The list of potential reasons for a band’s eventual demise goes on for miles, but staying power seems rooted in the simplicity of hard work and passion. Swedish extreme metal forbearers Meshuggah have spent a quarter of a century creating the equivalent of an auditory battering ram for their listeners. The compositional complexity and rhythmic fit-throwing of bands like Animals as Leaders and countless others in the genre owe their unwavering allegiance to Meshuggah— a band whose uncompromising approach to an often seemingly inflexible sound has been the key to their success.
Much of what drives Meshuggah’s music its distinctiveness is in the drumwork of Tomas Haake. Haake’s approach to drumming isn’t the run-of-the-mill “devastating” or “crushing” wankfest of metal-by-numbers percussion. The influence of Neil Peart is obvious with Haake’s sense of balance and space, where the drums are not simply an instrument to drive the music, they can become the music itself. Noisey recently spoke with Haake about these influences and about the band’s 25th anniversary and when listeners can expect new Meshuggah music.
Looking back at Meshuggah’s beginnings in 1987 and seeing where you guys are now, what do you see as the most significant point of evolution for the band and for yourself as an individual?
Tomas Haake: The first one would probably be when we released Destroy Erase Improve back in 1995, which was kind of the one album that put us on the map in the metal scene so to speak. Even though we had a few albums before that, that’s where it started picking up. To some degree, it was sheer luck, I guess. There was a kind of resurgence of metal at that point: you had the Human album by Death, Demanufacture with Fear Factory, and Burn My Eyes with Machine Head. There were a number of releases that year and we were fortunate enough to tag along when that happened because of sheer luck and timing. I don’t know if that’s an evolution as a band, but that’s one of the most important times for the band. It slowly helped us become the band we are today.
The next point was probably with Chaosphere and the Slayer tour, the US tour, Slayer was a door opener for us in the US market, and the Ozzfest tour in 2002 as well.
A lot has changed as far as people’s perception of heavy and extreme music since then as well. It’s no longer this taboo or “outsider” thing. It’s fashionable. Meshuggah’s been there for much of that transition and managed to be fairly unwavering throughout. Is that transition with the scene something you’ve personally observed?
Today there’s so many technical bands— it’s like you said, it’s fashionable—the black metal is almost like hipster music. If you look at the ones that are twenty years old now, they have a completely different sound than the black metal bands today. The kids that play that music today look like a regular hipster and they have their coffee at Starbucks and sit there with a laptop talking about Kafka, you know, it’s a little weird.
With maturity and age, we’ve learned to write for the good of the songs and we’re not just showing off skills. We were young with Contradictions Collapsed; we just wanted to show so much with each part of each song and we really kind of weren’t necessarily writing for the good of the music. When you look at some of the technical bands today, it’s hard to say what they are going to be like in ten years. The bar has been moved so much. The kind of musicianship that we aspired to when we were young is something that’s completely different now. The kids are 18 years old now and do eights around us; they are fucking magnificent musicians but of course for us we are old guys now and we don’t look at music in the same way that we did back then.
The bands that we listened to when we were growing up were Slayer, Metalchurch, Metallica, and Black Sabbath, you know, even going back as far as early Saxon and Maiden and stuff. The kids that are in their late teens and twenties [today] have a completely different set of norms.
I think it’s difficult to get noticed [today]. The attention span for everything is getting shorter and I think that comes through music as well. I’m happy that we started out when we did and we already have this footing. To be a young kid now to do that, you have to be extremely skilled as musician and with your songwriting because it takes a lot to stand out now.
The irony to me is that because of things like social media and the internet, the opportunities are limitless.
Exactly. I don’t think there’s ever going to be another Metallica because you just can’t become that big anymore. When they came out, there wasn’t anything like them out there so they weren’t really competing with many bands. It’s a totally different scene now.
As far as your beginnings as a musician in Sweden, was there a specific time when you were a kid where you decided music wasn’t just something that you wanted to listen to? Was there a band that made that moment happen?
I got my first drum kit at seven years old. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 years old that I started playing with Mårten, who I grew up with in the same town. We were friends since we were six years old. He started playing guitar and we started playing around with writing songs; we had no idea how to do that. Metallica was still at that time the hugest and coolest thing that you could listen to. In 84 Ride the Lightning came out and that was just, wow, you know, we’ve gotta try something, we’ve gotta do something. If I had to name one album that made me want to compose and made me want to try something and create my own music it would probably be Ride the Lightning.
Jazz obviously informs the music you create. Was that something you came to later in life or was it there in the beginning just like metal?
Real jazz has never been a thing for me, but of course fusion jazz with the drums has been something that we all in the band listened to at a period in time. I had only listened to Allan Holdsworth. It definitely influenced me at that time. Otherwise, the heavy metal drumming is where I come from with the bands like Sabbath and Iron Maiden. It started with the British Wave for me.
The one exception, maybe a little sideways from that, would be Neil Peart and Rush. That was the band that I always kept going back to, though I didn’t ever try to play Rush or pick apart what Peart was doing. I played along to other bands but Rush is one that really had an influence on me—not in the direct sense that I started playing in that kind of style that Peart plays, it was just a an eye opener. That was the first band in my teenage years where the drummer was writing the lyrics—like what the hell how is that possible? In that sense, Neil Peart was who made me get into writing lyrics and reading books, and getting inspiration from books.
How do you challenge yourself to do new things and give yourself a continual edge?
With each new album we are just looking for something different and something that we haven’t done before. We’re kind on the opposite side of the spectrum as AC/DC; they wanna do that same record over and over and they kinda have to or their fans would fucking throw a fit. We have to challenge ourselves and come up with something we haven’t heard before and done ourselves before. Either with the rhythmic or tonal approach to each song, we want to have something unique. The starting point of how and where to make that happen is the harder part.
I’m curious, what do you personally see as what keeps the band creatively driven now 25 years later?
We’re kind of tired of it now but at the same time, right now we are in the early stages of writing for the next album. We already have more ideas that can even fit on an album.
What drives us is that we know there is so much more cool stuff. We see ourselves as a fairly free band as far as what we can and cannot do although we have a framework that we are always going to stay in as a band, and that’s being a metal band. That’s the most important thing. We’re not going to turn into this quirky, emo band all of a sudden. We do have a certain framework but within that there’s so much to be had. We’re just curious by nature. We want to just try as best we can to find something that sounds completely new to us and that sounds unique and like something that we haven’t seen or heard before. Even the one thing that drove us when we were 25 years old and what drives us now is the question of what is there to be found and what is around that next corner. What kind of cool, weird fuckin thing is there to be had that we can create something magical out of and that’s still what drives us.
Jonathan Dick is stoked for the next Meshuggah album. He's on Twitter - @Jonathan_K_Dick.