Interview with Dr. Know of Soul Brains
In case you haven't heard, hardcore punk/reggae progenitors Bad Brains have changed their name to Soul Brains. "Even after some 20 years, people were still misinterpreting what we meant by 'Bad,'" says 'Brainy guitarist Dr. Know. "They were like, 'You guys are spiritual, so why would you call yourself 'Bad?' We actually meant [Bad] in the 'brothers' sense, not in the negative sense. So we decided, 'Okay, we're not gonna leave anything to the imagination.'" Despite the name change, the Rastafarian quartet's warp-speed punk, ferocious metallic thrash, and sensual reggae sounded like gifts from Jah himself during a 'Brains performance in New York City this past summer.
Bad Brains helped pioneer hardcore punk in Washington, D.C. in the early '80s and became underground legends by the time their masterwork I Against I was released in 1986. Along the way, they proved that dazzling chops needn't be foreign to punk rock. Indeed, Dr. Know's multi-faceted axework has been a major influence on countless players, as evidenced by the range of artists that paid homage to Bad Brains last year on the tribute record Never Give In, which included tracks by Moby, Downset and Sepultura.
Guitar.com: A Bad Brains tribute album. About time, eh?
Dr. Know: We've been doing our music for a while, and we haven't become "successful" financially or commercially, but the ultimate thing is to have a tribute record. It's nice to be appreciated. Rewards come in a lot of different ways.
Guitar.com: What kinds of music did you listen to growing up?
Dr. Know: A lot of different people. Whoever was out there, everything from jazz fusion to rock 'n' roll to Zeppelin to [R&B group] Rare Earth -- which was one of my first records and concerts. I was always keepin' an open mind and checkin' out the music. The early '70s was a very fortunate time. There was a lot of different kinds of good music. I would see whoever I could.
Guitar.com: What are your main guitars these days?
Dr. Know: I still use my black ESP. It's a Strat-like thing that was put together for me. It has a Floyd on it. And for my clean stuff, I use an Anderson guitar with a GR 1, so when I'm playing my clean stuff I can fatten it up a little with some synth sounds.
Guitar.com: What about amps?
Dr. Know: A Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, strictly. I got hooked up with Rectifiers through Vernon Reid [from Living Colour] actually. We were touring together and he was using Dual Rectifiers. And he's like, "Yo, Doc, check it out." I used to have a Harry Colby modified, which I loved, but I really needed something more versatile, going from super crunch to super clean.
Guitar.com: The band recently changed it's name, but name changes are nothing new for you guys.
Dr. Know: Yes, the band was originally called Mind Power. But we actually started playing together before that name came up. We had a mutual friend whose mother would go out and play bingo on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so we would run over to the basement, plug in and jam. As [Bad Brains singer] HR says, we were the Basement Four.
Guitar.com: What was the group like by the time it was called Mind Power?
Dr. Know: We were playing jazz-fusion, or attempting to! That was the end of the heyday of all that fusion stuff, and we were trying to play like Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea. But we were trying to come up with our own flavor. We were also influenced by the sounds of go-go music, considering D.C. was a real funk-oriented town.
Guitar.com: Eventually, the Brains got "Banned in D.C.," which is the title of one of your early hardcore tunes.
Dr. Know: We did get banned. Not just us, but the whole punk scene. The youths were doin' it but the club owners weren't understandin' (laughs). At one gig above a restaurant, everybody was pogoing and the floor was shaking. There were all kinds of rumors. We incite riots. You name it. Plus we were black, so that really put a twist in the whole thing. There were only a few clubs in Washington at the time, and all the club owners knew each other: "Hey, you know that punk music, don't have that in yer club." That type of thing. None of the clubs let any of the bands play for a while.
Guitar.com: Then what happened?
Dr. Know: God works in mysterious ways because at that point, when there was nowhere to play, we were able to get a little band house in the suburbs of Washington, and we'd throw gigs in our basement. We had that house for maybe six months and we kept the scene alive. We'd have parties with all the different bands.
Guitar.com: Soon after, the band relocated to New York City.
Dr. Know: We saved our pennies, went out and played CBGB on an audition night, which was a Sunday. We're talking ancient times here (laughs). We ended up playing there every night of the week for a while. And we built up a little reputation.
Guitar.com: The New York punk/hardcore scene was pretty aggressive back then, but it was also misunderstood.
Dr. Know: In the beginning it was pogoing, then the whole mosh thing came about. We used to play these breakdown parts with chugs -- you know, when you chug, as opposed to just rambling. It made people mosh. It was about slowin' down low, you know?! I think a lot of the violence in the beginning of the slam dance thing was just a misinterpretation from kids who weren't in the scene who thought they saw real fighting -- and that's what they would do. It wasn't about fighting, it was about having fun. There would be times when fights broke out. We'd stop dead, (makes sound of squealing brakes). "Hold on." (he whistles) "This is not what it's about."
Guitar.com: What do you miss most about the early hardcore scene?
Dr. Know: There was a lot of brotherhood -- this is before it was all commercialized. We were one of the earlier bands who were able to tour, so we would play in other cities with other bands. And we invited them to come and play in New York with us: Minor Threat, SS Decontrol and others.
Guitar.com: What's your favorite Bad Brains album?
Dr. Know: I really like I Against I and Quickness (1989) a lot.
Guitar.com: What's special about I Against I?
Dr. Know: I like the direction of the music, and it was our first record that was really produced well [by Ron St. Germain). We experimented a lot, sonically.
Guitar.com: The vocals on "Sacred Love" sound like they were recorded through a megaphone.
Dr. Know: [Our singer] HR was in jail when we recorded that song. They caught him with some weed. We thought, "a couple of joints, give me a break," but D.C. being the freakin' police state that it is, they didn't want to hear about it. Ron had to brainstorm. We had vocals on all the songs, but that one, and Ron decided to record the vocals by phone. We got permission for HR to be on the phone for a couple of hours, and he sang over the phone. We put it directly into the board. It has that whole megaphone effect, but it's a real phone!
Guitar.com: Was the band Rastafarian when it formed?
Dr. Know: No. The band became Rastafarian in 1982. It was just a natural progression. The positiveness we were feeling just showed us God. It was the next natural step forward. Around that time we started incorporating reggae. We saw Bob Marley and we were totally moved. It was Stanley Clarke opening for Bob Marley. It was like the best of both worlds.
Guitar.com: What did you like about Bob Marley?
Dr. Know: What's not to like? He was a prophet. I mean, his music is timeless. His music still sounds fresh, and straight out of the studio.
Guitar.com: Besides being rooted in reggae, fusion and other styles, the Brains never followed mainstream music trends.
Dr. Know: You got to be true to yourself. We purposefully went out of our way to be different. And we just let the spirit lead us. We weren't like, "Well, we gotta write a part like this, because this is what's playing on the radio now." We tried to grab from all of our influences and just put it in the pie.