Hard-working bassist brings us up to date on the Aristocrats, plus some great thoughts on tone and equipment!
Bryan Beller is a bassist, clinician, composer and freelance writer. Currently touring with guitar great Joe Satriani, Bryan is also a member of the popular rock/fusion group the Aristocrats and has recorded and/or performed with Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Dethklok and several other major acts.
Beller has released his own critically acclaimed solo albums, as well as an instructional DVD. FBPO’s Jon Liebman caught up with Bryan before a recent Aristocrats show in Michigan.
FBPO: Bryan, you were actually one of the first interviews we ever did on ForBassPlayersOnly.com.
FBPO: You’ve done an awful lot of stuff, both before and since, from your solo releases to Dethklok, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally and Joe Satriani to your instructional materials and so much more. You even graced the cover of Bass Player magazine.
BB: You’re embarrassing me! Stop it! Stop it!
FBPO: Well, this might really embarrass you: After all those rock and metal gigs, how is it you find yourself on the jazz charts these days?!
BB: The new Aristocrats album, Culture Clash, ended up debuting at number 8 on the Billboard contemporary jazz charts for some reason. Just because they call our music “Contemporary Jazz” doesn’t mean it is, but any time they want to put us in the top 10, we’re happy to accept it!
BB: Thank you! We’re right next to John Scofield and the Yellowjackets. It was like, “Really? Us?”
FBPO: You’re in good company. Tell me about the formation of the band, the Aristocrats. I understand it came about almost by accident at a NAMM show?
BB: Well, yeah. I had a gig at the Anaheim Bass Bash, which is just a thing that our good friend puts on every year. It’s a bunch of bass players that put together bands and do stuff. It was going to be me, Marco Minnemann and Greg Howe, but Greg couldn’t do it. Meanwhile, there were people emailing me on Facebook about this guy Guthrie Govan, that I had to check him out. So I did and he was awesome. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him.
I wrote him an email – he lives in the U.K. I said, “Are you going to be at NAMM?” and he said, “Yeah.” So I said, “Well, how about if we do this little thing?” Thank God he said yes, because we just got together, we did two songs of his, two songs of mine, two songs of Marco’s. We did that one set there and everybody just demanded that we become a band. We could feel the chemistry, too. It almost didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, which would take far too long to get into in this interview, but it’s a miracle that the band was formed.
FBPO: You’ve put out a lot of product in a short time. DVDs, CDs…
BB: We have three records out. The first Aristocrats album was recorded three months after we did that first gig, then three months later came it out. That was September 2011. Then at the end of last year, December 2012, we put out Boing, We’ll Do it Live, which is a live CD/DVD. We just came out with our second studio album in July of 2013, called Culture Clash.
FBPO: Tell me about that album.
BB: Well, the first album, we did so quickly and, at the time, we were really just getting to know each other. It was cool and I’m proud of that record, but after we toured for eighteen months, on and off, we really got to know each other a lot better. You could feel it in the writing and just the way that we interacted with each other on the new record. Everything reeks of stronger bonds and familiarity that only comes from being a real band, which is something that I think we really try hard to do.
You know, we’re not a studio project. We don’t record remotely. We always get together in the same room, even though Guthrie lives outside London and Marco lives outside Los Angeles and I live in Nashville. We always come together to record. That makes a big difference. And we get along really well. It’s a good thing because if we don’t get along, the band doesn’t work.
FBPO: Who does most of the writing for the band?
BB: We all split it evenly. We have a functioning democracy in this band, which means that we do it evenly. We have nine songs on the record and everybody contributed three.
FBPO: This band is a far cry from Dethklok.
BB: Yeah, but Marco and I really dig metal, so the metal influence will creep into the Aristocrats every once in a while.
FBPO: How about vice versa?
BB: What, the Aristocrats creeping into Dethklok? I don’t think so! [Laughs]
FBPO: Bryan, I’ve always thought of you as a “tone guy.” What do you think most people just don’t get about tone?
BB: I think the main thing is that it’s something you should practice just like you practice your instrument, which means you need to give it a lot of time. The only way to give it a lot of time is to get in the right environment. If you’re just doing it on the gig, you’re not doing enough. It would be like if you didn’t practice and you only practiced by doing gigs. That’s what most people do with tone. I mean they’ll try something out and say, “Okay, this sounds good, I’ll check it out on the gig and see how it goes.”
I found that I needed to get into really nice rehearsal rooms, like at S.I.R. or something like that. Just block it out for four or five hours and then listen and listen and listen and listen. Not just listen by itself, but also bring tracks with me and play them through the monitors really loud, like I was at a gig. Then listen to your rig, then listen to your pedal, then change the settings, then change the instrument, then change the pickups, then change the strings. You’d be surprised what you hear if you just spend that much time going over it.
FBPO: What about your arsenal of stuff, your Mike Lull basses, all the pedals, the gear?
BB: I use all Mike Lull basses. My main two instruments are my bright bass, which is my Modern 5. It has an ash body and a maple neck, designed to be bright. The other one that I use is a dark bass, which has an alder body, rosewood neck and passive P-J five, which is a complete opposite sound. It’s just really warm. I’m not really good at getting the whole Jaco, Matt Garrison thing going. It’s just not what my hand naturally does, so I need an instrument that is very warm.
For the amps, it’s all G-K. Fusion 550 is the main head. I have a 2001RB as a slave power amp. I run that through two 4x12s. It’s a big rig and it’s a lot of power, but you know what, you need a lot of headroom. When you have a lot of headroom, it means that you can play lighter. You don’t have to dig in just to try to hear yourself. That’s the worst possible thing you can get into when you’re onstage.
And the pedals, I mean, you should just take a picture of the board. I can sit here for an hour and talk about the pedals!
FBPO: How’s the tour going?
BB: It’s great! We are exceeding our expectations, which are modest, admittedly, but we’re just a fusion band, a new fusion band, doing a six-week tour of America. And somehow it’s working. People are coming out. They seem really excited about the record. We’re in a cargo van and a minivan. It’s very DIY. I’m the tour manager. We’ve got two crew and three band members – five guys and two cars and that’s it! So, we’re having fun.
FBPO: What’s next for Bryan Beller?
BB: The Aristocrats have a lot of touring planned for 2014. Once we’re done with this U.S. tour, we’re done for the year because Marco and I have got to out with Joe Satriani and Guthrie’s got to go out with Steven Wilson. So that’s the rest of this year.
Next year, we’re going to do the Western U.S., we’re going to do some stuff in Mexico – that’s breaking news! – and we’re going to do Europe for eight weeks. We’ve got South America in there somewhere and we’ve got Southeast Asia in there somewhere. So next year’s going to be a lot of touring in support of the new record.
FBPO: One question I didn’t ask you last time, and I ask everybody this: What would you be if you were not a bass player?
BB: I’d be a writer of some kind. I love writing. I love creative writing, I like writing columns. Maybe I’d be writing about politics or music or God-knows-what. But something probably involving writing.
See our first interview with Bryan, too!