Latest release: Smoke on This (eOne)Website: www.facebook.com/rexbrown/
Rex Brown was sitting on his tour bus a couple of years back and decided that it was time to take a break. After touring for most of his adult life, he came to the realisation that it was just becoming too much. He figured he had to give it a rest.
“I felt like I was starting to burn out,” he says in a slow, rumbling drawl. He apologies later when his voice almost gives out on him: he’s been doing interviews for six hours. “Touring’s hard, you know, and I’ve felt that way before. I decided that I needed some time off, because I’ve watched some friends and cohorts that have gone down the same road: too much is too much, you know? I’ve been on the road for twenty five fuckin’ years, man.”
Yet even while he was considering putting the transient life behind him for a while, a whole new burst of creativity was brewing. He took himself down to Tennessee and began working with guitarist and songwriter Lance Harvill on some tunes that would eventually become his debut solo album, Smoke on This.
“I had these sounds in my head, so I went down to Nashville and started writing with Lance and we came up with these songs, and they just started getting better and better and better.”
With well over a dozen records already behind him, writing and recording wasn’t the difficult part. As he says several times during our interview, “the hardest thing, and the most terrifying thing, was trying to find my voice.” As the sessions went on and Brown was able to live with the material more, he began to feel more comfortable with his vocal approach, developing a deep, whiskey-flavoured style that rings true to the music he’s made. Authenticity is something that holds a lot of importance for Rex Brown.
“I was trying to find something that was real. At first I fucking hated it,” he admits. He dug out old records and started going back to his roots. “I listened to records that I really really liked, with vocals that don’t have a whole bunch of stuff on it. Stuff that is real. I know my rock n roll. When I look back, I’m a child of the 70s. I grew up with everything from… my sister listened to the Beatles and the Stones. I got back into the Stones again. Their body of work from 67 until 72 was just amazing. That was the feel I was looking for, something that’s real and honest. It was all about the song. It’s not some contrived bullshit. I’ve never done a record like that and I don’t intend to do one like it.”
Smoke on This is a delicious surprise from a man who until now has been associated with metal juggernauts like Pantera and Down. While retaining some familiar aspects of his playing, Brown’s musical style here is a clear departure from the furious groove and iron-shredding riffs of those bands. He made it a priority to be honest, to challenge himself and to do something he hadn’t attempted before.
“I just wanted to make something that was heartfelt and in tune with the landscape I was in. The whole music industry has become nothing but a bunch of genres and bullshit of all kinds. Why do I have to stay in one for? I’ve already beat it to death. Let’s go outside the box a little bit. Let’s live life a little bit and take a challenge. That was the number one thing.
“If you were a painter, you don’t keep painting the same picture over and over again.” He pauses, searching his mind for another analogy: “If you were a really really good skiier, you wouldn’t go on the same fucking trail every time, you’d want to go on and try different paths. It’s the same thing in life, man. You want to try something different as a challenge. And I think a lot of people just get caught in the trap of not doing that enough.”
Previously known as a bass player, Brown added another string to his bow by also recording a lot of the guitar parts on his album alongside his songwriting partner Harvill.
“People don’t know that I play the guitar on the recording,” he says. “I’ve got this old Fender and I just plugged it straight in without a pedal and it sounded fucking great. It knocked some of the rust off. When I go down to my place in Texas, I’ve got an old piano and I write on that… I’ve got about 200 fucking riffs on this phone that I’m talking to you on right now. [I was] Going back over those and thinking, ‘Dude, where is this gonna fit?’ Then some of the things that Lance comes up with are just fucking great. It’s a winning combination that I just want to continue.”
The result is a deeply personal album coloured with a palette of influences and tones that haven’t really been seen from Rex Brown before. Some of the tracks were songs he had been tossing around for years, others developed through the collaboration with Harvill as they worked on them in Nashville.
“‘So Into You’ I’ve had forever. It didn’t work for this band or it didn’t work for that band, but it works for this one,” he explains. “The very first songs were in the can from the very top. They just fit together so well they were just stuck in my mind. Then it was time to branch out a little bit. ‘Get Yourself Alright’ was about being out on my own, my little take on the Beatles. I just wanted some fresh inspiration and I still questioned myself all the way through the process, and that means I was doing my job, I guess.”
If he did any second-guessing during the time he took to complete Smoke on This, he sounds nothing but confident now. He’s turned a corner and he knows where he wants to be. If he has anything still to prove after 35 years, it’s that he is comfortable being who he is now.
“This is the path I wanna take now. If there’s a preconceived notion [about me], it’s somebody else’s not mine. I don’t want to live in the past. I’ve been there, done that. There’s so many more things I wanna do in life. It’s not all about making records and money and touring all the fucking time. There’s other things in life that have to work. I just wanted to put out a rock n roll record. Not dated, but modern, and this is my take on it. From the bass playing side of it to the guitars that I put on towards the end to the vocals, I just wanted to say, “This is where I’m at today, kids. There you have it.’”