Thomas Hedlund

Phoenix’s Thomas Hedlund

The multi-genre groove monster is as happy engineering towering beats with the post-metal band Cult of Luna as he is hearing his parts reverse engineered to mind-blowing effect with the sophisticated indie-rock hitmakers Phoenix.

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Josh Bender

There he was, performing on Late Night With David Letterman with the French pop group Phoenix, pounding and pummeling his small drumset with jackhammer force and warfare-worthy intent. Sweat flying, head bent down in concentration, arms slashing the beat to smithereens, Thomas Hedlund seemed to think he was playing in a metal band, not a sweet groove machine. But then, this thirty-two-year-old native of Umeå, Sweden, has certainly played his share of metal. And pop. And folk. And singer-songwriter, electropop, and experimental music.

While not a charter member of Phoenix, Hedlund tours with the group and has appeared on its last three albums, 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That; 2009’s breakout release, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix; and this year’s blockbuster, Bankrupt! He’s also a first-call European session man for practically any style you care to list. His broad résumé includes the electropop of Miike Snow’s Happy to You, the post-metal bloodletting of Cult of Luna’s Vertikal, the progressive metal of Khoma’s A Final Storm, the sincere folk pop of the Deportees’ Damaged Goods, and the experimental synth fantasies of iamamiwhoami’s Bounty. And then there are the less categorizable sounds of Adam Tensta, CANT, Rasmus Kellerman, BOY, Void Moon, and the Perishers. But it’s with Phoenix that Hedlund has achieved worldwide acclaim, as much for his drumming as for what sounds like his drumming.

On Phoenix albums it’s almost impossible to tell what’s Hedlund and what’s not. Some Bankrupt! tracks, like “Oblique City” and “Chloroform,” are obviously programmed, all swooshing pulse and compressed thwacks. Others, such as “Entertainment,” “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool,” and “Drakkar Noir,” sound like the full-on Hedlund attack of head-butting groove, tom-tom fury, and forward-motion intensity. That’s the drummer’s operating mode, regardless of the type of music he’s playing. 

MD: You play in many different bands, in as many different styles. What’s key to that versatility? Is there a common thread for you between the styles?

Thomas: In all of these bands I am fortunate to play with people who really care about drumming and are interested in patterns and very specific sounds. I have a style of my own, but it’s always sort of a collaboration, and the end result is the meeting between me and the rest of the band. If there’s something common in all these styles, I don’t know what it is. And it’s nothing that I really think about. Also, between the bands there are a lot of differences in aesthetics, though there is no jazz or anything like that. If you compare Cult of Luna to Phoenix, though, it’s pretty different.

MD: Do all these bands offer ideas for patterns that become your drum parts?

Thomas: With Phoenix it’s different. The recording process involves the four members working for a long time on the individual songs or snippets of songs and putting them together into whole songs. Then I come into their Paris studio after a few months of their working process, and we record the drums and work with that. Then I return to Sweden. Later I return once more and do that again, recording drums using some of their ideas. But I don’t really know what they do with the drums until the album is done.

It’s very different from the other bands I work with, where I am more a part of the process from arrangements to performance. With Phoenix albums it’s a mix of my drumming, drums they’ve programmed, and just using parts of my patterns or sample hits. But it’s cool because we are so in sync; when they program drums, they do it thinking of what I would play. And it always makes sense to me. I can hear myself in their programming. They guess what I would do, and it always feels natural to play what they program.

MD: By contrast, how do you work with Cult of Luna?

Thomas: The guitarists—Johannes Persson, Erik Olofsson, and Fredrik Kihlberg—come in with riffs and parts of the song, and then they play the riff and we sort of jam. We improvise over a particular guitar riff, trying to find a pattern.

The songs are very long. The main challenge is to make them feel like songs, not like different long parts put on top of each other. On their last album, Vertikal, there’s a song that’s twenty minutes long, so it was a big challenge to make that feel like one song and not five. I have to pay attention to dynamics and also get into the repetitive vibe of that band. For instance, with Phoenix or the Deportees, if I do a three-minute song, I think very differently in terms of how the song progresses. But in Cult of Luna we can let a part last for five minutes with very little change. It’s about getting into the whole slow vibe of their music.

MD: You also play in groups that are more soft-pop oriented, music with a lighter style. In many ways you’re like an old-school studio drummer.

Thomas: I have never considered myself a “studio drummer”; I see myself as very much a band drummer who enjoys being in a band and being part of the songwriting and recording and touring process. But I record a few albums every year with different bands. I view myself more as a band drummer because I only work with friends. I rarely do fly-in sessions. I’ve played with most of these bands for a long time. And I do some studio sessions.

MD: In performance with Phoenix you really bash the drums, the same as with Cult of Luna. You don’t seem to change your attack or intensity. And Phoenix feeds off your energy. How do you apply a metal approach to pop music?

Thomas: It seems like Phoenix wants me to play harder. I come from the punk scene; I played in punk bands for a long time, where it was all about the energy on stage. I think I’ve just continued to do that when we play. That’s the way I prepare for a show. I do push-ups to get the adrenaline flowing, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s a soft or rock gig, that’s how I prepare. I need that to focus and get into the mood. Obviously when it’s a soft song I don’t play with that kind of attack, but it’s a way of preparing myself.

MD: How do you prepare for a TV performance like Late Night With David Letterman versus a concert?

Thomas: TV is so weird. I do one song and I’m exhausted afterwards. I concentrate all this energy into one song, and I’m almost as tired after one song as I am after an entire show. You give everything you have for three minutes, but it’s like giving everything you have for an entire hour. It’s sort of cathartic for me. I do a lot of sports—I went to soccer high school—so drumming and sports have always been linked for me.

I love the physical aspect of playing drums, although I am perfectly aware of some people thinking it’s not a technically good way of playing. But it’s not about that at all for me; it’s the emotions I can get out of it by playing, and the emotions we can share on stage as a band. If we can build something together, that’s what is most important. If I am happy or sad, playing drums like this, you can play physically and it can be the most joyful thing, and I can feel so happy with the adrenaline pumping and sweating.

Thomas HedlundIt can also be very therapeutic. I lost my mother a few years ago and I was really afraid—I didn’t know whether I would lose my passion for playing the drums. But it’s been this amazing outlet. Hitting something as hard as you can for an hour and a half every night, it’s pretty cleansing. You can put so much into it. The physical way of playing is very important for me emotionally, more so than the actual style I’m playing.

MD: Performing live with Phoenix, are you sometimes doubling a programmed beat?

Thomas: Certain percussion elements are on the backing track we use. I wasn’t playing to a programmed backing track on the last tour, but on the new tour we might add a handclap or something. We’ve used the MPC before in concert, but it was unreliable. On the upcoming tour we will use Roland triggers and computers.

MD: With Phoenix it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between programmed and live drums. The programmed drums sound like you.

Thomas: It’s funny, Thomas Mars, the singer in Phoenix who makes a lot of the basic patterns on a synthesizer, was a drummer. He creates drum patterns with his fingers on the keyboard, so the patterns sometimes require more arms than I have! On this recording I played along to a lot of the patterns that Thomas made, and they blended the programmed parts with me playing over them. And my drumming is not two bars looped, for example—it’s live drumming, essentially. My takes added an organic feel to the programmed parts. And I don’t mind being chopped up if the songs need that. But as a drummer it’s fun if there’s more me in it, obviously.

MD: Was this process different from the band’s previous album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix?

Thomas: On the last album they did more looping of my drumming, but I’m not sure on which songs. If we would ask them, they probably wouldn’t be able to answer either. It’s a chaotic recording process. Very often they don’t remember who played what, whether it’s guitars or bass. They are really driven by the end results, and it doesn’t matter how they get there. No one is precious about what they play individually; they want to make the best album they possibly can.

MD: When did you begin playing drums?

Thomas: I chose drums at ten. In Sweden, that’s when we can get one music lesson a week in school. My teacher and I focused on rudiments, and since he was also a percussionist, we worked on reading music and working with mallets and tuned percussion. He emphasized the joy and the emotional part of playing drums too. He made me love music. He was special that way. Morgan Ågren and I shared this teacher, Göran Teljebäck.

MD: What else did you and your instructor focus on?

Thomas: He got angry with me when I was fourteen; I wanted to quit drumming because I was so into sports. I didn’t think I had time to practice, and I didn’t want to do any drumming homework. He said, “Are you kidding? You will never get better. Sports is a waste instead of playing music.” Sometimes I regret that I wasn’t more ambitious on the drums; I just played for fun. But when I got my first drumset, when I was fifteen, I played at home every night, and mostly to albums. I quit taking lessons when I got my first kit. But that’s when I started playing in bands a lot. Göran has followed me ever since—it’s fun.

MD: Who were your drumming heroes?

Thomas: I listened to a lot of jazz fusion—that was what you were supposed to listen to and play when studying drums. But I also listened to Rage Against the Machine and hardcore punk. One drummer that meant a lot to me as a teenager was William Kennedy from the Yellowjackets. I still use his hi-hat patterns and his way of playing the ride cymbal, or at least I try. I like their Politics album. I played along to their songs when I was in my teens, and I also loved Nirvana and Metallica. My influences and musical interests are all over the place.

MD: What do you practice now?

Thomas: I play along to records like Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night, with Chris Dave. I try to keep up. I do have a warm-up routine. I always bring my practice pad and my headphones and do different rudiments to music. I need to warm up for a long time before a gig, at least an hour before the show. I improvise and play paradiddles and single strokes. I’m not very systematic, I’m just trying to loosen up and get the blood flowing.

MD: What advice can you give to drummers who would like to be as versatile and play as many styles of music as you do?

Thomas: Just find good people to play with. That has been key for me. I’ve been so fortunate from early on to work with people I love to play music with. But in terms of drumming, be open to inspiration from a lot of different genres, and don’t think too much about rules that people set up.

Thomas HedlundI made the mistake at some point of reading YouTube comments about Phoenix performances, and people were hating on my drumming. I had a hard time dealing with that. You set out to please everyone, but not everyone will like you. I would rather affect someone in some way than not at all. I would rather have someone hate on me than not care. If they don’t care, I probably played it too safe and didn’t put enough into what I was doing. That can be advice—draw from who you are and go with that.

At the end of the day, if we have this feeling of being able to choose, it’s so rewarding, and you will never look back with regret. Whereas if you adapt too much or follow others, you might lose yourself.

Thomas’s Kit
Hedlund plays DW Classics series drums (9×13 tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, 16×22 bass drum) with an ultra marine finish and chrome hardware, and a 6×14 SJC acrylic snare. On tour with Phoenix he plays a 1970s Ludwig Vistalite set with a 9×13 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×22 bass drum. His Istanbul Agop cymbals include 14″ Traditional series Medium hi-hats, a 20″ Traditional series Medium crash, a 22″ OM ride, and a 20″ Xist crash. His hardware is from DW’s 9000 series. Hedlund’s electronics include a Roland PD-8 Dual Trigger Drum Pad and RT-10T Acoustic Drum Trigger, and his Remo heads include a Clear Ambassador snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Clear Ambassador tom batters and bottoms, a Clear Emperor bass drum batter, and and clear resonant bass drum head (the model varies). His stick of choice is Wincent’s 7A XL.

Influences
Queen A Night at the Opera (Roger Taylor) /// Yellowjackets Dreamland (William Kennedy) /// Rage Against the Machine Rage Against the Machine (Brad Wilk) /// Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Jimmy Chamberlin) /// D’Angelo Voodoo (Ahmir Thompson) /// The Band The Band (Levon Helm) /// Deftones White Pony (Abe Cunningham) /// Prince Prince (Prince) /// Nirvana Nevermind (Dave Grohl) /// Toto Toto (Jeff Porcaro)

Recordings
Deportees Islands & Shores, Under the Pavement: The Beach /// Phoenix Bankrupt!, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, It’s Never Been Like That /// Rasmus Kellerman The 24th /// Cult of Luna Vertikal /// Khoma A Final Storm