Interview: Brownout Presents: Brown Sabbath

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We’ve all heard of bands doing wild re-interpretations of classic rock ‘n’ roll material; whether it be groups jumping on a concept album or a tribute band that brandishes a unique sound. It’s not a new concept and frankly, it’s a concept that has been seemingly done to death these days.

But then something special comes along. Something like what the Austin psych/funk outfit Brownout is doing.

The band is currently touring in support of their latest venture, Brownout Presents: Brown Sabbath — a jazz, funk, psych (with a tinge of Latin flavor) re-imagining of the classic heavy metal catalog of Black Sabbath. The record is quite possibly one of the most wonderfully rich and sonically spine-tingling records produced in 2014. Brownout is able to capture the pure essence of Sabbath while surrounding it with a thick, rhythmically bombastic psych-rock sound.

It’s pure magic.

Pop-Break was lucky enough to speak with Brownout bassist Greg Gonzalez to as the band prepares for a major gig tomorrow night at The Brooklyn Bowl in the heart of Williamsburg. We spoke about performing and re-imaging the work of Ozzy, Tony, Geeze and Bill as well as what the future may hold for the non-Brown Sabbath version of the band.

Courtney Chavanell
Courtney Chavanell

The Brown Sabbath concept started when Brownout had a week-long stand at a club and you were performing different musical themes each night — why did you guys choose Black Sabbath? Can you talk about your guys history/appreciate for the music of Black Sabbath?

Greg Gonzalez: The idea started out as a half-joke. We were trying to brand the different nights of our weekly residency with different themes. We did James Brown’s classic album “Black Caesar” as “Brown Cesar”, we did a b-boy night and called it “Brownout 2: Electric Boogaloo” and in the process of brainstorming we mentioned “Brown Sabbath” as a night themed on Black Sabbath’s music. It sounded good, but the more we thought about it, the more the idea stuck. I think myself and the other guitarists were all Black Sabbath fans. It just kind of comes with the territory of playing electric guitars and such. We (the string players) all grew up on the border and Black Sabbath, Ozzy, and all things metal were all hugely popular back then.

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Now, you guys have a very awesome, vibrant sound that is way different from Black Sabbath’s. Can you talk about the re-imagining process of the songs you covered? Did you have to actually sit down and break things down and re-write it or did the cover come from jam sessions where things just naturally evolved?

Greg Gonzalez:We tried to stick close to the essence of the originals as much as possible. We didn’t want to make the music jazzy, or campy and we really wanted to do respectful interpretations. The songs were already very funky and had quite a bit of swing to them. We emphasized those elements and added percussion and horns. Our arranger and trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonzales did a great job of writing arrangements that were funky and powerful and he avoided any jazzy cliches or overwriting. He just helped emphasize the funky foundation that the rhythm section established.

Which song do you feel was the hardest song to cover? Were there any tracks you decided not to cover because you couldn’t make them work at the time?

Greg Gonzalez:Probably “Hand of Doom’ because it’s such an epic song with different movements and groove/tempo changes. We wanted to add “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” but the vocals were just too high.

Why decide to make Brown Sabbath a thing you recorded and toured with? And how has the reaction been from audiences and longtime Brownout fans?

Greg Gonzalez: After seeing the response to our first performance of the project during our residency we decided to record our versions. Initially we intended to just give away the tracks for promotional use, but Ubiquity Records caught wind of the project and said they wanted to put out the full length. Once the album was out, we realized we’d have to tour behind it. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and has helped us gain new followers and brought us to the attention of people who otherwise would probably never have heard of us. Our longtime fans seem pleased too. It really makes for a diverse crowd, old school metal heads, funk fanatics, DJs, fans of big bands, jam bands….

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Now, for someone like me who’s discovering you through Brown Sabbath and is interested in checking out the music Brownout does, which album would you recommend I check out if I really want to get what Brownout is all about?

Greg Gonzalez: I would recommend all of our albums but probably Oozy since it was the most recent original album we’ve released. It features the current band lineup and we still play a lot of the songs in our Brownout sets.

Would you ever do something like again — but with another artist possibly?

Greg Gonzalez:We’ve talked about it. You definitely have to be careful not to overdo it, otherwise people will start to overlook all of our original material and think of us solely as a tribute band. Still, if the right concept comes around, we wouldn’t be adverse to revisiting. We’ve backed up a lot of different artists, from Bernie Worrell (P-Funk) to GZA (Wu-Tang Clan) to indie low-fi cult hero Daniel Johnston. We’re quite adept at playing different styles.

What are your plans for the rest of 2014 for both Brownout and for the Brown Sabbath project?

Greg Gonzalez: We’ll continue to tour to promote the album throughout the year as well as start the process of recording our next album. We have a bunch of new material we want to get down and we want to incorporate some of the things we learned on this project. I think the Brown Sabbath project is great, but it definitely has a limited shelf life. We’re all hungry to keep growing and evolving our sound and as much as we like Brown Sabbath, we’re excited to get back to our own original material soon.

Brownout Presents: Brown Sabbath will be at The Brooklyn Bowl on Friday, September 5th. Click here for tickets.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites