Pantera's Vinnie Paul & Rex

Rhythm Section From Hell


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.

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“With a lot of bands the drummer will just go nuts right in the middle of nothing. It really doesn’t have the impact that it could if he just slowed down and put a little thought behind it. The most important thing to us is the song. A lot of bands – and drummers in particular – forget that the ultimate goal is for the song to be powerful, for the song to come across. And to do that sometimes you have to restrain yourself as a musician. You always want to do all these fancy licks and things that took you years and years to learn how to do, and they don’t fit. The only time that Rex really cuts loose would be during a lead section. Then I’ll usually anchor the groove and he’ll carry the chord structure.”

One might think that both Brown and Paul like to hear plenty of each other in their monitors so that they can easily communicate spontaneous musical ideas onstage. But while Brown likes to hear practically Paul’s full kit coming out of his wedges, the drummer admits, “Gee, I hate to be honest, but I don’t listen to a lot of bass. He’s so loud onstage that I like to feel it instead of hearing the click and the attack on the bass. I have a lot of guitar in my monitor and a lot of drums, no vocals and a little bit of bass.”

Even though the members of Pantera each hear different onstage mixes, the band makes sure that Paul’s bass drums and Brown’s bass aren’t competing for the same frequencies. Both onstage and in the studio, they adjust tunings and tones so that each instrument is clearly defined in the mix. “On the previous records, we never felt like we had enough true bass guitar in the mix,” Paul explains. “It always blended in really well with the guitar but it didn’t quite have its own identity. He’s always had a really good bass sound, but when you’re producing a record or even working live there’s only a certain amount of space in which you can put an instrument. If the bass has killer low end and killer high end and the kick drum has killer low end and killer high end, they’re going to wash each other out. There’s only so much that that speaker can reproduce. So you find places in the mix where that sound can sit. We’ve worked on getting the bass to where it has a little bit more of a low-mid sound, and it seems like it’s bigger because it’s louder in the mix and it’s not eating up the kick drum. I mean, anybody can sit in their own room and tune their drums or their bass to where it sounds amazing, but it’s going to eat up all the space in the speaker because they’re taking up the full spectrum of the frequency range. It’s like a puzzle. It all just kind of fits together.”

In order to venture beyond the arrangements on their albums, Paul and Brown must first establish their parts during album preproduction, which involves working out grooves and transitions between verses and choruses. “We want to work really tightly together,” Paul insists. “So we’ve got our little licks that we do. If you listen to ’Drag The Waters,’ that little lick that goes right into the lead is just nothing but a drum and bass thing that we worked on together. We prefer to do that instead of just having one guy going off. It’s got a lot more power and impact if the two of us do it together.”

As precise as these transitions sound, much of it originates from jams rather than analysis. “Pretty much when we write, we use the first thing that comes out of us,” Brown says. “It’s gut instinct, and that’s usually cool because it’s always worked for us. Every once in a while we’ll try something different, but we try not to second-guess what we’re doing. Whatever drum licks he’s putting in, I’ll get a riff that goes around it.”

Still, there are times when the members of Pantera suggest parts to each other. “The cool thing about this band is that everybody’s really open to suggestions and we don’t think that we know it all,” Paul says. “There’s been numerous drum licks that ended up on our records that they told me how to play and I would’ve never thought of in a million years. They’ll go, ’Well man, why don’t you do the bass drums here and put a snare in the middle of this,’ and I was like, ’I’d never do it that way.’ I’ll sit in the room and work it out and really, it was Rex’s drum lick that I played, he hummed it to me. And the same thing with him – I’ll say, ’Man, why don’t you do something a little different on the bass there and go up a little higher or something?’

“But actually, Rex knows probably more about music theory than anybody else in the band. Once we get some ideas together and we’re looking for some different notes to try to give the song more character, he knows what to do. He and Dime’ll sit down together and really figure out what direction that they’re going to take the song once it’s been written. All of us work really well that way.”

Of course, though, there are occasions when the bandmembers simply are unable to make a new song work. “We’ve written songs before when we know they’re just not right,” Paul says. “On every record we’ve ever made we end up writing the exact number of songs that we record. So if something doesn’t sound right, we’ll axe it. There’s been times when we get on a groove and just jam on it and jam on it for four or five hours and the next thing you know, we’re looking at each other going, ’Man, this sucks! Trash it and let’s start on something new.’ That’s always been our approach.”

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Although it sounds like Paul and Brown follow one another closely onstage to attain their super-tight grooves, Paul says that both he and the bassist tend to listen most closely to Dimebag Darrell’s guitar playing: “It just seems like that’s where the energy evolves from. Whereas in a jazz band it may be the drums and the bass that push it along, in this type of music, it’s really the guitar. For some reason it just feels a little better. The bass is always carrying the low end, but it just seems like if you’re going to follow somebody, the guitar is more natural for this kind of music. I talked to a couple of my other friends who play in hard rock/heavy metal bands and they say the same thing.”

Nonetheless, there are nights when either Paul or Brown have a bad gig. Sometimes it can be the result of equipment failure, other times it can come from fatigue. “Nobody’s ever perfect,” Paul admits. “We’re all generally pretty consistent and really proud of that fact. But when somebody is having an off night, we all try to pick up the slack and help him make it through it, because he’d do the same for us. When Rex is having a rough night it’s usually something technical like his rig went down or he broke a string. It gets irritating when you’re onstage in front of people and all of a sudden the bass goes out. The other guys just keep performing and act like nothing’s wrong and when the problem’s resolved, generally a lot of people don’t even know that there was a problem.”

In the end, that’s what Pantera is all about: four old friends who have always been there for each other, ever since they were high school kids. To Paul, playing with Brown has simply become second nature, like pulling on an old pair of jeans that fits just right. But Brown was more eloquent in summing up their long-term relationship: “I can’t imagine Pantera without Vinnie. No way. He’s got the feet.”