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Mikael Åkerfeldt talks Opeth's Blackwater Park 20 years on: "It was a cross between death metal, black metal and jazz chords"

Opeth
(Image credit: Opeth)

During the longest break from the road Opeth have had in decades, now is a good time to reflect for Mikael Åkerfeldt – “And I love talking about myself,” he jokes. “I’m pretty calm, for obvious reasons,” he says of the break from the stage. And although he hasn’t been touring, he has been working. “I’ve had a nice time at home with my kids and my girlfriend and my cats. It’s a nice to have a clean schedule that doesn’t have a single show in it. I haven’t been working on anything Opeth-related but I’ve been working on music for a TV series. It’s fun as hell, I love it.” 

While his work on the soundtrack for forthcoming Netflix crime series Clark lies ahead, we’re looking back with Opeth’s chief today. On an album that wasn’t just a breakthrough for the Swedes, it was one that changed the perception of what metal could be with the sounds and sophisticated composition it encompassed. As Blackwater Park is reissued as a 20th anniversary edition, we talk tone, Steven Wilson, broken acoustic guitars and Innervisions… 

Opeth

Opeth circa 2000 in a promo shoot for Blackwater Park: (L-R) Martín Méndez , Martín López, Peter Lindgren, Mikael Åkerfeldt (Image credit: Opeth)


The previous album Still Life found you composing using a paper and pen in an old school way when it came to the arrangement of songs. Did that change for Blackwater Park?

“It was still paper and pen to a large extent but I had a friend, well he’s still my friend even if I don’t see him much, and he was interested in studio engineering so he bought a Cubase setup – a computer, basically. This is in the year 2000 or 1999, whenever it was. So of course it wasn’t advanced as it is today but it had the Cubase program and the means to record at home. So I did go to his place and record bits and pieces to a couple of songs like Bleak, parts of Bleak were on there, and part of the title track. The Drapery Falls – parts of that. Early versions without vocals and very stiff drum machine. 

“Overall I hadn’t left paper and pen then but of course paper and pen in my world doesn’t mean writing down sheet music. It was trying to come up with a nice name for a riff that explains how a riff sounds so I won’t forget it. It could be embellished with words in that sense, like ‘evil King Diamond Abigail intro / Morbid Angel / blast beat riff: four times’. That kind of thing.”

Was songwriting still going on when you got into the studio?

“There were a couple of songs that weren’t finished really and we’d never heard the songs prior to going into the studio and putting down the basics. So we changed some things here and there and I think that we did most of Dirge For November in the studio and parts of A Funeral Portrait in the studio. The others ones were more or less ready I think.”

I was always fascinated by jazz chords but I couldn’t read sheet music and there was no YouTube where I could learn how Wes Montgomery played guita

There’s so many great riffs on this record…

"Thank you!"

Enough to sustain another band’s whole career some would say… 

[Laughs]

The way you make them flow aligned with the idea you were writing a lot of this music in your head is going to be mind blowing to a lot of people. And though Blackwater Park is a natural evolution from Still Life in a lot of ways, did you still feel you were hitting a purple patch as a writer with this record?

“It was [an evolution]. On the first two records I’d been doing single string riffs where I’d come up with a melody and then I had Peter [Lindgren, guitarist] play a counter single string riff to play these harmonies like Iron Maiden or Thin Lizzy, and Wishbone Ash we’d listen to a lot at the time. We’d been doing that for some time and got fed up with it. Also the Swedish scene at the time had kind of exploded with twin guitars. I felt like it’s a bit old hat so I wanted to move away. It became more chord-based riffs, which kind of brings out more a natural aggressive sound when you play six string chords, basically. 

“So it was a bit of a cross between death metal, black metal and jazz chords. I was always fascinated by jazz chords but I couldn’t read sheet music and there was no YouTube where I could learn how Wes Montgomery played guitar and that kind of stuff. So I had to make up my own chords basically. And that’s what I did.    

“I’ve been thinking about my own musicality a lot. Because I get that question, ‘Why did you write that stuff? How did you come up with that stuff?’ And the simple answer is I don’t really know how I write. If I’m working for something for a TV series, for instance, and I play a chord progression on the guitar or on the piano, I hear a melody and I try it out. Most of the time it kind of works and I don’t really know where that comes from. It’s certainly not musical education because I don’t have any. It must be a combination of my musical interests and my hate for musical barriers. 

"I consume so many different types of music and I hear things in so many kinds of music that I like that I must store them somewhere. So it’s a combination of that and my own sound I guess. In short, I don’t know how I come up with riffs, good or bad.”

I don’t think I had an amplifier when we did Blackwater Park

But you had the idea in your head of how the finished songs would sound and the changes they would go through?

“We didn’t rehearse at the time so I never heard the songs. I don’t think I had an amplifier when we did Blackwater Park, to be honest. I must have been able to foresee that it was going to be good in the end but there was no way for me to hear it other than those shity Cubase demos. 

"I could hear there was something interesting going on at least, but there was no vocals on those and no lead guitars, I think it was just rhythm guitars and I don’t think acoustic guitars were there either. I think I left a lot of it up to imagination. When it all started to come together in the studio, we had a good sound and everything, then you could hear it’s gonna be good. It’s not going to be shit at least!”

I started to write more and more on my own from the third album onwards

There’s a huge breadth of guitar playing on the album, how did you and Peter tend to work together in the creative stages?

“On the first two records we did write a lot together, even though in retrospect it was more a case of me writing a melody and then giving him that melody and saying, ‘Play this’ and then I’d play something on top of it. I want to give him credit but I also think I have given him credit over the years. That type of creative relationship we had in the early days, it kind of ceased with the third album [1998's My Arms Your Hearse] because at that time it became more chord orientated and I didn’t need to bounce ideas off of him in the same way as I would need to before. I started to write more and more on my own from the third album onwards.  

“When we did Blackwater Park, Peter didn’t have a lot of material on that record. He had a couple of riffs in the songs Dirge For November – which is also one of my favourite songs on the album, it’s a great song. He was very, very insecure then because I had been telling him off and I withdrew and wrote on my own and didn’t involve him. When he showed me something I guess I dismissed him so he was very insecure when we did Blackwater Park. 

“Yet we acted in the studio like it was a 50/50 type of relationship, so I played one rhythm guitar and he played the other. He had to learn my riffs so we didn’t really save time in that sense because I could have put down all the rhythm guitars to save time. So I played more but there were a lot of instances during the recording where he kind of gave up and said, ‘You play this instead’ because I’d written the riffs and I could play it better. But he was fading out a little bit. He was still a very important figure in the band, it was just that the creative side had almost completely faded away then.”

Opeth

(Image credit: Opeth)

Most people in the band, in Opeth at least, don’t write music

But it was necessary for the record?

“Yeah but I still love the idea of a band, a democracy, even though it's never really been a democracy. I still want to live under the lie that it is a democracy. It makes me feel good or something [laughs] but I always want to involve everyone in the band and I want them to be part of the record, even if they haven’t written. 

"Most people in the band, in Opeth at least, don’t write music. It’s just me – I write music all the time. Méndez has never written music for Opeth. López didn’t write music, he wrote some drum beats and Méndez wrote bass lines but based on a riff that I had written. And I always have ideas for a lot of other things, but Peter, because we played the same instrument, he was kind of… he was overshadowed, I guess. So that creative relationship we had in the beginning had almost completely faded and it didn’t get better after that either.”

Sonically the record stands up incredibly well. Were the acoustic layers in Bleak and A Funeral Portrait something that you had a clear vision for or was that element something that came to fruition in the studio?

“I think I probably had a semi-clear image. I always loved the acoustic guitar and I always felt it was an important ingredient for our sound. That stems from me working in a guitar shop for a couple of years and we only sold acoustic guitars so I played a lot in the shop. I had a lot of ideas for acoustic guitars but I can’t remember that a lot of those parts were improvised in the studio. I think I probably had those written on a piece of paper somewhere. 

“It’s still a very important ingredient to our sound to this day but looking back, Blackwater Park was recorded on a shity guitar. I’d got a guitar from a guy who ran a guitar shop. I asked him if I could borrow a guitar from him to use in the studio to record Blackwater Park and he came down with a Seagull, a Canadian guitar, but it was in two pieces. The neck was completely separated from the body. I was looking at it like, ‘Are you joking?’ It was a heap of junk. 

“But I fixed it up because I had learned to glue and fix things from working in a guitar shop. I glued it back together and there was a hole in the guitar. I think it’s in the video we did for Harvest – I might be wrong. But it sounded great.”      

Did you have a PRS electric by then?

“Yes, we’re [now] endorsed by PRS and that was the first album I did with a PRS. I had bought a black PRS CE 24, a standard PRS 24-fret, that I bought from the guitar player in Katatonia. Ironically, he had asked me before to help him go into town to the guitar shops and help him pick out a great electric guitar. We found that PRS. I said it was a great guitar and he should buy it. 

"He had a budget of £700 and that guitar was £700 or something like that, second hand. He bought it and called me a couple of months later and said, ‘This guitar is too good for me.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He asked if I wanted to buy it. I happened to have the money and I bought the guitar from him just before we did Blackwater Park. So I did most of my parts on that black CE 24. Peter had a Les Paul Custom Black Beauty so we had those two guitars. I had a ‘72 reissue Strat as well, a Japanese Strat. I think that was also on the album. Peter had a Jackson too; a King V Jackson like Mustaine used to play. But mostly it was the PRS and the Les Paul Custom.”

There’s a great clarity to the heavy tones on the record where you can hear the articulation of the notes in chords. Did you use the amps in the studio or manage to hire anything before you went in to track?

"There’s a great clarity to the heavy tones on the record where you can hear the articulation of the notes in chords. Did you use the amps in the studio or manage to hire anything before you went in to track?

“We didn't take amps in but Fredrik [Nordström] who ran the studio had just bought an Engl I think. He had an Engl and maybe had a [Peavey] 5150. I remember the Engl and I didn’t know anything about amps – anything that made sounds was good enough for me. It was brand new and it looked cool. We plugged it in and it sounded great – ‘Let’s go for it’. We just used whatever he had in the studio. He might have had a Fender Twin or something like that we used for the cleans.”

There’s some great atmospheric haunting tones from drone lead parts on The Drapery Falls and the title track – they’re washed in reverb. Were they something that emerged late in the process or did you have them in mind early on?

“That was pretty early on I think. I remember that Steven Wilson had something to do with that lead but I think I had that lead written. I was also heavily into the use of EBow. Still Life and Blackwater Park have so much EBow on them. So that Drapery Falls thing was the EBow and of course, like you said, washed in reverb and delay. 

“But I think I had that part because that chord [Mikael grabs an acoustic guitar and finds the chord from The Drapery Falls]. That’s nicked from Stevie Wonder. There’s a song called Visions by Stevie Wonder from Inner Visions – you should play it when we hang up [check out the B7sus2 to C#7sus2 intro].”

Stevie Wonder was all we listened to when we made Still Life and lots of Blackwater Park

So that sparked the idea for the song?

“Yes, definitely”

I love that! 

“Stevie Wonder was all we listened to when we made Still Life and lots of Blackwater Park – that album Innervisions. We played it all the time. I even got Martín Méndez and Martín López, who were mostly into death metal and black metal at the time, I even got them to really love Stevie Wonder. Which is to this day one of my greatest achievements.”

It was about treating the record as something special and he helped us to see that

Steven Wilson was a fan of the band and obviously didn’t want to change you, did he bring subtleties to the sound with his production role?

“Yes, he did. He was brought in to help with the vocals and he helped me write some vocal lines, vocal harmonies and that kind of stuff. And lead guitar – not solos but melodies and that kind of thing. One of the things we asked for immediately was, ‘Do the telephone voice’ because we knew he had done that on Porcupine Tree records. So we got that in on The Drapery Falls. 

“He was brought into to embellish what was already good material to take it up one level. I knew that he could do that. I knew that he was the right guy for the job, basically because he wasn’t a death metal guy. He was into all sorts of music, just like I was at the time. It was really nice to have someone with an open mind who would understand what you were talking about. 

"He definitely helped us to make the album special. I like to think it would have been special anyway but we’ll never know. He helped us to find our direction, I guess. That we could treat music as a form of art that you don’t necessarily have to be able to recreate live. The album was your statement that was going to be left for years and years to come. When you’re onstage you’re there for the night and next day you can’t play it again – this was before YouTube of course! But it was about treating the record as something special and he helped us to see that. That it was, even if it sounds pretentious, a piece of art… we could do whatever to make this record as great as possible.

“With that said, Blackwater Park, we can play most of it as a four-piece and now we’re a five-piece. But he definitely helped embellish that record and take it to the next level.”

You’ve always been able to recreate your records really well live, especially as you were using Boss multi-effects units back in the day. You’ve always seemed to maximise the potential of the gear you had…

“When Fredrik Åkesson [current Opeth guitarist] came into the band, and Fredrik is a gear buff so he doesn’t like digital effects, he said, ‘What’s that shit?’ I said, ‘Well you’ll have to get one now because you’re in Opeth.’ We needed everything at our feet. And me, as a singer, I have to keep it easy so I can change sound and sing at the same time. Those GT-3s, then GT-6s, I still have them somewhere – piles of them! We got them up to the golden looking one, the GT-7. 

"I remember, we’d been doing shitloads of tours and people had been raving about our sound live. Then we had some guitar tech take a look at the pedal. And he said, ‘Why do you have the output set to headphones?’ I didn’t understand what he meant. It should have been set to cabinet. I was playing all these years with it set to headphones.”

So that was the secret to your sound! 

“Maybe it was. But at that volume when you’re in a concert hall, few people can tell the difference.”  

The 20th Anniversary reissue of Blackwater Park is available as a deluxe vinyl and CD  on 16 July. Order at opethblackwaterpark.com

Rob Laing

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before that I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar.