By far the most common way to begin an article about a rock star is to describe how the rock star in question turns up late for the interview. The reasons being to establish the rock star as a creative soul who lives by their own rules and the fact that rock stars often turn up late for interviews.
Mikael Åkerfeldt turns up late for our interview. He was out buying a bike for his daughter. It's difficult to hold a grudge against someone who's late for that reason. Rock star or not.
He orders a beer.
"This'll go down well," he exclaims and sits down at the table.
I mumble that I'll get a beer too once I've finished my coffee. But there's no beer for me. It proves difficult to tear myself away once this creative soul starts talking about his 25 years with Sweden's foremost death metal band. Even if only to buy a beer.
"We've been around so long that we've made a name for ourselves simply because after a certain number of years people have heard about you," says Mikael.
I get the feeling that Opeth is quite unusual in that your audience is growing despite the fact that you've been around for more than 20 years. Is that right?
"If that’s the case, it’s nothing we’ve really noticed. I don't have a Facebook account, but the other guys in the band check things out sometimes, and if you were to judge our popularity by what people write on the net, you wouldn't think that anyone likes us. But people turn up when we play and that's all that counts."
We can divide the Opeth story into two eras. The death metal era, which culminated in the album Ghost Reveries in 2005, and the more progressive rock era, which began with the album Watershed in 2008. That's where the band's at now.
Online criticism is mostly centered on the opinion that Opeth ought to play hardcore death metal like they used to.
"They want us to sound like we did on their favorite album. But that's not how things work. In part because I can't write music that I don't feel like writing, and in part because it wouldn't have been received any better. There are countless examples from music history of bands that tried to repeat their earlier success, but fans still only listen to the old stuff."
Despite his knowledge of music history, Mikael was surprised when fans reacted so strongly to the band's new direction.
"I think we'd left clues on our previous albums. You can't conduct a market survey to find out what people want and then try to release an album like that. A creative band doesn't work that way. McDonald's works like that, IKEA works like that, but not a rock band."
The Beatles wouldn't have become the biggest band if they'd continued to sing about holding hands?
"If you bring up the Beatles in this context, it'd be easy to start comparing us with them, and I'm not going to do that. But people said to them that The White Album shouldn't have been a double album, but it is and it's fantastic. And Sgt. Pepper was panned. Personally, I prefer to listen to artists that don't follow public opinion."
Mikael has a ravenous appetite for music and, among other things, is famous for having one of the largest vinyl record collections in Sweden. Being inspired by artists who go their own way has always been a big part of what Opeth is about.
"I've been like a sponge and drawn new influences into our music. That's the alpha and omega of this band. We're a product of our collective record collections, perhaps mostly mine."
His interest in vinyl was piqued in the 1990s. At that time, the progressive rock scene had found a hangout in the now legendary Swedish record store Mellotronen, in Stockholm's old town district, Gamla Stan. Mikael spent so much time there that eventually they gave him a job in the store.
"I was paid in vinyl, because I would've bought those records anyway. But seriously, I didn't do much there. I was a real slacker."
These days, Opeth goes on world tours and fills venues. But it took many years of hard struggle before Mikael could make a living from music. Until then, he took various odd jobs and borrowed money.
"I was living in a sublet apartment in Stockholm's Aspudden district. I mostly sat writing music and was pretty happy with my life. The apartment was above a small grocery store called Monas Livs. They sold canned meat for about a dollar a can, so I lived on that. It was a good time in my life, even though I had no money and things weren't going well for the band."
The band's breakthrough came with the new millennium and the release of their fifth studio album, Blackwater Park.
"Until then, our albums hadn't really sold well and no one knew who we were. But in conjunction with recording that album, we switched record labels and managed to get a good licensing deal with a company in the USA. Actually, they mostly sold Pokémon and Wrestling albums, but they arranged things so that our albums could be sold too, and got us a manager and an agent."
"Blackwater Park wasn't really any better than the previous albums, it just had better distribution. We were a good band already when we recorded our first album, it's just that nobody knew. Not even us."
Did you manage to sell a lot of records before downloads became popular?
"This was when I lived in Aspudden and didn't have Internet access or a telephone. I had to go down to the grocery store if I wanted to make a call, so I didn't really know much about people downloading music. Typically, just as we made our breakthrough, people started showing up with CDs they'd burned themselves and wanted us to sign."
Today, Mikael's the mainstay in Opeth. But the band was actually formed without him – and when he later joined, it took place under somewhat dramatic circumstances.
When the band's former frontman, David, introduced the then 16-year-old Mikael as the new bass player in the band, the other members were a little surprised. Not least the bass player they already had. It all ended with everyone except David and Mikael quitting the band in protest. Two years later, David also chose to leave and Mikael took over as frontman.
High membership turnover has remained a distinguishing feature of Opeth over the years, with no fewer than 20 musicians joining and leaving the band under Mikael's leadership.
How much of Opeth is actually Mikael Åkerfeldt and how much of it is the other members?
"There's a lot of me in there, and I'm sure the other guys would agree. Both current and past band members. I've been the driving force, written most of the music, and decided on musical direction."
Are you a control freak?
"Only when it comes to the creative aspects, where I'm a total control freak. I truly value the other band members' knowledge, and they're really skilled musicians, which is great for me as a songwriter. Essentially, I can write whatever I like and they can play it. I like it when they do their thing. But I also have opinions; that I do. Fredrik, our guitarist, has said that I can be arrogant at times."
How do you deal with that?
"I try to keep it in mind and listen more. It depends on what stage we're at in the production process. But I'll never change."
I've read that you attended a One Direction concert last year with your daughter and that you weren't particularly impressed by the young boys' stage performance. How do you think things would've turned out if you'd made it big right at the start when you were 16-17 years old?
"The songs I wrote back then were terrible, even if there's a naivety about them that I can appreciate today. One Direction's songs are better, but they have a whole host of people helping them in that area. It's only been positive that things moved forward slowly for us, it means that we've matured and still have our feet planted firmly on the ground."
Do you feel that you've blossomed as a band in recent years?
"Personally, I think there's greater freedom in music writing today. Even if people online think it's regressive. In purely creative terms, it's a wonderful situation. It may sound like boasting, but there's no other band on the metal scene that can match our breadth."
As Opeth's music has become more progressive, the lyrics have also become more personal.
"Previously, I didn't have so much personal stuff to write about. But on the last three albums, the lyrics have become more personal. Maybe it's become easier because of all the troubles you encounter in life as you begin to approach 40."
What have been the highlights of 25 years of Opeth?
"There are a few things I'm proud of. Playing at the Royal Albert Hall in London is one of them. And that we're still around. That's a highlight that spans my entire career. I'm very pleased with the band that we have now. There's been a lot of turmoil before, and not many people know about it, we've kind of kept a lid on it."
You've switched 20 band members, so it can't have been kept that quiet?
"Yes, but there are reasons for that, and it's been difficult."
Does it have anything to do with what you said earlier, that you can be arrogant?
"Maybe, no, or at least I don't think so. Not many have quit of their own free will, which may tie in with the arrogance, but there have been very good reasons. I can't say any more than that."
Have you had to sacrifice a lot for your musical vision?
"Perhaps not for my vision, but for music I've essentially sacrificed everything. I've become one with that. There was a time when I had nothing, and I saw my old classmates who'd become computer programmers look at me and think, isn't he going to get a real job?"
At any point in your career have you felt that you've been vindicated, that you've shown them that you were right, now I'm standing here playing at the Royal Albert Hall?
"No, not really. Things have moved slowly. Although maybe the idea's crossed my mind now and again. Especially when some of my old programmer pals get in touch and want tickets for a gig."
Celebration at Stockholm Concert Hall
Opeth is celebrating 25 years as a band by performing the entire Ghost Reveries album at an anniversary performance at Stockholm Concert Hall in October.
"Stockholm Concert Hall is legendary. These days it's mostly known for the Polar Prize and classical music, but it used to be a rock venue where bands like [Deep] Purple and [Led] Zeppelin played. It's pretty cool to tap into that."
"Most often, I go down to the studio and sit and play the blues badly for a few hours. Then come up with a chord or two or something, and suddenly it sounds interesting. I write my songs in my demo studio and record the entire album with essentially all instrumentation. Then I use the demo as a template and switch out the instruments as we record the album."
…his greatest rock star moment
"When I've had access to my idols, most often at galas and the like. I'm really on the periphery and you feel like a fly on the wall when Ozzy and Jimmy Page are there."
…how Opeth will sound in the future
"We'll always be some kind of rock band. There are limits to the progressive aspects of our music and it's down to our own tastes. But we don't have a five-year plan or anything like that. That's part of the attraction of this band."
"It's fantastic for all of us songwriters and lyricists; we're completely dependent on that income source. I don't know how things would've worked without STIM."
STIM facts about Mikael
Works registered with STIM: 120
First registered work:
The Twilight Is My Robe
Most radio plays:
Beneath the Mire
The Lotus Eater
The Baying of the Hounds
The Devil's Orchard
The best songs in the world, according to Mikael
A Day in the Life – The Beatles
Spiral Architect – Black Sabbath
Dreamer Deceiver – Judas Priest
Seagull – Bad Company
God of Emptiness – Morbid Angel