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Drumscene April 1995

Virgil Donati Stretching Out
By Paul Matcott

A Virgil Donati performance is an experience. He is the outstanding drumming talent in Australia who after conquering Europe and the UK with his clinic tour last year is about to again leave our shores for the USA. Virgil will be taken the stool behind commercial act Southern Sons to record and perform in and around the US for the next 12 months.

“I have this caer memory of getting my first pair of drumsticks at three years of age. My father, having noticed me watching with fascination as his band rehearsed, bought me a pair of sticks one day. They came wrapped in brown paper and as soon as I tore the paper off I started straight away playing a basic jazz ride pattern that I gad seen the drummer play. I just picked them up and went for it. It is my first memory of playing.”

By now Virgil Donati has ahead full of memories of playing. He has put more than 30 years into studying and mastering the drumset, playing every kind of gig that is on offer here in Australia. He has kept drummers on the edge of their seats with his powerful, intense displays of hard rock, complex fusion, tasteful jazz, explosive soloing and simply amazing double bass drum technique. You would think that he could afford to lay back a little and rest on his laurels. But Virgil’s intense and passionate involvement in music means that every day is a chance to do something else, to learn something new, and even after three decades this desire is not diminished. Now perhaps the biggest challenge is in front of him. The time is right for Virgil to tackle the international stage, to test himself in company with the best in the world, in order to reach that next level.
Not that Virgil has no international exposure mind you. His third video “Power Drumming” has been released overseas and is already turning heads in his direction. And the past eighteen months have seen him wowing audiences at various performances from hambburg to London.

“I have been to Europe twice this past year. Paiste and Premier invited me to play at the Paiste booth at the Frankfurt music fair in March ´94. It was the beginning of a very succesful series of events in Europe. I did the weekend at Frankfurt, sharing the bill with Bill Bruford and Will Kennedy. Bill was back to playing acoustic drums. It was thrilling for me sharing the dressing room with him. We had a lot of fun in the evenings at these Premier and Paiste dinners, where we sat around with guys like Terry Bozzio and exhanged information and just had a great time.
The next big event was at the Koblenz Drummers festival, which is the highlight of the European drumming calendar. It’s the biggest drummers’ event in the world, held in March ´94. Lots of international players get along. This year included Will Calhoun, Simon Phillips, Dennis Chambers, Trilok Gurtu, Alex Acuña, Greg Bissonette, Jim Chapin as well as several European players.

That was an etremely succesful event for me. I got a lot of good press all around Europe, including a cover article in an Italian drum magazine, plus stories in the Dutch and German music press. I then flew to London to do some more interviews including and interview with Rhythm Magazine. On the back of this I was invited to do some more clinics. I went back I September and we did a big drummers’ day in Rotterdam. From there I was picked up by one of the Paiste reps, Axel Kahlmorgen, and we packed my drums in the back of his BMW station wagon and headed off to do some dates starting in Hamburg and heading south through Germany. After there I went to Scotland to do the Scottish music show –then on to a tour of England finishing in London. This whole tour was thirteen shows in two weeks, so it was a busy schedule.”

Interestingly enough the audience reaction –standing ovations wherever he went –was a bit of a surprise to Virgil:

“The reaction I got was a bit of a surprise. When you work so hard at mastering something it can be easy to get so emotionally caught up in it that sometimes you forget to see things in perspective. It’s that vulnerability that puts me back on the seat day after day. There are many times when I feel I am not doing things as well as I would like to. But my standards are very high and it can be jus as easy to forget how far I have travelled as a drummer. In that sense the reaction in Europe from the audiences and the other players was both surprising and reassuring.”

These days, stepping out on to the international stage unannounced is a hard thing to do. I is easier if you have friends in your corner, as Virgil did with the Premier and Paiste companies. I asked Virgil to make some comments on endorsements and to talk about the change from Remo to Premier:

“Being involved with Remo was a great experience for me. Remo Belli is a great friend and I’ve learnt a lot simply being involved with his company. He invited me to play at a Remo day in LA back in ´89 which was my first taste of international exposure. That day was huge and we followed up with a few clinics on the East coast together with Sonny Emory. I still use Rmo heads exclusively, so our relationship continues even with my change to Premier. I must say the Signias are exceptional drums. Funnily, Premier drums have always had an interest for me. When I was in the US on my drum oddysey (Virgil spent two years travelling and studying in the US in 1979-80), I studied with Horacee Arnold in NY and I went to see him play a few times and got to sit in on his kit which were Premiers. I remember the sound was just exquisite, and it was such a pleasure to play them. Premier was not a popular brand here so I didn’t get to hear them very often. So when this opportunity came up it brought back all those sonorous memories and I willingly gave them a go.”

Back home Virgil has been stacking up the credtis as usual, having played in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, doing the cast recording of that show (’92), giving power drumming clinics across the country, plying with his fusion band On the Virg, and woorking with Southern Sons. This last band has been one of Virgil’s ardent mainstays. He has been with the band, through a few incarnations now, for ten years, and the next big move for both Virgil and the band is to relocate to LA this May, to try to achieve succes in the fickle but lurative US market. Virgil picks up the story:

“Southern Sons have sort of been in hibernation. Everyone has been doing their own projects and stuff just like me. There has been a lot of songwriting going on, and we are currently recording and album to be released in Asia. From there we will all be relocating to the US where we intend to stay for quite a while, perhaps a year. We will be living together, soaking up the new environment and hopefully working at something succesful over there.
Southern Sons is very close to my heart, being one of the founding members, together with Phil Buckle. The band has a long history going back to the early ‘80s when Phil was playing with a band called the Cutters, which I joined in ’84. We did a few minor things. Then transformed the band into The State which did a few more minor things before I recruited Jack Jones from a Van Halen cover band I was working with. We then transformed again, this time to the present incarnation as Southern Sons. Phil and I have been a pretty good team for some years now, having been through a lot of ups and downs. I’ve put so much work into this band one way or another and now I feel that we are at the apex; we are ready to do some big things.”

I was curious as to why Virgil would stick it out with a band that took so long to get the right combination of talents together to achieve the succes they have had so far, and why he still wants to go to the US to grind it out once more in a quest for band success:

“I could easily have left and gone around being a sideman for lots of people –but that’s just not what I want to do, it’s not fulfilling to me. In this band I can contribute in many different ways, including writing, and it’s not that easy to find those kinds of situations at any level, in any country. It’s not like I have been driven by a blinkered success-with-this-band-or-else mentality, it’s just the way it has evolved. You work hard at something you enjoy and you believe in and suddenly ten years have gone by. Southers Sons has started to to get a lot of interest from overseas, particularly in Asia, but we have felt a little stale in our current environment. So the relocation is a chance to start a fresh in a sense – to live together, to try to get a team mentality into things, to expeerience different things which will give us a chance to approach things with a degree of freshness. We have a lot of record company support and faith that this is a good move for us to make. We will be travelling and doing gigs, of course, and we hope to do some recording there.”

PM: When you only see one side of a person, like how some people would only see you as a drummer and perhaps not as a musician, it can limit the degree of understanding of not only what  you do but why you do it. It seems to me that you have a strong cpacity to extract meaning in all areas of your life from your involvement and dedication as a musician.

“Ofcourse. Playing music has taught me so many things that go way beyond just the music itself. Music has taught me about life –the humility, the grandeur, the ability to preserve myself, how to test myself, how to pace myself, all those things which echo through all my relationships, not just my relationship woth music. I goes beyond the basicc level od dealing with the instrument.”

PM: What drives you musically these days?

“I try not to restrict myself musically. Like I said, I am very passionate about the Southern Sons thing. A lot of people might se eme doing a heavy fusion gig or catch a clinic where I get to stretch out a lot, and then they ask why I am doing Southern Sons?
To me it takes all kinds of music to satisfy mme and that, in a nutshell, is the answer. Satisfaction. I do it because I like it, and I fell privileged to have both the ability and the opportunities to be able to make choices in what I can and what I want to play. One night I’m with On the Virg, the next day I’m in the studio with Southern Sons, then I might go off and do a session, or record a live TV show. To me this is the excitement of being in the industry. It’s not boring, it’s not limiting. It is such a great business to be able to participate in it on all of the levels that I do. Without having to restrict myself to just one thing.”

When I sakes Virgil what he listens to these days, he pulled out Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor”:

“Once upon a time I did a lot of listening in order to learn. I would do mountains of transcriptions from favourite players in order to cop licks, whatever. Now I listen more for pleausre, both because I don’t have the time for that kind of study and also because I have  plenty of my own ideas to work on. I like music that is adventurous, but I like all styles of music too. For example, I just loved Living Color when they first came out with “Love Rears It’s Ugly Head”. Their rawness and the spontaneity of the performance on record was so good, which was quite a chance to take I thought. One of my all-time favourite bands is the Police, so I listen to them a lot. I still listen to other drummers and I still derive an enormous amount of inspiration from them. I listen to my idols but I’m not as totally immersed in pulling it all apart and studying it as I once was.”

PM: What are you working on playing-wise these days?

“I work a lot on both feet as you would expect. It’s so hard to maintain and improve technique with the feet and it’s done through hard work mostly. People often ask me how I do things with my feet and I answer that it is no different from working on your hands. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of perseverance and dedication mixed with a passion for doing it, and many many hours of hard work.
To me this is the secret ingredient in all of this. You must have a passion for what you are trying to do. You must love doing it. In order to get to a world-class standard in any field, be it sport, or an artistic pursuit like music you have to sacrifice a lot of time to get your abilities up to scratch. If You don’t have some inner drive to keep you going and especially to keep you enjoying what you do then the work becomes just that, work. For me the work is a means to an end and, because I see it as such, I never find it tedious. I find it hard like anyone would, but it is it’s own reward, and I have gladly sacrificed other things in my life in order to maintain a level of commitment to my work. It’s not an obsession in a negative way, it’s a commitment freely undertaken.”

PM: Surely tp get to the level that you have, but to still want to undertake even more in terms of striving to improve yourself, requires en even greater level of commitment. Do you see it that way?

“I think a lot of people who are not artists don’t really understand what it means to be an artist. They don’t understand that it is more than even just a lifestyle –you can’t get away from it. In fact when you’re divorced from that thing that constantly feeds you and gives back to you, you really feel out of kilter, you kind of lose your grasp of some critical thread that sees to hold it all together. What that’s saying is it’s more than just being a musician. It’s a awy of life and in fact it’s transcended just the musicality; it has become a way of thinking, a way of acting, a way of being, and it’s more than just commitment. It brings about a real spiritual revelation.”

PM: Still, there are great coontributions from artists working on a more simple level.

“No question. Without a doubt. There are many ways of being talented, and there are many ways of actually making a mark. We do what we can do. This is what I’m able to do, so I present it as the best offering I can. That’s what art is all about. Art is about putting something out there, in the hope that it will make a difference. It’s not dollars and cents; it’s not commerce. The things I’m talking about are far more complex than that.”

PM: What about the relationship between feel and technique in drumming? There are many drummers who believe there are limits on what is needed in terms of technique. How do you feel about this?

“I think that is limiting the art-form, because when you say there are limits on what is needed then you have already defined the feel and all the other parameters that you deal with in music. You might as well say why keep playing, because you have defined the limits. I mean once we have answered all the questions, we lose one of our raisons d’etre. Civilisation thrives on the need to know; it is one of the motives that permeates the whole of human culture.

Look, there is nothing wrong with being content with a certain level of playing, but it is a mistake to critize the desire to know more, to learn more, to do more. It is better tp accept that we are all making the best contribution we can. Hopefully this will add to our culture and be of some benefit to all.”

PM: It seems to me that you are making spirited defence of technique here. Do you perceive some sort of stigma attached to that word?

“Well tehcnique itself is innocent. It does nothing wrong; it is merely misused. It’s all part of the deveopment of your craft. There is nothing wrong with someone wanting to learn and understand the tools of their trade. No matter how great your thoughts and feelings as a musician, you need some mechanism to enable you to express them, and that is what technique is, a method. It’s all about desire and what you want to achieve. One thing I have learnt over the years is that there is no right way. I’m certainly not goig to place limitations and qualifications on paths other drummers choose to take. There’s a plce for everyone out there.”
PM: Where does technique lead you to and how do you work on it?

“You heopfully get to the point where technique becomes transparent, where there is no longer this division between feel and technique. That’s when really interesting things happen, when the most amazing and magical accidents occur. These moments are amongst the greatest for me, but they would never have occurred had I not pushed myself –my learning, my understanding, my ability –to the very edge. I don’t want to tell the same story for the rest of my life. With my performances on the drums I always try and find ways of tripping myself up, to reshape the story somewhat. So no matter how much technique you get under your belt, you’ve also got to try to find ways to nudge yourself out of a comfortable consistency.”

PM: Let’s lighten up a bit and talk equipment. What sort of setup are you now using, and why?

“I’m always trying new things, whether it’s a tom on the left or a different cymbal setup. Changing keeps me fresh I suppose. You hear yourself doing something different and it inspires you to be a little bit more creative, to try something else. At the moment, what I’m sometimes doing is using an 8” tom as my second floor tom. It just creates an inthusiasm to do things, to explore possibilities. My setup includes 10”, 12”, 14”, 16” and 18” rack-mounted toms, 14x5.5” snare, 22” kick. My cymbal setup changes quite a bit dpending onmy mood or what I’m playing. I’m particularly keen on the brilliant sound of the Paiste Signature series cymbals.”

PM: What sort of things do you do electronically now?

“I have a Roland TD7 kit. It’s a lot of fun to play with. It’s great for working in the studio, syncing to MIDI or for doing demos at home. Live I also use a Roland SPD11 pad with internal sounds. I have that off to one side and I use some sounds in conjuction with the kit. I have percussive sounds that are hybrid percussion, not your usual Latin percussion type ones but some big, deep sounds. I use some of the internal Indian percussive sounds to which I ass some delays and effects. They sound pretty interesting. I don’t use any other electronics live because I’ve had some trouble with triggering and misfiring in the past, and it all becomes so temperamental. I’m sure there is a better way of doing it now, but I’m not sure that I want to travel that road at all. Nothing I have heard live replaces the sound the sound of a well-tuned and well-miked acoustic kit.”

PM: You also have a new deal with Vic Firth sticks:

“Yes, they will be making a signature series stick to my design. I have recently gone back to using nylon-tipped sticks, which I haven’t used for 15 years, but recently I picked up a pair and just played for a while and found myself enjoying the sound, particularly on cymbals. It was just time for a change.”

Virgil has another new project on the drawing board, this timw making his first solo release:

I have wanted to make a solo record for some time now, but never had the time to work on a musical concept for it. Then I thought, why not just play drums. So I’m going into the studio for one day and treating it as a live recording. Hopefully something interesting will come out of it. The ideas are still forming but it will be totally drums, encompassing grooves, textures, moods, technique, whatever feels right.”

PM: Watching you play one of your extended drum solos is such an exhausting thing for the audience, sp it must take a good deal of energy for you to be able to do them so often. How do you keep in shape?

“I do a lot of things to keep generally healthy. I practice Iyengar yoga, which involves intense stretching. It’s fantastic for getting the kinks out of tired muscles. I have a poool at my place so I get a lot of aerobic exercise there, and I do a litlle running. I was actually training with som of the Collingwood players over the summer, going on their Sunday training runs and that was pretty intense. It’s important for me to stay fit. It’s all part of that toal lifestyle that music has given me. You learn how to pace yourself, how to to cope with the physical demands of the instrument without overdoing it. It all adds up to being prepared for whatever the situation is.”

In a previous article I wrote for the now-defunct Sonics magazine, Virgil said that he thought he was almost at that point where it would all come together and he would finally play at the level he was striving for. Six years later he still sees himself as almost there, testimony to his dedication. Virgil will prbably always fell that there is another “next level” to get to, and that ideal alone will keep him working at improving himself. If he ever gets there it shoud be something well worth hearing!