Felix DeLunaInterview by Sean Mitchell // November 28 2016
I’m one of those people that pours over catalogues, pours over magazines, knows what everybody’s playing. I’ve spent all this time in my life with what is basically, to most people on the street, useless information.
Felix, you’re an artist rep for ddrum and you’re also into the development side of things. How did you land the gig that you have right now?
Well, like I usually say – I knew somebody. There’s a blanket company called Armadillo Enterprises; Armadillo Enterprises owns Dean Guitars, ddrum, and a smaller guitar brand called Luna – they have more like a hippie kind of vibe to it.
A friend of mine was working for Dean at the time and he had taken over as the artist relations rep for the company. At the time, a group of people who had been sort of the ddrum guys, left in a mass exodus and went and started their own drum company. It left a couple of voids here; most of the other ones were filled in but they hadn’t filled the artist relations position. I had know this guy for many, many years and he said “Do you want to come do this cause I don’t know anybody“
My back ground up until this point was I was playing drums and I was working at a phone company. I’m one of those people that pours over catalogues, pours over magazines, knows what everybody’s playing. I’ve spent all this time in my life with what is basically, to most people on the street, useless information.
He was already asking me questions because they had had a few high-level signings just before the other guys left so I finally said “Do you need someone to come in and maybe help you with this?” I initially came on board as his assistant. So he was over all of Armadillo’s artist program with me specializing in drums but him still technically being like the A-level guy. It only worked out that way for probably six months to a year before the ddrum artist roster started to expand to the point where he couldn’t do that – because Dean’s got a pretty big artist roster too and he’s a guitar player. Now, there are some reps in the drum industry, believe it or not, that are not drummers. I was completely shocked by that. Everything was coming to me anyway so at some point the owner and everybody felt comfortable just letting me run with ddrum’s Artist Relations and being just full time ddrum because I was helping on the guitar side a bit. We’re not a huge company; there’s only sixty of us here. A lot of people have this mindset that we’re this giant conglomerate but really there’s a core group of people that are kind of doing everything. As I progressed I sort of became – that was me getting the job and then became the catchall for all the ddrum artist stuff which then sort of parlayed into the product development. When you’re talking to artists they usually have opinions about product, what’s holding up on tour and things like that.
As you mentioned some reps aren’t drummers. I often find for reps that there is no cut and dried job description, sometimes as a rep you’re doing a lot of different things. You, for example, are an AR guy but you’re also into development with the company’s products and what have you. So let’s talk a little bit about your position.
That’s the thing; if you ask ten different reps what their job is you’ll get ten different answers.
There’s the basics, obviously I am the connection between ddrum and guys like Vinnie Paul, Carmine and Vinnie Appice– all those guys – I’m their point of contact which that means when they have a problem or they need something they call me. That’s the obvious thing and what we all have in common – we’re all the point of contact. Some people have secretaries, I don’t.
Then it changes to different levels of artists, different artists have different expectations. There are some artists out there who, believe it or not, are not gearheads which to me was like “I don’t understand your language” cause I’ve always been such a gearhead. For them you end up becoming more of a translator because they want to know about gear; they don’t necessarily know how to articulate it properly – they can play the heck out of it but they never went any further than that, they’ve had someone else setting up their drums for so long that it’s not even really a concern.
So in a given day I could be doing anything from texting and talking with artists to also brainstorming with my other product guy on the nuts and bolts of a new series and then tonight I’ll be on my way to a show to see someone play. My day is varied quite a bit. I never know a hundred percent – I have a plan of how I think the day is going to go – but it’s never a hundred percent exactly the way I think it’s going to go – which is exciting. Then again sometimes it’s frustrating cause sometimes you’ve just got to get stuff done though.
Now on the development side of things Felix, what’s the kind of stuff you look at or you deal with on maybe daily or monthly basis.
I think the development side is a very challenging aspect. It’s not to say that it’s more challenging than AR but it’s got its own set of constrains. Ultimately, we make drums and drums by design are not that different. I can see a DW tom in the back of your room right there – it’s round, it’s made out of wood, it has lugs and heads on it and that’s pretty much going to be the case for every single drum on the planet unless you’re getting into like North and all sorts of whacky off-shoot drum companies that have made their claim or tried to mess with the formula. Ultimately it’s a shell with some heads on it that makes a sound. Really at the end of the day, the big thing you end up looking at on the development side is “How can I do this just differently enough that it’s going to be compelling to have someone want to buy it and play it but it’s not so foreign that drummers will run away from it. You know things that have happened in the past; like PB Drums, for instance, those were great sounding drums but man they didn’t look cool and people just couldn’t get past the way they looked. Same thing with Arbiter – Arbiter kind of did the same thing except the opposite direction – they went with thick shells and the single tuning system. You look at it think “Wow, that’s a beautiful drum” because there’s no hardware on it, but then it’s also like “It’s so wrong though: it’s not what I want to see”.
You know drummers are very conservative; they are way more conservative than you would think. We really want our stuff to fit into a certain category in order to satisfy what we need. So that’s a challenge to try to develop product. “Okay, we’re coming out with something and you need to buy it and now I have to list all the reasons you need to buy it”. This starts at the bottom. This starts from when I conceive an idea in my head; I run it past my other guy and he says I’m either nuts or there’s something there, or both. Then we get in touch with the factory and we tell them our vision. Whenever we can we try to prototype stuff here in the US. Our shop is actually not far from you- it’s closer to you than it is to me – our shop’s in Vancouver Washington where we make our actual USA drum. So we’ll relay to him and say “Hey, we need to prototype this “. He’ll make the prototype, send it over, we’ll do some tweaks, maybe do it again and then eventually send that to the factory. They always work better if you give them something to look at as opposed to you telling them. A lot of times when we’re dealing with the overseas factory, those guys aren’t necessarily drummers either. They’re literally just building something for you to your spec and if you make a mistake on that spec, they will build it that way. They’re not necessarily looking at the overall picture they way we are.
Conception – is it a crazy idea, yes or no. Prototyping – take it to the big man, our CEO, run it by him.
At this point, simultaneously, we’re going to be developing marketing plans; how we’re going to introduce and name the series. What name’s been taken – frantic Google searches to make sure that we’re not naming it something that someone’s already named it cause we don’t want to get sued by anybody too. I’ve found that the industry’s pretty forgiving. Everyone realizes that we’re not making products that are so drastically different from one another, that ideas don’t occasionally overlap. You kind of give credit where credit is due. For instance, on our snare drums we had an option – for a long time we had been using a generic box throw off that was alright, it was functional, but when you’re making a snare drum and you’re putting that snare drum up against the thousands of other snare drums that are in the world, good enough usually isn’t good enough. So you either have to R&D something and try to create something from scratch or you go with something that’s a known quantity. In our case we went with the Dunnett because Dunnett makes great throw offs and he’s a brother in the drum industry. In his own words “Always know when someone does something better than you”.
From a cost perspective it does cost us a little bit more to use that strainer but it’s a great strainer and works flawlessly a hundred percent of the time – you can’t argue with that kind of success. Those are the kinds of things you have to consider. Obviously you’re trying to get it out to the public for a certain price.
We’ve definitely made a niche for ourselves as a company, definitely making gear that’s affordable. When I say that, I don’t want to say cheap because that’s not what we’re doing. I don’t really count the lower end stuff only because that’s kind of stuff you have to have, everyone has it; but when we’re into our Reflex line and up a lot of thought goes into those drums. We do our best to try to make the absolute best product that we can make within the confines of that price point.
Artist relation guys aren’t usually worrying about price point to my knowledge – that’s something that’s probably unique to my experience.
Like you said there’s a core group of people of sixty people so when you have a company like that you kind of do have to wear many hats. Of course, for you guys, having the electronic line as well would make it even that much broader.
This is maybe a little off topic but you would be the guy to ask this. There’s a lot of people talking hybrid and electric acoustic and you guys have been doing that for a long time. Even the ddrum itself was a family - the Nord family, that’s where it started from in Sweden. With that vision in mind, that must be a complex thing for you guys to say “Ok, we’re on the cusps all the time”. How do you deal with that?
Well it’s tough. The paradox sort of shifted when Roland introduced the V-drum – I’m serious. Up to that point we’d been making electronic drum sets since ’83 and really were the forerunners; we were the guys making the best electronic kits on the planet. Simmons kind of paved the way but ddrums - but we were the guys when it was owned by Clavia– who were pushing the boundaries. The endorsement list we had at the time was off the charts; Simon Phillips, Dennis Chambers, all these guys that were playing on actual electronic drum sets. We were way, way ahead of the curve. The paradigm shifted in 1997 when the V-drums first came out because to me they were marketing more toward a consumer electronic product as opposed to marketing to a professional musician.
The parts were plastic – now I’m not speaking ill of there quality, they make good stuff - but it was definitely a move away from a more professionally minded drummer, in my opinion. With our interface you had to actually know something about electronics to really make it work – velocity curves and sensitivity, things like that. What they did was put a graphical interface that showed you changing a drumhead which to most drummers that was like “Oh my god, that’s like I’m putting a pinstripe on here”. Well no, what you’re really doing is you’re changing the K, you’re changing the velocity curve, and you’re changing parameters but they made the graphic interface a lot easier to use and a lot easier for a layman to understand. Now at this point you don’t have to be a “nerd” to get into electronic drumming because it’s been simplified to the point where it’s really almost like an iPad now. You know, that’s where we’ve come with electronics that they’re so ubiquitous and easy to use that you don’t really have to be like a keyboard player, or like someone who’s had to really delve into midi. Now they’re using FireWire, or USB ports. So trying to be on the cutting edge of that world is very difficult because obviously technology changes very fast; and there’s a little bit of a race to the bottom that’s going on and you have to deal with it because if I only made high-end electronics then that means there’s an entire audience of people that I’m completely ignoring that buy a lot of stuff. Conversely you can fall down that rabbit hole and get lost there only making that stuff and probably do okay. I deal with a lot of artists and almost no artist that I deal with plays electronic exclusively so that’s where you get into the hybrid-side of it; they’re putting triggers on their acoustic kit; they’re putting pads around it; we have a trigger tube which is just a pad basically but smaller package; and that’s a lot more prominent on the professional side – the triggering of the drums for either sound replacement or sound reinforcement. One of our endorsers on the trigger side is actually Rich Redmond who plays country. He doesn’t trigger an interface, he triggers his gates. You’re still hearing his drums; he’s triggering the electronic gates with the trigger which is actually a much more accurate way to trigger it.
When you’re on the artist’s side what I send out the majority of is – we make an interface that actually interfaces with a laptop or another midi source that has no sounds in it whatsoever. Most of the pro-level drummers are not using a box; they’re using either a Pro Tools bass system or something with Steven Slate; they’ve got three redundant laptops on stage with them and that’s how they’re running their shows. I’m just giving them an interface and the triggers to make it happen.
I think that’s where the biggest disconnect that I see in the two worlds right now is that on the lower end it’s all one stuff. Really it’s people in dorms; it’s people who just don’t want to wake the kids or they want to play at night, or maybe they just want to record into their more basic rig at home; that’s what I’m seeing on that end.
On the pro end it’s sound replacement and Macintosh laptops and Steven Slate and it’s a huge expensive rabbit hole that they’re falling down. Vinnie Paul who plays our stuff actually still triggers a pair of ddrums ETs which that’s twenty-five, thirty year old technology at this point but we were so far ahead of the curve sound wise and sample wise that even now I would take the Pepsi Challenge against just about anything out there with one of those ddrum 4se’s. I have one and it’s one of the best sounding brains I’ve ever played. But the thing is, is that on the one end people are not looking for high quality – they just need something to hit; on the high end they’re using these programs that are very specific so it leaves this void in the middle that we’re trying to get our head around. I was talking to Will Calhoun a few weeks ago – Living Color was in town - he prefers a box because he doesn’t want to carry a laptop on tour and worry about spikey power and all the stuff that goes along with that. It’s hard to try to create something – he said “If you create it they will come” – we’re trying to create it, we’re trying to re-create it but it’s going to be at the end of the day, an expensive box; it’s going to be for a more professional drummer.
That’s a specific consumer base, specific demographic of course, and then like you said, the Ma and Pop who just don’t want Junior’s kit to be so loud is a whole other monster.
And I really get that too because I’ll take some customer service calls if we’re having a heavy day and I’ll talk to some parents and sometimes it’s only an electronic kit that the kid has. It’s not like he’s dividing his time between electronics and acoustics and to me that’s a little bit of a problem. Obviously I want to sell them an electronic kit so that we can keep the lights on but I want them to actually have the acoustic kit too because no matter how good the kid is or the quality of the electronic kit, you’re never going to learn the touch that’s involved with playing a snare drum; and hitting a rim shot; hitting a centre stroke. You have no context as to what you’re emulating on the electronic kit if you don’t know that.
The hobbyists are what keep us in business. I’d love to say that we get by solely on expensive drum sets and that I fuel my tank with bald eagle heads and ostrich eggs; that we are making so much money. The fact is as an industry we’re competing with iPads; we’re competing with phones; we’re competing with stuff we never had. I’m almost forty so to me it was playing drums or playing drums; yea I had a Sega Genesis and stuff like that but that wasn’t as captivating to me as hitting a drum. Now it’s so much different; everything is so much better on the electronic side. The electronics might be what’s keeping the interest alive – I can’t hate on it – but looking at it from those perspectives, we’re in such competition with these weird entities now that just keeping people interested and keeping people wanting to play drums is like the paramount thing now.
Essentially, Carmine, and both Vinnies are legendary drummers and they do have some demands that are beyond the realms of what an ordinary person might expect. Let’s talk a little bit about that, just even having the people skills to deliver, not only technically what they need but being the guy that they call.
Right, well you know the biggest people skills is the ability to say “no” without sounding negative about it. It’s hard to say the word “no” and make people feel fuzzy about that. Generally speaking within the realm of what we’re capable of doing there’s not a whole lot that those guys could ask for that I would have to absolutely say an unequivocal “no” to – it’s a very small list of things. It’s just really about making sure that we’re preserving the integrity of what we do. I’ve worked with artists before - and they don’t end up staying - that have a very unrealistic idea of what they want from ddrum. I’ve been at this company for six years now and I had to come to the realization that we kind of are who we are; not to say that we’re not trying to have new things; not to say we don’t want more people to like us – we want all of those things.
Carmine grew up playing Ludwigs and of all the companies he’s been with the closest thing to us was Mapex and even then the stuff that they were making him was custom compared to what they were making for everybody else. He came on board just prior to me getting here. Our aesthetic was different; he uses shallow kick drums but we kind of made our name with deep kick drums. Initially when he came on board we were having to custom make a lot of stuff because it wasn’t stuff that was in our production line. Luckily, the company came around to the realization that not every bass drum has to be twenty inches deep and we were able to curtail that with some other sizes.
Part of the thing is that when you’re dealing with artists you want them to represent who you are as a company without taking it too far in one direction where it’s not your company any more.
There was an artist at one point that wanted us to build a mahogany kit for him. I was like “that’s not really our thing; we’ll give it a shot and see what we can come up with”. I thought we did a pretty good job of it but at the end of the day it wasn’t really our thing; we’re not one of these companies that makes “vintagey” kind of drums. So what I look for now on the artist side, when I’m looking for new guys, is I’m looking for people that are able to be part of our aesthetic without changing it drastically.
Vinnie Paul on the other hand was an absolute no-brainer for us because when he started he already played deep kick drums; he was a huge icon in the metal world and that’s kind of what became our niche even though it wasn’t intentional. At no point did we go out and say “We are going to go out and get only metal drummers”; we just kind of fell into that niche. Vinnie Paul represents a good example of someone who is a hundred percent into exactly what we were doing when we started the company.
The people skills involved is obviously being able to talk to people; being quick because they’re going to ask questions that they want answers to right that second – there’s not a whole lot of “let me get back to you”. I’m in a good position because I have good retention when it comes to this stuff. Since I’m involved on the product side, I think that’s another part that helps out because I’m able to go and say “I know this is coming out so this, this, and this is what makes the most sense”.
I think the biggest skill in terms of people skills to have with this job is just being able to match speeds with people because not everybody’s running the same race; not everybody is as knowledgeable about certain things as I might be; some people know more than I do - jeez I thought I was a nerd - some people know a lot less than I do so you have to be able to talk down without “talking down”. You can’t really talk that way to someone like Vinnie Paul. Vinnie actually has a really good idea of what he wants. He wants and why he wants it and that makes my job very easy.
Vinnie Appice is a different example; he was coming from a bigger company than ours and he wanted some stuff that we just didn’t make. He wanted birch shells, which still currently we really don’t do a birch kit. There was a lot of back and forth where I had to say “Vinnie, I don’t have that shell but I do have this shell. Let’s give this a shot”. Then at that point, other people skills are needed because you’re working with other people too because he’s an Evan’s endorser, so I’d call up Steve over at Evans or Marko and say “Hey, I’m building this kit for Vinnie what kind of drum heads is he using? What makes the most sense for this drum set?”
There’s a lot of thought that goes into all of this. A lot of people figure I just come in here and give out a bunch of free drum sets and they just play it because it’s free but most of our artists have a very strong opinion about what they want.
Some of the stuff that we do – for instance the Reflex kits which are made out of alder, I had to lead those horses to that water because when I told them it was made of alder most people looked at me like “I don’t know what that is”. They’ve been making Fender guitars out of alder for years and years but no one had thought to use it as a drum wood. We had a factory that had a supplier; it’s easier to get and it’s less expensive than the traditional maples and the birches and stuff. So we just gave it a shot and we ended up with a kit that a lot of my artists ended up playing but it’s not a super expensive drum set. Vinnie Appice is a good example – he came in wanting birch; initially we built him a USA maple kit, he loved it, but then we got his hands on a Reflex kit and he hasn’t looked back.
So there’s a lot of back and forth. Sometimes artists come in and know exactly what they want and some don’t know at all what they want. You look at what they were playing before and they say “I was only playing that cause that’s what they had”. So you gently push them into a certain direction because you need them for marketing purposes to be in a certain direction but without obviously insulting the fact that they’ve been doing it for a very long time and that they have an idea of what they want. They expect a drum to do a certain thing when they hit it, as anyone does, and you have to be able to provide that and provide some explanations as to why you think they should be working with this piece of gear.
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About the Author
Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.
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