Corrosion of Conformity drummer Reed Mullin speaks about the return of Pepper Keenan, the band’s forthcoming album, and its rich history of spanning the worlds of hardcore punk, heavy metal, and hard rock.
Corrosion of Conformity has been around in one form or another since 1982, and Reed Mullin was there at the beginning, along with guitarist Woody Weatherman and bassist Mike Dean. He made the transition from hardcore punk to crossover thrash and into the band’s most commercially successful era as a groove-oriented Southern sludge metal band, beginning with 1991’s Blind. That album featured Pepper Keenan on guitar (and singing on one song, the classic “Vote with a Bullet”) and Karl Agell on lead vocals. After Agell’s departure, Keenan took over as frontman – and Dean, who had left for a few years, returned – establishing the four-piece lineup that played on Deliverance, Wiseblood, and America’s Volume Dealer.
Mullin exited the band in 2001, and COC cycled through a few different men behind the kit, including Jimmy Bower of Eyehategod and Down and Stanton Moore of Galactic. In 2006, C.O.C. went on hiatus while Keenan concentrated on playing guitar with Down. When the band reemerged in 2010, it was back to the trio lineup from its earliest days. While the three original members put out two albums through Candlelight Records, they always said they were open to Keenan’s return. That reunion took place in December 2014.
COC is currently working on its first album with the Deliverance-era lineup since 2000. The band has also been touring heavily, currently playing some headlining dates featuring Mothership in support. Next comes a stint with Lamb of God and Clutch. I had the opportunity to speak with Reed over the phone as the band geared up to hit the road.
Jason Kolkey: Are you in North Carolina right now?
Reed Mullin: Yeah, we’re in North Carolina. Pep’s gonna be flying up tomorrow, and we start the tour tomorrow night. We’re looking forward to it. Playing with this lineup, man, we feel like little kids again. [laughs]
Yeah, that was going to be my first question. Obviously, there were these scheduling issues with Pepper doing Down and everything, but the logistics of it aside, why was now the right time to go back to that four-man lineup?
Well, we’ve been talking about it for a long time. Like you said, he’s been busy with Down, and Woody and me and Mike Dean have been doing this nostalgic sort of fancy, punk rock three-piece thing, and we did an album or two with that. The time was right. Pepper and I had been talking about doing it for years, and finally there was a block of time where it looked like he wasn’t doing any of the Down stuff. I guess Phil was doing whatever Phil was doing and Bower was doing Eyehategod, so it was an opening and Pep was all, “Let’s do it, man!” We wanted to test the waters and see what the reaction was, but also how we got along, cuz it was the first time the four of us played together in… I don’t know, 10, 12, 15 years? It had been a long time.
Right, since back in the America’s Volume Dealer era.
Yeah, it’s been a long time. And anyway, it was fucking even better than we thought it was going to be. It was fucking enormous. We had such a good time, and it was clear that the fans had such a good time, we decided to keep going with it. That was last year, and, you know, there was some nostalgia built into it, but of course. I mean we were looking forward to playing the songs, I think, as much as a lot of the fans were looking forward to hearing them.
How is the crowd’s response different when you play with Pepper as opposed to when you were doing the three-piece over the past five years or so?
It’s a completely different animal… well, no, I wouldn’t say that. I guess a different breed. Maybe the same species, like a dog, kind of. [laughs] The thing about COC is Mike Dean, Woody, and myself have been playing together since the band started, and we really learned how to play music together. So when we decided to do that hardcore punk thing again, like you said four or five years ago, that couldn’t have been more natural. The way we played music changed while we were in a band together.
The differences are subtle, crowd-wise. There were a lot of people who showed up who weren’t even born when we were doing Animosity and Technocracy and that stuff. We were kind of hoping for a bigger response from the punk crowd, but a lot of the punk crowd moved on, and they have their uniform. Like a lot of music these days, everything’s so segregated, you know what I mean? And COC’s been kind of all over the place musically. And for the punk rock purists, I think a lot of people didn’t check us out, which is a shame because we were right there in the thick of it in the early 80s. We played with Minor Threat.
Yeah, there’s a certain school of bands out there that picked up a lot on the kinds of things you guys were doing back in the day, like Municipal Waste or Iron Reagan. There are definitely bands out there doing that crossover thing today. But I wonder how much the passage of time and the stoner rock direction distanced you from that crowd.
To answer your question, crowd reaction’s been essentially the same: overwhelmingly good, particularly with the Pepper stuff. When we were doing that stuff in the mid-90s, we actually got played on the radio and stuff, which was very strange. And we had this giant record company behind us, pushing us, just pouring millions of dollars on top of us and making high-dollar videos for us and stuff like that.
Were you really let down that period ended, or were you just kind of happy to have had that experience?
Were we happy? Yeah. We were so frugal our whole lives because we were a punk rock DIY band. At least, that was our mindset. Then, all of a sudden, we’re on this major label, and they’re wasting money left and right. We couldn’t believe it. So we tried to do everything on the cheap, and finally our A&R guy [Jim Welch] came to us. He signed us for our deal with Columbia, but before that he had signed us to Relativity to do the Blind album and even before that did hardcore shows in Boston. He took us aside and said, “Look, guys, I totally understand what you’re doing” – because he’s an old punk rocker too – “but it’s kind of important that you spend money, cuz the more invested they are, the less likely they’ll, if for whatever reason Deliverance doesn’t meet whatever those standards are for a hit album, let you go.” So then we just kinda let them spend money.
The reason I asked is you hear from a lot of death metal bands and such who were signed in the early 90s that they never really expected it to last. They were just kind of riding it out. So I was curious about your attitude toward that major label experience.
It was a weird situation for us, don’t get me wrong, but the record company liked us a lot at the time. And we got to be exposed to this whole different crowd, which was nice. I remember after that “Albatross” video – we did it with Sam Bayer, who did the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video and Blind Melon. It cost like 400 million dollars. We had to sell a quarter million records to pay for the video. That was absurd to us, but we kept rolling.
Looking forward, how has your time doing the three-piece altered the way you guys work in terms of writing songs or working in the studio? Has that changed the dynamic or how you split up the vocals?
I’m gonna assume that Pepper does the majority of the workload of the singing, cuz I think with this particular album that we’re working on right now, that’s what these fans are gonna expect. But that doesn’t rule out the song here or there that I’d sing or Mike Dean could sing, cuz Mike Dean and I have done our fair share of that as well. Right now we’re just trying to accumulate, stylistically, a diverse batch of songs. I guess I’m gonna stake my claim and say this is gonna be one of the best, if not the best, COC records. I think it’s gonna be badass. We’re not completely all over the place, but we’re definitely within the realm of the different flavors of COC.
So you think there will be more of the punk influence on this record then?
Some. I think if you’re a COC fan you’ll be stoked. If you’re more of a Deliverance-era COC fan, you’ll be super-stoked. That doesn’t rule out anything, though. Like I said, much to the chagrin of a lot of our fans, our style has been all over the place at times. We’re certainly not like AC/DC, playing the same kind of music non-stop. But there’s always been a common thread and a common feel to our stuff, I think. It’s been liberating, too, because we can do something new. We’ve always felt that way.
I think a lot of people would say the prevailing political sentiment in the country right now is a populist rage, which seems to me to be perfect for Corrosion of Conformity. Has that influenced your songwriting at all?
Populism or the political temperature of the United States right now?
Yeah, both those things.
Eh, well, I don’t know. I mean, I’m more political than I ever was, but I think in terms of expressing that in our songs… I still do, but some of the other guys don’t quite as much. Maybe they’re a little bit more ambiguous. But in the songs I write, the words are for the most part still – I don’t know if they’re populist, but definitely political. Pepper tends to write more personal stuff, and Mike Dean seems like he does more of a mixture. But both of them are great lyricists, I think. That’s one of those things that got me into punk rock in the first place, the political side of it. Back then, punk rock to me wasn’t a hobby. It wasn’t just music I liked. It was almost in between a movement and a religion or something. It was the Reagan era. So that’s always been a big part of the way I write and, to me, a big part of the band Corrosion of Conformity, but it bounces back and forth between who’s doing the majority of the singing. I think Pepper might feel a little naked if he was singing about politics. He has, but that’s not really his thing.
He does sing “Vote with a Bullet” every night.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s true. I don’t think you can get more political than that. That’s the offspring of when I and some of the other guys were working [against] the Jesse Helms campaign here in North Carolina and he pulled a bunch of – I don’t know if you remember who he was, but at the time he was super right wing. Now he’d probably just seem like a moderate. At the time, he was the most right-wing senator in the United States Senate. And he pulled a lot of dirty tricks to win an election over a black guy. As you can imagine, it was a bunch of racist tricks and all sorts of stuff. That was when Pepper wrote “Vote with a Bullet,” and it was just the idea of fuck, if they’re gonna pull out all the stops and cheat and win, maybe our only solution is to kill the motherfuckers. [laughs]
You guys are working John Custer as producer on this record, whom you’ve worked with on every album since Blind in 1991. At this point, he’s basically a member of the band, right? What does he bring to the table that another producer would not?
Well, everything you said is true. We only ventured out once in the last 25 years and went with a different producer, and it went horribly wrong. I won’t mention any names, but he worked with Everlast. I think he just didn’t understand us. And that’s the thing about John Custer; he does understand us. And not only is he a super badass producer, but he’s a musician as well. And the production value he brings to us is not just having studio smarts to turn knobs – though I guess you don’t turn knobs anymore – click a mouse or whatever the fuck. He’s been working with us, like you said, since 91. He gets the best out of us, and the whole process he makes electric. Every step of the way he challenges us. He knows our personalities so well. He knows how to push us but keep everything fun. We’re always on the edge of our seat. We don’t know what the fuck he’s gonna come up with.
In the old days none of us looked forward to recording, us punk bands and stuff like that, cuz a lot of the studios didn’t understand the kind of music we were playing. They didn’t know how to record it. I’m talking about early 80s, way, way, way before ProTools and all that kind of stuff. So, for all of us, the excitement we got out of it was playing live. I remember Henry Rollins telling me that playing live was the get-off and going in the studio to do an album was the documentation of the get-off. And I think what Custer helps us do is keep our frame of mind in the get-off of that live atmosphere. We’re not the kind of band that would sample stuff or quantize the fucking drums or all that other shit. We’re pretty straight-up old school. Not that we don’t use ProTools.
You signed to Nuclear Blast Records for this new album after putting out the two trio records on Candlelight. What motivated that move? How has this label experience been different from others?
Monte Conner’s the one that signed us, and we’ve known him for beers and beers, man. He’s always been in the New York scene and stuff, so we’ve been friends with him for a long time. I forget what show it was, but I saw him at some show in New York. I mentioned that Pepper and I were thinking about getting the four-piece back together, and he fucking lost his mind. He said, “Listen, I’m gonna sign you guys.” He was that demonstrative and that straightforward. He didn’t care what anybody else had to offer. He said, “You talk to me first, cuz I’m gonna sign you guys. You guys are one of my favorite bands.” And sure enough, when we got down to brass tacks and were talking to different people, he came out on top.
One of the biggest selling points about Monte and the whole Nuclear Blast batch of folks is a bunch of them are big COC fans. And a lot of our old school fans that know the whole history and understand it. And you can’t put a price on that kind of enthusiasm, like an extra bit of money on your record advance. We knew it was the right decision. You know they’re gonna come up with great ideas in terms of how to market the band and go the extra mile. We had offers for bigger money from other people, but they were just so enthusiastic it was no-brainer. I know they’re gonna do a great job.
Do you think there’s a future for alternate lineups like the three-piece version or COC Blind [featuring Mullin and Agell playing the songs from that album], or do you think it will just be the four-piece down the line?
I think it will be predominately the Pepper four-piece lineup, but I probably more than the other three would love to have a situation where we could do a tour where it was “A Night with COC,” and we do the hardcore stuff, we do the Blind stuff with Karl, and we do the Pepper stuff. I’m not sure that’s gonna happen anytime soon, but I sure would like to. The three-piece stuff was a blast. That was incredible, and we wrote some good songs during that last little period when we were on Candlelight. But I’d really like to document some stuff with Karl and more of that Blind style, a little more mathy, a little more metal era of COC. That era in particular was fun for me, cuz I got to get a little crazy with the drums and time signatures and all that kind of stuff. Nowadays, that’s just the norm. Everybody has a badass drummer, and everybody does weird time signatures. But at the time, it was a little out of the ordinary. It’s fun to challenge yourself.
What aspect of your drumming do you think has changed the most over the years, and what are you still working on? What do you still hope to improve or expand on in your own playing?
There’s a couple things. When we did the Blind thing, that little run we did last year, it reminded me that I could play some of that more technical, mathy kind of stuff. And some drummer friends of mine that are a lot better than me turned me on to some more Latin beats, and that’s something I’d like to look into. That was super fun. And J.P. [Gaster] from Clutch has been helping me kind of understand jazz a little bit. That’s always been something that’s way above my head. But also, you know, staying in the groove. Like the drummer for AC/DC or the drummer for Thin Lizzy, technically those two guys were never anything particularly special, but they were always behind the beat a little bit. And that’s a hard thing to teach, man, the groove that they have. So that’s another thing I’ve been working on: just staying in the pocket, a little behind the beat. Jimmy Bower is real good at that – that feel thing, being slippery like that. So, yeah, I still wanna learn stuff. I have kind of a weird style that I don’t wanna upset, but it’s never stopped me from wanting to learn more.
I’m not a drum geek by any stretch of the imagination. I like playing drums, but I was never one of those guys that knows a lot about different drum kits and all that other stuff. I mean, I still have the same drum kit I bought in 1983 because I liked Clive Burr from Iron Maiden. That’s my schtick: If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Woody was the one who taught me how to play drums. He taught me The Ramones beat – doo doo dah, doo doo dah – and Eric Eycke, our singer [on 1984 debut album Eye for an Eye] taught me the Bad Brains beat – doo da deh, doo da deh. That was back in 81 or 82, so I just kind of took it from there.
Awesome. You’ve have had a few other projects over the years. Are you currently working on anything outside of COC?
Well, we’re getting ready to work on Teenage Time Killers. I’ve got Dave [Grohl]’s wishlist for people to participate on Vol. 2. I think if I do that and the COC with Pepper stuff and maybe do some rocking with Karl, that’ll fill up my agenda. That’ll be a lot stuff. I would like to do something with Karl. That era of COC, it wasn’t an anomaly, but it was a big bridge for us to go from the hardcore punk part of our history into more the realm of music that would maybe be played on the radio and us getting a big record deal. I don’t think Karl gets as much attention or accolades as he should. Without the Blind record, there certainly wouldn’t have been a Deliverance one. On that cycle, we played with Maiden, Rollins, Soundgarden, Danzig, I mean a million zillion bands, and we got a lot of attention that helped us garner a completely different crowd. It was basically like starting over again. So I would like to do something with Karl. I’m sure it wouldn’t be called Corrosion of Conformity. And the T.T.K. thing, there are so many people who wanted to be on Vol. 1 that I couldn’t fit on there that I think that’s gonna be badass as well. And the first one was more piecemeal. It was never meant to be an album. It was just supposed to be a five-song EP or something, and it just got bigger and bigger. It was a fun experience, for sure.
COC has a really deep catalog, and I know this blog has some younger readers who aren’t as familiar with you guys. So if those people were trying to get to know you, what song or album do you think best sums up what the band is about?
My favorites are Animosity, Blind, and Deliverance. There’s different songs on the self-titled one and Megalodon and different stuff like that. But yeah, I don’t think you can go wrong with Deliverance, Blind, and Animosity. They sound like three completely different bands too, which is awesome.
We’re true to our name – Corrosion of Conformity. I came up with that name in chemistry class. I had a shitty-looking mohawk, and jocks were throwing shit at me. We were studying corrosive materials, and we needed a name for our band. And it’s been perfect. Between the name and that radioactive skull thing, which Lemmy deemed the second-best logo in rock ‘n’ roll after the Motörhead one. And the great thing about the spiky skull thing that Mike Dean and our buddy Harold came up with is kind of goes along with [the name]. That helped us a lot.
I remember, we were doing a Sunday matinee at CBGB’s, and we had done a million of those and had a pretty good following up there. And they were always fun, just fucking out of hand, like controlled riot kind of situation. Whenever we played there, it was like one of those popcorn poppers at the movie theater, with people flying everywhere. Anyway, we did one of those shows – I think this was during the time that [Simon] Bob [Sinister] was singing – and I was the guy that printed up T-shirts and sold them and all that kind of stuff. After we played, I sold as many as I could and went back to our old Econoline 150, and as soon as I got out the door of CB’s, it’s fucking Joey Ramone. He was like eight feet tall. Not only does he look like a cartoon, but he kind of sounds like a cartoon when he talks. And I was freaked out because I’d never been that close to him, though I’d seen him a couple times. Anyway, he said [High-pitched Joey Ramone impression], “Hey, I enjoyed the show.” So, I was like, “Hey, can you hold on a second?” And I ran to the van and I got an extra-large C.O.C. spiky skull T-shirt and ran as fast as I could back. And he was still standing there. And I was like, “Hey, Joey, want a shirt?” And he said, “Yeah, man, that’d be great.” So I gave him one of those shirts, and he was nice as he could be. And, dude, you probably won’t believe this, but a month later The Ramones put out a video for a song called “I Wanna Live,” and he was wearing that shirt I gave him. Isn’t that killer? And a month later, they asked us to go on tour with them, and it was like “Whaaaaat?”
That’s a good story, and I think a good place to wrap it up.
It’s gonna be an exciting year. These tours this summer are gonna be badass, the new record is gonna be badass, and the future bodes well for me and all the guys in COC. We’re gonna have a lot of fun and generate a lot of badass music and kick out the jams with a lot of badass motherfuckers.
Thanks to Reed for being generous with his time and stories while bearing with some technical difficulties during our conversation. I have accordingly edited the transcript down a bit. Check out Corrosion of Conformity live on their upcoming dates:
4/06/2016 V Club – Huntington, WV
4/07/2016 Ziggys By The Sea – Wilmington, NC
4/08/2016 Blue Fox Billiards – Winchester, VA
4/09/2016 Ottobar – Baltimore, MD
4/10/2016 The Met – Pawtucket, RI
4/12/2016 The Wonder Bar – Asbury Park, NJ
4/13/2016 Saint Vitus Bar – Brooklyn, NY
4/14/2016 Saint Vitus Bar – Brooklyn, NY
4/15/2016 The Chance – Poughkeepsie, NY
4/16/2016 The BroadBerry – Richmond, VA * w/ Eyehategod (no Mothership)
w/ Lamb Of God, Clutch:
5/03/2016 The Orpheum – New Orleans, LA
5/04/2016 Minglewood Hall – Memphis, TN
5/05/2016 Brady Theater – Tulsa, OK
5/07/2016 Park Street Saloon – Columbus, OH *w/ Lo-Pan (no LOG or Clutch)
5/08/2016 Reading Eagle Theatre – Reading, PA
5/09/2016 State Theatre – Portland, ME
5/10/2016 House of Blues – Boston, MA
5/12/2016 The Pageant – St. Louis, MO
5/13/2016 Westfair Amphitheater – Council Bluffs, IA
5/14/2016 Spicoli’s – Waterloo, IA (no LOG or Clutch)
5/16/2016 Magic City Music Hall – Binghamton, NY
5/17/2016 The Paramount – Huntington, NY
5/18/2016 Higher Ground – So. Burlington, VT w/ Clutch (no LOG)
5/19/2016 TD Echo Beach – Toronto, ON
5/23/2016 The Cotillion – Wichita, KS
5/24/2016 Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, CO
5/25/2016 The Complex – Salt Lake City, UT
5/27/2016 Comerica Theatre – Phoenix, AZ
5/28/2016 Fox Theater Pomona – Pomona, CA
5/29/2016 Fox Theater – Oakland, CA
5/31/2016 WaMu Theater @ CenturyLink Field Events – Seattle, WA
6/01/2016 Queen Elizabeth Theatre – Vancouver, BC
6/02/2016 South Okanagan Events Centre – Penticton, BC
6/04/2016 Calgary Stampede Corral – Calgary, AB
6/05/2016 Shaw Conference Centre – Edmonton, AB
6/06/2016 Saskatoon Prairieland Exhibition Park – Saskatoon, SK
6/07/2016 Burton Cummings Theatre – Winnipeg, MB
6/10/2016 Piere’s Entertainment Center – Ft. Wayne, IN w/ Clutch, Valkyrie (No LOG)