A different kind of gig

June 26th, 2017

By Steve Warden | The Journal Gazette

Nick D'Virgilio has a sore back.

The drummer at Sweetwater Sound isn't trying to conceal it, either. When he stands, he arches backward and puts both hands behind his waist, the way old people do when they roll out of bed and stretch. Walking toward the company's nearly football field-size cafeteria in a black T-shirt and jeans, he says he's 48, “but my back feels like I'm 68 right now.”

It is Monday morning at Sweetwater. Warm outside. Hot, actually. In the spacious front lobby, a group of students gathers around the now-famous two-tone Volkswagen minibus. They listen as the tour guide tells the familiar bus-to-business success story – of how founder Chuck Surack started the company from this very vehicle almost 40 years ago and turned it into a musical empire.

Not content with being one of the world's largest retail distributors of instruments, Sweetwater evolved into other interests and resources: in-store merchandise, a musical academy for students, state-of-the-art recording studios with professional in-house musicians. And this is where Nick D'Virgilio entered the Sweetwater team picture nearly three years ago.

Let's back up, first.

When his jet-black hair was a little longer and his two-day stubble not as white, D'Virgilio helped form the Los Angeles progressive rock group called Spock's Beard and was with it for almost 20 years, from 1992 until he left in 2010 as its lead singer. During that time, Spock's Beard – the name's a takeoff on a “Star Trek” episode – recorded 10 albums.

Because the group recorded sporadically, D'Virgilio sought more work and was hired to play with British pop-rock band Tears for Fears, from 1995 to 2010. There were earlier gigs, too. He was recruited to play with Genesis, after Phil Collins left, and played on the album “Calling All Stations.” He's also played with Sheryl Crow, Peter Gabriel, Eric Burdon and the Animals and Mike Keneally; and many, many others who knew of his reputation and wanted him in their studio.

But in 2011 came the Godfather offer – one he couldn't refuse – to join Cirque du Soleil's “Totem” tour as its drummer, lead singer and assistant bandleader.

“I was part of a huge rock show every night. The whole kit and caboodle; lights and smoke and the huge stage and the P.A.,” he says. “It was a very cool job.” In 2013, the show won the New York Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

Not only would he see the world, but so would his wife, Tiffany, and their children Anthony and Sophia.

“They housed my family, schooled my kids, the whole nine yards,” D'Virgilio says. “All you had to do was pay for your kids and your family to get from A to B. You got the apartment, the whole thing. It was a fantastic benefit.

“But they cut that (benefit), and that was my ticket out. I could've kept my job, but I would've had to home-school the kids in Australia and pay for their housing. It wasn't very realistic, especially for high school-age kids. So I was looking for a job.”

Because the music world is a small one, it's always good to know somebody. That somebody was Nashville producer/recording engineer Mark Hornsby, whom Sweetwater hired five years ago to inject new blood and fresh ideas into its studio development. Since Sweetwater was bringing in top-tier musicians, and word got out that D'Virgilio was looking, it was a match made in Fort Wayne.

In the three years away from the hotels, motels and sideshows of “the road,” his world has been as steady as his drumbeat.

Tiffany has a job at Lutheran Hospital as a nuclear medicine technologist. Sophia, 19, recently graduated from Homestead High School and will soon be headed to Indiana University in Bloomington to study radiation therapy. Anthony, 17, will be a senior at Homestead. Both kids love the theater. Tiffany loves her three horses.

Which brings us back to D'Virgilio's back.

“I was moving hay,” he says. “Stacking hay. They (the horses) got to eat, and they do that quite a bit. It's a lot of work. Luckily, my neighbor down the street has an enormous barn and he stores most of it, but it was time to get out the old and bring in the new. That's what I did (Sunday). It was fine while I was doing it. It's the after-effects that's kicking my butt right now.”

Thankfully, his Monday schedule was a light one. A local guitar player was in Studio A, working on a song, which gave D'Virgilio time to talk and stretch a bit.

He spends most days doing studio sessions and appearing in web videos for drum products whose makers would love to have the Sweetwater seal of approval. That's him, playing and selling and talking up the product. “I get to make records and play with gear all day long,” he says.

Don't misinterpret his day-to-day contentment. D'Virgilio stresses that he's not Mr. Nine-to-Five. He's the guy wearing the black T-shirt, remember, and not a Windsor knot, and that he's still active in a few bands.

There's the progressive rock group called Big Big Train that's doing well on the U.K. charts and just released a new album in April called “Grimspound.” And he's with the rock trio The Fringe “to make something new,” according to its Facebook page.

Meanwhile, if the phone rings, he's up for some freelance. In September, he says, he'll be in England. He's also been offered to play in a drum festival “in Romania, of all places.”

Bad back and all, D'Virgilio says he's still a rocker, and not necessarily ready to sit in one.

“It's different,” he says. “I miss the road. I miss playing every night for my only job. I play here quite a bit, but not like that. I do miss it. I don't know if I will ever not miss it.

“I'm totally playing it by ear,” says D'Virgilio, unaware, perhaps, of the double meaning. “I'm taking advantage of this job, which has given me lots of cool opportunities, and growing in the company and growing in this field.”

He is still L.A.-hypnotic hip. It's where he's from. Where Tiffany is from. Where the parents live, where the kids were small, where he coached little league and hoops, where his beloved Dodgers play. Now look at him – the SoCal boy who has a place near Roanoke, of all places.

Indiana winters aside, he's adjusting. Seriously.

“In the three years I've been here, this town has exploded,” he says of Fort Wayne. “It's growing like crazy. There's a lot of cool and – quote-unquote – very hip things that are coming to town as far as food, venues, music. There's a lot of stuff going on in this city that I never would have expected.

“I told my wife, 'So, you want to move to Fort Wayne, Indiana?' And she says there's no way we're moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana. She'll tell you now it's one of the best decisions we've ever made. It's one of the cool towns. It's got so much going for it – Sweetwater being one of them – and it seems like a town that wants to push the envelope and grow, which is a cool thing for me. There are a lot of musicians in this town; a lot of art I never would have expected. Theater. All kinds of stuff going on.”

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