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The Aristocrats

A German, an American and a Scottish-Englishman walk into a bar. They pick up instruments and start to play what they like. They're clearly enjoying themselves by doing what they like best, without a concern for what people might think of it. As it so happens, the people in the bar love what they hear, and curiously ask if they're a group, and if so, what they're called. The answer is: "Why yes, we're The Aristocrats!" As new questions arise, in a turn of events we are ordered to separate the group's chemistry into its three parts and ask them separate questions.

By: Bart D. | Archive under fusion / jazz

Drummer Marco Minnemann is the first to sit with me.

Thanks for coming over! How is the tour going?
Thank you for having me here. The tour is going very well! Almost better than expected. So for some reason the chemistry between us must have somehow called out to the nations, haha! Venues are sold out and we're having terribly much fun and I hope the audience has too.

You once named yourselves 'The Aristocrats' after the filthy joke; do you feel like you are somehow performing the joke, on stage, in the music?
Yes and no. Not especially because of that joke. I'm kind of responsible for why this all happened, because I had a song called 'Blues Fuckers' and Bryan had a song called 'Sweaty Knockers'. And regarding those song titles, Guthrie said "Hang on, do you know that movie 'The Aristocrats'? We should call ourselves that." And we liked it.

As a drummer, you've been doing a lot of things all over the place. What freedom do you feel you have here, and what limits?
No limits: we can do whatever we want to, because it is our band, and we write the songs purposely for each other so that we can basically live in these songs and speak freely. Each of us actually produces their own songs and then we make it work. So far we haven't had any fist fights over that! We have freedom in these songs, which is great. But also with the other bands I work with, I have to say: I'm very fortunate the past few years to have people that really want me in the band because of what I play and not really put me to a certain role. Which is nice.

You also performed with Mike Keneally, with which I also had the idea you had the freedom to do what you want.
Oh yeah, that's absolutely correct. And also with Mike, with the trio, we each had our songs actually. It's a good thing, it's like three friends making music. The same here with Bryan and Guthrie, we have a great chemistry.

I'm not a professional drummer, but I've come to think that tuning a drum set is actually harder than tuning your guitar. There are a lot more tuning pegs for instance...
Well, it depends, really, doesn't it? With the drum set, you don't really have to be in tune to a certain scale; you have to be in tune to make the drum sound good. But if you know the shell tone, if you know which kind of range your toms sound good, then you kind of get a feel for it. Then it can be quite easy to do that. If you have a drum tech that helps put back the screws together, it helps time-wise, doesn't it? Haha!

Do you tune set according to with whom you play?
No, I kind of tune it for the sound that I'm looking for. I'm pretty much focussed on my vision of sound and that's basically it. So I'll make my life pretty easy with that.

Another technical detail question: do you tune the upper and low skins of your toms differently?
Yes: I tune the bottom heads a little bit higher, just a slightly bit higher. It has a little more body to it. If you tune the batter heads too high, it has this "ping" quality, too much attack. I like to have a little bit of body. I guess that's the way to put it.

I guess I am out of questions for the drummer of the band (it was only after the show that I got to know more of and about Marco's solo work, which would have led to many more interesting questions...-B), thank you, and I'll see you on stage!
Thank you kindly! Next one, haha!

Bryan Beller is next!

I asked Marco the same question, but just to verify: how's the tour going?
Very good. Everything seems to be moving in the right direction from last time. We're doing it the old-fashioned way: keep touring and keep touring and spread the word. But it seems people responded really well to the second album, which is nice.

You reached a high notation in the jazz charts.
I think we're more rock than jazz, but when they are going to put us in the top ten, I'm not going to argue!

And you're playing in a lot of jazz venues.
Yes, well, it's funny. Sometimes we're playing in these dirty rock clubs, and then this here is almost like a jazz club, right?

You've been here before some times, so perhaps you know the sound of the place a bit and can feel less concerned about how the show will sound?
Well, I don't remember...you see, every band has different things that they are looking for. Guthrie is very particular making sure there's enough what we call "squank". His sound should have some really biting edge. He knows that when he has that, he can attack the strings in a million different ways to either dial it up or dial it down. But he needs to have that edge to start with, because it can't be manufactured the right way, it has to be in the sound.

You, as well, listen very closely to the sound you make and the sound you want to produce.
To me, sound is just as important as the note. I think it's something that people don't talk enough about. It should be practiced and rehearsed, listening for sound. For your own sound. Making sure that it works for you, and also works in a band. And to be heard properly, and that when you hear it, making sure that you're not trying to compensate for something that you don't hear with your hand. Because then suddenly your dynamics are screwed up. You don't produce the sound that you really want to produce, because you're trying to hear yourself. That's always a dangerous position you'd want to avoid at all costs, but it takes practice.

And are you looking for a specific sound yourself, guided by your influences?
Well yeah, sometimes I want to sound like Tim Commerford from Rage Against The Machine, sometimes I want to sound like Cliff Burton playing his wah solo. Sometimes I want to sound like Jaco (Pastorius) - every bass player has a little of that. Sometimes like John Paul Jones, like Geddy Lee, like Chris Squire, with the bright sound. Sometimes like John Patitucci, with the clean jazz bass with some bite, almost like funk / R&B. These are all my influences and they all end up in a pool. Ideally I'd like to be able to pull a little bit from each of them.

I have two different basses and I use them for two different basic sounds. My red bass, which I've had forever, is the bright sound. Ash body, maple neck, bright steel strings. And then I have the alder body, rosewood fingerboard, PJ sunburst, which is the darker sounding one. That's for warm, more smooth tones, not nearly as much top end. I use them equally, I kind of go back and forth.

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In The Aristocrats, do you feel like some influences are needed more than others?
I feel like I have to use all the influences I have ever played in order to play my role in The Aristocrats, because I feel like it's pushing me. I mean, I'm playing with Marco and Guthrie, two people who are absolute world class on their instruments in the technical and musical sense. I've never seen myself like the most advanced technical player in the world. I never pretended to be that. And that's okay in this band, because we've got two guys who are technically probably - and that's not all they do, but part of their repertoire - ...well, it's good for me to be pushed. So I try to makes sure that I play the right amount, not too much. But then, when I need to dig into the bag of tricks, that I have as many options as possible, and that means all my influences, all my techniques, and especially all my sounds.

And at this stage, on stage, do you also get to improvise?
There is a lot of improvisation inside the form: there is a form, but then we get to push and pull. And that's jazz, you know. Every time we're not doing the same exact thing every night, they're saying "oh that's jazz" and "oh he's improvising". You can improvise in rock, too. We try to just have fun, regardless of what we call it.

And that's what makes this so good: the chemistry between you three.
Yes, and that's why we want to be able to hear ourselves on stage. We are not just going up there and play a program; we're going up there to listen.

About the origin of your band's name: do you feel the dirty humour is an integral part of the chemistry between you three?
Everybody likes a good dirty joke. We'd all seen the movie, and well, you know: when you are together in a van for twelve weeks in a row, it's not all going to be humour for children. So that happens anyway. And sometimes it so happens to spill over into our live shows and is then being picked up by the audience. Such things happen spontaneously.

I am out of questions for the bass player specifically; thank you for taking the time!
You're welcome. Hot seat!

And Guthrie Govan claims the hot seat!

Let's start with a random question: did your parents call you after Woody Guthrie?
No, nor Arlo Guthrie. It was actually my grandmother's maiden name. There is a Guthrie clan in Scotland. Half of me is from the Guthrie tribe.

How is testing your new guitar prototype going? I heard you were trying how far you could go before it gives in?
Yes, that is the general system since I hooked up with the Charvel guys. "Take it out on the road and try to destroy it. And then we'll build a better one based on your destructive feedback." It reached a point now where everything is pretty much where we want it to be and I can't break anything that is on the guitar. Now I break anything that is on the floor. The pedal board is my new thing. But yeah, the guitar is pretty much idiot proof. We're making sure the manufacturing processes are as they should be, so that when we make numerous iterations of this guitar they will all be equally idiot proof.

Did you hear of the passing away of Paco de Lucia? Do you feel like you could play something in remembrance of him, a flamenco-inspired piece perhaps?
I did, this morning. And no, I have too much respect for flamenco to pretend to do it badly. It's another instrument - it's even a separate instrument from the regular classical guitar. Flamenco is a complete language of its own. And I pretty much stay away from acoustics anyway. I can play acoustics with a pick, pretend to be Al Di Meola or that kind of thing. When you think of someone like Paco, or Tommy Emmanuel, or Michael Hedges, they're all people who have really specialized in acoustic guitar. It's a different world. I'm saving that for when I'm in prison and have enough time to re-learn.

How is the tour going for you as a group of friends?
It's good. We still communicate off-stage, haha!

As a musician, you've had a lot of gigs. In The Aristocrats, do you feel you have the freedom to do anything you want? And apart from this band, are you still doing other projects?
Yes, it's a good system. And I'm doing not so much else. I guess the Steven Wilson thing ate up a lot of last year, and it will probably eat up a lot next year. Once per album cycle, the Steven Wilson touring machine charges across the globe. Those are the two main things I've done on an epic scale.

Considering a follow-up to your solo album 'Erotic Cakes', do feel like doing that sometime soon, or do The Aristocrats actually fulfill all the creative room you might want?
I'm ignoring any pressure that I feel from the people out there. When I feel there's another album in there, and I want to share it with people, then it will happen. Right now, at this point in time, I'm enjoying being part of a team instead of being this lonely guitar player on a pedestal with some anonymous rhythm section. "Check me out! I'm gonna do some sweep picking now!" That's not real music. I prefer listening, and here's a trio where everything has something to say. Sitting in a studio and making a solo album: I'd like to do that when I have the time. But not having the time is quite a good problem to have: I'm grateful to be keeping busy.

Do you have any new discoveries on how to approach your playing in a different and unexpected way or with a novel technique? And how do you use new ideas?
I don't have anything new to report. With stuff like that, you can internalize it. Like a martial arts friend of mine explaining years ago to me how it works, with the five finger death punch and all that: it only becomes useful when you can do it quicker than when you'd decide to do it. For any musical instrument - technique it's the same: you might learn it and it might become part of your arsenal of tricks. But it's only when it's become a part of you, and it's there when you hear that sound, that you can start making music with it. So I'm sure I've discovered lots of silly noises, but I don't have a mental checklist of what I can use when.

Do you feel that while touring you have the time to digest new music or come up with ideas?
It's going on all the time. Sometimes it takes you a while to process something. Or sometimes you're going back to music you knew a long time ago, but knowing what I know now, it means something different or you find some new layer with meaning in it - that sounds a little pretentious, doesn't it?

Well, these were my questions! Thank you for taking the time.
Thank you.

Released from my stuttering questionnaire, the band is free to dine and prepare for the show, about which you can read elsewhere in this issue!

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