Diane Vitalich is a vocalist and drummer for Ace Of Cups, the Jimi Hendrix–approved all-female San Francisco psychedelic rock band that made its mark on the ’60s Haight-Ashbury scene during the Summer of Love. After 50 years, the band recently released their long-awaited self-titled debut through High Moon Records.
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What is your city, country, and age?
I live in Novato, CA and am 75 years young.
What kind of gear do you use? What’s your setup?
I have various gear and set-ups I use for different venues. The Ludwigs are overall good for small/medium venues and sound great in the studio. My smallest set of Yamahas (with an 18” bass drum) is good for rehearsals and small rooms. I’ve also used them in a large barn that had natural reverb and echo so I used them instead of a big set to control the volume.
The Sonor set has a nice tone and I still enjoy playing them as well as the Yamaha recording series, which has a deeper shell and deeper tone. Of course, any drum can be tuned up or down but each kit has a special sweet spot where its own tone really resonates. My two electric drums, a Roland V and a Yamaha IV, are really cool for using headphones to practice quietly and have fun without disturbing others.
Do you have endorsements?
I haven’t had any endorsements as yet, but I could always use more drum sets, cymbals, sticks and whatever. Kinda like shoes—I never have enough!
What led you to your instrument? What’s your origin story?
My first “aha” moment was on the playground of my grammar school where I saw my first marching band. The snare drummers were amazing and I couldn’t believe how they bounced the stick so fast. The school had a music program and I asked if I could play the drums. The reply was that drums were for boys, but I could play the tambourine! I asked again if I could play the drums in junior high and in high school but I was told the same thing, “Only for boys.”
By the time I was on my own and out dancing in clubs I had another “aha” moment, kind of like when “The Toad” from The Wind In The Willows saw his first motor car: His eyes rolled in his head as he became crazed with wanting it. I realized my dancing was inspired by that snare drum being playing on the 2 and 4. That did it! At the end of the night I asked the drummer if he would show me something I could play on the drums. He invited me to come back on a Sunday night, showed me one beat to play, and every Sunday for the next six months, I sat in to play that beat with the band. Hooked for life!
So this album is Ace Of Cups’ first. What brought y’all back together, and why now?
Ace Of Cups was my first band, and we started playing gigs in 1967 during the Summer of Love. We never got a record deal in those days. Long story. We released a CD of live recordings from old tapes in 2003 on Ace/Big Beat Records, titled It’s Bad For You But Buy It.
In 2009 Mary Simpson Mercy (Ace Of Cups’ lead guitarist) and I played a benefit for producer/drummer Narada Michael Walden. This inspired the possibility of all of us playing together again. In 2011, the whole original band played for Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday, where George B. Wallace of High Moon Records fell in love with us. For the next three years, Ace Of Cups members Denise Kaufman, Mary Simpson Mercy, and I converged regularly to work on new material and play our old classics. After listening to the songs we were writing and our updated versions of the old material, George gave us the opportunity of making the record we never got to make in the 1960s. It took 50 years but here we are with our double vinyl and CD release with more music to follow in 2019. Pretty good for a ’60s rock and roll band.
What have you been up to since the band’s 1972 disbanding?
After 1972 when the AOC faded out, I played with the Fairfax Street Choir and joined the Stage Band at City College [in San Francisco]. I then moved to Santa Rosa where I played in six bands! In one of those bands was a keyboard player who, all these years later, became the Ace Of Cups’ producer on our current project—the amazing Dan Shea (Mariah Carey, Santana, Jennifer Lopez, and many more).
What were some of the challenges you faced back in the ‘60s? Have those challenges changed?
The challenges I’ve faced from the ’60s till now have always been the same. My biggest challenge is the one I have with myself when I think I’m not good enough. And, how important it is what someone else thinks of me. There’s a saying, “What you think of me is none of my business!” I just need to know that I’m giving my best.
If I were to give advice on dealing with challenges I’d say: Go for it, work on your weaknesses but don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t push too hard—it’s when you’re relaxed that the magic happens.
I wrote these words for a song with my bandmate, Denise: “Somebody told me that I couldn’t play. It stuck in my head but I did it anyway. Don’t save your passion for another day. Whose life are you living anyway?”
What’s your most memorable moment performing?
My most memorable moment performing was on April 18, 1969, at Winterland in San Francisco. The Ace Of Cups opened for three nights for the first-ever live concerts by The Band. It was a huge show for us and on the second night, magic happened.
During my drum solo on the song “Afro Blue” I lost myself in the solo and played liked I’d never played before. I was gone—there was just the music. My drum teacher, Jerry Granelli, used to say, “Diane, let yourself go, be free and let the drums play you.” That’s exactly what happened that night. Apparently, the audience felt it as well and by the end of the song I looked up to see a standing ovation. Our road manager, Frank Polte, told us later that people in the audience started to stand up starting from the front row and then followed by the next row and the next until a wave moved through the entire sold-out crowd. It was incredible.
Who is your favorite drummer and why?
I don’t have one favorite drummer since there are so many wonderful drummers—male and female—whom I admire. Here are four who have influenced me in different ways: I love Bernard Purdie’s great feel and especially his drum solo on Soul Stew on the King Curtis Live In Europe album. Viola Smith (who played in the 1940s in Phil Spitalny’s all-women orchestra and other big bands) just turned 106 and she still plays every day! Viola is my shero! I have to mention Steve Gadd’s work with Chick Correa, Paul Simon, Al Jarreau, and Steely Dan and his overall mastery as one of the greatest studio drummers of all time. Amen to that! Narada Michael Walden is someone I’m honored to call my friend and his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra is an ongoing inspiration to me.
Finally, I just want to give a cheer to all the women drummers who are making their stand by simply being who they are!
How do you practice? Do you have a routine?
Most of my life I’ve had a drum teacher because I love learning. Starting in 2000, I studied with Pete Magadini (best known for his books on polyrhythms) for 16 years. We worked on reading, building chops and working with his polyrhythm exercises. He showed me a really funky New Orleans groove I still love to play. My routine has changed now that I’ve been working on the Ace Of Cups album and lately I’ve been mainly focused on our music as we’re getting ready to tour.
My warmup routine starts with eights on the snare, then turning them into triplets, then into paradiddle triplets while playing 4s on the bass drum. I like learning an exercise and then getting creative with it by moving it around the drums. Almost any exercise can be turned into something musical. For me, that’s what it’s all about—not just reaching a certain speed on a rudiment but putting it to good use and making it sing.
As artists, the goal post for “success” is always moving. There’s not one “I made it!” point. How do you think about and define success?
Success for me is about feeling good. That’s easy to say, but feeling good in the moment means letting go of striving, forcing something or thinking there’s somewhere else to get to. If you play because you love it, that’s enough—that’s success!
Do you have any quotes or sayings that you live by?
Here’s a quote I live by which comes from the song “Grandma’s Hands,” which I sing on our new album:
“Pure’s the word / Serve’s the verb / Love is the cure / so live what you learn”
When you sit down to make music and are starting with a blank canvas, what’s your process like?
When I sit down to play the drums I let the feeling of the moment flow. If I’m feeling light, I might just play the cymbals or use mallets on the drums and listen to the sound that comes back at me. Or I might just play a groove that I love and get into it.
How important is failure in making music/performing?
You can learn from mistakes, but mistakes are not failures. Failure is a state of mind. Don’t believe it. Pick yourself up and get back into it. You are worth it and you are awesome! Women shouldn’t worry about being underrepresented in drumming. Look around—times are changing and you are part of it. Join a music camp, a drum circle, find a teacher; it’s all there waiting for you!