It's no small feat for a metal drummer to acquire the nickname The Atomic Clock. Then again, Gene Hoglan is no small drummer. First, he's huge in stature (albeit rapidly shrinking, as his recent 160 lb. weight loss will attest) - a hulking beast able to split snare heads with a single stroke. Far more significantly, he's a giant in his field, an innovator known for playing with precision, groove and flair, but who's just as capable of manipulating the kit with grace and finesse, as well as power and might.
Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward called him, "The new John Bonham, the leading light of a new generation." Rock and jazz legend Dennis Chambers also praised Hoglan for his creativity and eagerness to play outside of previously established parameters. While Hoglan has always found playing to be its own reward, lately he has enjoyed some major mainstream metal success. He played drums on the latest Testament album, Dark Roots of Earth, which debuted at number 12 on the Billboard album chart and number nine worldwide. In addition, Hoglan co-wrote and played on the upcoming Dethklok album Dethalbum III, which is likely to also chart high, considering Dethalbum II, the creation of which Hoglan also played a major role, reached #15 on Billboard in 2009. That would make Hoglan the only player in the history of extreme drumming to have a Top 15 album, let alone two within a three month period. Still, Hoglan is far too talented, ambitious and restless to tie himself down to just a couple of bands. He recently toured as the beat-master for Death DTA, a tribute to death metal founders Death, which he played in from 1993 to 1995 and worked with Dethklok creator Brendon Small on his side band Galaktikon, And he has made himself available at a moments' notice, filling in for Opeth on tour in 2005 six hours before the band took the stage, and for Dimmu Borgir for their Behind the Player instructional DVD a day before filming began. Hoglan's not just a versatile atomic clock, he's a clock with an everlasting battery; when Anthrax and Testament co-headlined in 2011, Hoglan sat behind the kit for Testament for the whole tour and filled in for Anthrax when their drummer Charlie Benante took time off for a family emergency. And throughout the year Hoglan performs in numerous underground projects as he conducts drum clinics across the world, demonstrating how to play in a variety of styles including jugular-gripping thrash, double bass-pounding death metal and blast beat-riddled black metal.
Hoglan credits much of his success to sheer stubbornness and tenacity. Since he joined his first high school band Dark Angel (not to be confused with the later, completely separate Dark Angel of thrash fame), Hoglan has been determined to use his playing as a vehicle to make metal louder, more chaotic and more rewarding for the listener. From 1984 to the present he has injected his style into numerous original and influential acts, including not only Dark Angel, but Death, Devin Townsend, Strapping Young Lad, Testament, Dethklok, Fear Factory, Forbidden, Zimmers Hole and others.
"I've always been about doing things at the next level," Hoglan says. "I've always thought, 'What new playing elements, technologies and approaches can we take to make this sound cooler, heavier and even more intense?'"
Like many rockers, Hoglan's first love was KISS. He discovered the band at age eight - naturally, drummer Peter Criss was his favorite member -- and soon after, the gateway opened to other hard rock bands, including Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and Queen. He closely scrutinized their playing styles and imitated them with air drums. At age 11, he told his family and friends he wanted to be a rock drummer and after years of gentle prodding, his parents finally bought him a kit.
"I was 13 and my parents got me a five-piece Slingerland drum kit that had really huge drums and a great chrome mirrored finish. It wasn't that hard for me to play because I was already a great air drummer [laughs], so when I had a real pair of sticks in my hand it wasn't that different. I already had the basic technique to play things like KISS and AC/DC.
Before long, Hoglan was playing along with records by Rush and Rainbow as well as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motorhead. Since he only had a single bass drum, he worked his right foot hard to play the beats twice as fast so he could emulate the double-bass drumming he heard. At the same time, he'd continue to play double-bass air drums so he'd have the style down to play it when the time came. He didn't have to wait long since he was just about to become a progenitor of thrash metal.
In 1983, he saw Slayer at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and was blown away by their speed and ferocity. He started attending all of their local shows and befriended the guys in the band. One night he filled in on lights for Slayer's manager, who couldn't make the show. Right after, Slayer bassist and vocalist Tom Araya invited Hoglan to roadie for the band on their first major U.S. tour.
"I was 16 and I loved Slayer because I thought they were way too heavy for anyone to ever discover them," Hoglan says. "I used to go to their shows and one night Tom said, "Hey man, usually our manager does our lights. He can't make it tonight. Can you run that light board over there? It had, like, eight buttons and there wasn't much to it. So I said, "Sure man." So I ended up taking over their lights. I went along on their very first tour. I was 16 and that was cool. I made friends with all those guys and later, [their drummer] Dave Lombardo asked me to be his drum tutor."
That moment came right after Lombardo acquired his first double-bass drum kit and he had trouble integrating the double-bass into his playing. So he asked Hoglan if he had any advice.
"I sat down behind his kit and even though I didn't have a double bass drum yet I had a natural aptitude for it due to those years of air-drumming," Hoglan says. "Dave looked at me and went, 'Dude, your double bass playing is great. How long have you been doing it?' And I looked at my watch and went, 'Well, what time is it? If I've been playing your kit for 10 minutes, I've been playing double-bass for 10 minutes."
Hoglan offered Lombardo him tips on how to orchestrate his feet with what he was playing with his hands. When Slayer entered the studio to record their Haunting the Chapel EP, Hoglan sat in the bathroom across from Lombardo to coach him while he played. "I had the door open a crack and I'm yelling, 'Concentrate on your left foot!! You're doing great!! Remember your left foot!!"
Dark Angel, who opened for Slayer at numerous LA-area shows, were also friends with Hoglan and when drummer Jack Schwartz was ousted after their 1984 debut We Have Arrived, Hoglan stepped in without missing a beat. Not only did he up the skill level for the band's 1986 album Darkness Descends, an album with such rapid beats that many consider it the bridge between thrash and death metal, Hoglan also wrote lyrics for the majority of the album. When guitarist Jim Durkin left the band in 1989, Hoglan wrote most of the guitar parts and lyrics as well. And he played many of the rhythm guitar tracks on Dark Angel's 1989 album Leave Scars and 1991's Time Does Not Heal.
"I always loved the guitar as well as the drums," he says. "In seventh grade I took a beginner's instruments course and I wanted to play drums. But they only had violas, violins, cellos and wood instruments. So they handed me a viola. I played it like it was a guitar, using a quarter as a pick. Then a friend lent me an acoustic guitar and I taught myself how to play. Thrash metal was the easiest kind of guitar to play because you didn't have to play any pretty chords. You could just play mean, vicious power chords, so I picked that up pretty quickly."
Dark Angel were still a significant force on the thrash scene in 1992 when they fell apart. Vocalist Ron Rinehart abruptly quit the band, and since it had taken the group a full 10 months to find Rinehart, Hoglan wasn't ready to endure another lengthy audition process so he also left and Dark Angel fizzled away.
But where one road ended another was constructed. A month after leaving Dark Angel, Hoglan found out Death was looking for a drummer to replace Sean Reinert. Despite mixed past interactions with frontman Chuck Schuldiner, Hoglan flew to Florida and tracked the drums for Individual Thought Patterns in three weeks. While he enjoyed the experience it wasn't quite what he had expected.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is Death. We're gonna put together this ball-crushing, storming death metal album that's gonna stamp everybody else out,'" recalls Hoglan. "Then Chuck sent me a riff tape that was anything but death metal sounding. When I got to Florida, Chuck sat me down and I learned all the songs on guitar and all the songs were being played way up high on the A string and the high E. So I said, 'Hey Chuck, why don't we try taking some of these riffs and playing them a lot lower and making them really chunky?' I transposed a lot of Individual Thought Patterns and hopefully made it sound a lot more powerful."
Despite the significant role Hoglan had writing and arranging with Death on Individual Thought Patterns and its 1995 follow-up Symbolic, he was a side man in the band. After the initial transition of taking a distant back seat to Schuldiner was passed, he soon realized being out of the spotlight had its advantages.
"With Dark Angel I was a taskmaster," he says. "I'm sure the rest of the band thought I was a dick, yelling at them if they didn't make rehearsal or if they were slacking. But with Death I was like, 'Hey, all I gotta do is play drums. Chuck does all the interviews, and deals with all the business and administrative stuff. I didn't have to concentrate on writing riffs or lyrics. I got to concentrate on just being a drummer, which is what I wanted to do from the start. So since Death had these jazz elements anyway, I was able to bring in some of my wackier influences, like Steve Gadd and Deen Castronovo and let them fly along with the brutal metal beats."
By the time Death finished the even less-savage Symbolic, Hoglan realized he wanted to be in a more extreme and heavier band, so when Death dissolved in late '95, he sought new blood. He was introduced to his sonic soulmate for the next decade, Strapping Young Lad frontman Devin Townsend, at an Iron Maiden/Fear Factory concert at The Palace in LA. The two hit it off and agreed to get together and jam a few days later.
"At the end of the first jam, he gave me a demo of new songs to learn," Hoglan says. "We only jammed four times for the City album, once in early March, 1996, once in May and twice in July, and then we went to track the record. We didn't want to burn ourselves out on the material before we recorded (laughs) and it came out great. I was so stoked to be in Strapping because the songs were engaging enough on their own so the drums didn't have to be really busy like Death. I got to be a totally different kind of drummer and play things that served this chaos that was coming out of Devin's head."
For Hoglan, being in Strapping Young Lad was creatively rewarding in a way he hadn't yet experienced. The band was jagged, edgy, and explosive -- as unpredictable as a schizophrenic off his meds. And the concerts shuddered with musical revelation. "I really felt like we were changing people's lives every night," Hoglan says. "We were bringing a jaw-dropping experience to every live show and people were like, 'Holy fuck, who is this band? I came to see the headliners and holy fuck, this band ripped my head off!'"
In addition to playing with Strapping Young Lad on 1997's City, 2003's SYL, 2005's Alien and 2006's The New Black, Hoglan accompanied Townsend on three of his solo albums, 1998's Infinity, 2000's Physicist and 2001's Terria. "The solo stuff brought out another aspect of my drumming," Hoglan says. "I recorded Infinity on a five-piece kit with a single bass drum. If you as a musician step out from behind your giant kit and play something really stripped down, you're really going to get to your own essence. I tried to play really tasty and nothing out of the ordinary. I channeled Tico Torres from Bon Jovi more than I did Philthy 'Animal' Taylor from Motorhead."
Being with Strapping Young Lad was fun and it kept Hoglan busy, however it provided little financial security. In the beginning, the band was so broke he couldn't afford to pay rent, and even when they became more established, Strapping's extreme music was hardly a road to riches. Still, the thrill of breaking new musical ground outweighed the drawbacks - at least most of the time. "Man, we ate dirt for years," Hoglan says. "But Strapping was a huge character building process for me. I had to live in my car for a month because I had nowhere to stay and I couldn't stay with the other members because they were having their own situations. I'd grab a shower when I could and a meal when I could. There wasn't a lot of food and not a lot of places to live for a while. But I was dedicated to it and stoked to be a part of it."
When Townsend broke up Strapping Young Lad in 2007, Hoglan didn't know what he was going to do. He was just starting to make decent money, got his own place and was relaxing in the bubbling hot tub of his labor when the drain was suddenly opened. He toured with friends Unearth and played guest drums on Meldrum's 2007 album Blowin' Up the Machine, but had nothing solid going - until the inventor of a TV cartoon band contacted him about playing death metal drums on an album based on the show.
"'Metalocalypse' only had about three episodes out when Brendon Small contacted me," Hoglan says. "I didn't know what to do. It's one of my favorite shows now, but at the time I admit I didn't know what to make of it. But I figured, 'What the hell, let's do it.'"
Small sent Hoglan 17 sketchy demos - basically the same song fragments and snippets that were actually used on the show. So the two musicians spent hours fleshing out and then tracking a couple songs a day. To everyone's surprise The Dethalbum debuted at number 21 on the Billboard album chart in 2007, selling almost 34,000 copies in its first week. This led to the inevitable follow-up in 2009, which was accompanied by a largely sold-out tour with Mastodon.
"The formula was pretty much the same for the second record," Hoglan says. "It was even more hectic, actually, because I did Brendon's solo record, Galaktikon at the same time as we did Dethalbum II."
With over 30 albums under his belt, Hoglan decided to release a DVD, "The Atomic Clock." He wanted dedicated and casual drummers to be able to use it as a learning tool, but he didn't want to make a conventional "instructional DVD." So he had a video team film him goofing around and telling jokes between jawdropping drum solos and instructional snippets. "Instructional DVDs are the squarest, most boring thing ever. If you're really into that person's playing you're probably gonna groove on it, but if you're not a big fan there's probably not much there for you. So I tried to make it pretty light, and pretty entertaining. Basically, it's me saying, 'Hey, here's what I do. This is how I do it. If any of that can help you, cool. And by the way, there's a little bit of comedy in here to lighten the mood so hopefully it will be two hours well spent."
In 2010, Hoglan added his unmistakable playing to Fear Factory's comeback album Mechanize and toured with the band. And in true 'Gene form,' where life never settles down, he received a call from Testament (who he had played with on their 1997 album Demonic). The group's drummer, Paul Bostaph, had sustained an arm injury and couldn't join them, so they asked Hoglan to play on Dark Roots of Earth at the eleventh hour.
"It was funny," recalls Hoglan. "Testament recorded all the demos for the album using the 'Gene file' on [the Toontrack drum simulator program] Metal Foundry. They handed me these recordings and it's like, 'Well, these are your drums on our demo that we're giving you to listen to for the first time. Can you play 'em?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, no problem.' Nowadays, I can learn an entire album in a couple days anyway and then come in and track it in a day. But I love those guys and it was fun to work with them again."
Having evolved from one phase of extreme drumming to the next over his nearly 30-year career, Hoglan has much to teach the new generation of drummers, who look up to him the way he admired players like Cozy Powell and Neil Peart. So whenever he has time between recording sessions and tours, he likes to schedule drum clinics worldwide. As he revolutionized extreme drumming, he hopes to help inspire organizers to rethink the way clinics are put together.
"It's fun to book it in a venue as opposed to a music store, and to get up there and play for people who admire what you do, and maybe you can teach them some things that will be useful to them, but I really like to look at clinics as an opportunity to put on a show," Hoglan says. "After the instructional part, we've had some local bands come up and play and I've, for instance, played with one of my bands The Almighty PunchDrunk at a couple clinics in and around Vancouver. In the future, who knows? I hope to be able to play some clinics with the new project I'm forming with [Warface, Meldrum] guitarist Laura Christine. If I can do a clinic in Cleveland or somewhere in the Midwest, maybe I can haul out [my side project] Pitch Black Forecast at the end of the night for a set. I'm in so many bands in pockets all over the place, I can drag out a band in the South or the North - pretty much anywhere I go. To me, that's what it's all about right now - spreading it out and keeping it fun."
— by Jon Wiederhorn, co-author of the Harper Collins book, Louder Than Hell: The Uncensored History of Metal