By Chad Childers
Rex Brown has been making a musical transition of sorts over the past few years, and the musician is starting off 2019 by revealing that he’s cutting back on his workload a bit. Brown has revealed to Loudwire that he’s exiting Kill Devil Hill, turning his focus primarily to his solo work after releasing 2017’s impressive debut, Smoke on This.
In our chat below, Brown reveals why this was the right time to leave Kill Devil Hill, gives us some insight on how his sophomore solo set is coming along and he also speaks about his musical bond with the late Vinnie Paul and Pantera’s strong legacy.
Let’s jump right in. You’ve got some news to reveal that you’re leaving Kill Devil Hill. What made this the right time to exit?
About 2014 in the summertime, I had just about had it. I spent 30 years on the road and you have to remember that after Pantera when Dime got murdered, I went straight into a thing with Philip [Anselmo] and in 2005 did Down and did another five or six years, did a bunch of recordings down at Willie Nelson’s place. It’s just been one project to the next, and I really haven’t had the time. I had all these songs that I wanted to get out.
So I think our last gig was September 2015, and I put the solo record out and it did what it did and I’ve spent the better part of 2018 … man, I’ve got 18 tracks in the can, and I’m gonna finish up all this stuff in March. So really, I’ve just been going from one thing to the other to the other since I’ve been 17 with some breaks in between, but man I had to get off that road.
With Kill Devil Hill, the guys are starting to gig again and with them, it’s very amicable. They are some of my best friends in the world. I just felt like I was keeping a damper on them so might as well take care of this thing now. It’s a very amicable split and everybody’s happy with the whole deal. It probably should have happened a year ago, but you never know. You’ve just got to keep things open. But I’m doing my thing and they’re doing theirs and it’s all cool.
I’ve got more music in me and a lot of these songs just don’t fit what I was doing before. I was always that Zeppelin dude in the fuckin’ background with a joint in his mouth, and I loved playing metal. Then Pantera happened and we had a very heavy cross to carry for a long time. So I’ve continued working, but I’m just a lot happier now.
And with Kill Devil Hill, you said it was an amicable split …
Yeah, I called the guys. I didn’t want to write an email. I called them individually and just reached out and said, “Do what you need to do and I’m sorry if I held you up in any way or form” and they were kind of cheered to know that that was the news that I wanted to do. They wanted to get out and play.
At this point, until I get enough repertoire and get enough albums under my belt, I’m not going to go out on the road and just play a bunch of cover tunes. I just really need to develop this solo thing and knock it in its ass this fall. I’m a musician and I just need to follow my gut and that’s just all there is to it.
When Vinny Appice was in the band, it was ferocious. It was something new and something different, and in 2013, he’d decided he had enough and so he took off. So I brought my good friend Johnny Kelly who I’ve known for 25-30 years plus and it was just about 2014, and then the timing of metal was just kind of crazy. You’ve got to get those good bookings and that kind of stuff and it just didn’t pan out and I was sitting in the back of the bus one day and I said, ‘Look man, I gotta take a break sooner or later. I’ve sacrificed 25 years of my life for this.’ And at that point it was still about half of my being. So I took about nine months off and I got the itch again and started writing songs for the solo record.
We’re still close, close friends, but it’s just if they’re being booked, I don’t want people to think that I’m going to be there, cause I’m not. That’s the one thing I want to get across. Yes, it’s an amicable split, but it’s not that big of news. I think people saw the writing on the wall, and maybe if they couldn’t, they will now.
Moving onto the new music ….
Yeah, I’ve got a really introspective record coming. I went through a totally different songwriting process on this one and yes, it’s very introspective but at the same time it’s kind of dark. We haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve got so much stuff in the can, it’s just ridiculous.
It’s a darker record for me, but it’s one of those things where you’ve just got to let it out when it comes out. It’s kind of Nashville in that sense. So we want to get it done and hit the road.
Is it still kind of in that bluesy, rock vibe of Smoke on This?
Yeah, I’d say it’s still bluesy, but the songs are more well rounded. We just wanted to get my feet wet the first time. But this one’s got its rockers on there and some doomy kind of [Pink] Floyd stuff on it — that kind of vibe. I wanted to use the studio kind of more as a palette for what I was doing rather than the other way around.
Also, it’s all about the songs. I brought in several new people on this thing and wanted to get the vibe of how it was going to work, but I ended up writing everything and with the help of my producer, I’ve done just about everything on this record. It’s got some different characters on it, and I went to different jam sessions in Nashville and it was really cool. I’d never written like that before. Every single line, we would stop and say, ‘Where does it go from here?’ Usually you write a riff and put something over the top lyric-wise, but I was writing the lyrics as we went on some of it — just to get the first verse down and then we could go on, but it came real organically.
It was kind of cool that on the studio premises, there was about five acres and they were a bunch of these tiny houses. They had about two or three of those on the property and when I felt my ears were a little flawed, I’d go down there with a nice speaker setup and go down there and sit and write for hours at a time, and then I’d come back and we’d track everything. I really didn’t have any preconceived notion for this. I just wanted to let the beans fall where they were.
I know the last album, you had Lance Harvill, Christopher Williams playing some drums and Caleb Sherman produced. Are they back in the fold this time around?
I used Kevin Bond from Superjoint Ritual. I’ve known him for years, it goes back as far as early Philip days but maybe later. But Kevin and I have been friends for years and I saw him at a Superjoint show here while Philip and I were talking and he came out and we started throwing riffs together. We just started sending each other stuff that couldn’t work for other bands and he came down for the first session.
The second session I had a whole bunch of stuff that … I’ve been playing a lot of piano lately, and I wrote a bunch of shit on piano and my producer plays everything from slide to steel to piano and we kind of translated what I had into something that fit and went with a more stripped down approach of let’s get the song first, then we can layer everything else on it. So we’re still in the process of doing that.
It’s a trippy record, and I’m still trying to get my head around it. We still have three or four songs that I want to record and finish here and those will change once we get into the studio form, but it is Chris Williams playing drums again and Lance played lead on about four songs. I can’t get away from Harvill. He just keeps coming up with incredible shit.
Looking back at one of the interviews you’d done, you mentioned being interested in doing some covers…
Yeah, I actually recorded some covers, six or seven songs, and I just didn’t put it out because I feel that timing is everything in this business. I was just going to do that to hold fans over, and I did that in March last year and they’re really fucking killer, but I just decided to sit on them and see if we need something down the road. I’d rather have more content than just for the sake of putting something out to put something out. I’d rather put out an album of original music than tour on a covers album.
It was definitely fun doing it, and it kept me flowing and getting the juices out. I did everything from Bad Company to a more obscure Tom Petty track to Neil Young to [Lynyrd] Skynyrd — I did ‘Saturday Night Special’ on there. What else? I did ‘Middle of the Road’ from Pretenders. Yeah, it’s nuts. It’s all over the place. But it was fun, it was like let’s get the boys together and let’s jam.
And if you play some shows, you’ve got some “go-to” to help fill out the set.
Exactly. Those are the little teasers in between. It keeps people on their feet. But with one record, it’s hard to go out and do that stuff. It’s almost impossible. It’s not like the old days when you have one record out and you tour it to death. You’re 12 songs deep and that’s your whole set. We did that with Cowboys for 338 days on that first tour with no breaks in between. I remember we were completely burned out on Cowboys From Hell when we finished that tour. At 338 days, we were more than raring to get in the studio so we had some more shit to play.
In terms of the new record, what’s inspiring you these days?
Man, I’ve been going back and hitting my ’70s fucking favorite playlists. I’m just going back and listening to real records again instead of this MP3 sizzle. There is a new Doyle Bramhall II record called Shades that’s probably my favorite record of last year. I like that bluesy-tinged style and it’s got a darker side.
Basically, I’m going back through old notebooks. I’ve got so many riffs on my phone that I go back and listen and think, ‘What do we do with that? Where does this go? Where does that go?’ This one leans more towards … it’s got a lot of fucking piano on it, but the underbelly is just so fucking heavy on guitar. You can take the boy away from the guitar for only so long, but it’s still going to be instilled in him.
So in March we’re going to take it to another studio and put the drums down where we feel comfortable and then everything else gets done in another studio. We’ve still got to finish some guitars and there’s a few things that I need to re-sing now that I’m used to them that were in demo form. But we’re talking 18 songs, so we’re trying to pick the best of what we got and plus we’re going to record three new ones. I’m still looking for that ‘Kashmir’ song on the record. I’m really close, man.
I’m not rushing it. I’ve rushed my whole fucking career, but that’s what this interview is all about. It’s so nice to sit back and smell the air and just do it at your own pace, man. You don’t have to be up against a deadline or all that other bullshit. It just takes time. The older we get, the wiser we get and the more mature we are and you’ve just got to go with that gut instinct. I’ve got a bunch of tracks I might never touch, but you never know when it might come in handy for a riff here or there.
This past year we lost Vinnie Paul. I know you’re playing the Dimebash coming up and just wondering if you know if there will be something to mark the passing of Vinnie as well as Dime.
I’m sure there might be something, but I’m not the head of that. I get up there to play the encores and that’s it. I’m sure there might be some segment there dedicated to Vin. The Hellyeah guys are gonna be there, but I won’t know until the night of … and that’s kind of cool, cause that’s the way that Dime always did shit. It was all about the jam. We’ve all known each other for years, all these musicians, and it’s a really good time just hanging out.
People often think of the connection of the rhythm section in a band. Can you perhaps talk about working with Vinnie and finding that groove as musicians in your early days?
We started out professionally figuring out how to do it when we were 15 years old. We were in jazz band, lab band, together in high school and it was one of the most prestigious lab bands and the instructors, they had high connections to the Montreaux Jazz Festival and the seniors, we’d go every year and play a cover. So Vinnie and I spent a lot of time at sectionals and we were both extremely incredible sight readers. We’d gotten that in junior high. I played, of all things, the tuba, and I also played the bass because there were too many guitar players, even as I’m playing guitar now and looking at my ’61 double cut.
I think having those couple of years with Vinnie in that kind of direction. Sometimes we’d play ‘2112’ in its entirety at sectionals, but playing jazz is a much more wide open space to go in. It’s off the cuff, and that’s where you can really learn how to play.
But once we started playing these clubs and playing covers and writing our own material and those first three records, we were only 17-year-old, then 18 and 19. But I just knew what he was going to do. I played along with Vinnie and to Vinnie and Vinnie would play off of Dime. It was very integrated and we knew exactly where each other were going to go. I think all those years we played in the clubs just made us a tighter band. That’s why we had that big sound with the guitar, and everything just had its place.
Vinnie was just an incredible drummer and I really miss the camaraderie of years past. It was just another phone call of, ‘Are you sitting down?,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, who is it now?’ Never in a million years would I have thought it would be Vinnie. It’s just wild, and it’s insane. It started coming through in some of my lyrics, and I had to step back a little bit.
I had to reflect on it and it’s something you have to process. I learned the first time with Dime, and it took me years in therapy to get the fuck over. When those tragedies hit, you just pull your boots up as much as you can and you go. We just had a hell of a rhythm section, and it hasn’t been touched since, so. I don’t want to sound egotistical about it, but we were pretty fucking tight, dude … even at our sloppiest (laughs) … even at our drunkest (laughs).
Definitely something magical there.
That’s definitely part of it. Every band I’ve been in, it’s all about the chemistry. Even this Kill Devil Hill thing, when Vinny left, it just took part of that chemistry that was so unique about what the band was doing and Johnny can play fucking anything, but you take that one little ingredient out and it changes every dynamic. I think in the back of my head that’s what I was thinking, but really it was just the road. I was spent — burnt fucking out — with over 30-plus years of being on the road. It was time to go home and reinvent again. What do you want to do and what’s going to make you happy? I just keeping getting lucky in that. I’ve been trying to get that luck on tape, and that’s all you can do.
All of this intertwines. All of this is just a big circle, and it keeps you going. Same thing with Philip. He has a lot of projects he likes doing and it keeps him going, but I’m not going to turn around tomorrow and join another band. Right now, I’m happy doing what I’m doing and that’s the most important thing. It’s taken a while to get to that happy space and wearing that old white hat by yourself isn’t the easiest job in the world either. It’s just an added challenge, but I welcome the charge.
It’s great that we have Dimebash out there to celebrate some of the Pantera legacy. I know you definitely have your solo material you want to get out there, but do you see yourself finding a way to maintain the Pantera legacy and maybe incorporating some of that past when you play?
Well, what I’m doing and what Pantera is doing are totally different things. It’s the same thing with Down, which was completely different. Philip’s doing some half sets now where it’s half Pantera and half of whatever project he’s promoting. That works for him perfectly because he was the singer on all of those songs and the most identifiable voice. For me to do something like that, it’d be almost like a tribute band, but for me it’s not about the road work anymore. Trust me, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds after 30 years.
But revolving around to your question, the legacy stands for itself. We get new fans daily. Somebody who hasn’t heard of Pantera may hear of it from their dad or from other kids. I may go to the mall like once a year to get something, and I’ll see brand new Pantera shirts all over the fucking mall. Kids are still wearing them. It’s everywhere. It’s a weird phenomenon that I’ve been incredibly blessed with. We did something right and we made a mark somewhere and it still stands the test of time and is something to be proud of.
Thanks to Rex Brown for the interview. Both Brown and Kill Devil Hill will be performing at Dimebash 2019 this Thursday (Jan. 24) at The Observatory in Santa Ana, Calif. Tickets are available here. Stay tuned for news on Brown’s upcoming solo album as well as Kill Devil Hill’s upcoming 2019 plans.