Interview: Meshuggah Discuss Their New Album, 'Koloss'
8 p.m. Doors
The sun is just beginning to set, and the fans outside the House of Blues have begun funneling into the venue. Inside, Poland’s Decapitated are preparing to take the stage. The death metal act is splitting warm-up duties with Atlanta-based proggy sludge-metallers Baroness, who will be debuting a few new tracks from their forthcoming CD, Yellow & Green.
We catch some of the opening acts’ sets before making our way backstage to find Thordendal and Hagström, who are digging into some catering. We then retreat to a small backstage room to discuss the particulars surrounding the creation of Koloss. Like some multifaith confessional booth, the room is adorned with religious relics, candles and an immense smiling Buddha.
“It’s kind of perfect, right?” Hagström says of the booth’s confessional-like atmosphere. After pausing for a moment to speculate on what could make one’s face achieve the Buddha’s ecstatic expression (Enlightenment? Orgasm? Hitting the Mega-Ball Lottery?), our conversation lands on the theory that creative forces exist everywhere, all the time, and that you must discover how to best position yourself to receive the information.
“You absolutely have to tune into it,” Hagström says emphatically. “We’ve actually been discussing this a lot. You know those voice memo things on your iPhone? If I had had one of those for the last 20 years to record my ideas when I was walking around, I would have, like, 10 albums. Every really good idea comes during some spur-of-the-moment event. But rarely do you get a whole song from those moments. Usually it’s one idea that you then have to work to build a whole song around, which means sitting down with the guitar and figuring it out. But the initial inspiration is really like the ghost in the machine.”
“You have to just let it come to you,” Thordendal adds. “For me it can happen anywhere. But mundane situations seem to be the best, like riding the commuter train.”
“It’s whatever allows you to put your consciousness on hold,” Hagström continues. “Whether I’m fishing, sitting on the couch watching TV or walking around outside, my mind is not thinking of anything, and then all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Ohhh!’ And then I run home to grab my guitar.”
For all their technical tendencies—like subdividing 4/4 riffs into unexpected patterns and infusing them with progressive, alien-sounding solos—Meshuggah have always been blessed with heavy, mesmerizing grooves. These, like the distinct attack of Thordendal and Hagström’s picks against their strings, have been an inspiration to the new crop of djent metal bands, whose young guitarists have unequivocally cited the Swedish five-piece as evolutionary ground zero. With the reserved poise of elder statesmen, Thordendal and Hagström have quietly accepted this praise and expressed their support of these young bands. But the pair also harbors concerns that some people may be missing the point: that technicality should always serve the groove.
“People get so caught up with the technical aspect of things,” Hagström says. “If you’re just after sheer speed and technical prowess, there are a lot of other bands that would be more interesting to watch than us. But the technical aspects are never something we seek out. They’re a byproduct of what we want to sound like.”
“In fact, it’s actually disturbing that it becomes so technical,” Thordendal says. “The technical aspects are what cause the problems.”
“We’ve always been about the groove,” Hagström continues. “Granted, we have a pretty twisted way of approaching how we groove. But it’s not all that big of a deal. Sometimes people think we set out to create these crazy patterns and then make them work. That’s not how it works, because most of the time it sounds like shit with that approach. You just have to find the groove and then work with the weird stuff until it makes sense.”
The way a typical Meshuggah album comes together goes something like this: individual members write fully fleshed-out demos of songs and then present them to Haake, at which time he lays down drums for all tracks. The guitar and bass parts are then recorded, followed by the vocals. When it came time to write the tracks that would become Koloss, Meshuggah attempted to switch up their approach in two ways. One stuck; the other didn’t.
“At first we decided to try to go into a jam situation with riffs,” Hagström says. “We started with ‘Swarm.’ I had written stuff for it, but it wasn’t close to being finished. So we got together and felt it out as a band.” The collaboration was a success, as heard in the track’s seething, relentless guitar attack and stinging solo, which cleverly evokes a swarm of insects.
“That solo was so crazy that I almost couldn’t use it,” Thordendal says with a laugh. “It was just so ‘out,’ and honestly, it didn’t sound very good. I had to put so many delays on it. Really, that’s the worst one on the album. But it does sound like a swarm, so I guess it fulfills the function for the song.”
Meshuggah may have hit pay dirt with the group effort that bore “Swarm,” but the collective jam sessions fizzled out nearly as quickly as they began. “It was great, but we just went back to doing what was comfortable,” Hagström says. The rest of the tracks were composed individually by the members and presented to the group as full demos. While the jam-session writing approach didn’t take hold, Meshuggah’s decision to break from tradition and lay down all tracks for each song before moving on to the next proved to be a more lasting endeavor.
“Normally we record drums for all tracks, then guitars and so on,” Hagström says. “But this time, we recorded the drums, then guitars for the same song. So with a track like ‘Swarm,’ we had finished bass, drums and guitars before we even had half of the stuff for the rest of the album done. I think it helped us to get more perspective on the songs, because we had time to be with them during the rest of recording.”
As has been the case for years, for the writing and recording of Koloss, Thordendal and Hagström used a relatively minimal setup consisting of an arsenal of eight-string Ibanez guitars, including Icemans and the M8M models, Fractal Audio Axe-Fx preamps and Cubase recording software. While there may not be many moving parts in the setup, the combination of the Axe-Fx and Cubase allowed for near-endless expandability and experimentation.
“Because of Cubase, even our initial demos are pretty extensive,” Hagström says. “We do bass, guitar and vocal melodies, and programmed drums with Superior Drummer from the Drumkit from Hell [software by Toontrack]. In fact, Fredrik and I wrote more drum riffs on this album than Tomas. Because Fredrik is also a drummer, he knows how you handle the sticks and what is actually physically possible for a drummer to play. But I don’t know that shit. I go crazy with programming.”
“He’s like the [four-armed Indian deity] Shiva on drums,” Thordendal says with a laugh. “But the drums are really so important to our music. They need to be exactly what they are. We can’t say, ‘Here’s the riff, just jam some drums with it.’ When I hear the riff in my head, the drums are there too.”
For his part, Haake had a hand in writing a couple tracks for the new album, including “Do Not Look Down.” To create an illustration that the guitarists could refine, Haake programmed the initial drum track and got Hagström to lay down a riff, which the drummer then cut and stretched to build out the rest of the song. “It turned into the most funky track we’ve ever done,” Hagström says. “It’s like funk-rock Meshuggah.”
“That lead is almost embarrassing,” Thordendal says of the major pentatonic line he plays over the minor riff. “I never play like that, but the song craved a groovy rock-style lead.”
Meshuggah’s relationship with the Cubase software is not only crucial to the demoing process but also defines the band’s sound on record, much to the surprise of their more gear-headed fans. “All the guitars you hear on the album are Cubase with the Amp Rack plug-in for the tone,” Hagström says. “It’s funny, because people are always like, ‘Your guitars sound sick! What amps are you using?’ We’re like, ‘Cubase,’ and they just stare at us.”
Guitar tech Kent Eriksson with Thordendal and Hagstrom's custom Ibanez Iceman eight-strings (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Setlist (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
A rack of Fractal Axe-FX Ultras (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah's road cases (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Marten Hagstrom (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Fredrik Thordendal (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Marten Hagstrom (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Marten Hagstrom & Fredrik Thordendal (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah soundcheck (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)