Rex Brown: Rex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

June 26, 2014
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The night a major-label A&R man finally saw his band, Rex Brown was playing a Jackson 4-string at a private birthday party in a Dallas strip mall. It was the fall of 1989, and Pantera—Brown, guitarist Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, and his brother, drummer Vinnie Abbott—had been living close to the bone for seven years, gigging like crazy, touring in a rust-bucket RV, and recording four albums in a studio owned by the Abbott brothers’ father. But they were on the verge of something fresh. They knew their frontman, Phil Anselmo, who had joined a couple years before, was the real deal, and they were convinced that their heady brew of classic metal, ’80s thrash, “alternative,” hardcore, and Texas boogie was badass. Frankly, they had no time for nonbelievers.

That particular evening, Brown recalls, they’d all taken ecstasy, and by the time the A&R man showed up, the band was throwing cake at each other between songs and sliding around on spilled icing. The major-label guy left; the bandmates looked at each other and shrugged. But years of playing three sets a night for six nights a week had made them ridiculously tight, and the songs were just too damn good to deny. The A&R dude came back, and Pantera had a record deal by the end of the year. “We felt like saying, ‘Here we are. Fuck you,” Brown recalls of Cowboys From Hell, Pantera’s celebrated 1990 major-label debut. “We’re going to destroy you, so if you don’t like it, leave.”

Over the course of Cowboys and four more studio albums, including Vulgar Display of Power (1992), Far Beyond Driven (1994), The Great Southern Trend-kill (1996), and Reinventing the Steel (2000), Brown defined and refined a brutally fast style and a muscular, midrange-heavy approach that proved metal bassists didn’t have to live in the shadows. Standing toe to toe with Dime, wielder of one of rock’s most massive guitar tones, Brown asserted his own sonic identity while keeping pace with Dime’s blistering lines and Vinnie’s jackhammer beats.

Dime’s murder in 2004 put an end to Pantera’s 23-year career. But the wiry Brown—always restless, always working—has never been one to be idle. His discography includes stints with Down, in which he joined Anselmo; Crowbar, which he produced; Alice In Chains guitar hero Jerry Cantrell; the Sepultura/Soulfly-related Cavalera Conspiracy; outlaw country singer David Allan Coe; and melodic Dallas rockers Arms Of The Sun. Few of his projects, however, have excited him as much as Kill Devil Hill, whose melodic, hard-rockin’ sound is the perfect outlet for a metal veteran with Led Zeppelin in his bones.

Over the years, Rex has come to personify the rock & roll lifestyle, and he’s got the stories, the surgeries, and the scars—as well as the hard-won sobriety—to prove it. His action-packed memoir, Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera, co-written with Mark Eglinton, is chock full of tales about Pantera’s struggle to the top and its off-the-charts debauchery, but it also serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen to four extremely driven people who reach every goal they set out to achieve. Through it all, however, emerges the candid self-portrait of a dangerously honest, gifted, and hard-working bass maniac who went from being a scrawny tuba player to turning down a North Texas State scholarship and then playing in one of history’s most influential metal bands.

Now, as Rhino prepares to release a remastered two-CD version of Far Beyond Driven for its 20th anniversary, Pantera’s influence continues to loom large over contemporary metal and hard rock. Brown is on fire with Kill Devil Hill, and he’s happy, in-between tours, to hold clinics where fans come to hear stories and learn riffs directly from the lean, down-to-earth master with golden ears and a Texas twang.

“Be careful what you ask for, because it may come true,” Rex says as he prepares for a European tour with Kill Devil Hill. “I’m gonna be on the road for the next year, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s what I love to do.”

What music did you grow up with?

My sister, who is 17 years older than me, left me all her Beatles and Stones records and everything in between. My mother and my old man, who was in World War II, listened to swing bands of the ’40s and ’50s. My grandma played piano for silent movies and also had a band. My parents would drop me off at her house, where she had an upright piano, and she could play anything. All I wanted to hear was Dixieland and ragtime—I probably drove her nuts.

How did your upbringing affect your musicality?

My ears are wide open. I’ll listen to anything as long as it’s got a good hook. I learned that early on from listening to my grandma, because it was always that good cadenza or bridge that made a song special. If you listen to all those swing bands, there’s always that one part of the song that just gets you and just drives it home.

And then you got hit by “Tush.”

I lived in a small town—De Leon, Texas—until I was 10 or 11 years old. This is pretty much before FM radio; we couldn’t get it anyway because it was so far out of town. But I heard [ZZ Top’s] “Tush” on the radio, and they had that rhythm going—it swung, it was a shuffle, but it was a down-straight rocker, and that Texas boogie, that stomp, just never left me.

That’s something you shared with the rest of Pantera, right?

We all had that Texas stomp boogie in us, and it became known as the power groove.

What other stuff rocked your world?

I was the last of 26 grandchildren, so I had a lot of cousins who were turning me on to stuff like AC/DC around that same time. I was also listening to albums like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. You can’t touch records like that these days; people aren’t writing music like that anymore. In the mid ’70s, it was all about Kiss, Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick at Budokan, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, and stuff like that. But what really hit home for me was Zeppelin. That was my band and always will be.

As a teenager, you played Stones and Zeppelin covers with Neck & the Brewheads.

We played big keg parties for beer. I was all over the place: I made all-state tuba through the time I was in seventh grade until I switched over to the drum line, I was a really good sight-reader, I sang in the choir, and I was also an Eagle Scout. I’ve been pretty busy all my life. I don’t know how to stop.

It seems like you have a hunger for jamming. You’re not really a couch-potato kinda guy.

I can just disappear and turn the phone off, but I’ve got this gift and I want to share it. That’s all there is to it. It’s more like an addiction than anything else. I’m just a music junkie.

How would you describe your connection with Vinnie Paul after you first met in high school jazz band?

We really knew how to play with each other. A lot of those parts we did in Pantera, we worked out in the studio just like we did in jazz-band sectionals in high school. When we were 15 or 16, Vinnie and I would go play Rush’s 2112 instead of actually learning our parts for the jazz band. We just knew each other so well; I always knew exactly what he was going to do.

Later on, in Down, you had a strong hookup with Jimmy Bower, too.

Jimmy plays way back on the beat, so the sky was the limit for me to just run bass lines left and right. He’s a great drummer and a very talented individual— he plays guitar and writes all this crazy shit, too.

How is playing with Vinny Appice in Kill Devil Hill?

I did my homework before I ever thought of starting a band with him. Down toured with Heaven & Hell for about six months in 2008, and every night, I’d smoke half a joint, sit behind Geezer Butler’s rack, and just watch Vinnie play. We got together and it was instantaneous. It was powerful, man.

Vinny has a lot of other projects going on, so Johnny Kelly from Type O Negative came in and just nailed it. We’ve been friends and toured together for a long time, so I’m really excited to play with him. From a bass player standpoint, I’ve been the luckiest motherfucker around—I really have been.

Do you write with Kill Devil Hill?

We write together, and I definitely bring stuff to the table. The guitar player, Mark Zavon, is an extremely gifted writer, as is Dewey Bragg, who comes up with a lot of the melodies. A lot of times, Mark will have something and I’ll change a bit of it, and then vice versa.

On the first record, they pretty much had everything mapped out. I just put in my two cents about arrangements, dynamics, and the bass parts. I was way more involved in Revolution Rise.

What are your favorite bass lines on Revolution Rise?

The whole record to me is one big hoo-ray. “Crown of Thorns” is my favorite, and “Life Goes On” is pretty cool, too.

Do you miss playing the style of music Pantera made famous?

Of course I do. That was a one-of-a-kind dynamic with four individuals who were completely different. Now that Dime’s no longer with us, it’s left a hole. And I’ve already played that heavy and fast stuff. Now it’s about incorporating the heavy without making it so brash and so harsh, and I have to make sure that low end is good and tight—and that it has a really cool guitar sound over the top.

How important are chops?

To me, it’s all about the song. It’s not about ego or who’s playing where. It’s about knowing when to play, when not to play, and what’s going to hold down that fort. I can sit and play guitar all day long, but when it comes to bass playing, it’s a totally different game. I have to keep that low end so everything else can breathe and so that the vocals paint the picture.

It’s amazing that you managed to be heard despite Dime’s bottom-heavy guitar parts and Vinnie’s kick drum.

Dude, it was so hard because that guitar sound was so big, the reverb on the snare was so loud, and the kicks had that “click” to them. Dime would hit at like, 3.5 to 4K [kilohertz], and that’s where I would try to get my bass attack.

It’s cool that you didn’t just play everything in unison with him.

If it were up to Dime, he would have had me to play everything in unison. But being a bass player, I felt that there were certain variations I could play within the riff—and within the context of the riff—that made it unique. It would have been very easy for Dime to just pick up a bass and play along with his guitar tracks, but as a bass player who knows composition and how things fit together, I didn’t want to do that all the time.

But “The Riff” is sacred, right?

When you’re talking about very specific riffs—something like “I’m Broken”—you’d better believe it. But there’s a certain way you can instill that main riff while still putting your mark on it. It’s all about knowing when to shine and knowing when not to. I definitely tried different things during the lead section, but not all over the song. Some bass players these days play and play even when the vocalist is singing, and it just clouds everything up.

Did you guys work out how you’d support his solos?

Some of the Pantera bass lines I’m proudest of happened underneath Dime’s solos. Sometimes I’d say, “Let me try a part for the solo,” and we would just jam it; if it worked, it worked. Pretty much any time he’d go to the upper register, I’d keep it real solid on the bottom, down with the kick. So if you notice in “Rise,” for example, it’s me just playing straight 16ths or eighth-notes. And a lot of those times when he went in the upper register I would play eighth-notes or 16ths under him, and then when Dime came down, we would play everything in unison. But you know, we didn’t even think about it back then. It was just second nature. It was magic.

What role did your tone play?

I wanted to have a huge, monstrous sound underneath Dime, but we were flying at 188 beats a minute. I had to be articulate, and sometimes, you can’t do that when you have a huge sound. So a lot of the real big-sounding stuff, I used a set of Taurus pedals.

Moog Taurus pedals?

Yep. Dime would go to pawn shops and bring back the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen. He brought in these Moog Taurus pedals, an older ’70s model, and we used to have to kick it to make it work. I can play piano—not great at all, but I know my way around it—so some of that stuff that you hear, some of that real low, real heavy texture, is that Taurus pedal.

On which album?

Every single one, just so there’d be no low-end dropout. These days, I have basses with sustain for days, but back then I was using clunkers—whatever I could afford, like Charvels and Jacksons. Those were top-of-the-line back in the day, but they didn’t sustain anything like the Taurus did.

You were playing 5-strings then, right?

Yep. I played a Music Man StingRay 5-string on Far Beyond Driven. That was about the time Dime got his DigiTech Whammy Pedal, and he was using that a lot. Vinnie might have added triggers for samples or something. So I got a 5-string, and in 1993, not many people were playing them. But I hardly ever used that low string to play riffs; I would sometimes go down to the low B instead of a higher one, but I used the B more for tonal character, not riffs.

But you never used Taurus pedals onstage, right?

No. Trust me, if you have 48 10" speakers behind you, you don’t need anything else. The low end is going to be there for days.

I assume you used a pick.

I played with a pick on all that stuff. That’s not to say that I can’t play with my fingers, but not on that fast stuff. And without the pick, it doesn’t come across as brutal and as tight.

How did you record your bass parts?

We would always get the drum tracks first, the guitars on second, and then we put the bass on last. So after Dime added guitars—just tighter than hell, left, right, and center—I would come in with the bass. Those first few records were very intricate, and we wanted them to sound mean as fuck. We had played together so much that it didn’t take long at all for us to do that.

What basses did you use on Cowboys?

On the first two records, I used an old black Charvel. I had a Jackson that was really nice, but it seemed like the Charvel was more consistent.

On tunes like “No Good (Attack the Radical),” you have a big, nasty rattling tone with lots of clank.

From so much playing, being on the road all the time, and then going in the studio, sometimes basses weren’t set up properly. You can hear the nut giving out, but it sounds cool. So why mess with it?

When you got to Far Beyond Driven, there’s a new bass tone. It feels different.

Except for a couple of things I did with the Music Man 5-string, that’s all Spector. The bass on that album has a really warm tone, yet it still has grit. You could turn up that Charvel all day long and not get the same tone as when you turn up that Spector. Until I found Spectors, it was really hard to get that tone. Those guitars in particular have really strong mids. It didn’t dawn on me until later that I’d been looking for that tone for a long time.

Eddie Jackson’s Spector tone on Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime was really good—that was it. He played with his fingers, but he had a nice, woody earth tone I really enjoyed. At the same time, I liked that Dug Pinnick tone, which was just great; you can hear his bass rattle like a son of a bitch. I knew he used a 12-string, but that just wouldn’t fit with Pantera. Ty [Tabor, King’s X guitarist] didn’t have that huge sound; King’s X was more bass-dominated. I did end up stringing my Jackson with piccolo strings and layering it over some parts, though.

What about your cover of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”—which bass is that?

When I got the Music Man basses, they sent me a few different necks, and one was a fretless, which I played on “Planet Caravan.” I also played keyboards on that, and Vinnie played bongos. It’s one of my favorite—if not my favorite—Dime leads of all time.

Lots of people consider “Floods” their favorite Rex bass line.

That whole song is kind of trippy, and when it came to the solo part, I wanted to put something down that was really solid. I knew what I wanted to do; we played it two or three times through and then got it on tape.

How often did you tune down?

We always used drop D, but we tuned down just a quarter-step. Back in the day, we tuned to D# plus 40 cents, which would be just under a half-step. I think Dime came up with that. A lot of these things just, you know, happened: You pulled the guitar out of the case and you just tuned to whatever was there.

There are a lot of tracks, like “I’m Broken” and “5 Minutes Alone,” where Dime is tuned down a full-step and I’m tuned down to D. I’m almost positive that both Cowboys and Vulgar were at D# plus 40 cents.

Why that tuning?

We didn’t want to make it like everybody else. We wanted to have our distinct little tonal range there. But then it got to the point where we were tuning down all the way to B on certain songs, where I think Dime was using open tunings.

Is it true that you stopped playing 5-strings?

I quit playing 5’s in 2002 because it wasn’t needed in Down—a lot of stuff was in drop D, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a 5. But recently, Spector sent me a 5-string that I’ve been playing the crap out of, and I’ve totally fallen in love again.

How did you approach the Reinventing sessions?

We said, “Where we can go after Trendkill?” We decided to take a bit of each record and try to combine it all. Tone-wise, songwriting, the craziness … Reinventing is probably my favorite Pantera record, because it had everything that was essentially us.

I couldn’t listen to Reinventing for a long time, especially after what happened to Dime—but one night I put it on, and it was amazing. When we made it, I felt like, How do we top something like this? Now I know that we could have.

How do you like doing clinics?

I’m in my element! That’s what I love doing. I’ve done several of them, and I plan on doing lots more. I do three or four Pantera songs and three Kill Devil Hill songs. The Pantera speaks for itself, and I want people to know where I’m at now.

Does it bother you that people still want to talk about Pantera?

It’s part of my history, but at the same time, I want to promote what I’m doing now. The clinics are the best of both worlds.

It’s obvious you’re stoked on Kill Devil Hill.

Something about this band has kick-started a fire underneath my ass, a hunger to get it done. Obstacles have always been in my way, and I’ve always found a way to jump those hurdles, for the love of music. I’ve been through hell and back— the tragedies, the surgeries, everything else. You just gotta keep on moving on.

Do you think you’ll do a solo album one day?

Maybe somewhere down the line. I have a lot of songs written that I would probably do; maybe I’d sing on it or maybe I’d get another singer. Who knows?

What about being a producer?

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that, but it would kind of fuck up my bass playing. I just don’t have time for it right now. That being said, sure, I’d like to. I produced and played bass on Crowbar’s record in 2004, Lifesblood for the Downtrodden, and I enjoyed it. Somewhere down the line, when I get this entertaining buzz out of my system, maybe I’ll produce some records. Right now, I’m just enjoying making music and spreading music the best I know how.

What keeps you going?

I have to play live. As many shows as I’ve played, I still get that thrill. There’s hardly anything like it—maybe driving a car really, really fast, or jumping off a cliff. But it’s not like the thrill you get when you convey that message to a crowd and they’re giving it back to you. For me, there’s no other feeling like that, besides, you know, sex. It’s a ritual for me.

Equipment

Basses Spector Euro 4LX 4-strings, Spector RXT signature 4-strings, Spector Euro5LX 5-strings, Spector Rex4 4-strings
Rig Hartke Kilo heads, Hartke HyDrive 810 8x10 cabinets
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steels Nickels
Effects Morley Pro Series 2 Bass Wah, Ashdown Chorus Plus, Hartke VXL Bass Attack, MXR Carbon Copy analog delay, Carl Martin Two Faze phaser, Carl Martin Bass Chorus
Wireless Shure ULXD4
Picks Dunlop Tortex Triangles 1.0mm

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