Editor’s Note: By the time Pantera released The Great Southern Trendkill in 1996, the Texas band had become the preeminent voice of metal. In this archival piece, we interviewed drummer Vinnie Paul and bassist Rex Brown about the chemistry they had developed as a rhythm section.
Like a machine. That’s how Vinnie Paul and Rex Brown describe their combined double-bass drums and power-bass guitar assault with Pantera, one of the darkest of dark hard rock bands. On their new album, The Great Southern Trendkill, this wall-of-grind is both startling and dense, rendering it impossible for the listener to determine exactly where the edges of the bass, guitar and drums end or begin. The only truly discernible element in Pantera’s sonic recipe is the unholy growl of singer Philip Anselmo that rises from the din.
The impossibly tight performances of Pantera’s rhythm section have inspired some cynics to ponder whether they indeed originate from machines rather than humans, which drummer Paul flatly denies. He insists their precision grooves result from their many years of playing together, starting in the jazz lab band, of all places, at James Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas. The two youngsters began jamming in earnest after they discovered their shared love for the heaviest sounds of the time – Sabbath, Van Halen and Zeppelin.
A decade-and-a-half later, the two are still punching out hard-hitting grooves, while setting a new standard to which the next generation of metalheads can aspire. Not unlike the previously-mentioned cynics, we too wondered how this metal machine works. Paul and Brown claim that they have always been able to find the pocket together. “Rex has always been a great, great groove player,” Paul says. “Vince was really solid right from the beginning,” Brown counters.
While politically correct, this exchange is heartfelt. Both players genuinely seem to appreciate one another, primarily because they’ve each had to contend with bassists and drummers who couldn’t quite catch the pulse. “We’ll pop in a club here and there and I’ll sit in with somebody,” Brown says. “There are times when I go, ’What’s this drummer thinking?’ Usually it’s a combination of him not listening and playing too busy. I’m just not into the big star trip. You’ve got to be solid.”
While Paul agrees, he also points out that there are times when a loose rhythm section can produce a cool groove: “It really adds character and it puts a little bit of swing in the music. If you listen to the new Guns ’N Roses records, Matt [Sorum] is a great drummer, but for some reason it just doesn’t quite have the swing that the original cat [Steven Adler] did. And the original cat’s not nearly the drummer Matt is. I think it’s just good to let the whole thing move a little.”
Rarely, though, does one hear a Pantera track that is even vaguely loose. While Paul and Brown lay down basic tracks live in the studio with Paul’s brother, Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, each note is carefully scrutinized during production. “We go for the most live feel possible for basics,” Paul explains. “We want to make it feel like we’re playing in front of 10,000 people instead of four white walls in the studio.” But once Paul’s drum tracks are done, Brown’s bass parts are dissected under the microscope. “Sometimes I’ll keep the bass if I like it,” Brown says. “But eight times out of ten I’ll go back and fix the bass tracks, which is kind of hard because you don’t have that live vibe, but that’s part of the studio process and we like to get it precise.”
While he advocates getting a live feel in the studio, Paul is actually adamant about having the rhythm section lay down their parts by the book. Brown remembers, “We were doing the demos for this record and there was this bass thing that Vince didn’t hear on the final tracks. I had to go back and redo it because it didn’t make it for him. That’s how locked-in Vinnie is with his ears. I was like, ’Dude, I just want to do a different part right here.’ And he went, ’No, you’ve got to do it the way we did it on the demos!’”
Yet when Pantera hits the road, the bandmembers feel less compelled to play their parts exactly as they did on the album. “In the studio, there’s not a whole lot of room to improvise on the parts,” Brown says. “Once you’ve got your thing done it’s set and that’s going to go on the record. But live there’s so many situations where we’ll try different things. I’ll know where Vinnie’s going to go with it, so I’ll play with it myself and find another riff that goes with what he’s doing, and vice-versa. You’ve got to let your parts change on stage. If you don’t keep evolving and changing it’ll just be stale and stupid.”
Paul couldn’t agree more: “There are a lot of times when you’ve played a song a couple hundred times. I mean, we’ve played ’Cowboys From Hell’ 400 or 500 times by now. Everybody kind of adds something new and when everybody catches it they’ll look over and wink at them or something, and it kind of busts a nut on the deal. Playing live is magical because there’s no second chances. There’s no going back and fixing something. It’s just so spontaneous and so brutal when you’re playing live.”
He’s quick to add that it’s important not to go overboard: “I try to keep it simple enough on stage so that it doesn’t go over the head of the average listener – somebody who’s not a musician – which is about 90 percent of the population. But I still try to play enough to keep musicians interested. So, we all play together and I don’t do any really crazy drum fills or anything.