JD: Can we start off with some general information about your background?
NV: I grew up in Los Angeles, and I studied drums with a great teacher named Fred Gruber. He makes it easy to do anything that comes to mind on the drumset. He really has a great teaching style.
After high school, I attended North Texas State University, where I got into playing in ensembles, reading, composing, and basic musicianship. I came back to L.A. in ’78, and since then, I’ve played with Frank Sinatra, Leslie Uggams, Gloria Loring, and Nelson Riddle. I joined up with Bonnie and Marie in 1983.
JD: What studio work have you done, and how would you compare it to live playing?
NV: I’ve done a great deal of TV film work: Jim Henson’s Muppets, Happy Days, The Facts Of Life, The Bob Newhart Show, NBC Sports World, Merv Griffin, and The Mike Douglas Show, to name a few. I’ve also done jingles for Ford and Busch Beer.
Having a mixture of both studio work and live playing is definitely the best deal. There’s nothing like the thrill of playing for a live audience, because you can’t do it over. So you just try to do your very best and play great for the audience. Playing for the tape is great also, because you get an opportunity to experiment and try different things. I got into sessions through friends who asked for me, and then being able to deliver the goods. Hopefully, it turns into the snowball effect. It also helps to get together with people and play for fun in jam situations. That helps build friendships that might later turn into work relationships.
JD: How do you compare working with Donnie and Marie to working with other acts?
NV: One similarity is that I work mainly as an accompanist. I’m there to support the vocalists. Some acts play the same style of music all night, but we get to play rock, country, jazz, Broadway tunes, and even a bit of reggae. It’s really a close-knit, family kind of feeling largely because of Donnie and Marie. They encourage us to get involved in the show, along with playing the music. We’re not just your typical backup band in tuxedos.
JD: How much freedom do you actually have with this show?
NV: It’s great when you know the music, because then you aren’t glued to the music stand. You feel freer. Another important plus is that the band has developed a really great band feel, and we can concentrate on playing as a unit. I do change things a little from show to show, but for the most part, I try to keep it as consistent as I can.
JD: How are you affected by the various spontaneous parts of the show?
NV: Well, we’ve had all kinds of things happen. It can really get crazy sometimes. For instance, when Donnie goes into the audience, there can be quite a lag between the time he sings it and the time we hear it. We have to sort of tune him out, just play as a band, and go with the flow. We don’t end the number until he gets back on stage. So sometimes, the timing can get real tricky.
Marie also has certain vamps in her tunes, and that makes it interesting. We do have to stay on our toes. Occasionally, Donnie will forget the opening line of a tune. If it’s a tune involving the drum machine and he wants to start over again, it’s totally wild. I’m back there going mad trying to reset the drum machine back to the top of the tune.
JD: How do you maintain a work life in L.A. while you’re out on the road?
NV: Keeping a work life going at home hasn’t been that difficult. There are a few situations I’m able to slip in and out of at will. One composer has been nice enough to work around my schedule. That only gets hairy in the summer, when we do most of our touring. Actually, I just come back, pick up where I left off, and get reacquainted with everybody.
JD: Do you do anything other than play drums?
NV: I’ve arranged four or five tunes for the show, and I sing background. I’ve also been substitute musical director for the show. I play guitar, bass, and keyboards, as well as drums and percussion. I’ve been doing that for as long as I’ve been playing drums—about 17 years. I also compose and arrange for other projects.
JD: What equipment are you currently using?
NV: I play Yamaha drums: 22″ bass, and a 5 1/2″ metal snare drum tuned very high. I use 10″ and 12″ rack toms, and 14″ and 16″ floor toms. My cymbals are all Zildjian: 21″ Rock ride, 18″ and 19″ mediumthin crashes, and 13″ New Beat hi-hats. Occasionally, I’ll use a right-hand hi-hat with 14″ New Beats.
The heads are Remo. As far as the toms go, I use Pinstripes or white coated Ambassadors on top, and clear Ambassadors on the bottom. The snare drum has white coated Ambassadors on top, and Ambassador snares on the bottom. I also like a Pinstripe on the batter side of the bass drum. I use no muffling on the toms, a little bit on the snare, and a blanket packed low inside the bass.
JD: What about your electronic equipment?
NV: When we’re on the road, we use either a Yamaha RX-11 or a Linn machine, and the Simmons SDS7analog digital drums. I use three tom pads with the Simmons staggered vertically and overlapping from top to bottom above the hi-hat. The drum machine and the Simmons brain also sit on my left. The drum machine actually starts the show. Then, I come out and take over for the machine. We also use the machine to beef up a couple of tunes. It’s somewhat like having a second drummer.
With the Simmons, I use a set of tom sounds, some white noise, thunder, and hand claps. I try to use it tastefully. I think moderation is the key. As long as we use the new technology with discretion and taste, it’ll have a long life. I think it can offer a lot to the music.
I like the Linn because there are so many different sounds available, and I love the Yamaha drum machine. The bass drum and snare are really punchy, and the cymbals are absolutely the best I’ve ever heard from a drum machine. I also program drum machines for songs and jingles. Sometimes I program Simmons sounds for other people. It’s gratifying to come up with sounds from scratch that somebody really likes. It’s also quite popular to play drumset over tracks, where you’re replacing drum machines. That’s a challenge, and a lot of fun as well.
JD: Do you have any problems playing on the Simmons pads?
NV: No problems so far, but I’ve only played the newer pads. I have heard complaints about the lack of response, but I’ve got to say that, while I know they aren’t perfect, I wonder if people are using the sensitivity control on the Simmons brain to its fullest potential.
JD: Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share with young drummers out there?
NV: For me, the most important aspect of drumming is to play with good time. But by the same token, it’s okay to be human and not have absolutely perfect time. One way to develop better time is to tune in to your right hand, and really listen to what it’s doing on the hi-hat or cymbal. That helps.
Another important aspect of musicianship is style. You should get familiar with all different styles of music. Get into your influences and listen. Then mold that into yourself, and create your own drumming style. Be a supportive player, but also be creative.
Finally, drummers should be good musicians as well. Study some keyboards, or another melodic instrument like guitar. And never forget the importance of “going back to the garage,” as we say. That means: Get together with people and just play for fun. Don’t only play for money. And most importantly, try to achieve a good mental balance between taking music seriously and having fun.
In the months since this interview took place, Nick’s career has undergone some changes. Marie Osmond has begun touring as a solo artist, capitalizing on her success in the country/pop field. Nick has taken over as her musical director/conductor. The act has been opening for such country stars as George Strait and Hank Williams, Jr., as well as headlining on its own. When not touring with Marie Osmond, Nick has been busy in L.A., providing the drumming/ or the hit TV show, Perfect Strangers.