Music News

Less You Know: Bad Brains Guitarist Dr. Know Is a Man of Few, Powerful Words

Addressing Dr. Know, founding guitarist and lone constant for Washington, D.C., hardcore outfit Bad Brains, is a tricky proposition. For more than three decades, Gary Miller has used the play-on-a-James-Bond-villain handle, and calling him much else would border on insult. Still, should an interview begin with Mr. Doctor Know — and gradually warm up to Doc?

"Hello?" a light, sleepy voice called out when New Times reached him via phone.

"Dr. Know?"

"Yes," he replies. The many responses to follow from this vessel of hardcore punk's formative years prove to be equally humble and brief.

Over his illustrious career — peppered with interviews from through the ages now archived on the internet — Know has been much more of a doer and maker than a talker. Though certainly a complex individual, he fits comfortably in the archetype of the musician for whom talking or writing about music is like trying to watch flavors or hear colors.

But Know is a canonized celebrity within rock 'n' roll's tangential, cult punk ranks. Subsequently he is routinely required to stand trial and testify to his achievements.

In the late '70s, when the rest of the country was turning its nose up at the first whiff of the heavily perfumed Sex Pistols, Dr. Know and his Bad Brains were already engaged in a long-running dialogue with challenging forms of music that had led them past the hypertechnical stylings of jazz fusion and into accidentally inventing hardcore.

The genre would quickly be boiled down to a rote explication of itself, evident in tropes like gang vocals and song structures built around different kinds of moshing. But Bad Brains' original interpretation of punk pushed to its extremes was looser, freer, and, ultimately, more dynamic than anything that would come out of the nearby suburbs of D.C. via the Dischord Records label, the faraway suburbs of Los Angeles conquered by Black Flag and their thuggish Huntington Beach ilk, and the hypercodified stomp of New York City hardcore.

"We just played music," Know asserts. He adds that punk was more attractive than psychedelic rock and fusion at the time for what he describes as the genre's "revolutionary" quality. But Bad Brains are less remembered for the pseudopolitical protest-style angst of their lyrical content than for their remarkable intensification of an already extreme short/fast/loud aesthetic. At the center of the group's innovation were two key components: frontman H.R.'s shit-smearingly nasal vocals delivered frenetically onstage, and the savage, solo-friendly ax-playing of Dr. Know.

As though an all-black, former jazz-rock band pushing punk to its very limit was not enough, Bad Brains enhanced their novelty ten-fold by pairing reggae sounds with the still-developing microgenre. While British acts like the Clash and Joy Division took a page from dub, Bad Brains bought the whole book. So the speed-demon thrashing histrionics of tracks like "Attitude" and "Pay to Cum" from their self-titled debut are sequenced right alongside island-riddim-soaked jams like "Leaving Babylon" and "I Love I Jah" — the latter of which is nearly six times the length of the rest of the tracks on the record. In briefly explaining the overlap between reggae and hardcore, Know stoically returns to protest. "What they have in common is revolution," he says. "Stand up and fight for your rights."

That kind of Bob Marley bumper-sticker attitude sums up the Bad Brains' politics. The title track from the band's most recent album, 2007's Build a Nation, doesn't give a specific prognosis or plan of action — like, say, Canadian pop-punkers Propagandhi, or even offer the theoretically minded musings of anarcho-art collective Crass. Instead, H.R. generally spits forth quips and jabs at the War on Terror, ultimately calling for "mosh pits outside the Oval Office" and for the rebellious youth of today "to mosh through this desert storm."

In spite of this, Know contends that Bad Brains are not political. "We're a spiritual band," he says. "We're a gospel band."

It is true that Bad Brains' link to reggae famously stems from their embrace of Rastafarianism, the Afrocentric religious movement that arose in 1930s Jamaica and is a crux of the island's musical culture. And the group has a long history of advocating its beliefs, though Know is rarely at the center of controversy surrounding the group's religious ideology.

That honor belongs to vocalist H.R., who since the group's days touring the '80s' DIY hardcore circuit has regularly been at the center of flare-ups surrounding the frontman's myriad homophobic statements. Fortunately for Bad Brains, a lack of outbursts in recent years has allowed history to glaze over the rough patches. Additionally, the band knows which member to send out for interviews. 

"If you listen to our songs," Know says calmly and without any hint of evangelical intent, "the message is there. So it's up to you how you interpret it." 

When asked if he identifies the Bad Brains experience as an act of worship, he replies, "Absolutely," with the caveat that "different strokes" appeal to "different folks" and not everyone is going to equate fandom with conversion.

As for the current musical era of Bad Brains, Know says that attendees at Wednesday's show at Revolution can expect a full sample of what the band has to offer. "A little fast, a little slow," he says, "a little reggae, a little metal, a little punk. Little bits of everything."

Know's general tone may in fact be the product of his band's intimidating history. "[We play] some new stuff. Some stuff from every era. It gets very difficult. Everything get's bunched together. We have a lot of stuff."

Stuff means material?

"Oh yes," he replies, the first sign of spunk in this conversation, betraying, quite transparently, his lone motivation, his true interest: "Riffs! Music!" 

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Matt Preira