Discussion With Bryan Beller
Bryan Beller is someone to keep an eye on. His latest CD “Thanks in Advance” (reviewed last issue) shows great strength compositionally as well as showcasing a matured and very strong voice on his instrument. With rock-based credentials such as Steve Vai and Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa) behind him, he shows his versatility beyond that genre with a very fusion/rock orientated presentation of material on his new CD, which he handles in an impressive manner. His virtuosity on his instrument truly splits the infamous jazz-rock labels and solidifies his focus on how to approach the music he’s involved with from “his” perspective, label free and genre free. Most importantly, he’s all about the “music”, and he’s added on to a list of very talented bass players that are definitely taking it to the next level in the “solo bass artists” arena.
Jake: Let’s talk first about your direction as a musician. You’ve worked with Steve Vai and skillfully handled his book, but listening to some of your recordings tells me there’s a jazz element to you as well. Where do you see yourself musically speaking?
Bryan: I always like to think of myself as jazz-rock with an emphasis on rock. That’s a distinct genre from instrumental rock. Not that I don’t love instrumental rock, nobody does it better than Steve Vai. I think when you’re growing up, certainly as I was as a bass player in the eighties, the avenues for being a rock player and wanting to do stuff other than just regular rock tunes, which I played a lot of…. I love Led Zepplin, I love Pink Floyd and all the rest of the classic rock genre, led you to guys like Steve Vai, and Joe Satrianai, and Eric Johnson, and those were the guys you wanted to play bass for.
That was my experience when I was younger. But I was never one of those shredder guys myself. I never really studied what Stu Hamm was up to or other players in his style. I wasn’t necessarily focused on technique or speed, I was always more interested in melody and compositional wholeness, and found myself gravitating towards guitarists like John Scofield who could burn, no question, and who could play straight ahead jazz as well. But I wasn’t interested in straight ahead jazz, I liked what he was doing from a fusion perspective…I liked how he made really complicated stuff sound simple, and how his instrumental compositions regardless of the idiom when he had a rock rhythm section behind him really felt like the kind of compositions I wanted to write. Chick Corea would do that at times as well. So I guess some of that combined with some of the music of another guitarist named Michael Landau who was kind of a Hendrix-Stevie Ray Vaughn driven rock/jazz player from the guitar standpoint, which really goes back to Jeff Beck in a way.
Those guys combined with my roots as a metal musician (I loved Metallica, and Rage against the Machine, and 9 Inch Nails), was where I was headed. It’s really those two elements, the jazz of John Scofield if you will, and regular straight up rock, and hard rock, and even heavy metal. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. It ends up depending on what song I’m dealing with as far as how those elements coleus. Those are my main compositional influences.
Jake: You’ve kind of led into my next question, which we’ll get into and see if we can expound upon. As a solo bass artist, you’re of that category that shall I say puts the music first. How do you feel that developed for you as a composer, which you’ve already hinted at, as well as a player?
Bryan: I’ve always wanted to be the bass player in my favorite band. I’ve never really wanted, and I’m not entirely comfortable with I will admit being the guy in the front of the stage taking solos every song. I kind of had to make myself do it even in my own compositions. I’m back to my statement that I’ve always wanted to be the bass player in my favorite band…. I wanted to be the bass player in Pink Floyd, or the bass player for Led Zeppelin, or whatever. So when I started off writing my own music I just considered the kind of music I listen to and I thought, ok, I want to be the bass player in “that” band. And that’s what it’s really about for me. I enjoy going and playing at lot of these events where there’s a lot of bass players and a lot of bass playing involved and going ok, get ready, here comes a bunch of guitar solos. The main melodic instrument in my music is the guitar. I love electric guitar and I like it being the main driving force in my music because it’s the driving force of most of the melody of the music I love. And then I just play bass, and if a solo comes up, a solo comes up, and if there is a moment to step out, I’ll step out. But what it comes down to is I just want to be the bass player—I have lots of fun doing that.
Jake: Let’s talk about your new CD “Thanks in Advance.” I understand there was some emotional content that was behind this particular recording.
Bryan: “Thanks in Advance” is the story of my personal transformation from going through the actions of constantly being busy and successful and never fulfilled or truly happy, to someone who is much more grateful in life for what I already have. I’m constantly seeking out things that make me feel better, or looking for something that’s missing. It’s really about looking at the world in a new way. And the impetus for that was the death of a close friend of mine, a bass player named Wesley Miller. He was an awesome bass player. He was with me at Berklee School of music in the 90’s, and he was the best bass player in our little gang. He was really into Pino Palladino and Paul McCartney, and was coming from a completely different place than I was. Unfortunately, at the age of 33 he passed away from thyroid cancer in early 2005. It shook me, and shocked me out of my space of doing whatever I was doing and not being happy about it. It got me very quickly related to what I wanted in my life and what I didn’t have. I was working for SWR at the time, and that was good for a while, but it started to get a little old for me and so I left that company after being with them for eight years and I went on a soul searching mission.
It took me about a year and a half, and I moved to Nashville and ended up having a new relationship with my now wife Kira, and my life completely turned around. And it wasn’t without some work—I really had to get to the root of why it was that I was constantly upset, pissed off, and afraid of a lot of stuff that was coming up for me. It was a pretty dark journey at times, but I finally kind of got it. I got that “I” was the source of all my own BS, and all that was required was for me to kind of change my thinking and change my interpretation of what was going on around me. I’ve been so much happier I can hardly put it into words. And on the record there are very few words anyway, there’s actually only one song with vocals.
So at the risk of rambling on here, how do you put something like that into instrumental music? I as a composer look in terms of the narrative of the album, and that’s kind of like the old Pink Floyd thing, I want the album to tell a story. I’ve had very few opportunities in language to be able to tell that story as an instrumental music composer, and I did that with the title of the album and the titles of the songs. The title of the album, Thanks in Advance, is the literal meaning for I don’t know what is coming, but I’m grateful for what it is, which is an interesting place to stand as far as the future is concerned. Some of the titles of the songs were Casual Lie Day, and Cave Dweller, and Blind Sideways…they’re all kind of moments of fear, and weakness, and unhappiness, things I was exploring along the way to breaking through. The core of that whole fear experience is found in the song “Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through” which is really a nasty ten-minute epic song, but by the time it’s over, it’s happy. And then the album closes happy. That’s how I tried to tell that story in music with very few words as guideposts along the way—I let the music tell the story.
Jake: Once again you kind of slid into a question I was coming up with. Admittedly, we’ve talked many times before, and I find that your overall attitude as a player is extremely upbeat in a time when the music business to me seems to be in rather a chaotic state, and a lot of players have reacted to that in a less than positive manner. I was going to ask, what’s your secret, but you’ve elaborated on this question in a few ways already.
Bryan: What I learned is not to look in that direction and I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish in this. The world is filled with challenges, and life is filled with challenges. The trick that I have found is not allowing an event that happens differently than I expected it to, something that could have to do with my musical career or my personal life, whatever, affect me in the wrong way. If something happens differently, does that mean “X”—does that mean the world is screwed up, or does that mean that this person is a jerk, or does that mean anything. It’s that moment of interpretation I’ve found that leads to a negative draw pattern and suddenly becomes reality. And then suddenly I would be thinking of the world in a way that produced those results. The idea that your thoughts create your speech and your speech creates your reality, well, “I” certainly didn’t invent that. There are many avenues of thought out there that go after that concept, and I think it’s as old as eastern philosophy. I took a course called Landmark Education, which talked about the same things, which is a group awareness training that goes into the same conversation. It’s not just about therapy, I think there is something to be gained by examining yourself and being able to observe yourself out side yourself. Observe yourself as someone who wasn’t you, and would be able to see you and be able to say what is it that you want, what is it that you got in life, and why are those two things not always in harmony. So there’s the big long answer to what the secret is, and I’ll wake up miserable, still, and wonder why did something happen.
Jake: I guess the response that I would have to that would be that this is the human condition.
Bryan: Yeah—The only difference between now and before is the length of time in which I will allow myself to stay in a negative frame of mind. I hope to stay In that negative state may be only an hour, as opposed to two weeks in the past, and when I realize the potential of that frame of mind, I’m very grateful for it.
Jake: Shifting gears here, tell me something about your personal time with your instrument. What are the things you’re focusing on as far as expanding your voice on bass?
Bryan: (laughs) How do I answer that honestly… I don’t spend a whole lot of time doing that… that’s the honest truth, and I think that’s fairly consistent with how I’ve always approached the instrument. I had about a year at Berklee College of Music when I really focused on technique, but it was only because I couldn’t play the songs I wanted to play. I never sat down and did that exercise, drill, and writing down techniques thing, and listen, that shows up. I find myself having to work around stuff. But if I wanted to work on that, if I wanted to make that a program of what I wanted to really, really focus on, I’d be doing it already. It’s my choice… I haven’t done it. I spend more time kind of listening and composing, and trusting that when something comes up that I will be able to learn my way into it. I certainly had to do that on the Steve Vai gig. To an extent, there were things that came up that I never had done exercises or practiced techniques for that he was making me do, and that was fine. When it comes to my own material, I’ve written stuff that pushes me. Of course it’s always easier to me than someone else—I’d tend to write stuff that falls easily under my hands. But I still have to practice for my own gig more than I do for a lot of others.
Jake: Obviously something close to my heart here, do you find being a contributing writer to Bass Player and conducting multiple interviews with some of the bass world’s best having an impact on your musical life in some way?
Bryan: I guess I’d have to say yes and no. I’d be lying if I said having learned stuff by Pattatuci and Victor Wooten and David Dyson, that I suddenly completely co-opted their technique. But it has been really, really cool to get inside their head for a week. A lot of these articles are master class articles and we’ll go back and forth—it’s a lesson essentially. They’re trying to teach it to me so that I can teach it to the readers of the magazine. So I have to be the student before I can be the writer. There have been very interesting and cool moments where I sat there and put my hands on the fretboard, and I’m talking to them in detail, so I know the tab in how they’re executing something—I know the fingering. And most of the time it’s not the way that I would do it at all. So there’s that moment when I get, oh, this is how that guys’ hands and mine are operating—and that’s really cool. And then I try to pass that along to the readers of the magazine the best that I can, and hopefully they’ll get something out of it. It’s definitely eye opening. It just goes to show that there’s so much knowledge out there that it’s almost impossible to soak it all up. The music world is like an endless smorgasbord, a buffet of all you can eat. There’s more music out there than you could possibly digest. So, for the fact that I can belly up to the bar more than most, I’m very grateful for.
Jake: I can imagine that there’s quite a bit you can walk away with philosophically, for lack of a better word, as well after spending time with them.
Bryan: It’s very humbling that there’s all these guys out there with incredibly advanced minds and incredibly advanced hands creating this magic stuff from nothing in very unique ways, yet all in a common sense that were all bass players. It’s kind of awe inspiring actually.
Jake: Couldn’t agree more, on many levels. Final question here, tell me what’s coming up for you that you’re looking forward to.
Bryan: I’m looking forward to getting out and establishing a live presence with my own music. I did a couple of shows when the View, my first record, came out in 2003. I really just put the record out into the world and didn’t make too much of an effort to back it with any live shows. It’s not like I’m going to be able to finance a world tour or anything like that, but I want to get bands together, one in L.A. where some of the players recorded for me, and one in Nashville where some other guys played on the record, and be able to do some regional touring. I’m going to Namm and will be playing a couple of shows there, and I have some interesting stuff coming up with SWR next year in the form of group clinics. There’s the Deathclock thing, which is being talked about next year, which is great sideman work, but really it’s about pursuing my band—-I just want to get the word out. The best way to get your band out, no matter how many digital online stores you have your album out on, is just to go out and play the music, so I’m just going to go out and find a way to play the music.
Visit online at www.bryanbeller.com