Gods of Distortion: The Interviews (Part Two)

Pub date August 5, 2010

Check out Ben Richardson’s story on the Southern Lord Mini-Tour in this week’s Guardian. Here, he talks with Mike Dean, bassist and singer of Corrosion of Conformity.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: You guys are practicing in North Carolina now, in preparation for the tour?

Mike Dean: That’s right, yeah. It might be useful.

SFBG: How long has it been since you’ve played all these Animosity songs?

MD: Quite a while. Easily 23, 24 years, something like that. 23 years!

SFBG: How does that feel? Is it like putting on an old garment?

MD: Either I remember the stuff precisely, and it is like putting on an old garment – it feels just like yesterday, and I can play it – or there are parts of songs that I have no recollection of. It’s either completely natural or kind of strange.

SFBG: Can you point to any particular parts that seem unfamiliar?

MD: There’s a bridge-like part in the middle of the song “Holier,” that I completely forgot about!

SFBG: This must be due in part to the fact that your technique has changed a lot over the years. At this point you’re a veteran, a very well-schooled musician – not to say that you weren’t good to begin with…

MD: It’s funny that you should mention that. It’s an astute observation, because sometime around the time we did [1987’s] Technocracy, I started to play with my fingers more and more, and sort of leave the picking thing behind. Basically, it was like starting all over again, to some extent. Now, I can do all the things on Animosity and Technocracy with my fingers, as opposed to a pick, which I would just be dropping anyway.

SFBG: So you recorded Animosity playing with a pick, but now you can play all those parts with your fingers.

MD: Yeah, I guess I’m losing points for authenticity that way.

SFBG: Well, I’m a fan of the pick-less bass playing, in general, so I gotta support that approach.

MD: I am too, but I try to have a real open mind about it now. You’ll see videos, certain songs in which John Entwistle [of the Who] or John Paul Jones [of Led Zeppelin] use a pick to mix it up.

SFBG: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with this Southern Lord Mini-Tour. How did it all come together?

MD: That’s an interesting story. I’ve done a little recording for a band that was on Southern Lord called Earthride. Maybe about five years ago. I kinda knew Greg [Anderson, owner of Southern Lord Records] from that business. Greg was kind of a hardcore fan when he was really young. I believe that Corrosion of Conformity stayed at his house in Seattle back in the day. I have a foggy recollection of that happening. It took me a while to sort of put that person together with the guy in SunnO)))) and Goatsnake, but eventually I made that connection. Dealing with him is pretty cool, and there are a lot of artists on his label that I admire, like Wino and Goatsnake, whom I thought were really good the first time I heard them – it’s hard to go wrong with basically the rhythm section from the California version of The Obsessed and the singer for Scream.


SFBG: Did he reach out to you, or you to him?

MD: He reached out to us. He was looking to re-issue some old stuff, and that still hasn’t happened too much. We mentioned that we were gonna record a new release, and that may happen. So we just started talking to him about doing that, and he said “hey you wanna play some shows out here?” and we were like “oh yeah!” It kinda lit a fire under our ass to get some new songs down and go out and play ’em.

SFBG: This is the new release as a trio that I’m hearing rumors about, with the Animosity line-up?

MD: Yeah. The only tangible thing that’s done is a seven-inch vinyl, two versions of one song called “Your Tomorrow.” That should be available by the time we’re out playing on the West Coast. It was kind of a hurry-up production, though it sounds really good, and looks really good too.

SFBG: Are there any plans to do any new C.O.C. material with [singer-guitarist] Pepper [Keenan]?

MD: There are plans to do that. We have a multi-pronged general plan, to perhaps take this and do a full-length three-piece release, and get out there and play it some. That’ll be quite a story – it’s been a long time, and I think we have some new material that we’re excited about. I think at the point after we’ve done that, it’ll be a story to get the Deliverance line-up together. Before we got the three-piece together, we were supposed to go to Europe and play some festivals, we had some offers, but Pepper’s busy with his other group, Down, so his schedule’s a little jacked up. So almost as a joke, I said, “Well we should do a three-piece tour!” Everybody stopped and went “Uhhhh….maybe we should!”

SFBG: What had you been up to since C.O.C. went on hiatus, in 2006? You mentioned recording Earthride…

MD: Well, C.O.C. had been going without [drummer] Reed [Mullin], and in some point around 2004, we decided to make a record with Stanton Moore, from GalacticIn the Arms of God. That’s something I’m pretty proud of, something we did ourselves in Galactic’s now-demolished rehearsal space, which was flooded out of the warehouse district of New Orleans. We had a nice little tour with Clutch, in the UK. At that point, [C.O.C. guitarist] Woody [Weatherman] and I started a band that we tentatively called Righteous Fool, and he moved up to the mountains, to basically go into agriculture and have a kid — that kind of put a damper on our plans. Then I started getting in contact with Reed for the first time in quite a few years, and we started jamming together, and that became Righteous Fool, and through that combination of circumstances we have Righteous Fool opening up for the three-piece-C.O.C gigs we have lined up in a couple weeks. It’s a slightly greasier kind of feel.

SFBG: I was gonna ask, since there’s only one song up on the Righteous Fool MySpace, and it seems more in the uptempo vein, like the older C.O.C. stuff: what are your plans for the Righteous Fool sound? What side of your musical personality do you get to express in that project?

MD: Well…it’s kind of in its infancy. We’re a couple years into it, and some good songs have emerged, but it’s difficult to call where that’s gonna go. We have a pretty solid musical presence in the form of Jason Browning. I don’t really know what to say about that. There’re a lot of directions we could go. I think there’s going to be more of an emphasis on vocal harmonies, things like that. We have a couple fun things we do, with a Fleetwood Mac song, and a Skip James song.

SFBG: Well I think people are curious to see what’s going to happen with that, and excited to see the band live. You’ll be playing two sets in a pretty short duration on this tour. What do you think the audience reaction is going to be, going from a super-slow, enveloping Goatsnake set right into this pissed-off hardcore Animosity stuff.

MD: It’ll be interesting to see. There are a lot of people who perform that kind of music [doom metal, a la Goatsnake] at some point in their life, in their younger life, in their previous life, who might have been into the hardcore kind of thing, so there’s a lot of overlap there, in terms of the cast of characters who perform that kinda stuff well. At the time – it’s kind of humorous to think, now – some of the parts on Animosity that were slower, briefly dirge-like, somewhat Black Sabbath inspired – that was considered slow, and within a certain kind of close-minded scene, was actually controversial. It was a controversy that you would play a few measures of something slow or heavy rock-inspired.

I think we were credited with being on the forefront of that, but in a way, we were just imitating Black Flag, but taking our Black Sabbath influence a little more literally, and indulging some more regressive influences. We did something original with borrowed ideas. There are people that would say we were involved in the beginnings of that type of thing, y’know. I don’t think that would be too pompous to say. [Laughs] If it is, I just said it, so…

SFBG: You mentioned having respect for Wino earlier. Being in Saint Vitus in that SST scene, he encountered people who would really be pissed off that he would play slow, super-Sabbathy songs.

MD: That was a pretty crazy thing. I’d already been initiated to the music of the Obsessed by that time, and picked up an appreciation for it. And so to see that dude in Saint Vitus not playing a guitar! It was just absurd, but it kind of wound him up, and made him a more intense vocalist. He’s been playing some shows with Saint Vitus recently, and I’ve heard that that’s still the case. I haven’t witnessed any Saint Vitus in quite a few years.

SFBG: You should take the opportunity, if it arises. I’ve seen two shows in this resurrected Saint Vitus era and…

MD: There’s no Armando on drums…they have some other dude on drums…

SFBG: Yeah, they have a different drummer, but Wino and Dave [Chandler, guitarist] are still really potent.

MD: So Saint Vitus comes to Raleigh, NC in like 1986, and Wino stays at my house (it’s a house a lot of people live at) and here he is on this tour not playing guitar. He picks up an acoustic guitar and plays tunes in a couple funny different ways, and plays Robert Johnson songs verbatim, as they are on the one LP – Robert Johnson Complete Recordings – we were just like, “Oh, my God!”

SFBG: I’m curious as to how you got from playing hardcore with Sabbath interludes to playing that reinvented C.O.C. sound from the early nineties, which is much more directly Sabbath-influenced. But that transition corresponds with the time when you were out of the band…

MD: I think we were already looking in that direction. You go out there and you play hardcore music, and you’re on tour, and the quality of it – of some of the bands you see – isn’t that great, and you’re listening to music partially devoid of melody. You want to unwind, and listen to some older stuff, and you realize that the craftsmanship of the older stuff is a little more advanced, even though its time has come and gone. Whats the next logical thing if you’re listening to Sabbath, or the next logical regression, to try to take something new? Deep Purple! We were listening to a lot of that. It’s funny, because after I quit the band they ended up with a singer [Pepper Keenan] who’s obviously really Ian Gillian-inspired, and they hooked up with a producer who had really sound music theory ideas. That resulted in Blind.

I had kinda moved on. I met a nice girl and moved to San Francisco for half a year. I lived in Philadelphia and I was delivering things on my bike. I heard the Blind record, and I was like “Oh mah god, its really good!” That minute came and went, and around the end of 1993, they had a dispute coming up with new material, and they were looking for a bass player and a singer. They asked me, did I want to come and make a record, and I was like “Yeah, all right!”

SFBG: That’s been the thing doing research for this interview…I think the archetypal narrative for rock bands is that they have members in and out and it gets complicated, and there are a lot of hard feelings, whereas it seems like with C.O.C. there’ve been all these people in and out of the band, but it’s been very amicable. You left and came back; you’re playing in Righteous Fool with guys who had been in the band before…

MD: Well, you know, that’s not to say that there weren’t heated incidents involved in some of this revolving door activity. There might be some negativity that occasionally rears its head. But I think everybody tries to be an adult, and a compassionate person. I think Kyuss would be the band that had that more amicable situation. Drummers in and out, a couple bass players…

SFBG: I thought some guys from that band don’t even speak anymore…

MD: Well now, yeah, you’re right. The funny thing is that they were all supposed to be on Roadburn in Holland like the same day. Nick Oliveri playing his acoustic stuff. Mr. Garcia doing some Kyuss stuff…

SFBG: It seems like a lot of these differences are being put aside in the interest of these tours that are resurrecting bands – bands that have been broken up for awhile and are coming back to tour.

MD: There’s a big rash of that right now, and it’s one of things that actually kinda gives me pause about doing this, to some extent. The only thing I can do to allay my feelings of not wanting to be part of that is to attempt to offer something new. At this point, we have four or five new songs that we can perform. We’re doing this as part of readying ourselves to do something new. And I know people are excited about the old stuff, and its fun to play, fun to reinterpret, and we enjoy it, but it’s also about having something new. Because there are a lot of 40-, 45-year-old people who were in some moderately famous musical endeavor when they were 20, and they’re all coming out of the woodwork. There’s just a new market for it.

SFBG: Is it possible for you to expand on the drawbacks of these nostalgia tours? Not asking you to slag anyone off, obviously. Are there things that you could point to that give you the bad vibe with that trend?

MD: No, not really. I’m not going to point to anyone who’s substandard or insincere. At some point it just becomes a little redundant. I’m kind of an unlikely subject [for a retro-focused tour] because I’ve never been real big on the nostalgia factor. But here we are.

SFBG: It just seems like if it’s overdone, it can take away the spotlight from some of the cool new bands. But it cuts both ways, right, because if you have these nostalgia tours, you can have new bands as openers, and take advantage of the known quantity, the big name. If there’s a similarity in the music, then the fans of Saint Vitus, say, get exposed to up-and-coming bands in the same genre that the older cats who listen to Saint Vitus might not have heard of.

MD: Well Saint Vitus this doesn’t really even apply to…

SFBG: Well, yeah. You’re right…

MD: …regular time, the laws of time, don’t really apply to them. They started off working this old crazy freedom-rock ethos anyway. They started off being out of style, and they’re a special case.

SFBG: A bad example for me to cite. In general, do you think it’s a good time in musical history to be a metal band?

MD: It might be! One of these trips has a corporate sponsorship, so apparently someone believes that this can help with product placement and identity. That’s…pretty crazy.

SFBG: Do you follow any newer, up-and-coming music? I’ve been impressed in recent years by the resurgence of a lot of North Carolina-based bands that have been making names for themselves…

MD: You know, the funny thing is, Between the Buried and Me…we had no earthly idea that they were from Raleigh, North Carolina. I was just like “that band with the really badass drummer, and sort of exaggerated dynamics – they’re from Raleigh?! Really?!” I’m not actively following stuff like that, but I’ve heard of them, and I’ve heard them.

SFBG: How about Valient Thorr?

MD: Valient Thorr I’ve actually seen, and the funny thing is I do a lot of…I work a lot of events, I do rigging, and I used to do straight-up stagehand stuff, so I’ve moved Valient Thorr’s gear, at the Warped Tour. They were like, “No, no, you can’t move our gear, you’re Mike Dean!” And I was like, “Dude, the rent is due, every month, I will move it.” I like them, I like their crazy anti-war video from several years ago, with Mr. Brian Walsby. Have you seen that? Being on the Volcom label, no one ever sees their shit.

SFBG: It seems to me like Southern metal has experienced a crazy boom in the last five, 10 years or so. All these bands out of Georgia – Baroness, Mastodon, Kylesa, Black Tusk. You’re sort of in a unique position to speak to how well Southern rock can combine with heavy music.

MD: A lot of the bands that you just mentioned there are good, non-stereotypical versions of what you would call “Southern metal.” There are other acts that kind of exploit that in an uninteresting way. There’s a lot interesting musicianship in that stuff, which is pretty cool. I’m not a big flag-waver, but all those bands are pretty good. It’s kind of astounding how popular and successful Mastodon are.

SFBG: It’s crazy. I’ve seen them go from the club shows to the college amphitheaters. It’s crazy to see the change in the kind of people who you see at the show.

MD: I’ve never been to a Mastodon show. I’ve may have seen them open for somebody a long time ago, but I’ve never been to one of these big shows. I’d be curious to see.

SFBG: They’re total pros in one sense – the performance is really top notch. But the guitarist, Brent, is kind of a wild man, and I think they’re almost better when he’s three sheets to the wind, because it ups the intensity. If he’s getting angrier and angrier as the show goes on, his solos get more expressive…

MD: A whole album based on Moby Dick.

SFBG: Can’t argue with that, right?

MD: Those kids’ English teachers gotta be proud!

SFBG: One of the things I was struck by, listening to Animosity to prepare for this interview, was the strident political nature of a lot of the lyrics. Even though we live in very politically contentious times, there really hasn’t been the kind of musical reaction that existed under Reagan, when people were using music as a channel for their dissent. Do you have any insight, having written a seminal political hardcore album, about why that isn’t going on today?

MD: That’s an interesting observation. I don’t really know the answer to that. I don’t think there’s as much consensus, because of the disparate nature of media now, or the wider number of outlets. At that time, we had cable TV in its infancy, we had print media, we had three networks – I think that people would be more tuned in to the same media outlets at that point, and they would either accept it or reject it. I think there was more potential for mass consensus even in terms of dissent. Now it’s just so diffuse; people just look at things that reinforce their worldview. A lot of those worldviews don’t have anything to do with reacting to political situations, or reacting to wars that are going on. Also, I think expressing oneself through music didn’t result in any massive type of change. I don’t think its really an effective means of effecting any kind of change. It’s just blowing of steam…

SFBG: Well, Bono cured hunger in Africa. So, there’s that.

MD: I crewed for U2 on their 360 show as a local, working the spotlight, and the guy on the spotlight above me pissed himself in the spot chair – I got to watch the piss drip down.

SFBG: He couldn’t leave?

MD: Yeah, he couldn’t leave. I watched him drink some coffee beforehand, and I was wondering…

SFBG: You said it was the spotlight above you? That sounds like a bad situation…

MD: Fortunately, they were offset.

SFBG: Did you see a trickle of urine going by, a couple feet from you?

MD: I did. Yeah, I did.

SFBG: That’s brutal.

MD: They landed the truss, and the guy just left – he resigned on the spot.


Corrosion of Conformity, Goatsnake, Black Breath, Eagle Twin, Righteous Fool

Tue/10, 7 p.m., $25

DNA Lounge

375 11th St., SF