Interview: Former Pantera and Down Bassist Rex Brown Talks Gear, Influences and Kill Devil Hill
Rex Brown knows a thing or two about bass. The man has been pounding out well-known, monstrous basslines for close to 30 years, starting with Pantera's first album, Metal Magic, in 1983.
Brown, who was inspired to play bass by Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones and Geezer Butler, teamed up with like-minded musicians Vinnie Paul, Terry Glaze and Dimebag Darrell in 1982. Phil Anselmo joined the band in 1987, forming what is considered Pantera's classic lineup.
I sat down with Brown at a recent tour stop in Marlborough, Massachusetts, to talk about all things bass-related and Kill Devil Hill, his new band with Black Sabbath and Dio drummer Vinny Appice.
GUITAR WORLD: Kill Devil Hill's self-titled debut album is out now. Why should people hear it?
Why should people hear it? Because we worked our asses off on it. We've got an extremely talented bunch of people on this thing. I'll just put it to you this way: Everybody in this band has their own individual aura. When you put all of that into this big kettle, it comes out to be this killer record. We’ve gotten a lot of critical acclaim with it so far.
What was the recording process like?
Bass-wise, I knew exactly what kind of sound I wanted. We had Jay Ruston (Steel Panther, Meat Loaf) mix this thing and Warren Riker (Down, Corrosion Of Conformity) produce, and we had a deadline. We had 30 days to do the album. Vinny's drums were done in four days. We were that tight, and we knew exactly what we wanted for the songs. We worked really hard. I was going back and forth to LA every three or four weeks, staying at Mark the guitar player's house, working out arrangements and putting my spin on things. But most of the material was pretty much written as far as vocals and melody lines were concerned.
I wanted to hear something that was more … you know, I worked with Phil Anselmo for 24 years. That's a long time to work together, so it was time for a change for me. Then Vinny Appice handed this to me, and at first I was like, “Well we need to get in a room together and see how it feels." When we plugged in we all just got along so great. It sounds cliché as fuck, but that's exactly what happened.
How did this partnership happen with you and Vinny Appice?
We've known each other for 20 years. We used to tour together back in the day, me in Pantera he in Sabbath. The craziest part is that I used to sit behind Geezer's amps and watch him and Vinny play together in Black Sabbath. I would feel the dynamics. Geezer’s my favorite bass player, so I would sit and just watch every night and take it all in. So now I know where Vinny will go with certain things, playing-wise. I know every Sabbath song ever made so just playing with this cat is great. I've been blessed three times with great drummers. Vinnie Paul, Jimmy Bower from Down, he’s a great drummer, and you can't mess with this motherfucker Appice, that's all there is to it.
Your tone on the new album is great. What were you using in terms of amps and effects?
I went back to four strings around 2002 or 2003 for Down. And I quit playing for a couple years too. I was just burnt — 250 dates a year, you just get burnt, or you need to play with somebody else and get some change happening. So my whole deal was like, "Let's go back to four strings, make it simple. Let's go back to pedals instead of going with these huge racks, and let's just go straight through the amp. Let the amp do the talking."
When you hear us live, you’ll here exactly what I mean. The tone’s ballsy; I’m using a number of different things and test-driving different stuff. I really like this Blowtorch [overdrive distortion pedal] MXR got me. It has a parametric equalizer on it and a gain boost. We experimented with a lot of stuff in the studio, including EarthQuaker pedals and wah pedals that make a huge sweep from mid-range up to the high-end.
I use an Ampeg SVT 4 and a chorus for just a little bit of presence. It definitely makes a difference. I've also got a distortion plus wah by Morley. I’ve used that one forever, and it has never let me down. It's got the full sweep on it, and when you let off of it, you don’t have to hit a switch or anything. Damn, I’m giving away all my secrets [laughs].
What are your main basses these days?
I've probably got about 40 Spectors. They sent me this white one I’ve been playing lately. It has a mahogany neck all the way through, but it has alder wings. It's got a wild mid-punch to it. It really helps me cut through the guitars nicely, and it gets this huge low end. It's amazing.
What's are your favorite songs on the new Kill Devil Hill record?
I like “War Machine” a lot. That was the first one Vinny sent me. My next-door neighbor works for Pixar and Nickelodeon and has a million dollar studio in his house. He’s always been very supportive of whatever I need with projects and stuff, so he helped me track that one. It took me more time to tune than it did to lay down the bass track for that song.
Probably my favorites are “War Machine” and “Rise from the Shadows." But I like the whole record, really. I keep listening to it. It's one of those things where usually when I get done with a record, I just let it fly out the fucking door. This album is different. I keep listening to it, and every time I hear something new. Also the way Vinny and me play it now, we sync up and lock in so tight. That's truly the most important thing for a bass player, having a drummer you can sync up with solidly.
Here's a question from Branson Cobb in Arkansas: Who inspired you to play bass?
That's a tough one. I had a sister who was 17 years older than me; she gave me all The Beatles' records, all of The Rolling Stones' records, so I would say as far as melodic bass playing goes, it was Paul McCartney. As for metal bass, it would be Geezer Butler for sure. And don't ever forget John Paul Jones!
What would you recommend for young bands trying to make it today?
Find a good drummer.
Any comments on the current state of the music industry?
Don't get me started. It all sucks, man. There's nobody out there willing — unless you're like a huge, established multi-platinum artist, that you can really count on to do anything for you. So you have to do it yourself, which is fine for me. Hell, I've done that for years. It's all about comfort level at this age.
This question is from Jeremy Jewell in Kentucky: Do you guys have a ritual for loosening up before a show? Do you do warmups or stretches?
I stretch every night, you’ve got to. I also make sure to do some arm windmills, and if we’re at a hotel or something like that, I’ll lift some weights. Light ones — something not too heavy, but a lot of repetitions.
Anything else you want to say to the fans?
Get your ass down to a fucking Kill Devil Hill show and learn from the goddamn legends! That's all there is to it!
Kill Devil Hill with Alice Cooper:
11/23: Denver, CO @ The Paramount Theater
11/24: Salt Lake City, UT @ Bar Deluxe*
11/25: Reno, NV @ The Grand Sierra Theater
11/27: San Francisco, CA @ The Warfield Theater
11/28: Bakersfield, CA @ Elements Venue*
11/29: Los Angeles, CA @ The Orpheum Theater
11/30: Las Vegas, NV @ The Pearl Theater
12/1: Fresno, CA @ Babylon*
*Denotes headlining date
Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.