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INTERVIEW – Pepper Keenan, Down – February 2014

| 1 March 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Pepper Keenan, Down – February 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

From singer with Corrosion Of Conformity to guitarist with Down, alongside ex-Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo, Pepper Keenan is a no-bullshit kind of guy and is as happy to talk about nearly getting the gig replacing Jason Newsted in Metallica and owning Le Bon Temp Roulet bar in New Orleans, as he his about his band’s forthcoming Soundwave Festival shows and new EP – the first of four.

Down Pepper Keenan 01

When I got Keenan on the phone in New Orleans his relaxed southern drawl masks the flurry of activity around the band – with one EP in their series of four already dropped, he says that they “just finished mixing the [second EP] yesterday. Mastered today. Start rehearsing [for the Soundwave tour] tomorrow.” It’s all go for Keenan and Down.

Keenan explains that the decision to release four EPs in reasonably quick succession was, in part, a reaction to the music industry’s dire straights.

“Yeah, a little bit of [that],” he agrees. “A little bit of our own selfishness of not wanting to be a slave to the machine and wanting to do it our way and have a little bit more freedom to move laterally and not be so dictated to spending time on an entire record. For us, we just like to jam, we get in the jam room and we just like to fucking turn up and go at it.

Down Pepper Keenan 02

“Sometimes when you’ve got to do so many songs like that,” he continues, “it’s not an option to do it this way. And we chose to. It was our idea to do that. We really wanted to not be so focused on twelve songs, thirteen songs. We had certain songs that we really wanted to be in a certain direction. This kind of freed us up to split it into quadrants where we could go in a certain direction on each EP and not be so locked in.”

Keenan elaborates tantalisingly on the idea that a collection of EPs gives the band “room to move laterally, musically.”

“This EP is pretty much kind of like the first one, but a little bit more … I don’t know the correct word. Everybody that hears it says it sounds like Down, like a motherfucker, but it’s got … it’s a little bit more … I don’t wanna say progressive, but intricate, I guess, could be a word. It’s very interesting songwriting. It’s kind of super heavy, and I don’t wanna give away anything but the way it ends is leading to where the next EP is going.”

“We got the sketch [for the whole project] pretty much mapped out, and all the artwork is going to coincide with each EP and then kind of create one long piece of music.”

Down 01

The first EP hit the Billboard charts at #35 which is great going for a metal release. Keenan quickly makes the point that the length of a CD release is irrelevant to the musical quality therein, and gives another reason for the value of a series of shorter releases over a full album.

“You listen to Slayer’s record – their masterpiece – Reign In Blood, it’s 32 minutes long. We started thinking about that shit, and these record labels have got bands beating themselves to a pulp to make a record that’s an hour and 10 minutes long!

Down Pepper Keenan 03

“Then you throw it against the wall and you’ve got to go back to the drawing board a year later. We’re out on tour so fucking much we can do 3 years of fucking touring. So that’s a lot and we wanted to get out there quicker and not be tied up in a studio.”

He continues, analysing the merits of being prolific.

“I don’t know if being prolific is the ticket in rock n’ roll. For us, we can’t remember when a good record came out, we just remember the good record.

“I tend to go for quality over quantity. I think everybody in Down would agree with that. It’s not that we’re having trouble writing songs, we’re just so damned fucking busy and then we’re not going to be pushed by a record company to spit something out that’s mediocre.


“So we’re gonna turn the tables on them – once that shit is on a CD, it’s there for life. We’ve got to make sure it’s right. I’m not interested in spitting shit out just to be prolific.”

Keenan laughs heartily when I remind him that the PR for their Australian tour states ‘Down don’t merely have a cult following but they are a cult.’ He agrees that their fans are that dedicated.

“Yeah, yeah – they’re pretty dedicated, man. One reason I know this is that the record label has told us that 90% of our record sales are tangible items, which means only 10% of our stuff is through iTunes and downloaded. That tells you something, right there, [when] 90% of it is actually people going into mom-and-pop record stores and buying it. That’s kind of our deal.”

Moving the conversation on to Soundwave Festival itself, and Keenan has nothing but praise for the organisation, despite the clutch of high profile bands who pulled out of this year’s event.

Down 02

“Soundwave is a good festival, so that was kind of a no-brainer,” he says. If I had my druthers, sometimes we’d do 2 hour sets, [but] that’s few and far between. You’ve got to take what you can get with a festival. We have songs that we can do – we can drop the number real easy on the festival. When you’ve got 45 minutes, you’re going to give them a stunner one after another and just blast them. That’s what we’re doing.”

Keenan says that festivals like Soundwave are becoming one of the only viable ways for a band like Down to tour internationally.

“Unless you want to sleep upright in a van. By the time you pay your VAT taxes and duties and leases and everything else, it gets to be ridiculous. It’s pretty hard to make a penny doing it when everybody’s got their hands in their pockets.”

Down Pepper Keenan 04

It’s hard to be a rockstar nowadays, isn’t it?

“Yeah, man, yeah. You have to do it the dirty old fashioned way. [But] we still enjoy doing it. It’s not a big deal to us.”

Keenan knows exactly what he wants to do if and when he gets any down time (pun intended) on the Australian tour.

“I like to hit any beach I can find, pretty much, in Australia or any type of off-shore fishing to calm down,” he laughs. “Australia’s a wonderful place. I like to tell people Australia is like America without the bullshit!”

Having been lead singer for Corrosion Of Conformity on several albums, I wonder if Keenan misses calling the shots from the mic stand?

“Yeah, yeah,” he laughs. “That’s something that’s in the works too – it’s been discussed. I’m talking to the guys [in CoC, about a reunion] and everybody’s on the same page. Everybody’s been so damned busy, it’s hard to get together. I think though that we’re starting to converge slowly. The people are starting to ask, y’know – ‘Get your ass in the studio.’

“I talked to Reed [Mullin, drummer with CoC] just the other day. It’s just so hard to do 2 gigs at that level – not that one is better than the other, but It’s two very heavy machines, so it’s gonna demand some serious attention to do it right.”

Keenan has a bar in New Orleans called Le Bon Temps Roule, ‘the good times roll’, where he sometimes hangs out when at home rather than touring.

“When I’m not doing maintenance work over there, yeah. I try and… people come in there all the time looking for me and shit, so I try to let the bar do its thing, but I’m a daytime drinker over there.”

Famously, Keenan auditioned for the bass guitarist slot with Metallica when they were searching for a replacement for Jason Newsted – footage of which can be seen in the Some Kind Of Monster documentary. He’s sanguine about missing out on the gig to Robert Trujillo.

“It was between me and Trujillo,” he declares, before joking, “yeah, I was cool with it until I saw the movie and saw Trujillo get a check for a million bucks! It was all good until I saw that part, then I’m like ‘wait a second now!’

“Yeah – but hey, everybody’s cool man, it’s a good thing. Everything evolves and happens for a reason. It was an awesome opportunity. I was pretty close in the scheme of things, but in the long scheme of things, I dunno if I would have been Pepper Keenan anymore, id’ve just been the bass player for Metallica.”

Down Pepper Keenan 05

Keenan roars with laughter when I raise the subject of one particular fan website praising Keenan’s virtues – things like ‘having the coolest ever Irish sounding name’, ‘an awesome beard’, ‘being able to kick Chuck Norris’ ass’ and all sorts of mildly crazy, stalker-like shit. He reveals an even weirder epilogue to the story.

“Here’s the funny thing,” he says, laughing, “I had the management call me and they asked me if I made that up myself! So they must’ve been thinking I’m some Googling-whatever computer guy – y’know, I don’t even know how to do any of that!”

I can’t imagine you’re going to be sitting there late one Friday night after a couple of beers going, ‘Let’s see, what’s cool about me? Oh, I know, I’ve got an awesome beard.’

“Yeah. I can’t even type, man!” he continues, laughing A LOT. “I wouldn’t even have the time to do that shit even if I could type! So, [as if] I sat on some stupid computer and made some shit up!”

He does admit he’s had a few over-zealous fans in the past, though.

“Every once in a while, but I’m pretty good with that. I look people in the eye. I’m not one of those people who runs and hides in the corner when they’re spotted or something like that. I play it pretty cool. I try to treat people like I would like to be treated. You can kinda talk people down most of the time with that kind of shit.”

Finally, I ask Keenan our favourite hypothetical question: If he could magically travel back in time and be a part of the making of any one record in history, which one would you choose?

“That’s a good question. [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side Of The Moon.

“I think it’s just the [pinnacle] of sonic and artistic perfection. It’s not necessarily my favourite record of all time, but it just encompasses somebody really doing something right. That’s just an incredibly strong, perfect record.”


Category: Interviews

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