Mattias IA Eklundh (Interview): "Without integrity, you start to smell funny after a while."
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Hejsan svejsan! Have you thought about playing licks in 57/4 (because why not?) or shuffles in 26/4 lately? All of that, of course, on an eight-string guitar? If you did, chances are high you've been inspired or even taught by Swedish guitar genius Mattias IA Eklundh.
Eklundh has come to fame in the 1990s with his band Freak Kitchen. In the early 2000s Steve Vai signed him to his label Favored Nations, where IA released three "Freak Guitar" solo albums. He has also played with Swedish jazz bassist Jonas Hellborg, Soilwork and, early in his career, Danish Metal outfit Fate. The Göteborgian has established himself as a spectacular and unique player who thinks out of the box in many regards. Eklundh is not only a performer and composer but also a remarkable teacher (or shall I say guitar guru), sharing his ideas and knowledge both through his yearly "Freak Guitar Camp" in the Swedish woods as well as his brilliant YouTube-Channel, Freak Audio Lab. Last but not least, he is also regarded for his great sense of humor and his straight forward attitude.
Despite the pandemic, Eklundh has been very busy. He is preparing the next "Freak Guitar Camp" in the Swedish woods, which means a lot of compositional, conceptional as well as transcriptional work. He is releasing new videos on a regular basis, at least at the moment. Videos in which he not only performs, but also gives insights and lectures on his approach to unusual rhythms, pulse, the Konnakol rhythm language, musical concepts and much more. He is working on new music. He enjoys playing guitar and drums. He's roaming through the woods with his dog – and to get a clear head and relax, he regularly plays computer games like Quake and Doom.
I had the pleasure to speak to Mattias IA Eklundh via Zoom. Read the full interview below.
How have you been spending the last months? I've been super busy actually. I think I'm more well-off than a lot of musicians who only do one thing, who only play in one band. I've always been doing a million thing which is my kind of Freak Enterprise. It's been very productive. I even pulled off my Freak Guitar Camp, believe it or not. An international guitar camp in a pandemic year! Suck on that! It was great. It was summertime, everything was a little bit cooler. But there was still a million issues to be dealt with. Everybody from outside the European Union couldn't make it, so I have a decent waiting list for the upcoming summer where we hope things will cool down a bit. But I did it. I rented a big ass tent on two or three trucks. I've bought those hand sanitizer things for several hundred Euros. I spent a small fortune, but I did it. We did the distancing thing, everything took place in the countryside. It was quite insane. And other than that it's also been very busy. I've been writing new music, every week there was a new Freak Audio Lab video as well. I am preparing a million things for the time when things settle down. It's good. Of course I want everything to get normal again so I can do workshops and clinics and gigs. But I live in the countryside and the difference here is nil. There is no difference to our regular life except that I don't travel. That's it.
You started out as a drummer when you were a kid. Do you think that had an impact on the way you play guitar?
Yes, very much so. I've always been very interested in rhythm. I've always been drumming on everything, driving everybody around me crazy. I almost feel like I play drums on the guitar in many ways. Rhythm is where a lot of musicians, not only Heavy Metal guitar players, suck. They have a limited understanding. They can be good at timing, but as soon as you push someone out of their comfort zone, things tend to collapse. You start analyzing, don't know where you are. In some bands, the drummer was so lousy, I really had to be the guy who keeps time. So the drummer could play around me. I'd go: "Here's the one, here's the 'ta'!". I still play, I have my midi kit over here and my Tama kit over there.
What brought you to the guitar?
It was really hard to write songs on the drum kit (laughs). So I thought that would be a good choice. I didn't only want to be a drummer. I started playing the drums because I liked rhythm. But I wanted to compose music.
Who were your early influences?
I am a man of my generation. Being a rock and metal guy it started with AC/DC when I was six years old. Then I discovered KISS and I thought: "Wow, fire and blood and explosions!" I wanted to do that, because it was a cool thing for a young man. Then came Alice Cooper, Sweet and all those bands. Later I discovered Frank Zappa, in the early 1980s, and strange music like Nina Hagen, Django Reinhardt, Miles Davis. Then all of a sudden things got more tough when Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax showed up and I thought: "Yeah, I like this too". So I got myself a Flying V and I was riffing away like crazy. And then of course, talking about guitar heroes, it was Eddie Van Halen. Same things as everybody else from my generation. I don't know why things got so strange in the end. Well, maybe not the same people who listen to Slayer also listen to Miles Davis, I don't know.
There's this great story that you went to a Frank Zappa concert as a kid and got told off by Zappa himself.
Yeah. They played "You Are What You Is" from the album of the same name. Me and my friend Jörgen got carried away. We stood up from our seats and ran all the way to the fence and started to go "Yeah". We had been to KISS the previous year, 1980 – this was in 1981. We thought: "Nobody's standing up, everybody's sitting down, bloody academics, boring people!" I was ten or eleven years old. And Frank Zappa said [imitating Zappa's deep voice]: "Sit down so we can continue to play music". We were like "Oh shit. Yeah, we'll go back to our seats". We were deeply humiliated, but it was good fun.
What fascinated you about Zappa?
Oh bloody hell, so much! It's of course the musicianship, the compositions. His strange humor. That you can do anything on stage. It's such a vast universe. I like stuff like "Jazz From Hell" which is just computer music. I like pretty much the stuff that nobody else likes, the orchestral stuff, the synclavier music. Some of the last projects he did in the 1980s. I like a lot of the dark side of his catalogue so to speak. With Frank Zappa it's really hard to pinpoint the impact he has had on my musical life, because it's been enormous.
"I am Gandalf for fuck's sake! I don't give a shit."
Your work also has this very humorous side about it. It's brilliant and virtuosic music, made by musicians that do not take themselves so seriously and are seemingly able to laugh about everything including themselves.
I don't know if it's also a part of my generation. I'm 51 years old. At my age you really don't give a shit. I couldn't care less if people get me. Kids today spend a lot of time thinking about who they'll become and looking left and right and to TikTok and Snapchat. "Oh I have to do this and I have to set my alarm clock for ten minutes every hour to do jaw exercises because my favorite YouTuber has an excellent jaw and I have this rubber for doing jaw exercises" or whatever. Man. I am Gandalf for fuck's sake! I don't give a shit. For the people who like what I do it's great. I have so much inside of me that I want to put out. I am more creative than I have ever been. I don't want to go back a single day because I've learnt so much. But I think humor is more important than ever. But today everything is dead serious. We're all gonna die tomorrow? Probably not, no. Nature will find a way and we will find away. Some things have to be: "Fuck it". I often come to this conclusion. I block out the outside world, because it's boring as hell. Then I create stuff that I think is fun. That's good for me. Then I get a protective shield and I can go out in the world and spread positive vibes. Of course I can get really pissed off at things, but humor is important. Humor is life. Just take a walk into nature as I do everyday. There's hilarious stuff left and right. Get a kid, get a dog, it makes you cry of laughter every day.
Did you have that ability to block out everything else even early in your career? What were you like when you started out?
Well, of course I was a lot more insecure back in the days. But I always had a very strong drive. An urge to write music. In my teenage years I'd spent ten hours with guitars in my room. I quit school. I sat for hours in my room with my four track recorder, building clusters of guitar or cheap drum machine beats. Then I started to sing, because I don't like singers. I found out I had a crappy voice, but I still didn't like singers. I don't want to work with singers because they don't care about my stupid – or, to me, important – lyrics. I wanted it to be sung in a special way, so I did it myself. When I started to sing in the early days of Freak Kitchen, maybe around 1992, I was really blushing away. I didn't know my voice, my limitations. I thought every singer had a great range. It was still a late 1980s, big hair, before Nirvana took it all way, understanding that you should sing like a hummingbird. I can't, I have a very limited range. But little by little I started not to care what people think. Of course I want people to think what I do is great and I am grateful that people listen to it, but that's not why I do it. I do it, because I'm interested in breaking new ground and finding new ways. To stimulate myself, framing myself with stuff that's making me a better human being. I don't rely on others, because I get disappointed with people. That's why I'd rather work alone or together with the band or just a few friends. I got this protective shield, everything is bouncing off. It's like a bird with fat feathers: It's raining, but it's bouncing off, the bird is still dry. So that's me!
Did you have any negative experience in the music business when you started out? Things that showed you how you don't want your career to be?
Yeah. I moved to Copenhagen when I was 19. I was in a bad spot from a legal point of view. I had a strange contract that I signed in my teenage ignorance. More and more I understood how show business was put together. I work in show business, but I don't feel I'm a part of it. I know how it works and I stay out of it. But I benefit from it, I steal money out of show business to be a family provider. But I don't go to hip parties or whatever. I realized that, if I wanted to make money out of my music, I had to be really protective and say "no" to a lot of things. Saying "no" to things will make you money. Saying "yes" to things? Be careful. I'll say "no" and turn down 99,9 percent of everything I'm offered. I mean, I'm a nice guy, but I'm also a cynical and pragmatic guy. Having been in show business for 30+ years, I found out that this leads to that. Eventually after a few years I'd want to get out of this but my catalogue will belong to someone else. I don't want that. I want 100 percent control. Not because I'm a control freak. It's because I want to get paid for what I do. I walked the road less travelled, the long, strange, difficult way. Things have only gotten better, but I worked hard for it.
The Copenhagen years you've talked about were with the band Fate, right?
After that, you moved back to Sweden and started Freak Kitchen in the early 1990s. What do you remember most about that time?
We immediately went for world domination. We thought we'd be an overnight sensation. Well, some thought. I was more interested in the music. After a while it was like: "Wow, bloody hell, is it that hard to be in show business?" But I loved it. I could travel the world, play my music. It was rough in the beginning, but it got better. Around the millenium, Freak Kitchen Version one stopped and Björn and Chris joined. They kicked it up to a completely new level of professionalism. Björn is an extremely good drummer. Chris was a complete beginner when it came to play bass. But he was a great guy and he can do everything, so he started playing bass. With them, it got much more comfortable and we busted our asses on the roads, in airplanes and where not. I really love those guys. They let me do what I need to do and say: "Call us when you need us". And that's what I do. I call them say: "Oh, I need drums! Come, drum!" or "I need bass, Chris do you have any ideas?". Then I freakify those ideas and make them Freak Kitchen.
Later you released your first solo album on Steve Vai's label, Favored Nations.
It was released in 1999 first in Southeast Asia and some Scandinavian countries. Then Steve Vai picked it up in Japan and said "I love it, I want to work with you". He released it everywhere else. And then he kept releasing, the second one was "Freak Guitar – The Road Less Traveled" and the third one was "Freak Guitar – The Smorgasbord". Now we've actually taken back the catalogue from Favored Nation. In today's world there's really no need for a record company and I'm much better off to be in control of my music. But I love Steve. He's great and he has done so many good things for me. At that time I was completely blown away when I got an email from Steve Vai, telling me that he wants to release it. I thought it was a big joke, so I didn't even reply (laughs). He wrote three emails and then I was like: "Maybe this is Steve Vai". So I wrote back. We don't socialize but every now and then we talk and if he's in town and our roads meet, I'll jump up on stage and jam with him. It's been a cool relationship. But again: You're much better off having control of your own music and doing it yourself, because it's such a small planet. Start a web shop for Christ's sake, you'll have maximum profit of it.
I can imagine the Vai connection helped also popularitywise, right?
Yes, it opened up a whole bunch of doors. Only the cool cats were on Favored Nations. You had Allan Holdsworth, Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, Frank Gambale – all those legendary players. And then you had that strange Swedish guy who recorded a solo album in his bathroom on eight channels and released it with dildo solos and shower solos and stupid things. But you do what you do to entertain yourself and that's the bottom line. If you do it well and you get better at what you do, good things will happen to you. Keep the faith and walk your line. Don't jump from one side to the other and be desperate for attention, because then you're fucked. If you want quick attention, that means it will be also taken away in an instant.
"I never had a masterplan. I was just really stubborn and worked hard."
Would you advise younger musicians to have some sort of masterplan and stick to it without being distracted?
I never had a masterplan. I was just really stubborn and worked hard. I refused to, in lack of a better word, bend over. I was like: "No, I don't want to do this". The guys from Freak Kitchen have been disappointed in me several times, because I said "no" to things often that would have helped the band to grow a lot. But as I said, I'm a cynical guy and I see that this would lead to the expense of integrity. Integrity is maybe the most important thing in show business. Without integrity, you start to smell funny after a while. Today you can't fool anyone. The kids at age 15 have seen everything. So if you're not the real deal: Get out, you won't survive a day. Be true in your art, otherwise you're screwed.
What brought you to the eight-string guitar – and how do you see its role?
[takes his guitar] Here's one, the Apple Horn 8. I played it a lot on the new Freak Kitchen album. It's a completely different thing than a six string. Do you play an eight-string?
No, I'm playing a seven-string, but I'm thinking about getting an eight-string guitar.
I never understood the need for a seven-string. I had many different tunings with the six-string, so I was always in the same pitch, B, B flat or even A, as a seven-string. But an eight-string is a logical thing. It's an even number and it feels really good. With the way I tune it, with the low E and the low A, it has a certain resonance that is really inspirational in many ways. You pick it up and, I said that many times, you feel that you have a small chamber orchestra in your hand. You can do so many amazing things. I could spend hours just playing beefy chords. It has such a rich texture to it, you can really do anything. It's not a shredding instrument, it's really an instrument for composing.
7- and 8-string guitars have been very popular among younger players in the YouTube community. There's even a whole new wave of young shredders on Youtube.
Yeah, that used to be cursing in church: "Shredding!" It's good fun. That's the good thing about being alive today: Genre doesn't really matter. You can do anything, that's great. When I grew up, if you had short hair or glasses, you couldn't be in a band. That was impossible. A Heavy Metal band had to have long hair and spikes, jeans and leather pants. Nobody gives a shit today, that's very liberating. On the other hand, I stay away from too much YouTube. I shamelessly use YouTube to get my own weird things out there as an alternative to a lot of shallow, in my book, shredding. But it's great. Also, more and more girls are picking up the guitar, that's wonderful. We guys need to have our butts kicked!
There's some kids with crazy good technique on YouTube.
Yeah, people often send me stuff and tag me on social media. "You have to hear this! He's playing so fast!" Sometimes I get floored because it's great music. But when it's only great technique: You need great music. That takes time, to write actually good music. Time is the key for a lot of things. You need to give yourself time. That's the cool thing about getting older: I learn more and more. I learn new stuff everyday. It may be a software tweak in Reason or Logic or a new chord – and my mind blows up. That's the beauty of this time, that you can quickly manifest something and make it really good. But you have to be careful because you have to make it sound personal as well. You don't want to use the same presets as everybody else or drag midi drums into your project. It looks like everybody is wearing the same shirt. You have to use it to your own advantage, but that takes time to figure out and you have to give yourself time. You have to ask myself: Where is my space? How can you make your personality stand out?
Do you use guitar plugins?
I use the Helix by Line 6. I love it. At first I thought it sounded like complete Scheiße, but then I figured out that was probably me. This machine can do everything, I probably should get my ass together and tweak it. So I spend a week tweaking it, going through all the cabinets. This is not what I want to do because I want to create. But sometimes you have to get your shit together and learn the equipment. Now I couldn't be happier. I work together with Laney, they're classic Valve amps and they deliver the actual volume when I play live. But the Helix goes straight into the P.A. and I have a Laney to shake my balls, so to speak.
"I am a Swedish Viking dude and like to make music. The eight-string guitar is my weapon of choice."
You've been with Caparison Guitars for a long time and remained faithful to them. Except for the nine string Ibanez.
Yeah, don't talk about it! (laughs) I can't really tell my friends at Caparison to build me a nine-string. Nobody's playing nine-string. The guys from Ibanez told me: "Take it, we don't sell any nine-strings. It was just one string too many". I said: "Yes! I want!". I also got sent a nice eight-string Ortega nylon string by Xavier Reyes from Animals As Leaders, his signature mode. It's amazing. He should do Simon and Garfunkel Djent music.
Talking about Djent: A lot of people always associate the eight-string guitar with Djent stuff only. For a lot of people that's a big stereotype.
The easiest thing is: You pick up an eight-string and the first thing you do is to go djent-djent-djent-djent-a--djent. It's so easy, because that's the sound of an eight-string guitar. The majority of players really don't play the strings in between the low and the high strings. But that's where the beauty is: To use the whole spectrum of the guitar. Of course, I like to use distortion and to tune it very low. I like to mute the strings and go "ooooph". But I don't even know what Djent is. My friends in Meshuggah, they're just amazing. But they don't consider their music Djent. They play Meshuggah music. Frederik Thorendal is the father of Djent? I don't think he could care less. "Father of what? I play eight-string guitar". The cool thing is to walk where you haven't been before. Push the envelope, push yourself. But not only in the technical sense. I was probably much faster when I was 16. An eight-string guitar is terrible to shred on in many ways. You have to keep a lot of strings quiet, it's messy. If i want to shred, I pick up the six-string, the yellow Apple Horn guitars. The eight-string, I just like to sit with it, compose music, riff away. My lead playing has also cooled down a lot. I can now rest on long note with the True Temperament Frets without worrying to be out of tune and overplay. Now I can just sit on one note. Or six million notes, it doesn't matter. It all boils down to making music. I am a Swedish Viking dude and like to make music. And the eight-string guitar is my weapon of choice.
Caparison Guitars didn't build eight-strings before you asked them to, right? There were a whole bunch of companies that wanted to work together with me on an eight-string guitar, and Caparison didn't have one. I asked them: "Which one of these companies will cause the least damage between us?". And they said "Ah fuck it, we'll build you an eight-string guitar. It's gotta be the mother of all eight-string guitars". And it really is! I love it. I just had an updated version sent to me recently, it's just absolutely amazing. I can't believe they slapped my name on it. I'm not worthy! Really, really kick ass.
Are you a guitar collector? No. I mean, I have many guitars but I don't collect them. They are collecting dust. I play my four eight-string guitars and sometimes my nine-string. When I'm doing guest appearances I also sometimes pick up the six-string guitars, but they feel so tiny! Tiny, tiny little guitars.
But you don't have to be the guy that needs at least one 57 Strat, one Les Paul, one ES-335, one SG and so on in his house.
No, never ever. I'd give it to charity.
"I'm confusing the planet with my strange videos and I like it."
Let's talk about Freak Audio Lab, your YouTube channel. What role does it play for you?
I just finished Friday's music right now. I was shooting stupid snow footage with the dog. It's a creative outlet. It's meant as an alternative. Without being an asshole or trying to sound like a complete schmuck or Besserwisser: A lot of the stuff I see feels like the same thing with a different packaging. The same tonality. The lamest things. We can do more than this. It's the same shit and I get frustrated by that. I don't consider myself a YouTuber. The other day I got an email with tips to make my channel grow. "Have a look at your top videos and make videos about those topics". Sweep Picking? Why would I ever make a video about what's the most popular? That's not what I do. I'm a Heavy Metal wizard. I go into the depths. I don't care about views. That's not what it's about. It's about doing things that are, at least to me, stimulating. Things I haven't done before and sharing it with those who are interested. Most people are not interested. Most people do not give a rat's ass about stuff in 31/32 notes. But I think it's beautiful. And from the few people who love it it's very rewarding to get feedback. So many messages and videos from all over the world. Just today there was a guy in Iran doing one of my drumming exercises. It's great to think someone would sit in Teheran and drum on his table. That's the fuel I need to keep doing those things. It's a shitload of fun. But as I already said: As things cool down and I'm ready to go out in the world again, I don't want to be tied up. I never said I'll do one video per week. I just did it. Maybe I'm not going to do a video for six months. I just told the audience last week: "If I don't show up, fear not! I'll be back when I want to!" And when I got that freedom I got the strong urge to compose even more. It's a lovely outlet. It's good. I'm confusing the planet with my strange videos and I like it.
What I also very much like about your community are the comments from your fans. My favorite comment was under the video about the 57/4 time. One person wrote: "I think Dream Theater just felt a disturbance in the force"
(laughs) You know, I'm not going to write a biography because I couldn't give a shit about "Oh, I'd like to be remembered like this". But I'll publish a book with the best comments. Some of them are amazing. One of the best ones was "I'm going to be very sad when they'll come from his home planet and take him away". I can't remember it exactly. There are so many wonderful ones and so much love. Especially when people are locked up: To sit in Sydney, Turkey, New York and Berlin and have some new tools and stuff to try. You can do it in your own music. Even if it sounds ridiculous to something in 57/4: It's really not! You haven't tried this dish before, try it! It's traditional Italian-Morrocan food! Let's see how well it blends together. Maybe it's shit but maybe it's good. Maybe you can use it in your own music. I'm basically sharing what springs to mind. It's fun to make it sound good as well. To have a good, punchy sound and just little bits and pieces of musical tool. My main thing, my mothership is Freak Guitar Camp. That's where shit happens. That's what everything is boiling down to. But YouTube's like a really, really cheap Freak Guitar Camp every Friday.
One of the things you teach is the Konnakol rhythm language. Can you talk about that a bit?
I heard it many years ago, probably from some Shakti John McLaughlin album or something like that. I was like most Westerners: "Ah taka taka tiki tiki", almost with a sad ass attitude. But it was not until I met Jonas Hellborg, the bass player, and we went to India and started to play with Indian musicians. I tried to learn some of the music he recorded with the Vinayakram family. Before Konnakol that was absolutely hopeless. I learnt just a few phrases: Ah, this is just a five! I can take this rhythm and slap it onto this lick and I immediately know where I am. Or this, this is four and a half! What's that, I listen to Iron Maiden! So I realized: Ah it's three quarter notes and then takita-takita, four and a half! So my head basically exploded. I am not an expert on Konnakol, I know very little. But the stuff I do know I can use on anything that springs to mind. I have beastly ideas for future Freak Audio Labs and Freak Guitar Camps. Just to prove the superiority of Konnakol. It's such a powerful musical tool and it's funky too. I use Konnakol in everything I do. Even if it's simple stuff, pop stuff or Blues and I need to count measures I slap Konnakol onto it. I'm really bad at playing other people's music, but say I'm in Bulgaria or Greece and somebody asks me to join his traditional folk music band and it's all odd time. It's super easy. It's a language. I can not emphasize enough how good it is for every musician to know Konnakol. I am very surprised that a lot of drummers to this day say "No, no, I have my own method that I learnt in drumming school". There is no Western method that comes close to Konnakol. Learn a few phrases, put them together, count on your fingers to know where you are – and you can do everything. There's no limit. It's the best. Konnakol is nature and math and music. It's life. I think when Aliens will land on earth we will communicate in Konnakol!
What are your plans for the foreseeable future?
I've been riffing today on the new Freak Kitchen album. I hope to have it released in summer or fall 2021 and that we can go back on the road. That's what we all hope. And then I have another thing that I shall speak no more of, a little weird experimental thing I am doing. A Freak Audio Lab thing, but in a completely different direction. I'm thinking about a ten song album with something I haven't tried before, we'll see. I hope to have it released this year. And of course there's the Freak Guitar Camp for which it takes a lot of time to write music and notation. And you know, just continue being creative. As things start to open up, there are things in the pipeline. The plan is to release a lot of new music in the second half of 2021. In the meantime be nice to children and small animals and chop some wood and watch good movies and read good books... and, because I am a vegetarian, I might fry some veggie burgers! That's the plan!
And playing video games, right? What do you play at the moment?
I play "Quake Champions" everyday. I do at least three death matches everyday to get me rewards. And I play "Doom", "Doom Eternal". I like that too. To this very day I still discover new, wonderful things. Sometimes I jump in with the kids and play "Team Fortress 2" and old school stuff like that. I like games with a Heavy Metal-ish vibe. My son is playing "Red Dead Redemption 2" and it's amazing, a flabbergasting game. I watch my son play it think: "How is that possible?" He's played the campaign five times in a row and is still finding new things. How is it even possible to build something like this? But I'm not really interested in crafting this or buying that. Give me ten minutes with my rocket launcher, that's it. Fast and merciless. That's me! (laughs)
Also be sure to check out the website for the "Freak Guitar Camp".