Interview: Gene Hoglan
If you are a metal fan, Gene Hoglan has probably played drums for much of your record collection. He has graced records by Dark Angel, Death, Strapping Young Lad, and Testament, among many others. His new drumming DVD The Atomic Clock is very watchable for non-drummers. It focuses on practical advice and affable humor instead of dry discussions of technique. I talked to him after his recent Australian tour playing with Fear Factory.
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What’s it like to play Raymond Herrera’s parts?
It’s like playing in a cover band. I try to honor what he wrote. His patterns are really simple. When I first joined the band, I was kind of intimidated because I’d heard Fear Factory throughout the years, and I was like, “Wow, his drumming is really crazy!” And I’ve watched him play a lot. We did a lot of tours with them back when I was in Strapping [Young Lad]. Raymond’s a great drummer.
Then when I figured out his parts, I was like, “Oh, OK! I got it, no problem”. It’s pretty aerobic, but nothing too crazy. For a long time, playing the song “Zero Signal” was just a bear every night. That song is a work of genius, absolutely, with the disco beat and the double bass going over it, and the [reverse gallop] pattern, all that sort of stuff. It’s a great song, [with] great drum patterns. And then I got that one down, so now the set is a piece of cake.
How did you first start drumming?
I was a super air-drummer when I was a kid. I’m a big proponent of air-drumming helping you out when you first get out in the kit. For three or four years, I had my pair of sticks, and I would just air-drum to all my favorite records [while] growing up. Then when I got on the kit, I already had sort of an aptitude for it. I could air-drum all the parts, so when I [had] drums in front of me, it was like air-drumming – without the air.
What are the three most influential songs upon your playing?
Probably side one of 2112 from Rush. That was my first moment of “Wow”. I had already air-drummed to a lot of KISS songs. Then when I heard 2112 from Rush, I remember learning all of that – on the air drums, of course. And then after I got on my kit, when I started playing, the song “Brother to Brother” by Gino Vannelli was a big lightbulb moment. That has some really killer drumming on it. And another song called “Presto Vivace” by UK on their live album Night After Night. That had Terry Bozzio on drums. I remember figuring that out when I was a kid. That’s got some stuff to it. It’s not like it’s “The Black Page” [a notoriously difficult song] by Frank Zappa, but for a 13 year-old kid trying to figure out some drums, I was really psyched when I learned how to play big chunks of that song.
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UK – “Presto Vivace” (live)
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Those songs are more in the rock realm. Did you have any metal influences?
Definitely the entire Wiped Out album by Raven. I was about 13, maybe 14 when that album came out. I’d just been on my kit for about a year, and I learned all of that one as well. That’s chock-full of double bass. That whole album, every song is double bass fury. I had a really good right foot. I only had a single kick, so I learned to [do double bass patterns] with one foot, kind of like Leonard Haze from the band Y&T. They had a lot of double bass-tempo songs, but he only had one kick. And he would do the the three hits on the kick to every snare sort of thing.
That was back when double bass songs weren’t very fast, but they seemed fast. By today’s standards, they’re not [fast], but at the time, they were haulin’! And I remember hearing “Fast as a Shark” by Accept – that was the fastest double bass song that was ever going to be [recorded]. Nobody was ever going to play double bass faster than “Fast as a Shark”. It stops now; everybody else give up! It’ll never get faster!
You’re not a very demonstrative drummer in terms of gestures. Was this a conscious decision?
I used to be [demonstrative] when I was younger. I like headbanging while I play. [But] a lot of times the patterns that we play these days don’t allow for a lot of demonstrativeness. In order to play a full set and pound as hard as I do – I don’t know if it looks like I’m hitting hard or not, but I’m one of the louder hitters out there. So I figure if I’m being demonstrative while doing it, that takes away from the power of what I’m doing.
[But] I [do] try to be demonstrative. I’ve got a lot of stick flips and stick twirls and goofy things like that in the middle of thrash metal mayhem. All those ’80s rockers used to do stick flips while doing [simple patterns]. And that’s so lame. So, hell, put a stick flip or a stick twirl in the middle of a blastbeat – that’s fun.
How did you want to set your DVD apart from other drumming DVD’s?
The first thing is, make it entertaining. Make it so it’s not like you just have to be a drummer to enjoy it. I wanted to bring something to the instructional DVD format that’s fun. I’ve had a lot of people who aren’t drummers, that just happen to be fans of some of my bands or fans of me, that [say], “I’m not even a drummer, but I bought it, and everything that you’ve said about it is true. It looks like you’re just trying to make it fun”.
I did not design this to be an “instructional” DVD. When I first put the concept out there to my director, it was just going to be a two-hour DVD on me, to tell you a little bit of what I do during what I’m playing, what’s going through my head, that sort of thing. It just kind of evolved into the majority of it [being] an instructional DVD. I realize that if you are looking at it from a drummer’s standpoint, I guess it’s not for beginners. I’m not breaking down a pattern really slowly. I know that’s been done a lot on DVD’s, so I was just, like, “Let me just explain it, and people have rewind buttons if they really want to figure out what the hell I’m doing”. You gotta do what I did when I was trying to learn licks. I had to rewind a million times and watch and listen to [the drummer] play at full speed.
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The Atomic Clock (DVD) promo video
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What is your practice regimen like?
I haven’t practiced the drums in probably 25 years. That’s my own fault. When I started joining bands, I only ever had one drum kit. So it’s not like I could have one at the studio and then come home and jam in my garage. A lot of the practice that I would do would be mental. I would practice in my head. Drums are 90% mental, 10% physical. That’s me in my bed before I’m going to sleep at night, working out patterns in my head. I’m like, “Well, if I can think it, I can play it”. It’s like being the air drummer. You have an imaginary kit in front of you, and if your eyes are closed right before you go to bed, you’ve got that imaginary kit right in front of you then.
When you say you “write” drum parts, what does that involve? Are you actually writing notes down on paper?
Oh, no. I am a completely illiterate drummer in that regard. Write it in [my] head and remember it tomorrow – that’s pretty much it. I play lots of guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for 27 year now or something crazy, and I don’t write tab. I don’t write the notes down. I don’t chart music out if I’m showing it to somebody. When it comes to drumming, I write the pattern in my head, then apply it. A lot of times when we start rehearsing, I will just play whatever feels comfortable, and I’m a pretty gut instinct player. I figure if it feels good the first time, it’s going to feel good all the time. If that lick or that fill or that accent feels good when I first drop it down, then I solidify it after that.
When you do session work, you’re very careful to play parts appropriate to the music you’re given. In your own projects, how much input do you have musically? Do you tell guitarists that their riffs suck?
Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I picked up guitar. As a drummer, I’m pretty good. As a rhythm guitarist, I’m bad as fuck. I can play with anybody when it comes to rhythm guitar. So I write a lot of the music for all the bands I’m in. In Dark Angel, hell, I was playing guitar on the albums. Half of the guitar on the last couple of records was me.
With Death, for instance, I remember the first time Chuck [Schuldiner] and I got together. I flew in, we stopped off, and grabbed a bite to eat. At dinner, I was like, “Hey Chuck, when we get back to your pad, I’m going to pick up the guitar, and I want you to show me all the riffs that you sent me on this riff tape a couple weeks ago. Show them all to me; that will help me start figuring out what I gotta do with the drums”. The majority of that Individual Thought Patterns record was riffs way up on the A string and stuff, really up high. A lot of those riffs I transposed on the spot. I was like, “Hey, Chuck, what if we were to take this riff that’s way up here and bring it down, make it a little chunky?” And he was like, “Great idea! Never thought of that”. And so a lot of the low stuff that turned out on Individual Thought Patterns was me transposing it.
I’ll write riffs in Strapping, I’ll write riffs for everybody. And I write a lot of riffs that guitarists have issues playing. Maybe it’s just my sense of rhythm, what I do with my right hand, or just the whole offbeat concept of something. But lots of my guitarists have been like, “OK, that riff is kind of a mind-melter, I gotta wrap my head around that one”.
I throw in vocal ideas. I love writing vocals, I love writing melodies, I love writing layers. I love writing counter-melodies and stuff like that. And bass lines – I love writing bass lines. That’s my favorite thing to write, really. So I’m pretty hands-on, especially if it’s a project that I’m really involved in; I’ll jump right in there.
How does Dino Cazares compare to other guitarists that you’ve played with?
Dino’s really good. He’s really imaginative. He is extremely specific. He’s got a few modes that he really is comfortable in and he likes to work with. But he’s a fine guitarist. Up there on stage headbanging, sometimes it’s not going to be the tightest, but that’s where I’ll take over. “Hey man, I’ll make us tight. If you’re having an off night or your right hand is not matching up completely with my feet, don’t worry about it”.
One thing I definitely appreciate about Dino is his work ethic. He will stay at rehearsal. There are those rehearsals when you’re just like, “Aw, man, we’ve been going for a couple hours. We got some stuff done, can we go?” And Dino’s like, “Man, we gotta do this”. There’ll be times when he’s tired. He doesn’t want to be there. But he’ll stick it out. He’ll stay for the six hours. He got no sleep because he’s had to get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and do a full day of interviews before rehearsal. But, hey, he’s there. He’s not giving up. I appreciate his work ethic, man. He works. He puts the time in.
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I’m going to ask you about some of the bands that you’ve played in, and what it was like to play in them.
Let’s start with Dark Angel.
Dark Angel was my very first band. I was 17 when I joined the band. I was 18 when we recorded Darkness Descends. I listen back to the early stuff, and I don’t cringe at it, but you could tell I was a really young, fiery drummer. I had promise. For that era, I guess the drums were pretty decent because at that time, thrash metal was such a guitar-driven music that the drummers were sometimes overlooked. Bands like The Big Four – they were on really solid ground because all of them had really decent drummers. You think about a lot of bands from the day that were killer, great, awesome, amazing bands – bands like Destruction and Possessed and Sodom, stuff like that – their drummers weren’t that happening. So the guitarists had to really carry everything.
I just tried to write the heaviest beats imaginable. I was really anti-groove in Dark Angel. A lot of bands like Anthrax would have a lot of that 4/4 stuff [demonstrates a two-step-like beat]. I always wanted to stay away from that. If it veered into a rock beat, I was, like, “We’re metal! Let the rockers play the rock! We’re going to play metal. I’m going to write some crazy double bass lick over the top of it”. So Dark Angel was very fiery, and you could hear, as each album went, that I progressed to being a tighter drummer.
By the time we put out our last record, Time Does Not Heal, drums for me were a secondary instrument. It was like, “OK, I’m just going to play beats over these riffs that I’m writing”. Time Does Not Heal – I wrote the majority of that album, and I wrote all the lyrics and all the melody lines, all the vocal lines and all that sort of stuff. I had my hand in so many pies, I guess, that the drums were [not the first priority]. The riffs gotta come out, gotta write the lyrics, gotta write the vocals, gotta do all the interviews, gotta do all the biz. So drums were just one of the many instruments that I was paying attention to with Dark Angel.
Since I didn’t have to write anything – Chuck wrote the music, Chuck wrote the lyrics, I merely transposed a few things – that left me a lot of time to hone my skills as a drummer. Sean Reinert’s amazing performance on the Human album laid the groundwork for the future of Death – and the future of death metal, really. He was such an influential player [on] my term with Death because Sean brought a lot of the fusion, the prog, the outer layers of drumming that we were all listening to. Rick Colaluca from Watchtower, I’m sure, was probably a big influence on Sean when Sean did the Human album. Having that [album] in [Death’s] catalog opened up every avenue for drumming.
Chuck was like, “Hey man, I’m kind of veering away from the death metal, as you can tell”. Individual Thought Patterns was not a violent, vicious album. It was good, it was tasty, it was heavy. But he wasn’t concentrating on being a death metal band anymore. So he was like, “Dude, whatever pattern you write, it’s all good. I can play over everything that you’re doing”. As somebody trying to push some boundaries, that was great [for me]. Chuck never tried to squash anybody else’s input.
I’m curious how that compared with Strapping Young Lad, since Devin Townsend seems more like a mastermind.
With Devin, even though he’s just shown you a guitar riff, maybe he’s handed me a riff tape with pre-programmed drums on it. Devin would have an entire vision for the entire song. With Death, especially on the Symbolic record, the riffs were pretty simple, so I tried to jazz everything up with the drums. With Strapping, the whole arrangements were complex. So I felt Strapping really needed a machine, a locomotive to just drive the songs rather than have Gene showing off for a whole song, which is kind of the way I feel about Symbolic. That was just me showing off a lot and being a shredder. That’s why Symbolic sometimes leaves me a little cold.
With the first couple Strapping albums and even some of Devin’s solo stuff, a lot of people were like, “How come Gene doesn’t play the way he did on Symbolic? Man, he could play a lot better”. Hey, you gotta serve the song. This band has a completely different mindset than Death did. With Strapping, Devin just had such a vision of the entire piece that I wasn’t going to impugn the piece by putting myself before it. That’s why I simplified my drumming a bit. [Yet] I don’t find it simple at all. Hell, some of those double bass things that I did with Strapping were really intense. But if people were disappointed by it when they first heard it, it never bothered me. I know what I’m doing.
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In terms of serving the song, it seems like you would be even more subservient with Dethklok.
Yeah! Because those songs – at least the chunk that are known of each song that we record – they’re well-known chunks. And, hell, I still screwed stuff up from what’s played on the show as [opposed] to what I recorded. I remember that song “Dethharmonic” – I decided to take the double bass away. And Brendon [Small, Dethklok creator] was like, “Hey, I’m cool with that, I like the way it sounds”. And then the fans were like, “Dude, what happened to the double bass! It’s on the show, but it’s not on the record!” So we remixed the double bass in on future versions of the record.
With Dethklok, it’s always a little strange, because I pretty much get introduced to each song the day that we are recording it. I’m familiar with the chorus or whatever is on the show, but then we build the song from the ground up. We take two songs a day in the studio. On The Dethalbum, we recorded 22, 23 songs, something like that. And then on the next album, Dethalbum II, I think we tracked, like, 14 songs. Brendon will take the night before, come up with a little bit of an arrangement. [Then] he’ll bring it down the next day. We’ll jam it for an hour or so, and I’ll get it down. I’ll take a little break, I’ll come back in, and I’ll track the song.
When you have just learned the song, you’re [just] trying to play it right, let alone trying to come up with a persona for this cartoon character. I wish we’d get a week of rehearsals to get the songs down so I could actually give Pickles more of his own personality. I would rather it sound like Pickles than Gene Hoglan. Pickles – he’s his own drummer, he’s his own character. And I’m afraid there’s a little too much of my style [in there]. There’s certain licks that, hell, I’ve played on every record that I’ve ever done that Pickles now plays.
What kind of drummer do you envision Pickles to be?
Well, I don’t think Pickles would envision himself being the hauling double bass maniac that he’s become. He comes from a rock ‘n’ roll background, and now he’s playing hauling double bass on all these songs. But I just try to help Brendon realize the vision of each song. So if unfortunately that’s a lot more Gene Hoglan than Pickles, hey, at least we come up with some really good songs.
Pickles is starting to become more of a Gene Hoglan drummer, because Brendon [now knows that] “Hey, if I write this kind of thing, I know I got a drummer that’s going to be able to play it”. So I think that’s opening Brendan’s avenues of exploration: “If I know that I got a guy that can do it, I can conceive some wacky things, and Gene will be right there behind me”.
That’s interesting, because Fear Factory seems like the opposite of wacky.
Sure! Fear Factory has its very clearly defined vision of what it wants to do. Dino being the primary songwriter, he works so much off the drums. When I agreed to do the album, I thought that Dino was a full-on home studio [mastermind], creating songs in the studio, bringing them down to [the rehearsal space], and saying, “Hey Gene, learn these parts that I wrote”. And I’d be like, “OK!”
It didn’t work like that. He’ll wait for the drummer to come up with the part. He’ll go totally off the drummer’s pattern. He’ll be like, “Dude, play something. Come up with a pattern. I’ll go off what you’re playing”. A lot of the riffs he’s [already] got together, but he’ll [also] bring a riff to jam that has a very rudimentary drum beat that he did go home and program. We’ll augment it and take it from there. And things ever-evolve as we’re writing.
But Dino definitely has his vision of what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter who I’m playing with – if you have a vision, if you have a clearly defined motive of what you’re doing, I want to help you achieve that. I just want to be your drum machine, your drum extension.
The drummer position is the most unstable one in metal bands. Why do you think that is?
Drummers throughout history have always been known as “the crazy ones”. Keith Moon and John Bonham – they’re the wacky ones of the bands. I understand that. Animal from The Muppets – he’s my biggest influence. The drummer has always been known as “the weird one”.
If people are always striving for the best musicians that they can play with, you’re going to go through a few musicians as your career goes. That’s the way I felt with Dark Angel. It was my band, it was my baby, it evolved into that. But I always figured [there’s more out there]. I could see that it’s not going to go on forever, so I [was] sure [I’d] be playing with other musicians.
When it comes to the turnover rate of drummers, I want to help that turnover rate by being the best drummer you ever had and [dissuading you from] playing with any other drummer. That’s what I want to do when I play with somebody. I want them to go, “Holy fuck, I can’t top Gene!” Just try to make yourself irreplaceable. That’s a tack that I take that maybe other drummers don’t, but that’s the way I want to feel in a band. I want [the other members] to feel like, “Oh my god, we’ve got this guy, we’ve got to take care of him. We can’t replace him!” By that regard, I try to bring a lot of other aspects [in addition] to the playing. I try to be a cool guy. If I get angry, there’s a reason. I’m a pretty happy dude. So if you’re taking care of me, and I’m taking care of your musical needs, then everything’s going to be fine.
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