As Justin Bieber’s musical director for the past half-decade, Dan Kanter has witnessed the Bieber Fever phenomenon first hand. We caught up with the Ottawa-born, Toronto-dwelling guitar star just a few days before the Believe tour touches down in Toronto to talk pop music, harem pants, and why Deadheads have a lot in common with Beliebers.
You were a child prodigy, you play multiple instruments and write songs and sing, so the first thing I want to know is: Why aren’t you the Biebs?
Ha! I definitely knew from a very young age that I wasn’t a frontman. My dad directed musical theatre and I was really into not just playing music, but how it all works—wardrobe, lighting. I thought my dad was sort of like the Wizard of Oz and that always appealed to me. Growing up I was into guitar players—Elton John’s or Ozzy Osbourne’s.
Take me back to when you first hooked up with J.B. What were you doing at that time?
I was a session musician working with some other Canadian acts and I was also at York working on my master’s in music. I started getting involved in performance coaching and someone from Universal Canada recommended me to Justin’s management. They were looking for someone who could be a musical director, but also a mentor and a good influence. The two of us hit it off right away. Originally, it was just one gig and then they just kept calling me.
Did you have any qualms about signing on to play with a teen sensation?
Before I met Justin, I watched a couple of the YouTube videos, but this was all before he blew up, so in a lot of ways I had no idea what I was signing up for. Also, I had always wanted to work in pop music. I get really excited about trap doors and explosions and all the things a pop show can offer. My dream gig was working with Michael Jackson, so this was a close second.
What did you learn in the York U music program that prepared you for international stardom?
York’s program is very interdisciplinary—in my first year I was working a lot with film majors and dance majors. That really helped me when I started working with Justin because so much of my job as part of his creative team is conceptualizing concerts. In terms of my master’s, that was more about music in society. I have really enjoyed travelling with Justin and trying to analyze what it is about him that has struck such a chord internationally.
And if I asked you to present a thesis?
Of course, he’s an uber-talented individual, but aside from that I feel like it has a lot to do with the change in the music business, along with the rise of the internet. A lot of his fans discovered him on YouTube and he has a relationship with his fans on Twitter that happened very organically. People feel like he could be their neighbour. This may sound a little out of left field, but it really reminds me of the Grateful Dead and Phish—bands that I love and who earned their fans one by one.
What is the craziest moment of Bieber Fever you have ever witnessed?
We have had all sorts of insane moments out of a Beatles movie, but the all-time craziest was in Norway. We were in a hotel and there were thousands of teenagers swarming outside. At one point, Justin and I went to do a radio appearance across the city and all of the fans followed us on foot, and the movement actually registered on the Richter scale.
How has counselling Justin changed over the years? You met him when he was a young teen and now he’s almost 20.
I definitely still think of him as my younger brother, but our relationship now is really focused on music. We are constantly collaborating and working on him becoming a better musician and performer. I push a lot of music on him—he is such a sponge.
Do you ever offer any fashion advice? Some of his recent fashion statements seem a little ill-conceived—purple leopard harem pants, for example.
That’s all sort of over my head. Believe it or not, as we speak, I’m wearing harem pants, so he’s obviously having an influence
on my fashion.
Is it true that you sneak riffs by bands like Led Zeppelin and Phish into your Bieber performances?
I do. I’m a huge Phish fan and they have a lighting designer, Chris Kuroda, who is just incredible—the best in the business in my opinion. For years, Justin wasn’t happy with the lighting at his shows. My wife and I brought him to see a Phish show and he was just blown away. We brought on Chris to do Justin’s lighting, so when he’s there I’ll sneak in a Phish riff to make him laugh. Or now if I have a friend in the audience who really likes Pearl Jam or Metallica, I’ll sneak that in. The crew guys love it. So does Justin.
Do you ever try to turn your thirtysomething music-snob friends onto Bieber tunes and if so, what’s the reaction?
I really try to turn people onto Justin by bringing them to a concert. Whether they’re a fan of the music or not, it is a really unbelievable experience. All of my friends are fans in one way or another.
Van Halen or Hendrix?
Favourite Backstreet Boy?
Phantom of the Opera.
Dead artist you most wish you could see live?
Favourite Bieber song?
“She Don’t Like the Lights.”
Greek chicken salad.
Favourite city to play?
Justin Bieber plays the Air Canada Centre (50 Bay St.) on July 25 and 26.