The Aristocrats' Bryan Beller: "We Are a Rowdy Musical Democracy"
Within instrumental music circles, the majority of the talented musicians run alone -- releasing solo albums, working as sidemen, dipping deep into numerous projects. And on occasion, a handful of those virtuoso artists come together to create more than just a collaborative album, and it gets a little rowdy in the process.
Such is the case with The Aristocrats, a trio creating complex, layered music that takes the unpredictability of jazz and the vibrant energy of classic rock and fuses it with a bit of blues, soul, and heavy metal. Guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Bryan Beller, and drummer Marco Minnemann arrived at this sound in part thanks to their love of the same vast influences: Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine . . . there's a shared passion there, since all the members are the same age.
These three artists have quite the resumes: Govan is one of the most sought-after guitarists and clinicians on the international music scene today; he's toured with Steven Wilson and Asia/GPS, and his 2006 solo album Erotic Cakes was an instant classic. Bassist Bryan Beller is known for his work with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, James LaBrie of Dream Theater, Dweezil Zappa, and Dethklok. He began blogging about his life as a bassist way ahead of the blogging curve, back in 1995. As a writer, he's interviewed an array of bass players, from Cannibal Corpse's Alex Webster to Muses's Chris Wolstenholmes to past presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (also a former musician). And Minnemann is seen as one of the most cutting-edge drummers around, gracing covers of numerous drum magazines, and toured with Joe Satriani, Necrophagist, and Adrian Belew.
Now The Aristocrats are finally hitting the West Coast. Up on the Sun caught up with Beller about taking Culture Clash to the next aggressive level, three words that describe the band, and how The Aristocrats wouldn't exist without the Internet.
Congratulations on the reception of Culture Clash and the tour so far. Thank you very much. The CD came out in July, and then we did six weeks in America, which was everywhere but west of the Rockies. Then Marco and I were working with Joe Satriani again; now that we're done with that run, we decided that we wanted to do some Western dates in January.
You said in a past interview that you each ended up using your different influences to write for each other, like how you wrote "Sweaty Knockers" for Guthrie to have fun with. While I know you each contribute three songs, was the dynamic or approach different on this album? Well, you know, I always have enjoyed writing for the guitar, but we knew each other so much better after writing the first album and touring. So I knew some little tricks on Marco and Guthrie that I wouldn't have done before with the first album, and same for them. So we all took turns writing more adventurous material to challenge each other. I wrote a psychobilly tune that I had a lot of fun with called "Louisville Stomp." Marco wrote a techno song called "Dance of the Aristocrats," and then Guthrie wrote songs that were really designed to make the most out of the harmonic content of a trio, like intricate bass and guitar, almost to the point where when you are listening to the tracks you aren't sure what instrument is what.
Everyone had a different mission. Marco's mission was to do straight grooving stuff. My mission was to try completely different styles; one of my songs is a rockabilly tune, another is a metal tune, and the other is almost like a New Orleans-style song. And Guthrie's mission was to create those elaborate arrangements using no more than three musicians. We know each other so much better now.
The first album was recorded in a little over a week, so did the fact that you had more time to focus and that freedom on the road come into play there? Well, we all write in isolation. We're all people producing a full demo on our own. We all can play different instruments to contribute our own flavor. We can give each other a vision of what we want for the album. Then when we come together and say it needs this or that, that's when it becomes the band's song. That time we have spent together ensured that this material is much more adventurous and intricate. The first record was fun and we had a good time with it, but we didn't know each other that well, obviously.
How do you guys go about choosing the setlist? Since we only have two records, we can play most of the new record and some of the first. We're on stage for a long time. If you come to an Aristocrats show you're going to see an hour-and-a-half or two hours of music. All of our decision-making is completely democratic; if we aren't unanimous on everything we don't do it.
Since all the songs are so unique and intricate, tell me about one of the tracks that you absolutely love playing live, and then one of them that is more difficult to do on the stage. Well, they're all difficult. [Laughs] Although we're really careful to have fun with it. We don't necessarily want people coming to see us just because they want to see only that difficult material -- that's not what we're trying to do. In terms of the songs -- you know, Marco has a song on the new record called "Ohhhh Noooo" that is really fun to play. It has a lot of interesting tempo changes in it. Guthrie has a song on that record called "Culture Clash" which is a really interesting compositional statement.
And I wrote a song called "Living the Dream," which is that metal-sounding song I talked about earlier. Marco and I listen to a lot of metal, and we didn't really have anything heavy like that on the record.
I like that metal-inspired track. Yeah, you're into metal right? It's "Living the Dream."
All three of you have some very unique influences that you use to complement each other's styles. Give me three words, or a three-word phrase, that you feel describes The Aristocrats. Rowdy. Musical. Democracy.
[Laughs] I should've known that's what you were gonna choose! Well, it's a good line. As the bass player in such a strong lineup -- as well as someone who is seen as a superior hired bass player -- what is it that originally made you fall in love with the bass? Oh, me personally? Oh man, I was a kid, you know. It's a stupid story. I was a piano player and my parents wanted me to be in the orchestra, but I didn't really want to be in the orchestra -- but I was a kid and couldn't say no. So I chose the most obnoxious instrument I could find -- the upright bass.
Then three years later, I started playing electric, and I realized I liked playing a supporting role. I liked supporting the other musicians with the bass as a natural constant.
What music and specific influences shaped the bass player you are today? Uh, before we go any further, because I am speaking for The Aristocrats I would really rather the article be focused on that and not me. Is that all right?
That's perfectly fine; however in my interviews, I like to dive in a little bit and bring to light some of the things that influenced them personally. . Okay. So what, like bass influences? I always into John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, and Cliff Burton from Metallica, and Tim Commerford from Rage Against the Machine, and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. Oh, and a jazz musician named John Patitucci. Those are the big guys.
But more interestingly is the fact that everybody in the band has the similar influences. Like, we're all really into Frank Zappa, and are familiar with those legendary central guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and jazz guys like John Scofield and Jeff Beck . . . we're all into Led Zeppelin and all that classic rock. We're the same age, Marco, Guthrie and I, and that really, I think, makes a difference in our musical backgrounds.
We've all had moments when we were really into music that wasn't so popular. We're all about 41, 42 years old.
It is really interesting how you guys happened to come together at NAMM, and just like you said, you're the same age with the same influences that are all so varied. We're really fortunate, you know? It was a really spontaneous thing and we did do it with the intention of only doing one show. We're all songwriters. You know, we all instrumentalists with solo albums out. Then there was this huge outcry after we played to become a band and we're like, okay! And the funny thing is that, being in a band, the three of us haven't been in an actually "band" since we were like college age!
Since then we've been hired guys and sidemen, but it's been great to work alongside guys like Joe Satriani and a ton of others, but suddenly we were in this band and it was like, "Wow, we're like 21 years old again! Where we gonna rehearse, your house or my house?" Laughter.
So what's next for the Aristocrats besides this West Coast tour? Will you all go back to some solo stuff for awhile, or is there any writing happening yet on a third album? We're not writing the third album yet -- well, let me clarify that. Marco is a writing machine. He has a 100 songs in the can already at any moment. Guthrie and I are not like that. We need time to write. But last year really was more about side man work and just getting Culture Clash out. This year is more about touring to promote the album. January is the West Coast and some Mexico dates. And then we're going to Europe and we won't be back until April. And then after that -- we're still planning this, but we may go to Canada.
And after that, Marco and I are going out with Joe Satriani for a couple of months. And in August we're doing Southeast Asia stuff. We've got lots of months of touring lined up for the Aristocrats.
So just constant touring! Yeah. But you know, it's so important that we go to Phoenix because we've never done a show there. I'm really looking forward to playing our first-ever show in Arizona. And it's at a small venue, too! We want to go into a small place and have it totally packed. We want people to feel that energy and get up close.
It's an interesting dynamic: The Aristocrats' members are all in their 40s, but the way the band is developing is almost entirely through things like social media and the Internet. You started blogging about your life as a bassist in 1995, which was impressively ahead of the blogging game. For you personally, how do you think developments like social media and blogging have affected the industry, since you've seen it both ways? The great thing about the Internet and technology in general is that it has broken down the barriers to making records. You used to have to get a record deal in order to get enough money to go into a studio because it was so expensive. You couldn't just make a record.
Now, with technology, you can make a great record inexpensively. And most importantly, you can promote it, you know, for free. If you have a product people are interested in, they will start talking about it with each other.
You know, if it wasn't for the fact that that week Marco and I saw Guthrie playing on YouTube, we never would've known who he was. I didn't know Guthrie four years ago at all. But we saw him online, [and] we asked him to play a show when our guitarist had to cancel last minute at NAMM. So once we have the project together, now we have these online communities that are interested in our respective world, then we start our own Web site, label, Twitter and Facebook, then go into the studio and make an album.
The Internet makes all this possible. The Aristocrats would've never been possible without the Internet. So, I'm grateful for all the technology and social media.
I didn't realize the first time you saw Guthrie was on YouTube. Yeah! Greg Howe, Marco, and I had played a show in Russia, we had a good time; Marco organized that show. So then we were going to do the same thing at NAMM, and I was going to organize it. Then Howe had to cancel at last minute, so Marco and I were like, 'what are we gonna do?'
On Facebook a little while back, for no reason, someone was writing to me and said that I needed to play with Guthrie Govan, and they sent videos. So I'm like, 'yeah, whatever.' But then I watched them and was like 'holy shit!' I had been playing with Steve Vai and I'm just like, 'how is it possible that I never heard this guy play?' So Marco and I were all excited and we emailed Guthrie out of the blue. And he flew in. That's how it started.
The Aristocrats are scheduled to perform Friday, January 17, at Pub Rock in Scottsdale.
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