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 freakin’ talented.
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 with this.”
“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.
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.