Rex Brown (Pantera, Down, Kill Devil Hill) Goes Loud & Solo On ‘Smoke On This’ (INTERVIEW)

Interview For Glide Magazine, November 13, 2017
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Rex Brown doesn’t mince too many words. He’s about as straight-forward as an arrow heading directly towards the red circle. So when he was ready to make some new music, he wanted it on his terms, in his words and let the fans see if they liked it, without him begging like a wide-eyed pop star for them to listen. “My motto these days is, shake some shit up,” the bass playing bad ass of Pantera, Down and Kill Devil Hill fame said upon his debut solo album’s release earlier this year. “I’ve had my ups and downs, like anybody else in this business. I wanted to feel like a true artist again, where I can write and record songs without worrying about any of the bullshit.”

And so begins Smoke On This, Brown’s foray into a solo record that surprises in some ways and feels like the good ole Rex from the old days of Pantera, the legendary band he joined back in 1982. Strapping on a guitar and putting his vocal cords to the test, the Texas-born musician who started playing bass when he was twelve, wanted to see what would come out of something he started upon as a fun experience. “Fun has to come into it or I’m not going to do it. I’ve had a tremendous career and now I feel like I’m thirty years old again. This has given me that freedom I needed.” And as Brown proclaims, “I’m just getting my feet wet.”

“I was a Jazz bass player in one of the baddest live bands in the country,” Brown told me as we started our interview recently. “That’s where my formal training came from. So I listen to all kinds of stuff but I’m more of a fan of the more Traditional Jazz than anything else,” he said upon learning I was based near New Orleans. “I was based down in New Orleans for a long time with Down and I miss it. I loved it down there. In fact, we recorded a bunch of really cool music down in New Orleans.” Locale kudos aside, Brown spoke to Glide about his first solo record adventure and the songs he wanted to share with his fans.

What’s been happening in your music world lately?

We toured Germany. It was kind of cool. I go and play this big thing for one of my big endorsements and one of my best friends in the world, Hans-Peter who owns Warwick, flew us over. I said, “Look, let’s just tack some dates on here with the band.” So we did about fifteen, sixteen dates over in Europe. You know, you can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse but you can’t do it until you get in front of a crowd. So it was a really great experience because I’ve played bass for all this time and now I had to be the frontman. It was a challenge and I’m up for any kind of challenge And every night it got better and it got better and it got better. It’s one of those things where now we just got to get some more material going and I am probably going to go in the studio and hit a new EP or something like that and hit the States here the end of November maybe.

Why did it take you so long to do a solo record?

I’ve been on the road for twenty-five years doing records and touring and touring and touring. I didn’t take a break. You get to a point where you just go, Okay, this is enough. After twenty-five years of doing it, you need to take those breaks and balance it. So I said, look, I need to just take two years off. I was watching friends that had been doing this for a long time and they were burning out completely and I decided to go in a different direction. I want to go back to my roots – you know, why did I get into music to start with? And it was about the love of rock & roll. I wanted to go back to my teens and kind of get that feeling again.

Then we started coming up with these songs and we had this chemistry in the studio that was just amazing. I was just kind of doing this for fun and seeing if I had a voice that could work. And it all started coming together really, really quickly. But life gets in the way sometimes. I bought a home here in New Mexico and gutted the whole thing and renovated it. I took about eight months off and by that time I was having offers thrown at the back of my head night and day and I just wanted to start writing songs again and playing music. And that was all there was to it.

But it took a process, it took time and I wanted to hone my skills in playing guitar again. It’s always a passion of mine and I wanted to do this on this record. So I played bass and I played guitar and sang on this for the first time. A big departure from what people normally pigeon-hole me in, with the metal and everything else. I’m so tired of genres. I’m just a musician, man. That’s all I am. It’s one of those things where as a musician you’re always looking for something else. I’ve already had just a tremendous career and I wanted to do something different that was off the cuff, you know. You don’t have to stay in that same territory. I´ve done it over and over and over and over, as far as the metal thing. But you can take the boy away from the farm but the farm pretty much comes with you (laughs). So I had the leanings towards that and the aggression and when I do something, it’s 110%. So we found this new sound and we just expounded on it and used the studio as a palette and I couldn’t be happier with my first solo release.

You have a great group of guys with you on this record

I tell you what, I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed that I’ve got a musical family of different guys. Like, if I’ve got a gig or got something else I’m doing and this guy can’t make it, I’ve got another guy that steps in. It’s called the Brown Family Collection and everybody is cool with it. I’ve got dates and if guys can’t make this one, you know, then I have to look around and find somebody else and I’ve just been blessed with the talent that has come and helped me kind of go where I’m going. It’s all about fun and about playing music. Life is bigger than just making records and going on tour. There is so much more to life than that. But that’s all that I’ve seen, is riding in the back of a bus, you know what I’m saying.

As a person, I’ve really matured a lot here in the last two or three years. And you have to take off to kind of do that. Even though I sit on the bus and I read all the time, it’s that constant pounding drill. Everybody thinks it’s real glamourous to get on a bus. I dare anybody to get on the bus and gruel it like I did, like a lot of my fellow guys do it. We live only for those few hours that we’re on that stage. Now the rest of it, after this long of doing it, you can throw it to the birds (laughs). I could care less for it. But the enjoyment of playing those few hours makes it all worthwhile. So you’ve got to get yourself up there. Regardless if you’re sick or regardless if you’re in a bad mood or in a great mood, that’s what you strive for. And you’re only as good as your last note and you’re only as good as your last show.

How was it in the studio with producer Caleb Sherman?

Yeah, I needed to have an outside set of ears, because I knew exactly what the sound of this record was going to be. I drove him crazy. I think we mixed this thing, I’d say probably fifteen times or more. You know, as we went along we’d make changes. I’d do these in spurts. I’d cut four songs and then I’d come down to finish those; and then I’d come back and go, “Oh, I want this here and I want this here.” And I documented everything on camera and I documented on pad. So it’s a pretty amazing story once we put it all together. I’ve just been running in circles trying to get this thing out and get it going. And look, if I can turn just one person onto this or they turn five people on or turn a hundred on, I have no expectations of reaching a huge mass audience. If they want to come to me, I’ll take it, but at the same time, this is a really personal record for me. This is what I’ve wanted to do for a while. We have a lot of plans coming up that is going to enable me to do that. I don’t live in the past. I live in today and that’s all I can do.

What song on here would you say changed the most from it’s original conception to it’s final recorded version?

“Crossing Lines” was one of them. I think “One Of These Days,” at the end of the record, we kind of had two songs that kind of split into one and that one went through a lot of changes. My co-writer, Lance Harvill, I brought him in, and he’s an exceptional songwriter, and we both have a fondness for the Beatles and everything, melody. He had sent me this one little passage, “One of these days, I’m going to find you,” and kind of had a melody and I just built everything around that to climax at the end of the record. It was just one of those tracks. I played everything but slide on that track, and drums. But it’s one of those tearjerkers. I had to get into the groove and emotion of it, when it starts with that a cappella.

You know, as a musician I couldn’t be happier or blessed more doing what I just done. It was a challenge and at the same time it was so fricking easy, just trying to make the best that you can. Now, when I do go back and listen, I go, man, I wish we would have done it different. But that’s just the way I am. I just got tired of painting the same painting over and over with every record that I did, because I was stuck inside of this metal genre. But you can get out of it. Pantera was phenomenal all to itself and still is. All the hard work that we did and everything else and the tragedies that went with it, that was a lot to go through. But at the same time, it’s one of those things where I still have the affection for what we did but I’ve got to move on, I’ve got to move forward. I did the thing with Philip [Anselmo], Down, in New Orleans. Then I went to LA and did this thing with Kill Devil Hill. You know, every record that I have put out, I’ve tried to put as much integrity in it or else I wouldn’t put it out. That being said, this is just another record from Rex Brown. This is not the end. This is a new beginning.

How did “So Into You” come about, especially that ending jam?

That was one I had been sitting on. I think I had taken it to Kill Devil Hill and it didn’t fit. It was one I had the riff and I brought it to a session. It was one of the first ones we probably started writing for this record. I had that one pretty much planned out, had worked out in LA. I have a friend that has a studio out there and it was my first culling of a love song, but still keeping it in that rock & roll tradition. It could be about anything, it could be about your dog; I’ll leave the interpretation up to the person listening to it. But the jam at the end, I wanted to just rock it out at the very end of it. There were a couple of songs we had, like “Lone Rider” had another cross fade-out that was just nothing but a jam. But at the very end of it, I said, let’s keep these simple, keep people wanting more, and then we can give it to them cause we have so much material it’s ridiculous.

It’s a little bit of a departure for you, though, on a few of these songs

It’s not that I’m getting old and slow. It’s just that I want to play a different style of music. And wait till you hear the next shit. Who knows, there might be a fucking polka, electrified funk Jazz record. Who gives a fuck, as long as I’m making music that makes me happy, that’s all that matters. As a musician, that’s all that CAN matter. Once you stop doing that then you’re just playing for somebody else, not yourself, and that’s not the reason I wanted to do this. I wanted to do this because of personal growth. This was what I was feeling at the time. Here’s something real easy to figure out: you take my name off of it, you take the picture and the cover off of it, and listen to the songs. And that’s all you got to do. Forget what I’ve done in the past. That has nothing to do with what this record is about.

Which bass and guitar did you use predominately?

I used all kinds. I used all my Warwicks. Every instrument I get it inspires me to do something with it or come up with a riff. I’ve got a guitar sitting next to my bedstand that if I were to get up in the middle of the night sometimes, which I do, I’ll just pick it up and go silently into another part of the house, record the riff and go back to bed. Guitars, I played Prestiges, we played Gibson Les Pauls. Those Prestiges are custom, my signature, that I’ve been working on with this company for a while. And my trusty old 1960 Telecaster, that’s where a lot of my sound comes from. But Lance played also. We had a couple other Gibson Les Pauls that he laid down. He played the predominant tracks. I just came underneath him with the rhythm section. We put like way too many tracks on there than needed but just in case we needed them in mix we had them. It was overkill cause you can only put about six tracks on there. But I’ve got a 1967 ES35 12-string that came in real handy. We used all kinds of Teles on this. We didn’t put a Strat on here, which is kind of weird.

What do you think this solo record says about who you are at this time in your life?

It’s just music, honey, not a work of science. If somebody gets something out of these songs or whatever, if you dig it, dig it. If not, it’s cool too. It might not be your taste but at least give it a chance. There are some well-crafted songs on there and that’s a nod to everybody cause they all helped me with all this stuff. It takes a family and chemistry to make all that stuff come across on tape. Between Lance, Christopher Williams and Caleb, we really made something special or we wouldn’t be talking right now.