Between the Buried and Me Bassist Dan Briggs Talks ‘The Parallax II,’ Composing Music + More
Between the Buried and Me bassist Dan Briggs is somewhat of an unsung hero within the band. Although Briggs is widely regarded as one of metal’s best modern bassists, he’s surrounded by musicians who can claim the same distinction regarding their instruments. Briggs has been a songwriting force within BTBAM since he joined the group at 20 years old, and we went in-depth regarding Briggs’ compositional chops during a recent exclusive interview.
After a magnificent performance opening for Coheed & Cambria in New York City, we sat down with Briggs to chat about Between the Buried and Me’s 2012 masterpiece, ‘The Parallax II: Future Sequence,’ how the innovative metal band put together the 72-minute record, joining BTBAM just in time to help write the ‘Alaska’ album + much more.
Check out our exclusive interview with Between the Buried and Me bassist Dan Briggs!
I spoke with Paul Waggoner (guitar) during last year’s Summer Slaughter tour. It was right before ‘The Parallax II: Future Sequence’ came out and he was talking about wanting to recapture the buzz the fans experienced when ‘Colors’ was released. Did you share that same goal? And if so, do you feel Between the Buried and Me have achieved it?
I don’t think we were setting out to do anything except writing a big, over the top, theatrical piece of music to go with the over the top story. Some of the stuff we came into the session with was already written, like ‘Astral Body’ and ‘Goodbye to Everything.’ I had the beginning of that for when we were writing the EP (‘The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues’) and it just wasn’t sitting right. I’m super glad we waited. The vibe of ‘The Parallax II’ is a very melodic statement; even the heavier riffs have a good sense of melody to them, you know? Every time out, we’re always trying to improve and there are personal things we always try and get better at in our own arranging and composing. To me, it’s our best musical statement.
I feel like ‘The Parallax II’ is your most cohesive record to-date, and hearing the new songs live really cemented that feeling of BTBAM as a single entity rather than five individual musicians. Was that the vibe you were getting as the new album started to take shape?
Yeah, it was really a focus on doing what was best for the song, and ultimately the record. There wasn’t really a feeling like there might have been in the past like, “I don’t think that’s best for the song,” or tracking a bunch of stuff, going back to listen to it and being like, “This whole four minutes — I think we can do something better.” We didn’t hit those moments very often — maybe like two times in the whole record. When we’re locked in, that’s how it is. It’s like there’s no wrong part because everybody is just in that same zone. When we did the EP (‘Hypersleep Dialogues’), it was like fighting each other, people leaving the room and needing space. We were just trying to force things to work because we had just been on tour for nine months straight and coming into that session was tough. It was probably the toughest writing we had done since ‘Alaska,’ whereas with ‘Colors,’ ‘The Great Misdirect’ and ‘The Parallax II,’ we just came in with so much creative energy.
‘The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues’ was basically the band’s first attempt at a concept album. Do you think that hindered the writing process at all?
It didn’t because really, I don’t get a good conceptual sense out of the EP. I really think it was just trying to do something out of very little. We didn’t have time that whole year to be home and write and work on stuff or advance as musicians. It was just like we were playing ‘White Walls’ all the time. [Laughs] You know, we went from playing the same s–t all year and it was very hard to all-of-a-sudden to be like, “Okay, now we’re gonna move forward and do something totally new … now!” [Snaps fingers] I probably won’t begin to write anything at all until after the fall, after we’ve played to whole album. We haven’t played ‘Bloom,’ we haven’t played ‘Silent Flight Parliament,’ we haven’t played ‘Melting City’ … how are we supposed to move away when we haven’t even played the whole thing, and that’s good because I’m always writing. I think by the time we actually get to it, in well over a year or a year-and-a-half or so, we’ll be in such a different place.
With the cohesiveness of ‘The Parallax II,’ was there any certain BTBAM member who had an unusually large creative input compared to past releases?
Well, I will say this; there were moments when a member came in with a whole song finalized for the first time ever. I came in with ‘Goodbye to Everything,’ ‘Astral Body’ and ‘Bloom.’ Tommy (Rogers, vocals / keyboard) came in with ‘Black Box’ and then Paul (Waggoner, guitar) came in with like 90 percent of ‘Melting City’ put together. So off the bat, that’s more than half the record. That’s what we started with. ‘Bloom’ I wrote way late in the session, it was just very random, just one day it happened. ‘Astral Body’ was a work-in-progress for me for like a year-and-a-half. I would just do little bits, put it aside, come back to it after a tour and be like, “Eh, that’s not very good. Scratch that.” By the time we started writing, it just happened. ‘Bloom’ was just one of those things where I just sat down at the keyboard and I’d been hopped up on Danny Elfman and the first thing I played was [Mimics the keyboard sound] from there and I was like, ‘Oh, s–t.’ Did a demo and sent it to the guys, probably, the next day. Sometimes it’s like that — there’s no rhyme or reason. But then there were songs like ‘Silent Flight Parliament,’ ‘Telos’ and ‘Lay Your Ghosts to Rest,’ which were everybody. ‘Silent Flight’ is such an exciting song to me. I’m so excited to play it live, it brings the whole album to a close very well. Pretty much, the first nine minutes of it are basically reoccurring themes that have happened earlier in the record and that was really fun to put together. That was like the last ditch thing that we did, and at that point it was just fun.
I think Tommy really shines throughout ‘The Parallax II.’ His voice is just soaring better than ever and his parts are absolutely on the same level as your band’s instrumental parts. What can you tell me about his contributions to the record?
I can tell you he had a good bit of self-doubt. We finished demos he would not be sure of stuff or he’d be like, “The music is such a big step forward and I don’t know if the vocals are gonna be.” Then he’d play stuff and we’d be like, “Wow, this is awesome.” By the time he gets into the studio, working with Jamie (King, producer), we’d come in and listen the next day or something and it’s like, “G-d damn!” One of my favorite moments of his on the whole record is when we bring back the part that’s at the end of ‘Astral Body’ and ‘Silent Flight.’ It’s a little bit more stripped down, synthesizer is playing the lead, and his vocal track is super stripped-down — I think it might have even been single-tracked, just him. It was such a different kind of sounding melody and it was kind of in character when he sang it and I remember being in the room when he was tracking it and just being blown away. Me, Blake and Dustie have been in the band for almost a decade. To have those moments where you’re in the studio, when you’ve done the whole record and then all of a sudden there’s a layer that goes on top of someone’s performance where you’re just like, “That’s so cool.” It really just blows you away and reminds you of what a fan of your band you are. It’s a silly thing, but you’ve got to be a fan of your music.
On ‘Telos’ you composed the sound effects during one of the bridges. How do you compare that to writing a bass line? Was that a challenge to create those sound effects?
No, that’s was just improvisational fun. Writing bass lines, especially over some of our super-intricate lines — that’s a lot of work. That’s where I pull out the pen and paper sometimes and I have to physically write down the riff and actually look at it. For me, that method of finding a groove within a really dense riff comes from Tony Levin (King Crimson), who is one of my all-time favorite bassists. He was so good at, “Where is this groove coming from.” He was, first and foremost, just a really groove-y bass player and that’s something I’ve always tried to take [for myself]. I am a bassist, but I started playing on guitar, so I’m always composing, 90-percent of the time when we’re writing, on the guitar. So when I get to switch over to the bass, it’s fun because it’s like adding another layer.
You joined Between the Buried and Me just in time for ‘Alaska’ when you were 20 years old. With BTBAM already having gained a significant following, what’s it like to be that young and be a part of the band’s massive launch into success?
It was cool. We were just taking it step by step. I’ve been in bands since I was 12. They were all local bands and I had done a small number of out-of-town shows. I was in college at the time studying upright bass, like classical curriculum, and I was just a huge Dream Theater fan and I was writing stuff that was more progressive rock. I was a fan of Between the Buried and Me big-time and Tommy and Paul’s old band Prayer for Cleansing. We had been friends for years and I remember always having loved the band and always feeling like there was a small progressive rock element in their music, sometimes, every now and then, and I always thought there should be more. The contributions to ‘Alaska’ I felt were pretty blatant and then carried over to ‘Colors.’ I think it kind of helped inspired Paul to step outside the box a little bit more. He [Paul] always says that any time you hear something crazy or weird, and that he writes the more straight-forward things, but he surprises himself sometimes, I think.
The song that actually resonated with me the most on ‘Colors’ was ‘Viridian.’ When you were composing the lead part in that song, what was your frame of mind? What were you thinking of?
Well, Paul had written to chord progression and I basically made a little chart. I just had a recording of Paul played these little arpeggiated chords, and there was no percussion or anything we added into it at the time. It was just kind of like looking at the chord sheet as a reference and trying to just write lines. Sometimes I would just be jamming, play a little line be like, “Oh, that’s cool. Now, where does that fit.” A lot of times when I’m jamming I’m not necessarily feeling things in 4/4, I’m just kind of freewheeling.