Kill Devil Hill's Rex Brown on Metal Masters and How ZZ Top Changed His Life
When I heard Rex Brown's Southern twang on my phone, I wasn't sure what to expect.
I've been fortunate enough to interview all the other surviving former members of Pantera, and Brown was the last in line. I wanted to know about his recently released Pantera memoir -- Official Truth: 101 Proof -- about his recent release with band Kill Devil Hill, and, since he's always been a man of few words, his thoughts on being one of the most prominent groove metal bass players.
Rex Brown was the bassist behind the southern raw groove of Pantera, dabbled in sludge metal act Down, and currently is in Kill Devil Hill, which just released its sophomore album Revolution Rise in late October. The band also comprises drummer Vinny Appice (Dio, Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell), guitarist Mark Zavon (Ratt, W.A.SP., 40 Cycle Hum) and vocalist Dewey Bragg (Pissing Razors). Brown admits that this album is one of his favorite moments in his career.
KDH's self-titled debut was released in 2012 and landed at number nine on the Top New Artist Albums chart. Brown is insistent that Kill Devil Hill not be looked at as a supergroup, and during our interview he succeeded at trying to keep all focus on that fact.
The band's second album is a veritable buffet of heavy metal jams. The guitar solos are creative and intelligent, and the lyrics are insightful and span broad topics. From "Why," a song about liars in all forms of relationships, to "Long Way From Home," which is reminiscent of a classic rock song and is very radio friendly, to "Stained Glass sadness," which shows the band's versatility when it comes to combining jazz, metal and rock.
I wasn't going to ask the age-old question about whether there will be a Pantera reunion. I thought about asking about a quote from his memoir, where he said that the music media is partially to blame for Darrell's death. I wanted to know if he said that because he felt like any controversy was blown out of proportion, which caused the members to go their separate ways? Or was it something deeper? Or was it possibly just that he was so annoyed with the media (hell, who isn't?) because the coverage of Darrell's death was just too much to bear?
Brown's pattern of providing unique bass lines to heavy metal is as reliable as his reluctance to talk to the press. Brown puts the blame of Darrell's death at least partially on the media. As he says in the prologue to Official Truth: 101 Proof, "In my opinion the music press had been pushing all the wrong buttons with fans by constantly re-igniting the debate as to who was responsible for the breakup of Pantera... if the press had shut their fucking mouths and let us -- the band -- resolve our differences, I believe that Darrell would still be alive today."
Either way, none of that came up during the interview with Up on the Sun. What did come up was much more interesting. From his upcoming spot in the fifth annual Metal Masters clinics alongside members of Megadeth, Slayer, Exodus and Anthrax, to how ZZ Top changed Brown's life when he was a child, Brown welcomed us into his string of bass line thoughts.
Congrats on the book release earlier this year and the new Kill Devil Hill album. So, for you, what are the outstanding differences between 2012's Kill Devil Hill and this year's Revolution Rise? Half of 2012's album was written before I got in the band. And they had sent me some stuff, and, of course, I gotta put my flavor on it, right? So I get in the band, and we had only played a handful of shows before we recorded that record.
We did it in 32 days and had it mixed. The difference between those two then is us playing together. And my songwriting started from the ground up on this new one. You know, Mark would have a riff, and I would come in and we would both work really hard on it. Dewey would show up at rehearsals then and get a feel for it and it was unbelievable, because he would come back with this melody off the top.
I have like 112 different versions of these songs. We were hot off coming off of the Alice Cooper run that we did last year, which was very cool. So we went in the studio, and what happened with the label and the record, they basically folded. We had one guy working the streets in the United States. There was no way you could get that done, you know? So we were left to our own devices on the road -- well, I shouldn't put it that way. But we were on our own and we managed to play close to 100 shows last year. It's knowing each others' weaknesses and strengths.
For me, as a bass player, it's knowing when not to play. It's easy to just play along, but knowing when not to play, and keeping the groove down; that's the most important thing with this driving force behind it. That gives everyone a chance to shine on top, you know what I'm saying? As long as it's real solid in the bottom . . .
This is not Pantera. This is four different individuals. It would be easy for me to go out there and play Pantera stuff. I don't want to do that. I've been there and played that. This is nothing but a love and a passion. I just gotta have it in my life, you know? It's very very important to me.
I've just gotten into this real extreme health kick and it's just, uh, it's just done miracles for me. I feel freaking great. From years of drinking and partying on the road, you know, it affects your stomach. I had pancreatitis. I take these supplements every day or night, all-natural, it gets rid of all the bad stuff. And I feel like I'm on a natural fucking high.
So, with this record just coming out, there's a lot of push and pull and running around on the road. It's a balancing act. On this run, Kill Devil Hill is just getting our feet wet and making sure people know we're around. Next year it will be a whole different monster and we'll tour nonstop. That's what you have to do these days. It doesn't matter how many likes you have on your Facebook; as long as you are out there, visible, that's the most important part. The musical climate has changed dramatically, even from a year ago. So you have to keep changing as it changes, without losing your true identity.
The basics of how bands are put out there now has changed a lot, especially compared to Pantera's heyday in the '80s and '90s, and even when you played with Down in the early 2000s. The market is so over-saturated now. It really depends on the fans, someone thinking, 'Do I really wanna sink my money in listening to this, or this? What do I want to do?' It's an ever-changing world we live in, but we know we gotta stay in it, you know what I'm saying? That's what we're trying to do. To stay visible.
Do you find that people often try to compare your playing in Pantera to your playing in Kill Devil Hill? You gotta remember, honey, I have been playing bass professionally ever since Pantera. I played with Down, and did some stuff in 2005. Phil got to a certain point where it was just . . . we weren't musically lined up. But we're still great friends. It never became anything nasty or bad.
This is just where I am in my life, starting anew. Like, you tell five people and they tell 10 people -- that's how you get your grounding. Before the record came out, we had maybe 1,000 people on Facebook talking about us, and now it's like 20,000 a day. It's definitely happening, but we gotta keep the momentum going. I don't know if you've listened to the record . . .
Yes, I have. Have you?
Yes. It's awesome; very mellow yet intense. It's deep. We have songs that can go for a while.
I really enjoyed the songs "Leave It All Behind" and "Why," in particular. I love the groove of both of those. Well, cool. We have those in our set list. Damn. I like to hear that.
Are there any tracks on the record that have more personal meaning to you than others? Well the lyrics are up to interpretation for the listener. For me, like "Leave It All Behind" and "Long Way From Home" are, um, two songs that are really . . . When I heard the vocals on "Long Way From Home," I was doing a book-signing in Jersey, and my manager got hold of me and gave me the mix, and it brought tears to my eyes, that's how good it was. I literally just froze, and that hasn't happened in a long time; that kind of magic. And that's what it is all about.
So how much were you involved in the writing process for this album? I bring in certain things. You know, with the technology now . . . [he laughs]. I get riffs at the weirdest times. Now I can grab my phone and sing what I got in my head. You know what I'm saying? Or anytime in the day I get a riff, the next day I can get the vibe again and roll over in my bed and get my phone. Before you'd have to plug in your four-track and go to the other room. And by then you may have lost it.
So I bring ideas. Mark is a really talented songwriter, too; there's no beating heads. If one of us plays it better we do it. It's that free of a band. Of course, I always have to put my stamp on everything; I always have and always will. But Mark even brought in some songs that we didn't even need to change. And I brought in some stuff that didn't even make it to the record you know? You gotta have that flow and I feel like this record flows really nicely.
So "A Long Way Home," would you say that might be your favorite? No! I wouldn't say that at all. It's like kids. I got twins, 13, a boy and a girl. Which one do you love more?
Well, I know musicians always say that, and that's understandable. But I'm sure there are also certain tracks that stand out in different ways for you personally. Oh, yeah, I mean I hear certain tracks and they grow on me and I'll have a weird realization about them months later that I never had before. Plus, seeing the fans' reaction is always very important, too.
The album is also very cohesive. Dewey's voice has grown a lot from the first release. It's bigger and the songwriter is bigger, badder ,and bolder. And we're only two records in during two and a half years, you know? So if that says anything. When I get on a roll I don't want to stop. But it's hectic as hell.
A lot of people get pumped up for Metal Masters clinic in January. What's something that you look forward to most at the clinic? It's just like playing with old friends. A lot of it will be a lot of Pantera songs, so I'll be up there a lot, from what I hear. But it's still in the development stage. You know, Phil and I did the Golden Gods last year and we talked . . . You know, I don't talk to anyone really. I talk to my girlfriend and that's about it. I've been really concentrated on stuff. But Phil and I talked about upcoming projects not too long ago. So, after the first of the year, we'll start shredding.
You know, this is not a supergroup. Supergroups usually come in with a hit and then fall by the wayside. This isn't it. This is a band. I don't want it to be a supergroup.
Well, I've never really liked that term -- We just all happen to have experience and a name behind it. That's very crucial. It's helpful to have a name like Pantera behind it, but it's also a catch-22 because it can make it harder. And you're only as good as your last gig. You gotta keep moving. Keep truckin'. I just wanna sell the music. That's all that matters. The brand Kill Devil Hill, maybe people associate that with Pantera. But what's with the brand? I don't want to exploit it.
It doesn't mean shit. Like, what is Metallica? Who cares. So people feel they have to put a brand on it to associate it with something else. But I want people to just think 'Kill Devil Hill. That's badass.'
I did catch you and Phil play "This Love" with Anthrax at the Golden Gods in May. It was a great show. And when I interviewed Phil a while back, I asked which less mainstream Pantera song he would love to play on stage again. So, same question to you. What did he say? You know, I'd rather get some of those lost tracks that were really fucking heavy and badass. I like the staples, like "Walk." Of course you have to play those staples, honey. But there are others like, well, I'm on the road with Kill Devil Hill now so I'm focusing on that.
Phil said "Primal Concrete Sledge." Absolutely. But I just don't live in those days anymore. It was a major part of my life. Great. Fucking I worked my ass off for it. Just like I'm working my ass off for what I'm doing now. Ask me that question about Pantera in December and I'll tell you when we start looking at a set list for Metal Masters. Jesus like, "Hollow," name a song, there's a bunch of them.
Well, I love "I'm Broken" even though it' s a bit more mainstream. Well, that will happen. You know, I'm doing these bass clinics now and it's so cool. It's actually more just like playing for the fans and then a brief Q&A in between songs, like, 'When did you do that?' 'What was the time period?'
Those are your hardcore fans that want to know how you played that and why. So I show them how I played it. And in December I'm doing a video series of me playing bass. I know I've always kinda been out of the spotlight, but I'm putting it out there now. I've always been more technical because it's about my groove and feel.
A bass player should know how to play along with the groove, on the top of the backbeat. I've had this groove in me for a long time. It's never left.
But you know, at Metal Masters there will be so many other songs. Like Slayer, Chemical Warfare . . . I think the cool part about that is that there are so many killer, killer songs between all the bands that are put together that it's just sitting down and jamming out with a ton of cool dudes.
I'm hoping to make it out to L.A. for that. I'm really looking forward to it. But I'll get more excited as it gets closer when we figure out the setlist.
So for those videos you're going to be doing of your bass-playing, what is that for specifically? Just for the fans that want to know about the settings, the tones, where the fingers go . . . but I am not trying to be too technical with it. I'm just gonna get up and be me. How's that? I'm very flattered that there are fans that want to figure out how I play.
You mentioned in your book that ZZ Top's song "Tush" changed your life with discovering the groove. Well, when I was a kid, I grew up in a little peanut town, you know? Like, population 1,200. The minute you drove out of Fort Worth or Dallas, about an hour or two out, everything changes. There's no city vibe. Back then when I first heard ZZ Top it really made an influence I just heard this -- bah bum, da dum, ba, da dum -- the groove just hit me. You know, my musical journey started when I was watching my grandmother play piano. My parents had me when they were 40.
And my mom was always playing big bands, and like the Andrew Sisters. I have a sister that is 17 years older than I am, with no siblings in between. And so, she gave me old Stones and old Beatles and old Elvis. The origins of where everything comes from. I had a little cheap radio somewhere, and I heard ZZ Top and it blew me away. But they did it just like the Stones. They took everything and ripped off the old cats and Zeppelin and everybody; you know what I'm saying? It comes from the old delta blues. And being from the South and Texas, it was really prominent. So when I did move to the city when I was, like 10, everything changed. Different friends that turned me on to different stuff.
Like a 10-year-old walking down the street with Black Sabbath. I'm a child of the '70s, so some of that great rock 'n' roll from the '70s is deep in my heart. Then, fast-forward, I'm 17, playing clubs. You work your ass off but it makes you happy. I'm only unhappy when I can't jam.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.