I wish I had a camera trained on the entrance of Norma Jeans, as I was sitting in the venue waiting for Daniel Victor to arrive. The look of surprise on his face when he walked through the front door of the venue with his girlfriend and got an eyeful of the interior would have been worth showing him later on – as I’m sure it mirrored my facial expression when I walked through the doors to the venue 15 minutes before him. I clearly remember thinking, “Never Ending White Lights are playing HERE?!?!” Norma Jeans has the ambiance of a cougar bar. Pool tables, Pinball machines, Metallica tracks blaring every second song, and posters of bands like Helix and Honeymoon Suite on the walls.
I mean the venue no disrespect, but it just didn’t seem like the kind of place that Neverending White Lights would fill for a show. Hell, I thought the venue was in danger of being bone-dry of an audience by the time Victor took the stage. Thankfully, this was not the case at all.
Norma Jeans was quite full by the time Neverending White Lights took the stage. And, as Victor explained in his interview with me, FM96 in town was playing his stuff. They were paying for him to come to town. So, Norma Jeans it was.
This evening wound up being a pretty special show. It was Victor’s first run at the material on his recently released 2nd CD in a live venue with a full backing band. It was December 21st, just a few short days away from Christmas. The band came to town prepared to rock. Along with select songs from both of Neverending White Lights Cds, the band performed covers of the Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, and a track from In Rainbows by Radiohead. Victor also did an electric guitar cover version of ‘It’s Christmas Time’ from A Charlie Brown Christmas – a version that owed more to Steve Vai than it did to Vince Guaraldi. The sound was incredible for a bar show. All of the highs and lows were audible, as were all of the subtleties of Victor’s more textured songs. Victor cemented himself as one of Canada’s finest live bands this winter evening. He has more dates coming up (including a recently announced April 19th live date at the Danforth Music Hall with Melissa Auf Der Maur confirmed to play with him).
What follows is an interview conducted with Daniel a few hours before his London Ontario performance.
Mike: How hard is it to reproduce your studio sound when you play live?
Daniel: The rock band is a fairly elaborate set up since we play to tracks because the album is so dense, and there are so many different layers. We used to play as a straight-up five-piece. But it was just too rocky. So my engineer and I took some time to take some of the elements we couldn’t recreate live and put them on backups. So there’s that whole process of balancing tracks, making sure the drummer has tracks. And then a laptop on stage. We played an old keyboard from 1975, which breaks down all the time. A bunch of guitars and acoustics –
it’s a bit of headache, that’s why I don’t get involved [laughs].
Do you record with a band? Or do you put it all together yourself and assemble a touring band and then take it on the road?
For Neverending White Lights?
I play everything myself for the records. The idea behind the concept was to take songs that I was writing and have guest vocalists and stuff like that. Because at a certain point, I wanted to be a producer. So it’s always a producer’s dream to fit together this dream album of different vocalists and things like that. So that was the idea, and I’m decently versed in most instruments. I grew up on the piano, which if you know piano you can kind of branch out if you have that sort of gift, so I taught myself guitar, bass, and with keyboards, you can play most of the string parts, so I don’t really need a band in the studio. I just track myself a million times, and it turns out decent. But if you take it on the road, you need to hire a band.
How long did that take to lay your material out?
It took a while. After the record came out, I didn’t have a band, and I didn’t even think it would be a touring act, I thought it would be a studio project. But then people wanted to see it live. The first single came out, and when it hit the charts, people wanted to see us live. So I had to put a band together. So I talked to some people I knew, auditioned some guys, and basically gave them the CD and said: “learn these parts.” But there are so many different parts, figuring out what to play took probably a good year before we were all in the zone.
I was curious to see what you were going to bring with you tonight and whether it would just be yourself. You’ve got Mellowdrone on the disc, and he tends to come out on stage, starts kicking some pedals, and plays solo syncing it all up using loops.
Another guy on my record, Marco [DeFelice] (he sings on the first record), does that. He’s got a loop pedal, and he plays drums. I’d be too worried about not having anybody to back me up if I fuck up. I like having a band behind me because you can kind of fall into it and sink in. It sets a lot of pressure doing it as a one-person show. Even if I want to play the first song and cut out, I still have the band behind me. I don’t think I could do that.
I saw a guy that opened for Tori Amos; his name was Yoav. He doesn’t even have a disc out yet. He brought his guitar out, and he would sing into the strings and get a loop going. Same deal there; It seemed very nerve-racking.
There is something about having the energy of a band. The good thing about that is you don’t have to pay anybody.
How’s that? Oh, you don’t have to pay anybody to be on the disc, no rights?
No. But for a show, if you’re hiring a band, you’ve got to pay the band. Which is fair, if I were them, I would want to be paid too. But because they are not on the album, there are no royalties for them. So if we get x amount of money for a gig, they need to get paid. If I were doing the show myself because people aren’t coming to see the hired musicians, they’re coming to see me, I could try to do something solo, but I think it calls for a full band.
What are royalties like for all the guests on the disc? Is that a concern? Do you have to stipend that out?
It was messy the first record. They co-wrote a lot; it was like 50/50 writing lyrics and music with all these artists. And at first, it was fun and romantic getting to do that. Afterward, we had to split everything because, for every record sold, everyone is entitled to something. That’s why you get a good lawyer. You tell him exactly who wrote what, he maps it all and tells you exactly who gets what out of every record. In the cases of the artists that didn’t write, for example, with “The Grace” Dallas Green [Alexisonfire], he just sings. He didn’t write the songs. So we had to work out a deal where they were compensated for their guest appearance. Most of those guys were into doing it; it wasn’t a money thing; they just were into it. It worked out well. For the second record, I actually wrote the whole album except for half of one song, so we just put in a flat fee and said: “if you want to be in Neverending White Lights, we pay this much money and we can use your song on the album.” It was much neater.
I went to your disc because of Rob Dickinson [Catherine Wheel]. I will buy anything that guy sings on. I like Aqualung, Mellowdrone, and Auf De Maur as well, so for me, it read like such a great album. It was a stacked album for me. But then I logistically look at it and think, “How does that play out? Do these guys contribute to the lyrics? Or do you feed them the lyrics, and they just sing it? How much input do they have?”
On the new record, I wanted to finish as much of the music as I could, lyrics and music. And I felt I got stronger as a songwriter between the first and second record – I had written 60 songs and cut them down to 30 and cut them down again to 15 and I picked the artists for the songs and sent them out. So I was pretty much finished with them. I called Rob Rodriguez, for example, I sent him a song, and he didn’t like my melody line so he says, “I think I can come up with a better one.” And he put in his own. And I didn’t like his melody. That song is actually called “Nothing I can Save,” and it’s on the album. I ended up signing because he didn’t like my approach. I could sort of see where he was going, and he still wanted to contribute, so I sent him an instrumental that was supposed to be left off the album, and he came back with a melody line for that song, so we met 50/50 where he did the lyrics, and I made the music. But pretty much all the other cases on the record were finished song lyrics and all. Surprisingly the artists were very willing to allow me to produce them and work with them on something I wanted. Instead of, “If I’m going to be on your record, I want to sound like this,” they said, “tell me what you want.” It’s like Hawksley Workman; these are very credible artists, and I will be in the studio with them, and they’re asking me for guidance: “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to go up or go down?” They liked giving me creative control.
You have the strength of a second album and a single that charted with Dallas, so they’ll be going “Well, he’s doing something right. Maybe I’ll be a part of that. Maybe the next single will be something that, and I’ll be a part of it.”
That’s why I was singing the first single on the record. A lot of people were wondering if I was willing to take the frontman approach that I was taking when playing live. When people come to our shows, here I am singing the songs. People like that, and they associate it with Neverending White Lights. But then on the flip side, they were like, “Why don’t you sing those songs like they were on the record?” I like Neverending White Lights being about different voices. Nobody is really doing that.
It’s true, nobody is. The music is quality. The songs are strong.
I had written some songs that I felt were more suited to my vocal. I didn’t even try giving that away, because on the demo I liked the way I sounded, I was in my zone. I didn’t know it was going to be the first single; it was a catchy song. It doesn’t need the hype behind Dallas. He can sing too, but why don’t I just sing all the songs? But if I’m going to think like that, I’ll do that for a solo record later on. For Neverending White Lights, I like the idea of different singers. It’s just fun.
To work with some cool people, why not? If I had any musical talent at all, I would be doing that.
I enjoy it. I have a really good time calling up to offer them a song.
Are there any other musicians you have on your list that you would love to work with?
There are a bunch that I have tried to contact that just haven’t worked out. It’s weird. I was working with Sam Roberts. It was in the works to work with him. And the lead singer of The Stills. And I had asked Matthew Good because I am a huge Matthew Good fan. But these people didn’t quite get it, they didn’t understand what I was trying to do, and they were not really interested. And that’s alright, that’s going to happen. There are still people I would like to work with. I’m a huge Rufus Wainwright fan. I approached the lead singer of the Deftones and Trent Reznor, but these guys haven’t ended up on a record yet. But I think as the Neverending White Lights saga continues, we will reach out to the UK and the US. And build more credibility there, so people will know what I am trying to do. It won’t be some kid coming out of nowhere trying to get some guy on his record. Hopefully, they will say, “Ok, I like this guy’s work; I want to do it.” There’s still a long list. I’m a big Tori Amos fan too.
I could maybe see Reznor jumping on.
He’s probably too cool for it now.
I don’t know… He had a lot to do with that Saul Williams disk.
Did he? [sound of glass being filled] (smiles) We drink a lot.
It’s good. It keeps you warm.
Trent Reznor, I have always liked him, he’s a legend. He’s a pretty heavy US name though, so right now it’s (NWL) a popular Canadian thing. We haven’t done anything to branch out in the US. I would have better luck to have Canadian artists work with me. So for the first one, Finger Eleven and Our Lady Peace and Alexisonfire and three huge Canadian bands right there.
You have the in with Raine Maida [Our Lady Peace] apparently…
We wrote “Liar” together. We wrote another song together. We’re managed by the same company, and every time I am in LA (he lives in Malibu), he invites me over to his house, and we hang out. Whenever I visit him, I bring presents for his kids. When he’s in town, we get together. I play drums in his new video. He took us on tour.
I liked his disk. I couldn’t get into any other OLP album from beginning to end. I saw them a few times, I was more into I Mother Earth, and they both kind of took off at the same time. I just didn’t get them. But I got mailed a copy of the Maida solo disk… He’s into some spoken word. I can hear some of that coming out on the disc. It was different. Maybe that’s why I embraced it.
It’s good that he did something different. He had been in OLP for ten years. We toured with him. We did an arena tour in Canada. They have some exposure. They are legends here. They have 20-something number one hits. Nobody can do that anymore.
Is it possible that some of the acts you’ve recorded with will join you on stage as you tour?
It is, and it has happened. It depends on where we perform and who is available. To date, at any given concert, I’ve appeared with Dallas Green, Todd Kerns from Age of Electric, Raine, Scott from Finger Eleven, Danny from the Watchmen, Jimmy Gnecco from Ours, Marco from Supergarage. So far from the two records, we’ve had seven artists at any given place, depending on who’s around. So if Dallas Green is playing in Toronto and we’re playing a show, and I call him to come to do “The Grace” with us, he might show up. On the actual tour, it’s hard for these artists because they are busy with their careers, but I think it would be great to do. We brought Marco on the OLP tour, and that allowed us to sort of recreate that magic of when you’ve got an album with guest vocalists. You can say, “we’ve got a surprise,” and then the actual guy who sings on the album walks out. We played Edge Fest last summer, which is a prominent Toronto Festival. I had Marco there, and the lead singer from the Watchmen there, and Rain came out. For fans, it’s a treat. You don’t know who is going to be there that night. And sometimes I get people that aren’t on the album, like Tara Slone from Joydrop came out and sang. Sometimes we’ll just do obscure covers. It’s almost as fun to this stuff with them live as it is to do it on records. I think it’s cool for people to see a show where the band isn’t just doing the same songs on the album.
Do you find you switch your setlist stuff a lot?
Yeah, I don’t even know what we’re doing tonight. I’m huge into cover songs. I’m inspired to write from hearing other songwriters and other songs. When I hear a good song, I get excited about it. I like covering songs, so we do a lot of obscure covers in our sets.
What have you heard recently that is exciting to you?
I do my best to buy as many records as I can every week and keep tabs on what’s going on in the indie scene, follow what’s hot. It’s exhausting, actually, to keep up with all the albums coming out and tracking what people are saying about them requires your attention. Most good records take a little bit of time. I’m just about to post my top 25 albums and my top 25 songs of the year. I do this every year. It’s hard because you have to go through everything you have. Album-wise, Radiohead’s new record was just so good, and it reminded me how good Radiohead was. That band that I “loved.” But the new album I was like “Oh my god! Could people even try to do that?” The songs are there; the performance is there, and the production is fantastic. It’s not four chords. There are a lot of interesting elements going on. I just think this was probably the best record of the year. The content is powerful. We’re actually covering a Radiohead song tonight.
If you had an audience and you could say look “we’re going to put an album out, if you shoot us this much money, we’ll package it and mail it to you.” How much of that is different from when a studio does it, or a label does it compared to when you take it on yourself? Are there savings there? Could you show more of a profit?
It depends on the position of the band. Radiohead’s first album came out in ’93. They have a built-in audience now. If anyone is going to pull that off, they can pull that off because people will pay for their product. Any flash in the pan band, say like the Killers, they’re still riding the scene, and I don’t think a lot of people are going to give them the respect, and this day and age when no one buys albums anymore, I don’t think people are going to pay for a deluxe package. I just don’t think that’s possible. I’m still an independent artist. I wanted to do a really intricate packaging design with my album – a carton with a flower; it was too expensive. Our label, an indie label, said: “look, this is what it’s going to cost.” And the reality was, we just can’t. Every five dollars would go to the manufacturing of it. I think nowadays; bands should probably focus on their personal relationships with their fans in terms of Myspace and blogs. Radiohead is sort of doing that – it’s almost like taking away the machine, stripping that down. No one is buying records anymore, so what is the loyalty to the band? There’s gotta be something going on. That’s why I am very in touch with my fans. I’m not just a manufactured band, with manufactured songs. When my first record sold well, really well for an indie, for this second record, I could have gone to Warner. They wanted to sign. But I said, “I think I just want to put it out myself. I made the songs myself. So I wanted to put it out on my label.” It’s still very hands-on, very rootsy. But as you said, when the quality of the records and are the songs there? You can tell that someone put a lot of time into it.