Interview: Pepper Keenan talks returning to Corrosion of Conformity and how the Paris attacks have changed things

Ten years ago, Corrosion of Conformity dropped In the Arms of God, one of their most critically acclaimed albums. But following a tour to support it the following year, the band went on hiatus while frontman Pepper Keenan turned his attention toward the metal supergroup Down for whom he plays guitar. Left to their own devices, the rest of C.O.C decided to move forward as a three-piece, reviving their crossover thrash sound epitomized on the 1985 album Animosity, years before Keenan joined and brought a decidedly more Southern infused hard rock and metal sound to the outfit.

At the beginning of this year though, Keenan was welcomed back into the fold, much to the delight of fans. Tomorrow night they play at the Paradise Rock Club, a show that had to be moved from Brighton Music Hall because of high ticket demand. Vanyaland caught up with Keenan to talk about coming back to the group, the terrorist attacks in Paris and who will have a new album out first – C.O.C. or longtime friends Metallica.

Michael Christopher: Regarding Corrosion of Conformity; why did it take so long, and why now?

Pepper Keenan: I guess the main thing was, if you go way back to In the Arms of God, the label we were on had folded and blah, blah, blah; I had moved back to New Orleans, and started doing more Down stuff. And [drummer] Reed [Mullin] wasn’t with the band for awhile, so once I got a phone call that Reed was coming back, I was super busy with Down stuff and they were gonna start doing three-piece material – they got offers to do that. Then that took off and everyone got so damn busy. Reed and I were talking by phone to try to get it going, and finally I got a big open window and it was like, “Let’s play some shows and see how this works.” And it worked great and it opened up a whole new can of worms and here we are.

Were you bummed when they went out on the road with the Animosity lineup and you weren’t involved?

To be honest with you, I was a little bummed, but what was I supposed to do; I was doing Down shit, you know? I couldn’t say no, and it all worked out in the long run.

It’s been such a longtime, and In the Arms of God was such a fantastic and well-received record, where do you go from here sonically?

I’m using In the Arms of God as a catalyst. I stand behind that and I think the idea and the songwriting on that is really good and that’s basically where we’re gonna leave off from.

You’re good friends with James [Hetfield] from Metallica; who puts out a new album first, them or you with C.O.C.?

[Laughs] Well, shit; I spoke to Hetfield the other day, he and Lars [Ulrich] came and saw us in San Francisco which was very nice, and we hung out a bit there. I think they’re gonna beat us for sure.

When you get into the studio with C.O.C., it’s obviously a lot different than with Down where you’re not doing vocals, you’re not doing lyrics. So you must have things stockpiled from the last 10 years.

Yeah, we do, we do, but we might not even use that stuff because we’re playing so good now and I don’t want to use a bunch of old riffs that are just laying around. Part of doing all this touring and playing together is to get a feel for it again. It’s a tall order and it’s been a very longtime, but we’re gonna use John Custer again who produced Deliverance and Wiseblood, and he’s super psyched to get in the studio with us. We’re just gonna have to start writing an take our time – we’re not gonna put out some kind of bullshit.

Are you surprised at how enthusiastic people have been that you’re back in the band?

Yeah, it’s been insane man – literally. We went to Europe this summer and we got invited back twice within weeks to do more shows. And in the States the numbers have been great; we’ve had eight or nine sold out shows on this tour – so I can’t complain.

The last time I interviewed you properly was in 2000 when America’s Volume Dealer had just come out. We talked about Down, who at that point had only released NOLA in 1995, and you were saying, “That thing just won’t die.” Then it suddenly became your main band.

It just became a very convenient thing because I was in New Orleans, and it was just timing. It was a very simplistic period and we just started playing shows and C.O.C. wasn’t really doing anything at the time.

Tell me about the setlists for the shows.

We’ve been changing them every night for the most part, but just recently we’ve latched onto a varied set from a bunch of albums and we’re sticking with that, just ’cause. We know probably 25 songs – at least – that we can play, but sonically what we’re playing right now is working so we’re sticking with it.

Well I gotta ask, if you’re open to requests at all, for the Boston show – and I don’t even know if you’ve ever played this live – but I would absolutely lose my shit if you played “Steady Roller.”

[Laughs – starts singing the riff to the song] Yeah, we ain’t never done that man. That was just some studio shit we were fuckin’ around with.

Dude – it’s like two minutes long! You could totally figure it out, bang it out in soundcheck and make it happen.

[Laughs] That was just exercising some guitar solos we were messin’ with and we just turned it into a song for shits and giggles. It depends how much Reed can learn the damn thing.

One of the last things I want to talk about, on a more serious note, are the Paris attacks. Obviously it took place at a…somewhat of a hard rock show, and it’s got a lot of bands on edge. You lived through the whole Dimebag thing, is there ever any fear about going onstage or do you just try to put it out of your mind?

I think about it every night. From Dimebag’s death on. I mean, last night the lights were blinding, I couldn’t see two feet in front of my face. So I’ve been thinking about it long before the Paris thing, but you just kind of hope that it’s not your thing. When it comes to the Paris show, Down played that venue a couple years ago, sold it out like [Eagles of Death Metal] had. And I remember how packed it was in there – it was probably one of the hottest shows Down ever played – but I also remember there wasn’t any way to get out of that place except the front door. The second I heard Bataclan, I was like, “Man, those people were fucked.” But it’s terrible. Eagles of Death Metal are really good friends of mine and it’s a fuckin’ tragedy – especially guys like that – it ain’t like Slayer or something. Not that it makes any difference, but the world that those guys are in…they got nothin’ to do with any of that shit, nor do their fans. The whole thing was just ridiculous.

And with Eagles of Death Metal, they’ve got great songs, but the fact is they’re almost a tongue in cheek band. People are going there to have fun. So for that to happen there, it just blew my mind.

Hopefully they can find some degree of healing, and spread some love and healing. That’s the route I would take.

Does it put you back to a head space like when Dimebag was killed where everybody was on edge?

Obviously, it’s kind of got everybody fucking insane. Just walking down the street now. And for me, I’m probably a little dumber than the average person when it comes to that, but I’ve gotta live my life and I hope that I would be prepared in a situation if it arises or when it arises and act accordingly.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY + BRANT BJORK + SAVIOURS + MOTHERSHIP :: Saturday, December 5 at the Paradise Rock Club (moved from Brighton Music Hall), 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $20 :: Advance tickets