Drumscene April 2000
Virgil Donati : Beyond 2000
By Paul Matcott
Since the first issue of Drumscene where Virgil Donati appeared doing an unimaginable pose doing the splits over two bass drums, Virgil has continually been re-inventing himself. Now based in the heart of Los Angeles in the US, Virgil has been recognised as one of the greatest drummers of all time, constantly thriving to push new boundaries and stretch the art of drumming as far as he can.
Those of you who have been readers of Drumscene since day one should remember the first cover picture of Virgil doing an impossible version of the splits on two bass drums.
If you grew up in Melbourne like me then by now you would be used to seeing Virgil do seemingly impossible things; his drumset performances have been the stuff of legend for so long that we take all what he does for granted. We all knew that if and when he took himself off overseas that he would dazzle drummers and musicians worldwide with his skills; and now it has come to pass. Virgil is as much a household name amongst the drumming community as anyone else – worldwide – which is as it should be, for the man has undoubted ability. As we start this new millenium it is appropriate to begin this new volume of Drumscene with another interviea with Virgil. Now resident in the US, Virgil is re-inventing himself yet again. Having established himself in the upper echelon of drummers, Virgil is now confronting his identity as a musician and composer, once more seeking to grow, to stretch himself as far as he can. This interview was done mostly via the internet, but it also includes observations of Virgil in performance with On The Virg, as well as some conversations we had whilst Virgil was in Melbourne. I came away from all of this feeling that Virgil has a greater maturity and confidence in himself as a composer, and that the statements he makes musically
from now on will be broader musical ones, not just to do with the technique of playing drums.
PM: Tell us as much as you can about what you have been doing the last couple of years in the US – where are you based, who have you been working with, that sort of thing.
Virgil: I have been building a dream. I remember even as a kid always having a fascination with ‘America’. I knew that one day I would become more closely acquainted with this mysterious land. After all, this was the home of most of the great music and musicians that inspired me. Even then, through my naïve eyes, it seemed like a place of such great hope and opportunity. It’s hard to believe that many years later, I have finally realised that dream. I feel I still have a strong attachment to Australia –friends, memories and achievements –but now I feel myself expanding into the world. Basing myself in LA has given me a sense of partitpation, and ultimately a sense of acceptance. Although I must admit that nothing has simply fallen into my lap. A shift in one’s life of this magnitude cannot be favourable without an extraordinary amount of effort and courage. I believe that circumstances are shaped to a certain extend by strong intention, and intentions are nothing but idle thoughts until you give them a reality in the form of effort.
It has been four years since I dug roots in Los Angeles, and in the big picture, it is still a short time. I have been working independently with many great producers and musicians, and these experiences have greatly contributed to continuing my musical growth. The most recent project I have become involved with is a band called Planet X. This is a partnership between Derek Sherinian, Tony MacAlpine and myself. We are in the studio completing our first CD, which should appear on the shelves in Australia sometime in the autumn. This music is very progressive. I think it’s safe to say that it’s on the cutting edge of progressive – there are many ideas which I believe to be innovative hidden within the music. it’s kind of difficult to put into words, but I felt a lot of magic happened on this project. The creative process was very exciting – there was a lot of spontaneity, and stream of consciousness.
PM: I don’t want to talk too much about concepts to do with technique – we have covered that ground in the first issue – but I would like to talk to you about your musical ideas. To give you an example, I thought the performance of On The Virg that I caught at the Corner Hotel was just about the perfect vehicle for your playing skills; it wasn’t music that merely showcased your abilities, but seemed more cohesive overall, in that the compositions lent themselves well to a more complex rhythmic framework. It alos seemed that the other players read your style of drumming well, and knew (intuitively?) when not to fill spaces with more notes, which gave the music less clutter. Another noticeable thing the sparse use of what I will call the highlight of your technique – double bass drums. I didn’t see the whole show, but what I did see had very appropriate use use of this aspect. If anything it was understated, but was very appropriate in the context of the pieces that were played. The musical dimension was also more tied into the music – the stick twirling when highlighting passages with cymbals drew attention (mine anyway...) to a sense of release of dynamic tension of those points in the pieces (as opposed to just for the visual effect –‘you do it because you can’). A general question then: What type of music do you want to play (in an artistic sense, not merely in terms of ‘work’), and how do you see your technique facilitating this?
Virgil: My music!
I want to play my own music. Last year I relaised that I was composing more and more. My skills as a composer were being sought after, along with my drumming. I wrote for Derek Sherinian’s solo CD, and the OTV CD, and then the Planet X CD, and I’ve already been booked to co-write and play on Derek’s next solo CD when I retuan to LA. There are many other things on the backburner – it’s just a question of time. It takes so much time and attention to do justice to any given project. Right now, at this point in time, I feel as though composition is my core; everything else serves that – the chops, the groove, the playing. I find that my writing has matured a great deal over the past twelve months, culminating woth the Planet X CD (which will be entitled Universe).
A far as integrating technique and composing, the writing and the playing have a kindred spirit. There’s an obvious affinity between the drumming and the compositioal ideas, and I think both serve each other quite well. I feel that through these compositions, I can give life to some of the strange and unusual things I hear as a drummer. This is why it’s important for me to play my own music. I’ts also important to work with other musicians who have similar vissions – to feed off of each other. There is input from both emotional intelligence as well as interlectual intelligence. There is a sense of chance taking – of unreality. I feel this has always been a charactaristic of my playing. Never being quite comfortable.
It’s like life itself!
My performances, my playing, I feel, are the source of my emotional intelligence, and the composition is where I also rely on interlectual intelligence. The more emotional side of my compositions perhaps derives from the spnataneity and the power on stage, but in he cool light of day, when I sit back and contemplate and think, and write my music, well then my intellect, my sense of history, my sense of culture and all these other things, not just raw emotion, also come into play. It’s an interesting process, and it has become an important part of my musical output.
PM: Tell us your impression of music in the US; is it hard to ‘stay on top’, is work easier to come by, that sort of thing. I would be interested to know how much harder it is to be a leader for example rather than a sideman. Any comments about music production (getting a ‘deal’, distribution, audiences in general) might also be relevant.
Virgil: it doesn’t strike me as being anuy different to music in Australia. As a matter of fact, it seems that the same rules that apply to Australia apply to the US. If you are chasing a deal it can cause a bit of anguish...and then once you do, the problems of distribution and true commitment and prioritising from the record company kick in. Having experienced it many times over in Australia, I see many similarities over here.
As for working as a sideman compared to working as a leader, I can say there is a great experience to be had in both areas, but nothing iss quite as fulfilling as being your own boss. I have enjoyed immensely producing both OTV, and the Planet X CD’s. Growing up in Australia, I was always in an original project as a leader, or co-leader. Presenting your own music to the world is the ultimate experience, both on record and live on tour. We did this recently on tour with OTV in Australia, to promote our recent CD release, and with Planet X we have upcoming tours in February in Mexico, and then in May-June in Europe.
Likewise, working as a sideman can have ot’s upside also. I enjoy doing all the freelance work I do in the studios in LA. Most of it is independent stuff, from pop to progressive, and at the end of the day I can walk away from it and leave it someone else’s capable hands. After I’ve commited my parts to tape I have no further responsibilities.
PM: The Modern Drummer interview you did last year seemed a bit ambivalent; on the one hand it paid due recognation to your enormous talents as a drummer, but it also seemed to say that you are some kind of weirdo because you PREFER to devote so much time to improving your skills. It’s almost as the writer was saying that your achievements on the instrument have come at some cost to your personal development (tall poppy syndrome?). I don’t want to make this a big part of the article Virgil, but it has been mentioned by a lot of readers of the article. There was a letter in the next issue of MD that kind of expressed that negative opinion –‘You should enjoy partuing more than practicing’ –and I’m merely interested in any response you may have to the whole thing.
Virgil: I felt quite comfortable with the MD article. I thought that Bill Miller was quite generous in his depiction of who I am, and I didn’t sense any abivalence. The most pleasing feedback from the story came from some of my peers here in the US. Most of them thanked me fr an inspiring article, and a few even told me (quite seriously) that they had given it to their better halfs to read (amongst them Kenny Aronoff) which I accepted as a positive. Strangely enough, I still find time to a few other things I enjoy in life. Drumming and music are never far from me. I see the world and I understand the world through my music. That’s what an artist does. I’m sure someone in the visial arts walk around seeing colours ans shapes, do you know what I mean?
I walk around and I hear and see and experience things through my rhythms and grooves. I’m an artist, I’m a musician and my music my art is with me everywhere. Some people might interpret that as obsession, but it’s a just a fact of life for an artist. That’s who I a, and that suits me fine. I can’t take time off from who I am. For some, music is a luxury, something removed from ordinary life, but for me it is a vital part of life. It’s sometimes humorous to read how easy it is for some players to talk of the drums almost as if it’s an intrusion on their life. What’s that all about?
PM: Some specific drum stuff now. Talk a bit about your current setup: It appears to me that you have scaled things down a bit, to a more or less conventional setup. Tell us your rationale if you have one for your current approach.
Virgil: Nothing has really changed for quite a number of years, maybe just my tom positioning. Moving clockwise, my tom setup is 12”, 10”, rather than 10”, 12”. I play with a traditional four-piece setup in mind, being one rack tom (12”), one floor (16”). Then I’ll fill the gap with the 10”, then add the 14” on my far left, and 18” on my far right. I now have my own signature cymbals, which Sabian have launched. They are called “Saturation Crashes”, and of course I have them in my setup. Coming up with the final product was a long creative process. I presented my ideas to Mark Love, who is the R&D person at Sabian, and we then proceeded through a series of prototypes to refine the concept. I wanted a cymbal that was going to reveal a full spevtrum of requencies, very responsive, and an explosive voice. Performance reliability and personality were also qualities I was looking for, however, I did want to avoid creating an effects cymbal, something that wasn’t practical. I’m very happy with the final result. Initially, Sabian will release the crashes in 16”, 17”, 18”, and 19”. Hopefully if the line does well, we will also introduce the ride and hats to match.
PM: Lets finish with the traditional plans for the future, and if you like, some comments about future directions in drumming, this being the beginning of a new Millenium.
Virgil: I don’t always now how to get things done, therefor I probably don’t have any pkans other than being as productive as I can, and allowing the things I do to carry me...this is how I’ve always done things, and it seems to sustain me.
As for the future directions in drumming, I just hope that we can shake that ghetto mentality that seems to surround the drumming world. We should acknowledge the instrument in it’s own right, as well as continuing the role it traditionally has been cast in, that of supporting and an accompanying instrument. This psychological adjustment may halp the shape of things to come in the new century.