Swedish prog metal powerhouse, Meshuggah, will have notched up close to 30 years as a band in 2017. From 1991’s Contradictions Collapse through to groundbreaking works, such as Destroy Erase Improve (1995), Nothing (2002), Catch Thirtythree (2005), and Koloss (2012), Meshuggah has consistently proven itself to be a virtuosic band of creative mavericks. This October, Meshuggah’s eighth, full-length studio album, The Violent Sleep of Reason, will be released, just ahead of the band’s North American tour. A brilliant release, reflecting the band’s early flow and groove, the album also continues to build on Meshuggah’s reputation for extreme technical mastery. At the time this interview was conducted, an Australian tour was not yet confirmed, but has since been scheduled for March of 2017. Tour dates are listed at the bottom of the page. Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Nuclear Blast, we had a chat with the talented Mårten Hagström about the band’s history, the new album, and much more.
SR: Next year marks the band’s 30th year together. Does it feel like 30 years, or does it feel like time’s flown?
MH: I was actually just debating that with somebody the other day – whether it is 30 years next year – because we just did our 25-year anniversary two years ago (laughs). So, I guess ’80 is really gonna be the year, but ’87 is also true. It depends on which way you look at it. (Laughs). But yeah, it doesn’t hide the fact that we’re getting really old. But yeah, it is kind of mind blowing. Maybe one of the most mind blowing aspects of doing this for so long. I mean, somehow we always live in the ‘now’ and look ahead…like what’s left to do, what we’re going to do next, how this or that will work out, or whatever. That’s our natural state. We don’t dwell on the past a lot. But when you reach certain points in your career, you’re sort of forced to look back. Like when we did the 25 year anniversary and we were going to look through the really old stuff to bring it into the live stuff – that was really weird. It was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe we’ve done all this. It just seems like a couple of years ago.’
SR: Could you detect an evolution in your playing and skills, over time, while you were watching?
MH: Yeah, I guess so. I really didn’t think about it, but yeah. I mean, if I look back to the start, the way you perceive being in the band… It’s still the same guys, mostly, and we have the same approach to a lot of things. And, like I said, you live in the now, so you instantly take it for granted that it’s always been the same way. But listening to the old stuff and looking back, I can see several points of development and evolution in the band, which is why it’s a cool band to be playing with. From a technical aspect, we matured on our instruments the way people do. It’s not like we were taking leaps and steps in that respect, though. It’s more about how we write music. That has clearly evolved. And that’s only natural, I guess, but it strikes you when you look back on it.
SR: What would you say your greatest career achievements have been, to date?
MH: Oh, I don’t know. It’s always tough to try to calibrate stuff like that. I mean, I don’t see it as having achievements, as such. This journey has been very long, like we’ve said, but it’s also been very gradual. It’s very rare that I’ve been taken aback and thought, ‘Man! Look at where we are now, compared to back in the day.’ It’s happened a couple of times, you know. Like, last summer, when we opened up in Ullevi in Gothenburg for Metallica – that was a kind of cool thing. That was one of those moments where you came full circle because you were actually opening up in one of the country’s biggest arenas for the band that basically made us start playing metal. That’s one of the things that make you realise, ‘Well, ok, this has gotta be cool, right?’ (laughs).
But that’s not an achievement in itself. The greatest achievement is that we’ve been hanging in here, you know? We’ve been doing our stuff from the get go and then we’ve evolved, obviously, and become more of what we really are over the course of the years. And that may be the biggest achievement: sticking together and still having fun with this stuff that we’re doing.
SR: And what do you put your cohesion, as a band, down to?
MH: That’s a tough one to answer, since I’ve only been in this band (laughs). I know from looking at other bands and bands I know that it’s not that easy to stick together, as a band, and travel across the world and do stuff. You do stuff and get into situations where there’s a lot of stress involved. I mean, it’s a very easy lifestyle, but there are different demands and people have different reasons for doing stuff. To have that come out on a bus over 10 weeks in the middle of summer in the United States can sometimes be quite a lot when you’re a young band coming up, you know? For us, it’s been quite lucky that me and Tomas have known each other since we were six, and Fredrik and Jens were basically on the same street. We were all friends when we were 10, 12, 14. I mean, we see Dick as being the new kid and he’s been around since early 2005. But we’ve been lucky that we’ve stuck together. I don’t know why some other bands change – I think that’s more normal to do. It’s probably normal to not always feel the same way about your career after eight years, for instance. But, you know, we’ve been lucky.
SR: Well, maybe it’s because your parents all know each other, too, and won’t stand for a split.
MH: (Laughs loudly). Exactly! But I do hope that, for some cosmic reason, we were meant to grow up together and find like-minded people. To have that and have the right cultural background together was just sheer luck, though. It’s like the perfect storm in a lot of ways. We’ve just been having fun with it since we were kids. We’re still doing it and we’re in our mid-40s and that’s amazing.
SR: Your superb new album, The Violent Sleep of Reason, will be released in October. I’ve seen a number of interviews in which you talk about having wanted to adopt an old-school approach for this release. I heard that you’d written and rehearsed the material long before you even went into the studio and that you’d rehearsed some songs 50 times as part of your process. Can you tell about that? How long did it take, all up?
MH: Well, if we’re talking about the writing process, it was about a year. Maybe even a little more – a year and a half – because some of the stuff was started pretty early. And most of those things you were talking about were things we’d decided upon really early on. Basically, when we’d start to write a riff, or basically put some things together, we decided very early on to do that whole recording for real, so to speak…and, as a band playing at the same time – that old-school-type approach. That thing was there to begin with. So, that year and a half was basically comprised of Tomas and Dick working together on Tomas’s drum parts. And I was working up at home on my stuff, trying to complement and balance out what we were doing against each other. So that’s why it became quite a lengthy process. And also, with the rehearsing, it was of a different intensity, so to speak. We didn’t go all in for two months, but we rehearsed quite a lot beforehand, and then the actual recordings took about three weeks.
SR: You’re very well known for your technical guitar mastery, but you often talk about ‘maths versus groove’. You’ve downplayed the technical aspects of your guitar work somewhat, saying that you view it as a tool for conveying what’s inside, rather than something to showcase for its own sake.
MH: I’ll put it like this. The way the ideas come out…and I don’t know why – we’re just drawn to this type of stuff…It kind of pops into your head, idea-wise, and it kind of forces you to play that way. Like I said, it’s the tool to get stuff out. People always tell us, ‘Well, you’ve got this machine-like quality to your music.’ And they talk about how it’s very structured and very rigid in many ways. But from my point of view, and from my perspective, I see that as being true; but, at the same time, it’s also all got to happen sort of spur-of-the-moment – when it comes to writing a song or coming up with a riff. Granted, two really cool ideas might just pop into my head while I’m doing the dishes (laughs), and that’s a spur-of-the moment thing. But then, to make it into a song, maybe I’ve got to work with it for a while and piece other stuff together. That’s less spur-of-the-moment. So, the spark has always got to be the emotion, because music is always supposed to be about emotion, even though it might be a machine-like expression. So, emotion first, and then whether it’s technical or not is beside the point. Unfortunately, a lot of our stuff tends to be technical. I would love for it not to be, believe me (laughs). But it’s because we want to achieve that expression.
SR: I know Tomas has used the term de-machining to describe his intention for this record.
MH: Yes, well there’s no de-machining us in a way because it’s part of how we sound. I mean, what do the guitars sound like? It’s still not like we’re playing lounge jazz on this album, you know what I’m saying? But there was a type of de-machining, and a purposeful one. We sat down and said, ‘Well, we’ve been doing this thing now for a bunch of years.’ We’re really proud of what we’ve done and how it sounds and the end result of our albums. But there’s something to be said for turning the tables on things and going back to basics and rediscovering stuff that you did naturally when you were younger that you rarely do anymore. I mean we can all…Tomas will put down the drums…I’ll put down my guitars…Fredrik will put down his guitars and do that overdub stuff…and that will turn out cool. But when people play at the same time, there’s something happening with the focus energy and why certain parts are played in a certain manner. You’re not trying to stick to middle ground.
SR: You’re using the Custom Ibanez M8M eight string at the moment. I have two questions: what prompted you to switch from 7 to 8 strings, initially, and can you take us through your current touring rig?
MH: Well, to begin with, the current touring rig is pretty easy. I’ve got my two M8Ms. Well, I’ve got a bunch of them, but there are two that I use that are from the LA Custom Shop: my main and my back-up. That’s all I need. They rarely break a string, and I mean, these guitars are so consistent that there’s no need to bring a bunch of guitars. I may include a third one now because I’ve got problems with my shoulders and need one with a shorter scale. But that’s what I use. And Fredrik uses M8Ms and his personal Stoneman series, which is a new one that may come out soon – I don’t know yet. He’s basically got two guitars as well. We run through Axe-FX on stage and that’s it. Oh, and the wireless stuff, of course. We wanted to keep it simple and it’s very easy to travel when you’re doing festivals with them. And they sound spectacular and work really, really well. I wouldn’t trade them for the world – they’re gold. So the touring rig is simple and easy.
And why did we switch from 7 to 8 strings? I don’t know. It was like we had these ideas that it would be cool to go lower and I remember we were actually talking, at one point, about doing a song where we’d maybe play three bass guitars. This was before Nothing, obviously. We played a bit with single string, or single tone, riffing. We started sniffing around the edges of it without even knowing it. Then we met this guy at a show and discussed our guitars. He showed us his guitars, which he’d built, and it was really good stuff. So we were checking out the sevens and then he’d heard that we’d been talking along the lines of playing all basses and said, ‘Well, an 8-string guitar might suit your purposes.’ We took it from there and collaborated with him, and all of a sudden we had an 8-string guitar. But he couldn’t build as many as we needed and Ibanez approached us about using the idea. So we just turned it into what we needed. That was such a revelation for us. Because, technically, so we’ve got 8 strings? So what? But what happened was that it focused the riff style into a different thing – I don’t want to say more melodic, because we almost never are (laughs) – but it was more of a single-string approach. And it was a different way of writing metal riffs and really sparked our imaginations. So it was a really good thing for us. That happened before the Nothing album, so that was the first one where we actually used them.
SR: We were talking to Dino from Fear Factory about his 8-string, too, and not having to retune or worry about thicker strings.
MH: Oh yeah, yeah. And there were a lot of other good things that came out of that that we didn’t anticipate. We thought it might be cool to use it on one song, or maybe two, as an effect. But it really just turned everything upside down for me and Fredrik, at least. We were like, ‘Oh, there’s so much stuff to be done here – things that sound new.’
SR: Well, you’ve got Aftershock coming up in October. Are you looking forward to that and will you be playing songs from the new album there?
MH: Yes we will and I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a stop on our U.S tour. We’re doing LA out west and then Aftershock. Yeah, it’s going to be nice. It’s always nice to hook up with the Tool guys and I want to see them live – I haven’t seen them live for a long, long time. They’re always really cool. I’m looking forward to Primus – in case they play. I heard there were some issues, but I really want to see them. I guess Slayer’s playing and it’s always nice to hook up with those guys. So, you know, it’s going to be a nice one.
SR: I know you like Devin Townsend’s work and you got to play with him at O2. What was that like?
MH: Devin’s a really cool guy. I love that guy. We’ve been around for a long time and he and Fredrik talk on almost a daily basis – they’ve got so much stuff going on together. We always end up hooking up with each other on the road as well. He’s always out playing. I love that dude. He’s a visionary and an artist and goes his own way and follows his own mind like a free spirit and I love that. We’re good friends – I mean, we’ve been touring together since the Strapping (Young Lad) days, so he’s a good friend of ours. They’re all very good friends of ours.
SR: We’ve been hearing rumours of an Australian tour. Can you tell us much about that at this stage?
MH: Well, I know we’re going to tour Australia. That’s what I can say for sure (laughs). I just don’t know when it’s going to happen. Sometime next year I guess. [EDIT: Meshuggah’s March Australian tour has since been confirmed. Please see ticketing info below.]
SR: You came in at #35 on Guitar World’s Greatest Guitarists list. How do you feel about accolades like that?
MH: Did I? (Laughs). Okay. Alright, that’s weird (laughs). That’s not right. I mean, that’s cool, I guess. That’s good. When I was a kid, I grew up checking out the guitar mags and the players. It’s a good outlet for stuff. I mean, if people think you’re doing something cool, that’s awesome.
SR: It’s funny that you’re surprised. You do have a bit of a reputation, you know?
MH: Oh, I know. I don’t know how to put it. I mean, I love playing the guitar. It’s awesome. I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. I’m serious when I say I mean that I see it as mostly an instrument of composition – not seeing myself as a guitar player, as such. Fredrik is a guitar player who has really accepted the role of exploiting and exploring the guitar to a greater extent than I do. But yeah, it’s cool. I’m happy with it (laughs). I didn’t expect it, though. I can tell you that.
SR: Do you prefer being in the studio or touring, or are they equally compelling to you?
MH: I’ve got to say equally. I mean, there are hassles about being in the studio and there’s so much fun to be had being in the studio. And it’s the same thing being on the road. Sometimes it fucking sucks – you’ve got a layover for 12 hours and you’re at the end of a 6-week tour…and you haven’t been sleeping…and you know you’re going to have a layover before Russia where you play 2 shows before heading down to Australia…and there’s basically only flights ahead of you for the next 48 hours. You can bitch about that, you know? But being on stage in front of your fans is fucking awesome, so you know, pros and cons – every job’s got them.
SR: What are your three favourite albums of all time?
MH: I get that question quite a lot and can never answer it. Hmm. Master of Puppets by Metallica. That one’s got to be there. I’d have to add any old Rush album. I don’t know which to pick. Maybe Moving Pictures or something even older. They made an impact when I was really young. Then I don’t know. A Mr Bungle album, I think.
SR: Oh, really? I love Mr Bungle.
MH: Yeah, I love Mike Patton. I think he does cool stuff.
SR: Yeah, he’s a bit of a visionary, too, isn’t he?
MH: Oh, yeah.
SR: What’s the strangest thing a fan’s ever asked you for, or to do?
MH: There was this chick once in Arizona at Ozzfest. She had a fanzine or something. She explained to me that she was a vampire and she wanted to know whether I was a vampire or not; and, if I was, would I walk with her and demonstrate it so that her kid could see it. And then her 8-year-old kid turned up. I mean, I know she’s pulling my leg, but why is this kid standing here? And why is she wanting me to bite her neck in front of her kid. I’m like, ‘What is wrong? Dude, you know that Pete Steele’s not around, right? I’m not in Type O Negative.’ That was a weird moment. I’ll never forget that. The kid just entered from behind the bus. We were doing an interview. It was weird.
SR: Years of therapy ahead for him.
SR: Have you got a message we can send out to your Australian fans ahead of the release of The Violent Sleep of Reason?
MH: Please don’t forget to check it out – it might be worth your while (laughs). I think it’s pretty cool. We’re pretty happy with it. And we’re going to come down to Australia – I hope – in not-too-many-months’ time. It’ll be within about six months or so, with a bit of luck. We’ll have fun.
**MESHUGGAH TOUR DATES**
THURSDAY 9TH MARCH – POWERSTATION, AUCKLAND NZ (18+)
SATURDAY 11TH MARCH – TIVOLI, BRISBANE QLD (18+)
SUNDAY 12TH MARCH – ENMORE THEATRE, SYDNEY NSW (Lic AA)
WEDNESDAY 15TH MARCH – 170 RUSSELL, MELBOURNE VIC (18+)
FRIDAY 17TH MARCH – METROPOLIS FREMANTLE WA (18+)
~~~~~~Get your tickets HERE.~~~~~~