Death To All’s Gene Hoglan talks paying tribute to the late Chuck Schuldiner and his pioneering band

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WOUB) – Formed in 1984, Death emerged as a pioneering force in the death metal scene. Revered as both progenitors and paragons of the genre, they stand tall as one of its defining acts.

Chuck Schuldiner, the sole consistent member and mastermind behind Death, consistently pushed creative boundaries, pioneering sub-genres like melodic death metal and technical death metal with records like Human and Symbolic.

The band’s final album, The Sound of Perseverance, arrived in 1998, just before Death entered a hiatus to allow Schuldiner to focus on his new project, Control Denied. Tragically, Schuldiner never returned to Death, succumbing to brain cancer in late 2001. Since his passing, Death’s stature in extreme metal has only grown, solidifying its position as one of the most revered groups in metal history.

Death to All is a tribute to the band, featuring former Death members joining forces with vocalist Max Phelps to keep the legendary material alive. This initiative caters not only to longtime fans but also to a new generation of metalheads eager to experience the cornerstone of extreme metal live.

Ahead of Death to All’s upcoming May 21 show at The King Of Clubs (6252 Busch Blvd) WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke with Gene Hoglan, who served as Death’s drummer from 1993 to 1995. Hoglan contributed to Death albums like “Individual Thought Patterns” and “Symbolic,” alongside his extensive tenure with the band Dark Angel.

Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity and length, below. 

Note: although Death To All plays only one night in Columbus, many of their stops are spread over two nights. Find their full tour itinerary here:

A promotional picture of the band Death To All. There are four members and they are standing together under a chandelier.
Death To All [Photo by Alex Solca]
Nicholas Kobe: If you had to describe Death to All in one sentence, what would you say?

Gene Hoglan: It is a tribute to the music and musical legacy of Chuck Schuldiner of Death.

When the band plays these shows, obviously your goal is to celebrate the legacy of Death and Death’s music. Looking at the audience, would you say it’s mostly people who got to experience Death while the band was active? Or is it a bunch of newer metalheads who weren’t around when Death was active?

Hoglan: It completely runs the gamut from column A to column B. You’ve just described the audience pretty well. A lot of them are of a more experienced age that caught the band back in the day and thought, “Wow, with Chuck’s passing, I guess I’ll never get to see Death ever again.” And then there’s the younger crop. There’s a gigantic younger crop of dudes that just weren’t around back in 1998 during that final touring era of Death. So it does run the gamut. You got the young dudes and you got the older guys, and there are so many times when people just kind of yell out from the audience, “Thank you for doing this.”

When we started these tours, there were some of these older, hardcore, grizzled death metal dudes with tears in their eyes. They’re just so emotional and this means so much to ’em. Death, the band, and the fact that we’re up here doing this and we make it really entertaining. We make it really fun. We really try to have the audience feed off our energy and our energy is pretty darn cool on stage, so it’s a great push-me-pull-you kind of thing with the audience and there are so many people that are just so moved by it. We get “thank you” quite a bit. So that’s pretty cool. We’re into that.

Why do you think so many people have such a strong emotional connection to Death?

Hoglan: Death is very untouchable. A singular entity. There are a number of bands that you just can’t really find fault with if you’re into metal. And I do believe Death is one of those bands. I’ve mentioned this before: it’s one thing if you’re in a band and you play some music that is very popular and you bring your band style to it.

Other bands have already done this sort of thing, but your band comes in and you guys do it well and you’re in there with the group of all the other guys doing this kind of music. Well, this is something about Death: to a lot of people – a lot of people do feel that Death created death metal. I happened to find myself that they helped create death metal. You got bands like Possessed and Hellhammer and Slayer for that matter, doing the real aggressive dark music beforehand.

Chuck, he always paid tribute to those bands. They were definitely some of the progenitors of the brutal old-school death metal style. And then a few years later, they were also some of the progenitors, the technical side of death metal when Sean Reiner and Paul Vidal from Cynic joined up for the Human album and you got Steve DiGiorgio on bass. I mean, he’s the best bassist in metal in my opinion. That helped create a newer style of technical death metal that reigns to this day.

There were other bands like Atheist, and of course we all loved Watchtower doing the technical metal side. Watchtower wasn’t very death metal, but they were a huge influence on us, all of us players who wanted to elevate into a more progressive fusion-esque kind of feel. And then for a third round, Death with the Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic, and Sound of Perseverance era, they helped herald in the melodic death metal side that stands to this day. Very strong presence indeed in three different genres. So that’s one thing where I happen to find Death is relatively untouchable.

You can’t fault them for much. I do remember when Death went as melodic, starting with the Individual Thought Patterns record, and then definitely on the Symbolic album. Those albums – especially Symbolic – were not received by the old school that was into Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse. A lot of those guys were like, “Hey, what happened? What happened to Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy and Spiritual Healing? That’s my jam. What’s going on with you guys now? I am not feeling this.” That’s kind of what happened for those two albums. Symbolic for instance, to stand the test of time as it has and become so kind of legendary, was not expected. That’s one thing – Chuck always had to write from his own heart. He could not pay attention to what the trends were. He followed his own course.

Talking about some of those later albums so far as your history in Death – what was it like when you joined the band, and how do you look back on that era?  

Hoglan: Well, I freely admit that my era with Death is what kind of turned me into a real drummer. With my prior band, Dark Angel, I had kind of become the leader. I was writing all the music on guitar, writing all the lyrics, writing all the vocals, doing all the press, taking care of all the biz. So my guitar playing got way better exponentially and my drumming was starting to just kind of take a back seat, which is fine. I was just trying to serve each song as well as I could. We came up with a lot of really cool patterns, and a lot of unheard-of approaches with Dark Angel.

I was able to take some of those approaches to Death since Chuck was the writer of everything, he wrote the music, wrote the lyrics, wrote the vocals, and took care of the majority of the press. I would do interviews as well, but he took care of the majority. I had a lot more time on my hands to really explore the concept of drumming and really approach drumming where it’s like the only thing you have to do here. Come up with the drum patterns for this. You don’t have to write the guitar and write the drum patterns to fit the guitar. The guitar is already there. So come up with some patterns that are going to fit with what’s going on. I got to really think outside the box, especially with Sean Reiner, it’s an amazing template, creating drumming on Human, having that as a template to where we could really explore.

I’d always stop and go, “Hey Chuck, these patterns I’m coming up with, are you cool with these?” He’s like, “yeah, man, I’m playing all my guitar over everything you’re playing. I’m following what you’re doing. Just keep doing it. You go sick, go nuts. I’m down with what you’re doing.” I was so into drums and I still was always trying to create patterns and drumbeats that perhaps had not been heard before. That’s one thing I think Death has a multitude of, especially in those last four records of theirs, a lot of patterns that the first time you’re ever hearing a pattern, a drum beat, is on these records. I was trying to bring some of my influences from Steve Gad, from Al Di Meola’s Casino album, trying to bring that in.

I was always pretty good at creating patterns on double bass. That’s one thing Sean Reiner told me one time, he’s like, “Yeah, you’re with Dark Angel. That song Death is Certain, Life is Not, it’s like you created a drum pattern, you created this double bass pattern that I’d never heard before. That was the introduction to the double bass pattern.” I was like, “you’re right,I didn’t even think of it that way.” But yeah, trying to create patterns on the feet that you could follow with the guitar, that’s always neat. That was always something I always tried to do with Dark Angel, that’s kind of Dark Angel’s addition to the whole pot of the metal writing style and trying to bring some of that over to Death.

I mean there was a lot of spots where we’d have the guitars play the double kicks playing the same pattern that the guitar is, and that was always pretty neat. That’s a pretty neat approach, I guess that’s where it really helped my perspective on drums. I freely admit sometimes I did not serve the song as well as I could have. Hindsight being 20/20, there’s a lot of spots where I’m like, “wow, you really overplayed on this song. You could have just reigned it in just a little bit.” But I was an excited drummer, so you could have changed my name to “fill all gaps” on Symbolic, I was playing every single thing I imaginable. And then Richard Christie took that to the nth degree after that. So there you go.

You talked about this a little bit, but what kind of stuff from those Death days has stuck with you as you’ve carried forward through the rest of your career?

Hoglan: Like memories or approaches? I mean, one thing that Death – and Dark Angel for that matter – was known for was a whole lot of double bass. Just having the aggression of thrash metal, the aggression of death metal, and all the double bass goes on with all that. Also one thing playing with Death, that was my first time outside of “my band.” We all grew up together in Dark Angel.

Death was my first time exploring how you communicate with another musician who comes from a totally different part of the U.S. With Dark Angel, I was a bit of a taskmaster and now I’m in a support role. “How can I help these songs? How can I help you, Chuck? How can I help this band reach whatever next level they’re trying to reach? How can I be an asset there?” So that’s where I learned how to tailor my personality towards each musician I work with and try to find the strength and deal with the weaknesses in communication.

That’s where you just try to elevate yourself, where you ask “how can I be the best person I can be here? How can I be the best person for this job?”

So as Death To All is preparing this upcoming tour, the band’s doing a lot of different interesting things. Some of the band’s sets celebrate Scream Bloody Gore, some sets celebrate The Sound of Perseverance and some sets celebrating Death as a whole. 

Hoglan: Indeed.

What was the thought process for doing a tour in which you’re celebrating both the early side of Death and the late side of Death?

Hoglan: Well, I admit the idea completely came from our booking agent – he just wanted to maximize people’s interest. I’ll freely admit we as the band, we were more than happy to keep going out and playing just an overview of the legacy of Death’s music, doing songs from each album. That is one thing we’ve always done, and that to me is the only way to pay tribute to Chuck – by doing his entire catalog. Of course, not just like, “okay, Steve, you and I were on Individual Thought Patterns and you were on Human, and Bobby and myself were on Symbolic, so we’re only going to play those three albums.”

That does a disservice to every Death fan and Chuck’s memory. So do it all. We’re all really good players. We’re the only band that does this on this level. So that’s where we try to bring something really entertaining to every night. When our booking agent pitched the idea, I started thinking like, “well, gosh, nobody’s ever done this before in our style of music, that I know of.” Where you’re going out playing one album one night and all its surrounding albums and then another album on a second night in the same town with all of its surrounding albums.

So we decided to just kind of dedicate a night to the early, old school brutal style, why not start it with the first album and then the second night celebrate the final record and all of its surrounding albums. Also these are concepts that can be pushed into the future. This year, 2024, there are no album release anniversaries. Like last year, we just celebrated the 30th anniversary of Individual Thought Patterns, we played a bunch of songs off of that one, but this year there are no real anniversaries, so it’s kind of a little bit up for grabs. So start with first and last and every album in between.

All Death fans I think are going to be excited about both nights because that’s one thing that I do believe has occurred over the last 30 years – if you’re a Death fan, you have become a fan of the entire legacy of the band. Especially with some of the younger guys. A lot of the younger guys are like. That’s what I think kind of makes this approach pretty exciting for everybody where everybody’s going to be like, “Hey, I gotta to see that first night. I gotta to see that second night,” and I’m pretty sure there are some ticket breaks. You buy two nights and you get a deal – that sort of thing. So that’s pretty darn good.

What’s it like having to musically prepare to play essentially the band’s entire discography?

Hoglan: Holy moly. It has been quite the challenge – playing Death material is a challenge. When I rehearse Scream Bloody Gore, I do that on my own at my rehearsal studio, just play to the album. That album is every bit as challenging as playing to as The Sound of Perseverance and it’s a very strange approach to the drums. They’re both equally challenging to play for totally different reasons. The early album Scream Bloody Gore [featured] Chris Rifer [on drums], he was definitely a teenager. He was 17, 16, 18, somewhere around there.

He was a young dude playing that and he’s doing the best job he could, so I am trying to honor what was played on that album. Anytime we’ve ever played any songs from that album and the other two albums that followed, Chuck always gave us like, “man, just do your thing to this. If you want to snazz it up a bit, feel free, go for it.” On these two runs, I’m definitely trying to honor what was played on each album, do Chris Rifer as best as I can do, and Billy Andrews as best as I can. I’m trying to approach all of the records trying to play ’em as close as I can.

With Death to All, you are bringing together not only all of the different eras of Death’s music but also a bunch of different eras of people who have played with Death. What’s it like interacting with some of those guys? What’s that process like?

Hoglan: Well, and I will absolutely freely admit – this is my personal dream lineup for Death. I mean, this is a lineup we never got, us three backing musicians behind Chuck. We never got to be this lineup live, and this is my favorite lineup of musicians. We all get along so well. We have a great time jamming together. I mean, we do this for us – it’s really fun playing this music. It’s really fun hanging out and being fun guys together. Obviously we don’t have Chuck, but, the person that we have taking care of Chuck’s vocals and guitar, Max Phelps, is fantastic.

He takes this very seriously. For instance, you could be a guitarist, vocalist doing this material and you could be approaching it just singing in one voice. But not Max. If you notice over the course of the Death albums, Chuck’s voice changed from album to album and Max tries to duplicate that as best as he can. So that’s pretty darn cool. He plays all of Chuck’s parts and he really takes all the vocal parts seriously, and he really wants to honor Chuck’s approach.

What’s next for Death to All?

Hoglan: We just kind of take it as it comes. I mean, next year, if we get the chance to do some more stuff, if this approach works, I’m open to trying this approach again. If Europe would like this kind of touring entity to occur, I’m all about it. As long as people are interested and we can find the time to do this, because we’re all pretty busy in all our other projects. Next year, 2025, is going to be a crazy year for myself with all the other things I got going on. But if we can figure out a way to make a couple of months of touring here and there work, then we’re very open to it. And as long as people are into it, and I see no reason for people not to be into it.

Our shows are really entertaining and like I’ve said many times, you don’t want to be the person that gets the call from your friends the night after the show where they’re like, “dude, where were you? You missed the coolest night ever.” We really bring an entertaining night. We bring an awesome night, you’re going to come out and really enjoy the entire night. You got Death’s music played by Death musicians who play it really well, and it is a really good thing all around. So that’s one thing that we intend to keep bringing. Just great metal, a great night of a great concert. Both nights are going to be killer, so you don’t want to miss it.