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Meshuggah’s Mårten Hagström: A Higher Standard

Meshuggah (left to right): Jens Kidman, Tomas Haake, Mårten Hagström, Dick Lövgren, and Fredrik Thordendal.
Photo by Olle Carlsson

The 8-string idol dishes on the metal gods’ back-to-basics new The Violent Sleep of Reason—as well as why he’s such a harsh critic of shred.

Few bands have shifted the metal landscape in the cataclysmic way Meshuggah has. Nearing its 30th year in existence, the Swedish quintet has had an impact in myriad ways—so many that it really is difficult to overstate. Their savage early thrash work and more progressive recent leanings have made them virtual gods to a who’s-who of heavy bands—including Animals As Leaders and Periphery—as well as diehard headbangers the world over. Further, the low-end decimation wreaked by guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström with their custom instruments is inarguably responsible for major guitar manufacturers getting into mass-production of baritone-scale 8-strings.

For the uninitiated, Meshuggah’s sonic Molotov cocktail is a fusion of death metal’s bludgeoning intensity, prog’s structural complexity, and an obsession with ultra-controlled, airtight, and—one could even argue—weaponized polyrhythms. It’s a visceral sound that’s spent the better part of three decades escaping the grasp of sub-genre definition, only to be referred to with the now oft-derided term “djent.” Admittedly, like many new musical monikers, djent has already become passé for hardcore heavies weary of the endless and inevitable string of copycats. Even so, there’s no denying the onomatopoeia specifically coined to describe Hagström and Thordendal’s low, snarling, complex palm-muted stylings is fitting, even if it remains to be seen whether it sticks for good. And with the release of Meshuggah’s eighth studio LP, The Violent Sleep of Reason, the metal mavericks from Umeå have effectively sent the hordes of biters and rip-off artists back to the drawing board.

The Violent Sleep bristles, grooves, and stomps with the weight and unpredictability of a bull elephant on PCP. Rife with the skull-crushing, industrial-grade guitar work that’s become Thordendal and Hagström’s calling card, it finds Meshuggah’s formidable songcraft in as fine a form as ever. And while it doesn’t necessarily venture too far from the stylings of the band’s most loved past works, it does have an immediacy and an organic, incendiary quality that departs from the somewhat sterile sound of recent Meshuggah albums. This is no doubt due in no small part to the band’s decision to track the record live—a daunting task that required two months of rehearsals and an immense level of care during tracking to make sure complex arrangements stayed true. In addition, to further accentuate the aforementioned organic qualities, Thordendal and Hagström dispensed with the digital modeling amps that have been a staple of their rigs of late in favor of real tube amps.

Premier Guitar recently took audience with Meshuggah’s chief rhythm machine, Mårten Hagström, to get the story on tracking The Violent Sleep of Reason, working with storied Ibanez custom-shop luthier Tak Hosono, whether—as legend states—he truly has an aversion to shred guitar, and staying inspired after damn near 30 years penning and performing some of the most extreme metal on the planet.

On past Meshuggah records, you guys have typically fleshed-out full songs independently, then brought them to each other. Did that change this time around?
Nope. The actual writing process was the same. What was different this time was that Dick [Lövgren, bass guitar] and Tomas [Haake, drummer and lyricist] collaborated very heavily, since Tomas needs a string instrumentalist to help get his ideas across. I worked a lot on my own, too, but all in all we approached it the same way. We worked in Cubase and programmed the drums for the demos in full, so that part was basically the same. The other big difference was going into a new studio and doing it with a more old-school approach, using live amps and tracking live. That affected how we conceptualized songs and how we were going to rehearse them. So the writing process was pretty much the only thing that didn’t change this time.

Which songs did you pen on Violent Sleep?
“Born in Dissonance,” “Our Rage Won’t Die,” “Into Decay,” and “Ivory Tower.”

I don’t know how else to put it—it all orients back to groove because that’s the most essential part of why I write guitar riffs.

Those are some of the more groove-oriented, less chaotic songs on the record. Was there anything specific that drove your writing in that direction?
Yes and no. I’ve been intrigued with groove and minimalizing things that don’t sound streamlined ever since we wrote [2008’s] ObZen. I don’t know how else to put it—it all orients back to groove because that’s the most essential part of why I write guitar riffs. Another thing that was different this time around was that I had heard bits and pieces here and there of what Dick and Tomas were doing, so for the first time I actually wrote stuff to sort of counterbalance their ideas and to anchor and give context to the stuff they were writing—which was quite a bit more chaotic.

On [2012’s] Koloss, we were focused on writing a lot of groove-oriented stuff—which was nice for me, because that’s my natural writing environment, but I think this time it was more optimal in the grand scheme of writing an album. I’m pretty happy that the journey of the record ends with the more groove-oriented tracks. It provides the album with a ride out, so to speak.

How much of the album is live?
Most bands track a little bit together, but we tracked everything at once—essentially, it was all live this time. Jens [Kidman, lead singer] even put down vocals while we tracked instruments, just for the hell of it, and some of those vocals made it to the final release. We decided it was going to be everything or nothing if we were going to do things the old way. Although, to be honest, I played less on the album than I normally would because I got arthritis in my left shoulder.

Did that change your playing style at all?
No, it didn’t really change my style, but I did have to have Ibanez make me a new guitar for this touring cycle. I scaled down my Ibanez signature model from 29.4" to 28", just for the sake of playability—and I have to say, the Ibanez custom shop always delivers. I don’t understand how [Ibanez luthier] Tak Hosono managed to make a 28" B-string so neat and playable and still sound so very baritone and deep—it sounds like a longer guitar than the 29" one!

I did have to make some adjustments to how I stand onstage, because how you stand around for an hour-and-a-half every night really affects the shoulder. When your body breaks, there’s a lot of adjustments to make.

After a severe bout of shoulder arthritis during the recording of The Violent Sleep of Reason, Hagström commissioned a custom 8-string M8M signature axe with a 28", rather than a 29.4", scale.
Photo by Annie Atlasman

Tell us more about the new guitar—is it the same shape and specs as your M8M, just with a shorter scale?
Yeah, it’s the same shape, electronics, and hardware setup as the typical M8M. Fredrik’s been working on his Stoneman design, but I still love the same M8M setup. I have a few Iceman-shaped 8-strings called the IC8M, but I don’t take those on the road. I also have a new guitar that we’re working on that’s going to be a little different, but we’re still in the planning stage and I don’t want to say too much until it’s ready.

Have you played other builders’ 8-strings, and how do you feel about them becoming so normalized in the metal world?
Yeah, I’ve owned a bunch of bad ones and a bunch of really good ones from other makers. There’s one guy out of Arizona whose company is named EIR Guitars, and he makes really, really great stuff. That said, the guitars that the Ibanez custom shop delivers to us are always so incredible that I don’t feel much need to look elsewhere. Tak is always compliant to what we need, but also really wants us to try new things and push the envelope—and they’re always willing to discuss whatever new ideas we have. That kind of working relationship is unbeatable. You just can’t top having someone with that kind of knowledge and experience at your disposal who also wants to progress.

As far as how I feel about the boom in bands using 8-strings, it’s cool for us that it’s become so easy to get ahold of the spare parts and stuff! We never wanted to start a trend. We were just trying to go somewhere specific and new with our sound. I’m actually a bit surprised that it caught on the way it has, because if any band uses it the way we do, they’re instantly going to sound at least a little like we do. It’s a quirky thing that it’s become such a big deal, but it’s also pretty cool. That’s not to take ownership of tuning down—a lot of bands have tuned down this low over the years. And it’s not so much just tuning down that low. It’s that when you start playing an 8-string, there are certain ways your hands naturally want to move and do things, and those moves became a huge part of our sound.

We never wanted to start a trend. We were just trying to go somewhere specific and new with our sound.

What brought you and Fredrik back to tube amps after so many years with Fractal Axe-Fx units?
It just felt natural with the approach we took this time, agreeing as a group to finish the writing and rehearse the stuff as a band and feel the songs and hash through it all. When you rehearse the songs for almost two months to get them tight and then work with an engineer and go to a studio to sit down, old-school style, for weeks at a time, it just follows suit to go back to amps.

Another thing is that Fredrik’s been messing around with tube amps for his solo stuff for the last five years, so he’s amassed a really great collection. He brought a truckload of them down to the studio, so it all just felt natural and in-line with how we were working this time around.

What were some of the standout amps that wound up on the album?
The main sound is a modified Marshall that Mike Fortin [of Fortin Amplification] tweaked for us many years ago. We also used the Fortin Satan, and Salvation Mods’s C-Watt module for Randall MTS amps. We were running four or five amps most of the time, and what actually wound up on the album is a question for our producer, Tue Madsen. We gave him free rein on how to color the guitar tones on each track, although we were pretty rough with him during the mixing process—we threw a lot of mixes back at him and were extremely picky about it. Luckily he had the patience of a saint about the whole thing. He thought “Born in Dissonance” needed a tighter low end because it has a messier rhythm, so he went for the Satan amp. But on “Into Decay” he opted for more of the C-Watt, because it’s a sludgy track and that sound worked better for it. But the reality is the tones on the album are a patchwork and only Tue knows what’s what.

Mårten Hagström’s Gear

Custom 28"-scale Ibanez M8M with Lundgren M8 pickups

Amps and Effects
Custom Fortin Amplification 50-watt head
Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II

Strings and Picks
DR Tite-Fit TF8-10s (.010–.075)
Dunlop 1 mm Nylon Standard picks

How about effects?
Fredrik’s been on something of an amp and pedal rampage for a long time now, but we actually didn’t use a ton of effects on the album because Fredrik didn’t write much of anything for this particular record, so he didn’t provide much input in the sound-shaping. We used the prototype for his signature boost pedal, the 33, a bit. It’s basically a booster with a sweepable bass filter. The TC Electronic preamp booster that we used back in the day to gain the fuck out of the signal before it hit a tube head is the template for the 33, but it’s got some tweaks to make it more useable.

Will you be using the Axe-Fx on tour again?
We’re using custom 50-watt amps that Mike Fortin made for our rhythm sounds, but all of the solo stuff and clean sounds come from the Axe-Fx still. The Fortin amps are single-channel, straight-up rhythm machines designed specifically for our sound. They sound fucking terrific. It’s been a long time since it’s been so much fun to just riff onstage, and these amps brought that back for me in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced—to the point that sometimes I just get lost in the riff and how powerful it feels.

The thing about the Axe-Fx is that it sounds really good. If you did an A/B test for use between the Fortins and the Axe-Fx for front-of-house, you’d probably only hear a slight difference because the Axe-Fx is really that great at modeling sounds. But when I have that Fortin head cranked up loud and I’m hearing it through my in-ear monitors, it’s a massive difference that really changes the game for us live. And there’s something that happens in the feel, too. It’s not a matter of latency or a matter of it being “direct” enough, but there’s still a tangible difference in using tube amps.

What are some of the tricks you’ve learned to keep lows so focused and crisp despite using so much gain?
The truth of the matter is that the whole signal path is designed around using that much gain. That’s part of why the Lundgren pickups we use are so flat—we want a pickup that represents what’s going on with the guitar sonically instead of just adding more power. It’s also got a lot to do with picking technique and how you attack your low end. I hit that 8th string in a different way than I chug on the 7th or play single-note stuff. It’s not easily explained, but there’s just a different way of approaching your pick attack when you go for the low stuff. I actually switched my picking angle from right to left when we wrote Bleed, but went back to it being angled to the right for The Violent Sleep of Reason to see if it would sound better for this material—and it did, so I stuck with it. So now I switch techniques subconsciously throughout the live set, because half the songs were written and recorded the other way. But pick attack has everything to do with how we keep things articulate.

“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.

[Songwriting is] 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’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.

YouTube It

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!

YouTube It

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.