With their latest release taking the band in a different direction, we talk to The Aristocrats about how the new project with the Primuz Chamber Orchestra, from Poland, came about, featuring reimaginings of tracks from the band’s catalogue with an orchestral setting to augment the work of Bryan Beller, Guthrie Govan and Marco Minnemann. They also discuss the upcoming Defrost tour, future plans and other recent goings-on…
Hi Guys, how are you doing? It must be great to be back on the horse as a group. What interaction did you manage to have during the lockdown period? Did you spend time working on new ideas individually or were you able to work as a unit online?
Bryan Beller: At the moment, we’re 12 days away from being in the same room for the first time in almost two-and-a-half years, and we’re very grateful to be about to do our favourite thing again, which is play live and loud for folks who appreciate our particular brand of musical weirdness and mayhem!
As for lockdown, we exchanged a lot of communication about the two albums we prepared and released in that time – our live album FREEZE! Live In Europe 2020, and The Aristocrats With Primuz Chamber Orchestra. But we have always created and written our new material for the band individually anyway, after which point we make new albums when we’re together in person. We’ve never done the file-swapping thing – I guess we’re old fashioned that way. So now that we’re about to play together again, new material is floating around and we’re going to debut some of it on the North American tour this summer. Then we’ll see what happens from there.
With The Aristocrats back to touring in July, for more than two months across North America on the Defrost tour (appropriately following on from the pandemic curtailed 2020 Freeze! tour), have you been able to do much live work individually with other projects since things started to return to normal?
Marco Minnemann: Yes, we’re back to traveling and playing, and I’m sensing lots of good times 🙂 . But yes, I played shows with my friend Mohini Dey and also with McStine & Minnemann, my more vocal driven band I have, consisting of Randy McStine, myself, Mohini Dey and Nick D’Virgilio. which included the Cruise to the Edge on which I also played with the original Zappa Band, filling in for my dear friend Joe Travers, who unfortunately could not make these shows due to his sea sickness. Furthermore I had TV live band appearances with Kendall Yates. So, there were always some things going on. 🙂
We’re looking forward to seeing you again in the U.K., when can we anticipate a return for the band?
Guthrie Govan: Well, the last time an Aristocrats gig actually happened was in Oxford, in early March, 2020 (i.e. just before the pandemic shut everything down!) and that was the final show of a fairly epic/ambitious European tour. Now that civilisation finally seems to be emerging slowly from hibernation, it feels like the most logical approach would simply be to pick up our world touring cycle from where we left off so our next step will be to spend the summer playing all over the US and then perhaps visit Asia towards the end of this year. We are working on finding a way to return to Europe and the UK at some point next year but, for now, all I can really say is: “watch this space!”
The new album is an interesting diversion: orchestral reworkings of pieces from The Aristocrats’ catalogue. How did that come about?
Bryan: The extremely talented folks at the Primuz Chamber Orchestra actually took it upon themselves to arrange and record for video a performance of the song Culture Clash, which Guthrie found online and liked very much. There was a lot to like! The conversation about a collaboration just sort of organically evolved from there, and I don’t remember every detail of the origin. But we went back and forth on arrangements and vibes with their arranger Wojtek Lemański, and I think it turned into a pretty startling and exciting reimagination of some tracks in our catalogue, including some of the deeper cuts; songs like Dance of The Aristocrats, Through the Flower and Jack’s Back are just wildly reborn in my view. Other more prominent tunes like Last Orders, Ohhhh Noooo and The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde really land in a rich, lush, satisfying way. This sounds like an advert now, which is not my intention! But it’s amazing how much a ground-up remix and the addition of a massive string section can change the way a song written for trio presents itself to the listener.
I’d certainly agree with that, the addition of Wojtek Lemański’s arrangements and the playing of the Primuz Chamber Orchestra have brought out new elements in the existing pieces and shown them in a whole new light. I guess that you are pleased with the results!
Guthrie: Very much so! Naturally, we all believed that something cool would emerge from this project (without our total confidence in the overall concept, I’m sure the album would never have happened!) but I have to say that the finished product really did exceed our expectations. Obviously we’re by no means the first band to attempt an orchestral collaboration but I truly feel that this album has some unique qualities – primarily as a result of Wojtek and the orchestra having such a deep and instinctive understanding of the spirit and intentions behind our music. Wojtek’s distinctive identity as an orchestrator really seems to complement our creative vision, plus the orchestra’s performance of those (very challenging!) arrangements managed to combine precision with a fiery, “rock ’n’ roll” attitude… just the way we like it 😉 .
What does it mean to you to listen to these pieces in their new form? Did you notice anything about the new versions that surprised you?
Marco: It’s just very refreshing hearing a new take on the material. Especially the ‘opposites attract’ approach by learning on how intriguing and beautifully our little trio can sound, woven into an entire orchestral experience, was indeed a pleasant surprise.
How did you approach putting this album together? Did you have to record any new parts or was it more a question of restructuring what was already there to incorporate the orchestral additions?
Marco: We delivered the multi-tracks from our existing catalogue and then ‘derangements’ started. So yes, our existing tracks were partially rearranged with the orchestra and then newly mixed.
Do you envisage ever being able to play these new recreations with the orchestra in a live setting? I guess it would have to be a one-off performance rather than any kind of tour.
Guthrie: I’m not sure that anything like that will be happening any time soon, and it certainly wasn’t part of our “master plan” when we embarked upon this project. In logistical terms, we’ve managed to figure out how to make touring vaguely viable in a trio format, but throwing another 20 or so players into the mix would generate all manner of complications, even for a one-off show!
Also, one of the fascinating things about this album is the way Wojtek was able to zoom in on the more spontaneous, improvised sections within our original performances and orchestrate around them in a way which made them sound truly “composed” even though they weren’t: I’m not sure there’s any way to replicate that aspect in a truly live setting.
Having said that: conceptually, it might indeed be very cool to arrange a one-off show based on this project, so if anyone out there happens to work for an unusually generous and open-minded arts council… who knows what might happen?!
As a full performance is unlikely to be an option, are you considering integrating some of the new arrangements into your shows via recorded parts?
Bryan: I can confidently say that this is something that will not happen on the upcoming tour 🙂 . Unless the Primuz is actually up there live with us – which theoretically at some point in the future we can discuss when we eventually get back to Poland for a show – it’s the three of us and that’s that. We’ve never used tracks. I’m not judging bands that do. A lot of great acts sound amazing playing live with a few tracks. But it’s just not what we do.
You’ve been together over a decade now. Does that surprise you? Tell me about how you got together in the first place.
Marco: We met through strange circumstances: we had a gig lined up (before the band was even called The Aristocrats) on which our then guitarist opted out, only two weeks ahead of the show, which left us which the last minute options of either cancelling the show or finding a guitar player for said event. Upon a recommendation from a fan follower through social media, Guthrie came into the picture. Lucky coincidence had it that he was around in the area during that very time frame and did have the time and will to play with us. The chemistry felt great immediately. And therefore the journey shall continue, I’d say 🙂 .
Do you enjoy the constant touring and travelling? What strategies do you put in place to deal with the downsides?
Guthrie: Mostly, I enjoy it and consider the pros to outweigh the cons: touring life obviously does entail a fairly unusual set of challenges but after a while, I think being on the road teaches you enough about yourself that you can figure out what kind of routine is necessary for the preservation of your physical and spiritual wellbeing. The specifics will vary from one individual to the next, I guess, but… in general, I’ve always done my best not to complain about any hardships which might present themselves during the 22 hours of each touring day when I’m not actually playing music. At the risk of stating the obvious, all the events (and non-events!) of the last couple of years have served only to increase my keenness to get back on the road.
So, what keeps you energised to continue to do what you do?
Bryan: I’d say it’s not just one thing. The pure artistic motivation of music counts. The energy of a crowd counts. The spirit of the band and our unique collaborative spirit counts. The experience of a rich life with travel and cultural experience counts. The practical stuff counts. It all counts.
The Aristocrats are going to keep you busy for the next few months, what other projects do you have to find time for in the near future?
Bryan: I’m going to finally be embarking on a world tour with Joe Satriani to support his new album The Elephants of Mars, which we tracked during lockdown. Joe had the misfortunate to have an album release and a tour literally scheduled to start in April of 2020, and of course it got wiped out like a lot of things. But we’re finally going to make that right starting this fall in North America. And we need to find time to track a new Aristocrats album, not just tour. I’m sure we’ll discuss that while we’re on the road together. There’s also a Dethklok/Metalocalypse movie currently being made, which eventually will result in a new album and tour at some point. I’m not sure readers of this fine upstanding publication are aware of who and what Dethklok is, but the info is out there for the morbidly curious 😉 . [And you can start right HERE!]
Guthrie: Well… I’ve been doing a lot of work with Hans Zimmer over the last few years, both as part of his live band and as a contributor to various movie scores (Dune, in particular, was a lot of fun – it’s crazy to reflect that it was even possible to create that whole soundtrack during lockdowns, with everyone working remotely!) so I’m hoping for some more opportunities of that nature to crop up in the future. Other than that, I don’t have any specific plans for other projects: my main focus right now is on getting the Aristocrats up and running again so I’m not currently thinking about any other plans beyond that!
Marco: I’m working on a new solo album and the third McStine & Minnemann album is around the corner as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed the previous McStine & Minnemann albums, particularly the last one.
You’re all in very high demand: when taking on a new project, how do you prepare yourselves? Do you approach them as development opportunities and, depending on the project, do they sometimes take you to areas that you weren’t expecting?
Guthrie: Thinking back to various “extracurricular” activities from my past, I can recall certain situations where I’ve tried to prepare in advance simply by listening to a lot of music which I thought might inspire me and help me to find the right stylistic mindset for the project. There have been other situations where most of the preparation seemed to involve finding the right sounds for the music. Oh, and of course… if there are some songs to learn: learn the songs 😉 .
In more general terms, I suppose most of the real preparation happens during those formative years/decades which we spend learning our craft… in theory, that process should provide a musician with a vocabulary of techniques, sounds and ideas (i.e. a “musical identity”) which can then be drawn upon instinctively in response to the demands of any given project.
Nonetheless, I very much relate to (and like!) the idea of new musical challenges being “development opportunities” – it’s always satisfying to emerge from a collaboration with the feeling that you learned something and became a more well-rounded musician during the process!
Marco: I’ve over the years learned to focus on my bands and am trying not to fill up the ‘dinner table’ too much. However, I love being a session musician as well and indeed I’m getting to explore a variety of music for all parts around the world. The comfortable thing is that mostly I’m getting booked for being myself and therefore, thankfully, I’m given freedom to paint on the canvas with my own paint brush. Creativity is a beautiful concept of life.
Bryan: For me, in terms of new projects, it’s a little simpler than this. It’s really just: do I enjoy the music and the people? If so, the rest tends to take care of itself.
Who do you particularly enjoy collaborating with and is there anyone that you’d love to work with in the future?
Guthrie: Right now, I’m pretty happy just doing what I’m doing. For me, the key factor in making a collaboration work is chemistry and that’s not something which can really be synthesised: some combinations of musicians just work better than others and I like the idea of simply recognising real musical chemistry when you find it… I’m well aware that simply wanting to work with someone else doesn’t necessarily yield fruitful results: sometimes the whole turns out to be less than the sum of the parts!
Bryan: I’m a bit of a creative isolationist, for better or worse. But I’d love to make some music with Rabea Massaad one day. When I heard the Toska album Fire By the Silos, it was almost like he was inside my head in terms of some of the places I’d been wanting to go.
Marco: I love working with Randy McStine, as he is a great musician and singer and can translate and take my music into areas I would (especially vocals wise) not be able to. Not sure whom to work with in the future, but I’m sure some more cool surprises will be arranged.
Thanks so much for taking the time here, and good luck with the new album and tour – look forward to seeing you in the U.K. again soon!
Bryan: And thank you for helping to spread the good word about what we do!
Guthrie: Likewise – Cheers!
Marco: Thank you!
You can read Jez Rowden’s review of The Aristocrats with Primuz Chamber Orchestra HERE.