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Meshuggah’s ‘Immutable’ Mission

Tomas Haake on the tolls and triumphs of three decades behind the drums with the masters of mind-warping metal 

Meshuggah’s Mårten Hagström, Dick Lövgren, Jens Kidman, Fredrik Thordendal, and Tomas Haake, from left to right. "We know our limitations, and we also know what we want to do," says Haake.

Edvard Hansson & Brendan Baldwin*

Meshuggah are about to head out on their first tour in close to three years, and drummer Tomas Haake has a lot on his mind. He and his bandmates are hard at work designing a new stage set-up, adjusting to changes within their road crew, and plotting out intensive rehearsals, all while getting the word out about Immutable, their upcoming ninth studio LP. But the most pressing issue — the cause of Meshuggah’s upcoming U.S. dates being pushed from the spring of 2022 to the fall — is a little more immediate. Speaking via Zoom from the band’s Stockholm headquarters, Haake holds up his hands to the camera, revealing that they’re covered by cotton gloves as white as his long, curly locks and pointy beard.

“I have this eczema inside my hands,” he explains. “I’ve got to tape up all my fingers and put on gloves just to mess around on the kit, even. That means I haven’t really touched the drums since we recorded the album, and that was, like, early April. So I’m almost a year out, without even hitting a drum.”

Haake says the condition popped up suddenly in early 2020, and two years later, doctors still haven’t been able to pinpoint the cause. “I’ve been to so many specialists and dermatologists about this at this point and they’re all like, ‘Huh?’ They say it looks like contact eczema, but we’ve ruled that out because I’ve done all the tests that you can do, as far as anything that I might come in contact with. It goes up and down, but it’s a bummer, for sure, whether you’re a drummer or not. I mean, we all need our hands to function for daily life.”

True, but the rest of us aren’t using our hands to power arguably the most game-changing act in contemporary metal. During the past 25 years or so, plenty of bands in the genre have sold more records than Meshuggah; very few have commanded more respect. Since forming in 1987, the quintet from Umeå, a small city in northeast Sweden, has earned props from high-profile peers, various luminaries from other musical camps, and even a big-name comedian, and inadvertently birthed an entire subgenre that strives to emulate its concussive signature sound, built around gut-rattling riffs played on custom-built eight-string guitars, overlapping rhythms that collide like tectonic plates, and vocalist Jens Kidman’s implacable roar.

At the center of this ballet mécanique is Haake, who nails diabolically tricky accents while somehow holding down a stoic backbeat groove. The band’s innovations and Haake’s centrality to them, acknowledged respectively on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Metal Albums and 100 Greatest Drummers lists, are as foundational to the modern idea of heaviness as, say, J. Dilla’s work has been to the texture and flow of hip-hop and R&B in the Nineties and beyond.

Haake, now 50, joined Meshuggah at age 19. (Photo: Anthony Dubois*)

For Haake, now 50, the title of Immutable (out April 1) is partly a nod to the band’s unwavering focus — the way that early on, they channeled their core influences from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the pioneers of Eighties thrash into a highly specialized style and have held onto it like a manifesto ever since.

“I feel like we set out a long time ago at some kind of lateral from the norm of metal, if you will, and we’ve been sticking to that and keep pushing ourselves in that same direction, as far as the instruments that we use, the amount of people that we use, the instruments we are as people, and Jens as a vocalist,” he says. “We know our limitations, and we also know what we want to do. … So I guess we do feel that the band is and has been immutable, in the sense of not changing from what we set out to do.” 

Accordingly, Immutable feels like archetypal Meshuggah. Stomping tracks like “God He Sees in Mirrors,” “I Am That Thirst,” and recent single “Light the Shortening Fuse” make brilliant use of the band’s signature ouroboros-like riff style, which bombards the would-be headbanger with complex rhythmic data while laying down an irresistible groove. A few smart palate cleansers break up the album’s 67-minute onslaught, including slow-building opener “Broken Cog,” featuring an ominous recitation from guitarist Mårten Hagström; “Black Cathedral,” Hagström’s buzzing, tremolo-picked, unaccompanied interlude; and “They Move Below,” a nine-plus-minute instrumental where a crystalline, clean-toned intro moves into a craggy landscape of downtempo rumble dotted with soaring melodic leads. 

“It might seem weird to some people that you have an instrumental song on there,” Haake says. “But you need those tools to take the listener on some kind of journey. Because we’re old-school when we write albums, and we write them to be listened to as a whole from start to finish, even though nowadays people are going to just play it track by track from Spotify, or something.” He cites one of the band’s early metal touchstones, which featured its own epic, prog-like instrumental breaking up the track list: “A guideline actually for this one was Master of Puppets — ‘They Move Below’ is the ‘Orion’ of Immutable.” 

Fans will be happy to hear the unmistakable solos of co-founding guitarist Fredrik Thordendal gracing four of the tracks. His status within Meshuggah has been a bit of a question mark in recent years after he took a hiatus from touring with the band in 2017. (Haake says the guitarist has since been busy working on the long-awaited follow-up to his cult-favorite 1997 solo debut and finishing up a home studio, where he recorded his parts for the new LP.) But he’ll be back on the road with Meshuggah this year, and as heard on another advance single, “The Abysmal Eye,” his contributions on Immutable — rapid-fire sonic disturbances that overtake the listener like some kind of sci-fi stun gun — serve as a garnish that completes the recipe. 

“It was really cool to get those files back from him,” Haake says of Thordendal’s solos. “He never came to the studio because there was no need — he recorded at his place, obviously. And once we heard his take on the leads, it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s Fredrik. It’s signature Meshuggah.’ … We were stoked that we didn’t have to use someone else for that kind of lead work, because it wouldn’t have been the same.”

Haake says that though the album came together during Covid, the pandemic wasn’t much of a hindrance to the band’s process; it actually allowed them to relax more than usual. “Previously we’ve always been really hard on ourselves as far as keeping to deadlines and whatever,” Haake says. “We definitely took our time, and we didn’t want to end up in that kind of situation again.” They’d just finished a touring cycle when Covid hit, so the members hunkered down individually to write — Hagström composing about half the album on his own, with Haake and bassist Dick Lövgren co-writing a few, and Lövgren handling the rest on his own. While the band recorded live as a group for their prior LP, 2016’s The Violent Sleep of Reason, this time Haake, Hagström, and Lövgren tracked piecemeal at Sweetspot Studios in Halmstad, while Kidman captured his parts at home. 

As the band’s primary lyricist, Haake says that, even against the backdrop of the pandemic, he was thinking about more insidious societal woes. One track, “Armies of the Preposterous,” makes reference to “a pandemic, this contagion you embrace,” but Haake explains that the song actually deals with “the re-rise of very far-right-wing powers in Europe and the rest of the world and the implications of that.” And the drummer says that “Light the Shortening Fuse,” written entirely by Hagström, is the guitarist’s “take on what social media is doing to us as people.”

The band’s bird’s-eye view of the human condition has always been a dark one, and Haake still doesn’t have high hopes for mankind’s overall trajectory. He points to the cover image of Immutable, which shows a skeletal figure engulfed in flames, while clutching a knife. “Even if we didn’t have warfare and genocide and all those horrible things, with the climate changes, everything that’s going on, it’s looking pretty bleak,” he says. “And still, you have what’s going on in Ukraine now — but it’s been going on in big parts of the world forever. So the immutability of man, if you will: ‘You’re burning, dude, but you’re still going for the knife. Like, what the fuck is wrong with you?’”

If Haake is now a conceptual and musical force within the band, when he replaced Meshuggah’s original drummer in 1990, he was the weak link. He’d grown up in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, admiring hard-rock heavyweights like Vinny Appice (Dio, Black Sabbath) and Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Jeff Beck) and prog giants like Phil Collins and Neil Peart (both formative models of what he calls “drummers that weren’t necessarily just drummers”), but his own abilities were still taking shape. “The drummer, Niklas Lundgren, that left the band in like ’89, he was way ahead of me. So when I stepped in, they actually really had to settle for someone that did not know that level of drumming,” he says now. “I had to work really hard the first couple years to slowly try to come up to this standard. But, I mean, we were all young and super-excited. I remember sometimes we would rehearse like 10, 14 hours straight without even eating anything other than candy and ice cream.”

You can hear the results of that devotion, as well as the sugar-fueled hyperactivity Haake describes, on the band’s 1991 debut, Contradictions Collapse. Bands such as Bathory and Entombed had already put Sweden on the extreme-metal map, but even at this early stage, it was clear that Meshuggah were mining very different musical territory, sounding a little like a brainiac, fusion-inspired Anthrax.

Though none of the members are Jewish, their choice of name — a Yiddish word meaning “crazy” that Kidman randomly fished out of a slang dictionary — already seemed strangely apt. (Asked how he feels about the moniker now, Haake says, “At some point you stop even considering it, whether it’s cool or not, or maybe a little cheesy … Like even Metallica — is that really such a cool band name? But it becomes a cool band name because the band becomes something.”) On their breakthrough LP, 1995’s Destroy Erase Improve, they outpaced their influences, setting a new benchmark for prog-metal futurism and brain-busting rhythmic pummel. A few years later, Rolling Stone would classify them as “A.P. trig metal.”

Some bands might shy away from a reputation for sounding cold and mechanical, but Meshuggah proudly embraced the concept. As of 1999’s Chaosphere, all their writing went online, as it were, with each member composing separately via computer and the band later learning to reproduce the resulting demos. By now the process has essentially become Meshuggah gospel: Whoever writes a given song will also program drums, down to the tiniest details. “It’s a weird way to work, but we’ve done it for so long that this is the only way, I think,” Haake says. “And I don’t think we would’ve been the same band if we didn’t use these tools because they’ve also let us implement ideas in a different fashion than you can just by trying to jam and trying to figure things out as a band. We wouldn’t have sounded the way we do.”

Another key feature of the Meshuggah sound came into focus on 2002’s Nothing: the band’s wizardly ability to play in a heavily ornamented version of standard 4/4 time, yielding rhythms that simultaneously destabilize the listener while anchoring them to an ironclad pulse. Whereas early Meshuggah could often register as an endlessly clenching first, their mid-period work started to breathe, projecting a strange kind of serenity amid the constant information overload. (It’s probably no coincidence that Nothing was the first of five consecutive Meshuggah albums to date to crack the Billboard 200.) Haake says that this rhythmic tactic developed from the band’s deliberate effort to distinguish itself from its influences.

“We definitely grew up listening to our fair share of odd-time-signature bands, from the prog bands and bands like Marillion and Rush. And Fredrik was heavily into jazz fusion from his dad that was a jazz saxophone player. But we were getting into our own groove and doing things our own way,” he explains. “With our tracks, most of it is just straight 4/4. So once you have that locked in, you can just keep going, and this is what everything is written around for the rest of the track. I do think that we realized that pretty early on, that what it did was it let us groove. … I feel like we need that kind of flow of the more straightforward metal while doing these kind of over-the-bar-line riffing ideas. And that’s obviously been our signature thing for a long time now.”

All the elements of Meshuggah’s mature style — their painstaking compositional process, their ability to balance hypercomplexity with groove, and their overarching pursuit of state-of-the-art heaviness — have made them a metal band that’s often emulated but never duplicated. They’ve also made Haake a legend in the drumming world, celebrated for astonishing technical milestones like “Bleed,” from 2008’s Obzen, in which he glides across his two kick-drum pedals with the grace of a tap-dancer as he navigates an ever-evolving sequence of minutely detailed patterns. A whole cottage industry has sprung up around Haake on YouTube — not just his own drum-cam videos, which have millions of views, but countless tutorials and incredulous palm-on-forehead-filled reaction videos. (If you’re wondering what a professional jazz or even gospel drummer thinks of “Bleed,” the answer is just a click away.)

Haake says he’s now used to seeing his drumming dissected, not to mention replicated, pretty much instantaneously. Take lead Immutable single “The Abysmal Eye. “A song like that, definitely for me, presents physical challenges as far as just stamina and cardio and stuff like that,” he says. “And then we released the song and like two days later, you have these young kids playing the whole song [online]. … I mean, it’s really cool and it’s humbling in a sense. It’s just annoying that these kids are so fast at learning nowadays,” he adds with a self-deprecating laugh. “‘Like, what the hell, man? You figured this song out in 23 and a half hours — what’s wrong with you?!’” 

Executing his Olympian drumming feats night after night on tour, Haake has undergone his share of wear and tear. Around 2009, an untreated lower-back hernia led to leg and foot pain and, even worse for someone in his profession, a situation where “my right foot started not listening to my brain anymore,” causing unpredictable lapses in control. Haake still copes with that uncertainty today and says it’s taken some of the fun out of playing live. And as he prepares to return to active duty, there’s the lingering question mark of the eczema. “These hands are bumming me out, man,” he admits. “I try to stay positive about things like this and not allow myself to just get all depressed over it. It is what it is. We’ll see if some new doctor has something important to tell me that helps me clear this up. But, yeah, I mean, if not, I will still have to play.” 

Ailments aside, he stresses that he isn’t looking for an alternative career path. He’s been kicking around some musical ideas with his girlfriend, Orange Is the New Black actor and fellow metal lifer Jessica Pimentel, and says that the two might eventually record and release something together. For now, though, he’s content with his main gig. When asked if he has creative ambitions that he doesn’t feel he could realize within the framework of Meshuggah, he offers a definitive no.

“I never really felt like I needed to go to other musicians or to any other kind of music or have side projects or anything like that,” he says. “This is the only thing I’ve really done. I was 19 years old [when I joined], and it’s really been the only kind of music that I was interested in as far as my own playing and what I wanted to do as a drummer, and that never felt like a limitation to me.”

Then, in just a few words, he handily sums up his, and by extension Meshuggah’s, immutable path: “This has been the one thing I’ve been wanting to do, and I’ve been doing it.”

From Rolling Stone US