While “normal” drummers are figuring out how to keep good time behind that guitar solo or how to tune that second rack tom so it doesn’t sound like a cartoon sound effect, Thomas Lang is deeply concerned with something called “multipedal orchestrations.” That means he’s writing parts for each of his feet to play while they move laterally across different pedals. Those pedals are striking numerous bass drums, clapping hi-hats, and hitting random sound sources of Lang’s choosing. And it’s all over his new solo album, ProgPop, an ambitious collection of songs that sound like they’re imported straight from the 1980s, but executed with the vision and crazy chops of a new breed of drummer from the future.
ProgPop is Lang’s magnum opus. The Austrian-born, L.A.-based drummer wrote all the tunes, recorded and engineered the whole album, sang a bunch of lead vocals, and laid down beat after beat of highly complex parts that mimic those old-school drum machines. Along with that fancy footwork described above, there are tunes where Lang is his own percussionist, playing melodic patterns on tightly tuned toms with his left hand while playing the rest of his kit with his right. And to break up the machine-like patterns that form the bed of each tune, there are sections where he gives over to spontaneity and solos over vamps with precision and fire. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Lang uses terms like “groove design,” and his stated goal has been to “play the unplayable,” so if the sound is confusing your brain, you can check out the accompanying YouTube visual Lang recorded at Drum Channel to see just how he pulled it all off. “I wanted to play parts that supported the songs and seemed quite approachable at first,” says Lang. “At the same time I wanted the drum parts to reveal surprising depth, packed with complex foot patterns and applied four-way independence. I also wanted each song to have a signature drumbeat that was instantly recognizable. Compositions within the composition.”
Besides making drummers run to the woodshed to work on these intricate hand and foot applications, Lang keeps a full calendar of live gigs, with his own group and as a gun for hire. As a sideman for everyone from guitar slinger Paul Gilbert to Kelly Clarkson, Lang brings incredible consistency to every gig he’s involved in. A quick perusal of his online videos reveals an impressive similarity with each performance, whether he’s tackling hard-rock music, pop, fusion, or jazz: in addition to pocket and the expected technical showcase that’s become his trademark, Lang always focuses on posture and efficiency of motion. His session schedule is also more demanding than ever, and when asked what makes his studio work stand out, Lang offers, “I like to do whole live takes, which means I actually have to learn and rehearse the music. I have a lot more fun playing drums in my studio than editing and punching in and out and copying and pasting. I want to deliver a great performance, not a great edit.”
Proof of the drummer going above and beyond is the fact that Lang offers his clients filmed videos of the actual recording session (for an extra fee, of course), but it clearly shows the amount of extraordinary work and attention to detail he brings to each project. “It shows I’ve learned the song,” he says. “I’ve gotten into the music mentally and emotionally, and I’ve played it many times before actually recording it. I do this old-school.”
Along with his own teaching platforms, bootcamps, instructional DVDs, and books, Lang has recently opened Nine Beats USA, a large-scale, technology-focused learning environment that originated in China but that’s now going to be present in North America. With over 350,000 physical students and millions of subscribers on their app, Nine Beats is one of the largest drum schools in the world. But it’s not all about making a bunch of chops wizards and sending them out into the universe. Lang’s success stems from the fact that he knows there’s room for all kinds.
“You have a much bigger variety of approaches today, and they’re all acceptable,” says Lang. “I can totally dig Meg White’s drumming and at the same time dig Virgil Donati. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I love both of them. I was equally inspired by Ringo and Buddy Rich when I started playing.” Granted, neither Meg White nor Buddy Rich played seventy-five pedals.
MD: The best compliment I can give your new record, ProgPop, is that when listening to it without the visual, it sounds like involved drum programming from that 1980s era, which is what I assume you were going for, but when you actually see what you’re physically doing, it’s almost overwhelming.
Thomas: The album was conceived quite a few years ago, but I was never able to invest enough time to actually record it. I started working in the music industry in the ’80s, and that was a time of drum machines and sequencing and a hybrid soundscape of electronic, mechanical instruments and live music instruments. I always loved those programmed and tight grid-type feels with the human element. I wanted to make a record that had that flair. One hundred percent real, acoustic drums, with real guitars and basses, unedited live vocals, no computers or drum machines, and no electronic percussion parts.
I wanted the music to have those sounds, but it had to be played live. No sound replacement, no quantizing, no beat detective, no triggering or any other unnatural processing. And I wanted to make a drummer album that was unlike most drummer albums, which are usually in that metal or fusion world, and they’re not usually vocal albums. And it was important to me that the songs were catchy and that I could play what I wanted to play in terms of groove design in an almost commercial context. And then I wanted to have that second dimension of compositions within that pop song format and play those drum parts that inspired me when I was a kid, ones with lots of layers of rhythms and [that were] quite complex but sounded simple and approachable when you first listened to them. But under the microscope you realized there was a lot more information there and it was a challenge to perform these parts.
MD: When viewing your performances of the ProgPop tunes, there’s a nice uniformity and continuity to the mixing of the drums from track to track. And it seems like the setup is similar on everything, with the clear exception being that sometimes the Rata Toms are subbed in and out.
Thomas: Ideally I’d like the same drumset tuned the same way with the same cymbals on every single song. I’ve always liked that continuity, like when you hear a Police record and it’s clearly the same drumset with the same cymbals on every song. Maybe there’s more reverb on the snare on one song, but the kit has a real character throughout the whole flow of the album. I had to make some compromises on this album because I had to record in a couple of different places and didn’t have the exact same setup. But yes, that was my intention.
MD: A lot of these parts have those percussion-esque high-pitched tom parts that you’re playing with your left hand on the Rata Toms.
Thomas: I love that melodic element in a rhythmic structure. I studied classical percussion, and I like tuned percussion instruments. You can actually tune those Rata Toms to pitches that relate to the music. That was important to me, because in a lot of ’80s music, you had those high-pitched melodic toms, like the 808 or 909 toms or Simmons drums. Very distinct pitches and tonal elements. And I wanted that in my grooves because that is very ’80s. So I wanted a layer of melodic patterns on top of a strictly rhythmic structure. But on a song like “Repeat,” it was less about sound-inspired groove design and more traditional djent or math metal, more about the rhythm and how the sequence repeats.
MD: The track “Time” looks very tricky. You’re playing melodies with your left, moving your feet across multiple pedals, grooving and making it look easy. Is it actually easier now, after developing these techniques through the years?
Thomas: Yes, everything feels a lot more natural now. A lot of these patterns I’ve been experimenting with over the last few decades have really sunk in and manifested in my playing on a more intuitive level. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing as much, and a lot of that vocabulary has become part of my repertoire.
Things appear in my playing without me having to prompt them. The groove on “Time” happened naturally. The first time I ever heard a real drummer play, when I was four years old, I went on the stage and held on to the kick drum from the front. I felt the thumping in my chest. The impact was from the bottom of the kit. The kick drum was what blew me away. To this day, that’s very much my style; I do a lot of stuff with my feet. I always wanted to achieve that freedom and total independence and control to be able to do different things with all four limbs. And that all worked together like cogs in a clock and all made perfect sense. So on “Time,” I wrote the song, which is kind of a straight proggy pop song, and [that drum pattern] is what came out literally the first time I sat down. I wanted to get all four limbs involved, and that groove happened in the first twenty seconds of noodling around. And it has all the ingredients I like that are ’80s inspired: the melodic Rata Tom elements over a two-bar phrase—so it’s not a simple or short phrase—a multipedal orchestration over three pedals with the left foot that ties in with the right hand, and a layer where the right hand plays the rack tom, the bell, and the floor tom accentuating what the guitar part is doing. It sounds complex, but it still makes sense, and it’s so much fun to play.
MD: And then you have a ripping solo section where you let loose.
Thomas: Playing composed drum parts requires a different mental approach. There’s a lot of responsibility, and you have to be disciplined. If you mess up one thing, the whole thing falls apart. “Time” is like that. I love that kind of contrast between structure and freedom, between composition and improvisation like drum solos and improvised fills. I try to have that yin and yang effect on every song on the album. Switching between those two states of mind is challenging and something I haven’t heard anyone else do. My ambition is to create something new and play something I haven’t played before or that anyone else has played before. That’s the goal.
MD: How are you busier than ever in your session work?
Thomas: The quick answer is technology and social media. In the past, to book me for a session, you had to find my contact through someone who knew me, and you couldn’t just message me out of nowhere. So it’s easier to get in touch with me today. Secondly, you’d have to fly me somewhere, rent equipment for me, and put me up in a hotel and pay for my catering. So it was expensive. Now I have my own studio, and I can do the same kind of work with extremely professional equipment and actually more choices in terms of sound and gear. And all you have to do is pay my fee, which is the same fee if you flew me to Stockholm. And also, through social media, people can see me online and see examples of my work with other people, my setup, and how I like to record using all live takes. I can appeal to a specific type of client that way. So it’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s more efficient, and it’s faster.
MD: Do you like a lot of guidance from the artists? Or would you rather be given a green light to do your own thing?
Thomas: It depends on the music. When people send demos with programmed drums that are interesting or inspired, I like to copy that and replace the programming with live drums. In those cases, I want to deliver exactly what they want, the drum parts that they envisioned. But sometimes I’ll get demos with drum parts that are frazzled or people didn’t take enough time to think about certain syncopations or how a kick drum works with a bass line, so I’ll make suggestions, and people will trust my expertise and tell me to do what I think is best. And other times people will approach me to do exactly what I do and not use their demos as a guide. This happens more frequently. People will ask me to breathe life into songs and play from the heart.
Thomas’s Practice Tips
I focus on goals and on the results of my practice, rather than on the time it takes per each session. I set goals and I pursue them with discipline and focus, no matter how long it may take. Quality practice is a methodical, repetitive, daily, focused, and high-energy experience.
Practice should always be at a high level of intensity, with constant focus on improvement. First, define your goals, and then make a plan. Different goals require different plans and approaches. Practicing to become a jazz drummer is different from practicing to become a metal drummer or EDM drummer. Whatever the goal, make a precise plan. Stick to the plan, and work hard every day to bring constant improvement.
Work on no more than three “chapters” or “concepts” per each practice session. Dedicate an equal amount of time to each one of those three topics every day. If you have one hour, practice three things for twenty minutes each. If you have three hours, practice three things for an hour each, and so on.
Keep a practice log, and take notes every day. Write down comments about your practice session every day.
Learn and remember the rules of efficient practice:
• Never play when you practice, never practice when you play.
• Practice every day.
• Practice like you play.
• Focus, focus, focus.
• You’re not done practicing something until it appears naturally in your playing.
• Always strive for perfection.
Create the best possible practice environment for yourself. Get everything you want and need in your practice space. Wi-Fi, mirrors, cameras, a recording setup, inspirational posters/artwork, pads, acoustic drums, electronic drums, anything and everything you can think of that makes you want to spend time in your practice room.
Your practice studio is your refuge, your gym, your school, your church, the place where you dream and fulfill your dreams and build your future. Always stay motivated by exposing yourself to inspiring influences. Work every single day on inching closer to your goal, and never give up.
MD: What do you think has happened to creativity? We used to recognize Gadd or Colaiuta instantly by a sidestick or a particular phrase that didn’t necessarily have to be technically out of reach, but was so specific to those players. Nowadays it seems like the goal is to win the Instagram Drummer Olympics.
Thomas: This is an important topic. Today, because of social media, everybody gets their inspiration from the same performers on the same platforms. So everyone copies the same things and ends up sounding the same way. People will look at some Eric Moore videos online, and as fantastic as those are, people will all want to sound like Eric Moore. But it all happens globally at the same time, which is unique [to now].
We’ve never exposed every listener in the world to the same thing at the same time, like we do today through social media. In the 1970s, we would go see Steve Gadd with whoever he was playing with, and that inspiration happened in small pockets over longer periods of time. And of course people started copying Gadd and loving what he did, and word got around and people bought the records, but they didn’t know exactly what he was doing or what it looked like. They couldn’t analyze it as easily and follow stickings and movements. And when his video Up Close came out, of course everyone ate it up and finally understood what was going on. But this whole process took years. And it allowed people to combine the inspiration from a Gadd record and a concert they saw five years earlier with their own personality. Today, the faster pace and the collective exposure don’t allow for people to infuse their own playing with much personality. There’s just too much copying and reproduction going on.
MD: So how can drummers develop personality in today’s landscape?
Thomas: Personality has to do with where you take inspiration from. Listen to some drummers with the most identifiable sounds, like Gadd or Stewart Copeland or Tony Williams or Neil Peart. Copeland grew up in Beirut and took his inspiration from Arabic music and the West Indies and reggae and punk, and he created a fusion of these bizarre styles. And he used a unique technique with traditional grip in his left hand with just the index finger on top of the stick. And he used bizarre instruments like splash cymbals and Octobans and high-pitched snare drums. And Gadd used marching rudiments and played them on the drumset like no one had before. Or Peart, who had such an orchestral approach to drumming, with high-pitched concert toms.
These are unique ideas full of vision. That’s what’s lacking today. If everyone looks at some Instagram video that goes viral, that element of vision goes away. People try to reproduce the result of someone else’s vision rather than carve out their own path. Everything has to be unique in your playing if you want to have your own voice. Every element. What kind of sounds do you use, how you tune your drums, what kind of techniques you apply, where you want to go as a musician.
MD: Or you could just “Play the unplayable” so no one can sound like you.
Thomas: That’s my way. [laughs]
“I love contrast between structure and freedom, between composition and improvisation. Switching between those two states of mind is challenging and something I haven’t heard anyone else do.”
MD: Do you practice like you used to?
Thomas: I don’t get to practice on a daily basis anymore, unfortunately. I wish I could. I simply don’t have enough hours in a day to do all my work, have a family, and find time for myself to recharge and find some level of balance. I try to practice a few hours every week, but it’s very irregular these days. However, I perform live regularly, and do play when I work in my studio, and that gives me an opportunity to keep my technique at a comfortable level. It also gives me an opportunity to listen back and analyze my playing. This is also a form of learning. I learn something new about my touch, my sound, my feel, my micro-timing, and my bad habits. This is also a big part of developing your voice and establishing a great sound and feel. It’s another aspect of practicing, and I do this pretty much every day for several hours.
MD: And that’s enough to maintain a comfortable level of playing for you?
Thomas: I sometimes experiment with new ideas at soundchecks, or on clinic tours and during drum camps. I also try to find time to practice before rehearsals and between recording sessions. And I try to squeeze in at least one or two real practice sessions every week. I usually practice in the evening for a couple of hours on pads before going to bed. I work on basic technique, rudiments, and coordination.
For me, at this point in my career and at my playing level, I really work more on concepts and creative applications of those concepts, rather than on technique, speed, or any other physical aspect of drumming. A comfortable and confident physical command comes back to me fairly quickly, even after a longer break. It’s just a matter of a couple of days to get my chops up again.
The mental state you need to be in to be innovative and creative is a different challenge. You need to play all the clichés daily for a while again until you can start filtering out all the nonsense, the standard boilerplate stuff. Only after a few weeks of playing with that in mind can you free yourself from the chains of passive and uncreative reproduction and copying others. Whenever possible, I try to schedule a couple of intense weeks of practicing to remain in that creative state of mind. But at the moment I can only make that happen two or three times a year, if I’m lucky.
MD: What about pre-show rituals?
Thomas: I really don’t do anything special before a show. I don’t have to prepare anything special, and I usually don’t even physically warm up. I prefer just going out to play without a warm-up, rather than already be playing on a pad backstage. For me, that anticipation makes performing a lot more exciting. As long as I’ve had enough sleep and my equipment is in decent shape, and if there are people who are looking forward to seeing the show, then I am definitely in the mindset to play at a high level.
MD: Your left foot seems as strong and able as your right. How do you develop left-foot power and dexterity?
Thomas: Start out by playing all the beats and grooves that you know but with your left foot on the kick drum. Work on power and precision to get your left foot into better shape. Then start playing all the basic rudiments with your feet, single strokes and single-stroke rolls, double strokes and double-stroke rolls, all mixed sticking rudiments like paradiddles and paradiddle-diddles, then move on to more complex exercises like flam taps, flam triplets, etc.
Drums: DW Maple/Mahogany in Solid Black Lacquer finish with black nickel hardware and LUX leather bass drum hoops (preferred), or DW Maple/Mahogany in Red Anodized Stainless Steel Lacquer with chrome
A. 16×20 gong drum on legs
B. 6″ Maple Rata Toms (12″, 14″, 16″, and 18″ deep)
C. 4×12 custom foot-snare drum (Converted 12″ piccolo concert tom with snares)
D. 14×24 bass drums
E. 9×12 tom
F. 6.5×14 Edge Maple/ Mahogany snare
G. 14×16 floor tom
H. 16×18 floor tom
I. 14×14 Snom (floor tom with snare wires on bottom)
- Byzance series 18″ hand hammered crash
- Thomas Lang Artist Concept series 18″ super stack (2)
- Byzance series 19″ traditional medium crash
- Byzance series 14″ Fast hat (TL signature)
- Byzance series 13″ Fast hat (TL signature)
- Classics Custom 8″ bells used as hi-hats
- Byzance series 22″ extra dry ride
- Byzance series 20″ traditional medium crash
- 18″ Classic Customs China
Accessories: Meinl 18″ computer table
Percussion: Meinl flat low cowbell with hoop mount, Meinl Turbo Crasher (large)
Hardware: DW rack system, TL custom Rata Tom/pedal rack, 9000 series round drum throne and boom cymbal stands, 5000 series snare drum stand, five MCD double bass drum pedals (chain drive), two MDD legless hi-hat stands (direct drive)
Heads: Remo, including Powerstroke 77 White Coated snare and Snom batters, Emperor Clear tom batters, Powerstroke P3 Clear bass drum batters, Emperor Clear or Controlled Sound Black Dot Rata Tom batters, Powerstroke P3 Clear gong drum batter, Black Max or any other high-tension Kevlar head on foot-snare
Sticks: Vic Firth STL Thomas Lang signature model
In-Ear Monitors: Ultimate Ears Pro UE-11
Speakers: QSC Audio
It takes a few years to develop left-foot control and power, just as long as it took you with your right foot, but once your left foot is stronger, you are in a much better position to use the newly developed strength to play more complex, dynamic, and musical double bass patterns. A fantastic exercise for the left foot is the left-foot shuffle, groups of three and four played repetitively with your left foot in grooves, and long stretches of single strokes, played on your left kick drum pedal or on your hi-hat pedal.
MD: If a new artist’s ambitions lie in making music in his bedroom with technology that can make him at least sound creative, rhythmically or otherwise, are things like rudiments even important anymore? Asking for a friend time-traveling back from the future.
Thomas: Rudiments are still essential and absolutely necessary. There’s nothing you can play on a drumset that doesn’t consist of rudiments. They’re the alphabet of drumming. We should practice rudiments methodically, and it makes the learning process easier and more streamlined. Just like learning scales. The rudiments are our scales.
What I think needs to be changed, however, is the way we teach these rudiments, the way we teach music or drums. I started my Thomas Lang Drumming Bootcamp back in 2003. I wanted to stay productive on the road and teach, but my concept was a group-based learning environment, just like a Jane Fonda aerobics video. There’s a teacher and a group of people all in the same room. We all play together, there’s a fun factor to the group environment, and most importantly, it takes the pressure off the individual student. Traditionally, music education happens one on one, except maybe drum corps. That one-on-one authoritarian pressure and strictness and constant surveillance can be good, but for a lot of students it’s too stressful and somewhat paralyzing.
MD: What got you involved in opening Nine Beats USA?
Thomas: Nine Beats was founded in China fifteen years ago by drummer, educator, and entrepreneur Li Hongyu. Then China opened up to allow more Western influences and instruments like drums to be taught in schools. They saw me doing that [group learning] in my own bootcamps, and they were doing the same thing in China. They brought a lot of young kids together and invited me to come and teach my bootcamps in China and use my concepts and my methods from my books.
I’ve always felt very comfortable in China and was always impressed with the discipline of the music students there. They’re incredibly focused, and they’re diligent learners. So we were on the same wavelength in terms of teaching concepts. I thought it would be worth bringing that established Nine Beats method to the rest of the world. It’s step by step, to the point, comprehensive, and very successful. I could see how much fun kids were having learning drums in China, and how quickly they were progressing. It wasn’t just music education; there was a social component that was important.
So we formed Nine Beats USA. I’m in charge of content production for the app for both here and in China. The scale of it is massive. The skill level of those students is incredible, and no doubt in fifteen years, some of the best drummers will be Chinese, in my opinion.
MD: What do you see in the future for that sixteen-year-old kid who wants a drumming career?
Thomas: Traditionally, outlets like Modern Drummer, which are here to inspire and inform our colleagues, talk about the past. “It’s not what it used to be anymore. How are those young kids going to find their path and become successful musicians without getting together with other musicians in a garage and starting a band?” The reality is that none of that applies anymore. The previous generation said those things about us, and now we’re saying those things about the kids. And we’re wrong.
We have to change with the times and look at the reality of today, from social media and technology to the changing music industry to the way we monetize music. You don’t have to get together and jam and play local gigs and grow organically and get a record deal. You don’t have to have played even one live concert to have a number-one Billboard hit. And it’s all valid. And everyone has to get on board with the new paradigm. You can be an Instagram drummer with millions of followers playing by yourself along to your favorite records and make more money than a lot of people in our generation ever made playing gigs. And you have much more worldwide, instant exposure and potential earnings, whether it’s sponsored posts or Google ads. Today it’s difficult to get a record deal or tour support. So we have to let our students know there are many ways to start a career and maintain a career.
MD: So then what are the new goals?
Thomas: For me, the goal was to have total freedom when I played the drums. I wanted no technical limitations. Other kids today have totally different goals. They don’t care about technique, because there’s a machine that can do that just as well, so why spend thirty-five years developing something manually when you can push a couple of buttons. But they might have another ambition that I never had, which is to do it simply and as easily as possible in order to electronically get to your audience quickly.
I wanted to develop something over years and years before I dared step out in front of a live audience and perform it. But the result is the same: that someone is entertained or inspired by it. Today, when I hear a really great EDM track or some dubstep, whether it’s programmed or played live, I only care about the result. Hopefully there was a creative process and it doesn’t sound like anything else, and it’s unique and has personality, as long as it turns me on and touches me emotionally.
MD: You’ve recently topped the Soloist category in the Modern Drummer Readers Poll. You’ve been soloing for thirty-five years. Where are you with soloing today?
Thomas: I’ve always attempted to play the unplayed and create something new, and not just reproduce, but produce. In music there’s a lot of improvisation, so we have to learn to compose spontaneously. In order to do that, you have to have a vast vocabulary of ideas. A lot of my solos in the past were very conceptual. I tried to perform things that were new—a lot of foot ostinatos, independence, unusual hand/foot combinations, various complex patterns and layers of rhythms. I pursued that in a fairly uncompromising way. Now I’m at a point where I don’t have to deliberately try to do that anymore; it just happens.
It’s what I wanted for years: for these things that I forced myself to do for years to happen organically. And I think that’s quite clear and audible in my playing today. I’m very critical of myself. When I listen to myself today, there are certain things I can accept and say, “Yeah, that’s cool,” where until only about two years ago, I hated pretty much everything I did, all the time.
MD: Two years ago?
Thomas: [laughs] Yeah, maybe even less. Because I hear myself two years ago and I know that I’m searching all the time. I’m looking for things. I’m rummaging through stuff in my mind; I’m trying things out; I’m experimenting. I’m pushing myself to try and find these new things. I’ve learned to step back from that approach and let things happen. And hopefully that’s more enjoyable for the listener, not just for myself.
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky, Photos by Alex Solca