Meshuggah’s distinctive brand of crunchy, intense, precise, complex metal has set heads banging for over 20 years now. Riding high from the success of sixth studio album obZen (2008), Meshuggah is almost ready to finally guide the tour bus towards the off ramp and begin work on the follow up – but not before they hit Australia for the Soundwave festival and sideshows (as well as a few gigs in New Zealand) I caught up with guitarist Marten Hagstrom on February 10 to discuss writing, recording, and the past and future of Meshuggah’s distinctive custom Ibanez 8-string guitars.
Is Soundwave the last of the touring cycle?
Yeah it actually this. This is finishing off the obZen touring cycle for us. We’re really looking forward to it. Last time we were in Australia was great and we’re hoping it will be the same this time. Getting some nice weather in and getting out of Sweden right now seems like a good thing.
I dunno, it’s pretty freakin’ hot here right now.
Well we’ve got snow up to our waists. This has been the coldest winter in a long time up here!
So have you already started working on the next album?
No not really. We’re one of those bands who, we don’t really work a lot on material when we’re still in the touring cycle. We’ve got some stuff that we didn’t really get to finish for the obZen album and some of it feels like it belongs to that album so we probably won’t use that, but we’ve got a couple of things that still feel really fresh so we’re gonna work a little bit on that when we get back. But most importantly we’re just gonna have to sit down and start focusing on the writing because, coming to the end of the tour cycle we switch modes and switch focus. It’s like, we’re done with all the live stuff, now we can just take a little breather for a week or two then start to get a feel for what we want out of the next album. So still it’s very early on. The only thing we’ve really accomplished as far as the next recording goes is we’ve rebuilt our studio a little bit to accommodate what we want out of the recording. But as far as writing we haven’t done much yet.
Well as a geek who writes for music mags, I like this kind of stuff, so what have you done to the studio?
We have this studio here in Stockholm. It’s two stories, and the recording room is down in the basement, so a couple of years ago we ripped out the whole basement and just started from scratch and built a real studio the best way we could. We had some help from the outside as far as how we were going to construct it but we did all the carpentry and all the work ourselves. The room itself turned out to be great but we knew beforehand that we were not going to get a perfect result to begin with. So what we did was we finished it, we rehearsed in it and we tried to get the feel of the room, and now we had this guy who has built a lot of studios here in Sweden, he’s like a wizard, an old guy, and he was like, “Well you need diffusers here and there, and this type, and you need to order it from here,” and whatever. So we ordered a shitload of stuff and then we took, like, two weeks to get everything up on the walls so we could get the acoustics we wanted. We’ve gotten pretty close, we’ve just got some minor details to fix. Most of it’s been carpentry, putting up diffusers in the whole room.
Everyone was worried that studio recording in general was on its way out, with Pro Tools, plug-ins and that sort of stuff, but it seems everyone’s building their own actual studio these days.
Yeah. It’s a good trend, I think. Obviously it’s a bad thing for a lot of studios, but on the other hand, we can see it: we’ve got a studio of our own and we’ve been working in this studio since the Nothing album. So we’ve done it for quite a while. But the thing is that these old massive studios, they’re pretty expensive. And if you’re a band that know a little bit about what you want out of things, you don’t need to go to the most costly and flashy and expensive and exclusive studio to get the right result. So it makes sense for guys who are really interested in producing themselves and getting into the tactical and technical aspects of being in a band, and pretty much take the responsibility over your own productions. We’ve been doing that all the time but it took a while for us to find a place to actually build our studio. I would say that a lot of major studios have gone down the drain but for every one that does that there’s, like, five or six small studios, that a lot of times bands own, that pop up. We’ve been getting quite a lot of requests from bands wanting to record here at our place, so there’s still a need for studios, it’s just how you build the studio. It’s easier for people to do it on their own. Back in the day that was impossible. You had to have a lot of fucking money to do that, and now that’s not the case. I would say that some artists, some bands, there are always a couple of guys who are really tech nerds who really go for that stuff. A lot of guys see it as an opportunity to invest some of the money that you bring in playing in the band to build the studio up. But most of the time we turn bands down when they ask to record there. We’re sharing it with Clawfinger, who are friends of ours. And [sharing the studio with other bands] takes up so much time from the studio, because we built it for ours and their sake, so 90 percent of what’s going on in the studio is about Clawfinger and Meshuggah, so it leaves very little time to make any money off it, at least not right now.
Plus you don’t want people coming in and moving your shit around.
So you mentioned how every band has a couple of tech nerds: are you one such tech nerd?
Not really. I know as much as I need to. You care about the stuff you do from a guitar standpoint, and I’m very specific about what kind of specs I’ve got for the custom guitars I get from Ibanez and stuff like that. And in the studio I know how things work so that I can be a part of the recording in a fruitful way, so to speak, but I’m not one of those guys who runs out and reads magazines and goes ‘Oh shit, have you seen this new hard drive?’ and goes mental about that. That’s more Fredrik’s stuff (laughs). But all of us guys in the band, we know a lot about how we’re set up in our studio because you kind of need to, you know?
Now, onto the 8-strings. How did that come about?
It was a long time ago – around 2000 I’d say, or maybe a little bit earlier. We’d always been 7-string players, and the only thing that differed with our setup as far as 7-strings went was we dropped the tuning down half a note: standard tuning but half a note down. That’s kind of a legacy from back in the day when it was more of a thrash metal oriented band, where you had to have the vocals in a certain range. But apart from that, the vision for the 8-strings, that was kind of an idea where we wanted to have an instrument that could be consistent in tone where, normally you would tune down a regular guitar and get that sloppy note out of it, but we wanted to take that baritone approach towards how the guitar would sound. There was this guy here in Sweden called Frederik, he has a brand called Nevborn. He approached us and said “I wouldn’t mind trying to build you an 8-string guitar because that’s one of the projects I’ve been working on, and I think it would really fit for what you guys want to do next.” So we tried it out and it really helped us in ways that we didn’t expect. What happened was, going down that low you had to change your approach to what you wanted to write. The guitar itself inspired the way of writing, instead of the other way around. All of a sudden we had this new tone, the single-string down-low playing that we hadn’t messed around with that much. On the old 7-string stuff we have a lot of single note riffs but it doesn’t come across the way it does on the 8-strings. So they’re very different beasts than a regular guitar. First of all, they’re pretty big. A lot of the custom-mades we have are 30” measures, so they’re pretty close to baritone range, and they were very liberating, I’d say. It opened up a new vista for us.
Your customs look cool! The body shape is a little different to the production 8-strings Ibanez recently came out with. They look more metal. How else do they differ from the production 8-string Ibanez?
Yeah. Looking the way they do and being such big guitars, it makes the body look a little bit different. But you were saying about the difference between the retail and the custom. The retail 8-string that Ibanez put out, it’s an RG. It’s a bolt-on neck, it’s standard scale, it’s more like you would play a 7-string. It doesn’t differ that much. You get a different tone, obviously, from having a lower range and more consistency out of the notes on the 8-string, but it’s not even close to the custom guitars. I don’t know how to explain: the difference between having the neck-through, the measure and everything, it just makes it a totally different guitar. And we’ve got the Lundgren pickups which Ibanez doesn’t run on the retail. So it would be unfair to compare the 8-string retail to the customs we’ve got.
Have you ever talked with Ibanez about making your guitars available to the public?
I’m actually going to discuss it with Mike Taft at Ibanez. We used to work with Rob Nishida at Ibanez and he quit after 14 years on the job. He wanted to try something new. So we’re gonna talk to Mike about that, because there’s a lot of people that seem to be interested in acquiring a custom 8-string in the setup we use. I think it might be a wise thing to maybe release some kind of limited edition. Because they’re pretty expensive guitars. It turns out to be that way when you spec it so hard. For some people the 8-string that came out as retail, it’ll probably suit some people better than our guitar, because ours takes some adjusting. But as well as those people who want to have a lower price tag, there are always people who are interested in getting the real deal, so we’ll see what can be done with that.
I’m a big Ibanez geek and I’m not alone – there will always be collectors who will buy something like that.
Yeah. It wouldn’t be a major series or anything, it would just be cool to put something out, but we will speak about that [with Ibanez]. We’ve been trying a lot of different approaches to how we want our guitars. The first ones we got were pretty close to perfect, then we started messing around a little bit with the specifics of the guitar, but we’re still looking to nail it about a thousand percent.
Amp-wise, what are you guys using? Or rather, what are you using instead of amps?
We’re running though Line 6. We’ve been using Line 6 Vetta II heads for the bass and the Pod Pros for the bass for the live sound. On the last couple of tours, as far as guitar amps go we’ve been using, well as you say, it’s not amps, but we’ve been using the AxeFX by Fractal Audio, but it’s a bit of a mish-mash as far as amps go. But the AxeFX as well as Line 6 have really helped us bring our tone to the stage without the hassle. We’re going DI so we’re heavily relying on the monitor system but it’s such an easy way to have everything in your little rack: you just plug it in and you have a consistent tone every night. You don’t have to worry about the house or anything like that, so that’s what we’re running through right now.
To my ears, even though the sound is distorted it doesn’t really sound like you’re not using an absolute shitload of distortion: there’s more punch there than you’d usually get with such a high level of gain gain.
We use quite a lot of distortion but I would say that what makes it come across as maybe a bit more clean and powerful is the 8-strings. They have a different tone, and the way the guitar resonates makes a tremendous difference on how you have your settings on the amp. I’d say it’s a combination of what you can get out of the Fractal Audio and what the guitar actually does. A lot of that single-string stuff tends to clean up the tone a little bit, y’know?
Okay, last question, and this is a bit off-topic, but the big news in metal this week is David Ellefson returning to Megadeth. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I didn’t know! I didn’t hear!
Yeah, he’s back!
I didn’t hear that! That’s awesome! It’s always cool when original people get back together. I mean, if you’re a new Megadeth fan who really likes the new stuff I guess it doesn’t really matter (laughs) but for me, it was the first three albums that I really listened to, and coming back to formula is probably something good in this respect. That’s cool!
Brisbane, Australia Feb 20 Soundwave Festival
Sydney, Australia Feb 21 Soundwave Festival
Sydney, Australia Feb 22 Manning Bar
Melbourne, Australia Feb 25 Billboard
Melbourne, Australia Feb 26 Soundwave Festival
Adelaide, Australia Feb 27 Soundwave Festival
Perth, Australia Mar 01 Soundwave Festival
Wellington, New Zealand Mar 03 SFBH
Auckland, New Zealand Mar 04 Transmission Room