Gene Hoglan – Drums, Not Brain Surgery

Sunday, 31st March 2013

(This content originally appeared on Blistering.com)

The undisputed top drummer for hire in metal, Gene Hoglan’s willingness to drop anything and everything to help a band in need is remarkable. In rare instances, Hoglan has had 24 hours (or less) to learn a set of material he’s unfamiliar with, playing a dangerous game of musical chicken with the band he’s hooked up with. It’s a daunting task, one that requires innate memory power and rigid control over one’s extremities, but there’s a reason why Hoglan keeps on getting so many calls: he delivers.

Hoglan’s career started in the early 80’s with thrash tacticians Dark Angel, who for all intents and purposes, were Hoglan’s brainchild. The band’s 1985 Darkness Descends is a thrash classic, with plenty of emphasis on Hoglan’s propulsive and jarring drums. Once the band dissolved in the early 90’s, he enjoyed an unsurpassed run with some of metal’s most brilliant men such as Death’s impossible-to-please Chuck Schuldiner, and Strapping Young Lad’s too-smart-for-his-own-good Devin Townsend. Hoglan’s work on albums such as Individual Thought Patterns and City were essentially all he needed to land future gigs, as evidenced by studio and live jaunts with the likes of Testament, Tenant, Old Man’s Child, Fear Factory, and Dethklok.

The purpose for our chat with the man affectionately referred to as “The Atomic Clock” was two-fold. First, to discuss his involvement with Meldrum’s final album, Lifer, a band he started in the mid-80’s but recently dissolved because of the death of founder/namesake Michelle Meldrum. Second, to wax on his part with the overwhelming success of Testament’s new Dark Roots of Earth, which if all goes as planned will be Hoglan’s main gig (along with Dethklok) for years to come…

Blistering.com: Let’s start with the Meldrum album. You’ve been involved with Michelle going back to the 80’s, so by doing Lifer, do you feel this is the proper send-off?

Gene Hoglan: That is for us, yes. I met Michelle in the 1984 and we had a band put together; we were in our first real band together. Over the course of the 90’s, she went off and did her thing and I went off and did mine. When we started hanging out again after she moved back to California, I started helping out Meldrum when I could. We were starting on a new era of Meldrum when she passed away; we lost a couple of band members along the way and we had them replaced. When Michelle passed away, Laura Christine, who is one the most incredibly talented guitarists out there, period, stepped up and took over the guitar playing on the record. Between her and myself, we tracked all the guitars and bass. We just wanted to have a tribute to Michelle and have a nice cap to what her writing and recording days were like.

She was really stoked with this material. She passed away right after I finished tracking the drums. We had some very rudimentary, scratch guitars that were left behind by Michelle, so fortunately she was there in spirit for us. She was our angel looking over the project the whole time, so we’re happy to get it out. We’re trying to take some of the funds that maybe we’ll for this and put it toward her son Jake. She left a four-year-old boy behind who has just turned eight. We’re trying to do what we can to leave something for him with anything we can make off this record. I’m really happy with the record. I hope people enjoy it. We enjoy it.

Blistering.com: I talked to Chuck Billy a few weeks ago about the chart success of the new Testament album and obviously, he was rather pleased about it. How about you?

Hoglan: I must admit to being a little bit of an outsider because my term in Testament has been relatively recent. I’m sure the rest of the band is a little more humble, but frankly, I wasn’t surprised. You have a legendary band that has been around for a long time, putting out a really quality record. Fortunately, not a lot of other folks have records coming out like that around the same time. Its chart position was a pleasant surprise, but I wasn’t surprised that it was successful coming out the gate because Testament has been around for a really long time and they have a strong lineup. I’d like to think I added something to that, “Hey Gene’s on the record, cool!” I think it’s great for them. Let’s hope the band can take this as an upswing and pound everything home for themselves, get some great touring in, the lineup is really good, the chemistry is really good. I hope Testament get to a lot of cool stuff.

Blistering.com: You were on the Demonic record from 1997, but your stint in the band was brief. So, is the second time around better than the first?

Hoglan: It is because…it is [laughs]. Everyone is in a more stable place. At that time, Testament and Testament’s style of metal…a lot of bands in the mid-90’s, there was a huge transition going on and everyone was trying to keep ground. That was trying time for a lot of the more severe metal bands that were out. Testament was able to get through all of that. In the 15 years since I have recorded with them, I have done a whole bunch more stuff, so when I came back to the table, I brought a lot more experience and a lot better people skills [laughs]. Back then, I was just an angry young dude! Some of the drums on Demonic came out like that. I heard, “Play like you did in Death!” We’re not Death. Death called for a certain style of drumming and Testament calls for a separate style of drumming. It’s not about being flashy and busy, it’s about serving the song well. That’s the one thing I learned from Demonic is how to serve the song.

From that whole era of my playing, I had just come from doing City with Strapping, we just recorded that the week before I went up for rehearsals forDemonic. That album taught me how to play to a click-track. There’s a lot of songs on there where the songs are going crazy, but it wasn’t about the drummer going crazy like Death was. With Strapping and Testament, I caught a lot of flak from die-hard death metal fans that were like “You’re playing like Phil Rudd now.” Okay! A lot has changed and Testament is in a really good spot. For instance, on Demonic, we rehearsed it for a few months before recorded it, but with Dark Roots, there was no rehearsals. I got the songs a couple of days before, I zoomed up there and Eric [Peterson, guitars] and I ended putting the basic framework of every song down.

With the songs, Eric – and this is the one thing I know about him – he’s going to try every option, so I’m like, “Okay, I’m down for it.” For ten hours a day of drumming, I’m going to give you every option you’re looking for. When we recording, I was not in Testament. It was like an emergency fill-in. They were like, “We have this due date, and we have to hit this somehow. We can’t use Paul Bostaph. We need to make it sound like we gave it six months of TLC and rehearsing.” It was pretty much, “Here’s the basic template, let’s go and try every option we can.” I think Dark Roots came out great.

Blistering.com: I think you’re right – the record doesn’t sound like it was put together in such a short period of time.

Hoglan: Awesome. I think it’s some of that experience. You got a whole lot more stockpile in which to pull out of your head. You have this beat, or let’s try another beat.

Blistering.com: You’re like a beat laboratory.

Hoglan: [laughs].

Blistering.com: This is one of the big questions surrounding the Testament record and subsequent promotion, but how are you going to work touring with Dethklok and Testament?

Hoglan: Well, at the moment since either way it looked, I was going to have to miss something with Testament. I’ve been involved with Dethklok for six years now, I guess, and Testament is pretty new. We’re just trying to work out the schedules. There’s a lot of things that were already on the books that we can’t change, but Testament, fortunately, has a lighter touring schedule at the end of the year than some bands. You release an album and you’re usually gone for six months straight. Testament is doing it rather…I don’t want to say lightly, but they’re picking their spots until the end of the year. Next year they’ll do tons of touring, and Dethklok is a relatively transient project. It’s not a full-bore band where we’re putting albums out every year, so I don’t see a lot of scheduling conflicts. There is one coming up with this upcoming tour where Dethklok is going on the road in late October and Testament has some dates in Europe. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that. They’re going to have to get a fill-in, but hopefully they’ll get someone that works out really cool. Hopefully we don’t have to do a whole lot of that.

Blistering.com: You’ve had the good fortune of being teamed up some of metal’s most innovative thinkers like Devin and Chuck. What’s it like being paired with guys that routinely think outside of the box?

Hoglan: Since I’ve been an outside-of-the-box thinker myself, I think it’s always been a really good marriage. I enjoy helping somebody else who has a really clear vision, attain their vision. I share the same vision. Let’s write something bitchin’ and cool and fun to listen to for us. Getting somebody behind that, like Devin, like Brendan [Small, Dethklok], like Chuck, and even like Eric, all of those guys have really strong visions of what they want to achieve with their music. If I can be a really bad-ass drum machine that they can push to the limit, here I am, use me! I’ve always liked being a support character or in a supporting role to someone else’s vision because you always win in the end. I get to be on really cool records, working with awesome, amazing people. And the final product is, “Hey at least Gene is pushing boundaries, there must be a reason for that.”

Blistering.com: There must be a reason your name keeps getting called when someone needs a drummer last-minute. You’ve filled in Opeth several years when Martin Lopez had problems, and you most recently did Anthrax when Charlie Benante had family obligations.

Hoglan: If I am gaining the reputation of last-ditch effort, call Gene and he’ll save the day, then cool! I’m Mighty Mouse, then. Opeth, I got to play with them because circumstances came up beyond their control, so it’s like, “Hey Gene, you win! You get to play with a kick-ass band.” I enjoy it. There’s always a lot of pressure in those situations. Maybe I feed off that or something.

Blistering.com: You almost have to. How did you adapt to something like that? Like when you filled in for Anthrax right after they put a new album out?

Hoglan: That was a matter of Charlie came to me on a Monday, then by Friday, I was onstage with them. I filled him behind his kit. I took my iPhone out and filmed three of the shows as much as I could. There was one show where I got the whole thing. The Tempe, Arizona show, I was able to play the whole thing; there were a couple they swap out every night, so I might have had those from the other night. I just had the ultimate Charlie Benante drum footage. Three days…that’s a lot of time for me [laughs].

Like with Opeth, it was a matter of “Hey dude, we’re going onstage in six hours, so whatever you can do, we’ll be there for you.” [laughs] I also did an Unearth show. I was driving up to Vancouver to work on my DVD and I got a call from their management saying, “How familiar are you with the Unearth material?” I was like, “Not very. I know the riff in that one song!” We did a few tours with them, but you don’t pay attention to the breakdowns in each song. So they said, “Tell you what: If you can learn everything by tomorrow, they’ll be in Vancouver tomorrow. If you stop by this Best Buy in Salem, Oregon, they have a couple of copies of what you’ll be playing on hold for you. Walk in there, pick them up and maybe you can listen to them on the rest of your drive.” I had about another 12 hours on the drive, so I just listened to the seven or eight, or ten songs of what they were playing over and over, and we hit the stage the next night.

Unearth is a very talented and technical band. It’s not like you’re playing basic material. The style I wasn’t familiar with, like the choppy, double-bass is the norm in that style. I had to figure out how to play that shit. It was a fun challenge…it’s just drums. It’s not brain surgery. You hit something hard, and a lot. That’s what I do! Try not to fuck up [laughs].

Blistering.com: Did you ever play a show where you had no idea what you were doing?

Hoglan: I definitely have little gappy moments in the early stages of anything. When you’ve just learned ten songs that you did not know the day before, especially if any of those songs have similar tempo or similar chordal changes. Sometimes you have a little gapping moment in the first few days. I remember Buzz [McGrath] from Unearth running past the drums and air-drumming the fill I was supposed to be playing that I was just about to blow. I always know I’m about blow it when I have two guitarists and bass player turned around and staring at me, like “Oh no, what’s he doing?” It happens. I just try to make that happen less and less between each show.

 Gene Hoglan official website