Tomas Haake of Meshuggah: Extended Interview

Last month, this least metal of all metal scribes took in his first live Meshuggah performance… and was devastated.  It was the last night of the tour, but the Swedes groove-crushed us all into sentient jelly regardless… or maybe that was just the way the crowd vacuum-packed itself to the stage, eliminating any sense of individuality and the whole mass of flesh flailed and stomped.  And after someone yarked in the middle of the pit, I got to make a groan-worthy “Do Not Look Down” joke.

If you still haven’t heard one of the year’s best records – The Violent Sleep of Reason, #17 on Decibel‘s Best of 2016 list – we’re not entirely sure what you’re waiting for.  If you read our cover story in Issue #145 and wished for more, now we’ve got you covered.  Here’s a near-full recounting of our conversation with drummer Tomas Haake (for the juiciest quotes, you’ll need to grab a copy of the magazine itself).  Here, he tells Decibel a bit more about the writing and recording process and describes some of the more technical aspects of touring and continuing to be relevant in 2016.

What was Meshuggah’s schedule this summer?

 This summer is unusually slow on purpose.  We didn’t feel like we really wanted to do too much because we have the album coming out in October, so we’d rather do more festivals next summer when we have a new album to tour on.  It feels like we’ve done the whole summer festival thing now for three or four years, like every weekend over the summer.  It’s good: The pay is good, you play to a lot of people, so it’s all good things, but at the same time, you come home on the Sunday or Monday after a weekend festival and then you’re just waiting to fly out again on Thursday.  It kind of takes away the summer, we don’t really get the free time that we sometimes feel that we need.  This summer we wanted to slow it down a bit, so we only did four festivals this summer.

Do you have to rehearse a lot before touring?

 That’s always kind of a ritual, as far as rehearsals go.  We can’t just not rehearse at all for two months and then go play, it doesn’t work.  Especially for me.  The guitarists and bass player would probably be fine with it, but it’s more for me and Jens.  It’s more muscles – his throat, and for me it’s about calluses and all the muscles and you’ve got to be in a little bit of shape at least, for sure. 

 This is the first album in quite a long time that we actually rehearsed all the material for the album as a whole band before recording it, which has not been the case since Chaosphere.  At least we know the songs now and it’s just a matter of rehearsing them.  For Koloss or ObZen, it was much more up in the air, where I knew the songs best out of everyone in the band, probably, because I had to record drums for them and I had to really study each and every song.  Whereas, Frederik, for example, he’d only know the songs that he wrote, or Marten would only know the songs that he wrote, so when you start rehearsing, there’s all sorts of obstacles that you run into.  This time around, since we already know all the material as a whole band, it’s just a matter of picking it up again and going through the motions of rehearsing them. 

Of course, there’s all sorts of other things in preparation for a new album, too, that you tend to easily forget.  Someone just reminded me the other week about the stage art and all that stuff.  That’s also something we deal with ourselves.  We don’t have people who do it for us.  It’s something that we’ve got to remember to do.  A lot of times, it’s a last minute thing – like a week before you start touring for a new album, you’re like, ‘Backdrops!  Side scrims!  What are we going to do for lights?’  But this time around, I think we’re a little bit more prepared.  Everything’s kind of set in motion.  Hopefully it will be a smooth ride.  Knock on wood.

You had predicted the new album would be out more than a year ago…

 I think, at the time, I was just being overly optimistic.  You look back, and it’s pretty much four years between every release:  ObZen to Koloss is four years, now it’s another four years.  We do take a lot of time to write.  It takes us at least a year to write an album, if we’re lucky and everything kind of flows, which it did this time.  It felt pretty good.  We never really hit the wall.  It was more scrutinizing and changing things, more than having your head against the wall and not being able to come up with things.  The writing process went fairly smoothly.

But then again, we tour for at least two-and-a-half years for an album.  I don’t think we wrote a single riff, or anything that ended up on a song, on a tour bus or in a hotel room.  When we’re off touring, that’s the focus, and we need to really separate the focus for when we start writing.  We need to not have anything planned for a long time, to relax and get into writing mode.  I know a lot of bands write continuously, and they’ll have guitars on tour buses, and they’ll sit and write and record little snippets, and do things like that, but we’ve never been able to do that.  It seems we all function kind of the same in the band, too.  No one really wants to even try to do that.  We need to have that set time, a year when there’s nothing going on, so you don’t have that little nagging, disturbing thing, like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got that show coming up in like three weeks.”  For me personally, that just bugs me.  That’s a disturbing element in the writing process for me.  And I think we all kind of function the same.  With that said, it takes us four years between albums just because of the length of how long we want to tour for an album, when we feel like we’ve done what we can with this album, and it’s time for a new one.  For us, that seems to be a three-and-a-half or four-and-a-half year span. 

For a long time, Meshuggah was marketed as a band that pushed the envelope when it came to the kind of equipment you were using.  Does that still feel like a relevant part of what kind of band you are?

 It’s definitely less of a big deal.  It’s just a tool for us now.  When we write songs, we still program drums and we use ToonTrack sounds for that, and we also use all digital, like Axe FX, all digital guitar equipment and bass equipment when we write and record the programmed demos. [But recording] live like this, we didn’t use digital guitar gear on this one.  We wanted the whole thing to be more old school.  We wanted to go back to trying to be a band when we record, take it back to the way we used to do things in the 90s – the way every band used to do it back then. 

I get so frustrated with a lot of metal that I hear.  You get very sensitive to hearing where everything’s so fixed that it’s so perfect that I can’t listen to it anymore, because it’s dead.  It just lacks everything that’s human in the music.  Thinking back on the music we grew up with, the music that we loved, the bands that we loved, anything from Death to Metallica, the death metal and thrash metal of the 90s, no one did that.  They all played, and that energy that was in the live vibe of the music was such an important aspect of why we loved the music.  And then we just kind of trailed off from that more and more – used more high-tech ways to being able to get an album out in time, for financial reasons, where you don’t have the time to rehearse as a band for months on end, to get the album done in time. 

You grow tired of that perfect music, where there’s not a single flaw in there.  When you hear bands live, you realize pretty quickly they don’t sound the way they do on albums.  You can’t just fix everything in real time.  We wanted to get back to the vibe of what we grew up with, and the drive and the sound of our early years as a band.

What were some specific things you did differently when recording this album?

This time around, we had one room that was all guitar amps – I think six guitar amps and six cabinets, each cabinet miked and played on 10 on the amps… So that was one loud room.  It’s maybe not something you would immediately think of when you hear the album, but the sound is a little different from song to song.  For example, “Ivory Tower” has a slower, more sludgy, stonery vibe to it, we would add a little more of the Orange amp or the Matamp and less on the Mesa/Boogie.  If it was more of a metal song, maybe quicker and chuggy, then we would add a little more of the Marshall.  So the sounds differ a little from song to song, and that’s another thing that I felt was lacking on the last few albums.  The drums, guitars, bass – everything was the exact same sound on Koloss and ObZen.  That doesn’t really translate perfectly, because some songs are going to be slower, heavier, have a little bit of a different vibe, and some songs – like “Bleed,” obviously – need to have the perfect guitar and drum sound.  You can’t have super-boomy bass drums, for example, because it would just sound like an accident.

When did you start thinking about recording this way?

 We’ve been thinking of it for years.  For time reasons… I remember when we started rehearsing for Koloss, it was like, ‘Woah, we’ve got to be done with this now!’  Marten lives up north, so he’s not in Stockholm, and Dick lives in Gothenburg, so we weren’t all together as a band, and we didn’t have the time that we needed to do it like this for Koloss, so we resorted to the way we’d done it before, which is not necessarily quicker, but it’s something that we’re so familiar with.  This time we just made sure that we had at least some time to rehearse as a whole band.

Do you feel that the live band approach to the recording makes it better, or just different?

 For me, personally, it does [feel better].  If we had done this album the way we did ObZen or Koloss, everything would have sounded more unhuman, and that can be a good thing, as well, where it’s just over-the-top tight on everything.  But at the same time, it doesn’t really reflect how I sound or how any of us in the band really sound, because we are actually humans.  For Koloss and ObZen, I don’t really have any pride as a drummer, because that’s not really me.  This time, it’s actually a true reflection of what I was drumming at the time, so in that sense, this is something that I can actually have a relationship to.  Whereas some of the drumming for the last few albums, it’s not necessarily something that I feel a strong connection to, because in all honesty, it’s not all just me.  You do get a different sense of what it is you’ve done.  I’m not satisfied with everything, but this is the feeling that I recognize from earlier albums, where you listen to it and think, ‘Ah, I don’t like that…”  But it gives you the good and the bad, because it’s alive.  There’s a sense of life in there.  With that said, you’re gonna have parts that you’re really proud of and you’re gonna have parts that weren’t my strongest.  But then again, at least you have a relationship to this stuff that you have recorded.

If anyone would ask me if it’s like anything else we’ve ever done, the closest thing for me, immediately, would be Chaosphere.  It has some of that wildness that was inherent in that album.  Obviously this is very different, with 8-string guitars.  We didn’t use that back then.  And also with the tonalities.  That’s another reason this album is very different.  Fredrik didn’t write for this album because he’s focusing on his next solo album, so he didn’t write for this.  Dick, the bass player, and I wrote a lot of the material for this album.  That’s also one of the aspects, especially on the songs that me and him wrote, they are a little different and maybe something new that you haven’t necessarily heard as far as the tonalities and the riffs.

What was the writing dynamic among members of Meshuggah for this record?

 It was a little different, with Dick and me writing together.  The rest of the songs were written by Marten or Marten and me together.  Jens didn’t write for this album and Fredrik didn’t write for it, so obviously you’re going to have a difference in just that fact alone.  It’s an important thing, and I think even Jens and Fredrik were very satisfied with how it came out because of the fact that it added something that, we hadn’t really heard in our own music… or in any other band, for that matter.  So the way that it actually worked out for me and Dick to write together so well is something that we all felt was a lucky stroke.

I read an internet article about you that included photos of you wearing a Kongh shirt and showed an album by the Polish band Semantik Punk in your collection.  What is your connection to these bands?  What music do you enjoy listening to when you get the chance?

 We had Kongh as a direct support band in Europe a few years back.  We chose them because we do like stoner music.  We even all like Sleep, but we wouldn’t necessarily bring a band like Sleep, because it’s just over-the-top sludgy.  A few times we’ve opted for bands like Kongh, because not only do we like that style of music, but also we feel that it’s a good mix.  We’re not huge fans of being on a three-band bill and they’re all technical metal.  I wouldn’t want to see or hear that if I go to a show.  I don’t want to have my head mangled every second of the whole night, when everything is technical, technical, technical.  Whenever we find a band that we like and we have the chance, we try to get something that doesn’t sound like us.  There’s definitely a lot of great bands, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a great night.  We prefer a night of mixed music.  Like when we had Baroness and Decapitated:  Obviously Decapitated is technical, but it’s super-fast compared to us, so it’s a completely different kind of music.  That, to me, was a good mix.  You have a super-fast band first, then you have a band like Baroness that takes it down to a different vibe, and then us.  Kongh is another one of those choices where we felt like this is a great band and we feel that this would work well with us and it’s something that we all love.

And Semantik Punk… We’ve loved those guys more than ten years.  They had this song called “Kij” with just the craziest, coolest riff ever, and they just do it over and over and over until you just give up.  You’re just like, “I surrender to you guys.  Do what you will.  You have me.”  That’s one of those bands… It’s just a quirky, weird Polish band that no one really ever heard of, but we brought them out on a tour because we wanted to help them, but at the same time we also loved them.  Maybe that’s not always the case with our audience…  I think they had kind of a hard time on that tour, but they were still happy to be out doing that.

I’m so old school, I still listen to CDs.  I listen to vinyl as well.  I don’t listen to much music anymore.  But when I take trips and have five or six hours in the car, there you go – pop CDs in and out and listen to CDs all the way.  But usually I will listen to old Southern rock or Pink Floyd or even Imogen Heap, for example.  I don’t really listen to metal anymore.  I’ll check something out… for example, I’ve got to mention this because the band is just so nuts:  There’s a Stockholm-based band called C.B Murdoc, and we had them out on tour as well.  They just released a new album [Here Be Dragons, ViCiSolum Productions] that is so over-the-top technical metal that it’s the most brutal, most technical thing you’ve ever heard.  It’s insanity. 

If I hear something like that, I want to plug it and I want to let people know there are bands that are this great, this insane.  At the same time, it’s not music that I will sit and listen to myself.  I’ll listen to the album [once], and I might do it again, but it’s hard on your soul, your psyche, your body.  It’s like being thrown in a dishwasher.  It’s not something I would necessarily listen to, but I still gotta plug it.  But I’m old now.  I listen to old people stuff.  I’d rather listen to something a little easier on my soul. 

One interesting thing about Meshuggah’s history is the band’s experience with relative popularity both before the internet changed the industry and after.

 It’s a totally different animal today compared to the 90s.  We definitely straddled that divide.  Even by 1995, when we released Destroy Erase Improve, which was the album that put us on the map, and we had started touring, we didn’t even have computers ourselves at home.  It wasn’t until ’96 that we started working with computers and the internet.

I don’t have any kind of social media thing.  I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.  I don’t do any of that stuff, whereas some of the guys in the band do.  I definitely feel way old school.  To me it seems difficult.  If you look at young bands today, some bands are even so good at social media, they don’t even need a record label or to release albums, they just release songs to social media.  A couple bands from Sweden played arenas in Asia, but I had never heard of them.  You never saw them if you’re not their age and very active on social media.  In that sense, it’s a very different world now, maybe more so to me than to the other guys in the band.

We’re definitely not as good at keeping up, as far as social media things, compared to a lot of the younger metal bands even in our own genre.  Younger bands now are very active in that sense and so much today is based on the amount of followers more than exactly how many albums you’ve sold.  And that’s the case for us, too.  We don’t know how many albums we sell anymore, and that’s a very diffuse way of how things are done now, because so much is downloads and not necessarily whole albums but even songs, instead of getting the paper saying, “You sold this many albums.”  Unless you want to read through a Bible-length printout from your label, it’s impossible to tell how much we’ve sold.  It’s not easy to answer.  Yeah, we can say how many physical copies we’ve sold but that’s just part of it.  It’s definitely different now.

Has it changed the way the band does business?

 Not necessarily so much.  We’re fortunate enough to get away with how we’ve been doing things and we haven’t really changed much, apart from the fact that if we’re not active and keep posting things, we have to have someone else do it for us.  You can’t be just silent and not be in social media at all.  As a band, we haven’t really changed that much.  We haven’t had to as much as some bands in some kinds of music would have had to change and adapt to the times.  We still just write and give our master to the label.  We still kind of do things the same way that we did in the 90s, in that regard.  That may be subject to change.

The Violent Sleep of Reason is out now on Nuclear Blast.