A Calm Discussion With Meshuggah's Mårten Hagström
Band Photo: Meshuggah (?)
I met up with Mårten Hagström, rhythm guitarist of Meshuggah, as he pushed away his half-eaten plate of lukewarm chicken caesar salad. Too sick to eat, he'd been running a high fever and snoozing all day (though you couldn't tell by his rock-solid performance later that night) but in true metal fashion he took time out to converse with a fan. In this interview, we talked about the danger of over-analyzing Meshuggah's songs, the pitfalls of playing extreme music live, and how a solo album might be in the works.
Zamfir: So my girlfriend walks in yesterday as I'm listening to Bleed. And she's like, “This just sucks. This is exactly what you shouldn't listen to.” Of course this is a common occurrence worldwide. What's wrong with people's girlfriends, that they don't like Meshuggah?
Mårten: They go to shows for guys who look nice, and that's the way it is. They're not in for the energy. And that's all there is to it! (Cackles demoniacally.) Most of the time lots of chicks show up, but they're all dragged here by their boyfriends. So I guess that's good. Back in the day, we had a 100 percent male audience. Not anymore -- in spite of “Bleed,” I guess.
Zamfir: Some of your most dedicated fans really seem to love puzzling out your music, taking the rhythms apart and looking at how the pieces interact. Do you think that degree of attention is necessary to fully appreciate your music?
Mårten: No. Music is a form of expression. Regardless if you're AC/DC or Meshuggah, whatever. It's fine if people want to figure it out, if that's what gets them off. But to me that's kind of beside the point. You never sit down to write a song and say “Hmm, now how the fuck are they gonna figure this out?” You come up with cool shit, you try to play it, and there's a song.
I think a lot of people over analyze it. You can look too much at the parts and forget there's supposed to be an atmosphere, a vibe going on. You don't have to be a musician or even want to analyze music to listen to what we do, I guess. I know so many people who don't have a clue in terms of music theory, and they still get into it. I guess it's just up to the person.
Zamfir: In 2007, Meshuggah's music got a really in-depth analysis in Music Theory Spectrum. As I understand it, that's one of the most highly regarded music journals in the academic world. How did you feel about getting acclaim from that direction?
Mårten: Well, I didn't know about it until now! (Laughs.) So I don't have a fuckin' clue!
When you release an album, so many people listen to it with different opinions. So I guess any attention is good, even the bad. If someone goes, “I can't get into this shit. This is so retarded. It's not my cup of tea,” at least it provokes a reaction.
A lot of people have written essays and done exam work on our music, and the only thing I can think of is that it's flattering. Cause somebody put so much work into actually figuring out what we're doing, and that means they kinda have to think of it in high regard. Cause otherwise they wouldn't do it.
Zamfir: These guys seemed pretty blown away. They gave you 22 pages or so.
Mårten: That's awesome, man! That's cool.
Zamfir: In terms of songwriting, I've heard that you guys never jam out the songs as a full band. Can you talk a little about Meshuggah's songwriting process?
Mårten: It's fairly straightforward. We just go about it a little differently, I guess. We never write on the road, we never jam out in the respect of grabbing a couple of beers and going down to just mess with things. We used to, when we were younger. But now we don't do it because we're compulsive writers in a way that's very uncontrollable.
Ever since I picked up a the guitar, I've never been able to just sit down and decide to write a song, or stand up and say, “Let's jam something out and see what comes of it.” Even when Tomas [Tomas Haake, Meshuggah's drummer] and me started playing, waaay before Meshuggah, when we were just kids. Yeah, we jammed out, but most of the time we jammed around shit that I already wrote.
Right now, say I'm at home and I get an idea. Or out walking, or shopping for groceries. That's when it hits you, and the only thing I can do is sit down at the computer, start Cubase [Meshuggah's music composition software of choice] and jam the idea out on my guitar. I program the drums the way I want them, I record the bass. I do as much as my idea's finished in my head. Then with that skeleton to build it around, I work with it.
The great advantage is that you can actually present an idea, pretty close to how it's actually supposed to be on the album -- if it makes it to the album! It's kind of a cool thing. Cause maybe if you're just jammin' around, well you're having fun, you're still trying to figure out the part, and all of a sudden the band goes, “Hmm, well, this might be nice.” But having these demos, I listen to what Fredrik [Fredrik Thordendal, Meshuggah's lead guitarist] comes up with, and he listens to mine. We pool it and we listen to the other guys' shit, and we really get to absorb it.
If I'm hesitant, if I'm not 100 percent sure that I like something, I can just go over it ten times. Then two days later I can listen to it and say, “Okay. Am I making an informed decision, or am I just having a bad day, or whatever?” So it actually helps you be more wise to what you want to do. It helps you plan the whole thing.
Zamfir: When you're composing, do you guys mostly leave each other's parts alone, or are you tinkering back and forth with each other's contributions to make everything fit?
Mårten: Mostly we leave it alone. But say we have a song and everyone's pretty sure it'll make the album. I might like it, I might have written it, but maybe I'm not 100 percent happy with part of it. And Jens [Jens Kidman, Meshuggah's vocalist] might say, “This is a great song but I don't like this passage in the beginning. I have a hard time seeing vocals on this part.” You're throwing around ideas and you can explain them. And sometimes it makes sense to the other guys, sometimes it does not. But if nobody's up for it, we just scrap it. Mostly it's a majority decision.
But, yeah, we mess around with stuff. If I hear something and say, “Man, that's a great part, but it would be so fucking killer if we did this,” I'll suggest it. “Catch-33” was pretty much all about that. Sitting down and writing stuff on a single computer. Everyone contributed and we messed around with so much stuff together that I caught myself at the Nuclear Blast listening party thinking, “Which parts are mine on this motherfucker? This is probably my part... is it?” That was kind of a cool feeling, actually.
Zamfir: So how much of what you write do you end up keeping?
Mårten: It depends. Some albums, we have no leftovers, and on others... well, take “Obzen” for instance. I pulled out a song that we actually recorded. We put down the vocals and started mixing it and everything, but I didn't like it. It was one of mine, and in my mind, two parts of it are probably the best I've ever written. But the rest of it didn't come together, so it didn't turn out to be a song. Which is too bad because there were these really fucking cool parts, the start and the end. So that's one whole song we pulled.
It gets to be quite a lot of single parts left over. Sometimes we reuse them if it makes sense. For instance, the last part of “Electric Red” on the new album is actually from a song we scrapped on the “Nothing” album. That part would do good in any setting, so we just snagged it. Sometimes that happens, but not a lot.
Zamfir: Did you start writing “Electric Red” with that part in mind?
Mårten: Well, kind of. It was a collaboration. Tomas had an idea, I had a couple of parts. I tried to put riffs together with his drum parts. But I was a little bit allergic to the fact that he's a drummer, which means a lot of parts might be, in my mind, a bit exaggerated on the percussive side. You know, there's a lot going on, and when you're trying to put a cool riff on it, it's kinda messed up. It sounds cool, you've got the rhythm, but you're trying to play something that makes sense. So I pulled some parts and wrote entirely new ones.
We started with a song, “Assembly,” that was supposed to be on “Nothing,” and we took it away, part by part. Tomas came up with a new beginning, basically the entire theme of the song. Then when we came to the mid part, I jerked some parts and we came up with a totally new song. So what started out as being 2/3 of the “Nothing” song got stripped away and replaced. So there was just the last part left.
Both me and Tomas thought there was an embryo in that song we wanted to finish, since we didn't get it on “Nothing.” We just did it for fun, and it turned out to be a cool song with some substance to it. And since it was only one part left over from the old song, it didn't feel like we were bringing in old stuff.
Zamfir: On that note, how important is it to be constantly innovating?
Mårten: If you asked me that like seven years ago, I'd say it was 100 percent. But I found out that it's not true. I probably don't know myself that well. Most of the time when you write, it's what sparks your own imagination. Some parts I think are fairly drab, like a transporting part that just needs to be there, it's not trying to be innovative itself. It's trying to find something that makes you go (slams his fist into his palm) “Ah! There's no resistance here!”
Going back to AC/DC, when Angus Young sat down with one of these albums, they played the whole album, it was recorded and mixed and whatever, the finished results. And apparently he said, “Scrap it.” They're like, “Why?” and he's like “My leg didn't go like this.” (Mimes tapping his foot to the beat.) “When I sit down to an album, my leg's supposed to go like this. That's when I've got the feeling.”
That's something we've got as well, but it's not the leg. It's just somewhere in here (taps his chest) you've got the feeling. You know that it's stellar. A lot of the parts in our songs are not that extraordinarily innovative. But it's how it's blended together with the other stuff. The contrast, and actually the sense of perspective that makes it make sense. But it's nothing you think about, writing. If you think too much while writing, it's gonna be constrained, and not from the heart.
Zamfir: Listening to the focus, the obsessiveness in your music, it sounds like you drink a lot of coffee. Any comment?
Mårten: Uh, we do. (Laughs.) But I wouldn't say that's -- I'd say it's a personal trait. It's one of those things where we're all great friends and we hang out a lot. And maybe that's a strength. We all respect and know each other, and maybe that's a strength. Having that group of people where you feel you can actually evolve without prejudice, you know what I'm saying? That's tremendously important. It's less about the music as it is about a like-minded environment with these guys. But they contribute something that I could never.
So the obsessiveness lies in where you feel -- well, here's what happens when you make an album. Nothing happens. Nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens... and all of a sudden someone writes something, and it's like, “This feels like us!” That sparks the imagination, and from there the obsessiveness. It sets you off, and you want to make it right. And that's where the obsessive part comes in. We're very anal about it, that's true.
Zamfir: Obviously Cynic brought a whole lot of new blood to the genre, expanded the possibilities of metal both in terms of formal composition and where the music can take your mind... a whole lot like Meshuggah. But they disappeared just as you guys were coming into your own with the None EP. How'd it feel to hear Cynic were reuniting?
Mårten: It was great. I did not see that coming, to be honest. It was kind of surprising, and to have them open for us was a great thing. I personally -- what's the name, “Focus,” right?
Mårten: I was never really into that album when I listened to it. But Tomas, he really listened a lot to it. When they came, they had something very unique. They had an atmosphere of their own, their output was theirs, you know? And I respected them tremendously for that. Cause they were one of those bands that's like, “Oh. Here's something I was not aware existed.” Whoever does that, I have tremendous respect for. That's just what you're trying to do yourself, and it's cool to see other bands do that as well.
Zamfir: How's it been so far, touring with Cynic?
Mårten: It's been awesome. We're a week into the tour, we've got to hang out more, but there's still a lot of travelling. This is the fourth or fifth show we've sold out, and it's just working out excellently. They're really nice fucking guys. But it's a very mellow tour, it's very low key, and we like that. No hassle.
Zamfir: You play a lot of songs that use extreme repetition of a simple element that evolves very slowly throughout the song. It's hypnotic. When you're playing these songs live, do you ever get sucked in and lose your place in the song?
Mårten: Yup. It happens, but not a lot. Actually, a lot less than I'd guess. You know, like today, when I'm running a fever and I've got to get up on stage, I've got to think about what I'm doing. If you're tired or if you're sick, that fucks you up a lot. That makes you more prone to get lost. Because in the back of your head you're like, “I know this fuckin' well. There's no problem at all.” Suddenly for some reason you get a thought. “Dude, is it, like, one bar, or did Jens just sing, or am I... I dunno.”
But if you focus enough, you can probably survive being out of it. You realize, instantly, as a reflex, you get your bearings. You listen to accents and stuff, which makes your body just feel where you're at. You don't have to think, “Oh, it's the triplet now.”
Zamfir: There's always something to remind you where you're at.
Mårten: Yeah, because you've been through the motions so many times. The older the song, the easier it gets. But the older the song, the worse it gets when you're lost. Because it gets so fluid when it's an old song -- something we've been doing since '95 -- you never even think you're playing the song. It's just second nature, sort of.
Zamfir: What's the greatest challenge to recreating these songs live?
Mårten: The most problematic part is that we don't rehearse enough. The whole band may rehearse for, like, a week. Which is way too little. But we're all spread out. We do everything, we're self-managed. So we do a shitload of work that normal bands, like, don't really do. So that takes away from the time we rehearse. From a competence standpoint, that's our biggest problem.
Most of the time we deliver anyway, for some reason. We get together, and the first show, everybody's like, “Okay. Shape up, we've all gotta be on point.” So for some reason we manage.
The thing is, recreating an album for the first time is rough no matter what. Doesn't matter if it's “Chaosphere,” it's “Nothing,” or if it's this one. They all present different problems. This one, “Obzen,” actually presents more of all the problems we've been having. A song like “Bleed,” for instance. The technique is imperative, but also the stamina. It goes together, you know. So that song presents a different kind of challenge than, say, “Combustion” does. That one's problematic because it's all over the fretboard. It's still a technique thing, but it's a different kind of technique thing.
When we play “Lethargica,” which is the slowest song, we've really gotta step back from what we've been doing all night. We've been pretty energetic, and all of a sudden we're playing this slow monster. It's the mindset. To go from controlled mayhem, and then into something even more intense, and back down to something where you've got to think, “This is not supposed to be a stressed-out song.” Going slow. It sounds like it would be easy, but if your adrenaline's like this (flails his hands) you know. It's adapting it with the right vibe.
And this is a big problem with metal in general. You put your finger there, and it's a distorted note, and you know, it's all good. But there's not that much concern for letting the songs be different live. “Lethargica,” for instance, is a lot slower than it was on “Obzen.” It sounds better that way, and we should have done it that way on the album. So I guess it depends solely on what songs you choose.
We don't choose the songs from the standpoint of whether we do them good or not. We choose the songs from the standpoint of, “Does this make sense in my head? Can we do this for an hour and a half?” And if it does, we get around the fact that we actually need to play that shit, too.
Zamfir: Fredrik did a sweet solo project, Sol Niger Within, more than ten years ago. That's the only solo album we've seen from any of you guys. Do you ever have musical ideas that you feel wouldn't work on a Meshuggah album?
Mårten: Tough question. Uh... put it like this. Not that I'd want to put out somewhere else, but I've pretty much got a whole album. It's not really 100 percent finished yet, it's like 7 or 8 songs. Obviously it's gonna sound sort of like us because I'm writing the stuff, you know. But it's catering a lot more to the stoner side of me.
Here's the thing. I wanted to do something that felt like it's only for me. I want to put it down, write this stuff, do whatever feels good, and see how many songs it gets to be. I'm gonna record it, I'm gonna make a proper album, and I'm not gonna release it.
Zamfir: Really? Why not?
Mårten: It feels like... Well, I may release it. The problem is, it's gonna be pretty obvious who it's coming from, if I release it. I may go under cover, call it something else or whatever. But right now I just don't feel like it. It's for my own personal satisfaction.
I'm gonna record it, and hopefully it's gonna be our sound guy on bass, and Fredrik on the drums. Maybe. I might record it and finish it, and then we'll see what I'll do. I know Fredrik and the rest of the guys think I should release it. But I'm not really sure if I should dish it out and see what happens with it.
I know that Jens is messing around with stuff every once in a while that's metal-ish, but it's not really something he feels would fit the bill, you know. So it does happen, but it's only Fredrik who went all the way and released it. It's gonna be eight songs. If I can't get eight good songs together, nothing's gonna happen. If I can, then I'm gonna record it, and we'll see. But it won't be for a while.
Zamfir: Meshuggah's the priority.
Mårten: Of course. Being in Meshuggah's a great thing in every respect, but sometimes you actually sit down and know that you could come up with something that's very straightforward, very non technical music.
I would not want to do what Fredrik did. I love his album, it's one of the best albums I've ever heard. But I would not want to do that technical guitar thing. I'm not all about that. I'm intrigued by it and I love writing shit like that, but I'd want to go more to the roots.
Zamfir: Something traditional represents you better?
Mårten: Yeah. Because it's kind of a challenge for me. It's a challenge, to come from playing in this band, then actually boil things down and get rough with it. Well, we'll see what happens. It's one of those things. Might happen, might not. The songs are there, we just need to get it together.
Zamfir: You put out “Rare Trax” eight years ago, compiling a lot of non-album material. Since then you've recorded three full-length albums. Is there any unreleased stuff floating around that might make it onto a similar album in the future?
Mårten: I would not think so. Never say never, but most of the parts we feel are good, we could actually reuse in a real setting. With “Rare Trax”, the label thought we were swamped with leftovers, and we were like, “Well, we actually are,” and we wanted to play around with it. It was for fun. So going through that again feels weird. Probably the die-hard fans would love it, but if we were going to put in that much effort, we might as well record an actual album.
Zamfir: What do you see the metal genre becoming, ten years from now?
Mårten: I don't have a clue. With metal in general, at least what I like, there's tolerance for diversity. We make a living off what we do. Cynic's out there doing what they do. We've got the major players out there, the major bands, they're fairly widespread selling in the underground.
My problem is that so many bands are adapting to the whole Britney Spears formula. Not that they sound like Britney Spears, but they take all the grips, all the sway of super produced pop music, and then they bring it into a metal setting with double kick drums and distorted guitars. With the formula, you know what's gonna happen. It gets especially irritating in Europe, I'm so over hearing bands that sound like Judas Priest. You know what I'm saying? I love Judas Priest. They came, they did what they did, they're Judas Priest. I can be down with that retro stuff, if it's a bit tongue in cheek and made with a bit of fun to it, then it's all right.
But there's so many bands from out of Scandinavia for instance that are just horrendous. Cause it's like schlager music [European pop crooner music] with distorted guitars. (Coos like a gremlin) “Waaaaa-woowoo-oooooo!” And they've got violins and everything and they say, “Well, we're avant-garde.” You're playing schlager music, but you're playing with one distorted guitar, you've got a hot chick singing like schlager music... it's lame. But I'm not taking anything away from those bands. They probably thoroughly believe in what they're doing, and if they're all about it, that's all good for them.
But like, it's come full circle. What annoys me is that when I was 16, Bay Area thrash came around and started to tear that shit down. From the LA Guns and the fucking Faster Pussycat bands. They took away the the glam rock and the cheesiness, and they put it back down where it was at. Like, putting it down, messing around with shit, having fun coming up with new shit. Having those bands go back and redo that just feels so old, in my personal opinion. I'm all about the old school metal, but that was new when that came around.
Zamfir: You think metal's got to keep changing to hold on to its identity?
Mårten: I think it's gotta morph. Because the way it looks right now, there's really no foreseeing what's going on. Metal looked to be dead a bunch of years ago, then all of a sudden you have this resurgence. Now it's okay to play metal. It still sells, and I guess it helps that metal fans are true, they actually buy albums. Which has maybe made some of the record labels watch and say, “Okay. This pop artist sold millions, but now it's just this tiny percentage left. But these guys, they're small, but it's stayed the same. There's something to them.”
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