PLAYING WITH SPIRIT
Story by Candace Wu Photography by Brian Argyle and submitted by Vince Ditrich
Vince Ditrich had his first “pro gig” at age six.
It came by way of a birthday present from his father, who hired young Ditrich—brimming with energy and youthful excitement—to sit in and play the drums with dad’s band, The Bridge Brass, at a wedding they were headlining at the German-Canadian Hall.
To this day, Ditrich credits his father as his biggest fan.
“He was determined that I would succeed in music,” says Ditrich about his late-father. “I think I was meant to make up for where he failed.”
Ditrich says by the time he was 16 years old, his father had taught him “how to read, how to play every style, how to play in every imaginable environment, properly—everything from super-loud concert halls to tiny little corners on a postage-stamp sized stage—modern music, old-fashioned music, rock, formal music with an orchestra, jazz combo, everything you could imagine.”
He says “the rest of my life since then has been an
attempt to continue
mastering and perfecting what I learned as a boy.”
And that sixth birthday present would later become a gift for
Canadians all over the nation who consider Home For A Rest one of their favourite party anthems.
“We played a wedding combo and I made $15,” recalls Ditrich of his debut to stage and first paid job. “In 1969 that was big money.” But bigger money was yet to come — along with bigger hits, bigger shows and of course, much bigger struggles.
GETTING TO THE BIG CITY
Like all classic novels, love stories, success stories and tragedies, Ditrich’s began in a small Canadian town famous for hockey, bar fights and booze: Medicine Hat, Alberta.
He affectionately calls himself “a recovering Albertan.”
Needless to say, Ditrich moved out when he was 17 and
headed to B.C.’s big city: Vancouver. And in 1980 the metropolis was thriving with invention.
Musicians, artists, actors—anyone seeking a creative outlet—came to the city to chase their dreams. To revel in anonymity. To get discovered. To discover themselves. At the very least, to get out of their hometown and never look back.
Ditrich moved to Vancouver with his friend, Richard Sera, who he met at age 15 when they played in a teenage garage band together.
The two of them took the city by storm—embracing severe
struggle, and later on, tremendous success.
“One of the great struggles is starvation,” says Ditrich when asked about the trials and tribulations of chasing a career in music.
“I mean literal starvation—no money for food.”
He remembers a time when he was “so broke (his) entire diet for one weekend was three Seven Eleven hotdogs for $1, once a day.”
Looking back now, he laughs at the memory. “We had nothing,” he says.
Sera went on to play with Loverboy and Tom Cochrane; Ditrich went on to play with Spirit of the West and Sue Medly.
Ditrich says there were many aspiring musicians in his life at the time, including Doug Elliot and Steven Drake, better known today as members of The Odds.
He says the tight-knit network of up-and-coming musicians he kept company with all went on to become great professional musicians.
But in the early 80’s, “we all just supported each other so strongly and we were always there—dancing to each others music.”
VINCE’S BIG BREAK
It came at age 23.
The audition that changed everything, saved Ditrich from starvation and launched him into the big leagues.
Long John Baldry was looking for a drummer. Ditrich, who describes Baldry as “one of the most legendary figures in music,” knew this was the perfect role for him.
Asked about the audition, Ditrich says, “I was shitting myself.”
It wasn’t because he didn’t think he could play well, he says, but because of his intense desire to impress Baldry. “I wanted him to be totally satisfied,” says Ditrich, who
managed to get a cassette tape with some of the recommended material on it. He learned it “inside out and backwards” and came to the audition “thoroughly and completely prepared.”
Jimmy Horowitz, a well-known producer, took note of Ditrich—saying he’d done his homework.
Ditrich got the gig.
“I mean, I went from being a 23-year-old unemployed kid to being the drummer of one of music’s most legendary figures all in one swoop,” he says. “I was playing with people who had played with people who had made some of the most important pop records for the last twenty years before that—the bass player was Alan Parsons’ bass player!”
SPIRIT OF THE WEST
Ditrich’s career is dotted with highlights.
Alongside playing with Baldry, he also did stints and tours with Sue Medley, Doug & the Slugs, BTO, Mae Moore and Paul Hyde to name a few.
But the drummer is best known for his role in Spirit of the West—a connection that happened, like all great things, serendipitously.
It was the late 1980’s, Ditrich explains, and Spirit of the West was coming to the realization that they needed more power; specifically, they needed a drummer to help translate their sound to the back of big concert halls.
About six months before that, Ditrich said he had seen the band play at a Christmas party—however he didn’t personally know any of the members.
“At the time, I remember wondering what would happen if they had a drummer,” he said. “I thought they were an inventive group, but they would be more effective with a real strong, rhythmic background.”
Half a year later, Paul Hyde—a mutual friend—connected Ditrich with Spirit of the West for an audition.
The synergy was there and Ditrich was pleasantly surprised at how much freedom the rest of the band was willing to give him. Shortly thereafter the new group hit the road and played in Banff and Jasper. They toured well as a group, sounded phenomenal and fit together like it was meant to be—the rest was Canadian history.
Spirit of the West has released 13 albums since 2008, five of them gold and three platinum. Their hit song Home For A Rest was rated by the CBC as one of the greatest Canadian songs of all time and is often referred to as “Canada’s unofficial national anthem.” CFNY ranked it number eight on their Top 102 Canadian New Rock Songs of All Time chart. It has become the country’s definitive party song, and Canadians all across the nation consider it a classic frosh week anthem at universities, a popular dance tune at weddings and a quintessential song to a sing along to at your favourite neighbourhood pub.
Asked if he ever gets sick of playing Home For A Rest, Ditrich, without missing a beat, says, “do you ever get sick of having sex with your boyfriend?”
CHILDREN CHANGE EVERYTHING
While the addition of a drummer vastly changed the landscape of Spirit of the West, many more additions were on the horizon.
And these additions were a lot louder than drums.
“The fact of the matter is something happens when you join Spirit of the West,” says Ditrich. “You start having babies.”
As soon as he joined Spirit, Ditrich started dating Marion, a woman he soon married and had two children with: Perry and Sam.
Ditrich says between all the members of Spirit of the West, the band had 14 kids.
“That’s like, a demographic in itself,” he says. “It was like a village of poopy pants—everyone in the band was just procreating at the same time.”
The band started touring less, and when they did tour it was for much shorter
periods of time.
“When you’re away for weeks at a time and your wife has learned how to survive without you and the house smells like a diaper you feel the festering hotbed of resentment,” he says. “You just can’t do that to your wife if you want to keep her.”
Ditrich says the members of Spirit made a dictum not to go on tour for more than three weeks at a time.
Ditrich and his family now live in Nanoose Bay in a cozy little cabin, where his two boys, now 17 and 21 years old, were raised.
And these days Ditrich wears many hats.
“I’m developing artists, managing, producing, drumming and I write the odd song—I guess I’m the classic Canadian in that I have to do everything,” he says. “That’s the cross we bear as Canadians.”
He says one of his current projects is looking for young, new musicians with something unique to offer.
“I know everyone in the Canadian music industry,” he says. “We (Spirit of the West) have been around long enough that we’re well enough known as an entity.”
THE SPIRIT OF SPIRIT
Though Spirit of the West has endured its share of changes, nothing could prepare the band for lead singer, John Mann’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
It was announced in September and took the country by surprise.
Ditrich, who now manages the band, called the news “sobering.”
He says the diagnosis will “bring about the cessation of our activities
eventually … I hope not too soon.”
In Mann’s recent performances there were hints: he didn’t have a guitar and he used an iPad affixed to a microphone to read the lyrics for hits like Home For A Rest, a song the band has no doubt performed thousands of times in the past.
“Once you’ve done something for so long it becomes part of your very fibre,” says Ditrich. “I’m saying you want to give it an appropriate goodbye … I don’t want to say when that will happen, but with this diagnosis it has to happen.”
Until then Ditrich will continue doing what he’s best at: making music, encouraging artists, writing lyrics, playing the drums and being “the classic Canadian” by doing everything all at once.
Ditrich encourages those interested in a career in music to contact him via his website: www.vinsynch.com.