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Don Lombardi

Interview by Sean Mitchell // February 01 2012
Don Lombardi

You do what you do the best you possibly can and hopefully people appreciate it, and if you’re real lucky you make a living at it.

With the inaugural issue of The Black Page Online comes change and growth. Perhaps no one might know that feeling as much as this month's feature interviewee. Don Lombardi can be called many things—a living legend, an innovator, and, yes, a student of life. His dedication to the world of drumming is well documented and his dues have long been paid in triplicate.  

Having spent many years building the DW brand, Don has now added an exciting new web presence to the drumming world in what has become known as Drum Channel. One might entertain the thought that after 39 years Don could take a well deserved break. But that's the thing, isn’t it? When you truly live within your passion, there is nothing to break from.  

Many people aspire to big things but few take the chances required to make the vision the truth. Few are willing to do the extraordinary things it takes to bring about extraordinary results. And a very small few realize a huge accomplishment after many years, only to strike out yet again into uncharted waters to create fresh new concepts and ideas. I am proud to have Don Lombardi be the very first interview for The Black Page Online. Stay tuned.

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Don, you have taken a huge step forward now as an innovator in the drum world with Drum Channel, a comprehensive drum program that knows no labels (retail or genre), and infuses humor, insight, performance and incredible interviews. Where did the idea for Drum Channel develop? 

As you probably know, Drum Workshop started as a teaching studio. I had 40-50 students a week and rented a small space in Santa Monica calling it Drum Workshop. The idea was to combine private lessons with group instruction by some of the best drummers in the world. Between teaching and playing fulltime I never really had the opportunity of getting it off the ground as I had envisioned. Then the opportunity came along to get into manufacturing which was also of interest to me as I had some inventions I thought would be helpful for drummers. So, some 40 years later, getting back into education, working with the best drummers in the world is how Drum Channel came to be, kind of coming full circle. Of course, the internet is a world of its own. 

I interviewed Chocs a few months ago, and I have heard nothing but good about your prowess as a director. Is this a hat you intend on wearing more often and what has drawn you to that art form? 

I appreciate the comments about my directing. At this stage of Drum Channel, everyone does a little bit of everything. I have always been overly hands-on and I want to be sure we cover everything from the drummers’ perspective as a serious musician. I really don’t see myself as a director; I just keep the ball rolling. When you are working with the talented people we have, all you really need to say is go. 

Terry Bozzio and Chad Smith both have been incredible forces on the Drum Channel programs and both have very contrasted approaches on camera. How have they helped in the development of DC? And how did they come to be on board? 

I’ve been talking with Terry about doing more in education for over 10 years. Terry is a musical giant and thank God he’s chosen drums. I called him at his home in Austin, Texas, about four years ago and said, “I’m really going to do it.” Chris, my son, has been very successful as the CEO of DW, so I have time to continue my responsibilities there as the Director of R&D and blaze a new trail with Drum Channel. I asked Terry what he would like to do to help, and he said, “I’ll pack up, move down the street to be there every day.” I’m not sure I still believe it, but sure enough when he’s not on the road he’s here doing what needs to be done and blowing me away every day when he plays. Regarding Chad and Terry’s different approaches on camera, I think that is a great example of drummers in general. Their personalities come through so much in their playing. I feel it’s more so for drummers than any other musician. Chad is a monster player, better than most drummers might think. Every fiber of his body is in every note that he plays. He has an incredible feel and though his personality and approach on camera is light-hearted, to say the least, he’s as serious about what he does as Terry or any other great drummer. When Chad heard about DC he thought it was really cool, and like other high profile drummers who are on the site they want to give back to the drumming community—which is a big part of what we are all about. And something that has been fun for me is when you get Chad, Terry, Alex Acuña and Neil Peart passing each other in the halls, and they end up in a room with drum sticks having as much fun showing each other what they do and jamming as any drummer, anywhere in the world at any level would do getting together with his friends. 

As a drum manufacturer was there ever a concern that you would be giving your competition “face time” as it were on Drum Channel and how was that dealt with? 

Drum Channel is a completely separate company from DW. The drummers get it, but it’s true the big manufacturers don’t. Yamaha refused to advertise on the site because they felt it was a conflict of interest, while Ralph Humphrey has over 50 lessons on DC playing Yamaha drums. Though some of the companies are gun shy about their artists coming to Drum Channel, I think as DC grows and has more and more of a face of its own, it will become more obvious to everyone that our goal is education. 

I see quite a few videos in which you are the interviewer. How do you prepare and what in your opinion makes a good interview?

To be honest, I don’t see myself as an in-front-of-a-camera guy. But I have done several interviews because I had specific subjects I thought would be fun to cover and because there was no one else to do the interview. Personally, I think I’m a little old for the internet demographic—but then again David Letterman holds on so I am going to have fun with it also. I think a good interview is simply letting the drummer tell his story, getting to know him and get him to answer questions about himself and what he does that may not seem that obvious to him because it comes to him so naturally; yet for other drummers who are seeking what he does, it’s much less obvious. Those kinds of fun breakthroughs are really cool. I remember in the middle of Chad Smith’s Master Class when we were filming it we often talked back and forth and I asked him if he would comment on the fact that his left leg is always bouncing in 8th notes. When he checked it out, he said he didn’t have much to say because he had never paid attention to that before. 

Going back, do you remember the first time you met John Good, and how did it come to be that the two of you decided to go into business together? 

Back in the early 70s when I was teaching at the small Drum Workshop studio, John Good walked in (he was 17) and said he wanted to take drum lessons. I had invented a trap-case seat that was adjustable and was trying to make a few of them a month on top of everything else I was doing. When John said, he was running out of money for lessons, I said, “Let’s trade. Help me make the seats and I’ll give you drum lessons.” That’s the short story of how we got together. 

How important a force is John Good to DW? 

Well, aside from being like family, he’s a guy who eats, breathes and dreams drums, drum shells and ways to make them better and different. John is a force to DW and he’s a force to the drumming world. We’ve always kind of shared our duties, as he would focus on drums and I would focus on hardware with, of course, a lot of cross over. 

1989: a young Tommy Lee purchases a DW kit and later begins an endorsement. How important was that endorsement deal? 

Tommy Lee’s endorsing DW Drums was huge. Again, a long story, but to make it short, he started playing our pedals in the early 80s and one day while we were working on a pedal, he sat down behind a DW kit. He never heard anything like that, as he grew up on imported drums. He purchased a kit for the Dr. Feel Good album while still endorsing another company. The idea of him endorsing DW never came up, as it is not our policy to pay artists, and John and I were barely paying ourselves. I then got a surprise call from Tommy’s manager who said that he would like to play our drums, leaving a lucrative deal that he had just because he loved the sound of our drums. At that point in ’89/’90 we had very credible artists and some great bands playing DW, but not a real crossover heavy rock group.

Tommy playing DW gave us a whole new audience and the nerve to go to the NAMM show in 1990 as a drum manufacturer, as opposed to a hardware manufacturer making a few drum sets. In the mid 80s the biggest challenge was keeping the company financially solvent. Being successful and staying in business are two completely different things. The first week, we made bass drum pedals. I took one to Louie Bellson who called me the next day and said it was the best pedal he ever played. So we immediately had success but we had to borrow money several times in the first three years and lost money almost consistently for the first 10 years. 

During this time, the biggest challenge was getting into drum sets as it took all of the profit from hardware to make the few drum sets a month. When we shipped one, John and I would turn to each other and say, “There goes another $100 bucks.” Yet we knew if we kept going somehow the lines would have to cross and we could make it work financially. 

Recently I watched some great video of you, Ron Spagnardi, Roy Burns, Vic Firth and Herb Brochstein playing together. Who were your mentors as you grew up? Who were the drummers that most inspired you? 

An interesting side story to opening up one of the Modern Drummer festivals is Ron Spagnardi called me and asked if I would play in an ensemble with himself and Herb Brochstein. I said, “I’m working sixty hours a week and literally haven’t held a pair of drum sticks in six months.”

But he convinced me we would all be doing something low key. A month before the event I find out the other two drummers are Roy Burns and Vic Firth. I called Ron and said, “What happened to the group of old guys who don’t play anymore? I’m going to be playing a solo before Roy Burns?” Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I guess the idea was to show that manufacturers used to play drums—or in the case of Roy and Vic, still played drums. 

Do you remember what first inspired you to pick up a pair of sticks? 

My biggest influence in playing was Buddy Rich. I heard drums on a television show when I was 6 or 7 and thought that would be a cool thing to do. And then at 9 when I heard Buddy Rich play live I told my parents I wanted the pedal with the two cymbals that go up and down so I could play the jazz cymbal rhythm. So far, I’m the only drummer I’ve ran into who started out for the first six months with just a high-hat. 

I was 15 years old in 1960, an amazing time in the history of music and drumming. If I had to pick my four favorite drummers, they are Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis and Ringo Starr. They were all so different, yet so much the same, as all drummers are which makes it such a fun community. Nick Ceroli and Freddy Gruber were mentors as teachers and friends. 

I get the sense from DW and Drum Channel that your organization is a rather large extended family. It seems that everyone connected to those products are there because they want to be. What is the secret to the success of DW and DC? 

It is hard for me to pinpoint a secret to our success. It is a large extended family. Recently Chris and I figured about 30% of our employees have been with us between 15 and 20 years. Finding common goals with people who are passionate about what they do makes it fun. I think in many ways it is like being a musician; you do what you do the best you possibly can and hopefully people appreciate it, and if you’re real lucky you make a living at it. DW has been successful in both areas. Drum Channel is yet to find financial success, but I feel very much the same way about it as I did in the 80s when DW was struggling. I know if we keep doing it we will break through. 

When you are not at work, Don, what do you like to do to unwind and just be Don Lombardi? 

It is an interesting question as to how I unwind and just be myself. I don’t ever feel I really get wound up and I don’t know that I’m not always myself. I’m a really lucky guy having connected with Bonnie, who was one of the most special people I had ever met 40 years ago. And now, we have been living together for the past 15 years. And when I’m not a work, I look forward to hanging out, hiking and spending time with her, the kids and grandkids. I will say, I thought DC would take a year or two to get up-and-running and now we are in year four, but finally we are up-and-running. I will be looking forward to a little more Don time in the near future. 

Personally, I have a firm credo in life. That is, before I begin any new challenge I need to ask myself if I will grow because of it. What were the forks in the road that made you look inside to find strength to move forward? 

For sure, there were a lot of obstacles to overcome. But I would have to say there was never any real “forks in the road,” at least I never looked at anything quite like that. Partly, because there was never really any time to look back or worry about the current obstacle. The key was to always move forward, even if you ended up going backward to get there. 

What can readers look forward to from DW and Drum Channel in 2012? 

DW has some very exciting plans for 2011-12. On the downside, we’ve closed our facility in Mexico. While at the same time, it secured the jobs and increased our workforce here in Oxnard. Making drums and buying products made in the US is very important to me. I feel people are short-sighted to not take that more seriously. It will take too long to get into the details of the new products we will be launching. But there are some innovative breakthroughs in hardware and drums. As for Drum Channel, 2011 was really our first year with the site functioning well. So there is a long list of plans that we have to implement. We will be expanding our list of drummers doing educational master classes and giving lessons. Along with reaching out to entry level drummers with a series of free lessons designed for anyone to learn how to play drums, we also have some very interesting partnerships with other websites. One of the most exciting being a cooperation between Drum Channel and a new site launched in June called Jammit. You will be able to listen to the original multi-track masters of the greatest records ever made. It’s an amazing educational tool and an incredible fun way to learn. My hope is that Drum Channel will expand the market by encouraging beginning students and adults to play drums. There is a new movie that has just come out on DVD called Adventures of Power, the story of an air drummer following his dream. I guess you can say our goal is to turn every “air drummer” into a real drummer.

 

Visit Don online: http://www.dwdrums.com/ & http://www.drumchannel.com/




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

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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