“If my parents had said, ‘You have to sacrifice one of your arms to get a drum set’, I would have been totally cool with that. Just chop it off! I was just so in love with drums.”
Tomas Haake smiles. Drummers are often the unsung heroes of music, but he’s a little different to the majority of his percussive peers. As Meshuggah’s rhythmic backbone since 1991’s debut album Contradictions Collapse, he is one of the most forward-thinking figures to ever batter the shit out of a drumkit, responsible for the inventive patterns in the band’s mind-altering songs.
“I was really restless as a kid, and my outlet was hitting things,” he grins. “Sometimes I’d hide in the closet where there were clothes to muffle the noise, and I’d just sit there and bang stuff. I’d play along with Elvis, which was one of my first musical loves when I was five or six, but I had no drums, so I’d sit on mom’s piano stool with half a circle of chairs around me, and I’d put pillows on them. I’d hit the pillows with branches and imagine that it was a big drum set. I’d take the tin lids from cookie jars, nail them to a piece of wood and tape them to the chairs, and they became my cymbals.”
Tomas was raised in northern Sweden. His upbringing was devoutly Christian, something he has long since rejected, but it was at church that he first spied a drumkit and immediately knew that this was what he wanted to do with his life. Both his parents are musicians, but it certainly sounds like he made a good fist of driving his mother, in particular, to the edge of madness.
“Yeah, it would drive my mum insane, because there’d be dust coming off the pillows in big clouds, so she’d get pretty upset,” he remembers. “Of course, it didn’t matter what I did, I was just a big, noisy nuisance to my parents, so around the age of eight they caved in and said they’d buy me a drum set.”
Now 45 years old, the Meshuggah drummer has become one of those rare forces of nature that seem to single-handedly change the way music sounds. But according to the man himself, mastering his new love was a slow process.
“I wasn’t a natural, not at all,” he says. “It took quite some time to be any good at it. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 when me and Mårten [Hagström, Meshuggah guitarist] got together and tried our first naïve steps to write music together, and it sounded awful. We loved Metallica, but we weren’t accomplished enough on our instruments to attempt anything that was really metal. We did try to do some odd time signatures, so I guess that led into Meshuggah in some way.”
Tomas and Mårten’s fledgling partnership soon morphed into their first band, Barophobia (which means the fear of losing gravity), but it wasn’t until 1990 that his skills really took flight. A nascent Meshuggah were searching for a new drummer and took a punt on the inexperienced but insanely eager teenager, plunging him into a new musical world. Mårten would join the band a couple of years later, by which point Tomas was fully immersed in Meshuggah’s groundbreaking aspirations.
“The change was huge when I joined Meshuggah, because their approach was so different,” he states. “The songs they’d written before I joined the band had an odd time signature aspect to them, but there was no real repetition going on – you’d just let the riff roll over the bar line. That’s what we still do, although we’ve taken it to the extreme now.”
Listening to Meshuggah’s first album today, it’s easy to hear the beginnings of something special, but it wasn’t until the release of second album Destroy Erase Improve, in 1995, that their true potential became apparent. As Tomas points out, the early 90s were a vibrant time for bands in their home city of Umeå, where progressively minded hardcore bands such as Refused and Abhinanda were emerging. Meshuggah paid their dues by playing shows with their local peers, regardless of genre, and the resultant atmosphere of friendly competition had a strong impact.
“Oh yeah, we’d play our set and then Refused would play, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, man!’ because they’d be jumping off the stacks and going fucking nuts onstage,” he laughs. “So that competition was very healthy and it made both genres in that city stronger. Everything was mixed together, and that’s what defined us and made Destroy Erase Improve what it was.”
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Despite having been ripped off relentlessly over the years, Meshuggah still sound unique, and eighth album The Violent Sleep Of Reason is as startling in 2016 as Destroy Erase Improve was 21 years ago. Tomas’s drumming is fundamental to the band’s appeal, not least because of the unfathomable levels of complexity involved in his performances. It’s a trait that has made Meshuggah the unofficial chief scientists of heavy music, sometimes giving the impression that songs have been written using calculators and computers as much as guitars.
“There’s less mathematics involved than anyone would think,” Tomas smiles, almost apologetically. “It’s more organic than it might look from the outside. I see people from other technical bands and say, ‘How do they come up with that stuff?’ Like Animals As Leaders – the musicianship’s off the charts and some of that stuff is mind-boggling to me, but they say the same about our music! I’m very fortunate that some of our songs start with the drums. A lot of times I’ll mess around on the kit, and when I find a cool beat, I’ll take a few bars of that pattern, take it straight to the computer, take that chunk and loop it. The computer environment, and being able to do something that way, have been essential for us.”
As modest as he is, it’s mindblowing that human beings can play some of the music that Meshuggah have produced. Most famously, the kick drum pattern on Bleed, from 2008’s ObZen album, is so intricate and relentless that it would reduce most drummers to tears. Yet Tomas manages to blast it out every night on tour, as if it’s the most straightforward thing in the world. Is he some kind of terrifying rhythmic automaton from the future?
“Ha ha! No, I’m not,” he laughs. “I don’t really play any other kind of music. This is the only thing I do. It’s the only thing I know how to do. Don’t put me in a blues band. It’s not gonna do anyone any good! But is it automatic? In a sense, yes. We’re always looking for something that intrigues us. To find something new generally means finding something that’s really involved, but it’s not always like that. Sometimes it’s more about the vibe than being some supremely complex rhythmic thing. You can have both.”
As drum nerds will know, Tomas’s influence has spread wider than most, partly due to his involvement in the renowned programmable drum software, Drumkit From Hell, the first few versions of which were built around samples of his thunderous drum and cymbal hits. It’s a technological innovation that Meshuggah have regularly used themselves, but The Violent Sleep Of Reason marks a switch to a less technologically driven approach. Largely recorded live in the studio with real amplifiers and more natural drum sounds, it’s a much less machine-like manifestation of the band’s trademark sound, and once again confirms Meshuggah are proudly resistant to the notion of delivering the expected.
“This time, we talked about the songs we grew up with that we loved, whether it was Metallica or Testament or whoever,” Tomas explains. “Those bands would record live – the records weren’t these perfect things. There‘s something to be said for the push and pull you get with different people in the band, and that’s something that comes across live. There’s an energy in that, in the flaws and the humanity, and I felt that was lacking in some of our recordings. This one’s just a different animal.”
With their official 30th anniversary looming in 2019, Meshuggah are more popular than ever, and yet still making music that confounds and enthralls. But while many regard Tomas as a drumming god, he’s not yet beyond admitting that playing Meshuggah songs can be really, really fucking hard. He’s unquestionably a one-off, but a very human one nonetheless.
“I still fuck up sometimes!” he chuckles. “If you lose your place in Bleed, it’s very difficult to get it back. You have to just smile and wait and then… there you go, I’m back in, ha ha! I try to play it cool. But if I do fuck up, I just have to keep playing and pretend it’s the other guys!”