Dividing his time between Down and Corrosion of Conformity, guitarist Pepper Keenan has little time for anything else, save a few causes that are dear to his heart. With Down back in the studio and preparing for a sold-out tour of South America — where he plans to “hit the streets and shop!” — Keenan is solely focused on making music with his guitar partner, Kirk Windstein, bassist Pat Bruders, drummer Jimmy Bower and vocalist Philip Anselmo.
Shortly before taking the stage in Texas during a recent string of Down dates, Keenan called to talk about the band’s upcoming EP series and share his uncensored opinions about the music industry, the state — as in environmental state — of Louisiana, and the real meaning of tone.
How has your relationship with Kirk grown and how do you continue challenging each other?
We know each other’s playing styles and we’re pretty different guitar players. Kirk is more finesse-oriented and I’m more ham-fisted, pretty much of a hammer, downpicking kind of thing, so we play off of those things. I’ll come up with a riff and Kirk will come up with a melody or harmony behind it or on top of it. As we’ve gotten older, playing guitar together, we use it as a starting point where the songs launch. Kirk comes up with riffs all the time. There’s no leader; we’re more focused on the song, the end product, rather than the sum of its parts. In the studio, generally I’ll do the rhythm tracks first. Kirk goes after me and we double things that way. On this particular new stuff, we want to do Kirk in one speaker and me in the other speaker and try it super old school, like the NOLA record was. Whatever it takes to make the song do its thing. What we hear in our heads is what the end product is going to be.
Does he ever surprise you by taking a song in a different direction?
No, not necessarily. Sometimes we’ve come up with pretty cool stuff, like “Ghosts Along the Mississippi” and things like that. The song is never done until it’s gone to the mastering plant. Sometimes Phil does something that gives me a whole new idea, and I’ll go back and change the riff after he’s already put the vocals down — either get out of the way more or let it breathe more once I’ve seen what he’s done.
Over the course of twenty years, have you ever come close to calling it a day, especially with the current state of the industry?
I don’t know. I’m so underground that I’m oblivious to it. I don’t Facebook, I don’t do any of that, so I just keep trucking along for the love of playing music, and in the Down world I can’t really notice a difference. I think people appreciate a real band like us. I don’t think we’ve been as affected as some other bands because we have a loyal following and we’re true to them and we expand. Each time we come through there’s younger kids at the shows because I think they’re tired of the bulls–t too. They want to see something real and they know they can rely on a band like Down. I think that’s helped us out. It’s probably hurt some bands that weren’t in it for the real reasons, but the ones who really enjoy what they do and have a love of music are the ones who remain unscathed because they’re not affected by something like that. But the fly-by-night bands who are trying to make something stick to the wall by networking or whatever you do, putting it on the Internet and just rely on that instead of getting in the van and starving to death for the love of your music, that’s the ones who say the industry sucks!
How does working with a second and even a third guitarist enhance your playing and give you the extra push?
It’s another set of ears. I always liked two-guitar bands. AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy — I’ve always enjoyed what you could do with that. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is such a master of overdubs that I always look at them as almost a two-guitar band, because if you listen to their studio records, his overdubs are so damn genius. I think having two guitars give you more of an outlet, and there’s the old standby that it gives you a rhythm track when you’re doing solos! So there’s that thing, too, and for us it was heavier when we were dumb kids starting out: having two guitars is heavier than one. Pretty simple; it ain’t rocket science!
Why the longevity? This band has outlasted most marriages.
The thing that’s different about us is we grew up together. We knew each other before we were in this band. We were all kids in New Orleans, we all went to the same shows, so we know each other better than most people in bands know each other, I would guess. Through thick and thin, and all the drugs and booze and whatever else we f—ed up and all that, we’re still me and Kirk, so we have a good time and we still f–k with each other. We have constant feuds of guitar playing and who’s the riff master and all this kind of s–t — constant.
You’re working on an EP series. What is that about?
We’ve got a whole bunch of songs and a lot of different material, so we’re going to separate these albums into different vibes. That gives us more freedom to go in a certain direction without having to constrain it for a particular album. We’re going to have these things in a series and they’ll all end up matching up together in the last one. It’s a pretty big undertaking; I’ve never seen anybody do it. It gives us the freedom not to be so regulated doing a whole record. Especially in this new industry that everybody’s talking about and how it sucks, we won’t have to deal with all that. We’ll put out six songs. There will be four EPs, and the release dates, I guess, will be consistent with our recording schedule and touring schedule. We’re touring a lot, so we’ve been going on this record for four years and still playing new places. Part of our goal was to become more of a global-type band, touring the world. Once you’ve got those people behind you, it gives you a lot more freedom.
Are you self-producing again?
Yes, yes, yes! We did the math and between all of us we’ve done 50-something records, so we’ve got it all figured out, and Phil doesn’t like listening to people telling him what to do! Right or wrong, it’s our way or no way. The last record came out in 2007 and I thought we’d be back in the studio after two years, but we kept touring and here we are. Time flies.
The last time we spoke, which was in 2002, you said, “I don’t understand what’s going on with music right now. It’s this ‘mall mentality.’ If you consider yourself a musician, wouldn’t you want to get back to the basics? That’s what blues, jazz, bluegrass and country bands do, but rock bands are affected by MTV, and the standards have dropped drastically in rock and roll. What happened? How did it get so off course?” Ten years later …
I’m a prophet! There’s been some good bands since I did that interview. We’ve got our ears to the street. I like Witchcraft a lot. Ghost is fantastic; they’re writing serious songs. When Soundgarden called it quits, that was the end of anybody doing anything with any standard of quality. And Nirvana — everybody started ripping off poor Kurt Cobain and that cheap trash became ugly. We do what we do. I keep my bands pretty small and don’t try to be everywhere all the time. It makes you more balanced in terms of creativity. Some people try to sell themselves so much it ends up sounding and looking fake. I don’t have to sell anything. I enjoy what we do, and if I stay broke, I’m fine with that. I think it’s quality over quantity.
What is your definition of tone? Guitarists always chase it. Is it overrated?
F—ing stupidly overrated! It’s in your hands! You can give me the crappiest guitar and an amp and you don’t need a million pedals. You don’t need nothin’. You need volume. I think the whole trick for any good tone is volume. And my theory is if you’re going to use an amp — I use an Orange amp, and if you’re going to use an Orange amp, use pedals that were built in the era of the amp. I use a simple guitar, a Gibson ES-335 with stock pickups, no overdrive pedal, and the tone comes from your hands, your picking style and where you hit the string. Guitar playing is not an easy thing for me. I come from the Malcolm Young school: beat the s–t out of it. You don’t need it to be like playing butter. That’s a bunch of bulls–t. Any record I love is from an aggressive guitar player digging in, putting their thumbnail and index finger in the gut of the string. Digging in: that’s where it comes from.
Select one Down song that you feel best represents your guitar sound.
I’d say that “Seed” is a pretty good song. That was drop B, drop-tuned on the lower end of the scale, like the first two frets is the main riff. It’s hammered and big, long, drawn-out chords. We tracked that song at 4 in the morning, but the tone of it, once again … for instance, we were in the swamps, I had a monitor outside and put it on the roof of my pickup truck, and I stood in the bed of the pickup truck and did the solos in the middle of the swamp, no headphones, cranking the tracks through the monitors, under the trees, mosquitoes all over the place. That’s the way you do it! It really varies. I would have to go back and do some homework, because I haven’t listened to them and there’s so many tones going on. “Learn From This Mistake” had some good s–t going on. On the last album we used so many different amps — I wouldn’t even know where to start. Most of them were just a classic JCM 800 and we just cranked the living s–t out of it.
From the first time you picked up a guitar until now, what’s changed and what has stayed the same? And when was the first time?
The first time I played, the story goes, a friend of mine was a guitar player in my neighborhood and he got killed outrunning the police on his motorcycle. He was the cool kid in the neighborhood and like my idol. When he died, me and my friend broke into his house and stole his guitar.
I knew his mom wasn’t going to do anything with it! So I took it and spray-painted it black and I started learning how to play. I bought a Ramones record and an AC/DC record and that was all I needed. It was off to the races from there.
What a touching story: “He died, so I broke into his house and stole his guitar.” In memoriam.
[laughs] Exactly! I still enjoy playing, and I think my appreciation for the more classic-type tones is now set more in the authoritativeness of me playing the guitar and not searching for some bulls–t tone. I think the sooner somebody realizes that it comes from them, the better guitar player they’ll be, instead of being a gear fool thinking that all that’s going to make you better. I’m really comfortable at this point in the game. I love playing junky guitars and freaking people out. I’ve done that on tour. I’ve played $50 and $75 Epiphones. At this point in the game, it’s just the simplicity of it. I kind of look for quality-made stuff, not really fancy high-end but just the super-raw amps and guitars. When I was younger I didn’t really know much. I was trying to make it distorted, and stabbing the speakers with a knife to make them break up.
What are you using onstage?
Two 335’s and a Firebird. Two Orange amps, four Orange cabinets, loud as f–k! Orange is hand-wired, class-A electronic stuff and it sounds like that. You dig into it; you hit a G chord on a quality-made amp with good power and it works. That’s the trick to me. The 335 through all that — it’s like petting a snake! You gotta watch it and stay on your toes all the time or it’ll squeal like a pig, so you gotta get out of the way. For volume, to me it’s deep; not overly loud, but enough to push it and make it work for the microphone to pick up that clarity. I like to hear all the nuances of the pick hitting the strings — that Tony Iommi thing where he sounds loud. Most of the holy grail of tone is coming from vintage amps and vintage guitars. They’re quality electronica.
Also when we last spoke, C.O.C. was readying a screening of Live Volume: The Movie to raise money for the Afghan Women’s Mission. What became of that?
The Afghan Women’s Mission was just starting, and I wanted to do something to help these women. We were trying to raise money to buy video cameras, and we had a person who could get them to women in Afghanistan so they could film the atrocities going on. Video cameras were expensive in 2002. Now you can get them for pennies to the dollar, but then a small camera was 400 or 500 bucks. We got three or four cameras into Afghanistan and one or two were used. It helped out immensely and the footage got out. That was one of the coolest things I felt proud of doing. It’s funny you say that, because I just found a ticket to that screening when I was going through a bunch of paperwork the other day.
Are you involved in other projects?
One of the things I’m passionate about, and I work with these guys pretty closely, is the Gulf Coast Restoration Network. Louisiana is losing massive amounts of coastline, mainly from the oil corporations and government building canals and pipelines all across the swamps and not taking any recourse or helping to restore these wetlands. It’s a huge issue. Since Katrina hit, it really set it back pretty damn far. The United States government should really … this is a huge part of the United States. These guys are screaming and bitching about gas prices and all that, but a quarter of all the gasoline refined in the United States is refined in south Louisiana. The drilling offshore is really taking a toll on the land itself, so that’s a pretty big thing that I suggest anybody check out. I’ve done some linking on our websites and I’ve gone on plane flights with these people before just so I could see it for myself, flown over the swamps with a couple of musicians. They’re trying to get the word out any way they can, so these people can go out on the road and they can spout and spit venomous things. They figured I’d be a good candidate for that, so they put me on the plane! Really, Louisiana is like no place in the United States, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. I think people should be educated, and I have an opinion because I’ve traveled this country 50 times, in good times and bad, and I’ve seen how much money people spend. I see when they come to concerts. I’ve been to every damn place in the United States, so I think I know a lot more than some of these politicians do in terms of the working class, because they’re our fans and we see them struggle.
Read more of Pepper Keenan’s interview here: http://www.guitarworld.com/interview-getting-down-pepper-keenan-and-kirk…
Special thanks to Rob Fenn (www.MusicThroughTheLens.com) for the images of Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein that accompany their individual interviews. Fenn is the project founder and photographer of On The Road … Where Music Lives. Learn more about the upcoming documentary and book, which detail Fenn’s remarkable travels throughout summer and fall 2011, photographing artists and music festivals and discovering local independent record stores, by visiting his website.
Guitars: Two Gibson ES-335’s and one Gibson Firebird for drop tuning, all guitars totally stock
Amps: Two Orange Thunderverb 50 heads with four Orange 4×12 cabinets with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers
Pedals and Effects: Tuner, rack-mounted wah, MXR Phase 90, Ibanez square button Tube Screamer, and the Electro-Harmonix Pog