Between the Buried and Me [BTBAM] is back with a concept album that is so massive, it’s set to come out in two parts. The first part, Automata (Part One), produced by Jamie King, comes out March 9th via Sumerian Records and bassist Dan Briggs’ classically-honed chops are an aural highlight of this metal master stroke. The song “Millions,” for example, features Briggs undergirding a droning syncopated 5/4 rhythm, while “Blot” has him navigating reverse delay/wah-textured bass lines over the song’s airy passages. The entire record not only showcases Briggs’ deft bass playing, but also his crafty composition skills. Formally educated, his breadth of musical knowledge manifests itself in syncopated grooves, articulate, arpeggiated motifs, and deep synth bass action that complement his extremely well-crafted songs.
The band was formed in 2000 in Raleigh, North Carolina after the demise of the metalcore band Prayer for Cleansing. Briggs joined in 2004, after the release of their third album, Alaska (Victory). “I joined BTBAM when I was 20-years-old, after knowing Tommy [Giles Rogers Jr. - lead vocals, keyboards] and Paul [Waggoner - lead guitar, backing vocals] from their old band,” he recalls. “They knew I was in school studying bass performance—we'd have conversations about Dream Theater and Opeth records. When they were getting rid of their bassist in 2004, they called me up. I learned 10 or so songs and flew down to audition.” Automata (Part One) is their eighth release overall and fifth with Briggs holding down the bottom end. BP caught up with Briggs on the band’s 'Between the Buried and Me Spring 2018 Tour,’ which is supported by The Dear Hunter and special guests Leprous.
What was your catalyst for first picking up the bass?
My mom was a music teacher for 20 years. When I was nine years old, she brought home an electric guitar and a bass from a school that was being demolished. I started on guitar and added bass when I was 12. I only played it in jazz band at that time, but in high school, I started playing upright bass in the orchestra as well, and eventually went to college for upright bass performance—all classical.
Wow! Where did you study?
I went to Edinboro University in Pennsylvania for college. I was only there for a year and a half before moving to North Carolina and joining the band. The program was mainly set up for music education majors, but as a performance major I still had some great professors and gathered some great knowledge in that time. I hadn't really spent any time on the piano before college and it absolutely blew my mind when I finally had some instruction and spent time on it in my practice room.
So, you must have some atypical influences for a metal bass player?
I view my skill set first and foremost as a composer, and so, my influences are just all over the place—everything from Frank Zappa to Tears for Fears, John Zorn to Cocteau Twins. Sometimes I don't know how much an album has affected me until I have some years away from it and realize how much it’s become a part of my DNA.
What about specific bass influences?
Tony Levin was such an instrumental force for me in terms of establishing a groove over instrumental insanity. The King Crimson Discipline (Warner Bros., 1981) record just leveled me when I was in high school and, of course, the way Chris Squire could carry a wild unison melody with the guitar and keys. In high school, again, the counterpoint presented by Bach was so big for me and how I approach multi-voice writing. Right now, I'm just obsessed with Michael Formanek and Avishai Cohen—monster playing and great composers.
How did you track your bass on Automata (Part One)? DI? Miked amp? Both?
I’ve used my Sunn 300T in the studio for everything I've ever recorded. It's a monster—just absurdly huge. I've been using them for over 13 years. I became interested in them after being infatuated with Cave In's live sound. Even before I thought about that kind of thing at a live show, I knew they were head-and-shoulders above everything else I was hearing at that time. And even though their bassist, Caleb Scofield, wasn't using Sunn, I think it just really didn't matter—I was sucked in. I've owned two 300T's and a Model T guitar amp. I only recently sold my oldest 300T and it was a pretty sad day [laughs]. Jamie King uses some sort of DI set up in the studio, but I've never really looked at what it was—probably a Radial J48.
How did you prepare for recording as bassist and is that different from songwriting?
I'm really into utilizing my bass now in conjunction with the composition and what it calls for. For BTBAM, I'm writing the songs on guitar and/or keyboards and once Blake [Richardson] has his drums in line for the record, then I go back and write my bass parts. I have to completely “un-hear” how I've heard the songs while writing them because Blake has a tendency of flipping a riff on its head by finding his own accents, which is great. It just means I end up re-writing my parts, but it always creates neat syncopations.
How does that differ from Trioscapes, which you’re in as well?
There it's just bass, drums and saxophone, so I'm writing more bass-centric songs and doing a lot of layers—it’s a much different process than in BTBAM. As far as recording, I have everything written out and pretty much 100% locked in. Over the last handful of years, I've been finding more space in older songs, or even new songs, once they're in the live environment. I think that's a result of my time playing in Trioscapes, where things just operate on more of an improvisational level.
Do you have any kind of regimented practice routine?
No [laughs]. I practice the songs before a tour, but all my time at home is spent composing. I did the scales and arpeggios and string-skipping exercises when I was younger, but now the whole point is applying the things I learned, so I just brush up on those techniques as I'm practicing before a tour. Warming up for a show, I definitely start an hour before our set and always have, just running different chromatic combinations and making my hands get in sync.
As a fingerstyle player, you seem to have a somewhat unorthodox approach.
I use two fingers and I lead with my middle finger, as opposed to my pointer finger. I'm not sure if that's normal but, that's what always felt right [laughs]. I've always played with my fingers, even though some of my favorite bassists have played with picks. I just never got the right technique down for it on bass.
It seems your bass parts are a reaction to the tune and what is taking place rhythmically and melodically. Did you have a guiding principal for the direction of the bass?
With Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade, 2015), we were writing compositions that weren't jumping stylistically every 16 bars like in the past, so there really was more room to dig into a groove and that felt nice, so I really wanted to carry that over onto this album.
Obviously, the Internet has changed learning for upcoming musicians nowadays. Anything worth checking online?
Watch old Mahavishnu Orchestra videos on YouTube. The fury in some of those OG line-up performances were unreal. Try to keep up with Billy Cobham. I dare you—inspiring no matter what instrument you play.
HEAR HIM ON
Automata (Part One), Between the Buried and Me (Sumerian Records)
Bass Spector NS-2000/5 Dan Briggs Artist Series
Rig Sunn 300T Bass Amplifier (studio), Fender Bassman Pro (live)
Effects TC Electronic Flashback Delay, Boss TR-2 Tremolo, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Boss PS-3 Digital Pitch Shifter/ Delay, Darkglass Duality Bass Fuzz, Dunlop CBM105Q Cry Baby Mini Bass Wah