Interview Audio (Podcast)
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When I was a teenager, I bought a copy of Zappa’s Universe on VHS in my obsession to buy everything I could with an appearance from Steve Vai. I was astounded at the incredible drumming on the video. I saw Morgan’s name credited as the drummer and talked to my super-musical friend Todd in Chicago via America Online about him. He told me about Morgan’s involvement with a blind Swedish keyboard player named Mats Oberg and their duo band Mats/Morgan.
At some point in late June 2016, I wrote to Morgan asking if he’d ever do an interview. He got back to me within two weeks and we got things scheduled pretty quickly. He’s such a nice, down-to-earth guy and it was pretty easy to get things going. I hope you enjoy our interview! It was a real pleasure for me to talk with such a creative genius.
Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony with MakeWeirdMusic.com and I’m here with Morgan Agren who has joined us all the way from Sweden. Morgan, thank you very much for joining us. Let’s just get started. The purpose of the site is to get people to learn about new musicians and new kinds of music. Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your musical history and tell us about why people might know who you are as a musician?
Morgan: Yeah. Thanks for calling me, by the way. I’m happy to be here. I think I heard about your site or your activities quite recently, actually, and then I found an email from you in this weird hidden folder in Facebook Messenger and, as you might know, if you’re not friends with the people you get a message from, it goes into this kind of hidden folder. Sometimes I check this folder because, who knows? And then I found you there just a few weeks after I heard some snippets from an interview you did with… Anthony Levin?
A: Oh, Markus Reuter?
M: Oh, sorry! Ben Levin, I mean.
A: Oh, Ben Levin! Yes.
M: Yes, Ben Levin from Bent Knee . So, that’s where I noticed your Make Weird Music thing.
M: So yeah, my name is Morgan and I am a drummer, musician, composer living in Stockholm, outside of Stockholm in Sweden. I just turned 49 and, not 50 yet but getting there. I started to play at age 4 or 5 or something on the drums and met my musical partner at age 14 and he was 10. I met Mats Oberg , who is my life-long musical partner and that’s where it started for me, I think.
Before that, my father was in a Swedish so-called dance band and they were my first idols. That’s where it really started because they were a big influence on me. When I went to school, you get a pen and paper and write whatever you want and I wrote a lot about them, his band, about their tubas… So there’s hundreds of pages about my dad’s band. Obviously they were my first idols and my first time on stage was with them one day. They had me come up on stage to play when I was 7. So that was my premiere and that’s where it kind of started. What else?
I started a record company in 1996 and released 15, 20 albums or something and then I moved onto a label called Cuneiform because it was too much work that didn’t have too much to do with music. You know, paperwork and all that stuff. It was a good period still because it was a good experience to make your own albums and release them and try to get them out.
I released my own albums on this label, but I also released projects with other friends like my brother, Fredrik Thordendal from Meshuggah –he did his solo album, which is probably the most, maybe not most, but when it comes to releases, that’s probably the one that’s most famous. His album Sol Niger Within . I released that in 1997 and I did some projects with Denny Walley , former guitarist from Frank Zappa and Tom Waits .
And then I played with Frank [Zappa], of course. Some people know me from that. I played with Frank Zappa when I was 20 the first time and then he invited me to the US later on, a few years before he passed away. I used to be a member of a Swedish group called Flesh Quartet and, yeah, that’s a little bit on my background.
A: I found out about you through Zappa’s Universe . I bought the VHS copy of the concert and I said, “Who’s the keyboard player and who’s that drummer?” because you guys weren’t a part of the standard Zappa touring band.
A: And then I found out about Mats/Morgan and it’s just unbelievable music. So, can you tell us about–you mentioned a musical partner and in the interviews I’ve done so far on the site, no one’s really mentioned having a musical partner. You guys have been making music since you were kids together, so can you tell us about how that started and where it’s gone and what’s special about Mats that makes you guys so close musically?
M: Yeah. And the thing about that is this year we actually are going to have our 35-year anniversary.
M: It’s kind of unreal how much time we actually have had together. I see it truly as a gift because–I remember when I met Mats. I was 14 and he was 10 and I knew already by then that this is such a nice meeting. I could tell from the first moment that this is–“Wow, this can really be good and this already is good.” Now, 35 years later, you can look back at what happened from another perspective.
At that time, I was happy about it, of course, and I was excited and everything. But now, 35 years later, you look at these years in a more humble way or a thankful way or something because meetings like these don’t happen often. I put more value on the fact that I met him now than at the time when we played. How that happened was I received a phone call from a lady in my hometown and she–actually, this is coincidence, but I can try to–[holds up a photo of Mats, Morgan, and a woman between them] can you see this?
A: Yeah, I can see it.
M: The woman there in the middle–this picture was taken in 2002, maybe? This lady is actually the lady who called me that day in 1981. She called me–somebody called me–but she called me and said, “Hello, my name is blah-blah-blah and I’m running a little music cafe outside Umea ,” me and Mats’ hometown, “and I’m going to have this guy call you named Mats Oberg who plays piano and he’s gonna call you and play some 15-20 minutes there. I read about you in a local magazine and I just had a sense that you and he would fit together.”
That’s what she told me and at this moment, I didn’t know anything about Mats. The only thing I knew was that I heard while being on vacation with my family once was that I was listening to the radio and the guy was super young that talked on the radio and played fantastic music. You know, music that never gets played on the radio and the guy–probably at the time, maybe 9–playing music on the radio.
I started to realize that maybe I heard this guy on the radio once, but other than that I didn’t know anything about him. But I got the request to come out to this place and play drums with him and so I did and I was happy to get this request. I went there and we met probably 2 hours before the concert and we were supposed to play 15-20 minutes.
So we met on the venue, shook hands, and he looked like he was 7 or 8, even though he was 10, he looked really tiny. We started to discuss what we could possibly play, but it has to be covers now because we just met and we’re going to be on stage in 2 hours. So he started to ask me, “Do you know this and this and this and this band?” So he asked me, “Do you know The Beatles ?” And the only song I knew by them at the time that I could possibly play without rehearsing was Help! so I said, “Okay, I know Help!” And then, of course, whatever I said, he knew it.
That was the crazy thing. “Do you know it?” “Yes, I know it.” “Okay, do you know Stevie Wonder ?” he continues. And then for some reason, I had a friend whose older brother just bought Hotter Than July and when I was at his house, he played that album, so I remembered the first track, Master Blaster , and I told Mats, “I know this song. This reggae type of Master Blaster maybe. Do you know it?” “Yeah, I know it,” he says.
Okay, so now we had two songs, so we need at least one more, so he asked me, “Do you know Frank Zappa?” and of course, Bobby Brown was the only one I knew. He knew that one, too, of course, so then we had three songs and we had a short little sound check and then we went on stage and just played. Super tiny little house, like a cabin, I’d say with 10-15 people in the audience. The room would take maybe 30 people and that would be fully packed.
I remember almost–I really remember clearly that I was totally amazed by the fact that–I mean, I was doing a concert, but at the same time, I was in the audience because I was also watching him play in disbelief. He was standing up with his electric grand and he played–the electric grand was almost to his chin and then he played incredibly and he sang in almost perfect–the language was good, but his mother didn’t let him sing the ugly words in Bobby Brown, so he left those out, but other than that he was singing and playing in an incredible way.
I remember also after the concert–both of our parents were there. My dad and his dad were there because they were driving us with our car to the venue. After, we met backstage and both our parents were really touched from having seen their kids do that together with 2 hours–almost no preparation at all. I think my dad, what I could see, was almost crying because of what he saw. Mats’ father was also really–he started to say to me, “Maybe you could do this again. We have drums in the basement and,” blah blah blah blah blah. He really wanted–he saw more possibility that Mats found a friend who liked the same music as he did.
So that was basically how we met and this photograph that I showed you, this happened in 2002. This lady called me up again and I hadn’t spoken with her since 1981, but she called me and asked me, “Is this the number of Morgan Agren?” I said, “Yeah, it’s me.” “So, yes, my name is and I live here and there and I guess you remember the first time you played with Mats in that cafe.” And I go, “Yeah.” “The girl who called you there–that was me.” And I got the chills because I was wondering so many times, “Who was this lady that called me out of the blue having this idea of me and Mats getting together?”
So, next time we went to our hometown, we set up a meeting with her and we went over to her house to say hello and have a cup of coffee and take some photos. So that’s the very first time and this was in November 1981. After that, me and Mats, we met if not on a weekly basis, which was the most case. Sometimes maybe it went 2 or 3 weeks, but it was quite regularly for the next 35 years, more or less.
I have never been out of contact with Mats more than a few weeks since then. We have been doing a lot of other things. We play all the time, but sometimes we both play with other acts. This is not the only thing we do, but we have played all the way since then. We’ve toured all over the world and played with a lot of our teenage idols and whatever. It was a really good meeting and I’m really happy for that, of course.
A: One thing you didn’t mention is that he’s blind.
M: Yes, he’s blind. I would have been equally amazed about what he did when we did this first gig. But, the fact that he’s blind makes everything even more amazing. He’s born blind and I think that a guy like him that’s born with a thing like this–the focus in life gets only–his thing in life is music. Music and food. That’s what he enjoys. He doesn’t care about too many other things and that’s how we developed this ability.
This happened very early, a long time before I met him, because I know for sure that he was listening to–when he was 2 or 3 years old, he was listening to the typical lullaby music as all the other kids at the same time as he was listening to Mahivishnu Orchestra because that he actually did when he was 3 or 4 years old. So, a little bit Miles Davis , a little bit Mahivishnu, and a little bit of lullabies. He went back and forth between really different music and “diaper music,” if I may say so.
I know some stories from his childhood that he was really–I think his parents gave him some kind of downer. He had to eat something that took his energy down because he was listening to music for, I think maybe 10 hours straight without any breaks. He got hyper and he was scratching vinyls, listening to it backwards–everything was just about sound, sound, sound, sound.
I know that for instance when he was 7, he sort of forced his parents to buy the latest Earth, Wind, & Fire album. Otherwise, he had a stair at home and he went to the end of the stairs and stood on the edge and said, “If you don’t buy the latest album, I’ll jump.” Stuff like that because he was really–“I really want the last Earth, Wind, & Fire. Get it for me otherwise I jump.” Stuff like that. Really into it.
A: Wow, that’s astonishing. Did you guys study together musically? Did you study music? Any formal music education or is everything just through self-learning?
M: I would say self-learning although we went to the same high school in Stockholm, but we started so early and for me, everything I do comes from me listening to albums and just listening and being inspired. I got so much inspiration from listening to all these albums at an early age. Everything was on these albums. I didn’t really have any questions because everything was there and the “only problem” was to do it yourself.
That’s something you have to develop, of course. But I think that as soon as you hear something and as soon as you really feel that “this is really what I like, this is really what I want to do, I don’t want to do that, but I want to do this,” and as soon as you know and feel that in a way, I think you’re halfway because then it’s about personality in the music and the whole spirit and everything because the music is like a mirror of yourself.
So when you get this inspiration and you realize that–for instance, when I heard a few of those albums that really opened up a new universe for me was an album called Road Games by Allan Holdsworth . All these chords and the harmonies, besides him being a fantastic guitarist, but the music, the compositions took me just somewhere else, where I wanted to be.
This was just, “I’m home. This is really what I like.” If I hadn’t run into an album like that at age 14 or something like that, maybe 15… I don’t know. That album and many others, of course, but those albums were really important for me in not only as a musician playing drums trying to compose, but also as an individual. In a spiritual way. It was really important.
Another album that I was listening to on and on was Return to Forever Romantic Warrior and the first album by UK. Bill Bruford ’s One of a Kind , Brecker Brothers ’ Heavy Metal Be-bop … There are many, but those albums just kept going on and on and on and on and on. When you have that, going to a school–I know that I started so early so I’m aware of the fact that it was quite easy for me to play because I started early.
I don’t say that school would be useless or anything, but for me the inspiration and the energy I got from the albums was worth more than any drum book in the world or any school. The schools were good too because I met nice people and even had some good teachers that inspired me. But, yeah, so me and Mats, we don’t read music. I’m a lousy reader and Mats, obviously, is blind so he doesn’t read it. But, we just listen and learn from that.
A: How would you describe the music you two make?
M: I think that the typical way to describe our music when sitting in a taxi and you have a few minutes’ drive with a stranger and you know he’s not into music at all and he asks you, the short version that would be for someone like him, I’d say: It’s a mix between jazz music and rock music and usually nobody sings. That’s the short version.
If I feel that the taxi driver is interested in talking about this, if I can feel that he knows some groups, maybe I’ll say: “Okay, take the Beatles and mix the Beatles with Frank Zappa and add some jazz and rock and blah blah blah,” and then they might get even more an idea of what it’s about. Me telling you is really hard because I know you’ve interviewed many people and you know a lot about music, I’m sure. It’s really hard because–I don’t know. It’s really hard.
What can also be added to this thing I used to say to the taxi driver guy is that it’s quite loud because it’s electrified bass and guitar and it’s more like rock music, even though it’s not Bruce Springsteen , of course, because he plays rock music. But the rock music we play is not at all like that, but it’s really hard to describe, I think.
A: Yeah, I agree. That’s why I’m asking. It’s like music without boundaries to me. Over here, I’ve got The Teenage Tapes , On Air with Guests , and then this one with the sewing machine on it… I never remember the titles.
M: Yeah, Radio Da Da.
A: Radio Da da. The first song on that album is unbelievable. I just love it. I also have Zappa’s Universe here. But, yeah, the first song on Radio Da Da… Oh my goodness, I’ve listened to that 100 times.
M: Oh wow. I did a reissue on that album, so can you tell me…
M: Oh yeah! What’s the first song on there? Is it Här kommer Bodd?
M: Okay, it’s good that you mentioned that because I’m putting together, because of the 35 year anniversary in November, I’m putting together a double CD and I will fill every minute of it. It will be 2*78 minutes or something. It’s just my last decision will be removing one song to another one and I’m not really sure, but actually I think we don’t really have almost anything from that album, so maybe I should–just because you said it now–I should take it on the collection.
A: It’s so melodic. It’s so beautiful. And it’s so interesting. It’s kind of diatonic, normal-music sounding and then there’s just these odd notes and things go in different directions. I just love it.
M: Well, thank you. I will consider it on the collection then. The thing is also that I noticed that your site, Make Weird Music, the title of the site is one thing that I think about when–you know, when I read “Make Weird Music”–for sure, whatever me and Mats did when we composed way back or now, we never tried or decided, “Let’s try to be weird.” You know? It’s other people who think it’s weird.
We grew up listening to King Crimson, Magma , Univers Zero , Art Zoyd , Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and because of that, that’s music to me. I think that, for instance, somebody like–she was here just two days ago. Beyoncé ! She was here 2 days ago and some of her songs are great. Super great. I love some of the stuff she’s doing. I never bought any albums, but I think she’s a fantastic vocalist, she’s a great artist on stage, and some of her songs are great.
At the same time I say something like that, I also like Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart. It’s good for different purposes. They want different things when they do that and it’s just–I love AC/DC even. I went to see AC/DC live five times, mainly because of my brother who was a big fan growing up, so he turned me onto that and I turned him onto Frank. We got a nice mixture there.
But I can tell you, when I went with him to see AC/DC, to see Angus Young with his tiny legs and his Gretsch guitar playing those riffs. I think it’s fantastic. It’s magic. Many of their songs are timeless. Not only stuff like when they start Back in Black , I get goosebumps! I think it’s fantastic. They managed to create this thing that, at the moment when being in the concert, I can feel like, “We don’t really need anything else than that. Why even try to do anything else than this?”
It’s pure. It’s for real and that’s a feeling I can have at the concert. Then two days later, that feeling has faded out a little bit, but still there’s so much different music that’s good. But, again, we never tried–we just tried to do music and whether it’s called “weird” or not.
A: The weird aspect is much more like, “Be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else.” AC/DC does what they do because they’re AC/DC. Don’t go out there and try to be AC/DC. And that’s weird. You’re being yourself. You’re being a unique and creative individual.
M: Exactly. And I think that all of those groups that I mentioned for you are examples where they were their own. It was a true thing. And when you decide, “Okay, now I’m going to try to be like this or that,” that’s risky, I think. The more true to yourself you are, the better. There is something that will be at the end.
A: You have a very out-of-the-box approach to drumming. I just shared a video of you on Facebook that Carl shared of you just drumming on sinks and pots and buildings while at a campsite. You use, in his documentary, that little trap kit. The pig–what was it called?
M: The GigPig .
A: Yeah. The Gig Pig. And then you play a traditional kit. You play tons of polyrhytmic music, you play lots of straightforward stuff. Can you tell us about your approach to music and when do you employ these techniques? They’re obviously just coming out of you.
M: Again, I’d say many of those albums were just very important. I remember when it’s just about playing abilities and technique, the first drummer I listened to was Buddy Rich and I heard him when I was 10 years old. I remember it very clearly because he was a guest at a Frank Sinatra concert on Swedish television and suddenly he introduced this guy. “Big applause to my old friend, Buddy Rich.” And then he came in and played some stuff from West Side Story . It was a shock. I was just–Incredible!
And then for the next 5 or 6 years, nonstop, I tried to imitate his playing style and that gave me the fundamentals of the technique without even realizing it. All I wanted was to sound like him and imitate him. I developed playing abilities without realizing it, I think. So, that was a pretty good start because being 10 years old and imitating that wasn’t the easiest thing.
And I think what I realized then, and even now if I listen to him, because if you go on YouTube today, you can see anything. Everyone is younger than the other and everyone is faster than the other and it’s almost like a dead end because everything is so much the same. It has to be “amazing” rather than “good,” even. It can be amazing and good at the same time, but it’s too much of a circus to me. Buddy Rich had an amazing technique, but! he had a touch that nobody had. It sounded so smooth.
Today there are drummers who maybe play the speed with one hand [of Buddy Rich], but it’s not really important or interesting. I think that he had a sound and a touch that was outstanding for me and imitating not only the speed or the technical abilities that he had, but trying to get that sound that he could get from the drums was something else. That was really a good exercise for the number of years I tried to imitate that. But then, other stuff that influenced me were all those other albums that I mentioned.
As a drummer, I would say–because it wasn’t only drumming. In the beginning it was because when I bought my Buddy Rich albums at age 10, I went with the [record needle] and if it wasn’t a drum solo, I didn’t listen. “Where’s the drum solo? Where’s the drum solo?” If I bought an album and there was no drum solo, I got really disappointed and I never listened to that album.
But as I mentioned before, when I heard Road Games by Allan Holdsworth the first time–all the guys on that album play super, of course. Jeff Berlin plays great bass, Chad Wackerman plays great drums, and Allan plays great guitar as always. But more important for me was the compositions. I was just, “How can somebody compose this kind of music?” It’s much more inspiring than any–this music had both the playing and also the music.
I think that somewhere later, I don’t know when, but at some point I really started feeling much less interested in the playing, the techniques, and the abilities there than the music. I want to do music. I don’t care who plays what, I just want to play music. So that happened to me.
I don’t know where or when, but then since you mentioned the clip where I play on the farm or on the GigPig, I think that one mind-opening thing was when I listened to Frank Zappa’s recordings, I had a lot of bootlegs and I really enjoyed those sections where–those sections weren’t always on the albums, but there is some stuff on Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar where Vinnie Colaiuta is playing kind of slow tempo and the pulse is there somewhere, it’s really there but it’s kind of [flowy], it’s not so [even purcussive sounds] and I love the way he played back then because it was like a painter. There were colors and it fit so very well with Frank’s guitar, I think. There were some drum solos.
There was one particular one I can remember from a concert in Poughkeepsie , I think, and the name of the concert was “circus something” –I don’t remember. But then they play a song called A Little House I Used To Live In and after Tommy Mars ’ solo, I think, there was Vinnie’s solo and it was the first time I heard a 5-minute drum solo where it’s free. It’s not necessarily with a pulse, but the pulse is there somehow. Like when Irving Jones played, you can feel that it was moving forward with a sort of pulse, but it wasn’t so even and that was really inspiring for me because I think it sounded very good musically.
So that was a big inspiration for me and also I particularly remember one album I used to mention as one example of the far-est out different albums and that’s by a drummer called Ronald Shannon Jackson . He used to play drums with Ornette Coleman and he had a band called Decoding Society with Vernon Reid and stuff like that.
He made an album called Pulse, which is only drums and he had a headset microphone and he read Shakespeare ’s words and he improvised the drums. And [unclear] I think he produced and released this album. I think it’s super, it’s not Billboard . It’s a super small world, but somehow I ran into this album and this was… Wow. I think I heard his album in 1984 or 85 and this was at the same time as Chick Corea and his Elektrik Band , which was really super straight LA polished slick fusion stuff, which is nothing wrong at all, but I was never very much into that.
When I heard this album Pulse with Ronald Shannon Jackson when I discussed music with my friends, I’d say, “Okay, you have that polished stuff, but how about this?” I played Ronald Shannon Jackson, it was the total opposite. That was also so refreshing because everyone was talking about this polished type of music that the Elektrik Band was playing and I got sick of it and I wanted people to hear something else.
And another guy that really was one of my, at the time, top 3 drummer influences was actually Gary Husband who played with Allan Holdsworth. There’s an album called I.O.U. and they have some stuff in common, Gary Husband, even though he’s much more in time than Ronald Shannon Jackson because when Ronald plays, sometimes it really sounds like he can’t play. It’s so out and it’s so shaky, but he has fantastic sound and his approach and the wildness, it’s something that really speaks to me, but also Gary Husband, he has the same thing.
On that album, I.O.U., I think it’s also a top 3 album. It’s so spontaneous and whatever happens in his drumming, it’s nothing that he prepared. I can tell that thing that he did, whatever he did at that part in that song, he never did that before. It just happened and it wasn’t perfect in the technical sense, but it’s perfect for the music because it underlines and helps the music because Allan goes where he goes and these things are not what you can necessarily prepare or rehearse.
You see it in the rehearsal place and you exercise a specific thing and then a few months later, you record an album, and then you just do that stuff somewhere so you can execute it. I think, to me it’s sounding so much more as an impulse and also Gary had a little bit of that Shannon because it’s rough. He misses the drum sometimes, he hits the sticks together, it’s not polished, it’s wide.
In the same way as Tony Williams had, which was another huge–this guy. [Holds up a Tony Williams CD.] This album–There’s a lot of albums here. This album, I found it on a shelf here somewhere and I put it on. It’s just a compilation of jazz albums or something. But Tony has that same thing. It sounds like it’s falling apart sometimes.
At the same time, I also love Steve Jordan and even Jeff Porcaro because they play in another music world. When they play–When Steve Jordan plays with Donald Fagen , I don’t want him to sound like Ronald Shannon Jackson because that’s going to destroy the album. As long as you do the right thing for what the music wants from you, it’s good.
So all those drummers influenced me a lot and I don’t know, maybe that has something to do with whether I play on the farm. I don’t know where it comes from. We were on vacation and there were all those cans and I happened to have my sticks there and some of the guests they were filming me and that was a spontaneous thing.
A: So you have a collection of 35 years of musical history. I know you have recordings from when you were young as teenagers. What do you think about the evolution of your approach to music and drums, composition? When you listen back now, a 49-year-old man to the 18- or 20- or 24-year old Morgan Agren? Or the 30-year-old Morgan Agren?
M: I think what’s for sure is that the older I get–this is hard because sometimes I can miss the old days when everything is more direct and spontaneous than now, but at the same time–It’s almost like a bottle of wine. The older it gets, it gets the right shape and form, you know?
I can say it like this: I’m super happy I did what I did when I was 20 and I don’t want to do that now, but it was good then and I’m happy for it and that made me want to do something else later. Now I’m doing something else than in the beginning, which is normal for me. But if I should explain in musical terms, I think the older I get, the more groove-based I get.
A lot of the music I’m doing now is just less parts and less crazy stuff, maybe. The stuff other people call crazy. But even in my mind, I think it’s more like I remove all the stuff that doesn’t have to be there, in my mind. I think it has turned more minimalistic and more groove-based I think. Yeah.
A: Sol Niger Within is a very iconic piece of music. It features you doing a lot of amazing technique, a lot of playing with time, and I’m sure it’s that young virutoisty that attracted people into this new form of riff-based music. I know you recently did a video where you re-played it. How would you approach a piece of music like that now? What are your thoughts on how you approached it then and what would you do now?
M: This specific music, I think I would have the same approach more or less because it’s–yeah, I think I would do the same thing. The ideas that I get when I hear kinds of music are much the same today because the conversation is still the same. If me and Fredrik were to do something today, then maybe I would do something else. But as long as I play along to the same old track, I hear more or less the same thing, I would say.
A: Is there more work for the future between the two of you?
M: Well, actually, I think four years ago, five years ago I went to his studio and I recorded at least 4 hours of improvised drums, no click track, no composed material at all. Just random playing by me, but when I did that, of course, I was thinking, “Okay, what can I possibly do that he can make musical after?” I had to do that while I was playing, which I did, so I played stuff that I figured would suit his style and that will make it possible for him to go with the guitar.
Actually, there is one part from the Sol Niger album that’s made exactly that way, too. I can’t remember the name, there is a title called Bounceless something? I can’t remember, but somewhere in the middle of the album, there’s this part where it’s a tiny guitar sound [tchik tchik tchik tchik] and then I sort of improvise on that and he sort of syncs some of the beats that I’m doing [djonk! tch tch tch tch djonk! djonk!]
So that was me playing along and he decided after where to put his guitar. And the same concept was used now for this thing I did a few years ago, but I think it will take him some time to finish because I recorded four hours and another speed metal drummer, Dirk Verbeuren from Belgium, he was there and recorded some blast beats I think, but then the funny thing is that Fredrik now plays more drums than guitar.
He gets really passionate. Whenever he gets into something, the other stuff disappears. I think that the new Meshuggah album was just finished and is going to be released in a few months, I think, he’s not really involved this time at all as for the composition and the direction of the music because he’s playing drums. He didn’t have time to be involved.
He bought some drums on eBay. Every drum on the kit is a bass drum so he has, I think it’s a 28” kick drum and then the first tom is a 24” and then there is a 26” and 20” as floor toms so everything is super huge and he’s trying to make some new directions with his drums as the foundation for something new. And then, I don’t know if anything that I recorded will be on his coming album or if he will be playing only by himself on his bass drum kit. I don’t know.
A: That’s fascinating. I saw Terry Bozzio a year ago, I think, and he’s coming back, I’m seeing him in a couple weeks. Just to listen to 90 minutes of drum playing, at first it might seem like, “What am I getting myself into?” But it went by so fast and I’m looking forward to this next concert where presumably I’m going to survive another 90 minutes on this mega kit of his.
M: Fredrik, he has only one tom and two floor toms. But we’ll see, I’m sure it’s going to be great. When he gets into it and he gets sorted out what to use and not. It will be cool. Very cool in the end. He was here–Me and Mats have recorded albums since 1996 and we have 8 or 9 releases, but my first solo album was made last year.
A: The Morgchestra?
M: No, that’s new stuff. The Morgchestra is something I’ve been working on for the last 6 months for an upcoming orchestra project me and Mats are going to do in October. My solo album–[Morgan’s wife crashes something in the background]–Yeah, my solo album is–Fredrik is on the solo album. So he was here for a day two years ago and we improvised together drums and guitar.
A: This is on Batterie Deluxe ?
M: Yeah, Batterie Deluxe. It’s a song called–I forgot, but it’s one track on the album, but it’s the same track as Devin Townsend is on with me. We did the bass and guitar together and then I put that together with another piece I did with Devin so it’s actually two pieces edited together as one piece. So, Fredrik was here to do that and–yeah, so we’ll see. Hopefully he’s going to finish his album someday.
A: I see on your website that, obviously, you’re from Sweden, you’re in Sweden, and there are quotes on your website about how if you were not in Sweden, you’d be huge. “You’re doing the wrong thing being in Sweden.” I did an interview with Mattias Eklundh as well, another Swedish musician. Can you tell me about the role of Sweden and what it means to you? Obviously you’ve had opportunities in the US and other places, you’ve returned home, and…
M: Yeah, I think that as soon as I started to play with Mats, which was even many years before I moved from my parents house, so I knew already by then that this is something I wanted to do. I wanted to play my own music with Mats. We want to do our own thing and not necessarily only that because if Allan Holdsworth would have called me back then, I would have flown out in a second.
But we created our own thing and we wanted to make that go and do that. While doing your own thing, you can basically live wherever except where there’s war going on. Sweden is a good country, it’s safe to live here still, and my friends and family are here. So the US, for instance, felt like a good country to visit once a year for nice projects, but for a country to live in, I was never really into moving to the US.
The thing was when we met Frank, we played with him in 1988 and he invited us to play with him in the US after that. He invited us to play as guests in 88 at his concert in Sweden. And after that he gave me and Mats his address and he told us that he wants a new drummer and keyboard player. Then he went away in his limo and we were standing and saying, “What’s going to happen now?”
And then two years went by almost and then I wrote to him and tried to contact him without any success and one day I called Barking Pumpkin record company and the guy who answered the phone, [??], he instantly knew who I was, which was a surprise for me. This was before the Internet. When was the internet around, actually?
A: 1996-98 people started getting onto the internet.
M: This was in 1990, so I didn’t know that he knew about us, but he said, “You should come over and you can stay on my sofa and make sure to connect with Frank.” So I went there. Two days later, I ended up in Frank’s house and he was already getting ill from the cancer. If the scenario was that he would have not been ill and starting up a new band and touring and stuff, of course we would have moved there if it would have been like that.
So for cool projects and if we would have ended up being in his band or in any cool band, I wouldn’t mind to move. But just to move there and do what we do here, I never felt any reason for that and that’s why I stay I think. But, I enjoy a lot to do stuff there because for some years, we were there at least once a year doing different projects and things. It’s nice.
Actually Frank said, “No, no, no. Don’t move to the US. Stay in Sweden and come here for…” He said something like that because he wasn’t a big fan of the US generally speaking, I think. For some reason he thought that me and Mats would be better off being here.
A: That story you wrote on your website about Scott Thunes fixing Mats’ keyboard pedal, I was laughing so hard about that.
M: I can actually give you another one equally good because this has also to do with Frank and how to learn music and some of the other things we spoke about and it has to do with Scott Thunes.
In 1992 or 93, we were invited again by Frank to come to the US to perform something that was called “the music of Frank Zappa,” but it was the more orchestral stuff that he did, so there was a performance at the Lincoln Center at the Avery Fisher Hall . Full symphony orchestra and me, Mats, Scott Thunes, and Mike Keneally. That was the setup.
Mats got a request to perform a world premiere of one of Frank’s piano pieces called Ruth is Sleeping . Mats got so excited, he called me and said, “Frank asked me to do the premiere of an unheard piano piece.” It was like a dream, you know? Then some weeks later, he received a cassette tape and the music was in original speed and Ruth is Sleeping is the thing you call “12 tone music .” It’s a lot of notes and 12-tone music usually means that you never get to play the same note before all the other notes have been played and then you can play that note again.
So, the variation is–if you play a C, you can’t go back to C until all the other–
A: 11 notes are played?
M: Yeah, exactly. And it’s super complicated to play, really. He got really excited until he got this tape. Mats called me and said, “Oh, this is incredibly hard.” He started to work on it. He listened to it with headphones taking 3 seconds at a time, but then after a few weeks, he really felt it was too fast because it’s really hard to even hear the notes.
To play them is one thing, but you need to hear them, you know? So then he asked for a music score and a score was sent to Mats and he took the score to a friend who is a classical concert pianist. Kolaxon Dominic is his name, by the way, and he recorded the whole piece from the score, reading and playing it maybe a little less than half tempo so Mats could hear all the notes.
Then he started to work on it and it was much easier. But when it was 2-3 weeks before when we were supposed to go to the US he was only maybe 70% into the piece. He was still missing the last stuff. He realized, “I’m not going to be able to memorize the last two minutes.” He had to call Frank about it knowing how strict Frank could be and how much a perfectionist he could be, the answer he gave to Mats was unreal. This was 1992, Mats is something like 20 years old.
A: Calling one of his musical idols, long distance, international…
M: Yeah, exactly. And he said, “Hey it is Mats. I am working on Ruth is Sleeping, but I’m only going to be able to memorize maybe 70%,” and Frank says, “So play that and then improvise.” Then he said, “But, learn the last part. So, play from the beginning up to 70%, then play an improvised part…”
He just gave that to Mats. He improvised it. Then he learned the last 30 seconds because the very last movement of this piano piece is very cool and it’s quite “easy” to hear the notes, so he spent another couple of days memorizing the ending, but he left out that other section before then. It was so fantastic that Frank–he wouldn’t say something like that to Mats unless he had belief that he could do it.
A: Yeah, creative respect.
M: Exactly. That was fantastic. And the funny thing about Scott was: just before going to the stage on this premiere performance at Lincoln Center, I’m holding Mats on the side of the stage about to lead him to the piano and Scott has this idea that he whispers in Mats’ ears.
He says, “Mats, I have an idea. In the middle of the piece, you stand up and you scream, ‘Oh God! I’m blind!’” That was just unreal. He didn’t do that, though. Scott had his moments when he rehearsed for Zappa’s Universe. Which story did you hear? Was that with the pedal?
M: There’s many of them.
A: I’d love to hear your actual words.
M: Yeah, this was during the rehearsal. Mats had a Yamaha grand electric piano and the pedal just fell off the hook and onto the floor. The conductor was just starting the band, but Scott was not with his bass. So the conductor was just–and the room is filled with people in tuxedos. Proper people, aged 60, 70, something like that.
The conductor, Joel Thome , says, “Um, what is happening? Scott…” And Scott is now under the piano with a piece of tape fixing the pedal on Mats’ piano. And then he says, “What are you doing Scott?” And Scott screams loud on all fours, “I am taping Mats penis to his leg!”
A: What a character! That’s awesome. I have one last question, then I have to go to work! A lot of the music I love that you’ve brought up that you also love is older music from the 70s and 80s. What do you hear today that is inspiring and if you were to start today and not have those records from the 70s, what would you be listening to?
M: Actually, at home in my kitchen, I listen to music that’s as quiet as possible because there’s so much going on in the house, it’s nice to have some smooth Chet Baker . That’s perfect. In the studio, I can listen to anything, but in the house I listen to quiet stuff. Yeah, I’ve found for instance a piano player named Nik Bärtsch .
A: Oh yeah! He’s awesome!
M: He’s on the ECM label . He’s done some really nice hypnotic–when things are repeating and repeating…
M: Yeah. I like that too. That’s nice and Norway has a couple of acts that I think are fresh, like when they mix typical jazz sounds with computerized music. There is this band called Jag a Assist [??], which I like. And sometimes you just run into something.
For instance, you interviewed Ben Levin recently and I ran into one of their songs called Being Human and there is this part somewhere toward the end where she’s really singing those incredible notes and I think it’s just–I can hear from where this music comes, but still it’s a bit new and fresh. That was nice to hear. And, what else?
I have been enjoying electronica by Squarepusher . He was actually here a couple months ago in my studio because we were planning to–we have some ideas that we will hopefully make together in the future.
A: Oh that’s great. He is–what a player! What a creative musician.
M: Yeah, I think! I like some of that type of music as well. Usually when I mention all these bands from the 70s, it’s because they are my roots. That’s where it started for me and therefore it’s hard to match that with something else because the impact that it had on me being 10, 12, 14 and discovering these albums–it’s really hard to get that kick now being 40, 50. Actually I did go to see a concert a couple years ago with a band called Deerhoof .
A: Oh, they’re awesome. Yes, Deerhoof.
M: Yes, I saw them live in a tiny sweaty little place in Stockholm and some moments were just totally fantastic. I especially like the parts that sound like Captain Beefheart with a punk, more violent way. I think it sounds really cool. I have their albums. There are a couple of songs off this album called Offend Maggie , which I think is fantastic.
I like when the group or an artist has something that–it doesn’t have to be a whole album, but somewhere there is this 10 second thing that knocks you out, totally and you have to repeat that on and on and on and on. I think there are a few parts off that album like that. Yeah, that’s kind of cool. As for new acts, there could be more. I’m sure there are, I can’t remember them now, but there is.
A: Cool! Well, thank you for your perspective. I really appreciate all the time you’ve given me. Thank you so much for doing this and checking your hidden Facebook message folder.
M: Yeah, well my pleaseure.