What an awesome opportunity to meet up with legendary drummer Gene Hoglan (ex-Death, Dark Angel, Testament) at the Sounds of the Underground Tour. As one of the heaviest and most original acts to play the festival, I decided to interview them to get their thoughts on the tour, the metal scene, and the future for Strapping Young Lad.
Enslain: Can you tell us a little about Strapping Young Lad's history?
Gene Hoglan: Well the first album was recorded, well it was released in 1995, called "Heavy as a Real Heavy Thing." Then in 1996 I met Dev and we started putting together "City" which was the next record, and that album came out and it was a genre-defining record, definitely set the bar higher for everybody else, which, we like that, you know, there wasn't a lot of people doing really, really cool shit at the time, so, thank god for Strapping. And that came out in '97, the next album came out in 2003 and that was the self-titled "SYL", that was a little more raw bare-bones record, we didn't want to repeat "City", because "City" was like sample-heavy, and totally, we were being called an industrial band and all that sort of bullshit, and by the time we did "SYL", we liked being a metal band, so it was just a pretty raw metal record, not over-the-top samples or keyboards, or even the vocals weren't layered, and so that brought us to 2004 when we started writing "Alien" and we recorded "Alien" I guess last year, got released in March of this year, and it was mostly Devin and I going nuts writing the new record, and layering everything on it, just sonically, so... just from top to bottom, wow, that's a whole lot of stuff you guys are pushing at all times, so, it sounds really cool, you know, if people don't like the record, fuck 'em, but you can't say it sounds like shit! You know, like, fuck, it's a wicked sounding record, so, eat it!
Enslain: What caused the 6 year lapse between "City" and the self-titled album?
GH: Devin was really concentrating on his solo career at the time, and, actually "City" was really supposed to be the last Strapping album, like, when he signed to Century Media, it was just Devin Townsend, and they said, well look dude, we don't really want to have like "Devin Townsend", we don't have any solo artists on our label, so, tell you what, why don't we give it a band name, so he was like "I don't know!" and so I guess Strapping Young Lad got bandied about there, and that was, I think it's a great name! I love the name "Strapping", you know, what a cool name! Sounds like a boy band, or something really silly, you know, that all of a sudden is just like "rooooooaaar" full on heaviness, so, sounds pretty cool.
Enslain: Did he write that whole album himself then?
GH: For the most part, yep, we wrote a song called "Oh My Fucking God" in about 10 minutes and that's a crazy song... it was like totally mind blowing at the time, the whole record is full-on metal, like, you really can't be a metal fan without at least hearing "City" and just going "holy shit, Jesus!" you know, 'cause it will do it to you, the way "Alien" does for a lot of people, you know, I realize "Alien" is like the first extract of Strapping that a lot of people have heard, and they're like, wow, what the hell are these guys doing? So that's cool.
Enslain: With "Alien" was it more of a group effort in recording/writing?
GH: Moreso now than back then, even though Dev and I wrote the majority of the songs, just us two, because Byron was doing a lot of Fear Factory stuff, and Jed was away with Fear Factory as well, and Jed now lives in Philadelphia, it was mostly Dev and I, but, like our video song for instance, "Love?" that was written totally as a band, like the summer before, the summer of 2003, it was just like, hey let's write some riffs together, Jed comes up with a cool riff, we kind of build on that. Jed and Dev wrote most of the riffs on the new record, and I threw in some riffs here and there, and it's all good!
Enslain: What with the chaoticness of the songs both musically and lyrically, is it difficult putting the songs together and being able to know when the song is over?
GH: I think once you get over like the 3 or 4 minute mark, you start counting up the riffs and think, um maybe we should end the song now! (laughs) But I think the songs on this album especially, it might sound corny to say - the songs wrote themselves - but they kinda did, like each kinda part that we put together kinda flowed into the next one, and when they stopped flowing then you knew it was time to wrap it up, so it was a really easy album to write anyway, it was, like I said, Devin and myself just hunkered down in the bunker and writing like, we'd work on a part or a piece or a song, we'd work on it for a week or two, and... then scrap it, if we didn't like it. If it was going to go somewhere, it's got the legs already, when you start to write a song, you know, and then after a couple weeks of - it's not really going anywhere, it's kinda already running out of steam, you put that idea aside, you know, maybe we'll come back to it. Sure. And we rarely do.
Enslain: Have you guys abandoned your side projects, other than Byron who's doing Fear Factory?
GH: No, Zimmer's Hole is a side project of Jed & Byron, and they've still got that going, we just played a show with Zimmer's Hole a couple weeks ago. Byron and I are also now involved in a band from Vancouver, it's called Ani Kyd, that's her name, check it out. It's vastly different from Strapping or Fear Factory, it's just pretty foot-stomping dirty rock and roll with a real sex kitten singer, she can play guitar and sing, and Jello Biafra just produced it, that's pretty cool, you know, having a legend produce your record. He's really into Ani's music, he's really into her voice, really into her tunes, and him being such a legendary guy, that was really cool just seeing his enthusiasm for her project, it was really infectious.
Enslain: (Sucking up) Well, she's got a legendary producer, and a legendary drummer, so she must be something! You also used to work with a couple other projects, like Old Man's Child...
GH: I remember when we were taking pictures for it, and Galder, the lead dude, was like "you want to wear the corpse paint for it?" I was like, "I want to wear this Bozo the Clown make-up, man!" and he was like, "Bozo the Clown? Who is this Bozo the Clown?" I'm like, "No, believe me, it will be funny!" you know? I think I downloaded a picture for him on the internet and he's like, "yeah ok, Bozo the Clown, wicked!" And then I was in another project called Demon from Denmark, and that was just another one-off thing, but I'd like to do another record with those guys, it was just full-on aggro old-school thrash, it was really neat.
Enslain: Is it difficult writing an album with a band that's not from your area?
GH: It's usually pretty easy, it depends on how involved they want me to get in the writing, and ordinarily for those things, they'll call me up a year beforehand and say "maybe you might have some time next year?" and I'll be like, "ok, we'll fit something in" you know, 'cause it doesn't really take me too long to learn a record and record it, so usually they make a lot of drum-machine 4-track demos and send those, and then I just Gene-ize them, or something, you know, take his basic ideas and just build upon that, at least I know when they want the drums to do what, I know what their basic beat is, I'll just go nutty off of that.
Enslain: So with you guys all being involved in other projects, most notably Byron being in Fear Factory, and what with their touring schedule, does that cause any kind of problems with scheduling for SYL?
GH: The only time it's going to is the last 9 days of this tour, the Gigantour takes off, so, we were going to be able to fly Byron in for about 3 or 4 shows, but I guess they've now booked some shows on those off-days for them, to fly in and play Strapping shows is not going to work out like that, so we got a buddy from Vancouver who's gonna come out and play some dates for us.
Enslain: So Byron's going with the Fear Factory gigs instead of Strapping...
GH: Yeah, this one we don't make any money off of. Byron's gotta get paid! C'mon!
Enslain: So how are you guys liking this tour? It's only the second day, but does it seem well organized?
GH: It will be, you know, this is absolutely a baby tour, from the ground up, like this has never been done before, you know, the Ozzfest is like, whatever, you've got big cash behind the very first one, and this one is, there's no buy-ons on this one like the second stage Ozzfest is, so there's not a whole ton of cash that's been sunk into this thing, it's pretty much Lamb of God and bands that they want to be on tour with, so it's kinda like a friendship thing, like, we were approached by pretty much the guys from the band, like their management I think, just going up to Byron at a Fear Factory show last year saying, we're going to be doing this thing next year, are you interested, for Strapping, and Byron's like, "yeah! hell yeah, just let us know when it's happening and we'll work around it." So, it's killer, everybody's having a really good time. Right now a lot of the "swoopy-doo" bands, you know the side-parters, the little emo-core bands, they're all totally terrified of the metal bands, like all the metal dudes are like, "hey brother what's up! How you doing man! Long time no see!" and all the little emo-core guys are like (in a timid voice) "sorry!" and shit-kicked, you know. And everybody's really friendly, but the emo-core guys don't know that yet, they're all just kinda sticking to themselves. I want to have an emo-core band or something, called "My Band Name is Longer Than Your Band Name."
Enslain: But that doesn't start with a prepositional phrase, you're going to have to modify that!
GH: (laughs) gotcha!
Enslain: How do you feel about doing a tour with these kinds of bands? I'm sure it's not what you're used to, I know you guys have done a lot of European festivals, and like Milwaukee Metalfest, and this is just a whole different breed of music.
GH: It's fine. Like, we just did our US tour with us and three mall-core bands, and they bring in such a young crowd, that is absolutely not interested in the fucking thrashing old hippies or anything like that, but you know, they're totally into it, it's like the younger brother's music, it's an amalgamation of it, you've got your older brother who listened to Iron Maiden and Slayer, and they just kinda take some of the pieces from a lot of that and make their own sound from it, so it's yet another step in the evolution of hard music, you know, heavy metal, or whatever. And I think it's great, I think it's an expression for this younger generation, it's the way they want to play, it's image conscious which it's never been really, like thrash metal, which I think all of this stuff is obviously based on, and thrash metal was absolutely NOT image conscious, so they've taken some of the Poison and Motley Crue era, not that they look like that, but they're interested in fashion, they're interested in how they look, and granted it's a big cookie-cutter, but then again every guy having long hair on a tour, that's kinda cookie-cutter too, so at least they're trying to do their expression, and I think it's a little more sensitive than just meat-head heavy metal, like these guys are trying to sing about stuff that affects them in a big way, and I think that's always cool if you can write from the heart, I definitely appreciate that.
Enslain: Do you think metal belongs outside of the underground?
GH: It's going to be whatever it is. I think metal's larger than it's ever been, especially with the advent of the internet. 20 years ago, you know, we had tape-trading, and had a bunch of people like, "how big's your list?" "well mine's 23 pages, how big's your list?" "well mine's 24 pages!" you know, and then it got into video-tape trading and stuff, and now there's no such thing as tape trading anymore, but there's the internet. If you're sitting in Podunk, Iowa, you can find out what that Polish death metal band that you read about in the magazine sounds like, you can go to their website and hear everything, so the fingers of heavy metal are larger than ever.
Enslain: But that seems to have caused the average listener's CD collection to be in the thousands, it just doesn't seem like metal fans are as picky as they used to be.
GH: Well of course not, you know, because music has so watered down now, it's really hard to create another scene from absolutely nothing. Like, we did it with thrash metal. Thrash metal came from nothing. There was Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and those were the Heavy Metal bands, and all of a sudden we just took thrash metal, like back way before Strapping I was in a band called Dark Angel which was one of the progenitors of thrash metal, and that's why I've always laughed, every time like, back in the day when I was playing with Death or something, people would come up and say, "you know, I'm in a Death Metal band, and there's nowhere to play in my town, you've gotta go two towns over cuz they've got two death metal bands over in the other town, and they've got a cool club over there" and I just remember, fuck, it wasn't like that growing up, it was like, "another death metal band, what the fuck is death metal?" you know, it was like, my band, Dark Angel, playing this fucking extremely brutal metal, playing with a couple of rock and roll bands, you know, a couple of hair bands, because there was no scene, you know... "our scene sucks in this town..." well, fuck, you have a scene anyway. There was no scene back in 1983, 1984.
Enslain: So you like the way that things have progressed then?
GH: Why not? You know, it's like, 10 years ago you could not do something like this. Ozzfest might be all corporate and all ugly, and we god denied Ozzfest, but still the Ozzfest is a great thing for metal. They kept heavy metal alive for people. That would be the one show that people would go to, because they can't really go see Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, you know, they can go to their local clubs and catch Slayer or Dimmu Borgir or whatever, but to see it on a large scale, you know, Ozzfest, and this thing, this thing can become a cottage industry just like Ozzfest. All the bands that are too ugly for Ozzfest can come here, and play on Sounds of the Underground. It's a good thing. Since it is an inaugural one, it's gonna be small, and the Ozzfest is coming through real quick, so... it's like a salmon swimming upstream, but it's got a pretty strong tail.
Enslain: How do you feel about the 30-minute sets? They do seem to have a pretty good system set up for switching over the stage.
GH: This is just like a European festival, and every one of these bands have probably done 10 European festivals at least, so we're all used to it, 5-minute changeover, no biggie, you've got your drum set already set up in the back, roll it onto the stage, plug in your guitars, you turn around and go, it's just like every European festival.
Enslain: But you usually get longer sets, because there are fewer bands?
GH: Usually there's like, say 9 bands on the main stage or something, and the earlier bands probably play for 25 minutes or a half an hour, and as you get longer into the day you get forty minutes, but I think a 25 minute set is awesome, you know? You go out there and sweat for 25 minutes, and you're done with the day! And it gives everybody enough chance to kinda dip their feet in the water of your band. You check it out, it's not too long to where you go "fuck, I hate these guys" because, you know, if I hate these guys, I've only got 10 minutes left in their set, and I've had to sit through them for 15 minutes, it's a piece of cake, you know, and it's a good teaser.
Enslain: Are all the shows outdoors?
GH: Most of them. Last night was in the (Paul E.) Tsongas Arena in Lowell, MA, which is outside of Boston, so, that was the indoor one, and I guess there's two more, so it's only gonna get hotter! It's a piece of cake. I'm going to sweat whether it's indoors or outdoors, outdoors on stage you're sucking in hot air, and indoors you're sucking in not as hot air, you know, it's a little bit cooler. It's alright, it's all totally good.
Enslain: So what newer bands are you into right now?
GH: That's a good question. It's really hard for me, like, I really love originality in bands, I love bands where you can't say what they sound like. you know, this band sounds just like that band, "ok, well I get that other band, so I like these guys" you know, it's not like that with me. It's like, I want to hear a band that just DOES NOT sound like anybody, when you ask, hey what do they sound like, you're like, I don't know, they sound like themselves! So, Strapping, we don't sound like anybody else! You know, so, I like bands like Strapping! I'm fortunate to play in my favorite band! That's the way I've always wanted to be, with any time I write music, or any band I've ever been in, it's usually been like me looking around and trying to find a band to really get behind, and you can't so fuck it, write your own. So I'm pretty fortunate in that regard.
Enslain: What are Strapping Young Lad's plans after this tour?
GH: Byron does the Gigantour with Fear Factory, Devin goes in to do another Devin Townsend Band record, and then we're going to be hitting the road some time after that, probably doing some stuff in the Fall, there's talk of us being involved in another tour that's going to be really cool, I hope we do get it, originally we did have it, but now we're getting told that one of these cheese-ball bands is going to get it, so, fuck those guys, you know. It's just a four band package, but they're four really cool bands, so, we will see.
Enslain: So, it seems like Canada is kinda quite in the metal scene, is this true?
GH: Well, yeah, they've got a totally different style of what's coming out of there, like Vancouver has the coolest metal bands in the world, 'cause you've got The Almighty Punchdrunk, Zimmer's Hole, Strapping, Just Cause… and those, I'll take the Pepsi Challenge with any of those bands with any man on the planet, I'll play the Almighty Punch Drunk for anybody and they'll destroy you, you know, Stapping, of course. And Zimmer's Hole, Jed's other band, coolest band in the world, like, coolest music, coolest stage show, they're kinda like mini-Gwar, Gwar without the budget, and it's hilarious! They've been doing the comedy metal thing for 10 years, and now there's other bands that are starting to do the goofy kinda comedy parody of metal, even Strapping borrowed a bit from Zimmer's Hole, you know. Canada's like anywhere else, once a little scene gets big, they pop out their own few versions of it, like when grunge was big, they popped out Nickelback, a post-grungy band, they're pretty slow up there, but Canada's a pretty good market for us, because we're Canadian, but for the longest time we used to think, oh fuck, Canada sucks! You know, they've got some pretty cool bands, but it's worthless to play, and now we go play Canada and everywhere we play is like huge, so, it's just us in our own back yard I suppose.
Enslain: Do you prefer playing in North America or Europe?
GH: We're working on the North American market right now, we're trying to break it. In Europe, we're already probably as big as we'll ever be over there, which is ok, we've played over in Europe a million times. We've played in America, 6, or something like that. This is our 5th or 6th tour of America. In Europe we would just go there and spend two or three months there, two or three times a year, so Europe is awesome, Europe is great, we love it, and America will be great too as soon as they catch up.
Enslain: And a tour like this should help with the exposure to do that.
GH: Oh yeah, We're not going to slow down, we're not going to play the lowest common denominator music, it's really easy to play songs that's going to make the pit go nutty, but it's also going to be really boring for yourselves, you know that's the easy way out, I feel, and you're going to see 10 or 12 bands on this bill, that "gotta get the pit going", gotta make people freak out, and pump their fists, and do the fucking Bart and Lisa fucking spinny thingie, and... I can't tell those bands apart, sound-wise, I can't. And then there's Strapping, which gets NO pits whatsoever, but you've got 3000 people who's going, "what the fuck is going on up there?" you know.
Enslain: I think you guys had some sympathy pitting out there, some people just wanted to be in the pit!
GH: Sure! And it used to freak us out, it used to bum us out, like, "fuck, man, nobody likes us" and we starting realizing after everybody was coming up, they were just like, dude, I've never seen anything like that, it was mind-boggling how fucking heavy and crushing that was. And this was a 25-minute set in the daytime, and we're not playing any of our super-duper intense songs or anything like that, so it's our sort of palatable set, but... after seeing 12 bands that all kinda have the same name, and the same sound, and the same everything, and I'm not putting these bands down, but I'm just saying it's a glut! There's an onslaught of it, thank god for bands like Strapping, thank god for bands like Gwar, like Opeth, like a palate cleansing band that just comes along like, wow, different! you know, that's a good sore thumb. So that's what we do. I'm real confident when it comes to Strapping too, so, I won't take shit off of anybody, like you can't beat my band! (laughs) you know, like who kills us, nobody! So, fuck it. Slipknot, they've got a big huge show but we'll still destroy you guys too, you know.
Enslain: How is it working with Devin?
GH: He's awesome, Dev's awesome, he's one of the coolest people on the planet, you know, and his brain is constantly moving, his brain is music, non-stop, 24 hours a day, and it's very infectious, and it's a great creative outlet, and I have ultimate respect for Dev's work ethic, people call him a genius and all that, and he's the last guy who'd ever say anything like that about himself, he's like, man, I'm a hard-working musician, if you equate being a musician at this age to having a job, then, you know, I put 10, 12, 18 hours a day into my job, and of course it's going to pay off. I'd better be good, if I put that much time into it. It's like, yeah, you're right, you should. So many musicians, or call themselves musicians, and sit on the couch all day and play video games, or "I picked up my guitar for a half hour today, I'm a musician." Devin doesn't have time for video games. Me and Jed do, because we're… "musicians" (laughs).
Enslain: So what kind of music do you guys listen to on the tour bus?
GH: Well everybody knows that I love old soul, and just sweet soul from the 60's, I love Motown, Stevie Wonder is my hero, Marvin Gaye and Al Green, that's the kinda stuff that I like listening to, but I love cranking metal. Jed is totally our metal dude, he'll crank on some old Exodus or some AC/DC and stuff. Byron likes a lot of the foot-stomping stuff, like Queens of the Stone Age, which I think are cool, I like Faith No More too, I thought those guys were awesome, and Dev has his I-Pod going, with just total schizophrenic music going all the time, you know… I think Dev could just take his I-Pod out and just listen to the fucking (makes crazy sounds) going on in his head, and he's entertained all day long! And that's what I do most of the time, if I want to hear a song I just call it up in my head, and I'm good! I don't need to actually have the physical thing of it.
Enslain: So what do you do when you're not involved with music? Which kinda seems like it's all the time….
GH: Yeah, what kind of question is that? (laughs) Fuck, it's like, having Dev as a model for the work ethic, it is pretty much music all the time. I'll rehearse three times a day with three different bands, especially with my other bands that have gigs and stuff, or recording sessions or whatever coming up, I'll do three jams a day, and… I'm happy to be involved with the Ani Kyd project because I've always said, like, say when I've got three rehearsals with my three extreme bands, you know, fuck, if only I were in a rock and roll band or something, where I could just go (sounds out a simple drum beat) you know, easy rock and roll beats, then I wouldn't be so dead at the end of the day! But you know, it's cool, keeps your chops up, and all that. Like I'll play some video games, hang out with my cat, I don't really go to movies, I don't rent movies, I'm so boring, I'm absolutely boring! I'll sit and home and, yeah I'll turn on the TV, but then I'll just tune it out and pick up the guitar for six hours, so. That's what I tend to do, I've got no life outside of music, and, I'm not ashamed of that, but, I'm not a fun person to date!
Enslain: Have you caught the "new" Headbangers' Ball, now that it's back on the air and you guys are on it like every week?
GH: Wow, cool! Crazy, that's good for us. Yay us! I know Dev went out there to film, he did an interview with Jamie, he was in town long enough to do the interview, he flew in from Vancouver, dropped down at the airport, drove straight to the studio, did the interview, put him back on a plane… And our album sales went up the week after that, so, it's gotta be good. That's why I think metal now is heavier than it's ever been. You know, like, 10-15 years ago, they could have put a tour like this together with like Warrant, Poison, and Ratt, Bon Jovi, and all this stuff it's like, it wasn't fun, it was cringe-worthy music, it just always was plastic, and fake, you know, bands like Mötley Crüe and stuff like that, was just, "oh yeah, we just party all the time, got girls all the time, it's a non-stop party, we drink our Jack Daniels on stage 'cause it's rock and roll" it was just kind of an empty scene, so at least when, say when Korn and Limp Bizkit were kinda the bands that were flying the heavy metal flag or whatever, more power to those bands, because at least they were "heavy", they didn't sound like Poison or Mötley Crüe, with just wimpy pop songs. Of course they had some not-so-heavy songs, but at least they were down-tuned, playing distorted guitars as opposed to really thin sounding AM radio-worthy songs, so… to all metal, it's all wicked. Without a Korn there wouldn't be a Slipknot. Slipknot was the metal band of the younger generation there for a while, and without Pantera there'd be no Korn, without Metallica there'd be no Pantera, so, the cycle of life just carries on, and one band eats the other one and poops it out, another new band, you know, so that's cool.
Enslain: Don't you think there's ever going to be a point where there's nothing left original to write?
GH: No, I think there's tons of original stuff to do. Just, you gotta remember, metal musicians are not known for being anything other than troglodytes, so, it's really going to take somebody advanced to step up and do it. I don't know, like, Strapping, we're that band! This latest record is nothing… it was easy to write, easy to record, we're going to write a more crushing one next time. We are absolutely your next level band, and if you don't see it, you're blind, and if you haven't realized it yet, that's ok, I don't think you're stupid.
Enslain: Any final comments?
GH: Well, thanks for the chat, and if anybody's interested, we do have a website, www.strappingyounglad.com. We're here on the Sounds of the Underground, and I swear to god, if you buy "Alien" it's not going to disappoint you. You know, like you can not have a metal collection without having "Alien" fully flying the flag. A song like "Shitstorm"! Somebody else, come up with a better "Shitstorm"! I don't care who you are, try to outwrite Shitstorm, fuck, try it, do it, play it every night live. Awesome. Go buy that band's record!-- Lady Enslain