KERN BRANTLEY’S HIGH-PROFILE R&B AND GOSPEL GIGS HAVE LED HIM STRAIGHT TO LADY GAGA
DURING THE LATE 1950s, IN HIS MUSICAL director-type role for the most popular singer on the planet, Bill Black had to plug in his new Fender Precision, look to ensure guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana were at the ready, watch for Elvis Presley’s nodding cue, and lean into one of his regal rockabilly grooves. Fast-forward over 50 years later, and Kern Brantley, musical director for the most popular singer on the planet, has quite a few more tasks at hand. Launching the Lady Gaga starship live means knowing every move Gaga and her 14-piece backing band make on 20 different songs, timing Pro Tools and other musical and technical cues, and coordinating with dancers—all while spending the majority of his bass-playing time behind keyboard basses he had to program a variety of sounds into.
The face of live bass has changed drastically in pop, but Brantley has the perfect blend—of old school training and experience, new school street cred and technical knowhow, and one mean sense of groove—to lead the instrument into the 21st century. Says Kern, “Music is in a constant state of evolution, yet it always comes full-circle. The bottom line is that you have to change with the times, just like you upgrade your computer. You have to evolve.”
Lanar Kern Brantley was born in Detroit at the dawn of the ’60s and raised on P-Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, Jimi Hendrix, and the Motown sound that was all around him. At 11, he joined his two older brothers’ band on second guitar, mostly covering the bass parts, before finally moving to a Crestwood J-Bass copy at 13. Soon, the influences of Jaco, Stanley Clarke, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Verdine White, and James Jamerson were augmented by summer youth-entitlement camps featuring Motown veterans like Earl Van Dyke, Paul Riser, and James Jamerson Jr. as instructors. In addition to playing dances and clubs, Brantley stepped forward on the gospel scene, backing Thomas Whitfield and the Winans family, while also landing a two-year stint with Earl Klugh. It was at church that Kern first got into playing keyboard bass, and soon his ear was drawn to its emergence in pop through artists like Kashif, Teddy Riley, David Frank of the System, and Babyface. Neighborhood mentor “Uncle” Nate Watts, the first bassist to play key bass live on his gigs with Stevie Wonder, was also an influence.
When Riley produced a Winans album and brought the band to the Apollo Theater for a live DVD in 1990, he took notice of Brantley’s doubling ways and invited him to join his group, Guy. That has led to a run of hip-hop/ pop success as bassist and/or musical director for the likes of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, Boys II Men, R. Kelly, and Monica, plus three years of regularly anchoring sax legend Grover Washington Jr. All of which put him on the perfect path to power the reigning Queen of Pop.
How did you get the gig with Lady Gaga, and what was the audition process?
I had heard that my friend keyboardist Joe Wilson, who I’d worked with in Guy and Destiny’s Child, was musical director for Lady Gaga. I called him in early 2010 and he said they were having two days of auditions for a new band. I flew to New York to find over 300 musicians there from all over the world. Everyone was able to see the auditions, so I watched the first day and most of the second, and I analyzed the competition.
We were told to play one Gaga song and then one of our own choosing, without any backing tracks or other musicians. There were some great players, although many lacked experience. The main problem was that most went right for chops, but this isn’t a chops gig. Many also lacked a look. Influenced by P-Funk, I went to a military surplus store and put together a funky outfit: A military dress jacket with baggy jeans, shades, and non-military Timberland boots, to give it a Gaga swag but with a militant edge.
Musically, I approached my slot as a performance: I was there to do a concert. I had listened to Gaga’s album and found the funkiest track, “The Fame,” which is a groove in G minor. I started with that, using my Fender Jazz 5-string, switched to a little Weather Report, showed that I can double on keyboard bass, slapped some funk, and ended with some overdriven rock & roll. That got me to the final 12 and an audition for Lady Gaga herself in Weehawken, New Jersey. I was ready with a similar performance, and when I got up there, Lady Gaga said, “I’m going to close my eyes because I want to hear what you sound like and who you are.” After I played, she opened her eyes and said, “Who are you?!” I got the gig, and Joe, who doesn’t do the tours anymore, made me the road musical director based on my experience.
How would you describe the role of the bass in Gaga’s band?
It’s very straightforward. There’s not a lot of room for licks and fills because that really doesn’t fit the music; I have to play the part and provide the foundation. I make the parts my own with a little flavor, but I can’t add much without losing the impact; I focus on playing big, both emotionally and with my sound. Basically, bass with Gaga is a blend of rock and techno, simple and powerful, as opposed to the busier, improvised approach of a jazz or R&B bass gig. I play keyboard bass 90 percent of the time and there are only three or four tunes on bass guitar.
What are your favorite songs to play?
I like “The Fame,” “You and I,” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” which are heavier songs I play on bass guitar. Of the tunes from Born This Way, I like “Bloody Mary,” which has a David Bowie vibe—I’m a big fan of his; I also like “Black Jesus/Amen Fashion,” which has a crazy sequenced bass line with three different sounds. And I always have fun in my solo spot, where I’ll grab my bass guitar and cover a medley of styles, ending with some rock riffs with the distortion pedal on.
What’s the most common misconception bass players have about attempting to add keyboard bass to their skill set?
That you have to approach it like a keyboard player and have a lot of chops, which is why many bassists are hesitant. You don’t have to be a keyboard player— you’re playing one note at a time. And you don’t have to use just your left hand. I use two hands to play a bass line. It’s all about keeping the feel and the groove. My brother Valdez plays keyboard bass with Usher, but he’s a keyboardist, so he has all these crazy left-hand Chick Corea licks. I’m a bassist, and I approach it like a bass player; it’s all about getting a certain bounce while concentrating on where to put the little slurs and inflections that bass players use. There’s a simplicity to it, especially in hiphop; it’s all about dropping the one, almost like playing a kick-drum pattern on bass.
What tips can you offer those ready to take on key bass?
First, listen to all the greats—from what bassists like Marcus Miller have done with keyboard bass, to keyboardists like Stevie Wonder, Bernie Worrell, and Greg Phillinganes— and then try to duplicate their feels and their tones. Get a keyboard that’s not too big, around 61 keys, and experiment with sounds. Use both hands—I play octaves with my two index fingers. I keep a Roland V-Synth on my left, for the foundation part, and a Minimoog on my right for slides and fills. My brother and I program for Roland; they wanted sounds that keyboard bass players can use on tour, that cut through in an arena setting. I’m also working on an instructional keyboard bass DVD that I plan to release next year. For now, we’ve been offering tips on our website.
What’s the greatest challenge of being a musical director?
For me, it’s having to know everyone else’s parts: chord voicings, background harmonies, lyrics, and ProTools edits. Then there’s working with the choreographer in rehearsals—dancers don’t count like musicians do [laughs]; we count “1, 2, 3, 4,” and they count “5, 6, 7, 8”! Besides conducting onstage and being aware of the pyro cues, the MD is usually the middle man between the band and artist, and the band and management, both creatively and in business negotiations. With Gaga, one of the challenges has been recreating the keyboard bass sounds from Born This Way.
What advice do you have for up-andcoming bassists in today’s musical climate?
To me, there are four keys: Learn the bass guitar to the best of your ability; write music, because even as a sideman, you never know when the opportunity to place a song will arise; learn keyboard bass, of course; and keep up with the latest programming and computer technology. It probably seems odd to some bassists, but you have to know what your keyboard can do and how to create your own bass sounds on it.
What are your long- and short-term goals?
I’ll be spending this year doing more spot dates with Gaga, and I’m doing Young Jeezy, as well. Valdez is the MD with Jeezy, so I get to have fun and just play bass; the other night, I played my Steinberger and keyboard bass at the same time. Gaga is going out on tour again early next year.
Beyond that, what I’d really like is to be musical director for a TV show where we play a wide cross-section of music, like Paul Shaffer’s or Rickey Minor’s bands. I’ve traveled to every corner of the globe, so to be able come home each night after a TV gig would be amazing. I’d also like to do a solo bass CD at some point; not playing a million notes, but more of a concept, like Boosty meets Wu-Tang—something where the bass is upfront, like a character, and the songs talk about the street and having a good time. Bootsy made the bass fun, and I’d like to keep that going.
Basses Warwick Vampyre 4- and 5-strings; Steinberger Synapse XS-15FPA; Gibson Les Paul Bass; Warwick Triumph electric upright
Keyboard basses Roland V-Synth GT; Roland GAIA SH-01; Moog Minimoog Voyager
Strings: Dean Markley Blue Steels (medium light)
Rig Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550 head with two Neo 412 cabinets
Effects Line 6 Bass Floor POD; Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive Overdrive Pedal
Other JH Audio In-Ears; ButtKicker Concert and ButtKicker Platform; Monster cables
SELECT DISCOGRAPHY/ VIDEOGRAPHY
With Lady GagaLady Gaga Presents the Monster’s Ball Tour: At Madison Square Garden, HBO, 2011; With BeyonceBeyonce Live at Wembley (DVD) Sony, 1994; With Aretha FranklinOne Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, Arista, 1987; With Will SmithBig Willie Style, Columbia 1997; With Mary J. BligeThe Tour, MCA, 1998; With the Winans Return, Qwest, 1990