Pepper Keenan: From Down To Deliverance

To paraphrase the Blues Brothers, it’s time to get the band back together. Ten years after the release of ‘In The Arms Of God’, vocalist and guitarist Pepper Keenan returns to the fold with Corrosion Of Conformity, the North Carolina band that were pioneers in the crossover between hardcore and metal back in the 1980s before morphing into a powerhouse metal outfit in the 1990s.

2015 also marks the twenty-first anniversary of Deliverance, the first CoC album to feature Keenan as lead vocalist (notwithstanding his spot on Vote With A Bullet from 1991’s Blind album), alongside guitarist Woody Weatherman, drummer Reed Mullin and bassist Mike Dean.

Since stepping away from CoC at the end of their 2006 tour, Keenan has devoted all his energies to playing guitar in Down, which he calls “just a bunch of bros who grew up together having a shit-kicking blast,” but now he’s busily brushing up on the CoC catalogue at the Eyehategod/Down jam house in New Orleans. “Oh Jesus, man, I’m going back to kindergarten,” says Keenan. “I’ve made a list of songs I think would be cool to do, some that we’ve never done live before and it’s definitely a workout! I’ve got to get my pipes back in shape, which I’m doing. We’re doing something off every record that I sang on, I’m up to 22 songs I’ve got figured out now. It’s a lot of good material, so it’s freaking me out.”

In the decade since he stepped away from CoC, Keenan hasn’t had to worry about handling lead vocal duties when he’s playing in Down. “You’ve got Phil Anselmo on the microphone so you know that shit’s covered, so all I have to do is play guitar and go apeshit,” he says. “It’s a trip going back. I’m forty-seven-years-old so I think I’m in better shape now than I was back then to be honest with you. Some of these CoC songs I bark like a dog and then other ones, like Seven Days, I’ve got to sing like a bird, so it’s a double-edged sword. Man, what the fuck was I thinking back then? I should have just barked like a dog!”

In 2006 CoC went on hiatus for four years before Weatherman, Mullin and Dean reunited as a trio in 2010. So what prompted the impending restoration of the classic quartet that cut 1994’s Deliverance, 1996’s Wiseblood and 2000’s America’s Volume Dealer? “They had done the three-piece thing, from what they said they’d gone as far as they could go on that,” says Keenan. “I was doing Down stuff and we actually played some festivals together. I jumped up on stage and did a couple of songs with them and it went really well. I’d be on tour with Down, people would be like, ‘Man, when are you going to get the CoC thing going again? We’re waiting.’ So it was just a matter of time, I guess.”

While the band had its first taste of success with the Blind album, it was when they signed to Columbia and released Deliverance that they really took off, which may explain why this particular line-up of CoC’s many permutations remains so beloved with fans. “We really focused on songwriting and we hit our stride,” says Keenan. “The Blind record got us going, doing complicated shit and showing off. Deliverance, we focused on songwriting. Everybody was going in a circle doing the hardcore thing, which is great, but it was getting stale to us. We said man, let’s push it a little bit, because everybody can play, what’s the point of beating an E chord to death when you can really get down and do something? It went from there and the songs stood the test of time. They’re not overproduced, it doesn’t sound dated. I remember being conscious about that back in the day. I talked with John Custer the producer and we were both very adamant about not making a record that would sound like it was done in that time period. We really wanted to make it timeless sounding and it sounds as good today as it did back then.”

It was John Custer who praised the quartet for their ability to behave as a single organism in the studio. “We were firing on all cylinders, that’s for sure,” says Keenan. “We jammed all the time, wrote all the time, practiced all the time, we were a serious working band. We had the luxury of having the giant ivory tower of Sony Music and Columbia behind us and that helped out, but those days are gone for just about everybody except J-Lo.”

Once Keenan wraps up his prep at the jam house in New Orleans, he’ll join the rest of the band in North Carolina for rehearsals before they fly to the UK. “We’re going to rehearse again in Manchester,” he says. “I don’t want to go into this without being prepared. CoC used to do a lot of weird jam things and tangents and go off in directions and I want to be able to do that again too.”

Given the level of buzz generated by the tour, it is surprising that so far the only dates lined up are in the UK and Europe. But Keenan says that plan “just made sense. I heard a lot of response from Europeans and the Brits saying to get over there. America is so damn big. We’re testing the water to see if this will work! We might tear each other’s throats out after the first day, I don’t know. Not to mention, I haven’t sat in a van or a bus with these dudes in years. They might think I’m a blithering alcoholic at this point, who knows?”

CoC hasn’t been twiddling their thumbs while running as a three-piece. The trio released a self-titled album in 2012 followed by IX last year. However, Reed Mullin has hinted at the possibility of new material from the quartet- more specifically unreleased ideas from the vaults. “I’m a guy who saves everything so I’ve got shoeboxes full of cassettes, four-tracks, and all that kind of shit. There’s actually some really good material that didn’t make Deliverance or Wiseblood,” says Keenan. “They still sound great. I was actually surprised that they didn’t make the record, going back and hearing them, like, man, these motherfuckers are good. That might be a tangent to start off on. I don’t know if I want to go backwards. I think In The Arms Of God, the last thing I did with Woody and Mike, was one of the strongest things I’ve ever done. I think Mike and Woody will say the same thing. That was a really good combination of songwriting, pushing the limits and getting off into the extreme show-off world, but still writing interesting songs. I’d like to take off from that tangent if we do anything.”

While the fans may be hungry to hear the lost songs, Keenan is cagey about the possibility of a new release. “We get a lot of people barking up our tree to do a record, a lot of labels and stuff. I take all that shit with a grain of salt, man,” he says. “If we got twelve or fourteen songs that are strong as shit, then I’ll put my name on it, sure, I’ll do it. But that’s going to take a lot of work to get to that level of what I would expect out of us at this time. Back in the day, you ate, slept and drank what you were working on for months to get that right.”

2005’s superb In The Arms Of God featured the drumming talents of Stanton Moore, one of Keenan’s fellow New Orleans residents from the funk band Galactic. “That guy, I’ve known him for years, we’re really good friends. He’s astonishing,” says Keenan. “He’d never done anything like that before. I gave him a Bad Brains record, a Deep Purple record and a Black Sabbath record and said, ‘Do some homework’. He came back with that shit, god damn, it was very exciting. I’m figuring to play with him during the Jazz Fest this year too in New Orleans – some heavy shit.”

Keenan with Down frontman Philip H. Anselmo at Ohio’s Rock On The Range, 2012 Photo: Joey Foley/Getty Images Entertainment

As rusty as he claims to be, Keenan did bust out CoC’s classic Albatross on stage with Down when the band celebrated his birthday – only that wasn’t orchestrated by the guitarist himself. “Phil threw that at me,” he laughs. “Those assholes learned Albatross backstage over a couple of days without me even knowing it and they had planned it days before. Phil brings out the birthday cake and then he pulls a mic out for me, I’m like, what the fuck are you doing? All those guys changed guitars, because it’s a different tuning, I’m like, ‘Oh no!’ I literally hadn’t sung or played that song in years. I’m like, ‘You motherfucker!’ Typical.”

Catch Corrosion Of Conformity on tour in the UK starting on March 7. For full details, click here.

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.