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An Interview with Neil LaFortune – Versatile drummer, longtime educator, and . . .

An Interview with Neil LaFortune – Versatile drummer, longtime educator, and . . .

. . . creator and host of the Gretsch Afternoon Drum Break series.

Gretsch endorser Neil LaFortune is a working drummer juggling a busy schedule of performing, teaching, exercising, and hosting the Gretsch Afternoon Drum Break vlog. A native of Ontario, Canada, Neil says that the family name is French-Canadian (his ancestors immigrated from France’s Brittany Region in the 1600’s and his grandfather’s the one who decided to capitalize the letter “F” in LaFortune). Musical talent runs in Neil’s family and he says there was always music playing in their home since his mom knew a lot of songs and their lyrics. His earliest memory is being about three years old and playing his mom’s 45 single of Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” constantly on the stereo in the family’s den.

While most professional musicians start taking lessons at an early age, that wasn’t the case with Neil. In fact, he didn’t decide to chase his dream of becoming a professional drummer until he was three months shy of turning 19. “When I told a high school friend who played drums about my decision, he told me there was no way that was going to happen. You’re too old, you’ve never had any formal training, and you’ve got too much ground to make up,” says Neil. “But in my mind, I was saying I’m going to make you eat those words. It fueled the competitive nature in me and spurred me on to practice and get better at it.”

Photo by Jeff Artamonov.

Neil studied at the Ontario College of Percussion with its founder, Paul Robson, who taught Neil proper techniques, note reading, and the importance of knowing many musical styles if he was going to make it as a professional drummer. Another teacher that influenced Neil greatly at the school was Robin Boers, and Neil also studied with Jim Blackley, the legendary jazz drummer and music educator who lived in Ontario.

Versatility could be Neil’s middle name as he’s known for his ability to play most any style: classic rock, funk, R&B, country, Latin, pop, jazz, and blues. This versatility has kept him busy through the years including gigs with Canadian country singer Meghan Patrick (opening for Rascal Flatts, Dwight Yoakam, and others), and drumming for a wide range of professional tribute bands honoring the music of The Police, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Elton John, The Bee Gees, and more. Neil currently plays with ABBA Revisited, considered one of the top ABBA tribute bands in North America.

A longtime player and lover of Gretsch drums, Neil took his passion for Gretsch to a new level by launching a vlog aptly called “The Gretsch Afternoon Drum Break” in 2020. Over the last three years, Neil has interviewed more than 70 Gretsch Artists including Gretsch legends Steve Ferrone, Cindy Blackman Santana, Mark Schulman, and Stanton Moore.

Neil also has a passion for educating and teaching and has taught thousands of lessons since he began teaching in the late ‘80’s. “My students range from ages six to 76, from beginners to students who have been playing a long time,” says Neil. “The biggest kick for me is watching them improve, to see how happy they are to achieve their goals, whether they want to get into a music college or want to be able to play in a band or to be able to play a double stroke roll. It is such a thrill for me.”

Neil LaFortune’s journey as a professional musician has been an unconventional one. But it’s an inspiring story of determination, hard work, beating the odds, and proving the naysayers wrong. Remember that high school buddy who told Neil he’d never make it? Neil saw him 15 years later and reminded him of their conversation. His friend just laughed, saying he didn’t remember saying that. Neil laughed as well and thanked his friend for fueling his determination to prove him wrong.

We talked to Neil by phone recently from his Ontario home studio. He and his Gretsch drum kit were packed and ready to go play a sold-out ABBA Revisited performance to 1,300 fellow Canadians at the nearby Mississauga Living Arts Centre.

When did you get bit by the drum bug?

When I was in high school. I was a huge Rush fan and in the 80s it was cool to like Rush or to say you liked Rush. A friend played me Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato”, the 10-minute instrumental, and it blew me away. I’d never heard drumming like that, and I told myself I had to do this, I had to somehow learn to play drums like Neil Peart. That was my lightning bolt moment.

What was your first drum kit?

They were Synsonics Drums which is so ironic since Fred and Dinah (Gretsch) owned the company back then. But I was into motocross racing and martial arts and busy with other things, so as far as drumming, I really loved it but I wasn’t ready to be serious about it.

What was your mom’s reaction when she heard her 18-year-old son say he wanted to be a professional drummer?

Well, she took a long drag off her smoke and asked me what else I’d like to do. When I told her that was really it, she closed her eyes, exhaled, and said alright. And that weekend, she, my brother, and my brother-in-law went to a music store in Toronto and rented me a set of Tama Swingstars. That’s how it all got started.

Reflecting back, were there any advantages of starting out a bit older?

Some. I think being older, I had more focus, more tenacity, and more determination to prove people wrong. I had trained and raced motocross until I was 18, so I was used to setting goals and being disciplined. In my case, I set drumming goals early on and was very organized on how I wanted to progress.

You’ve been playing Gretsch drums for a long time. Why Gretsch?

I was chasing the sound of Neil Peart’s drums, especially his toms that really spoke to me. In the summer of 1986, I went to every music store in Toronto and played all different kinds of kits. But it wasn’t until I went into a little store called Toronto Percussion that I played my first Gretsch kit, a square-badged walnut kit with 8″ and 10″ toms, a 13 x 11 floor tom, and an 18 x 14 bass drum. And when I hit those toms, I knew that was it, I’d finally found the sound I’d been hearing in my head. I’ve been playing Gretsch ever since, over 35 years now.

What kind of Gretsch kits do you currently play?

I have a new Broadkaster kit in White Glass Glitter that is just beautiful onstage, with 10″ and 12″ toms, a 14 x16 floor tom, and a 16 x 20 bass drum. There’s no suspension mount, so they are direct to shell. It has perfect tone, big and fat, and totally perfect for the ABBA and other tribute band shows that I play, and I’ve recorded these drums a lot here at home as well. They’re just a nice marriage of vintage style drums with modern hardware. I absolutely love my Broadkaster kit. I also have a 15-year-old Catalina Club Kit with a 16″ bass drum, a 13″ floor tom, and a 12″ snare. I had a Motor City Blue Renown ’57 kit until last week, when one of my adult students purchased it. She absolutely adores that drum set.

Neil and his Gretsch Broadkaster kit set up and ready for the ABBA Revisited Show to begin at the Mississauga Living Arts Centre in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Neil LaFortune.

And what Gretsch snare drums do you currently play?

I have several as you can imagine. Last August I got a beautiful 6.5 x 14 Custom Bell Brass snare drum, which is an unbelievable drum and packed in its case and ready to go to the ABBA show today. A USA Custom walnut finish 6.5 x 14 that was used in a Sabian photo shoot with Phil Collins, a ’69 USA Custom Chrome Over Brass 5 x 14, and a 5 x 14 Brooklyn Chrome Over Brass to name a few.

What inspired you to start your Gretsch Afternoon Drum Break vlog series?

We were in lockdown in 2020 and I really needed something creative to do. I was walking our Golden Retriever one afternoon and the idea and even the name, a play on words of a drum break and a coffee break, just popped into my head. I knew six or seven Canadian Gretsch artists and thought it would be cool to talk to them about Gretsch drums, why they’re special to them and their careers, and how Gretsch is an integral part of their sound. I also wanted to learn from these drummers so I could apply it to my own career; what their processes were and how they have become successful as drummers and musicians.

I hear Fred and Dinah Gretsch are fans of your series.

I was over the moon to hear that Fred and Dinah knew who I was and were fans of the series. Fred sent me a handwritten note a few months after I started thanking me for being a great ambassador for the Gretsch brand. And Dinah asked me which Gretsch artists I would like to be connected with for the show. Thanks to her, I’ve interviewed Steve Ferrone, Cindy Blackman Santana, Mark Schulman, and other Gretsch artists. I even have their numbers on my phone. It’s unbelievable. I’m just thrilled to have Fred and Dinah’s support.

For several years, you’ve been the drummer for ABBA Revisited, one of the top ABBA tribute bands in the world. How did you get your start with tribute bands?

I remember thinking back in the early 2000s that maybe it was a bit cheesy or beneath me or something I wouldn’t like. But a few of my drummer friends were playing with some of the top Elvis tribute artists in the world and they helped to change my mind. Once I subbed for one of them and experienced what it was like to be playing in front of thousands of instant fans, I was hooked. It’s unbelievable. Playing the Elvis tribute world also really challenged me as a drummer because I had to learn all of Elvis’s music styles. From the D.J. Fontana early rockabilly and rock era to Ronnie Tutt’s over-the-top Vegas Elvis period and even gospel. So, I got my start in several Elvis tribute bands.

Neil drumming for ABBA Revisited, one of the most popular ABBA tribute bands in North America. Photo by Rob Andrews.

What attracts you to the tribute band world?

I love entertaining people through music and having a good time, so it’s a natural fit for me. You play in nice, soft-seat theaters, the audiences instantly love you, the music is good, the pay is good, and I don’t have to play until two in the morning anymore. I was asked to join ABBA Revisited in 2017 as their regular drummer and I jumped at the chance because I wanted a home, I wanted one gig where I didn’t need to constantly learn shows all the time, and I knew these guys were busy. This band really has a family feel and we’ve been to so many different places together, from California to the Bahamas, the East Coast of Canada, the West Coast of Canada, and all over. It’s also great exposure for the Gretsch brand.

In addition to practice, you also believe in staying fit. Tell us about that.

I try to stay in good health by eating properly and staying away from junky food, doing flexibility and strength training, and I’d really be smart to start doing yoga, anything that will give my drumming career more longevity. I’m also more aware of my posture and work at being more relaxed as a player and not letting my elbows and my wrists and my hands take the shock. Because I want to keep playing until I can’t. I don’t want to be injured and ruin my career over something that I could have avoided.

With what you know now, what advice would you give an 18-year-old Neil LaFortune?

In addition to practicing more, I’d tell him to be more focused and more definitive on where you want to be in a year, in five years, and to keep those goals in front of you. Make a dream board so you can be reminded every day of what you really want, so you won’t get distracted by what’s tickling your fancy at the moment.

What does it mean to be a Gretsch Artist?

I’m just really grateful to be a small part of the Gretsch family and to represent the Gretsch brand. I never feel like I’m not important to them. They really do make me feel like family and make me feel appreciated. And I’m honored to go out and represent Gretsch to the best of my ability.

Be sure to visit the Gretsch Afternoon Drum Break website and follow it on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

And check out one of Neil’s favorite Gretsch Afternoon Drum Breaks featuring the legendary Gretsch Artist from the UK, Ash Soan. Ash has played on 11 #1 singles and 18 #1 albums!