Sweden's Meshuggah Refuses to Be Pidgeonholed

I T ’ S A VEXING QUESTION, BUT ONE WE always seem to ask metal guitarists in GP interviews: What is the future of the genre? Is anyone raising the bar, taking things to the next level, or flying a new kind of metal freak flag? Frequently, the response is uncertain, or more cynical musicians will lament the fact that many guitarists are simply recycling the same old stuff we’ve heard one hundred times before (“I liked it the first time—when it was called ‘Metallica’”).

I T’S A VEXING QUESTION, BUT ONE WE always seem to ask metal guitarists in GP interviews: What is the future of the genre? Is anyone raising the bar, taking things to the next level, or flying a new kind of metal freak flag? Frequently, the response is uncertain, or more cynical musicians will lament the fact that many guitarists are simply recycling the same old stuff we’ve heard one hundred times before (“I liked it the first time—when it was called ‘Metallica’”).

But Sweden’s Meshuggah (the band name means “crazy” in Yiddish) seems to perk up the tired ears of the most jaded metal players. Blending a headache-inducing barrage of drums with bombastic riffs, atonal leads, odd time signatures, and rapid key and tempo changes, Meshuggah defies being pigeonholed. In fact, the band has been called everything from experimental jazz to grindcore to hi-tech metal. Amidst the tumult, guitarists Märten Hagström and Fredrik Thordendahl further defy convention by deftly phrasing their riffs against polyrhythmic beats and launching legato, jazz-inspired leads. Meshuggah was still riding the success of its sixth studio release last year, ObZen [Nuclear Blast], when GP caught up with Hagström at his forest home in Sweden as he prepared for the band’s North American tour.

As ObZen has been out for a while now, and you’ve had a chance to sit with it, do you still feel good about the album?

It’s starting to sink in, and it’s still the solid album we thought it was, but it is becoming very clear what works—and what doesn’t—in a live situation. Some of the stuff we thought were the strong points when we were making the album don’t really hold up live, and some other parts that we didn’t think much of have grown to be quite wonderful.

What has been the response of your fans?

When someone tells you their opinions about your music, or how it makes them feel, it’s still kind of weird to me. The privilege of the listener is that he or she has a first-hand experience that’s not polluted by any preconceptions. It’s quite a different thing to have been through the process of writing and producing an album, and then having to adjust to what you created, and how it makes you feel now. I find that our music might affect someone tremendously, but not in the way I would have anticipated. But, regardless, I’m happy that there are good feelings about the album all around.

An interesting Meshuggah feature is how you typically play such rhythmically complex riffs over a basic 4/4 beat.

Yeah. Sometimes, it feels like there’s more focus about what stands out technically— and how strange it sounds—rather than what we’ve actually tried to achieve in each song. I’ve heard people say that what we do is not even music. It’s weird. Comparisons to Allan Holdsworth tend to come up because he is a big influence on Fredrik, but my approach is pretty melodic, and I don’t get as involved in the complex solos as Fredrik does. So, is it really an issue? Perhaps it was more so in the past, but I believe we have integrated that fusion style of playing so much into our sound now that it’s seamless. It has become our own form of expression.

How did you develop such a varied rhythmic emphasis? The complexity really informs the band’s style.

We all grew up listening to thrash metal— which is a very percussive style of music. As a result, the drums are a big part of our music, and, basically, we consider that all of us play percussion. Even when Jens [Kidman, vocals] sings or screams, his voice is a percussive instrument. Our sound is based in this bombardment of combined rhythms and counter-rhythms.

Do you carry equal responsibilities for songwriting?

Whoever comes up with a song part— whether it’s a complete idea or just a piece of the entire arrangement—finishes the whole thing. I think we’re a little different this way. We record our ideas on Cubase SX—which is an excellent tool for outlining rough song structures—and present them to the band as completely as possible with programmed drums. There are drawbacks and benefits to doing it this way, but in terms of arranging a song, it’s a pretty smooth work environment. It’s rare that we find ourselves jamming in a basement these days. The brainstorming part is different now—it’s more like sitting around and just talking. It’s definitely faster if I come up with a clear idea about what I want to record, and, as long as it’s not too tricky, we can complete a song very quickly. On the other hand, it can make things slower if you sit in front of the computer for hours with stuff you already recorded, because you’ll recycle and overwork the same part 20 million times. You try to proceed, but the monotony makes you over-think everything, and you work slower.There’s a spontaneity and liberty to recording with a computer, but you can also get stuck.

What’s your playing background?

When I was 11 years old, I started on guitar with some tutoring classes in a Swedish public school, where you can see a guitar teacher once a week as part of the normal curriculum. My tutor was always trying to teach me how to read, and I wanted to play by ear, but she was tremendously helpful, because she did sort of force me to consider that approach. And when I wanted to go in the direction of playing Rush and Iron Maiden, I realized I needed to be able to read music in order to write great songs like that. I had a school guitar that was an acoustic, but the first electric guitar I owned was a Morris—some kind of Telecaster clone—and it truly sucked. I smashed it. My second guitar was a Greco copy of a Gibson Les Paul, and I must have given it away.

How did you start using 8-string guitars?

For a while, we played guitars built by a guy here in Sweden named Fredrik Nevborn. He has a company named Nevborn Guitars that builds custom 8-strings. They’re great instruments. Then, Ibanez approached us to build their version of the 8-string, and we said, “Why not?” It’s a tricky instrument to get right, and we hoped for the best, but they came through and made us some killer custom 8-string guitars. We’re officially Ibanez all the way through now.

How do you handle the two bottom strings that the 8-string gives you? Does the tuning get complicated?

The 8-strings work in a very different way than if you’re tuning down in the 7-string universe. It becomes an entirely different type of guitar. It’s very physical—like playing a bass—in that your riff is often a response to your hands and your body. In addition, the 8-string has a lot more of a tonal range. To me, a 7-string now feels so little that it confuses me. A 6-strings feels like a ukulele!

We play in standard tuning, but a halfstep down, which makes the 7th string come up as Bb, and that string is a .052. The 8th string is an F, and it’s gauged 0.70. Those are big, thick strings, but it works because of the guitar’s extended 31" neck scale. We’ve had different setups and shorter scales in the past—anywhere from 27" to 30"—but the 31" is the best as far as the tone you get.

So, a conventional 6-string has absolutely no application to your music?

Not at this time, but it’s not that the 6-string is limiting, or that we’re all about having more strings to play. These 8-strings could have five strings. It’s simply how everything works together. The thicker strings work with the longer scale and the low tuning to keep the tone consistent, and all of this seems to make the overall sound of the guitar so special. It’s one of those things where the instrument actually helps create inspiration. Sometimes, I can even hear in my head how stuff will sound so unique when played on the 8-string.

The guitar tones are punchy and distinctive— what other gear are you using?

We’ve been using Line 6 Vetta II heads for both live and recording for years, but we mess around with a lot of stuff. We tend to go for a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier sound, so if the Vetta sounds like one, it’s doing a great job. We don’t use stompboxes right now—we just use the digital effects in the Vetta. Every effect we’d want to use is in that amp. In the past, we stayed away from digital amps, but now the sound is so consistently good and roadworthy—hey, why not? You always know what you’re going to get, so there’s no reason not to go with it. We use custom-wound pickups from a guy here in Sweden named Johan Lundgren that Ibanez buys and installs for us. I guess our pickups are best described as a mix of a vintage high-gain DiMarzio and an old Seymour Duncan—I can‘t even remember which one. We used to wax the coils on our DiMarzio pickups because we ran into a little trouble with all the power! I’m sure Steve Vai loves it, but the full blast electric shock meant a lot of trouble for us, playing as low down as we do. There’s not much else, except we use Dunlop 1mm nylon picks with the textured surface. Any pick with print on it is too glossy for us—we need to have a little grip. When our guitar tech really wants to show us how great he is at his job, he’ll put a lot of effort into cutting some additional textures into the picks by hand.