An interview with
Bryan Beller (2003)

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 18, 2003

Born May 1971, Bryan Beller is a bass player (and multi-instrumentalist) of great chops who also possesses a great deal of intelligence, maturity and musical sensibility. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he has played and recorded, among others, with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa's band Z, Steve Vai, and ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. For almost ten years now - on many albums and tours - he's been the bass player with Mike Keneally's band, currently putting the finishing touches on their new studio album. Beller was a part of SWR Sound Corporation, a big manufacturer of bass amplification products, and since 2000, alongside Mike Keneally, appears as a clinician for Taylor Guitars, in an "acoustic" format.

The recently - and independently: Onion Boy Records being Beller's label - released View is his first solo CD. Among the featured players we have Toss Panos and Joe Travers on drums, both former members of Keneally's band; Rick Musallam, the versatile guitar player who's a current member of Keneally's quartet; and Keneally himself. View could very well prove to be the first step in a long career. It's a rare instance of a rock album one can actually listen to without feeling ashamed. It's electric music, very well played, with multiple references: blues, jazz, a bit of fusion (not fuzak!). Beller proves himself to be a fine composer and - but this was expected, right? - an excellent bass player, both when "comping" and soloing. A propos of which, what in my CD review I mistook for a Keneally guitar solo in Supermarket People is in fact a bass solo by Beller, who played it on bass guitar through a guitar amp.

I sent a message to Bryan Beller, asking for an interview. He kindly agreed, and you can read it here.

You've been a player for quite a long time, but it was only recently - with the material that's featured on your new solo CD, View - that you started composing in a serious way. Would you mind talking about this new phase?

It really happened suddenly, almost by accident. After 31 years of nothing original in my head, I just heard a melody while I was riding my bike one day. Then I heard a counter melody. By the time I recorded one and played the other against it, I had what became the first song on View, Bear Divide. In two weeks I had five songs complete in demo form. I still have no idea how it all happened, or why it took so long for it to happen at all. Maybe I just needed to experience certain things in life before it could happen.

I'd like to know about the way you started to develop an interest in music: what was the initial stimulus? And what groups/bass players/composers did you consider as important for you?

The initial stimulus was my parents telling me I should take piano lessons when I was eight years old. I didn't start playing acoustic bass until I was 10 - and that was only because I wanted to play the biggest instrument in the orchestra. Electric bass started at 13. Honestly, I didn't get serious until I went to Berklee at age 18, and then I started getting into Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius, John Scofield, and ultimately, Frank Zappa - though at the time I had no idea what kind of role the whole Zappa thing would play in my life.

For many years now you've been the bass player in Mike Keneally's band. Would you mind talking about the way your musical relationship has developed during this time?

10 years is a long time to play with someone. If after 10 years you don't really know how your musical partner thinks and works, it's time to do something else. I really do view Mike as my musical soulmate. We know what each other are going to play in certain situations, what our tendencies are, how best to complement each other, all of that. It started off with me just barely being able to keep up with his mind and musical ideas, but now it's much more of a partnership, because he's helped me greatly to mature as a bassist and as a musician, and my mind is literally sharper thanks to him.

From your perspective as a schooled musician - and a bass player - , how do you regard the current situation when it comes to the mechanization of music? Most current genres and the "all in one box" approach don't seem to be very encouraging when it comes to playing skills, rhythm sections and group identities...

Actually, I see younger players doing more interesting things than ever before, and I think that's because there's more musical history to consider as time goes on, more general knowledge to digest. Whether or not any of them go on to become the next Jaco or Flea or Jamerson or whatever, that may not be possible anymore, because a lot of initial ground has already been covered. But the broad base of music to dive into, from straight-ahead jazz of the 50's and 60's, to the jazz/rock fusion of the 70's, to the hard rock shredding of the 80's, to the funk rock and grunge and punk jazz (Mr. Bungle, for example) and power pop and industrial of the 90's, there's just a ton of shit out there for anyone who really wants to get serious about playing.

Your favourite rhythm sections - and why.

John Paul Jones and Bonham. By far and away. They really did invent modern rock, you know. Also: Peter Erskine and Jaco, Flea and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (from the late 80's/early 90's material), John Patitucci and Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Toss Panos (of Michael Landau's band), Patrick O'Hearn and Terry Bozzio of Frank Zappa's late 70's band.

I know you had a "day job" at SWR - and now at Fender, if I'm not mistaken. Would you mind talking about it? Do you see it as a "safety cushion" when it comes to the ups and downs of "difficult music making" in the modern world?

I see it as a lifestyle and musical choice. It's not so much about a safety cushion as it is about how much music you want to play in a day, a week, a month, and what kind of music it is. If you're going to make your living solely as a musician, you have to play all the time, and whatever kind of music that pays the bills that week. That takes an extreme amount of dedication and a nearly bottomless reservoir of energy for music. After a year of freelancing full-time back in 1996, I discovered I didn't have enough musical energy for that, and I was starting to resent music a little bit. That was when I pulled back and said to myself, "OK, I want more control about what kind of music and when I play it." Because I have other interests in life. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who do it full-time. Music, as a profession, is a demanding mistress.

I've read a few reviews that you've written. Talking in general: What do you regard as being the aim of music criticism? And: Do you have any examples of music critics (past and present) whose work you regard as being of value?

I discovered quickly that I knew little about music criticism other than the fact that I was looking for literary outlets. I don't know what the aim of music criticism is. I guess everything needs a yardstick or measuring device of some kind. I just did enough of it to realize it wasn't for me. I felt insincere doing it.

What are your opinions when it comes to the topic of "literacy in modern society"?

There isn't enough of it, and in America, at least, there's less of it with every passing year. Kids these days are far more fluid in the shorthand "language" of text messaging than they are in the actual English language. Maybe that's because we spend all of the government's money on defense contracting and drug wars in Colombia, because if we want to spend it domestically on education then we must be big government liberals, or socialists, or worse... but that's a topic for another time.

Are there any artists whose work you regard to be inspirational for you right now?

Mike Keneally has always been an inspiration to me, and always will be. Beyond that, two guitarists are inspiring me right now: John Scofield and Michael Landau. When it comes to original music, a lot of what I think about and what I aspire to comes from what they do naturally.

I noticed that you included in the CD a couple of snippets of dialogue from the movie In The Company Of Men by Neil LaBute. I was curious about it. (Clarification: here in Italy all movies are dubbed - they are shown in Italian language. So technically speaking I haven't really heard the dialogue. But the "listen to me!" part is the end-of-the-movie scene, right?) Would you mind elaborating on this?

In The Company Of Men - you're correct about the "LISTEN TO ME!" being from the end of that film. The film deals with men and women - more men, really - and modern forms of misogyny in everyday life, and I knew what the movie was about well before I saw it. Meanwhile, I was trying to convey a sense of social and dysfunction in the middle third of the album - bad relationships, what bad men do to willing women, that sort of thing. Tracks seven (Bite) through ten (Wildflower) were created as a set piece in my mind, and the dialogue both at the end of Bite and the end of Eighteen Weeks just happened to fit those emotional moments very well. Eighteen Weeks in particular was interesting because it was written specifically to convey the kind of feeling that In The Company Of Men describes in excruciating detail, and I wrote the song before I saw the movie.

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Dec. 18, 2003

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