Interview with Meshuggah: Challenges Collapse

MeshuggahIt’s been six years since Meshuggah wrote what you might call a proper album, that is, a collection of songs. Between 2002’s Nothing and today’s obZen, the Swedish technical metal outfit has released 2004’s EP, I, and 2005’s full- length, Catch Thirtythree, as essentially single pieces of music, studio-influenced experiments.

But basically everything they do is an experiment. Constantly evolving in ways most bands only wish they could, the band has reinvented themselves more than once in a genre that doesn’t take well to change. For example, some people pointed fingers at drummer Tomas Haake on I for using the Drumkit From Hell software—the drums are so intense, so mechanical on that record, they seem inhuman. Actually, he used it on Catch Thirtythree, and played live on I. Many people still don’t believe it. Either way, you’d have to be a fool to complain about the result—especially considering the bulk of the software and all of its tones are modeled on Haake’s drumkit.

obZen, the band’s sixth full-length, finds the band mixing together various elements of their instantly identifiable but somewhat disparate identities, yet still forging onward into new territory. It seems a habit they’ll stick with, so long as they can still perform the incredibly intricate material they’re coming up with (and in some cases, even if they can’t).

Haake, gracing the cover of this year’s drummer issue, talks about the ever-accumulating challenges being behind the kit of one of metal’s most intriguing bands.

This is the first album since I where you’re back behind the kit, rather than using the Drumkit From Hell. Was that something you wanted to do, a natural thing?

Yeah, definitely. For what it was, the Catch Thirtythree album was such an experimental piece, we never even intended to tour for that album, really. So, we kind of decided that it worked really well with the programmed drums and all that, but what we wanted with this album [was] to write more live- related songs and more stuff that you can incorporate into the live set in a different way. To a great extent, it was a natural thing, of course, to play the drums live.

Well, you did play the middle of Catch Thirtythree live.

Yeah, we ended up doing some touring and played parts of it. That’s right.

The drumming on that record, it seemed like I was harder just on a physical level, but the math involved for Catch Thirtythree was something else.

Yeah, absolutely, it took quite a while to learn even that middle part that we play live, but actually it was a lot worse for the guitarists, because some of those riffs are just endless patterns and notes that is not the more typical, shorter cycles that we use. There’s actually one part that has like 96 notes in a row, and that’s the whole cycle, and it goes for maybe 64 bars or something. And that’s one single cycle. The drums for that cycle are not that hard, but the guitar riffing is almost impossible to learn. There was some ridiculous stuff on there.

Stylistically, Catch Thirtythree was groovier, more like Nothing, I was more like Chaosphere, Destroy Erase Improve material. obZen seems to be trying to blend those two different aspects of Meshuggah.

Kind of. Fredrik [Thordendal, guitars], he was kind of still stuck in the type of vibe when writing the Catch Thirtythree album, so the songs that he wrote for this album —maybe not the vibe, because these tracks are more uptempo— has more of the really lengthy patterns and slow evolution of each riff. It’s something that you can still hear on this album that is still kind of similar to the Catch Thirtythree writing.

But then, the mix of styles on this album, as you say —this is an afterthought, after the construction—to me, it’s like a sample platter of the stuff that we’ve done over the years. You have a couple songs that have more of a Destroy Erase Improve vibe to them, some with more Chaosphere vibe, Nothing, Catch Thirtythree and so on. I think it came to be a pretty good mix of things.

How are rehearsals going?

It’s going pretty good. The one track that is really hard on everyone—but maybe even harder on the guitars and bass just for the sheer amount of tension you put your lower arm and thumb muscles in—that would be ‘Bleed,’ just because there’s so much going on in that track. It’s not a style that we’re accustomed to playing, it’s like a new thing to us. Even though other bands have done similar things I guess, we’ve never really done that type of pattern and taken it to the extreme like that track is. It’s kind of relentless all the way through.

That one was the biggest challenge for me on the drums as well, learning it, and rehearsing it before we started recording. I probably spent as much time on that track alone as we did on all the other tracks combined, just because I had to kind of change the approach to how I played the kick drums. Now it’s more, for lack of a better expression, it’s more like tap dancing, more lightly. I’m more used to hammering the kicks with a lot of force, but this is kind of too tricky and fast to be able to do that.

For that reason, as well, on the touring that we’re doing from now on, when we play that track I’m going to have to use kick triggers on the kick drums, just to get a more even sounding hit from each hit, because it’s kind of fast, and otherwise it turns a bit too fluttery, and all the hits are not as equally strong.

Does it bother you, the idea of using a trigger live?

No, not really. But I will probably only use it for that very track, because for other songs, other tracks, now that we’ve been rehearsing, I’ve been using the triggers on all the tracks, and it really bothers me for some tracks and some tempos, because there is a certain latency in the MIDI, when you convert it, a tiny latency. Also, the fact that if you’re playing dum-DUM, and you put the emphasis on the second stroke, like a double stroke on the right foot, it doesn’t sound like that. It’s equal, full punch, regardless of whether I play soft or hard, and that can turn really weird for some parts. So I’m probably just going to use it for that track.