GUNS N’ ROSES’ BRAIN
INTERPRETING CHINESE DEMOCRACY
IF BRYAN MANTIA, AKA BRAIN, DIDN’T EXIST, DRUMMERS WOULD HAVE TO INVENT HIM. BECAUSE THE IDEA OF A RHYTHMIC MIDPOINT BETWEEN GUNS N’ ROSES, TOM WAITS, AND PRIMUS IS JUST TOO CRAZY-COOL TO IGNORE.
Brain gets asked to do a lot of interesting things these days, like playing time on a wagon wheel while recording with Tom Waits in an abandoned country church, or keeping a drumkit set up for six years in a haunted Masonic hall while working on Guns N’ Roses’ long-awaited latest album, Chinese Democracy. “Those situations are kind of opposite, but in a sense they’re the same,” the drummer suggests. “They’re different scenarios, but they’re both overblown. Somehow I feel comfortable in those situations. I don’t do too many studio sessions where I just show up with my set and read a chart. I’m used to getting involved and being part of the production and the ridiculousness of whatever it is. I just gravitate more toward that.”
Mantia was born in 1964, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Cupertino, and was first alerted to the skins by stickmen like John Bonham and the drummers of James Brown. He got serious in high school and cemented some chops at PIT in Hollywood, and in the late 1980s he played in the popular San Francisco party band Limbomaniacs. In the ‘90s he hooked up with producer Bill Laswell for several interesting projects and did a stint with his longtime pal Les Claypool in Primus. Brain now lives in the Oakland hills with his wife and two-year-old daughter, near his recording space at Studio 880, where he spends time on turntables and traps.
Today Brain is developing a new funk project called SociaLibrium, and he hopes to be on the road this summer with Guns N’ Roses in support of Chinese Democracy.
MD: I’ve never heard anything quite like Tom Waits’ Real Gone album.
Brain: Yeah, it was Mark Ribot, me, Larry Taylor, and Tom. We recorded in this old…it was kind of a cross between a church and a barn. Tom says, “Show up at this place, this is where we’re going to do it.” I’m like, “Okay, is there a studio there? Should I call the studio owner?” He says, “Aw, no, nobody’s really there, there’s no phone service.” “Okay, is there a bathroom? A kitchen? Anything?”
Basically he just brought the studio in there. The producer kind of set it all up and made it pretty comfortable. We sat around and just started jamming. He’d come in with an idea and go, “Okay, so maybe it goes like….” He basically told me, “Don’t bring a drumset, don’t bring anything that you can buy at Guitar Center.” So I went to some pawnshops and some junkyards, grabbed whatever sounded cool, and brought it. And he has his own stuff. We’d make a drumkit out of, like, a manhole, a carburetor, maybe a traditional cymbal that was broken, a 1930s Ludwig 26: kick drum…. The snares were old, vintage, whatever was lying around.
The other thing was, Tom asked me to bring hard leather-sole shoes. There was a bathroom that had a really nice-sounding ambience, and the tile on the floor sounded really good when you stomped on it. Most of the backbeats on that album were done by stomping on the bathroom floor.
Real Gone was a pleasure because it made me realize that you can make it happen pretty much anywhere, and actually doing it in that kind of environment and using the ambience was so much hipper than going into one of those posh studios built by experts to make it sound “pro,” whatever that means. In that sense it’s a great experience every time I work with Tom.
MD: It definitely doesn’t sound like a traditional kit on Real Gone.
Brain: Tom had given me a cassette of him making all of these percussion sounds in his bathroom at like four in the morning. I took the cassette, blew it into Peak, which is a two-track editor, chopped it all up, and exported the WAV files. I have this program called MPC Maker, which allows you to create the programs on your Mac to put onto your MPC 3000. And so I just grabbed them, dragged and dropped them, threw them on the Zip drive, and put them in my MPC. So when you hear [makes beatbox sounds] and all those weird vocal sounds, that was Tom.
Next to the kit – which could have been me playing a log with a piece of metal in one hand and a mallet in the other – I also had the MPC 3000 with all those sounds set up. So that hip-hop-based beat stuff was me playing the MPC live – no programming – just live on the pads with Tom’s voice cut up from the cassette. All those whistle sounds or cowbells, those are all samples I made of him. We did the same thing live. We did a tour of Europe and some dates in the States, and on half the songs I just played his samples on the MPC, next to my hi-hat. So the jamming was done like that. It was kind of just like, Make the weirdest, most “gone” setup you can think of, and then just start.
Tom has an interesting way of working. I was sitting there one time and I asked Marc Ribot about a song that he and Tom had worked on the day before. And he was saying, “Well, it goes like this, with this kind of feel….” Then Tom walks in and goes, “Hi, what are you guys doing?” Ribot goes, “Oh I’m showing Brain the song,” and Tom goes, “Aw, don’t ruin it.”
That’s the whole album in a nutshell. He doesn’t want you to know it. He wants it to just be whatever it is at that moment. “The tape’s always rolling” type of thing. It’s pretty interesting. Totally opposite from Guns N’ Roses, you know. [laughs]
MD: The tune “Shake It” on Real Gone is a cool rhythm track, starting with the quarter-note feel and then going to that crazy rumba with the cowbell.
Brain: Tom has this beat-up cassette player that he always keeps on him, and he’s always playing old cassettes. He had recorded this house band live in Tijuana playing a kind of rumba. And he’s going, “Yeah, man, I want this kind of vibe, like this.” I could hardly hear the recording, but it sounded like “ush-kash-ush-dosh.”
I’m like, “Oh, okay, yeah – that sounds cool.” So we just set up in this little closet, and I put a cowbell on the kick drum. I think he was trying to restage the scene in this hot Tijuana bar. It was like a hundred degrees and there was no air conditioning in this place, so I’m sweating like a pig. But I just start jamming on the cowbell and playing this beat, and then Tom comes running in, like, “Yeah, that’s it. That’ll work, let’s do that.” I think he spliced that part together with this weird straight quarter-note part to make it feel like something. It’s always such a learning experience with Tom; he’s the real deal.
MD: Real Gone strikes me as a backwoods version of D’Angelo’s Voodoo album, the way the rhythms are kind of funky and messed up.
Brain: Yeah, that album always freaked me out too, the way everything was kind of displaced a little bit, the hi-hat and snare like twenty milliseconds behind, and the kick drum five milliseconds ahead. It ended up being this quirky feel. I figured it was something tricky they did with that. With Real Gone it was done by nobody really knowing the songs, so they always kind of got that feel. Tom definitely knows what he wants, and he’ll sit there and work you until he gets it. It’s usually within the first two or three takes, but to get those first two or three takes, the setup time is like a day. “Oh, hit that with that. No, okay, try that with that.” And when you start the song, within the first two or three takes he either feels it or he just says, “Okay, well, let’s just go on.” He doesn’t wear it out.
MD: How did you get the gig with Tom?
Brain: Les Claypool is a neighbor of his, and he said Tom was asking around about drummers. Les said, “Oh, you should get old Brainer, he can play some stuff.” I kept hearing that Tom was going to call, and I was like, “Yeah, okay, whatever, dude.” And then I remember the phone ringing one night at 11:30. I didn’t recognize the number. It was Tom, and the session was the next day. He goes, “Can you come tomorrow?” I’m like, “Yeah, I guess.” “Okay, I’ll just see you there. Do you know the area?”
I had to be there at ten in the morning. That’s pretty good. Never heard from him, never talked to him on the phone, never met with him, never talked with management, didn’t know what I was getting paid – nothing. I just showed up. He’s like, “Just bring some stuff.” But he’s usually there three hours before you, loading in stuff – just tons of percussion, weird crap, stuff he’ gathered throughout the years.
MD: You toured with that group too.
Brain: Yeah. We rehearsed at the place where we recorded the album. Then on the last day, everybody was packing up and getting ready to go. On one song we had used this old wagon wheel. It’s about five feet across, rusted as it can be – orange. We’re hitting it and I’m sampling it. So Tom walks in and says, “Well, umm…we’ve got to take that.” Everybody’s looking around, like, “We’re going to take this thing to Europe?” So they expedited a custom case and shipped the wheel to Europe. It was insane, but he was like, “What do you mean? That’s the sound; we bring it.”
MD: It must have been quite a switch going from doing two takes per song with Tom to the Guns N’ Roses album which took ages to make.
Brain: [laughs] I think I have the record for my drums being set up for the longest time in any studio. I think they were set up at Village Recorders in Santa Monica for six years. Six years. That was another process entirely.
MD: How did you get into that situation, and what was the process like?
Brain: The Guns album was in the works for fifteen years. Matt Sorum started it, then Josh Freese did it for four or five years, and then Josh quit. Then [guitarist] Buckethead got in there, and he and I have been friends forever. He told me that Josh had quit and said, “Axl’s an awesome dude. You should come check it out.” So I went in there, and I didn’t hear back from them for a while. And then one day I remember Axl calling me and saying, “You know, if you want the gig you can have it, and you can still be on other stuff. You can still do Primus or whatever you want to do.”
MD: What are some of the more memorable things you recall about that session?
Brain: [Producer] Roy Thomas Baker drove us around L.A. in his Rolls Royce to try to find the exact drums that we wanted for the recording. We went to every company, and it wound up being a mash-up of all the best drums we could find around L.A. We pretty much gathered the most ridiculous kit you could ever have, to rerecord Josh’s parts. Josh had come up with some pretty good parts for the album. Axl was like, “Hey, I like what Josh did, so could we start out by you doing his parts, but with your feel? Because your feel’s different.” So I went over to Sony Music and found the dude who did their orchestrations for films and asked if he could transcribe the drums on the thirty songs. He’s like, “All right, yeah, I’ll let you know when they’re done.” He would do about six a month – literally these six-page drum transcriptions of what Josh had played.
So we brought all those drums into the main studio at Village, where Fleetwood Mac recorded Tusk. I set up and started playing, and I was like, “Wait a second, man. We’re doing Guns N’ Roses here.”
I talked to Jeff Greenberg, the owner, and said, “Jeff, man, we gotta have something better than this. I mean, the room sounds great and this is cool, but you just had, like, Kenny G in here. I can’t have my shit sounding the same as a Kenny G album.” So he’s like, “Well, what are you saying? Is it the drums? We can have any drum put in here.” I say, “No, it’s not the drums. The drums sound good and the room sounds good. But we gotta get a vibe.”
He tells me there’s an old haunted Masonic temple upstairs where the Masons would give their speeches, and nobody ever goes up there. It was a theater. So we go up, he opens the door, and it just felt like, Okay, now we’re talking. I’m thinking, We’ve got to set up here. We found the sweet spot in the room and I set up the drums there…and that’s were they stayed for six years. This was a Guns N’ Roses album – it had to be overblown.
I wasn’t going to just sit in the studio. I was kind of coming from the school of Tom Waits. One of the best studios I ever recorded in was Bill Laswell’s Greenpoint Studio, just an open cement building, and the only baffling that he had were these little foam pillars, and it sounded amazing. We recorded the first Praxis album there, with Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Bucket, and AF from The Jungle Brothers, and it was the best – the drums sounded killer. I was using Steve Jordan’s Yamahas, and they just sounded incredible. It sounded so much better than the studios I had worked in, which were built for acoustics. So going into the Guns thing, it just felt like we had to do something better that what you’d normally get in a studio that’s built to sound good. All of a sudden there was a vibe, and it clicked. I got the album then. I started getting what the drums should sound like. Josh’s drums were kind of tight and precise, and we loosened it up. The sound became a little bigger, a little sloppier. And that became more of what the album is now.
MD: What were you guys listening to while you recorded your stuff?
Brain: We listened to some prerecorded tracks that Josh had already played on. Sometimes we did some stuff all together, but most of it was done when there were already bass and guitar tracks. And whatever feel that we put on it, maybe they’d go back and rerecord to that. I took one song at a time, learned each as an orchestra piece – literally note for note, every fill, every crazy thing. I replayed it with my feel and the new sound in the new building. And that process happened for a few songs, so it took a while. After that was done Axl said, “Okay, that was cool, now do your thing.” So I went in, forgot all of what I’d just done, and did my thing, and I think it became a combination of both. In the end I redid it again by kind of doing half my thing and some of what I remembered from Josh’s original drum parts. We were also writing as a new band with me and Bucket. We had some songs that we started from scratch, where I just recorded myself without charts.
MD: It sounds like some different kits were used on Chinese Democracy.
Brain: It was a constant sound thing. Each song started from scratch, so it was like, “Okay, here’s ‘Madagascar.’ This DW 13” tom – a Timeless Timber model that my drum tech had – sounds huge. And it sounds really great with this Gretsch floor tom. And this aluminum DW snare sounds great with this particular setup….” Then, next song… “Okay, this is a tighter kick drum, let’s use this one.” And every cymbal would change. That was fun. Like I said, I’m kind of a studio tweaker, and it was fun to be able to do that. We had the budget, so I was like, Let’s just do this. When am I ever going to get a chance to do this again?
At one point I probably had forty snares lined up on the ground…twenty different kick drums…cymbals just thrown all over the place – it was insane. But then I’ve got pictures of the Tom Waits thing, and it’s the same thing, but it’s just junk. All of the great albums that I’ve been lucky enough to play on have always had that kind of overblown type of tweaking. I feel comfortable and at home when it’s like that. I was a chameleon on every song, just like on the Tom Waits stuff. Every song I was like, Okay, now I’m this, now we’re in this situation.
MD: And like you said, by nature a Guns N’ Roses recording has to be over the top.
Brain: Yeah, it’s that rock ’n’ roll thing, which I guess everybody wants to live at one point. I figured that was my chance to live it. But I’m a studio geek, so I had to live it in the studio. I’m not really a rock star in that way, you know. I’m not going to go pose in front of a plane – I’m just going to tweak on fifty different snares.
MD: You must have recorded to a click with Guns N’ Roses.
Brain: Oh, yeah, we definitely used a click, and even live on some of the new songs I’ll play to a click. We don’t really have any backing tracks – though if there’s something that we can’t re-create they might add that. “Riah N’ The Bedouins” and “Madagascar” are done with clicks live because they start with loops. In the studio I think everything was done to a click.
Now, with Tom Waits, if you even mention that, I don’t think he’d be in the room. There’s no such thing, ever. And if they’re going to splice something together, it’s done by a guy with a razor blade. I don’t think Pro Tools is allowed with him.
MD: You always manage to make a groove swing, even on a driving rock tune like “Shackler’s Revenge” off Chinese Democracy.
Brain: Yeah, I’ve always been a fan of Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. Then there’s Bernard Purdie; I’d listen to a lot of R&B, a lot of Stax recordings. My dad was heavy into Curtis Mayfield and Shuggie Otis when I was growing up, and he’d play those records all the time. He took me to the Keystone Korner to see Tony Williams when I was really young, and I think I gravitated toward that kind of swing and groove. I think Josh [Freese] is the precise, technically proficient, perfect kind of punk drummer – I saw him with Nine Inch Nails recently and it was incredible. He was killing it. But my style is a little looser, and I’ve always had that kind of swing to my feel, even if it’s rock. I just hear music that way. I think that’s what Axl heard and thought, Okay, Brain puts the pocket in a different slot, a different place.
“Shackler’s” was a song that Bucket and I wrote a long time ago, just jamming. Axl asked if anybody had any songs or grooves, so we brought that in. It was a riff that we’d been jamming on since the Praxis days with Bill and Bootsy and Bernie. Axl loved it and put some lyrics to it, and it became “Shackler’s.” That one might have more of a swing because it came more from me.
MD: The tune “Better,” and several others, list you and Frank Ferrer as the drummers. How did it come about that you now share the drum chair in Guns N’ Roses?
Brain: I was having a baby girl at the beginning of a tour in ’06, and I told them before I started that I would have to leave early. I got Frank Ferrer, who had played with [Guns guitarist and bassist] Richard Fortus and Tommy Stinson, to fill in, and that was cool. When I got home, I was kind of diggin’ being home. The album wasn’t out yet, and Frank was doing a great job and I was getting a lot of production gigs just staying home. I’m really into computers and music, and I have my own studio. I rent a room at Studio 880, and I built this MIDI studio with all these MPC’s and outboard gear, and I just started doing production – commercials for TV, that kind of stuff. And I kept getting more and more gigs and making almost as much money doing that as I was from touring and being a drummer. I also started taking theory lessons, piano lessons, ear training, computer and music lessons, going that route.
When I left I was only supposed to be gone for two weeks, and then that turned into a month, and then that turned into three months, because I was getting a lot of studio work: “Hey, can you do this Gatorade commercial?” “Hey, we’ve got this Best Buy commercial.” “Write the music or make the beat for this….” I do a lot of work with Bootsy Collins on that side of things – the commercials and stuff. “Hey, Brain, can you put a beat to this?” We’re working on a Gatorade commercial right now. I’ve been a Bootsy fan for years, so I’m just honored to be working with him on any level. Anyway, I started doing more of that, so I was like, “Hey, Frank, I’m kind of doing this and they’re digging your playing. Would you mind hanging out and staying?”
He was thrilled – “Oh, man, this is the greatest gig in the world. I’m so happy, this is awesome.” And nobody else in the band was complaining, though they were like, “Well, are you ever coming back?” I told them, “Well, yeah, we’ll see what’s going on, but right now let Frank do it.” Frank is more rock. He’s more like the original Guns N’ Roses drummer [Steven Adler], which is more like straight-up rock – open hi-hat, bashing, hitting as hard as you can.
So I think Axl was like, “Hey, Frank plays this way – let him play the chorus to ‘Better,’ because that’s supposed to be open. Let’s see what it sounds like.” So I think it’s me playing all the way up to the chorus, then it’s Frank in the chorus, and then it goes back to me. We never actually played together. It was all done after the fact. I asked the engineer how much Frank is on it, and he said, “It’s mainly you, with Frank playing a chorus here or a bridge here.” So that’s why I’m listed first on those tracks.
MD: I like the way it goes to the toms on the chorus.
Brain: That song was brought in after Josh and was written by the band. It was Robin Finck’s song. We jammed it for a couple weeks and then went into the studio and recorded it. So that tom part was kind of written by me more than Frank, but it could be Frank playing it because he plays more bombastic. Or…oh, who knows.
MD: The tune “Scraped” is a vicious groove, and it sounds like you’re playing off the guitar a lot as well as staying with the bass.
Brain: That’s another Buckethead song. I was keying off the guitar riff – we’ve been playing that style for years, so when he came in with the riff I knew what to do. Bucket and I have been playing for twenty years now. Before I was even in Primus, Joe Gore, the editor of Guitar Player, turned me on to him. We’ve been playing together since Bill Laswell and Praxis. So to get into that song was so simple – right away I hear his style and know what to play and what to feel.
MD: I love the groove where you’re playing quarter notes with your right hand and there’s other stuff going on with your other limbs. It feels slow but fast at the same time.
Brain: Yeah, that’s based off some Zeppelin-type licks. I noticed with Bonham that he’ll play something straight up top and then it’ll be kind of busy underneath. But that straight thing in the hi-hat kind of keeps it together, holds it back and makes it bigger sounding than it really is. From the beginning the reason I played music was from watching [the Led Zeppelin concert movie] The Song Remains The Same, and that Bonham style was one of my first influences. And that song in particular and that feel are kind of based on that.
MD: “Madagascar” is another tune with some great grooves.
Brain: Yeah, it’s got that Bonham thing too, the big long fills. The loop at the beginning I just created from the MPC. Then we went into the main parts where Axl comes in, and that’s when we added the drums, played live. It was the first time we had the drums set up in that theater, and it just sounded really Bonham-esque. In the spoken-word section we took away the baffles and had it completely opened up because we wanted it bigger. That’s totally my style and the way I like to play; I was just biting off Bonham the whole time on that track.
MD: You’ve brought Guns N’ Roses up to the minute with these drum tracks, like the break-beat intro before the big groove comes in.
Brain: Axl is really interested in having everybody bring what they do into the picture. I just did a remix of “Shackler’s,” made it kind of more club. And I think he wants to put out a remix album of some of the other songs we did. The great thing is he lets you do what you do. He still has the final say and wants it to work as a Guns N’ Roses cut. But he definitely will let you stretch it out in that way, and I think that’s where my influences come in. I listen to a lot of hip-hop and R&B. I listen to all of Questlove’s productions. Every time a Roots album comes out I’m in line at the store; I’m still a fan that way.
MD: I’ve never seen three people credited for a drum arrangement before on an album.
Brain: I think Axl really went back and thought about who added what where, and gave people credit for it. It’s incredible. He wants me to add what I know about modern music and what I’m into. I’m not just a rock dude. Somehow I get the rock gigs, but I really listen to every style, and I’m on top of whatever’s happening in hip-hop and R&B.
MD: That leads to the topic of your new funk band, SociaLibrium, with Bernie Worrell, T.M. Stevens, and Blackbyrd McKnight.
Brain: Blackbyrd is the closest thing to Jimi Hendrix that you’re going to run into. And Bernie is the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboards. I don’t know who’s heavier than Bernie as a musician, or anybody that I could pick right now other than Prince that I’d like to play with. We did a gig in San Francisco and we were learning some old songs and revamping them. Everybody brought in some jams that they had played before, some Praxis ones that Bernie and I had played, T.M. brought in some, Blackbyrd brought in some of his stuff. We listened to it very quickly and decided: Let’s make this a band. Don’t copy…don’t learn “Super Stupid” or “Red Hot Mama” the same way they were played on the albums. It would be more about, Which way would you play it, what is your favorite beat right now, or what are you listening to? Just play a beat.
So we just made up new grooves, and then those started morphing into more jamming – almost like the jam-band thing, but more Miles-y. I love the ‘70s Miles stuff. Agharta – I’m a huge fan of that. Al Foster – I love the open hi-hat rawness, and the fact that it’s these jazz people trying to play rock and twisting it in a weird way. So anyway, it started to get more into that, and I can’t tell you how awesome it’s been. Musically I’ve been so happy…I hope we can make an album and continue it. Because I really see this thing stretching into that Miles side, and that’s my favorite stuff.
MD: You’re also into selling your own beats these days.
Brain: I started the Web site BrainBeatz.com, and before that I made a beat DVD with Big Fish Audio, Pro Tools 24-bit. I just went to a studio, played all my grooves, and did a deal just selling it for producers, people who want to have the tempo. Now with time stretching and stuff, it can pretty much be any tempo, but back when I made it I had specific tempos and specific grooves. Now I’m trying to do that on my own through my site, just because I have a whole HD Pro Tools rig in my studio and a place to play the drums. So every time I get bored I just make a new beat. I flip it, do some weird stuff to it, and then try to sell it. I’ll probably make another DVD set, hopefully through Big Fish, and try to sell that to producers and stuff. I’m really trying to get more into the production side.
My heroes in drumming have been the John Bonhams, the Keith Moons, the Tony Williamses. But in terms of longevity and having a career it’s been more about Stewart Copeland and Narada Michael Walden – the people that have gone from drumming into production, and into doing soundtracks and writing songs. So during that whole Guns period I was studying up on technology, reading every music magazine that I could get my hands on that had to do with Logic, taking private lessons, and just learning everything I could about that stuff.
I’m just starting to do what Questlove is doing, but I really enjoy that. I enjoy tweaking on a kick drum for six hours, playing with sounds and synths and learning how synthesis works. After taking the two years off from playing live since my kid was born, I kind of miss playing now. The SociaLibrium thing was kind of like, “Man!” – you know, getting that rush, that kind of Zen feeling of being on stage and just being comfortable in what you’re doing. I don’t know if I want to just be a road dog the rest of my life. Doing a little bit of both is where I’m trying to head.