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Posted on Jul 15, 2014 12:58 pm
Meshuggah guitarist Marten Hagstrom is running as fast as he can just to stand still. He has just returned from a series of US dates celebrating the band's 25th anniversary and though he's barely unpacked, he is already back in the group's Stockholm studio working on their next album. The day after this interview he flies to Belgium for the Graspop Metal Meeting, which signals the last show on this current commemorative tour. Upon their return, the band will retreat once again to their Swedish studio to resume work on the upcoming album.
But Hagstrom has no complaints. Very few musicians enjoy the kind of success Meshuggah has experienced much less a career that has lasted for more than two-and-a-half decades. "It's remarkable in many ways," he says about the group's longevity. "We're totally stoked we were actually able to be around after this long. But it's also kind of like, 'F--k, man. We've been getting old. This is weird.' It's like, 'What the f - k happened?' But granted it's a great feeling. I'd say we never really calculated on being where we're at today."
Where the band is at today is sitting on the cusp of their eighth album. It's still early days yet but Hagstrom fills us in on where the band is at - and where they've been.
UG: Did you ever think you'd still be playing guitar in Meshuggah in 2014?
MH: All of us started playing really early and I guess somewhere in the back of our minds, I think most of us actually had some kind of a dream to make it as a musician and to be able to live off of doing what you love. That's everyone's aspiring dream but in a random way to get stuck in it and do it for this long is f--kin' amazing.
As you were putting together the setlist for these anniversary shows, were there certain songs you knew you had to play?
Yeah, when we decided what we wanted this to be, that happened. First we didn't intend for this to happen. It came up as an idea last year and then we started discussing it and then it was like, "OK, maybe this is actually worth commemorating and doing something before we go into the album cycle." When we decided we wanted to represent our entire career and not only go out and do quirky old stuff but to have a fair sort of mix in the setlist, it became apparent we can do really odd stuff on our regular tours supporting an album and throw in an oddball here and there.
But on a tour like this you had to play more of the classics?
"New Millennium Cyanide Christ," "Future Breed Machine," "Bleed" and songs like that you need to have in there if you want to have a fair representation of what we've been about.
"Future Breed Machine" is the song you used to open your show in Los Angeles. Why did you choose that song to introduce the set?
That's easy. The thing is first of all it's a pretty kicka-s song to being a show with because it kind of sets the levels so to speak. I think it was kind of unexpected because we haven't been playing "Future Breed Machine" live for maybe three years now and back in the day we always did. What we felt was, "OK, people want to hear this song. It's something people would probably expect for us to leave 'til later or the last part of our set." But we felt why not just get it over with and go out and start full-on.
Hit fans over the head right from the top.
The biggest reason is it actually ties back to when we started touring around that album. Because "Destroy Erase Improve" was the part of our career where we talked about our style sort of. It was always our opening track. Like the first three years of real touring we did, we always opened with "Future Breed Machine" so it kind of made sense that way too. The way we used to do it kind of feeling.
Talking about the style of the band, you joined after the Meshuggah EP and "Contradictions Collapse" album had already been recorded. Were you aware of the band before you became a member?
I was pretty aware 'cause of the simple fact when Tomas[Haake, drums] played together, we played in some bands that played with Meshuggah early, early, early on. That's why they recruited Tomas. Me and Tomas used to play together and then he started with Meshuggah and I didn't play anything for a year. So I was certainly into what they were doing. Because Thomas being my childhood friend, it was like he was going to play with the band and that was great stuff.
What was that like when Meshuggah called you to join the band?
From the get-go when Tomas called me up about a year-and-a-half later or something like that after their release ["Contradictions Collapse"] - that was in '91 and it was late '92 when he started calling me up and asking me to join - they expressly told me, "OK, we want you to be a guitar player but we think it would be really cool if you could write stuff as well." 'Cause they liked some of our old demo stuff me and Thomas used to do. So we were both aware of each other's stuff and probably I adapted.
You adapted your writing to suit what the band did?
That's what you do when you're a fish in new water. You pick up stuff when you play with new people. But I was mostly just trying to do what I regularly did and do my thing as good as I could that I already had.
Were you listening to other bands and other guitar players?
Growing up, me and Thomas are from a small, small town and there was bands around but not a lot. Some were really good but some were really s - tty too. You weren't that greatly inspired by your local scene. There were a few people you looked up to.
What about established metal bands?
As far as from a general standpoint, I think about that age of 11, 12 and 13 is when you really start to discover music in your own way and you really start to make it your own thing and your own expression and make it part of your lifestyle if you will. That's when for me it was a lot about Metallica, Rush and Black Sabbath. Some of the old-school stuff but what was new and coming out at that time.
What about some of the other old-school bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin?
They made an impact I guess to a certain extent but not so much I would say I was [influenced by them]. For me and Tomas growing up, those were the bands that the guys who were five years older were listening to. Or maybe seven or 10 years older. So you heard that stuff from your friend's older brother and you heard it in different places. You thought it was cool but it wasn't really what you were exposed to sitting at home and listening to a lot of stuff.
You heard that stuff but not directly?
Not me at least. Black Sabbath and Judas Priest I did. But not Zeppelin or anything like that. The only real North American old-school I got that isn't really pop music that my mom used to pester me with was Rush. Rush was something I listened to a lot and me and Thomas grew up on.
From the moment you picked up a guitar, you were trying to write?
Not everyone does that. Certain people pick up an instrument and learn how to play stuff and we did that as well from other's songs. But we instantly started to write stuff ourselves as well even though we were just kids. You took bits and pieces of what you enjoyed about what they were doing and tried to craft it into your own. That's the thing I think is the common denominator in this band that we've always been since we were kids we always tried to create.
What do you remember about recording the "None" EP in 1994?
Back then we were so young, man. We were like 20 years old and everything was still kind of developing as far as life goes and nothing had really settled. Playing was something you'd been aiming at and spending all your free time doing for a bunch of years at that point like maybe eight years at least. So for me the thing of coming into Meshuggah was a bit of a release. Because when Tomas left we didn't have a band. It was just me and him 'cause two of the other guys we used to play with split.
That's what you said earlier about not playing music for a year when Tomas left?
Tomas started with Meshuggah and I didn't have anything to do. I didn't have anyone to play with so I pretty much did nothing, which means I was really aching to start playing again. So I came from a situation where I had no one to play with and then I had a chance and an opportunity to reunite with my friend who I always played with and also get into a new band situation in a new town where I had some people around me who really knew what they were doing and what they wanted. So we were kind of like-minded in that way. For me it was a seamless experience to the better.
"Destroy, Erase, Improve" is the first regular album you recorded with the band and really the first time the band's name is getting out there.
Yeah, I would agree on that. None for us in the band was pretty significant. We found something on that one and knew something had happened 'cause we approached the sound a little bit differently and that felt fresh and like something we had accomplished sort of. But it wasn't a full length album and it wasn't until "Destroy, Erase, Improve" that we really got together with Daniel Bergstrand and that was a real help. 'Cause he was a young dude and was fired up and passionate about getting going with stuff and having similar ideas to what he wanted us to sound like. We were in a really good creative spot back then so that I think was the first step off of our career sort of.
Another major step was when bassist Peter Nordin left the band and was replaced on the "Chaosphere" album by Gustaf Hielm?
It was for everybody. First of all I'd like to say it's got to have been rough on Gustaf too 'cause I think everybody who joins a band where things are starting to set and you have your personal dynamics and you come in as the new guy, it takes time to adjust. It worked out really good to begin with and I just discussed this the other day, people come into situations with different expectations. You don't know where you're at all the time so that means sometimes you lose track of why you're there in the first place.
Are you saying you weren't quite sure where the band was at musically?
For us it was one of those albums where we just moved down to Stockholm from Umea so we relocated the band. We got a new bass player and there was a lot of stuff around us that was new to us so it was kind of chaotic. I think that kind of shows on the album [laughs]. It's a stressed out album.
"Elastic" was the 15:30 epic track from "Chaosphere." How did a song like that evolve?
Some of that stuff is a grand idea but that in particular was just something we did to f--k things up. We played around with stuff until it sounded really cool and we've done that on a few albums actually. Backwards stuff is actually stuff being played backwards. Doing stuff like that you try and make things unique. Sometimes it's something just the spur of the moment type of thing. You mess around in the studio and you're fed up with things and you want to make to make something weird and mess around with stuff.
You're trying to specifically create strange sounds and stuff?
Yeah. It may not be five guys playing away at a regular set of instruments but still create an audio atmosphere.
You'd earlier described the "Nothing" album as "darker." Why would you say that?
"Chaosphere" was an angry album and it was dark too. There was a lot of anxiety in that one. That whole blast song, f--king scream off the top of your lungs. p-ssed off; chaos. But "Nothing" first of all has a lot to do with the way it sounds 'cause for the simple fact it was the first album we used the 8-strings on.
"Nothing" was the first time you played the 8-strings?
Yeah, so that makes it darker. Also it's slower and a little bit more heavy album than "Chaosphere" was, which also makes it a bit more brooding in our opinion. We've messed around with string bending before but when we started playing the 8s, we started using that lot to get that kind of feeling of being seasick or nauseous. The thing is that came into place and took a little perverted twist as far as the harmonics go, hah. So that also is a step off towards the more dark and a more gloomy musical experience.
The 8-string guitar was a major shift for Meshuggah?
Definitely as far as the tone goes and how it affected our writing. But you know now we play the 8-strings and we do most of our work on the 8-strings but some stuff is being thrown back too. A song from "Koloss" called "The Demon's Name Is Surveillance," that's strictly a 6-string song. Apart from a few riffs [on 8-string], a lot of "obZen" are 7-string songs. Through the years and lately we've been bringing it [6- and 7-strings] into the mix to lift it up from the basement again and to create more dynamics with it. But yeah, the 8-strings made a great big difference to us. It revitalized our creativity actually and made us feel it was worthwhile pushing through 'cause it actually made us go into a territory that was totally our own for the first time. We had found a sound that's like, "OK, this is us. Now we own this."
You talk about approaching rhythm guitar more from an organic standpoint than a technical one. Can you explain that?
It's difficult to talk about that subject for the simple fact as soon as I say that I'm not into - or we're not into - the technical standpoint, that doesn't mean we don't care about it. The thing is that's what we need to know in order to perform what we need to express. That's all there is to it. So of course I practice s - t and I think about why certain stuff is hard to play. It's like, "OK, if I do this picking style or if I move my fingers here and there, what's the finger setting for this riff? Is there a more economic way of playing this?" Those things come into it but not as you're writing stuff.
The technical aspect is more about the performance than the composition?
That's the important difference and it's not really like that [technique] comes into play. Then you just try to master the parts to get over it so you can put it down and record it. Then you have to learn it sometimes and it's really weird. To put it shortly, it's just because of the simple fact you take care of the technique enough to have it as a tool to express yourself but never have that tool dictate the terms of what you express. Umm, was that clear?
Absolutely. It's having the chops but making the technique disappear in the face of the song and the writing?
Yeah. It's more like groovin' - it shouldn't matter if you miss a note here or there. It's, "Can we nail it so it makes it into a session for us where we play it?"
Can you listen to songs on the various records where the performance may not have been perfect but the feel was?
There's always stuff that you get and you complain about or you like or say you kept because of certain reasons. If it doesn't bother you when you're listening to it and if it doesn't throw any of the guys in the band off so it feels like the song is presenting itself the way we are feeling about it, then it's all good. But that doesn't mean you leave a lot of precision crap out because sometimes precision is important in our music so you've got to be careful with that.
There's always that line between a technically perfect performance and one with no emotion.
I would rather say I don't listen to stuff and think of it from a playing standpoint when I hear our albums. What always bugs me is if we f--ked up on the arrangements or certain song structures or stuff.
You never had the desire to be the lead guitar player?
To be honest? No. If you look back on the guys I grew up listening to, there was a lot of lead guitar players around. Granted, I loved Eddie Van Halen and there was a lot of cool guitar gods around I grew up listening to. But the thing is the guys who impressed me most impressed me with how they wrote their songs. Scott Ian and James Hetfield were like my house gods and Alex Lifeson who's not a super f--kin' excellent lead guitar player but what I really loved about his stuff was how he was coloring the chords and making that three-piece sound really big with how he applied his writing as opposed to his guitar work. That was more impressive to me.
Which is why you began writing when you were really young?
I don't have any problem with the guitar hero thing but Fredrik[Thordendal] fills that role pretty great so I'm just happy to be out of that kind of limelight in that respect. There are certain leads I write and it's not like I never ever sit down and play leads or write leads for stuff. But in the live situation where I'm at, I don't have time to focus on that 'cause I'd rather focus on songs for the riffs 'cause that's what I love is playing riffs.
You do play leads on "Electric Red" and "Pravus" which are very…
No, very melancholic and lyrical which is different than the way Fredrik would probably approach them.
Yeah, and that's kind of an odd thing because he's the one who got me playing those actually. He's like, "Those are your leads, sir" and I'm like, "They're just melodies" and he says, "What's the difference?" Then I got to play them but there's still a few parts where he's like, "Ah, you need to play because this is your sh-t" and I'm like, "Nah, I'll leave it to you, man."
Great rhythm playing is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of guitar playing.
It's all good and I'm happy with where I'm at. I've never aspired for that either - I didn't look at lead guitar players when I was a kid and go, "Man, to stand there and shine and play that lead." I never felt that way about playing guitar. I thought the cool thing was standard riffs - legs apart and just riff [laughs].
That's so interesting because when you think of Swedish metal guitar players you instantly think of someone like Yngwie Malmsteen.
Exactly. The god himself, hah hah.
Has the band always self-produced the albums?
I think from "None" up until now we've been producing every album. The only difference is how much has somebody been there and co-produced with us. The thing is we've always been uptight like that when it comes to our stuff. We've always been involved with our stuff but from "Catch Thirty-Three" was an occasion we didn't even go to a different studio 'cause we didn't record the drums so that was a different story. It's been like, "Co-produced by Daniel Bergstrand" or it's been solely produced by us. So that's always been the case. What happened on "Koloss" is it was kind of coming full cycle. That was the first time in a while we actually went back to working with someone else who mixed it with us.
You've had various bass players in the band including current member Dick Lovgren coming in on the "Catch Thirty-Three" album. Is it correct in saying the sound of Meshuggah is you and Fredrik and bass players are auxiliary pieces?
Up until then it was but when Dick came in - apart from being an excellent musician and a great bass player altogether - he brought something in we had been wanting to have earlier but never had before.
What did Dick Lovgren bring to the music?
An approach to how to attack the strings sort of in a different way. Because Gustaf was awesome and it wasn't because of his playing style but it was a matter of a difference of opinion that made us go in different ways. He didn't really see the band the same way. But as far as Dick, we got what me and Fredrik were already playing. What Dick is doing now that he didn't maybe do on "Catch Thirty-Three" or "obZen" is developing his own style as far as bass sound goes. Even though he keeps within the confines of where we've always been, he tries to tweak it his own way. So yes, Dick has a definite impact on how the band approaches stuff and the way things come out.
On "Koloss" you wrote lyrics and music for "The Hurt That Finds You First." Lyric writing was something new for you?
Yes. Honestly Tomas is the one who writes 90 percent of the lyrics through the years. It's been to the point where I've had the luxury of actually being able to just focus on writing wherever I f--king feel like it when I get the urge. 'Cause he's got so much already, it's not like I have to. But every once in a while I get inclinations to sit down and actually write a lyric. Like I did for the lyric for "I," you get an idea and run with it.
Which is where you wrote the words and none of the music.
For "The Hurt That Finds You First," I wrote that song pretty quick. It was quick. When I wrote that song, I had a general idea already and not always do you know what you want the vocals to do and you just come up with a riff. But here I actually knew the way I wanted it to sound and pan out so I just sat down and wrote the lyrics for it to get it the way I wanted it. Most of the inspiration - and this is true for Tomas and this is true for me - comes from reading. Growing up, me and him were reading a lot of Clive Barker and reading a lot of English books and watching horror movies or whatever. That affected our language kinda a lot.
Has Jens Kidman never had a desire to do any writing?
Since he's a guitar player too, I'd say first and foremost a guitar player from where he started. He writes. For instance "Behind the Sun" on Koloss is his track so he writes music. But the lyrical part he hasn't had any aspirations to write at all since the "Destroy, Erase, Improve" album. I know he wrote "Ritual" on "None." I guess there are two guys in the band who are more lyrically inclined than he is so he didn't feel to do it. So he concentrated on writing riffs basically.
You wrote the kind of ambient instrumental "The Last Vigil" on the "Koloss" record. You like exploring this side of things?
Yeah, it's kind of a natural inclination with me. This is funny 'cause I was actually thinking about it just before you called me 'cause I've been doing that for a long, long time since I picked up the guitar. Noodling away at small pieces of the music. I don't know why. I've always just done it that way. I remember recording stuff when I was a kid on a clean guitar sitting at home with a tape recorder and doing overdubs and sh-t and doing a lot of those types of things like certain small melancholic pieces.
That must feed you in a different way than the heavier guitar stuff?
I've always done it and the older I get the more I do it. Actually I've got a s - tload of that stuff but sometimes certain pieces I write them and the other guys hear 'em and they think, "OK, maybe we can use it for something." So that's the way those little noodlings came around. I enjoy it. Yes, it's an expression I really like. Being static in an emotion and putting an expression where there's not a lot of movement and not a lot of stuff happening but still a lot going on as far as the harmonies moving and it's little things that happen. It's kind of trancelike in that manner, which I like.
In 2013 you released the "Pitch Black" EP with that title song on there. Is "Pitch Black" an indication of what the new Meshuggah album might sound like?
Mmm, definitely not since that track is actually an indication of what we were doing in 2003, hah hah.
That was stupid.
No, you wouldn't know this. This is a funny thing about that single. That was released in 2013 and we did it for that tour when I think we had Baroness opening up for us. It was for Koloss regardless and when we released it was because we had this track Tomas and Fredrik wrote and recorded to go with a movie back in the day. I think it was Underworld, the first one. For some reason it was never picked up. They asked us to do it but they never used it for anything so it was a no-go and nothing happened.
So you've had "Pitch Black" laying around for more than 10 years?
We were like, "That's too bad because it was a cool song" but we couldn't use it for anything. Then it's been laying in the closet so to speak and we hadn't been doing s - t until we got asked if there was something we could come up with that we could release together with the tour. So it was kind of a cool thing and it was nice to get it out there 'cause a lot of people seemed to like it.
You're right in the middle of a new album but can you tell us where you are in the recording?
I can tell you where we are - I can't tell you what it's gonna sound like 'cause that's too early yet. It's still early days and we're still trying to find our way. There's a few bits and pieces leftover I'm delving back into and trying to see if it actually could transform into something interesting that we could use this time around. Tomas has been writing some stuff and d-ck and Tomas have been working together on some stuff and I think Jens has been looking into it as well. It's slowly getting going but the only thing I can say is it's starting to feel at least a couple of bits and pieces here and there that make for interesting work. That's where we're at right now.
You describe it as "finding our way." That seems to say you're not sure where an album is going when you first start?
Yeah, sometimes it's chance. You start doing stuff and then all of a sudden you realize [something]. At first it's like I write a riff here and there and then I have half a song there and then I have two parts that sound like an ending of a song. Bits and pieces here and there and then you start working and then start to piece things together. Then you come up with, "Oh, these parts sound really good together, blah blah blah." You're really rudimentary but when you get the first really good feeling about maybe half a song or one song, when you've completed one song that feels like, "This is actually kinda cool stuff. Maybe not 100 percent finished but it's a song and it's kinda really cool," that makes you feel where you're going. Also through the process kind of dictates your terms as well 'cause you don't wanna rewrite the same type of song all over again for 10 songs. So that pushes you and what you've done previously pushes you in certain directions. It's a sub-coconscious thing and it goes on emotion and instinct but it pushes you where to go. So the process itself kind of loops you in this little labyrinth that you need to get through as a mouse and hopefully find a little chocolate at the end of the f--kin' maze.
Another maze is coming up with great guitar sounds. Is that an ongoing process with you?
Yeah. Fredrik is very involved in that, which puts me on the luxury end of this. I can come in and say, "I don't like this. I like this." He does a lot of the work but that's because he's involved with a lot of product development. It's a cool thing but that's something that happens when you pick up the guitar and that search for the way you wanna sound. But some people don't really know what they want.
Very interesting thing to say.
'Cause everybody models their sound on something they already heard. There's no one who does it differently unless it's by chance. You can model your sound after someone else and still make it into your own thing depending on what you do with it. It's the little tweaks - or getting 8-string guitars, hah hah hah. You know what I'm sayin'? There's different ways of going about it but it's always a continuous process.
You're always looking for some new sound?
We've never been a band for settling for that. You know, "OK, this was great last time. Just re-use it, man." There's no fun in that. You've got to make an imprint on every recording so you change stuff up just because of that if not for anything else.
When that sound is lying beneath your fingertips, do you know it's there?
Yeah, and then it depends on who you are. This is a universe of discussion and endless discussion and how do you debate stuff? 'Cause the thing is certain things I think is an awful guitar sound is actually exactly what that guitar player is going for. Then you're getting into that it's actually a matter of taste and not just sheer incompetence [laughter].
That is so true.
Sometimes you might feel a guitar tone is just f--kin' excellent to play. You're like, "Damn, this is awesome" and you're riffing away and then all of a sudden you hear it in the mix and it really doesn't do the trick it does when it's a standalone. 'Cause there's one thing discussing guitar tone and what you can get out of riffing and trying pedals and doing everything with amps and standing around for ages and ages and trying everything out but it's got to work in the actual mix in the end as well. So there are so many things that come into play when it comes to guitar tone. It actually depends on type of album you're recording. Is it a fast album? Slow album? What type of approach do you have and how do you want it to sound?
You've been after the perfect guitar sound since you were very young. Were you a crazy little metal kid back in the day?
[Laughs] No. I guess I picked up the guitar when I was 12. I didn't know many others who played the guitar. I was kind of reasonably alone at least amongst my friends. I was just a rowdy little kid. I was an obnoxious little f--k running around making life miserable for everyone.
Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014