Meshuggah’s Mårten Hagström on Performing Sans Vocalist, and Being “Harm-Friendly” Psychedelic


This week, Swedish progressive metal band Meshuggah have been performing alongside a cardboard cutout of their singer, Jens Kidman, whose fearsome voice was completely annihilated by the flu. (Don’t worry, he’s recovering.) Whether he’ll join his bandmates onstage tonight at the Roseland Ballroom remains to be seen, but rhythm guitarist Mårten Hagström spoke to us about the experience of playing sans vocalist. Other topics discussed include the ridonkulous complexity of Meshuggah’s music and what they have in common with Pink Floyd.

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How does not having a vocalist change the performance experience for you?
The way it sounds is not that different…but it’s more the way you feel walking up onstage, not seeing the entire band, because we’ve never done this before. You’re used to being that five-piece unit, walking up and doing this together…but there’s no use complaining about it. The only thing we can do is try to make the most out of it. We travelled over here now. A lot of places we play on this tour we haven’t really played for a long time, so canceling is not really an option.

Your songs are so complicated. How hard is it to remember that stuff?
[Laughs] It is pretty hard, even though we write it ourselves. The hard thing for me to answer about this question is, Meshuggah is the band that we play in. For most of us, I guess everyone apart from Dick [Lövgren, bassist], this is the only environment that we create and play music [in]. So it’s kind of hard to compare to how hard it is to do other stuff. But, like you said, granted, it’s pretty complex.

Every time you change the set list, it is an obstacle to actually get it all down and to be able to have your brain absorb all the information, especially if we are in a rush. So it’s demanding, but it’s not a big deal because this is what we do. This is what we’ve always done. It’s just a matter of accepting that fact and trying to nail it as much as we possibly, possibly can. But it’s not a good thing to be running into if you’re onstage and feeling off your game–because you can’t lose it!

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There’s so much aggression in your music; it’s almost overwhelming to experience live. Where does that emotion come from?
I don’t know why, but we enjoy painting a musical picture of something really disturbing and threatening…It’s a way to create an atmosphere of menace and that kind of brooding feeling. That aggression, live, it’s like any other emotion. If you’re supposed to do something with some kind of effort, you better go all the way. There’s no being half-assed about stuff like that. So it’s an all-in type of thing for us. That [aggression] is actually something we go for, even though we don’t feel very threatening ourself. It’s to go together with our music. We’re the twisted, dark cousin of what a lot of other psychedelic bands have done or progressive bands, like Tool or Pink Floyd. It’s about setting a type of emotion, but we’re just moving in a more harm-friendly territory.

I remember walking out of your show at Terminal 5 last year, and people looked like they had been beaten. They weren’t injured, but they had this stunned look in their eyes. I even heard someone say, “That’s the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.”
[Cracks up.] That’s awesome!…Whenever you are creative about something, ultimately that’s what you want to do. You want to reach and touch somebody and make a difference. You don’t want people to be walking away and yawning after the concert. But having said that, whenever you can construct something and deliver it so that at least some people feel that it really made a difference, it gave them something and maybe took something out of them, as well, that’s the best compliment you can actually get.

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