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Atomic Clock: An interview with drummer Gene Hoglan

The very first time I heard the name Gene Hoglan was during an interview I conducted with Raymond Herrera, the drummer from Fear Factory. Raymond was talking about his drumming influences and he was going on and on about this guy Gene Hoglan from a band called Death, who was just the baddest badass in extreme metal drumming. This was about five years ago. Or maybe longer. I don’t really remember what year it was, I just remember I had to look up Gene’s name in the Google because I wasn’t sure how to spell it for the article, and I wanted to look like I knew what I was talking about. Thank god for the Internet.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve interviewed a laundry list of scary metal drummers with pyramid goatees who all worship at Gene Hoglan’s altar, so I figured Gene and I had to cross paths eventually. Because that is how I roll. Plus the guy has played with everybody on the planet, from Slayer and Opeth to Dark Angel and Strapping Young Lad. So it’s pretty funny that I actually ended up interviewing Gene because of Metalocalypse, which is my favorite cartoon on the Adult Swim Network. Metalocalypse is a hilarious show about a death metal band called Dethklok, and it is just insane. At the New Year’s Eve party I went to last December, all we did was eat massive quantities of food, play ‘80s Metal Karaoke and watch episode after episode after episode of Dethklok’s hilarious madcap adventures. It was the best New Year’s Eve party I ever went to. But I digress. The point is that Dethklok’s creator, Brendon Small, decided to record a soundtrack album for the show and Gene ended up playing drums on the album as well as doing the live tour. I contacted Gene through his Myspace page and he agreed to talk to me, because he is awesome. Here’s what we talked about.

Tell me about your new DVD.

I’ve been working on it over the past year. It’s an instructional-type DVD and it’s called The Atomic Clock. It’s just me jamming on a bunch of songs and showing you what I do. I’ve tried to make it so that if you’re not a drummer, it’s still entertaining. I don’t watch a lot of instructional videos, but the majority of the ones I’ve seen feature great playing, but the dude is just kind of a pretty stiff guy. Although I’ve got a face made for radio [laughs], I’m pretty good in front of the camera, so I tried to have fun with it. I even have extras on the damn thing – and what other instructional DVDs have extras? It’s definitely for people who like Gene.

Do you perform songs from all of the bands you’ve been in, like Dark Angel, Death, and Strapping Young Lad?

No, I just concentrated on stuff that’s coming out. For instance, I included five songs from one of my new bands, Mechanism, because that’s the craziest drumming I’ve ever done on an album. I thought it would provide a nice bit of cross-pollination to let people hear what this new Mechanism stuff is about and also to see me play it. It’s pretty nuts. I even included some non-metal stuff, like [what I played on] the new Mr. Plow album. I did one song from that, which is an acoustic comedic/punk/folk sort of thing that has me and Mr. Plow, of course, plus Norwood Fisher from Fishbone on bass and Rocky George from Suicidal Tendencies and Fishbone on guitar, plus a guest appearance by Oderus Urungus (from GWAR). It’s just a really fun project.
I love metal and I love playing metal, because it’s easy. The challenging stuff is playing…for instance, I put a song on there from a project I'm doing with a girl in Chicago named Jilly C, and it’s a really simple, tasty, funky song that just shows you how to lock into a pocket. Most people do know that I tend to play mostly metal stuff, but I’m a well-rounded drummer, so I threw on some grooves, shuffles and some funk stuff. I was playing non-metal stuff before I ever played metal; back when I was a kid there wasn’t really a thrash metal scene around as I was coming up so…I just tried to make it an all-encompassing thing. I don’t concentrate solely on double bass or crazy chops.

Is anything going on right now with Strapping Young Lad?

Devin is very content to do what he’s been doing since SYL went on hiatus. He’s concentrating on his family life and he likes producing bands. For him, roadwork is a big chore, so this way he gets to stay at home and make some good coin doing what he does and he doesn’t have to hit the road. I figure that if there’s a time in the future for it, then cool. If not, it doesn’t bother me either way.

I think that’s my favorite band that you’ve played with.

Me too, I love us! Fortunately, I didn’t have lot of down time after Devin made his announcement [that SYL was taking a break]. I jumped right into the Dethklok thing pretty quickly after that.

Let’s talk about that and how you got involved with Metalocalypse and Dethklok.

One day I got a call from a friend at Century Media who said he had bumped into Brendon Small, who was putting together an album for the show. He said my name came up and asked if I would be interested in doing it. I was like, "yeah, give him my number." Brendon called me up a couple of days later and we spoke. He said he thought it’d be very cool to have me play drums on the record, so if I had the time and was interested, blah blah blah. At the time I had only seen one episode, because this was back when it was in its first run. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell was that?’ It was episode number two actually, where Dethklok are recording the album underwater. I thought it was a strange twelve minutes, but it was cool and the music was really killer! I watched a few more episodes and I got the humor, though it took me a while to get into the show. Now I love it, but when I was first watching it I was like, ‘Wow, this is nuts.’ But the music was always really killer and working with Brendon was awesome.
At the time we recorded the album, he was in the planning stages for season two. I think there were four songs from the recording session that were going to be placed into season two, but most of the time [what you hear in the show] is just Brendon with a drum machine. Most all of season one is that way, so I just tried to duplicate what I could and give it a human feel. There are definitely some spots where I was like, "You want me to play that double bass? Is there anybody on the planet that can play that?" I think it’s a really killer record and I’m proud to be on it. It came out way cooler than I was expecting – and I expected it to be really cool!

What was the tour like?

It was something that Adult Swim put together to promote the network and we only did 12 shows, but it was a whole lot of fun and very cool. We played with another band called And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead…which was a rather dichotomous bill. One band is super duper metal and has a TV show and the other band is not very metal, but a ton of metal heads showed up and just wanted to see what the live show would be about. We’re playing in front of a screen showing the cartoon and there are two screens on the side of the stage as well. They created a whole bunch of new stuff for the [live] shows and I’m sure if we hit the road again later this year there will be even more stuff from the show. There’s a running theme, so it does tell a story I suppose, and there are some skits every two or three songs. I thought it was pretty entertaining and I definitely would suggest that all metal heads at least come and check it out just to say you’ve seen it. We play some decent metal and rip the hell out of it.

Your drumming skills are so wildly in demand, what do you bring to the table as a drummer that gets you the gig? In other words, why do people hire Gene Hoglan over some other guy?

It might possibly be due to the background I have of not sticking to just one style. I suppose I’ve always tried to bring an identifiable sound to each band [I work with]. The drums on the Testament album I did do not sound like Strapping and Strapping does not sound like Death and Death did not sound like Dark Angel. Across the board with all those bands I try to serve the song, really. On the Testament album, for instance, they weren’t looking for Death-type drums and Strapping needs to be way more precise and machine like, chaotic and crazy. But Death, take the Symbolic album I did or Individual Thought Patterns: those were about, "Hey check me out showing off! Here I am shredding like any jazz-fusion shredder would do!"
I wish that I had seen more episodes of Dethklok when I recorded the album, because I really wanted to give Pickles his own identifiable sound. I think a lot of it came out a little too Gene Hoglanesque, but when I recorded every song on that album that was the very first time I had ever played those songs. I’d learn the songs that morning and we’d track them that afternoon and there would be spots where I wasn’t familiar enough with the music, though I’d heard a lot of it, to actually get into it. On the next album though, I’ll nail it. But anyway, yes, I’ve always tried to give each band its own sound with drums, its own drum personae, and try not to cross-pollinate the projects.

Something I really admire about you, and maybe this does go along with the fact that you’re more of a song-oriented drummer, is that you’re not afraid to admit to having been influenced by drummers from bands that might not be considered too cool these days – like the drummers from Journey, Steve Smith and Deen Castronovo, who are both amazing players. In that way I think you’re a great example of drummer who’s really integrated influences from a whole lifetime of being a fan.

I definitely learned drums through osmosis, just from picking things up. I never had a lesson, but every time I would listen to one of my favorite drummers and air-drum or play along on my little kit, that was a drum lesson for me. I would say that I’ve stolen a lot from Steve Smith and Deen Castronovo. People usually look at me really funny when they ask the big question of who is my favorite drummer and I say Stevie Wonder. He is my favorite drummer and most people didn’t even know he played drums. People expect me to cite a metal drummer because I play metal, but there’s more to it than that. Back when I was growing up, Rob Reiner from Anvil was a big influence, Wacko Hunter from Raven was a big influence, and Phil “Filthy Animal” Taylor – just from his “spazzmo” style – was a big influence. These guys all played fast and heavy and they played a lot of double bass. I always loved drummers like Tommy Aldridge and Cozy Powell because they had double bass and yet they had really tasty chops. You know, Tommy Aldridge is a very tasty drummer, especially on the Pat Travers’ album Go For What You Know. That’s a drum lesson right there! Listen to that, it’s a must hear for a drummer. He’s an absolute legend.

It’s nice to be the age where you can say you’ve seen bands like Queen or Led Zeppelin or The Who with Keith Moon play live, because we’ll never see bands like that again.

I’m fortunate to have seen Queen live about ten times. They’re still one of my favorite bands. A lot of people don’t understand how amazing a band like Queen was, because you hear their hits like “Under Pressure” and “Another One Bites The Dust” and other radio hits, but Queen was absolutely pushing the boundaries of all music.

I’d have to say that Roger Taylor is definitely one the most under-appreciated, unsung drummers of all time.

Absolutely, and his drum tone was amazing. All of the stuff that Roy Thomas Baker did for him, he has the greatest drum tone in history. The hugest, fattest…if you’re looking for huge drum sounds, Roger Taylor has it. From Sheer Heart Attack on through News of The World, all the drum sounds are really amazing.

It’s funny that you would mention that, because one time I was interviewing (producer) Michael Wagener and we were talking about how to get big drum sounds. Michael said that he asked Roy Thomas Baker how to get big drums sounds and Baker says, “Rent the Forum and record in the Forum, and you’ll get big drum sounds!”

One thing that a lot of guys don’t do is they don’t use big drums in the studio. You can tell that Roger Taylor used big drums; I mean, the dimensions were large. It seems like an unwritten law now that you’re supposed to use smaller toms in the studio because they give you a more controlled sound. Um, yeah, but you get a smaller sound out of them (laughs). It’s more controlled and it’s probably easier to get the dynamics out of it, but if you want a big drum sound, use big drums…and record in the Forum! I use a thirteen, a fifteen, and an eighteen as the toms and those are about as large as you can go.

In an interview I read, I think it was in the 2005 Modern Drummer, you mentioned something about how these days you can’t be sure if the drummer is playing the part or if it’s been fixed. That reminded me of a question I’ve asked a few drummers before and I wanted to get your input. Thinking about modern studio techniques for recording drums, such as the heavy reliance on Protools and other software, replacement of sounds, adding samples, “fixing” a performance, that kind of thing – and comparing that to the old fashioned way of recording with, say, just three room mics in the case of a drummer like John Bonham, do you think that modern performances have become homogenized? A lot of things have improved technologically, but is something lost, such as the drummer’s distinctive sound or personality, as a result?

[When I said that] I was definitely speaking in the metal context, as well as the pop context. To me, with metal bands I’d always rather see them live and hopefully they get a good mix, because then you can see, "Okay, the drummer is doing that." But I’ve always tried to stay away from too much Protooling because, fortunately, I am one of those guys that does “bridge the gap.” I started recording albums when you were lucky if you got to splice two pieces of tape together if you fucked something up. The best way not to have to deal with any of that is: just don’t fuck anything up. Drummers sound so precise now and I’m still always curious when I think, "Wow, that was a great drum performance on that album. Can he do it live?" I’ve always wanted to be one of those drummers who can duplicate live whatever you hear me doing on a record. I’ll leave mistakes in, why not? You don’t have to edit everything to where it sounds so homogenized. I would much rather hear…when it comes to a lot of these newer metal bands, a lot of the super young metal bands, where they’re super young dudes who are 20 and they’re just putting out their demos, I would much rather hear a drummer whose kick drums are not precise and perfect but you can tell he’s playing. I would definitely give that more of a listen than a 20 year old kid who’s playing like he’s 35 and has been playing for 20 years.
There are a lot of young drummers [for whom] I think the bar has been set really high over the past ten years. I grew up listening to very human drummers, and that comes through in my style. A lot of the drummers nowadays that are, say, under 25, grew up listening to the beginnings of Protooling, so that’s where I give a lot of these young drummers a little bit of credit. These guys have worked their asses off to make themselves sound precise and tight. We had a little bit of leeway when I was listening to drummers growing up, but now all these drummers they’ve been listening to for ten years that are so tight, it’s just… playing super tight has ingrained itself in a lot of the young drummers. I guess I can say that I appreciate a performance if a drummer is actually playing it. I like a human feel. I like it when not every single thing is so precise. If you have modern technology at your disposal you might as well use it, but just don’t rely completely upon it.

Yeah, learn how to play your instrument!

What’s cool about today’s music – for metal anyway – is that twenty years ago we were starting out the whole trash metal movement and it was a very guitar-based kind of music. For drummers, there wasn’t anything to really base your style upon; because there wasn’t anything going on before it that you could rely on, except for punk rock. That was pretty un-tight, and it was supposed to be that way. Drummers have come so far along in the past twenty years that now they’re usually the guys you listen to in a band. Like, George (Kollias) from Nile, holy shit, you’re checking out his drums! The band’s doing what they’re doing guitar-wise, but the drums are nuts! I’m pretty good with the drum programming and so it’s really easy for me to hear who is actually programming their drums.

Speaking of programming, I also wanted to ask you about taking on the challenge of playing drum parts that Devin has programmed but which may sound as if they are “unplayable” by a human drummer.

Let me backtrack a little on that. Roadrunner is re-releasing Death’s Symbolic album and putting some extras on it – some of the demos that we did. It was basically me programming my drum machine and then playing what I had programmed. You can kind of tell it’s a drum machine, but I hadn’t heard those songs in maybe thirteen years, since we made the record. Hearing these drums machine parts playing what I was doing, it made me think, "Wow, that’s really psycho!" But the way that that session started was that Chuck (Schuldiner, RIP) had programmed all the songs on his drum machine and he was like, "I’m just learning how to do this, so my programming was pretty rudimentary." But he did a really good job of programming, so it gave me a good idea of where to step off from. I could hear what he wanted from, say, the double kicks and it gave me a chance to take his idea and augment it – or “Gene-ize” it, I suppose – but there are a lot of times where a guitarist programming a drum machine will not realize that he’s programming a fill that sounds like a drummer has to have three hands or six legs [to play it] and that a whole part is totally psycho. So, if you give me that kind of a part to go off on then hell yeah, I’ll play it! If you’ve taken the brain work to program something really nutty and crazy and psychotic sounding, then that must be your vision. It’s up to me to see your vision through.
I think that somebody like Bobby Jarzombek – he’s done the Spastic Inc stuff with his brother Ronny as well as [playing with] Sebastian Bach, Halford and Iced Earth and all the amazing bands he’s been in – is really good at doing the exact same thing; making himself sound like a drum machine. He’s an amazing drummer and he’s psychotic.
Every time Devin has ever programmed something, he tries to program things that he thinks I can’t play. He’s always like, "Ah, you’ve foiled me again!" (Laughs) It’s fun to challenge yourself and go the extra step. You could do your version of it, which would probably be a whole lot simpler, not as much work and not as challenging, but something you could pull off easier. But screw it, throw caution to the wind and play that super technical part that they programmed to try to do it just like the drum machine could. Because then it makes you sound…it’s actually you playing it. You didn’t create it but you played it, so you end up getting the credit for it anyway (laughs)!

Gene “The Machine” Hoglan!

Indeed!

You’re often cited as an influence by current metal drummers, especially guys like Raymond Herrera and Jason Bittner. Do you consider yourself to be any kind of pioneer in double bass or in the trash/death metal genre?

(Long pause) Um, wow, I never really…

Like a Dave Lombardo kind of guy?

Well, yeah, I mean, Dave and I grew up together and did a lot of stuff drumming together. Back before I ever played drums really seriously – and this is a pretty well known story – I used to sit with Dave and give him some tips on double bass playing and stuff like that. I tried to help him out in that way.

I did not know that.

So, I don’t know. I don’t even think Dave would consider himself a pioneer. He’s like, "I just play drums." Me, I just play drums. I’ve never really set out to [be a pioneer]. I’ve always just tried to be as good as I could be. If [people think] I pioneered something, then, that’s excellent. Thank you for thinking that, but it was never anything I set out to do. It was just a matter of thinking that, "This drum part works here." If it’s something that stands the test of time and [that] people enjoy, what can I tell you? I am so influenced by the guys that were my pioneers that you can step back a generation before me to find out where I take my influences from. So, do I consider myself to be a pioneer? Not really. If people think that, it’s very nice of them, but I just play drums.
Hoglan Industries: www.hoglanindustries.com