Meshuggah's Marten Hagstrom on Soundwave, Music and All Things Heavy

Does the music press give you the shits?

Marten Hagstrom, Meshuggah’s rhythm guitarist, is freezing his nuts off in his home town of Arken, in the north of Sweden (at least that what it sounds like, the phone line is typically shocking...). It’s snowing heavily and the thermometer reads minus ten.  No wonder Marten and Meshuggah are looking forward to coming over for Soundwave.

When I ask about Meshuggah’s 2010 appearance at Soundwave, Marten responds with a positive “That was awesome. That was the second time we played Australia, and for us, we’d had such a good club run the first time we were down under we knew we were gonna have a good time. The only thing that was different, particularly with Soundwave, was the fact it’s an outdoor festival and the heat. We had to learn how to cope with that but apart from that, it was spectacular. We’re really looking forward to coming back.” Marten tells me he’s particularly keen to see Mastodon, Devin Townsend and Machine Head, which leads me nicely into my next question; do you ever get a touch of the ‘fanboy’ with any of the bands/musicians that you tour with? “I would say it’s more a respect thing than a fan thing; certain guys in bands that you meet, I have a terrible amount of respect for; like Mike Patton for instance. There’s a bunch of those people; Devin Townsend, I know that dude but it’s still very special every time you meet him because he’s a kindred spirit and he’s a really good guy as well as someone I respect musically on a very high level. So those moments are really cool to be able to experience.”

Given the complex nature of Meshuggah’s music, are you all perfectionists? There’s a lot of 'umms' and 'ahs' before he answers “I don’t know...maybe...I think we might be! I don’t see us as really being super perfectionists but when it comes to writing, we might be because we tend to take a long time between albums because we have a hard time letting go of songs; to actually feel that ‘This is it now, this is finished’. But on the other hand we’re considered to be a pretty technical band performance-wise and that’s something that might be true but it’s not like we really try to do that; it’s not a goal in itself – it’s more us trying to perform our stuff the way it should be and the way we come up with ideas turns out to be pretty messed up, you know?” He laughs as he adds “It’s more a side effect that anything else.”

When I ask if he ever suffers from writers block, I get a hearty “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely.” which should comfort other musicians everywhere. Marten tells me that Meshuggah never write on tour so “...what happens is we finish off an album and then go out touring and when the touring period is starting to cool down, you start feeling like it’s about time to start thinking about new material again. The first couple of ideas always come pretty quickly but then you realise ‘Where are we supposed to take the next album? What’s gonna happen? What’s interesting? What’s inspiring?’ and then all of a sudden you draw a blank and you can’t come up with anything, and then you either have to wait it out or work your way through it. But it happens to all of us occasionally.”

We get talking about that eight string, down tuned sound that is the essence of Meshuggah and he explains what they love about it:“You get a lot of low end that you don’t have access to when you’re playing a six string so that’s always been intriguing. It makes the sound darker and it helps when you’re writing; you get some kind of feedback from the instrument – I don’t know how to put it, it just makes it sound more sinister, more menacing – and that’s something we’ve always been attracted to.”  So no plans to change that approach? “Well, on the new album we’ve got some songs that have a seven string approach, we’ve got one song that, all the way through, is a six string, regular guitar song.” I nearly drop the phone in disbelief. A mere six strings?! Incredible...but don’t worry, the eight string guitars are still there. Koloss, the band’s latest offering is due out in March; how does it differ to previous stuff? Marten’s response is brutally frank. “I don’t have a clue! Obviously I could tell you a lot about it but the thing is, it’s three weeks since we finished it and finalised the last mastering and it takes me at least six months to digest an album, because when you come out the other side of the writing and recording process, it’s a kind of chaos and you really don’t know what to think but where it sits right now, I have to say it’s a more organic band-sounding type of album, and it’s darker and more groovy than ever before.”

Tomas Haake (drums) has confessed to a liking for Rush, not something you’d associate with Meshuggah, are there other influences people may not be aware of? Like Paul Ortiz of Chimp Spanner, Marten cites his parents musical tastes as having an effect on him. “I grew up listening to a lot of Electric Light Orchestra, it wasn’t a choice of my own but it’s just the way things happened because of my parents. I think what you listen to as a kid really forms you a lot.” Aside from listening to Rush, Marten and Tomas listened heavily to King Crimson “...and a couple of other bands. We’re all guys who grew up with pretty diverse styles of music, stuff that our parents played...”

Boston’s Berklee College of Music has apparently incorporated Meshuggah’s back catalogue into their curriculum; what was your initial reaction to that? “Strange. That was my first reaction. Music is music and it’s all about emotion; it doesn’t really matter to me if it’s technical or not. If you listen to something, you like it or you don’t or you think it’s so and so, and that’s all that matters. We could be in the curriculum for all the schools in the world but it wouldn’t really matter at the end of the day. From a personal standpoint, I guess it’s gratifying because if a school brings something that contemporary and that oddball in when they’re trying to teach people about music, I guess it means we’ve made an impact and that’s what you strive for when you start playing in a band – you want people to notice what you’re doing, and have your music make a difference somehow, and I guess that’s what that means. I guess it’s great, you know?”

Rolling Stone magazine said Meshuggah are one of the top ten most important ‘Hard and Heavy’ bands; do these kind of accolades mean anything to you? “To us, I think no. To a lot of other people, it probably does. I don’t think they just pulled a bunch of names so somebody apparently thought we were doing something important so it is kind of cool but I don’t put any real weight into it because in two or three years we might be on the ‘worst fucking piece of shit band ever’ top ten or whatever, so you can’t take that as some kind of receipt on how good you’ve been doing.”

How do you see the evolution of Meshuggah’s music? He gives it some thought before answering “That’s one of those things I’d love to give you a straight answer that was truly correct somehow but the thing is I think it’s probably best for someone else to explain...We try to keep it from a standpoint where we feel that this is a natural flow and whatever feels natural doing today is what we are today and whatever we do in five years or five years ago is less important. It’s a matter of the ‘here and now’; there are so many things that come into play when you think about why you sound a certain way, why an album turned out a certain way, why you wrote songs a certain way, I think it’s almost arrogant to say that you know; you know what I’m saying? That would mean you have to psychoanalyse yourself to the point of not really having the time to play the guitar! I’ll stick to that...” Speaking of musical evolutions, have you seen the Meshuggah mash-ups with Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne? They’re pretty fucking awful ...Marten is laughing hard as he says “I think it’s kind of funny; the only one I’ve heard myself is the Lady Gaga one. I was laughing my ass off; somebody actually took the time to sit down and do this stuff?! You wonder why but I see it as a joke, I had a good time watching it.” It’s certainly something to pass the time on the tour bus. Speaking of which, what’s happening  with the UK/Europe dates after Soundwave? “It’s mostly the UK for two weeks and then we have ten days off before hitting the States in May. It’s gonna be interesting.”

You’ve toured with Tool, Slayer and Cannibal Corpse to name but a few. Who haven’t you toured with that you’d like to? “Oh man! There are a bunch of bands - I would like to tour with anything that Mike Patton plays in; we were on Soundwave [2010] with Faith No More and we met up with the guys but a separate tour...” Marten gets lost in the sexiness of the whole idea, coming back to add “...but on the other hand, we’ve already been pretty lucky because Slayer are our boyhood heroes and Tool are such a great and inspirational band so just touring with those two has been really awesome but there’s a bunch of cool bands we’d love to tour with...”

I mention a video of Tomas and Jens Kidman (vocals) doing a Q & A interview. They get asked some pretty painful questions but manage to respond in both an amusing and diplomatic way. To put it bluntly, does the media side of music industry give you the shits? I thought that perhaps I might have to rephrase this one but Marten immediately sees the point I’m making: “On the one hand you get to talk to and meet a lot of people that are in the industry and have, what I would say, is a sensible view on things and what the music industry is and why people are into it and then on the other hand, you have to deal with a lot of people where you’re like ‘I don’t see the point of this at all’ but I guess that comes with the territory. If you’re in the loop media-wise then you’re bound to get some crazy stuff, you’re bound to get some retarded stuff, and you’re bound to get some really cool stuff so you just have to deal with it.” He expresses an interest in the more abstract and left of centre questions, which is handy because my final question is just that; having toured extensively, you must have seen some pretty fucked up stuff; how do you see the world?  “Oooh! That’s a big topic!” And laughing, he continues “To compromise it somewhat, the world has the same duality that life itself has; there’s really a lot of cool shit around, a lot of cool people and a lot of cool countries and a lot of good stuff going on and there’s a lot of fucked up shit. I don’t know how I see the world but I know that touring has helped me understand a lot of the things about people and humanity that I wouldn’t have picked up if I’d just stayed in Sweden, that’s for sure. Maybe you thought of the world in a certain way and then you’re exposed to different cultures and you realise ‘OK, this side of their culture I cannot grasp because it really doesn’t make any sense but on the other hand, they have this part of their culture that makes more sense than what we have back home in Sweden’ so you learn all the time.”

An answer that is both to the point and articulate. Just like a Meshuggah track.