A richly varied and ultimately beautiful listening experience…
Remember that progressive rock band with the strange storybook epics, grand keyboard solos, and charismatic front man who left the group following their concept double album about a young man on a bizarre journey in New York City? You may recall that the drummer also had a great voice, and stepped out from behind the kit to assume a dual role, keeping the band alive and later forging his own solo career. That’s right, the band was Spock’s Beard, and the drummer/singer is Nick D’Virgilio. (What… who did you think I meant?)
All yuks aside, the former Spock’s, Tears For Fears, Cirque du Soleil (and current Big Big Train) drummer has finally seen fit to record his second solo album, a fourteen track collection of thematically-linked pieces that form the emotionally charged concept album Invisible. Recorded at Abbey Road and Sweetwater studios, and featuring a jaw-dropping cast of top guest players (Tony Levin, Paul Gilbert, Jonas Reingold, Jordan Rudess, Rick Neilsen, and Jem Godfrey among them), Invisible chronicles a dejected main character who sets out on a brave journey of self discovery while in search of his life’s meaning. Assuming more of a singer-songwriter approach than his usual comfort zone allows, Nick deftly steers his tale through numerous moods and styles; with gentle ballads, quirky prog rock, flat-out ballsy rockers, and uplifting anthems coalescing to sculpt a richly varied and ultimately beautiful listening experience.
After a brief orchestral overture, the solemn title track provides a glimpse into the protagonist’s mind at the outset of his story. From there, the doors are flung open to reveal a sonic landscape dotted with chirpy keyboards, ferocious guitar licks, and moody piano, all anchored by thick, chunky rhythms and irresistibly catchy riffs (the kind that will have listeners making that serious ‘guitar face’ and bobbing their heads to the rhythm). Throughout all of this are the electrifying contributions from the aforementioned guests, and a robust vocal tour de force from Nick. Though always a strong, capable singer, he’s noticeably refined his technique here to the point where I would be remiss not to at least mention it. Perhaps being able to get more easily behind a story of his own – on a record he is quite rightly proud of – provided him with the necessary thrust to infuse these songs with the genuine passion they demand. Complete with a cover song cleverly woven into the plot for good measure, Invisible is a well-rounded and diverse work, revealing Nick to be every bit the consummate musician on his own as when he’s a member of an ensemble. Listeners will be pleasantly surprised by this breath of fresh air and dark horse contender for Top Five of the year. Sitting down for a bit of a chinwag and some reminiscing, Nick proved eager to chat at length about the new platter and other aspects of his unique career, and his enthusiasm was charming and contagious.
VT: Congratulations on Invisible, what a terrific album!
NDV: Cool, thank you! I appreciate that.
VT: I imagine it’s a lot more work making your own album than when you can share the workload among bandmates.
NDV: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I’ve had to deal with it a little bit with Big Big Train, and with Spock’s Beard in the past, but man, just keeping up with everything in this day and age is nuts. All of the different social media, things you’ve got to stay on top of every day, because everybody uses a little something different, you know. And just making sure that people are doing their jobs. It can be a little bit overwhelming, but thankfully I have a good little team of people helping me out here, which takes some of the burden off, so I’m very happy about that.
VT: By ‘here’, do you mean Sweetwater?
NDV: Sweetwater for sure help me, and I also have my manager Nick Shilton over in the U.K. doing heavy lifting for me. He manages Big Big Train as well, so he’s a great help.
VT: It’s been a long time since you made Karma, why was the time right to finally release a followup?
NDV: Well, I’ve always been a band guy, and I wanted to do the solo artist thing during that whole period as well, but it always seemed like… there are only so many hours in a day, you know? Along with that, and providing for the family and all that normal, day to day job sort of stuff, it was just always something that took a back seat until the last couple of years, where I felt that the time was right. I thought my writing had achieved a certain level where I’m proud of it, and I have a lot more to offer now – it’s just taken me a while to get to this point where I want to make this more of a priority.
VT: Invisible is essentially a rock album, but there’s no specific sub-genre you can really pin to it, which of course will drive some people crazy because they love to slap labels on everything. I think variety is one of its key strengths.
NDV: Thank you! Making this a story record and not just a collection of songs allowed me to do that a little bit more. And I appreciate you saying that this is a rock record, because I feel the same way. I think in general, it’s more just a rock record than a prog thing, or whatever. That’s sort of the overarching style, and everything else just fits around it.
VT: I think anyone hearing you for the first time on this album would never guess that it’s a ‘drummer’s solo album’. It’s not super jazzy or complex, it’s not filled with solos… I think most of these songs could be – and should be – played on the radio. If radio stations could grasp that there are more than a hundred songs out there, that is.
NDV: (Laughing loudly) I agree, I agree! And I’m glad you came to those conclusions, because yeah, it’s not your typical drummer record. I’d like to make one of those one of these days, because that’s fun too. But this one, I had this story to tell, and I think of myself as a singer-songwriter, so that sort of helped me find that voice for this project.
VT: It might surprise some people that you place more importance on the singer-songwriter aspect than the big prog epic with keyboard solos and all that. Maybe this is more of your Face Value record than anything… apart from the story, of course.
NDV: I think so, yeah. I could see it that way. And it’s been such a long time since I’ve made a solo record, I wanted to make sure it really made a statement, you know. I put my best foot forward.
He goes, “I can’t improve on what you did.” I said “Are you kidding? You’re Tony Levin!”
VT: The title track is kind of what I call a ‘rainy day’ song. The lyrics and the music are both very evocative.
NDV: Once I knew I had this concept in my brain and that’s the story I wanted to tell, I knew the record needed to start off kind of mellow. You know, give the overall vibe of the whole thing and then go from there. It’s a little bit typical of the proggy rock opera thing, so that’s kind of where I was going and I wanted it to be sort of sad, like looking inward. It just started with strumming, an A-minor chord strumming kind of thing, and I started to ask that question about feeling invisible.
VT: I have two main favourites on the album. The first one has to be Turn Your Life Around. That main riff is to die for, and I honestly think it’s one of the best songs you’ve ever been involved in.
NDV: Thanks man! Rockin’! Killer! Yeah, that song came directly out of that guitar riff. I have a ton of riffs, I feel like I probably write more riffs than I do chord progressions that turn into songs. I can just sit here and noodle and come up with riffs, and that’s how that song started. It built from that riff, and then a couple of fun little keyboard arpeggio things that I was finding when I was just searching through keyboard plugins. Once I got that inspiration, I thought ‘Man, this is really cool, I wonder what I could do with this’, and it really started taking off from there.
VT: Snake Oil Salesman is another great rocker, kind of has an anthemic quality to it in parts.
NDV: I’m a really big Muse fan. I love that band, and it makes me feel like a sixteen year-old kid again listening to those guys (Laughing). They’re one of those bands where I get into all their stuff. I love the early stuff, but the newer things get me as well, even though I might not like it after the first listen – it sucks me in. So when I wrote Snake Oil Salesman I was in a really heavy Muse period where I was listening to them a lot. So that sort of vibe is the inspiration I had for that song. And also, we were doing a recording workshop down here at Sweetwater where Tony Levin was the bass player on the session. And we used that song in the recording workshop, so I got Tony Levin to play on that tune. He’s on the record in other spots, but on that one I thought it was cool that he just played normal bass. Tony’s known for stick playing and all that kind of stuff, but just having him sit in the pocket with the drums was really exciting to me. So that groove on that particular tune really just came from us jamming that feel in the studio together, which was a dream come true for me.
VT: Your vocals are quite prominent in the mix. Speaking of which, you really give it your all in the song Where’s The Passion, another really strong track.
NDV: Yeah, I’m happy with the way these tunes turned out. The vocals are maybe the most important thing; I want the story to come across, and the vibe and feeling as much as possible, so yeah, the vocals are prominent. And you know, I’ve been singing my whole life, and although I wish it would have happened twenty years earlier, I just feel I’ve kind of found my ‘real’ voice and I’m confident in myself. That’s the hardest thing for a musician or a singer – or anyone, really – is that feeling that you can do what you want to do, and listen back and go ‘Yeah, I did the right thing there’… feel confident in your own skin.
VT: My #1 favourite on the album has got to be Mercy. It’s quite frantic, but the chorus is a real catchy change of pace. Now, is that also Tony Levin I detect there?
NDV: Yeah, that’s a funny story there! We’re sharing the bass duties on that track. I sent him the song, to play the whole thing, of course. I didn’t say ‘only play the chorus’. He wrote me back – and it kills me that he did this – he goes, ‘I can’t improve on what you did on the intro and verse sections, so I’ll just play the choruses and the middle section’. I said ‘Are you kidding? You’re Tony Levin!’ (Laughing) So him writing me back and telling me my bass part was good and shouldn’t be changed was a huge compliment. So the frenetic, fast, crazy part is me on bass, and then the choruses are him on stick, and the mellow bridge section is him on fretless bass. I think I had programmed bass in those sections on the demo, and when he sent the tracks back, and Mark and I put up the faders of his parts for the first time and heard that chorus come in with the stick part… I mean, I was just through the roof excited. It was such an amazing thing to hear, and to me, that is the quintessential Tony Levin, you know what I mean? Compared to what he did on Snake Oil Salesman, where he’s just being a bass player – in a fantastic way, of course – but I got him to do the thing he’s most famous for on my record, which is unbelievable.
VT: You’ve also got Jonas Reingold on this record, who is another monster player. He’s so fluid, and has such a great sound on everything he touches.
NDV: Yep, agreed. He’s one of my favourite musicians ever. We’ve been friends a long time, and we also have the little side project together, The Fringe, with Randy McStine. He’s a super cool guy, and I love him to death, and he’s just an amazing player. So yeah, I needed to get him on a few things, and thankfully he was able to find some time – while he was touring with Steve Hackett – to play on more than I expected, so I was very thankful for that. And he killed it! He killed it all over the place. All the fretless stuff he’s done on the record, and his rocking stuff, the way he can learn those guitar riffs, like the one in Turn Your Life Around. He learned that from my demo, and just nailed it! It was great.
VT: Overcome is another standout track. I know that you have Paul Gilbert on this record, is that him at the beginning of that?
NDV: That’s him doing the guitar solo, yeah.
VT: I figured it had to be.
NDV: (Laughing) Thankfully, a lot of these guests stemmed from me and the job I have here at Sweetwater. I’ve known Paul for a while, but he had come to Sweetwater for a bunch of different little one-off events that had nothing to do with my record. And we just reached out to him, we wanted to get as many cool people on the record as possible. I sent him the track, and he said ‘Yeah, that’s no problem!’ and sent me a bunch of different takes, and that’s the solo we came up with. He’s a tremendous guy, super cool. He’s coming back here to Sweetwater again in August, hopefully if nothing screws that up as far as the virus is concerned. I’m very thankful to have him on the record.
VT: It’s an amazing list of names on this record. One fantastic musician after another… you’re a lucky guy, Nick!
NDV: Yep, I’m blessed! No doubt about it.
VT: In My Bones has another guest if I’m not mistaken…
NDV: Rick Neilsen from Cheap Trick is playing guitar on that tune, which is pretty cool. I don’t know if you’re a Cheap Trick fan, but I’m an old fan of theirs from back in the day. And he was here for a workshop at Sweetwater, and that was the tune I was able to bring in for him to record in the workshop. And it’s cool, man, he’s just got that classic rock sound, and he’s a student of his instrument. It was great to get a totally different, non-progressive rock player’s take on something – it just gave it that vibe.
We’re all here for something. We’re all worth something…
VT: I have to mention Wrong Place, Wrong Time. That’s a wonderfully bizarre track with those off-the-wall vocals and all the zany instrumental stuff. Anything you can tell me about that one?
NDV: Yeah man! I wanted to have one song where I played all the instruments, just for fun. And also, I wanted to do a kind of an homage to old Spock’s, to Neal Morse albums, that proggy vocal kind of thing. And this is the part of the story where the main character finds himself at the wrong place in the wrong time, he gets himself in the middle of this thing, and has a near-death experience and all that kind of stuff. Since that was the storyline, it was a good excuse to come up with something sort of zany. So with that in mind, it was a fun thing to do, paying homage to those old things by trying to write a track like that. It started with that guitar and bass riff at the top. You know, I’m not a soloist, that was the one thing I couldn’t play on the record. I mean, I can solo a little bit, but nothing like Randy (McStine) who played on that track – or the other great people I have on this record, they are experts at that kind of stuff.
VT: I Know The Way is a great closing track. If Invisible is, like I mentioned, more of a rainy day song, this one is like you’ve thrown the windows open and the sun comes streaming in. A terrific end to the album.
NDV: Thank you, I appreciate that. And yeah, that was my goal. I mean, the character goes through this stuff, like in Wrong Place, Wrong Time and in the song Not My Time To Say Goodbye, which is the near-death experience where he basically gets sent back saying, you know, it’s not his time yet to go. In the end, he found his purpose in life, he’s worth something, he’s not invisible. And hopefully we all feel that way, that’s sort of my moral to the whole story, that we’re all here for something. We’re all worth something. Whether you’re a huge star, or an everyday Joe going to your job, feeding your family – that’s worth more than anything. So that’s sort of what that song is about.
VT: Okay, in what has now become a tradition for me, I’d like to throw five song titles at you, favourites of mine from throughout your career, and if you just want to say anything that springs to mind about them…
VT: Cool. First one…Ghosts Of Autumn.
NDV: (Pauses) Yeah, ummm… great! Spock’s Beard part 2, John Boegehold and Dave Meros sort of track. Cool, mellow tune, the progheads and non-progheads alike seem to dig that one. It seemed to be one of the tunes people wanted to hear live when we were touring back then. Hmmm… now, was that the track… or was it Slow Crash Landing Man? I think it was Ghosts Of Autumn, where I had one of the major, huge fuck-ups of my life in a live situation! (Laughing) When I first started singing lead for Spock’s, we made the record and went on tour to Europe, and we were in Utrecht in the Netherlands. And it came to that tune, which gets really mellow – and I completely spaced on the first lyric. And I felt like I was standing up there completely naked in front of all these people. And Dave Meros, our bass player, had to whisper the first line to me, to kind of knock me back in to reality (laughing loudly)! I was white as a ghost and my brain was totally blank. So, cool track – but it also put me in that situation.
VT: Okay, song two: Wassail.
NDV: Oh yeah! I call it funky prog. It’s a great concert closer for Big Big Train, so much fun. We have our brass ensemble coming in at the end, it’s super fun to play. It’s straight ahead, a singalong sort of thing, but the story behind the song is in that progressive rock world. Dave Longdon wears this mask, you know, and the thing he’s talking about is a real thing, wassail. It’s the apple festival that goes on up there, this sort of mythic tradition. Yeah, cool song… love that band, love playing that song.
VT: You guys have become such a formidable presence on the prog scene over the last decade especially. And your fan base continues to grow, I think.
NDV: Yeah, we’re so bummed we didn’t get a chance to do this tour, and get up to Canada and play these shows. We’re so excited to, we’re going to do it soon. We’re going to get up there again. But there’s a live DVD we’re working on from our last show in the U.K. that’s turned out amazingly well, that’s being mixed now. We’re going to start recording a new record in November, since all our tours got cancelled or postponed for a year. It won’t come out until next year some time, but we’re moving forward.
VT: Okay, digging deeper with this next one: This Tastes Like A Hotel.
NDV: Ha! Yeah, that was a strange track to record. Being in Mike Keneally’s band was one of the best experiences of my entire life as a musician. He’s amazing, and playing with Bryan Beller, one of the greatest bass players ever… man, I’ve played with some amazing bass players in my life, I have to tell ya! (Laughing) It was really cool, I knew Mike from meeting Kevin Gilbert back in the 90s, I knew all of the guys in his band, I used to go see them play all the time in L.A. And I just wanted to get the chance to play. And when the time came, I got the gig – which was great, we did some tours – and then I got to play on that record! That one was a strange track, you know, it was a little bit difficult to record, because it comes out of the mind of Mike Keneally. He can do the simplest things as good as anybody, and he can do the craziest things as good as anybody as well, so it was an interesting track, for sure… from this Zappa-esque world, we did it in chunks.
VT: I was blown away the first time I heard that album. Whether it was that Zappa type stuff or the plain old rockers, he…
NDV: … he can play the simplest song like a Beatles or James Taylor tune, and it sounds so authentic, and then turn around and play something like that and it sounds just as authentic.
VT: Okay, completely the opposite kind of track here: Uncertain Weather.
NDV: (Pause) …I never in my whole life expected to play on a Genesis record. So whether you love or don’t like that record or whatever, I got that opportunity and it was a dream come true. They were literally my favourite band growing up as a kid. Phil Collins was my favourite drummer, I was totally addicted to them, I would listen to everything they made, and that was it. So to have my name on there… and I keep in touch with Tony Banks a little bit too these days, you know, just crazy things that growing up I never expected to happen. It was a great experience. I was in their studio, stayed at their farm, just one of those otherworldly sort of things that came my way, I’m super blessed that it happened.
VT: I know you also played with Peter Gabriel at Real World studios, I assume that was a different experience to playing with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford?
NDV: Definitely. I didn’t really get to jam with Tony and Mike, they sort of just hung out and listened to me record the parts. The one thing that I did with Peter was for the Princess Diana tribute record, way back when that happened. And the mix that came out of our recording session isn’t really anything like what I recorded. We actually jammed for hours (laughing), it was fantastic! I was in the drum room, and he was on the Rhodes, singing. And we did these long, drawn out outtros that you don’t hear on the track. I wonder if I could find that somewhere, because I go to Real World quite a bit with Big Big Train, I wonder if that would be a possibility… anyway, you’ve got my brain turning now. But yeah, it was a tremendous experience. Again, I’m a huge fan of him and the band from the old days. I was over in England recording with Roland Orzabal from Tears For Fears at his studio, and he doesn’t live that far from Peter’s studio. And this producer named Chris Hughes called and said ‘Hey, do you wanna come do a track with Peter Gabriel?”
VT: “Oh, gee, let me think about that!”
NDV: I jumped through the roof! Roland let me go early that day, and I drove – in England, on the other side of the road – and I got there about five in the afternoon. First, we had this long meal, because at Real World they’ve got the whole setup with rooms you can stay in, and they have a whole kitchen staff who cook and feed the people staying there, so we had dinner and talked about stuff… so I was having dinner with Peter Gabriel, in his own place, which was crazy. It was just me and him, and the chef Jerome. And then we went and played table tennis for a good hour, and I got my ass handed to me by those guys. I thought I was a decent ping-pong player, but those guys are like full-on ringers. And then we went and recorded. So it was probably like ten o’clock at night by that time, I don’t even remember! We just jammed, did this tune five or six times and it was magical, totally magical.
VT: Amazing… okay, final song then: On The Edge.
NDV: Yeah, great! Brings back a lot of memories, man… we used to play that live with Neal back in the day. Playing that first record, the first ProgFest we ever played at down in L.A… yeah, a cool old track. Brings back a lot of memories of that time – what the band was like early on, recording our first record, where Neal was as a player and a person back in those days…
VT: Does it seem like a quarter century ago?
NDV: No, man… gosh, my kids are twenty-two and twenty now, time just flies by so fast. It’s amazing how fast it all goes.
VT: That’s basically half your life ago.
NDV: (Laughing) I know! That’s amazing.
VT: Sorry, enough of the downer talk! Looking at just some of your resume: Kevin Gilbert, Cirque du Soleil, Tears For Fears… these are all completely different from each other, or from anything else you’ve done. Have you taken something specific from each of these experiences that has helped you develop as a musician?
NDV: Oh, for sure. My god, yeah. I mean, Kevin gave me my break in the business, and I was a fan of him before I got the job. I learned a lot from him. As a musician, I was young, and green when I first met him. And he was young too, but he had an old soul, the way he played and the way he wrote songs. He taught me how to engineer, I worked at his studio, I had my own set of keys… meeting him is how I got the Tears For Fears gig, how I got the Genesis gig, a lot of things just sort of happened after meeting that guy and making music with him. I was at the right place at the right time.
I’d play with Tears For Fears any time… they still have my number.
VT: I can only imagine the music that would have been produced over the years…
NDV: I know. I’m sure there would have been so much great stuff. It’s a tragedy that he died the way he did, and so young. But yeah, with Tears For Fears, again, I’ve gotten a lot of gigs where I was a fan of the band beforehand. I loved Tears For Fears growing up as a kid! They had that sort of muso, slightly proggy aspect to their pop music that I dug quite a bit. And I was really into the album Sowing The Seeds Of Love, and to get that gig was incredible. And it showed me a different side, you know, all of a sudden I was in a big pop band! Roland Orzabal is an amazing musician! He always pooh-poohed the prog thing a little bit, but he’s sort of a muso proghead himself, you know, he gets all that stuff, and the way he writes songs, there’s a lot of depth to his music. It was great being in the studio with him, and to see him live every night. He’s a total professional, he gives it every night. It was a great band, and all the stuff I did in the early 2000s when Curt Smith got back in the band was fantastic, man, it was a great experience. I’d play with them any time – they still have my number. They call me every once in a while when stuff comes up, they might need a sub or something, I keep in touch with those guys. Yeah, that was a magical experience for me, for sure.
And then Cirque du Soleil, I mean listen, I was lucky to get that job. I needed work at that time. I was very blessed that one of the two-man team who wrote the music for that show (Totem) was a drummer, and the show was sort of based around native Americans – First Nation, I think you say up there in Canada – so lots of tribal music, very percussive, you know what I mean? Because some Cirque shows are very mellow, as far as the music is concerned. So I was lucky that I had a show that was somewhat challenging to play. I became assistant bandleader, and played up to ten shows a week. I got in the best shape of my life hanging out with all these incredible athletes every day, and touring with people from nineteen countries, and all these different languages, and my family and kids getting to hang out… it was really cool. And I wrote a bunch of Invisible while being on the road with Cirque, so a lot of things came from that gig.
VT: And with Invisible, it is safe to say you’ve started on a new journey in your career?
NDV: (Instantly) Yes. For sure. The goal is to put out more music at regular intervals like regular bands do, and yeah, I’ve built up a little catalogue of my own stuff. I feel like my writing is way stronger now, and I have a lot of stuff in the hopper. And I’ve gotten this big concept thing out of the way, so maybe the next record might not be so grandiose, maybe more of a collection of songs, a more typical thing. I don’t know exactly, I’m just thinking out loud right now, but the goal is definitely to put out more music, and hopefully go play some shows, and do that sort of thing while I’m still at the right age to do it. So if I can do that, and as much of Big Big Train as possible, I’ll be a happy camper.
VT: Your fans will be too. Thanks very much for your time, Nick! Fun to talk to you today.
NDV: A pleasure, man, keep in touch, and thank you for the opportunity!
Prelude · Invisible · Turn Your Life Around · I’m Gone · Money (That’s What I Want) · Waiting For No One · Snake Oil Salesman · Where’s The Passion · Mercy · Overcome · In My Bones · Wrong Place Wrong Time · Not My Time To Say Goodbye · I Know The Way