This issue seems to have established a general theme of session bass playing for itself, but Bryan Beller doesn’t fit neatly into the session niche: he’s just too damn busy for that. A man with many artistic endeavours on his CV: writer, journalist and good ol’ bass gear guru among them – as well as bass player – pinning Bryan down to one sphere of activity is not easy. Just ask him what he’s up to and stand well clear.
“First of all,” he tells Bass Guitar Magazine, “there’s my solo project, the Bryan Beller Band. I spent so much time writing the music that I didn’t have any creative force left to spend on naming the band. It’s a rock fusion quintet: two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. I would say we’re influenced by John Scofield and other guitarists, but in addition to that guitar-driven world – not guitar-driven in the sense of Steve Vai-style guitars, which people might assume because I also play with him – but more of a true fusion. I want to say jazz fusion, but I’m not really a jazz player, so I hope people will get the idea. It’s like Jeff Beck, even. But it’s also influenced by my love for olderschool progressive rock. I like my albums to have a narrative arc like a Pink Floyd record. So that’s my solo project. It’s a quintet because I’m really into arrangements and different parts.”
He continues: “Then there’s a power trio called the Aristocrats, with your countryman Guthrie Govan on guitar, who is amazing, and our drummer Marco Minnemann, who plays with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree and who was one of the drummers who auditioned for Dream Theater a while back. The three of us formed a trio after a very successful one-off show at NAMM the year before last. We have a self-titled record out, and we toured the UK in 2011, which was lots of fun. Then there’s also what I do with this metal band, Dethklok.”
Ah, he said it. For those who don’t know, Dethklok is a death metal band which stars in animated form on an American TV show called Metalocalypse, aired on the Adult Swim channel. Yes, you read it right: it’s animated, in other words not real, rather like Gorillaz, but much, much heavier. Like that band, though, Dethklok’s cartoon images mask the very real music made by Beller, legendary metal drummer Gene Hoglan and Metalocalypse creator Brendan Small. The band is big enough that it can afford to take medium-sized stadium headliners such as Machine Head on tour, which tells you a lot about the power of television.
“I’m not sure how familiar people are with the UK are with Dethklok,” explains Bryan, “but I’ve just recorded their third album with them. The songs are incredibly aggressive. Gene Hoglan is on drums again and it’s the most fun gig I’ve ever had. You get to be as brutal as you want to be, but you don’t have to take it too seriously because it’s not a quote-unquote ‘real’ band.”
Wait – he’s not finished. “And then I’ve been playing with Mike Keneally, who is an amazing singer-songwriter and guitarist, an eclectic pop-rock guy. We’ve been playing and touring together for 16 years. I also do a completely different genre with my wife, Kira Small: she writes soul/R&B music and we tour as a duo in the States. We do house concerts, which is a really revolutionary thing: the English bass player Steve Lawson helped bring them to the forefront recently, and we’ve been having a lot of success and a lot of fun playing people’s living rooms. The house parties are a concert environment, and I hesitate to use the word ‘party’ for that reason. It’s a completely different circuit and we’ve done 150 shows now in the majority of the American states. She just finished a tour with a British singer-songwriter called Emily Baker. We took her to the most redneck part of America we could find: the Carolinas, Mississipi, Texas… it was really great. Maybe Kira and I will get over to the UK and do it at some point.”
How long has Bryan been paying his bills as a bass player, we ask – and with commendable honesty, he replies: “I had a day job, a great job actually, between 1997 and 2005, as a product manager at SWR. When I first started my career back in 1993, I had a gig with Dweezil Zappa. Two years after that I struck out on my own and failed miserably, so I was in a lot of debt. I took that job and I was still playing with Steve Vai and touring with Mike Keneally and playing on [Dream Theater singer] James LaBrie’s records and stuff like that. I never made enough to make a living on bass playing alone, though. In 2005 I was so deep in the corporate culture that I was like, ‘Man, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it’, so I quit SWR and spent all my savings over the following 18 months trying to make it work. Finally I got the Steve Vai gig and it turned around, and since 2007 I’ve been able to do it. Thank God. I was also a contributing editor to Bass Player magazine for a few years: I actually wrote for them as a contributor for 10 years. I met a lot of cool people: the great thing about writing about bass is that you learn from so many amazing bass players.” We couldn’t agree more.
Bryan’s basses of choice come from the acclaimed American luthier Mike Lull, whose frankly splendid instruments crop up in our reviews section on a regular basis. “I’ve been playing Mike Lull basses since 2000,” Bryan tells us. “When I was at SWR I was responsible for maintaining their showroom. We’d bring high-profile musicians in to play the gear, and obviously we needed to have bass guitars in there. All of these bass companies would call us and want to have their basses in our showroom, because a lot of hot players would show up there and play. “Mike Lull called me in 1999 and I’d never heard of him: I didn’t know a thing about him. He said ‘Can I send a bass?’ and I said ‘Sure’, because I never said no: why would I? So the bass got there and because everybody who worked there was a bass player, they went in and gang-banged it. It was an active Custom five-string Jazz, and it was very aggressive in the midrange, more so than most basses. I had been playing a fi ve-string Fender at the time, but I wasn’t happy with the neck. The sound was close to what I wanted, though.
“So I started playing this Lull bass and, slowly but surely, I fell in love with it. I started gigging it and little by little I was like ‘I don’t want anybody else to have this bass.’ That bass, which was once in our showroom, is now the bass that I’ve used on everything for the past 12 years. I called Mike and I said, ‘We have to work something out, because this bass isn’t going to be in the showroom any more’ After that I got a fretless five and a passive four-string Jazz, which was actually the SWR reference bass for a while.”
So what do Lull basses have that others don’t, we ask? “Mike’s basses have the best neck stability and their playability is just ridiculous,” says Bryan. “Tone is what I’m after in a Jazz bass, because I want to be able to turn on an overdrive and do a Rage Against The Machine thing, and those coffee-table basses with a scoop in the midrange don’t do that. Mike’s necks just don’t move: they are impervious to weather changes because they have a slight graphite reinforcement. Every time I pick up a Mike Lull bass my hands just go, ‘Oh, now I can play some music.’”
Tone, the goal of all players to some degree, is at the centre of Bryan’s philosophy, he says. “You really have to work on tone like you work on practising, and most people don’t look at those things as equivalent. I do. As a matter of fact I’m guilty of looking at it the other way round: I probably focus more on tone than I do on practising. The sound is the most important thing that anyone ever hears out of you. I tested that instrument in a variety of settings: live, in a studio, in isolation, in different bands, before I said ‘Yeah, this is the one’. I was lucky, because most people don’t get the opportunity to do that, especially with a high-end instrument. What are you going to do, take them out on loan for a month? They’re not gonna let you do that.”
Bryan concludes: “Everyone has their ideal sound in their head already, otherwise they wouldn’t have a basis for comparison and they wouldn’t have an opinion. The tone journey is about bridging the gap between what you hear in your head and what you hear with your ears” – and if there’s any better description of what we do and why we do it, we’d like to hear it.