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Calculus-thrash band Meshuggah experienced their only real taste of mainstream exposure in 2002, when the Osbourne family blasted their song "Soul Burn" (off of 1995's Destroy Erase Improve) at an uncooperative neighbor on an episode of their hit MTV reality show, and Ozzy's son, Jack, secured them a slot on Ozzfest's second stage. Otherwise, Meshuggah have pretty much maintained their status as champions of the underground for the past 18 years, concocting challenging extreme music full of atypical time signatures, unconventional riffing, and antiestablishment themes.
By contrast, nu-metal-cum-alt-rock heroes Deftones have, over about the same amount of time, had four albums go gold or platinum, played Ozzfest's main stage (in 1999), toured on Family Values (last year), and sold out countless headline dates at large theaters around the world. Which means that Meshuggah and Deftones are seemingly from entirely different worlds, with fan bases that rarely cross. But that's not the case, according to Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter. Just ask him what his favorite band is, and he'll say, without a pause, Meshuggah.
"I've been lucky because I'm always asked in interviews who I like, and I've always been able to plug Meshuggah, and that's meant I haven't had to listen to anything else," he says with a laugh. "Through all these years, I've been waiting to hear someone that does something more pummeling, and it's just not coming."
But Carpenter isn't drawn just to the heaviness of Meshuggah's music; he's also compelled by the power of their lyrics and insists that the group's messages of self-reliance and self-control played a major role in his transformation from a flaky, unenlightened rocker into a more analytical and aware human being.
Still, it was unclear how productive a meeting of the minds between Carpenter and Meshuggah guitarist Mårten Hagström would be, and for several reasons. The interview couldn't happen in person since Carpenter was in Los Angeles and Hagström was in Stockholm, Sweden. Carpenter was making last-minute preparations for his band's South American tour, which started the next day, and Hagström was severely hungover.
But we needn't have worried. Within minutes, the two were sharing theories of life and art like scholars at a philosophy symposium—or at least stoned college students at 4 a.m. United by an interest in golf, a love for weed, and a profound obsession with self-actualization, Carpenter and Hagström quickly proved that the distance between cult fandom and rock stardom is shorter than we might have imagined.
STEPHEN CARPENTER Do you keep up with what other bands are doing in order to always stay ahead of the curve?
MARTEN HAGSTRÖM For us, it's more about ignoring everything else and going about our business. That's the best way for us to stay focused on our vision and evolve. And I think the most interesting thing about bands that are evolving is they seem to be caught up in a motion that they can't really control. You get together and something happens, and hopefully it makes you feel inspired about what you're doing. Any band that can do that is going to be a major influence on other musicians. That's definitely the case with us, and the same holds true for the Deftones, I think.
CARPENTER Yeah, it's really a natural thing. When we're working on new material, more often than not it's usually just a matter of where we're at and how we're feeling. I'm always sitting there chugging away on the guitar, trying to make some stuff that sounds cool and that isn't like one of our last songs. The hardest part for us is that the five of us are so different from each other as far as what we want, outcome-wise. In the past, we used to argue so much about which direction we were gonna take the music. But now, if it works at that moment when we're playing, all of us will jump on it. Then, the minute we run into a part where someone's not really vibing on something, instead of sitting there and trying to fight through it, we'll just take a break and play ping-pong or smoke weed. It turns into a social time for us. I know it sounds pretty lazy, but…
HAGSTRÖM [Laughs] It sounds like a fuckin' perfect plan to me, man. Anyway, we're the epitome of lazy. If you look at our track record, usually we take about four years between releases. But I think before you can do something meaningful, you have to get into a creative place where everything starts rolling, and that takes a while. It's like a snowball going downhill that gets bigger and bigger, and finally you get a release out of it. Then you go touring, and when you're done, there's kind of a lapse where there's a void or a vacuum. We can't just jump back on the horse and go for it. We need to get some perspective and some distance.
Below, go inside the creation and legacy of the Deftones' game-changing album Around the Fur with Chino Moreno and Stephen Carpenter:
CARPENTER Sometimes I feel the most creative when we just finish our albums. That's when I start getting a million ideas. And I think for about a six-week period right after we finish something, that's when I should really be buckling down and trying to put some stuff together. But then I get back into the mode when we're trying to get back out there and tour, and I let the creative side go for a while.
HAGSTRÖM I read somewhere that you're really into golf.
CARPENTER I'm trying, but it's an incredibly difficult sport. I went into the game really feeling strong and confident about making strides really quick, but in a year and a half of playing it, reality is setting in. I just wish we had the summer sunlight that you guys have in Sweden. That would be incredible and would really help me improve my game.
HAGSTRÖM Yeah, but having light for 24 hours really fucks you up. You don't know which way is up or down.
CARPENTER But if I could play golf and set a tee time for 11 p.m., that would be the shit.
HAGSTRÖM Golf never attracted me until a friend of mine invited me to go on a driving range. I went, and it was an incredible challenge. You're always competing against yourself. I took it up and played for a year and a half, but it's hard. We're in Sweden. It's not like California, where you can play all year round. To play golf well, I think you have to do it very frequently. You lose your game so quickly.
CARPENTER What I really love about the game is it's something that reflects upon self. Everything about it is trying to make my actual human body, the corpse I'm stuck with, swing that club consistently every time. You see the shot, look at your line and the endless angles, and all the time you're figuring that out.
HAGSTRÖM It's a lot like playing music in that respect. You know where you're going to go. You know the optimum route. But actually getting there is difficult.
CARPENTER It's funny to hear you say that, because to me your stuff is the utmost in absolute confidence, strength, power, and intelligence. It's changed my life in ways I could never even have imagined. I got into you in around '97, and I was changing as a person at the time. I was trying to prove myself as a human and not be the standard that everyone else is. I wanted to be mentally stronger and more aware of so many different aspects and angles. And you guys are the quantum physics of music as far as I'm concerned. It is truly expansive on many different levels, and there are no other bands I know that do that.
HAGSTRÖM Wow, thanks, man. It's always nice getting some props from someone who's doing something of their own like you guys. A lot of bands might have some gimmick or be successful, but so few have taken care of their own turf first before thinking about what someone else wants.
CARPENTER When we're sitting around and making up songs and riffs and ideas, our last thought is, "Is this going to be a commercial track?" There are people who push that upon us, but I don't even care about all that. I just want to make shit that sounds fuckin' sick. It's not gonna be on the top 10. It's not gonna be the most popular track this summer. That kind of shit doesn't even cross my brain.
HAGSTRÖM And it shouldn't. But the problem is, for many people, it does. That's why I have a tremendous amount of respect for anybody who can keep their integrity intact regardless of what genre they're in. You want to come up with sick shit. That's the priority, and nothing else should matter.
CARPENTER Do you hate when people go, "Man, will you make another record like Chaosphere?"
HAGSTRÖM We always have people asking us if we're going to do another record that sounds like something else we've done, but we only know that we cannot care.
CARPENTER That's awesome. Just totally mess up everyone's brain sequence and leave them blind. I love it.
HAGSTRÖM That's the beauty of it. You're in the midst of the process yourself, and if you don't care, anything can happen. If you don't worry about doing something that's commercial, or about how people are going to react to it, there's an incredible freedom. We actually released one song, "I," which is 23 minutes long. That's our idea of a single. It's not a matter of not wanting to think in commercial terms. We can't. If we tried, that would devastate the band because, for us, it's all about making something that we're excited about and that inspires us.
CARPENTER For me, inspiration usually comes from the things that make me feel good. It doesn't have to be music, and it's something I don't even have to think about.
HAGSTRÖM I get the most inspired by movies I've seen or something that's happened in my life or something I read in a book. People always think we're inspired by what we listen to, but 95 percent of the time, it's something else entirely.
CARPENTER And there's an absolutely infinite source of material for people to tap into. It can't be measured. And it can be measured all at the same time. I have this conversation with people all the time. A lot of people are really lost in this world. They don't know what they want to do. They don't know what they're thinking half the time. And I try to break it down in the most simplistic terms. Every one of us, as long as we're alive, is the absolute perfect balance of all that exists. Every one of us possesses the power, ability, and energy of all that is, and if any of us wants to waste away that kind of power, that's totally fine. I'm not here to tell anyone what to do. But any time there's something you want in life, the equation will always start with you, and you have the power, ability, and energy of all that is, so whatever it is you want in life, you can absolutely achieve it if you set yourself on the path towards that goal. Otherwise, it's just a thought, and it might as well be just me thinking about where the end of the universe is. I can't think of it. It's nothing; it doesn't exist. But it does exist. It exists within myself.
HAGSTRÖM I totally agree. You are in control. You are in the driver's seat, and the sooner you realize that, and that there are limitless possibilities, the sooner you can accomplish your goals. But so many people seem to be lost, and seem to be in a state where the only things they see are the restrictions that they put on themselves. If you say, "I can't do this," you've limited yourself. But if you look inward and say, "This is an endless journey, and I have a certain amount of time, and I know so little about things, but I want to know more," then it becomes very wondrous. You tend to sound a bit religious when you talk like that, but I think you know what I'm saying.
Below, watch the Deftones tour the Belching Beaver Brewery, which produces the band's signatures beers, and drink and talk craft brews:
CARPENTER That's the crazy part about it. When I do talk about it, people ask me if I'm religious. And I'm really not a religious person. Religion is really me. I am all. I am everything. And I can't give away my personal power to something I can't possibly prove exists. I can't prove that it doesn't exist, but what I can prove that exists is me.
HAGSTRÖM Yeah, but if you say that you are your own religion, people think that's very egotistical, when in reality, it's the opposite. If everyone learned to love themselves so much that they realized, I'm in control here and I have the power to do anything, then they wouldn't be so afraid, biased, and judgmental towards other things.
CARPENTER Right, you can't read everyone's thoughts, but the minute you truly acknowledge yourself and all your thoughts and opinions and emotions, you have instantly cut the distance between you and another person in half because they're likely to be feeling and thinking and experiencing similar things. We're all here on the same planet living the same lives roughly the same way.
HAGSTRÖM And that same principle crosses over into music. If you sit down and go, Okay, here's a blank page, and I set the rules, and for me there are no rules, so where can I take this? If you have that in mind all the time and just go for what your inspiration and gut instinct tell you, and if you channel that through your instrument and your band, then whatever you do is always going to be a rollercoaster through whatever you're feeling. And that's going to be so much less restrictive than anything where you follow rules.
CARPENTER I think everyone who is guided by rules just needs something to break down the walls. When I was 16, I got hit by a car skateboarding and had an out-of-body experience. I didn't know what to make of it for a long time. I never saw or heard or felt the car hit me. It didn't exist other than what I was told. But I did recall not being here and floating above the treetops in Sacramento, and seeing the buildings popping up downtown and going, Oh, this is really cool. What's going on? Meanwhile, there's this voice repeating like a scratched record, "Man, you're gonna be all right. You're gonna make it, man." And I was like, Who the hell is telling me this? And why the hell are you floating above the trees? And my final question was, Man, while you were skateboarding, did you fall asleep? And I woke up instantly. I had fallen off my skateboard, and there was reality. I wasn't in pain, but I was right there in the moment and totally conscious of everything. There wasn't a smell, a color, or an angle that I wasn't aware of. I acknowledged everything at once at that moment, and I've been that way ever since.
HAGSTRÖM Was that awareness difficult to understand at first?
CARPENTER It was, and between the time I was 18 and 25, me and the guys in the band drank everything we could get our hands on, and I realize now I did that because it was the path of least resistance for me. To go that way made me not ever concentrate on anything because otherwise I was focused on everything all at once, and it was way too much to handle. But when I was 25, I weaned off the alcohol and went to weed, and that really made me feel good. And in that period of time I discovered Meshuggah, and it redirected me back to what I already knew—which was that I was already focusing on everything. And along with all those thoughts and feelings and your music, I gained respect and appreciation for the fact that I am everything that is. And I owe a lot of that realization to you guys.
HAGSTRÖM And the weed.
CARPENTER [Laughs] Often, when I speak about the weed, it's mostly in humor because my mind is already free. That's why I smoke it, because I don't do anything but enjoy the actual physical effect on my body. I just think that life's challenging, and to actually feel good is what you do to balance that challenge. Everyone's seeking their own method of pleasure, whatever that might be.
HAGSTRÖM The thing is, if you are a person that takes responsibility for making yourself balanced, a lot of people do not like that because they are not taking responsibility for their own lives. They're running the treadmill and doing something they're told to do because they think it's correct, but they're not feeling good about it. So when they see somebody feeling good about something and taking responsibility for their lives, they don't like what they see. It's called jealousy.
HAGSTRÖM The morality principle dictates that if you feel bad and you're struggling, you're a good person. And if you're feeling good and doing whatever it takes to make your life feel good, then you're a bad person. To me that rings so false and is so absurd because of the simple fact that I am a less loving person, a less inspiring person, a less happy person if I feel bad all the time. If I actually feel good about myself, I might actually do something good for somebody else every once in a while instead of just pulling everyone down with me.
CARPENTER What it comes down to is this: Happiness in life is truly dictated by you simply choosing to be happy, and that's something I think a lot of people just can't comprehend. They're waiting for life to give them happiness somehow, and it's just not gonna happen on its own.
HAGSTRÖM Right. Life doesn't owe us anything. We owe it to ourselves to make something out of life.