Corrosion of Conformity Interview with Mike Dean: Riding the Current on a River of Stone; Enter Now to Win Free Vinyl!
You have to understand, even if the forthcoming self-titled Corrosion of Conformity full-length wasn’t their first as a trio — as this trio — since 1985’s Animosity, the record would still be a landmark, just for the fact that it’s C.O.C. The stalwart North Carolinian heavy Southern rockers haven’t had a record since 2005’s In the Arms of God, mostly due to guitarist/vocalist Pepper Keenan‘s ongoing tenure with the supergroup Down, leaving bassist/vocalist Mike Dean, guitarist Woody Weatherman and returned drummer Reed Mullin the task of picking the band back up and moving forward as a three-piece.
But the announcement yesterday that this lineup of C.O.C. will headline Sunday night, April 8, at the London Desertfest is just the latest endorsement it has earned. Dean, Weatherman and Mullin toured twice in 2011 with Clutch, including their New Year’s tour last month, and played the 2011 Maryland DeathFest and Roadburn festivals (among others), supporting the single Your Tomorrow on Southern Lord. The track “Your Tomorrow” would wind up as one of the strongest on the album Corrosion of Conformity as well, but the record does an excellent job meeting and surpassing any aesthetic expectations that could be put on it.
Because, hey, let’s face it, if you’ve got a trio lineup of C.O.C., they’ve got a lot to live up to. Animosity is a crossover classic, and coupled with everything the band was able to accomplish after Keenan joined, then Corrosion of Conformity needs to cover a lot of ground to be a success. The album’s greatest attribute, however, is that it seems to ignore all of that in favor of just rocking out on some killer songs. As a result, cuts like “Rat City” and “Leeches” and “What We Become” hone in on the band’s hardcore past without seeming like a put-on while “Psychic Vampire,” “The Moneychangers” and “Come Not Here” bring in elements of the riffy Sabbathian groove that was always present in their sound, however prevalent it may or may not have been.
If you’re interested, the full album review is here. Just prior to their heading out with Clutch to put 2011 to bed, Dean and I spoke about what brought C.O.C. back together in this form and how it was composing the new album without Keenan, recording it with longtime producer John Custer, his own process for composing lyrics, and much more. Like the music on the self-titled, he was honest and straightforward in his responses, as you can see in the interview that follows here.
–Special thanks to Candlelight Records for letting me give away THREE copies of the new C.O.C. album on vinyl! Enter to win by sending your name and address below. Contest runs until Jan. 20!
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Complete Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Well, I mean, we didn’t really put it down, in theory, but it’s just in practice, we were waiting around to work with Pepper, because we’d done some good stuff with him and we were looking forward to the opportunity to get him and Reed back together and do some stuff. He was pretty occupied with Down, but what put the idea in our head was him actually saying, “Let’s go play some festivals. We could do well.” And then it turned out he couldn’t do it, so we just suggested in jest that we should do it as a three-piece (laughs). I kind of blurted it out and nobody was laughing, so it was like, well, maybe we should pursue this. Then, once we got into that process, it seemed a little lame to be going out there to play the nostalgia circuit. Obviously, as a three-piece, our last record was quite a while back, so we’d be learning an Animosity set that people wanted to hear, but at the same time, we didn’t want to play the nostalgia circuit, so it was kind of a condition of mine that we would get some new material together, and while we were dusting it off, do a recording, so it wouldn’t be just exploitation of past deeds.
And that was the Your Tomorrow 7”.
Yeah. That was pretty much what we could get together to have a little something to sell on tour and to have something to take to the media or whatever. We kind of immediately had four new songs in our set. Four brand new songs.
When did Reed come back into the picture?
About three years ago, I started jamming with him in a band called Righteous Fool. We still do that, we just recorded an album. So we got him to break out the drums and get back with playing a little bit on that. Once I saw that he was really running on all cylinders, we talked about the C.O.C. thing. It just kind of worked out.
Can you talk about the change in dynamic between C.O.C. working as a three-piece as opposed to having Pepper involved while you’re writing?
Everybody has a lot of ideas to contribute, and the more participants involved, the less direct individual contributions everybody’s gonna make in the realm of songwriting. Take one person out of the equation, and it’s that much more everybody has to contribute and gets to contribute. That’s interesting. That’s a good thing. I thought we all rose to the occasion. Another thing is, we were doing it with this format a really long time ago, when we were literally still in high school, so it was kind of like reverting to something that we hadn’t done for a while, but it was very natural to us and kind of reminded us (laughs) of old times. In a good way.
Yeah, I saw those old pictures on Facebook. You look like you’re about 12.
I think Reed was 15 when he got that drum set. He’s still got the same Tama drum set. It’s ridiculous how old it is. He really ought to think about putting it in cases, because it’s probably worth something just based on its antique status.
Were you surprised at all at the reaction you got initially to coming back as a trio live?
Nah. There’s so many different incarnations of C.O.C. and the various incarnations have covered a lot of stylistic ground along the way. People will become alienated with some new thing that we do, and they’ll pine for whatever came before, so there are a lot of people that were anxious to hear the hardcore thing, or the hardcore-punk-metal-crossover-type of thing or whatever. We were getting a lot of requests to do that, and people spouting off about how that was better or they wanted to hear that. So I think we expected a good reaction. We expected there to be interest. It was about what we expected.
On the album, you kind of cover all the bases, sound-wise.
Yeah. It’s not just a crossover nostalgia record at all.
Were you conscious of that as you were putting the songs together? Did you have the shape of the album in mind?
I think once we had a few songs written, then we could be a little more calculating. We started off with some real natural exploration of ideas and just moving quickly to write some lyrics and craft a couple songs. Once we saw where it was going, then maybe it was a little but more calculated, like, okay, we want to show the scope of what we can do with this lineup and not have it just be pigeonholed to be going backwards to old times, even though we wanted to demonstrate that we could still play fast.
Given all the years since, has your opinion changed at all about the Animosity-era material? Do you feel differently about those songs now than you did then?
I felt pretty good about them. I think I feel about the same way. I think that’s one of our strongest recordings, and as far as from a performance standpoint and an idea standpoint. I think it holds up pretty well. It was fairly unique among that kind of music.
What do you think has let the album endure? It seems like there’s always the C.O.C. debate. Everyone has their favorite record that they’re going to champion.
Oh yeah. It was a good balance of young energy kind of getting to the point where there was just enough experience involved that there was agile performances, capable performances. Still maintains some of the amateurish energy, but there’s capable performances as we were, in our own way, becoming pretty good at the instruments. There just happened to be some good performances captured.
Was there ever any doubt you’d be recording with John Custer again for this record?
Perhaps. We knew he’d be into it. We were considering possibly doing it all ourselves, but ultimately I thought that he could really add some ideas and add some perspective to it. A little bit of depth. He kind of likes to sit back a little bit and let the band be the band a little more than he probably did with Blind or he did with Deliverance, certainly. He’s pretty much just trying to enable us. He’s not trying to mastermind, really, anything. I enjoyed working with him this time. It was kind of John Custer and C.O.C., really, that produced it. It was a good collaboration. He was remarking that we were kind of working like one organism, and I thought that was apt. But I think for a moment there we were thinking about trying to just entirely produce it ourselves, and I don’t know how that would’ve turned out. At this point, I’m glad we did it the way we did it.
One thing I’ve noticed in listening is a balance between a raw, natural sound, and still being clear and full. Did you know you wanted that kind of natural vibe?
We wanted something organic. We wanted a pretty organic performance. We weren’t looking to record something that was put on a grid with real prominent drum samples that sounded like a machine, although there’s some music like that I might enjoy. We wanted honest performance, and something that invoked a real live but also powerful rock band-type of thing. I’m still digesting how it turned out. We mixed it pretty quickly and I know I’m happy with it, but I don’t really have that much perspective on it yet. I’m very happy with the results… I’m just not sure what’s making me happy (laughs). I can hear everything. The idea was to have something a little bit vibe-y, a little bit real, but still presentable.
That’s something that Reed stood out on. That’s his vocal, that’s his lyric. He kept belittling it and describing it as, “I guess I have this punk rock song.” Listen to that opening progression, it’s kind of like early Black Flag or something, but it has a couple real melodic parts to it; real almost anthemic-sounding chorus that has a little bit of depth beyond the type of song that it is. He showed that to us, and we assimilated it kind of quickly, and we worked pretty fast on that. That has kind of a throwback vibe to it, but there’s some melody there. The lyrics seem a little bit cut and paste hardcore, but in a good way.
I think it sums up some of what’s going on with the record, because it’s familiar for anyone who’s heard the trio C.O.C., but it’s not really a throwback.
A lot we were thinking of when we first began the songwriting process is that we weren’t necessarily going to do Animosity again. We were going to look at the things that were influencing us at the time of recording Animosity, some things that came before us, and some of our young contemporaries at that point. So we were looking at Bad Brains, Black Flag, and even early Slayer, Metallica, Mercyful Fate and stuff like that. I think a song like that is almost more indicative of some other hardcore of the era than a C.O.C. song, per se (laughs).
How does the writing break down? That’s Reed’s song. I’m not going to ask you to go track-by-track, but how did things shake out this time around writing-wise?
A lot of things happen. Sometimes people will come in with what they think of as a complete idea, and they present it to the band, and sometimes, that’s the arrangement and that’s the idea. Other times, on bass, people will bring a song in, and I’m kind of big on throwing a wrinkle into a bridge or turning it around and making it resolve somewhere different or something like that. That’s the sort of thing we started to think about when we were working with Custer, and also working with Pepper. He has a good ear for those finishing touches on a song like that. I kind of jumped on board that bandwagon. I’ll have a lot of those if someone brings a piece in. But a lot of times, someone brings in a complete song. Four or five of them were real collaborative. Me and Woody trading riffs and saying, “Okay, well, now we need a bridge, now we need to do this.” A lot of times then we would come up with a completely instrumental collaborative piece and then coming up with the vocals was kind of a dirty job, but someone had to do it. Usually falls to me, so I’ll be coming up with a vocal melody and lyrics for somebody else’s initial musical ideas. That’s kind of a challenge. It’s kind of fun. It’s almost more fun to come up with the vocal part for someone else’s musical idea than your own. But this time I had a lot of complete songs of my own. Four or five, six of them. Pretty collaborative, though. The song “Come Not Here,” that’s 90 percent Reed’s music and his concept for a song, but we collaborated a lot. He had a real strong vocal melody that he would hum all the time and try to get us to harmonize on. I think we collaborated on the actual lyrics themselves at the last possible minute we could’ve been working on them and still had the song on the album. Like a month ago or something (laughs). That was real collaborative. I think the middle part was probably Woody’s idea, and we thought that we would get Custer to help us with some insane overdubbing ideas to make the middle part sound like Wings. Make it sound like “Live and Let Die” (laughs). Without hiring an orchestra or resorting to keyboards. It had to be a guitar-based thing we could never do live. If you’re making an album, you want the lion’s share of the stuff to be things that you can pull off live, and I think we really stuck to that. A minimum of overdubs, or overdubs that reinforce the basic thing that you wouldn’t miss live. But there’s a couple exceptions and that would be the most notable, the middle of that song. That and “Rat City” would be the most collaborative stuff, where we really just traded off ideas, and be like, “Here, you think of a part.” So there’s a couple different approaches and all levels of collaboration there, from the megalomaniac to the completely consensus-based.
What’s your process of writing lyrics?
I’ll tell you what, sometimes I start off with an idea and I just try to channel whatever comes into my head on that matter and step away and look at it. Sometimes it starts to take on an alternate meaning, and if it seems too direct or on the nose, I try to go back and be a little more vague so that there’s the possibility for people to have other interpretations. That way, when you have it all written and said and done, people will mention their really involved interpretations of it and make you sound like a genius. Then you’re just like, “Yes. Yes.” You just adopt their mythology for it, so the next time I’m giving a – you got an early interview here, so I don’t really have much to say – but in about six weeks, I’ll have all these really elaborate explanations for the songs that, by virtue of being vague, I get from people who come to me and tell me what it’s about and I’m like, “Oh yeah, yeah. That’s what I was thinking.” But really, I just try to leave it a little bit up to interpretation. I think that makes the songs a little more enduring. Some of the stuff is pretty on the nose, and I’ll have a concept that’s set in stone, but it’s a little inexact, and if I’m not just channeling what I’m hearing directly, I find it hard to work deliberately and literally in a straight line. It’s one of those things that just has to happen. I’m not that good a writer. I’m just a receiver of randomness, and I try to assemble it in a meaningful and entertaining way.
You’re doing the New Year’s tour with Clutch.
Yeah, it’s genius. We’re driving due north to do Portland, Maine, and then we’re gonna do sunny Syracuse at the end of December. Great idea (laughs). Whose fucking idea was that? Last year, Righteous Fool opened for them. The same run last year, and we were in Cleveland, and we got to Asheville, North Carolina, on New Year’s Eve, and that was pretty cool. This year it’s C.O.C. and New Year’s Eve in Philadelphia.
You guys toured with them earlier this year too. I was in Flint, Michigan, and you had dropped off the bill last minute. What happened there?
Drummer fell out and had a seizure in Pittsburgh, and we were kind of concerned about him. He bounced back and we were back out there about the time they hit Columbia, Missouri. We were kind of not very excited about Flint, because that’s always a good show for us, and a very good show for Clutch. That kind of sucked.
Any other solid touring plans for 2012 yet?
Oh yeah, starting in March, we’re gonna do a bunch of US dates [NOTE: Those dates have since been announced]. Still finalizing who we’re playing with. But we’re gonna do a little brief headlining tour of the US and we have some plans to go to Chile and we definitely have some festivals in Europe in the summer, and that’ll be interesting to see if they still have Euros to pay us or not. I’m sure it’ll be fine (laughs).
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