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Interview with Rex Brown – Kill Devil Hill (ex Pantera & ex Down)



#TBT May 6th, 2014

Rex Brown, seminal bassist for Pantera and Down, has been focused on a new musical outlet for the past few years in a band called Kill Devil Hill. Originally a pet project of Vinny Appice (Heaven and Hell & Dio) and Mark Zavon, Brown was brought into the fold during the early stages of the writing process and quickly decided on pursuing Kill Devil Hill full time as his main musical outlet. Very recently, Vinny Appice stepped aside as the drummer for the band, and ex Type O Negative drummer Johnny Kelly stepped behind the kit to take Appice’s place. With Kelly firmly positioned, Kill Devil Hill intend to tour relentlessly on the strength of their two commercial releases, and then step back into the studio to write album number three – material that Brown suggests is already well underway.

Kill Devil Hill is not Pantera, nor is it Down (although some of the grooves on the two Kill Devil Hill albums harken a similar sound to some of Down’s material).

What is Kill Devil Hill you ask? Its four viable musicians, firing on all pistons together, delivering some damn fine rock n’ roll in their wake. Look to tracks like ‘Crown of Thorns’, ‘Stealing Days’ and ‘No Way Out’ from the band’s second release, Revolution Rise, for some clean examples of the band’s musical prowess.

Rex Brown was good enough to talk with Lithium Magazine about Kill Devil Hill this week, and to share some of his insight into his new bandmates. He also talked up a little Down and a little Pantera. How could he not?? The man has been a part of some of the most revered bands in both the metal and stoner rock genres over the past 25 years. He’s a living icon, and was quite generous in many of his answers over this 20-minute phone conversation.

Interview by Mike Bax

Mike: Hello Rex. This is Mike. I’m talking to you from Canada.

Rex: We are talking about coming up there very soon, my friend. We’ve just done some warm up dates. We’ve had Johnny (Johnny Kelly of Type O Negative) come into the band and we did some warm up shows in Australia. Johnny had some previous commitments, so we haven’t played yet in the States, just some warm up dates in California.

Mike: I’m so looking forward to seeing you play in Canada, Rex. How is Johnny fitting into the ranks? How did that all go?

Rex: We had all talked about this in December, and Vinny (Vinny Appice, Black Sabbath & Heaven and Hell) had a lot of different stuff coming up this year on his plate and didn’t feel that he would have enough time to put his whole attention into us going out and doing what we wanted to do. It was very amicable, very cool. We just talked on the phone. He’s doing what he wants to do, and we are happy doing what makes us happy, so there were no rough ends or anything like that. This is the smoothest I’ve ever had something like that go down. Johnny has come in and just put everything into it. I could sit here all day and tell how this is just the baddest mother fucking thing for us, but it really is. It really is. Johnny just brought some new life to the project. He’s got to play a lot of parts just like on the record because they are central to the song, but he’s bringing in his own thing as well. Every gig gets more comfortable playing with him. Johnny and I go way back twenty years now, and he’s hungry for this, just like everybody else in the band is. He brings in a totally different element compared to Vinnie, but this is where we need to be as a band.

Mike: Awesome. That sounds great. Can you talk a little bit about the gestation of Kill Devil Hill – how it all got rolling?

Rex: Vinny had some drum things and he hooked up with Mark (Mark Zavon) and had played in a couple of little projects with him. He asked Mark to play guitar over top of these drum pieces. They had pretty everything ironed out, at least 70% of it before I came into the band. So I got a call from Vinny. I was actually doing another project, biding my time. I’d just gotten through pancreatic surgery and was in the middle of the healing process and Vinny came down my way and we did a couple of tracks for my thing, and that’s when he said he was working on something and that he wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in it or not. I thought he was going to stay a couple of days with me originally, and he ended up staying for about a week and a half. I’ve known Vinny forever, and things kind of progressed into me playing on a track. He wasn’t even there for it at this point. He had split and just sent me the tracks. One thing led to another, and they got me in the band. I came down and auditioned, and I got to hear Dewey (Dewey Bragg) sing for the first time, and the hairs went up on the back of my neck when I was listening to him sing. I felt like he was something I’d been waiting to hear my whole life. I’m jamming with him, and all of these feelings are racing through my head as I’m doing my thing and my fucking amp blows up, I shit you not. If that’s not a sign of good luck, I don’t know what is. When you can blow a bass amp up playing with a band, you know, right at the first? You’re in good shape there. (Laughs) That’s just a premonition.

Mike: Right on.

Rex: So we started putting together the first record, and Vinny was finding that he couldn’t tour. Just the commitments that he had were such that touring just didn’t happen. It came to a certain point where we had say, ‘were either going to do this or we’re not’, you know? Now we’re able to do it, we’re putting all of the pieces together so that we can finally go out. This is just a time-building kind of a thing. The songs are there. The band is there. Everything is on the right track. We’re fixing to go out here in the States. We start a week from tomorrow. The band is coming in from L.A., Johnny and I are meeting them at the Rock On The Range. It’s all starting out. We just got back from Australia and that kicked major ass. Man, we’re firing on all cylinders.

Mike: That’s awesome.

Rex: And I wouldn’t bullshit you.

Mike: I wouldn’t expect that you would. (Laughter) Do you think there is an ease of writing material with Kill Devil Hill that is kind of new and fresh for you all?

Rex: Mark comes up with a lot of the riffs, and we’ll sit back and let them unfold. We can suggest things that may work better in places. Sometimes he’ll have a vocal melody all set up in his head, and we’ll just run it around the band and see how it’s going to work. But that being said, it takes everybody’s input to get into the studio and make this thing a band. One person can’t be the whole band. You know what I mean? I bring in some stuff here and there. We exchange tracks all the time and we’ll either go yay or nay. So we’re sitting on a brand new record and now we’re jived about it and can’t wait to get into the studio and do it. But we have so much touring to do, so much good-will to establish just getting out there and playing before people. That is our main priority right now.

Mike: Revolution Rise came out 18 months after your debut and you’re already talking about new material here with me now, Rex. You’re obviously all being very creative and inspired together. That sounds like it’s a good energy for everyone involved.

Rex: I’ll tell you what: we had those two records in the can – the first one in May and the other in October of last year. We had 24 songs recorded and done within a year. If that shows anything, it’s that we’ve done our homework. Being in a band is all about strengths and weaknesses, and learning how to mold those character traits together. That being said, those albums being a year between each other, now we just have the touring to do. So maybe it will be 18 months between Revolution and the next one… we need to tour a lot. That being said, we already have stockpiles of ideas together for album number three. All we have to do is get into a rehearsal studio and lay them down. Right now our focus is on touring and getting out there, meeting fans and playing at shows. You’re only as good as your last gig in our line of work. My last gig was in Perth Australia and it was probably the most fun one that I’ve played in years. Without discounting my other performances, only being as good your last gig? Perth was fucking brutally good, dude. Every song we’re playing right now, it’s like a shot gun, man (makes sound of loading cocking and firing a rifle)… Boom! Another song. Boom! Another one, better than the last. You know? And that’s impressive to ME. Just the tightness of the band, getting better every night, night after night. Some bands it will take them years to figure that out. And Johnny has been in the band for 10 days.

Mike: That’s cool.

Rex. Yeah. It’s very cool, dude. Johnny just brings this freshness in that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of in that short time with us. Everything is cool with Vinny leaving. It was very professional. But we had to move on if we wanted to keep this band alive and touring, and we’re going to embrace that. Find our focal point of what the music is all about. A lot of bands get out and they just tour relentlessly. We had a little stumbling block that we had to deal with, but now we can focus on the main plans of really going for it – and what the bigger plan is going to be for this band. I’m so passionate about this band that could just throw up over the phone, right into your lap. Right through the phone into Canada. (Laughter)

Mike: I’m so glad that I am on the phone with you right now then.

Rex: I’m just fucking with ya.

Mike: No worries, man. I’m stoked for your new chapter, too. When people tell you that they have read your book (Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera), does that freak you out a little bit?

Rex: It’s just a book, just my take on things.

Mike: Can I ask you how long it took you to write that book?

Rex: It was written between 2009 and went through to 2011, and then it didn’t come out until last year.

Mike: I enjoyed it. I like that it wasn’t edited down to the point that it didn’t sound like your voice, coming out of your mouth. It read like you were actually telling the story. And that worked for me, that it had your vernacular throughout.

Rex: You know, I wanted it to sound like that. When we first had the premise for doing the book, I had just read Keith Richard’s book Life, which I think is a great fucking book. So I kind of ripped old Keefy off there. So, how do you condense your whole life down into 300 words or whatever. You just can’t do it, you know? There’s plans in the works that maybe I do another book. We’ve started the process for doing that. But the way I feel now compared to when that was written, culminating through 2011, it’s completely changed. A lot of things in my life have changed; health wise and everything else, you know? Basically, there was a story that wasn’t told as far as the Pantera thing and I didn’t want it being misconstrued by journalists or anything else. This was just my way of saying my piece, because I never did, you know? I never went to the mainstream and told everybody what the real fucking deal was. Looking back in hindsight, it is what it is, man. I thumped on myself more than I thumped on anybody else. I wanted a book that was going to be the truth, you know? Are there different parts that I could take back now? Yes. Of course, the book editor wants to have… You’re a writer. You understand what I’m saying?

Mike: Oh yeah.

Rex: They want dirt.

Mike: Yeah. That’s what sells.

Rex: Yeah. So I’m sitting here after ten edits trying to read this book ten different times going… No. No. No. No. No. You reach a certain deadline and you just have to let it go and not make any more exceptions. I’m like, you mother fuckers; I didn’t want that in there. I didn’t want that part in there. (Laughter) You know. It is what it is. At least it’s mostly there. It’s not a bullshit thing. It’s telling my side of the story from where I was sitting. There are certain things I’d take back from it. Overall, they did an approval rating on it, and it scored 96.5%… people enjoyed that book. That’s not what my LIFE is about though. My life is about playing music. It’s just one of those little anecdotes that comes with being in a popular band.

Mike: I may take it on the chin a little bit for this, but I’m going to put it out there anyway. I think my personal favourite Rex Brown moment is Over the Under by Down. I kind of tuned out of both Down and Pantera for a while there, and Over the Under brought me back into the fold, so to speak. I re-visited the back catalogue in 2007 and then worked my back through all of the Pantera albums, and have been revitalized as both a Down and Pantera fan since the release of that particular album.

Rex: I think we did, too – tuned out, that is. I think I did personally anyway. I appreciate that. Nobody has ever said that to me before. I personally like Number 2 (Down), but I was really close to that record. I was close to Over the Under too, but it took us so long to get out that it kind of became ‘us trying to get the record done’ in the end. I need to maybe re-listen to that record again. We were giving everything 100% with that album, like I do every day with my music. That being said, I’m now putting all of my energy onto Kill Devil Hill in that same fashion. Down is something that I’m no longer a part of. Philip and I had gone on for almost 25 years together. I wanted to keep our relationship intact. It has been, and it still is.

Mike: You recently had a little cherry on top with Philip at Metal Masters 5, which I was just looking at online just a couple of weeks ago. That was pretty special, for me anyway.

Rex: You know, there was something very special about that night. We’d come into rehearsals and hell, a lot of those songs* Phil and I hadn’t played them together in 10 to 15 years.

*Rex and Phil performed five Pantera songs at Metal Masters 5: ‘Strength Beyond Strength’, ‘I’m Broken’, ‘Mouth For War’, ‘5 Minutes Alone’ and ‘Fucking Hostile’

Mike: I’ll bet.

Rex: Doing those songs with those other cats, it was feeling like somebody was there kind of guiding over us. I know who it was, and I’m not going to get all freaky about it here with you, but it was just one of those special moments where we played those songs and the crowd went fucking crazy and it WAS just crazy. I had a wonderful time doing that. Everybody left their ego at the door and we all had a really good night together. It was all about playing those metal classics. I was just thrilled to be a part of it.

Mike: I attended both of the Metal Masters evenings in New York, and I know you weren’t at these two shows, but the feeling you are describing certainly was. It was really fun.

Rex: You get all of those guys together, we’ve all toured together, we are all friends together, and we don’t really get those chances as musicians. Everybody getting together and playing some of those songs like that? It was just nuts. I’m sitting there hanging out with Billy Sheehan, and I didn’t know Billy real well at the time, but now I know him really well. He’s one of my idols, you know? Billy is one of the best around. And I found myself sitting there going: ‘Did you HEAR that? Did you hear THAT?’ It was one of those special moments, for sure.

Mike: Nice. Do you think you’d do another one, maybe Metal Masters 6?

Rex: I’m hoping, yeah. We were all geared up for one that was going to come up. But I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that now. It was being moved back to New York City, so I don’t know for sure.  But yes, I am looking forward to the next one, absolutely. Just depending on when it’s going to happen now.

Mike: If it’s in New York, I’m friggin’ going, man. They are awesome nights, and I loved the two I got to see.

Rex: Oh yeah, dude. It’s a blast. And you are kind of teaching kids at the same time doing the clinics. Even though you are there to play those songs, there are the clinics before the actual show. It’s keeping the metal alive. And that’s the most important thing. In a scene where there’s just so many sub-genres of sub-genres of a genre of a sub-genre to the point that I don’t even know what’s going on anymore, these shows just boil down to good old fashioned rock n’ roll, with a different twist as everybody’s influences are put into the performances. Those kinds of things are very special to me. You get to go in and hang out with your friends and leave all of your bullshit behind and it’s all about the songs. And that’s what’s important. With Kill Devil Hill, that’s what it means to me. It’s all about playing the songs and the riffs. That’s what’s important. All of this other stuff, this book? That’s not important. Where I am today and what I’m happy with is all that matters. As long as you’re happy in life, everything else will turn around. You know what I’m saying? Everything is going to be cool for the day. You give it your best and that’s all that you can do, you know?

Mike: As a seasoned musician, I’m curious what your thoughts are on releasing and marketing music in our current musical climate.

Rex: Um. Watch your ass. (Chuckles) It’s a very fickle business. A lot of these bands that are coming through you’re not going to see them next year. It’s kind of flash in the pan. That being said also, you’ve got to remember that’s not 100% their fault. They are just doing what gets them off. I never really knock a band for anything, because we are all in this together. Music is the universal language. With that said, the game, with so many bands involved, you have to find your way and what’s going to be right for you.

Mike: You’ve done some music production. How do you try and help other musicians realize their vision?

Rex: You just try and remove yourself from the situation and pull out their best stuff. I think I’ve been a part of production in almost everything that I’ve done, literally. But as far as being THE Producer of things, well, I did the Crowbar album Lifesblood for the Downtrodden and that was just trying to get Kirk (Windstein) to sing the best that he could. He’s got a really, really good voice. But all of his records up to that point had been done in a way that never really shined on his vocals. I was trying to bring that out of him on that album. It’s basically just bringing the best of people that you can in the studio, but you also have remove yourself from the equation. You can’t really say, ‘this is the way I’d do it’. You have to let them do it but put your 2¢ worth in at the same time.

Mike: I would love to know what album or cassette you first had to replace back in the day, because you either lost it or played the shit out of it.

Rex: Oh dude, none. I’ve kept them all. I haven’t played a cassette in a long time. Dude, I’m an LP man through and through. I always have been. My collection is vast. You can’t get me out of a record store. You cannot do it. I’ve said this before, but I listen to everything from Slayer to fucking Sinatra. Let me just put it this way. I have twins. My daughter is going to be 14. The boy is into sports and my daughter is really into songwriting and music. I told her to go back and listen to the records that turned people on to what they are doing. If I can say that and then use that in a modern context today, that’s what you need to do. You need to go back and listen to what went on originally before you can make your own niche in this life. That’s what I’ve learned. I’ve gone back and done my homework with all of these bands that have been influential to me and I have to go back and visit that stuff all the time. That’s where your groundwork is. That’s where everything that you do is built upon. At a certain point as an artist you have to take in these points of interest to be current. Make any sense?

Mike: That makes a lot of sense man. That’s a good answer.

Rex: Going back and getting to hear Carol King’s Tapestry is an example of great songwriting. Having her (Rex’s daughter) listen to that before she listens to something some new band has done with some current street creed because they are a part of the teeny bopper scene. Because that group of teeny boppers had to do their homework somewhere along the line as well. That’s what’s important to understand.