Dancing With Dolphins
By Don Zulaica
Published March, 2001
Is there more to life than playing the bass?
To Mike Keneally/Beer For Dolphins bassist Bryan Beller, the answer is unequivocally yes. Besides being the low-note man for former Zappa stunt-guitarist Keneally, and the occasional gigs with Wayne Kramer or Steely Damned, he is a full-time Product Development Manager for SWR Sound Corporation, and even sleeps with the enemy--as a regular columnist for Bass Player magazine.
"Between Mike, other music gigs, the column, and SWR, nobody can accuse me of not having enough to do," he shrugs. "It's just a matter of finding out--is what you're doing what you really want to do? That's the question you have to ask yourself. Whether it's the kind of music you're playing, the amount of time you spend doing music, the kind of money you're making for doing the music you're playing, the kind of artistic reward you get for the music that you play, and what else is there in your life that gives you happiness? How much time are you going to make for it? If you want to make time for it, what are you willing to sacrifice? It's a lot of balancing."
The well-balanced Beller grew up in the upper-middle class suburban town of Westfield, New Jersey - "this absolute musical wasteland" - and weaned himself on rock icons John Paul Jones and Geddy Lee. Some Stray Cats-inspired acoustic bass and five years of classical piano led to a five-week Berklee program for high school students in 1988. Beller, a junior with a superlative ear, excelled amidst the hair-metal wannabes, and enrolled in Berklee "for real."
With eyes and ears wide open, he promptly started cutting his teeth and made fast friends with a drummer named Joe Travers. "Zappa freak" Travers, after boldly predicting and landing a gig with Dweezil Zappa's rock outfit Z, later made the call to Bryan that brought him out to Los Angeles in 1991. More significantly, Bryan's stint with Z introduced him to Mike Keneally, the guitarist/composer with whom Beller has recorded the adventurous records Boil That Dust Speck, Half Alive In Hollywood, Sluggo! (all on Immune Records) and the latest release, Dancing (Exowax).
Dancing, while blistering with Keneally's guitar alchemy and feathered with bits of Frank, is way more than string gymnastics. The full-fledged Beer for Dolphins is an eight-piece unit, sporting horns, marimba, and densely striking vocal arrangements, collectively rivaling Steely Dan in its crystalline perfection. All the while, Beller authoritatively holds down the bottom, deftly navigates the minefields, and comments on any potential commercial appeal by waving the proverbial cigar, "Straight to the top, baby!"
We caught up with Bryan in between his balancing spinning plates to talk about the album, influences, and getting kicked in the ass by Berklee.
* * * * *
How did the writing come together for Dancing?
Mike could probably spurt out 20 songs at any given moment, so that's kind of hard to say. I think this stuff is in his head well before he ever starts showing it to anybody. When he was doing Nonkertompf [Exowax] he was concentrating on that. Then he did another [Steve] Vai tour, and it was while he was on that tour in early 2000 that a lot of the new material coalesced in his head. The second the tour was over, he was back in town and a week later we were rehearsing in Keneally's manager's living room, and three days after that we were in the studio. We did all the basics in four days, which is like 22 tracks, plus a lot of overdubs.
Does Mike bring in finished charts to the rehearsals?
You know, charts don't do me much good. I just learned it all by ear. I've been playing with Mike for so long now, that I kind of have a little bit of intuition as to where he's going to go. It may seem implausible to suggest that there's a bit of a pattern to what he does, because it seems so random and through-composed. But if you've been around him long enough, there are little tricks you can pick up where a song is going to go.
He'll give Jason [Harrison Smith, drums] a chart, and definitely Tricia [Williams, percussion.] She's a classical musician, she reads charts. You give her a chart, she'll do anything. If you don't give her a chart.that's not the way those people operate. Same thing with Evan [Francis], the sax player.
Where did you record?
We recorded it at a studio in San Diego called Signature Sound. Mike usually worked at a studio called Double Time, a fine studio. But Signature has a bit of a bigger room, some more isolation facilities, some nice gear, and a fantastic engineer named Mike Harris. He got the best sounds to tape that I've heard on a Keneally album, certainly the best bass sound I've ever gotten to tape. Some of that was because there was more room to isolate, but it was also in part to a different technique I used in recording the bass. I'm ashamed to admit I didn't pay that much attention to the sounds to tape as opposed to, "hey here's the bass I want to use" or whatever.
What did you use?
Sometimes I used a lot of gear. I recorded three tracks sub-mixed to one. The first track was direct through a nice tube DI that Mike Harris had there at Signature. The second track was through an SWR Super Redhead with a Mr. Tone Controls, which is a 9-band semi-parametric EQ in the effects loop of that unit. And that 2x10 combo was miked. The third track was an SWR Interstellar Overdrive, which is kind of a pre-amp tube with power-amp tubes in it. You can really overdrive it and get some nice sounds. And that cabinet was miked as well. So depending on the song, I could blend in a certain amount of dirt. With those three tracks blended together in a variety of ways I definitely came closer to what I perceived as the sound I wanted to get. And I used a TC Electronics chorus pedal for some stuff.
When you hit the road what are you using?
Half of the rig is an SWR SM-400 head bridged into one Goliath II 4x10 cabinet. Then I take a pre-amp out of that same SWR head, and go into a separate power amp, a Peavey DPC1000, and power the second Goliath II 4x10. That's the "A" rig.
Then for distortion, I split A/B at the front and I go to an SWR Interstellar Overdrive preamp. I power that preamp to a Goliath Jr. III 2x10 cabinet, and then we mike that one.
On the floor, I'll use an octave pedal, a TC Electronics chorus, and I have a SansAmp PSA-1 in there for some simulated kind of overdrive sounds. Live I've also been using an SWR Mr. Tone Control, that 9-band semi-parametric EQ. In the studio I basically shrunk down my live rig.
Now that may all be about to change because the SWR Mo'Bass head has all these effects in it. So I think I'll probably be using the Mo'Bass on the next tour. I think it sounds better than what I have right now, I just need to kind of set it up with the right kind of power. I like having about three times as much power as I need so that I have plenty of headroom and never have to worry about putting the amps to full blast.
You're still using the red Fender as the main axe?
Yeah, the main axe is still the Fender Jazz Deluxe 5. I also used an MTD 5-string and a Reverend Rumblefish 4-string on the record. I've always loved Tobias basses, I've had one ever since I was back in college. But mainly when it comes to live and a lot of different applications, the Fender is definitely my main axe. I've never heard a bass that sits in a live band better that it. And not only that, I kind of need a big nice hunk of wood in my hand when I'm playing live. The Tobias, while in certain pristine settings they'll give you a little bit more character, I bring that out live and I just mangle the thing. It doesn't fight me enough. The Fender fights me enough, it's a bit thicker.
Any special modifications with the Fender? Pickups?
The pickups are the standard noiseless active jazz bass pickups--I haven't after-marketed it at all--and Fender nickel-plated steel strings. The SWR thing may have presented the illusion that I'm a gear head. I'm not, I just want my shit to work.
The album is definitely fun to listen to--did you first hear some of this stuff and think, "Wow, this could do really well commercially?"
Well, I'm not in this project to make money.
But that's why it begs the question. I mean, if this gets into the right hands.
That's what we're all thinking, and I think there's reason for optimism in that regard. I don't want to discount the possibility of it being commercially successful. I'd be the happiest guy in the world if that happens. There's weirder shit out there that is doing just fine. I hope it works out, but more than anything I'm just happy to play the record for people who may have in the past gone, "Oh, that's that weird Keneally stuff," and they go "Wow, that's a good pop song." You know, Mike's been writing pop songs for a long time. It's tough for me to say because I'm so inside it. But we're not just being weird for weird's sake anymore.
How did Mike bring the first tune to you, "Live In Japan?"
Mike had charts for marimba, trumpet and sax. But the rest of us, he'll just start chugging out the riff and we'll learn it section by section. The verse is interesting. It's a very basic melody, but the rhythms that are going on are a little non-standard. With the syncopation half-way through, the bass ends up doubling the marimba part. Not something you would get in an everyday pop song, but it doesn't seem to take away from the fact that it is a pop song. There's a kind of happy gloss to the whole thing.
Definitely, and the guitar riff is classic.
I really dig the main guitar riff. It feels good coming back at you. That's kind of the mark of any good riff is that you're happy to hear it when it comes back, "Oh good, that's that section I liked again!"
Was there anything particularly difficult? How quickly did it come together for the group?
It came together pretty fast, but I'd say the hardest thing was about getting that chorus feel together. There's some off beats [from] the guitar, and I'm playing straight. Then there's this very odd woodblock percussion rhythm. At first it was difficult for me to get my part right--I wasn't sure if I should anticipate or play straight. As a bass player it's a challenge to try and do whatever it is you need to do in order to make the groove whole.
So the drums are playing straight, there's all this syncopation going on with the guitar, and the vocals are a different melody and rhythm altogether. So it took me a little while to kind of sit in the middle of all of this and find the right thing, but once I did I felt good about it. It's a very basic pop song until the end where it kind of goes into this circus from hell thing - I really dig that [laughs]. To me, those are the things I get off on. Actually, the thing I get off on the most on that song is the part after the modulated chorus, the little build right before it gets into the final chorus. Mike has a knack for writing sections like that.
Another song that's interesting is "Ragged Ass."
It's a wild song. Those are fast sixes [in the main bass riff]. And the interesting thing about those sixes, most sextuplets are in groups of three. These are in groups of two, not the usual feel for sixes. It sounds impressive, but it's not as difficult as it sounds.
The verse is a total riot, and the chorus is a riot too--it's like the evil march from hell. One thing I'm particularly proud of, at the end of the second chorus there's a held note. I think it's an E-flat over A chord, and we all know how pretty those sound. And I used to play the lick, you know, the horses are going off to the races. I was doing that live, and was about to do that in the studio, and Mike said, "Don't do that lick there. It sounds too Zappa-ish." So I said, "Fine. I'll just play the ugliest thing I can possibly think of." "Fine, you do that." And out came just the ugliest bass lick, and I'm so proud of that. I think I'm more proud of that than anything on the record. It's so disgustingly bad [laughs].
I thought Les Claypool entered the building.
Yeah [laughing]. And then the song goes into a very interesting solo section where you've got four bars of 9/8 and then a bar of 5/4, and some very interesting chords that descend. Evan plays a fantastic solo. I love this song. In a lot of ways, it's everything that we do: it's stupid, it's funny, it's rich, it's musical, and there's a song in there somewhere.
When did you start playing bass?
I started playing acoustic bass when I was 10, because it was the biggest instrument in the orchestra. I was an obnoxious little kid, I just wanted to have the biggest thing I could hold and show everybody.however strange that sounds [laughs]. Oddly enough, I saw the Stray Cats video for "Rock This Town," and I was like, "Hell yeah! I can finally do something cool with this instrument." So I went home and played that lick for an hour, and my hand looked like I stuck it in a meat grinder.
Who were your first influences?
My first real influence was John Paul Jones. I started out learning as many Led Zeppelin tunes as I could. I loved Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti. I went through the same hell everybody else went through, trying to learn the time signatures in "Black Dog." And I was learning every Rush song. There was "The YYZ Test." If you could play that song, you were good. If you couldn't, then you still had some work to do.
Then I went through a phase where I wasn't playing a lot of bass and learning songs on piano, and took classical lessons for five years. I taught myself a lot of Pink Floyd songs, Yes--and even Metallica--on the piano, if you can imagine that. My parents weren't too thrilled, but at least I was doing that as opposed to what I could be doing outside the house. But I was learning it all by ear and didn't realize that what I was doing was whipping my ears into really fantastic shape.
When did Berklee come into the picture?
In 1998 I went to a five-week Berklee program for high school students. I was a junior, and taking bass lessons again. It was the '80s. There were a lot of clowns there, people who couldn't play at all who were into hair metal, and were at this program because--hell, this is where all the future rock stars are going to be, whatever. And I was better than a lot of the guys there. So I kind of ended up with a false sense of security, thinking, "I must be pretty good." And I ended up finishing high school and going to Berklee for real.
And let me tell you, when I got to Berklee, my first week, when I saw what "real" Berklee was like, I was like--holy shit, I suck. Man, if only I'd been practicing when I was in high school. I mean, I learned everything just as well as I needed to, and had no technique at all. Man, was that a rude awakening.
What nailed you first?
I wasn't listening to anything good when I got there. First thing I heard was John Scofield, and the Chick Corea Elektric Band with John Patitucci. Sure enough, the next thing that somebody played for me was Invitation by Jaco. That album had much more of an impact on me than his first solo record. A lot of that first solo record is, "Hi, I'm Jaco, check my bad ass out!" But Invitation, there's some incredible arrangements going on. That's what it's about for me, the impact of a piece of music as a whole as opposed to just a bass line.
And then somebody played me a Frank Zappa record, the last three songs on disc one of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 1 - "I'm The Slime," "Big Swifty," and then "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" with the "Rollo" outro. And I was like, "Whoa. What the fuck is this?"
Now, I was by no means a Zappa freak. I met drummer Joe Travers and he was kind of the walking gospel of Zappa, and could play the music. So he introduced me to some of the concepts that were going on in Zappa's music. I really have him to thank for that, although I never really became a huge freak. I was always more interested in being a part of a song, instead of just blazing away. Some of the Zappa stuff is blazing, but the humor and irony of the music hit my nerve.
And then Joe left for Los Angeles, and you two ended up joining Dweezil Zappa's group Z, which is how you met Keneally.
Joe was older than me, and graduated and said, "I'm going to L.A. I'm going to get the Dweezil gig." And I was like, "Joe, he already has a drummer." He said, "I don't care." He networked Keneally when Dweezil came and did an in-store appearance at Tower Records, where Joe worked.
So he went out there, and slept on the floor of somebody's apartment in a nasty part of Hollywood. Sure enough, six months later he calls, "I got the gig!" Well, instantly he was a fucking legend. How does anyone go out and actually call their shot like that, you know?
And he was trying to get me to go with him, and I hadn't graduated yet. I'm thinking, "I can't go out there, I don't know anybody. What am I, nuts?" So didn't I feel stupid when he called back saying he got the gig. Then I thought, Scott Thunes is Dweezil's bass player--I'm never getting in. But a few months later I got a call offering me an audition. So I came out, and ended up getting it. And what's funny, after that happened, there must have been a group of about 10-15 people that I went to school with that came out to L.A. at the same time. They said, [in his best pimp voice] "God dayam! I'm goin' to L.A.! That's where all the money's at!"
And the reason I'm telling you all this in the first place is that Joe went out to L.A., and I never envisioned myself in L.A. I always just thought I was going to be part of a band. I was in this typical gutbucket blues/rock band, 100 Proof, getting ready to move to New York and try and make it there. And I was into it.the last thing in the world that I thought would happen to me was that I was going to end up in a position where I was one of those people in bass magazines. You couldn't have found a scenario further from my mind!
Reprinted with permission from the March/April 2001 issue of Bassics, copyright M.I. Media.