From the December 2016 issue of DRUM! | By John Payne | Photography by Anthony Dubois
Any other living being would have been laid out flat for months, but Tomas Haake played in pain following spinal surgery to relieve a compressed nerve root that had made it impossible to control his pedals. Why? Because his bandmates needed to make a living, and Tomas Haake is irreplaceable.
Extreme — to put it mildly — metal band Meshuggah roared straight outta Umeå, Sweden, in 1987, with an insanely intense vision of just how far metalmania could be taken before our bangin’ skulls shattered and strewed across the infinite reaches of the solar system. The band’s ambitiously experimental stretching of the metal form via complex time signatures, protracted polymetric song-suites, head-skewing guitar dissonance, and rather semihuman singing-snarl is currently blasted with grit and glee by vocal harsher Jens Kidman, guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström, bassist Dick Lövgren, and drummer Tomas Haake.
Writing and recording the band’s new album The Violent Sleep Of Reason was an opportunity for drummer Haake to further expand his famed percussive innovations while maintaining the familiarly unfamiliar sound of his highly regarded band.
“What we’re trying to do is find something that’s within a framework that still is Meshuggah,” he says. “I would say that we’re a free band and can do pretty much anything we want to do, but that’s not really true — we wouldn’t do clean vocals and straightforward rock and roll. We still want to sound like us, so you have your limitations. But we still feel free within that; we’re just trying to write something that sounds new to our ears with each album and each song.”
Haake insists that for a band to advance musically, a drummer’s innovations needn’t always be groundbreaking. “It can be very little things that get you going, like the way a pattern sounds when you play it on the drums — or a tonality on the guitar. On this album even more so than before, there’s harmonies going on with the bass to the guitar — it’s not always a unison or octave, there are dissonances that go where the bass is one note and then dissonance happens with the guitar and the bass, and not just the guitar on its own.”
According to Haake, the album is “a little more scattered, a little wilder,” which he credits to bassist Dick Lövgren, who was instrumental in developing many of the songs’ riffs for the first time. His input changed things considerably for a band that’s been largely all about rhythm.
“He brought different tonal ideas,” Haake says, “as he comes from a different side of things, from the jazz side of things and, like, 12-tone music. There were fewer rules. Also, the fact that Fredrik Thordendal didn’t write for this album, because he was focusing on his next solo album; he always works so hard for each album that by the time we had done an album the poor guy was on his knees.”
The Violent Sleep Of Reason was recorded for the most part live in the studio, an approach that the band had long hankered to get back to. “It was only the first album, Contradictions Collapse, and Nothing [2002; re-recorded and re-released 2006] that were actually tracked with several musicians simultaneously,” says Haake. “We’ve been wanting to do it again for many albums, but it takes us a lot of time. We’re really slow writers, and over the last few albums everything has been planned way ahead, release dates and all that stuff, so you’re always trying to fit into that schedule.
“And with Koloss and obZen, we never really had time to rehearse them as a band. I would sit down and practice to prerecorded guitars and a click track, and whoever wrote the song was the only one who knew what was going on with it. So, we ended up being so late that the only way to do it was to say, ‘Oh, get drums in there,’ and if I didn’t know it well enough we would just be like, ‘Those hits are a little off,’ and we would move it and correct things to make it sound the way it should.”
For Violent Sleep the band rehearsed for two months before going into the studio and throwing down vocals, bass, guitar, and drums together as a real, live, rocking band. For Haake, the humanizing difference was palpable. “There’s something to be said about that energy of where you hear that it’s played as a unit,” he says. “On this album you hear the human flaws, there’s a bit of push and pull, because every musician in the band has a little bit different timing — like, where are you on the click? Are you a little ahead of it, after, right on top of it? That makes this album more alive, whereas Koloss and obZen were great albums, but they weren’t really honest. You know, I didn’t play [live staple] ‘Bleed’ that well while we were in the studio, for example — in fact it took me years on the road to get it even close to the level where it sounds on the album, where everything is just perfect the whole way.”
For Haake, good music is ultimately not dependent on his drumming-chops prowess or any of that macho-muso stuff. “I don’t really have some kind of weird pride about ‘You’ve got to do things this way,’ or ‘If I can’t nail that we’re not playing it.’ When you’re recording something, you just use different tools, different means to an end. The end product is the only thing I ever really cared about.”
In fact, he says, the perfect Meshuggah sound could exclusively feature all-programmed drums, as heard on the band’s Catch Thirtythree album of 2005. That’d be fine with Haake, so long as the overall thing cranked massively. “But then again, eventually you’ve got to stand up on a stage and deliver those songs, so if you don’t know it at the time of recording, you’ve got to learn.”
Memorizing The Unmemorizable
No band exemplifies the interfacing of “real” musicmaking with technology like Meshuggah. Interestingly, Haake’s own devilishly complex drum programs have taught the drummer a thing or two about actually playing them in live performance.
“That’s one aspect of what we’ve been doing that has helped push us into areas that really would be almost impossible to jam out,” he says. “Most of our songs are just a 4/4 beat where you have an odd time cycle that travels over the bar lines, and a lot of times the basics of a drum pattern or drum style on a song might come from me just messing around on the kit. But I can’t just take one of those odd-time things and automatically play it over time, because a lot of times it’s very difficult.”
Haake figured out a methodology that entails devising patterns and beats on the drum kit until he finds something he likes, then programming those ideas on a computer. Thus, what may start mathematical becomes musical. “I’ll take that odd time cycle and see, for example, how it sounds if I copy/paste a pattern or beat for 8 bars, 16 bars, 32 bars. Where does it take me? Does it sound good? A lot of times it won’t turn over in a very nice way, but that’s something that I then listen to, to learn how it actually sounds, more than thinking about the technicality of whether there’s 13 notes in this cycle before it repeats.”
In essence, Haake’s thinking/feeling the 4/4 beat that underscores every complex rhythm the band plays. “I memorize basically by listening to it as a whole,” he says. “I learn it by increments, and I’ll listen to it to the point where it becomes one singular part that has all those hits. When the song is new and you’re still writing it, you’re very aware of where this usually odd time cycle starts over, but the more you listen to it and get used to the sound of it, the more you lose the sense of what that was. You stop hearing the repetition and start hearing it as a whole part more than a repetition of a pattern.”
Truckloads of technical bands write music with time signatures that constantly change, with lots of of stopping-and-starting, but building blocks like these hold no interest for Haake. “We want to have a flow,” he says. “Once you get the beat and start shaking your head, we want you to be able to do that throughout the whole song. Whether or not you can hear or feel that, it’s still inherent in the music and is an important aspect of why we sound like we do.”
Infographic: Juan Castillo
Back To The Old School
The Stockholm-based Meshuggah recorded The Violent Sleep Of Reason at the legendary Puk Studios in Kaerby, Denmark, with engineering by Tue Madsen (producer for Swedish bangers The Haunted). Puk had its heyday in the ’80s and early ’90s with the likes of Judas Priest and Depeche Mode. Today, though the place is in a shambles and slowly falling apart, it still has a very special ambience. “Oh yeah, great sounding drum room,” Haake confirms. “You can hear it, once you have your overheads and distance mikes in there, you get the vibe of the room, and that really helps.”
While Meshuggah’s last few albums had been all-digital productions, using clean signals that were reamped and tweaked after the fact, this time around the band went way old-school by not just recording the players simultaneously in different rooms, but also by employing microphones and big-cabinet tube amplifiers. “That also brings a different energy,” says Haake. “The digital stuff today is amazing, but there’s something to be said about a tube amp and you just crank and put a mike on that.”
To get tight separation, Haake and his drums were recorded in the drum room, with the bass player playing right next to the drums with his bass amp located in the room right behind them. Along with singer Jens Kidman in a separate room, there were six amps and six cabinets in one closed-off booth, with each cabinet miked and every amp jammed all the way to 11.
The drum miking setups were done in a similar way to the band’s prior recording sessions, with top and bottom microphones on the toms, which grab the attack from the top and add ring and tone from the bottom head. Four to six ambient microphones were positioned at a low level and seven to eight feet from the kick drums; further away and higher up, other ambient mikes were placed for additional general top end and cymbal sounds. “We actually used fewer mikes than we have on some albums,” Haake says. “We were going nuts for a while, where we had one mike for every cymbal, and this time we only had three overhead mikes that picked up the whole drum set.”
In the studio or live onstage, Haake’s got a lot to focus on to keep this band on track, and the balance of sounds in his monitors at Puk Studio was crucial. “I like to hear pretty much everything except vocals,” he says with a laugh, “because they can be more of a disturbing element than anything, especially if the singer is not yet super familiar with the material. Over the last few years I’ve started using more guitar in my monitor mix, partly because Fredrik — who in the past has recorded most of the guitars on the albums — his sense of timing is excellent, in fact way better timing than I will ever have. So cranking him up in the monitor mix gives me something to lean on and allows us to lock in together a little better.”
While the band emphasized liveness while recording the album, that didn’t mean there was a lot of spontaneity when it came to laying down the parts. “The experimentation is very much a part of the writing process,” says Haake, “but the way we do demos is, at some point we decide, ‘Okay, this song is done,’ and then we put a lot of effort into the programming aspect, because if there is going to be a part where there’s going to be a lot of fills and other stuff going on, you do that in programming as well, because you want to hear the whole song as close as possible to how it’s going to be at the end of the day when you have recorded it in the studio.”
The Next Level
When Haake resumes beating the skins onstage after a bit of time off, a gig or two will get him back in prime shape for Meshuggah’s physically demanding performances, which after all these years he still hugely enjoys — if his body is in a cooperative mood, that is. “We were out on tour in ’09 in the U.S. and the last three dates on tour my back just went nuts on me, and instead of my foot doing a hit, it would swivel to the side and not even do the hit. I completely lost control of my right foot.”
A very scary moment indeed for Haake, who reckoned at that point, ‘Okay, this is it, time to pack it in.’ Yet the injury — which required surgery in which the doctors took out a bulging growth that had compressed one of the nerve roots in his spine — has not only been thoroughly dealt with, it has proved an opportunity for technique innovations pushing Haake’s playing forward.
“The surgery wasn’t a quick fix in any way,” he says, “but while the nerve damage effects still hamper my playing to an extent, it’s gotten better. This is seven years ago now that I had the surgery, and for the first year or two we still had to play, because that’s our only income, people in the band have kids and stuff, so we can’t just not play.”
The option was to bring in a drummer to stand in for Haake, but a suitable candidate proved too difficult to find. So the band just kept playing. “To be honest, it sounded really horrible for a good while,” he says with a grimace. “It’s not so much that you’re healing or that the signals are starting to function again, it’s more that you learn how to respond to the lack of function. Nowadays, on certain songs I will put my heel on the right side of the right pedal and play it completely differently, because it just will not do those hits in the timing I need if I keep it like I usually do.”
With varying degrees of success, he’s come up with little workarounds to deal with the right-side nerve damage, such as using triggers to get an even velocity in his kick hits, and/or positioning his foot further back on the pedals. “It can be really hard to push down on the pedal because you’re basically playing the bottom inch of the footplate. Often, what this has done is make any kind of double strokes on the right foot extremely hard to pace — my body just basically wants to get them done ASAP.”
The Drummer As Songwriter
As one of the primary composers of Meshuggah, Haake’s dual role as chief beatmaker has significantly shaped the rhythmic foundations of the band’s trademarked sound. “A lot of times I will sit down at the drum kit and find something — ‘Yeah, I can hear the guitars in here’ — but often it’ll be just a rhythmic jungka jungka jungka that I hear more than a melodic line.”
Yet the very textures of the guitar samples he uses for composing have an impact on the rhythmic feel he comes up with at the end of the day. “If you look at the songs I cowrote on Koloss and obZen, I had a whole compartment of sounds and guitar stuff from previous recordings and demos, and I would just take a piece of a guitar part and time-stretch it and repitch it piece by piece, and I would build riffs that way. But most of the time it would be just jungka jungka, to get the rhythm where I want the guitar hits to be, and then I’d leave it to whoever’s writing with me to do their take on those riffs and make their own versions of that.”
The genially modest Mr. Haake finds this collaborative approach a very cool process, as it can result in his bandmates’ writing something that he could never have thought up on his own. “Sometimes it just blows your mind, and it sounds like something completely new,” he says. “You hear that your rhythmic ideas are still in there, but the other musicians are able to take it to the level where it needs to be to make it interesting.”
Haake writes the bulk of Meshuggah’s lyrics, too. His pet themes on the new album are similar to what the band has touched on previously, with topicalities such as extremist religious views, what’s been going on in the Middle East, “and all these people fleeing their own countries by the millions. A humanitarian catastrophe, and we see it very acutely in the world today. You just have to click on a TV and there it is.”
The heaviness of such lyrical matter notwithstanding, “In Meshuggah music,” Haake says, “the voice is just another instrument — another distorted instrument — and also a
rhythmical instrument, a percussive instrument that’s an integral part of the structure and patterns. We try to do the vocals as straightforward as possible, so you can actually hear the 4/4 in the vocals. But, of course, the music being kind of quirky the way it is, you can’t always do that; the vocals are not going to be that easy to lay on top of this music. But you start mapping out and refining it as you go, and redo redo redo until you feel, ‘Okay, now I’m satisfied.’”