Gene Hoglan has the sound of sleep in his voice when he emerges from his lair well past noon on a Thursday. Typical musician behavior, you say? Hoglan has good reason to be tired: A rehearsal with Meldrum – one of a dozen bands the drummer currently supplies beats for – ran past 3:00 a.m. As he scans his day planner he bemoans the fact he hasn’t had a day off since April. “Oh, wait: I think I get one in December sometime. Maybe after Christmas.”
His current role as Pickles, drummer for fictional metal band Dethklok on the Adult Swim Network’s animated show Metalocalypse, is one of many things keeping him busy. The show features the escapades of a quintet of heavy-metal superstars fighting an evil entity known as The Tribunal. The running gag is that Dethklok are bungling fools except when they play together. For cartoons, they rock pretty hard.
Metalocalypse does not employ Hoglan’s talents directly. The show’s music is composed in a Los Angeles studio by co-creator Brendon Small, who generates the drum parts on a machine. After Metalocalypse caught on, a separate record label, Williams Street, released an accompanying soundtrack in 2007. This is where Hoglan’s actual parts come in. On The Dethalbum, Hoglan and Small took the tunes from the show’s first season and fleshed them out. The band has just released follow-up Dethalbum II.
As of press time, Dethklok will have begun their second tour. In each venue, the animated characters are projected onto a screen while down in the orchestra pit Hoglan, Small, and the rest of the lineup play instruments in real time. The screen displays snippets from past episodes of Metalocalypse but it’s not a rehash of the shows. Comedy skits break up the hour-or-so performance, followed by an encore spotlighting the real live human beings behind Dethklok. “No one has ever done anything remotely close to what we do, live anyway, when it comes to metal,” Hoglan says. “And it’s a rabid crowd, just psychotic fans.”
Hoglan will leave his stamp on the episodes of Metalocalypse to a greater extent for season three thanks to Small’s plans to use Toontrack’s Drumkit From Hell, a sample-based software co-created by Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake. Version 3.0 contains honest-to-goodness Hoglan parts that users can snatch wholesale or mix and match. “I haven’t even seen it yet but apparently there is a Gene file on it. So it’s me truly being Pickles now.”
Most of us have heard stories of players who as kids banged around on household objects. Hoglan skipped the pots and pans and went straight to air drumming on what he calls a “virtual drum set.” So deeply imagined was this make-believe kit, and the strokes executed on it, that by the time he transitioned to a set of mirror-finish Slingerlands his parents bought him at age 13, he could perfectly replicate the parts of Neil Peart, Joey Kramer, Alex Van Halen, Bun E. Carlos, Albert Bouchard, and all the other classic-rock guys. “The very first song I learned to play was ’The Rover’ by Led Zeppelin. Not that I was a huge Bonham fan, but that drum beat at the beginning was a really cool drum lick.”
Just how he was able to magically do this, Hoglan doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about. “I don’t know, I just did it,” he says. “I’m always learning through osmosis and all that air drumming I used to do. I don’t know if it’s just a natural aptitude for being able to pick out, ’Okay, this is what he’s doing with his kick drum; that’s the crazy ride pattern, I got that one; the snare is doing this.’ I started slow but I was able to pick stuff up pretty simply.”
To this day the ambidextrous Hoglan has never had a lesson in his life. The one time he did submit to a lesson, it turned into an embarrassment for the would-be instructor. “I did a few double-stroke rolls and he was like, ’Um, I can’t even do that so I don’t think this lesson thing is going to work out.’”
In the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, the Hoglan residence bordered a path that all the kids in his neighborhood took on the way to school. In the afternoon, they would hear him shedding in his bedroom. “I would run home at 3:00 p.m. and jump on the kit and play to Neil Peart and stuff like that. I was too embarrassed to play AC/DC because people would be, ’Pffft! That’s all he can do?’ I was scared they wouldn’t care about me if I was playing some ’Mary Had A Little Lamb’—kinda stuff.”
By the time he was at Downey High School, fellow students James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were putting together Metallica. In the neighboring community of Southgate, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman were forming Slayer. In Northern California it was Death Angel, Forbidden, Testament, Exodus, and so on. The West Coast thrash scene was exploding, and it was an exciting time to be in metal.
No sooner was his diploma in hand than he hit the road with Slayer as a lighting designer. During this brief stint (turns out he was lousy at the job), Hoglan recalls that Slayer worried that their songs were not as fast and brutal as rival thrashers Dark Angel. “I’m like, ’What are you talking about? You’re Slayer!’” By the end of that year, Hoglan joined Dark Angel and stayed for four albums, writing all the drum parts and even the guitar riffs.
It wasn’t until joining Tampa, Florida extreme-proggers Death that Hoglan’s chops went to the next level. Not that he planned it that way. The story goes that a year or so prior to joining the band, he was standing around at a party with a bunch of other metal dudes, beers in hand, and somebody walked up to him and asked him if he wanted to check out the new Death album Human. A big fan at the time, Hoglan listened to the CD in its entirety with complete absorption. When it had finished, he turned to someone and said, “Glad I’ll never have to play that drummer’s parts.”
Prior to Hoglan’s tenure, Death’s drum chair was occupied by Sean Reinert, of Cynic fame. “Before that Death was really just an ordinary kind of riff-based thrash band, but [on Human] Sean showed that metal drumming could be as weird and complicated as you wanted it to be.”
An awakened sense of rhythmic possibilities led to an exploration of Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, and avant styles Hoglan applied to his first recording with Death, 1995’s Individual Thought Patterns. “I was playing a show and this guy game up to me and said, ’Hey, that’s the bembé beat.’ I was like, ’Oh, is that what I was doing?’” he says, recalling the Afro Cuban groove in 6/8. “It’s a cool little beat that you can play over blasts. That’s all over Individual Thought Patterns.”
Another huge influence was Mark Craney, especially the parts he laid down on Gino Vanelli’s Brother To Brother album. “That was one of the albums that taught me how to play drums. I suggest all drummers at least check out the title track. There’s even double bass in it. I remember being, ’Oh, cool, I thought only metal drummers played double bass,’ especially in ’78 or whenever that came out.”
After tracking one more album with Death, 1996’s Symbolic, Hoglan moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. He lived in his car the first few months, and when he could, slept on a friend’s couch or at the pads of fellow band members in The Almighty Punch Drunk, Just Cause, Tenet, and Mechanism.
The choice of Vancouver wasn’t random. He had long admired metal impresario Devin Townsend and his band Strapping Young Lad. Everything from the cheeky band name down to Townsend’s self-aware hesher-flexing appealed to Hoglan’s comic sensibilities. (Incidentally, Dethklok drummer Pickles is modeled on Townsend.)
After Townsend shifted increasingly toward production work, Hoglan joined the other members of Strapping Young Lad in Zimmers Hole, where buffoonery meets brutality halfway. “For a lot of the people the humor flew right over their heads, but that’s cool too. There’s still wicked music and wicked vocals. Anything from humor to ripping metal, the Hole is for you.” After releasing While You Were Shouting At The Devil … We Were In League With Satan in 2008, Hoglan returned permanently to Los Angeles.