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Backbeat Tales: A Drummer’s Memoir

by Anne Ronquillo

Recently updated on July 17, 2023 03:29 pm

“Your timing’s off with the metronome.”

My uncle gave it to me straight after letting him listen to songs I’ve recorded with my band in 2012. I could’ve chided him for the comment—you can’t play rhythms accurately, was what he was getting at—but only managed to gulp the small lump that had formed in my throat. This man took indie bands under his wing back in the day. He’s the same guy from my childhood who organized get-togethers in their garage where there’d be a live band setup and everyone was welcome to play. When we’d drop by their house on Sundays for lunch, music from The Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Dave Matthews Band would blast through his computer speakers. Clearly, the dude knew what he was talking about.

“But just a bit,” he added. “You’ll get there.”

To me, I should’ve gotten there already. I was in my fourth year of drumming, and I felt like Taylor Hawkins every time I sat on the drum throne. In fact, when the guy in the mixing booth asked if I had any preference on how I’d like my drums to sound  on the recordings, I blurted with no hesitation—in my Foo Fighters shirt, no less: “Do you know the Foo Fighters? Make it sound like Taylor Hawkins!”

In my Foo Fighters shirt, recording at Blaster Studio in Project 6, Quezon City. Fun fact: the drums in the studio were signed “Wolf played here” by erstwhile Wolfgang drummer Wolf Gemora.

And he pulled off a decent job. I did sound like Taylor, minus his unmatched talent, raw power, cut-through precision, and perhaps many other attributes of a solid drummer. But my drumming per se sounded amazing. I loved it.

But here’s the thing: Right after that brief conversation with my uncle, I never listened to those recordings. Even until now, 10 years later. I avoided those WAV files like the Coronavirus. See, when you get remarks like that and you’re a wide-eyed musician inebriated with pride and passion, it’s going to sting. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to linger. Pretty much like Taylor’s untimely death.

1… 2… 1, 2, 3, 4

People always say to “start ‘em young.” That wasn’t the case for me. I learned to play the drums late in life, right around the time I had my first paycheck handed to me in a small brown envelope.

To some, it’s a luxury pursuing a dream—even if that dream harkened back to days of yore, which, in my case, saw a young boy whose face was lit aglow by Saturday TV, mouth agape in awe of Ringo Starr singing, shaking his head, and striking the most massive instrument on stage while performing “I Wanna Be Your Man” to the tune of a thousand fans screaming. That Beatles documentary reran week in and week out on free television, and I kept watching it over and over before flipping channels to catch Maskman and Shaider. Early on, drumming was ingrained in my mind, and Ringo became a drumstick-wielding superhero to me.

Because I was a late bloomer, the pressure was heavier on my shoulders. I willingly overwhelmed myself learning the basics, writing songs, forming my own band, reserving rehearsal slots here and there, selling tickets to the shows—at times buying a couple myself (yes, ticket-selling was a thing then: to secure a spot in the lineup, bands must sell at least five to 10 tickets to their guests)—all this while churning out press releases and advertorials for the PR agency I was working for.

Like a cassette tape playing on fast forward, teetering till the film slimmed and snapped, I sped the process up as much as I could. After all, I was halfway through my 20s, and the people I was sharing the studio with had been accustomed to their instruments way before they graduated high school.

Prepping the drums for a gig at the now-defunct Amos Cafe in Kamias Road, Quezon City.

I guess, in a way, my efforts paid off. Things slowly (rocked and) rolled. I might not have the most refined skills and deepest bag of tricks, but what I lacked in technical prowess I made up for an emblematic ensemble of camo, boots, and firepower: I soldiered on.

Gigs galore

Playing gigs became second nature to me. I played in four bands—maybe more—and gigging almost every other week became the norm. Remember the Energizer Bunny? That was me. Because I kept going and going and going and going…

We made the rounds through notable music joints in the metro, some of them defunct by now: Freedom Bar, B-Side, Black King’s Bar, Amos Cafe, even that bar in Quezon City owned by Skarlet Brown, vocalist of 90s seminal local ska band Put3ska.

We shared the bill with acts never in my wildest dreams I’d imagine seeing in the flesh: Moonstar88, Mojofly, General Luna, The Youth, Autotelic, and several others. Like Ringo, these guys were superheroes in the scene, and to have the names of my bands side by side theirs on the promotional posters was unreal.

In 2013, one of my bands got to play in a pocket event of the San Miguel Beer Oktoberfest. That show was one for the books! It was held outside the mall’s sprawling parking lot with the stage elevated a few feet from the ground. Even from behind the drums, I could see we were towering over the crowd. The lights were blinding, the sounds were booming, alcohol was overflowing for the attendees (for the record, I don’t drink), and everyone was having a good time.

Playing at the San Miguel Oktoberfest pocket event in SM Novaliches. Wearing a tiger shirt and tiger bandana as a show of support for the UST Growling Tigers, who, on that day, competed against the FEU Tamaraws for the UAAP basketball championship. Go USTe!

“Dude, we’re at Oktoberfest,” I remember our guitarist saying. I shook my head in disbelief, but at the same time nodded in agreement. I never counted on this to happen, but there I was, about to count off my band. 

I swear it felt like one of those epic provincial shows famous OPM bands allude to when quizzed about their most memorable gig. The only difference is, we weren’t famous and we were in Novaliches.

Next big thing in the scene

Two years later, that same band playing at the Oktoberfest (albeit with a new vocalist) made it to the semi-finals of Greenwich’s Ultimate Bandkada Search. Despite learning about the competition a day before the deadline for auditions, we managed to be part of the top 20 contestants vying for P100,000 and a recording and management contract with Viva Records. 

While we lacked preparation going into the auditions, we made sure to come to the semis prepared. The stakes, after all, couldn’t get any higher. For independent artists, bagging a contract with a record label is the equivalent of winning the lottery. It’s as if we were being shown the door to our dreams and we only had two options: knock or knock the entire thing down and break through.

So we rehearsed after office every chance we got. Until the wee hours of the night. Even during the weekends. We polished our material, got into arguments, bruised each other’s egos, and reconciled after. We even concocted stories (a.k.a. lied to our bosses) and took leaves from work to be present on the day of reckoning. It is what it is: When you’re chasing your dream, sacrifices have to be made. 

Formed in 2012, Embers to Diamond was my band that made it to the semi-finals of Greenwich’s Ultimate Bandkada Search in 2015. We disbanded in 2017, but our five-song EP is still available for streaming on Spotify.

In a small bar somewhere near Meralco Avenue, we unleashed a performance of a lifetime. I counted off the band to one of our own compositions, and it was lift-off from there. We were ferocious and flawless. Our vocalist worked the stage, and everyone else was in their element. I remember the drums sounding particularly good—the snare crisp, the bass deep, and there was a China cymbal installed, which, for a drummer to have in their setup, was like getting a surprise chocolate center in a candy. I beat the daylights out of that cymbal. It was, like I said, a performance of a lifetime.

“This could be it,” I said to myself. “We’re gonna make it to the finals. And then after, we’re gonna make and sell records. We could be the next big thing in the scene.”

We lost.

‘You killed it’

Months after, my other band landed at the semi-finals of the Mossimo Music Summit, wherein the grand-prize winner was promised an exclusive recording and management contract with Curve Entertainment, as well as cash prizes from the fashion brand.

This time around, I found myself drumming not outside the mall, but inside. Held in the Glorietta Activity Center, the event was a full-production spectacle reminiscent of the Oktoberfest stint, only it was on a greater scale: industry stalwarts were there to judge us.

One of the judges was Kean Cipriano, original vocalist of multi-awarded pop-rock band Callalily (now known as Lily). I wouldn’t say we were starstruck, but with him gracing the event, we knew how monumental the endeavor was.

Backstage with Kean Cipriano, original vocalist of Callalily (now known as Lily) and judge for the 2015 Mossimo Music Summit, moments after the show concluded.

“I myself am in a band,” said Kean, who was just a few feet away from us. We stood awkward and apprehensive onstage with the hosts. If that were an Eminem moment, it would be the time he vomited mom’s spaghetti on his sweater. We just finished opening the show with our rocked-out version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” and Kean’s now up to the task of dissecting our performance in public.

“It’s evident you guys practiced your stuff and enjoyed the whole thing,” he continued. “You killed it! Congratulations!”

Jackpot! It was all smiles and high fives backstage. We were done barreling through the experience, and we reaped nothing but high praises not just from Kean but from all four judges. We even got interviewed by Myx. “Your choice, your music!” we cheered in jubilant unison on cam. 

And I told myself: “This could be it. We’re gonna make it to the finals. And then after, we’re gonna make and sell records. We could be the next big thing in the scene.”

Again, we lost.

Getting our 15 minutes of fame–well, more like three–in an interview with Myx. 

A greater battle

It’s no secret the pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. The music industry wasn’t spared. Gigs were canceled, venues closed down, and band ties were severed, at least at the physical, face-to-face level.

I admit, a few years before the pandemic, my engagement in the gigging circuit was already dwindling. And it wasn’t because of the losses in the competitions. I wish I could tell you a cool story about me having a kid so my priorities had to change, but, like the Cranberries song, that’s just my imagination. Perhaps I was…exhausted. Or aging.

Or maybe I matured. The concept of maturity may differ for every musician, but for me it’s being on a level where you’re content doing your thing sans the insecurities (most of them, at least), the urge to buff that chip on your shoulder, the need to constantly prove something, be the next big thing in the scene.

So, is the proverbial flame extinguished? I wouldn’t say so, even if the number of bands I’m involved with has now gone to zilch. The bright lights may have dimmed, but the beats are still banging, particularly on my Aroma electronic drum kit, which I’ve procured and set up at home when the lockdowns worsened.

I started drumming on an electronic kit during the pandemic. I resurrected my dormant YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/kjosepineda) and dumped my output there. As of writing, my drum video with the most views–more than 12,000–is my take on Andre Forbes’ “Feel That.”

I’ve found peace living out my innermost rock star fantasies in the comfort of my room. Maybe I’m not chasing the dream anymore, and it’s okay. If there’s one insight I’m partial to closing this piece with, at the risk of sounding didactic, it’s this: it’s okay to fall off the yellow brick road of pursuing your passion. You’re not a failure if you—quote-unquote—”fail.” As long as you’re happy where you land, you’ve already arrived. You might not be winning those battles of the bands, but there’s a greater battle you’re triumphing over.

I still enjoy drumming to this day. And the best part is, at this point, I can openly say I still struggle with the metronome.



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