Per Nilsson

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: PER NILSSON.

Photo: Mary Sweeney

Name: Per Nilsson
Location: Sweden
Link: www.scarsymmetryofficial.com

To start off, let’s rewind to the very beginning and talk about how you first discovered your interest in music.
As I’m fairly chronologically advanced – I’m 47 – those early days seems pretty far away. But I have some early memories of my young self exploring my parents’ record collection, all vinyl back then obviously, finding both kids’ music of that era such as ”Djurens Brevlåda” by James & Karin and ”Kåldolmar & Kalsipper” by Nationalteatern as well as albums by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel and so on. Our record player had a variable speed control that could easily be offset from the fixed RPM positions if you weren’t careful and whenever my parents put on an album with the speed control even just slightly off they were met with loud protests from me, haha!

Was guitar always your one and only option? What got you hooked on the instrument and who are some of the players you think shaped the young version of your guitar-self?
I started taking recorder lessons when I was nine but pretty soon switched to the violin. Around this time, my interest in music started expanding beyond my parents’ record collection and I discovered hard rock and heavy metal, mainly through my older brother from whose room the awe-inspiring sounds of Dio, Accept and Iron Maiden could be heard. The album covers were almost as influential as the music to me and the metal musicians all looked like super heroes, so it wasn’t before long until I asked my dad – an amateur musician – to show me some chords on the guitar. As if it was destiny, my violin teacher also taught guitar, so I was allowed to just change instrument from one week to the other without losing the pace. At first I fell in love with the sound of distorted guitars in a more general sense, but soon enough I started to recognize that there were some players who really stood out, like Yngwie Malmsteen, Gary Moore, John Norum and David Gilmour, which sent me on this life-long quest of learning and understanding music.

Today, which guitarists do you think stand out (in any genre)?
My favorite guitar player of all time and probably biggest musical inspiration is Allan Holdsworth, who sadly passed away a few years ago, and I still listen to his music every week. I recently discovered the amazing Tim Miller and the wonderful Jonathan Kreisberg; both of which have a Holdsworth-adjacent vocabulary but each their own unique identity. Listening to Nick Johnston always puts a smile on my face, great player who also writes some really sweet instrumental tunes. My buds Jeff Loomis and Andy James are tearing it up with Arch Enemy and Five Finger Death Punch respectively, it’s so good to see monster players like them on the big stages!

Over the years, you’ve shown proof of mastering anything from metal to jazz and fusion (and anything in between and beyond, to be honest!)…but is there one style in which you feel the most “at home”?
I don’t know about having ”mastered” anything really – it’s all still very much a work in progress. I’ve always been interested in many styles of music and I find that what I’ve learned from one style of music is most often very applicable to other styles as well. I mean, we’re all working with this chromatic spectrum of twelve notes to create melody and harmony, we use the same kinds of rhythmic subdivisions, the underlying language of music is very much the same regardless of genre. My most favorite aspect of being a musician is improvising, which comes more from my jazz and fusion influences, and my second most favorite aspect is composing, especially composing for Scar Symmetry because our style is by our own definition very broad and I can allow myself to be very creative and pour all kinds of influences into the mix.

Some time ago, you were called in to substitute for Fredrik Thordendal in Meshuggah. Instead of replicating his solos, you improvised a lot and added your own take on it. How was that met by the fans and what was your thought process behind this?
My approach for playing live with Scar Symmetry has always been to keep most of my solos true to the album versions, since that’s most often what I as a fan want to hear when I go see one of my favorite bands (unless it’s like a fusion player where improvising is a big part of the thing). Seeing as Fredrik himself always improvises his solos live, I straight up asked him for his opinion and upon his suggestion I decided to improvise everything. I kept some of the solos pretty close stylistically to how Fredrik plays them; I guess there is a fair bit of overlap in our respective styles of playing due to the obvious Holdsworth influence, so it made sense to keep that in there, while for other solos I went in a different direction than Fredrik’s. Much to my delight and astonishment, the fans were overwhelmingly positive and very welcoming of me during my tenure with the band, and the announcement of Fredrik’s return was met with thunderous applause and outburst of love and joy worldwide! When I got the call from Meshuggah I had just joined legendary Swedish power metal band Nocturnal Rites as their new lead guitar player, so I was also in the process of figuring out how to approach playing the solos on their old songs. At first I considered learning my predecessor Nils Norberg’s solos to play them verbatim as I’m a fan of his playing, but in the end I came to the conclusion that it felt a lot more natural, fun and challenging to only pick a few key parts from Nils’ solos and improvise the rest.

This stint in Meshuggah ended up being stretched out over a few years, a couple of world tours and, what we presume, more than just a couple of awesome memories. What are some of your biggest takeaways from this adventure?
Joining one of your favorite bands – not to mention one of the most celebrated, well-respected and influential bands in the history of metal – at the peak of their career is the stuff that dreams are made of! I was treated so well by the band, their crew as well as their fans, I got to play some really interesting and challenging music, much of which I love, on stages bigger than I was used to, and I got to bring some of my own musical expression to their music. Within the context of that particular gig, it was all I could ask for really. My biggest takeaway, though, was what I learned from being inside the professional, well-oiled machinery of a major act, how necessary it is to have things sorted business-wise and to build a team around you; stuff some of which I haven’t paid enough attention to with Scar Symmetry, but definitely lessons learned moving forward now with the sort of comeback we’re making with our new album next year.

Being a well-versed prog player, you already knew your way around an odd time signature or two going in…but did you crack the “Meshuggah code”? Or is there one, besides practicing and memorizing? In a song like, say, “Bleed,” the rhythmic structure evolves throughout the song. How do you go about actually learning it?
As weird and difficult as much of Meshuggah’s music might appear to be, the majority of the riffs share a common DNA which is an odd-meter rhythm that cycles on top of a 4/4 beat until it reaches like 8, 16 or 32 bars of 4/4, and the last cycle of that odd-meter thing gets truncated to make it fit within the 4/4 period. Once you understand that, it’s just a quest of finding what the odd-meter thing is and how it relates to the underlying 4/4. There are some songs on their latest album, though, that feature riffs that don’t comply with these rules, and some of those were difficult to learn as they have more random and less repeated parts. I learned all the songs – save for a few riffs – on my own, they didn’t have any tabs or transcriptions, so I was left to my own devices. ”Bleed” is a pretty easy song to understand and memorize; it’s just super taxing to play and it really requires that you build up your picking hand stamina.

In your own main band Scar Symmetry, you’re very much at the helm of all things creative – from being the songwriting engine to recording, producing, mixing and even mastering. Do you enjoy being at the creative wheel of things – to see things through from the very first conceptual idea or embryo of music to the finished product?
Well it didn’t use to be like that, in the early years of the band Jonas was the band’s main producer and I wasn’t the sole composer, but after a few member changes I was left as the band’s driving force both creatively and business-wise (a half-truth as our drummer Henrik writes all the lyrics) and I had also been taking on more and more of the band’s production work during the years, so it just felt like that’s where my career had taken me. I love being in this position where I have so much creative control of every aspect of our music, but sometimes it’s nice to just be the touring guitarist like I was with Meshuggah, or to just contribute with solos which was what I did for the latest Nocturnal Rites release.

What does your creative process look like? Do you set aside dedicated “on the job” writing time or do you write when inspiration strikes?
Most of the playing I do when I’m not recording anything is just some relaxed improvisation, which is a very creative process, though, as I’m not recording my improvisations the music I create will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Whenever I decide to write and record an album I set aside time for songwriting sessions and just go to work. Some days inspiration is abundant and I work for 12 hours straight; other days I’m not feeling it, so I go do something else instead.

Aside from your own stuff, you also produce and mix other bands – something you’ve done since the early 2000s but now seem to have ramped up slightly. Is this something you intend to do more frequently going forward?
Well, actually recently I’ve stopped doing production work for other artists completely, because as much as I like doing it, I started to feel that in between touring with several bands, working on my own music, producing other people’s music and just the day-to-day hustle of being a family man I was spreading myself too thin.

Looking back on your now almost 20-year-long career of making records, what would you say are some of the highlights for you personally along the way? Any milestone moments that stand out to you on a personal level or that you for other reasons will always cherish?
For about half of my 20s I was suffering from repetitive strain injuries in my arms from over-practicing, so when my recording career started at the tender age of 30 I was just over the moon happy to be able to play again; I never expected it to turn into a career and I have thus been very thankful and have immensely enjoyed every little twist and turn of my journey since. Getting Scar Symmetry signed to Nuclear Blast records was a defining moment for sure; playing in front of thousands of people singing along to songs that I wrote; touring with Meshuggah; receiving my first signature guitar; writing, recording and producing my first album all by myself; shooting my own instructional guitar DVD; the list could go on and on – I’m pinching myself daily and I’m looking forward to continuing on this path I’m carving for myself.

Do you still practice your instrument regularly? If so, what does your routine look like?
When I was learning the Meshuggah songs my practice time was pretty regimented, but apart from that, for the past 25 years or so I don’t really find myself ”practicing” all that much, it’s more like I pick up the guitar and explore by improvisation. I’m also constantly thinking about music and musical concepts, so a lot of my musical evolution happens away from the guitar, like, for example if I’m listening to some music and pick up some interesting harmonies, I’ll make a mental note of that and later I might explore said harmonies on the guitar or on the keyboard.

You’re also very active as an ambassador for your signature “Singularity” model by .strandberg* Guitars. What’s unique about this instrument and what’s the story behind it?
I got to know Ola Strandberg and his fantastic guitar designs back in 2013, I had been a long-time Ibanez player but was looking for doing something else when Ola approached me with the idea of designing a guitar to my exact specifications. He built me a prototype which then turned into a production model, and the latest iteration of my signature guitar is a seven-string guitar, basswood body with a swamp ash top, roasted maple neck, Indian rosewood fretboard with the amazing True Temperament fretting system, Lundgren pickups and a super slick custom version of Strandberg’s patented Endurneck neck profile design.

Finally, which Toontrack products do you use and how do they help in your process of writing, recording, producing?
I’ve been using EZdrummer for demoing songs since the plugin was first released. Having access to album-quality drum sounds and amazing MIDI performances have been a game changer for my songwriting process. Today I’ve added Superior Drummer 3, EZbass, EZkeys, EZmix 2 and tons of expansion packs to my toolbox and I’m not exclusively using them for demoing; for example, I wasn’t happy with the sound of the toms on Scar Symmetry’s last album (“The Singularity Phase I – Neohumanity”), so they are actually replaced 100% with the toms from the first EZdrummer’s Pop/Rock kit and they blend into the mix so well!

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