Bryan Beller, The Bass Player for Our Times – Bass Musician Magazine, October 2015 Issue…
We have had the privilege here at BMM to have sat down with Mr. Bryan Beller on several occasions, each time a delight. As a bassist, personally, it has been awesome to see the astounding amount of work and projects he has been involved in helping evolve and grow over the years. With his collaboration with Marco Minnemann and Guthrie Govan blossoming on the Aristocrats third release “Tres Caballeros”, as well as his new gig with Joe Satriani, he is hitting it out of the park in 2015. With a year that has taken him everywhere from the incredible G4 Experience (Joe Satriani, The Aristocrats, Animals As Leaders and Mike Keneally), to Skywalker Studios, to damn near every inch of the globe, he has been one of the busiest names in bass by far.
Bryan was kind enough to sit down with us and shoot the breeze about bass as well as giving practical tips for working musicians. Here is what he had to say!
Lets start off with the newest Aristocrats record, “Tres Caballeros”, what was your frame of mind going into your third release?
Well, as always, it starts as a blank slate, upon which Marco, Guthrie and I each write our three songs and share them with each other in demo form. That’s the first time we really know what the flavor of the album will be. In this case, when I first heard all nine demos in a couple of test sequences, I really felt we had something special on our hands. I know it sounds cliché, but I really believed that. I also was aware that this was our third album, a rough beach upon which many a band has crashed in the past, and I wanted it to be a real step forward – or, at least, apart – in terms of production, depth, and overall vibe. We went into an A-List Los Angeles studio – Sunset Sound, where Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Rage Against The Machine all made classic albums – and what started happening was a spontaneous combustion of overdubbing and layering that hadn’t been present on our previous albums. Honestly I wasn’t thinking much at all about my approach on the instrument itself, other than to make sure I had the right sounds for each individual song. Everything, for me, was about the compositional statement of the band, and what we were trying to convey in each tune, even each moment. And once the ball got rolling, we entered a very precious space in which, to me at least, something magical happened.
Marco, Guthrie, and yourself have become kind of the revolving progressive “Wrecking Crew” house band. What makes your dynamic so functional when working outside of the Aristocrats?
That’s funny – I’ve never looked at it quite like that! I’m not sure we can lay claim to that lofty title, but to whatever extent that other artists desire to hire us (which we welcome, of course!), I think it’s probably due to our common influences in terms of who and what we listened to growing up. We’re all somewhat well-versed in various forms of progressive, classic, and instrumentally adventurous rock, and it helps when an artist or bandleader will make a reference to an obscure part of a deep-catalog Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa tune and we can all just go, “Oh yeah, that” without thinking about it too much.
But sometimes it’s not even about referencing another artist. Instead, it can manifest itself as just hearing a certain kind of melodic or rhythmic or compositional inflection, and then using our shared listening background to bring that idea to life the best way we know how – by using the historical content as a reference point, but then adding whatever it is that we do as a unit of Guthrie+Marco (for Steven Wilson) or Marco+me (for Joe Satriani) and trusting the end result will honor the song.
Tell me a bit about your time at the G4 experience? You were practically the house bassist there!
That was a bit weird, and also cool. I was playing bass for Joe Satriani, The Aristocrats, and Mike Keneally at various points of that 4-day intensive instructional camp. I felt like the most popular kid at school! Of course we all know how something like that happens: Everyone wants to play guitar and drums, and the smarty-pants bassists sit back and get all the gigs. 😉
I was joking while I was there that maybe I could have played with Animals As Leaders as well if only they had a bassist. Then reality turned inside-out on the last night, when there was a mix-and-match jam where we did a version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” with Mike Keneally singing lead, Joe Satriani on guitar, me on bass, Joe Travers (from Mike Keneally’s band) on drums, and Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes from AAL playing their 8-strings on either side of me! That was a pretty incredible sound I have to tell you.
You and Mike Keneally have had a friendship and professional relationship that has spanned years and years. What makes that friendship so special in your eyes, and what keeps you coming back to working together?
I think it all goes back to when I was 22 years old, and I heard Mike’s music for the first time, and I thought to myself, this is the music I’ve dreamed of playing my whole life. It was dense, challenging and unpredictable, but also fun, melodic, and filled with joy and emotion. It was a combination of tonal and compositional elements I’d never before heard baked into a single cake. He’s also a very non-patterned, unstructured, instinctive person and musician, whereas I’m more inclined to provide structure and create consistency from inside chaos. That balance has formed a special bond between us for many years, even as the relationship has evolved beyond its origins. I still see him as a mentor in terms of songwriting, post-production and arrangement ideas, melodic content, and just pushing the envelope of what’s possible in a rock music context in general.
I should also mention that he’s the one responsible for me meeting Brendon Small of Dethklok, and for entering the Joe Satriani world as well, so I’m forever in his debt and I’d do anything for him.
“Tres Caballeros” was showcased to audiences at the Alva’s showroom during a 4-day residency before the record was tracked. I have played Alva’s before and loved it. What is it about that venue that has made it the unofficial “Casa de Aristocratas” for you guys?
It’s always hard to pin down exactly what makes a certain room have a magic vibe, but in this case I’d say it starts with the people who run Alvas. Matt Lincir is a gigantic sweetheart of a man, and genuinely, truly loves our little instrumentally bent corner of the music world. Matt, Larry Richardson and Art Valdez run that room, and they’re the ones responsible for creating an environment where it feels safe to do something as risky as what we did with the Tres Caballeros material before it was even tracked. You can only fit about 90 people in there, and it’s a place where everyone, audience and artist alike, feels like they’re on the same level – because they are! There’s no stage. It’s just a ballet studio cleared out for a concert space. Beyond that, I’m not sure it’s completely definable, but you’d know it if you felt it.
This record feels more “fun” if that is the right word, it sounds like you had a good time making it and feels really relaxed. Would you say it was fun to make and write?
I don’t know about fun or not fun – it’s all fun to me – but one thing I know for sure is that it’s less aggressive and “in your face” that either of our first two albums. Sure, there are still tunes like “Stupid 7” and “Texas Crazypants” which will rip your face off, but there’s a lot more medium and even softer dynamic material on this one. “Jack’s Back” and “Pig’s Day Off” spend a long time just simmering before quick loud bursts pop up here and there. “Pressure Relief” is a flat-out ballad, and “Through The Flower” takes eight minutes before it finally reaches its true climax. Just because it wasn’t as, say, “rowdy” as the first two didn’t make it any less fun to make. If anything, the fact that we went for more layered textures and overdubs led to some hilarious moments when we heard what we liked and didn’t like.
I did have a more fun and fulfilling time writing and making the demos for my three songs than on the previous two albums. “Smuggler’s Corridor” and “Texas Crazypants” came tumbling out of me, almost faster than I could capture them. I remember being giddy while that was happening. I don’t write that often, so it was pretty cool to have it be such an effortless process this time around.
What is some new gear you have been utilizing for the upcoming projects you may have added since we last met in 2013?
You know, not that much, actually! My pedal board is very similar to what I used last time out. I’ve swapped out the Retro-Sonic Chorus for the Providence Anadime Bass Chorus, because you can’t get the Retro’s anymore and I need two boards at all times anyway. The Providence is a really nice chorus for bass. Other than that, on one of my boards I have a Darkglass Vintage Microtubes Deluxe, which has an active EQ and separates it from the original Vintage Microtubes. That’s it for new pedals.
Ah, now that I think of it…I’m using different cabinets. I was using the Gallien-Krueger Neo 4×12’s, and I’ve switched over to their 410RBH cabs. The 10’s just have a faster response, and there’s something about the RBH voicing that slices through even the toughest live mix. So that’s different.
Oh! I have a new bass in the arsenal. I’m still a true blue Mike Lull guy and they make my signature model, which is a souped-up, ash/maple, very bright 5-string jazz bass with active EQ and a few custom tweaks to make it a more aggressive “rock” sounding instrument than some others in the family. I also still use their passive 5-string P/J, which I think is a beautiful option for warm, dark, chocolate-y sounds. But I wanted something that was completely “un-Fender-y” for lack of a better phrase, with a tighter-focused midrange and a different feel, while still having some edge on top. So I have an Alex Webster Signature Spector for a few tunes going on now. I’ve always loved the way a Spector sits in a recording mix – I’m especially referring to Dan Briggs of Between The Buried And Me, and also Doug Wimbish on a variety of things. The traditional Spector sound is great and totally identifiable…but as always, I’m always looking for a little more edge than the typical stock instrument provides. Fortunately for me, Alex Webster – the bassist for Cannibal Corpse! – Already did the hard work of making a more aggressive-sounding Spector. People might think: Ok, really, the bassist from Cannibal Corpse developed a signature model that the bassist for The Aristocrats and Joe Satriani is using? But for those who don’t know, Alex is not just an amazing player, but he’s also a first-class bass geek, and he’s got books out on advanced technique and has done some really cool stuff. So when I found out that he led the charge on this instrument, I wasn’t surprised.
The new Joe Satriani sounds fantastic, how was the recording process like? How much creative freedom do you have over your bass lines?
We recorded his new album Shockwave Supernova over the course of eight days at Skywalker Sound, which is a huge, beautiful room on a pristine rolling hill-country setting in Northern California. It was a great place to be creative and focus on bringing Joe’s music to life. Ultimately Joe is pretty conservative when it comes to tracking the record; it’s about getting the essence of the song down, and not adding too much in the way of fills and extras. We’re not jamming in there, for the most part. So while we had room to be ourselves, we definitely played less busily and more buttoned-down than we will when we play the songs live on tour. Also, the demos he sends are pretty complete – he’s obviously been doing this for a while, he knows what he wants, and the formula works. I’m honored to have been a part of it this time around.
Your tour schedule for 2015 has been to put it ever so eloquently “Bananas”; any practical advice for surviving long stretches on the road, whether it is by bus, van or plane?
Yes: Know yourself and manage yourself. By that, I mean, everyone has their little things that get weird for them under stress of travel and lack of sleep. At some point, it shows up for everyone in a touring entourage. It can be mental, emotional, physical…whatever your weak spots are, they will eventually emerge. The best thing you can do is identify the things that you need on a daily basis to function as the best version of you, and then utilize them. Maybe it’s certain eating habits, or sleep patterns or naps, or exercise, or a creative outlet, or reading, or practicing, or…anything. Just figure it out, and find ways to implement them as part of your daily routine while traveling. This way, you can show up for the group ready to contribute, as opposed to being a drag for everyone. When you’re on tour, you’ve got nowhere to hide. Everyone sees your everything. So know that going in and take care of yourself so you can make the hang cool and kill the gig every night, even if you’re not 100%. Because no one’s 100% while on tour!
Last time you talked with Raul it was hinted that there are some “Secret Guthrie Projects” any further info on those or has the Pentagon still deemed them as highly classified?
Still highly classified. I can answer anything on behalf of The Aristocrats, but Guthrie and Marco speak for themselves on projects outside the band 🙂
It has been out for a while now but how does it feel having your own signature bass modeled after your classic red Mike Lull? With names like Jeff Ament and Tom Petersson on the signature list right next to you that must be amazing. Any tweaks from your original bass or are the specs just like your main bass?
Of course it’s an incredible honor! The funny thing is, my red Lull Modern 5 was a stock original at the time (1999), but Lull specs have shifted slightly since then. So we went back and looked at the asymmetrical curve on the back of the neck, which was exclusive to the time period. We also re-sourced the older-model Bartolini preamp that was in there, which gave it a special kind of midrange aggression. The differences are there for those who are tuned in. Other than that, it’s really just a 1999-era Modern 5, ash body, 5A maple top, maple fingerboard, 24-frets, active bass/selectable mid/treble controls. A bright, aggressive, perfectly balanced 5-string jazz bass, just like I always wanted 🙂
For young bass players looking to either become high level hired hands or make their own bands work, what advice would you give considering the current state of the music industry.
I think my best advice is hopefully valid regardless of the state of the industry: Do what you love and be passionate about it. By that, I mean, sure, practice, practice, practice, and learn your craft, of course. But beyond that, play what you love! What you love is what you listen to, what moves you. Take that, internalize it, learn to play it on your instrument, and then go our there and be yourself, your version of the unique mix of influences and personal attributes that make you you. Don’t try and be something you’re not. Then, once you’ve got that dialed in, leave it all on the table and just go for it professionally, without getting hung up on what others think of you. Sounds trite, but I think the mechanics of “how to make it” should be subservient to the metaphysics of “why do you play bass” and “who are you as a bassist”. Answer those questions authentically, and once you do, in my view, you’ll be rewarded accordingly.
Final question. What can we expect to see from you in 2016?
I believe you mentioned something about a “bananas” touring schedule above? January-February will be Aristocrats Europe. February-April will be Joe Satriani North America. Beyond that isn’t 100% confirmed, but May should be Aristocrats South America. June-July will likely be Satriani Europe summer festivals. After that, in the fall, The Aristocrats and Joe Satriani will probably take turns in Asia, and Joe will probably go to South America. However it works out, I am beyond grateful to be this busy, and I also look forward to coming back home someday 🙂
Make sure to visit online at bryanbeller.com
Photo by Daniel Work