“Once I found my voice, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” says Rex Brown. And the artist, whose debut solo album, Smoke On This…, comes out July 28 on eOne, means that literally and figuratively. Best known as the bassist for multiplatinum metal band Pantera, Brown has not only switched to guitar for the album, he is also singing lead for the first time in his career.
While Brown has stayed active since Pantera’s 2003 breakup, playing with the likes of Down and Kill Devil Hill, he had thought about stepping out on his own for years. “I had this inkling of an idea, the idea of doing a solo album, since 2010,” he remembers. To execute it he wound up in a musical mecca — Nashville — and started writing with guitarist Lance Harvill. He then found drummer Christopher Williams (Blackfoot, Accept), who connected him with producer Caleb Sherman (Little Big Town). “Nashville’s just a great, laid-back place,” says Brown. “You get the best out of a song. It’s a songwriting town, and it’s not about the genre. That’s the last thing I had on my mind. I just wanted this record to be a rock’n’roll record.”
The album would’ve had a “totally different taste” had it been recorded anywhere else, says Brown. “When I went into that studio in Nashville, it wasn’t like one of those fancy joints where you have leather couches and all the kind of stuff. It’s about the song, it’s about the work that goes into it, the work ethic. Even way back in the Pantera days, we hated swanky places. It’s not conducive to the flow. We were getting some incredible sounds out of it, and at the same time, we were experimenting on how the voice was going to sound. It just came together.”
Brown says that about half the songs on the album had been written before the sessions for Smoke On This… began, but not in any recognizable form. “I turned those upside down and bastardized them,” he says. “Anybody can sing a melody on it, but to have me singing on it with the swagger that I have and the way my voice sounds, that was the hardest part. In fact, it was the only part that was hard. The rest was real simple.”
To sing lead, Brown says it was about “just stepping up to the mic for the first time and going for it and trying to find what suits your voice the best.” He wasn’t directly inspired by any other musicians to make the move to the mic stand, but if there’s any precedent, it could be his labelmate Zakk Wylde, who has also admirably transitioned from sideman to bandleader. “Without getting really technical, it’s about where you’re most comfortable at,” explains Brown about singing. “It was a hard push, singing not necessarily from the diaphragm. Then I started singing from the diaphragm and not the throat, but I liked the other one better. It took me a while to like that voice. Then once I did, I just started stripping stuff away from it.”
After demoing the songs, Brown bought a house, gutted it and renovated it, which gave him a four-month break to listen to the album “We went back, rerecorded the drums. We kept all the bass tracks live and some of the scratch tracks from the guitar, and we just started building and kept a majority of the vocals,” he says. “We overproduced a lot of the stuff, so we stripped it back. I wanted to make a raw f–kin’ rock’n’roll record. I wanted to take you on a journey, so there’s a lot of different pieces on there, but they all fit together.”
The end result is a confident rock album that’s far removed from both Pantera’s groove metal and Down’s stoner sludge. Some tracks, like lead single “Train Song,” could fit right in at active rock, while “Get Yourself Alright” has a bluesy Beatles-esque swing and “What Comes Around” has a Lenny Kravitz-/Led Zeppelin-like swagger. Watch the video for “Train Song” below: