Despite the numerous categories into which Opeth’s music has been cast over the span of their 23-year career, they’ve never lingered in one for more than a few albums. After 2005’s Ghost Reveries and 2008’s Watershed, it appeared Opeth had settled into healthy embrace of the specific progressive metal niche for which they laid the foundation in the 1990s, their formative death/black metal years. However, when it came time to write the next Opeth record, 2011’s Heritage, band mastermind guitarist/vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt came to recognize that a formula was the last thing his band should embrace.
The resulting album was a nod to Opeth’s classic rock heroes, like Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Heritage is a warm, lush, analogue labyrinth that powers through all the elements that have made Opeth so unique over the years, except for Akerfeldt’s death metal vocals. The second album in the band’s history to shirk their death metal roots entirely (the first one being 2003’s Damnation), Heritage is a shining example of artists adhering to their own creative muse, not perceived obligations or pressure from fans and critics.
One of the disc’s hallmarks is the earnest connection between bassist Martin Mendez and drummer Martin Axenrot. In a move highly atypical for a modern metal act, Opeth’s rhythm section recorded their respective parts for Heritage face to face, at the same time… in the same room. Mendez and Axe play off of one another beautifully, providing much-needed direction and groove through the album’s sparse, lengthy instrumental passages.
Bassist Martin Mendez took some time to talk shop with The Aquarian, how he joined the band in the first place, how he’s endured so many lineup changes and what audiences are in for on Opeth’s North American trek.
When did you first hear Opeth?
Well, I am originally from Uruguay and I knew the band before I moved to Sweden, so I was already a fan. Morningrise  was one of my favorite records. When I decided to move to Sweden, I was very happy to hear that Opeth was looking for a bass player.
I went to a concert when they came to Stockholm and it was really awesome to see.
What was your experience as a bass player before joining Opeth?
I started playing when I was about 11 years old. I always liked metal, but I didn’t play it so much. I was playing regular rock, like Creedence [Clearwater Revival] or The Doors, stuff like that. I was into rock playing-wise, but I also was interested in playing something a bit heavy.
How is it that through all the lineup changes in Opeth, besides Mikael, you are the longest tenured member?
Well, I don’t know. I think the band has changed members a lot since I joined, but I think if you love it and you’re really into the music and you want to do this, you do it. It’s a hard job because we tour a lot, and it takes a toll on the body.
I don’t know. I always loved the band and the music. Opeth is one of the bands that I can listen to at any time and not think about me playing. In all the other bands I played in, I always kind of listened to what I was doing with the bass more than the songs as a whole. With Opeth, I have always been able to kind of sit down, relax and enjoy the whole thing.
So you’ve stayed in love with the music after all these years. Do you often listen to Opeth records?
Yeah, I still listen to the albums. Not a lot, because we’ve been touring a lot and playing a lot of the songs (laughs). But I’ll go back to the older records sometimes or the newest one when it’s really fresh.
I think what a lot of Opeth fans and bass fans have come to love about your playing, in particular, is that you always have something interesting to play. You’re always pulling a track one way or another. How much direction do you get from Mikael or from the other members of the band when it comes to your basslines?
For the first three or four albums [I did with Opeth], Mikael would bring the songs to the studio and finish them in the studio. I have always had the freedom, but I like getting input from the other guys. It’s a combination. But I always try—and the other members want me to put my own style into the songs.
If Mikael comes up with a great idea, I’ll use it. The goal is to make music and there’s no room for egos in that. I always try my best. I am the bass player and I think I know best how to play the bass. I try to do my thing, but the guys can come up with things.
Do you have certain bass players that you listen to in order to get inspired?
Not really. I always listen to lots of players. For example, I’ve always been a fan of Jaco Pastorius, but when it’s time in the studio to record bass I’m not thinking about anything else. I think I concentrate most on the music and how to fit my playing into that particular song or part or whatever. I really pay attention to the drums, as well as the melodies and the vocals. I do not want to clash with anything.
I think the bass has to be solid with the drums. Metal music uses the bass playing to go with the guitars. The bass needs to function for the good of the music. I concentrate on the music. I’m sure I have some big influences on my metal playing, but I don’t think about it.
What are some of the differences you experienced between playing with former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez and current Opeth drummer Martin Axenrot?
I think in the band we’ve always had great players, drummers especially. [Lopez and Axe] have different playing styles, but both managed to play the drums the way the music demanded. It is different. On Heritage, [Axe and I] recorded together, the whole album from beginning to end. That was the first time ever in the band [bass and drums were recorded that way]. Really long songs, complicated songs, and we’d be [tracking] for 14 hours a day or something.
Normally when you record these days, you do it in order, from drums to bass to guitars and then vocals. With Heritage, [Axe and I] had the freedom to rehearse together and do something cool together as a rhythm section. It was really nice to do it that way.
Has playing with Axe changed your style at all?
No, I don’t think so. He’s got a style as a drummer. I know a lot of people judge him for the first record he did with us, Watershed, but that record is a heavy record, and he comes from a heavy background, a death metal background. So people think he’s just a death metal drummer, but he’s really, really, really [versatile], from jazz to blues; hip-hop to whatever he wants, so he fit into the band really quickly. He understands the music perfectly, so it was easy for me.
Whose idea was it to record bass and drums together?
I guess everybody liked the idea, but Mikael wanted to do it because he didn’t want us to spend a long time in the studio. But it was really nice. Martin and I rehearsed for like a month before we went into the studio. It sounds different because you play music differently when you can feel someone else playing with you. And this was the first time ever we recorded that way, so we had to come in really prepared.
All of our records I can listen to and say, “Oh, we could have changed this or that.” But when we play live, all the songs change anyway just because it’s more alive than on the recording.
Do you think you’ll record the same way in the future?
I think we’ll record that way for the next one, yes. It was much fun and quicker. You feel the energy from the bass and drums, it ups the playing.
When you are playing live, do you focus on your specific parts or are you trying to listen to something else?
Well, like I said before, I kind of listen to everything. I think that’s something every musician should do. You shouldn’t just listen to yourself, you should listen to everything. The bass needs to be really solid with the drums, but it can’t clash with the melodies or the vocals. You have to be very careful with that. Overplaying or underplaying is not the best for the music. It’s sometimes not what the songs want. I listen to everything. It’s fun being in this band because everybody is really musically good and one guy is not the focus.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
We’re coming soon to the U.S. and I hope everybody comes to see us. We’re doing a different kind of tour than last time. Last time some of the fans were disappointed because we were really promoting the last record and we didn’t do any of the really heavy songs. But this time we are doing a mish-mash of everything. I hope—I think it will be appreciated.
Opeth will be performing at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, PA, on April 27, and at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg on April 29. For more information, go to opeth.com.