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The Aristocrats' Guthrie Govan and Bryan Beller: Rock and Awe

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Govan recently announced his partnership with Charvel and described one of the sticking points about the prototypes: "Different bridge—that's all I'm saying." Photo by Kris Claerhout

By definition, an aristocrat is a member of a "government by the best individuals or by a small privileged class." The chops-heavy trio of guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Bryan Beller, and drummer Marco Minnemann could be easily voted into office if the main issues were musicality, a progressive approach to instrumentals, and overall ability to create face-melting solos.

With Culture Clash, the group members (now with some road time under their belts) sound more comfortable and more willing to trust each other musically. " We're happier with this album,” Beller says. “The material, we feel, is more cohesive as a band. We like the sound of it better. The first one was done so quickly we didn't really know what we had on our hands because we were such a new band." Although this album wasn't recorded at a leisurely pace, it was recorded with a focus and a level of comfort that was missing from the Aristocrats’ self-titled debut.

"Spending some time on the road gives you a heightened sense of freedom. The idea that you can really write whatever you want," Govan mentions. With three virtuoso musicians, the urge to push the boundaries—not only technically, but also stylistically—can be hard to resist. "It could be as difficult as you want, or as silly as you want, or come from any absurd stylistic starting point,” Govan continues. “It will still sound like this band by the time we finish with it." We caught up with Govan and Beller after the opening night of their summer tour to discuss their approach to composition, working out some hellbilly riffs, and if they’ve ever wrote something that was too hard.

How did the sessions differ from the first album?

Beller: Honestly, it was about our surroundings. First of all, we worked with a comfortable, familiar engineer, someone I have done three or four records with and he mixed our first record, although he didn't record it. Second, we did it in Nashville, where I live, as opposed to all of us meeting in Chicago. I had the home-base advantage, I feel comfortable there, and I can have people staying at my house. Then there's the aspect that Guthrie, Marco, and I all knew each other better for this second record. Even though we had the same amount of time, it didn't feel nearly as frenzied when we were in the studio. The first one was just crazy.

How did the last tour help in developing your group rapport for this album?

Govan: More than anything else, it gives you a heightened sense of freedom. The idea that you can really write whatever you want. It could be as difficult as you want, or as silly as you want, or come from any absurd stylistic starting point. It will still sound like this band by the time we finish with it. I think the strength of our personalities and how we interact with each other is such a big part of the sound. It doesn't have to be genre specific or anything like that.

Was the pre-production process particularly challenging considering your busy schedules as sidemen?

Govan: If you have my life, you don't really have the luxury of setting aside time. It's more like "When do you eat?" When you're on tour, you eat when food presents itself. When you write, and there's a window, you have to seize it. I certainly had a very, very hectic period in my life going on while we were trying to write material. To some extent, I had to force myself when I saw a window of opportunity whether I liked it or not. The good element of that is that my contributions were all completely fresh and written specifically for this band, apart from the two-bar riff in "Culture Clash," which I’d been sitting on for a couple of years and didn't know what to do with. It was helpful to me to now have some idea of what this band sounds like and what everyone's strengths are and be able to imagine roughly what kind of thing would sound good when we got together and played it.

Beller: I actually wrote a song about how difficult it was to find time to write the songs for the record. That's what "Living the Dream" is about. I require time at home away from everyone else. I can't really write on the road. Well, it's not that I can't, it's just more difficult to do it. I wrote a little bit of "Cocktail Umbrellas" while on the road but it's much easier for me to do it at home.

When you present the demos to the other band members, how much are the arrangements fleshed out?

Beller: There's tweaking, but I wouldn't say there's too many changes to the arrangement. The songs are arranged when we come in. The form is pretty set. Now, tone, stylistic things, and being individual musicians who can put their stamp on it, that all comes in the studio just by the nature of being who we are. We produce our own songs, so on Marco's tunes he's in there asking for a little more of this or that—same thing with Guthrie. Everybody has a unique style of doing it, which is interesting.

Guthrie, how did the title track evolve? The counterpoint intro is particularly interesting.

Govan: The whole theme of that song is that guitar riff at the beginning. Some version of that is running through a sizeable percentage of the tune. The general idea was to have jarring and very different contexts for that riff to appear in. It was kind of a loose hint to the term "Culture Clash." Almost like this riff going to different countries and experiencing different things. The more Hendrix-sounding, funky version of that riff was probably the starting point. Then you could probably imagine from that if you're trying to make that riff different you might try a more muted, clean tone thing. The bass counterpoint seemed like a good way to start it because it seemed like it would confuse people. I don't think that bass part really makes any sense on its own. If you remove the guitar track from that you think, "Why is the bass playing in those places?" Quite counter-intuitive, I hope. But put the two together and you get this interweaving. Later on in the song, the idea was that the riff would reveal itself in a more obvious fashion. The guitar part is definitely the backbone of the tune.

"I would imagine that playing a Gretsch, if you aren't used to it, is like being eight months pregnant. Everything about the guitar is in a different place." —Guthrie Govan

When you're working on a tune, do the guitar and bass parts come simultaneously?

Govan: Usually, these days I try to write the bass and guitar parts concurrently. So I will sit there in my grubby little room swapping between guitar and bass on a four-bar basis and let the two parts affect each other. I'll think, "Now that the bass part is doing this, does the guitar need to do that?" Then I'll go back to the guitar and play a different version. Bass lines are quite a big part of what makes a tune work for me. I've never been one of those people who write a self-contained guitar melody and then make the bass plug through root notes. I love the idea that the bass can be melodic as well. Just listen to James Jamerson or Paul McCartney and you will hear how melodic a bass part can be. It doesn't just have to add meat. I try to do some of these things.

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