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 

A little more than a month ago, Corrosion of Conformity played a one-off gig in Asheville at the large Orange Peel Social Aid and Pleasure Club. They were, in an unspoken way, the guests of honor, following a screening of the documentary film Slow Southern Steel earlier in the evening.

An examination of the distinct flavor of loud music emanating from below the Mason-Dixon, the film didn't include any current members of Corrosion of Conformity, now back in its mid-'80s trio formation as it reaches its 30-year anniversary. There was a brief interview with former frontman Pepper Keenan and an even shorter snapshot of the band itself, as the film scrolled through a list of influences for the specific strain of Southern metal in question, alongside Black Flag and the Melvins. Still, their presence was felt in most every frame. Forget the talking heads on film; in Asheville, Corrosion of Conformity were the heroes in the house.

While this might've been a good opportunity for COC to trot out the hits, appease an aging fan base, collect its check and roll back to Raleigh, that's not what happened. COC ran through an hour-long set that touched on former glories—"Animosity," "Deliverance," "Technocracy"—but mostly focused on new material. The set list was seamless, even if the set wasn't. And while they might not be the deafening and overpowering hardcore devastators they purportedly were five years or so before I was born, the 30-year-old institution Corrosion of Conformity slayed all the same.

Considered in terms of a band's career, 30 years is an atypical run, doubly so for a loud and volatile punk-metal outfit. But not much in the story of Corrosion of Conformity is typical. Instigators of the Raleigh hardcore scene in the early '80s, COC went on to pioneer the punk-metal crossover that same decade, and as the '90s approached, COC shifted again, setting a blueprint for lurching Southern metal borne on the back of the almighty riff.

Changing is never easy, but it's what COC does best. Over its 30 years, some 13 people have joined COC; 12 have left, at least temporarily. With every shift in sound and personnel, they've challenged their old fans and usually collected new ones. This dynamic landed them a major-label contract and tours with some of the world's biggest names in hard rock: Rollins Band, Danzig, Iron Maiden, Soundgarden, Metallica. Despite heavy metal's uncertain future in the post-Nirvana '90s, COC scraped the ceiling of mainstream success.

But Corrosion of Conformity isn't done yet. In 2010, after a brief lull, the band announced that it would return to the stage and the studio as a trio—the same lineup of drummer Reed Mullin, guitarist Woody Weatherman and bassist Mike Dean that recorded their early landmark Animosity.

Would this be a cheap nostalgia-trip into the punk-rock glory days? A return to hardcore form? What does COC still have to offer? And, 30 years later, why are we still here?

Corrosion of Conformity's ninth studio album actually finds the crew going into full self-definition mode, drawing from its deep catalog for a varied, and fittingly divisive, platter.

Corrosion of Conformity [read our review] drives home the nominal point of the trio that made it: Even after becoming one of the most storied bands in hard rock, with one of the most iconic logos in all of music, staying the same is nothing more than a death notice.

The Raleigh hardcore scene

Reed Mullin (drummer, Corrosion of Conformity): Woody and I met each other in fifth or sixth grade. Ethan Smith—he's in this band called Ghost of Saturday Nite and the New Awful—he went to school with us, too, and I guess that he turned me onto stuff. There's always a kid that has records; he was that guy.

Woody Weatherman (guitarist, Corrosion of Conformity): Yeah, we were more into the heavy rock.

Mike Dean (bassist, Corrosion of Conformity): I heard some people I knew play the Ramones as kind of a joke. And I thought it was a joke, but I realized I liked it because it sounded heavy. I got into the Clash a little bit because the hippies told me reggae was cool.

Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dischord Records): No Labels and COC were a part of a vanguard. What was happening in America in the early '80s was this really profound response to what was coming out of England, like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Damned. It was all about self-definition. They knew that if they wanted to be a part of something like that, then they had better start fucking playing. It just set off. People may have heard about it or read about it but everywhere it just popped up on its own.

Steven Blush (author, American Hardcore: A Tribal History): Every town had its band that helped create their own hardcore scene, and Corrosion of Conformity was that band for Raleigh. Basically you had the Black Flag and Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks tours, and that created the movement. Where it happened in Raleigh was with COC.

Ricky Hicks (No Labels): I met Reed at the Pier. It must have been early '82 because he had gotten a drum set for Christmas, he said. Maybe we could get together and play. We both knew there was a three- or five-song EP by Red Cross [later Redd Kross] that had come out on Posh Boy Records, and we said, well, we're not really good, but we could probably get together and cover all the tunes on that. So that's what we did; we got together and played a few songs off that record.

Mike Dean: A couple of us moved down here [from Charlotte] because we'd seen the Bad Brains in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. We thought we'd come down here and have a band.

The beginning of COC

Scott Williams (Double Negative): On my 17th birthday, I came to Raleigh to see Faith and Double O from D.C. And it was also maybe COC's second show. I don't know if they were called Corrosion of Conformity yet or called the Accused. At first they were called Barney Fife's Army, then they were the Accused, then they were the Seven Ups, and then Corrosion of Conformity.

Mike Dean: Reed came up with the name Corrosion of Conformity a long time ago in study hall or science class or chemistry. This 15-year-old is coming up with the name, a good generic hardcore name, like you're gonna change the world.

But it's also a response: You go up to D.C., to this enlightened scene of youth, with these young bands that are very creative and have something to say and have got the energy and they're ready to go. And it's like high school and you're not cool because of whatever. You don't dress a certain way and you don't have a pair of creepers and an expensive leather jacket and you haven't done anything stupid to your hair. They give you this disapproval vibe and you're like, "Here's some fucking conformity, man."

Eric Eycke (singer, Eye for an Eye-era Corrosion of Conformity): This was back when Benji [Shelton] was singing with COC, and I was still with Colcor. We would have these parties, and anybody was invited. If you had a band, it was like open-mic night. Basically, it was like the two rooms, so the band was set up and it was just do whatever you wanna do. The scene was so tight, it didn't matter how good or bad you were. The dining room area was where the pit was going. People used to get thrown through the windows. It almost seemed like it was every weekend; all you had to say was "Turner Street party."

Ricky Hicks: During the year and a half No Labels were around, COC kind of went through three singers. They were one of the bands playing around, but they weren't the head of the pack or anything, I don't think.

Ian MacKaye: Mostly at the time, No Labels were the pre-eminent band for me. No Labels and COC were kind of twins. They were two bands that made a band together. I only knew COC, really, at that time in the early-'80s. I think '83 was the last time I saw COC. It was an incredible gig back on Aug. 17, 1983.

Steven Blush: They came up to Washington and definitely got the D.C. attitude thrown at them: "Who are these redneck uncool dudes coming to play the ultimate hardcore scene?" But I liked them at first, and I think that experience really inspired them to create their own scene.

Mike Dean: There were people that one could meet at a hardcore show up there who were basically socialite conformists of another stripe, all dressed up in punk-rock regalia. That was the case everywhere because these were basically high school kids.

Ian MacKaye: Faith broke up Aug. 17; Minor Threat's last show was Sept. 24 of '83. After that show, I can't remember hearing No Labels. COC sort of changed; they started to evolve.

Brian Walsby (illustrator, author of Manchild 5): There's a very short amount of time between the time when those guys played and things started to happen. Two years later, they parted ways with the singer off the first record, Eric Eycke, and became a three-piece, but it seemed like an enormous amount of time back then. When you're young, it seems like things last forever.

Ricky Hicks: Reed's parents either owned or rented this house over beside the Player's Retreat. Reed's dad's business was in that building, and we had a couple rooms on the second floor where we could just go and rehearse any time. The other thing that made it great was they had a WATS line there. WATS line was a phone where you could make long-distance phone calls for free or pretty cheap. We were able to just call people all over the country and make connections so we could get shows.

Reed Mullin: We had this singer Robert Stewart for like a month and a half. He said he was a Dadaist. And he always faced away from the audience, which is kind of a downer unless you're trying to be all artistic. We were opening for D.O.A. and Minor Threat, and we had this guy who wouldn't look at the audience. So we got Eric after that.

Mike Dean: Our trick was to play all the damn time. We just had to go do it. That's how we got known sorta kinda. We were just kind of a default choice. There weren't that many bands.

Reed Mullin: Back in the old days, it was like Henry Rollins would say: "Get in the van and go." We'd be playing at pig farms and freaking VFW halls and then sometimes big shows. There were a lot of shit holes, but it was fun.

Ricky Hicks: It was not uncommon to leave in the afternoon, go somewhere, play a show, and then come back during the middle of the night. So I'd leave class at 3, we'd go to Richmond or D.C. or wherever, play a show, drive through the night, and I'd be back for my 8 a.m. class.

Woody Weatherman: A lot of [other bands] didn't do all the touring that we buckled down and did. That was the difference.

Tomas Phillips (Gauchiste): I began attending punk shows at the age of 13, a few years before Eye for an Eye came out. It was a small and inviting collective of mostly smart, thoughtful, marginalized individuals. COC, and specifically Reed Mullin, were instrumental in generating all kinds of opportunities for the area.

Brian Walsby: Reed had access to some money 'cause his parents had a pretty successful business at the time and he worked for his parents. He would take the money that he made from his parents and put it into other bands' records and promoting shows. He would drive off and bring back things to play in Raleigh. He got that band Void, from Washington, D.C., I think in '84. He drove up and got them and brought them back from D.C. to Raleigh to play a show and then drove them back home.

Brian Cullinan (former Columbia Records executive): Punk was very political at the time. Look at COC's iconic skull image. Inside, you see the radioactive symbol. We were all obsessed with the fact that we were living under this nuclear umbrella, and under this policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, and that really any day, Reagan was going to fucking sneeze and we would all be dead. I don't think hardcore thought that it was ever going to grow up.

Errol Englebrecht (tattoo artist, designer of COC logo): Everything was political back then. Obviously death and nuclear war was pretty prevalent.

Scott Williams: It seemed that Mike and Reed were writing about issues that perhaps they were concerned with: the whole Iran-Contra thing, the whole Central American thing, the police in the United States. There was plenty to be mad about and I think that's what fueled the anger behind it. But they're not so angry anymore.

Eric Eycke: It seemed like I was the only one having fun. Everybody else was so goddamn serious. I'm not against being political or having a stand or voicing your opinion or whatever, but at the same time, it's like, goddamn, man. I'm not going to give myself an ulcer over this shit. Come on, man, party a little bit.

Eye for an Eye (1984)

Mike Dean: Eric Eycke was the kind of singer that people would be into hearing at that point. He was a hardcore kind of tough dude. Never could hear him; he would usually be running around and miss the microphone.

Woody Weatherman: He put on a good live show, and that's what mattered.

Eric Eycke: In Richmond, we opened up for Hüsker Dü. Then we opened up for Dead Kennedys down at the Pier, and I had already heard about the Dead Kennedys so I was kind of in awe. I was like, "Damn, Jello's here." I remember we finished our set, and I walked off and he just looked at me and he was like, "Goddamn, blown off the stage again." That always stuck with me. If that's what it takes, then yeah, I can do that.

Mac McCaughan (Merge Records, Superchunk): I think that if I'd lived anywhere else and just seen COC, I would have been just totally blown away and they still would have been one of my favorite bands.

Mike Dean: Recording Eye for an Eye was pretty transformational.

Reed Mullin: It didn't really sound like us. Well, we had done two or three songs at that place before, for the Why Are We Here? compilation, the seven-inch. And that sounded pretty good, it sounded kind of like us because we were actually kind of heavy for that time. The only other hardcore band that was playing that stuff was Void, I guess.

Woody Weatherman: We just trusted. We didn't know too much about studios. And they didn't know what to do with us.

Eric Eycke: It could have been so much better. Reed was like a kid in a candy store. He went back in and he remixed it after-hours. We did our time; we went home at 6. He came in at 7 and worked until 10. That's how we ended up with that product, and no, I'm not happy about it. But it is what it is. If you like it, you like it.

Ricky Hicks: They just had this roar. It was just piercingly loud. I think they were competing to be heard.

Scott Williams: Reed would pretty much set up a bunch of shows and a lot of times, if they weren't on tour, they would play. And they'd play with the higher echelon of hardcore bands. And they'd just blow them away every time. It was kind of cool because it was like, my friends and the people I live with are making these idols of mine just look like complete shit. And for real, they would.

Danny Hooley (Ugly Americans, The Bastages): The first time the Ugly Americans played a show—actually, a show at the Duke Coffeehouse—COC showed up and they asked if they could play. And they did. They played on our instruments. They just wanted to check out Durham. Of course, they did show us up because they were amazing, and it was our first gig.

Eric Eycke: It was like, goddamn. We were blow-your-head-off loud. It's not like this geriatric metal crap that they're playing now—not to mention the whole Southern rock crap. It was in your face. They can say whatever they want to about me, but goddamn, man, you pay for a show, you get a show.

Mac McCaughan: The craziest thing that happened was the show where Reed and Mike Dean got stabbed. That was at the show at St. Joseph's church in Durham, like in the basement. I drove them to the emergency room at Duke in my car. Someone was trying to steal Mike Dean's amp, and Mike Dean chased him down and maybe Reed too, and they both got stabbed. Just, like, a crazy night. That was the sort of thing that happened, I guess. Those guys probably had that—well, maybe nothing that severe—but they probably had crazy stuff happen all over the country.

Errol Englebrecht: When they played the battle of the bands at Dorton Arena, I think they got through two songs and then the security guards and the cops all showed up. Somebody got beat up. We're all running around through the fairgrounds, cops chasing us. It was nuts, absolutely nuts. Apparently, they didn't like COC.

Steven Blush: The problem COC always dealt with is the singer is always the focus of a band, and they changed face kind of constantly.

Eric Eycke: I was sitting out here at Sadlack's, and I saw Woody and Mike Dean drive up. I just looked over: "Here it comes. I'm getting kicked out." I was just like, whatever, fuck you.

Animosity (1985)

Scott Williams: When Eric left the band, they became a three-piece. That's really when they kind of became a machine because they were touring constantly. As much as Eric was a good frontman for what it was, he wasn't that good. And a lot of people are like, "Oh he was so rowdy on stage, like a monster." But then if you really see videotapes of Eric Eycke from that period, he was really goofy and stupid and talking all kinds of crap on stage. When he was out of the band, they got a lot sharper, a lot more condensed. Reed sung most of the time, Mike sung most of the time, and they were just ripping heads off.

Woody Weatherman: Metallica and Exodus and Slayer and all that sort of stuff was happening. We enjoyed that stuff as well.

Mike Dean: You can get a lot of attention by being into metal if you're in a hardcore band, because it's so controversial to say stuff like that or incorporate it into your music. It was humorous. Hence arrived the unfortunate term "crossover."

Steven Blush: It was natural. The most intense music, after Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, was Slayer and Metallica. Therefore, that's where everybody was going. That turned into a culture war, basically. And the people who were on the alt-rock, indie-rock side won, and the people who were crossover kind of got destroyed.

Greg Anderson (SUNN O))), Southern Lord Records): The Animosity tour, three-piece: They played some shithole in Seattle, a little hall, and they really tore the roof off the place. It was awesome. It was a great show, really intense. Back then in the mid-'80s hardcore scene, there wasn't a lot of three-piece bands. It was cool to see a band with as much energy and intensity as the other bands do it as just three people.

"Dixie" Dave Collins (Weedeater, Buzzov-en): Animosity is probably my favorite record of all time. Not just Corrosion of Conformity records, but all my favorite records.

Reed Mullin: Because we were friends with Slayer, we had a show with them in Baltimore when Mike and I were doing most of the singing. We had a pretty big following up there. It was The Obsessed and Slayer, and I think it was their first tour, too, cruising around in a Trans Am and a U-Haul. The Obsessed were pissed because they were told that they had to go on first. They were saying, "We ain't gonna open for a punk rock band," and made a big stink about it. So we went ahead and played first and Slayer got mad. Tom [Araya] and Dave Lombardo were like, "Fuck those guys. I don't know them." And we tell them not to worry about it. And we play and it's fucking packed, a great show. The Obsessed were trying to put their gear up on stage, and Slayer's whole crew blocks them and Slayer went on after us—and killed it.

That night, Slayer took us aside and said, "Man, you guys ought to be on a label. We're gonna get you guys signed." Sure enough, that Monday at my parents' office, in the fax machine, was a contract from Metal Blade.

Brian Slagel (Metal Blade Records): Way back in the '80s, we had started doing some punk stuff. So we started this offshoot punk label called Death Records. Really it was the Slayer guys who introduced me both to D.R.I. and COC. We had gotten the first COC record in the office. And one of the guys that was working at the label had heard it and said, "Hey, you should check this out." So I listened to that and got in touch with the guys, and said, "Hey, we'd love to do a record deal with you." And they were surprised it was a metal label but we said, "Well, we've got this little offshoot as well that we can put some records on." And it was a deal.

Mike Dean: We were unknowledgeable about what appropriate terms would be, so we contacted a lawyer. The lawyer apparently was unknowledgeable about what good terms would be, because he told us to sign it.

Woody Weatherman: I think every band from that era had a story like that. They don't really care; they just want to have a record out.

Brian Slagel: The main reason why I even started a label was because I wanted to turn people on to music. If we helped to make it happen a little bit because we gave the band the vehicle, then that's cool.

Simon Bob (Ugly Americans; singer, Technocracy-era Corrosion of Conformity): COC recorded the album Animosity for Metal Blade Records. I was out there with them while they were recording it; I even sang some background vocals on it. I talked to the producers and the label people, and through that connection, Ugly Americans got signed to the same record label, and we put out a couple records with them.

At the time, I'd say it was great. Ugly Americans were an independent band. We got signed pretty easily and just did our recordings and sent it to them. They gave us total control over everything. They didn't try to make us change anything. When we said we wanted to do a new record, they said "Cool." And we went on and recorded it. They paid for everything, and I didn't have any complaints at all. We didn't make any money off of it, but just in terms of getting our records out there, they were real helpful.

Scott Williams: When Animosity came out, I remember going, "Oh my god, this sounds so fucking weak compared to what they were live." Because on one side of the record, they used these electric drums. Reed didn't use a real drum set, so it sounded weird. Compared to what they actually sounded like at that period, it's different.

Danny Hooley: That trio was fucking scary. That is one of the scariest bands I've ever seen.

Technocracy (1987)

Simon Bob: I guess it was 1985, they decided they wanted to get a singer, and my band, Ugly Americans, had broken up. So that's the point when I joined the band.

Reed Mullin: We were friends with Simon Bob because we used to play with Ugly Americans all the time. Mike was really tired of getting microphones smashed into his mouth. It became a health hazard for him. And that's why I did a lot of singing, too, because he would get the mic bashed into his mouth and cut his lips. Somebody had to do some singing, too.

Scott Williams: To deal with COC locally, it was whoever was kissing their ass the most at the time was able to be their roadie. And if you worked really hard, you could maybe even sing for them. So I think that's kind of what happened with Simon Bob.

Simon Bob: In terms of vocals and stuff, I like a little more melodic structure to the songs, and I like to sing a little bit more than just the heavy metal deal. In Corrosion, it was kind of just the same thing. They weren't real open to some of the stuff I wanted to do. It was their band; I was a newcomer.

Danny Hooley: I like the fact that Simon Bob sang the way he did on Technocracy because I like throwing a little bit of a wrench into the heavy metal thing. And I think Bob was that wrench. But they had different ideas. And, fair enough, because the guy who should sing for that band is Mike Dean.

Simon Bob: We did the Technocracy record about six months after I joined the band. None of that was really any of my material; those were just songs that were already written. We probably should have waited longer than six months to record it. Another year-and-a-half later, we had almost another album's worth of material that I was real proud of. Most of that never got recorded because I left the band. They just moved on when they got a new singer.

Brian Slagel: I think they just wanted to put something out fairly quickly after Animosity came out. We felt it was pretty good.

Mike Dean: We weren't getting paid a dollar. We weren't getting any kind of support from Metal Blade. But there was a couple of good songs on Technocracy. And then we almost actually had a whole new set of stuff.

Reed Mullin: We just kept playing on throughout the '80s. Mike bailed in '87.

Simon Bob: While I was in the band, Mike Dean was unhappy with the direction it was going, and he left the band. We got a new bass player, Phil Swisher. I think it wasn't going in the direction Reed and Woody wanted it to go in. And I was a large part of that, so at that point, I just decided to bow out.

Mike Dean: I don't think I was planning to quit the band. I was planning on seeing everybody back in Raleigh because we had another tour booked. I did a little walkabout in Mexico and Guatemala with my girlfriend at the time.

Karl Agell (singer, Blind-era Corrosion of Conformity; Leadfoot): He just got tired of the whole thing. Phil Swisher, who was a friend of theirs in the Raleigh punk scene, played in bands like UNICEF and Blood Bath. Phil jumped right in on bass and they kept on touring.

He was really essential in keeping the band going when the band was falling apart. He was a really, really strong songwriter. And the thing that Phil doesn't get appreciated for is that he actually was the guy who brought in a lot of the rock 'n' roll, a lot of the blues. That was what he was doing. And he was just a phenomenal bassist. He wrote virtually half of the Blind record.

Blind (1991)

Mike Dean: We were dabbling in metal. We just changed a lot more parts a lot more frequently. When they got up with John Custer and started really refining that stuff for Blind, that's when something really awesome started happening.

Eric Eycke: When Pepper Keenan joined up, basically, they almost went, like, Southern rock, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, they can do whatever they want to do. It doesn't make any difference to me. Just by the pure name, you've already sold out. There's no elbow room to do anything that you want to explore musically, without conforming.

Brian Walsby: Another reason why punk rockers really hated that stuff so much is not that it was different but that their music represented the enemy. Playing Southern rock reminds all those people of Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special, but it reminded them of their surroundings. I didn't grow up with rednecks trying to beat me up because of the music I liked. A lot of the people around here who liked punk rock got a lot of shit from a lot of people. So regardless of how good or bad the music is, there's this stigma of those kind of people attached with COC and what they're doing.

Mike Dean: I felt like my music taste in a way was going backwards, going deeper into the Sabbath and Hendrix catalog. The way these hardcore bands evolved in the mid-'80s, it had become a little bit two-dimensional. People were looking for some musical inspiration from the past, like '60s and early-'70s type of stuff that was a real free type of music. The way a lot of people broadened their horizons was to kind of take a step backwards.

Scott Williams: They were tired of playing the same crap to a bunch of idiots running around in the same circle. I was probably the harshest person about that, but in hindsight I really can't blame them. I was always thinking local, and I think they were thinking global.

Reed Mullin: When Mike left the band and we were looking for singers, I called Chris Cornell to see if he wanted to sing—and this is after [Soundgarden's] first album came out. I asked Buzz from the Melvins.

Karl Agell: I responded to an ad in the Village Voice, essentially. They said, "Looking for a singer, cross between Ian Gillan, H.R. and James Hetfield." I was like, "Wow, that's totally interesting." I kind of knew people that knew them, and so I just got in touch with them and arranged an audition. I ended up coming down and basically getting the job in May of '89.

Reed Mullin: Pepper Keenan came up to try out to sing. I'd known him for a long time. I'd met him down in New Orleans. He wasn't really hitting the bill of what we were looking for singing-wise. But he was a guitar player so we were like, "Hey man, kick around. And we'll see if it works with two guitar players."

Anyway, we did this album with this guy named Karl singing. He was in these hardcore bands from New York and Connecticut. And we did that Blind album with him. We had an independent record deal with Relativity. That's the first time we did some videos. Beavis and Butt-Head liked us. That was our first true record label pushing us.

Pepper Keenan (former frontman, Corrosion of Conformity): I wasn't what they were looking for, so I ended up going in as second guitar player. The hardcore scene got pretty stale and everybody was running around in circles doing what the other bands were doing. I always thought COC would be one that would push forward and create its own thing, so that's when we started working on the Blind stuff.

John Custer (producer): Woody and Pepper worked well together. Good opposing styles. Pepper was more into riff-oriented metal, but Woody could play all that bluesy kind of stuff.

Reed Mullin: Pepper got some notoriety for singing the vocals for the "Vote With a Bullet" song on the Blind album.

John Custer: Actually me and Pep had to sneak back into the studio to record "Vote With a Bullet" because he kept trying to explain he had an idea for this thing, but we were so pressed for time. And he's like, "Hey, double back and meet me. We got to record vocals for 'Vote With a Bullet.'" We didn't go to sleep. We stayed up till the sun was glaring through the windows of the studio.

Karl Agell: We ended up driving up to New York in the spring of '91 and ended up staying 10 weeks in New York, and we booked basically this welfare motel in Chelsea. One night Phil got really, really wasted, and he was at one of those Korean deli buffets in New York City at 3 in the morning. He was sharing a room with Pepper and Woody, and he ended up puking on the floor. And later on, Woody was woken up by the rats fighting over Phil's vomit on the floor.

It was 10 arduous weeks, man. We did like a 52-hour mixing session, just freaking out under pressure to get this thing done, and people are losing their minds.

John Custer: They had played thousands of punk rock shows and now they wanted to do something else. You have a band like that, with a reputation for never letting their knee hit the ground for any kind of corporation, whether it be a record label or anything, yet we wanted to get to a larger audience. We had to make this punk-rock transition into a wider demographic and retain all of the credibility.

Reed Mullin: I think we're one of the few bands that can say we toured with Minor Threat, Black Flag, Metallica and Iron Maiden. We've been pretty fortunate and got to play with a lot of cool bands.

Karl Agell: Touring went really well. It was always a good thing. As I see it, and as a lot of other people see it, it was always well received. In the time between what happened in the studio, the second album, and touring, there was more than six months of separation. Things didn't reach a head on the road at all. It was in the summer of 1993 when things finally came to a head, five weeks into the recording session.

Pepper Keenan: There were a lot of things going on, and to be completely blunt and honest, we were punching it pretty hard. I was pretty much insanely playing guitar constantly. I lived in Raleigh, so I didn't have anything to fucking do. I'd sit down in the fucking Wig Shop and play guitar all fucking day long. We started working on Deliverance, and the input Karl put in wasn't what we expected. When it came time to sing, it didn't seem like he had done the same amount of homework as we had put into it.

Karl Agell: We were recording the album, and I guess I was a little bit naïve in the sense that I was very, very into it. I came to realize that there was other motivations going on, that other people wanted to be in charge and wanted to steer the direction of the band. Pepper auditioned for the band—originally, he wanted to be the frontman—and he definitely got a taste when we recorded "Vote With a Bullet." All I can surmise is that he realized, "Hey, I can be a front person and I can get the attention that I originally wanted."

It sucked. This is the decision they made; it wasn't a decision I made. It's just what happened. So yeah, it totally sucked. I was pretty hurt. Phil Swisher wasn't fired from the band. He said, "Dude, you've been misunderstood or maligned." And he quit on my behalf, essentially. So we started Leadfoot, our reaction to this whole thing.

"Dixie" Dave Collins: At one point, Mike wasn't going to be playing with the Deliverance lineup. They were looking for a bass player, and a friend of mine drove me up to Raleigh. I jammed with those guys for a couple days. Then Mike came back, which was fine with me; he's pretty much my hero.

Mike Dean: They got working again and it just came to my attention that they were looking for a bass player. I said, "Yeah, I'll do it." They were auditioning singers and I'm like that's ridiculous. Pepper sang on Blind, and it turned out really good. Why get one more person in the band?

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.


"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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