Tomas Haake: Meshuggah’s Djentle Giant

This is apparent on “Swarm,” the only completed track when the band entered Fear And Loathing for the Koloss sessions; the ferociously effed-up “I Am Colossus”; and especially “Don’t Look Down,” a track so elliptically body-rockin’ it’s practically funk. “For us it’s usually like at 16/32 or 8/32 bars is when [the cycle] kind of starts over. Sometimes it’s shorter than that, too, but those would maybe be the more common lengths. For Koloss I don’t think it’s different, you just don’t have as many hits crammed in over that period of time. There isn’t as much bass drum and as many staccato things that are kind of tripping people out.”

Only a band as weird as Meshuggah could work this hard to sound simple (we use the term loosely). Here’s the real kicker: “So it’s less intense in that way,” he continues, “but actually more tricky and harder still for me to learn. The rotations or its cycles are actually slower and longer so that takes away a little bit of that [polyrhythmic] effect. It’s hard for me to explain it in the actual musical theory — I don’t know all those terms.”

Haake explains that he is not counting while playing. Although odd-number cycles — whether it’s 17, 23, or 34, give the music its off-kilter vibe — they are not odd-time signatures as such because it’s all built around 4/4.

The execution is Haake’s other challenge. It took him six months to learn to play the parts that he had programmed for “Bleed” [from Obzen]. “I think that some drummers might think I just step in to play these songs but it’s like a really laborious thing.”

The seeds of Meshuggah’s unconventional approach were sown ironically enough by early ’80s German thrashers Holy Moses, Accept, and, to some extent, San Francisco Bay Area stalwarts Metallica and Testament. “They kind of did [what Meshuggah does] but only in tiny little bursts,” he says. “They never stretched those ideas and let it like continue or let it go on. I guess in metal we were at least one of the first few bands that took [those bridges/breakdowns] as the main thing.”

For the drums, that meant Haake’s signature approach up top of slow, steady riding on the crashes and Chinas. “In that sense we’re not a dynamic band,” he adds. “We don’t do a lot of dynamics within the song. Sometimes we’ll break it down and it’ll go into a calm part, but we don’t go into clean vocals or smooth stuff like that. So when we’re all playing it’s just full out all the time.”

The downside to being a metal maverick is that it has spawned imitators. The term “djent,” which may or may not be an onomatopoeia for the simultaneously drop-tuned, palm-muted guitar stroke, has become shorthand for the left-field style Meshuggah popularized. The band, however, is not a connoisseur of itself, and Haake is unfazed by the idea of others encroaching onto what makes his band special. Even Meshuggah isn’t quite sure what that is. “People see us as the creators of that genre,” he says. “But we feel that we are constantly drifting away — not to get away from that genre, but we are trying to branch out a little bit. That’s something that we want to do with each album. We’re still this metal band and we know pretty much when we’re crossing over the line into something we don’t necessarily want to do, but were trying to go along the sidelines instead of straight ahead.”

To Bleed Or Not To Bleed

During the winter 1992–1993, Haake’s transition into Meshuggah, which began in the university town of UmeĆ„, was anything but smooth. At a practice session in his first year in the band, he grew so frustrated trying to learn the unconventional meters that he hurled the sticks as hard as he could, missing the guitarist Thordendal’s face by an inch.

Haake was also feeling the pressure to fill the shoes of Meshuggah’s original drummer, Niclas Lundren, who at the time was a more advanced player but didn’t have the temperament to handle life in a rock band. “After the band got a record deal, he really freaked out,” Haake recalls of the period just before he stepped in as Lundren’s replacement. “He didn’t want to tour or any of that stuff and basically just packed up his things and drove his snowmobile off into the woods.”

Haake is not a schooled drummer, but neither is he completely self-taught. In the small Swedish town of ...rnsk...ldsvik where he grew up there was only one instructor, Mr. Rudkvist, an older guy who was strictly by the book and not interested in popular music. “He would lean over my shoulder, ‘No! No! No!,’ watching everything I did as I’m reading and trying to play this practice pad. It was a lesson of ‘Nos.’”

He persisted for another four years, burning through as many instructors, until he pleaded with his parents to let him stop. “I almost had an aversion to it.”

And he’s not ashamed to admit to a Neil Peart phase that was probably more intense than most drummers’. The infatuation was as much with the Rush drummer’s style as his huge setup, which he went to great lengths to emulate, including a big suspended hexagonal brass pipe. “I couldn’t afford [Peart’s signature] temple blocks so my Dad made this instead,” he recalls. “I just liked the vision of a whole ton of s__t just hanging around me.”

A still deeper connection was forged after discovering that Peart wrote Rush’s lyrics. British prog-band Marillion was also influential. Since 1995’s Destroy, Erase, Improve, Haake has penned all of Meshuggah’s lyrics, sketching out poems before there is any music. “Sometimes it will be a little weird once I have the music in front of me so I’ll drop a few words to make it fit with a guitar riff or maybe find a word with less syllables.”

Haake denies Koloss has a unifying theme, unless you’re talking about the usual misanthropy, malaise, and Hobbesian outlook that pervades their entire discography. “You just have to look around you to see all the s---__t that’s happening in the world.”

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