An interview by Jedd Beaudoin
Spock's Beard have had a pretty good year: They've released a fine album (Feel Euphoria, out now on Inside Out Music America), made the case that they're still relevant without Neal Morse (Was there a question?) and are currently readying themselves for a European tour with Enchant and California Guitar Trio. (Ah, to be European! These dates will also see the debut of Jimmy Keegan (Santana, John Waite), who'll handle the skins while D'Virgilio is singing, playing guitar and doing who-knows-what.
In the following interview we talked about the many facets of D'Virgilio's career, including his time in the L.A. club scene and his (brief) time with Genesis. Visit http://www.spocksbeard.com for all the latest growth.
Sea of Tranquility: Can you talk a little bit about how you started playing drums and how your approach developed?
Nick D' Virgilio: I don't know why I started playing. I was about three or four years old. My dad bought me a drum kitĖĖactually Santa Claus *brought* me a drum kit, a blue sparkle Ludwig kit for Christmas and I've been playing ever since. I listened to a lot of records. Everything my brother and sister listened to, mostly by brother. (They're eight and twelve years older than me.) With my brother it was a case of me having to do everything he did, so he got me in Led Zeppelin and Genesis and all that stuff. I just listened to a ton of records and for some reason music came naturally to me. It was in my blood, somehow. I don't know from where. There were musical people in the family but no one else took it to the extreme that I did.
I grew up as a fan of Phil Collins and John Bonham and lots of funk and R&B stuff and played to those records every day. Later, I started taking lessons. I went to music school for a year and started getting into more different styles of music.
SoT: You know, a lot of parents aren't really supportive of their children when they say, "Mom, Dad, I want to play drums." But your dad seems to have been.
NDV: It was crazy, man. My bedroom was right next to my parents' room and I'm serious when I say that for eighteen years I played drums every day after school in that room. After dinner, into the evening, whatever. My dad would just turn up the volume on the TV and I just bashed away. He was great about it though. And it was cool because when I got the Tears For Fears gig, he came to see me at the Wilshire Amphitheater in L.A. I was up on stage and he kept saying, "That's my son." He was bragging to everybody. [Laughs.]
SoT: You also played on the Genesis album Calling All Stations. What was it like to walk into a situation where you're suddenly in the shoes of one of your heroes?
NDV: It was really bizarre at first. It was very mellow, just a few days of recording and [Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford were] pretty mellow guys. But it was bizarre to be there. Genesis was my favorite band in the world and I love that band. So, to be able to record with them was crazy and to have my name on one of their records is really a trip. [Laughs.] I never expected that in a million years.
SoT: You mentioned John Bonham who existed in what I think of as the golden age for drummers, where you had him, Keith Moon, Carl Palmer, etc. What was it about him that you liked, was it the power?
NDV: Power was definitely one of them. The groove. He had one of the greatest grooves of all time. Grooving is definitely what my drumming's all about, as much as possible. If it doesn't groove, then I'm not really into it. He really taught me about power and groove. The way he played, he just had so much soul and heart and passion and all those fill bits were awesome but just listening to a song like "Kashmir," which is one of the simplest songs in the world, you can hear him just kill it. It feels so good. It makes you want to dance. Same with Phil Collins. Even though Phil did more fancy stuff, he had such a groove to his playing. That's what turned me on.
SoT: And both of those guys had some R&B behind them.
NDV: Yeah, there's like a funk aspect in their drumming. Some kind of soul music in the way they approached their rock. That's definitely the path that I go down.
SoT: You played R&B too. Was that kind of growth experience for you, where you said, "You know this is so much different than playing Boston"?
NDV: Luckily, I listened to a ton of music growing up and I played a lot of stuff and basically I've been able to adapt to whatever situation I'm in well enough that I'm at least able to pull the gig off. I don't play a ton of jazz or swing music but I've done enough of it where I can go and do a gig. I may not be the best drummer [in either of those genres] but I can usually make it musically. For me, rock and progressive is probably the stuff that I do best but I purposefully got into playing all those different styles of music so that I could adapt to those other situations. I played in salsa bands, just about anything you can think of. You learn to adapt all of that into your playing.
SoT: Obviously, being a good player is one thing but there's often more to being a working musician than your chops. What are some of the things that you think got you gigs?
NDV: Attitude goes with it. I can get along with anybody, whatever the situation is. Maybe that's because I grew up with my dad who was a total salesman schmoozer. I think some of that rubbed off on me. So, being able to adapt to the situation is important, not just as a player but also the human situation. That definitely helped.
SoT: Did you have mentors as you were coming up?
NDV: Kevin Gilbert was probably the biggest. He taught me a lot of stuff. Not much in terms of business, I'm still learning that as I'm going. [Laughs.] What a pain in the ass that is, that's something you have to keep learning and growing from. But as far as music goes and playing and playing from the heart, I definitely learned a lot from Kevin. I mean, he's the one who pretty much gave me my break. I was just a floundering drummer in L.A. and when I started playing with him, a lot of things changed. He taught me how to engineer, he brought me in as a brother, a friend.
SoT: He knew a lot about music and he also knew a lot of creative people, what was that like, to be in gigs with people of that caliber?
NDV: It was great, to finally hang out with people who were doing things at a higher level than I was. I was kind of at the local musician level. That's fine, there's nothing bad with that. Once you get into the professional ranks, you feel like you're more successful, you feel like you're finally hanging out with the big boys, all of that stuff. It was cool just to be hanging out with people who were making records. Some of them made a shitload of money. It was cool.
SoT: You covered a David Baerwald song on the Karma album. Are you friends?
NDV: Yeah. We haven't worked together in a while but we did do a lot of work together for a while.
SoT: He's definitely a great songwriter. What did you learn from him?
NDV: We put out a record last year called David Baerwald and The New Folk Underground (available on Lost Highway Records). That's me playing drums on the whole record. We worked for a good four-to-six months there, just getting together at his studio in Venice Beach and writing music and writing songs. He's got a different angle on music, he's definitely not a prog guy, he comes from the Bob Dylan folk side of life. But it definitely has a lot of soul to it. It's not about riffs and playing, it's about the song.
SoT: Do you think you'll try to continue to balance things between the choppier stuff and then stuff that's more laid-back?
NDV: I'd like to have a happy medium between the two if it's at all possible. Straight songs appeal to me just as much as instrumentals or riffed-out things. I love singing a straight song with an acoustic guitar. An acoustic guitar and a single vocal can turn me on just as much as a full-on, crazy thing, like at the end of "East Of Eden, West Of Memphis" on Feel Euphoria. Both things can give me the same good feeling. I'm a sucker for a good love song.
SoT: When did you start singing?
NDV: I've been singing my whole life. I started singing more as I was growing up and starting to do all the cover band stuff. I sang a ton back then. But my voice has improved, the older I've gotten. I think it's maturing. I'm learning how to sing, studying more and have the opportunity to sing more.
SoT: How about guitar when did you start playing that?
NDV: My brother was a guitar player, so I started playing guitar from the time I was seven or eight years old. He'd show me chords and I'd listen to records and try and pick up things. I definitely took drums to the extreme, though. I've been serious about playing guitar for maybe the last five or six years. I cop licks from my friends, I buy videos so that I can learn how to play better. I really love the instrument and I've always enjoyed guitar players, singers being up front. It helps me with my songwriting and teaches me more about music in general.
SoT: You also recently engineered [Mike Keneally Band bassist] Bryan Beller's solo record View.
NDV: That was cool.
SoT: Was that the first time that you'd been engineer from start to finish?
NDV: No, that's my third record, actually. I did this obscure thing for a girl named Julie Brown in San Francisco. She did a real pop record. I know her through Dave Meros. She did a real girl pop thing and I have a really good friend back home named Chris Clerc who has a band named Bubba and The Big Bad Blues. It's a full blues record that I also engineered and mixed and now Bryan's record, which has everything from punk to fusion on the same record. I like doing that. It keeps me busy when I'm at home. The more I can do that kind of stuff is good. I'm definitely trying to build that.
SoT: And production?
NDV: That's why I'm doing all these things. I'm trying to build up a catalogue of, "Listen, here's what I did." That's a tough nut to crack. You have to do a lot of projects, a lot of demos. You have to sell yourself, just like you would trying to get a playing gig.
SoT: Are there records or songs in the Spock's catalogue that you look back on and say, "If I never did anything again, if that's the last I ever recorded, I'd be pretty happy"?
NDV: There are moments on all the records. The song "Harm's Way" on Kindness of Strangers is a good moment. I love that one a lot. The drum solo at the end of "Gibberish" on Day For Night. The little Latin-y section at the end of "At The End Of The Day" from V. God, a lot of stuff on Snow, there are some really great moments there that I'm proud of. There are some moments that I don't like at all. I wish that the groove I played during the whole first section of "At The End Of The Day" was different. I played it different live each time we did it. I don't like that but, what are you going to do. I'm really proud of the record, especially the singing. And there are moments from Beware Of Darkness that still get me every time.
SoT: What do you think the balance between new and old material will be for this upcoming tour?
NDV: We'll try to play as much as we can. There'll definitely be less old material. We'll play a lot of the new record. I'm thinking that we'll probably do some kind of medley from Snow since we didn't have a chance to tour it. We can't play the whole record because it's two hours long so we'll probably do some sort of condensed version or it may work better to break up songs throughout the set. I don't know. We do have to play the old stuff. I'd like to play some of the old stuff that we haven't played in a while. I'm not sure.
SoT: Will there be another live record in the near future or do you think you'll wait and let the new catalogue build up before you do that?
NDV: We still have never made a good live record in my opinion. So until we can afford it, to do it right ... we've had some nightmares in the past, for a number of different reasons. Recording, mixing, technical problems. Live records have helped us in the past in terms of surviving financially but I don't think that they've ever been that good. There are things where there've been full-on mistakes. [Laughs.] I really hated one. I don't want to do that again. We'll see.
SoT: Well, I see that we're just about out of time here, so to wrap things up, bring them full circle, I wanted to ask you about this: I know that you have children and that you're father was generous with you in terms of music, are your children interested in music, is that something that you want to expose them?
NDV: I'll let them do whatever they want. I'm not pushing them to do anything, really, yet. They know what I do. They're around when I'm playing drums and they know that I'm on tour right now and that's kind of hard but my daughter is only five years old right now but she's got great pitch. That was completely naturally. She can pick up songs, sometimes very difficult songs for a five-year-old to sing, but she can stay on pitch and if the key changes, she can follow it. My son, he just wants to be Spiderman and be a dude right now. [Laughs.] He'll sit behind my kit and bash and stuff but it's not musical yet. We'll see what happens.