CORROSION OF CONFORMITY’S REED MULLIN: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
photo courtesy of Thrash Hits
If it weren’t for the dogged efforts of folks like Reed Mullin of Corrosion of Conformity, a good eighty percent of the bands regularly featured on MetalSucks wouldn’t exist. As the drummer and a founding member of COC, he is one of American hardcore and crossover’s founding fathers. COC – a skate park perennial in the 1980s – released the classics Animosity and Technocracy long before they became a household name. But Mullin did much more than record and tour. During some of the underground’s formative years he was one of the key tour bookers in Raleigh and put together shows featuring classic punk bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen and early crossover acts. He was one of a few bookers the that essentially created the touring infrastructure that now allows bands to go on the road and make a decent living.
Then commercial success called. While metal withered in the 90s COC was at a commercial peak with vocalist and guitarist Pepper Keenan, releasing the hit albums Wiseblood and Deliverance and touring almost nonstop. In the twenty-first century they have returned to their roots, first playing sets of their earliest material as a three-piece, then releasing an excellent self-titled album that features the skull that’s been seen around the world. Mullin talked to MetalSucks about old-school hardcore, new school COC and a particularly egregious catering bill. It’s hard to believe Corrosion of Conformity has been playing music for more than three decades.
After your big label days in the mid-90s what is it like going back to your roots as three-piece and I imagine under more modest circumstances?
You mean, is it different from when Columbia was giving us wheelbarrows of cash and tour support ? [laughs]. I feel like we’re sort of getting in the van again like [Henry] Rollins talks about. But shit, when we started out I was booking the tours. We have a big drive tonight from San Antonio to New Orleans and Pepper is going to come sing a bunch of songs with us. Back in the 80s, one of the tours I booked was Raleigh right to San Francisco. It was 48 hours of straight driving. Then, when [bassist and vocalist] Mike Dean initially quit in 1987 we did a tour that went right from San Francisco to Philadelphia.
Back then, we toured in a Ford Econoline that my parents bought. It had a little bubble top where we’d store the COC skull t-shirts and a little bit of gear. I was a promoter in Raleigh and got to meet a lot of cool bands and made a lot of connections. I booked everyone from Black Flag to the Dead Kennedys to the Descendents to Void, you name it. Back then, you’d call your buddy and just find out the cool place to play in, say, Salt Lake City.
In the 80s we were teenagers and in our early 20s. There was more adventure to [touring] because we hadn’t seen it. And we got to play with an enormous amount of fucking badass bands that we wouldn’t have seen. If you look in the middle of the photos in the Minor Threat CD — the shot taken from behind the band — you can see me and half of Raleigh in the audience. Not only did we play these places but we traveled all over the Eastern seaboard.
Now, I wouldn’t say we’re jaded but we’ve toured the United States for the last 30 years. We feel blessed to still be able to do this.
One of the things people mention about touring is that a quarter- century ago a different state could feel like a different country. Now, everything is more homogenous and it’s harder to surprise people with new music because everything is on the Internet.
To a certain extent you are right. The Internet, for better or worse, makes sub-categories of all different kinds of music. If you talk about metal how many different kinds of metal are there now? I remember seeing a show that was Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, DOA, The Minutemen and someone else. These days, all of those bands would just be branded into different categories. Kids wouldn’t necessarily go see something like a Hüsker Dü because they’d be called an Indy pop band.
What is it like for three middle-aged guys to be on the road playing clubs now?
It’s exhilarating. I haven’t been touring for eight years. I like our new songs and I love playing the stuff from Animosity and Technocracy. You have to figure I’ve been doing this since 1982 and then was always on tour except for the past eight years.
You still get to meet a lot of good people. And if you are a reasonably good band you can make enough money to pay the rent and bills. You still get to see a lot of good bands. But the atmosphere has changed a bit with all the divisions of things. When we started people would just go to see bands to go to see bands. Things didn’t have to be some sub-division of metal. We do have to stretch a little bit more to be able to jump around [laughs].
More aches and pains in the morning?
Headbanger’s disease? Yeah. But it’s worth it.
Metal was once viewed as a young man’s game. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. You are out on the road, Brutal Truth is recording and playing and Bobby Liebling got sober and is touring and recording with Pentagram.
I’d agree. Look at Lemmy. What is he sixty-something? I don’t think things like that matter like they would 25 years ago. People are kind of amazed that old farts like us can still go up there and tear it up. And that’s our intention.
Could you see yourself still doing this in your 60s?
Hell yeah, if my arms and legs still work.
Do you miss the big label support and more creature comforts?
The money was pretty good and it was nice to be pampered. But to be honest I remember a lot more about the tour we had with D.R.I. in 1985 than I do a whole United States and Europe tour with Metallica. It was more of an adventure. Early on, we were working for ourselves, DIY. We booked our own shows, made our own shirts and did everything ourselves.
When we were on a major label I remember some bad things. When we finished Wiseblood label executives told us we needed a radio single and had to go back into the studio. They told us they would not release the album unless we want back in. And I thought it was disgusting, like “what are you talking about?” Anyway, we went in back to the studio like we were told. As far as music goes that was the worst but they were just dangling that carrot.
My main memory of the Wiseblood era is the amount of recognition you received…with the COC skull and Animosity you were a band that a small group of people knew about and understood. Then you were huge.
Don’t get me wrong – the vast majority of people at Columbia were super cool and worked really hard to promote us. But it all came down to money. They did promote the shit out of us. I remember doing a video for the Deliverance album for the song “Albatross.” We had Samuel Bayer who did the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. He was a real bigwig. When they brought us to New York from Raleigh they flew me up. There was a giant stack of statements. You should have seen the catering bill! Just on the catering for the video they spent like $20 grand for two days. And it wasn’t like it was sushi or anything. I don’t even remember what we ate.
There was definitely money squandered. We went from pinching pennies to having everything taken care of, not having to worry about things anymore. We did get a little crazy at points and didn’t keep our eyes on the ball.
If there was any upside it might have been you were one of the few metal bands that was commercially viable when metal took a nosedive in the early to mid-90s.
There seems like there have been several district eras of COC. There was the hardcore punk era with Eye For An Eye and Animosity and Technocracy. Then there was the Blind era. Then there was the Pepper era where we did very well and did giant tours. And now, we’re here.
The COC skull is almost as widespread as the Dead Kennedys or anarchy logo. If you had a patch jacket in the 80s there would be a COC skull on it.
We’ve seen it everywhere. The number of tattoos run in the thousands. On our next album, I think we should put something on our website asking for photos of all the tattoos. At one show in Minneapolis there were five guys who came up to me with a COC skull tattoo. Supposedly it was on the Berlin Wall before it came down. It’s become a global entity. The guy that drew the skull did it for a gig for us and the band Void from D.C. Initially, the spikes were missiles.
You’ve mentioned Void twice. They are one of the great underappreciated acts in extreme music. The Dischord split with Faith should be required listening.
They were one of our favorite if not our favorite band. The day before that show in Raleigh in ’84 I got a call from [guitarist] Bubba Dupree. He said their van was broken down and they couldn’t make it. And we were beyond stoked for the gig; we’d turned everyone on to Void. So I hopped in the COC van and I drove up to D.C. and picked them up. I had to drive all over Maryland and Virginia and D.C. , pick all those fuckers up and haul their ass to the show. They were bad as fuck. They played at Kiwanis Center and then had to drive right back home.
What was so special about Void?
They were the first true crossover band. A lot of people say us, Suicidal Tendencies or D.R.I. But I think it was Void. Bubba had his own style.
What was it like to write together as a three-piece after being a larger band for so long?
Woody, Mike and I have learned to play more efficiently over the years. When we started it was rudimentary two-part punk rock. I could do a Ramones beat and a different cut-time beat. Slowly, I learned how to play other beats and Woody learned to play guitar better. The three of us can now communicate without even speaking. It’s weird but kind of cool.
We’d been jamming together for a while years ago and realized people wanted us to play some of this Animosity stuff for a long time. The only song we did from the old days was “Hungry Child.” So we said, fuck it, we’ll do it but we don’t want to make it a nostalgia trip. Mike said we have to write new stuff too. Greg Anderson [of Southern Lord] put out that seven-inch and people were just stoked. There were a lot of old folks and curious new folks. There were a lot of people that didn’t want to like it but ended up liking it, anyway. The core of the band has always been the three of us.
The reception to the new record has been very positive. Did you initially think all people would want was an Animosity retread or something that relied on your past sound?
I think people’s expectations were probably pretty low and maybe that’s why we’re getting such good reviews. The music on this alum just oozed out of us. It’s a good representation of all the incarnations of COC: Animosity era, Blind and Pepper. Some songs like “Psychic Vampire” blend all three in one song. The music that’s coming is the music we like. It’s a natural occurrence and nothing is planned. But we were surprised that people dug it so much.
This guy came up to me in Memphis last night and offered me a drink. He said he just saw Pepper and was a huge Down and Pepper fan. He said “I didn’t want to like your new album at all but it’s the best album I’ve heard in ten years. Goddammit!” [laughs].
What did you say back?
He was gigantic so I told him I appreciated it. I wasn’t sure where he was headed originally.
What happens next for COC? You’ve been touring and recording and it looks like your relationship with Pepper is good.
We have five songs that are finished that we might polish off. The door is open for Pepper. We’d like to do more stuff with him and I’m sure we’ll talk about it. Since it’s our 30-year anniversary I’d love to do some shows that have all the lineups: Animosity and Technocracy, the Blind stuff, the Pepper stuff and our new material.
You could call it COC-Palooza.
[laughs]. I do think it would be cool.
How has your drumming evolved from your many years as player?
I think it devolved during the Pepper era because things were simpler. On Blind I was all over the place. I don’t consider myself a very good drummer. I think I’m alright. We play with so many fantastic drummers. There are guys that can just do some crazy ass shit.
What do you think about drumming becoming almost as much of a show of athletic prowess as it is about music?
I guess I appreciate it. But I’m a groove kind of guy. I like Phil Rudd, Bill Ward and ZZ Top’s drummer. There’s something to be said for being behind the beat and not going “look at me!” I can do some of that look at me stuff but too much of it gets irritating.
So you wouldn’t want to play straight blast beats for two hours.
I can’t do blast beats too well to be honest with you. My friend Rich [Hoak] from Brutal Truth was the first to show it to me. I can do a mean fake double bass.
If the band ended tomorrow what’s your legacy?
The band has been a lot of different things, taken a lot of different forms. That’s the cool thing about the name Corrosion of Conformity. It fits. I came up with it in a chemistry class when we were studying corrosive materials. We had a band and a bunch of names. We were called the Accused and then found out there was another Accused. We also tried Aftermath. I remember coming back after school with the name and it stuck.
Musically, we’ve looked at things a lot of ways. I don’t think our next album will be electronica. But we’ve straddled hard rock, heavy metal and punk. We feel like we can do all three and still be Corrosion of Conformity. There is a certain quality that runs through all the albums that lets you know it’s still COC.