After the worldwide success Metallica enjoyed with the Black Album, the band took a hiatus to record new music (while playing concerts in the middle of this whole process). Once they started their own headlining run in support of 1996’s Load, it was Corrosion of Conformity that âwent around the worldâ in the coveted opening slot.
It was a huge breakup for the muddy hard rock band from Raleigh, North Carolina, who had been turning heads since redesigning the band’s sound to move from their punk / hardcore roots in a heavier direction. As singer-guitarist Pepper Keenan recalls in an interview with UCR, James Hetfield of Metallica was among the early converts.
During an extensive Zoom conversation to discuss Sleeping Martyr, a new box set that brings together the recorded release of Corrosion of Conformity between 2000 and 2005, Keenan shared some memories of how the two groups formed a lifelong bond to after the long time they spent traveling the world together.
What was it like preparing to tour with Metallica and move from clubs to arenas and stadiums? It looks like there would have been a lot of preparation for this.
Big preparations! It all started because Metallica was in London. They were going to do a secret show at the London Astoria II [concert venue] in London. We were on tour in the United States. They called us and wanted us to be a special guest on this secret show.
They changed their name, I think they were called Harvester of Sorrow or something. I don’t remember our name, probably something stupid like Albatross or something. I do not know. But they took us there to play this show! I think it was just a little test so they could see us [under] the radar and see what was going on.
It turned out to be a killer little secret show. But they’re like, “Dude, your gear sucks!” One thing led to another and [James] Hetfield put us in touch with a bunch of people and we had Takumi [Suetsugu] implied [as our guitar tech] and the next thing I knew, we came back, like two months later or something and we were rehearsing in an airship hangar in Birmingham, England in the round!
Our little punk rock club amps weren’t going to make it. Takumi was responsible for helping to create all of the [the right gear]. We needed things that could be transported and packed in trucks, etc.
James makes an appearance on Corrosion of Conformity Sage-Blood album. How did you all know the guys from Metallica before that?
Oh man, I had known Het since Puppeteer tour, in a way, [we were] just friends. I remember they played a long time ago for Ozzy [Osbourne] and I had a Jagermeister shirt. An orange shirt, back when Jagermeister wasn’t even a thing. They were testing it in New Orleans.
I’ve had [that shirt on] and I’m in the front row, headbanging and all that shit. To be honest with you, I didn’t really care about Ozzy. I just wanted to see Metallica. So I left after Metallica played and I was sitting outside by the tour buses and shit outside the arena, just hanging out.
I think Hetfield came by or something and saw the Jagermeister shirt again. He offered me money for it and I said, “Fuck no!” [Laughs] So we started talking there and shit and that was kind of the start I guess. But years later we had recorded [the fourth Corrosion of Conformity album] Issuance and Metallica had a party in New York.
I think they just sold about eight kajillion copies of the fucking Black Album, so they had a party. Someone caught me and [Corrosion of Conformity drummer] Reed Mullin in there. Someone from the press or something. So we went to this crazy Metallica night out in New York. Hetfield walked right over to us at the party and said, “Dude, that’s a fucking great record.”
Listen to “Man or Ash” from Corrosion of Conformity and James Hetfield
It’s validation right there.
Yeah, at that time! And I said, “Funny, Hetfield, all I was trying to do was not be you, but I was trying to impress you!” [Laughs] You know, we weren’t trying to be Metallica. We wanted to be like “Whoa, Metallica”, thick [sounding] kind of crap. We were sort of moving through our brains and it became a mutual admiration from there. Then they gave us this great tour and it was off to the races. And it was no small feat. Opening for Metallica in Poland, having never been there, it’s not easy. [Laughs]
What were the highlights and turning points of Corrosion of Conformity as a band? It looks like the Metallica tour could obviously be one of them.
One of the big moments, well, there are a few. And a lot of them are related to Metallica, which is kind of weird. Because I was a huge fan before I even got to the COC. One of them was when they picked all the bands at Monsters of Rock in Donington at the time and they picked us.
There was only one show and we had just finished a European tour or something. We were able to open up there in Donington and it was something we had never seen before. Playing in front of so many people back then, you know, going from playing punk rock clubs in Leeds to being in Donington, which I knew [how much that meant]. I was like, “Damn, man, here we are!”
It was scary. We were there that night and I remember being in a hotel and there were only headlights on all night. We’re like, “Holy shit.” Hetfield was super cool and we hung out that day and had a wonderful time. I think we took off, I got in a car with him and we went to a few pubs and stuff after, another little town after the thing.
It was a great start and it was the beginning of the relationship. They have always been top notch for us. I guess the second thing was to get offered this giant tour [opening for Metallica in the Load era]. It was in 96/97/98. The tour book was fucking thick. That’s when they were monsters, killing all around the globe. We played in 14 football stadiums in Germany, you know. It was just huge.
How receptive were Metallica fans to what you were doing as the opening band on the Load tower?
Hetfield and I talked about it. He says, “Your only job is to make sure they don’t start screaming Metallica.” [Laughs] We never heard it once. We weren’t models, it was just magnified a thousand degrees. You know the same thing we did that Hetfield and the rest of the guys dug in, it was just a bigger situation.
It was just a matter of getting started. Issuance was out and Sage-Blood was out. We had the songs and a lot of them sounded great in these huge, huge PAs. Mullin was killing him, you know the drums were banging. I mean, they would have booed us if we didn’t make it out, trust me.
Leave armed with songs like “King of the Rotten”, Sage-Blood, as you mention, you had good artillery with the songs from those two albums.
You know, we only played 45 minutes or something. But it took so long to spend so much time with the people and their crew and 28 buses. You know, all this shit. You are essentially a family. It was very special. I’m still in touch with a lot of the guys on the team and stuff to this day. They said it was one of the funniest things they ever did.
It was real and we just circled the globe and hung out. It really gave us a perspective of what we were supposed to be doing and [how to] go up there. But you know the COC is a little stubborn and we weren’t really going to play the game that hard. We loved doing it and I would definitely do it again, if they asked.
But the Sage-Blood disc was a slammer and we just kept going back and forth and back and forth. And then it was over. The mode of decompression to reality was a big, crazy, weird thing. Three years ago and then you’re back in your house you didn’t fucking go [a long time], it’s like, “Oh, that was cool.”
Is there a new COC album in the works?
We are talking about it. You know the COVID thing got us all in the ditch.
Yes, I’ve heard that a lot. Separately, it looks like there was also a Down record starting to take shape. What’s the status there?
Everyone is just trying to get some fresh air. This is stupid. We played Psycho Fest in Vegas and we played Fillmore in New Orleans and they were both smack gigs. We did a live broadcast and it was so weird to be sitting on your ass for a year, literally. I mean, we had shit planned everywhere, both bands. We have just been hampered. Now we’re just trying to put it back slowly without going too fast, you know. But yeah, it’s definitely on the radar.
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