Corrosion of Conformity: An oral history of 30 years | Music Essay | Indy Week
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Corrosion of Conformity: An oral history of 30 years 

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The major-label era (1994–1996)

Brian Cullinan: Relativity was acquisitioned. Relativity, as a distribution company and as a label, had a ton of bands, and only a few of them made it to Columbia Records.

Reed Mullin: When Pepper started singing, Relativity was gobbled up by Columbia and that's when we got a lot of push behind us and did more videos and more tours. I don't think it was anything like, "We're gonna get big!"

Brian Cullinan: Blind, of course, propelled them. I remember that there was MTV play, at the time, for "Vote With a Bullet." They did very well with "Big Problems" on the Clerks soundtrack. Soundtracks were a great place to experiment. The Clerks soundtrack was put out on a subsidiary of Columbia. They signed to Columbia properly in '94. Obviously they were being looked at, but Clerks, culturally, became a big movie and the soundtrack became a big thing. We sold a lot of these soundtracks, i.e., a lot of COC music in the hands of a lot of people.

Scott Williams: In the mid-'80s, after years of non-stop touring, and then seeing other bands that they had played with move on to bigger things, I think that COC wanted that, too. I can't fault them for that at all. At the time I certainly did, but I can't now.

I probably saw COC maybe a dozen times from '90 to their comeback tour as a three-piece. And it was just fucking lame. I remember going to see them at Disco Rodeo and it just seemed like they were always touring with fucking Clutch. Clutch sucked. They were all just like rednecks, and that guy Pepper really brought COC to the forefront of that style of shit. As much as I hated that dude, I give him credit for writing the songs that people bought.

Steven Blush: Whenever you become the new figure in a band, it's always impossible. And this happens time and time again. I'm not gonna compare COC with Van Halen, but just to illustrate it, I mean, there was still the Van Halen name and you had one band with David Lee Roth and one band with Sammy Hagar. Both were successful, but they're both very different groups. That's kind of what we're talking about with COC. Pepper leading COC is a killer band. It's just a different band. It's very much tied into who Pepper is, which is not Carolina; he's New Orleans.

Reed Mullin: When Pepper was gonna sing, I was thinking we might wanna change the name, but I'm glad we didn't. Because constantly you're changing things up and people have all these expectations that you're expected to conform to. I feel like we can do whatever the fuck we want. It'll still sound like us as long as me and Mike and Woody are in it.

Pepper Keenan: We were doing that Deliverance record on Relativity's budget and it sounded like a major-label giant record. So one thing led to another and through Reed's connections, we passed that shit on to somebody at Columbia Records. They snagged us off Relativity. At that point, we were off to the races. We were at Electric Lady Studios in New York, and I'm doing vocals. It was just a big mindfuck, but we were up to the challenge.

Mike Dean: We took that as far as we could, and we didn't make them the Mariah Carey kind of money that they expected from their acts. We got to make two really good records from them. There wasn't a whole lot of money in it for us but they would spend a lot of money on whatever they did. We spent some money recording, like going to Criteria, which is a real fancy studio where Tom Dowd used to work and record Aretha and the Allman Brothers Band.

We met R. Kelly down there. And we met Yngwie Malmsteen the same day. Yngwie Malmsteen was really rude and he looked at Woody's [Gibson] SG and said, "Oh, I had a toy like this when I was a child." And he was, like, overweight and he was squeezing into these tight britches and he was walking in these tiny cowboy boots. I challenged him one-on-one to basketball as soon as R. Kelly's people stopped playing basketball. But he declined. I'm not much of a baller at all, but I felt I could school Yngwie.

Brian Cullinan: "Albatross" and "Clean My Wounds" became big records. In active rock radio, they were Top 20 records. The band had success. I was still doing college radio in 1996, but by the time Wiseblood came out, it wasn't necessarily going to be a college radio priority. When they were on Relativity, they were definitely embraced by college radio. By the time Wiseblood came out, they had had enough mainstream radio play not to be a college radio band anymore. By '98, they were nominated for a Grammy and touring with Metallica.

By this time, they're the biggest band that's ever come out of Raleigh. They couldn't get played on the radio there to save their lives. When I first hooked up with those guys, the first thing they said to me was, "Good, now we have a friend in this gig. Please get us played in our hometown." The commercial rock stations in Raleigh wouldn't play the record.

Pepper Keenan: We were one of the few bands who didn't try to squander the budget and pocket some money. We spent the fucking cash, because we wanted to make two CDs—Deliverance and Wiseblood—that we were thinking would be timeless records. We used their money to do it, to get our point across. These were things we dreamed about as kids.

Brian Cullinan: "Drowning in a Daydream" was the only hit that came from Wiseblood, and it didn't chart to the extent that "Albatross" and "Clean My Wounds" had charted. And the album didn't sell to the extent that Deliverance had sold.

Mike Dean: We all knew that it was a ride that would come to an end. It was really good for Deliverance for sure, but getting into Wiseblood, I think they were getting deeper into quarterly earnings. They weren't into investing in art or developing artists.

Pepper Keenan: With Columbia Records, our flavor was done. Green Day was killing bands like us. We didn't have what they wanted. But the funny thing about it, Columbia re-released all the COC shit and put it all on the Legacy label, so obviously they know something. They kept their claws in that. I have no qualms with Columbia Records other than the fact on Wiseblood they were giving us all kinds of shit for being too heavy. They said they didn't hear a single. Then two months later, "Drowning in a Daydream" got nominated for a Grammy, because one of the secretaries at Columbia loves the songs and sent it to the Grammy nominee people without telling the Columbia head honchos. What does that tell you?

America's Volume Dealer (2000)

Pepper Keenan: We had signed with a record label called Sanctuary that had moved to Raleigh. They would make us their flagship band for the label, and they had money to where we could do what we wanted to do. So we were off to the races making America's Volume Dealer, which was a whole different style of songs. Some odd moments, but some people really love that record. It was Darrell's—from Pantera—favorite album.

Greg Anderson: I really didn't get much into the record that came out in 2000, America's Volume Dealer. I liked some of the songs; the production turned me off.

John Custer: When we made America's Volume Dealer, it was our first foray into ProTools, which is digital recording. We'd made everything else on tape. We got hooked on gadgets. It was a mistake to record them in that format. The format hadn't really graduated to the point that it was something that was reliable enough to where you could get analog qualities on digital. We should have waited. We should have recorded that on two-inch, I think. When ProTools first came out, we were all so smitten with this thing. We thought, "Now we can make it sound awesome!" And it sounded less than awesome.

Brian Walsby: America's Volume Dealer was a horrible record.

Pepper Keenan: I would say America's Volume Dealer was the tensest record we did. Me and Woody and Mike were always cool but that's when, really, things started to separate and pull apart. There were some soft songs that were not my kind of thing. I had heavier songs that were more, for lack of a better word, "rednecky" kind of songs. And songs like "Stare Too Long," in my opinion, were straight up smash hits for radio, but the label didn't know what to do with it. I had gotten Warren Haynes from The Allman Brothers to play guitar on it. That was something nobody in our world had done before. COC was becoming a multifaceted band.

In the Arms of God (2005)

Woody Weatherman: Reed had split after we recorded that Volume Dealer album and we had Jimmy Bower filling in for a little bit on that tour. He appeared on that live record, too.

Reed Mullin: I was having back problems. Got hooked on pills. I was kind of burned out. I didn't like the direction some of the stuff was going. I liked it, but I was burned out. I just was working with my folks and chilling out. Being in a band is like being married, but you're married to at least two or three people, you know? Sometimes relationships get a little sketchy.

Pepper Keenan: Reed and I weren't speaking, so I called my friend Stanton to see if he could recommend any drummers that would be in the same vein or world as Reed. He just said, "Yeah. Me." He was a jazz guy and wanted to give it a shot.

Stanton Moore (Galactic; drummer, In the Arms of God-era Corrosion of Conformity): We didn't have to talk about it too much. All you had to deal with was Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. I knew exactly what they meant. Of course the riffs were heavy, maybe a little bit heavier than Zeppelin, but I knew drum-wise they were going for that heavy-Bonham thing, and that's what they wanted. John Bonham's one of my favorite drummers for a long time, but also, a lot of his favorite drummers are some of my favorite drummers, guys like Elvin Jones and Max Roach and Joe Morello, and the guys in the jazz world that he was taking ideas from.

Pepper Keenan: That record was just a culmination of the energies and ideas that I think COC had put into a very solid package. I think we really nailed it on that cause every song on there is really strong and it sounds like nobody else. We pushed it pretty hard. I was wiped out after that record mentally.

Woody Weatherman: There was really not a lot of talk about it being over. The hurricane [Katrina] happened, and Pepper had to tend to that. All of those guys are from New Orleans. During that time, Mike and I were actually working with Jason Patterson [who played drums live with COC when Moore wasn't available] on some music. That project turned into Righteous Fool later. I never thought it was the end of COC. I just knew when the time was right we'd rear our ugly head again, like we always do.

Corrosion, continued

Eric Eycke: When I was in Asheville, Reed was trying to do something, and I'd drive all the way up here and nothing would happen. He wanted to get a band together to do, like, old stuff.

Jason Browning (Righteous Fool, COC BLiND): We were three different things happening at the same time. There was Righteous Fool, there was COC BLiND, and there was the reformation of COC proper.

Karl Agell: Over the course of several years, we tried about five or six times to do the COC BLiND thing, and did that with some success—not a lot of shows, but had a lot of fun doing it, and it got a lot of things going. And, as a matter of fact, Righteous Fool with Mike Dean—the trio with Jason Browning playing guitar—was playing a lot of those shows with us and it got a lot of the juices flowing, and I believe it's directly part of what brought Woody back into the fray and got the COC word out on the street again. And it gave a lot of people satisfaction.

Jason Browning: COC BLiND started basically with discussions between Reed and Karl. So we'd play these killer songs and get to work with Karl. We'd play a few shows and probably the people who missed it the first time around would appreciate being able to see it. It's only two out of the five members, but it's something and it's fun. So we really just looked at it as a fun thing to do.

Karl Agell: Blind was only something that was performed for a couple years live, and then there was nothing after '92 live. The only song that was played live was "Vote With a Bullet" because that was Pepper's song.

Woody Weatherman: I wasn't really into that. I mean, if they had a good time doing it, that's totally cool—Karl and Reed with some of their buddies. It did get a little confusing whenever Mike and Reed and I decided to get going, because that was already confusing because people were like, "Where's Pepper?" but then there was also this COC BLiND going on. They were like, "Wait a second, there's too many COCs running around."

Mike Dean: I remember suggesting in jest that we should do a three-piece lineup reunion, then upon further inspection it was actually a pretty legitimate suggestion. Reed, having been out of playing music for a while, was really ready to try to make up for lost time and have a creative outlet.

Greg Anderson: Mike Dean made a killer record, that Earthride Vampire Circus record. So I knew him through that and then he hit me up out of the blue one day, telling me he had a new group called Righteous Fool and wanted to see if I was interested in checking it out. I told him yes, and then a few emails later he was saying, "Well, you know we're thinking about getting the three-piece Animosity lineup of COC together."

I was real excited, of course, because they're a favorite band of mine. I ended up helping them sort out some of their first shows on the West Coast tour as part of this festival that I help put together. So they were the headliners of that and through that he said, "Well, we wanna come out with something new." I said, "Let's get this seven-inch out on time for this West Coast run." So they put that together very quickly. I think they were just starting to put new music together while they were working on the old songs.

Scott Williams: I went to that first show and I was completely underwhelmed. I feel like they're a very interesting part of hardcore and punk in the United States in the '80s. But they've removed themselves out of that situation and sometimes when you do that you can't do that again. What made them special to me and to everybody else is that there was this urgency to their music, there was this ferocity. Now they're much more restrained. I guess that comes with age.

Daniel Lupton (Sorry State Records, Devour): The better show was definitely the basement show in Raleigh in 2010. COC totally split the money evenly between all the bands. I mean, it wasn't very much money; I think we got like 60 bucks or something. I thought it was really cool that they validated the DIY hardcore scene like that. It's clearly not like seeing them back in the day. They're so much better at their instruments that it's so ridiculously tight and measured and deliberate. They don't have that sense of wildness anymore.

I guess Woody and Reed surprised Mike by having Eric Eycke jump on stage and sing a song with them at Cat's Cradle last year. The story I heard was they chose to surprise him because, if they asked him beforehand, he probably would have said no. So, Eric Eycke jumps on stage and grabs the mic, and Mike Dean just starts fighting him. He's like, "Oh, some random dude just jumped up here and stole my mic." They haven't seen him in like 25 years or something. So Mike starts going after him, and the bouncers came and kicked Eric Eycke out and everything ground to a halt. Eventually, they worked it out and they dragged him back in and they sang the song.

Eric Eycke: That was just fuckin' hilarious. I laugh at it for so many reasons, but the one that makes me laugh the most is—what would a show with me in it be without some kind of confrontation?

Greg Anderson: There was a lot of hype: "Hey, it's the three-piece lineup. It's Animosity and Technocracy with a song or two thrown in." So I think a lot of people thought that's the type of style that they were gonna continue on the new album. The record has nothing to do with that, with 1986. It has nothing to do with that kind of music at all really. There's a few slight hints of seeing some sort of Discharge-sounding stuff, but the rest of it is more like '70s rock and there's songs that breathe purely '90s grunge. I was hoping that they would go in a more kind of aggressive and more edgier direction, but to me, what they have is kind of polished '70s-influenced rock without Pepper singing.

Jason Browning: From what I heard, it's gonna be my favorite COC record since Animosity.

John Custer: If they'd done Animosity 2, they'd be whores. They'd be total whores. They didn't cash in on their big thing from the past; they made this totally new thing that stands on its own.

Woody Weatherman: The album definitely, to me, did not turn out to be an Animosity 2 or whatever. It could have. We could have written a whole bunch of songs that sounded like that, but it probably wouldn't have been right. To be honest, it was not an intentional thing to not do that, it just—whenever we start messing around with songs, sort of whatever pops up is what pops up. We try to have a good time with it and not have too many preconceived notions of what it should or shouldn't be.

Legacy

"Dixie" Dave Collins: COC was the only thing we had like it. It was cool that they were from here. It makes it easier to think that you might be able to put something out from here, if somebody else has done it in sort of the same vein. Their influence definitely crosses several different genres of heavy music. Being someone that listened to them all the time when I was a little kid, and still being able to listen to new stuff that they put out, or different stuff, or different lineups—you can't say that about a lot of bands. Maybe ZZ Top.

Scott Williams: I remember a year ago reading stuff on some message board. People were like, "Fuck that punk shit" and "Where's Pepper?" COC is more known for "Vote With a Bullet" and "Albatross" than for Eye for an Eye or Animosity.

Daniel Lupton: It is really frustrating being in hardcore bands here and just being constantly compared to them. It's gotta be worse for Double Negative. But I just don't think Double Negative sound like them very much. A lot of times Kevin's vocals are double tracked, sort of like Mike Dean's were on Animosity, but I don't know. People assume the influence maybe more than it actually exists.

Karl Agell: I was singer No. 6 for the band. This band is a band that's in a constant state of evolution or flux, and I just happened to be on a parallel track into a lot of the same things they were into. You know, we were into Black Flag and Black Sabbath at the same time, and we understood that could work as one thing.

Pepper Keenan: Being in COC, I think the most hardcore record we did was Deliverance. We threw all that shit out the fucking window, again, like COC had done before. I think people appreciate that. People don't want to be spoon-fed the same fucking record in a different order down their throat every time. I don't think COC bullshitted anybody. We were adamant about songwriting and tone and melody 'cause those were the things that were important in the long run. If some dumbass with a bunch of tattoos thinks that COC sold out, that just gives me more ammunition to not ever do that again. I don't go backwards, man.

Mac McCaughan: I don't think that we're necessarily looking at their specific tactics or business approach or something. It was more like having an example that was local of a band that put out their own records, at first anyway, and toured all over the country and became known all over the country pretty much just through their own hard work and word of mouth.

Brian Slagel: I think COC was really way ahead of their time. They kind of started out as a punk band, but it was like a little bit of metal, a little bit of punk, a little bit of this and that. They crafted songs so well. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and all those bands are hugely influenced by COC, obviously—Foo Fighters as well. And now they're talking about how much they love COC.

Brian Walsby: They're important. Even if people don't like them, they're still important. Not a lot of people were doing what they were doing back then. Another thing about them that makes them really unique is they have the distinction of having a fan base that is entirely split down the middle.

John Custer: Obviously COC is not a one-trick or two-trick or 28-trick pony. It's apparently got a reservoir of tricks, and they keep on going and going and going and it's always interesting. And all of the lineups, they're always interesting. Go listen to them. Very risky some of the things we did, but we're thinking, "We either take a risk or we play it safe." When you're doing a band called Corrosion of Conformity, you're not allowed to play it safe. You've got to take those risks.

Mike Dean: Hopefully we're still worth a listen even though we're old bastards. I'm not big on spending a lot of time calculating our legacy. You just got to keep plugging away, doing something of value. It's hard to take a look back with perspective.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Why are we still here?"

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