Tomas Haake of Meshuggah

by Greg Prato

Drummers who double as the main lyric writers for hard rock/heavy metal bands are not all that common. Of course, the best-known of the bunch is Rush's Neil Peart, but beyond him, not many other time-keeping wordsmiths immediately come to mind.

But Meshuggah's Tomas Haake is one of the few you can also add to this uncommon list - by the arrival of his group's eighth studio album overall, 2016's The Violent Sleep of Reason, Haake had become their primary lyricist.

Originally formed during 1987 in Sweden, Meshuggah - who in addition to Haake are comprised of Jens Kidman (lead vocals), Fredrik Thordendal (lead guitar), Mårten Hagström (rhythm guitar), and Dick Lövgren (bass) - are equal parts extreme metal and prog metal. In other words, expect lots of growled vocals, pounding rhythms, and tricky instrumental bits.

Haake spoke with Songfacts two months before the arrival of The Violent Sleep of Reason, and discussed how the songwriting and lyric writing works in Meshuggah, as well as the stories behind several of the group's standout tracks from throughout their career.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How does the songwriting work in Meshuggah?

Tomas Haake: When it comes to the actual songwriting, we've been doing it the same way for a long time now, in the sense that we sit by a computer, usually me and a guitarist or sometimes just the guitarist on their own, or whoever writes the song. And basically, it starts with a riff or sometimes even the drum beat is the leading factor in what kind of riffs you're writing.

I'm not a guitar player, so I will generally have an idea that I program drums for, and then I explain that idea to one of the guitarists, and then we take it from there.

So in the writing process, it's always programmed drums, because we're so accustomed to that now. That's a very easy and quick way to do it and you get very fast at it, with the years that we've been doing it. It's fairly quick to do changes by programming drums. That's the starting point for each and every song, and that's how we've been writing for a long time.

Songfacts: So if you have a melody in your head, would you just sing it on the demo?

Haake: I can sing an idea, but normally, as we're not a very melodic band, it's very rarely a melodic starting point, it's always a rhythmical one. That goes for most of us in the band. It rarely ever starts with something that is a melodic take on something, but more of a rhythmical idea for a song that will be the context of that song as the starting point.

In that sense, we've always been a rhythmical band, but that doesn't just apply to me as a drummer, being the rhythm section of the band. Everyone else in the band, that is definitely the starting point: the rhythmical aspect of a riff or the rhythmical aspect of drums, and then you try to write riffs for that rhythmical idea.

Songfacts: Do you write the majority of the lyrics in the band?

Haake: Yeah. It's come to that more and more. For the new album I wrote nine out of the ten lyrics that are on there. Mårten still writes - he wrote a couple on the last album [Koloss] and maybe three before that on obZen. So yeah, it's not just me, sometimes it's Mårten as well.

But I go through periods, usually in the winter when it's dark and gloomy out, when I tend to write whether there is a song to write lyrics for or not. I usually have a bunch of lyrics laying around, so it's quicker and easier for me to apply, to just go with the vibe of a song.

Once we have song structures, you start applying the vocals to that, to take the song to the next level. To actually hear what the songs can be, you need the lyrics to be on there. As I usually have a bunch of lyrics laying around, I will try to figure out what the vibe of this song is, and figure out if I have any lyrics that will go well with that vibe, and try to apply them to the song.

Usually, I use a heavily distorted microphone so I just have to whisper into the microphone and it sounds like someone is screaming their ass off. It actually gives us a good idea of what the song is going to be like with Jens' vocals once it's done, because it's not too far off from the sound that it would be once he adds his vocals to it.

Songfacts: How do you go about writing lyrics? Do you get inspired by something, or do the lyrics sometimes just come to you?

Haake: It's both. It could be anything. Any kind of current event or what is going on in the world right now, or it can also just be pure fiction. Sometimes I'm inspired by something I read in a book. Basically, it can start by anything.

Sometimes it's just one word or a line that I hear that will get my brain going and then I kind of trail off with it and take off and go somewhere else with that. But it's usually something that just comes to me.

Songfacts: Can you give some examples of that, with Meshuggah songs?

Haake: We all know what's been going on in the Middle East, with the humanitarian crisis that is going on there and millions of people on the run. Just following the events of the last few years and the effects that it's taken and the whole misery of it is something that is easy to tap into because it is something I personally get emotional looking at. It really gets to you. So it's easier to be inspired by those things.

For example, if you take the title track of the album The Violent Sleep of Reason, that is pretty much about just watching what is going on and putting that into words, and then applying that to a song.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind several Meshuggah songs, starting with "Clockworks."

Haake: "Clockworks" is a little different: it's looking into yourself and changes that you want to make to yourself. I think most of us have that. You know there are things about yourself that you wish were different and that you did more to help, or did things a different way. Or even your thought patterns: You sometimes wish your mind didn't work the way it did.

Metaphorically, it's talking about your mind and how it works as a clock works. You take out all the gears, the pins and little springs and everything, and try to put it back in a different fashion to make it function differently.

Songfacts: "Born in Dissonance."

Haake: In a sense, it is about scare tactics. Without sounding too paranoid, there is a lot of that going around the way I see it. Metaphorically, I wrote about the threat of something coming from space to destroy us, like an asteroid or something like that. And I wrote about it in way and used wordings that maybe you can't tell exactly what it's about.

Not everything is necessarily current events. You look at war and armed conflict and atrocities that are going around, even though that tends to be the bigger part of the lyrics that I write, but you also write about things that sound like pure fiction or even science fiction. But there's that little thought when you see it as a scare tactic from media and governments or whatever it may be, to keep the people in check, keep them afraid. That's easier to deal with than dealing with an uprising or real freedom of people. It's in a context of a threat that comes from beyond time and space, that's headed for us.

Songfacts: "Bleed."

The McFarland & Pecci team did the "Bleed" video, which has quite a backstory: the 3 levels of hell were supposed to be 12, the bugs came last-minute, and the band didn't dig it when they first saw it. Get the full story in our interview with Mike Pecci.
Haake: I've had friends that had strokes or aneurysms in their brains, and people that died or they got very severely injured - paralysis and stuff like that. That song is about an aneurysm, seen from a weird perspective, I guess.

Songfacts: "New Millennium Cyanide Christ."

Haake: That's more of a dystopian take on a sectistic or extremist kind of cult vibe. I remember the inspiration came from suicide cults and stuff like that where you have one leader that can take hundreds of people and just brainwash them and make them think he's Christ or the savior.

Songfacts: "Shed."

Haake: I can't really take that out of context, because the whole Catch Thirtythree album as a whole is just one long lyric, and we see it as one long song, even though you can skip on the CD player and jump into different tracks. But it's one track as we see, so it's also one lyric.

So that lyric is more diffused and hard to pinpoint what it is, because the lyrics themselves are more about opposites. The lyrics as such don't really have a particular meaning - it's more you're writing lyrics as a play on words. So in that sense, that whole album was experimental, and in that sense, also the lyrics weren't as direct or pinpointing a certain thing. It's about paradoxes, basically.

Songfacts: Which Meshuggah tracks are the most challenging to play?

Haake: "Bleed." We play it every show because we have to, but that's always a challenge. It's not a song that as a drummer I can ever relax and just play, just sit and look at other things and think about what I'm having for dinner next week. Whereas some songs, that is actually what you do: You think of other things and you're not necessarily always "there" in the song, even though you try to be. Sometimes, your mind trails off and you think about other things. But "Bleed" is definitely still one of the toughest songs.

On the new one, "Clockworks" is really tricky to play.

We always play to a click track when we record and live, and sometimes it's not a matter of the technical aspects. Sometimes, a song may sound very difficult to play because of the technical aspects of that song, but sometimes that's very playable, and sometimes that can actually feel like you're having a good time. It just flows.

Whereas a song like "Ivory Tower" off the new album has kind of a quirky styling in 6/8 feel or a slow triplet feel, but you play everything over a single kick, and to play that to a click track in that specific tempo, to me, was really hard. It was one of hardest songs to get the flow on the album. It's the one song on the album that we ended up not using the click track for. We tried maybe ten takes with a click track, and different tempos, and I just couldn't get it to groove.

We ended up not using a click track, and you can hear it: The drums are actually going up and down a little bit. Especially if you compare the first few seconds of the song and the last few seconds of the song, there is probably a 10 BPM difference. You tend to speed it up a little bit as the song goes.

Being difficult to play isn't necessarily "Bleed"-like things, or very technical things. Sometimes, it's just a certain style or playing at a certain tempo, especially when you use a click track, because it's something we've been doing for a long time now, but it's something that is still a challenge, every day on a nightly basis, when you're out playing.

Some nights, a song kicks in, and in our in-ears, we have a dut-dut-dut-dut dut-dut-dut-dut one, two with no voice in there so you can't really fuck it up: This is where the song starts. Even if you miss wherever the click started, that's like a failsafe. But sometimes you start playing and you feel like, "Did I start playing the wrong song?" Everyone is playing the song, but it feels like it's way too slow. And the next night, it feels like it's way too fast. It all depends on how much you slept, what you ate, and just your general mood. You're a human being, so every day is going to be a little different. So that too is also a challenge: A tempo doesn't feel the same from day to day.

August 23, 2016
For more Meshuggah, visit meshuggah.net
Photos: Olle Carlsson

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