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.