by Gary Farmer
DeMerle’s living arrangement reflects his lifestyle. His home, studio, office, practice room and performance hall are located in the same building, a set-up most musicians would appreciate. The performance hall (on South Vermont Street in Los Angeles) is better known as the Cellar Theatre. The theatre is becoming popular among jazz concert goers and host entertainment three evenings per week. On Monday evenings, DeMerle’s seven man group Transfusion performs. Transfusion members include: Ralph Rickert, trumpet and flugelhorn; Don Menza, alto and tenor sax; Jim Coil, tenor sax; Ronald Muldrow, guitar; Ramsey Embrick, keyboards; Rex Robinson, bass; Dido, percussion.
“We’ve just recorded our second album on Dobre records. It’s called, Les DeMerle — Live Concert By The Sea. I’d really like to do more recording. I hope to record two or three albums this year,” DeMerle said.
Born on November 4, 1946, DeMerle was raised in New York City. He became interested in drumming at age ten.
“Bob Livingston was my first teacher at a local music store in Long Island. I studied with him for seven years and never realized how fortunate I was to have such a hip teacher. I’ve always dug music.”
Les’ first experiences in music were with people like Billy Williams. According to DeMerle, “I met a lot of guys from that experience. Joe Glaser, an agent in New York used to book me as an individual artist. I would freelance with different groups. In 1963, I worked the New York World’s Fair and met some heavy players. I played with Alan Dawson, but not on a regular basis. The first time I met Alan was in Boston. I had my own group Sound 67 with Randy Brecker, Arnie Lawrence, Bill Takus and Norman Simmons. During that time, I began studying with Alf Clauson through the mail. Now, he’s writing for Transfusion. There were a lot of people who helped me out, though it wasn’t on a formal basis.”
DeMerle moved to Los Angeles several years ago to take advantage of the environment. He did five years of touring with Harry James and also worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.
Despite DeMerle’s recognition in the music world, he finds a regular and well organized practice routine essential. A typical session includes rudiments, soloing, endurance exercises, sight reading and finger technique.
“I take the George Lawrence Stone book and come up with incredible variations on those basic patterns. My normal practice routine lasts two to three hours. I do a lot of playing with my students, warming up on their pads and using a hard rubber Perma-Slick. It’s the same size stick I use regularly, but heavier. On the set, I’ll do some free form solos and lock into grooves. Whether playing loud or soft, I try to get the intensity to sizzle. Left hand exercises and double bass drum work is also important. I’m a strong believer in practicing on the drums. It’s the old story, you know, you don’t go to the gig and play the pads.”
Concerning equipment, DeMerle’s current set-up (Pearl Fiberglass) features eight mounted toms, ranging in size from 6″ to 16″ and two 16″ floor toms. The bass drums are 20″ and 22″. Remo CS Black dot heads are on the toms, while the snare and bass drums have white coated heads. His cymbal set-up includes two 18″ crash cymbals, 14″ hi-hats (top lighter than the bottom), a 21″ rock ride, 22″ swish and a gong. His sticks are made by Cappella in New Jersey.
“I really like the fiberglass drums. I don’t care for plexiglass at all. Fiberglass is much stronger and produces a better sound. Wood drums have a tendency to absorb sound, though fiberglass and wood combine beautifully.”
Sound is a critical point for DeMerle, who tunes his drums close to intervals of a fourth, emphasising the drums closest to the pitches in the music. Of the new electronic wave, DeMerle explains:
“I’ve been experimenting with the Syndrum. Mike Shrieve of Santana probably utilizes it the best. I’ve had electronics incorporated in my band for two years now, but this is the first attempt at getting the electronic drum sound into our music.”
Though DeMerle is interested in the possibilities available with modern equipment, he does not recommend students beginning with a large set.
“I’d rather see a student work out rhythmic variations on a few drums. With a lot of drums, patterns are sacrificed because of the time lost in traveling from drum to drum. That’s where the matched grip comes in. It’s essential when playing a lot of drums. The matched grip is in tune with the new concert tom set-up. I use both traditional and matched. I don’t spend a lot of time working on matched because it comes naturally to me. I’d rather spend time working on finger technique with the traditional grip.”
What about other drummers? Who does DeMerle enjoy listening to?
“I love Jack DeJohnette. He’s always spontaneous. I still enjoy Buddy’s solos, all that technique and polish. Billy Cobham and Alan Dawson. Actually, I believe Tony Williams has been the most influential drummer over the past couple of decades. Billy is credited as the major breakthrough with Mahavishnu, but the first time I heard McGlaughlin he was with Tony’s lifetime. Billy was inspired and influenced by Tony. Billy got the recognition, Tony didn’t.”
There are several points DeMerle feels are important for the up and coming players, especially listening.
“I did a lot of listening when I was younger; Basie, Miller, Goodman and bop. I would hang out at the local clubs and talk to the musicians during their breaks. Even today I hear musicians and learn from them. It’s very important to find a good teacher. I know many good players who got side tracked by teachers who didn’t belong in teaching. The important thing is to be up front with yourself. So many guys are caught up in the glamour of it all and end up in bands that aren’t saying anything musically. It’s important for young people to keep their heads together.”
Here is an example of one of Les’ hand development exercises based on variations from George L. Stones Stick Control book. Simply insert a paradiddle for every R and L. R would now indicate RLRR, and L indicates LRLL. See examples below: