In Memory of Matt Brown: John Howie Jr., Mike Nicholson and Brian Hill remember their friend and drummer | Music
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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In Memory of Matt Brown: John Howie Jr., Mike Nicholson and Brian Hill remember their friend and drummer

Posted by on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 11:12 AM

[Editor’s note: Matt Brown—a drummer with John Howie Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff, Stratocruiser, the Venables, Penny Prophets and many other local bands over the years—died of a heart attack last Wednesday afternoon. He was 42. Below, we have collected three remembrances from friends and bandmates of Brown. These entries have been edited by Grayson Currin and Peter Blackstock with permission. Howie originally posted his text in a different form on his Facebook account.]

At center, John Howie Jr; at right, Matt Brown

By John Howie Jr.

As I was putting my son to bed this past Wednesday, a few hours after receiving the unbearably painful news about the passing of Matt Brown—my beloved friend and musical partner of almost 10 years—I received an e-mail from my buddy Jeff Hart reminding me of an incident a few years back.

My girlfriend Billie, my then-3-year-old son Dario and I were eating at Taco Bell. If you’ve never been to a restaurant with a 3-year-old, you might not understand what an undertaking it can be. All eyes were on Dario, all hands at the ready, when suddenly he started frantically trying to get down from his seat. Upon doing so, much to our horror, he began running across the restaurant, more excited than I think I have ever seen him. It was only when he began happily screaming, “IT’S MATT! IT’S MATT!” and jumping up and down and banging on the window that I realized what was happening: Matt Brown was going through the drive-through, and my son—like all of us—wanted to be near him.

I certainly couldn’t blame Dario for reacting the way he did. I wanted to do the same thing every time I saw Matt. Hell, I think Billie started banging on that window, too. Dario had been around Matt quite a bit. The Browns—Matt, his wonderful wife, Laura, and his beautiful daughters, Ella and Lila—had been kind enough to have Dario over for a few sleepovers, and Dario was clearly smitten with Matt.

Of course, Dario’s father was also smitten with Matt, and had been since the first time we had played music together at Neal Spaulding’s house in 2002, after being introduced by my friend Phil Venable. I’ll never forget breaking out a then-brand-new song and realizing, once Matt started playing along, that I had finally found the drummer I’d been searching for. I had played with some outstanding drummers, but Matt was different; Matt was a lifer. I immediately knew he was the only drummer I’d want to play with from then on out.

Over time, I would realize that aside from being the most gifted musician I’d ever met, Matt had also found time to be a wonderful husband, and a shining example of fatherhood from whom I learned an inestimable amount about parenting. He also became one of the best friends I’d ever had, never wavering in his support and innate understanding of my music and me as a person.

Paul Westerberg once sang, “It’s hard to say goodbye, so I’ll say … so long,” but I was never very good at saying either to Matt, and I only really tried once. When the Two Dollar Pistols were making what would be our last album, 2007’s Here Tomorrow Gone Today, things in our collective world got confusing. Looking back, I think it’s become clear to all of us that it was time to break up the band, but at the time it just seemed like confusion reigned. Nothing was working right, and surely someone must be to blame? For some reason, Matt took the brunt of that, and I asked him to part ways with the group.

I cried every day after we had that conversation, but Matt continued to send all of us goofy e-mails, like nothing had happened. We played with another drummer, a very wonderful local drummer, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I knew after about five seconds that I was lost without Matt. When I called him asking if we could meet at Armadillo Grill to discuss things, he agreed. I begged him to rejoin the group, and though plenty of lesser men—perhaps myself included—probably would have held that incident over someone’s head, Matt never did. I spent the rest of our time together telling him how much I appreciated his presence.

Later this year, Matt and I would have celebrated 10 glorious years together, what I’d hoped would be merely the beginning of a decades-long musical journey with my beautiful friend, the amazing drummer who never gave up on me or my songs. A second album with my current band, the Rosewood Bluff, was being planned when we met for practice this past Monday. I thought we’d be like Johnny Cash and his drummer W.S. Holland, ringing in our 40th anniversary of friendship and music as old men. Tragically, this was not to be.

“It’s hard to say goodbye, so I’ll say… so long”? I’m afraid I’m still not strong enough to do it. Instead, I’ll leave the last words for now in the hands of 5-year-old Dario Ingram Howie, who asked me yesterday when I was dropping him off at school if I was crying— something I’ve been doing virtually nonstop since Wednesday— because I missed Matt. When I replied that I was, Dario simply said, “It’s OK, Daddy, I miss Matt, too. Everybody misses Matt. Everybody loves Matt.”

Drummer Matt Brown with his family
  • Image courtesy of Brian Hill
  • Drummer Matt Brown with his family

By Mike Nicholson

In late 2004, my rock band Stratocruiser suddenly needed a drummer. Not looking forward to another audition process, Matt Brown came to us through a recommendation from our bassist. We hit the ground running. He not only drummed in that band but he also became the go-to session player for my recording studio, Vista Point in Pittsboro. Matt played on our CDs and a lot of other songs on a lot of other releases. His session prowess was unmatched: He could handle virtually any style and get his parts together and recorded with efficiency. From smooth urban pop to gutbucket metal, Matt could play it all. He elevated my music to heights I could not have reached on my own.

In addition to his studio chops, Matt was an inventive, creative, and rock-solid live drummer. I played with Matt on the road not only with Stratocruiser but on tour as part of Grant Hart's band and in support act The Venables early last year. We also played together in The Kinksmen, The Banana Seats and Meltzer-Hart.
Matt's presence in the van made some grueling East Coast road trips for Stratocruiser bearable. Matt's joie d' vivre amused and entertained us on those journeys. A natural prankster with boundless energy, Matt's road tales could fill a book of their own.

But Matt was not a juvenile goofball in the Keith Moon mold. Smart, musically gifted and virtually without the self-centered egomania that plagues many musicians, Matt's humility kept us grounded and focused. He was a devoted family man with two young daughters and a supportive, understanding wife. Matt juggled playing simultaneously in maybe 10 active bands at any given time.

Matt Brown lived to play. Sometimes he would make good money with bands like Two Dollar Pistols; other times, he'd be lucky to bring home five bucks from a bar gig in Greensboro that went until 4 a.m. None of this mattered; playing drums (or bass or, heck, washboard or maracas) was enough for Matt.

On April 25th, we lost Matt suddenly and unexpectedly. He poured absolutely everything he had into his 42 years, 10 months and 26 days. It's hard to believe that he will not be behind me, pounding his kit to splinters at some seedy rock dive before stopping somewhere together for a soda on the way home to our sleeping families.

Great musical comrades are hard to find, but good friends are harder to find. Matt was both and more. He was family. Rest in peace, brother.

By Brian Hill

On Wednesday, April 25, we lost a dear friend and major contributor to the local music scene, musician Matt Brown. He was my closest friend in North Carolina; I've played more than 200 concerts with him from coast to coast and throughout Europe. Matt was the drummer for my ska-reggae outfit Regatta 69, as well as Two Dollar Pistols, John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff, The Kinksmen, Project Mastana, Mighty Joe Young The Neighbors, Not For Sale, Highway, Bamboozle, Pagan Hell Cats, Brock N Roll, The Semi-Pro Bowlers, Kelly's Heros, The Independents, Stratocruiser, The High & Mighties, 40 Ounces, The Penny Prophets, The JayBirds, Slaying The Dandies, The Venables, The Stand Ins, Marko and The Rockers, Shakedown Street, and Barron Von Rumble Bus. He also backed many songwriters in the studio or on stage, including Christian Smith, Bob Funck, Randy Whitt, John Howie Jr., Jamie Sneeringer, Reese Gray, Jeff Hart, Chris Blount, Mark Belk, Brian Hill, Nate Nalbandian, Grant Hart and others.

Matt played a role in nearly all of the 25-plus records I've produced and countless tours I've arranged by prepping and lending his gear regularly. Operating with no ego and never asking for money, he played thousands of concerts only accepting payment when it was fair and available.

Matt grew up in Burleson, Texas, and then migrated to Austin to pursue music and be near Laura Clark, who he married in 1992. They moved to New Orleans where Matt learned “second line” drumming and took an interest in roots music. He also began playing ska and reggae in the Crescent City, where I first met Matt during a tour stop in 1996. After moving to Durham, N.C. in 1998, Matt made fast friends with a wide range of musical artists in the area who repeatedly enjoyed his collaboration.

A constant prankster alive with humor and wit, Matt often defused tense situations on the road and in the studio. He was valued by his comrades as a true road warrior—reliable, patient, agreeable. He was known for stage antics like blowing fire and showing up with Frankenstein drumkits (some made from suitcases). His drums fit into cardboard and duct tape cases, which he designed to hold up through extensive touring. Songwriters enjoyed playing with Matt Brown because of his keen attention to the lyric. Logging countless hours in studios throughout the Triangle, Matt provided a solid rhythmic backbone and sprinkled his unique creativity throughout hundreds of recorded tracks.

He was a loving father to daughters Ella, age 9, and Lila, age 4, for whom he was the primary daytime caregiver. He was a dedicated husband of 20 years to the love of his life, Laura Clark Brown. There will be a celebration of his life in the form of a tribute concert at the Haw Ballroom June 3, the date he would have turned 43. Proceeds will go to his family. His contribution to the community is already greatly missed.

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