An Interview with Bryan Beller
Bryan Beller is a difficult bassist to classify. A quick check of the list of projects finds him spanning all sorts of genres, all sorts of gigs, and a healthy travel itinerary.
Perhaps best known now for his work on Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse show as the bassist for Dethklok, Bryan has a strong foot in rock, jazz (or as Bryan would call it, rock/jazz), and even R&B. When not performing, Bryan can be found at various clinics, teaching aspiring bassists with his unique approach.
We caught up with Bryan at Gerald Veasley’s Bass Bootcamp in March to find out more.
You’ve been an active clinician for a while now, here at Gerald’s Bass Bootcamp and at other clinics. Tell us about your sessions.
Well it’s different. [At the last Bass Bootcamp], my session was super tone intensive, where we just started at the very basics. I got everybody to show me how they put their hand on the instrument and then what the sound they make is, and then immediately I said, “Alright, now pick up the instrument of the person next to you.” Then everybody was freaked out.
So they find the sound has changed, but not completely. Why? Because you’ve got your hand, and your hand is the beginning of your sound. People got real hands-on experience from building the tone and understanding that the chain starts at your hand, and then goes to the instrument, and then goes to the amp, and then goes to the speaker cabinet.
People freak out about not having the right amp. So I ask, “well have you really gone all the way back and addressed all the things you need to address?” Once we’ve gotten that far, we talk about how do you identify EQ frequencies. And then what you want to use certain pickups for for different sounds.
I don’t think anyone ever teaches that. It’s not a class they have at music schools. It’s like the gear class and the tone class. So that was what we did last time.
This time I’m doing hands-on intense ear-training. So I say, “here’s a lick, now play it in front of 30 people on the spot.”
I have a 6-step method in terms of things you want to identify: the meter, the time signature, the key that you’re in, whether it’s major or minor. So we get to the actual rhythm, and then the notes, and then the chord changes, and then how you execute it on the bass.
You know, I think we make the mistake of trying to execute it on the bass immediately, which of course you want to do but in the process of doing that, you end up having to reverse engineer all these things that you think that you already know but probably don’t as well as you should. Like identifying a chord right away. What are the scale tones in that chord? What is the syncopation of a rhythm? Just all the basic building blocks of learning music but just going at it from the other end… not learning the theory first and then playing the song. Trying to learn the song and realizing you can’t learn the song and try to figure out why and then going back and learning things that you need to learn in order to do it.
I’m getting a feeling that you like to kind of go in there and jolt them a little bit. Not make them uncomfortable, but take them out of their comfort zone enough…
Yeah, first of all I want them out of their comfort zone because if they’re in there, it probably means that they’re not learning. Second of all, I want them to be doing it in front of people because that’s what we do. We’re musicians… you have to do it in front of people. So then I have a whole metaphysical conversation about how if you’re freaked out about doing it in front of other people, let’s address that right now, because if you’re gonna be an effective performer, you’ve gotta get out of the way of yourself. There will be people who are watching you. They’re your customers. They pay to come see you… they bought your CDs. It’s one of those things.
Do you see them warming up and seeing them get over that initial fear?
Oh yeah. I want them laughing and I want them working, but I don’t want people to feel if they don’t get it right it’s going to be the end of their identity as a musician or someone saw them make them make a mistake. They have to get over that because we’re all in this together.
You’ve been really active in the House Concert scene. Tell us how that got started and your inspiration behind these
Well the whole house concert thing is something that has been going on for a very long time. They used to call them “Rent Parties,” where some musician back in the folk circuit in the 60s was broke and the rent was coming, so they would have a concert and invite people over and say “pay whatever you think is appropriate.” And then they would raise money that way and there you go.
So that was a long time ago. Now it’s turned into this thing where going to see a show in a venue is a mixed experience. You get that excitement like you’re going out, going to a show, but then there’s the venue, there’s the parking, the expensive drinks, there’s the other people in the club you don’t know, it’s loud… There are a lot of things about the venue experience, and not all venues have together.
And from an artist perspective, maybe you can’t draw 60-70 people everywhere you go, but you can draw 40. For a lot of venues, 40 people isn’t enough, but for a house concert, 40 people is sold out.
So the way that it works is we go and we find willing hosts. We just ask our mailing list, “hey, are you willing to have a house concert?”
It’s a really great way to experience music intimately in your house, you can invite your friends, be the social center of attention and have a really great intimate concert experience where you can hear everything that we’re doing. Every single note, up close. And actually be able to interact with us before and after, rather than us having to load our gear in and load our gear out, or the club is chasing us out because the next band is coming on.
So the experience is very very rewarding for both the artist, who have a great audience, where people are really into the music and then end up wanting to buy the music which is even better for us.
For the audience, especially those people who are first time hosts or go to house concerts for the first time, they can’t believe it. So that’s really cool.
To give credit where credit’s due, the guy who really hipped me to it was Steve Lawson, who is a major social media guy and is also into performing house concerts and also does concerts with his wife. I’m doing these concerts with my wife, Kira Small, who is an outrageously talented soul and R&B singer/songwriter. And I say that as objectively as possible for someone who is her husband. I’ve known her for 20 years, way before we were together, and she was always amazing. So it’s very rewarding to play music with someone who is so good. Period.
Second of all, to play funk and R&B, which up until a couple years ago I don’t think anybody knew that I could do, is really cool. Third, being able to travel the country with my wife and have these amazing experiences. Fourth, to be able to meet fans that we’ve known for 10 years and then finally have an experience with them where we really get to know them instead of just yelling at each other in a club. And then after all that is just the practicalities of it, which is that you tour with a duo and you can actually make it work financially as opposed to bringing a band everywhere, which is completely unreasonable at our level.
So credit where credit’s due, Steve Lawson is the guy who hipped me to it and ever since then, now people look at Kira and I and say, “you guys are the house concert people,” and we’re like, “we just got it from this other dude.”
Speaking of R&B, you’re one of the most diverse bassists out there. Your solo albums are jazz and rock oriented, you’ve recorded and toured with Steve Vai recently, and then there’s Dethklok. What brought on all this diversity?
It’s a good question. When I was a kid, I loved Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Metallica, and then Yes. Those were my big four bands. I always loved metal, from when I was 13 or 14. But first it was Led Zeppelin. And the thing about Led Zeppelin that of course everybody knows only in retrospect is that they were the deepest grooving band ever ever ever ever. They had a funk groove behind that bombastic groove. You gotta understand, when Led Zeppelin first came out, people at the time thought they sounded like Slayer. Like that was the equivalent. They were like, “this isn’t music, this is like heavy metal, weird loud… listen to that drummer, what’s he doing?” That’s the way it worked. So people weren’t listening to what was going on, they were just so ahead of their time. So I listened to that and was like, “man, I love deep groove.”
I love grooving with John Bonham, who of course was just ripping off R&B drummers. Then I got into James Brown and all the real R&B stuff later, like Meshell Ndegeocello, Prince, you know just all sorts of funk. Red Hot Chili Peppers was a modern band that got me into old funk. So that’s the funk and R&B [inspiration], and I was always into groove.
I was always into metal when I was a kid, and I always loved progressive rock. I like long song forms, I like the emotional journey that a long song, properly composed, can take you on.
Later I got into fusion, like Chick Corea, and Jaco Pastorius were my big fusion guys.
Then there was Zappa. And that’s where some of my wacky stuff comes from.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, I just started playing all that stuff.
Now, it just so happened that I got hired to do a Zappa gig right out of college. When I was at music school, I was playing all this stuff, but I started getting branded. Before I got the Dethklok gig, most people were like, “oh, he’s the Zappa guy. He plays with Mike Keneally, who is a former Zappa guitarist and Steve Vai, who is also a former Frank Zappa guitar player, so maybe he’s a shredder, I don’t know.” It’s so funny, you know? We’re conditioned to think that in our world, Steve Vai is a huge act. You walk down the street and most people don’t know who Steve Vai is. But you walk down the street and most people know what Dethklok is, which is weird because it’s on television. So yeah, now all these people think I’m the metal bassist and all that.
The metal thing is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid, because I played metal when I was a kid and learned Metallica and learned all my metal techniques and literally had them in the closet for 20 years, and then I got this metal gig and it was like oh wow, I gotta break all this stuff out again. It was great because I got to do it.
As far as the funk and R&B thing, honestly Kira didn’t believe I could do her gig when we first got together. We were like we shouldn’t be together because a married couple playing together gets weird, but she was just having trouble getting a band together. So one day I said, “let’s see what it sounds like when we play together.” I heard her stuff and I really wanted to do it, because it was great and the material was just this killing, deep-rooting R&B stuff. The bassist on her recordings is this guy named Steve Brantley, who is this really huge, really deep grooving dude from Augusta, Georgia who knows more about original Muscle Shoals R&B than… well he’s forgotten more about it than I’ll ever know. I learned all his bass lines off of that record and got a quick re-education on real pop/funk/R&B. So I started playing bass with her and showing her that I really learned those lines and she was like, “Oh ok, I’ll let you play with me. I thought you were a rock guy.” Well more she thought I was a Zappa/Vai wacky guy, and why would I ever play funk, right? So now I’ve been doing it with her for two or three years, and my R&B and funk chops are really solid now because of all the touring we’ve done, because we don’t play with a drummer. So I’m sitting there having to be the groove.
So how did it all happen? I just like it all. I think everyone is a product… you listen to what you love. So one day I’ll listen to a Scofield CD. And my own material is Jazz/Rock fusion. My new album, Wednesday Night Live, is like all my different influences coming to bear. You know, it’s not pure metal, it’s not pure R&B, it’s not pure jazz, it’s not pure rock. It sounds like John Scofield, Michael Landau, Rage Against the Machine, Pink Floyd, MeShell Ndegeocello, and Yes. On one album.
Tell us about the new album.
It is a live album. You know, every artist wants to take their band on the road on a real tour, right? But like I said, it’s outrageously expensive. It’s crazy. You know, you take a real band on the road and just pay the musicians anything, plus one tech/driver, and you’re talking about expenses of like $10,000 a week. I mean, you try and make up that difference! Forget about making something for yourself. If you break even, you’ve won. So, I got together with Mike Keneally, who is a guy I’ve been playing with forever like I said, and he had a new record coming out. So I said, why don’t we tour together – your band with my band, except they’ll be the same band. Same musicians. Which means it’s five guys in a band, and two of them are us and we don’t need to get paid. And we just pay the other three guys and get one tech. We’ll use my car as one of the vehicles and we’ll do one week in our strongest markets, which is the northeast, with the shortest distances between them which saves on gas. So I really took a business approach to it and said, “let’s see if we can make the most favorable conditions work before we go any longer than a week and blow a lot of money if the model doesn’t work.”
So we did five shows: Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, New York, and Baltimore, and it worked out really really well. It cost me some money, but it was a very small investment for me to have my name on the show bill of clubs in New York and Boston. And, my friends were in the band, like Joe Travers from Zappa Plays Zappa and Griff Peters and Rick Musallam on guitar, unbelievable guys. And Keneally! There you go, it was just our buddies on the road.
To make a long story somewhat shorter, what happened was that we wanted to put together a West Coast tour, but we could find a week to do it. We could only find one day that would work, which was Wednesday, September 15th at the Baked Potato. We did one show there and I said let’s record it, and just see what happens, because we know a great guy in town who does great work. He recorded it and it turned out to be kind of a magic show, because we play the Baked Potato a lot… it’s like our home base. After I heard it, I said, “Alright, this is a record.” So it only took a couple months to get it all together, and it really is a great representation I think of what this band sounds like. If you can just get the touring band enough shows just to sound like a band… because something happens after four or five shows when you’re on the road with a band. We did it just enough to get there, and then we recorded a show.
And that’s coming out on DVD as well?
It is. The CD is available now. The DVD, we’re putting the finishing touches on it right now. Pre-orders are available on my website, and it’s gonna ship probably in May.
I also heard you have a new transcription book coming out. Tell us about that.
I’ve been getting much more into music education lately, and just with experiences like the Gerald Veasley Bass Boot Camp, is like the pinnacle of bass events in the country in terms of an intense instructional weekend.
I’ve always wanted to have my stuff available in pure 100% accurate transcribed form. So I got together with Stevie Glasgow, who is the main transcriber for Bass Player magazine right now, the guy who does the full transcriptions, and who actually had my record and knew about me. I said, “I want to [transcribe] my whole record, but I don’t have the time to do it. I’ll give you the bass and drum tracks and you do it, and I’ll proof it for you. Every note, every fingering, everything, 100%.”
So he did it and sent the stuff to me and I did revisions and proofed it and sent it back to him and after a couple months we had an absolutely 100% official transcription book of the entire album, Thanks in Advance.
You know what it’s like… you used to go out and buy those transcription books. But after a while, you start to realize things weren’t exactly right. There are always things that they just couldn’t get because they didn’t have access to the guy who played it or they didn’t have access to the original track or whatever. I always felt really weird about that. This is an actual truly 100% official “this-is-the-way-I-played-it.” You can see what my hands did. Not like that’s the be all, end all, but I think there’s something to have it actually communicated from the artist or from the bassist who played it. And not only when you get it you’ll have access to the entire record bass and drums only mixes, and then also the entire record, music minus bass mixes. So you can play along with it as your bassist and then you can also really hear what it sounded like on just those bass/drum mixes.
When is that coming out?
It’s at the printer right now, so it will probably be out in May also. This is through my own website right now. I’ve gotta be honest with you, I’m behind on my own machine. I’ve got this new record coming out, the DVD coming out, and the transcription book coming out, and I’m getting it out to as many people as I can but it’s gratifying to know I’m having trouble keeping up with my own world. And I may need to bring someone in or get a distributor or something. But for now it’s all happening on my website. And even if it’s not gonna be happening on my website and I make some different deal in the upcoming weeks, it will still be up on my website on how to get there. I’m very meticulous about maintaining it. It’s always got the most up to date information on all this stuff.
For more, check out Bryan’s website at bryanbeller.com.