The Corrosion of Conformity and Down frontman on his idols, music-making processes and onstage signal chain.
[The following interview originally appeared in a slightly different form on Guitar.com]
By Lisa Sharken
Pepper Keenan is a man who truly enjoys being a musician, but has a burning desire to constantly keep himself busy and work at honing his craft. As a member of Corrosion Of Conformity since the mid '80s, Keenan has endured the variety of lineup changes the group experienced through the years, and became a vital component in shaping the band's direction and sound.
Not only had he stepped up to become the frontman, primary lyricist, as well as already being half of the dual-guitar onslaught that defines COC, but during the time off between COC albums and tours, he has also managed to create a successful side band with former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo called Down. The metal supergroup also features Crowbar members Kirk Windstein and Jim Bower on guitar and drums. Crowbar's bassist Todd Strange was also an original member of Down, but former Pantera bassist Rex Brown came in to handle duties on the group's last disc and tour.
Keenan spoke with Guitar.com at length about COC's latest offering, In The Arms Of God [Sanctuary Records], explaining how he and his bandmates—guitarist and COC founder Woody Weatherman and bassist Mike Dean—brought things together with the assistance of Galactic's drummer Stanton Moore and longtime COC producer John Custer. Keenan breaks down the details on how the tracks were recorded and the gear used in the process to achieve the huge sound the album reveals. He also filled us in on what drives his musical interests and inspires him to keep raising the bar in order to become the best guitarist he can be.
Guitar.com: Who are your main influences as a player and songwriter?
Keenan: That's hard to say. If I had to put them in a nutshell, or to mention people I aspire to like be as a player, I think Buddy Guy is the most dangerous guitar player on the planet. Hands down, Buddy Guy is an assassin on the guitar! I'd put him up against anybody! Robin Trower had this weird style of songwriting, but he had a cool style as a player and was a big influence on Down. Other players who were and still are important to me are David Gilmour and Billy Gibbons. I can just start rattling off a long list, but those four guys were probably the most influential. But when I started out, I was in a punk rock world and I would shoot for being like those guys, even though I was this three-chord punk rock dude. I was into those bluesier guys, but I knew how to play Black Flag better than I could play anything by those bands. So I was shooting for that—and those bands were not even in the same league as the type of music I was playing. I guess the result of that is COC halfway.
I saw Buddy Guy play at a jazz festival in New Orleans and that motherf***er is so bad! Buddy Guy is from Louisiana and it was the first time that he had been invited to the Jazzfest, although the Jazzfest has been going on for like 30 years. He gets up there with the polka-dot Strat and he's just killing it! He's got a Marshall stack with everything set on 10, and he's sustaining notes and doing all his long feedbacks. Then he breaks a G string about three minutes into the first song! He stops and says he wants to apologize to everyone for breaking a string tonight, but that he's just going to keep breaking the strings! Then he launches back into it and he backed it up. He was bad as hell! It was the first time he had ever played the Jazzfest and he just knew he was going to insult these people. So it was more like, "How dare you?" He just cut them down like banana trees with that stuff! It was terrifying! His style is quite amazing. He can make one note sound like 30. The guy is just a complete assassin! He's so badass, and hands down, he is my favorite guitar player walking this planet right now, and he always has been. Nobody can touch him, and anyone who thinks they can is a fool! He would slaughter you!
I'm definitely not in the same type of caliber as Buddy Guy, although I think that I attack what I do with as much passion as I think he does, but with my own personal style. That's what I aspire to do. That dude does not f*** around. He keeps his mouth shut and carries a big stick. That's all you've got to do. I met him and got one of his guitar picks. It says "Buddy Guy" on one side and "Go f*** yourself" on the other side! The dude is everything I thought he would be, but even badder than I expected!
Guitar.com: Tell us about the work that went into creating the music for In The Arms Of God, and how making this album was different from previous experiences making records with COC.
Keenan: Me and Woody just wanted to make a gigantic, bombastic, shut-the-f***-up record! The last record we made was before 9/11, so a lot has changed in our world, and personally, and globally. So we had a lot of ammunition to draw from. It felt right to do what we did, and we had a good time doing it.
Guitar.com: How did the songs come together? Do the riffs or the lyrics usually come first?
Keenan:It just kind of flows in its own COC way. Lyrics sometimes come first, but sometimes the titles do. Everything really fell into place in a very quick way, and as musicians, we were all very much on top of it, playing-wise. We were really on point, and with Stanton Moore on drums, it basically turned into a skateboard contest. We were all trying to outdo each other and it was very cutthroat, but it was a lot of fun being in that environment again.
Guitar.com: Did having Stanton Moore playing drums change the feel of things dynamically for COC?
Keenan: Everything on that record was recorded previously. We had demoed all the songs first, and we gave them to Stanton with recordings that we had done with a drummer we had just paid by the hour. Once we redid the same songs with Stanton, they just became electrified. With Mike Dean's bass parts, the stuff went from a somewhat lame-ass song to sounding more like Thin Lizzy. You give somebody the room to interject with their own ideas and style, and it makes it special. Everybody thought we were crazy for getting Stanton because he's not known as a metal drummer. But the first time we heard a take with him, we knew it would work. The first song we did with him was "Never Turns To More." It's eight minutes long, and it's a first-take recording. We knew it was gonna rock from there on.
Guitar.com: In what ways do you feel that your own sound and style have evolved as a guitar player?
Keenan: I guess between Down and COC, and just being a general Southern kind of dude, I've kind of made my own style. I have an idea, like the "Stone The Crows" riff [off Down's NOLA], and it sounds like me. Me and Woody were talking about it, and I guess we've kind of ripped each other off at this point. We create something and then we can use that as a catalyst to become better musicians. That sound or whatever it is that we have, we just use to expand on ideas.
Guitar.com: How do you and Woody differ as guitarists?
Keenan: Woody has got the vibrato from hell! I have no vibrato at all. I'm the melodic dude. I'm the linear guy. Woody's got all the crazy vibrato. So if you ever want to tell who's doing what, if there's any real vibrato on it, it ain't me. There's a couple of solos that I do which have some vibrato, but not many. As a soloist, I'm more like The Edge from U2, David Gilmour, Deep Purple or Tony Iommi.
Guitar.com: What types of guitars, amps and effects were used in making this record?
Keenan: The whole damn thing is so lo-fi, and the guitars sound great! We had a 2x12 cabinet made by a little company in Raleigh that was basically like a wedge. It's angled and the cabinet is just super tight. There's no air behind it—it just throws. The speakers were 25-watt Celestions. All of our speakers are 25s. We think they sound better and break up nice. We put a Shure SM57 mic off axis on the speaker along with a good compressor, and that was it. I used a Mesa/Boogie Boogie 50 Caliber Plus head, a few stomp boxes, classic SGs and ESPs, and that was it.
The main guitars were the same ones we've had forever—those old ESPs with Tom Anderson H3 pickups and one has Duncan Pearly Gates, one has a version of a P-90 that's made by Tom Anderson. When you hit the front, it's like Eric Clapton's Cream tone. It's bad!
There weren't many effects used, but we did a lot of experimenting with reverb. This album is very wet compared to our other albums. We wanted to make an album that had a sound like we were all on top of a mountain. John Custer spent a lot of time on it so the reverb sound is very transparent. Some of the reverb sounds were from Pro Tools, and some were old-school rack effects. We also used some plate reverb sounds. I wanted it to sound big, but have depth to it. You can hear that anytime I'm singing. It's just right there and it doesn't go any further than that, but it just sounds big. It was very cool! We also started using that type of effect on the snare drum and applying it to the guitars, but never at the same time. So everything really sounds large, but it's not like '80s Ratt guitar-type reverb. We spent a lot of time messing with the reverb effects and making things sound intrinsically big.
Guitar.com: What is the modulation effect that's heard on the intro to "Never Turns To More"?
Keenan: That's just an MXR Phase 90 pedal. It's the original scratch track and then we ran it back through the effect again afterwards and I just messed with the controls. We do that a lot with scratch tracks and do weird stuff with cutting things here and putting them there.
Guitar.com: What types of acoustic guitars were used on "Rise River Rise" and "In The Arms Of God"?
Keenan: "Rise River Rise" was a Taylor that was Custer's guitar. I didn't bring one when I came to from North Carolina from New Orleans, so I used Custer's guitar. But I also overdubbed that track with an Ovation mandolin. I open-tuned the mandolin the same way as the guitar, and double-tracked it, which gave it a cool vibe. I modulated a couple of notes to make it do some weird harmonic thing. I really locked it in pretty tight, so it sounds like one weird instrument. Then I used the same Taylor guitar on "In The Arms Of God." It's a really good-sounding guitar.
Guitar.com: Does the band often record tracks together?
Keenan: Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. Some of the rhythm tracks were basically just me, Woody, and Stanton. The main stuff on "Never Turns To More" was pretty much recorded in one take, and then we basically overdubbed all the middle parts and locked it all in. Sometimes me and Woody will play together, and then we'll go back and separate our tracks, and listen to who's more in the pocket. Then we'll go back and redo tracks off of that person's and lock it together. When you're playing, you can make mistakes, and when you go back and listen to the parts, our styles are not really the same. We can definitely play tight if we have to, but if we go in there with a mission of just coming up with parts that sound cool, but we are not locking in as tight with the drummer as it could be, then we separate them, listen back, and go back to make it tight.
Guitar.com: When you record your own parts, do you prefer to play in the control room or to be in the same room as your amp and speaker cabinet?
Keenan: It varies. For solos, we probably are out in the live room with the amp, or sometimes we'll do it in the control room. When we're in the control room, we'll just crank the monitors up extremely loud. When we made the Down record, we probably blew up about 30 Yamaha NS-10 monitors because we were doing solos in the control room. We had inline fuses, but we kept popping them. But we were actually getting feedback from the monitors! When you don't have headphones on and you're tracking in the control room, it makes you feel like you're playing "in the record," and sometimes it kind of sounds like it isn't even you playing. It's definitely different from being in the live room, but it sounds bad as sh*t!
Guitar.com: You play through a Mesa/Boogie 50 Caliber Plus, but what type of amp does Woody use?
Keenan: Woody uses a Boogie Dual Rectifier. Woody has become one with that amp and it's become a part of him. I think he probably plays a Rectifier better than anybody in the world.
Guitar.com: Did you both use the same type of custom-built 2x12 wedge cabinets?
Keenan: Sometimes we did, and sometimes we had isolation boxes that we had made. Sometimes we just used old Marshall 4x12 cabinets.
Guitar.com: Throughout the recording process, did both of you always play through your Boogie amps?
Keenan: Always! We'd tried Soldanos, a VHT Pitbull, and it was a very interesting experiment. I could play through a series of amps and for some odd reason, I could get the best "chunk" from my 50 Caliber Plus, and the way I work it, it's just an extension of me. The Dual Rectifier is very spongy-sounding, which Woody can play off of and use that to his advantage, but the 50 Caliber Plus works best for me. It's just a tight Master Of Puppets-sounding amp, and it's great for my rhythm guitar parts.
Guitar.com: Are your own amps kept stock or have they been modified in any way?
Keenan: They're all modded. I have a great guy in North Carolina who does mods. He's put power soaks in some of them, taken care of a lot of grounding issues, and also made it so that my pedals all have individual loops for them so that nothing runs through anything else. It really seems to make a big difference.
Guitar.com: What type of rig are you using when you play onstage?
Keenan: I use three 50 Caliber Plus Boogie heads and two Marshall 4x12 cabinets. It's a pretty straightforward setup. With those 50-watt Boogies, I never need to turn them above 5 or 6 at stage volume. I let the PA do the work and let the soundman figure out how to make it loud in the house. So I get the amp tone the way I want and I can stand right in front of it onstage.
Guitar.com: Do you have wedge monitors set up at the front of the stage for your guitars and vocals?
Keenan: Yes, I do have monitors for both guitars and vocals. But I cut the mids out of the monitor mix on my guitars. It's completely scooped for the death metal sound. But that's the way it's EQ'd only through the monitors, not through my 4x12 cabinets. The settings on the amps for the mids is at about 7. The only reason I cut the mids on the monitors is so my voice cuts through better in the onstage mix.
Guitar.com: Which pedals do you use when playing live?
Keenan: I have an old green Ibanez Tube Screamer distortion, an MXR 6-band EQ like Dimebag Darrell had, an MXR Phase 90 phaser, Boss Flanger, Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser, an old Boss digital delay, and a Tsunami chorus. That's about it onstage. I have a bunch of crap at home that I don't take on the road. I have some crazy old phaser that's a two-station phaser which I think is like the one Robin Trower used way back in the day. It's got two different phase settings on one pedal, so you can change the speed on each setting, which is cool. I've got this weird little Randy Rhoads-sounding box that was made by a company that went out of business. I wish I could remember the name of it. The dude's father made all these pedals and he gave them to me at a show. They're from the '60s and one of them sounds just like Randy Rhoads' doubling effect. I don't know what it is. If you stop playing, it makes a lot of noise, but if you're playing something like the intro to "Crazy Train," you're right on it. I've used that in the studio. I also have a Rocktron Intellifex multieffects processor in my rack that has this great octave setting. It's the only octave effect I've ever found that you can play chords on and it never wavers, and it's the only octave effect I've ever heard that sounds legitimate. I've also got a Sony wireless system, which is really good.
All my pedals and effects run through individual effects loops in the amp, and I use a MIDI controller pedal on the stage so I can step on one program that turns on the chorus and the MXR Phase 90, or whatever individual series I want on each loop.
Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?
Keenan: They're set pretty high, action-wise. I use Dean Markley .012-.056 gauge sets with a wound G. I think the more you try and pull a string like that, the more it pulls itself back. For somebody who is not very vibrato-oriented, like myself, I think it makes it sound more full-bodied because the harder you push against it, the harder it pushes it back. So it's kind of like a fulcrum. I tune up with Woody and if I start white-knuckling sh*t, it'll sound out of tune.
We tune down to D, so we're tuned down a full step from standard tuning. Then some songs like "Vote With A Bullet," "Never Turns To More," and "Paranoid Opioid" are in dropped-C, which is like dropped-D, but tuned down a whole step.
Guitar.com: Woody has some guitars that are similar to yours, but how different are his guitars set up compared to yours?
Keenan: He uses the same strings, but his guitars play killer. He uses lower action. I'm like the Malcolm Young dude in this band. A G chord sounds killer on my guitar, but screaming notes sound really killer on his. All my guitars pick more like a Telecaster, with a bit more "fight" to them, and all his are more like SGs that play faster.
Guitar.com: How many guitars do you typically take out on a tour?
Keenan: If we're not doing any acoustic stuff, then I usually have three electrics. I have two set up in D tuning and one set up in dropped-C.
Guitar.com: What types of picks do you each use?
Keenan: I use the green Tortex ones [.88 mm], and so does Woody, but his are made in black.
Guitar.com: What is the coolest piece of gear that you've recently experimented with?
Keenan: That's hard to say. I don't think there's really any particular gadget that inspires me. Me and Woody are just so "no-frills" with gear. We just push each other as players quite often, so really, my favorite and most essential piece of gear is my fingers!
Guitar.com: Tell us about the highlights of touring this year?
Keenan: I played "Overkill" with Motorhead. That's about about as big as it gets! I told Lemmy I felt like a kid from the Make A Wish foundation having their life's dream come true! It was definitely a highlight of my life!
Guitar.com: How do you warm up for a gig?
Keenan: I really don't warm up on guitar, but I do vocal warm ups. Then we soundcheck so I make sure my tone is where it should be. Our sound guy is very good though. But I spend more time with my throat than with my guitar. Sometimes we don't get a real soundcheck if we aren't the headlining band, but then our sound guy does line checks, and he talks into the mics. But he really knows how everything should be, so it's usually ok when we go out onstage for the gig, although sometimes it's a surprise and you don't know what you get until you're up there. But if we're headlining, then we always do a soundcheck.
Guitar.com: What do you listen to for enjoyment?
Keenan: Silence! I read, if I want to do anything.
Guitar.com: Do you still enjoy listening to music when you aren't playing?
Keenan: Hell yeah! I've got all my Zeppelin, Skynyrd, Sabbath, ZZ Top. That's all cool stuff.
Guitar.com: You mentioned Buddy Guy as being your favorite guitarist, but who is your favorite band of all time?
Keenan: ZZ Top! The first three ZZ Top albums are just devastating!
Guitar.com: Do you enjoy listening to your own records?
Keenan: Yeah, all of them!
Guitar.com: Which of your own recordings really spotlights you as a guitar player and makes you most proud of your work?
Keenan: I think in terms of guitar playing, I'd have to say one of the strongest things I ever did was a Down song called "Learn From This Mistake," which is just unbridled. Phil [Anselmo, vocalist] had these words which were tight and strong. I had played the basic guitar track and he sang along to it, and it was really powerful. So I went back and redid my guitar part to amplify what he was singing. I just kind of ran through it and wanted to put it off the cuff, and so did he. He sang it and I played guitar at the same time. That's the first time I really thought I was a good guitar player, solo-wise. I just thought that track sounded killer! That was the first time I'd felt any real closeness to Buddy Guy, in terms of playing like that. I did it in one take, and when we listened back, Kirk said, "Don't touch that! It's really cool!"
Guitar.com: What advice would you give to another player who is trying to establish their own style?
Keenan: Just work hard and spend a lot of time to really figure out what you want to do and what you want to say as a musician. Don't just get up there and jack off. Nobody wants to see that. We all play guitar and write songs because we love what we do.
Guitar.com: What type of guidance would you offer to others playing in a two-guitar band?
Keenan: That's hard to say. The first time I ever talked to Gary Rossington from Lynyrd Skynyrd, I asked him how they ever doubled up all those solos so perfectly. He said they were all high as kites in the old days. They would just sort of jam and work it out, and record what they were doing. He'd do four bars, then Ed King would do four bars, and they would just keep switching off until they got to the end. Then they would rewind the tape, pick out the best parts, then play it over and over and learn it together until they nailed it. Then they would roll the tape back and double it. So that's why one person would have his bit of flare, and then the next part would have the next person's flare, and as one, it just gave Lynyrd Skynyrd that unique sound. It's pretty fucking genius, if you ask me! You just keep thinking that the whole time, they would just keep taking turns until they got to the end, but there was more to it than just a casual jam. There was a lot more that went into it that built the parts into something that worked well together as a combined effort.