Inside 'obZen': How Meshuggah Pushed Themselves to the Limit to Make a Masterpiece | Revolver

Inside 'obZen': How Meshuggah Pushed Themselves to the Limit to Make a Masterpiece

Math-metal giants on stress, self-doubt and challenges behind groundbreaking sixth album
meshuggah 2008 GETTY, Naki/Redferns
Meshuggah, 2008
photograph by Naki/Redferns

After releasing their chart-worthy 2002 album, Nothing, Meshuggah defied expectations—twice.

First, the Swedish metal warriors put out a dense, unrelenting single-track EP called I in 2004 on an obscure independent label. Then they followed with the equally inscrutable, nightmarishly hypnotic one-song album Catchthirtythree, which substituted drum machines for live drums and was filled with riffs so complex many couldn't be recreated live. The band played just two short tours to support the album and sales suffered, reaching only 50,000 in the U.S. (compared with Nothing's 100,000). Meshuggah couldn't have been happier, though.

"Actually, that was a trigger we had wanted to pull for a bunch of years, and finally we were able to do it," says drummer and lyricist Tomas Haake from his home near Umeå, where the band formed in 1987. "We weren't thinking about sales or what people wanted to hear; we were just guided by the mood we were in and what we felt inspired by."

For the uninitiated, Meshuggah aren't like other bands. They've written some of the most complex, unrelenting, and terrifying songs in the history of metal. They tour when they see fit, enter the studio on their own schedule, and work only when they feel creative. Their efforts haven't been rewarded with great wealth, but their originality and savagery have inspired countless other groups, including Deftones, Dillinger Escape Plan, and A Life Once Lost, and earned them an in-depth, "architectonic" analysis in the academic journal Music Theory Spectrum in 2007.

From the moment they released their self-titled 1989 debut, Meshuggah have followed just one rule—to continually challenge themselves by pushing the limits of songwriting and performance to the "M"th degree. They've explored extreme tempos, angular riffs, psychedelic textures, and seemingly mathematically impossible time signatures. And somehow they've sculpted it all into songs that not only hold together but tumble, careen, barrel, and groove hard enough to turn cinderblocks to dust. But despite what you might think, Meshuggah's goal isn't to thwart expectations or to infuriate listeners. They're far too selfish for that.

"We just want to play what we think is fun to play and see where it leads us," says singer Jens Kidman, who rarely grants interviews. "I know we have a lot of supportive fans that think we're fucking gods, but we don't listen to that very much."

Obviously, Meshuggah didn't write their new album, obZen, to please anyone disgruntled by I or Catchthirtythree. So it's a happy accident that the disc marks a return to the staggered rhythms, blazing tempos, organic drumming, and relatively normal song lengths of Nothing and 1998's classic Chaosphere. At the same time, nearly all of the numbers are strikingly different; there are the full-on thrash beats and spidery licks of "Combustion," the engine-revving guitars and queasy counterpoint rhythms of "Bleed," and the atonal guitar blasts and falling-down-the-stairs drum clatter of "This Spiteful Snake." At first listen, obZen seems less challenging to the listener than some of the band's other records, and most of the songs flow smoothly from one syncopated passage to the next. However, careful examination reveals that the material is some of the group's most complicated.

"I still don't know how we're gonna pull off some of the songs live, because it's very challenging stuff," guitarist Mårten Hagström says a month before Meshuggah start rehearsing for their tour with Ministry, which marks their first North American dates in over three years. "There are real problems with recreating these songs. First, you have the physical side, which is so strenuous for the actual physique, but then you also have the intense memorization. It's a bitch."

"The songs we really want to play live are the ones that are the most tricky to learn and play as a band," adds Haake. "It's one thing to nail a track in the studio, but to do it all together is totally different."

Of course, the test of bringing obZen to the stage pales compared with the challenge of creating the record in the first place. Meshuggah started writing the album 18 months ago after finishing their short tour for Catchthirtythree. They spent nearly a year coming up with the songs, which is the longest they'd ever taken, and much of that time was consumed learning to play what they wrote. It took Haake nearly five months to nail the machine-gun burst kicks on "Bleed," and Hagstrom and guitarist Fredrik Thordendal spent almost as long mastering some of their more demanding guitar passages.

"We all wanted very, very much from this album," Haake says. "So everyone scrutinized their own stuff and redid a lot of the parts. We were continuously changing and tweaking the riffs to get everything right."

Meshuggah entered their Stockholm studio, Fear and Loathing, in May 2007 and recorded obZen over the next six months. Haake spent the first four weeks laying down the beats, recording between 20 and 30 takes for each passage of each song. When he was done, he spent another month poring through the hundreds of takes and fusing the best ones together. At the same time, Hagström and Thordendal meticulously recorded their guitars and Dick Lövgren tackled the bass lines. The final three months in the studio were spent recording Kidman's vocals.

"That's what we always spend the most time on," Haake says. "Since the music is usually so heavily syncopated and accented, you have to try a lot of things to be able to really fuse the lyrics with the track."

It didn't help that Kidman hadn't heard any of the songs before he went in to record. Instead of giving their singer the basic tracks so he could work out his parts, which is how most bands function, Haake and Thordendal sat down with Kidman and listened to all of the passages one by one to figure out what vocal approach would work best for each rhythm. Kidman took notes then entered the vocal booth with only his scribbles to guide him.

"It was a pretty awkward feeling to do it that way, and even after I did something, we often took away riffs and changed riffs and the vocals would have to be switched again," Kidman says. "After a while, it was like being in The Twilight Zone. I was so focused that I forgot about time or what I did the day before. When I think about it now, I go, Did we even record an album? I don't remember that much."

As rigid and obsessive as they were about every nuance of creating obZen, Meshuggah were plagued with self-doubt the whole time they were in the studio. And the more time they spent on the songs, they more unsure they became. "We did so much stuff, it was hard to have any perspective at all," explains Hagström. "And when you lack perspective, and you're creating this brutal music with so many parts, it's very hard to be confident. There were so many times I listened to it and I thought, 'Hey, this album sucks.' And then the next day I'd listen again and think it was one of the best things I ever heard. So then you start to feel, OK, which one's right? Some days everybody was just depressed, especially Fredrik."

"Oh, yeah," agrees Haake. "We all thought Fredrik was going to lose his mind by the end of it. By the time we got to the last few weeks of the album, he had worked himself to bits."

Despite all the stress and uncertainty, Meshuggah remained calm and congenial—but that's nothing new. Over the past 17 years, the members have never fought in the studio or on tour, regardless of the adversity they faced. "I don't know what's wrong with us," Kidman says. "We never raise our voices to each other or anything. We're just a bunch of nice guys. We never get angry."

Maybe that's because Meshuggah reserve all their rage and negativity for their music. ObZen isn't just sonically brutal. It's also filled with the band's most virulent lyrics to date. Conceived by Haake and Hagstrom and penned by Haake, the message is misanthropic and bleak, depicting mankind as the scourge of the earth. "Salvation found in vomit and blood/Where depravation, lies, corruption/War and pain is god," screams Kidman in the title track, exemplifying the disc's ugliness.

"It's all about human evil," Haake says. "And that's where the album title comes from. "Instead of using the word 'obscene,' we mixed it with 'Zen,' as in you've found your balance and equilibrium as a human being in the obscene, in violence, in bloodshed."

Haake doesn't endorse such moral degradation, and his lyrics don't serve as any sort of personal therapy. They were composed more to compliment the vicious music and reflect the bloody album art (which the band received long before the songs were written).

"I don't necessarily view the human race as evil all the time," Haake emphasizes. "But if you're in a bit of a darker mood you can definitely see it that way. There's just a lot of cruelty out there if you're aware of what's going on around you."

Of all the band members, Hagström, who was in the middle of a divorce when Meshuggah started working on obZen, is the most cynical. Yet, even he's more Tony Robbins than Anton LaVey.

"What's a little bit funny about this band is that all four of us have a pretty optimistic views about certain things," he says. "When we're discussing the world and what's happening around us, or how any one of us is feeling at any moment, we try to be very altruistic—to look out for each other and be as humane as we can possibly be. We don't dwell on hate and bad feelings as people. But with these songs, I think we really wanted to paint a picture lyrically that might be seen as a cautionary tale. We're going, 'Heads up. Here's what some of the parts of being human are about, and this is what we can be at our worst.' So it's more about being aware of negative feelings than actually living them all the time."

Although he hasn't written his own lyrics for many years, Hagström is the conceptual master of Meshuggah. Whether discussing religion, economics or current events, the guitarist is fervent and effusive. Asked whether mankind is a cancer upon the globe, he responds, "It's a philosophical marshland and a very interesting socioeconomic problem from a psychological standpoint," sounding more like a scholar than a barbaric axe slinger. "On one hand, you could say, 'OK, everything we're doing as humanity is unnatural. We're going against what should be happening by expanding around the world.' But then you can say, 'Well, we're part of nature, so this is a natural course of action. And what we're doing is not different than what locusts do.'"

More troubling to Hagström these days is the way Western culture promotes fear like a high-energy snack food, yielding millions of over-anxious consumers unaware they're empowering the very forces that hold them back. "There's so much insecurity, and people who shouldn't have to live in fear are scared for their lives," he begins. "If you live in Africa in Sierra Leone, you're aware of what's wrong there. Kids are toting guns and shit. But if you look at the West, we've got all these people that go to work every day and wear a tie and place money on the stock market and do all types of shit that doesn't have any bearing on anything. These people are stressing themselves out because they value money above everything else, but they're not fighting for their lives."

Up until now, Hagström has been rational and coherent, but as he delves deeper into the topic his tangents become more barbed, and soon his discourse start to resemble his fractured, blitzkrieg riffs. "We've come a very long way from people saying, 'OK, here's my pig, here's my farm. Here's what I need to do to get by for another day,'" he continues. "Now, with all the information systems we have, we have disinformation. And with disinformation comes greed and the desire for power. So the people who are the least qualified to wield power are the ones that do, and most of the time they're inducing other people to feel fear where there is really no need to. If you talk to grandmas everywhere, they think there's a terrorist in every apartment and that there are diseases everywhere that will kill everyone in two seconds. The more fear and anxiety you see, the more fear and anxiety you're going to have.

"Sometimes I feel like we are the cancer of the earth," he admits, returning to our starting point. "We are making money and collecting stuff in order to make more money and collect more stuff. From my point of view, that's a zero-sum game. A lot of people have wealth to the point where they don't know how to burn their money fast enough, but still they need more because they need to control more people. There must be something in our DNA that was a good thing to have back in the Stone Age to make your tribe win against the other tribe or against wild animals, but in a society where we have the potential to be good human beings, that type of instinct is pretty misplaced."

We now return to our regularly scheduled program. With obZen, Meshuggah appear poised to reclaim some of the fan adulation they lost after Catchthirtythree. And with tour dates scheduled far beyond their Ministry jaunt, Meshuggah stand to recapture the level of recognition they had when they toured with Ozzfest for Nothing. If all goes well, the band members  should be able to make up for the income they lost by staying off the road for three years. And that's good, because regardless of how much they shun materialistic greed, they still need some cash to pay mortgages and alimony. But their income will never come at the expense of their art.

"Money is something everyone needs, we're not denying that," Haake says. "To be honest, we were financially strained at times over the past few years when we didn't tour. That was really hard. But we feel very fortunate to be doing this still. We're not getting rich in any way, but if that was the goal, we wouldn't be playing this type of music. I just feel lucky we're able to survive doing what we love."