We grabbed the opportunity to spend time with Virgil Donati during his recent clinic tour through South Africa.
There seem to be endless possibilities of what can be achieved on the drums and in music. How do you plot your path of what to work on next?
Virgil Donati: It takes years for the creative process to evolve. Our attention at various times shifts from the physical and mechanical challenges drumming confronts us with, to the musical and rhythmical challenges, and eventually, we learn to respond and interact with other players. It is a drawn-out process. Right now, for me, it’s about trying to find the balance between feelings and ideas.
Feelings are the central force in generating great music. By feelings, I mean not only ‘Feel’, but also spontaneity, improvisation. Ideas are preconceived. The ability to be able to unite these qualities is always a work in progress. I don’t think there is ever an end to that process.
So that’s on the drumming level. In terms of general achievements, I’m concentrating on composing music that will extend my rhythmic skills and put them to the service of music. I really enjoy bringing life to new ideas and involving the talents of the amazing musicians I’m working with. Everyone brings a unique talent and personality that shapes the sound. I find that very fulfilling.
Your new CD The Dawn Of Time is an orchestral work. Is this a natural evolution of your style and taste or what spurred you on to tackle this?
Virgil Donati: Well, I became very interested in orchestration and the exulting, emotive sounds of the symphony orchestra through my piano studies. I’ve always been very interested in the classical piano over the years, and I studied it quite intensely when I was young. Of course, it always took a second seat to drumming, but over the years, it served me very well as a means to compose music.
Nonetheless, I go in and out of these periods of time where I sit at the piano, and I really work on it and learn a new set of pieces. In recent years, I’ve been obsessed with preludes. I’ve learned a lot of Debussy preludes and some Ravel, and others. I find that whole Impressionist period quite inspirational, and a marked change from what preceded it.
Following on, when virtual instruments became available, and ultimately the realism of some of the orchestral libraries, it kind of intrigued me, “I wonder what I can do with this. I wonder if I can use my musical sensibilities and put them to use. I wonder if I can marry what the drums do with the orchestra, but with compositional depth, whereby the music, the orchestra as a whole is the compelling force, not just as some light background string pads accompanying a rhythm section, as we often hear when orchestra meets drums.
Did you compose all of the music for the album yourself?
Virgil Donati: Yes, composed, orchestrated, and played the piano as well as drums.
You mentioned a swing from clinics to drums camps on the international scene. Are drum camps something you enjoy doing?
Virgil Donati: Yes, it seems there is a continuing trend towards drum camps as an alternative experience to the format of common drum clinics. Whereas a clinic is really a solo performance with some audience interaction in the form of general questions, a drum camp is usually an intense, hands-on, one to three-day event. The work is more focused, and being a smaller group, personal attention is more direct. As long as it is well organized, and with good facilities, it can be an enjoyable experience.
How do you prepare for a multi-day event like a drum camp?
Virgil Donati: I’m not sure how most other drummers run their drum camps, but for me, it’s important to give the students a hands-on experience. Everyone has a hand pad, and if possible, pedals and a bass drum pad. I like to prepare work in advance, with themes that cover a large area of drumming, all charted, in the form of a bounded folder of the drum transcriptions and explanations of all the things I will discuss and drill them on. Where possible, there may be a second kit set up, so I can play along with students when appropriate.
How do you decide what to tackle in a group environment with drummers of all skill levels?
Virgil Donati: Most things are relevant at all levels, with a focus on the fundamentals, and demonstrating how to practice effectively to maximize results. Even fundamental ideas can be extremely challenging when you learn the theory behind good execution. Those fundamentals can quickly transform into intermediate and advanced concepts, depending on the application. It’s the quality of execution and the ability to quickly grasp the more advanced rhythmic concepts that can cause a degree of separation between the various levels, however, I try to demystify the concepts so that students can grasp the thought process, and we practice at various tempos to give everyone a chance to extend themselves.
Brands often get asked by musicians how they can become endorsees. What would your advice be?
Virgil Donati: The drum companies are looking for players who can bring visibility to their products. This would be an aggregate of the drummer’s skills, being a part of a highly visible band, or working as a sideman with marquee names. Quite simple really – brands look for someone who can sell their product. They don’t just give products away because you play.
Has the advent of social media had a change or effect on how you market / present yourself to the public and/or sponsored brands?
Virgil Donati: Social media has had a huge impact. It’s never been easier to be visible and to share your music with the public. Clearly, social media and the mighty Youtube are always at the fingertips of music fans and has given the artist so much more independence than in previous times. It’s a good thing, but it’s also important that fans recognize talent, and do show support by enjoying the free content and buying the product that is officially released. That strikes me a good and fair balance. I just strive to produce music of high quality and high standards, and this will hopefully attract a new generation of fans.
Your cymbal choice has and keeps changing, from your signature Vault series to an array or Sabians currently. Is it down to your taste evolving or does the ever-widening range of sounds and effects make new possibilities available that wasn’t an option before?
Virgil Donati: I enjoy playing some of the new models that Sabian put on the market and at times even some prototypes which may or may not be released to the public. For example, the last time I was in the Sabian LA office, Chis Stankee, artist relations manager, turned me onto the new 22” Artisan Elite ride, and a 20” Artisan crash, both of which I used on the South African tour.
They also had a prototype 23” Artisan Crash, which is phenomenal. I’m using that one in my studio, and will probably bring it on the ‘IceFish’ European tour later this year. However, I do still use my signature saturation crashes more often than not, only embellishing them with these ever-evolving new choices.
When you are travelling for clinics you quite often have to make do with what is available drumkit wise, especially in countries as far off as South Africa. How do you adapt your playing, and more importantly, your parts to various size kits and with shell sizes that aren’t your usual pick?
Virgil Donati: It’s really never a problem. I mean, most of my drums are standard sizes, apart from some of the larger floor toms I’m now using. So generally, most backline gear has enough of what I need to effectively communicate my ideas.
Do you feel adapting your playing to the available gear is something you’re good at?
Virgil Donati: I don’t feel it’s ever a problem. I actually really enjoy playing on a small 4 piece jazz kit, if that’s what’s available. In fact, there’s a jazz club in downtown LA called the Blue Whale, where all the drummers use the house kit. It’s a small 4 piece with an 18’ kick drum.
What is it like working with brands like DW Drums and Sabian Cymbals on custom gear?
Virgil Donati: There are some very talented people working at those companies. Their knowledge about the materials they use, and how to harness the sound you’re looking for is remarkable. It’s usually a matter of trying to put into words the sound you hear in your imagination, and as was the case with my Saturation crashes, over the course of one year, prototypes were shipped to me, and I would test them before we finally arrived at the final product.
With John Good at DW, well, he’s simply the master of all things wood. I highly recommend the movie “Masters Of Resonance” if you want the full story about John Good and DW. I usually have a chat with John regarding shell construction before selecting a new kit, and spend some time in their showroom, testing the various types of kits/woods.
For a drummer wanting to move outside the confines or the most common beats and grooves, what would you say is the next thing they need to work on?
Virgil Donati: One thing I’ve noticed on the many masterclasses I’ve done around the world, is that many students lack fundamental skills. So just to start with, learn to coordinate your two hands. How do we do that? You go through the rudiments thoroughly. They give us the ability to coordinate the hands in any possible combination – we call them patterns, while at the same time developing technique and touch on the drums. This starts the process of ‘moving outside the confines of commonality’, and onto more expressive playing. But it’s only the beginning.
Where to start to break out of the 4/4 mold?
Virgil Donati: It’s not rocket science. Just learn to feel 5/4, 7/4, then 5/8, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8, then onto sixteenth note signatures. I’ll give you an example of how to think when graduating from 4/4 to 5/4. In 4/4 we are playing/feeling four quarter-note beats in each measure of time. We can feel that quite easily, as it is the mainstay of western music.
When playing 5/4 we are adding just one more quarter note beat to that measure of 4/4t, so we must shift our feel from four quarter-note beats to five quarter note beats. It’s an adjustment in feeling, and can take a short amount of time to feel that adjustment and to figure out how we can creatively add that extra beat to our groove. I also recommend playing along with recordings that are in odd times. That’s the best way to learn to feel them. Analyze and try to count.
Which drummers have influenced your playing the most?
Virgil Donati: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been playing for so long, that the drummers who I listened to as I was growing up, seem to be in a distant archive, buried deep in the database of my mind. The seventies was probably the most significant time when I was still relying on listening to all the great recordings to learn from and draw inspiration.
I was into everything, progressive rock, hard rock, fusion, jazz, and studied it all intently. To a lesser extent, I also touched upon Latin and African drumming. So the drummers who were making an impact on me then included Harvey Mason, Steve Gadd, Lenny White, Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, John Bonham, Ian Paice, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta and others. I think this is probably a good list that points to the main source of my inspiration at a young impressionable age.
What is the most valuable piece of advice given to Virgil Donati as a musician?
Virgil Donati: Count!
Any particular work you’ve done that you are most proud of?
Virgil Donati: Two of my most recent records are the works I would consider highly. Firstly ‘The Dawn Of Time’, simply because of the musical elegance and finesse, and depth of that production.
Secondly, on the complete other end of the musical spectrum, my new progressive rock band, ‘IceFish’, has a debut record out titled ‘Human Hardware’. My compositions on this record are quite a contrast to TDOT, and I also wrote many of the lyrics. It becomes very apparent how your work can take up your entire being, when apart from the drumming/playing considerations, you may be in a position to have to spend endless hours composing, writing lyrics, taking care of social media content, video editing etc.
The three South African clinics happening three nights in a row: how will they differ? Do you keep things open based on the night or do you prepare a general theme and topics you’d like to tackle and discuss in advance?
Virgil Donati: Sometimes I’ll prepare a handout with notated examples for a clinic tour. In these cases, it gives me a general theme to work with, but on this occasion, I decided to keep it more open and offer a more improvised, and playing structured clinic format. It then allows time for some interaction with the audience in the form of questions, which I don’t normally have time for if I have a handout. So based on the questions alone, things will head off in different directions every night. I demonstrate ideas that will differ from night to night, and I enjoy that.
Sitting down to practice, what would you work on typically?
Virgil Donati: At this point of my career, I usually sit down behind the kit, and improvise. I always manage to find an interesting and challenging idea to take note of (literally) and then drill that. Sometimes, that idea, can become a part of my practice routine on a daily basis until I feel I have mastered it.
At times, this can be a matter of days, weeks, or even years. However, in the course of that improvised practice, I will diverge between grooves, independence based ideas, double bass drum ideas, jazz/fusion ideas, and simply working on parts from new tracks I’m composing. Recording myself is a common part of my work. Almost all the records I work on these days are recorded in my personal studio, so I’m always set up, ready to record.
It really is the best way to improve your playing. Soon as you hit that red button, you are placing yourself under the microscope, and your perform with intent, as if you are performing live. You give it your best, and it always takes your practice to another level. Then you have the opportunity to listen to, and analyze your performance.
Given you’ve raised the recording issue, what mic’s and pre-amps do you use to get the best from your drums?
Virgil Donati: I’m using all Shure microphones. Pre-amps are a very important consideration if you want to deliver high quality sounds. I use RME pre-amps, UFX and Micstacy, which give me a total of twelve mic inputs, and if I need more mic inputs, I’ll also link up a Fireface 800.
What can we expect to see and hear in the next couple of years? Any new projects coming up or any particular techniques you’ve been working on?
Virgil Donati: In 2019 I will be working on a new solo record, and also a second IceFish record. So lot’s of work to do. With some scattered touring thrown in there, that pretty much wipes out my 2019.
You eat healthy and looks to be in great shape. Has this always been a way of life or is it part of surviving life on the road?
Virgil Donati: I’ve always been conscious of healthy living patterns, and made an attempt to the best of my knowledge of executing a lifestyle based on those principles. Some of it is trial and error as I go along, but I’m now realizing at my age, that it’s really paying off, and the errors have been minimal. I’m able to not only feel in top shape physically but very importantly, also mentally. I still feel inspired and driven, and keen to take on every new day. It’s such a big topic to go into in detail, but it’s simply a matter of doing research if you so desire.
Outside of drummers and music, what do you feel inspires you most as a musician and human being?
Virgil Donati: I think inspiration has something to do with having a respect and appreciation for life, and therefore making the very most of our precious time here on this planet, and based on this thought, I can find inspiration in great human achievements, and great minds. Spending time in the great museums around the world can be a great source of inspiration, as can be great literature or an inspiring biography. I enjoy and draw inspiration from all those sources, which ultimately feed me musically.
What music (bands, composers or artists) have influenced your playing the most?
Virgil Donati: Over the years there have been many, but the one who stands out for me is Allan Holdsworth. I remember seeing him with his various lineups several times in Australia in the ’90s, and to think that one day I would be playing with him would’ve been a dream come true, and as it eventually did! Allan Holdsworth was an extraordinary musician. What he was able to achieve with his instrument, with his music, is pure genius. To have been a part of his inner circle probably holds the most significance and relevance for me, and to have also been a friend is also special to me.
Outside of drumming, what are your hobbies/things you like to spend time on?
Virgil: I really like editing videos, which happens to be an important part of self-promotion these days. But, I like taking the extra pains to record multi-track audio and syncing to the video in order to produce a high-quality clip for fans to enjoy. I’m an outdoors person, so I enjoy long runs on the beach, or along hiking trails, and up hills.
To kill time what would you do?
Virgil Donati: Read a book.
How many days do you get to spend at home in a year and how do you manage to maintain friendships and connections with all your international travelling and commitments?
Virgil Donati: My time is usually split – 6 months at home and 6 abroad. It gives me wonderful opportunities to forge new friendships all over the planet, some of which become lifelong friends, so I look at it as a huge bonus, rather than a dilemma with home-based friendships.