None More Black
CoC chats with Gene Hoglan of Strapping Young Lad
by: Jackie Smit
If their spot on this year's Ozzfest tells us anything, it's that Strapping Young Lad have come a very long way since their posterior-obsessed early days. Long the staple of a select few who had discovered gems like _City_ and _Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing_ on their own reconnaissance, last year's _Alien_ saw the Canadians graduate to the big leagues. Or as big a league as a band whose veritable musical calling card is entitled "Oh My Fucking God" could ascend to. Now, little more than a year later, they're back with _The New Black_ -- a curiously subdued affair by their own standards, but as drummer Gene Hoglan revealed during our half hour telephone conversation, by no means a sign of the band outgrowing their humble beginnings.

CoC: You've sprung _The New Black_ on the world in a surprisingly short amount of time, and given all the talk of you doing the album at the request of the Ozzfest organizers and all the other rumours that have gone along with it, I thought it would be good for you to give me some background on the record.

Gene Hoglan: We'd actually already started writing when the Ozzfest deal came up. We'd had a lot of time to write in the back of the bus while we were on the road with Fear Factory last year, and when they told us... <breaks into a spirited bout of wheezing>

CoC: Is that old age catching up with you?

GH: <laughs> No, it's just the first cigarette of the day. I woke up about five minutes ago. So as I was saying, we were told we had the Ozzfest in November and one of the caveats for that is that we have a new record. We asked them whether we'd be able to do it off the back of _Alien_, but they felt that it would be a little old by the time the tour started and suggested we do another one. We were like: "Great! Cool! This is going to be easy!" So there was a little bit of a deadline on this one, and that was kind of exciting, because we'd never worked with a deadline before. We're usually three months over at least. But this time round, we already had a bunch of ideas and actually finishing up the rest of the album wasn't hard for us at all. We just had the gumption to continue writing, and as soon as we got off the tour we went straight back into rehearsal and Dev just had a bunch of ideas and we all had several ideas of our own that we just started ploughing through. Having that deadline was a good thing as well, because it meant that we weren't actually able to go back over things as much and analyse it to the smallest detail, and basically beat a song to death for a week only to decide that it wasn't working. All the songs were pretty immediate, and in the past some of the coolest songs we've done came really quickly. "Oh My Fucking God" was written in about five or ten minutes in myself and Devin's first jam. We had about fifteen minutes left and Devin was like: "Okay, let's write a song." "Relentless" and "Rape Song" off the chicken-feather record [_SYL_] both came in one day. Writing quickly is pretty cool for us. It's not hard to do and I think there's tons of past elements on this record that's been nice for us to revisit. There's also some stranger stuff like "Fucker", which is completely bizarre for Strapping Young Lad, but it's also really tongue-in-cheek. That's one of the things I really like about Strapping. In the midst of all the crazy stuff there are some grooves, like in "AAA" and "Centipede", songs like that -- "Centipede" was the second song I got sent by Devin and I thought it was just awesome. So, we've brought back some old elements from Strapping Young Lad, which some of our newer fans might not be too familiar with, plus there's all the rolling double-bass and Devin's vocals are amazing. There's shred-lead guitar going, which is just our way of saying: "Fuck you, we can do it too!"

CoC: What I keep finding as I listen to the new album is that it reminds me most of the _Physicist_ record, which is definitely not a bad thing. It's certainly not as emotive as _City_ and it's not as insane as _Alien_, or as political as _SYL_. Was it a conscious decision for you guys to say: "We've done all of that, let's try something different now"?

GH: I think that every one of our records have come out like that. On _Alien_, we said that we weren't going to do another chicken-feather record, and on that one we weren't going to do another _City_. With this one we weren't going to do another _Alien_, and I guess there's definitely a conscious effort there not to repeat ourselves too much. I think we're a decent -- I've said it before -- evolution in progress. If people who are new to us want to hear any of our old records, they're probably going to be disappointed in some way. But it's like once something is written, that's it. It's history. "Shitstorm" -- we wrote that. "Oh My Fucking God" -- we wrote that. It's already done, and if people want to hear that, then they can dig up our old stuff. It's cool for some bands to do the same thing over and over again -- AC/DC has made a career out of repeating themselves. But it's cooler for us to try new stuff and to mess around with new ideas. When we were writing "Wrong Side", for instance, Dev had written the chorus before anything else. He was working on the noodley part in the back of the bus, and I was like: "Wow, that's fucking killer", and he was like: "Well, I'm going to be singing over that part as well!"

CoC: In terms of the diversity, you mention a song like "Fucker", which is quite playful and far less intense than anything you've done before. Have you felt any sort of backlash from the fans who got into this band in the early and arguably more aggressive days? I think one of the things about this band that rings very true is that for the people that did discover it in the early days, there was definitely a sense among many of the fans that this was -their- band, if that makes sense. Strapping Young Lad was one of metal's best kept secrets.

GH: I fully understand that people get like that. A song like "Fucker" is never going to be released as a single; it's just a song. It's a fun song. When Dev wrote it, he came to us and said: "Guys, I've just written the gayest song in history and you're going to hate it." He was playing us the demo and both myself and Byron [Stroud, bass] thought it ruled. It's really simple, but it's great -- it's a killer song, and that's because it reminded me of the initial attraction to Strapping when myself and Dev started working together in the beginning. Yes, it can be one of the most insane and brutal bands on the planet, but it can also be fun. With every record, I suppose we're going to get a little more popular, and if we're not that backpocket band for a lot of people -- sorry. It's not our fault if we're getting more popular. We're a pretty decent band, we write pretty decent songs and we're pretty decent musicians. We've put out a couple of good albums and it was bound to happen that we wouldn't be that tiny little band that put out _City_ forever. A lot of bands go through that, and if people call us sell-outs, what can you do?

CoC: Are you surprised by the extent to which your popularity has grown? I remember discussing this with Devin when I interviewed him last year, and I think that with another twelve months gone by, Strapping has blown up even more -- especially here in Europe.

GH: Well, I kind of don't see it that way, and I guess I'm like Devin in that respect. Our album sales are still kind of just boring -- we're not selling a million records. What I do see though is that we've become kind of like Slayer used to be, as opposed to Megadeth back in the day. Megadeth used to sell a million albums and play really small places. Slayer would sell a quarter of that and would sell out arenas. They were a live event. With us, I think it's the same: there are lot of people at the shows who don't necessarily own the albums. We're our own best siphon, I think, when it comes to determining how popular we are, and I think that no matter what happens you'll never see any of us going around saying: "Wow, we're fucking big!" We're a small band, a hard-working band; we tour a lot and we're always working on something. If we get popular, that's nice, but it's not a major concern of ours. If we do get super-duper popular and the band doesn't implode before that, then what I will say is that we've done it on our own terms. We didn't write one song that got all over radio and all over TV and made us an overnight success; and I like doing things on our own terms.

CoC: In your own career, you do seem to be attracted to musicians and artists that do things by their own rules. You look at someone like Chuck Schuldiner, and certainly to the outsider it seems like those two have some common traits in terms of how they approach their craft.

GH: Sure, absolutely. It's all about having a "fuck you" attitude, and I like that sort of vision, because it inspires me to be able to support that vision. If someone isn't scatterbrained and has a definite idea about where they'd like to take their music, I like that. So, there are definitely many similarities, and it's very consistent with how I like to work. Strapping just plays its own kind of metal, and I like not having boundaries. We can write a song like "You Suck" and we can also write a song like "Two Weeks".

CoC: Having seen you guys live a couple of times now, I think you'll agree with me that Strapping Young Lad on stage and on album are two very different entities. On record, the focus often turns to Devin and his propensity for placing twenty thousand layers of sound on top of each other, and on stage it's more like the apocalypse is about to take place. Of the two, which do you feel is the most important side to the band?

GH: Well, I think it's a pretty fair assumption to say that Strapping Young Lad tends to release albums that are thinkers. An album like _Alien_ especially is like that, although that said, _The New Black_ is a little more straightforward and a bit more of a punch in the face. The layers on this album were purposefully not over the top, and we did a bunch of songs on this record that would sound good live, be easy to play live and wouldn't need a lot of production in the studio. The samples are still very present and all the bass bombs are still there, but there's definitely an easier outlet for us to play these live, whereas a song like "Skeksis", which we do as well... there's a crapload of layers on that one. It's kind of hard for Devin to scream his face off every single night about something that he left behind in the studio eight months earlier. Having a song like "Shitstorm" isn't easy to pull off every single night. We did it for a whole tour, but that took a lot out of Devin, I can tell you.

CoC: In past interviews, it's been said that if there is a concept to this new album, it's that it flies in the face of the current music scene. Given the higher profile you're starting to achieve as a band, and the fact that I know that Devin for example listens to a lot of modern metal, what are your thoughts on the current scene -- especially when you look at the Triviums and the Calibans of this world, who in my opinion at least, are generally very formulaic and are in many instances prettifying something that shouldn't be prettified?

GH: I guess, if those bands are the ones prettifying the scene, then at least it's not as bad as the cock rock of the Eighties. That stuff used to drive me nuts when I was young, because it was a bunch of guys looking at a bunch of other guys doing something and everybody just jumped on the gravy train. Whether it was Motley Crue that popularised that style and everybody wanted to be like them -- whatever. At least these new bands that are carrying the flag for the more accessible side of the scene are a whole lot heavier than all that stuff used to be. It's like a few years ago, when Korn and Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park was coming out -- at least those guys were down-tuned and they were trying to play some pretty chunky riffs underneath all the commercially accessible vocals. At least they were trying to be that little bit heavier than all the typical pop rock that was around at the time. It doesn't matter to me what a band sounds like. I hear a lot of stuff that I think is just generic and it's been done before, but then you meet the guys in the band and you find out that they're just normal, young guys who are excited to be playing -anything-. And that's really exciting to me, when you meet guys like that and you see what's going on behind the music and what's driving them. Maybe they just haven't been exposed to really cool music in their life that they can draw on all those influences and just go nuts when they're writing. The other thing is that a lot of musicians aren't necessarily music fans. You know, the first guy down at the record store at midnight when that super-duper underground album comes out -- a lot of these musicians have grown up on popular music. They come from areas where they maybe didn't have a good record store and they had to rely on MTV and on the local rock station. That's their thing and that's cool.

CoC: So, out of all the new bands coming out at the moment, who would you regard as the leading lights of the metal genre?

GH: <pauses> Strapping. It might be egotistical, but I'm being totally serious, and for me this band... I've said it before, I'm very, very fortunate to play in my favourite band. If I didn't play for them, it would be my favourite metal band, because it has all the elements that I love. It's got the psycho stuff that I love, but it's also able to reign itself in and toss a bit of melody in there, which is important to me. We've been around long enough that if we haven't discovered our own sound and our own thing by now, then what would we still be doing this for? A lot of bands will take whatever is popular at the time and they'll change and metamorphose from album to album based on that. We're not like that, and it's nice for me to be in a band that forges its own sound. I doubt there's going to be any band that comes along that can truly rip off Strapping. Maybe elements of that, but there won't be anyone that you can listening to and say: "That sounds exactly like Strapping!" I love that.

CoC: You've had a fairly lengthy working relationship with Devin, but he mentioned the last time we spoke that it's only around the _Alien_ record that you really became friends and that that has since helped him approach this band in a far more positive manner. What's that relationship like for you?

GH: Well, I agree with him. Devin and I went through a lot of shit around the _Alien_ record, and I don't think that he has a lot of outlets to be able to talk to people through. You know, everybody wants a piece of the guy, but not a lot of people really know him, and I think that was the same for both of us at the time. We spent a lot of time jamming on _Alien_ and around that time we also spent a lot of time just hanging out and talking. So that friendship is pretty strong, and Devin has become one of my best friends, which to be able to play in a band with someone who's your close friend is great. Dev used to tell me all the time: "Dude, I don't get you -- you're an anomaly, you're an enigma." I think he finally started to get me around the time that the _Alien_ record came out.

CoC: I think that the enigma part comes from you always been photographed wearing sunglasses.

GH: <laughs> That used to freak him out! Those were my prescription glasses -- I'm blind as a bat. So, those were my glasses and if you notice through my career, I don't change very well. I've had a very similar look for a long time, and back when I got glasses I just figured, if I'm going to wear this stuff I'll wear something that looks cool. Unfortunately that was back in 1989 and I kept that style for fifteen years until I got contacts a couple years ago -- and Dev actually told me that he felt like he could talk to me more easily.

CoC: Final question -- Ozzfest: how do you feel about being on it, and what are you planning to unleash on the unsuspecting kids who attend?

GH: We're just there to be Strapping. If people enjoy us, cool. If people don't like us, then I understand that completely. The thing is though, the more you don't get us, the angrier we get. The thing is as well, like with Devin for example, he's tired of being the comedian all the time. He just wants to play his guitar and do some singing. At Ozzfest we probably won't get time to talk a lot of shit between songs; we'll have a twenty or twenty-five minute set at most, so we're just going to be bashing out the metal when we're up there. It's a dream gig for a lot of bands, but we're not twenty two years old anymore, so there's not that feeling of excitement and deflowering. It's a cool gig and it's going to be a good twenty minutes worth of playing every day, and probably another twenty three and a half hours of serious boredom. I'm just excited to go and play. I love playing Strapping's music, and if you give us twenty minutes to play, we're going to go up there and freak out.

(article submitted 13/7/2006)


CHATS
6/12/2003 A McKay Strapping Young Lad: The World Makes Way
10/1/1995 A Bromley Strapping Young Lad: Bracing for Success
ALBUMS
6/27/2006 J Smit 8 Strapping Young Lad - The New Black
2/22/2005 J Smit 10 Strapping Young Lad - Alien
4/16/2003 X Hoose 8 Strapping Young Lad - SYL
7/8/1998 A Bromley 9.5 Strapping Young Lad - No Sleep Till Bedtime
2/4/1997 A Bromley 9 Strapping Young Lad - City
10/1/1995 G Filicetti 7 Strapping Young Lad - Heavy As a Really Heavy Thing
GIGS
9/14/1997 S Hoeltzel Testament / Stuck Mojo / Strapping Young Lad Demonic Pigwalk
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