There are very few musicians on the planet
who take inspiration from Return to
Forever and the Ramones and Sabbath.
Jenifer: Everybody has their blessing—I feel
blessed that I’m versatile. But it’s a struggle.
When I was a teenager, my cousin—who I
love—she used to say, “Darryl, why do you
listen to [fusion]? You’re crazy—you can’t
even dance to that!” There’s a lot of people
that are, like, “How do you get enjoyment
out of listening to [Return to Forever’s]
Romantic Warrior over and over and over and
over?” If they had Romantic Warrior on karaoke
[laughs] . . . I know every riff, measure,
beat . . . everything. I listened to that album
a billion times, and I played the bass till I
fell asleep. As a teenager, I was completely
into it—I didn’t go to school . . . My father
snatched the bass from me one time and
held it up like a hatchet and wanted to hit
me! Every time he saw me, that was all I was
doing. Imagine you’re living with your teenage
son in an apartment in D.C., and every
time you come home from working hard all
day, he’s sitting in there, the place smells like
weed, and he’s playing the bass! [Laughs.]
Doc: We always liked music—from Bob
[Marley] to Sabbath to the Clash to the
Damned to Return to Forever. We would see
these bands, and we never got pigeonholed
or stereotyped music. As long as it was good
music, we were into it. In the early ’70s,
there was a lot of good music, and we were
just open—like a sponge. Who’s to say you
can’t play whatever you like? That’s why we
are who we are. With the metal [influences],
it was about the power. With the punk, it
was the speed—although a lot of the fusion
had the speed, too. It was marrying the
power, the musicianship, and the speed to
give it that superdynamic-ness.
Jenifer: Washington, D.C., is a really
sophisticated music place in general. There
was a friend of mine who brought records
like Rare Earth and Return to Forever
to art class. You’ve got the radio station
WPGC, and they’re playing, like, “Taking
Care of Business,” then you’ve got go-go
music going all the time on the basketball
court and everywhere in your life, and then
you’ve got your Motown and soul music
and your church music—it’s just all a part
of your life. So if you’re a musician dude,
you’re going to say, “Damn—I like that!”
I used to listen to . . . we used to call it a
“white-boy” radio station. I used to be able
to play [Kansas’] “Carry on My Wayward
Son.” [Sings main riff.] So, as a teenager from
a black neighborhood, I would hear it on
the radio and know that it was a cool guitar
riff. I knew how to play “Iron Man,” I knew
how to play the beginning to “Stairway to
Heaven.” But also I knew how to play stuff
off [famed fusion drummer] Billy Cobham’s
Spectrum. I knew how to play [New York
City funk band] Mandrill. I knew how to
play a lot of the [Larry] Graham stuff.
Were you two and Earl pretty much on
the same page with all of that, or did you
guys introduce each other to new music
and then evolve together because you
Jenifer: There were different levels between
us all. Earl was more into the jazz-fusion—he was listening to a lot of Earl Klugh and
George Duke—and when it got down
to me, that’s where the Sabbath and the
Zeppelin came from. As far as rock, H.R.
and Earl were more into the Beatles and
stuff like that—stuff I never really listened
to. Doc was more about Mandrill and early
Return to Forever, like, Where Have I Known
You Before—before Romantic Warrior.
So you basically wanted to marry the
musicianship and phrasing of fusion stuff
with the tones and power of metal and
the chaos and freedom of punk?
Doc: Yeah, you could say that. It was the
need for all of that, definitely. I’m sure there
are a lot of musicians who have the same
respect for different types of music, but
were—or are—afraid to pursue that because
of peer pressure.
They pigeonhole themselves because
they’re unsure of how marketable it will
be, you mean?
Doc: Definitely the marketability. I mean,
how do you market us? That’s our biggest
thing. It’s like, “Well, you’re not this and
you’re not that.” We’ve heard it a million
times, “We don’t know what to do with
you guys. It’s [expletive] great, but what
do we do here? What category . . . we can’t
put you on the radio.” [Laughs.] It’s like,
“Whatever . . . we do what we do. Thank
you, but no thank you.”
Why did your first recordings, The
Omega Sessions, not get released for 17
years? They’re incredible—every bit as
good as your first official release.
Jenifer: Y’know, sometimes stuff like that
is just a part of the life you’re living and it’s
not really looked at like a product or something
to be released. But I’d be the wrong
guy to ask that—Doc would probably
know more about that.
Doc: I don’t know what the heck happened,
actually. We recorded it in a house. I was in
the basement, Darryl was in one of the bedrooms,
and H.R. was actually outside. We
used a 4-track with big old knobs on the
board—big ones. I think it was actually a
Radio Shack [recording console] kit. I was,
like, “What the hell is this?”
That’s amazing—that album has such a
live sound. It sounds like you’re all in the
Doc: No, we were all over—wires going
everywhere. That’s why you can hear me say,
“Can you hold this for a second?” [Laughs.]
Gary “Dr. Know” Miller onstage at the 2007 Virgin Festival in Balitmore, Maryland, with “Old Blackie,”
an S-style axe with ESP body and neck, and custom DiMarzio pickups. Photo by Eddie Malluk
You guys got some early praise for 1980’s
“Pay to Cum.” Even by today’s standards—
where you can see a crazy-good
8-year-old playing on YouTube—that
bass line is incredibly fast and difficult.
What do you remember about writing
Jenifer: Well it wasn’t that fast at first. It
started very slow, but the times change.
We’d play “Pay to Cum” at a show in the
late ’70s and early ’80s, and the kids who
thought we were playing fast would start
their own bands and then they’d play faster
than us. Then we’d end up playing at gigs
where we’d come on after them—so then
we end up playing faster than them. But it
wasn’t conscious. That’s just what happened
when Earl got back there and counted off
with his sticks.
I Against I is often considered the first
fully realized example of all the classic Bad
Brains elements—it’s got hardcore, metal,
and reggae, but it’s also surprisingly funky.
Did Ron [St. Germain, producer] help
forge the Brains sound, or was he merely
witnessing part of your evolution?
Doc: The Spirit produces our records—us
and the Spirit. Ron was influential in capturing
the essence of the music. We went
to a lot of different studios—like, the best
studios in the world. Ron would dial that
shit in and say, “All right, hit it boys—bam!” Ron will shoot from the hip. He’s so
Jenifer: He did some things, but mainly
effects, like on “Return to Heaven”—he
did the little delay shimmers and stuff
that you hear in the chorus. But as far as
“House of Suffering” and all the rock shit,
no one knows what to do with that except
to let us get a good sound and kick it.
As far as the bass lines, I was trying
to bring in a little Graham [vibe].
Sometimes I play with a pick and my
[plucking-hand] fingers and my thumb
on one song. Like on “Secret 77,” I
wanted to play the thumb on the verse,
and then I dropped to the pick during
the bridge, and then my fingers during
the chorus. So I go from snapping
it—not a real bona fide funky snap, but
more of a hybrid funk snap—to regular,
lay-it-down and complement-the-chorus-
type finger work, like Jamerson.
Do you curl the pick up under one
finger or what?
Jenifer: It’s in the folds in the palm of
my hand, and then I can drop it down
when I need it.
Let’s talk about the new album.
“Popcorn” is prototypical Brains—it’s
got angular, syncopated power chords
ripe for the moshing, but it’s also evolutionary:
Doc, during the choruses
you’re playing these dense, complex
chords that are pretty uncommon to
hear in a setting with such thick distortion.
And Darryl, you’re playing some
of your most overtly funky bass lines
ever. How did that song come about?
Jenifer: That’s a song that’s driven
by H.R. He was in one of his good
moods—like, “It’s on like popcorn with
all the pretty ladies!” That’s a D.C.-like
rock-funk hybrid, a combination of
being from the hood and go-go—like
Chuck Brown meets the Bad Brains.
Doc and I put our minds to the chunk,
but we didn’t want the chunk to be the
same old chunk. Doc is always reaching—always going somewhere else—and
I’m always trying to make it so you
don’t notice that he’s trying to go somewhere
else! I’ll look at him and think,
“Why is he looking for another chord
or somewhere else to go?” I’m more of a
minimalist, and he’s keeping it going. He
knows what he wants to play—he doesn’t
want to play that same old shit.
Doc: I don’t know how we do it—we
just do it. Making all the different flavors
fit is just second nature to us. We don’t
even think about it. It just happens.
But do that many different types of
sounds come together pretty fast, or did
that song get hammered out and evolve
Doc: Ninety-nine percent of the time, they
just come like that. It’s just, “All right, let’s
go to the B.” “No, let’s go to the C.” “Play
the Z# there. “Okay!” “Y’know that chord
there—that Fmaj7minb5 to the fifth power?
That! Here we go—bweeeeee!” [Laughs.] We
don’t really sit down and beat the damn
songs up—then all of the vibe is gone.
Speaking of musical technicalities, where
did you learn your chord and scale theory?
Doc: Books and just playing, y’know?
I had an old Mel Bay jazz book. And I
would buy Stevie Wonder tablature books
and theory books on [scale] modes and
whatnot. I picked out a few scales that I
liked, and it was like, “Let’s write a new
song. I just learned this scale—let’s start off
“Make a Joyful Noise” has some of your
most overt fusion tones ever, with those
Wes Montgomery-type octave parts and
the really clean, modulated tone.
Doc: This record was unique in the respect
that we wrote it in the studio. So we had
to rehearse after we recorded the stuff in
order to learn the songs again—because we
would write and record a song and then
move on to the next one. We said, “Let’s
just go in and roll the dice.” I always try to
keep it fresh for myself so I don’t get bored.
[Laughs.] It’s creativity—you can’t be a
cover band of yourself.
On songs like “Fun,” where there’s this
really badass, syncopated chugging, do
you use a noise gate to make the cutoffs
between grunting chords tight and more
Doc: I mostly mute it with my hands. Live,
I use a little gate, but it’s mostly muting
with the palm.
Let’s talk more about your gear over the years.
Doc: My first guitar was a Bradley Les Paul
copy, but Les Pauls were uncomfortable. I’d get
a belly rash and arm rash—because we were
digging in, y’know? In the CBGB’s DVD [Bad
Brains: Live at CBGB 1982], most of that was
an Ovation [UKII 1291] that Ric Ocasek gave
me during the [Rock for Light] record. It had
two humbuckers and was really light. [Ed. note:
The circa-1980 UKII 1291 had an aluminum
skeleton and a Urelite foam body that looked like
mahogany.] I also had a B.C. Rich Eagle that
got stolen. When they first came out I was a
happy young man—they had all these phasing
switches and different tones! [Laughs.]
I never really liked Strats because they
were too tinny, but I got a black parts
Strat[-style], which I still play live. That
was when ESP first came out and they had
the shop over on [New York City’s] 48th
Street—they were originally a parts company.
Old Blackie has an alder body, which
I prefer because it has more oomph. The
pickups are DiMarzios that Steve Blucher
made for me. The [middle- and neck-position]
single-coils are stacked humbuckers.
What about your newer guitars?
Doc: I have this 6-string from a [Swedish]
luthier named Johan Gustavvson that’s
basically a Les Paul Strat—it’s mahogany
with a maple top and Strat[-like] cutaways.
It’s a freakin’ badass guitar! It’s got Duncan
pickups and a blower switch that goes
straight to the humbucker, and three 3-way
coil-tap switches—which is kind of like the
B.C. Rich with all the switches. I’ve also
got a Gustavvson 7-string and a Fernandes
with a Sustainer in it. I use Floyd Roses on
all of them.
Doc, in the early years, you used Marshall
stacks or old Fender combos, but for the
last few years you’ve primarily been using
Doc: Yeah. Oh man, I could shoot myself
for all the stuff I got rid off. I had a Marshall
that Harry Kolbe modified for me, and
sometimes I borrowed people’s amps, usually
Fender Twins. I’ve been using Boogies
for a minute now. We were on tour with
Living Colour, and Vernon [Reid]’s tech
was a rep at Mesa. Vernon was using the
Dual Rectifiers, but they didn’t have enough
headroom for me. So I A/B/C’d the Marshall
with the Dual and Triple Rectifiers, and the
Triples had good headroom and could hold
the bottom but also clean up like a Twin—because I need to have a very versatile amp. I
use the 6L6 version, because it’s cleaner.
Darryl, are you still using Ampeg heads
and cabs? And did you use your trusty
old ’81 Modulus for Into the Future?
Jenifer: Yeah. I’ve got an old SVT Classic
Anniversary Edition. Live, I use two of
those and two 8x10 cabs. I use one bass—the green Modulus graphite bass. I’ve used
that for all my rock stuff since 1982. When
I first bought it, it wasn’t because of anything
I heard about them. It was because I
knew that it was a material that wouldn’t
have to be babied. Every time I picked
it up, it would feel the same and I could
throw it around and it would fall on the
floor and it would be okay. The bass has a
sound that just stays no matter what.
Dr. Know’s Gear
Johan Gustavvson 6- and 7-string guitars
with Seymour Duncan pickups, ESP Sstyle
with custom DiMarzios
6L6-powered Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier
heads driving Boogie 4x12 cabs
Line 6 POD HD PRO 500, vintage Uni-Vibe
Strings and Picks
Dunlop Nylon .60 mm picks, DR .009 and
.010 sets with a heavy bottom
Darryl Jenifer’s Gear
Green 1981 Modulus graphite J-style,
white Modulus J-style (backup)
Two Ampeg SVT Classic Anniversary
Edition heads driving two Ampeg 8x10 cabs
Strings and Picks
Dunlop .60 mm picks (“But I play with the
butt end”), Rotosound .045 sets
After all the changes over the years, how
do you feel about the new album?
Doc: The records are what they are, though,
y’know? People take months and years to
do records. We go in, record the shit in two,
three days, and then mix a song a day and
that’s it—say, “Goodnight.” [Laughs.]
Jenifer: At this point in our careers, we
just have to let the Great Spirit guide us
through. We can attribute it to our talents
and our perseverance, but at the end of the
day it’s the Cosmic Force. To us, we’re a
vehicle of the Great Spirit to spread a message
of unity—the corny stuff, like hippies
say: “Peace and love.” But I’m realizing after
30 years that mainly the message is that you
can break the mold of what you’re “supposed”
to be. Like, how the Beastie Boys
could be the rappers, and we could be the
punkers, and the Chili Peppers can be the
funkers. There was a time in music when
everybody couldn’t do that. But the Great
Spirit, not by any choice of ours, made us
cats that had to come out there, all black,
and shredding. We were dead serious. I can
only say, 30 years down the line, that if I
was in the crowd when we first came out
in D.C., I would’ve said, “Damn!” Because
not only did we have our PMA behind us,
but we were very competitive about making
sure our fusion riffs were jumping off.
That’s why I always described our music as
progressive punk—we’re thinking about the
music. Real punk-rock dudes don’t think
about the music—they don’t give a shit.