“You’ve gotta have open ears and be willing to take chances. A lot of bands are so scared to step out of the scene they’re in, that they end up being the antithesis of what they were when they started. You’ve gotta put your dick on the chopping board and just go for it man, or else you’re just fucking pissing in the wind. I mean, where would Pink Floyd be if they’d have just stuck with the psychedelic shit in some little coffee house?”
These words, which come courtesy of the good-natured guitar hero Pepper Keenan, could hardly be more apt. Not simply because Down, New Orleans’ revered metal supergroup, recently played Camden’s famous Roundhouse, a London venue heavily associated with Pink Floyd. No, it rings true because this is a band that are really are putting their money where their collective mouth is and relaunching themselves upon the world, disregarding convention and outside opinion exactly as they did when they first rose to prominence in the mid-90s.
As that October show highlighted, Down have somehow retained – even built upon – their immense popularity, which is pretty remarkable given the five years that have passed since 2007’s Down III: Over The Under, an absolutely massive hiatus in today’s fast-moving scene. In fact it says a lot about the band’s enduring nature that there is so much of a buzz going on right now based on a single EP release. Of course, in many ways Down – IV Part 1 represents a somewhat larger concept, since it represents only one quarter of a pretty sizeable project. On the other hand, issuing a shorter recording rather than an album appears to have proved a rather less daunting undertaking for a band – at least those in the rare position of being able to approach the music industry on their own terms – and perhaps made their return that little bit more comfortable.
“It’s easier to concentrate on six songs rather than 12, you know?” says Phil Anselmo, cutting straight to the bone as usual. Brooding and intense today, the vocalist appears somewhat on edge compared to his bandmates, though this may simply be because he’s somewhat less enamoured by the whole interview process than them.
“Honestly, one thing about Down is we don’t like to step on each other’s toes, because everyone’s got a different thing to do. Kirk [Windstein, guitars] has got Crowbar, Jimmy [Bower, drums] has got Eyehategod, I’ve got my record label and I’m producing a million bands, Pepper does what he does and Pat [Bruders, bass] is in Crowbar on top of it, so we all work around each other’s schedule. So instead of grinding these records where we’re positive on six songs and then the next four [it’s like], ‘Let’s throw them together, they’re fillers’, it’s easier – and in theory quicker – to get the music out to people. Because we are the worst in the fucking world in getting the next record out… it’s five or six years between each record.”
“I’ll be 85 by the time we do like four more full lengths – or I’ll be in the grave!” agrees guitarist Kirk with a chuckle. “So it’s perfect for us, we get together for a couple of weeks, we spit it out.”
“I took pressure off myself period with this fucking record,” states Phil categorically. “I stayed as far away as possible. We were all pretty much on the same page about being adamant about not over-thinking writing this fucking thing. Write the parts, let’s get something solid, put the fucking shit down, take a break and walk away. Why whip a fucking living, breathing, strong beast? Why beat it down, why complicate things? When it came to vocals, I swear I’ve never been more detached from a record in my entire fucking career. When we did that first demo, we demoed the songs in one day, I sang them the next day and that’s the way I approached this EP. And it feels right. I didn’t like all the polishy stuff on maybe a couple of our other records – to me this is more true to Down and what we really sound like”
“What I really liked about it,” ponders Kirk, “I mean, we’re not LA dudes, big production crap, it’s not us, this is who we are. We started out in a fucking garage, and now we’re in Nosferatu’s Lair, [Phil’s] home studio. It’s home, it’s not some stale-ass fucking studio in Hollywood. The vibe of it, the spontaneity, really shines through.”
“It’s organic, baby!” adds Phil with a deep, throaty laugh.
The lack of frills on the new recordings also says much for the group’s confidence right now, the band happy to indulge in the overwhelmingly raw nature of their tunes without concessions to… well, anyone. And then of course there is the video for Witchtripper, one of the most over-the-top and self-consciously silly videos to emerge from a metal band in recent history, the band battling witches in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby Doo cartoon. But then what sort of video would you make for a song about tripping witches? It’s certainly a far cry from the themes of Down III…, which drew from the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and the death of Dimebag Darrell, but then again maybe that’s exactly what the guys needed.
“We were on tour in Spain in this creepy little town and every house had these rocks on the edge of the roof,” laughs Pepper recalling the birth of the song. “The locals told us it was to keep witches from landing on the roof, to trip them up, so of course me and Phil were instantly like, ‘Dude, witchtripper!’. So it began as an inside joke, then we came up with the song, then wrote a story for the video, it was too easy really. Phil is a huge fan of horror movies, and we were going for this Italian horror movie thing.”
He smiles and adopts an English thespian accent. “It just involves a lot of theatre. And when me and Phil were writing this out I said you gotta be some kind of evil overlord…”
“…some Crowley-looking cat,” smiles Jimmy, the jovial and high energy percussionist whose manner is so self-deprecating it’s easy to forget that he is sometimes referred to as the Godfather of Southern metal due to his work in bands such as Eyehategod, Crowbar, Superjoint Ritual and Down.
“Phil did this [Pepper puts his elbows on the table and adopts Aleister’s most famous pose], just messing round, and I said, ‘If you don’t do Aleister Crowley, you’re stupid’, so I went back and made a Crowley hat. Then we wanted to separate the other band members so we had the stoners [Jimmy and new bassist Pat Bruders] and me and Kirk as the boozos. We also had [Eyehategod vocalist] Mike Williams hanging around and we needed witches so we used our ladies.”
“It was like a family affair,” adds Jimmy. “We had a barbecue and all that.”
“I think if anyone knows us, they’ll know it’s easier to do that than a serious video,” laughs Pepper. “If we were trying to be serious we’d really look stupid. We’re serious onstage… actually we’re not even that serious onstage. It’s already a powerful thing and you don’t need to be all macho about it all the time.”
“It’s a really cool thing to be in a band with all your friends,” adds new recruit Pat, a friendly and overwhelmingly laid-back character who often seems hesitant to speak, instead letting his bandmates take the lead. “The connection we’ve got and as close as we all are, nobody can break that. That’s one advantage we have I think.”
“I also think Down is not a band that wants to build a façade,” says Pepper. “We’re just a bunch of dirtbags off the street just like anyone else.”“We filmed everything on my land which has got woods, with a bunch of pathways through the woods so there’s the Evil Dead vibe,”
Phil elaborates on the video’s creation. “We wanted the grainy old look… I mean, they got CGI in videos now – that ain’t happening in this fucking court. And you know the old band standing there jamming the fucking song on stage, it’s been done a million times, it’s fucking boring. So expect more bullshit out of us, it’s more fun!”
“If we can’t have fun, why do it?” shrugs Kirk, “and we are having fun.”
“What he just got through saying is golden,” nods Phil. “If we can’t have fun and we’re not having fun with it, why do it? We’re having fun.”
That’s certainly the impression the band are giving right now. After facing a number of challenges over the last decade, both with the departure of bassist Rex Brown, and more personal issues, that’s perhaps natural. Indeed, at this point it feels like perhaps the key to Down’s successful return is simply enjoyment and good vibes, which is a strange thing to say for a group whose songs have often touched upon such issues as death, tragedy and substance abuse.
“We kind of burned ourselves out,” considers Kirk thoughtfully, before letting Phil pick up the thread once more. “…and we also had some inter-band dramatics, and issues, and stuff like that. You know people need to get to where they need to be in life to be happy and I’ll say it right now and it’s the truth: Rex [Brown, bass] has always wanted to be in a band with Vinnie Appice [the two are in now playing together in supergroup Kill Devil Hill]. He got the opportunity and if you get that opportunity and you know it’s your last tour with a band, there might be some friction. All that’s gone now, we all get along like brothers, we still talk to Rex very often, we’re letting him live his dream. I think we all went through issues and, like he said, I think we all burnt ourselves out for a while. That break was good for us.”
The next question of course is where the group will go from here. The whole EP format certainly allows for a good deal of flexibility, but how far ahead have Down actually planned?
“The one that’s released is about as far as we’ve planned!” replies Jimmy with a chuckle. “Further than usual,” interjects Pepper. “We have got it mapped out, actually, but if we stick to our usual schedule it might take 20 years when the last one comes out. We know in theory how we want it to play out – we just think of it as one giant record – but we’re definitely heading in different directions. We’ve got riffs and things for the second EP and it will head in a similar direction, maybe more powerful, we want to strip down… not a lot of production on it…”
Would the band ever go for something very different, like an acoustic EP?
“Yeah, it’s all in the works,” replies Pepper thoughtfully. “I mean, not fiddles and shit, we’re not going to be that acoustic, but more mellow stuff. Maybe an electric guitar played quietly,” he laughs. “It’s not campfire songs but it will be dark and mellow.”
“Over the last three records we’ve tried so many different styles,” adds Jimmy. “Mellow stuff like Jail or Lies, so we’re hoping to tap into some stuff like that, too.”
“That will probably be on the third EP,” says Pepper thoughtfully. “Then the fourth one could be a straight-up doom record…”
“Boooooom!” laughs Jimmy. “The endtime. And the artwork matches each mood in theory as we progress, and it will all lock together to create one image eventually.”
Clearly, there’s still much room for debate as to the project, not only for fans but seemingly for the members themselves. In fact, when Phil is asked if he might consider doing something more off-the-wall with one of the EPs he offers a rather different perspective…
“Why do that… that’s my thing. Could we do it? Yeah, we could make you a tripped-out space-rock record or we could do a jangly acoustic record of tear-jerking songs. I always feel, depending how long it takes us between EPs, it’s not fair to the audience to have them wait four years for an all-acoustic space-rock record. It will be what mood we’re in at the time, nothing more.”
That last line seems to sum up the band’s ethos right now; if it feels right do it. Fortunately for Down, their many fans seem to be right there behind them whatever they do, though it would be a brave man who would attempt to predict exactly what the future holds.
Check out the exclusive stream of the new Down EP here.