Nick D'Virgilio (Big Big Train)

Nick D’Virgilio – Big Big Train

Following the release of Big Big Train‘s (BBT) fifteenth studio album, The Likes of Us, TPA’s Alex Driessen was given the opportunity to interview one of the members of this originally British band. The choice fell on American drummer/singer Nick D’Virgilio, also known as NDV. The interview covered almost everything, from the band to his solo work and extremely varied collaborations over the years. Including Genesis…

Nick, first of all congratulations on the new album, I’ve had it for a while now, listened to it many times and it’s still growing on me. I am quite impressed, it sounds heavier, more compact without interfering with the old values of the band, the multi-harmony vocals, the brass and the acoustic feel.

Thank you!
Big Big Train - The Likes Of Us

So far, a large part of the writing and recording process has been done by forwarding electronic files to each other. You broke the mould with a joint recording session in Italy for The Likes of Us. What was it like recording in that old-school way again?

It was fantastic! We have never really recorded like that since I’ve been in the band. Even back in my early days when I recorded at our engineer/mixer Rob Aubrey’s studio. Back then I would record drums to the band’s demos. The guys would be on the other side of the glass but we were not jamming together. I was making parts up as I went and that all worked out well, but there is something special about playing together. Just like when you play with your band on the live stage. You are all feeling the music at the same time and that inspires. It makes you listen differently. It is a good thing and a whole lot of fun.

I read that Alberto Bravin found bouncing ideas off each other in particular to be an absolute advantage of being in the studio together. What are your thoughts on that?

Yes! I feel the same way. It makes you think, listen, adapt, and manoeuvre in ways that are just different from when you are on your own playing to a pre-recorded track.

Big Big Train TPA (The Progressive Aspect)

How does that actually work, operating at such a distance from the rest of the band? Tell me about a day in the life of an American musician in a British-origin band.

It is not ideal. When I started with BBT I was a session musician. Then I officially joined the band where I only saw everyone once a year in person. It is better now because we are doing more but I would love to be near the gang and see them more often. Even just to go out for a meal or coffee. I really love everyone in the band and on our team. I would live to see them more but (I hate the saying) it is what it is. I am thankful that me living so far away has not been too much of a burden for the band over the years. We have made it work.

After the unfortunate death of David Longdon, the job of singer was vacant. At the time I thought they would turn to you; after all, you were familiar with the repertoire and had already successfully made the move from behind the drum kit to the front of the stage. Has this ever been seriously on the table?

I did contemplate it and I put it out to Greg as a possibility, but it would have messed with the foundation we had built over so many years. If we are talking just about the rhythm section of BBT, Greg and I are a very solid unit. The bass and drums are a real hallmark of the BBT sound and feel. We didn’t want to mess with that, which totally makes sense to me. I love to sing and hope to do more as we move forward. But finding someone else from outside of the band as the new lead singer was the right way to go.

Aside from Greg, you are now the longest-serving musician within BBT. How does that feel, does it also create obligations?

I am obligated to BBT, and I am happy to have it that way. I feel and say to everyone that BBT is my band. I didn’t start the band of course but I have been in the fold long enough that it is like family, and I truly love what we do. It is some of the most exciting and fulfilling music I have ever been a part of, and I want it to last until I physically can’t do it anymore.

Big Big Train TPA (The Progressive Aspect)

You regularly write songs for BBT, I especially like the instrumental pieces, they are always just a bit different from the material that Spawton/Longdon write/wrote. Do you have to do battle to get your compositions on the record?

A little. But that is the way it goes in a band situation. We have a lot of great songwriters. That is definitely not a bad thing. In a band you have to be willing to sacrifice a little for the good of the whole unit. My style is different than Greg’s and he’s been the main writer from the beginning. Our core fans have grown with his songs. I set out to write specifically for BBT and what is so cool in my opinion is how the group takes something of mine and moulds it into the BBT feel. I also try to write some things that will challenge the band as players. Everyone in this band is a very high level player and it is a total blast to see and hear them stretch.

I was just talking about the originally British band; nowadays it’s more of a ‘United Nations of Prog’, with a Swede, a Norwegian, an Italian and an American – as foreigners you are even a majority. Is it difficult to work with such a diverse international group?

Not at all. Like I mentioned above, everyone is so good at what they do. On top of it all, everyone is so cool personally. We hang as friends, talk openly as friends, laugh, crack jokes, and do all the stuff that is not music related. It is a beautiful thing.

I read that you are very impressed with the musicianship and craftsmanship of the new, younger members of the band. How high should I rate this quality?

Off the charts high! Oskar Holldorff is a stud! His ability is fantastic. His feel is so groovy. Need I say more?!

You will soon be touring the United States, an absolute premiere moment in the band’s existence. What do you expect from this homecoming? Do you also play near your birthplace? You live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, these days, I understand.

Big Big Train_Logo_2023

YAY!!!!! IT IS ABOUT FRIGGIN TIME!!! Can you tell I am excited? Finally, it is happening. We had a full, much longer, US tour planned pre-pandemic and prior to David’s passing. I tried to not lose hope but it is crazy, and I mean crazy expensive, to bring the band stateside to tour. When I go over to the UK/EU I am just one person. One return flight. The expenses jump through the roof sending everyone to the USA. The flights, the visa costs, the hotels, the transportation. It is crazy. But it has to be done if we want to grow.

I read that you are leaving guitarist David Foster behind for the tour in the US and that the brass section is also staying at home. You are still looking for a multi-instrumentalist who also plays the trumpet. What does that mean for the arrangements and the choice of set list?

It changes it a bit for sure, but again we are trying to make this a viable touring band. It is just financially unsustainable to have the full ensemble go everywhere at this point. We can still put on an awesome show with that big BBT sound with the band pared down a little. Then, hopefully, after we gain more momentum and hopefully more fans, we will be able to afford to bring everyone all of the time. We would love nothing more.

I understand the (financial) arguments, I have discussed this with Greg before. Aren’t you afraid that this compromises the core of the music?

No. We will absolutely make it work.

Big Big Train TPA (The Progressive Aspect)

May I briefly go back with you to the start of your collaboration with BBT. You’re kind of a reverse version of an Englishman in New York: an American in London. What was that like in the beginning, as a Yank among the Limeys?

Oh, I loved it and always have. I got sort of immersed on the UK starting way back in my Spock’s Beard days. Then I joined Tears For Fears and was around even more Brits. I’ve always felt very comfortable in the UK. I could easily live there. My whole family feels the same way after they lived in London during my time with Cirque Du Soleil and knowing all of my friends all these years.

You already had quite a career, especially as a drummer/singer with Spock’s Beard. How did you actually end up with BBT back then?

I got recommended to Greg by Rob Aubrey. Rob has brought so many of us together over the years. He had worked with Greg and BBT in the past and when they came to him for the album The Difference Machine he got me in as a session player, and the rest is history.

You have already released a couple of solo albums, and more recently a second album of the collaboration with Neal Morse and Ross Jennings. Very different music from what you are known for, acoustic, almost CSN&Y-like, I would say. How did that come about?

Neal and I, back in the Spock’s days, would always sing CSN, the Beatles, and a ton of other songs when we were not playing SB songs. Neal, as you probably know, is a very prolific writer and had some CSN-like songs and called me up and asked if I had any songs in that vein and if I would like to put something together in that sort of style. We thought for a while who the third person should be, and Ross was the perfect fit. A wonderful singer and songwriter in his own right. It is just fun to do something different and, like I said earlier, I love to sing.

Big Big Train TPA (The Progressive Aspect)

You are a kind of self-employed person within the music world. Your name regularly appears on albums by Frost*, Mystery, Neal Morse, Dave Kerzner and Steve Hackett, among others. Is this the only way to survive as a professional musician in today’s music industry?

There are many ways to do it but being able to diversify your career is a good thing. I have been so blessed to be able to play with everyone you mentioned and more. I’ve always loved challenging myself as a player and I have made so many great relationships over the years that these folks, thankfully, have kept me in mind.

Your career sounds like a trip through a wondrous world, kind of Willie Wonka-like. One of the most special things you have done is your work for Cirque du Soleil. How did that come about?

I needed work. At that time (2008/2009) not much was going on for me. I was hustling like crazy just to pay the bills. I was still technically in Tears For Fears but they barely toured and Spock’s was not doing enough to bring in sufficient money. I had seen a number of Cirque shows in Las Vegas over the years and just decided to apply online. I got contacted about six months later asking if I would be interested in joining a brand-new production called TOTEM. It was a traveling gig but one of the big parts of the offer was that my family could come with me. They had a traveling school. My kids were 10 and 12 years old at the time. We thought long and hard over it and decided to run off and join the circus. It was scary at first but ended up being an amazing journey for both me and my family. I was also able during those Cirque years to do an awful lot with BBT. We built the foundation during those years culminating in our 2015 shows at King’s Place in London. Those shows really started it all.

Excuse me, you’ve probably been asked about this many times before, but I can’t resist asking you about your experience as a studio drummer on the last Genesis album, Calling All Stations in 1997, after the departure of Phil Collins. What was that like?

Pretty incredible. Nothing I ever imagined I would get to do. I got to play in Phil’s drum room, in their amazing recording studio, with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford right on the other side of the glass. It was surreal. Genesis was my favourite band growing up. I’m not just saying that. I was an uber fan.

Nick D'Virgilio - Big Big Train TPA (The Progressive Aspect)

I have already made the crossing from Holland to England a number of times for your shows, four times in total. The last time was your triumphant final gig of the tour at the Cadogan Hall in August 2023. The last part, in which you formed an acoustic trio together with Rikard and Alberto, appealed to me in particular. Greg watched approvingly from the wings. Will you eventually take over from him as band leader?

No. Greg is the founder and the leader. If Greg ever decided to leave BBT I am pretty certain that would be it for BBT. And Greg is a great leader. Everyone gets to make decisions and give opinions but ultimately it is up to him.

You will return to the Boerderij in Zoetermeer in September for two shows. If I understand correctly, you are going to play a different set each night, is that right? What is so special about this venue that you guys always enjoy playing there?

It is a classic venue that supports music like ours and progressive music in general. It is the perfect place to play. It sounds great there, everyone that works there is fantastic, the Netherlands is an awesome place in general. It just works like a charm.

How do you see the future of the band, what plans are there for the (medium-term) future?

More records and more touring. I think our music can have a much wider audience and we have to get out there and make that happen. I am confident we can do it.

Nick, thank you so much for your participation in this interview, it is much appreciated. Good luck with the band and the new album, maybe the next album should be called The Future Looks Bright! Keep safe, hope to see you again in a concert hall soon.

Thank you! It was my pleasure.

[Photos of Big Big Train by Massimo Goina; photo of NDV by Arie van Hemert.]

Nick D’Virgilio – Website | Facebook
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