The Aristocrats: ‘Looking Forward to an Audience Who’s Clapping on Time!’
The jazz/experimental rock trio on not being part of the mainstream and playing to a muso crowd at their India debut next month
In January this year, a Facebook note on guitarist Guthrie Govan’s official page discreetly listed out tentative countries for The Aristocrats’ Tres Caballeros AustralAsian tour. The experimental/ jazz rock trio — comprising Govan, bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann — had their sights set on India, Japan, China and Australia as part of the transcontinental tour to promote their third studio album Tres Caballeros. Govan’s listings went largely unnoticed in the country, as did the initial attempt by a popular chain of performance venues to secure a four-city India tour.
Fast forward to June, when The Aristocrats’ direct appeal to the “good people of India” to connect the band to promoters set off an all-out social media explosion (by a fan base that was also in limbo about Steven Wilson’s solo India debut). Says Beller over a Skype call from New York (where he and Minnemann are performing with the likes of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai as part of guitar retreat G4 Experience), “Everywhere we go, the first time that we play that country, it’s always a bit of an interesting booking process because some promoter has to step up and take the risk to bring us to the country.” Delhi-based event firm Up Your Arts and Bengaluru club venue The Humming Tree eventually picked up the deal. Within mere hours of ticket sales going live, three of the four cities were declared, “sold out AF” by tour posters, leaving many fans ticketless.
The Aristocrats’ lightning-speed sales aren’t just indicative of India’s enthusiasm for the band, but also of the cult following that the trio have built. The past five years have seen the band tour constantly, release three studio albums — The Aristocrats (2011); Culture Clash (2013) and Tres Caballeros (2015) — and present a wealth of jazz/rock/fusion (and sometimes squeaky toy) musical experiments. Says Beller, “At our show, maybe you’ll have 500 or 700 people, but everybody’s there to see all the musicians, and they do.”
In an exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India, Beller and Minnemann discuss the upside of not being in the mainstream, attracting a muso audience and music and spirituality in Indian culture.
There was a lot of back and forth with booking the India tour. Even though the band isn’t directly involved in booking tours, does this kind of thing happen a lot when you’re planning shows in other countries?
Marco Minnemann (MM): India’s a special case! But the visa applications, you know… We only want to tour and make people happy!
Bryan Beller (BB): Let’s have a quick conversation with your government about why the visa applications are so difficult! It’s twice as difficult as any other country. But no, everywhere we go, the first time that we play that country, it’s always a bit of an interesting booking process because some promoter has to step up and take the risk to bring us to the country. I’m confident that when we come, we’ll be able to deliver a good performance and that people will come and everybody will leave happy — including the promoter — and that’s exactly what’s happened now, as you see. We had the first three shows on sale [Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi] and they sold out. But you know, it’s the music business.
The Aristocrats have played a lot of countries — whether it’s in Europe, Asia or America. How is the music perceived differently in different parts of the world?
MM: Since we attract muso people mainly, they know already what to play, they know the details to go into and it doesn’t differ that much from country [to country] it’s more the crowd reactions [that vary], the welcoming. When you go to the North like Norway or Finland, people are very enthusiastic in their own way, they are kind of more quiet, but if you go to South America people throw their shirts like in football. So these are the differences but when it comes to the music, everybody’s really there to appreciate and share.
Bryan, you had also mentioned in an interview [with music website Echoes and Dust] that it helps that The Aristocrats play such an experimental, niche genre, because you have more of a loyal following that way.
BB: I think it’s true. I think one of the things that’s cool about not being in the mainstream especially for musicians like Marco and myself when we’re not touring with the Aristocrats we’re playing with other musicians so essentially we’re professional for-hire musicians, right? Let’s just say we had a gig with Katy Perry or Madonna. I mean these are great gigs right, but, who’s the bass player for Madonna? I mean maybe some people know, but most people don’t know. And it’s like those people in those situations are kind of in the shadows; maybe 50,000 people are at the concert but still, those musicians are in the shadows. At our show maybe you’ll have 500 or 700 people at the show, but everybody’s there to see all the musicians, and they do. They recognize Marco for what he does regardless of whether it’s with Adrian Belew or Mike Keneally or Joe Satriani; same thing with me with Steve Vai with Dethklok or the Aristocrats. So we get to carry our thing with us into our happy, special little muso world and we’re going to be here; we think it’s cool here.
You had [American producer] Brendan Small on “Smuggler’s Corridor” [off Tres Caballeros]. How did that come about?
BB: For the people in India who don’t know about Metalocalypse, [it is] this metal cartoon about a death metal band called Dethklok—Brendan and I, we all like the same music, Brendan grew up listening to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and Metallica and Queen and Led Zeppelin and all these things we all love, so when we had the idea to do “Smuggler’s Corridor”, I thought we’d have a big chorus of people singing. I know that on Brendan’s records sometimes he has these big [makes chorus sound] so I thought it would be fun to bring him in. He actually helped arrange that bit. He’s the one who came up with the YAHH! He’s a funny, funny guy.
You get asked a lot about how tough it is to be touring with so many bands—Joe Satriani, Steven Wilson. But what would you say is the upside of playing with so many different projects? Does it help in any way when you come back to play with The Aristocrats?
MM: It is a good problem to have — to have more work than less work. The sad thing is, though, sometimes we have to make conscious decisions. With Joe, and now at the Aristocrats we work very closely with both the managers. Since it’s sort of like a family-run operation there will be not many problems or scheduling problems—they work that out together. And the traveling, sometimes it’s tough, it’s not as tough as you might think, because the time we spend on stage is basically like two hours; the rest is also exploring and having a bit of fun.
BB: There’s something that happens—the more tours and gigs you do, you get this cumulated experience. You have more unique experiences that rear you for anything that could possibly happen at any gig anywhere. It’s one of these things where if you have a certain experience with Joe Satriani that you’ve not had at any other gig before—even if it’s a small thing—it’s some one new thing. And then we go back to playing with the Aristocrats, he [Marco] goes back to Steven Wilson, I go back to Dethklok and then that knowledge, we get to take that with us. So the experience breeds confidence and there are experiences that you can kind of carry forward.
Have you ever considered other live members or a fourth member to The Aristocrats?
MM: It’s already tough enough with the three of us! We’re already known as a trio and for some reason the chemistry works.
Do The Aristocrats have any material in the works, that you’ll possibly play at the India show?
BB: We’re ready to bring our Tres Caballeros show to India, that’s really our focus right now.
MM: None of you have seen us with the tour yet, so this is the tour stop for the album. New things happen everyday, surprise arrangements happen on and off. But first of all, the noble people of India have never seen the Aristocrats so we kind of made this selection of wonderful songs—hopefully wonderful for you people—from all three albums.
BB: And, this is going to be the first time that Marco and I have ever been to India and this never happens, we’re running out of places that we haven’t been! India is a big leap. We’ve talked about this actually, for a couple of years now—India’s a real big place that we haven’t been and we should do it. Now we know that Guthrie’s been there a couple of times, which has actually helped everything, but yeah, this is going to be exciting for us.
What are you looking forward to the most here?
MM: I’m looking forward to a very educated and pleasant audience who’s clapping on time! No you know, I’ve played with a few Indian musicians [like] Karuna Murthy [Kottayam, Kerala-based drummer]… we did some amazing cool stuff. I just love how people take the music so seriously into their hearts. So that’s what I’m really looking forward, having to a pleasant audience and having very musical conversations.
BB: The interesting thing about the Indian culture is that musical knowledge and spirituality play a very interrelated role. People who study Indian music seriously, there’s a whole meditative quality to it that goes along as well. I am not an expert in Indian music… but we get met through the filter of Western musicians who have used Eastern music and Indian music as part of their passage. So it’s nice for someone like me—I didn’t even grow up in Europe, I’m all the way over in America—to be able to come to the source of these things and see what it’s really like.
You take a lot of your song titles from incidents that happen within the band or inside jokes or references. Are there times when something’s happened and you’ve come up with a phrase and you say, “That’s got to be a song title”?
MM: It happens all the time, that’s what makes a funny story! In fact, one of my albums has a song called “Book-A-Ticket!” It is about India; it’s funny though.
BB: There’s always something. I know that for the next record, I’ve got one very, very obscene song title already in my head. These things kind of cumulate over time. Sometimes it’ll be like “Oh that was funny,” and you think about the next day like “Ah I don’t know if that should be the name of the song.”
Bryan, what’s the progress on your solo album — will you be recording for that any time soon?
I haven’t made a solo album since 2008 and a live album since 2011; I have an entire solo album sequenced, song titles, it’s all up here [points to head] just waiting to spill out, but I need time to demo it. So I’m hoping next year I’m going to get to spend some time working on that as well, because it’s been too long. Marco is different because he has the ability to kind of generate solo albums in a somewhat obsessive way, but Guthrie and I don’t work like that. We need dedicated time at home. It’s just different processes for different people.
Marco, do you have anything slotted for the next year?
Yes, a lot of things. I have a solo album coming out right now in September which is called Schatten Spielen which is German for “shadow’s play,” it’s more like a music-oriented album. Then I have a new one which is out in 2017 but I shall not talk about that, and a new album with [renowned sessions bassist] Tony Levin and [Dream Theater keyboardist] Jordan Rudess [From the Law Offices of Levin Minnemann Rudess] which is out right now, it came out this month. And then I have a short film which I will post right before our India tour… We played with a very talented Indian musician called Dinesh Kumar and he did a short film, which is wonderful. We worked together on one track, which he sent me last year and it came out beautifully. It’s a long piece of music; we have a lot of great Indian singers on that one. So I’m going to give that as a surprise away before we come to India.