Interview with The Aristocrats
A year ago, on November 24th 2019, 3 of our Prog Loop reporters had a chance to interview The Aristocrats during the European leg of their latest album "You Know What?"'s tour. The band answered some questions about their personal lives, band dynamics, the new album, Istanbul, and their famous chicken.
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How is the tour going?
Bryan Beller: It’s going fine. We’re having a good time. Tour’s going great, we’re having a good time in Germany. Playing lots of shows, playing lots of notes…
Drinking lots of beer?
Marco Minnemann: Hang on, I have a very special beer today, it’s called cappuccino beer, beer latte.
It’s been a great journey for us, preparing for this interview-and obviously seeing you. Do you want to talk a little about the new album, what does this album represent in your band’s journey?
Guthrie Govan: It’s a milestone.
Bryan: What is a milestone by the way, is it literally a mile-stone, do you put it on the ground-
Guthrie: Yeah, people used to go on long walks and stuff like that, and there is a stone every time you walked another mile. So you can figure out how much further you need to go until you get to your destination.
Bryan: That’s what making albums is like, like putting a big piece of stone in the ground, and you walk towards it. And when you get there the album is done.
But also it’s a really important part of your musical journey, individually?
Bryan: Well, it’s our 4th studio album.
Marco: Every album should have importance, you know, that’s the thing. But, there is indeed something special about the new album, You Know What. We are the worst critics, you know; at shows, when people say like “Hey, it was a great show”, I say maybe every eight or tenth gig, we all three go off-stage and say “Hey, that was all good”. Not that we find it generally bad, this is one of the albums that we all came out of the studio, even during the recording, thought like “Hey, everything came together really, really well. The sound, the songs, the environment…”. So, there is something cool about this album.
The name of the album is a whole other story, but how do you choose the names for the individual tracks – since they are all instrumental?
Bryan: I think we all have different methods of naming the tracks. In my case, I name the track first and then write the music. So, it’s easier for me to understand what the music should feel like emotionally in telling a musical story. So, I have this little guide – and that’s the title. But that’s the way I do. These guys do it differently.
Guthrie: Yeah, I would normally start with some kind of a mood or vibe, which I want to catch up, and that vibe requires a piece of music and a name. So, the music and the title comes from the same root-inspiration.
Marco: With me, it’s a little bit of both. When we all came together for that song (referring to Burial Sea), I literally had the words in my head, I was singing them. Then I wrote an instrumental for Burial Sea. For Burial Sea, I also had the title first and wrote the music after that to catch the whole mood about it. And the other song that was mine was Spiritus Cactus and I have just found the title fucking funny and it didn’t have anything to do with the song.
Since you don’t have any lyrics in your songs, how do you tell a story or convey emotions into your songs?
Guthrie: I’m not sure if it’s that unusual for the music to be instrumental. I’d say classical composers for centuries have been doing that and getting away with it. I think there is something different if you have electricity involved in your music. People would say “You look like a rock band, where is the singer?” Why should it be like that? Some music needs their vocals to convey their message, some doesn’t.
And what about the overarching symbols in your other covers, like chicken and pig figures, and they are also present in the artworks of individual tracks of You Know What, and you also used some squeaky pig and chicken toys to make interesting solos in live shows. Where did this idea come from?
Guthrie: From Turkey.
Bryan: Yeah, exactly. Long time ago, we were walking from our hotel to the central market in İstanbul, and we saw on the street that someone was selling these rubber chickens that if you squeeze them they’d go like *squeak*, and we each got one. Because we are all actually 4 years old at heart, and we just walked around İstanbul-going like *squeak* for an hour. Once we got on stage, we realised that we couldn’t stop and we started to doing at there and the next thing we know that there were pigs in an Italian gas station, and next thing it’s on the DVD, and now they’re in the drawer-
Marco: You know, people would bring us the chickens and pigs.
Bryan: The artwork motif is just a fun way to reflect the fact that we try not to take it too seriously, in the end.
Guthrie: I’m also slightly reminded of the painter, Lowry-Loury who did all these urban-industrial kind of looking scenes, from Northern England. If you look carefully, there is always a cat somewhere in his pictures.
And was this (referring to the Istanbul concert) your last visit, in 2015?
Guthrie: That was way back, that must have been like Culture Clash era.
Bryan: No, that was before, it’s on the one where we did a live DVD. So, it’s on the first European tour – like early 2012 or something like that. Like spring 2012.
Marco: I will never forget the guy who guided us in the marketplace in İstanbul. He was offering us something nice. He was like “Hey, you know what? You are a guest here and pick anything you like, I’ll buy you that to take home. Like a nice tea cup, or like one of those specialties…” I remember seeing those chickens and we all looked over and I was like “I’ll buy these”. And then what he said was “You want the chicken?”. In a way, he is the person who is responsible for that.
But it’s a great choice.
Bryan: You know, we only choose the best chickens.
Marco: That’s why we are playing two shows in Turkey.
So what was your songwriting process during the last album?
Bryan: We all write individually, on our own, in our homes. We make the demos complete. And we get together and rehearse in the studio. We had three days, right?
In three days?
Bryan: I think it was three days, yeah.
Guthrie: But we’ve known each other for such a long time. So we already know how we tick, you know, sort of. It’s not like we get together and like a fresh band who kinda needs to find their way. So that’s why it works: We know already how to interpret songs and then, you know, we go into the studio and lock them in.
What do your individual songwriting processes look like?
Guthrie: Mmh... I don’t really know how to answer that. I’m always the last guy to submit three songs for the album. So I seem to thrive on my panic factor, knowing I’ll miss the deadline. And to me, it’s really just sitting there with a computer. I have a guitar, I have a bass and I have something where I can program drums. And I’ll just, you know, switch between them.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s kinda the same here, I mean. I’ll always start programming drums, I love programming drums. It’s super fun. I wish I was a drummer. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a drummer but my parents said “No!”. So I played bass and piano instead. I start with programming the drums, and then it’s either bass or guitar. Bass always goes really fast but the guitar always takes forever because I’m a horrible guitarist. Somehow, the demo gets made and then I hand it over to these guys and then it turns into a real song.
Marco: I just write songs. Sometimes I just write a bunch of songs, that’s what I usually do. Some end up on my solo albums and some end up for the band. And I always pick them, you know, which song is really good for what. On the last album though, I really kinda wrote specifically, you know, for this particular adventure. And I always have a guitar with me on the road, I have a keyboard with me on the road and my music software. When you go to my hotel room right now, it’s like you’ll see the Apollo set-up and all that kind of stuff. So if an idea hits, I just, you know, go for it. It belongs to my everyday life and I love writing.
And did this process change, since your first album or even your first jam together?
Guthrie: It’s the one thing that’s straight the same, I think. Somehow we figured out how we would have to approach things to be a band when we lived in different timezones. And it’s the same basic approach when we made our first record. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, that’s basically it.
But what would you say has changed since you formed the band?
Bryan: Well, we’ve played hundreds of concerts. That’s a big change. There’s a certain way that we know each other musically and personally, that only comes from playing hundreds of concerts so when we sit down to write music, we have the knowledge of those hundreds of concerts in our head. And you know, if I’m programming a drum part, I’m like “Ah Marco will dig into this” and I try to write something on the guitar that Guthrie would be able to dig into. We are not just making it up and hoping for the best like we were on the first album. Now we go “Oh okay, we know that this is gonna work”, and have some more fun with it because of the familiarity.
Marco: Yeah, the one thing that never changes is though, you know, speaking from my end right now is when you provide the songs to each band member, you obviously want them to like them. That’s always a cool thing, you know, if you cook a meal, you want people to enjoy it. So that will never go away and I guess that’s also like a bit of a challenge but a fun challenge too.
And do you write any new material during the tour?
(Bryan points to Guthrie “No”, points to himself “No”, and points to Marco “Yes”)
Bryan: Again, that kind of comes back to the way we write. I think Marco is different than us because he is constantly writing. You see these musicians sometimes, Mike Keneally is another example, I think probably Devin Townsend is also an example. They have to write music or like, you know, life is not gonna be OK.
Bryan: For Guthrie and I, it’s more like we have to have a certain set of surroundings and kind of a purpose like “OK, we are going to do this”. I mean I have written on demand in a hotel room before but it’s not my favorite way to write.
Guthrie: Yeah, I can’t travel with enough stuff, the way I like to. You know, constantly hopping between guitar and bass.
Growing up, what were your individual influences? Any King Crimson or Gentle Giant or any prog bands from the 70s?
Marco: I should start. Strangely enough, I’m the guy that gets booked for a lot of prog gigs and I was never a prog fan. Even though I have to kinda revise that: The thing is, I do like some prog bands, but my prog bands I grew up with are Jethro Tull. Other than that, I like Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Police, Frank Zappa, Judas Priest, Kate Bush and many many more but those are the ones that I just blethered out.
Guthrie: Yeah I basically grow up on my parents’ record collection which was a lot of the 50s and 60s stuff, lots of Elvis and Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and that kind of stuff and then Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Dylan, Leonard Cohen; what you’d expect to find in the record collection of someone from that generation. It wasn’t a whole lot of prog in my world growing up. I did hear a little bit of Jethro Tull and it was pretty awesome.
Bryan: I guess that I am the guy in the band who is like the big prog guy growing up. Not every single prog band, I like the King Crimson stuff, I like some of the Genesis stuff, I like some of the Jethro Tull stuff, also Rush but there were two big, big prog bands for me and they were Yes and Pink Floyd and I went completely all the way into pretty much every Yes album from 1968 to 1978. So I am really, really big on that. Pink Floyd albums of the 70s, 5 big ones: Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, the Wall. They are huge albums for me. And that’s an addition to the other rock influences some of which Marco mentioned: Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa… And I was also big into metal: Metallica, Judas Priest and stuff like that. But I’ve always been a big progressive guy at heart and writing for Aristocrats, this is not a progressive band really. We have some structure so that we are not just a jazz band, we were just writing the head and we solo for 10 minutes and come back to head. So there is the form in it and in that way it is extended form and that is prog but some of the progressive stuff I think we all know is large instrumentations, large orchestrations and if we wanna get our rocks-off, we can do that in our solo albums like you know Marco’s solo album has lots of layers and I have a new solo album which is specifically a progressive album. So it is like there are ways to do that but in terms of how we relate to the progressive community, it’s always been a funny thing because progressive fans seem to enjoy what we do even without us being overtly progressive. There is some progressive stuff in there but there is lots of other stuff also.
Guthrie: Surprises me also, you know, what really is progressive, now Brian said out loud, Pink Floyd and Rush. I like Pink Floyd and Rush too but I never considered them as being a progressive band. Progressive was for me always like these pompous kinds of bands…
Bryan: Who wears capes?
Marco: Those who wear capes and have a Roger Dean artwork.
Bryan: Yes is like the Spinal Tap of progressive bands because, you know, one band has to be the archetype so that’s what it is.
Marco: And they are great obviously. Gentle Giant is great. You mentioned Gentle Giant and it was great. They are awesome. They probably saw themselves as a neo-classical avant-garde band.
Bryan: I don’t think they had a problem with the prog label. Pink Floyd is the weird one in terms of the “Are they prog?”. They kinda went in this, there is something else in addition to the prog. I mean there is a reason why they sold a hundred million records, right? Somehow they managed to do something bigger than that, which is pretty cool.
Guthrie: I remember some people tried to make the case that when Radiohead came up with Paranoid Android that it was prog.
Marco: If you listen to Kid A, that totally counts as a prog album even Nine Inch Nails could count as a prog album.
Bryan: Absolutely. If you reconstruct what they are doing, it is layered progressive stuff with 80s pop elements. So prog is a big broad label and the nice thing about it now is that I think there was a time when you said something was prog everybody be like “ehhh that’s not cool!” and now it is like “prog is cool” like everybody is into it. No prog-shaming!
And as Bryan said you had a new album this year that could be considered prog, Marco and Guthrie you played on Steven Wilson’s records which can also count as prog. What do you think about modern progressive bands?
Bryan: Instead of you asking us about it why don’t you answer. It would be interesting for us to learn what you consider as a modern prog band. What is the scene, what are your modern prog bands?
There are lots of progressive metal bands that are from the northern parts of Europe (Scandinavia) like Soen.
All together: Never heard of them.
Guthrie: Anagram of “nose”.
Bryan: I mean no disrespect at all but when you are traveling and you are a professional musician it is really easy to get locked into your own scene. We have no disrespect at all, we just don’t know.
Marco: People ask me at music festivals about favorite drummers or favorite bands, most of the time I have no idea who they are. When we write a lot of music and we play music, the last thing you want to do is listen to other people’s music sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that we are not welcoming it. If something hits me if I hear something in the record store or pick something up that is really cool then I’ll buy the album obviously.
Guthrie: Similar account for me. When I want to listen to music purely for recreational purposes, I don’t necessarily want the music I’m hearing to remind me of work so I turn to gravitate toward things that don’t have regular drum kits or don’t have an electric guitar. More of an escape thing I guess.
Bryan: Do you consider “Haken” to be modern progressive?
Bryan: OK. Cause they are good. We know they are right now on tour with Devin Townsend in Europe so we are crisscrossing the continent with them at the same time. Yeah, there’s an example, those guys are really good. And they are very popular.
And also Steven Wilson is, I think, one of the best modern progressive musicians.
Bryan: Obviously honoring the progressive tradition with what he does.
Guthrie: I dare you to tell him that. (laughs) I don’t think Steven enjoys the prog label.
Bryan: But it’s because he’s obviously listened to all that stuff his whole life. It’s just so obvious that he is a big fan of Yes. He did the Yes remixes. And Genesis.
Marco: And he likes Greta van Fleet a lot. (all laugh)
What are your passions outside of music?
(Marco shows his cappuccino beer)
Bryan: Hiking. I love hiking in the mountains.
Marco: Hiking on tour with Devin Townsend. I like ping pong! And good food, good restaurants.
So you must be really enjoying the tour in Europe.
Bryan: Yes, we are having lots of meat and lots of beer. Because we are in Germany and that’s what we do here.
Why is The Aristocrats only a trio, did you ever think of adding another person to the band?
Marco: Well, first of all, we are a quintet. We have the chicken and the pig with us.
Bryan: Yeah, they get all the money too. We have to pay them a lot to be on the road with us, they don’t come for free.
Guthrie: It’s a trio because there are three of us. And, with that comes a certain freedom, I think, when we’re playing live. There’s more scope for being exploratory, being loose, surprising each other. It’s possible to be in a trio and be constantly aware of what the other guys are doing and what they are thinking. With a larger lineup, you have to choose on whom to focus a little bit more. So there’s something about a triangle where everyone feels ultra present.
Bryan: You know, we were talking about Jimi Hendrix last night. And one of the things that has only occurred to me really just now is that if you go back to the original Jimi Hendrix songs and think about how much each one of those guys were playing – the drums were this wild, kind of, jazz all over the place (referring to Mitch Mitchell), and the bass parts rocked, and of course then you had Jimi Hendrix. That really would have only worked in a trio. What would the fourth guy have done? I don’t mean to be arrogant and say “Oh, we’re like Jimi Hendrix”, but that is the archetype for a rock instrumental trio and how much freedom each one of those people could have in the band.
Marco: There were a few of those. I remember my father always says “Trios are my favorite concept of rock bands.” And obviously there was Motörhead, ZZ Top, Rush – and they sound like an orchestra as a trio – and all the bands you guys mentioned. So there’s something about it.
Bryan: Power of three.
What are your future plans? Bryan and Marco, you released new solo albums, congratulations on those. Are you considering a new solo album, Guthrie?
Guthrie: It’s not an immediate priority. Maybe one day.
Bryan: We do encourage him. We’re always trying to foster the thing where we can do our own thing and also do The Aristocrats.
Marco: The more we build our fanbase with The Aristocrats and the more we have a legacy, the more it feels like writing for a solo album is …. I sometimes have the thought that I don’t need to bother making a new solo album immediately because what we also bring in for the band reaches a wider audience.
This is still early, but do you have any plans for The Aristocrats’ future?
Bryan: We’re touring all the way into next year, we’ve got a lot of Europe to go. We’re still going to go to Asia. We’re still trying to figure out a way to get to South America as well. You know, the calendar stretches out far and wide. That’s our future right now.
Guthrie: We haven’t finished our present plans!
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We really appreciate it.
Bryan: Thank you for having us.
Marco: Thank you so much guys.