Interview: Down Guitarist Pepper Keenan




Down is the kind of band that would own classic-rock radio if heritage stations hadn't stopped seriously updating their playlists after the first Black Crowes album. The supergroup features Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo and members of Crowbar, Eyehategod and COC. If COC's "Stare Too Long" isn't the greatest classic-rock song of the 21st century, then Down's metal-plated Southern rock anthem "Stone the Crow" is. Down guitarist Pepper Keenan had a hand in both.

"It belongs on the radio," Keenan says of "Crow." "If one jackass would have taken a chance and put it on the radio, it would have taken off. To this day, we play this song, and kids know every damn word. It's like playing 'Freebird' or something."

Granted, for curious baby boomers, the band's metal-heavy latest album, 2007's Down III: Over the Under, probably isn't the best place to start. But for this leg of the tour, the group is concentrating on material from its platinum first album, its most accessible effort. At a recent show, they faithfully covered Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" -- and web video made that song alone look totally worth the price of admission.

Also on the bill tonight at Pop's is Seattle's seminal hard-rock band the Melvins, a sludge machine that's equal parts Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, punk and a Panzer tank. This tour marks the band's 25th anniversary.

"I said this to Buzz [Osborne, frontman-guitarist] the other night, I said, 'Dude, I think you're one of the greatest American rock and roll bands that exists on the planet.' They're half Grand Funk Railroad, half Black Flag. It's just the craziest amalgamation of American music stuck into one band. Incredible."

Down guitarist Pepper Keenan answered some extra questions for A to Z below.

D.X. Ferris: You wrote COC's "Stare Too Long," right? Pepper Keenan: I wrote it. I wrote the melody, and I always dreamed that it would be killer if it sounded like the Allman Brothers, if [Allman/Gov't Mule guitarist] Warren Haynes would play it. So I mailed him a cassette to his management's office. The phone rang the second he got it. He said he was a fan of COC, and I was just stunned. He came down to the studio and brought a Les Paul and a shitty-assed 112 speaker combo amp, plugged it in, and, dude, I had tears in my eyes. He said, "Is that what you hear in your head?" I said, "Yeah, exactly." It's one o' them songs, you know?

COC started as a hardcore band, then became a hard rock band over the years. Were you into classic rock as you grew up, or did you come to it late? Growing up in New Orleans, the hardcore scene had become very stale. It was a few bands chasing each other. Part of the whole hardcore philosophy back in the day was, 'Stick you neck out and put your dick on the chopping block and do something.' COC doing [1994's] Deliverance, we felt more hardcore than any band out there, because we were doing the exact opposite of what everybody else was doing. And 15, 20 years later, that record stands the test of time, and all those other bands are gone. The point was giving the finger to all those bands we were associated with that were painting themselves into a corner. I never felt more hardcore in my life that when we wrote [the biker-rawk nugget] 'Albatross.' [We thought] 'These guys are gonna kill us, or they're gonna love it.'"

Down and COC have classic rock style songs, but you don't do the big, long solos. Is that part of the punk-rock approach, or have you just never felt like doing it yet? We can do shit like that. Is it necessary in this type of band, a half-hour solo? No. But I enjoy 'em -- if they're Robin Trower or Stevie Ray Vaughan. We just do our thing, and it has to keep up to our standards.

How's the tour going? We're keeping up with the Melvins, man. Not a lot of la-la-la songs. Just going for the throat. It's fun. And then we're heading back, we're gonna use that energy as a catalyst to write the new album.

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