Paths of Rhythm: Battles Brains

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In their prime, Bad Brains was transcendent. In 1979, these four African-American punk pioneers from D.C. stormed the music world. They were Rastas capable of rattling your skull with intense rock, then seamlessly shifting gears into loping reggae rhythms and positive vibrations. The recently released concert DVD, Bad Brains: Live at CBGB's 1982 (Music Video Distribution), hints at the band's true power. It's a tantalizing look at one of rock's most vibrant, and occasionally unstable, groups–one that wouldn't have existed without the passion and charisma of singer Paul "HR" Hudson.

John Stanier–who saw Bad Brains' power firsthand at a Florida show in 1989–knows plenty about riveting performances. Originally known for drumming in innovative hard rock outfit Helmet, Stanier now bashes out lock-step grooves for Battles, an aural juggernaut that threads together experimental electronics, guitar riffs, and addictive, jazz-influenced rhythms. While the original lineup of Bad Brains worked on their new album in Baltimore and Stanier awaited the release of the debut Battles full-length in New York, the pair linked up on a telephone call to discuss brotherhood, hallowed punk moments, and the not-so-subtle influence of hip-hop grooves.

XLR8R: Both of you played at New York club CBGB's back in the day. What was the significance of that venue?

HR: It was an open venue that gave us a way to channel, to release our talent, and I'm very grateful. We came and pulled it together, made it work, expanded our souls, as they say, and there was always a groove on. It was always a very educational experience. We kept the music as authentic as possible.

John Stanier: I agree. For me, it was really more about my old band Helmet. Our second or third show ever was at CB's. The sound system was amazing. It was definitely one of the best in the city. The people were nice and it was just a cool place to play and run into all your friends. The first time I ever played there, I was sitting behind the drums on a riser where your brother Earl from Bad Brains, The Ramones, Cro-Mags, and all the greats had sat. It was a temple in a weird way.

Bad Brains had an amazing drummer in Earl Hudson. What was it like playing with him, HR? And John, was he an influence?

JS: I grew up with that ROIR cassette [1982's Bad Brains]. The beat he's playing in "Pay to Cum" is legendary.

HR: Because Earl was my brother, my priority would always be to make sure he was able to deliver the sound he wanted. He interprets my style well. We have a groove together and it just clicks. It's like the water in the ocean and the waves. It just flows together.

JS: I don't have a brother, so I can only imagine it's a unique experience playing with an actual older brother. You can be really tight musically with people that you grew up with, but actually having your own sibling in a band, that's where it gets deep, far beyond technique. With the guys in Battles, it didn't click right away, but now it does. You pick up on little intricacies and innuendos. After four years, you can almost read their minds musically.

Both your groups fuse different ideas together. Bad Brains mixes hardcore and reggae, and Battles incorporates all these varied styles. How important is it for you guys to explore areas between genres to create your own sound?

JS: I don't feel like we go out of our way to throw everything into the pot. I think it just naturally happens that way. It's just four drastically different people coming from totally different backgrounds and different ages. It comes from the musical melting pot that is the band–it's not contrived or pre-meditated.

HR: With us, I would say it's a collaboration of ideas, sometimes more spontaneous and impromptu. And along with influences and our own ingenuity, the divine gospel redemptive character that God would inspire in us delivered some answers. At first, we did have a gift. We knew we had what it took to give the people what they wanted, where they would understand and actually sit through the show and feel like they got their money's worth and even more. In the early days, we did need some guidance and good advice, and that was what we would get with producers like Ric (Ocasek) and Bunny Wailer. We would apply their techniques to our music and make it more universal and polished.

How important is playing live to you?

JS: I'm one of those musicians who prefers playing live. I love recording, because when you do a record, it's going to be around forever. But live is more fulfilling for me personally. Words can't even describe that.

HR: I feel like it's liberation time for mankind, because a lot of brothers have been playing punk rock music for a little while and they need to be heard. Look out, cool bands are needed. And the Brains, the original Brains, have something coming up really soon with Adam Yauch [from the Beastie Boys]. We finally got the tracks down; it's just a matter of time. You can look forward to some absolutely phenomenal live shows in the future. We're planning on going on more expeditions and campaigns, worldwide, national, and local. And it's 2007. The seventh year is always very lucky.

What did you think of the movie Afro-Punk?

HR: It had its moments of exhilaration. It's great for non-fiction. It gave people an idea of what was happening at those times. I feel like we've gotten a lot of respect. Well, one half of me says 'yes'; the other half says 'almost yes.' The public knows about us, but the intricate connections each member of the band wants to make haven't been made. There's another side to the story that hasn't been heard. That comes through the music. The music speaks for itself.

How influential is hip-hop to you? Do you feel a connection exists between punk and hip-hop?

JS: Growing up, the hip-hop that I really liked was early '80s and '90s hip-hop, and that was basically just samples of funk stuff. To me, hip-hop is basically funk on steroids. I think it has a huge influence on my playing. It's kind of a subliminal thing. And as for the similarities between punk and hip-hop, they are, at the end of the day, street music. It's very 'from the street' and talking about that kind of stuff. They're very, very similar.

HR: Definitely, yes. They do have these unexplainable, intriguing, subliminal positions that point out a certain truth, and one does get a rush. And musicians have been sharing their musical ideas since the bebop era. Hip-hop musicians, artists, MCs, DJs, all across the board, whether it be funk, reggae, hardcore, soul, rock, dancehall, reggaeton... Within all of these different categories, there exists the essence. There's no one speaking that language where the voice of the Almighty can't be heard. I predict there's going to be a baby boom on the way because of the music, yes sir. We have a track we're working on called "Hey Brother." It's like the cream of the crop. I would say there's definitely a big baby boom on the way.

JS: [Laughs] I think you're 100 percent right.