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Interview: Rich Hoak (Brutal Truth)

Extreme metal is full of interesting characters. You’d have to put Brutal Truth drummer Rich Hoak near the top of the list. He’s a walking set of contradictions: a yoga practitioner with little use for an ascetic lifestyle; a pessimist who talks about the slow motion apocalypse, yet is quick with a laugh or joke; a man excelling at a musical form invented and usually played by people half his age.

Behind his stripped-down drum kit, Hoak looks like Lon Chaney reincarnated, a man of 1,000 faces. There’s the snarled lip, the open mouth, the clenched teeth, the furled brow, and the thousand-yard stare.  Every performance brings a new expression. There will likely be a web page solely devoted to Hoak’s facial expressions.

Hoak is also one of the most productive and thoughtful performers in grindcore. He’s played on two untouchable classics, Need to Control and Sounds of the Animal Kingdom, and is again touring and recording with Brutal Truth. He sings and drums for his side project Total Fucking Destruction. Whenever he has a break, he makes ambient music with Peacemaker.

Now Hoak is finally catching downtime with his family in Philadelphia after nearly a year on the road with Brutal Truth. The grind is about to start anew: Hoak says ten new Brutal Truth tracks are finished, and a new album could be released next year.

— Justin M. Norton

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You are always talking about the apocalypse and end times and destruction, but you’ve never struck me as a negative person. In fact, you seem more like an optimist in a strange way.

Just because the apocalypse is going to happen doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. I’m not really superstitious. Satan Claus and Satan run together for me. I look at the apocalypse from a realistic or a practical point of view. I don’t see angels or Satan descending from the clouds slaying humans.

For me, it’s just the culmination of human civilization. We’re stuck in the middle of that, and there’s nothing cosmic we can do. You just sort of make noise and hope someone hears it and tries to change the world. And while you are doing that, enjoy yourself at the same time. I don’t think saving the world and enjoying yourself are mutually exclusive.

Zen and the Art of Total Fucking Destruction was a great album title. Does that epitomize your world view?

I’m not a trained musician. I just sort of go for it, and that’s the Zen of how I make music or make noise. That was very literal. It’s total fucking destruction, it’s Zen, and it’s art.

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TFD has a song called “Fuck the Internet”. Yet you are on Facebook, MySpace, have videos all over YouTube, communicate via e-mail. What was that song a protest against, then?

It was against all the dumb emails I’d get with people asking me stupid questions or junk mail. As far as my musical or artistic life, I live that in public. There’s always been a public aspect to playing in a band. You put out an album. People will review it. They might hate it and say bad things about you. I was simply picking on the Internet as the newest means of harassing an artist.

Are you on Twitter?

Brutal Truth has a Twitter account, and Relapse is linked to it. My computer literacy isn’t great. I’m sort of mid-tech, not high tech. I tried to run Brutal Truth’s Twitter account, but I just didn’t have something clever to say every 30 or 40 minutes. With Facebook and MySpace, it’s more relaxed. If I have a video or a song or something philosophical to say about a project, I can post it. Twitter is anti-intuitive for me because I don’t move that fast. And a lot of what I’m about is intuitive music making and playing.

Your Facebook avatar is a gorilla cradling a kitten.

That’s Koko the gorilla. She was taught by humans and learned to speak in sign language. They gave her a pet kitten, and they lived together for years. All the way back to Sounds of the Animal Kingdom I was a huge Desmond Morris reader. I’ve always been interested in the human as animal. It ties into how I make music. It’s not thought out. I’m not Mozart or Beethoven, and I can’t play the piano. I get enraged and beat on the drums, y’know? I realize how and why I play music, and I came to terms with it by learning more about how humans are animals.

I lived on a farm growing up. I got to watch one movie a week, and it was whatever was on the science fiction Saturday afternoon showcase. We got two or three channels. So I’d be sitting on the farm watching the original Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green. I went from there to The Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys. I went from there to being a punk rocker in 1984 with Reagan as President. 30 years later, I realize that an apocalypse doesn’t happen when you push a button. It happens over 100 or 1,000 years.

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Regarding your facial expressions, one of the comments I saw on YouTube said, “Rich looks completely insane, but in a good way”.

When I’m playing the drums, I let go. It comes from the base of my brain. I’m goofing around, and I’m having a good time. I let loose and don’t think about anything. So it’s sort of a temporary insanity. It’s not like I’ve lost track of my morals and I’m going to stab you with a drumstick. It’s more like when Iggy Pop would smear peanut butter all over himself.

Rich Hoak on his funny facial expressions

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Your kit is known for being stripped down. But someone told me once when we were watching you play that you seem to get four or five different sounds out of a simple snare.

I’ve learned that with TFD, playing with an even smaller set. If you have a ride cymbal, you can hit it on the side, you can hit it right on the bell, you can hit in the middle, you can hit the very edge with the side of your stick. I’ve learned really subtle tricks. If I play with a wooden tip stick versus a plastic tip stick, it sounds like putting in earplugs, a whole different sound.

I’ve always quoted Buddy Rich, so I try to live up to him. It’s not the drums, it’s the drummer. One of the things about having a really small kit, aside from the fact that you don’t have to carry so much crap around, is that if the apocalypse comes and the lights go out, you are left with two sticks, some stones, and a log.

When you don’t have five or eight or 10 drums to hit, the two or three drums [you have] you hit in different places as per your needs of expression. I’ve even thrown my sticks out to the audience and hit my head on the snare drum. Emotionally, something else was required that night.

Do you think drummers these days, particularly in metal, rely too much on big kits and gimmicks and technology and couldn’t do much without all the gear?

I don’t want to say they couldn’t do much. There’s a lot of really talented people. But playing drums in a death metal band or technical metal and some grind, those guys are very specialized. They practice doing what they do the exact same way with the exact same drums and get the exact same sound. If you are going to play on a Morbid Angel or Hate Eternal record, that’s tight and precise. Especially if you capture that in the studio, then you have to go out and play that. Otherwise, you’d have kids go, “We heard this on the record, but when we came out, he was slapping his drums and it was terrible”.

Drummers for those genres or styles are talented and use their talents in a particular way. It’s a different approach. With my talent, I rehearse very little on my own. I prefer to play with people or bands or in jam sessions as opposed to sitting there with a click track. That’s the intuitive, ape-like style I learned to play. Other people like to play really tight and crisp. It’s very hard to do that stuff, physically and technically. It’s a very intricate way of playing. I don’t think I could do it without a year or two to practice up. But I don’t think those guys could do what I do without a year or two to un-practice and loosen up.

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Rich Hoak drumming video

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Is it crucial for you to keep a good level of fitness going to play like you do in your 40s?

It is, actually. I don’t exercise as much as I should, because I have family responsibilities and I don’t have the time. But I definitely maintain a modest level of health. With Brutal Truth and TFD. we are well-organized these days. I know two or three months in advance when I will record an album or tour. So I reverse engineer it. If I leave on tour on January 1st, in November I start thinking about getting a set list together. As much as I hate it, I’ll play through the set every day. The closer I get to the tour, I start working out. By the time I get to a week or so before I’m about to do something, I can relax and enjoy myself. By the time I get to the studio or tour, I’m like, “I’ve been rehearsing this for two months, but I’ve been relaxed for the past week. Let’s do it!”

How is your yoga practice going?

I’ve sort of lost touch with the assiduous practice I had for ten years. I did Bikram-style hot yoga. It’s a real butt kicker. I’d do a 30-minute bike ride to the studio and 90 minutes of Bikram practice in 105 degrees. When you are done, it takes you a half hour to cool off and another half hour to get home. I was doing that three, four, or five times a week for 10 years.

I just don’t have the time or energy to do that anymore. But I learned how to use my body. I can practice the yoga of everyday life. The practical application for playing drums is I know to sit up, flex my diaphragm. I’m able to breathe if I do a drum roll. When I used to do a drum roll with a Brutal Truth, I’d almost puke. Now I can do it and get to the end and make a funny face.

Bikram is a great thing. It’s not for everyone. It’s definitely very strenuous. It’s the kind of thing you can overdo, and maybe I overdid [it]. But I learned a lot more than a sequence of poses. I learned how to be comfortable in my body and how to breathe. I don’t think I could have done vocals and drums in TFD without it. When I was first learning how to do both sing and drum, that’s when I really started to work hard on Bikram. It strengthened me to the point where I can do it.

Do you have any spiritual beliefs? It doesn’t seem like a prerequisite for yoga, but for some folks it goes hand in hand.

Yoga has a physical aspect, but if there is a spiritual aspect, I’m not in touch with it. And that’s why Bikram appealed to me. I didn’t get into hippie-dippie yoga. Bikram is scientific. There’s no chanting, no incense burning, no meditating on your navel. I could walk in, the clock would strike, and you would start to breathe. 90 minutes later, you are done. There are yoga people that debate whether that’s good. But I like Bikram, because it’s more scientific. If you do the postures, you will benefit. It’s not how much you do, it’s that you do it properly.

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Total Fucking Destruction – “Time Theft” (official video)

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California has a ballot proposition to legalize marijuana this November. Do you think the prohibition will end in your lifetime?

[At this point there is a pause, and it sounds like Hoak takes a deep inhale.] I didn’t know there was prohibition (laughs). It would be great if marijuana was legal, and you didn’t have the hassle. In a lot of places it’s de facto legal. If you are in a rehearsal room, you can close the door and smoke up. The things that concern me politically are of a greater magnitude. I’d be OK if marijuana stayed illegal, but laws were changed so people wouldn’t be killed and tortured and murdered.

Did you ever have any bad drug experiences? Could you see the other side’s point of view?

I’ve never had any bad experience with marijuana outside of hassles from authorities. I don’t dabble with other stuff. My bad experiences on that side are friends dying from drug overdoses or going to jail for a long, serious time. That’s where I could say it would be good if marijuana was legalized.

I’d prefer that drugs be treated as a medical rather than a social problem. Junkies should be able to get treatment, and people working the streets for drug money shouldn’t get murdered. And the US should never have an excuse to go in another country and have a drug war with criminal gangs.

You made a guest vocal appearance on XXX Maniak album that even the most jaded might have found somewhat offensive. What do you think of pornogrind?

The XXX Maniak guest slot is something I would not have done today. I recently turned down a guest spot on Fuck Face’s new recording. The guys are good buddies, and I love them to death. But I’ve sort of spoken out against pornogrind and goregrind, and I feel the need to put my money where my mouth is.

When I first saw records with guts hanging out in the early ’90s I was like, “Wow, this is the most extreme cover ever”. But that’s all been done. You can’t get much grosser or more disgusting. I would rather use my art to try to make things better. It doesn’t do anything for me to make the grossest, most disgusting song ever. I honestly think that kind of stuff is kept going by teenagers who are just getting into gore. There are not that many people that are “porno-gore for life”.

Most of the guys doing pornogrind are [at] home with computers or drum machines. The people that really go out and hack people up don’t make demos. On the other hand, some of that stuff is shocking. But since I started writing lyrics for TFD, it is all about fighting back. It’s about the fight for life and the struggle to live.

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Brutal Truth – “Sugar Daddy” (official video)

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What is the limit? Some people were shocked by the Reign in Blood cover.

I don’t find that shocking. I don’t find Satanic imagery or black metal stuff shocking. Some of the music is good, some is medium, some is bad. To me, it’s sort of like KISS or something like that. It’s the show of the band. I have to think that all those guys in Norway and Sweden, the large majority, are modern enough that they don’t believe in God or Satan.

Is there a meditative aspect to grind that some people don’t see?

That’s what we do in Brutal Truth, and that’s what I do when I play drums. When Brutal Truth goes on, I have a routine. At 9:45, I stretch out. At 9:55, I turn off my cell phone. At 10, I click the sticks, take a deep breath.

It’s like I wake up an hour later, and I’ve played all these songs. Everything fast seems slow to me. I can get into my head and see it all happening. I go inside myself to play with Brutal Truth.

When you were in high school, would you imagine that you would be grinding into middle age?

No way. I never thought that far ahead. In high school, I was in the marching band, and I was into the Sex Pistols. I didn’t want to think beyond the present. If you’d have asked me in 1984, “25 years from now, would you be playing in bands?” I would have said we’d already have been dead for decades.

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