By the ripe old age of 7, Opeth leader Mikael Åkerfeldt already considered himself a metalhead. So his disappointment when his grandmother gave him a classical guitar as a gift that year seems only natural. Like many an aspiring headbanger, Åkerfeldt longed for a way to rock out with the power of screaming, amplified distortion.
"I painted a pick guard on that guitar so it looked like an electric," he laughs.
For those familiar with Opeth's music, however, Åkerfeldt's reaction might seem surprising considering how prominently classical stylings feature in the Swedish death-metal outfit's approach. The five-man group is known for pushing the limits of how mellow death metal can get and still be considered brutal. Åkerfeldt was open to different styles at a young age and felt drawn to highly complex music, but it would take him many moons to rediscover classical guitar. Åkerfeldt, who is self-taught, eventually started trying to pick his way through complex guitar parts as well as things like the Stanley Myers/John Williams piece "Cavatina," the theme for the film The Deer Hunter.
"That style eventually found its way into Opeth once I was good enough to play it," he explains. "In the early '90s, after school, I started working in a guitar store, and we only sold acoustic guitars. When we didn't have any customers, I developed a lot of my fingerpicking."
His grandmother's day of vindication eventually came when Åkerfeldt began putting his listeners in the same position she had put him in. Looking back, her choice of gifts looks prophetic as now one can barely imagine Opeth without its trademark gentle passages.
"I was always into good guitar players and always into diverse ways of playing the guitar," he recalls. "I remember, like for the Metallica stuff, I liked their calmer songs. Sepultura's second album (Schizophrenia) had a classical piece on there ["Inquisition Symphony"], and I thought 'Wow, that was really cool,' to have a brutal band like that that also had a musicality which went beyond metal."
Metal bands have opened albums with acoustic intros for decades, but Opeth has taken the concept to the next level more than once. The 2003 album Damnation, for example, consists entirely of softer music, while latest album Watershed opens with "Coil," a lilting, acoustic-based number with clean vocals and an almost hippie vibe that goes almost three minutes before the heavier, ominous-sounding music slams in. "Coil" exemplifies how far Opeth will go in testing the patience of its audience, which is an irony: Death-metal bands tend to push audiences by increasing the levels of harshness and extremity in their playing. Opeth requires the opposite kind of endurance.
Åkerfeldt insists that he doesn't feel confined by people's perceptions of Opeth.
"We are, in many ways, still a death-metal band," he says. "Our roots are from that style of music. Many of our songs have a strong death-metal influence, of course — but many of our songs also don't have a metal influence at all. To be honest, though, I'm happy when people call us death metal, because it's some kind of acknowledgment of sticking to our roots."
That may be so, but Åkerfeldt and company have shown little regard for the rigid definitions of what the genre is considered to be. As far back as the band's second album, 1996's Morningrise, Opeth started to include epic-length songs filled with parts that, given where death metal was at the time, sounded audaciously gentle.
Åkerfeldt has only gotten more daring, pushing Opeth into new terrain with each successive release. As a young listener, in fact, Åkerfeldt rejected heaviness for its own sake. While his death-metal peers were tripping out to fellow European groups like England's Venom and Switzerland's Celtic Frost, for example, Åkerfeldt had a strong negative reaction, calling their music "shit." He's now a fan of the latter group, but becoming a blind follower of what's hip in metal at the time has never been a part of Opeth's modus operandi. The band looked for heaviness and a sense of brutality in music, but it also felt a need to indulge its taste for progressive rock. In love with the music of the Scorpions and David Coverdale, Åkerfeldt would go on to become an avid fan of Joni Mitchell, vintage psychedelic rock, and free jazz. Opeth, he explains, draws heavily from nonmetal influences, but they emerge in the music in ways not even he can connect.
At the time he and the band were putting Watershed together, Åkerfeldt was discovering the classic psychedelic band the Zombies ("Time of the Season"). The album also bears a significant influence from vocalist Scott Walker, a crooner whose work falls as far from metal as you can get yet radiates a profoundly disturbed aura that Åkerfeldt finds irresistible.
"I discovered him through a friend of mine. I was working in a music store at the time, and he put on an old '60s record by him, Scott 3, that I was just blown away by," Åkerfeldt explains. "I'd never really listened to crooners, and that record had these really eerie-sounding strings. Later on, I found out that he put out a record in the '90s called Tilt and noticed that he was going in a darker direction. Once The Drift  came out, I was shocked. I'd never heard anything like that. I'm very jaded with contemporary music, so I need something like that in order to get excited. I don't really listen to newer metal bands. That album changed my world. It's fairly unlistenable, and you have to be in the right state of mind to enjoy it."
Likewise, Åkerfeldt doesn't mind making his audience work to get into Opeth's groove.
"You don't start your metal voyage with Opeth," he offers with a laugh. "Many people do, but it's probably better if you end up with Opeth. It's not an instant affection for many people. We play shows and we see people yawning and looking tired. If you're into brutal death metal and that's it, then maybe we're not the band for you — but if you're into music overall, I think there's a good chance you might find something in our music that you'd like."