Bass superstar talks about the Zappa and Vai gigs, Berklee, solo CDs and more!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 23, 2009
Bryan Beller is a bassist, clinician, composer and freelance writer. Since graduating from Berklee College of Music in 1993, Bryan has performed and/or recorded with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, Mike Keneally, Steve Vai and many other high profile musical acts. He also serves as a contributing editor for Bass Player Magazine, for which he has interviewed a long list of bass luminaries, including Neil Stubenhaus, Oteil Burbridge, Jonas Hellborg, John Patitucci, Lee Sklar, Dave LaRue, Adam Nitti and many others. Beller’s debut CD, View, as well as his latest offering, Thanks in Advance, were released on Onion Boy Records, Bryan’s own label. He current resides in Nashville.
FBPO: What kind of musical upbringing did you have? Do you come from a musical family?
BB: No one in my family had a career in music, but both of my grandmas played piano. Does that count? I started on classical piano lessons when I was 8, moved to acoustic bass at 10, then to electric bass at 13. It was all pretty standard “school program” stuff at first. What I really wanted to learn, though, was more of the classic and progressive rock I was listening to. The school didn’t offer anything like that, so I dropped out of the programs. From that point, I learned mostly by ear. Still, I’m glad I got the basic theory background from all those entry-level lessons.
FBPO: Your musical talents are widespread, demonstrating your talent as a player, writer and clinician. What made you gravitate toward the bass as your main instrument?
BB: Honestly, I chose acoustic bass at first because it was the most obnoxious instrument in the orchestra! Then I tore my fingers up playing “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats and thought, “Hmmm, electric probably wouldn’t hurt this bad!” Somehow I got around to appreciating the bass for what it was by getting into Led Zeppelin, Rush, Pink Floyd and Yes. From there it just kind of took off for me, even though I was still playing piano all through high school. I liked the ability to reach across the harmonic spectrum and play complete songs.
FBPO: Tell me about your experience at Berklee. Were you able to get a lot of individual attention in spite of the fact that there are so many players – and wanna-be players – there?
BB: Berklee was amazing! I’ve written extensively about my time there. The short version is that I was able to get noticed there by putting together bands and shows of my own. I wasn’t the flashiest bassist at school, but I was a good enough solid player and I liked organizing.
FBPO: I’m guessing the time you spent with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa’s project, Z, must have been a little, well, unusual. What was it like to be a part of the great Zappa legacy?
BB: It really wasn’t all that unusual, other than joining the band right when Frank was dying, unfortunately. So the beginning of my time there was really colored by that. But at the end of the day, I owe a lot to Frank and the Zappa family because once you get associated as one of the “Zappa” musicians, you’re automatically afforded a level of attention and respect that most young musicians don’t get. It’s helped me very much throughout my career.
FBPO: I understand that gig led to your long association with Mike Keneally. Is that right?
BB: Yes, Mike Keneally was already in Dweezil and Ahmet’s band when I joined. I was immediately drawn to his incredible musicianship, especially in the context of his own artistry. I fell in love with his first solo album, hat., and started really digging into his material after that. We’ve been playing together in one form or another for 16 years now, and it’s been amazing. We’re like brothers.
FBPO: Our readers will surely want to know about Steve Vai and the experience you had with him and his band. What stands out in your mind about the personalities, the music, the audiences, the road…?
BB: Doing Steve’s gig is like the most intense music lesson you’ll ever have. He’s very specific about what he wants from you, both as a player and a performer onstage, and he’ll stay on you until he gets it. It’s a real study in achieving consistent mastery, as he’s been doing his whole life. But he’s not just a stern taskmaster. He’s also a very generous guy who understands his place in the world of guitar and music and is really grateful for it. More than anything, he wants to give people the best possible show, the best possible records, and that’s why he works so hard and he’s such a perfectionist in how he goes about things. I mean, if you check out the new live DVD Where The Wild Things Are from the 2007 tour we did together, you’ll get it right away. He just doesn’t settle for good enough. He wants excellence, always. And he’ll work for it.
As for the tour, the crowd, the experience, it was a once in a lifetime thrill. It’s one of the closest modern experiences to being in a Zappa band. There are really high expectations, and, at the same time, there’s also incredibly generous praise heaped upon you. I could see people really being moved by the concert experience. I consider it a high honor to be part of a band that does that for people.
FBPO: How do you enjoy switching gears as you cross so many musical genres — from the arena rock atmosphere to the jazz festivals to country pop – and everything else you do?
BB: I love it! It’s a reflection of my listening tastes. My iPod will go from Metallica to John Scofield to Soul Coughing to Strapping Young Lad to Chick Corea to Rage Against The Machine to Pink Floyd to Mastodon (lately!) … you get the idea. I love playing outre stuff at jazz festivals, I love playing sold out metal shows and I love doing instrumental rock in clubs because it gives me a chance to play the stuff I’ve been listening to my whole life, which is pretty diverse.
FBPO: Tell me about Onion Boy Records. Start with how you came up with that name!
BB: It was my girlfriend’s nickname for me, and it’s a Shrek reference as well. Watch the movie and you’ll get it! I started the label because I was fortunate enough to have the budget to do my own first record and not have to go to anyone else to make it. I had to give my record company a name, and Onion Boy it was.
FBPO: How would you describe View, your first solo CD release?
BB: I’d say it was a raw, first attempt at trying to say something as an artist, as well as a reflection of my own confusion and anger about a lot of personal stuff I was going through at the time. I didn’t really understand my own frustration, but I was able to put a lot of it down in original music for the first time, so that was a very satisfying release for me. A lot of people have told me it’s a “beautiful” album. I don’t say that to make myself seem brilliant or anything. Rather, I found it a little odd because I wasn’t going for beauty – at least I didn’t think I was. I was going for something darker. I guess it was a very polished lament about things.
FBPO: How about Thanks in Advance?
Thanks In Advance is the sound of me finally getting to where I’d wanted to be all along. I did a lot of personal work and got to the source of a lot of my constant fears and anger, and found a way to a space of gratitude, for not just what I have now, but for whatever’s coming in the future. That’s what Thanks In Advance means – gratitude for the unknown future. Three-fourths of the album is the sound of the dark, nasty work of getting there. I was able to complete a lot of what I was trying to say on View in a much more coherent way. On the last couple songs, I’m coming from a totally different place than anything else before it. That’s the new space, the new sound.
I’m a big believer in the idea that even if a song is an instrumental, it works better when there’s some meaning behind it. So, instead of just writing some riffs and chords and a melody and trying to figure the title and meaning out later, I imagine the song title first. Then I try to write to what that title and that language evoke. I’ve found that the resulting composition is more satisfying, emotionally, when I take that approach.
FBPO: You’ve interviewed a long and impressive list of bass moguls over the years. Do any of these interviews stand out as particularly powerful or surprising?
BB: I got the chance to interview Scott Thunes for a transcription. He’s always a very challenging and entertaining person to talk to. Christian McBride was a real eye-opener because I’m not really a jazz guy and it was refreshing to hear him talk about life from the top of that world. I really dug talking to Justin Chancellor of Tool and Chris Wolstenholme of Muze because they’re doing stuff with their sound and effects that’s really cutting edge. It was nice to “geek out” with them about that!
One interview that still stands out is Greg Garbowsky from The Jonas Brothers. I know, serious musicians might groan upon reading that, but he’s a real player and a real bass geek. He was their guy from the very beginning, before they even got signed. It was very, very interesting hearing about what life as a 22-year-old bassist is like at that level.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
BB: Right now I’m on the road with Dethklok. We’re co-headlining with Mastodon as part of a four-band bill. It’s a seven-week tour and it’s in some pretty big venues. The amount of energy coming back from the crowd at these shows is amazing! I’ve also been doing some house-concert and small-venue touring with my wife, singer/songwriter Kira Small. Mike Keneally and I are always up to something. He just put out a new album called Scambot, which is quite the opus! We’ll probably tour it somehow in 2010. I’m also doing one-off shows to promote my latest record Thanks In Advance, in addition to some clinics here and there.
FBPO: What lies ahead for Bryan Beller? What would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
BB: I still want to write a novel. That’s a big one for me out there. I’d like to play with John Scofield, too. Sco, if you’re reading this, e-mail me!
FBPO: What kinds of things do you like to do that aren’t necessarily musically oriented?
BB: I like working out, hiking in the mountains, rollerblading, reading about politics and shooting pool. Hmmm, this suddenly sounds like a singles ad. I’m a Taurus, I like long walks, positive people…