The Lowdown On Nashville’s Coolest Bass Player
It’s July 3, 1988. You’re at Stockholm Olympic Stadium with your dad. You’d seen the headliner on television, heard his music on the radio, and listened to his LPs. When the media covered his previous appearance, it rocked your world. The only thing stronger than the anticipation you’re feeling at this moment might be teenage hormones, but even those are no match for the excitement of seeing him live. The man you’re waiting on is an American icon. “The Boss.” Three years earlier he played in Gothenburg, touring to promote his breakthrough album, Born In The U.S.A. Even to a kid who wasn’t born an American, the significance of those songs didn’t go unnoticed. They were played on Swedish radio and listened to with the same enthusiasm found in the United States. The hype of a Springsteen show was only eclipsed by the actual performance. Over six thousand miles separate Sweden from the United States, but patriotism and the dream of finding something more bled through those songs, touching the heart of a young man, and inspiring a journey that’s led to a career. Six years later, he would come to the U.S. in search of his own glory days.
When I sat down with Victor Brodén, I expected to hear an immigrant’s story. I was curious as to why a 21-year old from a stable and well-off country would travel alone to the United States to embark on a career in music. It was a bold move, but if you know Victor, not out of character. Speaking perfect English with a slight accent, he told me more about the history of American music than I suspect most Americans know. His journey isn’t so much about logistics as it is an appreciation for the process. Now a U.S. citizen, he holds sacred the history of our music, the artists who created it, and the places that music was made. U.S. soil is hallowed ground for someone hoping to follow in the footsteps of his musical heroes. Growing up in a place where music was sampled in a much different way, Victor’s perspective is broader in scope. He gets the big picture of the musical world, while taking the time to study the details and the circumstances that created it. Where music and every story begins, it’s all about your roots.
One might think that growing up in Europe, Victor didn’t have access to music to the degree American kids do. Comparatively, concerts on the scale of Springsteen were limited, but exposure to music was not. He referred to his hometown as small, roughly 30K people. In the public school system, English is taught from third grade on, so understanding American lyrics was never a problem. Unlike American schools, music is not offered as part of the standard curriculum. It is strictly an after school, club-like activity, as are all sports. There is, however, more funding for the arts/music in the European system. For Victor, it was a combination of opportunity and inspiration that led him towards music. His dad was a public school teacher and not musical at all, but he owned a record collection that included 6K LPs. There was everything from old soul music to American sax and R&B. You might find KISS next to all the Beethoven symphonies. As he would tell me later, “genre is an evil American invention.” To a Swedish kid in the 80s, music was music, and Victor was immersed in all of it. The first instrument he fell in love with was the saxophone. He thought it had “tremendous swagger.” At home, his mother had an upright piano, and when the school had more piano slots open than sax, he became a student for the next 2.5 years. That was as long as he could tame his desire to take on something with a little more performance swag to it.
In 1985, when Victor hit the teen years, pop music and hair bands ruled the airwaves. That’s when he broke the news to his piano teacher that he’d bought a bass guitar and planned to join a rock band. 80s pop music was full of synth basslines, and Victor was attracted to the bass because of it. As the decade progressed, so did the length of his hair, as he turned up the volume and transitioned from pop enthusiast to metalhead. In Sweden, both genres are prominent, and there is no pressure from peers to pick a side. Live music would decide his fate when he saw Bruce Springsteen perform. It was that aha moment when he knew he couldn’t do anything but play music for a living. To a teenage kid, being a rock star may be an aphrodisiac, a means to a glamorous end. Bruce was not your average rock star, and Victor had an above average dream. To Victor, “The Boss” IS rock and roll. His live show is performance art. His lyrics express the romanticism and escapism that’s at the heart of rock’s yearning – to find “something better than in the middle.” The path to escape was in his music. Victor described it as “a cover band for every American subgenre of music. There’s a little Hank Williams, Sr., Bob Dylan, and Memphis Soul Revue. It’s how he built his live show. He’s got the storytelling of Hank and Bob and the showmanship of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave.” Through Bruce, he was introduced to American roots subgenres, which opened up a new continent where he’d have the opportunity to learn and play such music. It was all the inspiration he needed to make the leap across the pond and plant the roots of his rock star dream in American soil.
In 1994, Victor moved to the U.S. to study Bass Performance at Music Tech of Minneapolis (now McNally Smith College of Music). He chose the less obvious location because it was a city of 5 million people with a vibrant music scene, and there would be fewer Swedes than in L.A. To immerse himself, he wanted to speak English exclusively. As soon as he started school, his teachers began subbing out gigs to him. In Sweden, he hadn’t worked the bar scene all that much. On the suburban bar circuit in Minneapolis, he got to play classic rock along with some funk and R&B. The education and work experience was great. He said it opened a lot of doors for him. In 1996, he moved south to Miami with a scholarship to the University of Miami music program. He made the dean’s list, but the program fell short of his expectations. The goal was to expand his knowledge of music and learn how to use it to make a living. Instead, he found a curriculum that was largely based on jazz and bebop, a genre seldomly used in the marketplace. He still finds it puzzling that U.S. colleges build their programs around a genre that has 2% of the market. That being the case, he dropped out and moved back to Minneapolis. He loved the city, and in the late 90s, there was a lot of work there. He spent two years touring with bar bands playing country, funk, and R&B. Gigs were four hours a night, five to six days a week, in rotating cities. It was a wealth of experience that would serve him well in the future. With a solid foundation of repertoire and working knowledge in his arsenal, he made the decision to push himself further. New York and Los Angeles were not on his radar. He set his sights on Nashville.
On the surface, it may seem a curious move. A Swedish bass player, who grew up loving 80s pop, metal, and Springsteen, moves to the country music capital of the world to realize his rock star dreams? Only someone with Victor’s vast knowledge of music could make this sound logical. Dissecting his musical palette, he was schooled on 80s pop and rock. The rock of the late 90s was uninspiring to him. Looking to country, many of the guys from L.A. who made those 80s pop/rock records he loved, were also responsible for the pop country records of the late 90s. Dann Huff, now a Nashville resident, is all over the hits of the 80s from Michael Jackson to Whitesnake, moving into country in the 90s working with Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, Shania Twain, and virtually everyone in town since. His list of credits, in multiple genres, is endless. Victor was attracted to the music female country artists in the late 90s were making. He explained it as “80s pop records played by instruments instead of programming.” His dream was to play with one of those female stars, so moving to Nashville was an easy decision.
The first week of the new millennium, Victor made his move. For the first nine months, he lived off his savings and what he could earn playing bar gigs. To put himself in the mix, he went to writer’s nights that didn’t have a bass player. That fall, he landed his first big gig with a major label artist. Chely Wright was signed to MCA Records. By 2000, she’d had a few hits, and was coming off a #1 single with “Single White Female.” Mark Childers (music director/bass player for Carrie Underwood) recommended him for the position, and Chely took a chance on him. To this day, he’s grateful for that early opportunity, saying, “I had no resume whatsoever.” In 2002, he was offered an arena touring position with Plus One, a Christian pop boy band. On a bigger scale, this is what he’d been looking for, but timing didn’t give it much longevity. Boy bands were on their way out, and the tour downsized quickly. Fortunately, the band’s manager also managed superstar contemporary gospel singer, Natalie Grant. The two acts booked a lot of the same shows, so he was able to double dip and play for them both over a two-year run. Of the experience, Victor said it was a musically fun gig, and something completely different for him. The diversity in his resume was adding up quickly.
He landed his biggest tour to date with a major female country artist, LeAnn Rimes, in 2003. They made appearances on numerous television programs and played all over Europe and Australia. His last year with the band, he served as musical director. The experience gave him the reputation and tools he needed to take on the task of working with a new artist. In 2006, Jake Owen had just signed with RCA Records when Victor was hired as musical director and asked to put a band together. One of the first things he did was get drummer, Myron Howell, to move from Memphis and join the band. Jake’s debut studio album, Startin’ With Me, was released that year. “Yee Haw” was the lead single, and Jake used the band to make the video. It was a new experience working with a male country artist and being involved in the process of establishing that artist. All of this working knowledge was making Victor a more well-rounded musician, and thereby more valuable in the marketplace. From 2007 to 2009, he took a break from working with one artist exclusively and did freelance gigs. That led to one of the highlights of his career. He’d grown up listening to Richard Marx records, on which Randy Jackson was a frequent bass player. As a kid, he idolized them both. One of his freelance gigs was subbing on a Richard Marx tour for a few months. Standing on stage, he said he had one of those moments where being a fan and a professional musician commingle. On one hand, you’re still a fan, in awe of the person you’re now sharing the stage with. On the other, you’re getting paid to play those songs you loved as a kid. It was a surreal opportunity, and one he relishes among his list of professional credits.
Victor turned back to playing country music when he took the gig with Randy Houser in 2010. Randy had been signed to a major label since 2008, and had released his debut album, Anything Goes, that year. Victor joined the band at the time of Randy’s second release, They Call Me Cadillac. On the ensuing tour, playing bars was standard fare, and according to Victor, a helluva lotta fun. He toured with what he called “Randy’s bar band” for 2.5 years. His current gig, of the last three years, is musical director and bass player for country duo, Thompson Square. They’ve been touring and working on a new album. With this project, Victor’s professional life has come full circle. T2 is using a mixture of producers on this album, and one of them is Dann Huff, a major influence on his decision to move to Nashville. Cutting the new record is just part of Victor’s work with this band. The other part is performance, and that’s the part he lives for.
Much of our conversation revolved around performance art and the way different genres have relied on it. He calls himself, “a performance purist,” and that ideology goes back to the music he grew up on. Pop music of the 80s was largely built around performance – Michael Jackson, Prince, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, George Michael – they’re among Victor’s favorites. In today’s pop market, you have Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Pink setting the bar to the heights of those 80s tours. Pop tours out of L.A. rehearse for months before hitting the road. It’s a work ethic Victor admires. On the flip side, we talked about country tours. He said, “Country music was never a genre based on performance. They stood by a microphone and delivered great songs.” It wasn’t until Garth Brooks came along in the 90s that country got its first taste of a different philosophy. As Victor described it: “ Garth saw Kiss and Springsteen. One is a huge circus party and one is a tent revival without religion. He wanted that in country music.” Shania Twain followed in his footsteps, and country radio didn’t quite know what to do with it. Fast forward to today’s country acts and he feels they’re still behind in showmanship when compared to pop tours.
Part of what goes into performance is philosophy, and the mindset of the people on stage. Victor says he’s gotten picky about who he shares the stage with, which may be what makes him such an ideal musical director. He said, “As musicians, our job is to get other people to forget their lives when we go to work, and sometimes, that means forgetting our own problems to do that.” He believes you have to be “in the moment.” To him, live music is a living, breathing art form. Every performance is the opportunity to create something new. With Thompson Square, they work hard at selling themselves to the audience at every show. Their last album was released in 2013, so a third of their live show is songs that have been recorded but not released. In order not to lose their audience, they have to sell those songs. They play a lot of casinos and large clubs. Oftentimes, the audience is unfamiliar with their music, so Victor loves to give them a show they weren’t expecting. Speaking of contemporaries in country music, he loves the approach of Frankie Ballard. He said Frankie studied Elvis and Billy Gibbons. He wants to play guitar like Billy and rock like Elvis. He plays roots rock with a southern drawl, and has what Victor called “an old school righteous bar band.” He’s thankful that what Frankie’s doing fits into the country market right now. Call it part of what’s new in Nashville these days.
Nashville’s penchant for holding onto a particular sound or way of doing things is being challenged by the influx of people moving there who aren’t from that culture. It’s no longer just a country music town. Listen closely, check out who’s playing at various venues across the city, and you’ll find a diverse cross-section of musical America. A progressive attitude amongst the musicians has created a collaborative energy that relies less on genre identification and more on invention. Much like Dave Grohl’s experimentation on the Sonic Highways project, on which Nashville was a featured city, there’s a lot happening that combines technology and good old-fashioned musicianship, the level of which is off the charts in Music City. Victor said that what’s changed over the last five years is why he’s enjoying Nashville so much right now, musically that is. He quoted Prince when he was asked about the diversity of his band back in the 80s: “If you want to win in America, you have to make your band look like America.” He’s excited that bands in Nashville now look like that. Prince’s approach to music and performance art played a role in the development of a pop music project Victor is currently involved in.
The Love Elektrik is a pop duo Victor is a part of with the creative talent behind it, Anthony Rankin. Their sound is very pop guitar driven. Anthony, being a huge Prince fan, taught himself to play every instrument as Prince did. The songs they’ve released, as part of an upcoming album, capture the creative license of 80s pop. Victor described it as “forward, sexual R&B that isn’t crude. It’s super sexual pop music without crossing the line.” It’s Prince-like music in the 21st century, created in a city where cowboy boots permeate the pavement on its main drag. The times they are a changin’, and Victor is thrilled to be a part of it. One of his other collaborative projects satisfied his performance purist heart to the nth degree. Noise Pollution: The Music of AC/DC was a tribute band that took their efforts very seriously. Victor said he had to prove his willingness to be absolutely on point in recreating the music before they’d let him in the band. He made the cut, and they were as close to the original as you’d find. Standing in the room listening to one of their shows, if I closed my eyes, it was 1980 all over again. You could hear the sound of vinyl coming through the speakers, Back in Black on the turntable, and that’s exactly as they intended it to be. Even with his impressive resume, Victor says it’s one of the coolest things he’s done in his life. It’s the music fan coming out in him when he says, “We were willing to spend money to have the honor to play with each other for fun.” That’s the rock star side of Victor Brodén. The business side is when he picks up a bass guitar.
Whether talking about performance or the technicalities of playing bass, Victor is serious about his craft. Pick a player, he can describe their style of play in great detail. Go beneath the strings and the notes, and he can tell you what makes great bass players stand out in a crowd, something they don’t often do. Swedes aren’t sexually repressed people, and Victor’s understanding of the primal nature of bass allows him to get things out of the “business end” that might make some players blush. He quoted Billy Sheehan, one of his favorites, in saying, “Bass is a full-contact sport.” “The more physical energy you put into the instrument, to a certain degree, the more you get back.” Playing with authority is something bass players aspire to, and it’s what others on the stage look for in that role. Victor considers himself a “bar band guy.” He loves being physically close to the drummer. In talking about the drummer and bass player, Randy Jackson said, “You have to be in bed tight.” As an individual player, he tries to bring something visually and sonically different than other bass players, even in the midst of standard fare that goes with playing certain music. He called it, “playing with very loud colors and new strings,” noting a tendency to be more flamboyant and immature in his old age. On bass, Victor has a lot to say.
When he’s not touring and performing, Victor likes to talk bass. He’s been Premier Guitar’s ‘On Bass’ columnist for the past five years, something he says has given him a boost within the bass community. In not so many words, he can write on an array of different topics, but can’t limit his discussion to one particular player. To expand on what he feels is missing in not being able to publish a full interview, he’s launching a podcast. The Lowdown Society will be an informal, profanity-laden conversation with guys who play on some of the biggest tours, both inside and outside the country realm. He says these aren’t the guys you’d usually find on a magazine cover. The guys he wants don’t play solos. You’ll get off the cuff, unfiltered content. Where written media fails to convey certain information, he’s hoping real conversation will give players some useful tips to incorporate into their playing or help them attain their career goals. At the very least, they’ll be entertained. I suspect Victor’s personality as host will make this a very enjoyable listen.
On August 3, 1974, Bruce Springsteen played his last show as an opening act. He would headline every show thereafter. He’d been touring incessantly, working to make a living and establish himself. He released Born To Run, his third studio album, on August 25, 1975, just 12 days after he began a five-night stand at The Bottom Line Club in New York City. Rolling Stone would later name that stand one of the 50 Moments That Changed Rock and Roll. A rock star was born, and he kept running. He played his first few international shows that November. Victor was just two years old when Springsteen played the Konserthuset in Stockholm on November 21, too young to know that his future idol had just emerged as a rock star in the U.S. When he would return to Sweden in June, 1985, Victor saw coverage of the event on television. It was a life altering moment. He, too, was born to run. Three decades later, he’s made his living as a tour and recording musician. In addition to the impressive list of gigs he’s had, his list of credits includes performing/recording with Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels, Loretta Lynn, Frankie Ballard, Trace Adkins, Little Big Town, and many more. From 2008-2012, he was a member of the rock band, Luna Halo. He’s played on a Grammy-winning album, done sessions with multi-platinum producers, Dann Huff and Mike Hedges, and has numerous television appearances to his credit. His latest was part of the house band on American Supergroup. Suffice it to say, he’s established himself on the same soil that made Springsteen a star.
We tend to throw the term “rock star” around pretty loosely. Look the part, buy the instrument, spend some quality time on YouTube, and prepare to impress the girls in the pit. If you’re lucky, you might win a contest and land your dream gig. It’s the new American way. Victor wasn’t born in the U.S.A., but he learned something about life here by listening to our music. Every American-invented genre has a story to tell. The relics of those tales are haphazardly kept in places tourists visit like playgrounds. With each passing decade, we devalue our music history a little more. In Europe, historical things are sacred, often kept behind glass and heavily guarded. History is not forgotten, nor the footsteps that came before. While Springsteen embodied Victor’s dream, it wasn’t just his image that sold it. That would make it a facade without depth, the polar opposite of what Victor Brodén is. His musical knowledge began with a literal fortress of LPs to learn from. Add a quality youth music program, no prejudices by which to segregate music, and just enough exposure to live music to truly appreciate it. There were notes. There were lyrics. And there were performers. Victor ingested it all, working towards becoming a player of substance – colorful, with something to say. Say it verbally, and you become a writer. Say it musically, and you become a rock star. With drummers and bass players, Victor said it takes a certain amount of years to get rid of the ego and settle into playing simply and with intent as pure as the instrument requires. He’s found that place because he didn’t skip any steps to get there. It was a sizable leap crossing that pond to chase his dream in a foreign land, but as his musical weight has finally settled on him, he can put on that rock star jacket with authority and authenticity – “a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.”
Check out Episode 1 of The Lowdown Society Podcast with Victor Brodén where he interviews Jim Mayer (Jimmy Buffett and The Coral Reefer Band): https://thelowdownsociety.podbean.com/
Visit Thompson Square’s website: http://www.thompsonsquare.com/
Visit The Love Elektrik’s website: http://www.theloveelektrik.com/
Victor is endorsed by:
Sandberg Bass Guitars
Jim Dunlop/MXR Pedals
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