ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 1, 2001
By Steve Newton
One of the coolest things about being a rock writer is getting turned on to new bands—even if they’re old. Corrosion of Conformity has been making a serious racket since 1982, but it’s still new to me; for some strange reason its latest CD, America’s Volume Dealer, is the only album of the band’s that I’ve had the pleasure of going increasingly deaf to. While cranking it up recently I scanned the quartet’s Sanctuary Records bio and discovered that COC was being billed as “the band that would first introduce and fuse the raging, powerful hardcore thrash sound of Black Flag with the massively heavy groove of Black Sabbath”.
Now, could that statement be true, or just the work of some overzealous record-company hack? When I get COC singer-guitarist Pepper Keenan on the line from his home in Wendel, North Carolina, he declares that the aforementioned blurb is actually a pretty fair assessment of his group.
“That’s about right,” he notes with a friendly southern twang. “I mean, we were into the heavier, hardcore attitude, you know, but then we started gettin’ into melodic things like Sabbath, and we just kind of combined the two and came up with a pretty powerful… I don’t know what you’d call it.”
Originally from New Orleans, Keenan has been a member of Corrosion of Conformity for nearly a decade, and recorded four albums with the group, including Wiseblood, the ’96 disc that earned a Grammy nomination in the best-metal-performance category for “Drowning in a Daydream”. He views America’s Volume Dealer as a continuation of the more musically varied direction the band first took in ’94.
“We’ve got a record called Deliverance,” he explains, “and with that one we were really trying to write a diverse-sounding album, ’cause nobody seemed to make albums anymore—they just made records with 10 songs that all felt the same. We really tried to mix up different types of music within the same record, and try and keep it cohesive at the same time—which ended up bein’ tougher than we thought, you know. But we really focused on that, and then we’ve been doin’ it ever since.”
A prime example of COC’s eagerness to distance itself from its hardcore origins is “Stare Too Long”, a laid-back, southern-tinged sing-along that, according to the CD credits, features “Badass Warren Haynes” on slide guitar.
“From where we came from, musicwise, you don’t have many songs like that in ya,” says Keenan, “but it just felt right. So I sent a tape to Warren Haynes and asked him if he’d be interested in playin’ on it, and he said he’d love to, thought it was a beautiful song. And it’s funny when somebody can come in there and play something on an instrument that is exactly what’s in your head. I mean, he nailed it.”
Without Haynes to wield the hammer in concert, perhaps Keenan or coguitarist Woody Weatherman will do the honours when COC plays the Commodore on Monday (February 5), on a double bill with Maryland’s Clutch. That’s another highly touted band that I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not up on. (Note to self: Better hound the local record reps for more promo CDs; I’m missing out on too much good stuff.)
“They’re a really cool band, man,” enthuses Keenan of his coheadliners, “you’ll dig ’em. Uh… I’m tryin’ to think how to explain ’em. Real riff-oriented, but they’re tappin’ into some really cool, jazzy stuff. It’s really progressive—not complicated, but really groovin’, and not so machinelike, you know.”
I may not be an authority on either COC or Clutch, but I do know what I like in a heavy rock tune, and “Sleeping Martyr” has all the ingredients. After several run-throughs of America’s Volume Dealer, that five-minute meditation on misspent life stands out, thanks to a potent arrangement that melds gentle acoustic verses with bulldozing, overdriven choruses.
“See, it’s interesting,” relates lyricist Keenan, “because every time I do an interview with somebody they always pick different songs [as their favourite], which is cool—that’s kinda what we were shootin’ for. That song is kind of about how some people will just let…you know, all of a sudden they’re 50 years old and realize they never really did what they wanted to. I mean, they’ll wake up one day and go, ‘How the hell did I get here?’ ”
Keenan claims that the musical inspiration for “Sleeping Martyr” was Los Lobos’ Kiko album of ’92, but its blistering guitars and venomous vocals remind me of modern-day Metallica. Those millionaire Napster bashers asked Corrosion of Conformity to be the opening act on their 1996 Load tour, which turned into a yearlong trip around the world for Keenan and his mates.
“That was a really big deal for us,” he says of the Metallica gig. “I mean, I’ve known those guys for a while, and I think they saw a little bit of themselves in what we are in terms of the ‘I don’t give a fuck, we do it ’cause we want to’ attitude. I guess they kinda saw that and dug it, you know.”
Pepper Keenan sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On how his joining COC in ’91 might have altered the band’s musical direction: “Once I’d gotten in there we had more of a broader method of attack or somethin’. We were all from the same school, you know, but the hardcore scene had gotten very stale, and we didn’t want to go in circles, so we felt we could play different types of music but still keep that hardcore attitude.”
On being signed to Sanctuary Records after parting ways with Sony Music in the summer of ’99: “So far, so good. We had a lotta offers from other major labels, but really, I just didn’t like the attitude that went along with it. It was so corporate.”
On the modified ’55 Chevy he’s pictured driving in the CD booklet for America’s Volume Dealer: “It’s a pretty rare car, and I spent a lot of time workin’ on it. It’s got a straight axle with radius rear wheel wells and a roll bar in it. I found it in a barn in Alabama, where it had been sitting for, like, 20 years!”