An interview with
Bryan Beller (2008)

By Beppe Colli
Sept. 30, 2008

Having a new Bryan Beller album a mere five years after his solo debut... well, that's news to me. Of course, the fact of Thanks In Advance being a more mature, more assured, and more varied album than his predecessor, View, didn't hurt, either.

So I thought about asking Bryan Beller for an interview. And though he was right in the middle of a media storm, he kindly agreed to answer my questions, which were sent last week, via e-mail.

If we consider the composing side of the musical process, you released View as a late bloomer. I had expected that - floodgates now open - the follow-up was to follow really soon. (Maybe this is a complex matter, but here's my question anyway) What made the new album come so late?

Actually, when I finished writing View in late 2002, I remember being creatively exhausted. I didn't have any material left over, not a note. And I ended up being very busy with a serious corporate day job after the release in 2003, all the way until I finally quit that job in April of 2005. 2005 was a big year for me - I had a close friend pass away, the amazing bassist Wes Wehmiller, who you can learn more about by going to - and I took the better part of that year really to re-find myself, and to address some issues that had been keeping me unhappy for quite some time. Finally, in 2006 I moved out of L.A. to Nashville, for love of all things, and then finally in April of 2006, the creative spark hit me again. So I wasn't really out there looking for it - in a way, I allowed it to come back to me.

Then, once I started writing it, it took me a year to finish the writing. Then suddenly I got tours with Steve Vai and Dethklok, so that slowed things down even more. It wasn't until December of 2007 that we started tracking it, and it was done and mastered in May of 2008. I never really had a plan for it to take that long, but it's hard to imagine how it could have happened any other way.

Somewhere in the press sheet about the new album I found this sentence about View: "which I now realize was a well-crafted complaint about things". Could you elaborate on this?

In early 2006, I put View in my car's CD player and listened all the way through, and for the first time I understood what I was trying to say with it. If you look at the cover artwork, here's the picture: I was trying to get somewhere "on a road" and saw a beautiful, empty vista in front of me "a horizon point and a mountain range" but it was blocked by a reflection of a busy cityscape in a window suspended over the road. No matter how far I traveled down the road, the reflection was always there, and no matter how much I tried to get away from it, it would always be there.

It came to me in an instant. The album View (and especially the song View) was about the frustration of trying to get away from something that was impossible to escape: the negative view of my own life, and of life itself, from my own mind. It was a beautifully executed, exquisitely detailed lament about something which I was completely responsible for generating in the first place. If Thanks In Advance is about anything, it is the declaration to myself that life doesn't have to be lived that way, and that the possibility exists that it can occur in a state of fulfillment and freedom regardless of circumstance - and that the choice was mine to make.

That was something I confronted in a big way in 2006, and really, the new album is the story of the struggle to overcome my own negativity about things. I think if you listen to it from start to finish, you can hear it gather in intensity until it finally reaches a climax and resolves itself near the end of the record. That was the intent, anyway.

On Thanks In Advance the performances were recorded in different studios, which I suspect was a difficult, not to mention expensive, (but obviously rewarding) process. Talk about this.

It wasn't that difficult, actually. I wanted to have a lot of different musicians on the record, some of whom lived in Nashville for a different flavor, and some of whom lived in Los Angeles, mostly the guys who I did View with. But I didn't want to just send files via the internet and sit at home waiting and wondering what everyone was going to do. I really thought it would make a positive difference for me to be with the people tracking the music, so I made a big month-long car trip to Los Angeles and brought everything I needed to produce the other musicians, and track my own bass parts as well. It made the whole thing a big adventure, and if you watch the DVD you can get a really good sense of what the journey was like. I think it would have been more difficult to do it one musician at a time without me there... it would have been less cohesive as a complete record, I think.

The new album sounds really good, very clear but warm at the same time. You produced it. Would you mind talking about your goals when it comes to sound, and some of the problems (if any!) you had to face along the way?

Thanks for the kind words on the sound - I spent a lot of time on it, and much of the result is owed to the album's chief engineer, Mark Niemiec. We did all the mixing in his home studio, so it was affordable to be able to spend many hours on each song making sure everything was just right. We mixed for 11 complete 12-hour days, which is quite long for a record at this budget level - if we had done that in a major studio, it would have been completely unaffordable.

I think that producing is two key things - coaching the musicians as they track the parts, for proper sound and performance, and then also making the "final calls" in mixing and mastering. I am much more confident and experienced at the first part than the second part. I tried to convey to Mark that I wanted the record to sound "elegant" and "warm, but very clear." He then takes those instructions and tries to implement them technically. The biggest challenge was achieving that on each song in a cohesive way, because we tracked in eight different studios with six different drummers. It was very important to me to achieve a "complete record" sound, so that took some time in both mixing and especially mastering... which was tough, but I'm glad with the final results, which is all that matters.

On the new album your musical vocabulary as a composer appears to be broader. Did you get more colours, changed your mind about stuff, or...

I think I just had a little more confidence overall as a composer after having done the first record. I went out on a limb and tried some thing that were a little over my head - like Casual Lie Day with the mini-orchestra arrangements and thick jazz chords, and Blind Sideways with its very straight-ahead complex jazz approach. Also, the Nashville influence was more of a classic R&B influence, because those were the people I was hanging around with thanks to my fiancé Kira Small - she's a musician too, a singer/songwriter, and she was playing with these old greasy dudes from way back in the R&B scene. So Snooze Bar especially was a completely new palate for me, and I wanted to start the record off with something a little new.

The first two tracks on the album feature a few faces that weren't on the first album, and they offer quite a different musical climate, a pleasant surprise! But I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any of those people...

That's exactly what I'm talking about in the last answer. The first two tracks are recorded entirely in Nashville, with Nashville musicians. Everyone may think that there's only country music in Nashville, but that's not true - there's some amazing stuff going on here and some incredible musicians. On Snooze Bar, guitarist Bruce Dees and keyboardist Clayton Ivey are the "old greasy dudes" I was mentioning above. Bruce has played with James Brown, and is an amazing guitarist - there's a joke about him in town that goes, "What do you do when you have a session to do and a guitar with only one string? Call Bruce Dees." It's about his ability to play just one note, or one line, that makes the perfect texture for a song. And Clayton Ivey is a legend - he was part of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and you should look up his list of credits on - it's astounding. He played with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Diana Ross... the list goes on and on. His Hammond M3 organ, which he used for Snooze Bar, was just put into the Musician's Hall Of Fame, because he was inducted last year. So I'm proud to have these two guys on the record, and they bring a whole new flavor to the music.

But the younger guys are amazing as well. Guitarist Chris Cottros was a fellow Berklee College Of Music student along with Joe Travers, Griff Peters and myself, and is one of those great guitarists that nobody knows about. Drummer Marcus Finnie is fast becoming the go-to jazz/fusion guy in town, and plays with bassist Adam Nitti quite a bit. And pianist Jody Nardone played for years in a jazz piano trio that did nothing but the music of King Crimson. So I'm happy to showcase these folks to a new community of listeners.

How much of a market is there right now for "this kind of music", I mean, for an album like yours? I have really no idea about it.

I guess I'm about to find out. I just make the music I make. My purpose with it is simply to leave something lasting behind on this earth when I'm gone. Whatever happens with it business-wise, I'll deal with it one way or the other. I'm happy that I own it all outright and I'm not "owned" by a record company, though.

When it comes to musicians' well-being, free downloading is often considered to be "the mother of all evils". Complex issue, of course, but what's your take on this?

It's just one of many factors. Obviously there is the potential for people to get your music for free and never pay for it, but at the same time there is the possibility for additional exposure that you would not have otherwise had. I think in the end of the day it's a wash, and even if it weren't, you can't put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, so the trick is to try and find ways to maximize on the strong wave already moving in the music world towards digital media being the predominant choice for the music listeners of tomorrow.

The last time we talked, you didn't seem to like the perspective of writing about music, while nowadays you are a writer at... Bass Player, right? I'm curious about this, and about other new "extracurricular activities".

Well, again, this is the benefit of having a more positive outlook on life. I used to look at music writing as a critique-oriented exercise, and now I see it as a way to give back to the community of musicians who want greater exposure and recognition for their talents and hard work. That makes all the difference for me, and I enjoy my work with Bass Player Magazine immensely. Especially the full transcription article - those are lots of fun for a music geek like me.

Last question: Do you plan to tour the new album?

I certainly hope so. It make take a while to settle the business end of this record down, but once things straighten out a bit, I'm looking at 2009 as a year in which I hopefully can do some limited touring in the U.S., and maybe even a couple of one-off shows in Europe if the situation is right. I think that having two albums out makes a touring show much easier to put together than drawing from just one release. It gives a stronger sense of who the artist is that you're coming to see, and I feel more strongly in my own artistry from having done the second record, that's for sure.

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Sept. 30, 2008