the AU interview: Guitarist Mårten Hagström talks 25 Years of Meshuggah (Sweden)

I was lucky enough to catch to Mårten Hagström of metal masterminds Meshuggah, to chat about their recent 25th Anniversary CD/DVD release, The Ophidian Trek.

How does it feel looking over the last 25 years of Meshuggah?

I try not to, haha! You know, it’s like one of those things, when it came around, let’s do this 25 years anniversary thing, I don’t know, it was kind of a surprise. I was like “damn has it been this long?” But when you’re in a band and things are just rolling along and you’re just doing your thing, you never stop to think about it, and to be honest, I don’t think we have even now. It’s just “ok, so it’s been 25 years, what’s next”, you know? We’re still so much a part of this process to feel that this much time has passed.

Did you have any idea, when you joined Meshuggah, just how successful you’d be, and the longevity of the band?

No, I mean, obviously we didn’t know anything about our future. As kids growing up, me and Thomas used to play even before we joined Meshuggah; one of the things we’ve been lucky enough to keep at, been able to keep at. It’s something that I don’t think we ever looked that far ahead, it was just a matter of recording a demo, getting some shows, getting recognised by a label, then “wow, record deal, that’s awesome”, and then you take everything one step at a time. I’m happy that we’ve never been looking too much into the future. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons we’re still around, and maybe one of the reasons that we’ve been successful - because we haven’t really cared too much about our future, we’ve just taken care of what we’re doing now, what feels good right now.

Would you say the same thing about the music you write? Would you say that you don’t try to please anyone, except for playing the kind of music you want to play?

Yeah, I mean, when you say a thing like that it might sound a bit arrogant, like you don’t give a shit about anything. Granted, it’s nice to have somebody like what you do than to have somebody hate on it, but in reality, we started out as an oddball band. It wasn’t like we came out and sounded very mainstream; I think that trough the years it’s been getting worse, haha. We have been very comfortable in that role, in not having to cater to other people’s expectations and needs, just because of the simple fact that we never did. It’s not a matter of not wanting people to enjoy our music, but the way we always work is we try to do stuff for our own sake, and that’s what made us popular amongst certain people, so it would be stupid to start doing anything else, you know.

What else do you think has contributed to the bands success over the last 25 years?

Stubbornness! Haha. In a way, I think I might not be the right person to answer that question, just because there’s probably someone close to us that isn’t actually in the band, who would have a better outside view on why that has happened. But in our mind, or even my mind, I would say that it’s sticking to our guns. Not now, now people tell us that we’ve been an inspiration, and that we’ve been doing our thing all the while; but when we were younger, I mean, we’d be hearing a lot of “change your style”, “do this, do that”, “you need to do this to be successful”. Somehow that stubbornness not to cave in to those ideas has been contributing most to why we’ve been around for so long. Also I’d say that maybe where we’re from, not only being from Sweden, but being from far up north. Where we grew up we weren’t really part of a music scene, a big music scene like a lot of bands from Stockholm and Gothenburg were. So maybe being a little bit secluded has made us see things a little bit differently – not for us being different, but just for the luck of being born up here.

One thing I’ve noticed, is that you seem to have fans from all sorts of genres of music. Heaps of people love Meshuggah, that don’t necessarily listen to metal - why do you think that is?

I don’t know. First of all I think you’re right, cause that’s something we’ve been noticing too. You never know, when somebody comes up to you and says that “I love your band” - he or she doesn’t necessarily have to be into metal. I think that maybe it’s because we are not, in many written ways, many parts of how our music is both played and written, is not typically the metal approach, if you know what I mean. The expression is definitely metal, everything about us as a band, the expression we have, the way we sound, is like that of a metal band; but a lot of stuff that we do composition wise, and a lot of stuff as far as how we treat harmonics and rhythm in particular, is not really typical for a metal band. So I think that might attract people who are generally just into experimental music. We experiment a lot, and people who like stuff like that tend to get into our stuff.

I definitely agree with that. So what do you think that you’d be doing if you weren’t playing in Meshuggah?

I’d be working in a grocery store unpacking stuff, and I don’t know, shit, haha. Honestly I really don’t know, I mean, there’s a lot of things that I enjoy doing, but I don’t think that I would be skilled enough or fortunate enough to be able to do stuff, you know, anything in particular. I’d just have a regular job I guess, if I wasn’t playing music.

It’s lucky you are then! So, back to the 25th anniversary, how did you pick the tracks for The Ophidian Trek?

You mean the actual track listing?

Yeah, for the DVD & CD release.

For the DVD, the set list that we actually played on that one was as we always do. We lean pretty heavy on the Koloss album, and play a lot of stuff from that, then go to something that we feel is kind of representing what we’ve been about through the years - but still, focus being on mostly the new stuff, the stuff that we know people enjoy hearing. But when we did the 25 year anniversary thing, that was really cool. Cause we came from The Ophidian Trek, we knew what was coming out on the DVD, we knew what we went out with the last time around, so we could totally chase pavements and focus on the old stuff when we went out and did that 25 year thing. So that was kind of cool, to go from the very contemporary, and then delve back into where we came from, sort of.

Do you still like listening to your earlier stuff? Or do you sort of listen to it and think, gosh what were we doing?

Out of our music? I don’t listen to us at all, ever.

You don’t listen to Meshuggah?

No, hell no, I never listen to our stuff. Well, there’s two occasions when I listen to our stuff - when the album has just come out. Whenever we release a new album I sit down when it’s been out for a while – cause you know, in that album process you’re in it all the time, for almost a year and a half. Writing it, then arranging it, and then getting it together, rehearsing, recording, mixing it…so you’re kind of sick of it by the time you’re done with an album. Then I let a couple of months pass, two or three months, whenever I feel that I’ve got the album out of my system. Then I sit down and I listen to it a couple of times, trying to make up my mind of what I really think. That’s one of the occasions, and the second occasion is when I have to check something out. If we’ve decided to play a song and I’m like “damn, I don’t remember that one”, I need to check out what’s going on, then I listen to it. Otherwise I never listen to us, and I think that’s a good thing. I mean there’s really no point in hearing your own stuff when it’s done. It’s kind of like an imprint of where we’ve been the last two years, and you releasing the album – that’s kind of a cleansing, and then it’s like, ok, new page.

So what kind of stuff do you listen to?

Everything! I would say either everything or nothing, haha. I don’t listen to a lot of music right now, but in periods I listen to a lot of music, and it’s different. I listen to some classical music, I listen to a lot of soundtracks actually. I listen to experimental electronica for instance, a lot of Squarepusher, and Autechre, stuff like that I really enjoy. I listen to some hip hop, I listen to Mr. Bungle, I listen to some metal as well, I mean Gojira are a great band. There’s definitely stuff that I go to, but I’m not a fixed genre guy. I think that almost every genre has something good to offer. Whatever comes my way that I find intriguing and interesting, that moves me, you know?

It’s interesting you say that you listen to classical music, a lot of people I know who are huge fans of yours are classical musicians. There just seems to be some kind of a similarity or a crossover there. Maybe the approach, or the technical side of the music – there seems to be something that appeals.

Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re right there, cause the thing is that a lot of times when we write, for instance “Catch 33” – that’s more like a classical piece, than it is a traditional heavy metal song. It’s like thirty, forty minutes long, something like that, and it really goes more through movements - not like verse, chorus, bridge – there’s nothing like that going on. If you look at a more standard Meshuggah song, a more standard length, like six minutes or something - even though they’ve got verses and the traditional build up, we have more of a loose frame when we write music. There’s no real boundaries or rules. That part of it kind of rings true in a lot of classical music as well. Even though a lot of classical music is written according to a plan or a mold, there’s still a lot of freedom there. I think there’s an affinity as far as how we compose stuff.

Are you guys writing at the moment?

We’re supposed to be writing at the moment, haha. We are too, but it’s slow. It’s not like that’s something out of the ordinary, whenever we finish up a period of touring and finish of an album cycle, it always takes a little while to get the snowball rolling again. We’re just in the process of going through some bits and pieces that we’ve got left over, we’re coming up with some new stuff, but it’s early days yet. It’ll get there, I hope, haha.

Are you guys going to come back to Australia soon?

We’re going to come to Australia after the next album probably. We finished off the Koloss tour, we did the two big runs in Australia on that album. One was obviously Soundwave, and the second one with Lamb of God. We really enjoy playing in Australia; we’d love to come back, so hopefully you guys will still have us when we’ve dished out the next album!


The Ophidian Trek is available now