- Corrosion of Conformity: It's got a problem with authority.
Corrosion of Conformity singer-guitarist Pepper Keenan takes a compliment on the band's latest effort, America's Volume Dealer, and then admits the group hasn't got much in the way of competition these days.
"Well," he says mildly yet defiantly, "Nobody else is rockin'."
Founded in 1982 in Raleigh, North Carolina, by guitarist Woody Weatherman, drummer Reed Mullin, and bassist Mike Dean, COC managed to release some of the most important independent hardcore albums of the '80s. From the outset, COC was forged in the foundry of thrashing hardcore, but made certain even then that it maintained a distinct identity within its bellowing three-chord genre. Welding the speed, volume, and social indignation of Black Flag to the monstrously dense blues attack of Black Sabbath, COC carved out a niche for itself among an increasingly self-destructive and short-lived musical peer group. As its fellow bands fell prey to drugs or the maddening pace or creative differences, COC merely shuffled its membership and carried on, although in evolutionarily unique and fundamentally altered ways.
The unrelenting schedule the band established for itself -- constant roadwork with Slayer, Anthrax, and a host of others, as well as recording four albums in five years -- took its toll on the quartet, particularly at the microphone, where vocalists disappeared with Spinal Tap-ish regularity. In 1987 the band went on an extended hiatus.
By 1990, Weatherman and Mullin were ready to regroup. The only problem was that not all of the original band members were available. Dean had moved to Philadelphia and joined another band, setting the stage for the arrival of Pepper Keenan. Keenan, who apprenticed with a number of bands, including Graveyard Rodeo, originally came to COC as a vocalist, but was moved over to second guitar with the addition of vocalist Karl Agell and bassist Phil Swisher. In 1991 this five-piece lineup recorded COC's triumphant return, Blind, an album that featured one of its most enduring and beloved songs, "Vote With a Bullet."
When COC finally stepped off the bus after tours with the likes of Soundgarden, Danzig, and Bad Brains, it seemed a good idea to get back to the studio. The band had just moved from indie to major status when Sony lured it away from Relativity, and the time seemed ripe for COC to make some noise. Unfortunately, the sessions for what would become the Deliverance album were less than spectacular, and it was decided that Agell should be removed as vocalist, which triggered the departure of Swisher.
As Keenan became the point man for auditioning new vocalists, it became apparent that he was really the man for the job all along. At almost precisely the same time, original bassist Mike Dean left his band Spore and rejoined COC. With the recording of Deliverance, COC began moving toward the heavy Southern influence that would mark its subsequent recordings, including 1996's Wiseblood (featuring a guest vocal from Metallica's James Hetfield and the Grammy-nominated "Drowning in a Daydream") and the recent America's Volume Dealer. Keenan has seen the evolution of COC not just as a member over the past 12 years, but as a peer from the beginning.
"Before I joined the band, I'd seen COC, in the hardcore world that I was in at the time, as a pretty progressive band," says Keenan. "You could tell that COC wasn't the average band in that genre. Once I hooked up with the guys, we discussed how the hardcore scene was getting very stale. What made the hardcore scene so cool in the beginning was this flow of ideas and attitude that was uncharted. We had always wanted to keep pushing that parameter. When you grow up playing that shit, you always carry it with you. So we always had the idea to expand it and see how far we could push it. And that's been the basis of Corrosion of Conformity, to not be scared to try different things."
Part of Keenan's long relationship with COC is marked by his amazing flexibility, particularly concerning his almost immediate reassignment from lead vocalist to second guitarist. Keenan has long been a "take one for the team" kind of band member, and that mindset has served him well over the years.
"I thought that everything happens for a reason," he says. "It was cool that I wasn't singing, so I could focus on writing the material for Blind, because we really just wanted to go fucking bananas. We did the song 'Vote With a Bullet' that I did sing, and it just took off from there."
Keenan's personal adaptability is mirrored in the rest of the band as well, as evidenced by the band's measured and cool-headed response to Sony's treatment of COC after the release of Wiseblood and the label's lack of promotion for the Grammy-nominated release while the band was on a worldwide opening gig with Metallica. Many bands would have called it a day in the face of such ambivalence, but COC had little interest in the pissing match that could have resulted from a confrontation.
"It wasn't much of an ordeal to us," says Keenan. "Record labels don't matter. When it comes down to playing music, COC has always had a problem with authority -- record labels, managers, whatever. When you feel that strongly about your music, nothing else matters. When we made Deliverance, we made the entire album on Relativity's budget, which was like $35,000, and we were finishing the album, and the fucking thing didn't sound like an independent label record. We were kind of pissed off, because we had outgrown the label and had made what we considered to be a big-sounding record. Columbia heard it and was interested, and approached us. Of course, they liked us for what we were when they signed us, and then they tried to mold us as time went on, and that wasn't going to happen."
Despite COC's Grammy nomination and its affiliation with Metallica, Columbia chose to pass on the band's next project, based on the demos that were presented last year to the label. COC then found a natural home with Sanctuary Records, a metal label that has long fostered an attitude of progression and development with its artists.
With the uncompromisingly thunderous boogie metal that Corrosion of Conformity is now espousing as its latest musical persona, the band continues writing the book of its career, 18 years after it started. With the kind of baggage it's lugging around after recording for numerous labels with a litany of different singers, COC could send out a pretty cynical vibe both personally and musically, but Keenan offers an incredibly mature and balanced viewpoint when confronted with the band's history of blown promises and missed opportunities.
"Our main goal, in 20 years or so, is to look back at COC as a band that never bullshitted or lied to anybody," says Keenan. "We just want to play music from the heart and not be trendy or follow anybody around."