Roughly six years ago, drummer Nicholas D’Virgilio had a tough decision to make.
He was weighing two career options: a chance to go on the road with English progressive rock musician Steven Wilson and a job offer that would mean leaving behind the life of a gypsy musician and settling down in Fort Wayne.
Sweetwater Sound (and more specifically, its director of music production, Mark Hornsby) wanted D’Virgilio to join the team as a session musician and marketer.
After consulting with his family, D’Virgilio chose the latter option.
It may have been the safer of the choices at the time, but ultimately it wasn’t the less thrilling of the two.
D’Virgilio’s Sweetwater stint begat an artistic fruition. D’Virgilio recently released a solo album, co-produced by Hornsby, called Invisible.
“If it wasn’t for Sweetwater and Mark’s vision, this record wouldn’t have been able to be made the way it has been,” D’Virgilio said in an interview with Whatzup. “The way the record sounds is because of the facilities we have: world-class studios with world-class gear and world-class people using that gear.”
D’Virgilio’s career has had a lot of inarguable high points up to now — collaborating and performing with Genesis, Peter Gabriel, and Tears for Fears, just to name three examples — but creating this album has turned one of his longtime pipedreams into a plan of attack.
Invisible revives a way of writing and presenting new songs that is not often seen in the music business these days: It’s a concept album.
The 14 tracks can be enjoyed individually, of course, but they also tell an overarching story.
“The main story is about a guy and it could be anybody,” D’Virgilio said. “He’s disgruntled and fed up. He’s invisible to the world. He feels like he could die tomorrow and no one would miss him. He’s got a dead-end job, all that kind of stuff.”
The protagonist of D’Virgilio’s album decides to set out on a search for meaning.
The fruit of Angst
There is some autobiographical basis for all of this. D’Virgilio was lengthily involved in a Cirque du Soleil show in Columbus, Ohio, a few years back and he had a moment at the start of the gig when he suffered some existential angst.
“There was a very, very short time at the beginning of that gig where I felt sort of like that,” he said. “I was playing in a booth behind the stage and no one really saw me playing. I felt invisible for a minute there. It ended up being one of the greatest experiences of my life.
“What it did do,” he said, “is inspire me to write music. That was the jumping off point.”
D’Virgilio started thinking about the people who do the hardest jobs in the world without recognition, the jobs on which everyone depends but few people want to do.
“Those people do those things and they’re invisible to us most of the time,” he said. “We reap the benefits of their hard work and I think they wonder if what they do means anything.”
Invisible charts the course of a man who is not content to remain invisible.
“The record sort of follows him on some adventures meeting other people and realizing he’s not alone in feeling alone,” D’Virgilio said.
His inquisitive course does not always run smoothly, but there’s no reason to spoil the story further here.
When he came up with the theme for the album, D’Virgilio could not have predicted how relevant that subject matter would one day become.
COVID-19 cast a spotlight on customarily invisible “essential workers” just as the album came out. Listeners and reviewers have been noting parallels.
“That was never my plan or intention,” he said. “It just happens to be tying into this whole thing. It’s amazing how it’s all working like that.”
March to a Different drum set
Thanks to Sweetwater and its drum manufacturers, D’Virgilio was able to have a custom drum kit for each song. Which is to say, the drum kit he used on each song was specifically configured for that song.
Guests on the album include guitarist Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, guitarist Carl Verheyen of Supertramp, and bassist Tony Levin of King Crimson.
String parts were recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London.
As a drummer, D’Virgilio is generally known for his progressive rock work, but Invisible features a wide variety of genres.
Progressive rock (aka prog rock) may not top any charts these days, but it is as vibrant a genre as it ever was.
D’Virgilio is a former member of the California prog rock band Spock’s Beard and a current member of the English prog rock band Big Big Train.
He said that the artistic allure of prog rock is the freedom it affords its practitioners.
“I won’t say that there are no rules, but the rules are bent quite a bit,” he said. “You’re not confined to making a three-and-a-half-minute pop song in a certain style. You just write your music and whatever comes, comes. Some do it better than others, of course. But that’s the thing: It’s very free music. It’s open. It’s open to all of it. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
Prog rock is musician’s music, D’Virgilio said.
“It’s a place where musicians can feel free to shred or play simply,” he said.
Dreams of Playing live
All of D’Virgilio’s shredding or simple playing will have to happen online for the foreseeable future. His plan to play this new music on the road was curtailed by COVID-19.
“Playing live is definitely in the cards, for sure,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when. So, for right now, it’s a lot of stuff online because it’s the only thing I can do at the moment. As soon as the time allows it and we’re able to get back out there in clubs and venues, I’m most definitely going to go out and perform this.”
D’Virgilio hopes Invisible launches the one thing he really hasn’t had up to now: a career as a solo artist.
“I want to push this solo artist thing as far as I can,” he said. “I am doing this a little later on in years.
“Thankfully, I’m blessed. I’m very lucky. I have been in some bands that have good fan bases that I can pull from. So I want to get out there and build this solo thing a lot more over the next ten years or so.”
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