INTERVIEW: Bryan Beller

Bryan Beller is a bass virtuoso, possessed of impeccable phrasing, killer tone, perfect note choice, and a sense of timing and groove so unstoppable that no less than Steve Vai said of him, “At what he does Bryan is truly a giant. His inner musical ear is so receptive that it’s scary.” Whether backing Vai in his String Theories band, nailing the brilliantly impossible compositions of mentor Mike Keneally, or playing in the live touring version of the death metal band Dethklok from the cartoon Metalocalypse, Beller can always be counted on to bring his A game. His new solo album, ‘Thanks In Advance,’ is released on Onion Boy records this month, featuring guest appearances by Keneally, drummers Joe Travers and Marco Minnemann, and many others.

PETER: How did this album come together, and what did you do differently to ‘View’?

BRYAN BELLER: Well, I totally turned my life upside down a year and a half after View came out. It was spurred on by the death of one of my best friends, bassist Wes Wehmiller (1972-2005). I found myself wanting to take chances and not waste another second, so I quit my job, I became a full-time musician again, and moved to Nashville for love. Midlife crisis, a reawakening, whatever you want to call it – it all happened from 2005 to 2006, and my outlook on life changed completely, from a negatively informed fixed opinion to a positively informed mutable possibility. Three months after I got to Nashville, in April of 2006, the vision for the album came to me, almost as a whole. I really wanted to tell the story of going through that, getting to the root of why I was so negative all the time, and finding a way through it and getting to the place I’m at now. That’s what Thanks In Advance is really about. Whereas with View, it all happened so fast – three months from first tracking note to final master – that I didn’t even know what I was trying to say, other than I was crafting as gorgeous a lament as I possibly could. Also, View was recorded in one studio, with one engineer, all in the same room. Thanks In Advance was tracked in over ten studios with seven different engineers. I was there for most of the sessions, so it wasn’t a big file-swapping party like a lot of records nowadays, but it definitely changed the vibe of how it came together. View was an event; Thanks In Advance was more of a process, or a journey.

PETER: The pacing and sequencing of the album is perfect, especially the way ‘Thanks In Advance’ seems to close the album, then you burst back with the high energy ‘From Nothing.’ Did you always plan to sequence the album this way?

BELLER: I actually started with a list of song titles that reflected the narrative arc of the story I was trying to tell. Writing mostly instrumental music, I really only get one chance in language to inform the listener of my intent with the song, and that’s the title. So I made this list of titles, put them in order, and then I wrote the music to the titles – I tried to evoke, musically, what the song was trying to say. And what happened at the end was part of the plan. “Thanks In Advance” is the end of the narrative in a way, a song about gratitude for having arrived at this new place, and “From Nothing” is really what happens after the story is told. “From Nothing” is about suddenly finding yourself able to see everything around you, I mean really see everything and not just your own view of things, and accepting the beauty and the tumult and the chaos of it all and, slowly but surely, finding peace in the center of it.

PETER: ‘Casual Lie Day’ has a lot going on, yet it never sounds cluttered. How did the arrangement come together?

BELLER: Tom Trapp, a really excellent arranger and orchestrator, is the guy who made this arrangement happen. I met him through the work I did with Holland’s Metropol Orchestra and Steve Vai, because Tom did some of those arrangements. Then when I played with the Metropol again for a project with Mike Keneally, I began to have this vision for a swinging jazz/fusion tune, jazzier than I usually write, with an orchestral component. The idea was for the instrumentation to be lush, but for the actual chords and voicings to be slightly dissonant along with the guitar. So I sent Tom the original demo of the tune, and then the basic rhythm tracks of the real cut, and he wrote an arrangement on top of it and sent it to me. I ended up keeping a lot of it, tweaking a little of it, and between the two of us, we got something we both liked on the third shot. We were careful in mixing not to have it consumed by the arrangements, because ultimately it’s a guitar and piano-driven tune, but obviously we wanted people to hear the extra orchestral flourishes when appropriate.

PETER: ‘Cost Of Doing Business’ almost sounds like Nine Inch Nails if Trent was into fusion. Is that track a one-off, or do you have a lot of that kind of electronic/organic hybrid stuff in the vault

BELLER: In terms of this specific style, it’s pretty much a one-off, though I could probably sit around and write stuff like that for days. I love what Trent does – melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, soundwise, you name it – and in a way it’s a guilty pleasure for me to go there considering the style of the rest of the record, and I’m not about to try and be the next industrial studio genius. But there was a place for that song in the record and in the story arc, so I went for it. It was originally a four-bass-track multi-layer thing, and only later did engineer/drummer Mark Niemiec and I turn it into something with super-compressed drums and buzzy synths and other NIN-style accoutrements. The original version is on the special-edition DVD as a bonus audio track.

PETER: What gear did you use on the album?

BELLER: For the most part, my signal path was split into four channels:
1) Tube Mic-Pre direct – an ART TubePAC
2) SansAmp PSA-1, usually set to preset 32, a sub-type sound for extra low end.
3) An SWR amp of some kind, miked – for some tracks it was a Super Redhead, for the fretless tracks it was a Workingman’s 12 combo amp, and for other stuff it was an Grand Prix preamp, powered and sent through a Goliath III 4×10.
4) Wildcard – sometimes it was my pedalboard with various effects on through another ART TubePAC, sometimes it was the SWR Mo’ Bass with all sorts of effects engaged…it changed from song to song. Some songs we didn’t use the fourth channel at all.
As for basses, I used my trusty red Mike Lull Modern V 5-string jazz bass on five tunes, a Mike Lull Modern V Fretless on two tunes, Wes’ old Fender P-Bass on two tracks (including the title track), a Fender Custom Shop ’64 re-issue jazz bass on one track, and the Taylor AB-4 acoustic/electric on the solo piece “Life Story.”

PETER: You have some quite well respected players on the album. What can you tell us about the contributions of: Mike Keneally

BELLER: Mike and I have long been musical partners, and he’s counted on me to be able to deliver a wide range of styles, emotions, sounds, and other things when it comes to his music. So it was a special privilege to have someone as freakishly talented as Mike – who’s a compositional mentor of mine as well – let loose on one of my more intense compositions like “Love Terror Adrenaline,” which conveys a very wide range of emotions and is also extremely difficult technically for a guitarist to pull off. He nails all of that tough stuff, but not like a technical-shredder guitarist would, which is good because it’s not a shredding tune – it’s more raw in its energy, more edgy in execution, and more real as a result, in my opinion. It’s easy to forget what an amazing guitarist he is sometimes. I think people will be floored by what he did on this song, and he was the only one who could have done it the way he did.

PETER: Marco Minnemann

BELLER: The first time I heard him I thought, “This is the next generation of Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colauita, etc.” One of the best in the world. And I love that he’s coming primarily from a rock background, not a jazz background. Again, he’s only on “Love Terror Adrenaline,” but I chose him for two reasons. One, it was the perfect opportunity to put his famous independence to use, and there’s a really intense, stuttering 16th-note melodic rhythm that he doubles with the kick drum in a way that’s almost impossible to believe; two, there’s an angry, almost frenzied edge to his playing when he works up a head of steam, and that’s exactly the energy that I wanted for this song. It’s not supposed to make you feel comfortable – it’s about having an emotional panic attack. Marco’s a happy guy, don’t get me wrong, but I like his edgier side as well, and be really brought it to this performance.

PETER: Scheila Gonzalez

BELLER: There is such pure joy in her playing, it’s astounding. For me, she’s the magic element in the Zappa Plays Zappa band. Her soloing voice is so developed, so free, confident and mature and yet really adventurous. “From Nothing,” the last song of the album, is a celebration in a way, and as soon as I heard her play, I heard her voice as the featured instrument for that song.

PETER: Joe Travers

BELLER: Joe’s my rhythm section soulmate. I feel more comfortable playing with him than any other drummer. His groove, choices in fills, and confidence in managing a song’s structure are so in tune with mine that sometimes I feel like he’s inside my head while we’re playing. He’s on three tunes on the record, but when it comes to the live band, he’s the guy. We’ve been playing together for almost 20 years now. So when it comes to the most sensitive stuff, like the last two tracks on the album – and also when it comes to freewheeling groove tunes like “Greasy Wheel” – there’s no one I trust more.

PETER: ‘Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through’ takes a lot of surprising twists and turns. What’s the concept behind that one?

BELLER: It helps to see it in the context of the sequence of the record. Starting from the beginning, each tune gets closer and closer to the core fear experience that I think many people have, especially me – not being able to have and/or maintain a close emotional relationship. Track by track, the album is a descent into darkness in that way, and when you get to “Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through” (that’s the full name of the song), you’re at the nerve center of that darkness. Like I said, the song is the sound of a panic attack, about being threatened in the most vulnerable emotional place, and ultimately, near the end, about overcoming it and, finally, getting to what’s beyond that fear and achieving a kind of peace with it. The music to that set of emotions is deliberately complex and unpredictable at times.

PETER: You play a very melodic, full sounding guitar solo in ‘Play Hard.’ Do you play much guitar?

BELLER: I love guitar. I’m most influenced by guitarists nowadays, especially compositionally. I could listen to John Scofield and Michael Laundau all day long, and of course Keneally is an influence as well. As a result, guitar really is the driving melodic voice of the record. There’s plenty of bass solos and moments, but just because I’m a bassist doesn’t mean I wanted the bass to take over the record. During the writing process of the first record, I recorded all of the guitar parts for the demos on bass, which had its limitations. This time around, Rick Musallam gave me an old beater Strat copy of his to hang onto for a while, and I started getting around on it enough to track the demos on a real guitar. Mind you, I was playing most of the parts with my fingers, like a bass player would! I’m not much with a pick in my hands, though I used it for some simple stuff. But for “Play Hard,” I’d done all of the guitar tacks for the demo, and they’re very similar to what ended up on the record. So we’re in the studio and it came time for the solo, and Rick was like, “You should do it!” So I went in there and picked up his Les Paul and played it with my fingers, bassist-style. Then I double-tracked it for good measure. There’s video of me doing that on the DVD – it looks pretty stupid, but it worked. And just to put a cap on that, every tune on the record exists in full demo form, and I played the guitar on the whole thing. Most of those demos are on the special-edition DVD, and they’re pretty interesting to listen to now here at the end of the process. It’s funny how some things evolve, and other things just are the way they are the first time you do them.

PETER: What was it like touring with Steve Vai? Will you be playing with him again?

BELLER: Touring and working with Steve is a very intense and rewarding experience. You really develop a good set of mental and physical disciplines in your playing being out there onstage with him, playing difficult parts in front of people who are really there to see the music, to see it performed flawlessly, and who are for the most part discriminating listeners. You learn to set aside personal distractions, get to a place where the show isn’t about you but more for the people watching you, and then go out there and aim for mastery in execution while performing with the intensity of a hard rock band, jumping around and everything. There aren’t many gigs out there like that, and Steve has a very high standard for himself and his band. In that way, it’s similar to the Frank Zappa band experience, even though stylistically Frank and Steve are in very different places. I will say this – I appreciate Steve’s tendencies towards perfectionism more now that I’ve gone through the process of making this record. It’s my hope that we’ll do more performing and recording together in the future, though right now there aren’t any plans on the table. Right now he’s working on a live DVD of the last tour we did, and like with everything he does, he’s busy making it perfect so it’s taking a while. I can relate!

PETER: You recently wrapped up another Dethklok tour. How would you describe this experience, and what’s it like going from playing with Steve Vai and Mike Keneally to being in the greatest, most brutals deaths metals band in the world?

BELLER: Awesome. Just awesome. I’m a metalhead from way back when I was a kid: Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, and especially early Metallica. Master Of Puppets and Ride The Lightning and …And Justice For All just killed me when I was a kid. I always wanted to be in a metal band, but I never had the chance to play that stuff with anyone else, so I just did it all in my bedroom. 20 years later, I’m getting the chance to live out every heavy metal band fantasy I could ever have dreamed of. Plus, playing with drummer Gene “The Machine” Hoglan was another dream of mine come true. I’m a huge Strapping Young Lad fan, so it was fanboy time for me all over again. Their record Alien is one of the heaviest, sickest metal albums ever made. It’s what got me back into metal after a long time away from it.Doing that gig isn’t about being me at all – it’s all about making William Murderface sound good, and I do my best for that guy. Because there’s no “Bryan Beller” in “the band Dethklok” and it’s all in the world of unreality, I can just disappear in it, bang my head, and enjoy the visceral energy of the crowd. And after years of musical high-wire-act playing with Keneally and Vai, and even on my own stuff, it was a welcome and unexpected relief.

‘Thanks In Advance’ is released September 30 in standard and special edition versions (the special edition includes a behind-the-scenes DVD called ‘To Nothing’) and preorders are being taken now at www.bryanbeller.com