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Drumscene June 1997

Virgil Donati : Diary of a Drummer
By Paul Matcott

Two years can be a long time, in music, politics or any other area of life. Twi years agi we started this magazine with a feature on Virgil Donati, one of this country’s finest drummers. At that time, Virgil was planning to head off to the US with the band Southern Sons; the intention was to try to get some interest in the band by being at the “right” place musically speaking. Well the band might not have made it big, but Virgil sure has!

He has spent the past year playing just about every major drum festival on the planet, and has drummed up a huge storm, impressing audiences and drummers wherever he plays.
He has the support of some major manufaturers –Premier drums, Sabian cymbals and Vater sticks- and with their help has managed to position himself at the forefront of the world fraternity of drummers. Down here, we have seen and heard just how good Virgil is, and to some extend we may even have taken his prodigious talenst for granted. Now the rest of he world is experiencing just how immensely talented Virgil is, and the reaction has been all good. Check out the latest issue of Modern Drummer to see the full page ad from Vater, and read all about how Virgil will be headlining the next Modern Drummer festival. Not bad for a guy who, when I interviewed him last time, was still unsure of his abilities!
Two years ago it was also possible for me to slip around to Virgil’s and sit and chat over a coffee, with the trusty walkman recorder turned on. These days Virgil lives in LA, and is so busy that that casual approach just ain’t gonna work; so this time Virgil and I went surfing together! Yes folks, I got my machine to talk to his machine (I’m borrowing some LA speak from Virgil here) and I’m proud to say that Drumscene is bringing you all the updated information on Virgil, care of the internet. Whilst it might not be as cosy and intimate as my usual methods, it does allow us to keep you informed, not only of what Virgils is doing, but as importantly how he feels about it all. So folks, get your wet suits on, ‘coz surfs up!

PM: First of all, tell us about the move to LA –the where and why of it all:

“I chose to move to LA just over one year ago, I guess because I felt it presented the best musical prospects, and being the first dry land across the Pacific, I figired it was as good a place as any to dig my roots. It’s a serious challenge to arrive here and work towards acceptance; as I’ve found, it takes much courage, willingness, and a strong capacity to endure. I’m living close to central Los Angeles; it’s probably one of the most progressive areas to live in, placed between thee trendiness of Santa Monica, the affluence of Beverly Hills, and the seediness of Hollywood. Acces to anything and everything is better than anywhere in the world in this area, and despite LA’s image of being void of culture, it’s probably one of the more interesting areas to live in. As an Australian, an interesting cultural advantage of living in LA is being able to make a right hand turn (like our left hand turn) against a red light. All these things play to make it flavourful.”

PM: What work have you done/are you doing?

“Since moving here I’ve had the opportunity to work in the studio with some amazingly talented people. I did a record with Jon Stevens which Randy Jackson produced. He also played great bass on the project, along with some other great musicians.
I played on a very progressive industrial rock album by T.J. Helmerich and Brett Garsed, which should surface sometime this year. I’ve played on some rap things, and most recently, I’ve been working on an album for a talented new pop singer called bridget. She has written some great songs, and I feel she has a lot of potential. Her management would like a growing involvement from me, but I’ll see how it evolves.
My endorsement ties with Sabian, Premier and Vater have kept me on the road performing at many of the biggest drum events around the world, and nationally on the US circuit. I can’t praise these companies enough for the faith and support they’ve extended to me.”

PM: What is currently on the drawing board?

“I’ about to mix a new album of mine which is a totally improvised performance recorded live in the studio with Scott Henderson on guitar and Ric Fierabracci on bass. Because of the free form nature of the playing, it gave us permission to make musical decisions from feeling, and not from reason or rules. The music we created was a reaction to each others musical gestures, expressions, and tones. I’m also thinking about producing a new video in the near future. I’m just thinking about subject and content at the moment…”

PM: How are you finding the change to life in the US, generally and musically speaking?

“People work hard as well as play hard. The people are superficially outgoing. They don’t drink as much as Aussies but they seem to be drunk on less. Commuting takes more time and I learned very quickly that my machine will talk to your machine and vice-versa, rather than being personal. it’s a great hub of talent. It’s the mecca for artists from around the world. Everyone comes here to try to make their mark. It’s a great place to learn, while you teach interactive audiences. I’m working towards designing a career balanced between the studio and live work.”

PM: Tell us about your ‘worldwide’ reception at the drum festivals you have performed at:

“I’m amazed at the recognition I have around the world, primarily through the exposure I’ve had through my video, and also through word of mouth. Honestly, the reaction I seem to be getting is generally one of amazement and total disbelief, even from my peers, which I confess, is so reassuring after the lonely labours and tremulous hopes. It’s a nice feeling to be on the world stage.”

PM: tell us a bit about the fraternity of drummers; for example, we don’t hear much about drummers from Europe:

“It would seem that drummers are the same the world over. They ask the same questions, have the same frustrations, and the same desire to be able to express themselves as freely as possible on their chosen instriment.”

Last year Virgil began a gruelling tour beginning in Portland Oregon. The following commentry has been graciously provided by Virgil himself and is an actual extract from a diary he kept for the entire tour. It is an insightful look into life on the road as an Australian drummer who is turning heads all over the world.

7/11/96

I departed my home in LA at 7 AM, bound for Portland Oregon; I was about to confront a demanding first week, hoping to play some music in between the incessant travel schedule. I regarded my performance at the event this evening as average, although I was comforted by the crowds appreciation. it requires a demanding effort to ensure the admiration of others: it is a still greater one to be satisfied with one’s own thoughts. I seemed to struggle with the hars dynamics of the venue. I couldn’t extract the full sweet tones I like from the drums, but instead had to deal with resonating bass frequencies, and barking hi-end. Still, there was a lot to look forward to…

8/11/96

Travel day: Depart Portland 9:48 AM. –Arrive Montreal 8 PM.
9/11/96

This was the first of the two day Montreal Drumfest. The event kicks off at 10:30 AM, and I am scheduled to play at 6:25 PM, following a very impressive lineup. I walked to the venue at about 11 AM, in the sharp brisk air, just to have a look at the venue and get the feel of the place. The event had already begun: there was clearly an ambience of excitement and expectation, with a large, eager crowd in attendance. After making sure that my gear had arrived, I returned to the hotel. I spent the next few hours warming up, using the bed as a  practice pad. I was back at the venue at 3:30 PM, and after being reminded by Steve Ettleson (from Remo) that I had only 2 hours to set up, change heads, and tune up (the drums were new and still in boxes), I suddenly felt a litlle anxious, and realised I’d better get on with it. With the kind a considerate help of Steve, Bill Zildjian (from Sabian) and Carol Calato (from Regal Tip), we proceeded to remove the drums and hardware from the seemingly infinite number of boxes and then finally stood back, taking pride in the fact that we had accomplished the task with a litlle time to spare, albeit having left the setup area like a battleground, strewn with ripped cardboard and plastic packaging, in what was an otherwise organised and tidy area. Not quite the pre-performance build up I was hoping for, but that’s how it goes. After a generous introduction from Dom Famularo, I walked into the arena, with 2000 drumming aficionados voicing their enthusiasm, and at the same time, I sensed, waiting to be inspired and effected by a performance. Today I feel spirited, and prepared as always, to express all the emotion and passion I feel for this great instrument through my performance.”

10/11/96

Travel day: Depart Montreal 5:15 PM. Arrive London 6:30 AM. Connect to Belfast 9 AM.

11/11/96

I was greeted at Belfast Airport by Lee Worsley and Nick Drew from Premier – I will be in their custody for the next three weeks. After a sleepless night on the plane, I had to catch a few z’s before soundcheck this afternoon. I had a feeling the two hours of sleep I had were to nourish me for the considerably long night ahead. After a great event put on by Ronnie and Maureen, the plan this evening was to leave straight after the show for Glasgow, via the Irish sea (after having been confined to Belfast airport in the fog last years on the same leg of the tour, Lee thought it best to go this route). Arriving at the docks at 2 Am, we were informed that the fast ferry would not be leaving because of the gale force winds. Our only option was the slow ferry which would not arrive until 7 AM! The crossing seemed endless. Sipping hot ginseng tea, and with the heaviness of my eyelids, I tried to appear interested, as Jimmy related hos experiences hauling gear for all the greats, including Sting, Van Morrison etc.(he was a rather agreeable truckie, who somehow made me as a drummer). By this stage I was a definate candidate for the Panda Club.....On the other side we drove a further 2 hours or so, to finally each our accomodation. My priority was to supinate myself on anything resembling a bed...

12/11/96

Glasgow – My first chance to see Vera (Figueiredo) play – I was very impressed with her. (Ver is a Brazillian drummer who did the UK tour with Virgil –PM)

13/11/96

Had a great night in Aberdeen. Walking through the city in the late afternoon, I was filled with this sense of expectancy, hoping the universe wa going to reveal it’s deepest and darkest secrets to me –maybe not...
Tonight I wanted to shed myself of the stubborn and havy skin of self cosciousness, and reach the crest of my expressive purpose.
I try to contemplate a flawless performance, with the seemingly compulsory small chip in it’s margin. But I think it’s the blemish that giives a performance its character, and the audience a sense that you are treading unknown territory.

15/11/96

Sell out crowd tonight in Newcastle. The first night of two weeks in England. Helen Bavester from Rhythm Magazine joins us for the remainder of our journey. After a burning show, most of us were feeling the pangs of hunger. Where do you eat at 2 AM in Newcastle? The cabbie wasn’t optimistic about us  finding anywhere to eat at this time, and yet Lee, Helen and I ventures forth into the darkness bound for the docks, in our quest to subdue the churning of our bellies. As we walked through the throngs of drunken revellers exiting the surrounding clubs, we stumbled across a great little curry house whose doors were still open, and proceeded to stuff our faces to the max.

16/11/96

Weekend masterclasses in Aberbergale, North Wales, organized by Steve Washington from ‘Take That’.

18/11/96

Bradford was basking in sunshone when I stepped off the train at about 2 PM. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cloudless English sky. For a minute as the cabbies loaded my luggage, I stood by the taxi soaking in the eays, eyes closed and face at the sun. I gave him the name of the hotel, and he informe dme that it was just across the the road. I hopped out and walked across. After dragging my bags into the hotel, I was told we had been shifted to another hotel, so back to the taxi stand! Lee Worsley hadn’t contacted me to inform me of the change! But in all fairness to the Premier lads, they work extremely hard (we’re hauling about 7 tons of gear), and are meticulous about detail in the presentation of the event, and also show concern for the comfort onad morale of their artists. I sincerely hope their envelope on pay day reflects the same consideration.

19/11/96

Blue skies one day, snow the next. We faced the long drive to Norwich in cold, blustery conditions. Nick still felt obliged to deliver us in good time, so it was like experiencing a theme park ride; the guy is nuts; driving at 80-90 miles an hour, slashing through the snow which was slingin itself at our windscreen, whilst the fierce wind tossed the aerodynamic Frontiera to and fro...I tried to talk some sense to him, but he wouldn’t ‘ave it.
He carried on with the countenance of a mad man –nostrils flaring, tight lipped, dribble dangling from his teeth...was ‘Road Bongo’ getting to him?, or was he just eagerly anticipating the hot tea and appalling, unhealthy, fat-loaded, typical English fare that awaited upon arrival? I just turned the volume of my cans up, and pounded away on the head rest of Nick’s seat to the sounds of “Down On The Upside”. After five long hours, we arrived. I was looking forward to the gig tonight – memories of last years show here still lingering in my mind.

21/11/96

My first gig in South Wales.(Cardiff) So far the highlight of the tour! Gary Hargraves’ front of house sound is the best of the tour so far, and the crowd is all fired up! I think perhaps some Welsh drummers should spend more time pounding their drums; I was excorted from the stage by security staff, apparently Vera had been accosted vy some virile young (and slightly inebriated) men, and there had been some other signs of aggresion with possible outbreaks oof violence towards the end of the event...With a show of muscle from the Premier boys, and with Helen’s remarkable ability to communicate with people on their own terms (she became the mediator) feelings were subdued, and we proceeded with the merchandise signing ritual...

22/11/96

Walsall – what more can I say?

23/11/96

Weekend off in London – one of my favourite cities!

25/11/96

Travelled to Redruth, via Bath, where Vera and I did some sight seeing. Later caught a lift to Land’s End with Helen. it’s all starting to become a blur; every day a new destination with 3-6 hours on the motorways: then the physical and mental preparation for the performance, then trying to squeeze in some Q.T. and so on and so on...

26/11/96

Poole...brisk walk. big crowd, excellent night, reasonable food, good company, sound sleep.

27/11/96

London...after leaving the hotal by myself for a stroll around the West end, I eventually made my way down Charring Cross Rd. looking for tonight’s venue, ‘The Borderline’. I had more warm-up than usual, and it paid off; I felt a lot looser playing tonight. I love this place!

As you can see, life on the road is just as grueling and just as interesting (meaning full of surprises and interesting personalities) as it is on any other level. It’s great to see Virgil’s tremulous hopes finally being realised – he really is a gold medal drummer, and deserves all the recognition he has been getting. Start saving money for this years Drummer’s Day Weekend - Tribal Tech will be a special musical performance. Scott henderson was at GIT when I was at PIT in ‘83/84, and he was a very special guitar player even then. It should be one of the best musical experiences you will have, and it will be your best chance to see Virgil live for quite some time!