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Whether you’ve previously immersed yourself in the world of extreme metal or merely dipped your toes into the foreboding black pit, you’ve have doubtlessly imbibed the work of The Atomic Clock himself: drummer Gene Hoglan. The self-taught percussion wizard has done everything from shaped the path of death metal with his work in Death, bolstered the ranks of legends like Slayer and Fear Factory, fused tech-death with industrial in Strapping Young Lad, to lampoon the metal tradition he helped solidify in the virtual band Dethklok. His influence is vast and his chops are famously corrosive. We managed to catch the master skinsman just before he embarked on yet another nationwide tour with thrash titans Testament to chat about a Jim Henson film, shoes, the future of Metalocalypse and his new DVD, The Atomic Clock: The Clock Strikes Two.
mxdwn: To start out I wanted to congratulate you on the release of the second Atomic Clock DVD. How did you decide which Strapping Young Lad song would make it on the DVD? I know you ended up going with “Skeksis,” but even just on the album Alien there’s such a vast variety of styles that you might want to show people.
Gene Hoglan: Well it was kind of like ‘Well, I’ve got a bunch of thrashy numbers from Testament, and even a kind of thrash number from Death.’ And I would have loved to have done “Shitstorm” or something, but I just love the song, I’m a superfan of it. I probably don’t know how to pronounce the name of it. Everyone always calls “Skek-seez” but we’ve always said “Skek-sis”
mxdwn: Oh, was that wrong? I was just thinking of things from The Dark Crystal.
GH: It is. And I’ve only seen The Dark Crystal, like, once. And that was, like, eighty-five years ago. I remember Devin or somebody mentioned “Yeah, that’s from The Dark Crystal, isn’t it?” So, I’ve always called it “Skek-sis” but they were called “Skek-seez.” I guess I don’t even know how to pronounce one of our own song titles. But I just love the song, it’s such a fun song to play. It has parts that are challenging but not overly-challenging like “Shitstorm” would be. You know, I actually tracked the song to the album version, like we didn’t have the stem for it yet. “Stems” are individual tracks that make up a portion of a song. I just thought I’d be tracking to the whole song, but when we got the stems they were missing the samples and the vocal. At first I was kinda like ‘Aw, boo.’ But then I was like ‘Wait a minute. There’s a lot of really cool riffing going on in this song that I know you can never hear, because there’s just layer upon layer of stuff.’
mxdwn: It seems like Devin is kind of infamous for that kind of guitarwork with the really intricate riffs under the blasts and stuff.
GH: Yeah. Recording that song worked out really well because we had this alternative, re-invented, sort of re-envisioned picture of the song. That was pretty cool, that was a pretty good coup to have. It worked out pretty easily in that regard. And I figured since I already have a bunch of thrash stuff that I’d try to do something a little different with Strapping. I also tracked a couple of songs from The New Black as well that didn’t make the cut. Maybe on the next DVD, if there is one. Perhaps I could throw a couple of those on there and dive back a little bit.
mxdwn: I formally request “Wrong Side” if you do decide to do The New Black stuff.
GH: That would be cool. We’ll see how that works out. I’d love to get some more Strapping on there. We’ve got all the rights from all the record labels and stuff to be able to do that.
mxdwn: You mentioned “Skeksis” and not knowing how to pronounce your own song name. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that. As far as working with people like Devin Townsend and Brendon Small, how is it to bring the structures you come up with and turn the parts that you create over to these “Big Idea” lyrics guys who might already have these huge, overarching lyrical concepts in from the get-go? Is it weird to turn your compositions over to these story guys?
GH: Well, I don’t really write any of the lyrics. I’ve written very few. I’ll throw out a line here or there. I’d write a chorus here or there and I remember giving Devin tips on how to sing the stuff that I was coming up with. It was a more a collective from that viewpoint. When we’re doing the chicken feather record – whatever that one was called. Was it SYL? Or was it Strapping Young Lad? [Laughs] We’ve just always called that one ‘the chicken feather record.’
Usually a majority of what I do on these – like say on the City record – Devin had all that already programmed on drums. And he just handed me a cassette tape – and this was in 1996 – he handed me a cassette tape of 10 or 12 songs that were going on the album. And I really enjoyed Devin’s programming so I really just tried to do what Devin programmed in human form. There were a couple of spots – and he was, admittedly, like ‘Hey man, I’m not much of a programmer so some of the spots in the songs kind of sound like the drummer has three arms and four legs.’ And that is always the exciting part: when someone else creates this totally cockamamie drum beat that’s just out of that control, that’s like ‘Yes, it would take three arms a couple extra legs and I’ll try to do those parts like they programmed it.’
Brendon is similar in his approach, he’ll program his stuff. Brendon actually uses the ‘Gene’ file from that Toontrack Superior Drummer thing. It’s got ‘Gene’ files on it where I actually went in and played a whole bunch of songs and a whole bunch of beats and you can just kind of take the parts of those that you want and chop them up and create your own vision for what you have. Brendon would use those for a lot of the stuff, and then I’d come out and get a disc or a bunch of files from Brendon. Sometimes, as we progressed over time, the songs have been a little more complete, but no song is completely like ‘Yes, this song off of this demo is going to be exactly like it is on the demo.’ There’s always lots of changes in the studio. So that’s where I just try to envision what they’re trying to put out and put my own spin to it.
You know, like, with Brendon it’s totally a collaborative effort because I’ll come in and be like ‘Hey Brendon, maybe we should chop this, in standard eight time, down to maybe 7/8 time.’ Things like that. Or I’ll mention ‘Why don’t you try that riff that you’re playing up here, why don’t you try playing it down over here and see if that works.’ Or, you know, I’ll throw in vocal ideas every once in a while. But it’s always helpful when the person who you are playing for has a real solid vision of what they’re trying to achieve. Because that helps me adjust and bring my own flavor to it if they already know what they want. And they’re able to hear what I’m bringing and they’re often like ‘Hey what you’re coming up with is cooler than what I’m coming up with, let’s go with that.’ So if they know what they want and don’t have demo-itis where they’re like ‘I programmed the drums just like this so they have to be just like this.’ That’s always a little frustrating. But when I get the free reign to go crazy I’m super happy.
mxdwn: I feel like I know a few fellow musicians who have that demo-itis, where they’re meticulous in the wrong direction and not quite flexible. I know exactly what you mean as far as that can be a hindrance in some ways.
GH: It happens. And I always say that if you’re asking me to come in and record your stuff for you – whether you programmed the drums or had another drummer on your demo – I’m pretty good at taking an existing idea and blowing it up even bigger. So if you do give me that free reign in the studio, then everyone comes out really happy at the end and I don’t yell at anybody!
mxdwn: It’s unfortunate when people’s creative approaches sort of shut each other out in certain ways.
GH: Everyone’s different, absolutely.
mxdwn: You semi-recently rejoined Testament back in 2011, and previous to that you had done one album with them back in the 90s. So when you came back to work with Testament, I know that two of their original members had rejoined the group in the time that you were away. What was it like to rejoin a band that had reabsorbed its two original old-guard members? Were band dynamics different? Can you talk about that a little bit?
GH: Really what went down with the Dark Roots album was a couple of weeks before the recording – I think I was stepping out the door to actually go on a Fear Factory tour – I got a call from Chuck saying ‘Hey man, we’re kind of in a bind. Paul Bostaph is injured and his recuperation time is taking a little bit longer than we were expecting. So we’re in kind of a real deadline crunch. Do you have a couple of weeks available in, like, two weeks?’ And I did, so, they asked me to come out and track the album for them.
And I was out there tracking the record fully thinking that Paul was gonna return. So I was trying to keep a lot of the Gene Hoglan-isms out of there, because for any drummer to learn another drummers parts is sometimes challenging enough. And if you’re just going over the top playing all these fancy, kooky things, that just makes it really obnoxious for the guy whose gonna come in and probably do all the touring. And I remember Eric telling me during the project, because I was always like ‘Hey I want to play stuff that Paul will feel comfortable playing.’ And finally Eric told me ‘Listen, just don’t worry about Paul. When that comes to whatever its going to come to between us and Paul…don’t worry. Just do your thing and play these tunes how you want. We’ll worry about the other stuff when it happens.’
And then they went out on tour with Anthrax and Death Angel and I had gotten a call from Chuck saying that they had John Tempesta out on that tour, and he said ‘Johnny T. had to leave the tour for a few weeks in like November or something like that, can you maybe come out and play just for a couple of weeks?’ And I had the time available so I did. And at the end of the tour I mentioned to Chuck, ‘Hey man if something comes up like this again, just let me know. Give me enough notice and I can work a schedule around it.’ And sure enough, Johnny T had to go out and do more things with The Cult, who he’s now playing with, and I ended up being a part of the touring cycle after that. But I do remember during the recording they brought me out to essentially start tracking immediately. But it was kind of me learning the songs with Eric and Greg. And I never really knew Greg that well but Greg’s a super sweet guy, a very nice guy, always a pleasure to be around for me. So learning the songs, hearing what the basslines were going to be doing a little bit, that was helpful. But yeah, it was four completely different individuals in Testament when I came back. You get to learn their quirks and however their brains work.
mxdwn: Are there any younger, new-ish drummers that have impressed you lately?
GH: One of my favorite new drummers – actually I call him my “drum son” – his name is Ash Pearson and he’s currently playing with Revocation. He played with 3 Inches of Blood for a few albums there and I got to know him in Vancouver about fifteen years ago when he was a teenager and playing in a local band. He was a really sharp kid. He was, at the time, really inexperienced. And a lot of times you meet a lot of flaky people and Ash just happened to not be a flaky person. He was very serious and very dedicated to where we wanted to go with his drumming and his future career. And so I guess I took him under my wing a little bit, had him come out to a lot of Strapping rehearsals and he would tech for me. He was my tech during a lot of the recordings. And he was there for lots of recordings. He was a big part of the first DVD The Atomic Clock and he was a big part of the latest DVD. When you see me talking to the camera and it appears like I’m answering unasked question, that’s usually Ash creating those questions. He’s my drum son and I think he’s gonna be a serious player real soon. This is a young man who heard that Dillinger Escape Plan had lost their drummer, so when he was like twenty he went out to the East Coast and jammed with Dillinger Escape Plan just on his own. And I was just like ‘Wow, you are a dedicated young dude.’
mxdwn: I bet that impressed Ben Weinman. I know he’s all about that type of stuff.
GH: It was cool. And you know, there’s Mario from Gojira. He’s a killer. And Eloy Casagrande of Sepultura. Those guys are all killer, great drummers that are bringing a lot of flair and taste. And, believe me, I’m super impressed by all the guys that can do the paradiddles on the feet and the double strokes on the feet with their double bass. All those young dudes that can do that. That is super impressive. I’m like ‘Go! You guys are great!’ George Kollias, he’s a great drummer. Even outside of Nile. He’s played with Nile for the past ten years or so. More than that I would imagine now. And you know, watching George play things outside of brutal hauling death metal is really impressive. Flo Mounier of Cryptopsy. Well, he’s not exactly a young dude anymore but he’s still a great drummer. Guys like that who can not only do all the vicious blast beating but then also show some taste. I always tend to venture closer to that kind of style; somebody that can bring some taste into the middle of all this chaos. I’ve always liked that. I’ve always said that you should put a little brain into it instead of mindless blast beats weighing you down. The brainwork in drumming is an absolutely necessity.
mxdwn: Do you always wear boots when you drum? Not to come back to Alien again, because I love Alien so much – but looking at the behind the scenes stuff for the album and the DVD you always seem to be wearing those huge heavy boots. I feel like that’s uncommon.
GH: At that time, yeah. I’ve played with boots for twenty year now.
mxdwn: That is insane to me.
GH: The boots that I used on Alien are the same ones on both DVDs. You can see them getting shot over time.
mxdwn: I’ve watched them degrade! I feel like so many drummers are particular about tennis shoes or playing barefoot.
Gene: It’s weird, because the only reason I started playing in boots is because that’s what I wore. It was just always easier to go on stage in your footwear that you had than ‘Oh I’ve got to pack this special brand of shoe.’ No. Just got on stage in what you wear. The reason I was able to play in boots and wear boots on tour is because I never untied them. I spend a lot of time relaxing and when I relax I like to kick off my shoes. A couple of years ago the boots were misplaced in Chile. I lost them for about three weeks and ended up getting them back, so for that period I had to play with tennis shoes. But now I just play in tennis shoes which a lot of people are kind of disappointed about but… I’m sorry! My lady bought me these incredible shoes that I can play in but you gotta lace ‘em down and lace ‘em up.
mxdwn: Here’s something very few people get to ask another person: what’s it like to hear your drumming coming out of a cartoon character? Do you feel any special sort of relationship to Pickles The Drummer as a character?
GH: Believe it or not I actually do. I do consider Pickles his own drummer. I do try to approach his drum parts like a cartoon character. I’ll do something that I know Gene wouldn’t do, but Pickles would. What I thought was pretty fun was during the very first album’s recordings, they got a film crew to come in. Brendon knew that the song “Bloodrocuted” was gonna be the single. So they brought this little video crew in and filmed my playing and they ended up using my drum set-up for the visuals. Like, using my drums themselves – the charcoal grey kit with black hardware and stuff – and they filmed my legs and hands and stuff. Then they just kinda drew over that and just skinny-fied my belly to make it skinny little Pickles. You know, it’s funny – something that only true Dethklok fans will probably know…
mxdwn: Oh, tell me.
GH: The very first incarnation of the band…
mxdwn: …Pickles looked like Devin, right?
GH: Totally. Totally Devin from the Alien era. Devin actually put a cease and desist order out on that.
mxdwn: Wait, really?!
GH: Yeah. He said ‘I don’t care if they use my image,’ – you gotta remember, this was a year before the cartoon even came out. And he had heard that the band goes out and like murders people!
mxdwn: So much rampant destruction in the show.
GH: Yeah, and Devin was like ‘I don’t really care if they use my likeness,’ but it was just what the band members would do that would kill people. So Devin said ‘I don’t care if he looks like me, but I don’t think I can get behind the murder.’ I don’t think any fans of the show are out there actually murdering people. But people die at rock concerts all the time
mxdwn: I hate to put you on the spot, but we’re talking about it and everyone else involved has been really, really evasive. I know you said the Galaktikon might take the place of Dethklok as an entity. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Are there any new developments for fans?
Gene: Well, Brendon has given me more or less free reign to say whatever I feel about it. I know Brendon has to be a bit more veiled about it. I try to be as well. Just to synopsize: we have recorded the new Galaktikon album. We just finished mixing it over this last week, you know passing files back and forth and notes with Ulrich, our producer I would say that if you are a fan of Dethklok’s music you’re definitely gonna be a fan of this. Because it is quite Dethklok as, say, opposed to the first Galaktikon record which had no death metal vocals on it, no Nathan Explosion-type stuff. This album has tons of those, and I would imagine Pickles is branching out his vocal style a little bit.
But I do know that Brendon can’t talk a lot about it and there is… a storyline to all this. Certain things might pick up the story threads from… what was the last thing we did? The Klok Opera. And so this will perhaps carry certain storylines forward. It’s not Dethklok we don’t know about touring aspects or anything. We all wanna go out and do this stuff on the road. But I’m not really sure where we can go right now as far as the visual aspect of the band. But I sure would love to play these tunes live! And I love playing Dethklok, it’s one of my all-time favorite bands that I’ve ever been a part of. You know that we do the Death (DTA) stuff, in spite of the fact Chuck is no longer with us. We don’t feel like Chuck’s music should exit the planet when you’ve got guys that were in the band who can still come out and play it. I’m kind of that way with Dethklok too. It’s like, I don’t see why we can’t be a Dethklok tribute band.
mxdwn: It would be like that episode where they all join a Dethklok tribute band!
GH: That’s right! Call it Thunderhorse.
mxdwn: That would be the real metafiction coming to life. If Dethklok joined a Dethklok tribute band. It’d be perfect.
GH: If anybody could do it, it’s us.
mxdwn: Can you tell us a bit more about the DVD The Atomic Clock: The Clock Strikes 2?
GH: Well, we just released the new DVD The Atomic Clock: The Clock Strikes 2. It is now currently out. Right now, the easiest way to obtain it is through my website HoglanIndustries. I’m super stoked with the DVD. It came out just amazing. For those who saw the first DVD, there’s always kind of a DIY quality to what I do, because it very much is DIY. I put it together, we hire the crew to film it, it takes forever to sift through all the stuff and get it edited, but I was a big part of both. And my editor Leon Melas did a fantastic, incredible job.
One thing I tried to do with all aspects of the DVD was to up the ante in terms of the visual quality, the sound quality – we got an amazing producer to produce it, Rob Shallcross. We just tried to “up” the quality of everything. And I tried, as I tried to do with the first one, to make the DVD something more than only for drummers. I want anybody who gets it to enjoy it. Yeah, there’s a lot of drumming going on – and on this one there are a lot breakdowns of parts, for instance. And I just want everyone to enjoy it. Whether you’re a drummer or a guitarist or a non-musician, I want everyone to enjoy it equally.
And you know another exciting thing about this one is that I was able to get licensing for songs. So I’ve got a couple of Testament tracks on here with the actual guitars from the album. The Death tracks on here are the actual guitar and bass tracks from the record. For instance, another re-envisioned mix is the mix of “The Philosopher” which I didn’t even know about until I was playing it. The stems that I had were just really terrible sounding. And I was like ‘okay,’ but as were filming this I was like ‘Wait a minute… there’s no fadeout to this song!’ I’m playing for, like, an extra minute and Steve’s just playing there with me. And you can hear this part where Chuck just sort of pulls out from the end riff. And there’s this big jam at the end of the song that I don’t even remember recording. There’s that re-envisioned mix of “Skeksis” and stuff as well. There’s some of my more underground projects like Meldrum, for instance.
We put a couple tracks on there to pay tribute to our fallen sister Michelle Meldrum. She passed away right before we tracked the last Meldrum record. Since I don’t have anybody telling me what to do on these I get to have full reign. I get to pick whatever spots from my past that I want to focus on. I gotta admit there’s a little bit of red tape there as far as licensing and stuff, so picked the stuff that was easier to get. I called up Chuck from Testament and I was like ‘Hey, Chuck, mind if use some Testament songs?’ ‘Yeah, no problem!’ So that was easy. Devin was pretty much the same way. As far as Meldrum, I was pretty much left in charge of that. So I thought ‘Hell yeah, I’ll put some Meldrum songs on there.’ The Death stuff was easy to get as well. Perhaps if there is a next one maybe I can do some other Death stuff or some later Testament stuff or some other Strapping stuff. Something that encompasses more of my career.
mxdwn: Please more Individual Thought Pattern stuff if you keep going. And maybe throw in “Zero Tolerance!”
GH: That’s definitely one I would consider. I tracked three Individual Thought Patterns songs for this one. I think I did “Trapped in a Corner” as well, so I kept a few things off there. Like possible a bonus online-only kind of thing, perhaps. You never know. And you never know if I’m gonna do another one of these things. Because it is a pretty arduous undertaking. If it’s cost-effective? Hell, I’ll do another one.