An Interview with Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity

Corrosion of Conformity has been around since before hardcore was hardcore. The North Carolina outfit made its first recordings in the early '80s, and it has persevered through a slew of changes both within the band and outside it -- personnel shifts, label changes, the ever-shifting trends in the music world. One of the first bands to merge metal and punk elements, COC evolved in tandem with thrash metal groups like Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer, though COC always maintained an earthy twist that other bands didn't cultivate until later in their careers.

By the mid-'90s the line-up had solidified -- drummer Reed Mullin, guitarist Woody Weatherman, bassist Mike Dean and frontman Pepper Keenan -- and the music it churned out reached a new high with a trilogy of albums (Blind, Deliverance, and Wiseblood) that combined the raw elements of thrash with strong songwriting and subtle emotional undercurrents. But after Wiseblood the band began to feel out of place on a major label. The tide was turning toward teen-dom and, with Ricky Martin looming, COC opted to get out of its Columbia Records contract and head for the hard rock haven at Sanctuary Records.

The subsequent album, America's Volume Dealer, which hit the streets in October maintains the songwriting integrity of its predecessors but takes some interesting turns. The tracks are funkier ('Zippo' smacks of Sly Stone), grittier (the album was recorded and mixed in 28 days) and more diverse (acoustic, even Latin-tinged passages surface now and again). In many ways it's a reflection of COC coming full circle, expanding by delving deeper into its roots. Singer/guitarist Pepper Keenan explains. So what was going on during the four years between Wisebloodand the new album? 

Pepper Keenan: Well, we toured for two years easily. We toured one year with Metallica alone and played a bunch of shows by ourselves. Then it came time to get back in the studio and we weren't too happy with the way Columbia was working. We had lost a lot of the people that were oriented with rock type stuff and we didn't want to sacrifice anything for the sake of being on a major label, so we basically asked to get off the label. We felt strongly about it -- for COC to continue with its integrity in tact, we had to make a move and so that's what we did. Was it a struggle to get out of your Columbia contract?

Keenan: Oh yeah. But they understood, man. They were really into Ricky Martin and all that type of s--t but they thought COC was a viable band and they appreciated that we were an honest, real band. They knew that. So we got off them and got our music back. What's the most valuable lesson learned on your sojourn through the label world -- from Metal Blade to Columbia and now Sanctuary?

Keenan: One of the coolest things in our career was getting signed to a major label, and then the second coolest thing was getting off a major label. COC has had the privilege of playing music for a long time. A lot of bands get signed to a major label right off the bat and don't know what it means to really hit the road and tour and build a fan base, and if you get dropped by a major label and you don't have a fan base, you're f----d. That was one of the main things we learned. You've covered so much ground musically. Early COC was fairly gnarly and hardcore, but then you moved on.

Keenan: When COC was creating that music it was something that was all from the heart, and then the whole thing got f-----g notched down. The scene had collapsed on itself because nobody was taking chances -- and that was the whole hardcore thing in the first place was being original and doing what the f--k you wanted. It wasn't that we were trying to be gnarly -- it was just that was the attitude and so as you progress, either you're gonna do the same damn record over and over playing to the same people over and over or you're gonna put your ass on the line and take that hardcore s--t with you and go somewhere else with it and see if you can expand on this idea. Politics has always been a component of what COC is about. You used to address specific issues in liner notes and include the addresses of organizations like Amnesty International. A new generation of bands like Rage Against the Machine has taken over. Is politics still important to you?

Keenan: When we were doing our thing it was honest, but then these record labels started using it as a marketing tool to sell albums. Rage Against the Machine's on the biggest corporation in the world. It's bullshit. COC was a political band and there were 'causes but just putting a f----n' address on a CD don't mean s--t. We always tried to do more than that. I think the biggest thing nowadays is more moral issues than political issues. I mean, the Bible means a lot more to me than the Constitution and any f----n politics involved in this country or any other country. If somebody falls down on the ground you pick 'em up. You think clearly like that and everything else comes into place. Politics can sometimes take away from the music, but from the record company perspective, controversy is good business because -- 

Keenan: It's marketing? Totally. Whatever, man. It'd be different if [Rage] were on Dischord and selling their records for $10.99 out the back of a van and playing for ten bucks a head. But they don't. So don't stand on a platform in front of me, buddy. And I like Tom [Morello]. He's a great guy. I got nothing against him. He's an unbelievable guitarist. He's really insanely talented. I just wish they could push that s--t more and go off on some really wide tangents but they don't. They can't. They've painted themselves into a corner. What's missing a lot of times is an emotional component beyond righteous indignation. U2 wrote political songs that weren't just about anger.

Keenan: That is the beauty in song writing. That is the way I try and write a song. I have a lot of lyrics that are very political but they're metaphorically political. Like "Snake Has No Head" I thought was one of the best political songs I'd written. I didn't want it to sound dated. I didn't want it to be like, "Oh my God he's talking about the Reagan era!" There's more to it than that, and those issues will repeat themselves throughout history.

Keenan: Oh, man. James Taylor. Cat Stevens. s--t like that. I mean, you'd have to be a fool to sit there and listen to f----n' Iron Maiden all day long. Jesus Christ. I don't even like Iron Maiden. I listen to all kinds of stuff. A lot of f-----g blues music. A lot of old New Orleans music -- '50s and '60s stuff. You can pull so much outta that stuff. There's so much music out there and growing up in a city like New Orleans you learn that at a young age. It's a big world out there and in New Orleans is a big melting pot. When I think of New Orleans I immediately think of jazz -- but I guess there's all kinds of stuff going on all the time.

Keenan: Obviously back before my grandfather was alive it was jazz, but I think the most valuable thing New Orleans has given to the world besides jazz is funk. That's the f----n' epicenter of it all, and when you live there you understand why. New Orleans is a very funky city -- from the architecture to the cooking to the people to the music. You grow up in a place like that you're gonna carry that with you wherever you go. The groove is crucial. You guys have always had that -- well maybe after the Six Songs EP.

Keenan: But even in terms of thrashy stuff, that was some pretty slippery-ass music. It was heavy and it was fast but there's some crazy grooves on that s--t. If you slowed 'em down to half speed you might see it. Where do you look for inspiration when you're feeling like stretching the music?

Keenan: At this point I've listened to so many different types of music and I consistently find myself going back. If I'm into something I tend to go to the source of where it started -- like the Rolling Stones. I was always wondering what made the Rolling Stones tick? Where were they getting this s--t from? So I ended up getting a bizarre collection of really old Library of Congress recordings of all this crazy blues stuff. Like the Lomax recordings?

Keenan: Yeah, I got a bunch of Alan Lomax stuff. After you get involved in it you hear this s--t and it's just some guy with an acoustic guitar blowing your f-----g mind and you really get back down to the basic principles of song writing. But you still have this hardcore mentality with you but now you're doing a whole different world of stuff, and that's where it got all exciting. I mean, we could take this COC thing man and really start pushing the parameters of what popular music is. That's how you keep it entertaining. We weren't really worried what anybody else was doing 'cause we were trying to create our own thing. You've been working with producer John Custer for four albums now. You've never been tempted to work with other producers?

Keenan: I've talked to some really big producers and they don't know as much as John Custer. I'll bet my life on it. He's amazing but he hates the record companies. He hates dealing with egos. He's been asked to do a bunch of big things and he's like, "No f----n" way!" He is truly a musician/producer. He's like the Daniel Lanois of our little circle and he does not want to put up with that s--t. It's about song writing, it's about getting the tones on tape and not being scared to take chances. A lot of bands, the only reason they're asking him to do 'em is 'cause they've heard COC records, but they don't understand that COC put their ass on the line to do these records and John Custer's not going to baby-sit somebody 'cause they want to have a certain sound. You've got to want to do that and write those things.

Keenan: The whole thing with COC is a lot of times the music is more important than who's in the band. We were serious about what we were doing and if somebody couldn't tow the weight it was just a matter of cleaning house. 'Cause if this thing was going to continue the music came first. It seems kind of harsh to say that but it did. We didn't get rid of anybody for any other reasons than that. If they weren't up to par or where our heads were at, we had to make a change and [it] just got smaller and smaller until we had it down to just the core of us four and we went from there. Did you ever want to throw in the towel?

Keenan: It's like life, you know. Of course you have good days and bad days like anybody else. You just kind of roll with it.

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