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KEVIN BRIERS and BASE

(A Funny Thing Happened On) The Road To Rock Stardom
by Tammy Moore

The story I am going to tell you today is one that is close to my heart. Meet Kevin Briers. His is a story of a starry-eyed kid who once dreamed of playing the guitar while listening to icons like Randy Rhodes, Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Hendrix, but due to some bizarre circumstances instead learned the mechanics of the instrument so well that he became a man who has spent the last fourteen years touring with and ‘teching’ for some of the biggest names in rock. The catalog of names Kevin can list on his resume are, let’s say, inspiring. There is Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Motley Crue, Stained, Linkin Park, Kelly Willis, Skatenigs, Nudeswirl, Mind Funk, Charlie Sexton, Butthole Surfers, Helmet, Prince, Guns N’ Roses, and Filter. A fool for late sixties and early seventies classic rock, he is at the top of his game.

At the age of 33 he owns his own home, a gorgeous 2000 Harley-Davidson Road King that he is customizing himself and a beloved Great Dane named Base. His official job title is Backline Technician and while the pay is good, the fringe benefits aren’t too shabby, either. At least one Thanksgiving has been spent with Trent Reznor at his home in New Orleans. Kevin was approached by one of his rock idols, Nikki Sixx, to help him in the design of a signature series bass that Gibson Guitars was offering to manufacture. After Sixx and Gibson approved his designs, the illustrious Nikki Sixx Blackbird Bass was created and now rests in the hands of many fortunate bass players throughout the world. Kevin has toured Europe twenty-one times in addition to touring Japan, Australia, and New Zealand six or seven times (who’s counting?). He has toured South America five times and the United States and Canada at least fifty times. The view from his front row seat has allowed him visibility to the backstage shenanigans that are par for the course in the world of rock and roll touring. He has been witness to at least a couple of now legendary episodes in rock history. Like the strange night that Marilyn Manson was summoned to Anton LaVey’s home in San Francisco. As the band and crew waited on the bus outside, they were surrounded by security, solemn figures dressed in black trench coats and beanies, sporting headsets. Manson entered the house alone. The curtains were drawn and after awhile, Manson re-emerged, boarded the bus and told all present that inside he had been ordained as a minister in the Church of Satan. The hysterical part was that he had a laminated card, signed by LaVey, to prove it.

I caught Kevin at his home here in Austin two days before he was to leave town to join Puddle of Mudd for tour rehearsals. This particular ‘leg’ of the new tour begins in two weeks in Europe and will likely last until December. When Kevin works for a band, he generally works for 12 – 18 months, and the entire length of that time is split up into ‘legs’ of the tour. One leg might be six weeks in Europe; one leg might be six weeks in the States, etc.

Kevin was introduced to rock music as a baby when his parents taught the Beatles’ song lyrics to him in the form of nursery rhymes. As a teenager living in San Antonio between ’81 and ’84, it became the dream of this kid and all his friends to be rock guitar players and to do so with styles that would match that of their musical heroes. He begged his parents for years to buy him a guitar, and after they reluctantly did so, he then began begging for guitar lessons. It took some time to convince them. So much so that by the time they agreed to pay for the lessons, Kevin had completely torn his guitar apart. Having the coveted instrument in his possession but no knowledge of how to play it had turned his curiosity towards learning how the instrument worked. He then became fascinated with all kinds of guitars. He began to notice the different kinds of set ups that manufacturers used and how various guitar styles made each instrument tonally unique. As he began learning the inner workings of guitars, many of his friends started playing them.

One group of friends formed a band called Pariah and it was their bassist, the much loved and missed Sims Ellison, who first had faith and hired Kevin on as a tech/roadie when the band was starting out. The band felt that Kevin should understand the sounds they were trying to create, so they spent hours teaching him basic guitar chords and basic player skills and taught him about amplifiers and effects and the way that everything worked. When Pariah decided to relocate to Austin in the early 90’s, Kevin made the move with them. In addition to working with Pariah, he began finding work with local bands here that were enjoying regional success such as Near Dark and Hush Scarlett. It was then that he realized he could build a career he would love with the knowledge and skills he was acquiring while working for these diverse bands.

At that time, in addition to managing Hush Scarlett, yours truly was working as an assistant to Kelly Willis’ manager, Carlyne Majer, and Willis was preparing to tour in support of her MCA Nashville release, Bang Bang. When asked if I knew a good guitar tech, I knew just who to call. Kevin accepted the job with Willis and after touring sixteen states knew that this was definitely the life he wanted. He loved the travel, being part of a crew, and the feel of life on the road. He likened it to running away and joining the circus, and this new world felt great.

After returning home he took jobs with the Skatenigs and others. It was during this time that Kevin’s friend Danny Loner of SKREW was recruited by Nine Inch Nails to play guitar, and Loner asked him to come along and work as his personal tech on the NIN Self Destruct tour in support of The Downward Spiral. Trent Reznor was so impressed with Kevin that he recommended him to Marilyn Manson when that band did their first headlining tour and the rest, as they say, is history. Sure, a gypsy existence such as his requires personal sacrifices and occasional bouts with homesickness but the rewards are priceless. I was curious about his seemingly surreal life and his thoughts on the music biz today. This is what he had to say.

R&R: At the national level, who are the people that make up the road crew?

KB: Usually, it’s a production manager or band manager, backline techs, light crew, sound crew, a production assistant, truck drivers, bus drivers, riggers, and carpenters. In most tours that I do there is about 20-25 people that are the [core] crew and usually 75 to 100 people are hired on for each new leg. That’s a standard tour.

R&R: What is the hierarchy of a road crew?

KB: I have a variety of bosses…the tour manager, the production manager, and the band.

R&R: What is the difference between what you do for artists at the club level and artists at the national level?

KB: Well, artists at the club level don’t have the funds or the budget to purchase the gear that they would probably like to use. They can get by with a few effects pedals, a couple of instruments, an amp, and a cabinet. Guys on large-scale tours are required to have different amplifiers that produce different kinds of sounds, multiple effects. Their sounds can be very complex so they have to have a lot of options.

R&R: How important is it to use techs at the club level?

KB: If you’re a local band doing a showcase for a record label and you want to hire somebody to insure that your guitars all have fresh strings, your drums all have fresh heads, drums are tuned, guitars are tuned and working correctly, amplifiers sound right, no shorts in any cables, I think it’s very important. It all depends on what you’re doing, where you’re trying to go, and the impression you’re trying to make. If you’re out playing every Monday at Steamboat just because you enjoy playing and you don’t really care about getting signed, I would recommend going to a local shop, like The Custom Shop on South Lamar, and taking your equipment in there once a month and having them service it.

R&R: Describe a typical backstage set-up and scene.

KB: Oh, boy! Again, it depends on the tour you’re on. If you’re with Motley Crue, expect there to be a lot of strippers, a lot of debauchery…nowadays not a whole lot of drinkin’ but some fun to be had. If you’re out on tour with, say, Prince…not really a whole lot going on, but on all tours that I do, my backstage involves trucks, stagehands, a stage manager yelling, and boxes moving. It’s not much of a party for us but if we’re done early and the party is still going on, oh yeah, we’re in the party! But other than that, it’s load out, close the truck doors, and party on the bus if there’s a day off the next day and sometimes even if there isn’t a day off ahead.

R&R: Do artists today typically indulge in the excesses of rock that were prevalent in previous decades?

KB: Yeah…especially on the national level but if you notice, a lot of these bands don’t have the longevity of the bands from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s…even the 90’s. A lot of these bands come out and they have one or two hits and they’re gone. The record companies have gotten to the point where they only sign one or two album deals. Back in the day it was five or six album contracts. Record companies can only risk one or two contracts. So much depends on your second record because a band can have two or three great hits in one year, and if that next record doesn’t have anything going for it, that band is done. What happens is that a lot of bands spend numerous years before they’re signed to a record label working on songs, and when the pressure is on for them to write a second record a lot of them can’t do it because they don’t have those five or six years [to write new songs].

R&R: So it’s not all sex, drugs, and rock and roll for modern artists because they can’t afford to indulge the way bands once could because this is their shot and they have to take it seriously?

KB: Yeah…a lot of them do get wrapped up in the whole ‘rock star’ aspect of it. But a lot of them are wise enough to see the bands that influenced them growing up not around anymore. So they know that their career can be very short lived. And a lot of it is the attention span of kids these days. You know, fads change and all of sudden something new is in. They have to be serious and they have to keep putting product out in front of their fans.

R&R: Knowing all that you know now…what is the best piece of advice you could give to aspiring artists in this crazy pursuit of success in music?

KB: Wow…work REALLY hard and don’t give up. Don’t let any negative influence or situation stop you from pursuing your goal. Because it’s just like anything you do in life…you want to be the best at it and if you want to be successful at it, you’ve got to work hard. If you want to pursue this style of life and the career you are interested in, don’t let anything stop you. It’s a very rare thing for anyone to have something handed to them. People don’t get to be successful by sitting on their ass and taking negative influence into account and dwelling on it. People get to where they’re at because of positive energy and positive influences in their lives and always looking ahead.

You may recognize the final question I asked of Kevin from my last column. I will be asking for the best piece of advice each behind-the-scenes pro I interview can offer to aspiring artists, and I, for one, am already starting to see a pattern emerging here. The message appears to lie in perseverance, does it not? Congratulations to my dear friend, Kevin Briers, on the heights your hard work and determination have taken you to. You’ve come a long way, baby, and please keep sending me those postcards! To everyone else, apply what you’ve learned, keep reaching for the dream, and check out THE ROAD TO ROCK STARDOM next time. Remember knowledge is power! On second thought, I will leave you with the truth which is that applied knowledge is power.

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