"When I was touring with Down, I never guessed this was going to happen," admits Pepper Keenan, of his return to Corrosion of Conformity after spending nearly a decade away from the band. "You just can't plan these things. This rock & roll crap takes weird twists and turns and you gotta just roll with them."
The road to regeneration for C.O.C. started when original drummer and vocalist Reed Mullin replaced Stanton Moore and rejoined his bandmates Woody Weatherman (guitar/vocals) and Mike Dean (bass/vocals) in 2010, following a nine-year break. The old-school North Carolina rockers played shows as a three-piece and had a blast. Their next move was to cut an album that mixed the chaos of their early crossover records like 1984's An Eye for an Eye and 1985's Animosity with a touch of the sludge and groove they cultivated during their heyday in the Nineties.
While the reunion was well received, many of the band's fans longed for a return to the Southern doom sound of 1994's Deliverance and 1996's Wiseblood. They got their wish in 2014, after Mullin reached out to his old singer Pepper Keenan (who fronted the band from 1989 to 2006) to see if he wanted to join back up with C.O.C. as a four-piece. Keenan had been playing guitar with Down, but frontman Phil Anselmo — who was going through a period focusing on building his Housecore label and exploring other musical projects — gave Keenan his blessings, and the guitarist returned to his old C.O.C. crew.
Fans were excited about Keenan's reunion with C.O.C., so the band took to the road to shake off the cobwebs. After touring as a four-piece for two years, they realized they had more to say in the studio, and began work on their first album with Keenan since 2005's In the Arms of God.
"Once we were playing together live, we realized that we still had that great chemistry we always had," he says. "So when it came time to do the record, Woody and I knew where we wanted to go with it. We already had the title No Cross No Crown and we figured we would approach it the way we approached In the Arms of God. I used that as a catalyst to launch something because it was the last thing I had done with the band and I thought it was a pretty strong record."
With Keenan back at the helm, No Cross No Crown is a gritty return to form for C.O.C. — the band reignites with the sinister spirit of In the Arms of God and the swampy southern vibe of Wiseblood. At the same time, Keenan takes a lyrical dive into the corruption, hypocrisy and chaos of modern America and surfaces sounding vitriolic and pumped.
"The title No Cross No Crown is meant to point out how much religion and government have shifted the course of the earth over time," Keenan says. "I used that general theme as an in-your-head, psychosis-brain thing to look at how the world has evolved and what it would be like if those two things didn't exist."
During Revolver's conversation with Keenan, the veteran craftsman addresses why C.O.C. split up between 2006 and 2010, the status of Down, the lunacy of modern politics, his reintegration into Corrosion and his other gig restoring antique homes.
IN THE ARMS OF GOD WAS A DARK, BRUISING ALBUM THAT FANS AND CRITICS REALLY RALLIED BEHIND. WHY DID THE BAND BREAK UP SOON AFTER IT WAS RELEASED?
PEPPER KEENAN The record was taking off, but the label fell apart. At that time, the record had come out and we were on the road. We went to the U.K. and Europe. Then we did a couple shows in the States and were getting ready to go back to Europe to do a full tour with Motörhead. And then [Hurricane] Katrina hit. We were supposed to leave three days later, but I had to go to New Orleans. It was the first time C.O.C. or I had ever canceled a tour. That was a big changer. Once we pulled out of that two-and-a-half month tour it kind of knocked the wind out of me. And when the label basically folded, we were without a deal. I was trying to put everything back together in New Orleans and I decided to just focus on my house. Most everything was alright. Me and my mom and my grandparents were all down there. The business was kind of a mess. We had a lot of shit to put back together, but a lot of other people had it way worse. And then Phil Anselmo called me about doing Down again. It kind of did its own thing. Like I said, I learned a long time ago not to try to control things like that. I just go with them.
SO AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA, REUNITING WITH PHIL IN DOWN SEEMED LIKE THE NATURAL THING TO DO.
It just took a life of its own. It was great. We all grew up together anyway, so it was super-easy and fun. We were going full throttle and playing big shows. But it's hard to pay full attention to two projects at the same time. It wasn't any kind of big deal, though. People think there was a big conflict between the two bands, but it really wasn't like that. We overlapped a little, but it wasn't ever about trying to promote one agenda and oppose the other. I was just taking advantage of what was there at the time.
WERE THERE OBSTACLES WHEN DOWN TOOK OFF?
No, it was fucking easy-peasy. I hadn't spoken to Phil in a long time. Then he called me up and we both happened to be listening to a band called Witchcraft at the same time. We took that as a good sign and we talked about that a little and then we spoke about getting Down back together. So we went for it. We played a bunch of shows and one thing led to another. We ended up doing two more [EPs].
WHILE YOU WERE IN DOWN, C.O.C. RECORDED IX WITHOUT YOU. WERE YOU COOL WITH THAT?
I guess the label approached them as a three-piece knowing I was busy. Opportunity put them in that position and, clearly, they can play music so they took advantage of it. I was all definitely for it.
DID THAT CREATE ANY CONFUSION?
Not for me. And being a three-piece got Reed back in the picture, which was a good thing because he hadn't been in the band for a long time either. It gave them a chance to get all their ducks in a row. Once they did the second record, [Megalodon], Reed called me up to see if I was interested in doing a four-piece reunion thing.
DID YOU FEEL AT ALL WEIRD ABOUT REJOINING C.O.C. AFTER HAVING BEEN OUT OF THE BAND SINCE 2006?
I did, I did. It wasn't a bad thing, but I didn't know if it would work. That's what was scary. Once I went there and rehearsed, I knew if we put our dicks on the chopping blocks we could do this. My only fear was that it wouldn't come together right. And I thought, "Shit. I'm gonna do this and I'm gonna be out there for two or three more years again." I enjoy writing music and touring, but it's fucking work. I just knew we had to do it right and if we did, everything would work out.
DOWN IV – PART II WAS THE LAST RECORDING YOU DID WITH DOWN, AND THAT WAS IN 2014.
It just kind of happened that way. After that, Phil was busy doing his multitude of things, including his label. And he knew if I started doing C.O.C., more than likely I'd be busy for a while. And I knew that, too. It wasn't a big deal.
WAS THERE EVER ANY FRICTION BETWEEN YOU AND PHIL?
No. Fuck, no. We've known each other for so damn long he was like, [in a super-low voice] "Go play music, brother." I still talk to Phil. We talk about Down all the time. It'll happen when it happens.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THIS RECORD WITH C.O.C. AND WAS THERE EVER A MENTION OF WRITING ANY CROSSOVER SONGS?
We went and toured a bunch, and then Nuclear Blast came knocking on the door. They saw good reviews from our live shows and said, "Do you guys want to do a record as a four-piece?" It's a good label; there was no pressure from anybody. So we signed a contract and then we toured for another year and a half before we even started doing anything. We just took our time. But I don't know how hardcore you're gonna be when you're pushing 50. [Laughs]. We've been there and done that.
WHY DID IT TAKE TWO YEARS AFTER YOU WERE SIGNED FOR YOU TO START DOING THE RECORD?
We kept getting offered shows. We thought we were going to just get together as a four-piece and play 20 shows in Europe and zigzag around the United States a little bit and then get busy. But two years went by just on the merits of the four-piece playing together again without having done anything new in 12 years, which I thought was quite an accomplishment. We just kept going.
DID NO CROSS NO CROWN COME QUICKLY AND EASILY?
We didn't get stuck too much. We did it in five-day sprints. We weren't in the studio the whole time. I think we spent 40 days total writing, recording and mixing the record.
WHAT WAS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE?
We all wanted it to rise up to what we were attempting to do and not sound like some money grab for a reunion band. I didn't want it to be anything hokey like that.
THERE ARE SOME POLITICAL REFERENCES IN NO CROSS NO CROWN. DO YOU THINK RELIGION AND POLITICS TURNED THE WORLD INTO A BATTLEFIELD?
Clearly, they're necessary. I'm not going to get on a pedestal here. It was just an idea and a free-flowing stream of consciousness concept to write songs around. And we wrote everything in the studio, even a lot of the lyrics. We were doing the album as if it was a demo and we didn't re-record anything. That was the big challenge and I enjoyed doing it that way because it kept the songs more raw and fresh instead of demoing them three times and beating all the life out of them.
WHEN REAGAN WAS IN OFFICE THERE WAS A FLOOD OF OPPOSITIONAL MUSIC THAT BIRTHED SOME GREAT PUNK, HARDCORE AND CROSSOVER. DO YOU THINK TRUMP WILL HAVE A SIMILAR EFFECT ON YOUNG MUSICIANS?
You see lots of bands jumping on that political thing. It's an easy target. Believe me. If you wanted to, you could do it all day long. But I try and do it without being so obvious. It's also important to not be dated. This CD is going to be out long after Donald Trump is gone. If you date something like that, you've chopped off your foot. And there'll be more C.O.C. to come after Trump. You can believe that.
NO DOUBT. YOU MENTIONED EARLIER ABOUT QUESTIONING HOW HARDCORE ONE CAN BE AT 50. ARE YOU FINDING CERTAIN ASPECTS TO PLAYING THIS KIND OF MUSIC AND TOURING CLUBS MORE CHALLENGING THAN YOU HAVE IN THE PAST?
You gotta understand. This is maybe 23 percent of my life, total. I do so many other things. But when this opportunity came around again to do C.O.C. again, I took it. But it's one facet of who I am. I don't wake up every day and put on my Motörhead jacket, crack a beer and listen to Slayer all day long. But it's not hard to do and it's still fun. At this point to me, it's just art. It's something I've been doing since I was 18.
YEAH, BUT WHEN YOU'RE 18, YOU'RE PISSED OFF AT THE WORLD AND THE MUSIC YOU LOVE IS ALL-CONSUMING.
Whatever you do, however you do it, you have to focus on the task at hand. And if that takes 100 percent of your time, you better find something you can do better. In terms of creating music, it's something we love to do. If it takes any more than fun to do it, I don't think I'd be that interested. I think in a type of chess player kind of way. I can see pretty far ahead in terms of what it takes to create something whether it's building a house or restoring a car or writing a song or creating album artwork. You just have to be able to see your way through it and be able to look ahead at what the outcome is going to be and be open-minded to achieve it and not try to control it.
DO YOU HAVE A HOBBY OR AN INTEREST THAT MIGHT SURPRISE C.O.C. FANS?
I like home restoration and vernacular architecture [which is a style of design influenced by local conditions, be they based on climate, materials and/or tradition]. I've been flipping old houses for a long time. I like finding an old piece of property and bringing it back to its former glory days and keeping its original intent and architectural details.
ARE YOU AN ARCHITECTURE ENTHUSIAST?
Down in the South, at least. A lot of these houses are beautiful and they were designed before air conditioners, so they had a clear, concise function to them. They had 14-foot ceilings and transoms and all that kind of stuff. I've been doing that for a long time so it's second nature to me. I've been banging a hammer as long as I've been banging a guitar.