Album Reviews

Issue 2020-047: Nick D'Virgilio Inter-Review

After a near-20-year break in his solo career, renowned drummer Nick D'Virgilio returns with Invisible. DPRP's Stefan Hennig speaks to Nick and discovers his passion for the release, which of the vast number of guest musicians was the biggest surprise, and whether he intends playing the album live.

NDV promo photo by Chad Jenkins, used by kind permission.

Can you describe for the reader the concept behind the album?

NDV: The title Invisible gives connotations that you are not happy with where your life ended up. Maybe you didn't plan on being were you are. Maybe your life decisions didn't go quite the way you intended. Even though you tried very hard, you find that you are not really happy with where you have ended up. You then lose you own purpose.

We can all feel like that; thinking “What's it all about?” and “What am I here for?” So the person in the story ends up not being happy with where he's ended up. He's lost the passion and what made him happy, and so he begins to wonder where did it all go wrong. He finally says 'enough is enough', and decides to go on a journey to rediscover that purpose in his life; and he ends up finding it.

Is it in any way a personal journey?

The original inspiration was a little like that. That's what got me started, but I evolved that story. Only a very small percentage is auto-biographical, so that was the jumping off point of the concept.

It is astonishing it has been 19 years since the NDV debut solo album. Is there a reason why it has taken 19 years for the second NDV album?

I have been asked this question a lot recently, and the real excuse is that I have always been in bands. So there has been a lot of things going on. Believe me, I am blessed, and I'm not complaining. That is what always took precedence. At the beginning, Spock's Beard was doing really well, and I was also doing Tears For Fears at the same time. So I was super busy with those things. Then Big Big Train came along. So I was super committed to that, plus family and children. There was just not enough time in the day to do everything. So the solo stuff took a back seat.

Plus, when I did Karma back in 2001, I was not as confident about my writing as I am now. When I became lead singer for Spock's and began writing more for Spock's Part II, that period really began to build my songwriting chops and my confidence. Then I started adding things with Big Big Train. So all of that contributed to where I am now.

I just think it has taken me this long to find my voice; to build up enough material to go down this road. It's just the way the cookie crumbled. I'm now really more committed to doing solo work. I have just had to wait until now in my life.

NDV with Big Big Train in October 2019. Photo by Martin Reijman, used by kind permission.

One title on the album was Snake Oil Salesman. Can you let me know were the title originates from?

A 'Snake Oil Salesman' is a type of shyster. He's someone who tries to sell you something and make you believe in something that's not really true. Because he's such a great salesman, you buy what he is selling.

The title is not in the lyric of the song anywhere. How it fits in the story is that the main character decides to take off on an adventure to find his life's meaning. So the way I thought about it was that he goes down into a subway station and he sees this person talking to a huge group of people. This guy has gotten them into a frenzy, because he can cure all life's ills with this special tonic he is selling. It blows the mind of the main character, that the crowd could be so easily convinced by this guy, all dressed up giving them this story. That's how that song fits into the whole story.

How long did the writing process take? Were some songs written some time ago and revisited and tweaked to fit them into the album concept?

Some of the material is quite old. Some of it comes from when I got my job with Cirque du Soleil. That is where this whole concept stemmed from. I was playing in a drum booth behind the stage, and no one saw me, and it was bumming me out. I literally felt invisible for a while. That's where my brain went first, but I got over it quite quickly. It inspired me to write music.

In my drum booth, I made it my own world at the back, and it became one of the greatest gigs of my life. In my drum booth I had my own little recording studio. I had speakers, a recording interface, pro tools, a guitar and the whole nine yards. So slowly, I was able to amass a bunch of ideas. I made some demo's over time, and when I came out over here to Sweetwater, (one of the biggest music technology and instrument retailers) things started building. I then played some demos to Mark Hornsby (the co-producer on the album), and he said: “Man, you've got to finish this record”. So we came up with an idea as to how to put the whole thing together. Mark really inspired me to round out the story. So to answer your question, some of these songs have been around for four to five years.

NDV with Big Big Train in 2017. Photo by Mike Heller, used by kind permission.

You have a number of guests who appear on the album. Was there anyone in particular you were excited about getting to play on Invisible?

One of the crazier guests to have, was Rick Nielson from Cheap Trick. I had never really planned on that. The reason a lot of the guys are on the record is that with my job at Sweetwater (Nick is currently employed by Sweetwater in their marketing department as well as a studio musician) we do a bunch of recording workshops and recording masterclasses to help teach people how to record in the studio. So we get these great musicians into the studio to be the teachers. You get to sit in the studio for three to four days, and learn how they do their thing.

For three of the songs on my record, In My Bones which Rick Nielson is on, Where's The Passion with Jordan Rudess, and Snake Oil Salesman with Tony Levin, these were all recording masterclass songs that I wrote. These artists were coming into the studio and needed some music to play on. They didn't want to be playing their originals, so I offered my songs and it got approved.

So I happened to have Rick Nielson coming along. I got him to play on my song which is now on my record. That was such a cool thing. I'm a fan of classic rock, and Cheap Trick, I'm a fan of that band for sure. He just added such a cool flavour that's not typical in progressive rock, so it was really great.

Then working with Tony Levin was a dream come true, as he's one of the most iconic bass players of all time. Then literally everyone else on the record added so many great touches to the whole thing. I'm so thankful for everyone on the record.

After listening to the album, then reading through the credits, I was surprised that one of my favourite songs, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, apart from a guitar solo, everything else on the song is entirely yourself.

I just wanted one song which was entirely me on the record, as the other people bring their own flavour to the songs. I play rhythm guitar on the track. I'm not a great soloist, so I keep that with the experts and left it to Randy McStine, whose one of the greatest soloists I know.

Prelude is the only song you are not credited with on the album, it's written by Carl Baldasarre. Did he hear the completed album before composing the track?

Carl is a musician and a serious classical composer, and he took my record and wrote that piece just for fun. It was never meant to be on the record, but once I heard the demo we began talking about it. I thought it would be a cool way to start the record. Carl took the album's theme, which is on the song Where's The Passion, the chorus is the theme, and you will hear it in different ways throughout the record. It reoccurs in different places. We have morphed the melody, reversed the harmony, and Carl took all of that theme and some themes from other songs on the record, and wrote this prelude. I just thought it was a nice way to set the mood into the first song.

Then everything else on the album is mine except for the cover song Money.

I used this song because it fits the story-line so well. The main character is setting off into the world again, like it's for the first time, and he gets talking to this character. In my mind he goes into a shop to get a drink, and the person behind the counter looks depressed or bored, and he asks the person if everything is okay. Then the person behind the counter begins to spew out all the reasons why he's stuck behind the counter. The main character then realises very quickly that he's not the only one who feels the way he does. It's a kind of thing of realising that we are not alone in feeling alone.

NDV promo photo by Erick Anderson, used by kind permission.

The inclusion in the package of the drum booklet, makes it a drummers' delight as well as adding invaluable re-listening opportunities for the non-drummer to pick up the nuances of using varied drum kits.

The reason the album turned out the way it did and why we were able to go to Abbey Road to record the orchestra, was because of the drum companies who got onboard and basically sponsored this record. With working at Sweetwater, we were able to get all these amazing drum manufacturers together and sold them on the idea of playing all their gear in the same sound box, and giving them as much publicity because of it.

When you are a session drummer you don't always use just one brand of gear. You use all different kinds of gear to fit the sound of the song you are recording. It because of the drum companies that the record turned out the way it did. So it was part of the deal that we show off how great these companies are and what they added to the whole thing.

I used a different drum set up on every track, so the booklet was something we put together to help the listener pick up on the nuances with the different drum gear and make something special for the drumming community as well.

I got the feeling that the album's final song, I Know The Way, must have been one of the last songs to have been written, as it could not have been written without what came before on the album. Am I correct?

Yes, your thinking is correct there. I have a very strong belief that we are all here on this planet for a reason. Whether it's big or small. You could do something very small, but that one thing could touch so many people. So that's the thinking behind what helped me find that song.

I can't remember you doing any live gigs when Karma was released, do you have plans to tour with this album?

We're talking about it. I didn't want to do all this without performing live. We have got to see what will happen with all the crazy travel bans and this virus that's going around, but were talking about it for sure. I definitely want to make it happen.

There's going to be plenty more music coming down the pipeline from me. I'm not going to wait another 20 years to put another album out. I have a good plan for the next ten years. There is going to be more of my stuff, there's lots of Big Big Train coming as well. I'm going to make another Fringe record with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold. So there's plenty of things planned, but to answer your question, I'm definitely going to play this live. Somewhere along the line.

NDV promo photo by Erick Anderson, used by kind permission.

Nick D'Virgilio — Invisible

Nick D'Virgilio - Invisible
Prelude (2:21); Invisible (3:51); Turn Your Life Around (7:45); I'm Gone (4:00); Money (That's What I Want) (4:49); Waiting For No One (2:46); Snake Oil Salesman (3:34); Where's The Passion (6:49); Mercy (7:14); Overcome (5:20); In My Bones (4:20); Wrong Place Wrong Time (4:10); Not My Time To Say Goodbye (7:02); I Know The Way (5:05)
Stefan Hennig

I was surprised to realise that nearly 20 years have passed since Nick D'Virgilio released his first solo album, Karma. The quality of Invisible has been well worth the wait.

Nick has not been sitting idle during those intermediate years. His resume is too long to go through, and I'm sure most people reading this will not require a recap. What has developed over those years are the honing of the artist's songwriting abilities. While travelling along with the main character in Nick's story, of finding one's place and meaning in life, what the music has, is essence. The essence of what Nick has absorbed and learnt during his musical journey. He has taken every bit of experience he has lived through, and taken those essences and let them flow through his being. The result is a truly astonishing piece of work.

When listening to the album, you will feel touched by those essences. One minute you will feel the fun and adventure of Spock's Beard and Kevin Gilbert. Next you will feel the gentle caress of fingers upon your neck, which will be the spirit of Peter Gabriel and Genesis tapping into you conscious. A sudden refrain will have you thinking of the pop sensibilities of Tears For Fears. There will be little nuances which could only have come from having been a member of Big Big Train.

Even with the sprinkling of these essences throughout the album, it always remains NDV that you are listening to. Added to this, is the music of Nick's youth. This is most obvious with the inclusion of the cover of Money. It is not just a cover, it is a complete re-imagining of the Motown classic. So much so, that during the instrumental section you could be excused for thinking you were listening to an excerpt from a John Barry soundtrack. Only someone who has properly discovered their true songwriting ability could rewrite a track in this way.

Some might say that an album that contains 14 tracks is not prog, but a collection of songs. Well, every song has its own identity and can be listened to in isolation, but the songwriting skill is the continued inclusion of the album's main musical hook. This is most prominent in Where's The Passion, but is included in varying ways throughout the album. I will leave the listener the fun of identifying were it appears, as I'm still finding them after numerous listens.

We then touch upon the carefully selected guests on the album. Each adds a sprinkling of magic to their spots, but never dominates, feeling a natural part of each song. Highlights for me are Jem Godfry's frenzied synth solo at the beginning of Mercy, which fits so well into a track that has been developed using a rhythm based upon the sound of a train passing over tracks. Then the unmistakable twinkling of the ivory keys by Jorden Rudess adds extra sparkle to Where's The Passion. The identification each guest's contribution is enjoyable. I must also mention two of Nick's long-time musical partners; Jonas Reingold on bass and Randy McStine on guitar. Both of whom add some stunning playing to a number of songs.

This is an album of so many levels, that will keep the listener entertained for hours. Adding yet another level is the inclusion of the drum booklet to the package. This describes in great detail the drum kit used for each song. Nick's descriptions are written in a way that provide any drummer with an amazing insight into a great drummer's thinking and choice of instrument for each song, but also in a way that the non-musician can glean insights into how textures are added to the music. This will have you listening to identify every nuance within the sound.

It has been a long time since I have heard such an accomplished album that delivers on so many levels. It is the current culmination of an individual's musical journey, and hopefully this will enable Nick D'Virgilio to become very visible to many more people. If Invisible gets the recognition it deserves, then Nick should become a huge, glowing star, which no one can ignore.

Album Reviews