Rock star autobiographies are everywhere these days, some of them great, some less so. Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story Of Pantera, Rex Brown’s long-awaited memoir, falls easily into the former category. Brown, always the ‘quiet one’ of Texan stadium-metallers Pantera in comparison to the other, more vociferous members, waited years to tell his tale, but the wait has been worth it.
Co-authored with Scottish writer Mark Eglinton, Official Truth… recounts the formation and rise to prominence of Pantera, as well as the stories of Brown’s later bands Down and Kill Devil Hill, with unflinching courage, offering a new perspective on the chaos within those bands – and the tragic ending of Pantera when guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott was murdered on stage in 2004.
“We spent a lot of time on this book, just making it right, and I’ve had a great response to it. I couldn’t be happier,” announces Brown, down the line from his home in Texas. “Mark really pulled a lot of stuff out of me and made me think a lot deeper than I wanted to go. I’ve never really talked about my childhood before, for example, and I’m really proud of it. People keep telling me ‘I can’t stop turning the page, it’s just that kind of book!’ and that’s exactly what we wanted. It’s my truth, because I look in the mirror every day and I know what went down.”
Kill Devil Hill take up most of Brown’s time these days, musically speaking. After a successful eponymous debut album in 2012, the band are currently writing their second record. If you recall the rhythmic synergy that Brown enjoyed with Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, you’ll definitely notice the musical relationship which he has built with KDH’s ‘other heavy metal Vinnie’, Vinnie Appice, sometime of Black Sabbath and Heaven And Hell. “We’ve got nine tracks ready,” he tells us, “and if you liked the first one you’re gonna love the new one. We’re using [sometime Dokken bassist] Jeff Pilson’s studio: he’s an incredible engineer. I can’t see the drums from where I’m recording, but dude, I know exactly where Vinnie is going to go.”
He adds: “I remember when Down went out with Heaven And Hell for seven months, when Ronnie [James Dio, late H&H singer] was still alive. I used to sit behind Geezer Butler’s amp and smoke a joint and watch Vinnie play, so I knew exactly where he was going. Now we’ve got 150 dates together beneath our belts, and when you’re playing with the baddest motherfuckin’ drummer in town, you know you’re onto something. I know like the back of my hand where he’s going to go and when. Sometimes I’ll let him take the break and sometimes he’ll do the same with me. It’s spontaneous: we don’t step on each other’s toes.”
Visit YouTube for an amusing glance at Brown in his early days, rocking the big-hair spandex look with a variety of pointy basses, but for many years he has been deploying one of several signature Spectors. “I’ve had a few different models with Spector,” he recalls. “The first one that I started working on was towards the end of the 90s. I’ve been told that it’s the best- selling signature bass ever, after Geddy Lee’s signature Fender Jazz. The latest one is an RXT, which looks like a Telecaster. It’s my own design. I went down to their wood shop and cut the template for it and everything. It’s doing exceptionally well.”
There’s a ton of instruments in Brown’s various properties, he tells us: “I have 50 basses or so all over the place. I’ve got a bunch in LA and a bunch here in my home in Texas. They’re immaculate. Most of them are Spectors. There are eight-strings and 12-strings there. There’s even an ESP 10-string there.”
He continues: “I also have a brand-new Rickenbacker 4003, which plays like butter. I used to have a 4001 25 years ago, but somehow that one went away, and I started playing Charvel and Jackson and a Music Man Stingray, but since then it’s always been Spectors. I saw this 4003 sitting on the wall at a store, and it was just a beautiful guitar. One of the things I like to do is put different pickups on basses and see what they sound like, and with this one I went back to the originals. I put a humbucker in the back of it and a Jazz EMG in there, but the originals actually sounded better. I love sitting around and hotrodding these things. That’s my style! I also have a beautiful Gibson Thunderbird right in front of me right now: it’s black with a rosewood neck. I made everything gold on it and put EMG dual pickups on there. The bird logo is gold too: it’s one of my favourites.”
After a switch to five-string Spectors in the late 1990s as Pantera’s tuning dropped, Brown is back with fours. “I don’t even play five-strings any more: I got rid of all of them,” he tells us. “The only thing I’ve changed in the last, say, 12 years, is that I’m using Hipshot detuners now. I can just drop down to D really quick with those. I’m also working with Morley on a signature wah and I’ve got some signature strings coming out through Cleartone. Everything’s going great man, considering I couldn’t get arrested two years ago!”
Here Brown is referring to a period of hiatus when he suffered serious health problems, as recounted in painful detail in his autobiography. Always a lean and mean bassist, he is now even more so. “I had to rehab off of surgery that I had on my pancreas, which kept me out of the loop for a while,” he explains. “That was a painful fuckin’ ordeal to go through. I’ve lost a little weight too, but I’ll prove wrong anyone who says I’ll never be the same weight again. Anyway, guys my age are usually getting fat, when I’m just getting thin! I can’t complain, though. I don’t want to be some musclebound jock…”
Talking of injuries, you may notice that Brown wears protective tape on his fretting hand when playing live. This stems, he explains, from a dog bite over two decades ago. “That injury is still there, and it’s gonna be there forever, because my dog bit through the nerve,” he says. “The sore finger is my ring finger. It happened in January 1992. First I used Band-Aids on it, and then duct tape, but I started looking around for something tougher because those things didn’t work. By then we were playing arenas, and a lot of them were hockey venues, so I found this hockey tape: the kind that players put around their hockey sticks. I went through tons of that stuff: I found a really cool roll in Kansas that had skulls and crossbones on it! I usually wrap that finger in three layers of tape, and when I get off stage, which is usually after an hour and a half, that tape is worn all the way down to the very first layer.”
Unlike most bass players, at least those outside the thrash metal scene, Brown has been required to hone a precision-engineered picking technique over the years. This was largely thanks to the similarly superhuman downstrokes of his late colleague Dimebag: the two musicians produced an incredibly tightly synchronised riffing style between them on any number of Pantera classics, from ‘Walk’ to ‘Another Level’ and beyond.
“On some of the really tight songs that we did, Dime recorded guitar tracks on left and right and probably a double in the centre, so when we were rehearsing, me and him would sit there and we would turn the drums off,” Brown remembers. “I’d play with him, just guitars and bass, which sounds kind of weird – but that was how I got it so tight. Nowadays you could sit there and get it perfect with Pro-Tools, but I’d rather not do that: I’d rather get it right beforehand. When it comes to really tight stuff, and there are a couple of power groove songs on this new Kill Devil Hill record, that’s my style. You really have to put it under the microscope.”
Since the Pantera days, Brown’s bands’ songs have been much less focused on unison riffing and more on heavyweight jams, a radical departure in that the bass now has much more space to move around. “Yes sir, and I’ve enjoyed that immensely!” he says. “These days I’ll listen to the demo or whatever we’ve pre-produced, becuase we track everything at all stages. I’ll listen to it on the day we go into the studio, rather than cram myself with it. I just go off instinct. I hate punching in stuff. If you don’t have your bass-lines down, man, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. I like it live on the floor, which is what me and Vinnie do. I don’t like to go back and fuck with it.”
He adds: “I love the feeling of recording naturally, rather than bouncing around with Pro- Tools and all that. I’m not into that. Sure, Pro- Tools is a necessary evil at different times: you can always take those recordings off the floor and move them just a hair. Sometimes it makes sense to do them that way, but I would rather get it right the first time.”
After so many years as a respected bassist, Brown is now in demand as an educator as well as a performer. As he tells us, “I think I’m doing an instructional video next. I fifigure it’s time to go and do clinics and stuff like that. I’ve been asked to go do them before, and they always offer me tons of money to do it, but I always felt more comfortable playing in a group. Now, though, it’s a great way to make a buck, and you can give something back to the fans who have followed you for your whole career. You can show them that your right hand is your god and that’s all there is to it.”
You’ll see a lot more of Rex Brown in years to come – whether it’s with Kill Devil Hill, as a clinician or as a solo artist. As he reveals, one day there will be a Brown solo album. “Sometime down the road I want to do a solo record. I want to make it like ‘A Day In The Life’ by The Beatles: I play electric and acoustic guitar a lot, and a lot of songs on a 12-string, because it still feels like I’m playing a bass. I use weird tunings, too.”
What’s more, you might just see him in these pages as a contributor. Readers with longer memories may recall that Brown stepped in as BGM writer six years ago when he interviewed Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler for us. There’s another, equally influential bassist on his must-interview list though. “Can you get me an interview with John Paul Jones? Dude, that would make my fuckin’ life,” he chuckles. “Dave Grohl, who plays with him in Them Crooked Vultures, came out to see Pantera 20 times or more back in the day. I’m so envious of him that I can’t see straight…” Us too, Rex – us too.
Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story Of Pantera is out now on Da Capo. More info: www.killdevilhillmusic.com.
Bassists play tribute to Rex’s bass playing…
I always admired Rex’s style and tone. He understands how a pick complements percussive drums and knows how to jam over riffs. Those things are not easy to do in a loud metal band. He’s mastered how to jam under shredding guitar solos and to move around within a riff while not taking away from the solo. To me, that is masterful bass playing.
– Frank Bello, Anthrax
Rex is such a great, solid bass player. All you have to do is put on any Pantera song and listen to how he’s locked in and grooving with Dimebag in every riff, and putting tasty bass-lines under the leads. Rex is a great bass player and a great friend.
– Paolo Gregoletto, Trivium
In my opinion Rex was just as much an equal force in Pantera as the other members. Whether it was locking into the tight syncopated riffs, or laying the foundation for Dimebag’s solos, his bass wasn’t just something you felt, it was a nasty grit-filled beast of a tone right in your face. To this day I still reference his tone when it comes to my own bass in the mix, and I always ask for more ‘Rex Rocker’ if it’s not heavy enough!
– Michael Mckeegan, Therapy?
Rex always has killer tone, attitude and stage presence, plus he is a master of keeping things tight yet groovy. Special mention for the way during the Pantera lead solos he usually went for a little ‘wander’ around the riff, while holding down the lethal bottom end. That’s not easy with no rhythm guitar to hide behind.