Interview by Ian at DrumRadar on February 10, 2019.
Thomas Lang, a native of Austria, is one of the most iconic modern drummers of our time. His technical prowess and independence behind the drum set goes unmatched, and he has helped inspire countless drummers with his work as a clinician and educator.
Thomas has worked as a session drummer throughout the entire world, playing with such artists as Paul Gilbert (Racer X/Mr. Big), John Wetton (Asia/King Crimson), Robert Fripp, Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple), Steve Hackett (Genesis), Peter Gabriel, and Tina Turner, just to name a few.
He has headlined at every major international drum festival, and has won numerous prestigious awards from Rhythm Magazine, Modern Drummer Magazine, and Drum! Magazine for Best Clinician, Best Drummer, and Best Educator year-after-year.
Having been to countless countries for clinics, tours, and your own Drumming Bootcamp, what made you choose Los Angeles as the location for your home studio?
I moved to LA from London/UK 17 years ago because it seemed like a good place to be for myself and my family. My wife had lived here for 10 years prior to us getting married and after commuting between London and LA for a couple of years we decided that LA was the better place to raise our children. LA is of course also the center of the entertainment industry and has an incredible infrastructure for making music with many of the world’s best musicians and studios located here.
Pretty much every professional musician today needs their own version of a studio/work space and I am no different. I built a studio in my house so I could practice, record, write, and produce in the most efficient and economical way. I do a lot of online/remote recording sessions from my studio and I use the space to work on my own music projects as well as on collaborations with other musicians. I also use the space to film lessons for my online drum school and I use it as a practice and rehearsal space when I prepare for gigs and tours. It is not a large studio and only one room with no division between recording and mixing space, but I have the ability to set up and fully mic’ multiple drum sets or just one kit and have enough room for other musicians.
Have you noticed a greater work ethic and discipline among drummers in certain countries compared to others? On top of that, what’s your favorite country to play/teach in?
I’m not sure the work ethic and discipline is so much different from country to country. Those are very common traits in anyone person who has a passion for the instrument and who has that unique drive and determination to get better and achieve greatness. I find people like that all over the world and often in the most unlikely places. It’s not anything specific to a certain country or nationality.
A great work ethic and discipline are a result of the passion an individual can feel, and it transcends all borders, especially today where anyone in the world can access the same information online and find everything they need to better inform themselves or find inspiration.
I have however noticed different approaches to learning and working in different countries which produce different results on a large scale. The cultural- and mentality differences, as well as government support and school music programs, cultural exchange programs etc. - all have an influence on how the general public appreciates and views music. The US is way behind most places in that respect but on the other hand the culture and music history here, as well as the daily exposure to certain styles of music offsets that imbalance.
Germans for example are well known for their efficiency and productivity, as well as for their open mindedness and creativity. This mentality, the high level of general education standards in Europe, private and government support of school music programs, along with one’s passion and determination will allow such talents to emerge from those places. It’s no surprise to me that some of today’s most accomplished players come from Central Europe and countries other than the US. (Benny Greb, Anika Nilles, Jost Nickel from Germany, Gergo Borlai from Hungary, Damien Schmitt from France, Dali Mraz from the Czech Republic, Jojo Mayer from Switzerland, Virgil Donati, Pete Drummond and Grant Collins from Australia, Akira Jimbo from Japan, Sebastian Lanser from Austria, the list goes on and on)
That is also the reason why my favorite places to tour, play and teach in, are all in Europe.
I may be biased because I am European myself, but I don’t think that’s entirely why - people there are “more like me” in their approach and I feel a deeper connection with them when communicating, performing, teaching etc. We speak the same language - literally and figuratively.
You’ve won the award of “Best Clinician/Educator” 4 years in a row now by Modern Drummer Magazine. How have your teaching methods changed over time? Have you found the most optimal way to “get through” to students when teaching them new techniques?
The more you teach, the more you learn about yourself, about our own habits, discipline, productivity, creativity and your practice methods and mechanisms etc. You’re constantly under the microscope and you’re being questioned about- and are questioning - your own approach. I really enjoy that aspect of teaching because I am - and will be an eternal student myself.
Teaching is as much a responsibility for me as it is a passion. I can share my experience and at the same time gain new experiences and learn more about drums and about myself.
My methods have hardly changed over time. I am an advocate of traditional methods because those worked for me and for many others I respect. I believe in old-school methods: Methodical Practice. Relentless repetition. Setting goals and making a plan, separation of practicing and playing. Keeping a practice log book, obeying the practice rules, analyzing results, self-censorship and purposeful, goal-and result-oriented practice. Analyzing movement, motions and mechanics and implementing improvements on a daily basis.
I find that those methods work because they have been proven to work for centuries.
Those methods are so simple and clear that they reach the core of even the most confused student.
I am not a fan of wishy-washy, pseudo esoteric approaches. I really dislike unqualified teachers who can neither play the same thing twice or explain what they are doing in clear and simple language.
There are lots of those online these days. Everyone who has a drum set and a video camera automatically becomes a teacher. I understand that everybody is proud of what they have achieved and wants to share it, but people mostly overestimate their pedagogic skills.
One aspect that has changed in my teaching is the growing influence and importance of creativity during practice. Today I believe the ultimate goal of practicing is not to be able to technically reproduce something without making mistakes, I believe it is the absolute freedom of expression which requires as much creative input during practice as it requires physical conditioning. Creativity is the key to both, understanding and applying any new information. Creative thinking has to be practiced as much as any technical exercise.
Since you write and produce a lot of your own music, what tips can you give to musicians out there just starting out with composing their own songs? Is there a specific process you go through each time you compose a new song from scratch?
I recommend learning a melodic instrument and acquiring all the software and studio equipment you need to produce music. Learn about music theory if you can and learn to record ideas in a playful manner without any pressure. The more you play around with your piano/keyboard or guitar, recording ideas and writing with a goal in mind, the more you will learn and improve. It is a process like any other and it requires practice and input.
I don’t have a specific approach to writing. My inspiration comes from a different place every time. Sometimes it is a bass riff, or a drum beat, or a chord progression, a line of lyrics, or a certain synth sound that inspires an idea. There is no one way that my songs happen.
The only thing that is a similar process is the production phase once I have completed the writing of a song. Production happens in a very methodical way and I usually start with scratch drum tracks over my programming and then I usually replace most electronic sounds and instruments with real instruments. Then I like to re-play the drums again at the end of the recording process before mixing and mastering.
What do you think is the number one roadblock that stops intermediate drummers from getting to a more advanced level of playing?
There are many factors that cause roadblocks, like bad time management, wrong priority-setting, bad infrastructure, unhealthy environment, ego, lack of support, laziness etc. I find the number one cause is random and non-methodical practice that is not goal-oriented.
In your opinion, what is one important thing that a lot of drummers tend to overlook when playing or learning?
In general, I think it is the awareness that playing drums is traditionally about consistency and repetition and not about constant variation. In very structured and composed music I hear plenty of hyperactive drumming these days that is based more in lengthy improvisation than in composition. That type of drumming does not support that musical concept.
It is of course a matter of taste, but I find that in working situations a lot of younger drummers have trouble sticking to the composed and pre-determined drum parts. This is a reflection of their lack of discipline in many other areas as well which translates into their practicing and playing approach. Everything becomes a bit random and there is no coherent plan or purpose in their practicing, and as a result also in their playing. It is important to find the right balance between structure and freedom. It’s important not to overlook the importance of the drummer’s contribution to the overall sound of the music. Try to listen to everything and give each part and instrument its space and weight.
Specifically, one thing that I miss a lot today is personality and uniqueness. Most drummers sound the same to me. I don’t find much creative drumming out there these days. Everybody copies from everybody else and everybody watches the same stuff for inspiration. Everything is the same all the time.
In Metal every drummer sounds the same and in R&B every drummer sounds the same. In Rock every drummer sounds the same and in Pop there are really only drum machines anyways. I think drummers overlook the importance of personality and uniqueness. Everybody is unique to begin with, yet everybody tries to sound like everybody else, which is a bit boring and definitely not creative.
Having played in so many locations all across the world, surely there are times when things didn’t go exactly as planned. Are there any gig horror stories you’d like to share?
Things never go exactly as planned and I have learned to expect the unexpected. You have to roll with the punches and be flexible. I have experienced as many unfortunate surprises as I have experienced wonderful surprises- both being unplanned. Amongst the unfortunate ones were things like a fire in venue, a lightning strike on an outdoor-stage in front of 150 000 people, being arrested in Colombia in our dressing room for no reason, or a stage floor collapsing under my drum set with me landing straight in hospital with broken bones, or a full beer bottle to the face while playing a metal-gig, which produced quite a respectable scar on my forehead.
I’ve seen much more terrifying things happen to other colleagues though and I (knock on wood) feel lucky nothing worse has happened considering the amount of traveling I do. Fingers crossed!
What’s the most fun gig you’ve ever played?
I remember a Jazz-Fusion gig with my old band “Save The Robots” in Tyrol/Austria in the early Nineties that sticks out (amongst many, many others). We were all really close friends at the time and we just had so much fun playing our music and goofing off on stage. It felt great to be in such a state of “flow” with a group of other people. We were all in exactly the same state of mind and we played at an incredibly high level but with such ease and comfort. I remember feeling completely in – and out- of control at the same time and we all just had a blast! The most fun experiences for me always have to do with the music and my fellow musicians, and not with the size of the show or venue.
What’s your favorite drum or cymbal at the moment?
The “Thomas Lang Super Stack” by Meinl is my current favorite (Amazon / GuitarCenter). I love the aggressive “bite” it has and I love its versatility. I use two of them on my kit right now!
What are your thoughts on where drumming is going?
I think it’s going to go into two directions. It’s going become both more complex in the alternative and progressive scene, and more simple in the commercial scene. I think there will be a lot more hybrid-drumming in general, incorporating electronic elements and sounds into an acoustic kit, and I think there will be a quantum leap in applied independence in drum beats in the future, with a focus on foot technique. I think the linear phase is on its way out and a non-linear phase is about to happen.
What are your drumming plans for the rest of 2019 and into 2020?
I am working on a solo album which I want to release in the late spring, I have many recording sessions booked, have several tours planned, both clinic, solo-tours and with other artists, got several drum camps planned in Europe and Asia, drum festival appearances and summer festivals in Europe and South America, and I am building a large recording studio and physical drum school near my home in Los Angeles. Busy, busy!
What’s your favorite movie?
I have no all-time favorite movie. I see so many great movies all the time that my opinion always changes. Some of the best movies I watched in the last couple of months were “The Favorite”, “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. One movie I can watch pretty much any time if comes on TV is “The Martian” with Matt Damon.
Thank you Thomas!
Make sure to check out www.thomaslangsdrumuniverse.com, where Thomas has hundreds of instructional videos and over 13 hours of streaming lesson content. With him being voted as one of the best drum educators worldwide countless times, there's really no reason to NOT check it out!
Also make sure to follow Thomas at:
- Instagram: @thomaslangdrum
- Twitter: @thomaslangdrum
- Facebook: Official Thomas Lang