Music journalists of the world, beware! Swedish noisemakers Meshuggah are back with a vengeance, and a forty seven-minute musical piece entitled “Catch Thirty Three”.
In a central London hotel, guitarist Marten Hagstrom looked very relaxed and more than willing to explain the idea behind the band’s new album, why the members of his band look like idiots when they go on stage, as well as his constant struggle to understand what the term “Math Metal” is supposed to mean!
Hi Marten and welcome to the United Kingdom. You have just released your latest effort “Catch Thirty Three”. What is the general feeling within the ranks of the band?
Marten: We’re feeling pretty good. You know, starting out promoting your new release is kind of weird, because you never know what people’s reaction is going to be. Now, it’s been a while since we actually finished the album and looking back to it, we are really happy with what we have released. Hopefully, it’s going to do well. We are kind of an experimental band – we always want to try new stuff out, and I believe that we went really out of the norm with this one. We really tried some really weird stuff out, so I hope that it’s going to work out!
I have to admit that my knowledge of the band’s releases is quite limited, but from the research that I did prior to this interview, I realised that “Catch Thirty Three” is probably not the most suitable album to get acquainted with Meshuggah’s music.
Marten: I think that it really depends on where you’re coming from, musically speaking. Whenever we release an album, we somehow manage to gain some fans, but when we release our following album, these same fans are like “this is not what I was expecting”. This means that we may end up losing some of them, but again we gain some new ones. That’s what happens each and every time. We are not very commercially viable, but that’s how we do things. The reason is that we didn’t get into this whole music thing in order to become millionaires. We are here in order to record albums for ourselves – albums that we will feel proud of. We say that this album is probably as good as any other, but having said that, “Catch Thirty Three” is a forty seven-minute song, which is divided into thirteen sub-chapters. It may sound like a really strange thing to do, but people that have been listening to it, reporters like you, have diverse opinions. Some think, “oh, what is this all about”, and some others are attracted by the fact that it’s a different concept – not the ordinary framework of a five-minute song, four-minute song. I guess you can say that it’s pretty inaccessible, but at the same time some other parts aren’t. We are really proud of it.
I am quite a big fan of bands like Mekong Delta and Watchtower, so I believe that I can understand and appreciate that sort of experimentation in music. I always wondered though as to how fan-friendly such a strategy really is. I realise that the Meshuggah fans will not be that surprised with it, but the rest of the metalheads will have to be really patient in order to understand and accept this album. Do you trust that people who, like me, will only now get introduced to the band, will be open-minded enough to discover what “Catch Thirty Three” has to offer?
Marten: I...we don’t know! That’s the gamble that we took by releasing such an album. The only thing that we can do, I guess, is to...it’s hard to describe it, so I will put it like this: We are in a symbiosis, kind of thing. We are therefore really weird guys from that respect – not that it means that we’re weird people in general, but only when we are trying to find ways of expressing ourselves through our music.
We’d rather sell a couple of albums less and feel proud of what we have done, rather than say “Ok, let’s divide this album into easy songs, so that the fans can easily listen to it”. That would be like cheating ourselves.
We’ve never been the kind of band that fans could easily get into at first listen. That’s one of the benefits of being who we are. We don’t really care that much - not that we don’t care about our fans.
We love our fans, and that’s why we’re here, but for every album that we release we do something that they are not expecting us to. Therefore, to suddenly start being predictable would be like cheating them. At the same time, I totally understand what you’re saying. Since every album of ours is that weird, some people might lose patience with it. They might not give it those extra five spins which would help them realise what this album is all about, but that’s a risk that we’re willing to take.
If we wanted everyone to grasp what we’re doing, and people to easily get into our groove, we would then have to play pop music. We’re trying to fill a void, where we feel that this is a band that we like. When I pick up one of our albums, I want to be able to feel like this is the album that I would like to go and buy for myself. That’s the only objective that we’re really trying to satisfy. “Are we happy with this album? Ok, yes, let’s release it – we’ll worry about the rest later”. We never think consciously “would it be cool to have a three-minute song for a video? Wouldn’t it be better to do this and that?” Well, maybe, but that has nothing to do with our creative process. We end up doing what comes natural to us, and if people like it...awesome, if not...sorry, but we cannot do anything about it!
I guess that people are also a bit insecure because of knowing that this is your last release with Nuclear Blast. Knowing of the tension between the band and the label, it would be quite natural to fear that you would simply try to get out of this situation by releasing an album that would not enjoy your utmost attention, if you know what I mean.
Marten: To be totally honest, I understand why these rumours have appeared everywhere, and I have heard many people sharing the same thought with you, but just sit down and think about it for a moment. We have been working for this album for over a year and we are also going to go on tour in order to support that album. We are going to make a three-week tour starting from the 20th of May in Stockholm, and we are going to finish here in Donnington.
Now, I find that really strange because I remember reading an interview where you guys said that you were not willing to tour for this album and for your MCD “I” (2004). Is that not the case anymore?
Marten: Exactly. We are going to go on tour, but we’re not really sure which parts we should play from it, if anything. What we’re going to do is to first of all finish this promo trip. Then we’re going to go back, rehearse and try out some stuff from “I”, some stuff from this one and see what where we’re going to go with this whole thing.
I think that this whole issue of us not going on tour is a misinterpretation thing. What we have been saying is that “Catch Thirty Three” is not a live album, and it’s not! It’s not one of those albums where you have eight songs to pick from. This is a release which you can only pick parts from and work with them in a live situation, but it doesn’t mean that this album is in any way less serious than the previous albums we have done – it’s just different.
We’ve put so much work into this release, and especially since it’s going to be the last with this label, wouldn’t it be really stupid of us to release a sh*tty album that would not allow us to get a new contract? We’re out of a contract now, so, who would pick us up if we were to release the worst album ever in the history of this band? At the same time, you don’t spend a year of your time in the studio working for an album that you believe sucks. We are going to promote it as well as we can, and if people think that we’re not too serious about it, then that’s too bad. Some of the parts of this album are some of the best that we’ve done in a certain respect.
I think that you have made your point. How would you judge “Catch Thirty Three” compared to the band’s previous releases?
Marten: I will once again say that many people find it quite inaccessible, because of the fact that it is forty seven minutes long and also of all these different moves that are present in it. Other people that have listened to it seem to feel that it’s more accessible than anything that we’ve ever done. When we were doing the press in the states, everybody was ecstatic and we many times heard people saying “wow, this is awesome – I really think that you guys are going to get across to more people now”. Then you talk to other people, and they’re like “this is very, very strange”, so I don’t know how to really value or judge that.
Personally I think that this album, as far as the guitars are concerned, is stranger than everything that we’ve done so far. At the same time, though, it is not like “Chaosphere”, which is more like an explosion – an intense and hectic album. That album made you feel as if you were run over by something (laughs). That album came out in 2002, and it was a mid-pace, groovier type of album. “I”, the EP that we’ve released last summer, was kind of a chart of what we have released before.
We took elements from every album as far as the general atmosphere was concerned. This one is sort of like the Meshuggah soundtrack album. This music that we have recorded is like a soundtrack to a nightmare or something like that.
I believe that it also has to do with the fact that there is an important absence of melody in this new release of yours. The album sounds dark and gloomy with moments where it sounds extremely angry and others when it’s insanely depressing. Was the absence of melodies something intentional?
Marten: I know what you’re saying. We have always been like that, though - even in ‘95, when we released an album called “Destroy Erase Improve”, which was more melodic in certain places. I think that “Chaosphere” has pretty much no melody at all – it is like a big explosion. “Nothing” has some parts that are a little bit more melodic, but I would say that Meshuggah’s music has pretty much melody absence. You’re making a good point with what you said because, that’s not a conscious thing. When the four of us sit down to write music, that’s the aspects of our music that we are trying to put emphasis on – that dark, weird and not totally stable vibe. This, of all the albums that we have recorded so far, expresses those feelings the best. Even though it has no high-pitched melodies as you said, the harmonic work that goes into the rhythms is really intricate. I know that some people don’t like that, but that’s all right. That’s the vibe that we want to get across. We are not a Pop band – we want to put emphasis on what is dark. I don’t know why, but that’s how it works with us.
Did you go through some tough times when you started to envision this new release of yours?
Marten: We were in a pretty good mood actually because we straightaway felt that this was a project that we could work with. We had no time limit, nor did we have to worry as to how many songs we would go for. We had to write one piece of music, and we just went for it – no restrictions and no complications. That was very liberating, and I will also say that we have never been as inspired as a band, as we were while “I” and “Catch Thirty Three” were recorded. Normally, when we record an album we are under a large amount of stress, but this time we were far more relaxed and open to new ideas. When someone was coming with a new idea, we were like “yeah, that’s cool”. When we were recording this song, I felt the same like when I was sixteen and was rehearsing again. We were four guys really getting into what we were doing, and simply brainstorming all night long in the studio. That’s one of the reasons why we like it so much. I never listen to our old albums. I think that they’re good, otherwise I wouldn’t be in the band, but I never go back to listen to them. This one I do! This one I can listen to anytime, and I kind of like this.
Do you think that this is a release that you would be able to listen to under any circumstances?
Marten: I don’t think that this album is party material – I wouldn’t throw it on if I were doing a party for my pals, even if they were Metalheads. To me, this is an album that you can listen to only when you are concentrated enough and this stands for all of our albums. Meshuggah’s music demands your full attention. There are so many little things that are constantly changing in our music that you need to pay attention in order to understand them. It’s not as if all these changes are taking place in the background. Sitting at home, in the dark, putting your headphones on in your apartment...this is the perfect album for it. That has to do a little bit with that soundtrack feel that I was telling you about earlier. We have had many people saying that the more they listen to our music, the more new things they have managed to pick up. That’s also the kind of music that I like, when I listen to my favourite album for the 30th time, and I’m like “Oh yeah, I didn’t really notice that before”.
Explain this to me please. You guys have said on quite a few occasions, that you never compose complete songs, but instead, you write parts that you then mix together and create the final compositions. What is really interesting, especially since “Catch Thirty Three” is one piece of music, is to see if putting together this album was a very difficult thing to do, knowing your composing habits.
Marten: Well, believe it or not, it was actually easier that way. If we were trying to put together this album simply by jamming it through in the studio, we would have never managed to do that. When we right music, there is no exact rule. Sometimes, I might compose something with Thomas (Haake: Drums), or Thomas may write something with Frederick (Thordendal: guitar). Some other times, Frederick brings a whole song that he has prepared at his home to the studio and says “listen to this”...it depends.
We don’t have a specific way of composing songs, and that has helped us a lot in creating this album. When we first sat to create this album, we said, “Ok, what do we have here? Hmm, this part is cool, that one two so let’s decide” Then we thought “what do we have that is good enough to be used as the base upon which we will build the whole album? Ok, this is good”, and then we started brainstorming and all of the sudden, the snowball started rolling.
Sometimes we managed to create thirteen minutes of music in one go, and other times we couldn’t write a single note. We would try to come up with ideas for two weeks and nothing would happen until, all of the sudden, one of us would go like “wait, what if we did that...” and the snowball would start rolling again. It was indeed a very strange writing process, but this way of writing helped us finish this album.
I am not going to try to explain the album to you because that is your job, but I feel that the first six tracks of the album are part of the same unit. Then, you have a short break with “Mind’s Mirrors” and what follows then are more aggressive tracks. There is a very specific structure that this album has and that I would like you to explain to me.
Marten: We started out with this idea, that the first couple of tracks would be quite monotonous with a few minor changes here and there, so as to create a hypnotic groove. As you said before, and I like the fact that you also considered this to be the case, this is a forty seven-minute song, which was structured after the whole process was finished. We made that monotonous rhythm in the beginning of the album to last as long as it will take to put you in that trance, and after that was achieved, we made a short break to bring everyone back to reality.
Then, as you correctly noticed, the closer you get to the end of the album, the songs pick up some pace. There are dynamics in the way we play: first you have a metal riff, then you have a slower metal riff and then you have some clean guitars. After we’ve taken things down a bit, we become more aggressive. It’s all about dynamics really. You have one riff for three minutes, then you change a bit, and then you have another riff for the next two minutes.
Riffs are becoming shorter, and after a while become longer and longer...dynamics were used on every level. We used three--dimensional dynamics this time round, instead of going slow-fast, slow-fast. We used all the expressions that we could.
We used our guitars a lot more this time, since we have a lot of clean guitar parts in this album. We wanted to build the album like that and what we realised afterwards was, that this song has a similar structure to classical musical pieces.
Certain movements are very long, very much making a point, and we also have shorter structures that create another movement. This album has nothing to do with verses or pre-chorus, the usual song structures.
We have this weird tonality that’s not really connected to any type of music at all. That was not intentional – we just sat down and thought that this was the correct musical way to get our point across. It took some time for us to finish it, since we had those short breaks that I talked about earlier, but at the end we were like “Ok, we’re here – this riff that we have with us, this guitar part, it’s definitely the end of the album”. Everybody knew when that happened. We didn’t care how long that was. When we listened to the tonality of the song, we decided to finish it there and then. For us, it was a relief to get this thing out of our system – to be able to do something that felt right all the way.
So, getting back to the early question, this is the one album that has the soul of Meshuggah in it. That’s because we didn’t care about anything rather than making this statement!
OK, the album will soon be released, the band has quite a good name all over the world and especially in the States where you’re literally worshipped, so...what’s next? After the expiration of the Nuclear Blast contract, do you feel confident enough that you will get a good offer by another label?
Marten: We had some labels showing interest and we’ve been quite happy with that. As far as this supposed conflict with Nuclear Blast is concerned, you would be very interested to know that one of the labels that has also made an offer to us is also Nuclear Blast (note: now I’m confused). They have made a quite decent offer that we are definitely going to consider, and it should not seem strange if we decide to sign again with them within the next two months. That’s why we’re not really happy with all those rumours which say that we are not willing to work with Nuclear Blast anymore, or the ones that urge people not to buy “Catch Thirty Three” because the band doesn’t want it to succeed. If this album fails to sell, the impact would not go on Nuclear Blast but on Meshuggah. That will kill our chances of getting a new deal that will kill our chances for anything. For Nuclear Blast, it will be a minor setback at worst.
In reality, this album is the best that we could offer. After we finish this promo tour, we are going to go back home to do practice for the short tour that I told you about before and then we will start writing our new album. We are going to be writing for the whole of the summer, because we want to get a new deal that will see us release our new album which we will support with a full live tour. This time round, it will be a three week tour in Europe and two to three weeks in the States, and that’s it!
Next time round, we’re going to do a full-blown European tour, like with “Nothing” for which we did something like 140 shows.
I want to get back to what I said about you guys being really popular in the States. I am not going to refer to that nonsense about Jack Osbourne’s TV show being responsible for it, because you have been around long before that whole thing. What I want to ask you though is to explain your popularity to the “New World”, since we all know that Americans are pro-popular when it comes to music.
Marten: If I could, I would (laughs). We started as any other European band in 1991, and at that time, there was no particular interest from the States. When we toured there, we got good reviews but we only sold limited copies of our albums, which were also quite difficult to get. For some reason, a lot of people from the underground scene back there started talking about us – especially guys in bands. So, some bands like Machine Head started namedropping us, asking people to check us out and our popularity started to steadily grow.
We actually knew nothing about that, and when I went over there late in 1995 for promotion, I was like “what the fu*k”. I made so many interviews, I must have been on the phone for something like a week. It took us three years after that to go there for live shows and that was on an invitation from the Milwaukee Festival where we played the second headliner slot. The place blew up that day, and we all of the sudden realised that America must be a market for us.
Slayer asked us to go on tour with them, and that helped a lot. At the same period, we released “Chaosphere” (1998), so everything just happened in a way. After we prepared our stuff for the release for “Nothing”, we were offered to play the Ozzfest. We also did an arena tour with Tool in the States...I guess that were were really lucky.
There seems to be a very strong progressive scene in the States – people want to get into stuff that have never been heard before. In Europe, and especially in Sweden, there is a progressive Metal community but it’s very small, and same applies for places like England.
In America, being one country, people talk to each other. People from Sweden don’t really communicate with the progressive Metal guys from Italy – there is a difference there. That’s why I believe that the Metal scene in Europe is not that good. We have many bands in places like Germany, and people really love our music in many places in Europe, but the majority of the people like Metal that sounds like slogan music with distorted guitars in my ears. This music is not provocative, it doesn’t expand any limits...it doesn’t have to be controversial or very extreme, but it had to be at least aggressive, and it’s not even that.
Things are going to change at some point though with bands like the Dillinger Escape Plan who are playing here tonight. In America, a lot of bands like Killswitch Engage and Dillinger Escape Plan are doing good – not super well, but better that in Europe. In America though, you’ve got so much sh*t on top of that like the emo, hardcore sh*t and everything like that. It is unfair to say that Europe is not that hard as America – it’s just that there is a difference there. We really enjoy touring Europe and we are looking forward for this upcoming tour, because we have quite relaxed on the European side of things. We have been so much in the States...it’s a shame really, because we are from Europe – we’re a European band!
One of the biggest problems that a band like Meshuggah can cause to a music journalist is with regards to categorising the band’s music. I have heard so many different ways of people referring to your music, but the one that I’m still really laughing about is “Cyber Metal”.
Marten: I’ve also heard a lot of them like “Math Metal”, “Cyber Metal”...
How do you explain that then? Are you guys practising Physics in your spare time?
Marten: I don’t know (laughs). You know what’s funny? This is something that I’ve only realised a couple of days ago. When we started getting good tours in the US, we read a lot of magazines which featured interviews with the band, and many journalists were referring to Meshuggah as a “Swedish underground Math Metal” – that was back in 1997. Three days ago I was back home in Stockholm and, while on the tube, I was reading a free magazine called “Metro”. There was an article which said “Dillinger Escape Plan comes to Sweden – the masters of “Math Metal”...” This was very cool, because they didn’t know that we were the first ever band to be given such a name, and that was almost nine years ago. I still though don’t know what “Math Metal” is supposed to mean! If it were up to me to describe our music, I would say that we play strange, aggressive music. I know that it sounds stupid.
On the contrary, I think that it sums things up quite well.
Marten: They’re all very general, but that’s the only description that I find suitable enough. Our music is sometimes really strange and some other times really aggressive – that’s it!
Listening to “Catch Thirty Three”, I was trying to picture myself being in a Meshuggah gig, trying to experience the whole thing. It must be a really interesting experience, but you’d better tell me about it. When you’re on stage performing your songs, what is the normal reaction of the people that attend the gig from your eyes?
Marten: When we play live, we go up there and we act like idiots (laughs). It’s the ordinary headbanging fury, you know what I mean? When we are on stage, we try to focus on the intensity of the whole thing, because in a live environment, the sonality kind of gets lost. We are a band that normally comes across as a freaked out and aggressive outfit, and that’s what we’re trying to emphasise in. I am doing so much weird sh*t when I’m on stage. I am sweating, I have hair everywhere, I’m headbanging while playing guitar and the people are either stagediving or moshing. I really don’t know what people feel, but quite a few of them told me that when we’re at our very best, we’re like like a rollercoaster with a dark, ambient overtone, or we make people feel like they have been run over by a train. That was Danny Carey from the Tool that said that. He said “I watch you guys every night, and it’s like standing in front of a freight train waiting to crash”.
That’s quite a compliment(I laugh).
Marten: Yes (laughs). We feed up by this energy and that’s important to us. It’s also cool to see a band like Tool though. They are not even on stage yet, and you see these dark images appearing out of nowhere...I would also like to do that one day, but thinking of it we’re a Metal band and everything has to do with energy! I hope that when you see us live, you will be like most of the people who see us for the very first time and that normally say “what the fu*k are these guys doing?” That’s the most common reaction that we get.
One thing that strikes me as particularly funny is that a lot of people that haven’t seen us live but have heard our music, think that we cannot play our songs live. I have heard things like “Tomas must be using triggers on his drums” and things like that. When they finally see us live they go “alright, so you actually do play these songs live, just the way they are on the album”.
We have done this kind of thing for years, and even though this album has programmed drums, you cannot really hear it. It is so hilarious to hear people say “well, if it sounds like real drums, why didn’t they play it”. There are many different reasons for that. It’s because of our personal convenience.
There are people out there who are more concerned of how things are made rather than focusing on our music vision...I love that psychology – I don’t understand it, but I always try to because it is a phenomenon that I find immensely interesting. If you like a painting, you like it for what it is – does it really matter how the artist came up with that idea? That’s the way we are and that’s why we do things the way we do.
If it was your job to try to convince somebody to buy “Catch Thirty Three”, what would you say to them?
Marten: To buy this album? (laughs).
Yes, apart from the lovely picture of you guys on the back cover of the promo that is (I laughs).
Marten: Apart of the lovely picture...My sales pitch for this album would be “you cannot get this music anywhere else”. To me, it’s one of the best albums that I’ve done in a long album. In Sweden you cannot do that – you cannot say that you have done something good, because they don’t give a sh*t about what you have to say (laughs).
The highlights of your career as a member of Meshuggah so far?
Marten: You would not believe it for a small band like us, but we have quite a few highlights.
Touring with Tool was really great. It was an experience of a lifetime – not because they are a big band and all that stuff...They are – they are really good and they do some of the best shows that I’ve ever seen. What made it so special to us was the fact that they were really nice guys. I like them a lot – every single one of them. Machine Head were fuck*ng excellent!
We’ve had so much luck because every band we’ve toured with was great. Tool takes the cake though. Those guys were like “alright, we like you guys. You’re going to get 45 minutes on stage, you’re going to play in front of 20.000 people every night, you are going to get a real fuck*ng soundcheck and you can use all our stuff”. On top of that, it turns out that they’re the nicest guys on Earth.
We met up with Danny Carey when Tomas and I were in the States doing this promotion thing, and it was nice to see him again because I really missed him! We are like family, and maybe those are strong words for many people but we’ve done two tours with them, one for three and a half weeks and one for eight and a half weeks and we had so much fun. They respected us and we respected them, so the vibe was so friendly – everybody was in a great mood all the time. That was the best tour I ever did, and one of the high points.
Second comes touring with Slayer, because they were my childhood favourites. It was great opening up for these guys. I remember listening to their records in my boy room fourteen years ago...oh boy. Musical highpoint was the fact that I have finished recording this album. I really liked it when I was given the chance to sit back and listen to it, after working with the song for so long, realising that this is the one time that I came so close to recording something that I really don’t want to interfere with anymore. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says.
Marten, I have finished with my questions. I really enjoyed doing this interview with you. Any last words.
Marten: I have one message which is really fuck*ng simple: stay safe, and buy all our sh*t (laughs).
Interview © 2005