Ten years after the band’s split, bassist Rex Brown has completely opened up about his time in the iconic metal outfit Pantera. His new autobiography, Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera, delves into his own youth, the band’s formation, rise and fall, the death of guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, and his struggles and successes since. Describing the book as “starkly honest” almost seems like an understatement as Brown details his ride with anecdotes on events and the characters involved in the band’s story.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Pantera,” he states. “I dream about Pantera, I have nightmares about Pantera – it’s always there and I imagine it always will be.”
While Pantera is and was a huge part of his life, the bassist is continually pushing to create new music. His current band is Kill Devil Hill, featuring legendary drummer Vinny Appice, guitarist Mark Zavon and vocalist Dewey Bragg. After releasing and touring their debut album last year, the group is currently in the studio working on a yet-to-be-titled followup.
We reached Brown to get the scoop on his book, the new Kill Devil Hill album, his gear and his bass playing philosophy.
What kind of gear are you running these days?
I’m using a Spector then running through a pedal board with an [MXR] Blowtorch and a Morley Wah, which I’m supposed to have my own signature coming out soon. Then I use a little Phase 90 for different things. Then I run through a chorus, and I just use a little bit of chorus to just get a little bit of presence. I get a lot of gain out of the pedal board and let my right hand do the talking, basically.
I’m still using that white Spector that I have. I’ve probably got 40 [Spectors], but this one just takes the cake. I don’t know what it is. It’s mahogany with alder wings on it. It’s got that mid punch but then again it’s got that low end that’ll make the hairs on your knees curl. I sink the pickups really hard in those mahogany neck, and you just get this real huge bite. I don’t even use the treble pickup. It’s a P/J configuration and I just use the top pickup. It just depends on how hard you pick, and I pick really [expletive] hard on some of this stuff, so that’s where I get a lot of my growl. It’s not more of a gain thing, it’s more of what you’re getting out of the instrument. I try to keep it as clean as I can but at the same time I’ve got to have a little distortion, then I can get all the distortion I want out of my right hand.
You sound like a gear head, but then it’s really about the person playing.
It just depends on what works for you and what doesn’t work. I’ve gone through different gain structures and stuff like that, but I’m using an SVT Pro 4 and I’ve used that forever. It just depends on what kind of stage you’re on and what your configuration is as far as cabinets and stuff like that.
I understand you’re in the studio working on the next Kill Devil Hill album.
Absolutely. We’ve got nine tracks with the bass and drums, and I don’t know how many guitars we’ve done. About half of those have vocals. We’re kind of on a drifting schedule because we’re using [producer Jeff Pilson], and he’s as busy as he can get.
We’re moving along, man, and this stuff is kicking ass. This [record] is more like everybody writing together and knowing everyone else’s strengths. Before when I came into the band, they had a lot of things where the structure was already there. I just put my spice into it. I’d rearrange some stuff and really get stuff down with Vinny [Appice] in preproduction and stuff like that.
I spend a lot of time with [guitarist Mark Zavon] with the riff, and we’ll take it to Vinny to put his splash on it and it can completely change. He’ll say “Ah… let’s put something different here.” So it’s more of a collaborative thing on this one than anything that we’ve had before. I’m excited. If you like the first one, this one is going to blow you out. The melodies are crazy.
So it’s collaborative writing? Everyone brings something to the table?
Well, I mean everybody did on the last one, but this one more is just all for one. Before, someone would bring something in, or I’d bring in a song. Yeah, everybody is working at their own speed and their own pace. It’s much more of a collective feeling.
When do you think the album will be out?
I wish tomorrow, but as soon as we can get it out. I want to make sure it’s good before we put anything out, that’s for damn sure. If we’ve got nine songs, and I know I’ve got three and Mark’s got three, we just need to get together and hash it out. It’s not all over the place. It’s collective, but there’s more diversity on this one than the last one within the same confines of heaviness. It’s all heavy but it’s got elements of us as a band growing after playing and growing together for the last year and half.
I used to sit around and watch Black Sabbath and Heaven and Hell and sit behind Geezer’s cabinet and burn a joint and watch Vinny play. It’s getting to the point where I know where he’s going to go with his fill so I can go with it. It’s one of those things where before, we had to really work those things out. This time around, it’s where we know exactly where we want to put it. There’s no second guessing what we want to do.
That kind of psychic connection is something you get from touring together, right?
Oh yeah. The more you jam with somebody, it’s more of a comrades in arms kind of thing, and that’s what Vinny and I have together. I’ve said it before, but I’ve been blessed with three great drummers in my life, and for a bass player, that’s heaven. I’m grateful for that for sure. You have to have a really good drummer, but also a lot of the times if you listen to any really good tracks, the bass player holds down the whole fort. For me, all this time it’s been knowing when not to play instead of going all over the place. Anybody can do that, but you know you don’t want to jump on the vocals. On some of these parts, I’ll just let Vinny take a fly around the toms, where other times if it needs to be heavy to go into a bridge part, we really worked out those kinks in the armor that we maybe didn’t have on the first one.
Playing-wise, when do you think it’s good to open up rather than hold it down? Is it just intuitive?
Yeah. I’ll go into these sessions sometimes and I’ll go over the song with Mark first thing in the morning. then we’ll go to the studio. I just kind of play along with Vinny and see what comes of it. A lot of these tracks I’ve just been using the guide tracks and it sounds really good. I’ll punch in here or there, but a lot of this stuff is just right off the floor, which is cool. I remember doing records back in the day where you’d better have had your [stuff] together because splicing tape wasn’t very much fun. With Pro Tools now you can get really close to that analog sound, and the guy that we use to mix everything, Jay Rustin, he gets really close to that real warm feeling. The bass is a lot warmer on this one. It’s not as bright even though I liked the sound on the first one, this [new album] has the best of both worlds. Believe it or not, I’m just going straight to the board. Just a little bit of compression, but no EQ and the tapes I have already sound like they’re mastered. That’s how good it’s sounding.
Like I said, sometimes you just have to go with that gut instinct. I don’t try to necessarily get my parts politically correct, because that’s not what rock and roll is about. I hate those bands that – as Vinny calls it – the white bread bands that sound really pieced together where there’s no feeling in it. That’s where we’re coming from, as far as him and I on this record. I can’t even see him from the control room to the drum room, but I know exactly what he’s going to do. But that’s just from playing for all these years.
In your book, you mention that you played jazz in school and were already able to read music before getting into Pantera. How much did your academic musical background help you in the long run in working with the band?
I think it all just boils down to chemistry. We were four different individuals making it all work. At the same time, we were all still growing up. I was a sight-reading champ for years in school, and it just came naturally for me. That’s all I can say. Anything that I play, I try not to make it contrived and just make it fit the song.
All in all, I think I got that from my grandmother when I was at a very young age. She used to play for silent movies and stuff like that, and she was very instrumental [in getting me into music]. Poor woman, I’d make her sit at the piano and play for hours just so I could hear it. Like we were talking about earlier on when and when not to play, I think that has to do a lot with the jazz influencing me in that direction. I can remember there was this one song that we did in jazz band called “The Bassist,” and there was basically nothing on the sheet music. It was all free-for-all.
I think a lot of guys wouldn’t realize you have such a diverse background.
I think I could have taken [playing jazz] differently, but I was getting into Led Zeppelin, and then that turned into the new wave of British heavy metal bands that came through, and I really liked that. I can play with my fingers, and I’m not one of those guys that wants to be like Billy Sheehan and all that. No offense to Billy, he’s a great guy. I’m just not a lead guitar player when it comes to the bass. I’m a bass player. There’s a difference between the two, and like I said before, you listen to old Motown with James Jamerson and you just go, “What?” That’s the groove. You’ve got to feel that pocket and get into that groove. That’s what bass players really need to delve into and experiment with. That eventually became the power groove between Dime and that we’re so renowned for.
What made you decide to write this book now?
Someone just approached me. I was going through the tail end of the Down thing where we were sitting on our thumbs and I had nothing to do. I got approached by a friend of a friend and we just managed to tell some stories. It’s so hard putting 20 years of your life or whatever into 320 pages of a book. We went through ten re-writes ourselves, and God knows how many the publisher went through. This is just my tale of what went down. As far as it coming out now, it’s like, why wait until you’re dead to write something? I just felt like why put something out that’s not going to be relevant, because Pantera is still relevant. We still have fans from the old days and we have new fans that are getting turned onto us. I was never one to say anything in the press. I didn’t want to get caught up in the whole mess. I just never said anything in the press and I felt it was time to go ahead and speak up. That’s it. No pre-contrived anything. I just wrote a book. Take it or leave it. If you don’t like it – which I doubt – then don’t read it.
Do you have a favorite album or time period from Pantera?
I think Vulgar Display of Power was magical. From there, and like any band, you have your hills and your valleys and you have to keep doing it until you’re blue in the face.
What do you want people to take from your story?
Whatever they want out of it. I’m just telling my side of the tale. Like I said, it’s not some bible of what happened in Pantera, it’s just my side of the story and that’s all there is to it. There’s no BS in it. It is official truth from where I was sitting, and I had the really good seats. There’s only four guys who knew what went down in that band and one is no longer with us. I can only tell my side of the story. You can get analytical with it or whatever you want with it, but as far as I’m concerned I couldn’t be happier with it. For my first book I don’t think it’s too bad. I probably have two or more left in me. It was an interesting process and very cathartic. It is what it is.
Do you have plans for another?
I’ve got something in mind, but we’ll see what happens with this one and see what goes down. Now I know how to get it done a lot quicker. I’d advise everyone who is a Pantera fan to go out and get this one first.