A bunch of top metal drummers interview metal drum legend Gene Hoglan

(Image credit: Future/James Cumpsty)

Never has a nickname been so appropriate as the one bestowed on Gene Hoglan: The Atomic Clock.

“Heathen from the band Zimmer's Hole had a motorcycle shop that Strapping Young Lad used to practice at,” says the man who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest drummers ever to have battered a kit into submission. “I remember I was working out [SYL’s] The New Black record at his place, and he came up and said, 'Dude, you're like the Atomic Clock on the drums!' I just thought that was really fun, so I put that as a credit on one of the records. It just ended up sticking and it's a nice wholesome nickname, unlike Mean Gene The Killing Machine.”

Since first rising to the top of the metal drummer’s league as skin-pounder with thrashers Dark Angel in the late 80s, he’s played with everyone from Death and Anthrax to his current gig with Bay Area icons Testament. And when we reached out a bunch of drummers who have followed in his footsteps, asking for questions to put to the big man, they were only too happy to get involved. So, one, two, three, four… here we go.

At what age did you start playing? I think the entire thrash/speed metal world would like to know – Joey Jordison

“I got my first drum kit when I was 13. However, I had been quite the air drummer for about five years. I started about age 8, and I really did utilise 'air drums' to work on my skills. I would air drum to all my favourite records and bands, and I was able to pick up what the double bass did, all the ghost notes and when the high-hat gets a little technical on, say, a Rush song. Once you have a drum kit in front of you it's essentially the same thing, you just have a bounce back when you're hitting a drum, it wasn't that big a transition. So the air drumming came in handy.”

Hammer: What was the first record that made you pick up the air drumsticks?

“I'd say it was undoubtedly a Kiss record. Destroyer was the first album I got into by them. I remember drumming along to Detroit Rock City; there's some pretty good drumming on that song from a simple style that allowed me to transition to more technical stuff like Rush and King Crimson – I was into all that stuff when I was super duper young.”

In the last 10 years, what would you say is the biggest challenge, musically, that you have had to overcome? – Iver Sandøy, Enslaved

“A few years back I was doing an album where somebody else had tracked the demo on an electronic kit. They had been told, 'Do what Gene would do.' So when we got to the recording I was asked, 'Hey Gene, can you play the licks and fills and feel that the demo drummer played?' I said, 'Wait, you told him to do it like Gene, and it was like Gene, but now you have Gene ready to do Gene, but you're asking Gene to copy the guy that copied Gene? I'm a little baffled.' So we locked horns over it for a little bit but I got what I wanted out of it the end, and he got his drums done by Gene.”

You’ve worked with a lot of very different acts. Which ones were more tolerant of you embellishing your parts? Were any strict about you playing straight from the record?” – Jason Belisha, Irist

“I think a lot of the guys I work with think, 'We know where Gene's going to go, he'll throw in a bit of extra double bass, it's going be as tight as tight can be, and he's going to play really fast, maybe faster than we're used to play but he'll push us all.' But, for instance, with Testament, I was a big fan of John Tempesta. So if I'm doing Dog Faced Gods or Low, I'm going to take John's approach. And a lot of my licks from the [original Testament drummer] Louis Clemente era are John Tempesta's licks, I just pay homage to him. And if there's a Paul Bostaph lick from the Formation Of Damnation, I'm going to try to do that – it's what the band and the crowd are used to.

“But when it comes to some Death tracks, I changed those parts a lot back in the day. So when we go out with Death To All right now I pretty much play the Gene versions of Leprosy or Zombie Ritual. I try to take as much or little leeway as possible.”

Is there a project you’ve wanted to do but haven’t been able to for whatever reason? – Zach Coleman, Khemmis

“That would be another Dethklok album and tour. I love playing with Dethklok and we were lucky enough to do a show in LA a few months back. If we ever to get the chance to kick up Dethklok again that would be super fun.”

If you could go back in time and say something to that 13-year-old Gene, what would you say? Eloy Casagrande, Sepultura

“‘Steal all you can from drummers.’ That's what drummers do – it's just how you apply it that makes it your own. I had such a mishmash of influences it was going to be inevitable that I was going to develop my own style. Like in Dark Angel, I was trying to create beats that had never been heard before. Like the opening of [1986’s] Darkness Descends, that beat in the very first minute, I'd never heard anyone play that beat before, so I dropped it in. Then a few years later I had all the phone calls: 'Hey have you heard that new Metallica song One? It's got your beat in it, it's got the riffs, it's even got the lyrics, ‘Darkness imprisoning me!’ I thought, 'Oh that's cool, we're influencing Metallica now!' Haha.

Would you recommend drummers to use wrist weights to make the hands move faster? Erinç Sakarya, Mantar

“I used to use the same ankle weights on my wrists: I had a pair on my ankles and one on my wrists. Then I just ended up losing one pair at a gig somewhere, so I had to try something else. When I was with Death at a festival in Europe somewhere, someone came up to me and gave me a pair of leg bones off a medical skeleton or something. So I used to warm up with these femur bones that were big and heavy for a couple of years. Then my wife came up with this amazing concept: 'Hey, why don't you tape three of your sticks together and then you'll always have warm-up sticks, so it doesn't matter if you lose your heavy warm-up sticks.' And I utilise that to this day.

“But I am definitely about using ankle and wrist weights. I'll play with the leg weights live, as many songs until the ball-crushing double bass songs of the night, whether that's the 10th song of the night or the sixth. It's a challenge but it's a good challenge, you create a lot of muscles for yourself that you wouldn't necessarily have if you didn't use them. It makes your job easier.”

What’s your least favourite thing about touring?” – Alex Bent, Trivium

“It's the actual physical travel to get to the tour, especially the airplane travel. And now I'm reading all these reports saying 'Hey we don't know what the future of air travel is going to be, but here's some ideas and none of them are fun'. But I can adapt really well to things, I'm like a little cockroach, but I will admit the European double decker bus is a little challenging for tall people. Testament has a bunch of tall people, so we're all hunched over in there. And after six weeks that will do a number on your back. But if we all to tour in vans again I'll adapt and do that, because that's what we do.”

What is your favourite spot to chow while travelling, and what do you think of Kindred in San Diego? Dave Witte, Municipal Waste

“Oh I love Kindred, that place is amazing! It’s a place my friends in Revocation turned me onto. It's a black metal vegan restaurant, which is really fun. The toilets are cool, the staff walk around in black metal shirts, and the food is killer. It's a metal place.

“For me, food is fuel, it's not like I have a restaurant I have to go to in every city. Bur there's a place in San Francisco called Escape From New York Pizza, who had a pesto slice that was amazing. I used to love Water Burger in Texas too, which is just a fast food drive-though place. I loved Febo in the Netherlands. Talk about fast food, that is seriously garbagey. Any Dutch fans out there would be like 'Gene, you like that seriously?' My wife says when we got together I had a child's palette, and I can agree with that. I prefer my food big over good.”

What would you say is the most satisfying lesson you’ve learned since playing drums for so many different metal acts? And can you please air drum Tom Sawyer in our dressing room again? – Art Cruz, Lamb Of God

“Gosh, did I do that? About 15 years ago there was a tour in the US called Sounds Of The Underground, Strapping Young Lad were on it and so were Opeth. It turned out that Martin [Lopez, Opeth drummer] couldn't complete the tour, so those guys appealed to me: 'We're onstage in five or six hours and we have no idea what we're going to do. You think you could learn a few tunes?' I had been watching their entire set every night and I was more familiar with their music than if I'd been super super cold. They filmed the video for The Grand Conjuration in LA during that tour. Blink you'll miss me, haha.”

(Image credit: Gene Ambo)

Have you ever been drunk and forgotten which part of the song you need to play while on stage? – Lala Frischknecht, Burning Witches

 “I've only ever played two shows drunk and they were both with Death. On one tour I got drunk during the day, fell asleep and my drum tech at the time was knocking on my head saying, 'Wake up, you're on in ten minutes!' It was a festival in Dortmund, and every other band on the festival sat watching. Word had obviously got around that 'Gene is drunk, this is going to be a train wreck tonight, we better catch it!' But I was fortunate and pulled off a flawless show.

“A few months later my drum tech and I said we weren't going to drink on the next tour. There was one show in Vienna, Austria where I had two shots before the show. I thought no big deal, but my tolerance for drinking was so low I played a horrible show. Chuck [Schuldiner, Death mainman] yelled at me, understandably. That was me not at my best, and so I've never done since.”

How do you manage to hit hard while seeming so relaxed? – Sean Radcliffe, Loathe

“I think it's because I am relaxed, and that is a very important aspect of drumming. If you're driving a truck you want to be relaxed, you don't want to be stressed and freaking or you'll crash your truck. I know playing high speed, loud metal you might consider yourself a machine gunner frantically mowing down the crowd with your bass drums, but I prefer to look at it like I'm a sniper. My breathing is pretty relaxed and I'm controlled like a sniper as I'm about to take that shot. I know when you've got a blastbeat coming up and you've got to pound it out, if you give into the terror and panic you're feeling you're just going to seize up, play uncomfortably and not nail that part. Just breathe inside your brain and tell yourself: 'You can do this.’ That's been what I've based my whole career on.”

And the last question is from Hammer. Is there one person who stands out as the greatest musical mind you've worked with?

“Well I've got to put my wife Laura Christine in that because she has a great vision of what she sees. Obviously I've worked with a lot of great musical minds: the Devin Townsends, the Chuck Schuldiners, Mikael Åkerfeldt briefly; working with Eric Peterson from Testament, who has his style; [Metalocalypse creator] Brendon Small is another one, he has a great musical mind and writes great riffs. I'm very fortunate to have worked with a lot of sharp people I have a lot of respect for. I just try to be a match for them, and try to make myself irreplaceable with a good attitude and skills.”

Testament's Titans of Creation is out now

Adam Brennan

Rugby, Sean Bean and power ballad superfan Adam has been writing for Hammer since 2007, and has a bad habit of constructing sentences longer than most Dream Theater songs. Can usually be found cowering at the back of gigs in Bristol and Cardiff. Bruce Dickinson once called him a 'sad bastard'.