Powerhouse drummer Gene Hoglan is the ultimate drum weapon and his nickname of ‘the Atomic Clock’ is nothing short of precise. His tenures in legendary extreme metal bands include Death, Strapping Young Lad, Testament, Fear Factory and of course, Dethklok, the band within the animated show Metalocalypse. His initial band was the complex thrash metal band Dark Angel, who put out four albums before calling it quits whereby Gene joined Death. Their second album, Darkness Descends, remains a critical album and with a second reunion of the band going strong for several years, Dark Angel are finally headed to Australia. Loud Online happily took a pre-tour chat with the incredibly amiable and informative Mr. Hoglan.
When you were recording Darkness Descends over thirty years ago, did you think that you’d be touring it again, much later?
I probably thought that at the time, ‘Hey man,’ we’ve got our first record with this great career in front of us, it is going to be awesome and we are going to see the world.’ I definitely had that plan for myself and when I joined Dark Angel, I was in the fortunate position of being able to dedicate my life to metal, drumming and writing music. I imagine that at the time of recording Darkness Descends, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know where this is going to lead but I know it is going to be something awesome and I will be here in thirty years. Maybe in fifty years I will still be doing this, I might do it forever.’ At that time I was probably like, ‘Fuck, this is going be killer!’ Sure enough, it is and I did not think it would take thirty years for Dark Angel to make it to Australia but I am glad we’re getting there. Everybody is getting excited about the tour and it sounds like everybody there is getting excited about it too.
Looking over the back catalogue, are the way the songs played now true to the recorded form?
They are pretty much true to form. Some of the Darkness Descends material, obviously we have our second vocalist, Ron Reinhart [replaced Don Doty] and if anything, the vocals might be slightly different to what was on the actual album but I think they are a lot more powerful. Ron is a killer vocalist, a great front man and he is our best friend. We keep the material pretty close to what it was and we try to play the tempos to what they were on the album. That is the biggest challenge. I’ll think I’m cooking along playing the tunes but will go back and listen to the record and have to say to myself, ‘no Gene, you’re playing that slower’. Time to crank it up another notch, then. That is pretty cool and we try to be as tight and as solid as we can be, our music is pretty aggressive but in our live show, with all of the aggression, we try to augment that with some little light hearted stage play. Ron is not a really serious type of front man meaning that he is a pretty happy dude and his onstage banter is pretty off the cuff, friendly and fun. We know you’re out there kicking each other’s asses and we are trying to kick your asses too but we’re trying to do it with a smile. I do so, there you go.
The Leave Scars album has a Led Zeppelin cover [‘Immigrant Song’] on it. Would you say that John Bonham influenced your drumming at all?
You know, actually no, it was probably only towards the end of my initial Dark Angel career when I discovered Bonham. I didn’t really get into Bonham until the nineties. When I was nine years old, I was the biggest rock and roll fan ever and I was always asking everybody what their favourite band was but most people would say [adopts stoner voice], ‘Ah, I dunno, Zeppelin, Floyd?’ and so the Led Zeppelin fans made me hate Led Zeppelin, growing up. It wasn’t until after I got past all that when I realised that their music was really good and I thought, ‘Damn, John Bonham, there is a reason why he is called the best drummer in rock’. He is so tasty, talented and killer but when we were recording a cover of the ‘Immigrant Song’, he wasn’t even in my top ten. I was just into other drummers and he had enough fans out there, he didn’t need me. So I dropped some of my ignorance and reticence for listening to Zeppelin in the early nineties. Then it was like, ‘Oh, man, he is killer’ and we was doing a lot of crazy stuff on some really, really out-dated gear. For instance, he was playing a Ludwig Speed King pedal. If you’ve ever played one, you’ll know that they are not the friendliest pedals around. He was doing all of the crazy double bass pedal type of things with a Ludwig Speed King pedal. That was a true testament to his talent, absolutely.
Metallica brought in double bass drumming to the metal masses. Today, everyone can do it and there’s triggering, all to the nth degree. Do you get a little bit bored with it at all?
I don’t because there is always a challenge to it. Here’s an example of a mindset; I have always been the laziest drummer I know, so if there is hauling double bass drumming on some of my newer projects, chances are that isn’t my idea, it will be because of the guitarist or whoever it was that wrote the song. I’ll just say, ‘Okay, at least I can do it,’ but I tell you, I am lazier than the next drummer. However, double bass drumming is such a part of what is ingrained into me as a drummer and it also so helpful to the health regimen. That is one of the reasons why I remain in extreme thrash metal because I love going on tour and having a shit tonne of double bass drumming in every set since that gives me a great cardio workout. I utilise drumming as cardio and that is a big part of my workout routine. Playing double bass means I’m running that marathon every night. For example, with Testament, which has never been known as a primarily double bass drum project; there wasn’t ever double bass in their first five records. But, if we play songs from those albums live now, there is a tonne of double bass in them. That is me working in a cardio routine for myself and anyway, sometimes the songs lend themselves to it. That is pretty cool.
That makes sense and even just watching some live Rush footage recently of their final tour, I was struck by how hard Neil Peart was working behind the drums.
Sure and you know, as guys get older, Neil Peart is a great example. He wished to retire and I take it as being his health that is kind of creating his retirement. Granted, I understand his growing disinterest in touring and playing live but it is also the physical grind that this can be on an older body. That is why I am trying to prepare for that. When I am his age, I am hoping to be fucking dominating. I intend on doing this style of music, deep into my seventies. I’m now 52 years old and I started in the scene in my teens, you know, I was fifteen years old. I have been doing this for thirty seven years or so and it has been playing extreme metal. Your skills can diminish over time but I am not going to let that happen. I’m never going to have five year gaps between projects; I intend to keep pumping them out. I love playing heavy, brutal, thrashing metal and since it is such a big part of my ingrained workout for me, I will be doing this into my seventies. So, I am preparing for that now, getting my health together. My wife, Laura and I saw ZZ Top and Cheap Trick recently. They’re in their seventies. There wasn’t rock and rollers happening like that twenty years ago, playing their music at that age. You can see where chops or desire might dissipate but it was a study session. I have a project underway with Laura who is a great guitarist and it is the most extreme drumming that I am doing in any of my projects right now and she does not take it easy on me. She’ll say, ‘Hoglan, you’ve got two feet, play that double bass, motherfucker.’ That is cool and for me to do this in my seventies, well, I used to weigh a lot more than I do now. I was 180 kilograms [over 400 pounds]; playing extreme music and I have lost something like 65 kilograms over the last few years. That helps my playing and I intend to lose another 20 kilograms by the time I hit seventies so I can be a cut, ripped, seventy years old dude, dominating thrash metal drumming. If I am the guinea pig for this process then so be it, that is going to be me, playing brutal metal when I’m older, showing people that it can be done.
That is a good attitude to have. Are blast beats something that becomes harder to maintain with age?
To keep your chops up with blast beats, yes it is because for me, blast beats also involve a lot of power. The European style of blast beats like for instance with Testament, when we throw in a blast beat, it is in the European style which is the alternating, thirty-second [32nd] notes on your hand and whatever you are doing with your double kicks, there is no unison involved. The blast beats that I used to play with Strapping Young Lad are the same kind of blast beats that Suffocation used. I don’t even know what they are called since there are millions of names for these things and I am fucked if I ever know what they are called. But it is the unison thing where you’re playing you snare, china cymbal and at the same time, you’ve got your double kicks rolling underneath that and so there is a lot of power behind that. You want that to be a blast of power. I have got an exercise that I use to keep my wrist powerful in order to pull off blast beats. For me, Strapping Young Lad was the ultimate usage of blast beats as it wasn’t an entire song of it; it was just a burst of energy at the end of a phrase of for part of it. We wouldn’t grind a blast beat through the entire song and just kill the drummer, you know, that wasn’t our approach. Solidly playing, well placed blast beats are amazing but for me, yes, if I do Testament tour after Testament tour after Testament tour and then have to go and do a Dethklok project, I’ve got to make sure that my chops are together because I have neglected the Dethklok style of blast beat which is essentially the same thing as for Strapping Young Lad and for Suffocation and the early Cradle of Filth, Nick Barker style of drumming, so, I’ve got make sure my wrists are always powerful. It takes a moment to get your chops together and to keep your chops in order to keep on playing blast beats. I’m not just a blast beat drummer because it’s not all over the place in everything I do. There can be as much as a year between me playing that powerful Strapping kind of blast before going back and doing the really simple European style or just alternating 32nd notes. There is some determined work and keeping yourself together in order to be able to just kick into one.
Anthrax may have been one of the first bands to release international music with blast beats. When you were filling in for Charlie Benante, did you have to learn to play in his style or change your technique in any capacity?
Well, the thing with when I was filling in for Charlie is that I would play Charlie’s drum kit and I would also try to do whatever licks Charlie was doing on that tour right then and there. I’ve filled in for Charlie on a number of occasions with a few years spanned in between and his licks change. The first time was in 2012 and I did a bunch of touring with Testament and Anthrax, doing the double duty and then with Anthrax, going out and doing South America and Central America. I would always play what Charlie played and his licks drastically differ from how he recorded his drums for a lot of these songs from back in the eighties. His licks evolved and so did the arrangements to their songs. So, when he initially asked me to help him out, I had two days to learn the set which isn’t a big problem however, playing the licks just like Charlie; I elected to do that for the rest of the guys on stage; Scott, Frankie, Rob and now Jon. I would do it for them because it would be one thing to listen to the albums and play those versions but that would mean that the guys on stage would be confused since they haven’t listened to their albums in years and now they’re being asked to go back and relearn those old album arrangements just because their regular drummers is absent. So I just thought I would make it easier on everybody so I just sat behind Charlie and filmed his show. I memorised it over a couple of days after which I was up on stage with Anthrax. If you’re filling in for someone, you want to do them as much justice as you can, not only for them but for the fans who want to hear the original drummer’s cool licks. You do it or the fans, for the drummer you’re replacing and you definitely do it for the rest of the guys on stage. They’re not there to hear Gene’s crazy drumming.
Did you have a similar approach when you moved over to Florida to join Chuck Schuldiner and his band Death? He certainly liked to change his band line ups.
That was a different approach to Dark Angel as, at the time, I had done that as my main band for eight years. Death did not call for a Dark Angel approach in drumming. By the time Dark Angel got to Time Does Not Heal and the next album of fifteen or so songs we wrote that was going to follow that, I was writing the majority of the riffs. So, the guitar parts became more important to me than the drumming. It was like, ‘okay, we’ll put some drums down that are going to work with this song, you don’t have to be all super flashy,’ and that is why the drums in Dark Angel were getting a little more simplified as we went on. When it came to being in Death, I did not have all of the other extraneous things involved with the music anymore. In Dark Angel, I was writing the music, writing the lyrics, doing all the press and the majority of the business so it had sort of become my project. However, with Death, all I had to do was concentrate on the drums and the album before Individual Thought Patterns was the amazing and mighty Human, with Sean Reinert [prior drummer] playing an absolutely legendary performance on that record. Even though there were bands like Atheist and Watchtower doing things with a technical kind of metal, Death brought that to the forefront in huge way with Human and Sean’s performance on that record was just beautiful and obviously very jazz fusion oriented. When I came to Death I admit, I thought that Chuck and I were going to write this landmark death metal album that was going to be brutal. Even for how technical an album it was, it was still a pretty damned brutal record as well. It was heavy. When Chuck started playing me some of the Individual Thought Patterns material I was sort of scratching my head a little bit and thinking, ‘this is not brutal’ I thought, ‘this is really melodic, very tasty and killer material’ but the brutality aspect was not at the forefront like it had been up to Human. As you can tell and anyone that listens to Individual Thought Patterns, it is an aggressive record but not overly so with a lot of tastiness on it. That was because of Sean’s drumming prior lent itself to a very creative drum approach since you didn’t have to play the standard double bass parts and you could do a lot of hands type stuff. I let a lot of my jazz fusion stuff that I was into flow into it. Steve Gadd was a giant influence on Individual Thought Patterns. I was a giant Al Di Meola fan and loved Steve Gadd’s playing with him. His drumming was pretty rock, fusion and even metal at times. So was Al Di Meola’s music – it was borderline metal, man. So, having that as a big influence and letting those influences show on Individual Thought Patterns meant that later, on Symbolic, I let all my influences show on that one. We made a couple of pretty cool records and Chuck was always very gracious and accommodating with the song writing. I’d be writing crazy patterns and he’d be like, ‘hey, I’m cool, I can play all my riffs over what you’re playing.’ So, we got what each was doing and that was a very open minded approach. He was not a drum control freak and I have worked with drum control freaks where they want it to be an exact way and sometimes you’ll ask, ‘Really? Your idea is solid, it is meat and potatoes but I can do a lot more to bring some oomph and push this pattern right across’ and they’ll be like, ‘No, no, just play inside the box’. So when the band has a box I’ll be okay with it as a session because I want their band vision to be the way they see it. If that is what they are looking for then hopefully I am that well rounded a drummer that I don’t have to be that crazy drummer to fill all gaps during every part. So there you go, I get the best of worst of both worlds that way.
I’d imagine so. If Dark Angel has a new album in the works, I cannot imagine there being any Return to Forever or Friday Night in San Francisco references on there.
Ha-ha, well that is fun. You never know, that is always fun and I’ve done some fun, over the top drum projects. One my proudest records is this albums from one my bands from Vancouver, Canada and it is a band called Mechanism. It is the band that I featured on my first DVD, The Atomic Clock and that album is called Inspired Horrific. That was a pretty over the top drum record but it was really aggressive and the music was really entertaining. It is some of the craziest drumming I have done but I really dug the project.
Thanks you for chatting, we will see you on tour very soon.
Thanks very much and I would also like to mention that was a part of this Australian tour, I am sticking around for a couple of days after the tour and doing a few drum clinics. When I do a drum clinic, I try to make them super entertaining for everybody. It is not like a night of hard-core drum learning. It is pretty much a comedy routine with some drums being played. So, you don’t have to be a drummer, you don’t have to be a musician, you can just be a metal fan. I am always taking questions from the audience and from the start, I’m happy for people to fire them out so that helps make the clinics very interactive. All of my clinics are completely improvisational. Every clinic that I have ever done, I have no idea what I am going to say other than a general outline and some of the songs that I am going to play. This is where the audience gets to tailor that clinic to be their own clinic. It’s something cool and definitely make it to the Dark Angel shows; you’re going to dig it.