“I’ve always failed to see why a rock or metal song absolutely has to have a lead,” says Hagström. “I do not understand it.” Photo by Tim Bugbee
After this many records, how do you stay fresh and progressive when writing for Meshuggah without drifting too far from the band’s sonic idiom?
It’s kind of reflex after this many years. When I sit down and come up with ideas, most of the time I kind of know where they’re going to go—whether they’re going to wind up in one of my other side projects, or whether they’re suitable for Meshuggah. For the last few years at least, I try as much as possible not to think too much about what I’m doing and to not be concerned with whether something’s going to be this or that, or what I should accomplish in sitting down to write. I try to find an environment in which I can feel good and fired up about just sitting down and coming up with new shit. If you’re in the right mood, it’s supposed to feel a little like Christmas—you go into this imaginative world of music and coming up with different soundscapes, and you come back with something cool. I play music to scratch my own itch, y’know? For me, that’s the trick—to find that place and just be natural about it.
With the band nearing its 30th year, what fuels it for you now?
I don’t think it’s entirely possible to stay completely inspired within a project for that long, but it’s enough when the guys stay inspired enough to lift the others up when they falter and lose the fire. So we talk about our music and our projects quite a lot within the band, but we don’t necessarily discuss how we’re supposed to stay inspired. We know why we do it, and we still have fun doing it together. It’s as simple as that. We’re just lucky enough to feel that we haven’t covered all the ground there is—or gotten jaded.
How do you keep so many tricky rhythmic variations straight as a player, and do you have any advice for those struggling with rhythmic abilities?
I know this sounds weird in the context of our music, because it is so percussive—but I think of rhythms as melodies. If you think of it like a melody and listen to how things move, you hear the part as a whole instead of as just a rhythm. You hear the significant points of the riff and break it down. Most of the time I instantly know where the 4 [count] is. It’s not rocket science in that way—it’s still an AC/DC song, just hidden.
I’d be lying if I said there never came any points within this band in which we’ve had to break things down theoretically from a rhythmic standpoint in order to know what’s actually going on. The key is to follow where the cymbals are, because most of the time Tomas plays them in 4/4.
How has the guitar relationship between you and Fredrik evolved over the years?
When you play together with someone for a really long time—especially the same instrument—you can’t help picking things up from one another. We’ve gotten much closer to each other stylistically as rhythm guitar players through the years. I know how Fredrik writes stuff, so if there’s something like a subtle acceleration in a group of notes or a pitch bend—like some of the tricky stuff in “Combustion” [off ObZen]—I know exactly how that note is supposed to be hit, because I know him so well. He knows my idiosyncrasies, too. We don’t talk about it much, though. It’s just second nature at this point.
I’ve played in bands with Fredrik since I was 16, and I really, truly think he’s an amazing lead guitar player. He’s come up with so much beautiful shit, I just can’t explain. I’ve heard a lot of Fredrik’s leads that no one will ever hear, when we rehearse and such, and he’s really, really good. But we also ground each other, and he actually thanks me sometimes for not having leads in some of my songs. So we play specific roles as editors of one another, and I think we both really appreciate that.
Mårten Hagström, Fredrik Thordendal, and company obliterate an Orlando House of Blues crowd in this highlight reel from October 2016.
You’ve said in the past that the popularity of the Swedish shred scene put you off from the idea of virtuosity when you were starting out. Can you elaborate on that?
I’m glad you brought that up, because I stand by the things I’ve said about shredders in previous interviews, but I always have people come up and act like I’m a traitor and ask, “Hey Mårten, why don’t you like shredders? What’s wrong with you?” But that’s not the point—I like shredders and love good guitar players. There are just not enough good ones. I just have a higher standard. There are millions of good guitarists out there, but I’ve always failed to see why a rock or metal song absolutely has to have a lead! I do not understand it. I love a good lead—I drool over Eddie Van Halen and Allan Holdsworth, and Alex Lifeson, who was one of my biggest, biggest inspirations growing up. [Lifeson] made soundscapes, and he has this almost Tourette’s style of lead playing that’s very unique. He played in the most technically achieved band of their time and did a lot of shit that inspired a lot of people—but it wasn’t really in the technique department that he excelled, though he was very proficient. It was in his tone and his taste, and the way he composed things. That’s why I’ve never seen myself as an instrumentalist—I’ve always been a composer.
It’s the same with any music: If it grabs me, then I guess it’s good. But if I can’t pinpoint anything unique nearly immediately—like most of the leads I’ve heard since I was 16—then, I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s worth my time.
Are there any newer metal groups that have caught your ear, and do you have an opinion on the ones that still nip at Meshuggah’s tail, so to speak?
I could go on for hours, but without saying good or bad or whether I like something or not. It’s very cool to me that people have become so focused on their playing, and it’s cool that a lot of young bands have become very technically inclined. But there’s a lot of people that come to me and say, “Oh, these guys are heavily influenced by you guys,” and I can’t hear it—but then I hear our sound in places that no one else does. So I’m not sure I’m a good person to judge. It is interesting being held in the regard of an older band now. To us, we’re just beginning—because we still want to create more and do new shit. You can continue to grow and explore in metal, even if you’re not 18 and ripped!
Be sure to check out our Rig Rundown 2.0 with the band's tech Kent "Ya Ya" Eriksson who covers the gear Meshuggah used on their 2016 U.S. tour.