Bryan Beller: Dancing About Architecture

Freddy Villano goes behind the scenes with Bryan Beller on his latest solo record, 'Scenes From the Flood'

Bryan Beller: Dancing About Architecture

Freddy Villano goes behind the scenes with Bryan Beller on his latest solo record, 'Scenes From the Flood'

(Photo by Jon Luini)

Bryan Beller just has to sit back and laugh sometimes. “How did I end up in the Aristocrats, trying to keep up with Guthrie Govan and Marco Minnemann?” he chuckles. While Beller has carved out a career for himself over the past 20 years by supporting guitar gods Mike Keneally, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai, as well as performing alongside Govan and Minnemann, he admits he never really trained to be that guy. “One of the weird jokes about my career is that I’ve been thrust into this role where I’m one of the guys who plays with the guys playing a lot of notes,” he explains, citing his first professional gig in 1993 with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa in Z as the root cause of that perception. “It was like, ‘Oh, Zappa … he’s one of those guys.’ One gig led to another, and here I am. But all I ever really wanted to do was be the bass player in Rage Against The Machine or Pink Floyd.”

Bryan Beller’s road to riffing started years ago, in Westfield, New Jersey, where, as a child, he trained to be a classical pianist. He also played upright in the high school orchestra, eventually landing at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, where he decided to focus solely on electric. Once there, he met drummer Joe Travers, and the two would subsequently head west to Los Angeles to join Z, along with Frank Zappa alum Mike Keneally. He then went on to play with Keneally in Beer For Dolphins, became the artist relations and product development manager for SWR Amplifiers, and even held the title of contributing editor at Bass Player magazine from 2007–12. He hooked up with Govan and Minnemann at NAMM in 2011, which led to the formation of the Aristocrats, and he has toured and recorded with Satriani, Vai, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, Dream Theater vocalist James LaBrie, and Dethklok, the tongue-in-cheek extreme metal band from the Cartoon Network show Metalocalypse. Beller might not be a household name, but his street cred in the industry is irrefutable, and his skill set earns him top-shelf gigs and steady work in elite circles.

Three years ago, in an effort to accomplish the goal of being the bass player in a RATM or Pink Floyd-type band, Beller set about demoing ideas for what would become his third solo record,Scenes From the Flood. “It’s actually a guitar album,” he confesses, somewhat sheepishly, about the guitar-driven nature of most of the record’s music. “I just wrote the music that I love playing. It didn’t have anything to do with the kind of bass playing that I wanted it to be on a solo album. I just wrote, and tried to execute, the music that I would want to hear if I was just going to put on music to listen to.”

(Photo by Jon Luini)

Despite the fact that Beller calls it “guitar-driven,” Scenes From the Flood is equally a song-oriented record. “When you’re a bass player and you’re putting out solo albums, it’s hard to go further on the instrument without landing in that jazz fusion realm,” he says, before explaining that he now thinks his first two solo albums, View and Thanks in Advance, were somewhat stilted by a much different mindset. “Such a large percentage of the technically advanced bass players are jazz fusion guys — very few of them are rock guys. So, my first two albums had some fusion stuff, and I listen back to them now, and I just cringe. I’m like, ‘I never really did the jazz homework.’ I never went all the way in, to learn all the Charlie Parker solos and everything else it takes to be a real jazz-fusion improviser and soloist — but I faked it for a little bit. And finally, with Scenes From the Flood, I was just like, ‘You know what? I just want to make a full-on classic, progressive-rock, concept double-album, and I just want to hire myself to be the bass player for this band.’”

Which isn’t to say there’s no virtuosity on Scenes From the Flood. One listen to the lightning-fast, however-many-beats-per-minute riffs on “Steiner in Ellipses,” or Brian’s beautifully articulate bass features on “Everything and Nothing” and “Bunkistan,” and it’s clear that Beller is more than capable of keeping up with any of his virtuosic counterparts. But mostly, Beller’s incredible aptitude for songcraft is what stands out on Scenes From the Flood, and how well his bass playing functions in service to that aspect of his creativity. Even if there aren’t solos galore, Beller’s bass playing is clearly demanding, commanding, and articulate. When a bass solo does appear, like in “Bunkistan,” it remains in service to the song. “‘Bunkistan’ is a very romantic love song,” he explains, offering some insight into why he chose to feature the bass in that particular song. “There was a specific kind of message and moment that I was trying to convey that was really personal. And I was just like, ‘I want to use the bass as the voice for this, because that’s coming directly from me.’ And then I didn’t go back there until the very end of the album — the album’s last minute [in the song “Let Go of Everything”] has another bass feature, which is, again, purposeful to the narrative.” In the end, his playing on Scenes does what bass is inherently meant to do. “Regardless of whether it’s a progressive-double-concept-album or a pop single, the bass is there to be supportive.”

We spoke with Beller while he was at home in Los Angeles doing what many of us have likely been doing during these pandemic-induced times: isolating. The coronavirus has given us all an opportunity to pause, even if reluctantly, but Beller took the change of circumstances in stride. While many saw the economic downturn as an opportunity to jump into unfinished or long-neglected projects, whether musical or otherwise, Beller chose instead to simply take a break, perhaps for the first time in 20 years. “I charge pretty hard,” he admits. “I had it all set up for this year, and then it all got wiped out. So suddenly, I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. Well, I’ll just do this instead.’ It feels nice to sleep normally again.” But don’t mistake his acceptance of downtime to mean anything other than a simple willingness to go with the flow. Just prior to the economy shutting down — and the reason he was perhaps willing to accept a break — was that he’d just spent the past four years working tirelessly on Scenes From the Flood, and recording and touring in support of the Aristocrats’ You Know What…? album. “I was due for a down cycle, anyway. Everybody takes it differently, I suppose.”

(Photo by Jon Luini)

What I appreciate about Scenes From the Flood is that I’m not being inundated with bass chops. I’m able to listen to it the way I would a Pink Floyd record, or something like that.

Oh, God! I can die happy now [laughs]. That’s about the highest compliment that you could pay it. I always just wanted to be a bass player in a really good band. That’s the way I wanted the record to feel — like Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd albums are pretty much the best expression of the rock album as an art form. They somehow figured out a way to create a world that you can walk into and have an experience that’s all yours, emotionally connected, that you want to keep coming back to — that’s everything.

Like a Pink Floyd record, there seem to be interweaving story narratives on Scenes From the Flood.

I don’t expect anybody to know exactly what my intention was with every single minute, but there was an intention for everything. It was a very meticulously planned album. The fact that “Everything and Nothing” is a bass feature, and it’s also my spoken word on there, that’s setting the tone and creating an emotional landscape for the album.

When you say it’s meticulously planned, how so? Did you make elaborate demos?

Yes, the demos are elaborate. If I sent you the demo album, you’d be like, “Really? Why’d you spend so much time on these demos?” I had the whole album in my head for years before I started the demos. I could sing it to myself, and I knew the sound of the arrangements, or at least most of them. In order to realize what I’d already had in my head, and also to be respectful to the many people that I wanted to have on the album and not waste their time, I wanted to make sure that the compositions were arranged in a way that matched what I was hearing in my head. And if there were any discrepancies, I wanted to flush them out in the demo process before I started sending tracks halfway around the world or bringing people into studios.

Did you have to play keys or program drums?

I played classical piano as a kid, so I can get around on keyboards. And I love programming drums, because I’m a frustrated drummer. I can’t play drums, but I can program drums. I see it on the kit, and it’s all there and it’s pretty specific. I’ve been fortunate enough to watch great drummers like Joe Travers, Marco Minnemann, Toss Panos, and Gene Hoglan.

What about the guitar parts?

The guitar was the hardest part. I’m a shitty guitarist — truly not good. But, like anything, if you pick up an instrument and get around on it for a little bit, and you just work on one thing long enough so that you can play it well enough to get it into Pro Tools, and you do a little editing, you can get the point across. As the demo progressed, I started getting better at guitar. And finally, on the second half of the album — because I did the demos in sequence, if you can believe that, 1 through 18 in order — I was starting to get enough facility where some of the tracks ended up being keepers.

Some of your guitar parts remain?

Tracks 10, 11, and 12 have, essentially, lead guitar that I did. If someone had told me when I first started the project that it was going to work out that way, I would have laughed them out of the room. There’s a lot of rhythm guitar that I kept on there as well. But this is Bass Magazine, so, you should also know that I kept all of the bass from the demos, without exception.

Photo by Drew Stawin

Were you happy about that? You mentioned to me that your engineer encouraged keeping the bass tracks.

There’s a process that happens when you’re making demos. We used to make demos on 4-tracks. None of it sounded good enough to even be remotely considered a keeper. Making demos in Pro Tools is different. The creative process that happens when you’re putting it together, and tracking it for the first time, when you realize the part, and it comes alive — that can never really be recaptured. You could do it again into a much nicer console with a much nicer compressor, but you’ll never get the original spirit of the first real performance — I think, anyway. So, I was just thinking traditionally, like, “I’ll have to re-record everything because I recorded it on an Mbox Mini — that’s never going to work.” But I was happy with the performances. Then Forrester Savell, the engineer, came to me and was like, “You know, I can make these work and sound good. They’re really not that far off, in terms of sound. I could just enhance it a little bit, and you’d be good.” I was like, “Please!” Because I actually didn’t want to screw with the performances. So, it turned out that I recorded the whole album’s bass tracks in my apartment.

I see you used the Universal Audio 1176 compressor plug-ins. I know people who love compression, and I know people who hate it. Where are you on that spectrum?

I believe in it, especially because I’m a believer in high gain. When I play live, I always have a Demeter COMP-1 Opto Compulator on at all times. It’s not squeezing the shit out of it, but it does a little something. I play live more than I do studio stuff, and I am a huge believer in having lots and lots of gain at your disposal, so that you can play really lightly and have extreme dynamic control in terms of how hard you hit the string and how much it changes the sound. I don’t think compression necessarily should eliminate that dynamic range, but I think there’s something that happens with compression that allows you, in a studio environment — which is considerably more exacting than a live environment — to be able to play lightly and have the notes bloom the right way. I know it when I hear it. I know it when I feel it. I know when my finger hits the string, how much compression is right for a song, a vibe, or a group. But the first half of Scenes From the Flood, I didn’t even have that. I just plugged straight into an Mbox Mini with no compression.

That demonstrates it’s ultimately more about the performer and the performance, than all the bells and whistles at your disposal.

Yeah, people can lose the forest for the trees. The performance and the vibe and the sound all go together in this thing that you can’t really describe. When you start getting into it, talking about music is like dancing about architecture — you know when it’s right, and you know when it’s not right. If you have a performance that is 80 percent or 90 percent, if there’s a bit that’s “meh” for you, you know inside. You can feel it. If it’s right and you dig it, you’re like, “That’s it.” If something about it bugs you, even if it’s subconscious, listen to that voice, because that voice is telling you it should probably be a little bit of something else. And with Scenes From the Flood, I’m sitting here saying, “Oh, yeah. I recorded half the album with an Mbox Mini,” but remember, I did take a year to do the demos. It took me three years to conceptualize the album before that, and then I mixed it with Forrester Savell for nine months. When it came time to make the final decisions, I was unsparing, and I was uncompromising about the end result.

Since you seem to be enjoying the downtime the pandemic has afforded, do you consider yourself someone who thrives on constant creativity, or . . .?

I happen to be a guy who, for whatever reason, thrives best on larger projects in great detail. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do 20 different gigs at the same time. I tend to want to have just a few projects, or a couple of bands that I do, and then I’ll take on a few remote recording projects. But I don’t load up my docket with 20 or 30 things; my brain doesn’t want that, and I don’t feel like I do my best work under those circumstances.I feel like I thrive when I have the time to pay attention to detail, and get all the way into it, and understand something if someone wants me to record something for them —really take the time and listen to it, and not just go kamikaze into tracking it. It was only natural that I would produce a solo album that would take so long and be so big and so detailed, but I understand that not every artist works that way.

The Aristocrats: Minnemann, Beller, and Govan (photo by Manuela Häußler)

Is it a fair assessment that most of your craftwork comes in service of doing a project like Scenes From the Flood or working with the Aristocrats, versus any kind of practice regimen?

It’s always in the service of a project. I was never a disciplined technical practicer, even when I was younger, to my detriment at times. I never sat down with a metronome and went through scales, working them up click by click, faster and faster. Those weren’t the players that I listened to. I was listening to John Paul Jones, and James Jamerson, and Tim Commerford, and Scott Thunes, the bass player for the 1980s Frank Zappa Band. None of that stuff was about real velocity, at least not for velocity’s sake.

I think people have this idea of the Aristocrats as a trio of all musos going for it all the time.

Even in that band, where there is a lot of velocity and we are cranking it up, it would be ridiculous if I were trying to match Marco Minnemann and Guthrie Govan, note for note all the time. It would just sound like a mess. There are probably other bass players who could do that, and actually have the velocity to crank it up all the time, but I don’t think that would make that particular alignment necessarily better. It would just make it busier. Even in an arrangement where overplaying is the point, which is sometimes what the Aristocrats are about — and taking the piss out of it, almost like a Zappa thing — even in that context, I think the song will always tell you what to do. And as a bass player, I always try and remember that my role is to support that. –BM


You Know What…?, The Aristocrats [2019]

Freeze! Live in Europe 2020, The Aristocrats [2021]

Scenes From the Flood, Bryan Beller [2019]

Behind The Scenes

Bryan Beller ended up keeping the bass demo tracks for the entire Scenes From the Flood album. “It took nearly a year to make the 18 demos, and I took them pretty seriously,” he affirms. Mix engineer Forrest Savell relied primarily on the Darkglass Neural DSP plug-in while mixing, but for tracking, Beller provided the following breakdown: “Tracks 1–9 were tracked through an M-Box Mini, direct, period. The second half of the album was tracked through an Apollo Twin interface, using the Neve 1073 console and Universal Audio 1176 compressor plug-ins.”

Track-by-track breakdown of instruments and effects used on Scenes From the Flood:

1. “The Scouring of Three & Seventeen” — no bass.

2. “Volunteer State” — Mike Lull passive P/J 5-string with alder body and rosewood fingerboard

3. “Everything and Nothing” — Spector Forte Wide 5, ash body/ebony fingerboard, EMG 40DC pickups, EMG BQC active preamp; TC Electronic Flashback Delay tracked live (not added in the mix), Xotic Effects Bass BB Preamp (for overdrive), Dunlop Bass Wah

4.“A Quickening” — Mike Lull Modern 5, alder body, maple neck, Seymour Duncan 67-70 pickups, Bartolini NTMB-FL preamp; SWR Mo’ Bass BassSynth, various overdrives

5. “Steiner in Ellipses” — Spector Alex Webster Signature Euro 5LX, alder body/maple top, ebony fingerboard; Darkglass Alpha Omega pedal (not plug-in)

6. “Always Worth It” — most of song, Ibanez SRX505 5-string (yes, the Korean entry-level model) equipped with Babicz Full Contact Bridge; under midpoint guitar solo only, Mike Lull Modern 5, alder body, maple neck, Seymour Duncan 67-70 pickups, Bartolini NTMB-FL preamp; Darkglass Alpha Omega pedal

7. “Lookout Mountain” — no bass

8. “The Storm” — Spector Alex Webster Signature Euro 5LX, alder body/maple top, ebony fingerboard; Xotic Effects Bass BB Preamp, Digitech Bass Driver, Dunlop Bass Wah

9. “The Flood” — no bass

10. “Bunkistan” — Mike Lull passive P/J 5-string, alder body/rosewood fingerboard

11. “As Advertised”— Ibanez SRX505 5-string equipped with Babicz Full Contact Bridge and Nordstrand “Music Man” aftermarket replacement electronics; Darkglass Alpha Omega pedal

12. “Army of the Black Rectangles” — Spector Alex Webster Signature Euro 5LX, alder body/maple top, ebony fingerboard

13. “The Outer Boundary” — Spector Forte Wide 5, ash body/ebony fingerboard, EMG 40DC pickups, EMG BQC active preamp

14. “Angles & Exits” — Spector Forte Wide 5, ash body/ebony fingerboard, EMG 40DC pickups, EMG BQC active preamp

15. “The Inner Boundary” — no bass

16. “World Class” — Spector Alex Webster Signature Euro 5LX, alder body/maple top, ebony fingerboard

17. “Sweet Water” — Spector Alex Webster Signature Euro 5LX, alder body/maple top, ebony fingerboard

18. “Let Go Of Everything” — Mike Lull Modern 5, alder body, maple neck, Seymour Duncan 67-70 pickups, Bartolini NTMB-FL preamp (for distorted final solo only, everything else being synth); Xotic Effects Bass BB Preamp, Digitech Bass Driver

For more visit: Bryan Beller

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