Down are not a prolific band. Having endured two hiatuses over their 22-year history, they have released only three full-length albums. 2012, however, saw a new release and a new band member. Down IV Part I – The Purple EP may not be the snappiest title in the world, but, as the first in a series of EPs, it meant that the New Orleans metal supergroup were back. The six-track release was received warmly, with many commenting on its classic, no frills sound. It’s just what everyone wanted and expected from a Down album.
The one noticeable change, especially live, was that there was a new bassist in the fold. While the other four members of Down have remained constant since inception, the position of bassist has been something of a slowly revolving door. While Rex Brown replaced original bassist Todd Strange in 1999, he himself made way in 2011 for Patrick Bruders. Originally a temporary role for touring with the band, Bruders assumed the position permanently in time to record with them.
Bruders is formerly of NOLA-blackened death metallers Goatwhore and also performs in sludge metal band Crowbar, alongside Down guitarist Kirk Windstein. This was his way in. With the number of great metal bands that have come out of the scene (Eyehategod, Soilent Green, Arson Anthem and a gamut of projects from singer Phil Anselmo), it’s obvious it’s a formula that works. Following Rex Brown into Down, however, would be a tough job for anyone. The former Pantera man is revered in heavy metal circles, but wasn’t essential to Down’s progress – he didn’t perform on their debut, NOLA.
Coming into that situation has its own pitfalls, especially at short notice. “I have a lot of respect for Rex as a bassist and a musician, and he’s a super-great guy. It was a challenge that I had to step up to. Look at his résumé and look at mine. You don’t take anything like that lightly. You always want to do it justice, and you want it to be complimentary of what was done before. You want to do it right.”
Like Danny Theriot in 2009, Bruders initially joined the band as a stand-in touring bassist in spring 2011 while Brown and the band attempted to work through their differences via a break. He was given 17 songs to learn before leaving to go on tour. “It was definitely an eye-opener,” he says. “I really had to practise and learn those songs really well. I had literally two weeks to learn them all, and I really got down to it and learned them. I did my homework the best I could, and then got into the jam room to work out any kinks and whatnot.” He acquitted himself well enough to be invited to join the band permanently, once it was clear that Brown was going to pursue his new project, Kill Devil Hill.
If Bruders’ ability to fit into Down so well was impressive, it came from years of experience and practice in and around the scene. “Goatwhore was the first touring band I was in, and it was an important part of my life because it was like a boot camp, getting out on the road and seeing how bad you really want it,” he explains. “There was a lot of good times and a lot of learning experiences doing that, and then I joined Crowbar.”
After two years in Down and eight years in Crowbar, which does he prefer? “It’s hard to say, but playing in Down recently, it’s hard to top these shows,” he concedes. “Both bands have their place and integrity. Crowbar is something I don’t really have to think too much about but Down changes from time to time. Phil pretty much comes up with the song lists and decides what we’re going to play, so we’ve got to adapt. With Crowbar we’ll get the list and just go with that for the tour. We definitely have fun in both bands, though, and that’s one key thing to remember: have fun. You’ve gotta loosen up and you’ve gotta perform.”
Bruders has been playing two Rickenbackers while on tour with Down. He was inspired after watching seminal Californian stoner metallers Sleep performing a couple of years ago. “I saw the tone Al Cisneros was getting through his basses and the vintage style, so I had to try it out,” Bruders recalls. “I just bought one to start with and then I thought, ‘This would be a great bass to play in Down’ given the nature of the music and the atmosphere. I went and got one, and then saw this other one and bought that as well. “Before Down, I was using a red ESP, it was a 2003 model. It has a unique tone – it was what I did the bass tracks with on the EP – and my problem with being in Down was finding a sound that duplicates. If I switch a bass guitar, it’s got to have the same tone as the other one. I was having trouble matching that tone from that ESP bass with any other they ever sent me, so I had to go and buy two separate bass guitars. I do use ESP basses in Crowbar, but with Down I had to go more vintage.”
While Crowbar and Down are cut from similar cloth, there were adjustments to be made by Bruders when he joined. Along with new guitars and new songs, there was homework to be done to achieve that vintage sound. “I had to go back and relearn a lot of the ways I used to play,” he explains. “When you play extreme metal music, a lot of the bass players play a lot with the riff, but in this band it’s mostly doing your own thing, not playing with the guitar riff. I had to go back to doing what I used to do before I started playing with Goatwhore.”
While Bruders had to re-learn some of his old playing techniques for Down, it wasn’t as tedious as you might imagine. “I like the creative writing where you stay tight with the drums and be rhythmic, and leave a good strong foundation for the guitars to work on top of. I believe in that. I enjoy that,” he says. “In Crowbar we do have parts where the bass does its own thing too, but with Down, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Comfortable with a more prominent musical role in Down, Bruders also has his views on recording, not favouring studio overdubs to keep the recording process as organic as possible. He is just as meticulous over the writing process. “I listen to what they do, and take a recording of some sort and work that out at home on my own. I do a lot of homework. I don’t just sit around,” he says. “You’ve gotta come up with ideas and finagle around!”
While some bassists start out playing as a de facto position due to all the other, cooler positions in the band being taken, this wasn’t the case for Bruders. He speaks passionately about first listening to his parents’ records when very young. While his initial intent was to play drums (“Parents don’t want to pay for a drum set – they’re fucking expensive”), it’s clear that playing bass wasn’t far behind. “One day I was listening to Iron Maiden. I was listening to the bass tone and how it led songs and how it would stick out,” he remembers. “Hearing that, I got inspired and wanted to try the bass. I started listening to all the other bassists after that. I just fell in love with it and kept practising and practising.”
His first bass was a Peavey Fury in “1980-something” and while it was a beginner’s bass, he continued playing it into his 20s. “I’ve never had a bass properly custom made: it would have to be the right guy making it,” he says. “If you have to switch bass in the middle of a set, the tone is going to change a little bit and the guy who is running sound needs consistency. Rickenbacker take their time and make them by hand. Those basses that I got, the guy I bought them from said he had ordered those basses in 2007 and just got them this year, so if you see one, you should buy it if you have the money.”