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SMOKE ON THIS: Rex Brown On Life, Artistic Evolution and His Debut Solo Record

Rex Brown is the living, breathing embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll. A seasoned troubadour from down South with a dense, rich, and colorful life experience, he is an artist who’s much more than the sum total of his body of work. Known worldwide as the bassist for Pantera, he helped move thousands of cassettes and LPs from the back of car trunks in the parking lots of smoky clubs, before the rest of the world discovered the ‘Cowboys from Hell.’ As an undisputed force in metal, Pantera were able to chart Number One albums with minimal support from traditional commercial outlets and went platinum several times over. Pantera rode a groundswell of underground loyalty, earned through several years of blood, sweat, and road beers. Five major label albums, countless international tours, and a series of carnage-filled home videos cemented a legacy as large as their massive riffs and the band?s insatiable appetites for mayhem, authenticity, and brotherhood. Brown and his Texas brethren forged a unique musical identity comprised of bottom-heavy rhythms, fearless guitar histrionics and blunt-force savagery, a blueprint that’s been followed by nearly every single metal act that formed in their wake. Brown documented his journey as an artist in the pages of his memoir, ‘101 Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera,’ with stark honesty and emotional courage.

However, the story of Rex Brown is far from over. In fact, to hear him tell it, he’s just getting warmed up! In July of 2017, Brown will finally step into the spotlight as a frontman with his debut solo album, ‘Smoke On This.” On the fiery new album, he wields a six-string guitar as confidently as he wore the bass in Pantera and Down and has created the rock ’n’ roll record he has always wanted to make. His engaging voice crackles with easygoing spirit and truth-telling power. It’s a crunchy drawl that’s down-to-earth, grippingly relatable, charmingly welcoming, and gritty, somewhere between the achingly resonant spiritual shamanism of Tom Waits and the instantly recognizable everyman AM radio vibes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This is guitar-slinging old-school rock, with a nod to the seventies and a firm grasp on the future, the kind of songs evocative of a beat-up truck with the windows down and its eight-track player cranked up, or the soundtrack to a quiet night in with a can of PBR. ‘Smoke On This” has established an exciting new era for Brown as an artist.

He tracked lead vocals, rhythm guitars, and bass, working with his primary collaborator and old friend, Lance Harvill, a Nashville-based guitarist and songwriter, on the album’s songs. Drums were tracked by Christopher Williams, himself no stranger to diverse tastes, from funk music to punk. His talent has been utilized by country music star Lee Greenwood, the reconstituted Blackfoot and most recently, power metal legends Accept. The album was produced by New Yorker turned Nashville transplant Caleb Sherman, a multi-instrumentalist with work on records by Little Big Town and Porter Block, among others. Peter Keyes, known for his work with Lynyrd Skynyrd can also be heard on a few tracks. Brown’s impressive solo debut strips away any boundaries and preconceived notions, reveling in a newfound freedom to express all of the various shades of the man whose name is out front. In short, it’s one hell of a debut record and one the world of  rock ‘n’ roll desperately needs. 

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught with Rex Brown to discuss the chain of events which led to the creation of ‘Smoke On This,’ the challenges he faced in bringing it to life and what the future might hold for him as a solo artist.

Rex, I have to thank you for letting me listen to your debut solo record, ‘Smoke On This,’ before it’s official release. This thing is absolute fire!

Dude, thank you very much! That made my morning! Ya know, I have been sitting on this record, were it was finally finished and done, since December. It’s been driving me mad. [laughs] In this business, it’s all about timing and, to me, this is a summertime kind of record. We plan on starting to hit really hard on radio the day after the 4th of July; let the people get over their hangovers and really start pounding them hard with all of these tracks.

Rex Brown

How did the ball get rolling on this record?

It started off with me in the bus one day and me thinking, “I’ve gotta quit doing this.” It was going nowhere quickly, the situation I was in. I’d just gotten to a complete burnout point. A lot of guys would take another 3 years and say, “Oh, let’s see if it works out.” Man, I knew something was up and that I needed to get off the road for a couple of years. I needed to go watch the grass grow and enjoy the simple things in life. I wanted to write some songs and I had a whole bunch that I wanted to investigate for lack of a better word. I was going into Nashville for Summer NAMM in 2015 and meeting up with friend of mine, Lance Harvill. He is also the co-writer of all these songs. He is a brilliant songwriter who never got his time in the spotlight, so to speak. He’s an excellent guitar player and an even better songwriter. We just started throwing some ideas around. First off, I was going into Nashville thinking it’s still a country hicksville and, low and behold, I start running into all of these rock ‘n’ roll guys. It was everyone from Brad Whitford from Aerosmith to the half of Motley Crue that lives there now! It’s just a really cool vibe in Nashville because it’s all about the jam. You go into LA and ask a guy to play on the record and the first thing he asks is how much he’s going to get paid and that’s even before he ever plays a note! That’s not rock ‘n’ roll to me, man! I put together a team and found a drummer, Chris Williams, through a photographer friend of mine. He’s been playing on records for all kinds of cats since he was about 16 years old in Nashville. He turned me onto this producer. When I went to his studio, it reminded me of Willie’s Place down in Austin. Lance and I had both had the opportunity to go and make a record down there that never ended up seeing the light of day. It was for a movie and placements for film and stuff like that but never came out. We actually made a record with Terry Date. Lance has gone back to the Dime days, ya know, way back to the days of early Pantera.

Anyway, we started writing songs and they started getting really good. We narrowed it down from 24 songs, down to 13 and then we tracked 11. I found my voice on this one track, “Fault Line,” and the rest, as they say, is history. We started stumbling onto stuff that we didn’t know we had in us and I wanted to make the best rock ‘n’ roll record I could possibly make. I didn’t want to make a metal record. I’ve done that so many times that I’m blue in the fucking face even talking about it! [laughs] I wanted to make something that was true to me. I mean, you can take the boy from the farm as far as you can throw him, but I’m still going to have the metal influence; so you’re gonna hear a little of swagger and, of course, some of that stuff is in there. It’s just one of those things where I had to go back and find out why I was playing music in the first place and why I loved it. That meant going back to my roots. I was listening to different playlists and stuff like that. The 70s had some really great music which came out of it. Then you had the 80s where there was great music but it had image attached to it. Everybody got tired of the image. Everyone was dressed up with poofy hair and all that shit! Hell, we had to do it just to play a club. For me, it’s all about the song. Without the song, you don’t have anything. It came down to writing really good songs and then bastardizing the fuck out of it and turning them inside out!

People ask me, “Why didn’t you do this 10 years ago?” Well, maybe the time wasn’t right 10 years ago and maybe the time is right now. In this business, timing is everything. There aren’t any good rock ‘n’ roll records out there, man. There’s not. If there are, then show me the way and I’ll listen to them. I’m not saying there aren’t any and that mine is going to be the best of all of them but I’m saying this is me and this is where I’m coming from musically. If you dig it, dig it. If you don’t like it, then don’t. I don’t care either way!

I’m sure finding your voice was a big part of bringing “Smoke On This” to life. What were some of the other challenges you faced along the way?

The first thing was my passion for playing the guitar. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 9 years old but I’ve always been known as a bass player. At the same time, most bass players are guitar players. Typically, that’s your first passion and then you get stuck with the bass. I gave half my life to doing that. Before I even started this process, I took my old, trusty 60s Telecaster and just went and played without any pedals or anything. I learned how to play guitar again. I was sitting with my little girl and she plays guitar. She was really getting into playing the folky stuff. I started her out with “Tapestry” and stuff like that. I said, “This is what you need to learn how to play before you learn to play your favorite Pierce The Veil song or whatever you are listening to.” So, I made her listen to all the great songwriters that came out of Laurel Canyon. My rock ‘n’ roll lineage goes from… well, ask me a tune and I can probably tell you what record it’s off of. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about — getting the people out of there seats and making them have a good time. It’s where I want to go musically. It’s not reinventing the wheel but it’s where I want to be musically these days. I just wanted to make a really diverse rock ‘n’ roll record that had really good songs on it. I think I’ve done it and I’m proud as fuck of it. I couldn’t be happier!

As you mentioned, you have had this album wrapped for awhile. Where do you see yourself heading in the future?

That’s a good question. I’m just now starting to tap into the well, ya know. I don’t know how many riffs I’ve got in my phone. Where this is all going to lead, I don’t know. This is one of those things where I already have the next one written. It’s already in my head and I know exactly what I want to do. It’s going to be different than this one. I want to keep pushing those musical boundaries. Who knows? It might be a polka/folk/metal record. Who knows what I will do! I’m just saying that to be kind of silly, but as an artist where do you take yourself? If you are a painter, you want to paint different things. You don’t want to sit down and do the same painting over and over. The minute you start doing that is the minute you start crumbling to the corporate crap. That’s one thing we never did back in the day with Pantera or even with DOWN, well, maybe a little bit, but not much. Let’s just say…How long have you been writing?

I’ve been doing this for almost two decades.

Well, if you go back and look at your first piece and look at the last piece you did. Would you say you have evolved?

Yeah. Without question.

Right. My point is that I’ve got to get a lot better now. The Kill Devil Hill thing was what it was. It was a great project and I was getting out of DOWN and trying to keep my relationship with Phil [Anselmo], which I have always done. In fact, I just saw him not too long ago and we had a blast! It felt like old times. We just had to get away from each other at some point. It was inevitable that something was going to blow up after 25 years together. This solo record is me getting back to what it’s all about. Anyway, I’m right in the middle of putting together tour plans for the fall. You could see us out as early as July. Right now, the whole focus is getting this record out and getting it to as many people as possible.

You are clearly a guy who isn’t afraid to look to his past but your focus is on the future. You wrote your autobiography, “Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera.” That is something very few people get to do. How did that experience impact you and this record?

I think it the process of making both the book and this album were very cathartic. Look man, I’ve been through hell and back. For me, I don’t have problems, I have solutions. It’s getting through life like anyone else and I don’t live in the past. I live for today. Today is all I can take care of and I can’t worry about what happened all those years ago. I just don’t like some of the platforms you can get on these days and think you are the President of the United States and just post whatever stupid shit you want. I’m not a big fan of that. I think there are too many people with too many opinions that don’t really mean a fuck in the big scheme of things. It really doesn’t matter. It isn’t about all the whining, man. It’s about celebrating life. You are only here for a little bit of time, so you have to make the best of it. What I get out of that is writing music and performing. With that said, long gone are the days of me going out and trying to hit 300 days on the road. There’s no way I going to do it unless something incredible comes up. You never know. I never say never! [laughs]

You have inspired a lot of people with the work you have created and you have lived life to it’s fullest. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?

Keep going, baby! Perseverance! At the end of the day, you are only as good as your word, man. With that being said, I am a very high strung, creative guy. I always want to keep playing. I found that out by being in the studio. Look, it took me awhile. I’ve been working on this record of the past year or more and I’ve been knee deep in the politics of it too. The music industry these days is getting a lot tougher. So, if I can say anything to anybody, it’s take the good points in life and make them better. That’s all I can say. Hell, I’m not anybody. I’m just like the next guy, man. I put my pants on one leg at a time just like anybody else!

Rex Brown will release ‘Smoke On This…’ on July 28th, 2017 via Entertainment One Music (eOne Music). Keep up to date with Rex Brown via social media via Facebook and Twitter. Visit his official website at www.rexbrown.net.