Latest release: Revolution Rise (Bullet Proof/Universal)
It would be difficult to have come through the last twenty years as a metal fan and not to know the name Rex Brown. His under-stated walking basslines underpinned the savage chainsaws-through-iron riffs of Pantera as they bucked the 90s anti-metal trend and helped reinvent the genre, becoming one of the biggest bands in the world when Far Beyond Driven topped both the US and Australian charts on debut in 1994, an achievement only Metallica and Slipknot from the heavy metal sphere have since matched. Almost twenty years after that glorious pinnacle, with Pantera long ago laid to rest, its charismatic clown prince guitarist Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott senselessly murdered, a long stretch with Down and painful battle with pancreatitis behind him, Brown is now re-inventing himself with current band Kill Devil Hill.
“I’m lucky I’m not six feet under man,” he says midway through our interview. “I had to change my appetite for [drugs and alcohol] completely. I just don’t fucking drink anymore, period. And it’s opened up a whole new realm for Rex, you know? It’s really amazing! I’ve been really back and forth for the past ten or eleven years and now with this album, I’m so proud of it. Even though it came really naturally, it was just another piece in the puzzle.”
The album in question is Revolution Rise, the second for a group that also comprises Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice, one-time Pissing Razors vocalist Dewey Bragg and LA-based guitarist Mark Zavon. The puzzle pieces began to fall into place during Brown’s recovery from pancreatic surgery and while he was going through rehab, following an invitation from Appice to jam on some tunes. Zavon came up with the name, which the bassist explains with the relish of a storyteller.
“Back in the days of the pirates, they would raid these fucking British ships off the eastern seaboard of the United States. Basically what they would do is they would bury the rum in these hills and it was so strong that it would kill the devil. So that legend became the name of a town called Kill Devil Hills in the Carolinas. We’ve yet to play there,” he says, “but I wanna go and take the key to the fuckin’ city!”
“Anyway,” he continues, “that’s where the Wright Brothers flew the first plane: over those dunes, about two miles in, that’s where they flew the first fucking airplane. So it has all these historical connotations but – it’s just the name for a band. What the fuck does Pantera mean? Who the fuck knows? What does Metallica mean? It’s just a name. It has nothing to do with the way we sound or that we’re going to be talking about Kill Devil Hills or anything. It’s just a fucking cool name.”
Apart from the occasional and obvious touchstone, Kill Devil Hill has a very different approach to the kind of metal that Brown was making with his previous bands, and that’s completely intentional. He has no intention of relying on past glories.
“It’s just good music,” he says of the band’s music when asked to describe it. “A good song is a good song. I don’t care if you listen to fucking Slayer, or you listen to fucking Frank Sinatra. For me, it’s all about the song. It would be so easy for me to put together a band that sounded just like Pantera. We could go out there, it would be no hassle, no fuss. That’s not my integrity. You have to reinvent yourself along what I call the musical journey through life. Now, I’ve been blessed three times now with a combination of people getting together and making music. This is where I’m going now.”
Despite the outfit’s pedigree, Kill Devil Hill’s first album virtually sank without trace due to lack of support from the label that released it in America. Revolution Rise, however, has been getting the kind of attention that neither Pantera nor Down met.
“In the States here I’ve had radio hype. This thing’s getting played in the States and I’m like a kid in a candy store,” the bass player says, sounding a little like an excited kid himself. “That is awesome man, for someone who’s been this long in a career and had [no radio play]… well, now they play ‘Walk’ in fucking stadiums, but it was always so frustrating!”
Brown is clearly delighted that Kill Devil Hill is getting a radio push so early after the disappointment offered by the self-titled debut. Being old schoolers, Brown and Appice weren’t going to sit around waiting for the right deal or someone to hand them a great wad of cash before making another record. When the iron was hot, they struck.
“We’ve put two records out literally within a year of each other. Bands don’t do that anymore. They wait three or four fucking years. You gotta put more music out. That’s what you gotta do. Last year we came off a run with Alice Cooper, and we were running really, really hot. So we thought, Let’s go in the fucking studio. Fuck this. We’ve done enough of the shit holes, didn’t get overseas, because basically we didn’t have the fucking money to do it… yet. Not that I’m saying anybody is broke. But in a band situation, you don’t have any support, it’s a spent force. So we’re gonna stretch this as far as we can take it. It’ll probably take a fifteen month touring cycle, but it’s gonna be worth it in the end.”
The first track on Revolution Rise is ‘No Way Out’, featuring the guitar work of Brown’s good friend Zakk Wylde. Originally the slot was offered to Jake E. Lee to reciprocate for Brown’s guesting on a track by Lee’s new band Red Dragon Cartel. That fell through when Lee couldn’t make the sessions though so Wylde, who made his own quite public journey to sobriety recently, was offered the track.
“We had this one song, and we didn’t know it was going to be the first song on the record but we had alloted for a guest spot to be on there,” Brown explains. “It just so happens that Zakk is one of my best friends, so I called him up and he said ‘Yeah no problem. Just send it and I’ll have to it you’. He got it back in two days and he just rips the shit out of it. When you hear it, you can almost see smoke coming off the fucking record. And that all comes from having his eyes wide open and clear so you can see exactly what’s happening instead of sitting on 64 beers all the fucking time.”
After laying demons to rest and dispelling some of the myths of his past with the release of his biography Official Truth:101 Proof in April, a book he says he’s often asked to sign at shows, and moving away from the sound he became known for, it’s clear that as he heads towards 50 Rex Brown is not just moving on, he’s determined to do so.
“So what – I played in Pantera,” he says. “I can’t rest on those laurels. I have to keep moving on and keep it fresh. It’s gotta stand on its own merits, and if you listen to [Kill Devil Hill], that’s what it does. When we play live, they’re screaming for fucking Pantera songs. I won’t do it. It’s not the right set of people. I just think this music can hold it’s own, and that’s what I wanna do. If anything, this has made me stronger, not because of the surgery that I went through and life’s traumas and bullshit – it’s just a fire that can’t be extinguished.”