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Exclusive! Interview With Meshuggah Axeman Mårten Hagström

By Krishta Abruzzini, Pacific Northwest Writer
Monday, June 16, 2003 @ 10:08 PM

From Sweden To Succeeding In <

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At a time when rock groups are more desperately competitive than ever, the collective rush of Nothing, the latest release from Meshuggah, makes a fission statement that is as much about mass as it is amplification. Often accused of having a jazz-fusion resonance, overlaid with impenetrable metal riffs, Meshuggah gives more than just the price of admission, no matter how you label them.

Formed in Umeå, Sweden in 1987, Meshuggah has recently (within the past couple of years), found their niche within the music industry. Having guru guitarist Zakk Wylde as a fan, not to mention the Osbourne family, probably hasn’t hurt with the band’s hurdle to fame either.

I recently spoke with Guitarist Mårten Hagström about the music business, life on the road and what life is like being a member of Meshuggah.

KNAC.COM: Mårten, how are you?
MÅRTEN: We’re still pretty much jetlagged. Even though we’ve been here since the day before yesterday. The first night is always kind of like: you crash out and then wake up after just a couple of hours, because you’re still on the European time schedule.

KNAC.COM: So did you guys play last night?
MÅRTEN: We played Seattle last night. I don’t remember most of it, because we were so beat. We got into Seattle around 4pm, and then we went on around 11:30pm. It was pretty late.

KNAC.COM: I checked-out your tour schedule, and it said you guys would be in Seattle, to Portland, to Vancouver BC, and then back down to San Francisco. That’s a whole lot of traveling. Why not a straight line?
MÅRTEN: That’s something you learn to live with when you’re out on tour. Out of all the tours we’ve been doing, there are always cities that get shifted around at some point. Seattle to Portland to Vancouver to San Francisco’s really not that big of a deal actually. I remember last summer on the Ozzfest tour, we were in Atlanta, and then we went to Montreal with System of a Down and then back to the states. That was rough.

KNAC.COM: You’re from Sweden?
MÅRTEN: Yeah. Born and raised.

KNAC.COM: You have absolutely no accent.
MÅRTEN: Some people pick up languages faster than others. In Sweden, we don’t dub our movies or sitcoms—in fact, we get a lot of it from America. I started reading English books when I was around eleven.

KNAC.COM: Well isn’t the school system set up so that for a certain portion of the years, you speak nothing but English?
MÅRTEN: For six years, actually. They don’t really enforce it, because they know that for some people it’s really tough—even if you’re starting as a kid. The way they figure, and I think it’s totally correct, is that if you start that early with at least one universal global language, you’re going to be able to communicate your way out of almost anything in a given situation. Like in Germany and France, it’s horrible. Even though they take other languages, they really just shun it—because they’re so proud of their own language and they refuse to speak others.

KNAC.COM: We’re kind of like that here as well.
MÅRTEN: I know, I know. But if you’re in France, and I go up to someone and tell them I’m from Sweden, and ask them, “Where’s the nearest pharmacy?”—they’re like, “Parlez-vous Francais.” And then I’ll try a couple of words in French, and I fail miserably. I really suck at it. So it’s only when they notice that you at least tried to speak French, then they’ll speak to you in English.

KNAC.COM: Well at least here in the States, we’ll be arrogant and tell you to learn English, period. It’s the American way, after all [sarcasm]. So, let’s talk about your latest release, Nothing. The response has been good?
MÅRTEN: Yeah. Or at least, I think it’s been good [laughs]. We’re happy with it. We had a hard time getting it out there. We had some problems after the last album we toured it for nearly two years. When the touring was done, we sat down and kind of figured out that we needed to make a decision. We were at that point in our career that we wanted control over our own operations. So we bought a studio together with some friends of ours. It was a joint venture in which we started a company. And that takes a lot of time. Administrative stuff is never easy, especially for a metal head. We’re like basically managing ourselves and doing everything.

KNAC.COM: Are you guys still with Nuclear Blast?
MÅRTEN: The last album was on Nuclear Blast, but we’re done with the actual deal now, so we’re shopping. But we’ve got like three or four offers right now, one of which is from Nuclear Blast, because they want to keep us. We’re thinking that we’ll do this tour, go home, and then we’ll sit down and negotiate. There’s really no rush. We’ve got a couple of festivals this summer, we’re going to start writing new material, perhaps do a European tour. But slowly, we’re trying to figure out where we want to go.

KNAC.COM: Now if you guys have your own studio and are basically managing yourselves, does that mean you’re not getting label support?
MÅRTEN: We’ve always been into producing ourselves, right from the start. We’re always picky and uptight about what we do with our music. Why should we have a label that gives us an advance to go into a studio and then tells us what we should do, when we know it already. So the investment thing is like, we put a lot of money into the studio, so we can benefit when we get the advance the next time. Then we can spend the money on stuff that is important, first of all for our survival, but then promotional things, like DVDs and things you don’t ordinarily get to think about [within the constraints of a label].

KNAC.COM: Do you get to keep the ownership of the material you’ve done thus far with Nuclear Blast, if you choose to go elsewhere?
MÅRTEN: We’re the owners, and they license it. They’ve got a really long licensing period though. It’s like ten years from the day we delivered the master. So it’s theirs to use for that period. On the other hand, the first album came out in like ’91, so we’ve been around. And the second EP, None, came out about ’94 and then, Selfcaged and Improve came out in around ’95. So in 2005, we’ll be able to sell the rights for the first three albums to any other licensee if we want to, or produce them ourselves.

KNAC.COM: That’s great. I’ve heard of bands that have been dropped by labels, only to have the label have ownership of the material, and then ultimately shelve the work forever. The artist can never touch it. That just doesn’t seem fair.
MÅRTEN: That sucks. As soon as you sign over your rights forever, they get to sell the actual music you produce. The thing is that I think a lot of guys in bands are starting to get wise to that fact, that labels do this. A lot of guys that I know in bands, that have been around a lot longer than we have, are very thankful that they have their recording rights to the master. But a lot of bands are still fucking signing them away.

KNAC.COM: Well the labels dangle that little bit of money in front of the band, and to a certain extent, guys that have worked hard to get some recognition, are totally awed by the thought of being a “signed” band.
MÅRTEN: It doesn’t mean anything.

KNAC.COM: That’s true. So, I know your fans would love to have a live CD from you guys—is that a possibility?
MÅRTEN: We’ve been thinking about it. Right now, it has to do with the label situation we’ve been in. Nuclear Blast might do it because they already have our back catalogues and they might want to wait a little bit for a new album. But if we sign with a new label, they’re not going to want to put out a live album first. It also goes back to us being picky; we have to have a certain venue and set of eight or more nights to cut from, that we know are going to be good venues that will sound good for the recording. Live CDs can be perfect, if the sound is right, but personally, I think 80% of live CDs suck. I mean, I suppose it’s a good thing for die-hard fans to have.

KNAC.COM: Will the next album be comparable to that of Nothing? And what direction would you like it to go in?
MÅRTEN: There’s only one thing I really feel that is important. We’ve never measured our success in terms of sales, because we’re quite an extreme band. It’s more that people understand where we’re coming from. I get more out of a fan coming up and saying that we’ve totally changed their way of looking on metal music, than having like 200 kids buy it. I mean, it would be nice for the money, but that’s not why we’re in it. So what I’d like to see is that we keep progressing. Keeping the core of what Meshuggah has always been, but exploring the bar, so to speak. Destroy, Erase, Improve was like exploring the dynamics of the band, Chaosphere was exploring the aggressiveness, the all-out side, and Nothing is more of a sinister, dark, pretty slow album, actually. So honestly, now I don’t know where we’re going. It might be a mix of all of them.

KNAC.COM: I’ve heard some of the fans saying that they wanted to hear more jazz/fusion as in the previous albums, in which you guys have kind of made as a trademark.
MÅRTEN: It’s always funny, because when we released Chaosphere, there were a lot of fans that said they missed all the harmonics in it. And now that we released Nothing, people are like, “Well, it’s not has harmonic as Destroy, but it’s more harmonic than Chaosphere. Now the fans, who like Chaosphere, think that it’s too much.

KNAC.COM: Confusing.
MÅRTEN: [laughs] Exactly. We’ve never really thought about it to that extent, actually. I saw a discussion on the Internet once, where one of the fans said, “I like all their albums, but my favorite is Chaosphere, because it’s more of a progressive album.” And someone replied, “Dude, you’re fucked up, Destroy, Erase was their best.” And the third guy came in and said, “You missed the point, totally. Whenever you pick up a new CD from this band, they’re going to deliver a little bit of the unexpected. So you need to adjust to it. Just when you adjusted to it, they release a new album, that’s a little different.” So basically, if you want to stick with us and go through our journey as a band, that’s alright. And if you don’t, that’s alright, too.

KNAC.COM: Was there a background of jazz or fusion for any of you?
MÅRTEN: No. We don’t see it as fusion at all, but a lot of people perceive it that way. I can see where they’re coming from in a way. But none of us are schooled musicians; none of us are into fusion or stuff like that. That part of our music, and what it does for us, is it sets the aggressive parts and perspective and creates dynamic. None of us want to take it down and play traditional, slow metal parts. Then all of a sudden you’re Guns ‘N Roses. We want to keep it interesting, at least for us. Probably that’s why it comes off as a little freeform, sketchy—a little different than you would ordinarily hear in metal.

KNAC.COM: So starting from the beginning, you guys have been around for quite a while. From reading about you a little, it sounds like the band was more of a sideline project for you guys initially, in that you all had jobs and did the band thing off and on?
MÅRTEN: Since we’re from Sweden, it’s a little bit different than it is here. The system in Sweden is set up in where you can actually do both things—you don’t have to work full-time. To us, it’s always been serious and the closest thing to our heart. I mean even though there was a dream that one day we might make a living off of this, what we all have in common in this band is that we always had the vision that we’d always create something unique for us. And if we can make a living off of it, then great. But I guess we did not aim at being career musicians. We just played in a band to see where it would take us.

KNAC.COM: I hear that you guys get your inspiration for writing music from books and life experiences. Is that true?
”If you’re expressing something, there’s got to be more substance to it than just hearing a great song and trying to reproduce it. For us, it’s what we read, what movies we watch, and the people we meet.”
MÅRTEN: We’re metal guys. And we’re into the scene and know a lot of bands. But we’re not the typical, generic band that go to concerts in our off time. Actually, I’ve never been a great concert-goer. Music is a form of expression. If you’re expressing something, there’s got to be more substance to it than just hearing a great song and trying to reproduce it. For us, it’s what we read, what movies we watch, and the people we meet. Something that makes you think. That feeling can translate into individual ideas. If I’m watching a movie and all of a sudden that mood you get from it will transfer into an idea for a song.

KNAC.COM: Do you have an example?
MÅRTEN: Yeah. The movie that I can watch like a million times and always sets me in the mood for wanting to write music is Jacob’s Ladder. It’s awesome and very dark. It’s something that’s very powerful. It has a lot to do with music in the warmth and where you are. The multi-layers that we try to have musically, is more than meets the eye when you first listen—so that it kind of grows on you and people start to pick up stuff the more and more they listen to it.

KNAC.COM: What kind of books do you get that inspiration from?
MÅRTEN: It might be fiction. I read a lot of Clive Barker, although that’s pretty standard. I just picked up the autobiography of Allister Crowley. It’s such a cool thing, because everybody in metal has heard of him, but nobody really knows who he was. He was fucked up, that’s granted. But in certain ways, he was way before his time. Also he was into pushing the boundaries, just to see what it’s like. He was at the frontier back then, and it made him go insane. I’ve been looking for that book for a long time. But that’s one of those books that might give me inspiration to write music.

KNAC.COM: It inspired Jimmy Page.
MÅRTEN: [laughing] Yeah, yeah. He bought his house.

KNAC.COM: Nah, I live in a house Mårten—what Jimmy bought was no house [laughs]! So, I talked to Zakk Wylde a while back, who totally raves about you guys. What’s your relationship like with him?
MÅRTEN: He’s a nice guy. He told us that he used to workout to our CD. We’ve been really fortunate. Other guys in bands have really helped us along. Like Tool and Zakk. They’ve helped promote us in interviews and recommendations. And we’re happy. We’re smiling. It’s always good to have respect of your peers and it helps us along, like whenever we’re on a tour or something, you always feel that there’s a certain amount of welcome.

KNAC.COM: What has been the best tour thus far for you guys?
MÅRTEN: The two tours we’ve done with Tool. Because we have the uttermost respect for those guys—both their vision and the way the sets sound, and the way they are as persons. They’re truly fucking great guys. Each and every one of them are totally unique--set apart from the band, as individuals—yet they’re also very much the same. Even though we sound totally different, we can relate to them and they can relate to us. It’s so fucking cool that they bring us—a small extreme metal band—along with them to tour twenty-some-thousand seat arenas. We got 45 minutes opening up for them! It was huge for a band like us. They’ve given us a lot, not only for just pure exposure, but a lot of advice as well. They’re a very experienced band. They’ve run into a couple of bumps along the road as well.

KNAC.COM: What advice have they given you?
MÅRTEN: Advice on the American market and different things to consider. Also as friends, they were riding with us a lot during the tour, like Danny [Carey] or Justin [Chancellor] would ride on our bus and party. You get a lot of friends in this industry.

KNAC.COM: Like a big extended family.
MÅRTEN: Yeah, like in a weird way. I mean, we’re from fucking Sweden, and we come over here and someone will ask us if we know Joey from Atlanta or New York—and we’ll end up knowing him because he mixed for a band that we’re friends with. Everybody knows someone, who knows someone. We’re all connected in some way. I mean, some bands out there, just don’t connect. But some bands, you just totally connect. The band that’s like that for us is Tool.

KNAC.COM: So is the rumor true that Maynard meditates until he cries before going out for his sets?
MÅRTEN: I’ve never seen anything like that. But on the other hand, I’ve never seen him right before his sets. He’s very, very focused. It feels like when he comes out on stage, everything is blocked out around him.

KNAC.COM: Your show is full of energy—do you ever get tired?
MÅRTEN: We get exhausted. Depending on how many songs, and if we play an encore, it could end-up being an hour-and-a-half set. It doesn’t sound like very much, but we do get pretty sore the next day.

KNAC.COM: Do you prefer to headline, or does it make a difference?
MÅRTEN: The last time we headlined was in 1997. I mean we’ve done a couple of shows in Scandinavia; we headlined in Switzerland and France for a couple of weeks a couple of years ago. But as far as a real tour goes, like this, 25 gigs in 29 days, it’s a weird sensation and a little bit jittery too. Like when we were opening up for Tool in Baton Rouge, and the venue holds over twenty thousand people. There’s a line outside, security is tight, and it’s not reflecting on us. Everybody is there for Tool. They’re the main attraction, everybody’s there to see them, everything we do there that makes people think better of us, is a bonus. It’s nothing we take for granted. But when you headline, pre-sales reflect how many people are there to see just you. The pressure falls on you when you’re headlining. The benefit to it, is that you get to call the shots on set times, backdrops. Pretty much, we decide the show. We get the crew we want. But with good conscience, when we go back to Sweden, we can say that we delivered as much as we could to the guys who really wanted to come.

KNAC.COM: Now I’m not a musician—but I’ve been around the business for a long time and I’ve never seen an 8-string guitar…
MÅRTEN: Me neither [laughs].

KNAC.COM: Please tell me all about it—what does it do that the six-string cannot? Whose idea was it?
MÅRTEN: We had an idea to play all bass on a couple of songs, and we got introduced to this guy who builds guitars in Sweden. And he heard about that idea and he told us that we should know about a prototype he had for an 8-string guitar. So we tried it out, and we were like, “Fuck yeah.” It was awesome. When we started to aim for using the 8-strings, they didn’t show up in time. So up until last week, we’d been using the famous 8-strings, that have actually been 7-strings, but stringed as an 8-string.

KNAC.COM: How do you do that?
MÅRTEN: We just take away the top string and move it down, so to speak. So the low is just sort of transposed. It takes some adjustments, but they’re a great guitar. They’re not very hard to play; they’re just a little bit long. I would say that the only difference is that with such a low string, you can’t really play chords—as with the seven strings, you can play power chords. With the 8-string, it’s too blurry, so we play mostly single string stuff. It’s actually stripped down, even with the extra string. It creates a unique sound. For us, it’s not about having all these fucking strings; it’s about going someplace different with the sound.

KNAC.COM: Do you think the instruments are part of what give you the extra niche in this industry?
”Being on the road and being a musician in general, making albums is great. Sometimes it’s not as fun. It’s stressful, you fight your label, you’re out on the road, you hit deer, people fight, and things get broken.”
MÅRTEN: Yeah, because it’s not only like when you read about it, and you’re interested that there’s 8-strings, but when you hear it, it’s like there’s something to the guitar sound that makes it a little bit different from what you usually hear. Something that really works to our advantage, I think.

KNAC.COM: What’s the best part of being a traveling musician?
MÅRTEN: Being on the road and being a musician in general, making albums is great. Sometimes it’s not as fun. It’s stressful, you fight your label, you’re out on the road, you hit deer, people fight, and things get broken.

KNAC.COM: You hit a deer?
MÅRTEN: Yeah, on the Tool tour we did. It was a buck, a really big one. It did some damage to the front of the bus. It was in Montana. But you know, stuff happens. It’s good and bad. You get to see a lot of places and people, but you become immune. And we’ll go home and talk to friends about our experiences, and they’ll tell us how amazed at everything we’ve done. And to me, it feels like it wasn’t really that extraordinary. You know? We just do what ordinary people do when they go to work, except we go on stage and have more fun. My Mom works for an insurance company; I can bet you that I have more fun doing my job than she does doing hers.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of families, is it hard for you guys to be away for such long periods of time?
MÅRTEN: Well, yeah. It is. I’m married. None of us have kids yet, which is a good thing. We’re all in relationships; a couple of the guys are engaged.

KNAC.COM: Do you plan on having children?
MÅRTEN: Yeah, I want kids. But I think it’s impossible to tell how it will change things. You know, from the chemistry of the relationship, to how much is my wife willing to put up with, and how will I change mentally? I know people that have turned into total vegetables because parenthood has turned them that much around. That’s frightening. As far as our band goes, we’re really respectful and willing to accept where each member is coming from another issue. So we’d probably not have a problem with having kids. It would definitely be an adjustment though. You can’t go on two-and-a-half month tours for instance. And taking a kid on tour means—just on the economical side of it—that you will need two tour buses, you have to have your wife with you, and if someone gets sick, it could be very expensive. Not that it’s an obstacle.

This is going to sound fucked-up, but I just talked to my wife, and she was like, “I miss you already”—and it’s only been one day, but then she says, “But at least it’s only for a month this time.” Which made me really think. We were out for Ozzfest two-and-a-half months, came home and did press for two weeks, and then we left for Tool for eight weeks before we got home. And now we’re back here for a while. So it has its pros and cons, but that’s a fact of life for this business. But I’m not complaining!

KNAC.COM: It’s been really nice talking to you Mårten. There’s no ego with you guys either, which is nice.
MÅRTEN: Ah, you can’t have an ego in this business.

KNAC.COM: Oh, yes you can [laughing].
MÅRTEN: But you know, that would only get you enemies. Also, when you start to glorify yourself and think too much of yourself, and when other people start to tell you you’re so fucking great, then you also have to start to listen to people when they tell you, you suck. I mean this is what we do. We would like to think we’re a pretty good band, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this. But on the other hand, why try to blow your own horn? We’re just trying to do something that we can be proud of. At the end of the day, this record is pretty cool, and that’s it. Then it doesn’t matter if it’s in Rolling Stone, or if everyone is giving praise to it. We’ve ultimately achieved our goal already. No place for egos.

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