Meet Justin Bieber's Musical Director and Guitarist: A Phish Fanatic With a Pop Palette

40th Annual AMA Justin Bieber Acoustic Performance - H 2012
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40th Annual AMA Justin Bieber Acoustic Performance - H 2012

THR gets to know Dan Kanter -- accompanist, fellow Canadian, friend, sometimes life coach and the guy strumming at Bieber's side on Sunday's American Music Awards.

Sunday 2012 American Music Awards was a triumphant night for Justin Bieber, who picked up three trophies, including favorite album and artist of the year, in addition to performing a two-song medley (“As Long as You Love Me” and “Beauty and the Beat”) that featured scores of dancers and a cameo by Nicki Minaj. But first, a more pensive, acoustic moment. To Bieber’s side: musical director, guitarist, friend and sometimes life coach Dan Kanter.

The 31-year-old guitarist has been playing with Bieber since 2008, when, with a recommendation from a Canadian label, he was introduced to manager Scooter Braun. Kanter, whose dad directed musical theatre, was somewhat of a savant, without a doubt, but even beyond his six-string talent, there was an older brother vibe and wisdom to the Ottawa native, experience he says he gained from being a camp counselor and working with a lot of teens. Long story short, “Justin and I met and we hit it off, and that was four years ago,” Kanter tells The Hollywood Reporter.

It helped that Kanter wasn’t ashamed of his own predilection for pop. The first group he was obsessed with? New Kids on the Block, Kanter confesses. “There was, like an eight-month period where I was really into it and I dressed like them. Then Nirvana and Pearl Jam came out and that was the end of that.”

But his musical palette only grew from there: Michael Jackson was a childhood favorite, but Kanter also checked out NSync, Backstreet Boys and Madonna when they made local stops, and in 2004, scored an enviable gig opening for Justin Timberlake's European tour (playing with another Canadian talent, FeFe Dobson). “That was the tour where it all clicked for me,” he says. “Timberlake was just the perfect marriage of music and performance.”

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His appreciation of theatricality and top-notch musicianship eventually led Kanter to discover Phish, hands-down his favorite band today, as evidenced not only by late-night tweets of his playlist choices, but the fact that he can be found among the throngs of bleary-eyed and tie-dyed “heads” making a semi-regular pilgrimage to see their concerts.

Kanter, however, went one step further: enlisting Phish lighting maestro Chris Kuroda to come aboard Bieber’s “Believe” tour (when dates don’t overlap with those of Phish) after bringing the pop star and then girlfriend Selena Gomez to a show in Long Beach, Calif. back in August.

Indeed, there’s a lot more to Dan Kanter than meets the eye -- or ear. THR got just a glimpse of his life accompanying the world’s biggest pop star in a recent interview with the guitar virtuoso that touched upon everything from YouTube fame to Kanter’s guitar hero Trey Anastasio to the Israeli national anthem. Read on…

The Hollywood Reporter: Surely you’ve had many, but what are a few of the most surreal Justin Bieber moments you’ve experienced?

Dan Kanter: No doubt, the most surreal was in Israel right before the Tel Aviv show [in April 2011]. I opened with a Jimi Hendrix-style version of the Israeli national anthem and that was probably one of the best moments of my entire life. My wife and I met in Israel [on Birthright] and she was standing by the stage. It was just a very memorable experience. I never imagined I would be there playing alone playing “Hatikvah” in front of that many people, it was really special.

And last year for Christmas, we played a show at Massey Hall in Toronto, which is a famous old venue in Toronto. I've seen some amazing shows there -- Neil Young, Eddie Vedder -- and it’s a perfect venue for acoustic sets. So Justin had an idea that it would be intimate, where he could go out with no set list, just guitar and piano on stage, he would call out songs and he ended up doing over two hours of music. I vividly remember how, even though there were a couple thousand people in the room, it was dead silent as he was just singing these songs so stripped down.

One other time was at my wedding. When I was in the middle of my hora dance and being lifted up on the chair, and I looked down at all my best friends who I've known since I was a kid and there's little 15-year old Bieber, trying to hold one arm of the chair.

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THR: When you were first approached about working with Justin, what was your reaction?

Dan Kanter: His video had just come out. I looked it up and, as I'm sure most people did, thought it was just bubblegum music. But once I met Justin, he and I really hit it off, especially talking about Canadian things. And Scooter I think is a genius and visionary. What he’s done with Justin virally is really incredible and can't be replicated. So from the beginning, I knew it wasn't just about pop music -- I was going to be part of something very special.

THR: There’s the famous YouTube video of Justin busking in Stratford, but how is he as a guitar player these days? 

Kanter: He’s like a sponge, and constantly getting better and better. When we first met, I taught him the blues scale and now his chord vocabulary is growing, his solos are getting better and he's learning more songs. Plus, he’s a lefty, which is really cool as well. He wants to show everyone what we in his inner circle know: that he's the real deal.

THR: Having toured with Justin Timberlake, do you see any similarities between him and Bieber?

Kanter: They do have similarities: they're both very talented, they both play piano, drums, and guitar, they're both amazing dancers, and they're constantly trying to improve and get better. I've heard those stories of Timberlake back in the NSync days, how after the big finish of a show, Justin would watch tapes back of himself, and work on vocals or dance steps that he missed. Bieber is the same way. They have this work ethic like I've never seen.

THR: How have you seen Justin grow as an artist and as a person?

Kanter: Musically, he's getting into different kinds of music and that’s definitely influencing what he's writing. And his writing has been stronger and more experimental. With his vocals, it was amazing to see that transition from a child voice to an adult voice, and how hard he worked at that. As a person, to be honest, he hasn't changed one bit. He's maybe matured but he's still the nice, likeable kid I met four years ago. He's almost too grounded in a way -- he's very normal, sweet, generous and thoughtful. He's the exact same kid.

THR: Have you noticed Scooter's influence on Justin?

Kanter: Scooter is the hardest working person I have ever known and that has rubbed off on Justin. Scooter is also a very loyal friend and a family-oriented person. From the beginning, he took it very seriously in only bringing in good people that he trusts people and Justin does the same thing. Rather than micromanaging, Justin comes in after and tweaks, and that definitely comes from Scooter.

THR: So you’re a huge Phish fan…

Kanter: They’re the greatest band in the world and Trey is my guitar hero. Working so much with pop music, Phish became like a vacation for me -- it was the complete opposite world. Phish is completely unpredictable and I love going to shows. It’s the one thing where I am a true fan boy.

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THR: And you’ve gotten to know the band and their team, clearly, since you played a key role in bringing Chris Kuroda in. Can you tell us how that came to be?

Kanter: My wife and I became friends with [Phish bassist] Mike Gordon and his wife. Trey, I've met a couple times but I'm still freaked out when I see him. But I've always been a monster fan of Kuroda’s and after a show in Alpine Valley, I said, “Would you ever be interested in lighting us?” Because Justin was starting to mature and to become critical of his show and we’d always have the conversation about why the lights aren't synchronized with the dancers hitting a certain move or the music hitting a certain note. And I've been saying to him for years, that was Phish -- we don't even look at the band , we look at the lights. After begging Justin and Scooter to [consider hiring Kuroda], they did and he's destroying it on tour. Everyone's blown away by it. Posh Spice even said it’s the best lights she’s ever seen.

THR: Did you and Kuroda compare tour dates so there is no overlap between Bieber and Phish tour?

Kanter:I wish we could do that, because I would never miss a Phish show. We worked it out so if there is a conflict, Chris does Phish and there is a sub for Justin. When Chris is done, he comes right back to Justin. That was the only way I would recommend Chris -- is if he never missed a Phish show.

THR: What was it like going to see Phish with Justin?

Kanter: I had been asking him to come to a show for a long time and it was perfect timing: we were in LA and in rehearsals and decided to go. It was very cool to be there with Justin. At one point, he looked at me and said, “The lights are going along with the words Suzy” [the chorus of Phish song “Suzy Greenberg”]. All night, I kept saying, “I know.” It was hilarious to see him among a thousand glow sticks and the most amazing part was the audience gave him space. Justin was right in the middle, dancing away.

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THR: You've been incorporating Phish riffs into Justin’s set. How many songs have you teased so far?

Kanter: Almost 25 songs now -- we’re just sneaking them in here and there. There’s one song called “She Don't Like the Light” where we have a very James Bond-esque chase video starting and Justin is offstage doing a costume change, then he pops out of a trap door. So during that video, I played the Phish pieces. Really, I was doing it to make Kuroda laugh.

THR: What’s your favorite Phish song to play?

Kanter: The intro to “Divided Sky.” When I pick up a guitar -- electric or acoustic -- that’s always the first thing I play, just so I know how it sounds.

THR: What about your favorite song as someone in the audience?

Kanter: It's so hard to choose. Probably something like “You Enjoy Myself,” “Harry Hood” or “Antelope.” I spent 30 shows trying to get a “Lizard” and I finally did.

THR: And your favorite Bieber song to play?

Kanter: Definitely “She Don't Like the Lights,” partly because I love to throw in all these Phish teases and also I think it’s a great song. In the show, it’s the best example of the how music, choreography, production and everyone just connects together.

THR: It almost feels like you’re causing some sort of rift in the space-time continuum by introducing the psychedelia of the hippie jam band scene to impressionable pop music fans. The music of Phish is pretty much the polar opposite of Bieber's, no?  

Kanter: I agree that musically Phish is the furthest thing from Justin, but there are so many similarities: the way that Phish built its audience grassroots style -- Justin did the same thing. And I don't know any artist other than Justin and Phish where the fans are so protective and feel so much ownership and pride. I also feel like Phish very early on were ahead of the game when it came to internet and releasing shows. Justin's been on YouTube and he and Scooter have distributed music and content to the audience. ... I don't know if Bieber fans have looked into Phish because of my love for the band, but the more the merrier!

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin