The drummer called Brain has played with some pretty fair bassists lately. He was Bill Laswell’s drummer of choice in Praxis, working with Bill Laswell, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell (Transmutation on Axio-island), and now he’s joined flamboyant thumper, Les Claypool in a revitalized, (dare I say) more focused Primus on The Brown Album (Interscope). When I was playing with Bill [Laswell] and Buckethead, that was free,” Brain laughs. “We would play in Europe, and it would be like, ‘Bill, what are we playing?’ Whatever you want, just start a beat.’ ‘What?’”
“With Primus, it’s more of a job, and I’m not saying that’s bad. I needed that in my playing. I was kind of floating everywhere. With Primus it’s a real thing, a profession. We have to be on every night, and I’ve learned a lot.”
“One great thing about this band--and it’s kind of the mystery about Primus--is that we just do whatever we want. It’s the way Primus has played all along, and somehow, it’s become a popular band. I have an open mind, and a background with a lot of different musical styles, especially funk music. Les is really into funk music. Ler [Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde] is just kind of into punk rock, and it’s a little easier because I like the same things they do.”
Brain (born Brian Mantia) grew up in the South Bay city of Cupertino. His pop music interests gravitated towards James Brown and Sly Stone. “Even the rock bands I was listening to, like Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, always had a kind of swing feel, a funky groove to them,” he says. “So I was always into that style.” Brain began playing drums at sixteen, and went into it head-first, working his way up to studies with Scott Morris in San Francisco, then to the Percussion Institute of Technology in Hollywood, then classical snare studies. “I just did whatever it took to learn how to read and know everything about the drums.”
Brain got his nickname while in high school concert band. After learning that Terry Bozzio had transcribed Anthony Cirone’s infamous snare etude collection “Portraits in Rhythm” to play on the drumkit, he became obsessed with learning it. “People used to say, ‘What are you, some kind of brain?’ it stuck.”
Tony Williams and Buddy Rich were the first two drummers who had a big influence on Brain. “When my mom took me to see Buddy Rich over at the mall,” he recalls, “I was just floored. And then Tony, he’s probably like my number 1 guy. And it’s not really even his drumming, it’s more just the attitude, the kind of ZEN thing that he had going on.”
“I’m not really into the drums as far as wanting to copy somebody’s gear or anything,” says Brain. “I’m more into people’s attitudes. Denardo Coleman is another example. When I heard the Ornette Coleman Prime Time Band, I was floored. I thought, ‘You can do anything you want with this kind of approach.’ If I could play with anybody, it’d be Ornette Coleman. After I saw that I said, ‘Wow, this is the free-est it’ll ever be.’”
Brain may not be into gear, but he has an interesting set of Ludwig Vistalites. The 26” bass drum is green, the toms are red, yellow, and amber, and he has two North toms mixed in. His snare is a black Vistalite. He plays Zildjian cymbals, including a 6” Zil-Bel, an 8” EFX-1, an 8” A splash, 13” Quick beat hi-hats, a 16” A medium thin crash, a 16” A medium crash, an 18” A China Boy low, and a 21” A Rock ride. He uses DW pedals and hardware, Roc-N-Soc thrones, and Zildjian 6A wood-tip sticks. He also uses a Technics SL-1210MKS turntable with an M44Gs stylus, and a Vestax PMCO5PRO DJ mixer.
Brain has been resourceful enough to make his living solely by playing drums. That used to mean going so far as changing clothes in the car between gigs, “I’d play a wedding in a tuxedo,” he recalls, “Then put on my earrings and punk rock clothes, go to the Nightbreak, and play a punk rock gig with MCM & the Monster. That’s what I had to do to get my hundred bucks that night. Then, the next day I’d play a Taco Bell commercial. I just figured, ‘This is what I do. I enjoy all these styles of music, so I might as well do it.’”
Brain’s recording career includes dates with artists as diverse as Tom Waits (Bone Machine, Island), Jon Hassell (Dressing for Pleasure, Warner Bros.), Godflesh (Songs of Love & Hate, Earache), Giant Robot (NTT), and the aforementioned MCM & the Monster (Collective Emotional Problems, Self Inflicted). He was also a member of the Limbomaniacs, a band made up of friends from San Jose, Cupertino, and Mountain View, California. The band released the album Stinky Grooves (In Effect) in 1990, earning a following of P-Funkers and Beastie Boy lovers (and a parental advisory for explicit lyrics). The bands mighty rhythm section, with bassist House, guitarist MIRV, and Synclavier wizard Pete Scaturro, was quite capable of thrashing rhythmic assults like “maniac” and the insistent “Shake It” with Troublefunk’s T-Bone. “when the Limbomaniacs first came out,” says Brain, “a friend turned me on to the Go-Go stuff in DC, and I really got into Troublefunk and the Junkard Band.”
Guitarist Joe Gore played with Brain in Big City during the World Beat invasion of San Francisco in the early 80’s. “Joe got me into Zulu Jive and the Ice Cream for Suckers album, and then Fela,” says Brain. “I’ve always been attracted to the rawest side of music. The Limbomaniacs would play Zulu Jive sets based off that tape, when no one really knew what it was. People would say, ‘You guys play a really weird style of surf music.’ Joe got me into O.J. Ekemode, South African Jive, and Kenyan music. Then I turned him on to the Beastie Boys,” Brain laughs.
Primus was also going for a raw sound on their new album, called simply The Brown Album (Interscope). “We went into the studio and started jamming--three nights a week, for a couple of hours each night. Somebody would start something and we’d just let the tape roll. We made a CD out of all that, then we went through each jam to take the best parts and decide which grooves we wanted to make into songs. We realized that we had enough for two more albums.”
When it came time to record the album, the band chose Claypool’s home studio, Rancho Relaxo, where they could record on their own time, “in between snowboarding, mostly,” Brain reports. Again they went for raw drum tracks. “Some of the songs are recorded with just one mic’, where I set up in a room and just jammed on something. To be totally fresh, we said, ‘Hey, let’s put one mic’ up there and just play something.’ A couple of tracks sounded so good that way, we just kept ‘em.”
“Golden Boy” is pure funk with a Zepplin-ish guitar and bass line, “Shake Hands with Beef” is a simple, marching rock groove, while “Restin’ Bones” has more of a hip-hop feel. “Bob’s Party Time Lounge” is almost out of Las Vegas, as it showcases several styles in an eclectic mix. Brain says the band was attempting to recreat a John Bonham sound, so they didn’t cut out the front bass drum head, and they put the bass drum mic’ about two feet away from the drumhead. “Instead of close-miking th snare and hat, we used one microphone for both,” he recalls, “about a foot away from them. We added a couple of overheads, and that’s about it. And we’d switch it around and experiment. But that raw sound is just what we wanted to do on this album. We never used more than six mic’s, and that’s what it sounds like. But that’s the kind of tones I like.”
Brain has known the members of Primus for several years. In fact, he was in the band briefly six years ago. “I was in Primus for two weeks, but I broke my foot skateboarding, “ he explains. The band wound up hiring Tim “Herb” Alexander, and Brain did the Limbomaniacs CD. “I appreciated Primus, but I wasn’t a huge fan,” he says, “I liked Les’ solo stuff more, like Sausage and The Holy Mackerel. As a matter of fact, we play the bass/drum duet “The Awakening” off Holy Mackerel when we play live, and I love it. My point is that a lot of the Primus material was relatively new to me when I joined. But I’m adjusting to the structure, and Primus is my foundation now.
“One of the things that scared Les about me was that I was always moving around,” Brain continues. “I was more of a session guy. But I realized, hey, they’re my friends, it’s a cool thing. If there’s any band that I want to join, this’d be the one, as far as having freedom to play.”
Another thing that Brain is very excited about with Primus is the inclusion of a turntable in his drumkit. He began learning the scratching technique while working with the world-champion DJs the Invisible Scratch Pickles with Praxis. “I’ve been learning it from DJ Disc, and I’m going to incorperateit in my drumset because it’s a percussive instrument,” he says. “The way the really good DJs approach the lines they cut against the rhythm is like listening to Elvin Jones again. There haven’t been too many drummers that have been turning me on, but as soon as I heard these turntablists it hit me that they’re taking it to the next level. So I’ve been listening to them for inspiration as far as where to go rhythmically --and for learning how to do it, too. It’s pretty incredible.”