Songwriting Interview With Mats Haugen

Ryan Buckner: This is Ryan Buckner of and today I’m on the phone with Mats Haugen, guitar player and songwriter in progressive metal band Circus Maximus. Mats, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today and it’s great to have you here.

Mats Haugen: Thank you.

RB: So here is my first question for you. What is your favorite topic to write about in your music, and why?

MH: Well our favorite topic? I think that has been different from album to album. On our first album we wrote about more fantasy stuff and superficial things. On Isolate, everybody wrote about a “guy in the gutter somewhere”. Very negative stuff. On the newest album, we wrote about personal stuff. Almost everything.

RB: What would you say is your personal favorite topic to write about?

MH: Personal stuff. Things that are genuine and not fantasy and fiction… although I love that kind of stuff as well. I think we are and were in a place in our lives (everybody in the band) with our previous album where we had to do something more “real”. That suited the songs. So the songs got a little more of an edge to it. The new songs were a little simpler than the previous ones on Isolate and The 1st Chapter. We needed to do everything that way. Not having too complicated lyrics. Everything was more in your face really.

RB: Cool. Whenever you write music with lyrics, do you usually write the lyrics first or do you write the music at the same time with the lyrics?

MH: Well I have no routine with that really. For my part, I write most of the music and focus more on the melodies and music than the lyrics. If I have some lyrics at hand that the guys have written, of course I’m going to use that as well or try to make it fit the song. There is really no routine really. Sometimes we have some lyrics ready and we write some melodies around the lyrics to fit the song that we have. Or sometimes we write lyrics to a song we have or melody that we have. Depends on what are the best two we want to keep really.

RB: Do you have any favorite songs that you have written?

MH: It’s very very difficult to say. On our new album, it’s very hard to say but I’m really proud of the song “Game of Life”.

RB: Yeah, that’s probably my favorite.

MH: I that is the most special song I’ve written really. It means a lot.

RB: Why would you say that, what is it about that song?

MH: It gives me a good feeling. I knew it when I first laid down the intro part with the extremely easy guitar riff with the piano melody… and the cheesy drums that Truls had to play [laughs]. I felt that “this is right… this is going somewhere good”. I get a really good feeling when I hear this song. It’s not negative. It’s feel like it’s really hopeful.

RB: How long does it usually take you to write songs?

MH: Well, that’s also really hard to say. Actually, for Game of Life I remember it really good. I think I wrote most of the main parts in one night really. Although the song took like two years to record for different reasons… I think it took me maybe one or two nights to figure out what to do with it.

RB: So would you say sometimes it might take you a night or two, and sometimes it might take you a month?

MH: Yeah. Of course. The first song I started to write after Isolate was the song “Burn After Reading”. That was the first thing I ever wrote after Isolate. I didn’t know how to end it before we almost put it to mix last year. I have like five or six different verses for that song. I actually have one version of “Burn After Reading” that is like thirteen minutes or something. But it didn’t cut it. It wasn’t that good so we had to keep the one that we ended up with on the album.

RB: With that in mind do you usually go back and change around songs after you feel like it is kind of done or do you have more of a “once it’s done it’s done” approach?

MH: Well, you should ask Trulz about that. He hates me because I always do that. It isn’t over until it’s over. It isn’t over until it is ready mixed and on its way to mastering. At least for me. I can’t let it go until it’s mastered. Then it’s ready.

RB: So you try to keep him on his toes at all times?

MH: Yeah keep the options open you know. That is important… last minute change.

RB: Whenever you write music do you try to keep a balance with what you write and what the fans or band expect?

MH: Well actually… We’ve never thought about “We want to write this song because the fans will love this song”. We’ve never thought about that. We’ve always thought about writing stuff that we like, that we want to hear ourselves. Lucky for us, we share a lot of the same taste in music as other people. So maybe that is why people like our music. We don’t really want to make anything that we know people “want to listen to”. It’s more important for us to do it like we want it really.

RB: You guys do progressive stuff, but it is also really accessible at the same time.

MH: Yes, we love progressive music. But everybody in the band loves pop music. Everything. We listen to anything from death metal/extreme metal to the most cheesy pop music there is. We have no limits when it comes to music. We want to play everything that makes us feel good. That’s the cool thing about playing progressive music or alternative metal stuff that we do. We feel there’s no rules in the music. As long as you balance it and the outcome is good, it’s not important how you do it really.

RB: Right, so it is kind of a balance between the more technical aspects of the music and then making it to where it is really listenable. Would you say that’s right?

MH: Yeah. That’s probably right yeah.

RB: Have you ever got anyone who criticizes the music because it doesn’t sound how they want it to sound? How do you respond to that kind of stuff?

MH: Well it’s okay. When you come to a band and you like one album even though it’s their first… their third… their fifth album that you like. And you don’t like the previous ones or the ones after. But you fall in love with one album. Of course, when that band releases a new album you want to experience the same feeling that you got when you listened to the first album you listened to. So I can deeply understand people who say “I don’t like Nine it’s too straight forward…” It’s okay and I fully understand it. It’s more that people expect to feel the same way that they did when they listened to maybe Isolate… They want the same feeling. They want the same goose bumps and stuff. But that’s impossible to do because music is connected to not just only what you hear. It’s connected to where we are in life and where you are when you listen to that kind of music or music in general. It’s also connected to memories and a lot of impressions from what you see when you listen to stuff. It’s more complicated than that. So I think it is impossible to do two similar albums really.

RB: That’s good insight. I know you play guitar in the band, but what do you use to write usually? Do you use guitar or do you use other instruments?

MH: Well usually I write music with an acoustic guitar. I seldom sit with my electric guitar and write music. It’s not that often. I sit with my acoustic guitar on the sofa while maybe watching t.v. or something and humming some melodies with basic chords just to get something genuine down before we dig in and do the more technical, metal parts. I think that is the best way to write metal. If you want metal to be melodic. The best thing to do is to not write it with electric guitar. I think the thing to do is write it with acoustic guitar and use basic chords. If the song sounds good with one acoustic guitar and a vocal; it’s bound to sound good with a full band. Of course, produced right. I think it’s very important that it sounds good not only with the whole band but it sounds good when you take it down to one instrument… with just piano, vocals, guitar… When you strip it down, if it still sounds good, it’s a good song.

RB: So you start with a basic foundation with something that just works on its own and you can expand from there. So what are some of your favorite songwriting techniques?

MH: I don’t have any special techniques really. When I have a guitar/acoustic guitar I sit and hum some melodies and use my Iphone recorder. That’s just the first part of it. When it comes to writing more of the other parts like keyboard ideas, drum patterns, bass and stuff… I always use a computer. I put my ideas from my Iphone on the computer and work on it from there.

RB: So it is kind of a combination of playing on guitar in the moment and putting it into the software or program.

MH: I use a lot of time in my home studio. I use Cubase… if anybody wanted to know that. Don’t use Pro Tools that much or Logic. I’ve been using Cubase for like twelve, thirteen years or something. I use a lot of software, but after I have an idea first of course.

RB: Right, going back to the basic idea right?

MH: Yeah.

RB: So let’s go ahead and end the interview on this one final question here. If you could tell the people listening to this one single thing to focus on in order to become a great songwriter, what would it be and why?

MH: Well. I think the most important thing to do is that you don’t try to invent the wheel in every song. If something sounds similar to something you’ve heard. It’s probably because it does, and you like it. So just go for it. The most important thing to do is be happy with what you do and never stop listening to new music. It’s the only way to get progress, get new inspiration and become a better songwriter I think.

RB: Cool, good ideas. Once again I appreciate you for taking the time today to share your thoughts on songwriting today.

MH: Very cool. Thank you for calling.