|We caught up with Drum-Off 2007 winner Donnie Marple after the NAMM show to talk about his experience and the following is what he had to say.
GC: How did you find out about the Drum-Off competition?
Donnie: Believe it or not, I was in Wal-Mart back home in Keyser, West Virginia, and I actually got a call from one of my friends, and he’s from Ocean City, Maryland, and he told me about it. He heard on the radio that there was a Drum-Off, and that it was nationwide. I had never even heard anything about it and I’ve been playing drums for so long, but I had never heard about it. He told me and it was about a month before the competition started.
GC: What was the first thing that went through your mind when you got the phone call?
Donnie: I said, “Well, what kind of drum competition is it?” And he said, “It’s the Guitar Center Drum-Off.” I knew about Guitar Center and everything. I had never been to a store, but I had done some shopping online, and it’s a pretty big thing. Then I looked it up online and I saw all kinds of prizes for it, some of the past winners’ videos, and then from there, I was just inspired. I said, man, I have a shot of winning this thing. And it was worth a try – I had nothing to lose.
GC: Where did you go for your competition?
Donnie: I went and signed up at Towson, Maryland. It was me and two other drummer friends. They signed up, but they backed out of it. It was about two-and-a-half hours away from my house – that’s the closest one. It was awesome. I actually play a little guitar too, and the first thing I saw when I walked in was layers and layers of guitars on the wall, and I was like, wow. I was in awe. I was in more awe when I saw the drum room. It was just unbelievable – I could probably just pitch a tent and live in there for the rest of my life and be happy. (laughs)
GC: Did you do any homework in getting yourself prepared for your first Drum-Off competition at the store?
Donnie: : To be honest with you, I wasn’t as prepared as much as I thought was. I got there and the competition was so stiff, even just in the preliminary round. I finished second in the preliminary round to a guy that went to the finals in ’03 or ’04, I’m not too sure. I finished second and then I saw what it took to beat this guy, and I just worked my butt off, making my solo more musical. From there, I just developed a better solo and eventually a lightbulb went off in my head, that this is what it takes and I needed to do this and that. And then I won the store finals.
What I did was write down a whole bunch of rhythms, grooves and beats, and I wrote them down so I wouldn’t forget them. Then I practiced them over and over again until I got those down. And then I went back and put it in a musical order, where you take the audience on a ride, where it starts soft, gets big, goes back to soft, gets big again. That’s kind of how I arranged my solo.
GC: And then after winning the store, it was off the regionals.
Donnie: Regionals, yeah, I finally got to go to New York. I had never been to New York City. It was always a dream just to go there, but it’s also been a dream to just play drums outside of home, to get out a little bit. So I got a little bit of both worlds there – I got to play drums in New York City. It was a dream come true just being there. The store was massive, it was really big. And the competition was unbelievable. I hate to say this, but the East Coast, something’s happened with the drummers. I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s unreal. Some of the drummers I beat were just amazing, I couldn’t believe I beat them. It’s not that I was a better drummer, I just had the better solo – that’s just my opinion. Every person there that I competed with at regionals was probably good enough to compete at the national championship. It was incredible.
GC: What was it like winning the regionals?
Donnie: I could hardly believe it. It was just almost too good to be true. By winning the regionals, I won an electric drumset and I won another drumset, and these drumsets, I would probably never be able to afford unless I had a lot of money in the bank. They gave me the opportunity to have nice equipment and that was good enough. But I had never even flown before, and they came with a paid ticket to Los Angeles. It was almost too much to take in, but then it didn’t even hit me until a week after. I was like, wow, I can’t believe that I’m the best undiscovered drummer on the East Coast. The wow factor of it was just unbelievable.
GC: Once you landed in L.A., what was your experience like?
Donnie: Other than the bad weather, it was awesome. It happened to be a really bad storm. But even with that, some of the stuff I did with the other contestants, it was awesome. We got to jam out a little bit on trashcan lids and we had fun – we made the rain be part of the day. We couldn’t change that, so we just had fun with it. We were pecking around with our drumsticks on drum pads and showing each other our moves, just trying to show off and get into each others’ heads. One of the contestants, his name was Ivan Garcia and I got a hold of him about a week before the competition and go to know him a little bit before I got to meet him in person.
GC: How did you get a hold of him?
Donnie: Actually, through MySpace – it was awesome. And then I bumped into one of the other contestants in the hotel, his name was Paul Stoot. I was like, “Paul Stoot?” He said, “Donnie Marple?” We knew each other and it was weird just seeing him in person and realizing that was my competition. I gave him a handshake and stuff like that. It wasn’t really a competition to me, it was more like a festival, just showing what we’ve got and having fun.
GC: So by the time the Drum-Off Grand Finals happened, all of you were really well acquainted.
Donnie: Oh yeah, we wished each other the best of luck. If I would’ve lost to those guys, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. I would have been upset about losing, but I would’ve been happy for whoever won, because they were so nice.
GC: Tell us about the day of the Grand Finals.
Donnie: I didn’t sleep much the night before. When I woke up, me and my family, we went to IHOP. We ordered some food, I got some French toast, and I could not eat any of it. The butterflies were just killing me – they were flying everywhere, and they weren’t just in my stomach, they were everywhere! I wasn’t hungry all day, really. When we got to the competition, we met with the other contestants, greeted each other, asking “are you ready?” and just having fun. When we got there, we looked at the stage, and I was just in awe again, just because of the atmosphere, with the lighting, the smoke machines, the stage and the drums – it was almost like paradise, just like Guitar Center was. As soon as I got to set up my drum set and peck around a little bit, that’s when I felt really loose and really calm, because that’s how I feel when I sit behind a drum set, that’s where I belong, I feel. I just felt relaxed until the competition.
||GC: At least you didn't have those butterflies!|
Donnie: Yeah, they left!
GC: Did you have any sort of pre-show ritual that you did before hitting the stage?
Donnie: The only thing I did was say a quick prayer for God to give me peace and to be calm. That’s the only thing I could ask for, for me to do my best. I’m not going to lie to you, I was nervous right before I was going to play. But as soon as I started playing, I felt like I was back in my percussion room, just practicing.
GC: And what was it like being up there on stage at the Grand Finals?
Donnie: I was in my zone. I put the paint under my eyes and I was in a zone. I was just ready to go and not hold back. Instead of blocking the crowd, or picturing them in their underwear like people say to do, I just fed off them. I did some stick tricks and flips and they really screamed loud at some of the stuff they were doing. I knew that when they liked that, I had to keep going. I was kind of like talking to them by using my drum solo.
GC: How did you incorporate those visuals?
Donnie: One of the visuals I was doing was some back-sticking with the hi-hat. I was also doing a double-stick bounce type of thing with the hi-hat, where you hit the stick and it does a double bounce, almost like a roll with one stick. I learned a lot of that in high school, watching Steve Smith, and videos of him. I didn’t use exactly what I did in high school. I just took that idea and made it into my own little thing.
GC: So, did you sleep much at all throughout your Drum Off experience?
Donnie: I just kept on hearing them say, “And the winner is Donnie Marple.” I kept hearing that and I couldn’t sleep because it was almost like I didn’t want to go to sleep. I was afraid I would wake up the next morning and it was all a dream. I just wanted to suck it all in as much as possible.
GC: What’s the best thing you got out of the competition?
Donnie: The amazing thing is about it is that every drummer I competed against, I’ve got their phone numbers in my phone. They’re just so nice. That’s probably the best thing I got out of this competition was making friends. The prizes are nice, but friendships, that’ll last forever. That’s what I appreciate more than anything. I learned that if you put something to shoot for as a goal, you’ll get better as a drummer. I always practiced, from when I started, but I never had something to shoot for as an ultimate goal, except maybe to be a professional drummer someday, but that was so far out there. But with this, I had a goal to win the Drum-Off, and I knew it was set in stone that was my goal. It gave me something to work for, and it made me improve as a drummer. Another thing I learned is having faith within yourself that you could go farther than your wildest dreams. I had faith that I could win it from day one, and because of that faith and confidence, that’s why I won. I’ve also learned from a lot of other drummers, I got to see a bunch of different drummers, and I’ve kept a little notepad in my brain, where I’d remember I like what he’s doing, I like what he's doing – it made a stronger, faster and better drummer, just by watching other people, too.
GC: Were there any emotional times during your Drum-Off experience?
Donnie: For sure, after every time they’d announce me as the winner and moving on to the next round, I felt like the happiest person on the face of the earth because I knew I’d get to play again, and that’s all I want to do is to play drums. And I’d get to perform again. That was definitely an awesome feeling. And even at the finals, right when I got done playing my solo, I had to hold back from crying because I knew it was all over. That last cymbal hit, at the end of the solo, I knew that this ride was over now, it’s up to the judges. And that was a pretty emotional part, playing my final solo, win or lose, you know? I got upset with myself because I sometimes messed up my solo and I’d get frustrated. I was like, if I do this in L.A., I won’t win. I had played this so many times, I just wanted it to be perfect every time. That was a definitely an emotional time for me too, because I was really stressed out. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to playing my drumset – I don’t like messing up.
GC: From where did you receive a lot of your support?
Donnie: For sure, my friends. Johnny Helman, he was a fellow student in high school and ended up being my roommate in college, he drove out with me and took the time out of his school time to watch me perform in New York. He was definitely a big supporter. Another person is Ranjit Shenoy, and he actually flew out to Hollywood to watch me play, which was even cooler because he got to see me perform on the big stage. Another supporter is my fiancée, Claire Williams, and she actually used to be in my practice room with a stopwatch, and she’d tell me when I’d have 30 seconds left, so she was one of my judges from day one. She really doesn’t know anything about drums at all, but it was amazing because some of the tips and advice that she gave me was so helpful. And all of my family – every single person in my family – supported me. And definitely the whole city of Keyser, West Virginia, they put signs on Denny’s, McDonalds, Dairy Queen, places like that. It was cool coming home and seeing these signs of congratulations and good luck. I even got an escort through town when I came home from the finals.
GC: Is there anyone you’d like to thank or mention?
Donnie: Definitely Guitar Center – without Guitar Center, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this interview talking about how I won all these amazing prizes. Guitar Center just opened up so many doors for me, and got me playing, gave me a goal to work for, so Guitar Center for sure, for giving me the opportunity to play drums and perform in front of people. Also I’d like to thank God for giving me the talent to play from the beginning. Without God, I wouldn't be here. Of course, my friends and family. And also the drum companies that I’m endorsed with now – I’ve got a lot of nice stuff!