and just releasing a new record---it should be something different every time while not straying from the original sound either. It is very important to maintain that original basis.
Thrashpit: The artwork for Watershed is very gloomy and really sticks with a person. Who did it and how did it come about?
Fredrik: It features collaboration between Mikael and Travis Smith, who did the artwork for the previous albums. There is this lonely man, just standing there by an empty chair, with sort of a pain to his figure. We were going for a picture of total isolation with the art.
Thrashpit: I heard there will be a special edition of Watershed with some unique features and a few extra studio tracks from the recording sessions. What can you tell readers at home about that?
Fredrik: The songs will be most interesting for those who get the special edition of the album. We have one final studio track, called "Derelict Herds" on there. I think that track was good enough for the record. We also recorded three covers during the recording sessions but only two will be on the special edition. We first did a Robin Trower track. He is an influential blues player and we covered his song "Bridge of Sighs." That one came out very cool and it is probably my favorite of the cover songs. We then did Alice in Chain's "Would?" but that is not going to be on the special edition. We will probably use it later for something but it is not on there. After that, we did a song by Swedish singer Marie Fredriksson ("Den Standinga Resan") that Mikael picked. It is kind of an odd choice for a heavy metal band as it is this stripped down acoustic song. Outside of the songs, there will be a 55 minute documentary. It is from rehearsals actually, with studio footage and guitar solos at Mikael's house and Mikael talking about his studio recording equipment. It even has interviews with all us band members! It is quite a generous package for fans and it is cool that people will have the choice between the regular version and the special edition version as they come out on the same day (June 3rd, 2008).
Thrashpit: Watershed's first song, "Coil," features some very beautiful vocals from singer Nathalie Lorics. How did Lorics' collaboration with your band come about?
Fredrik: Martin Axenrot, the drummer of Opeth, is actually dating Nathalie Lorics. They have an acoustic side project they sing in together where she sings and he plays guitar. It is more of a singer-songwriter project with lots of folk tones to it. There was a crawfish dinner at Mikael's house before we started recording Watershed and Nathalie and Martin played some demos. Mikael got the idea to use her for the album, and they performed together on Watershed's opening track "Coil." Mikael never had the idea of doing female vocals before but it was just something he thought up when he heard her voice. Originally we were going to start the album with the heavier second track, "Heir Apparent," but we liked "Coil" so much we did that instead. It works much better as it is kind of an intro track. Also, the contrast between "Coil" and "Heir Apparent" is very beautiful and heavy as well.
Thrashpit: Watershed is Opeth's ninth studio album! Despite this, it seems that with each new release more people I know discover Opeth for the first time. What things do you think have kept Opeth so relevant and interesting since their formation in 1990?
Fredrik: I think one of the main reasons is that Opeth as a band does not repeat itself. There is something new in every record. I remember when I was out buying Ghost Reveries (the band's 2005 album and the album prior to this year's Watershed) I asked 'How the Hell can they top this record?' I think we've achieved that in many ways with this record. The most important thing for a band to do then is expand their sound. It is important to maintain the traits of a metal band of course as well, but moving forward is always a necessity.
Thrashpit: Let's talk about you personally. Who were some of the bands and musicians whom inspired you to play guitar while you were growing up?
Fredrik: I started out listening to AC/DC and KISS when I was kid. I loved Angus Young and Ace Frehley. Later on I moved on to Mikael Shenker and UFO. I remember hearing Shenker for the first time and being surprised that he could get the tones he did on the guitar. That inspired me to pick one up and start playing actually! Later, I got into shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen and Richard Blackmore. Recently, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbot was an inspiration, as well as several other 1990's shredders. I also like mellow players like David Gilmore from Pink Floyd and the like. In Opeth I think it is important to have a broader style---you can play the more mellow stuff and still be heavy too. When I first joined I had to put a lot of time into my acoustic style of finger-picking. It has been great actually---I feel like I have developed as a guitar player since joining Opeth.
Thrashpit: Outside of Opeth, you also played in the hard rock band Talisman. What do you care to say about them and how would you say your work with Opeth differs from your earlier work with Talisman?
Fredrik: When I was about 19 years old I was asked to join Talisman. The singer for the band used to sing with Yngwie Malmsteen and the bass player used to play with them too. I was heavily into Malmsteen into the time and really liked writing stuff with lots of guitar solos. When I joined the band I was slightly disappointed as they chose to go in a poppier direction but it was still a cool experience for me. It has been good for my playing as it is good to learn different styles.
Thrashpit: Opeth isn't the only famous Swedish metal band you've played in. You also played in Arch Enemy. What was your time with them like?
Fredrik: It was just touring, touring, and more touring! I did one year of shows and then some more massive tours after that. It was the first time I ever played in America so that was a great experience. With Opeth, all of us are based in the same city (Stockholm, Sweden) so we can rehearse and practice together much more often. With Arch Enemy I just played (at the time ex-guitarist) Chris Ammott's parts and with Opeth I get to write in the studio and THEN tour for it. I really liked my stint in Arch Enemy but being a big fan of Opeth and buying all their CDs has made this good for me.
Thrashpit: They say a musician is his own best critic. What is your favorite Opeth song and why?
Fredrik: My favorite song from the new album is "Hessian Peel," the longest track on the album. For older records, my huge favorite is "Blackwater Park" off the album of the same name. They both have lots of cool riffs and changes, making them very interesting to listen to. "Demon of the Fall" is also worth mentioning as a favorite of mine.
Thrashpit: The heavy metal scene is always full of interesting, compelling bands. Who are some acts out there right now that you enjoy or think people need to hear about?
Fredrik: I try to keep up on new bands but most of the recommendations I would have right now are probably bands people have already heard of. I just bought some new CDs from Meshuggah and Mastodon---they are both really cool bands. I like the French band Gojira; they have heavy Morbid Angel influences. I really liked Strapping Young Lad but they are not around anymore. We actually got to meet former frontman Devin Townshend in our stop at Toronto, Canada a few nights ago. He is a really funny guy. Other than that, if one is into instrumental bands there is a Swedish band worth checking out called Plankton. They are not famous but they play hippie, psychedelic instrumental music. It is not metal but it is very cool music all the same and people should check it out.
Thrashpit: Let's talk about the tour you're doing with Dream Theater, between the Buried and Me, and 3 right now. How did the Progressive Nation Tour come about and how have the shows been thus far?
Fredrik: It has been really cool checking out 3 and Between the Buried and Me as they are both very interesting bands. The tour is something that came about when Dream Theater asked us to tour a while back. This time around the schedules clicked and we worked it all out.
Thrashpit: Here's an interesting question. What, in your mind, denotes truly "progressive" music?
Fredrik: Many perceive progressive music as simply being technical. For me, I think progressive music is anything which stretches the limits and has no limits. It is about doing what you want to do as a musician.
Thrashpit: Last question! Is there anything else you would like to say for the readers at home?
Fredrik: I hope that readers will enjoy the new record. We will be coming back to America to do a headlining tour in September. It is going to happen and we are looking forward to playing longer sets---maybe two hours! It is too early to reveal anything else, but keep your eyes posted for that.
Thrashpit: Thank you so much! Here's hoping you guys have plenty of success with Watershed and some good shows during the tour!
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