Tomas Haake: Djentle Giant

It's a Thursday night in late January 2012. The scene is The Slidebar, a cozy dive in Fullerton, California, during the annual NAMM trade show. The occasion is a listening party for the new Meshuggah album, Koloss. It’s a festive gathering of like-minded metal adventurers, except for the fact that three of the band members (minus guitarist Mårten Hagström) are seated in an elevated corner booth. The band, along with several Japanese groupies, stare at us with quizzical scowls on their faces. All except for drummer Tomas Haake.

As the room reaches capacity, Haake, gray-streaked pony tail visible across the room, is weaving through the crowd bro-hugging, fist-bumping, and playing host to the world premier of the band’s new music. It’s a surreal vibe compounded in no small part by the video screens displaying mock–Surgeon General warnings that exposure to Meshuggah’s music will corrode your soul.

Once it begins pumping from the speakers, Koloss bears the telltale signs of the Swedish metal innovators — staggered rhythms, pitch-bent tones, churning pace — yet something’s different. Instead of random clusters, people huddle in small groups to let the music flow over them, nodding and shimmying like spiritual revelers. Like we said, surreal.

The next day at noon, Haake and I meet at the Sonor booth where he just wrapped an autograph session. Amid the clangor of the Anaheim Convention Center’s Hall D, he thinks back to last night. “The music was too loud,” he says, shaking his head at the irony of an extreme-metal musician complaining about the volume at his own listening party. But the 39-year-old drummer is feeling good about Koloss, which was created in a small, stress-filled window of time at the end of last year at Fear And Loathing, the band’s private studio in Stockholm.

The album’s title is Swedish for “colossus,” a word that aptly describes the immensity of Messhugah’s sound. The name also hints at what a bitch the album was to make. “It was kind of pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” he says. “We weren’t at all ready to make this.” After wrapping the tour behind 2008’s Obzen, Meshuggah struggled to follow up their most frantic, note-packed offering, which surpassed even 1998’s Chaosphere. Notorious procrastinators, the band waited till the last possible second to embark on Koloss, figuring nothing quite motivates like a deadline.

Sitting by himself with the click track and prerecorded guitars, the marathon sessions were a lonely experience for Haake. “We force ourselves into this situation where it’s nerve-wracking to make the album, and it works,” he explains. “But at the same time it’s a boring way of making music when it should be a fun thing.”

Behold The Monolith

For a sweaty thicket of beats that can be exhausting if you listen too closely for too long, drum tracking for Koloss was a wonky, even sterile process. But with Hagstr...m now living in northern Sweden and bassist Dick L...vgren in the south in Gothemburg, the writing process is fairly disconnected. The drum parts are first created by vocalist Jens Kidman in ToonTrack software to fit around guitarists Hagstr...m and Fredrik Thordendal’s parts. Later, Haake learns what Kidman programmed, and then records the patterns, beat for beat, on his acoustic kit.

“Everyone is pretty good at programming drums no matter whose song it is and knowing what you can and cannot do,” he adds. “And we can do it really fast now. It’s pretty much how it’s going to turn out once you record it with actual drums because those [ToonTrack beats] are the drums that I’m going to emulate pretty much. We usually don’t change too much from the drum program because people put an effort into it like the way they want the drums, with all the intricacies, to come out once the album’s done. It’s not like a super simple thing just to keep the beat [as you would in a scratch track].”

It’s a spare and unsentimental m.o., but the top-down workflow makes sense for music this dense. Incidentally, the version of ToonTrack’s Drumkit From Hell that was used on Koloss Haake actually created in the early 2000s. Featuring actual sounds from Tomas’ Sonor kit, it was the company’s first hit and remains a popular drum program today.

The completed tracks were then sent to Daniel Bergstand in Uppsala, Sweden, for mixing. Bergstrand, a longtime collaborator with the band, might take the original snare drum and add a sample of, say, the sound from a snare that he did with another band in Norway. “If he did not like the original take’s sound he could take one of his samples and just put up another one in there,” says Haake. “It was just for him to put his touch on it.”

Twisted By Design

With their down-tuned eight-string guitars, non–death-metal dirty vocals characterized by a near absence of phrasing, and torturous interlocking of instruments that is simultaneously tense and sluggish, Meshuggah basically invented a new genre of metal.

When you think of how frenetic and mathematic Obzen was there was no place left for the band to go except down, and as Haake says with a chuckle, “maybe a little bit to the side.” Koloss is dense and jacked up in that familiar Meshuggah way, but it feels warmer, more head bob–able. “For this one we felt like doing something a bit more visceral,” he says. “It’s not as in your face in the same way because it’s more like single kick or heavier stuff.”

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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 Umeå, 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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Ends To A Means

Tomas Haake might play fewer fills than any extreme-metal drummer on the planet. Make that fewer traditional metal fills. “I only do the hits with the guitar hits,” he explains. “So the toms are doing what the guitars are doing together with the bass drum instead of being a fill that’s on top of something else.”

Rimshotting every snare hit, he carries the technique onto the toms — it’s the kind of thing that only sounds good in Meshuggah. “Even on the toms I tend to play rimshots, but sometimes you can really choke them if you hit the rim too hard.”

Tomas Haake

Haake's Kit

Drums Sonor SQ2
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6" Sonor Artist Series Bronze Snare
3 14" x 13" Tom
4 15" x 15" Floor Tom
5 18" x 17" Floor Tom

Cymbals Sabian
A 15" Artisan Vault Hi-Hat
B 19" AAX X-Treme Chinese
C 19" Artisan Vault Crash
D 20" Artisan Vault Crash
E 21" HHX Stage Crash/Ride
F 15" HH Medium Crash stacked on 19" Paragon Chinese
G 22" HHX Legacy Ride (played as a crash)
H 21" AAX X-Treme Chinese
I 16" Artisan Vault Prototype Hi-Hat (played closed)

Tomas Haake also uses Trick Pro1-V pedals, Evans heads (G2 Clear tom batters, G1 Clear tom resos, EMAD2 Clear bass batters, Hybrid snare batter, and Hazy 300 snare reso), Vic Firth Tomas Haake signature sticks, and Shure microphones.

His strike zone is the upper-left quadrant of the head because the accuracy with his left hand is, by his estimation, a little off. “Or it may also be a remnant from when I didn’t have a tom right in font of the snare drum [as he currently does].” All in all, it lends itself to Haake’s dirt-caked, trashy kit sound full of stray resonance, a tone that contrasts starkly with the subtle precision of the beats. “I know it’s got its sweet spot and you are supposed to kind of hit it at the center but I never really cared about that stuff, you know? As long as I don’t hit it so far out that it doesn’t sound like a tom anymore. I’m not at center at the snare drum either, really.”

Wearing a single glove on his right hand with grip tape on the right-hand stick is another Haake-ism. It remedies a side effect of a lopsided drumming approach. “I sweat a lot when I play and I’m playing pretty hard, so there is a certain amount of tension and effort you have to put into actually making the stick stick to your hand since I do so much riding and so much up here, too,” he says lifting his arm above his head. “So basically with the glove and the stick wrap, I don’t really have to grip it so hard. I can play really loosely. My left hand, the snare and hi-hat hand, I don’t really have that problem at all so [the tape and glove] is just on the right hand.”

By riding, Haake means crashing. He does have a ride in his setup but he ain’t pinging or tapping the bow. Also, the hi-hat is always chicking regardless of wherever else his arms are. “That one has to be going,” he says. “That’s my solid point in a sense whenever I’m not playing both bass drums.” And he’s got the x-hats on the right if he wants, so there’s no sacrifice of texture or other embellishments. “This way I can still do the chick thing with my left [hats], and still have an open trashy hi-hat and play it at the same time.”

Double bass is a given with Meshuggah. A solid 140 bpms is Haake’s comfort zone, “but past 160–170 it’s getting awkward.” Since he’s burying the beater into the heads — and therefore doing more work — 140 is fast considering the power behind the strokes.

Instead of increasing foot speed, Haake’s near-term goal is decelerating with grace. It’s a continuation of Koloss’ evolution into more stretched-out cycles, spaciousness, and hence, more groove. “To play really slow stuff and still make it swing without filling in all the notes in between — stuff like that is very important to practice.”

Since the band started using the click track live beginning with the last tour, Haake has noticed when he comes to certain parts of a song, it feels like the metronome just dropped ten bpms. “It makes me doubt that the click track is correct, you know? It’s such an eye opener: You think you’ve been playing it fairly steady and it’s like, ‘No! You haven’t.’” [laughs]

Drummer Vs. Musician

Meshuggah are perfectionists when it comes to notation and tablatures. Currently the band is in the process of transcribing the entire discography with plans to hire a developer to create an app for tablet and smart phone. “So we’re hoping if you’re at school or if you’re taking classes, or if you want to really get into it, you can do it that way, too.”

Haake has given a good deal a thought to doing clinics. One reason was in order to “give back” to all the manufacturers that have supported him over the years. Another reason was introducing a new generation to Meshuggah’s approach to meter: “I want to do something where everyone’s involved so people understand a little bit more about wh at we’re doing and how we think as far as Meshuggah’s music,” he says. His idea would be to break up the crowd into three groups. One would count on claves, another would do a snare hit, still another play the bass drum. “They would come around to see, ‘Oh, it’s still based in 4/4.’ But then again it’s a matter of are they going to be able to play together or are they just going to lose it?”

The future clinician also wants to avoid the show-drummer syndrome where “super drummers blow your mind,” because it may actually discourage potential drummers from picking up sticks. “That’s a little daunting for a kid.” Piggybacking clinics off a Meshuggah tour would be the easiest way to do it logistically. Psychologically, not so much. “Performing and clinics are two different mindsets, so that wouldn’t work for me.”

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Which brings us to Haake’s main reason for wanting to do them: Creating a musical identity apart from Meshuggah. But it’s a double-edged sword. “I’ve always seen myself as part of the band, not as the single instrumentalist. So when you take me with my drum set out of the context of the band I feel lost. When you have a room of a thousand drummers, I feel like someone caught me with my pants down.

“In the band setting I have a good self-confidence ’cause it’s us against them. It’s a totally different thing to have a good self-confidence when you take me out of the band context. So for me [doing the clinics] is about trying to get into the mindset of ‘Okay, I want to try and go back to being the drummer and play more, rehearse more, and practice more, and practice more with different things — not just as the band drummer for the exact songs we’re going to be playing, but to become an overall better drummer.”

Busyness Model

Back in Hall D at the convention center, Haake steels himself for the trade-show shuffle. On the whole, Meshuggah has always been a self-managed band. Recently, a business coordinator was hired to take care of the more day-to-day stuff. Until recently, the drummer did everything required to run the band, from writing paychecks to booking hotels. For the major tours he has a drum tech but there are still plenty of one-offs where he’s setting up and breaking down himself. “It’s to the point where it’s actually not healthy for the band that we’re doing everything ourselves.”

Out of nowhere in the distance there’s a booming drum fill punctuated by a loud crash. Noticing a dude in a nearby booth wailing on a kit, it seems as if Haake is seeing himself those many years ago as a kid in Örnsköldsvik with strict Mr. Rudkvist looking over his shoulder. “Doing paperwork for ten hours and then playing drums for ten minutes — that’s not how it should be,” he says, finishing the thought. “I should be focusing on playing drums.”

Groove Analysis

Tomas Haake and Meshuggah are the reigning demons of math metal. Their heavy blend of raw aggression and polyrhythmic madness has made them some of the most admired extreme metal musicians on the planet. Their latest release, Koloss, continues their tradition of brutal technical brilliance.

“The Demon’s Name Is Surveillance”
I wrote this in 12/8 because Haake’s groove surprisingly suggests a speed-metal version of a blues groove. To emphasize the similarity to a blues, at the verse Haake changes his hi-hat pattern to a slow shuffle pattern over his very busy feet. Don’t let the 9:6 polyrhythmic notation intimidate you — each hi-hat note is being divided with his feet into thirds with his snare notes falling where they normally would in a slow blues.

DRUM! Notation Guide

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“Demiurge”
This track has an interesting and creative groove. It starts out with a typical rock pattern occasionally interrupted with an unexpected snare on 3. In the second line the pattern becomes very staccato and broken with his crash cymbal often played on count 2 along with his snare. By avoiding a more typical cymbal pattern Haake creates a jarring start-and-stop effect with this groove that perfectly suits the guitar and bass riffs.

“The Hurt That Finds You First”
The title of this song may refer to trying to follow all the time signatures going on. This crazy song has constantly shifting time signatures ... or does it? If you add up all the time signatures and divide by the quarter-note it turns out I could have written this all in 4/4; though that would obscure the phrasing of the guitar riffs. They don’t classify Meshuggah as math metal for nothing.

Go here to check out transcriptions of older Haake drum parts.