“When you think of a drummer, you think of someone playing a simple thing,” observes timekeeping extraordinaire Virgil Donati. “A Beatles groove or an AC/DC beat: tap, boom, boom, tap, boom, boom. That’s Drumming 101!”
In much the same way that players like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen expanded the possibilities of the guitar, Donati and friends like Thomas Lang, with whom he is about to visit Australia, are innovators behind the kit. To a master craftsman like Donati, drumming is far more than just keeping a beat or making sure the rest of the band knows where they’re up to.
“It’s such a deep subject, and when you’ve got four limbs which you can distribute to all those sound sources of a drum kit in so many creative ways,” he declares, “that’s kind of the cutting edge of drumming and rhythm. There’s a potential in drums that goes way beyond anything you hear on commercial radio.”
Donati’s journey of rhythmic discovery began when he was only two years old; by the time he was 15 he was playing in the glam rock band Cloud Nine, who had become known as Taste by the mid-70s. He reached wider renown with Southern Sons, the early 1990s hit pop-rock band featuring songwriter Phil Buckle and a then-18 year old Irwin “Jack Jones” Thomas.
“I can’t go back that far!” he says with a laugh about Taste when he’s asked if he still puts an album on for a listen once in a while. He has nice things to say about Southern Sons, however.
“I think there was some great music there from the early 90s. Especially the second album that we released, Nothing But the Truth. We did something cool things there. That band was truly great – there was some very talented musicians and writers… great lyrics, great band. Such a shame that it didn’t go any further than the launch of the third record. Occasionally I pull a couple of tracks out and have a listen.”
While both Taste and Southern Sons were straight-up commercial rock bands, even in the early days, Donati was exploring the possibilities of his instrument.
“I was always out there playing and working with rock bands, both original and cover bands,” he says, “and at that time I was very interested in getting into jazz, fusion, progressive rock, and really developing and honing my skills to be able to express myself and be flexible in many genres. I’ve devoted a lifetime to working on my skills as a musician and a drummer and developing my rhythmic knowledge to a level that a layman wouldn’t even comprehend.”
That is no idle boast. In the years since then, Donati has firmly established himself as a singularly unique entity in the worldwide drumming community. He formed Planet X with former Dream Theater keyboard player Derek Sherinian in 2000 and has toured and recorded with Tony Macalpine, Alan Holdsworth, Steve Vai and a host of others. Each has been a further step on his life-long mission to explore and develop his craft. At the end of this month, Donati will be bringing much of what he has learned to drumming devotees around Australia in a series of clinics/performance events with Thomas Lang that will kick off at the Sydney Drum and Percussion Show.
“Thomas and I have been friends for a very long time,” Donati says of the stOrk and John Wetton drummer/composer/ producer. “We’ve never really done anything together before and, in fact, I’ve never done a show with another drummer. We’ve done drum festivals and drum jams, but this something different. We play drums together and there’s duets, and that’s what we’ve attempted to do. I’ve written some music, Thomas has written some music that highlights drumming and rhythm and interplay between the two, independent and interdependent. So there’ll be that aspect. There’s a couple of pure drum duets where we’ll be exploring some pretty interesting rhythmic territory, and apart from that there’ll also be a segment of the show where we do our own thing.”
“I’ve written one track,” he continues, “and it’s a bit of an epic that kind of highlights the rhythmic aspects. But it’s not music that would be totally foreign to you in terms of how it sounds. It’s pretty cool riffs and some nice harmony and melody, with the drums layered over the top of it.”
Donati is careful to point out that riffs and melodies are still vital aspects of songcraft that shouldn’t be allowed to fall victim to technicality. It’s a philosophy that’s allowed him to succeed in both the progressive music world and the pop-rock sphere.
“It all comes down to the performer’s sensibility,” he explains. “Their musical sensibility and taste. Of course there are some young, inexperienced musicians who are so obsessed with the technical nature that they may overplay, but you’re still learning your craft. That’s fine, but you’ve got to find that fine balance between expressing what you want, and being creative and on the edge, and still make it work in terms of a composition. It’s a fine edge that you’re walking on that you’ve got to deal with. I’ve been writing my own music and releasing my solo records and I explore all those possibilities in my own music.”
Those possibilities are what Virgil Donati and Thomas Lang are seeking to explore and present to their devotees on this tour. They’re determined to show that the range of drumming goes way beyond any primal notions of just hitting stuff.
“That’s what we’re bringing to this show. There’s going to be a lot of groove and a lot of basics, but over and above that we’re going to open doors into the beautiful rhythmic tapestry that can happen.”
27/5: Sydney Drum and Percussion Show, Rosehill Gardens NSW
30/5: Princess Theatre, Brisbane QLD
1/6: Union House Theatre, Melbourne Uni VIC
3/6: Century Theatre, Immanuel College, Adelaide SA
6/6: Red Door Auditorium, Perth WA