His work with Frank Zappa, the Crimson ProjeKCt, Fredrik Thordendal, Bill Laswell, and the way forward-looking Mats/Morgan duo has been blowing us away for a couple decades now. Yet all that time, he’s never been predictable, never repeated himself, never had a “thing”—and maybe that’s why we love him most.
The career of Swedish drummer Morgan Ågren is proof that you needn’t adhere to typical scenarios to forge a unique professional path. With his childhood friend, keyboard player Mats Öberg, Ågren founded the Mats/Morgan Band, making some of the most arresting, daring, and enjoyable music this side of Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth. More striking, he began doing this when he was barely a teenager.
Influenced by minimalism pioneer Steve Reich, French prog innovators Magma, American outrock legend Captain Beefheart, and fusion architects Return to Forever, the Mats/Morgan Band plays demanding yet playful music that relies equally on Ågren’s deft, complex drumming, Öberg’s significant keyboard skills, and both men’s exploratory compositions. The duo has released ten albums since 1996, including their latest, an ambitious CD/DVD package featuring the Norrlandsoperan Symphony Orchestra.
Ågren’s 2015 solo release, Batterie Deluxe, is a landmark recording of live and programmed drums, spoken word, and synths. Eschewing flash and fireworks for deeply drenched pocket drumming, Ågren creates rhythms that are spellbinding in their complexity, yet somehow soothing to the ear. Morgan’s work on the album Sol Niger Within by Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah, Bill Laswell’s BLIXT project, Devin Townsend’s Casualties of Cool and Empath, and Manugen’s Maximum Times have provided inspiration to many an adventure-minded drummer looking for an earful of fresh ideas—though not necessarily in a chopsy context.
“It all comes down to the music,” says Morgan. “To play what is needed in the music, just that. Maybe that’s one shaker and no drumkit; maybe it’s a double kick with ten thousand drum fills. Whatever makes the music sound good is good. And for me, if I listen to something and I’m not really enjoying the music, then it doesn’t help very much if someone is playing awesome things on their instrument. I want good music, not just playing skills.”
MD: You don’t play many drum solos, and even though your drumming is often complex, there’s not a lot of embellishment.
Morgan: If I compose something that doesn’t require any drums, I will not play on it. My only goal is to make good music. On YouTube everyone is younger and faster than the other, and there is a lot of repetition. I’m happy that I didn’t have the internet when I grew up; in a way it’s a fantastic source, but at the same time it seems that everything is more the same because of it, because of YouTube. As soon as somebody does something that gets many likes on YouTube, ten million drummers come and do the same thing. When I was a kid, I did the same thing, but it was still a bit different. I listened to Billy Cobham and imitated him. But I would get a VHS copy of Mahavishnu Orchestra Live; it felt like I was the only one in Europe who had a copy of it! It felt more unique back then.
When I was fifteen or eighteen or even twenty-two, I had different views on things. When I was ten years old and I bought my first Buddy Rich album, I only cared about the drum solos. But now, thirty-five years later, it’s almost the opposite. It’s not that I don’t like solo drums, but I’m looking for other things than just that.
MD: Some of the influences I hear in your music include Steve Reich and Frank Zappa.
Morgan: Yes, and electronic music has influenced me a lot, and Allan Holdsworth, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Magma. When Mats and I met, he was only ten years old, and I was fourteen. His parents were into music and had a big vinyl collection. So every time we met I borrowed vinyl that I thought looked interesting. That’s how I found Gino Vannelli and Zappa. I also introduced music to Mats, such as Holdsworth and Return to Forever. We discovered all this music when we were very young.
MD: Did you come from a musical family?
Morgan: My father played violin and sang, but nobody played drums or this type music. Mats and I come from a town called Umeå in Sweden. Mats/Morgan began in 1981, just piano and drums, and we composed everything together. We moved to Stockholm in the late ’80s and began composing separately, then meeting and recording. We still compose separately. Mats was two years old when he began listening to music. He was born blind, and music and sound was everything for him. At five, Mats was listening to Miles Davis and Mahavishnu. He’s self-taught on piano by just listening to his parents’ huge record collection from a very early age.
Recording Magma’s “Zess”
MD: How did you come to record “Zess” with Magma?
Morgan: It’s still a little bit of a mystery. I met Christian Vander, the drummer and founder of Magma, in 2000, when they had a thirty-year anniversary. I met Christian after the gig and we connected. Then I found an excuse to go to Paris to see them again. I emailed Modern Drummer and offered to do a story on Christian, and the editor at the time, Bill Miller, accepted my offer. Christian has some incredible stories about when he grew up; he met Elvin Jones when he was ten years old. Christian is not impossible to interview, but I don’t think he grants many. So this was a good excuse for me to see Christian again, and when Magma scheduled another gig in Paris, I booked a meeting with him.
MD: What happened more recently with Magma?
Morgan: Magma came to Sweden in 2015, and Mats and I opened for them. This year is the band’s fifty-year anniversary, and they’re planning some rereleases. They also wanted to rerecord a classic Magma song with Christian singing, so they asked me if I wanted to track the song “Zess” with them, saying Christian can sing and I can drum, and record it live in the studio. The song is twenty-five minutes long.
MD: How would you describe the music?
Morgan: It has chords repeating forever with a few breaks. And a lot of spoken word by Christian in the beginning; the words are like the building blocks. At the recording session was Magma’s bass player, Philippe Bussonnet, plus Christian Vander, a piano player, and then Stella Vander, the vocalist. There were no charts, but they sent sound files in advance. We performed the track live in the studio with Christian singing with us.
MD: How did you approach the drumming?
Morgan: It was quite hard because the song is fast and very quiet. The pattern is not far away from the classic Billy Cobham song “Quadrant 4.” If you remove a bit of the bass drum, the action is based more in the hands and at a very low volume. It’s kind of a very fast shuffle. It’s not the tempo that’s hard, but when you play the same thing for twenty minutes it can be difficult. You don’t want to loop anything, and you don’t want to lose the beat. And with it being twenty minutes long, you don’t want to mess things up two minutes before the end and have to redo everything. So it was a big challenge.
MD: Did Christian have any comments or ideas about the drumming?
Morgan: I felt he trusted me. Also, I sent the band some simple recordings from my studio with ideas for parts. I needed to get that confirmed before going to the studio. We did two or three versions.
Grooving with Electronics
MD: Batterie Deluxe knocked out me and many other drummers the first time we heard it—the songs, the rhythms, the electronics.
Morgan: Thank you. There are also guest spots from Mats, Neyveli Radhakrishna, Simon Steensland, Devin Townsend, and Fredrik Thordendal from Meshuggah. I composed all the music and built up the sound. There are programmed drums and acoustic drums, never any triggers. I use Pro Tools as my software and my own samples. So it’s live drums plus some computerized parts, but always keeping the acoustic sound.
MD: What is your process for making drums groove with electronics?
Morgan: I just hear things in my head and try to find that vibe and that atmosphere. Sometimes, in order to achieve that, I’ll do something completely different. I can’t read music very well. But I have everything in my mind. On Batterie Deluxe I sampled electronic accordions, and I chopped them up in my computer. One bass sound is a synthesizer bass mixed with one of my son’s toy guitars attached to his toy speakerphone. It sounded incredible.
MD: Do you try to groove right down the middle when playing with electronics?
Morgan: I don’t think there is something that I keep doing the same. So it’s hard to say. And usually the drums are the very last thing. That’s true with Mats/Morgan Band as well. When I compose music I’m standing behind my computer. I never really play drums except when there is recording, performance, or teaching in my music room. But from when I was five years to twenty I played drums a lot—probably every day, sometimes many hours every day.
MD: What are you playing on “Yläjärvi” from Batterie Deluxe?
Morgan: That has an opening section with a bar that repeats. Then on the second part, a half-tempo groove. And then in the third I play on a homemade instrument, a wooden plank with one thick piano string attached, which I hit with a drumstick. That creates a very low-pitched bass type of sound.
MD: There are weird spoken-word passages throughout the album. One sounds like William Burroughs.
Morgan: One of the spoken-word passages is a student of mind who has been diagnosed with a disorder. His caretakers sometimes let him play drums with me because it makes him feel good. It’s like therapy. He told me that he spoke Russian, so I had him record a piece of music where he improvised in Russian. It made him super happy. The only thing I told him before we recorded was, “Try to sound scary,” and it came out great.
Complex, Not Crazy
MD: You sometimes play fills and such within your grooves, but you often seem content to stick to an intricate, complex pattern.
Morgan: The older I get, the more I go in that direction. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like playing a lot of drums, but for sure I am getting more sensitive. If you go to a drum festival, it’s quite hard to experience great music. You hear great drummers, but usually the music comes in last. It’s almost like nobody cares that much about the music; everyone is more focused on the skills.
MD: Are most of your grooves based on linear patterns?
Morgan: I never really thought about that, but I do play hands in unison.
MD: Then what is their origin, as you have a very distinctive, rhythmic pattern-based approach?
Morgan: It comes from the records I loved growing up: Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, with drummer John French, Magma’s Live with Christian Vander, Brecker Brothers’ Heavy Metal Bebop and Frank Zappa’s In New York, both Terry Bozzio, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Pulse, Bill Bruford’s One of a Kind, Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior with Lenny White, Allan Holdsworth’s I.O.U. with Gary Husband. As soon as I heard those albums, I didn’t even want to go to music school. I just wanted to play along with the albums. Romantic Warrior, hearing that album at, like, fourteen—it was incredible. With Holdsworth, I particularly liked Gary Husband on I.O.U. That album is so free. I loved Tony Williams for the same reason, because it was dirty, wild, and strong. Gary Husband had that vibe—whatever he did, it was like he was playing it for the fi rst time. And I had all those live Zappa bootlegs with Vinnie Colaiuta. His very best stuff . And Christian’s work with Magma goes way beyond being a technically skilled drummer—he created an entire language. That means more than all the technical skills in the world.
Mats/Morgan Meets Norrlandsoperan Symphony Orchestra
MD: How did Mats/Morgan Live with Norrlandsoperan Symphony Orchestra come to be?
Morgan: This is a symphony orchestra from our hometown in Umeå. They contacted us to compose music for the orchestra and our band. It’s three of Mats’ old tracks, and I composed the rest. I spent roughly a year to get the music together, then gave it to an arranger to be notated. I have a sampler with all the orchestral sounds, and I composed with my keyboard.
MD: What were the recording challenges?
Morgan: I decided early on we wouldn’t do anything that would be too complicated to perform, but once again most of the stuff that I do just happens. I can’t control what I do every time. So sometimes I’m playing something complicated, even if that wasn’t the original intent. There were a couple of parts that were really hard for the orchestra. “Klerpan” was a nightmare. I had to make a lot of edits in order to use it on the album. Orchestral musicians have the tonality, the colors, and as long as they have a strict path they’re okay. But if you’re playing a strict 4/4 and add a pattern in 7/8, they can get lost in seconds. There were some rhythmic problems, but overall I was happy.
MD: Your drumming in “Elka Dacapo” is very interesting. It’s in 6/4, and the drums sound sampled and live. It burns from one section to the next.
Morgan: I’m just following the samples. I sampled an old electronic organ, and each sample is in a diff erent tempo; each sample moves at a diff erent speed. So the music made me play like that.
MD: You may be an unschooled drummer, but you’re clearly gifted.
Morgan: Thank you. I can play things as long as I can decide how to do it. I can play ideas that could be considered complicated, but if somebody asks me, “Can you do it like this instead?” or “Can you move your hand from this drum to this drum instead?” then everything can just collapse. I’m not flexible at all.
MD: Do you have broad goals as a musician?
Morgan: Many musicians know me and send thumbs ups and appreciations from all over the world. But it can be tough making a living as a musician today. I have a family, a house, two dogs, a son and a wife, bills…. If I was a single guy living in a small fl at, it might be easier. Being in the arts isn’t always easy. But I love what I do and I feel like a millionaire in my heart and in my experiences. I’m fortunate. That is worth more than any money, so I hope to be able to keep doing that.
Drums: Gretsch mid-’70s Dark Walnut
• 6.5×14 Gretsch bell brass snare drum
• 8×12 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 14×28 bass drum
• 14×18 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
• 15″ 30th Anniversary hi-hat
• 26″ 30th Anniversary ride
• 22″ Traditional Dark crash
• 22″ 30th Anniversary ride
• 20″ 30th Anniversary ride
• 24″ 30th Anniversary ride
Heads: Remo, including Ambassador Coated snare, tom, and bass drum batters and 18″ bass drum resonant, Ambassador Clear tom resonants, and Ambassador Smooth White resonant on 28″ bass drum
Sticks: Wincent 5A XL sticks and wire brushes
Electronics: Clavia Nord Drum 3P, Ehrlund microphones
Accessories: CRS Cymbal Resonance System, Porter & Davies Throne, Auris GigPig