Smoke On This: An Interview With Rex Brown
Rex Brown has traveled the globe playing bass in some of the world’s greatest metal bands, but that’s only one facet to his musicality. Now fans are able to hear another side of the musician on his debut solo album, entitled Smoke On This.
The record draws on Brown’s early influences from the ’70s and showcases his abilities as a renaissance man. He wrote the songs with Lance Harvill and recorded the bass, guitar, and lead vocals. It’s not a first for guitar – he’s been playing since he was a kid and laid down plenty of six-string tracks for Pantera – but the process led him to discover his own voice in more ways than one. And while he may be fronting the band with the guitar, you can rest assured the bass work is still second to none.
From the gritty Southern opener, “Lone Rider” to the pensive closer, “One of These Days”, the album has a flow that also harkens back to the days of the importance of album sequencing. Hints of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd influences shine through Brown’s delivery, but the album as a whole is also a reflection of Brown’s own influence on the sound of his bands Pantera, Down, and Kill Devil Hill.
We caught up with Brown to get the scoop on the new album, his relationship with metal, and his upcoming touring.
I feel like you really put on your producer hat for this album because the whole thing has such a nice flow. Do you think that is something that’s overlooked by a lot of artists these days?
Yeah, I would say that the producer hat is always on. My first record came out when I was 17 years old so I’ve been around [mixing] boards and know how to do it, but I had to give [the producer role] away at some point and let someone else finish up the very end of the mixes. I gave it to Caleb Sherman, who was my producer on this record. That being said, all the music I would say I produced but Caleb put so much ear candy on this thing and made them all glue together. So to your first point, that’s why they come together so good.
The next thing was sequencing. I did this whole record in parts. I’d do four songs and make them as badass as I could, then do another four and another four. I picked the best ones that I thought would flow with the sequencing. If you listen to a track anymore, it’s like, “Don’t bore us get to the chorus.” That’s kind of what I wanted to do with this thing because it opens all kinds of opportunities down the road of where I want to go.
Looking back in hindsight, I had been sitting on this record for nine months without it being released. Once I get done with something, I’m ready to go hit the next one, know what I mean? But I have a lot of touring to do.
I know you’re about to head to Europe on tour. Can we expect a U.S. trek, too?
Absolutely, we have a November run in the works.
When you’re on tour, are you going to stick to guitar or trading off with the bass?
When you take on that guitar duty and the vocals… I tried it with the bass, but you know you have to have a really cool rhythm section. That’s what it’s all about. I’m not one of these Glenn Hughes types. Some of it is pretty complicated to sing over that with some of the lines I’m doing. It may seem simple on the record, but without that glue of what I’ve always done in the past [it doesn’t work].
I’m just surrounded by making really cool music that I want to play again. I don’t give an [expletive] what people think. I really don’t, because I have to get up there and deliver. The bass is not too complex for me to do that, I just feel more freedom [on guitar]. I’ve been playing guitar since I was nine years old. I’ve always had one sitting next to the bed stand. I’ll wake up at three o’clock in the morning and have a rip and just put it down.
[Recording] the bass lines came naturally to me. In fact, we didn’t overdub anything but one part on the album. We’ve got a little special treat in the live show with a double bass solo that’s going to be cool. You’ll see me strapping it on.
Who is holding down the bass for you on the tour?
The cool thing is I have what I like to call the “Brown Musical Family.” I’ve got all these cats. Some of them already had commitments through the year. So, it was Mike Duda and Johnny Kelly. Johnny is coming back in November, but he couldn’t play these dates. These are all just friends of mine. They call and say “I wanna play on your record.” Right now it’s [former War and PHILM bassist] Pancho Tomaselli. We’ve been rehearsing here for the past four days and it’s sounding really, really, really tight.
You’ve always been such a strong supporting player. Does it feel weird to be a frontman? Was it a big adjustment for you?
Not at all. I’m pinching myself going this is too easy. At the same time, if you took my picture off that cover and called it the Pimento Cheese Band or whatever, the music is still there. That’s all that matters. I did a lot of the work and had a lot of help from Lance Harvill and Christopher Williams. I had calls from all sorts of people wanting to play on this record, but it’s like why? The chemistry for the songs worked so well with Lance and Christopher. Once you have a chemistry like that that you feel confident with, you don’t want to mess with the mix. Then you’re just spinning your wheels.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Well, I’m all about the jam. At the same time, I’ve always been a tunesmith. ’70s rock has always been my specialty. For your first solo record, you’d better be true to it. Then you can expand from there and broaden out. I had to go out on my own, man. I just had to. People go, “Why didn’t you do this ten years ago?” Well, it wasn’t time, you know? I had to take a break from beating a dead horse.
I just enjoy playing. I’m not trying to make any huge statement with this thing. It’s just an extension of where I am today. I live in the moment, I don’t go back and live in that damn past. As a musician, I’ve got those “lost chords” in my head or that “lost note.” They’re always in your head like I said they wake you up at three in the morning. But man, I’m all about the jam. I’m not about this hoopla and hype and bullshit. I’m just straight from the hip. All I can do is speak my truth, my experiences and that’s it.
Do you feel like this is a pretty personal record in that regard?
It turned out to be that way without me even knowing it. Some of the lyrics I’d write down… I had never experienced it before. You have these guys who say, “Just put pen to paper.” Right? It happened several times. Like on “One of These Days” – the very ending track – that just happened. Lance sent me one little snippet of this thing and I just built a whole thing around it.
That’s how we write together. Left to my own devices, it’s going to sound one way. I like to hear someone else’s interpretation of what I do or take his interpretation and make it into something else. That’s the chemistry for me and Lance because we wrote all these together.
You’re only as good as your last song and your last note. You definitely don’t want to hit that gob on the last note of your last performance because it’s going to eat you up. It’s always eaten me up the next day. I feel that to this day because that’s the kind of musician I am.
But as far as me taking the lead, it’s like this new feeling. We’ll take it on the road and see how it works, but I guarantee it will be truthful. It will be from the heart. I’ll give it everything I’ve got just like I have for my entire career.
On the gear front, I know you have a new signature Reverso from Warwick.
It’s kind of crazy. I went into Warwick about two years ago, and [founder] Hans-Peter Wilfer and I got along famously. It was like this long lost brother that I hadn’t met. Two weeks after I got an introduction, we were at the factory doing an artist series. We had like 30 basses that I was trying to see what was comfortable. I saw the Reverso on the wall and I picked it up and it felt good. But they took that to mean, “That his favorite, let’s make this artist series after him.” It’s kind of weird looking Entwistle kind of looking thing, but that’s what he wants to do. That’s his company and that’s his deal. I was like, “I’m actually more into the Streamer line.”
I played my white Streamer on this whole record or a lot of it. They also have this thing called the Star Bass that’s got some f-holes in it. I played a little fretless, which I do on every record. Man, you gotta keep that low end. That’s it. As we were changing the songs up, the bass was always there. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it’s 30 years of playing? [laughs] You know what note to hit. But I predominately played on my white Streamer.
One of the things that bowled me over was the bass tone. It’s this huge sound that’s got a grit on top of that.
What’s crazy is I’ve got this brand new pickup coming out with Seymour Duncan called the Rex Brown Quarter Pound. It’s got active and passive, so you can have either with a push/pull knob. I was at Seymour Duncan three weeks ago and they made this harness and it’s just amazing sounding.
Another thing is that I worked really hard with Jonas Hellborg of all people – one of the best bassists in the world – in making these amps that we used on the record. They’re basically the Warwick AW600’s, and we use a B-15 for some other stuff. You know, I like to make stuff up. We had 200-watt Celestions in this cab that are just amazing. Actually, if you bridge them mono they are 1200 watts. Even at that, we had to double them up. So there was a lot of thought that went into this new gear.
But that’s the bass sound. I love those Warwick cabs. The only thing is I can’t get them in Florida or wherever. They’re just now starting their distribution company here in the States and it’s going to be wonderful. People can get that, but I’m also still an Ampeg guy. You can’t beat those old Ampegs.
So you’re still old school with it, too.
Dude, even if you play whatever, those 4×12″s are as good as you’re going to get. Or you play the 300-watt tube amps. I’ve got tons of those in my garage. I’ve got a ’73 and a ’74 – the old tubes that still glow, but you don’t take them on the road. Then you have all this bass gear and you say, “Where do I put all this shit?”
I’m a bass player. I mean, that’s what I’ve known my whole life. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything else. Ok, I’ve laid the bass down, now I’m going to put my guitars on top of it. I kind of vintage out a little bit and Lance plays a lot of Teles that are kind of souped up. I’m a Tele freak. You know man, you’re a musician. I just want to be in a position where I can still make music and feel good doing it. I got tired of waving that metal flag for 25 years because I had these other sounds in my head. You get pigeonholed into something, and I didn’t want to be that dude. I think consciously at a certain point I just said: “That’s it.” I made an effort to say, “Let’s see what happens. Let’s let it fly. Let’s let this dog hunt.” I did have these lost chords and these other things that I wanted to do.
I’m just blessed. All of my friends are saying, “Dude, I love what you’re doing. You’re standing on your own feet.” It’s not that I wasn’t standing on my own feet because I already had that career. It’s more about where you want to take life. Do you want to sit there or do you want to do something? I found this voice that I didn’t even know I had in me. But once I found it, it was like wow. It started making all these songs. I’m just getting my feet wet. That’s the way I feel.
To sum it up, if you’re known as a keyboard your whole life and decide to take on the guitar or the god-damned kazoo and you touch one person, then you’ve done your job. You don’t have to be just this one dude. It takes a lot of balls to stand up and do what we’re fixing to do.
Rex Brown Germany Tour Dates:
|Sept 3||Nachtleben||Frankfurt, Germany|
|Sept 4||Rockpalast||Bochum, Germany|
|Sept 6||Naumanns||Leipzig, Germany|
|Sept 7||Café Central||Weinheim, Germany|
|Sept 8||Strom||München, Germany|
|Sept 10||Rockfabrik||Ludwigsburg, Germany|
|Sept 11||Monkeys Music Club||Hamburg, Germany|
|Sept 13||Pitcher||Düsseldorf, Germany|
|Sept 14||Exil||Göttingen, Germany|