BY DAVE CONSTANTIN
Why Thomas Lang Wants You To Forget His Past
I’m sitting behind Thomas Lang’s custom electronic rig – a doublewide Roland TD-20SX tricked out with a blizzard of pedal-actuated triggers – trying not to seem too bewildered. Lang is standing in front of me, arms folded, grinning expectantly like a kid eager to share his favorite toy with a new playmate. We’re in Lang’s drum room—slash—recording studio at his house in West Lake Village, California, 30 miles outside Hollywood. But instead of getting a better feel for what it’s like to be Thomas Lang, I feel my confidence being washed away in this sea of mesh and rubber and gleaming chrome. I don’t think I want to play ultimate drummer anymore. That’s okay, though, because as it turns out, neither does Thomas Lang.
Forty-two-year-old Lang is in full-blown revolutionary mode these days, discarding long-held axioms, striking down drumming’s sacred cows, and re-examining fundamental aspects of his own playing. That, on top of recently becoming the new face at DW, having left Sonor after 21 years as a marquee endorser, a move he equates to the dissolution of a marriage. But more than anything, Lang is ready to move on from the über-drummer identity that has long defined him, to challenge the drumming community and the world in general to see him as the multi-instrumentalist, producer, all around musician, that he is. Whether or not the world is ready to see beyond the technique-driven stick-twirling spectacle of his YouTube fame, is a question that has yet to be answered.
CLEARING THE AIR
Lang’s music room is an ideal sanctuary, a small, sun-soaked retreat nestled into a corner of the ranch house where he lives with his wife (and publicist), Elizabeth, and his twin boys. With a few guitars lying about and just enough recording equipment to crank out pro-level demos, he barely ever has to leave the house to keep his various musical projects moving along. And with his feelings on the recording industry uncomplicated by nostalgia or affection, it seems he’s more than okay with that.
“Thank God all the record companies are dying and disappearing and all the dinosaurs are going away, because there’s nothing to eat for them anymore,” he says, his Austrian accent unmistakable despite 14 years living in London and another five spent here. “I am all for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. I am all for the appearance of homo sapiens in the world of music.”
We head out to conduct the interview over lunch at a nearby cafe. But as we’re walking through the garage through a graveyard of forgotten drum gear wedged into every available crevice, I remark on a couple of sets of golf clubs propped up against the wall. Lang’s eyes light up. A newfound passion for golf is another addition to the life list.
Ten minutes later we’re standing across from each other at the driving range down the street, sending balls hurling into the blue California sky. Thanks to Lang’s southpaw stance, we stand face-to-face. And with nothing but the occasional ping of a well-connected drive to distract us, Lang sets about slaying some dragons.
“People know me almost exclusively through the instructional side of things and clinics because they neglect to do the correct research in my musical history or past,” he says, sounding mildly frustrated. “Because they’re not interested. They’re interested in the technical aspect of drumming.”
What the research reveals is that before he exploded on the drum scene about ten years ago with a series of instructional videos and aggressive clinic tours (culminating in a record-breaking 200-plus clinics worldwide in 2004 in support of his wildly successful DVD Creative Control) Lang was living in London and earning a paycheck the old-fashioned way: taking sideman gigs wherever they came up, keeping time behind some high-profile Euro pop acts like Spice Girls, Take That, Westlife, and Kylie Minogue.
But he doesn’t mince words about that time period. “I never liked most of the sessions I played,” he says. “I was working a lot in that European pop scene not because I loved European pop music at all, but because it was great work. And, you know, it helped me maintain a certain lifestyle, and that is important to me. Most kids out there or most people who read this may say, ‘But what about your artistic integrity?’ I will say, ‘Are you a professional musician? Probably not, because you wouldn’t be asking me this question.’ You know? And it’s as simple as that. You make choices. They were awesome choices and I don’t regret one moment. But artistically, musically, it wasn’t satisfying.”
Similarly, when he finally decided to put out his first instructional video, it was not, he insists, an attempt to fill that creative void. “The decision to make these videos had nothing to do with my career as a musician, really. It was a business decision. It was something I did to be more efficient in teaching and sharing certain things with people who are interested in it. Yes, there was a little bit of stroking my own ego involved at the very first of it. But this is one aspect of my career that is the least significant to me personally, the least important musically, and the least satisfying.”
The reason for that, he says, is that attaining superstar status among other drummers, while great, doesn’t necessarily translate to more work as non-clinician. “The drum thing has been more of a hindrance in my real job as a musician than a benefit,” he says. “Often I’ve heard it, even recently, where people say to me, ‘You’re Thomas Lang. You’re like, the drummers drummer guy, aren’t you?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And they say to me – literal quote – ‘Listen, we need more bodies on stage and less faces.’ And it’s hard at that point to say, ‘No, I’m not that guy.’ In fact, I’m trying to audition for bass and not for drums on this tour.”
He especially laments the lack of understanding even in the drum community about his intentions with these clinics and videos. “People like to point out that my playing is very technical and my videos are all about technique – completely missing the point that that’s exactly what the video’s about, and nothing else. I didn’t release a video called Groove Concepts or Groove Tricks. My videos are instructional videos. Check it out. It’s called Applied Technique. It’s called Advanced Technique. It’s called Creative Control. It’s in the title! It’s all about technique and control. It’s not about music at all.
People make a very fundamental mistake in confusing, or even throwing those two issues in one hand. Technique and expression or art really are two different things. I have often said, a musician who has no technique can create art. A monkey can. Absolutely. If you don’t know that it’s a monkey performing, you might still like it. To me technique is a tool. The more tools you have the more jobs you can do and get it done quickly and easily.”
CREATIVE CONTROL REDEFINED
There’s little doubt Lang was digging deep into the technique tool box on Stork, the debut release from his instrumental prog trio of the same name that includes Lang, bassist Eloy Palacios, and guitarist Shane Gibson, a Berkelee-trained shredder who Korn fans might know as the touring guitarist who replaced Brian “Head” Welch after Welch left in 2005.
Stork is a good representation of Lang’s DIY approach to music making these days, free from the pressures of endorsers or studio bigwigs. Though Lang recorded his final drum tracks for the album at the Garage in Rancho Cucamonga, California with his buddy Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard, with whom he plays in another trio, Terabyte, along with original Counting Crows bassist Matt Malley, most of the creative process was homegrown. “I made all the session files at home in my studio. Shane came over for the preproduction and I recorded Shane at my house and then I went and played drums on the guitar tracks and I programmed the bass tracks and I played the keyboards and finished the preproduction, played the drums, and then I gave the compiled files to Shane and he recorded the guitar at his house on Pro Tools, and then he sent the guitar files back to me. I did some editing on them. With this band, the music is all handmade, it’s all real.”
Oh, and for the record, to any Lang fans who think his distancing himself from the über-drummer label means his playing is going soft – you’ve got another thing coming. “It’s really complicated,” he says of this music, “which was a huge challenge. And of course, I’m the kind of person that goes, Why do you climb Mount Everest? Because it is there, you know?”
In many ways, Lang found a kindred spirit in Gibson. And in addition to writing, producing, and playing together in Stork, they also get their kicks in an L.A. goof-metal outfit known as Schwarzenator, which is exactly what it sounds like. “It’s a concept band. Each song is about a different Arnold Schwarzenegger movie,” Lang explains. “We use the movie plot and quotes from the movie to inspire the lyrics and tell the story in musical form. And it is awesome.”
And while it would be easy to assume Schwarzennator was Lang’s idea, given his pseudo-action-hero looks and Austrian roots (not to mention the residual accent), it was actually Gibson who recruited him into it after the two had already begun Stork. But it was Lang who originally made the choice to work with Gibson in the first place, after being impressed with a demo CD Gibson had handed him, unsolicited, on the floor of a NAMM show. “He’s very different in the sense that he doesn’t give a crap about how he uses technique, how complicated or not the music is – he’s just playing.”
The complexity and intricacy of are a natural byproduct of their respective tastes. And they soon discovered they have similar means of transcribing music. “It’s hard to read handwriting anyways on charts,” Lang explains. “And it’s impossible to read syncopated sixty-fourth-note triplet phrases. That doesn’t exist even in really ultra-complex classical or contemporary music. So Shane started writing out these ultra-complex riffs in a different way. He started not using traditional means of notating with you know, thirty different notes, the bars, and the rests and everything.
“Other people would be proud at how complex the transcription looks on a piece of paper. And then, you know, you have to sit down and work it out. And in fact it turns out that it’s probably easier to notate it differently and you’ll understand it quicker.”
This shorthand approach is how Lang has always transcribed his drum parts. “Because whatever you can do in music to make it easier, must be done,” he insists. “And I got the technique thing. Technique makes the playing easier. That’s the whole point. Technique is probably the best thing you can do, the most rewarding and efficient to make playing easier.
If you can think about what to play, not how to play, then you are there. You are in a good place.”
THE WUNDER YEARS
Of course, reaching the point where technique is no longer a barrier didn’t happen overnight. Lang began playing drums at the age of five, pushed into lessons early by his mother, who he says secretly hoped the formal instruction would quell his growing enthusiasm for the instrument. “But I had a fantastic teacher,” he says, and so the plan backfired. At age 15, already with ten years of drum set instruction under his belt, he enrolled at the Vienna Konservatorium, a music academy he describes as the Julliard of Europe, with a distinctly classical bent. “I had to pretend I was into it,” he says of the classical repertoire. “Which I wasn’t then, but I have much more appreciation for it now.”
The curriculum included the standard training on timpani, snare drum, mallets, vibraphone, marimba, and percussion instruments. “It teaches you to read, for sure, and you do more reading than playing, actually. I also did drum set, and had a couple of good drum set teachers, but obviously I did most of the work myself. Those were very important years for me because of the pressure I had to squeeze in more work than the other guys because I wasn’t really interested in the classical side as much – I wanted to do drum set. So I had to do both, and I found a way to practice very, very efficiently.”
Lang soon grew bored with the classical emphasis, though, and left the Konservatorium after only a couple of years, returning again after another year of high school. But by then he was already working the clubs around Vienna, playing with as many bands as possible, and doing his best to “stumble up the ladder.”
When he was 18 or 19, he came to L.A. to attend Musician’s Institute. But after the fiercely competitive atmosphere of the Konservatorium, M.I.’s open-enrollment policy felt a little too casual for his tastes. Already self-motivated, he doubled down on his evolving practice regimen, eventually honing a curriculum that rivaled, and probably exceeded, anything the academies had to offer.
The grueling details of that imposing practice regimen can be found on Lang’s web site. But the reality is, it’s been at least ten years since he’s practiced like that. “Unfortunately. Not that I pride myself not to practice. I wish I had the time. But I don’t.” Even so, while he admits that kind of determination that drove him to put in hours a day for so many years seemed essential at the time, these days he sees things differently. “This is stuff that requires maintenance, like, serious maintenance,” he says. “I mean there’s so much material that you wouldn’t try to use in everyday playing situation. If you don’t use that technique or maintain it, or practice it, it goes away. You can always remember what to do, but physically you can’t execute it. Because you are not in that shape.”
Instead, his practice routine is as much mental as physical now. “I work on concepts, ideas, mentally. I don’t need a drum set for that. I work on things that don’t require physical, repetitive training.”
A BREAK WITH TRADITION
Arguably one of the most identifiable aspects of Lang’s playing to have come out of all those years of repetitive training is his masterful command of traditional grip, which he has used unfailingly in every style of music he’s played throughout his entire career. Which is why I almost choke when he drops this statement: “I will never play traditional grip again.”
“I don’t want to say never, but … I’ve changed my grip after 37 years. I learned to play traditional. My teacher said, ‘This is how you play the drums.’ No argument, no discussion, this is it. So I did. And I’ve been playing like this all my life. And I’ve been playing very heavy music and loud music and complicated modern music with this crutch, which is a joke, a curse. This makes no sense at all. It’s a stupid solution to a stupid problem.”
Yikes. I can hear the gasps of horror from jazz purists everywhere as he’s saying this. But the truth is, Lang has just as much authority as anyone to make this kind of statement. “All my life I’ve been working with all these stupid things, with the left hand, with the angle of the hand with relation to the forearm. The exact location. Everything from whipping motion to finger control to Gladstone, Moeller, you know, all this nonsense, for so many years, with such determination.” In fact, Lang not only took trad grip to new technical extremes over the years, but became a veritable ambassador for it as a clinician.
Playing devil’s advocate, I mention that I’ve heard people talk about how an asymmetrical grip forces a different kind of communication between the hands, resulting in more creative interplay with the limbs.
“That was my thing! I said that!” he blurts out. “I put that in my videos. Other people say that it’s the exact other way around, that you have to have the same exact starting point. It doesn’t matter. There are different philosophies. But for many years I was a big advocate of the traditional grip because I felt like I had to be, or I had to reason with myself. I always wanted to be the guy who could play metal using traditional grip. But then I thought, why? Only because I need to prove to myself that it’s possible to play this? Because I’ve worked so hard on this grip, now I want to use it for everything? Even if it doesn’t make sense? I’m defending this stupid thing that makes no sense. And I’m defending it really well. I’m looking at myself, going, Yeah, this makes sense.
“I am over that now.”
The epiphany came when he began asking why, if this grip had any value outside of its survival as an historical artifact, didn’t anyone play reverse grip with both hands? No one he talked to seemed to have a good answer for that.
When he finally flipped the stick over, he was shocked with what he found. “I never practiced matched grip. Never, in my whole life. And honestly, when I decided to change, I tried to see, what can’t I play using matched? And there was nothing. I can play everything I can play traditional grip. I got the Stick Control book out, and I did all the flamadiddles and Swiss triplets and Charlie Murphys and cheese pujadas. It was zero effort. It just shows how easy it is, and how much more natural it is. So, from first of January on, I’m officially a matched-grip player.”
LANG’S NEW LEASE
Despite all the seemingly radical changes: the new grip, the endorsement deal, the move to a more musical identity, it’s obvious by the time our interview comes to a close over a few post-range brews and cheap Mexican food that Lang is, at best, conflicted about his role as an über-drummer. On the one hand, he’s not about to throw away 37 years of hard-earned skills just to land a few more gigs. Thank God. His playing is as exceptional as it’s ever been. No doubt speed freaks and technical savants will find plenty to drool over on Stork.
He’s simply a little older and wiser now. After losing control over his image once, he’s more protective of it now. He has to be. His move to L.A. five years ago with his family in tow was a true leap of faith. He left London to escape the closed loop his career had become: clinical superstar by day, Euro-pop fill-in by night. West Lake Village is where Lang’s Clark Kent side now resides, drawn to the quiet suburban harmony probably for the same reasons that attracted drum buddy Gregg Bissonette, who lives down the street and was the one who convinced Lang to move here in the first place. “I fell in love with it,” Lang says of the area. “We just live here. I write music. I have my projects, and I try to be very selective and artistic about my choices.”
As for whether or not he’s hanging up the cape for good, Lang leaves himself an opening, which also serves as a challenge to critics: “My video career — if you’d like to see it as a career — in the instructional market is not over. I have many more ideas, and I know that there is a lot of stuff that people are interested in that I would like to share, but I have to catch my breath because there is so much misunderstanding. I think people have to start digesting this stuff before they can really understand.”
DRUMS: DW (Solid Black Lacquer)
1. 24″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2. 18″ x 14″ Bass Drum (on lifter)
3. 14″ x 6.5″ Super Solid Snare Drum
4. 8″ x 7″ Tom
5. 10″ x 8″ Tom
6. 12″ x 9″ Tom
7. 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
8. 18″ x 16″ Floor Tom
9. 20″ x 16″ Gong Drum
10. 10″ x 5″ Snare Drum
11. 14″ x 6.5″ Snare Drum
A. 13″ Byzance Fast Hats
B. 12″ Generation X Safari Hats
C. 18″ Generation X Thomas Lang Signature Kinetik Crash
D. 16″ Generation X Thomas Lang Signature Synthetik Crash
E. 18″ Soundcaster Fusion Crash
F. 8″ Thomas Lang Filter China
G. 10″ Thomas Lang Filter China
H. 12″ Thomas Lang Filter China
I. 20″ Byzance Thin Crash (Brilliant Finish)
J. 17″ Generation X Thomas Lang Signature Kompressor Crash
K. 8″ Meinl Bells (played as hi-hats)
L. 14″ Byzance Fast Hats
M. 20″ MB20 Heavy Ride
N. 19″ Byzance Medium Crash (Brilliant Finish)
O. 14″ Thomas Lang Filter China
P. 18″ Generation X Thomas Lang Signature Signal Crash
Q. 16″ Thomas Lang Filter China
R. 12″ Remo TSS on Meinl pedal bracket
S. Meinl percussion block mounted on Meinl pedal
T. 10″ Remo TSS on Meinl pedal bracket
Thomas Lang also uses DW hardware, throne and 9000 series pedals, Gibraltar rack, Remo heads, Vic Firth Thomas Lang signature sticks, Meinl cajon and percussion table, Roland triggers, Puresound snare wires, Audix microphones, HansenFütz practice pedals, Hard Case drum cases, PowerWrist Builders, and Thomas Lang signature Bigfoot bass beaters. Lang occasionally plays two Roland TD-20SX kits combined into one ginormous V-drum monster.
SHANE GIBSON: THE PERCUSSIVE GUITARIST
Not all musicians are scared off by Lang’s über-drummer side. When Shane Gibson spotted Lang giving a demonstration at NAMM three years ago, the guitarist knew he’d found his ideal partner in crime. “I thought, Man, we could totally bond. We could totally come together with this kind of stuff.”
Right then and there on the convention floor, the imposing Austrian gave a quick listen to Gibson’s demo of scratch tracks laid over a Boss DR-3 drum machine. Lang liked what he heard, and Stork was born.
For Gibson, the touring guitarist for Korn, locking in with the drums isn’t just helpful, it’s the whole point of Stork. Staccato bursts of feedback-drenched chords replicate the note-y precision of Lang’s beats. “He would take all the literal translations of every note and make it dynamic instead of straight. When Thomas plays double bass he articulates different notes.
It’s like 1 e and 3 e and 4 e,” he says, emphasizing the numerals. “And maybe the 1 e is accented. So on a guitar point of view, how can I make this in the same vein as him?”
After Lang re-notated his parts to better fit with the guitar, the drums were tracked at The Garage, the studio of prog-drummer/vocalist Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard). “There’s no quantizing of the drums,” Gibson says. “It’s just raw. If we’re going to play live, we want you to know what it sounds like. And that’s what it sounds like.”
As if Stork wasn’t enough to satisfy Gibson’s percussive-guitar urges, he also jams with Lang in the rhythmically similar Schwarzenator. Whatever project they collaborate on, a metronome comes in handy, but neither of them is slavish about it. “Thomas obviously doesn’t need a click-track, but we use one just to keep the flow going. He is not necessarily playing to it, he’s just looking at the actual beat. We can kind of go in and out.”
Gibson traces his unique six-string approach back to Berklee, where he had a roommate with a drum corps background. Gibson wanted to take those insane snare cadences he heard and transfer them to guitar. In Stork, however, the guitar-drum connection is more reciprocal. “Thomas can play something and I can play it back – and I can play something and he can play it back. It’s one of those relationships that you don’t see very often.” — Andrew Lentz
THOMAS LANG: GROOVE ANALYSIS
Thomas Lang is an astoundingly dedicated and creative drummer, as his excellent DVD’s have proved. He’s has developed more technique than most drummer’s could in several lifetimes yet always manages to find new clever uses for his skills. His new band Stork includes Shane Gibson from Korn and Eloy Palacios of Venison, and together they create a unique blend of progressive rock and technical metal. If you like Dream Theater, Meshuggah, Cynic, and Planet X, pick up this disc – it’s a frightening display of musical mayhem.
Mathematical relationships permeate music, though fortunately we can all enjoy music without needing a calculator. However, “Loki” may be the exception to that statement. This song is insanely syncopated and complex and will appeal to any rocket scientists among us. At first listen, you may think the Intro groove is just a funky odd-time pattern. However, there is a method to this madness that you might never decipher without a little help. Lang has gradually spaced the snare accents further and further apart – one sixteenth-note at a time. The snare accents create groupings of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 notes. Note that the double bass footings indicated are just one possible way he may have played this pattern.
The next section is much more sparse but comes from the same clever and twisted brain. Here, the bass drums are spaced apart in groupings of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4 and 3 sixteenth-notes. This creates a feeling of the groove slowing down and then speeding up over and over. Lang doesn’t just repeat a static groove but gives it variety with changing hi-hat openings, triplet fills, and whispered ghost notes. My brain hurts …
For you metal heads with a stopwatch, the opening of this track proves Lang can blast cleanly in addition to all his other skills. I clocked this around 220 bpm, but it might be a bit faster.