Brain: Just Another Freak On Haight And Ashbury
Guess what? Conducting an interview isn’t rocket science. Hell, it’s not even as complex as gardening. Here’s how it works: One person asks a question, another person answers it. Repeat until completion. Tack on a pithy intro, and before you know it, bang, you’re got a Q&A interview!
Sure, writing a narrative story is a whole different ball game, but composing a question-and-answer interview is just about the simplest task a journalist can undertake, short of adding cream to coffee. Take it from us. We’re professionals. So when we heard that DRUM!’s long-time columnist and hair consultant Brian “Brain” Mantia had replaced Tim “Herb” Alexander as the drummer in Primus, we decided that this turn of events offered a perfect opportunity to prove our point about Q&A interviews. Plus it provided an excellent chance to make Brain look stupid in public.
It really didn’t take much to convince him to do something dumb. One unusually hot Sunday in May, we headed down to Haight Street in San Francisco – Brain, photographer Paul “Bosco” Haggard, and me – and staked out a temporary residence near the infamous corner of Haight and Ashbury, along with a chorus line of transients begging for spare change. The main difference between us and them was that we begged for questions.
Brain wore a sandwich board that read: “Hi. My name is Brain. I’m the new drummer with Primus. Ask me a question.” Then we tried to convince passersby to ask Brain something ... anything ... and recorded whatever happened, no matter how inane. Hey, the more inane the better!
Okay, we admit that we hedged our bets by preparing a jar full of questions on slips of paper for any hesitant tourist who tried to wrangle out of our request by saying he or she couldn’t think of anything to ask. Really, can you blame us? We had a story to write, after all, and we weren’t entirely sure if our ploy would work.
In retrospect, we think it did. See what you think.
After being turned down several times in a row, obviously mistaken for really healthy-looking street people, we manage to snag an attractive young woman who makes the mistake of glancing in our direction. But then she confuses us all by asking:
Kelly: Are you good at Connect Four?
Brain: Am I what?
Kelly: Are you good at Connect Four?
Brain: Connect Four? I don’t know what it is. What is it?
Kelly: Like checkers. Up-on-the-wall checkers.
Brain: Oh, no, no, no. I’m not good at that.
Hmm. Bad sign. But thankfully, shortly after Kelly walks away, an amiable Gen X-er asks a question without having his arm twisted. It proves to be one of the most frequently-asked questions of the day:
Daniel: How long have you been in the band?
Brain: About seven months now.
Daniel: Are you enjoying it?
Brain: Oh yeah, it’s fun.
Daniel: Are you from this area?
Brain: Yeah, I’m from Cupertino.
Daniel: Yeah, I know Primus is a Bay Area band. Did they know you before you joined the band?
Brain: We’ve been friends for about seven or eight years. I was in the Limbomaniacs before and we used to play together.
Daniel: Was that a Bay Area band?
Brain: It used to be a Bay Area band.
Daniel: How long have you been drumming?
Brain: About 17 years now.
Daniel: Do you ever have any problems with your arms?
Brain: Yeah, they’re actually kind of hurting as I get older, so I’ve got to do more wrist exercises and stuff.
A second fellow asks several astute queries:
Trevor: What do you think of Herb’s
drumming? And what do you add to Primus?
Brain: Herb and I are friends and I think he’s a great drummer, but I’m the opposite of Herb. That’s what they wanted in the band. The new album’s a lot more straight ahead.
Trevor: What do you think your style is?
Brain: I’d say it’s a cross between Keith Moon and John Bonham.
Trevor: Excellent. Good drummers to emulate. So you still have a heavy edge like Herb.
Brain: Well, I don’t play double bass on this album. I’d say it’s a lot more powerful and even more funky. It’s kind of like the Isley Brothers meets Prince or something. Les [Claypool, bassist] is playing a lot more straight ahead too. We’ve got a single coming out called “Shake Hands With Beef,” which is really going to show what the band is going to become [see Ex. 1, bottom of next page]. It’s really Zeppelinesque, straight ahead but kind of swinging. It’s just more powerful in that sense.
Trevor: What’s the name of the album?
Brain: It’s The Brown Album.
Trevor: Who were you playing with before?
Brain: I was mostly playing with this producer, Bill Laswell, and Buckethead in a band called Praxis, with Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell. This was in New York. We were doing a lot of festivals and stuff in Europe. And I was living in L.A. and Les gave me a call and said, “Do you want to come up and do this thing?”
A crowd has gathered like bettors at a cockfight. We spot one guy hovering around the periphery who seems to be thinking hard. He is, and finally swoops in:Jon: What you think of playing with two bass players? I play percussion with a band in Sweden with two bass players. Sometimes it’s nice, but sometimes it’s hard to find the beat.
Brain: I’ve played with a keyboardist who
played bass lines along with Buckethead playing bass, and that’s
like two basses. I can usually find a spot to groove in there, as long
as one takes a rhythm line and the other takes a lead line. Les is like
two bass players in a sense. He plays a lot of stuff, which works well
with my playing. I’m really simple, whereas Herb kind of emulated
a lot of what Les did and it always sounded cluttered and complicated to
me. What we’re doing now is more of a groove. He’s playing
around my drum parts instead of me trying to follow the rhythmic stuff
Jon: One of the bass players I play with is really simple and the other plays sort of Les Claypool style, but not as busy. As a percussion player it’s easier for me, but the drummer feels like it’s hard to find a spot.
Brain: I would usually try to pick up on the simplest thing and build from that. Even with Les’ playing, he’ll play really rhythmic, but there’s always two or three low notes that I think of as the bass drum. So I always accent only his low parts instead of trying to play everything. Even if it’s complicated I can usually find a line that I can play.
Jon: I’ll enjoy listening to the album. It sounds like it will be less jazzy.
Brain: Well, this album’s a lot more song-oriented too. There’s like 15 or 16 songs that are all three or four minutes long. There aren’t as many eight-minute space jams. There’s one or two I think that we wrote by jamming, but most of them were rehearsed and thought out – about 80 percent.
A friendly passerby in a tie-dyed t-shirt offers us all candy. Not wanting to be rude, we accept. A woman says she can’t think of a question, and becomes the first to draw from the jar:
Kathy: So do you like to experiment with your
Brain: Oh yeah, I always change my kit around every time before rehearsal. Les and Ler [Lalonde, guitarist] get mad because I would change it every gig. I’m into being able to play on any kit and be able to shred, so I like changing it to keep it interesting.
Kathy: Did the old drummer get fired? That’s what I really want to know.
Brain: They actually killed him.
Kathy: They killed him? I think that’s illegal in most states, but not in this one.
Brain: Not when you’re in a rock band. You can do whatever you want.
Kathy: Rock on, dude.
It’s now very hot and the Haight is crowded and turning kind of weird. Faces begin to blur. We seem to be getting louder and more obnoxious.
Joel: Okay. All right. Here we go. Which is more
important: having chops or being able to groove?
Brain: Having chops. No actually, being able ... well, I don’t know. I think you need a combination of both, actually. I mean, what do you do?
Joel: I dance.
Brain: Well, there you go. It’s kind of related. You have to have some technique and you also have to have some soul. I think putting it both together makes the best combination.
Joel: Isn’t that the whole “talent versus technical” thing? You’ve got to have enough talent and technique to be able to do what you hear in your head.
Brain: Exactly. You said it better then I could. I should ask you the questions. It’s probably the same for you as a dancer.
Joel: I’m not really a dancer.
Suddenly questions come at us fast and furiously. The sun is so bright, we squint against its kaleidoscopic glare. That’s odd – I don’t remember the sun ever looking like a kaleidoscope.
Michael: Why are you learning to scratch?
Brain: Because it’s cool. I went on tour with Praxis and the Invisible Scratch Pickles. They’re the world-champion DJs and they’re just incredible. These four guys basically play the turntables like a band. It’s very percussive. It’s insane. So I learn all my rhythms and stuff now by listening to tapes that the Invisible Scratch Pickles put out. Some of them are showing me how to scratch, so I thought I would incorporate it with my drums into my solos.
Michael: Are you learning the numbers? Like so many beats per second?
Brain: Like beat-matching and stuff?
Brain: Yeah, I’m learning that and learning how to make beats just with a kick drum and snare drum. It’s going to be rad.
For some reason our extremities begin to tingle. Is it the heat or what?
Dan: Were you very involved with getting studio
drum sounds on The Brown Album or did you just depend on the
Brain: Well, we kind of all produced it ourselves. We recorded it over at Les’ house, which we call Rancho Relaxo because it’s very relaxing. We went retro. You know how Herb had a real big top-of-the-line Tama Starclassic series drum kit? He had like 80 million drums.
Dan: It went all around him.
Brain: Yeah, it went all around him and you need like 15 people to carry it on stage. Well, I’m using Vistalites. John Bonham used to use them and they’re from the ’70s. I’ve got a 26" kick drum like he did, and it’s basically a four-piece kit with real big, round sounds. So the sound changed automatically just because of the kit I chose.
Dan: Did you experiment with different heads and tunings and stuff?
Brain: No, I just basically looked up what John Bonham used and then copied it.
The event becomes even more surreal when a kid named Paul rolls to a stop on his bicycle. He says that he doesn’t have a question, but wants to show Brain what he and his friends like to do at Primus shows. Paul pulls a foot bag out of his backpack and begins doing something he calls foot-bag freestyle. The bag leaves traces in the air. We marvel at his finesse until a rather glum girl stops by to see what’s going on.
Brain: Have you heard of Primus?
Brain: Do you like Primus?
Girl: Yeah, it’s okay.
Brain: Well, what don’t you like about us?
Girl: I don’t know. I never really thought about it. Why would you let a magazine do such a humiliating thing to you?
Brain: I can’t even answer that question. Umm, for the art of drumming? You have to do these things because this is what it’s about. This is a career move I’m making, and look at Andy. He’s such a nice guy, he asked me to do it so I did it. So what, you don’t like Primus?
Girl: I haven’t listened to them in a long time.
Brain: What albums do you have?
Girl: I don’t have any.
Brain: You don’t have any! All right, well, get the new one, The Brown Album, named after the color brown.
A rabbit scampers past us looking at his pocket watch. Then the next person asks:
Kevin: How is playing with Primus different from
playing with Buckethead?
Brain: With Buckethead there are really no songs. It’s about doing whatever you want at any time. It’s just purely improvisational. But with Primus there are more arrangements and it’s based around Les a lot. As we got more into this album, a lot of it started with the drums. Les would say, “Play a beat,” and I would come up with something. But that took a while. At first I was kind of intimidated as far as Les and his playing goes, because he’s a strong player. With Buckethead anything goes. He runs around with his mask and bucket on and he just starts screaming or playing like Disneyland, and then I’ll start playing and it becomes something.
Kevin: It’s almost like free jazz or something.
Brain: In a sense. But with Primus there’s a lot more at stake.
Kevin: Do you have to copy Herb, too?
Brain: I wanted to talk about that. My first gig was last New Year’s Eve. It was scary because Herb set a standard, like the new Neil Peart, but I was never into that style of drumming. I admire it and I think it’s great technically, but I never really listened to Primus for that reason. But when I had to learn it, it was really hard. I thought kids wanted me to play what Herb did, so I got the double bass and tried to learn all the parts, and I was getting it – not as good as Herb. I had never played double bass. So we just said, “Forget it. Just learn as much of Herb’s parts as you can, but don’t play the double bass.” So we threw away the double pedal, and it’s becoming more like my style, with a little bit of Herb for the old stuff.
It’s so hot that our skin melts. Flesh-colored puddles form at our bony feet. Murray from The Mary Tyler Moore Show rows by on a pink velvet raft. What was in that candy?
Ariel: Do you prefer when the audience is
dancing or just focusing on the band?
Brain: I definitely like it when people are dancing or having fun, even if it’s like a mosh pit or thrashing. On tour, I’ve noticed a difference wherever you go. You play here in San Francisco and everybody’s dancing or moshing. You play in L.A. or New York and everybody’s too cool for school to dance or let go. So I definitely like it when people go crazy. That’s what it’s for.
Ariel: Does that mean that they’re not as focused on the band?
Brain: I don’t care if anybody’s watching me. I just want to make sure they’re having a good time.
Ariel: Do you think most drummers are glad if the audience is dancing, since they provide the beat?
Brain: If I’m playing something that someone can feel and they move to it, then I know I’m doing my part as a drummer. It’s made for someone to dance to or to go crazy to. If someone’s just sitting there checking you out, looking at your technique, that’s boring to me.
A tulip kissing naked infant singing daylight. Water stream through big ear faucet green pie. What time is it?
Charles: Which do you prefer: playing live or
recording in the studio?
Brain: I love recording. I love sitting in the studio. I love tweaking with sounds. That’s something we did on this album too. We collaborated on the sound of this album. We experimented and tried out different drumheads and different snare drums and just took our time with it. I love doing that kind of stuff, to try to get a sound that we like. I like playing live, but I don’t like touring as much because it’s hard on your body. I’d rather play every day in the studio because I think it’s more creative.
Time is irrelevant.
Rainbow: Do you think it’s important for
drummers to learn how to read music?
Brain: It’s definitely helped me out. Do you play an instrument?
Rainbow: I play guitar and a little bass.
Brain: Do you read music?
Brain: Not at all. Do you care to?
Rainbow: Not really.
Brain: Not at all. See, that’s what I thought at first. I really did. But it helped me, because I could figure out things I dug easier by knowing actually what notes were being played. And it helps rhythmically. It helped my timing. Plus it got me a lot of gigs and I got paid a lot of money, actually, in the studio business.
I thought irrelevant was a huge animal from Africa with big floppy ears and a long trunk. What time is it, anyway?
Phooka: Who were your drumming influences?
Brain: I’d say probably Tony Williams was probably my biggest influence. My dad would take me down to the Keystone Korner and I used to watch him play, and it blew me out. I was just floored when I heard he passed away, because I was actually getting ready to take some lessons from him. I saw him play at Yoshi’s a week before he passed away and it was the most incredible thing. And my mom used to take me to the mall to watch Buddy Rich play. Those were my two biggest ones.
Phooka: Do you still use any of the stuff you learned by listening to Tony Williams?
Brain: Oh yeah. His attitude and just the way he approaches it. I would call his roadie every day and ask about Tony’s practice regimen, and I would do that regimen – which I’m not going to give up because it’s too cool – and I still do it. I cry when I watch him play. He and Buddy were about the only ones I would do that with.
Phooka: And Herb.
Brain: And Herb, I just cry like a little baby.
Hoooooo! Whaaaaa! Whoooo! Yaaaaa!
Jennifer: How often do you practice drums on
Brain: Well, I try to practice an hour a day on something that I can’t do. And I didn’t want to say that because that’s what Tony Williams did.
Jennifer: How do you find something new to do every day?
Brain: Well, there’s a lot I can’t do on the drums, so it’s pretty simple.
Jennifer: So you don’t have a regular routine?
Brain: No, it could be anything. It could be that I want to try to do fours with my foot or a jazz ride rhythm I heard Peter Erskine do on an album. Whatever it is, I just try to get in at least an hour a day.
Debbie: Would you like to dance with me?
Debbie: How old are you?
Brain: I’m 33.
Debbie: Well, you look younger than that.
Brain: That’s what everybody says. Did you see the wrinkles, though? I’ve been using Kiels. Everybody should use Keils. Keils is the best. Do you use Keils?
Debbie: No, I don’t. I use their hair products.
Brain: It’s killer. I use it around the eyes. It’s rated number one.
Whoa! Where am I? What’s going on here? Why do I have this tape recorder in my hand? Who are these people?
Marcello: How many chances do I have at getting
a real job?
Brain: I’m not sure. I don’t know how to answer that question.
Marcello: Well, you said I could ask you any question.
Brain: Well, it’s not like I’m the wizard or anything.
Okay ... right ... I work for DRUM! Magazine. Right. We’re on Haight Street doing an interview. I’m okay. Really.
Cricket: I have a question. Can I have a hug?
Can I kiss you?
Brain: Oh, okay.
Cricket: Ooooh. Hey baby, what’s up? Do you need a new singer?
Brain: You want to be the new singer?
Cricket: I want to be the new singer!
Brain: All right. Give me your card.
Cricket: I don’t have a card. Hey, I’ll give you my address: Golden Gate Park!