Brian Ellis seems to be the musician’s musician. He plays a variety of instruments in a variety of bands. From Astra, JOY, and Psicomagia, to electro funk band Reflection, his collaborative record with guitarist Brian Grainger and his solo work with the Brian Ellis Group, Ellis flexes his musical muscles in a variety of ways. If there’s a through line with his solo work it’s fusion. His latest album, the excellent Escondido Sessions, is a dense trip through Bitches Brew-era Miles and groove-laden funk like Tago Mago-era Can. It’s an intense and cathartic set of improvised songs that instantly grabs you and pulls you in. Ellis has already proved he’s got the chops, with this album he proves masterful as a bandleader.
What makes a guy like Brian Ellis tick? Was he raised on a steady diet of Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and ample amounts of Davis’ On The Corner? Or did he grow up like most Southern California kids and start out with the basics? I asked Brian these questions, along with a few more and he was happy to answer them.
J. Hubner : So where did you grow up Brian?
Brian Ellis : I grew up and still reside in Escondido, California, which is just a little bit north of San Diego.
J. Hubner: What sort of kid were you growing up in Escondido?
Brian Ellis : I was always an artistic kid. Before picking up music I really wanted to be a cartoonist and was drawing constantly. I was a pretty typical 80s/90s child – playing Sega Genesis, watching Ninja Turtles, and eating tons of pizza.
J. Hubner : So in between Sega Genesis and Ninja Turtles, you found an interest in music?
Brian Ellis : My mom is a classical piano teacher and was teaching a lot out of our house when I was very young. I’ve always liked music as long as I can remember but I first got really interested in playing music when I was 9 years old. My 2 older brothers got a bass and a guitar for Christmas and I immediately was taking every chance I could to play.
J. Hubner : So you skipped the piano and went right for the guitar?
Brian Ellis : After months of begging my parents I convinced them to buy me an electric guitar. I was very much into Metallica, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Hendrix, Soundgarden… anything with bad ass guitar solos! I took to it rather quickly and was playing pretty difficult stuff within a year, before ever taking any formal lessons. I then started taking lessons with a local teacher Gary Stewart for about 8 years, as well as attending Berklee College Of Music in LA summer camps where I was given an “Outstanding Musicianship” award in 2001.
J. Hubner : So you seem to be a natural, then adding formal training on top of it made you that much better. Amidst all of the playing and practicing and theory, what albums were blowing your mind?
Brian Ellis : I’ve had my mind blown by so many records that it’s hard to remember which was first. Definitely the first 4 Metallica albums, Black Sabbath – Paranoid, Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced, Megadeth – Rust In Peace, Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger, Parliament Funkadelic – Uncut Funk, Da Bomb. Oh, and I can’t forget Weird Al Yankovic.
J. Hubner : And Weird Al? Weird Al’s reach knows no boundaries. What other artists have had an impact on shaping you into the musician you are now?
Brian Ellis : My influences have a huge range. One of my biggest influences is Christian Vander of Magma. I first heard their album “Udu Wudu” 12 years ago and it completely blew me away. I’ve been lucky enough to see them live twice now which is something I never thought I would be able to do. The electric era of Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, early Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Larry Young, Sun Ra are all big jazz influences on me. I’m also very much into funk and electro-funk and release quite a bit of that type of music, as well as playing keyboards for old school electro legend Egyptian Lover. I really love stuff from Parliament Funkadelic (who I just had a split 7″ release with on Soul Clap Records), Kashif, Giorgio Moroder, Lime, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Steve Arrington… I could go on and on. I’ve also been getting really into smooth AOR type stuff like Steely Dan, Byrne and Barnes, and Pages.
J. Hubner : So who were some of the bands you played in early on? Were you mainly playing guitar?
Brian Ellis : My first band was when I was 9 years old with my friend Adrian Moor. We were called “Eaters Of The Dead” (haha!). We were both reading Jurrassic Park and got the name from another Michael Crighton book advertised in the back. We spent every weekend recording tapes with a boombox he had with a built in mic. I would give anything to hear those again but unfortunately they got lost in time. My older brothers were also in bands which was great for realizing it was something a couple kids could do if they wanted to and not something reserved for rockstars on MTV. I had several bands throughout middle school and high school… Life Yellow, Carpe Diem, Wombat Vengeance, FNAR to name a few. I started Los Machos when I was 16 which became a fairly long project and the first band of mine to release an album. An unknown fan made a Myspace page with a few of our songs on it. We had all kinds of songs from Metal to Emo to Synth Pop… what tied it all together was the silliness. That band progressed into Lights And Sirens around the time I was 18. Lights And Sirens was a mostly instrumental 3 piece progressive rock band and was far more “serious” than any of my earlier projects. I put together an retrospective album of various recordings we did on Bandcamp. I still very much enjoy the music we made at that time. Those years were very formidable in who I am today.
J. Hubner : You get around, musically speaking. What projects are you currently involved in?
Brian Ellis : I’ve mostly been playing with my electro funk band Reflection and my solo material these days. I’ve been having some success in that area so it has been taking up most of my focus. I love the modern funk community and there are so many great artists and labels (XL Middleton, Sasac, Dam Funk, Voltaire Records, Omega Supreme Records, Chit Chat Records, Cherries Records) coming out these days. It’s so much different than any scene I’ve been a part of. It feels the most universal to me. The fans are so diverse and don’t have a “dress code” which is so refreshing, and actually dance at concerts!
J. Hubner : I think the first band I heard you in was Psicomagia, which led me to amazing El Paraiso Records in Denmark. How did you get involved with Psicomagia?
Brian Ellis : I was actually the last to join Psicomagia and it sort of happened by chance. I first heard them at a show they played with Brian Ellis Group years ago at a local San Diego music festival called Brainbomb. They starting setting up after us which was surprising to me because I was told that we were playing last. As soon as they started playing I was blown away by everyone in the band and quickly booked them to play another show with us. They didn’t have any good recordings yet and was very eager to help make that happen for them and offered to record them. We tracked “El Congresso” live with the bass, drums, organ and synth. About a month later I was at a show they were doing and Trevor asked if I wanted to jam with them that night. I happened to have my saxophone in my car so I figured why not. I had just filmed them playing a show the previous week so I had the parts pretty ingrained in my mind and was actually able to play along decently. Trevor asked me to keep playing with them and I began recording the sax parts on “El Congresso”. I knew Jakob Skott of El Paraiso from both of us being singed to Benbecula Records back in 2007 and thought they’d be interested in the record so I sent them the demo and the rest is history! There’s a pretty extensive interview with Psicomagia on the It’s Psychedelic Baby! blog.
J. Hubner : Let’s talk about your two new projects. Brian Ellis Group’s Escondido Sessions is a wonderful record. A great mix of early Santana’s Latin grooves, some Of Coltrane’s spacier explorations, and even hint of electric Miles. How did this band come about? Are you playing keys solely on this album? What were some influences going into this record?
Brian Ellis : I’ve been doing Brian Ellis Group since 2011. The main influences for this group are Miles Davis’ electric period and all the great fusion groups that came from him (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Weather Report), Magma, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Fela Kuti I would say. I had always played guitar in bands but had started to take playing keyboards more seriously. I felt as a leader in an improvistaion group I was able to comminicate more through keyboard. I had been playing in a group called PEA for a couple years which was also completely improvised music, but much more in the noise/completely strange realm of music where anything goes. It was very much a community band of a lot of good friends and could range anywhere from 3 members to 15 depend on who showed up. Brian Ellis Group was formed when that sort of started dying down and I wanted to play with the best players of that group. Brian Ellis Group’s members have been revolving and pretty much every live show has had a different line-up, basically depends on who can make it that night. I really enjoy that about it because it’s always a surprise which keeps it really fresh, and I’m lucky enough to know a lot of great musicians. I think it’s a pretty rare thing these days to see young musicians daring enough to get on stage and play something they’ve never heard or even thought of before, especially on the level that I think we do. Every show is a discovery for both the band and the audience which creates a very communal feeling within the venue. The album was also completely improvised. There are about 4 hours of material recorded from that session, which I later edited in the same fashion that Miles Davis would edit his sessions, only made much less painstaking because of using a computer as opposed to tape.
J. Hubner : Is there a possibility of an Escondido Sessions 2? That’s a sequel I would be on board with.
Brian Ellis : I’ve been thinking of going through the material again to see if I can edit up enough for an Escondido Sessions Vol. 2 record. We shall see…
J. Hubner : In a completely different direction is At Dusk with guitarist Brian Grainger. This too is an amazing record. It put me in mind of Nels Cline’s Coward album. Acoustic-driven but with so much atmosphere and ambience surrounding it. How did this record come about? Had you worked with Brian Grainger before this record? What were some influences on the sound of this album?
Brian Ellis : I’m so happy that this album is finally released! The recordings are actually about 10 years old. I met Brian Grainger on a online music forum where we both shared our music. I was a fan of his material and thought it would be funny to collaborate because we were both named Brian (there was actually originally a 3rd Brian but he didn’t end up recording anything). Because he lives in South Carolina, we collaborated by sending files back and forth to eachother through instant messengers and email. We released an album under the name “Free Festival” on Benbecula Records in 2006. It’s similar to the material on “At Dusk” but much more electronic with a lot of beats as well. We started recording what was initally going to be “Free Festival – II” right afterwards with the idea of it being more ambient/beatless and further into the dark psych folk realm. I was very into Robbie Basho at the time and can say he was the biggest influence on me for this record. Benbecula ended up shutting down and we shopped the record to a few labels but things never seemed to pan out. Brian Grainger and I stopped being in as close of contact and the album sat for years. After working with El Paraiso on the Psicomagia record, I thought that it might be something they’d be interested in. The album being on vinyl was something very important to us. Thankfully El Paraiso loved it and now it’s finally out and available!
J. Hubner : Speaking of El Paraiso, I wanted to ask you a bit more about how you got involved with this label. I’ve been enamored with them since I first discovered them a couple years ago. Such an amazing aesthetic a truly genius roster of artists.
Brian Ellis : I mentioned it briefly before, but Jakob and I were both signed to the Scottish electronic music label Benbecula Records. He had contacted me saying he liked my album and we started discussing musical influences and quickly became friends. Years later Astra was invited to play a festival in Spain, sharing the bill with Causa Sui. It was great to finally meet Jakob and Jonas in person and hang out a bit. I kept in contact and knew that eventually I would have something they’d want to release. I really love the aesthetic of the label and all the great music they release. It’s a privilege to be a part of the El Paraiso family!
J. Hubner : So now that you’ve been playing, collaborating, and leading musically for quite a few years now, do you prefer leading as opposed to being part of a bigger collective of musicians?
Brian Ellis : I enjoy both very much. As a leader I can call the shots and fully realize my own vision, whereas being a member in a band it’s much more of a collaborative environment with a lot more arguing and compromise. I love pretty much everything about music other than the amount of income haha.
J. Hubner : Have you been playing out in support of Escondido Sessions or At Dusk?
Brian Ellis : We did a release show for Escondido Sessions locally which was really great. It’s hard to get everyone together but we definitely plan on playing more shows and recording more material. I’ve never actually met Brian Grainger in person but I would love to perform with him one day if possible.
J. Hubner : So what’s up next for Brian Ellis?
Brian Ellis : I’m writing a new solo album right now that will be a double LP. It’s in the funk/smooth AOR vein and it’s stuff I’m really proud of. I hope to record another Brian Ellis Group session soon as well. I’ve also been working on an album with my band Reflection that will come out next year on Voltaire Records. I’ve released 10 records this year and I don’t plan on slowing down soon!
Head over to El Paraiso and grab a copy of Escondido Sesssions and At Dusk. They are both also available at Forced Exposure in the states. Hit up Brian Ellis’ Bandcamp page and check out the amazing work he’s been putting out for the past few years.