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Nick D'Virgilio: Spock and Cirqumstance
Interview by Scott Kahn
Photos by Mad Sushie Photography except where noted.

     
   
Drummer Nick D'Virgilio in the studio.
Photo: Erick Anderson
       
   

 

The New EP
On Spock’s Beard
Lamb Kabobs

Touring and Working with Others
Technique and Gear
Are We Done Yet?

Nick D’Virgilio is one of those guys with a fantastic list of credits but who isn’t quite a household name. If progressive rock ruled the airwaves then perhaps he’d have the name recognition that so many lesser talents possess, but alas, despite our respect for Spock’s Beard, mainstream radio in the U.S. just hasn’t caught on.

Outside of that band in which he is both drummer and lead vocalist — a role he assumed after former front man, Neal Morse, embarked on a successful solo career, Nick has been the touring drummer for Tears for Fears for almost a decade, and he appears on their last concert DVD as well as a few tracks on their Gold hits collection. He has performed with prog acts like Frost, The Mike Keneally Band, and Fates Warning, and has recorded with artists including Jordan Rudess, Big Big Train, and Steve Thorn.

Of significant note, he was one of the two drummers who replaced legend Phil Collins on the final Genesis CD, Calling All Stations, and he was instrumental (literally and figuratively) in the recording and release of Kevin Gilbert’s critically acclaimed posthumous release, The Shaming of the True. His latest studio output and ongoing live gig is with Cirque Du Soleil. He’s touring as the drummer and co-band leader in support of the latest theatrical production, Totem.

Over the past two years, Nick managed to write/perform and co-produce with Mark Hornsby the fantastic Rewiring Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, make a new CD with Spock’s Beard (X), get a touring and recording gig with Cirque Du Soleil, and record a new solo EP, Pieces. Like many other great talents, drums are merely the place you see Nick most frequently (unless you catch a Spock’s Beard live show). He plays keyboards, guitar, and bass, and quite frankly, he’s damn good wherever you stick him in the band.

We managed to catch up with Nick in Canada to talk about the whirlwind musical journey he’s been on lately, but we suspect that he was already onto the next project by the time we finished our conversation. Whoosh!

“I had a quick thought that I would be a pro golfer…”

MPc:  With your multiple talents as a singer, songwriter, and guitar player, it seems too limiting to call you just a drummer. Have you always been a singer, or did the multi-part vocal harmony aspect of Spock’s Beard music pull you into that arena back when Neal was still the lead vocalist?

NDV: I have been singing for as long as I have been playing drums. I started very young. For some reason I really liked the Osmond’s when I was 3 and 4 years old and sang a lot of their songs. Somewhere in storage is an old LP — remember those? (laughs) — of me singing “Go Away Little Girl” my dad had me make way back then. I haven’t heard it a super long time but I think one day I’ll have to get it transferred and put it on a CD as a secret track or something. It’s pretty funny to hear. Whoever was in charge just had me sing over the original Osmond recording so you can hear me singing over Donny. I guess my dad got a good deal or something.

MPc:  Who were your big musical influences besides Genesis?

NDV: There are a lot but some of the main ones were Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Van Halen for rock. James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Tower of Power, Prince, just about anything Mowtown for groovy funkiness. Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis for jazz-fusion craziness.

There are so many others as well. I can never really answer that question fully when asked. Early on — after my Osmond’s period (laughs) I was heavily into Genesis and Zeppelin. I learned everything I could. Bonham and Collins were my two favorite drummers and I got into just about everything they did. Then I got into funk and soul music, and then there was a big jazz-fusion period, then Latin and afro-Cuban music. But through that whole time and still to this day I am a rocker at heart.

MPc:  Did you set out to be a session drummer, a rock star, or something entirely different with drums as just a hobby?

NDV: I had a quick thought that I would be a pro golfer (I still play and was pretty good back in high school) but I knew deep down that that would never happen unless I played a lot more, like the way I played the drums, so yes, anything that involved drumming or singing. Rock star was definitely a dream and a goal.

The New EP

Each song is a little piece of life that I was going through
when I wrote the songs.”

Nick D'Virgilio, PiecesMPc:  In describing Pieces, you commented that work was slow. Do you mean that you didn’t have twenty different things going on all at once? (laughs)

NDV: I still had 20 things going on at once but none of them were making me any money! (laughs) I was busting my ass just to get by and with a wife a 2 kids to support it was getting old and frustrating. I knew I could be doing better but it was proving very hard to get there.

MPc:  What inspired you to decide to put out this material as a solo effort rather than using it as the starting point for another Spock’s Beard record?

NDV: I had these songs around for a while and it just took a long time to get everything finished. As much I know that Dave, Al, and Ryo would have sounded great on those songs, they are a bit different than Spock’s Beard. Also I had wanted to put out some more solo material. It has been a while.

MPc:  Your EP has a very adult contemporary vibe at times, almost like something Sting might have put out if he were influenced by rock music instead of jazz. The first half of the EP is pretty classic singer/songwriter stuff in particular, where the focus is clearly on the song more than the performance (though the musicianship is exemplary) before heading off into a more proggy territory in the second half.

NDV: I think you are right in your description of the EP, and I put the songs in that order for that reason. I really like all the songs but I wanted the first impression to be the more singer/songwriter songs rather then the more rock stuff. Also, the reason the EP is called Pieces is because each song came from a different place in my heart and brain and this EP is a good place to have the different vibes and feels rather then a full release.

Photo: Sandrine BretaudMPc:  “Beautiful” actually struck me as having a bit of a Calling All Stations vibe to it. Was the song inspired by your drum loop, or did you come up with that to suit the mood of the song?

Actually, that song started with the guitar. I was just riffing around with some delay patches on my pedal board and was learning some U2 songs just for the fun of it and the main riff just kind of happened. I was very inspired as well and I recorded most of the main guitar in about thirty minutes. Then, since I was at my studio where I had my drums all miked up and ready to go, I had the main guts of the song written and demo’d in about two hours. I love it when it works like that because most of the time it is not that quick.

MPc:  It seems like the EP really incorporated the vibe of many artists whom you’ve worked with. “Hold the Line” definitely made me think of the band Frost when the heavy guitars kicked in.

NDV: Yeah I did try to channel many things. On that particular song I wasn’t particularly going for a Frost thing, but Jem and Frost, for sure, inspire me. I was just trying to take it somewhere exciting.

That song started on the drums and again using delays. I put my whole drum kit through a stereo panning delay and had the return come back an octave lower. I messed around with grooves and tempos and the vocal part of the song was born. It is a really fun thing to do. It really brings on many ideas.

The second half of the song started with the main guitar riff and I also recorded my drums with the toms tuned up as high as I could get them to go. It was amazing, really. Traditionally toms are tuned lower for that fat sound but what I found was that I still got that fat sound but with a lot of punch. Very cool.

MPc:  I know you recorded some of the new EP while on the road. How did you find the time to record new material while touring?

NDV: I started it in my home studio before I left on the road with Cirque. The song “Childhood’s End” was recorded in Nashville where Mark Hornsby (co-producer of the EP and engineer extraordinaire) works. It is called Java Jive Studios. There were some changes with a couple of the songs over time and I was already on the road so I had to find a place to fix those things. I found a very nice studio in Quebec City, in Canada, called Studio Sismique, where I recorded the drums for the song “Beautiful” and the vocals for the song, “It Don’t Come Easy.” I was there for a six week run with Cirque, so it wasn’t that hard to find the time.

MPc:  Did you take any steps to ensure consistency in the tracking of each song from one studio to another? There's a big variety in the sound of each song on the EP.

NDV: That is why the EP is titles Pieces, because it is a bit different from song to song in the sound aspect of it, and each song is a little piece of life that I was going through when I wrote the songs. Mark had his hands full making all the different sounds work together, but he did an amazing job.

MPc:  Did you use any consistent tools, like the same guitar rig, same keyboards, etc?

NDV: Mostly, but not all the way through. I was impossible to make it totally consistent.

Producer Mark Hornsby, in his own words…

"When it came to the drums, I let everything maintain its own sound. On a lot of albums, in particular solo artists, the approach is to pick one sound and go with it. Not only are all the songs different on Pieces, but Nick is very versatile as a writer and musician. Even if we had recorded all of it at one time and place, I'm sure there would still be a lot of versatility in these songs in terms of how they sound.

Every song was different, and worked on at different places and times. I did use a lot of the same two mix processing and lead vocal sounds (EQ, Compression, etc.) throughout, but the main goal was to make all the songs flow together and feel the same, but not sound exactly the same."


On Spock’s Beard

“The bulk of the songs come from us individually
and then get sent around for other ideas.”

MPc:  Do you miss sitting behind the kit when touring with Spock’s Beard, and don’t you feel like fans would prefer to hear you playing behind the kit all the time?

NDV: It is just plain fun being the front man and I still get the chance to go and bang on the drums too. I get the best of both worlds, really. I have to concentrate a bit more on the guitar parts and I have been playing some keys as well for the past few tours — nothing major, but parts that Ryo can’t cover. We would need four keyboard players on some things. I like being the utility guy. It definitely keeps it interesting.

Jimmy plays [drums] on most of the stuff live but I get back there as much as possible. There are instrumental songs, sections of some of the longer pieces, as well as the drum solo, so I get a decent chunk to play from the drum chair.
 
I don’t miss playing the whole set on drums because I love doing what I do so much and I get to play a little. I am sure there are fans that would like me back on the drums the whole set and have Neal back in the band, too. That’s fine, I don’t mind that.

MPc:  Speaking of Neal, Spock’s Beard fans were no doubt thrilled with the vocal reunion of the band on the song “Time Changer” off his latest solo CD, Testimony Two. Do you think the band would be open to a reunion with Neal Morse on a new Spock’s Beard record, or are some splits too tough to reconcile?

NDV: It’s not that anything really needs to get reconciled. It has been a long time now since he left. Neal has sat in with Spock’s Beard on a couple of gigs over the years for a song and it is always fun, but I don’t see a full reunion happening any time soon.

Nick's Picks: A selection of songs from the Spock's Beard Catalog that Nick is most proud of.
SB I  
“1st and 2nd overture” Snow
“I’m The Guy Snow
“At The End OF The Day” V
“Harm’s Way” Kindness of Strangers
“Thoughts Pt. 1” Beware of Darkness
SB II  
“Onomatopoeia” Feel Euphoria
“A Guy Named Sid  Pt. I” Feel Euphoria
“Shining Star” Feel Euphoria
“Is This Love” Spock's Beard
“Here's a Man” Spock's Beard
“Rearranged” Spock's Beard
“Surfing Down The Avalanche” Octane
“From The Darkness” X
“Their Names Escape Me” X

MPc:  What’s the songwriting process like for you in Spock’s Beard? Do the other guys let the drummer hold a guitar or touch a keyboard? (laughs)

NDV: I can hold my own. (laughs)

I play certain guitar parts on the CDs, on songs that I write, just because it may be a part that I want to be very specific and have a certain feel. Al [Morse, guitar] can easily play anything I write, but on the CDs sometimes you want to hear a certain kind of thing.

The songwriting is very strange for Spock’s Beard. We have tried to all get together and jam and we always come up with good bits, but the bulk of the songs come from us individually and then get sent around for other ideas. Once we get into the studio the songs get tweaked as well.

MPc:  While prepping for this interview, “From the Darkness” ended up in my play list along with your new EP, and I just got it in my head that it was part of that collection. It sounded like you channeled the Foo Fighters in the first section of the tune before heading into more progressive territory. And that piano line in the middle section was extremely Jem Godfrey-like!

NDV: Yeah, I was going for a heavy, detuned, rock guitar thing on the first part and since it was a story-style, proggy piece I was able to take it to different places. You are right about the piano part. I had done the gig with Frost at ROSFEST and I still had a lot of their music running through my head. Also after playing with Jem, I realized how great of a player he is. He is amazing, and I was going for something in that style when I came up with that piano line.

MPc:  How much has the Cirque du Soleil gig affected your commitment to Spock’s Beard, or the general forward progress of the band?

NDV: It has not affected my commitment to the band, but it has put a snag in my availability to tour lately. The guys even did a few shows this summer without me. We got Ted Leonard from the band, Enchant, to sub for me. I had never missed a gig in the entire history of the band and it was very weird to know they were gigging with out me.

I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. I surely want to do more with Spock’s Beard. That’s my band. But I also have to support my family and live. Spock’s Beard, unfortunately, has never been a big money maker. Not enough to support me, let alone a whole family, so I have always had to do other things to pick up the money slack, and the Cirque gig is very steady — so much so, that it is hard to do other things. But, I am not giving up, and will still try figure out ways to make it happen.Rewiring Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Lamb Kabobs

MPc:  Rewiring Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a remarkable achievement, remaking a known classic prog rock masterpiece with a new interpretation (no synthesizers — just live Nashville session musicians on strings and horns accompanying the core band of drums, bass, guitars, and piano/organ/wurli). Given how well that collaboration with producer Mark Hornsby turned out, have you guys given any thought to doing another project, like Rewiring Pink Floyd or Rewiring ELP?

NDV: For sure! I’m not sure when we would do something like that but I know for a fact that all of those same players, myself, and Mark could make a number of killer records in that style. I think Rewiring King Crimson and even Rush would be great.

The other thing holding it back is finance. It ended up costing a pretty penny to make, but now that we know better the concept it could be done cheaper… maybe…

To learn more about the making of Rewiring Genesis, see this great interview with co-producer Mark Hornsby.

Drummer Nick D'Virgilio on tour with Tears for Fears. Photo courtesy Wayne Perez.
Nick D'Virgilio on tour with Tears for Fears. Photo: Wayne Perez.

Touring and Working with Others

“The fact that they felt confident enough in my playing
to give the songs a little bit of me is really a great feeling.”

MPc:  With many of the bands you support, you’re their live drummer, and frequently have not appeared on their studio recordings. But, you’re the guy captured in many concert DVD and CD releases, including such titles as the Tears for Fears concert, Secret World Live in Paris, the Fates Warning concert, Live in Athens, and the final Frost* performance, The Philadelphia Experiment. This is not easy stuff to play!

NDV: No not easy, but super fun!!! The Tears For Fears concert is good to see out there because I spent a lot of years playing with them and it’s cool to see something that will be around for long time. I knew that the Fates and Frost gigs were most likely going to be one offs. I did end up doing a couple short tours with Fates, though.

I took all of those gigs as challenges to myself and luckily for me, both Fates and Frost let me play like me rather then having to learn the stuff note for note. Of course I leaned the songs pretty close to the originals but I was able to have my style come through, which is actually a huge compliment. The fact that they felt confident enough in my playing to give the songs a little bit of me is really a great feeling because all of the years growing and learning my instrument paid off. I felt like a real professional. I wasn’t perfect on either of those gigs but the energy and fun level were very high along with some high end rocking. (laughs)

MPc:  Despite the leeway some of those guys give you with parts, the stakes are still pretty high for you to nail your parts since many of those gigs get recorded for CD and DVD release, and you don’t have the luxury of studio re-takes. How do you prepare for these live gigs, both mentally as well as physically?

NDV: Practice practice practice, and a lot of listening. Some of the songs for Fates and Frost are very long and involved, so I had to get into them deeply. I would not listen to anything else for a while so I could get into them as much as possible. I make my own charts and notes and just play along with the CDs.

A very hard part is trying to figure out certain sections on my own only to find out that I am counting the bars differently then what the band wrote — especially in Fates. They have a few very hard songs where I just had to count. I really try to make even the hardest parts come from my gut and not my head, but sometimes it is just impossible.

MPc:  Do you transcribe everything first or just commit songs to memory? Do you play all of these gigs with charts on stage?

NDV: I make cheat sheets and my own charts, but I really try to commit everything to memory so I can just play. I think it ends up feeling better. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do to make the gig happen, and if the means you need a chart well then, so be it.

MPc:  How often do you play to click tracks in the live/concert setting? Are you typically in control of running backing tracks in those circumstances?

NDV: A lot, and yes, I run the tracks quite a bit. Almost every song in the Tears For Fears set we used some sort of backing tracks. Little things mostly, but I did play to a click for most of the set. On my first Tears for Fears tour the playback gear wasn’t as easy to use and you needed a lot of it. There were racks of samplers and a dedicated guy hired just to run pro tools.

On the tours in the 2000s we ran everything from a Mac laptop using Logic as the program and the songs just ran from top to bottom. I just had to start and stop. A few times the computer glitched during a show and we had to improvise, but that was pretty rare.

Even bigger is my new gig with Cirque Du Soleil. The show I am on, Totem, is very big musically and we have a lot of tracks going. We are using the program, [Ableton] Live, to run the tracks. The great thing about that program is that you can move around the songs in real time. Because we have to play along with the acts that are doing their thing on stage (the acrobats, trapeze, all kinds of craziness) sometimes we have to go to sections faster or slower — maybe add bars on the fly because a trick is taking longer to complete. It can be pretty hair raising, stressful, exciting all at the same time.

MPc: How did you hook up with Kevin Gilbert, and how did you become so instrumental in helping to release some of his material after his death?

NDV: I met Kevin at a very obscure cover gig at a local ski resort outside of L.A. I met a drummer at a jam one night at some club in L.A. We hooked up a few times and traded drum tips and the like. He got a call to do the cover gig but either didn't want it or just couldn't do it, so he gave the band my number and they called me for it.

The guys in the band had a business installing and wiring up a lot of the major recording studios in L.A. The gigs they did as a band they only did once in a while and just for fun. That particular gig wasn't for money, but for free ski passes, and they invited up a bunch of the “famous” people they worked for as well. I had nothing going on that weekend so I said yes, and me and my then-fiancée, Tiffany, went up.

Kevin was the only “famous” person to show up for the free skiing and jam. He was dating Sheryl Crow at the time as well, and she was there too. She wasn't a huge star yet, though. What was really great was that I was a huge fan of Kevin’s Toy Matinee record. I still love it, so it was really great to meet, talk, and jam with him. We talked about our mutual love of Genesis and prog music and did get to play a bit on the gig.

I tried to keep in touch after that but didn’t hear back from Kevin for about six months. He called me because he was putting a band together for a progressive rock festival that was coming to town and he wanted to play “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” at the fest. Not just the song, but the whole record. He remembered me and that I was a big Genesis fan and called me. I of course said yes. We only had a week before the show and I think we only rehearsed once, but I showed up to the rehearsal already knowing the record from the beginning to the end. I must have impressed him because after that show, which was amazing, Kevin asked me to start playing with him.

His studio was not far at all from where I lived (conveniently enough) and I started going to his studio a lot. Playing all kinds of music and learning how to engineer. His place was killer, with all of the old school recording equipment. He taught me so much about music and making music. It was the best education. Over our short time together we became good friends and made some great music and other than his manager, I was the only other person with a key to the studio. I was there just about every day.

After Kevin passed I ended up being the person who archived all of the music (two-inch tapes, DAT tapes, cassette tapes, just everything there) at the studio. I became a sort of caretaker of the studio as well.

In talking with his manager and family, we decided that we needed to finish his rock opera. Kevin had been writing it for years and it was one of those things that he knew was good, but never finished. Something else always came up, but I was pushing for it as much as I could, so we got all of the tapes together and found out what we had. What was finished, incomplete, totally raw, and got all of his notes and made notes of all of the conversations we had about it. Then I got started finishing it up.

After that, we found that there was a lot of Kevin’s music that should be heard and made plans to put that out as well.

MPc:  You played on half of the tracks on the final (and one of my favorites) Genesis album, Calling All Stations. That band has obviously had a tremendous influence on you as an artist. How did you get that call? Did you ever get the opportunity to tour with them in support of the record in Europe?

NDV: I was on the road with Tears For Fears and Kevin [Gilbert] heard that Phil Collins quit Genesis and may be looking for a new drummer. I happened to be in London with Tears for Fears and Kevin called me and gave me the news, and said I should try to get an audition. I found out where the management’s office was and went down there with the first Spock’s CD, The Light — that’s all we had at that time. I was only able to talk to the secretary, but I gave her the CD, told her I was in town playing with Tears for Fears, invited them all to come to the show, and said if there was any way I could get an audition then that would be fantastic.

Genesis, Calling All StationsNone of the management team came to the show, but a few months later I got a call on a Sunday morning from the producer, Nick Davis, asking me to send them some more music I had played on. I didn’t have much at the time (1996) but I sent what I had, and then shortly after that they called me to come back to England for an audition. I was elated, as you would expect. Auditioning for my favorite band… Wow! I never expected that one.

I was touring with another great artist named Jonatha Brooke, and I went right from the last gig on that tour over to the UK. I got to go fully high on the hog. They flew me first class — which was way cooler then the normal way of flying, had a car waiting for me when I got there, and I got to stay at their farm where the studio is. Pretty sweet!

While there I played all of the music they had written and hung out with the guys a bit. They are very nice guys and treated me very well. Then I flew home. A bit after that, I don’t remember how long I waited, I got another call to come back over and do the recording for real. What a great moment that was. I was going to be on a Genesis record as the drummer! Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen. Phil was their drummer and other then the first couple of records he always was. It was an extremely fun and surreal experience.

There was talk about me doing the tour but it just didn’t end up being that way. You win some and you lose some, but my name is on the CD for all to see, and that is awesome!!!

MPc:  On the new Cirque Du Soleil soundtrack for the show, Totem, there’s a crazy amount of electronic percussion and African rhythm stuff going on. Tell us about preparation for that recording. Did you record on electronic drums or use your acoustic kit, or both? Was that session work any different than what you’re accustomed to?

NDV: One of the composers for the music on Totem is a drummer, and since the show has a Native American theme running through it there is a lot of room for percussion.

My preparation for the CD recording was playing 150 shows or so before the recording happened, and I played on about half of the CD. The composer Mark played on the rest, and seeing that he is a drummer and the writer of the music, it is very cool that I got to be on as much as I am.

They [Cirque Du Soleil] have their own studio in Montreal, and Mark is a collector of drums and drum kits. He has more than I have seen any one person have. Really. It is like a vintage music shop in their studio. I played only acoustic drums. I think it was an old Gretsch kit that was pretty beat up but sounded great. Not my typical set up at all, but I didn’t care. I just went in and went for it. I didn’t even adjust the seat. The only thing I brought with me was my kick pedal and sticks.

MPc:  How does playing in a Cirque Du Soleil production differ for you from touring in a rock band context? Are you playing under the direction of a band conductor? Are there any live strings or are you surrounded by a bunch of keyboard players? How are cues handled for the live shows?

NDV: It is very very different than playing rock-n-roll in a band. For one thing, I am in a drum both behind the stage. After about 500 shows I have gotten used to it, but it kind of sucked at first. The rest of the band are on platforms above the main stage and you can’t see them clearly from the audience, but you can see them a bit and can see that they are playing instruments. Even though Cirque shows are a lot about the music the real deal is on stage with the acts. The music supports them, so I, along with all of the other musicians, had to get used to that fact that people would not really be seeing us do our thing. Just hearing us.

For me in my booth it is pretty sweet. I have a huge kit for me. An eight piece kit with three rack toms, two floor toms, kick, two snares, an electric drum pad the (Roland SPD-S) for triggering samples, a keyboard for when I call the show and trigger the sequences, and I watch the show on a TV monitor.

Circque Du Soleil, Totem.I trigger the show with a keyboard rather than the electric drum pads because I could not keep the pads from mis-triggering not matter how much I/we programmed them. It was a hassle and took a lot of time to finally come to the conclusion that it was not going to happen. My acoustic drums are on a Gibraltar rack and the vibration, I guess, was making the pads trigger when they were not supposed to, so I finally got a small M-Audio keyboard and put that to my left and just hit a key when when I need to change cues. It is not ideal, but easy to do and never mis-triggers.

We do have a bandleader that calls most of the shows. I say most because I am the assistant bandleader and I call a couple of shows a week. Mainly, to keep the chops up in case he ever gets sick and can’t do a show. At least the show will be able to go on without him.

There is only one keyboard player, our bandleader Charlie Dennard, but there are a lot of keys on the tracks. The rest of the band is bass, guitar, percussionist, recorder, two main singers, and our guitarist also plays Bonsuri flute.

Everything is on in-ear monitors and they have all of the latest and greatest gear, so it sounds like I am playing to a CD every night and my drums sound amazing in my ears. That is one of the nice things for sure.

MPc:  You’ve worked with a wide range of artists over the years. What are some of your favorite recordings, or even specific other songs, that you’ve been a part of outside of Spock’s Beard? What makes those songs/recordings special to you?

NDV: There are a lot but here some specific ones:

“Siberian Khatru”
Tales From Yesterday (A Tribute To Yes)

This was one of my first recordings with Kevin Gilbert and the first time I got to meet and work with Mike Keneally and Bryan Beller. All such amazing musicians and that song was really fun to record. Plus, we went off onto a Bill Bruford tune in the middle of it just because. What a blast!

“Uncertain Weather”
 Genesis, Calling All Stations

I liked the whole experience of recording with Genesis, but this track is nice, and I got to hit the drums pretty hard at times. It also has a bit of the “prog” in it as well. (laughs)

“Water Under The Bridge”
Kevin Gilbert, The Shaming Of The True

Kevin was an amazing musician and friend. He gave me my “break” in the music biz but very unfortunately died very early on in life. Shaming of the True was a rock opera of his we were working on before he passed, and I finished it after. This song is so beautiful and has an end section that rocks. I totally love this record and this song.

“Ticket To The World”
Roland Orzabal, Tomcats Screaming Outside

After touring with Tears for Fears, Roland asked me to record on his solo record. This track rocks and has his unique style.

“Louie”
Mike Keneally Band, Dog

After working with Mike on the tribute records with Kevin, I knew that I would love to play with him more. It took a long time but my opportunity came finally and we ended up touring quite a bit, doing a lot of gigs, and making this record. Mike has played with some of the best drummers on the planet so it was a blast, honor, and total pleasure playing and recording with him. This track rocks, plain and simple.

There are a lot more, but that is a small taste. (laughs)

Technique and Gear

“I liked trying to use the old, school snare drum books…
and do the same things with my feet.”

MPc:  Are you primarily self-taught or did you study classically?

NDV: I was self-taught from when I started at age four until about age seventeen, when I went to music school. From that point I studied a lot with a number of different teachers. My very first teacher was Dave Garibaldi. That was really great! I learned an awful lot from him in a very short time. From there I had a few different guys until I ended up studying with Roy Burns, the best teacher I ever had. He made learning fun.

MPc:  You have a great single kick right foot (especially for double strokes). What kinds of exercises did you do to develop your technique?

NDV: At the beginning I just played and figured out how to make my kick do the same thing I heard on Led Zeppelin and Genesis records. Bonham and Collins both just used single kick but had pretty fast feet. I didn’t even get a double pedal until I was twenty. When I got into studying more from books and teachers I got into all of the traditional methods for feet and hands.

I liked trying to use the old, school snare drum books like Portraits in Rhythm, Stick Control, and do the same things with my feet. Modern Reading Text in 4/4 and Odd Reading Text by Louie Bellson are two other fantastic books that can be applied to the feet. The odd reading book can be quite intense.

MPc:  Did you land the live Tears for Fears gig as a result of your work on Roland Orzabal’s 2001 solo release, Tomcats Screaming Outside?

NDV: No. I got recommended to Roland from Brian McLeod. Brian played for Tears for Fears on the Raoul and the Kings of Spain CD and also toured with them before that. We had started a band together with Kevin Gilbert called Kaviar, and were getting some momentum going with it. I was actually the bass player in the band, along with other crazy bits and bobs. When the time came to tour for Raoul and the Kings of Spain, Brian decided that he would rather stay back and get Kaviar really off the ground. We all loved the project but Brian knew that I was a big Tears for Fears fan — I really was, even before I ever met Brian. He knew that I hadn’t had a gig like that yet and he very generously recommended me to Roland, and I got the gig sight unseen, which is a bit crazy I think. I did meet up with the manager Debra Baum before I went to the UK for rehearsal, but the first time I actually met Roland was at the airport in London as he was getting off a plane.

MPc:  How come we haven’t heard you on any subsequent Tears for Fears studio releases?

NDV: That’s kind of a long story but I’ll keep in short. When I first joined Tears for Fears it was just Roland running the ship. In the early 2000’s Roland got back together with Curt Smith, who was the other half of Tears for Fears in the early days when they had their huge hits. From what I gather and heard is that one of the compromises they made was that Curt and the co-producer of the new record they were going to make wanted to use the drummer they had both been working with for a long time on the CD, and Roland wanted me for live shows.

I thought that was very very cool of Roland to think of me like that. He trusted me in the drums chair and knew that I would be a consistent force for him and the music every night. At least I got that, and I got to record some other songs that ended up on their Gold CD release and the live DVD from Paris.

Nick D'Virgilio tracking drums in the studio.
Photo: Erick Anderson

MPc:  Have you always played Mapex drums? What attracted you to their drums? Which kit(s) do you currently play?

NDV: No I didn’t always play Mapex. At the very beginning I played a 1965 blue sparkle Ludwig kit. I still own that kit as well. It is amazing. My dad got it used from somewhere, way back then. It was huge on me when I was five but I grew into it. It was a basic set up: 20” kick, 12” rack tom. 14” floor tom and 14”x5” steel snare.

When I was about fourteen I begged my dad to buy me a Gretsch kit and I guess my begging worked, because he did. He bought me a Tony Williams yellow lacquer seven-piece kit that is awesome. 8”, 10”, 12” rack toms, 14” and 16” floor toms, 22x16” kick and a deep 14”x6 ½” snare. I love that kit and used it for everything I did until I got my endorsement with Mapex.

I have been a Mapex endorsee since 1996. Right around the time I got the Tears for Fears gig, I got hooked up with them through their main A&R guy at the time. We met at the NAMM show in L.A. I had never been endorsed by anybody and I only knew a little bit about Mapex at the time, but I wanted to grow in the business and do what the pros did, so I went with them.

In the beginning the drums were okay but not great. The shells were always good but their hardware lacked. But they were always very generous and helped me with anything that went wrong, and I stuck around. When they started Mapex USA and left Gibson in the late ‘90s the drums got way, way better, quickly. I am glad I stuck around because I got to be a small part of the change into a very respected drum company.

Their drums are fantastic. I played an Orion series maple kit for a long time but now I have a Saturn series kit, maple with a layer of walnut on the inside ply. Killer drums. I have a big kit as well. 10”, 12”, 14” rack toms, 16”, 18” floor toms, 22”x18” kick, and various snares. I have a main 14” snare in the normal position and I have a small 10” snare on the left of the hi hat. All the snares I use are Mapex Black Panthers.

Meinl Byzance Extra Dry ChinaMPc:  What about your choice of cymbals?

NDV: I was a Paiste guy as a kid and for the first part of my pro career, but as I toured a lot over in Europe with Spock’s Beard I got to meet and get to know Norbert Saemann, the head of A&R at Meinl Cymbals and Percussion. After a long time thinking about it, I changed over to them. It was a hard decision because I liked Paiste and they treated me well, but Meinl was growing at the time and I just felt it would be a good business decision for me to do. Their cymbals were good then but now they are really amazing. They have grown into a serious world-class cymbal and perc company, and their sounds are never ending. I am so into their Byzance Extra Dry series, especially the China cymbals. Awesome!!!

MPc:  Do you have a pretty standard kit setup that you use for all of your gigs? How does it differ from your studio setup (or not)?

NDV: It is pretty standard, I would say. The set up for the Cirque gig is by far the biggest I have ever had. Most of the time I played a four or five piece kit. It’s the same for the studio mostly, except when I go for something crazy or strange.

MPc:  Have you made the switch to in-ear monitoring? If so, which IEMs do you use, how has it impacted you as a performer, and do you supplement those either with floor wedges or a ButtKicker?

Yes, I switched a long time ago. I love them and hate them at the same time. I used Ultimate Ears for a long time and still have them, but when I joined Cirque they got me a pair of Future Sonics. They are different than each other but both very good. I do use a ButtKicker as well to emphasize the low end and my kick drum.

The impact on me as a performer is that I can hear myself so well that I don’t have to play as hard or over play because I can’t hear, and the volume levels are way lower, so you don’t go home every night with ringing in the ears — that is the best part. The bad part (sometimes) is that it takes you out of the live element, where you can hear the room you are playing in. It just takes getting used to.

When I tour with Spock’s Beard I don’t use them. I go old school and use floor wedges. I really prefer it that way. I do use custom-made earplugs to bring down the DB level a bit. The only thing is that you need to have good wedges that work and a good monitor man.

MPc:  Are you a heels-on-the-floor or heels-in-the-air kind of player? Matched grip or traditional?

NDV: I am more of a heels up and matched grip player.

MPc:  Do you ever find time to practice these days, or does all of your practice just come from the time spent working on new material?

NDV: I don’t practice as much as I would like, but I do try and get in some every week. At the Cirque gig I can go in early or stay late and work on things, plus I am playing up to ten shows a week sometimes, so I am staying in good shape.

MPc:  On many recordings, you tend to favor a very live sound from your kit, whether it’s a song like “The Quiet House” off of X, or older stuff like “At The End of The Day” from V. How involved are you with the production decisions when it comes to the sound of your kit, or even choice of mics and preamps? Is it any surprise that I hear a Phil Collins vibe in your drum tone, particular the big tom sound?

NDV: I get very involved, but for Spock’s Beard records our engineer Rich Mouser has a lot to do with it. He has a great studio in the L.A. area. He converted a house into a studio and the main recording room has 25-foot ceilings, so the drums sound huge just by themselves. He also has a great selection of mics, preamps, compressors, and all the bells and whistles. He also has a great ear for the style of music that Spock’s Beard is and comes up with some great things.

For instance, on the track “Is This Love” from the [self-titled] Spock’s Beard CD (our 9th) I used his old 1970s era Ludwig kit, just because it was there in the corner of the room and he suggested we try it out. It is gigantic in size. Not the amount of drums but their actual sizes. A 28”x14” kick with no hole in the front of the kick drum and no pillows or muffling either. Just wide open! A 16” rack tom and a 20” floor tom. Gigantic drums. They were hard to play, especially the kick drum because the beater from my pedal only reached about a quarter of the way up the drumhead. With the size of the drums and the size of the room, along with Rich’s ear, we got an amazingly huge and fat drum sound ala John Bonham.

Are We Done Yet?

MPc:  What are you working on presently, and what else might we expect from you in 2011 going into 2012?

NDV: I am working with the release of the new EP and writing for a new full record of solo material. I’m sure Spock’s Beard will be getting into more writing soon as well, but for now I am concentrating on the EP. It’s a bit difficult — traveling with the Cirque gig, but I am able to do shows in the cities we go through, so that is nice.

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