Corrosion of Conformity’s Mike Dean Dishes on Touring, ‘80s Hardcore, and Reed Mullin’s Legacy
Fans of hardcore, metal, sludge, and everything in between rejoice; Corrosion of Conformity is hitting the road this week. This time, they’re taking their iconic brand of amalgamated metal to select cities neglected over the years for a joint affair with Arizona’s own Spirit Adrift.
For longtime COC devotees, the tour represents yet another opportunity to take in the groove-laden james that the Raleigh-bred brand perpetuates. And one of the driving forces behind the musical tornado that is COC is longtime bassist Mike Dean.
Dean’s origins with COC date back to the band’s early years on the hardcore scene, where the four-stringer proved pivotal to the group’s early records Eye for an Eye (1984), Animosity (1985), and the EP Technocracy (1987). But the combination of a shifting scene and conflicting ideals led Dean to depart shortly thereafter.
But the story of COC didn’t end there, and after re-establishing themselves as a ferocious metal-oriented outfit with Blind (1991), Dean returned to the fold in 1993 and has remained since. What’s more, the string of records that followed – Deliverance (1994), Wiseblood (1996), and American’s Volume Dealer (2000) – sonically established COC as one of the era’s most formidable groups.
With four more records, many hard-fought battles, and the untimely loss of drummer Reed Mullin in their rearview mirror, COC forges on with renewed focus and undying vigor. As evidenced by their impending jaunt, the trio of Woody Weatherman, Pepper Keenan, and Mike Dean are as vital as ever.
“We’re at a point where I feel we’ve reached that certain stride that can only be achieved by playing together forever. It’s all over the place because we’re so far from where we started, but a lot of those original elements are still buried there. I’d call it an eclectic mix of heavy rock with roots in hardcore punk, metal, sludge, and thrash crossover. And we love ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, and just about everything else.”
And while they’ve not officially replaced Mullin, COC has been aided by Mullin’s longtime tech John Green in the live setting. And rumor is that the jazz-fusion drummer Stanton Moore is set to collaborate with the band for its impending studio record. So, while COC keeps its fallen brother’s memory tucked deeply within the annals of its collective heart, the objective of moving forward and honoring his memory remains at the forefront.
“After we lost Reed, it was a hit. And we knew we wanted to move forward, but we also knew that if we were going to move forward with somebody new, it was not going to be someone who was a clone of Reed because that person doesn’t exist. You can find a proficient player, but only one Reed Mullin.”
As he prepares to embark on the band’s upcoming tour with Spirit Adrift, Mike Dean took a moment with me to reflect on the band’s hardcore origins, the importance of Reed Mullin, and COC’s plans for a new studio album as they move forward.
Tell me about your upcoming tour with Spirit Adrift.
Man, time flies. As crazy as it is, we’re heading out in about four days. This is going to be very cool because we’re going to hit some out-of-the-way places like Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and New Hampshire, placed like that. But the best part is just getting back out there and playing music and being able to do what we love. We’re excited to be playing these off-the-beaten-path places, talking our music to new people, and making new friends.
I caught you guys with the Melvins earlier this year. How will your setlist differ from those shows?
Well, the tour with Ministry and the Melvins was a bit different since we were in a situation where we were sharing the bill with two other bands. And that was cool because Ministry and the Melvins are two very different bands from us. They’ve got different styles and two very different audiences. It was unique, but I thought it all came together in a good way. But the crazy thing is that I had no idea that there was so much staying power in Ministry. They hadn’t done a tour for a minute because they had tried to get back out there, but the plague happened.
So, there were a lot of rescheduled shows from years before, but they killed it, and we were selling out all these theaters the whole way through. But that was different for us since we were coming out first and only playing 40 minutes, which meant we had to cut some songs out of the set. So, with this tour coming up, we’re gonna be playing for at least an hour, so there’s not that nagging feeling that we’re about to run out of time.
Describe the chemistry the members of Corrosion of Conformity share in the live setting.
It’s pretty fluid these days. We’ve got a lot of practice and experience under our belts, so it’s second nature. We’re to a point where if we need to change course or want to add in a little impromptu moment to keep it interesting, we can easily do that. We don’t like to keep everything stock; we’ll change it up so that people familiar with the songs can get something different from what they expect. Having played together for so long, we can build and construct these songs with new parts, reshape middle portions, and stretch out into crazy jams. But that didn’t happen overnight; it took a lot of hard work, but these guys are known quantities to me at this point, and they’re good, too. [Laughs.] They’re good at what they do, and I feel like they keep improving, which keeps me working to improve.
Back in the ’80s, Corrosion of Conformity was initially a hardcore band. What prompted the shift toward metal as time went on?
Yeah, that’s true. But we weren’t just a hardcore band – it was more than that – we were a true DIY band. And all of that started in the hardcore scene. But right from the start, the very name Corrosion of Conformity was a dig at the broader societal conformity that was mirrored in the cliquish, superficial hierarchy of a subculture like punk rock. We were poking at how people dressed and acted alike, which is innocent enough on the surface.
It seemed like this great irony in punk music where people were talking about individualism, but they all looked the same. You had people buying these off-the-shelf outfits, dressing the same, talking the same, and all that. So, right from the start, we were in his clique, where he’s like, “Yeah, we love fast music like Black Flag, but at the same time, we love the heavy stuff like Black Sabbath. So, what do we do?” And that duality and our feeling like the idea of being punk had a lot of ironies behind it is what led us to explore the things we grew up listening to as kids, and that was a lot of heavy metal.
Do you experience backlash from the punk community as a reaction to the shift in sound?
With the shift in sound, we were now catering to a new audience. We still had our old fans who stayed with us, but I’m sure some people hopped off the train at that point. But we loved playing some slower, heavier stuff into the set. We did it from the start, but we always had hardcore stuff in there. But we didn’t care; we wanted to feast on the dismay of these supposed orthodox punks. These were the types that would bomb on deviation from what they expected. They’d freak out, which was cool with us because it got people talking. [Laughs]. The way we saw it was simple: any publicity is good publicity.
So, we let people react how they were gonna react and say whatever they were gonna say because it helped us distinguish ourselves. And it’s not that we had a chip on your shoulder or anything; we never took ourselves that seriously. It was just fun to mess with people’s expectations and to get outside of the superficiality of one musical style being the be-all-end-all. We wanted to express ourselves and grow on our instruments. Over time, it naturally became easier to grow as a band through the slower, heavier music we were returning to. There was never any tactical decision to shift; it happened naturally. We never thought there would be financial gain – it was never about that – and it was never about bringing in huge amounts of fans. We needed to find our identity as people and as a band, and the band’s sound today reflects that.
At what point do you feel Corrosion of Conformity found its definitive sound?
As far as early stuff, Animosity was a record that came together very naturally, and people responded to it. And then the EP Technocracy was one we made where I felt that we were on the verge of something. The issue there was we were searching, and it did not come together naturally at all. And then that was where I disappeared to be cool somewhere, and while the other guys kept at it for a bit, they ended up falling by the wayside. And when they finally got it together with Karl [Agell] and Phil [Swisher] for Blind, I’d say that was when the sound of the band finally came together.
I wasn’t there for that, but I am big enough to say that Blind is killer and that it really did define the sound of the band going forward. And then, when that lineup fell apart, I came back for Deliverance, which was a moment where we talked Pepper [Keenan] into singing more, which changed the band forever in a good way. So, I would say that for Corrosion of Conformity, that would be the ultimate point where we gelled. And then, with Wiseblood, that vibe continued, and with each album after that, we’ve continued that progression.
A lot of people hate on bands who have a formula, but I like bands like The Ramones, or AC/DC, who have a strict formula. And there’s nothing wrong with having a narrower area if you do it well enough to make it work. But we’ve never stayed in one place: we’ve always been more eclectic by nature. So, there’s not one way to go about it; if it’s natural and you’re enjoying it, there’s no reason to get stuck in any one train of thought.
You mentioned Pepper’s more prominent role as a lead vocalist. What prompted that?
Well, when I decided to come back to the band, it was something where I came back to play bass. After Blind, Karl left, and I sang, which was cool, but Pepper was also singing songs. And there was one song from Blind called “Vote with a Bullet,” where we thought Pepper’s approach was cool. So, when the songs for Deliverance started to come together, they felt like ones that Pepper should sing in that style.
Because when I came back, they were still looking for an outside singer. They wanted an entertainer or a guy who could get out front and move people. But eventually, we got to a point where we felt like what we had was enough, and we said, “Let’s just have Pepper sing.” I think we both sing well enough, and I’m open to it, but going forward, we’ll probably leave it to Pepper to do the singing for the most part.
How has your approach to the bass evolved over the years?
When I first started, my influences were guys like Darryl Jenifer from Bad Brains, Geezer Butler from Sabbath, and Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag. In those early days, I was playing with a pick, and we were doing the fast, hardcore stuff, and honestly, it was killing my wrist. [Laughs]. So, I started thinking, “Yeah, I’m gonna need to get comfortable using my fingers if I’m gonna keep doing this.” From there, I listened to Billy Cox, Bootsy Collins, James Jamerson, and all these awesome jazz, reggae, and funk guys.
It took a minute, but I was competent with my fingers by the time I got back with the band in the early ’90s. It allowed me to broaden the idea of my role in the rhythm section because now, I could groove but also be aggressive without killing myself. And now, it’s great because I’ve grown to the point where I’m adding Latin syncopation in our heavier jams, so it’s a complete amalgamation of everything that I love and has influenced me.
We sadly lost Reed Mullin in 2020. How do you measure his importance?
There would be no Corrosion of Conformity without Reed. When we were kids, Reed was the most determined person, starting with when he first picked up the drums. Early on, Reed didn’t know much, and Woody had to basically explain to him how to play. And he went from that to quickly becoming this absolute, unreal monster. It literally happened in a matter of months to where he was the fastest-footed guy on the scene. And he never stopped growing as a drummer to the point that he became one of the all-time great drummers in rock music.
But Reed would get on the phone when we were kids, call people, and make hardcore shows happen. And the big thing was Reed’s parents had this business, so he could use their phone to call everyone all over the place to book shows for us. It was a toll-free line; we called it our “lifeline” because we could never have afforded a landline or the long-distance charges. And they had a Xerox machine, so he’d print thousands of flyers for us to plaster all over town; we would never have booked those shows or got the word out without that happening. So, Reed would book entire tours from his parent’s office; he was this extraordinary ball of DIY energy, and I genuinely believe that we wouldn’t be here today without him.
How do you replace a drummer of Reed’s caliber?
Man, Reed was a hell of a drummer. And beyond that, he was a hell of a personality that people always seemed to take to. But musically, he became this fucking monster, this once-in-a-lifetime, real-deal talent, and person. So, replacing him is basically impossible. But as we unfortunately know, Reed had problems with drinking, and things like that, which would sideline him from the band, so we got used to the idea of finding someone to fill in for him from time to time.
And I remember that we had to get Stanton Moore in there one time because we were like, “We can’t replace Reed. But we have to get someone in there who is powerful in their own right; let’s get Stanton in here.” And that was totally different; Stanton approaches the fills in his own way, and he’s not going to budge on that, which we live. He held his own, so we got used to calling people in when Reed was down, off doing some other project.
When did you know that Reed was in trouble and that the switch may be permanent?
Well, for a long time, the band was almost a side project because there weren’t enough shows and all that. But suddenly, the shows started coming in, and we started making music again. So, when we first got going again, Reed was on fire, and things were good, but then he started to fall out again, and he was having problems. So, around 2018, Reed’s tech, John Green, stepped in to play with us, and we felt he would be great because he was working with Reed every day on tour and knew what needed to be done. So, John learned an entire set with only 24 hours’ notice – that’s how fast it all happened – and he was incredible.
Around this time, Reed was having a lot of problems, and he was already struggling. But what did it was when Reed injured his knee just as we were about to leave for this tour, and he couldn’t go to the U.K. to do the Bloodstock festival. So, we called John; he learned the entire set in 24 hours, and we showed up at Bloodstock. We played in front of a Judas Priest crowd of 60,000 people, and John killed it. But Reed, man, that guy had a style of his own, and even after that, we were all hoping that he would get better, but also all had this sense that we might lose him. And when Reed passed, that was a sad and surreal experience; we knew that all we could do was move forward and honor his contributions.
My understanding is you’ll be working with Stanton Moore again on Corrosion of Conformity’s next record. Is that right?
Yeah, man. That’s true; I think we will be working with Stanton again. So, history repeats itself all these years later; Stanton played on In the Arms of God, and I think he’s going to be working with us again for the next record. Having him aboard, I think you need to get a little nerdy to describe it because Stanton has got his own particular way that he wants to play. He wants to play kick drums in his jazzy way and likes to have the drums heads up front, so it’s more of a traditional-sounding thing. And all of Stanton’s fills are very second-line sounding, and he has these little phrases that are unique to him.
Will Stanton be joining Corrosion of Conformity permanently? What ultimately made him the right fit for this record?
Stanton is a different animal than Reed – we learned that back when we did In the Arms of God – and he brings an entirely new dynamic to the band. Stanton will take these straight, New Orleans-influenced, second-line things and throw them into a metal song; there’s no stopping it. If you’ve seen Staton Moore with Galactic, you’ll know what I’m talking about. He’s got his take, man. He’s a character. But this isn’t like Stanton joining the band per se, and I’m not sure that he would come out on the road and play with us because he’s busy. It’s more that Stanton is a good friend of ours, and we love working with him when we can when our schedules all sync up. Plus, Pepper and Stanton have known each other since they were little. It felt right to do another album with him because we loved what he did on In the Arms of God, and we wanted to make this first record after Reed passed special. So, stay tuned, and we’ll see how it all comes out.