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In-Depth Interview With Bryan Beller

by Kilian Duarte –

Bryan Beller has maintained a frenetic, multi-faceted career as a bassist, composer, writer and clinician for nearly twenty years. On his own, Beller released his debut solo album, the jazz/rock-flavored View, in late 2003 to widespread critical acclaim, earning the monthly feature review in Bass Player Magazine (“…it’s a thrill to witness an artist like Beller find his voice with such a self-assured debut…”). His second album Thanks In Advance, a deeply personal narrative set to advanced jazz/rock compositional confidence, was released in late 2008, again to rave reviews (“…a bonafide entry for bass album of the year” – Chris Jisi, Bass Player Magazine.)

As a sideman, he’s earned a reputation as a uniquely talented yet supremely tasteful hired gun bassist for adventurous rock guitarists and singer/songwriters alike. He was Steve Vai’s choice on bass for the live CD/DVD Sound Theories – a collaboration with Holland’s renowned Metropol Orchestra – and toured worldwide with Vai throughout 2007, resulting in the 2009 live CD/DVD Where The Wild Things Are. Showing his range, Beller’s also in the live “band” Dethklok, a tongue-in-cheek extreme metal band borne of the hit Cartoon Network “Adult Swim” show Metalocalypse; work with Detkhlok includes a track on The Dethalbum II and three nationwide tours (one co-headlining with Mastodon). He’s also been a musical partner of freak/genius guitarist/composer Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa) for fifteen years, eleven albums, countless tours, and millions of notes. Other sideman experiences include tours with Wayne Kramer (MC5) and Dweezil Zappa, as well as more intimate duo performances with Keneally and, more recently, his wife, Nashville-based R&B/soul singer/songwriter Kira Small.

Beller’s work as a freelance writer includes cover stories on bass luminaries such as Justin Chancellor (Tool), Christian McBride, and Chris Wolstenholme (Muse), as well as interviews with Jonas Hellborg, Victor Wooten, John Patitucci, Lee Sklar, Neil Stubenhaus, Jay DeMarcus (Rascal Flatts), Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Nine Inch Nails), Bill Laswell, Jimmy Haslip, Stefan Lessard (Dave Matthews Band), Matt Garrison, Adam Nitti, Oteil Burbridge, Dave LaRue, Miroslav Vitous, Billy Sheehan, Emmy-award winning television scorer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden (The West Wing), and myriad others.

As a pure player, a master class clinician (sponsored by Mike Lull Custom Guitars, SWR Amplification and D’addario Strings), a Contributing Editor for Bass Player Magazine, and a former Vice-President of SWR Sound Corporation, Beller brings a global perspective to the world of bass, and sits at the intersection of many of its current pathways. After thirteen years in Los Angeles, he now lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Kira (and their cat Lucian), and continues to travel often.

Let me start of by thanking you greatly for your time today. You are one of the busiest names in bass and it is very much appreciated.

Thanks for asking me to answer some questions here!

By the sheer volume and nature of your work with such varying artists, mainly putting your ego aside and holding it down, you have gained a reputation as the working man’s bassist. What has been the key, if any, to having such a multi-faceted bass career?

Honestly, I never thought I was going to be the kind of bassist I’ve become in terms of the “Bass Player Magazine” kind of guy. I was always more interested in bringing support to the music I was playing, rather than being a standout or a featured part of it – that’s why I chose bass in the first place. When I was 22 and done with Berklee, I was just weeks away from moving to the NYC area to be in an original blues-rock band. Then I got a call from Dweezil Zappa, and three weeks later I was in L.A. playing some pretty wacky music. So I thought, well, I’ll just do what I do in this new context, and the rest just took care of itself, no matter how intense the material got from that point on.

As the former vice-president of the SWR sound corporation, what are some practical things that players should consider when choosing an amplifier?

This could be an article in itself, but there’s two key aspects: tone, and power. Tone means preamp and EQ, and each amp will have a different overall tone and EQ controls that react differently. The key is to find a sound that most naturally sounds like the one you hear in your head as an ideal tone. You’ll always have to make adjustments, but it shouldn’t be a struggle to get where you want to be sonically. Regarding power, that means the power amp section of your head. My rule of thumb is to always have twice as much power as you think you need. You want to be able to run your amp cleanly, with a lot of headroom, so that you don’t end up playing harder through an amp that’s just barely giving you what you need to hear yourself. It’s better to have headroom and play lightly for the most part. Even though I’m partial to SWR, there’s a lot of good gear out there. The more you try out and listen to, the more you’ll learn about what you want and don’t want. It’s a kind of practicing, just using your ears to learn about gear as opposed to using your fingers to learn technique.

You are also a known columnist and clinician. Do you sense that there is a strong hunger out there for music education?

Yes! Sometimes, when I’m doing a clinic, I can almost palpably feel the desire for knowledge in the audience. Most musicians I encounter in the educational environment want two things: one, they want to know how to become a better player on their instrument; two, they want to know how to have a more successful career as a musician. The answers to those questions are universal in some ways, and very specific and unique to the individual in others, and they show up for different musicians differently, revealing themselves over time. That said, I believe that the right educational environment can speed a dedicated musician’s development significantly.

You have had a long-standing relationship with luthier Mike Lull. What has drawn you to retaining that partnership?

When I was working at SWR we used to have all sorts of high-end bass manufacturers send us instruments to put in our showroom, because they knew there were a lot of heavy players who’d come through there, and they figured maybe one of them would stumble on something they liked. Back in 2000, Mike Lull sent the red 5-string jazz bass that’s now my main axe – the one I played on the Steve Vai DVD – to SWR for that very purpose, and I fell in love with it. Since then they’ve made me a 5-string fretless, a 4-string passive jazz, and a Thunderbird-style model they call a T-Bass, and each one of them speaks to me in a way no other instrument does. They sound great, they’re extremely versatile, and they’re incredibly durable. The necks are rock solid and feel great to play, even on the tough stuff. Plus Mike and his very small team are great guys. I really do feel like it’s a partnership rather than any kind of typical endorsement thing.

You have recently been doing house tours with your wife Kira Small. How is the difference to you between the feel of giant auditoriums with Dethklok and Steve Vai, versus a living room?

It’s a very different energy, as you can imagine, but it’s no less enjoyable. Kira is a singer/songwriter/keyboardist who writes original soul/R&B material, and the two of us are a duo that plays the modern singer/songwriter circuit – house concerts, listening rooms, coffeehouses, and smaller, more intimate venues in general. Because we’re just a duo, my role is to be not just the bassist, but also to imply percussion elements, and sometimes even play a guitar-type solo on bass. So I support her musically in a much different way than I would, say, Dethklok, but I’m always looking for the right way to support whatever artist I’m playing with. If that’s just sitting back and playing a simple bass line, great. If it’s adding additional elements, like I do with Dethklok and for Kira, that’s fine too. Whatever serves the music best for the live setting, that’s what I’m going to do.

As for the feel of the large vs. small rooms…listen, I love playing to a packed hall of screaming metal heads with Dethklok, and there’s a “dream come true” aspect to that kind of experience. But there’s also something really magical about playing to 30 people in a very small room. It allows for the kind of interaction between an artist and an audience that’s just not possible in a larger venue. In fact, one of the most interesting things about this tour with Kira is the mix of people at the shows. Many of them are fans of Kira’s music, but some are also folks who know me from Dethklok, or Steve Vai, or Mike Keneally, or even my own solo material, who can’t believe that they can just go to someone’s house or a tiny little coffeehouse and see us play from five feet away. Ideally, I get to do it all, and have a nice balance between the Enormodomes and the theaters and the clubs and the more intimate venues.

Do you prefer the unconventional bass gig to the more generic?

I don’t really have an all-things-being-equal preference for “weird” or out-of-the-mainstream gigs. I dig that stuff when it’s done in a way that’s interesting to me, but just because I play some complex and unorthodox stuff doesn’t mean I don’t like keeping it simple and conventional on other occasions. If the music is cool and authentic and compelling, I’m up for it. Sometimes it’s more fun to play well executed and brilliantly conceived “mainstream” music than it is to play haphazardly assembled “strange” material. It’s all about the song in the end of the day.

What are some trends in bass culture you wish to see more of, or maybe less of?

I’m not really interested in playing bass culture fashion critic, if you know what I mean. I’m much more focused on trying to inspire other bassists to get wherever it is that they want to go in their playing and their careers. Perhaps I’d like to see less attachment and importance placed on people’s opinions of other musicians.

How did you land the gig with Dethklok?

Another long story that I’ll try and keep short…Brendon Small, the creator of Dethklok and Metalocalypse (the name of the TV show that Dethklok comes from), was aware of Mike Keneally and I before we were aware of him. He even saw us play live a few times at The Baked Potato in Los Angeles. He was a fan of what we were up to musically. Then Keneally and Brendon became friends on MySpace, and Mike introduced me to Brendon when the show was in development, but hadn’t aired yet. I remember Brendon explaining the concept to me – an animated parody of a death metal band that can really play, but are also a bunch of dumb, spoiled celebrity-types – and thinking, man, that’s gonna be funny, can’t wait to see it. Next thing you know, the show’s a hit, the “fake” band has a real hit record out, and they need to tour. That’s when Brendon called me. I was really, really psyched, because I’d always loved metal and never got the chance to play in a serious metal band. Having drummer Gene Hoglan on drums and Mike Keneally on second guitar just makes the whole thing over-the-top amazing. It’s the most purely fun gig I’ve ever done.

How did you develop your flicking technique for high speed playing?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be able to play stuff off of Metallica’s Master Of Puppets album, specifically “Damage, Inc.” The tempo is really fast and the bass is doubling the guitar riff. There was no way I could keep up with traditional fingerstyle technique, and for whatever reason, instead of learning to play with a pick, I just curled up my right index and middle fingers to simulate a pick, and starting flicking them back and forth against the E string. It was awkward at first and it took a while to master, but now I’m in a pretty good place with it. I was 16 when I first started doing it…I had to wait 20 years before I could use the technique on the Dethklok gig!

Could you describe your current set-up?

Live, for the big gigs (Vai & Dethklok) I’ll use an SWR SM-1500 head, an SWR 8×10 Megoliath, and (2) SWR Goliath III 4×10 cabs. I have a pedalboard in front of it, with a lot of the typical stuff on it, but a couple of special things I’ll mention: The Xotic effects Bass BB Preamp is my main overdrive, which is my “SVT-in-a-box” pedal, and I can’t say enough good things about it; a Dunlop Bass Wah that I’m using more and more in my gigs with Kira when I need to be the “guitarist” for a solo or something; and a Demeter Opto-Compulator, a very simple, excellent sounding two-knob compressor that I put at the end of the chain to recover a little bit of gain and maximize the tone coming off the end of the pedalboard. For club gigs (my own band, Mike Keneally gigs, and others), I’ll use an SWR SM-900 and (2) Goliath III 4×10’s. For the intimate gigs with Kira, I’ll use an SWR Super Redhead 2×10 combo with the same pedalboard. Basically it’s all about using an SWR preamp, and then employing the right amount of power and the right number of 10” speakers for the gig.

What is some advice you could give to bassists seeking to make a name for themselves professionally?

I’d stick to the basics first, which I break down into three key parts. First, master your craft – do all of the practicing necessary to play whatever kind of gigs you want to be doing. Second, execute on demand – put yourself in positions where you need to use what you’ve practiced, and eliminate the gap between what happens in the practice room and what happens on stage. Third, and most crucial, I think, is to show up for the group – don’t get stuck in your own head when you’re playing with others. If you’ve mastered your craft, and you can execute on demand, you should be available to show up and really listen to the people you’re playing with, and fit the best possible musical representation of yourself into whatever project that is.

Once you’ve got all of that together, it’s really simple: Don’t be a dick. Really, just don’t. People need to want to hang out with you if you’re going to get called for gigs. If you’re constantly in personal turmoil with musicians you’re playing with, it may be time to ask yourself – who’s the only one who’s there every time this happens? (Hint: It’s you.) I’m not trying to be a moralizer here or anything like that, and I’m far from perfect when it comes to this stuff. I’m just telling you what goes on when bandleaders are sorting through their options – because there’s lots of good players out there – and trying to figure out who to call.

After all that, from a pure self-marketing and networking standpoint, ask yourself this question: Who am I as a musician in 10 words? That’s a very difficult task, but an extremely useful one. Once you distill your “brand,” then you can align your online marketing (website, Facebook, etc.) with who you want to be, and pretty soon it has a way of becoming self-realized. No one knows what you do until you tell them, and until they hear you play. If you’re conscious about your musical intention as a musician, there’s a much greater chance of that intention landing out in the world than if you hadn’t thought of it ahead of time. For example, here’s my 10-word take on myself: “I play the tough stuff tastefully, and with great tone.” It sounds arrogant to just lay it down in text like that, but that’s not me saying “Oh, I’m so great” – it’s me saying “this is my intention as a musician.” And that’s what I want the listener left with, that I’m capable of providing a firm, great-sounding foundation in the bass register in a complex musical environment.

Finally, for the meta-answer to your original question about the bassist seeking to make a name for himself, I’d suggest that he ask himself this question: What is the context for my musicianship? It’s possible for you to create the context of your own playing, as opposed to having the context of that day’s events – “I hate my day job…my girlfriend is mad at me… there’s someone in the audience I really want to impress…” – create it for you. I often choose the context of “generosity” as a way to focus my playing as something I’m providing for other people, rather than something I’m doing for my own self-gratification. The paradox is, when I play from a context of generosity, it’s more gratifying to me than it would be if I was just doing it for me in the first place. Now, how would that way of thinking impact someone  interested in becoming more well-known as a player? Well, you can’t measure it with a ruler, but it’s my belief that being more conscious overall about where you’re coming from in your playing, both as a person and a musician, can lead to amazing breakthroughs in your playing, and in your being, and that has the potential to leave a more lasting impact on anyone who comes across you.

And now I’ll get down off of my metaphysical soapbox. J

What is your writing process like when it comes to your solo material?

Long and painful. Kidding! (Sorta.)

So far, I’ve been the guy who demos everything out on every song. I’ll program a drum part, hack out the guitar voicings, play the keyboard parts (I played piano as a kid so at least I can do that somewhat naturally), and lay down the bass. I have a tendency to be pretty detailed, because the way I write, the background parts and overall arrangements count for a lot. Sometimes I’ll start with a melody, sometimes it’s with a bass/drums groove, sometimes it’s a chord progression. No matter what, though, I really try and establish a strong melody. I’m a huge John Scofield fan, and I love his amazing playing and tone, but it’s the melodies he writes that just kill me. And really, whether we’re writing pop tunes or instrumental fusion, people remember the melody first. That’s the song. That’s what I write for, a memorable song, a melody you can’t get out of your head.  The playing will take care of itself if the song is strong and you’ve got the right musicians on the session.

One more thing: I try and come up with the song title first. I’m writing primarily instrumental music, which means I only have one opportunity in language to communicate to the listener what it is I’m trying to say with a particular song. So I’ll come up with a title first, something that summarizes the message of the song, and then let the music arise in the context of that message. Again, it’s all about intention.

What does the near future hopefully hold for Bryan Beller?

I’m working on a variety of projects for 2011 release right now. First and foremost is a Bryan Beller Band live album, from a show recorded at the Baked Potato in L.A. back in September, which will be coming out at the end of March. It is called Wednesday Night Live and will be available through my website www.bryanbeller.com starting March 5 for presale. I’m also shooting an instructional DVD for Alfred, my first, in the spring of 2011. Plus I’m going to release a book of complete bass transcriptions from my latest album Thanks In Advance. In Dethklok world, there’s already a bass transcription book done that’s coming out in January, and it’s going to feature not just the studio basslines, but some of the basslines I played live as well, which are pretty different. Plus, Brendon Small is putting out a solo album in early 2011, which has me and Gene Hoglan on it – we tracked it a couple of months ago. All that, plus work with Mike Keneally, and more touring with Kira, and who knows what else, and I’ll be plenty busy.

But I’m always open to new things, and one of the cool things about being a musician is that you don’t really know exactly where you’re going to be a month from now. It can be unsettling at times, but as long as I’m doing something in music – whether it’s playing bass, writing about bassists, or sharing what I’ve learned with other bassists – I’m a happy man, and I feel really grateful to just do what I do on a daily basis. The rest always seems to work itself out in the end.

Visit online at www.bryanbeller.com

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