The Art of Never Stopping: An Interview With Dan Briggs
There are a select few people in the world of music that could legitimately justify coasting it out for the rest of their lives, gliding in style on prior achievements. Dan Briggs, bassist for prog-metal titans Between the Buried and Me, easily qualifies. It makes a certain amount of sense, however, that people like Dan refuse to take it easy even though they could. Even with a decade’s worth of BTBAM albums to his name, he’s still found time to push his playing and writing to new limits through his three other bands Orbs, Trioscapes, and the newly formed Nova Collective. I flew out to meet Dan (he’s currently on tour in Europe) on the private TovH jet, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me.
First of all, thanks a ton for taking time to answer questions for us! I know you’re an intensely busy dude and are currently on tour with Between the Buried and Me in Europe. You’re also juggling several different groups with extremely high musical and touring demands, so what does a typical day look like for you on the rare occasions that you are home?
I wake up and take the dog out, and then she jumps back in bed with my girlfriend and I get the French press going with the morning coffee. I’ll open the ESPN app and put Mike and Mike on to get caught up in the world of sports, take a shower, probably eat some Kite Hill yogurt with granola and chia seeds, watch some sort of comedic news show (Last Week Tonight when it’s in season), email correspondence, and then usually head upstairs to my office and listen over what I was working on the day before or toy with something new. Nothing too crazy really. Our days are based around food and what we’re going to make for dinner, what we’re going to watch and listen to at night.
Between the Buried and Me has been on tour in Europe since late January with Devin Townsend, which followed a fall US tour, which followed a summer European tour, which followed a spring US tour, which followed a late winter tour through Japan and Australia, and so on an so forth stretching back to the release of Coma Ecliptic in 2015. With such a demanding touring schedule across countless countries and times zones, what sorts of things do you do to stay level headed on the road? Do you have particular parts of the world that you’ve grown attached to from touring?
America is our favorite place to tour of course, just for the familiarity and it’s where the band does best in terms of attendance etc., but Australia is a close second. Flying every day there is a drag but I love the cities and have some great friends there. I’m in love with Denmark, I’m really glad we get to go there in a couple days and have a day off there as well. Sound Station is one of my favorite record stores in the world and I’ve been looking forward to it for the last 5 weeks. Staying level headed, I don’t think that’s hard…especially in Europe, it’s very humbling for us haha. We’re constantly trying to win people over to not much avail. We’re super humble guys anyways, so even back home we just try to put across that we’re just normal boring guys that love food, coffee, sports and dogs.
With the exception of one-off events, I can’t think of too many bands that consistently do full albums at their shows. I was fortunate enough to catch Parallax II when you were playing all the way through that on tour a few years ago, and for me it was really the perfect way to truly experience Between the Buried and Me live. How has the reception been from playing Coma Ecliptic in its entirety on recent tours, and what drives the band to keep pursuing such a demanding feat night after night?
It was great! It felt so good to finally play the album in its entirety the way we wrote it, after touring for over a year playing it in chunks mixed in with older material. Our light tech Chris Hill built an amazing show out of only white light (and purple for the velvet moments) which real captured a lot of the moods so well. The DVD of the tour will be out in a couple months and it’ll be cool for people in other parts of the world to see what the tour was like.
We’ve talked about the hectic touring schedule and the day-to-day demands of Between the Buried and Me, so how do you find the time to dive in to your numerous other projects? There’s certainly nothing casual about the music of Orbs, Trioscapes, and more recently Nova Collective.
There’s so much time to be creative, it’s just if you have the drive and the people to feed you ideas and bounce new ones off of. I’ve been lucky to line up with so many talented musicians; whether it’s Ashley in Orbs, Walter in Trioscapes or Rich in Nova Collective, they push me to think in new ways and really push myself as a musician and it’s been so great. I thrive on living outside of the main group and it’s so important for me. I get burnt real easily and feel the need to work on something new, so I’m so glad to have these great groups to write with. They all exist in such different spaces that it’s possible for them to exist too. Trioscapes will be picking back up this year and I’m so excited, we’re going to do a very free form organic record.
You’ve talked about your appreciation for Haken in previous interviews, were you a fan of the band before knowing them personally? Can you talk about how you got started trading ideas with Richard, which eventually led to Nova Collective?
Yeah, I discovered them when The Mountain came out and it was just the freshest modern prog album I’d heard since I don’t even know what…I listened to it non stop, so I was pretty excited when I got an email from Rich. He had seen me talk about the album in a “What’s In My Bag?” segment at Amoeba Records in LA and reached out. He talked about if I’d like to play bass on some solo material of his and I said let’s just write a record together haha. It was that easy!
(Note to self: just email Dan Briggs and he’ll do an album with you) On that note, at what point did you guys decide to go full steam ahead and bring Matt Lynch and Pete Jones on board? Was there still a lot of the album to write when they were brought in?
We had written Cascades and Dancing Machines when we brought Matt in, maybe even just Cascades? Matt is my fucking drummer, he goes with me wherever I go and whatever I do. He’s the most malleable musician I’ve played with and is down for any challenge and is such a creative drummer. Him and I had really been jonsing to do a full on densely arranged fusion group, we had toyed with some stuff like that on the Digital Dream Sequence record by Trioscapes, but it was really too much for our trio formation and we kind of realized not really where the group needed to be sonically with our energy. So this just lined up perfectly. Rich brought Pete on and he blew our minds instantly with the sketches of the “Further Side” outline on piano.
Progressive music, by definition, should come from thinking outside the box. However, too many progressive bands seem to end up outside the box…only to land in another box of prog tropes and what I think of as “predictable unpredictability.” Having listened through The Further Side several times now, that’s certainly not the case for Nova Collective. What do you do to make sure your music is fresh and consistently progressive in the truest sense of the word?
Well we all totally speak the same language. It was the easiest record to make for me in terms of talking through compositions and the music. So the progressive thing is just a reaction for us, it’s in our DNA, our make up. But we challenged each other bringing in world music ideas, our jazz undertones that we all have… I guess really only “The Further Side” has the most blatant jazz/Gershwin moments, but it’s underlying in every song for sure. I think of jazz as the same mind set and idea as “progressive”, it’s very experimental.
I could fill several interviews asking about how you approached writing certain parts of the album, but can you just walk us through writing the opening 40 seconds of “The Further Side?” That may be one of the best intros I’ve heard in recent memory, and I hear everything from Kansas to George Gershwin to Tigran Hamasyan in that song.
Ha! Glad you picked up on the Gershwin, I heard that immediately when Pete sent the piano lines. So good, he’s one of my favorites. I printed out the score Pete sent of basically a solo piano piece, and I labeled sections, named parts and then set about kind of arranging it in more of a “rock song” format, with an intro, verse, a chorus, obviously a crazy long bridge and outro. Very theatrical playing with dynamics in that song, they’re very important in making the song flow and have the feeling that it’s in 3 parts. It’s going to be so intense for Pete to play live, but I really can’t wait to do it!
How much rehearsal time did you guys get together before recording the album?
Zero! The first time we set up to play together is documented in the Dancing Machines video we posted. We set up at the studio, got our levels and rehearsed the song two or three times while the camera men were setting lights and getting their angles ready, and then we did it. It was pretty insane haha. We actually recorded Ripped Apart and Reassembled live there too, both songs will be on the Japanese pressing of the album.
I’m sure there was a ton of individual practice beforehand, but that’s still really impressive. Any talk of a tour for Nova Collective? More importantly, how much time did you spend in the studio making fun of each other’s accents?
Haha none really! The British guys absolutely loved Jamie King’s accent, he’s very much from the south and kind of has his own vocabulary, and they thought everything he said was just incredible and hilarious. But we all got on so well from the get go. We more so made fun of Rich for getting up at like 5am to work on the newer Haken record haha. We played a lot of Nintendo 64 in our hotel room which was important for building our band chemistry. But yeah, we’re actively trying to contact bands we know about being an opening act on tours. Hopefully something will line up soon!
Nintendo 64 is truly the acid test for interpersonal compatibility. Like if one of the guys picks Oddjob every time on Goldeneye, you gotta kick him out of the band. Anyway, Jamie King has been your go-to studio guy for Between the Buried and Me, and you guys have talked at length in his hugely important role in your albums. Has he had the same influence in recording for Trioscapes and Nova Collective?
Yeah, he’s such a good voice of reason and I knew he’d really get a kick out of working on this material. He was way into the Haken stuff so I think it was cool for him to work with Rich, but he’s also such a huge fan of like Dave Weckl and 80s fusion stuff. He just has the best ear for progressive music, he somehow gets the compositions and what they should be just during the drum tracking, it’s insane. He’s also down for trying any sort of bizarre thing haha. We were trying to replicate a Japanese Koto in Air with an acoustic guitar and we did so many methods of deadening the strings before we landed on our winner…but like you know, that’s a pretty atypical thing to come across in the studio but it’s not weird to him.
As a bass player, I can’t help but ask about the gear you used in the studio for The Further Side. Get as general or as specific as you’d like with pedals.
Well, let me think..I know I had my Sunn 300t head through Jamie’s 4×10 Ampeg cab. I’m pretty sure the Spector Euro-5 was my main bass for distorted stuff and I used a blonde version of my DB- Spector 5 string bass for most everything else. I went to the workshop for Roscoe basses in Greensboro, NC where I live and borrowed a bass for literally one part, it’s like a 20 second long section in The Further Side that I have a quick slap back delay on and some quick thumb slap playing. Slap isn’t even really the right word… kind of like the beginning of King Crimson’s “Sleepless”. But I had the Darkglass BK7, a Keeley modded Ibanez tube screamer, I used an EHX bass synth and bass big muff, Wampler tape echo delay, my trusty Boss PS-3 delay/pitch shift for chorus, and the Boss PS-5 for whammy/shifting up an octave (like the solo in Cascades). Jamie has one of those Boss multi effect units I used the wah pedal for. Really tough with the bass to get the right wah sound. I use a combo of that and the tape echo in the Dancing Machines chorus, and to retain the right amount of bass with the wah was a chore, but I think we achieved it with that pedal.
On the subject of gear, it was a couple of years ago that Spector rolled out the Dan Briggs signature series bass. How has the reception in the bass community been from your perspective? Can you tell us how that design process came about?
I haven’t seen anything about it to be honest! I saw a small write up in Bass Player which was great, because I don’t even think I’ve been in Bass Player since Alaska came out in 2005, ha! PJ at Spector approached me about doing a signature bass and I wasn’t really interested as I’ve been playing the same one I bought when I was 16, but I said if you can recreate this model, the NS20005 which had been out of print since probably 2001, then let’s do it. So we essentially did that! I did inlay work with my friend Ben Tuttle, and yeah it’s the same feel I’ve known my whole bass life. I’m tweaking the pick up sound still, like every tour, but it feels great!
You have a background in a musical family as well as some time as a music major in college, not to mention your time spent in your numerous bands. What have you found to be absolutely indispensible in your growth as a bass player? Do certain technical exercises or categories of knowledge really stand out?
Yeah my mom was a music teacher for 20 years, so that was a big part of getting me going early as a guitarist and then in high school on upright bass. I guess early on it was just trying to do everything on bass that I was doing on guitar. If I learned a Van Halen solo I wanted to do the same technique on bass. And then when I got deep into classical music in high school it was learning how to play Paganini’s Caprice 24 on electric bass, and that was my audition piece for college. I was never a big bass player guy growing up, but I locked in with players like Tony Levin and it’s so funny how important his work and general ideas have been in all matter of records he was on, and also to me and my evolution as a bassist. For exercises before a show, I just do these bullshit chromatic and finger sequences that are totally non musical, just over and over trying to get my hands to line up. I feel like some people are naturally built for their instruments, Rachmaninoff and the piano, Evan Brewer is a good friend and he has huge fucking hands that make the bass look small. I’ve got tiny guitar hands and the bass is a lot of work for me 20 years in. So my warm ups before shows are long and arduous, especially for something like Trioscapes where I’m really trying to be loose and fluid and all over the fucking place on the instrument.
I’ve been fortunate enough to get a couple bass lessons in person with Evan, and I can confirm his hands are gigantic. They’re pretty much built for bass. While I have you here, can you offer any updates on Trioscapes and ORBS?
Orbs: our long awaited album Past Life Regression came out this past summer thanks to our friends at Equal Vision Records. We did a short tour on the east coast with Pete from Nova filling in on keys for Ashley, who is a mommy to a young guy and couldn’t get away. I think it’ll exist as a creative project, I hope! Adam is my favorite lyricist in all of music and the three of us have such a great bond musically.
Trioscapes: I’m trying to light a fire to get the three of us in a room for a few days to lay the groundwork for the next session. We’ve talked a bit about ideas, just being real free and out there, moving away from dense composition, I’m really anxious to live in that world! I love playing live with that group so much, the energy changes every day live.
Let’s switch back to Between the Buried and Me. First of all, congratulations on the ten-year anniversary of Colors! You guys have always marked that as a turning point for the band, and listeners have emphatically agreed. Looking back on the decade since its release, what are your thoughts on the band’s accomplishments, and how you’ve grown as musicians?
It was a huge record for us, really breaking away from the pack we were lumped in with at the time, and we’ve never looked back. We finally got exposed to the progressive music world on that album, touring with Dream Theater, Opeth, and Meshuggah even. It was great and really allowed for a lot of growth not only in terms of fans but the music also.
Is there any chance we’ll get a ten-year anniversary Colors tour?
Yep! We’ll be doing it this fall in America.
Thank you so much for your time! Feel free to give any final thoughts, sales pitches for the upcoming Dan Briggs signature cologne, etc.
Nova Collective “The Further Side” out March 10th [through Metal Blade Records], pick it up and dig! We’ll see you on tour soon hopefully.