All photos by Alyssa Herrman except where noted
It was half past one o’clock in the afternoon in Atlanta, and I was chasing Pepper Keenan through the airport. We were meant to split a cab over to tonight’s venue, and once I finally tracked him down, we headed on our way to start off the first night of what will be a very long tour for him and Corrosion of Conformity, the band he first joined in 1989, left in 2006, and, as of 2014, is now part of once more. It was the first time I hit the road with this version of COC, and even though it was for a short time—November 12 to 14, three shows in all—I was a little nervous. I’ve spent the past four years touring with the original trio of Woody Weatherman, Reed Mullin, and Mike Dean while they criss-crossed the nation playing the thrashy, aggressive punk rock of their early albums like Eye for An Eye and Animosity. We rolled through every major city you can think of and more than a few oddball outposts, and every night, without fail, at least one person would come up to my merch table and ask, “Where’s Pepper?”
Depending on my mood, I’d either drone “Probably in New Orleans, ‘cause he sure ain’t here” or, more charitably, would explain that he wasn’t with the band, he was out playing with Down, the sludgy supergroup he co-founded in 1991. Down has become something of a household name thanks to its pedigreed membership—the lineup is rounded out by Phil Anselmo (Pantera, Superjoint Ritual), Jimmy Bower (Eyehategod, Superjoint Ritual), Pat Bruders (Crowbar), and Bobby Landgraf (Honky)—and immensely popular albums like 1995’s NOLA. They play huge venues, headline massive festivals, and tour the world; they do alright for themselves, and it’s no secret that playing in a band like that is one hell of a time commitment. In 2006, Pepper stepped away from COC to concentrate on Down; the door was left open, but fans wondered if they’d ever hear him sing “Deliverance” or “Albatross” again.
COC itself has endured a variety of lineup changes and various periods of hiatus, so when Woody, Mike, and Reed decided to hop back on the horse and hit the road playing their early punk and crossover thrash songs in 2011, it made sense. They recorded two well-received new albums of their faster, gnarlier material for Candlelight Records, but after three years, the project began to feel a little stale; Woody confided that he felt it had run its course, and that he and the others were itching to play their other, bluesier songs from albums like Deliverance and Wiseblood—the songs that had made them famous. For that, they needed Pepper.
And then, there he was. As Pepper's said, "The thing that got the reunion going was the fans and people wanting us to play these damn songs. So I give kudos to the fans for making us get off our asses and do this." For many people from a certain generation, COC isn’t COC without Pepper, and hearing that he was finally coming back brought those people out of the woodwork to pack venues and fill the band's coffers. It also snagged COC a shiny new record deal with heavyweights Nuclear Blast (they're now labelmates with their old pals in Slayer). A new album is forthcoming, and thanks to the fluid power of this lineup’s live performances, anticipation is running high. COC has been given a new lease on life, and they all seem pretty damn excited about it.
Onstage, they’re electric. That scrappy, frenetic punk trio has morphed into a big, stadium-ready heavy metal band, the Corrosion of Conformity that older metalheads remember from MTV, the radio, and the arena tours. Pepper with his gritty, soulful rasp handles the bulk of the vocals and commandeers the center of the stage, freeing up Mike to hunker down on his bass and Woody to glory in the groove while Reed keeps the beat, a hurricane of blond hair and flying sticks. They look like they’re genuinely having fun, which is a rare and beautiful thing to see in a band whose first demo is six years older than I am. In Atlanta, they came out for two encores, hauled back in a crowd who whooped and hollered until they saw Reed trot back out and grab his sticks. As they launched into "King of the Rotten," I stood with Mike Scheidt from YOB—a band worshipped plenty in its own right—and listened to him reminisce about how COC got him through high school. Seeing someone like that get starstruck really drove home how important this band—this motley bunch of sweet, goofy fiftysomethings—has been, and continues to be. When you see your heroes meet their own heroes, it’s hard not to feel a little awed.
Whenever Pepper Keenan walks out into a crowd, he gets swarmed. At times it seems like he's wading through quicksand when he makes his way through a crowd, moving at a glacial pace as grasping hands and smiling faces surface every few feet to demand his attention. The other guys deal with it, too, but Pep’s the only one I’ve seen be met with a request to sign some guy’s arm so that said guy could get the signature tattooed later. Much to the fan’s disappointment, he demurred, but they took a photo together and Pep gave him a big hug to make up for it. It’s interesting standing less than two feet away from a person that people regard as a genuine celebrity; it’s not an unfamiliar sensation, as I’ve been lucky enough to find myself on tour with some of the greats, but it’s always a bit strange to see people’s sometimes extreme reactions to dudes I’ve seen roll out of a bunk with their hair a mess and trudge into a venue bathroom to brush their teeth.
Photo by the author
I’ve seen people weep when they met Reed, and grasp Woody’s hand like he’s the only thing standing between them and the abyss; I’ve seen multiple instances of the tattoo signature thing, and more Corrosion of Conformity skull tattoos than I can count. The amount of love that fans have for this band is awe-inspiring, and when I’m running merch, I’m there on the front lines fielding questions about how they can get even a little bit closer to these idols, these men of flesh and bone who have found themselves elevated to godhood through the stroke of a guitar string. People always ask to go backstage, not knowing that all they'll find if they make it past the security door is Woody nursing a Fat Tire or Reed picking at leftover Chinese. At the Shreveport show, there was no backstage, and the boys were feeling sociable; one wonders if the events overseas inspired them to give a little extra love to the people who'd come to see them play that night. COC had dedicated their set that night to their friends in the Eagles of Death Metal, and Crackfight, one of the openers, had spat hellfire and brimstone about the Paris attackers. After the show, Pepper sat down on a box back by the merch booth, cracked open a Coors, and spent a good hour or two talking to fans; it looked like a recieving line at a wedding, but instead of handshakes and cheek kisses, he was handing out crooked grins and taking countless photos with camo-clad truckers and skinny teenagers alike. When, after awhile, I asked if he wanted to bail, he shook his head; he was happy right where he was.
The COC guys take it all in stride; they’ve been a very well-known band for a very long time, and they're experts at handling even the neediest fan—the punishers. Mike is the only one who actively avoids it; he’s a former Philly bike messenger, fiercely independent and more solitary by nature. He would rather spend his downtime disappearing on a hours-long walks around town or calling his wife than hobnobbing with fans. He's the band's eyes and ears—the one that scouts out the area for hidden gems and brings back stories of the sights (and occasionally smells) the rest of us miss by staying in the venue. Woody, Reed, and now Pepper make up for his absence with infinite patience; they understand that, without the fans, they’re just four middle-aged guys with long hair and skateboarding scars. They're grateful.
Thanks to his time in Down, Pepper is used to the kind of creature comforts that his bandmates are still re-acclimating to—Woody looked at him like he had six heads when Pep asked our tour manager to find him some kombucha and raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds—but after all, he’s the guy who almost joined Metallica. That gig eventually went to Robert Trujillo, but there seems to be no bad blood between Pepper and the Bay Area boys; when he and I ended up at the gloriously grimy Clermont Lounge strip club after the Atlanta show, he told me over a Jack and Coke that the last time he’d set foot in that particular den of vice—colloquially known as the place “where strippers go to die”—he was with James Hetfield (obviously before the latter got sober). He’s full of stories like that, and when you catch him in a talkative mood, it’s always worth listening.
Soundcheck in Shreveport / Photo by the author
Those moods aren’t altogether common, though; Pepper keeps to himself more than the other guys do, preferring to set up camp in the back lounge. He’ll saunter in with an anecdote or bon mot, then wander right back out, while the ever-affable Reed and Woody are easier to pin down, and Mike’s the wild card. In the three days I spent with the band, the only time I ever saw Mike was when he was onstage, on the bus, or when he popped by the merch table to say hello—save for the Mexican restauraunt we hit in Shreveport, a city that didn't really have anywhere else for him to go. The Wanderer, as they call Mike, cannot be contained or captured, which makes his signature the most difficult for even the most avid signature collector to attain. There's an easy camaraderie between them all, though they don't hang out together much; between family obligations and business, most of their downtime is spent on the phone or online. At home, Reed works for a family company, Mike works as a stage and lighting tech at venues around Raleigh, Pepper’s a co-owner of Les Bon Temps Roule, a lively bar and venue in the heart of New Orleans, and Woody’s a farmer; he’s got eighty-odd acres where he raises cattle and spends his days working in his fields and teaching his two young sons how to live off the land.
When I asked Woody about the shift in mindset between farm and tour bus, he just grinned and told me, “It ain’t that much different—I still spend all day drinkin’ beer!” I believe it, because Woody loves beer—he’ll deign to drink Stella or Abitas, but his passion lies in craft beer, stouts and pilsners and IPAs. He’s the easiest member to find at a show, because, without fail, he’s strolling through the crowd with a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. You can tell he’s having a ball, and as he told me, this version of COC is his favorite; he loves playing fast, but feels best onstage when he can drop into a pocket and ride it out, and the material they’re playing now provides ample opportunities for the burly guitarist to settle into a nice, fat groove. Reed's had to adjust to the slower tempos behind the kit, but says he enjoys the challenge; the twinkly-eyed drummer his bandmates call The Mule is a supremely Zen person and a big hugger, always armed with a smile and a wink that belie his status as one of crossover thrash's most pivotal figures. He's business savvy, too. Every other night or so, Reed hands me a stack of used drum heads on which he's drawn the iconic COC skull and corralled his bandmates into signing to sell; in Shreveport, he gave me three, and they sold like hotcakes.
Despite all of the success they’ve had over the past two decades, the COC guys are remarkably down to earth, and it really seems like the only things that have changed with Pepper’s arrival have been surface-level, nuts and bolts stuff—there’s just more of everything; more beers backstage, more merch designs (the "Run COC" spoof was particularly popular), more people in the crowd. When it was just the three of them (plus the three of us on the crew), we rattled around in a van and trailer, snoozing at hotels and waking up at the crack of dawn for especially brutal drives. They're on a bus now, and love it, even if they did have to turn the Wifi off and still can't work the CD player. The money's probably better too, though I don't ask them about that part; the venue sizes and hulking bus outside say enough. At this point, they’re used to the ups and downs of fame; they went from playing punk rock in a garage to evolving into one of crossover thrash's guiding lights to touring stadiums with Metallica, and have stomped across every possible size of stage in between and afterwards. This new chapter in the Corrosion of Conformity story is a repeat—the only difference now is that they’re all a little older, a lot wiser, and still—amazingly—not jaded.
After spending so much time with these guys over the years, there’s one thing that’s always stayed with me: the ironclad fact that, no matter how many arms they sign or marquees they grace, they’re still just a bunch of punks. When “Gimme Gimme Gimme” came on the bus stereo at 4AM one night, everyone roared along. It was a perfect moment—COC toured with Black Flag way back in the 80s, and they still know all the words. Old punks never die... they just play a little slower.
COC at San Antonio's Housecore Horror Fest
They’re also very human. On the second night of tour, November 12, we were in Shreveport, Louisiana. The show was a good one, full of warm, appreciative people, but from the moment I saw Woody’s face as he told me about what was happening in Paris, a pall was cast. Pepper knows the Eagles of Death Metal guys well, and had run off, face pale, when I told him about the attacks. The EODM merch manager, Nick Alexander, had been killed in the attack, and knowing that unnerved me—I read about it as I sat behind the COC merch table earlier that night. At 2AM, we were still all shook up by those devastating events that took place halfway around the world, but hit way too close to home. Bus call came and went, as we made sure all of our people were back where they belonged.
There were eight of us crammed on that bus, a black-and-tan behemoth helmed by a jovial driver who spent a good while earlier that day regaling us with stories about smoking weed with Merle Haggard and dodging the cops on Willie Nelson tours. Bodies and boots spread out between the front and back lounges. In the back, Mike and Woody swapped conspiracy theories and Pepper cursed the bastards that had done this while we watched the TV on mute. News reports scrolled across the screen, showing us the same images, the same worried faces. Usually at that time of night, Thin Lizzy would’ve been blaring and someone would’ve broken out the tequila; instead, we sat quietly staring at the screen until we pulled into a truck stop and piled out into the welcoming musk of the Iron Skillet. The boys were playing a festival hundreds of miles away in San Antonio the next day, and they know better than anyone that, come what may, the show must go on.
Kim Kelly used to spend most of her time on tour; now she's an editor at Noisey, and dicks around on Twitter.