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May 2014
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Interview: Meshuggah's Mårten Hagström on "Koloss"

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Interview: Meshuggah's Mårten Hagström on "Koloss"

“The new album might be easier on the ears than most of our previous albums,” says Meshuggah’s rhythm guitarist Mårten Hagström, as he describes Koloss, the band’s seventh studio release. But to assuage any fears that Koloss sees Meshuggah aiming for the path of accessibility and commercial success, Hagström quickly clarifies, “In a more subtle way, on Koloss, we’ve sneaked in some of the most complex stuff we've ever done from a structural point of view.” And that should bring a collective sigh of relief for the Swedish math-metal mavens’ fans, for whom the phrase “easier” and Meshuggah belong together in the same sentence about as much as the word “classy” and Kim Kardashian.

After all, Meshuggah completely revolutionized the extreme metal genre with their brand of ultra-complex, ultra-technical, 8-string detuned doom, executed with super-human levels of precision. So profound is Meshuggah’s impact on modern music that their music has been examined by the haughty academic journal, Music Theory Spectrum, in an article entitled “Re-casting Metal: Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah,” and is the focus of courses taught at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music. But even more relevant than its place in the confines of highbrow academia, Meshuggah’s influence can be heard in the music of current leading metal bands like Animals as Leaders and Periphery, among countless others, who have taken inspiration from the band’s mind-boggling metrical mischief and lead guitarist Fredrik Thordendal’s Allan Holdsworth-influenced lead guitar stylings. Meshuggah’s influence on today’s extreme metal scene is so pervasive that there’s even a Facebook page called “Meshuggah did it first, Meshuggah does it best. Stop trying.” Regardless of whether or not any band should cease taking influence from these brutal braniacs, there’s no denying that since Meshuggah’s inception in 1987 (Hagström joined the band in 1992), the bar has been raised super high, and the level of technical complexity in the genre has increased exponentially, undoubtedly as a direct result of Meshuggah’s innovations.

We recently caught up with Hagström to get the inside scoop on the making of Koloss, to get a firsthand account of Meshuggah’s mathematical approach (a term that Hagström despises), and to get the low-down on the band’s extended-scale signature Ibanez guitars.

It seems you guys put out a new studio album every three or four years. Given that your last album, obZenI was released in 2008, the timing of Koloss makes sense. What gave you the impetus to finally get back into the studio?

When we started to feel that the major part of the obZen touring cycle was coming to an end, it was just about time to get our asses into album mode. There is always a certain point where we feel the urge to see where we're going next. That’s when it all starts.

What was the writing process for Koloss?

It started the way it always does: messing around with a couple of ideas here and there. We normally write stuff on the computer by ourselves and then, kind of, show it to the other guys as a “demo.” After a while, things start rolling and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a state of pure chaos where we thrash out ideas, re-arrange and modify. The general concept or approach hasn't really changed that much. The tools have, but not the approach. We usually run through the stages—writing, arranging, recording, and mixing—separately. It’s obviously been different in many ways from album to album but the “modus operandi” has been similar if we are talking about writing. The ideas, however, have hopefully evolved a little through the years.

So was it business as usual for the Koloss studio sessions?

This time we did it a little bit different. We started writing but then took a break to go on a summer festival run through Europe, and since we almost never write on the road, we came back and sort of picked up where we left off but instead of finishing the writing process before recording, we actually ended up doing it all simultaneously.

Did this prove to be advantageous?

I think doing that was a great thing for the end result. When we started to lay down the drums for “Swarm,” we still had half the album left to write. It gave us a new kind of perspective, going back-and-forth between the two.

Earlier you said that your ideas have evolved over the years. Can you tell us more about what advances you’ve made to your signature sound?

With every release, we've always tried to tweak and experiment with our musical expression. I guess it’s been kind of this ungodly symbiosis between a bunch of stubborn, fucked-up individuals from the northern part of Sweden sharing the same view on what’s cool about playing in a band—weird and eerie is the goal. We are all rooted in the composing of music rather than being instrumentalists to some degree. So I guess trying to craft a voice of our own has been the goal. Not to be mistaken for trying to be as complex or technical as possible, as many seem to think.

That’s interesting because it seems that for many of the countless bands that have been obviously influenced by you guys, the goal is to make things as complex as possible. They’re approaching the music primarily from a technical point of view.

That in and of itself is utterly pointless, in my opinion. Our approach has always been about the general expression—and we like weird stuff. The technical aspect is just a by-product.

Speaking about the many Meshuggah-inflenced bands, are you flattered or irritated when you hear them? I guess flattered would be more appropriate. I mean, I'm really out of touch with what bands are considered to have done that. But if people say that we have inspired them in any way, I think it’s awesome. It must mean that we probably did a few things right along the way.

Yeah, some of these bands are quite amazing. Have you also taken inspiration from a band that may have started out as a Meshuggah disciple?

Not that I know of. Like I said, I'm not very in touch with the scene right now. Mostly because the band has been eating so much focus. And I really wouldn't know who you consider a Meshuggah disciple, so I guess the answer really is: I don't know.

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