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Exclusive Hard Rock Examiner Interview: Pepper Keenan of DOWN

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In less than 2 short weeks, the southern metal machine known as DOWN will be returning to the tri-state area for a pair of face-melting shows. It’s been almost 20 years since Phil Anselmo, Pepper Keenan, Kirk Windstein, and Jimmy Bower first began jamming in New Orleans, LA, but their music has proven to be as timeless as it is powerful.

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With new EP Down IV part 1 on its way, I spoke with guitarist Pepper Keenan last week to ask about the new music, upcoming shows, and Down history:

Examiner: Hi Pepper, thanks for talking to me today! How’ve you been?

Pepper: We got this little hurricane down here, but we’re close to back to normal.

Examiner: Up here in New York, watching CNN, it didn’t look like it was so bad compared to Katrina. How was it in person?

Pepper: There were sustained winds of over 40 mph, so once it blew through it was nuts. There’s a bunch of debris in the street but they’re cleaning it up, got the power back up and running. School’s are still closed though.

Examiner: Which did you watch last night, MTV’s Video Music Awards or Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention?

Pepper: Obama speaking at the DNC.

Examiner: Did you like what you heard?

Pepper: More than the Republicans, sure.

Examiner: So Down is coming to New York City later this month, and this will be your second straight year playing the Best Buy Theater. Do you feel like the Down touring cycle is settling into a pattern?

Pepper: I don’t know. I guess the Nokia Theater (now Best Buy Theater) is a great venue, so I can’t complain about that. I wish we could fall into a pattern, but we’re a little slow. This is our second year in New York I think?

Examiner: Yes, last year’s show was great (read my review of it here). And you played there in 2009 also.

Pepper: I think before then we were playing at Roseland. It’s all good, we’re just happy to be back on the road again.

Examiner: Like last year, you’ll also be playing Starland Ballroom in New Jersey the day after New York. I think most New Yorkers have their opinion, but do you notice any differences in the Jersey crowd versus the Manhattan audience?

Pepper: In Sayerville, you get to hang out with the crowd a bit more. Security isn’t as tight as it is in New York. You can’t hang on the street talking to kids.

Examiner: What I like about Starland is that the floor is shallow but wide, so the pit is always spilling out lengthwise.

Pepper: That’s true, true. Also the PA there is loud as sh*t.

Examiner: You have the first of 4 EPs coming out too, and some tracks have already hit the internet. Can we expect to hear the new music live?

Pepper: Oh for sure. That’s kinda the purpose of the EP idea, is that we don’t have to spend 2 years in the damn studio trying to write 20 songs to pick 14. And the EP idea will give us lateral movement to shift directions for each EP, and we can go a couple of places we’ve never been before.

Examiner: Do you think fans are better served to learn the new songs from the internet bootlegs so they can know all the words and music at the show, or would you rather they hear the music live for the first time?

Pepper: I think the record should come out prior, I think people should know the music before. Go get the record, then see the band. But it just so happens that we’re butting up pretty tight against the release, but we’re just itching to get on the road.

Examiner: I was googling Down merchandise the other day, and damn is it hard to do an efficient search because the word Down brings up all kinds of unrelated hits. Now that you’re some 20 years into the band, are you still happy with the name or do you wish you’d picked something that’s easier to copyright or use as a brand?

Pepper: Absolutely not. Those people who buy damn hats, they don’t even know it’s a band. We’re not marketing it well in the technological world we live in, but that’s fine by me.

Examiner: Speaking of Down merchandising, who came up with the Jesus cigarette logo?

Pepper: I did, years ago. That’s me.

Examiner: What’s the story behind that?

Pepper: It was a photograph taken years ago, and I saved it and when we were talking about starting Down and needing a logo, I went to Kinko’s and made a pretty basic logo and Jesus face underneath with the joint, that was about it. It’s really latched on, one of those killer rock n’ roll logos.

Examiner: Who is in the original photo?

Pepper: That’s me! Back in the day I was just wearing the crown of thorns on my head, laying around, and put a flashlight over it, and that was that.

Examiner: I was at Mayhem Festival in Connecticut this summer (read all about it here), and of course you could see Down tshirts all over the place. I know you’ve never been out on any of the 5 Mayhem Fests, and I don’t remember seeing you on any Ozzfests either. Has it just worked out that way or do you deliberately avoid the summer festival tours?

Pepper: We did Ozzfest years ago, on the second record. I think we swore we’d never do something like that again. I think Down is better served playing on our own. We have so much material and so many ways to run around it, that I think we’re better on our own. Getting 30 or 45 minutes on a festival set isn’t worth it. Sometimes it works, like in Europe. If Down could have a festival and pick our own bands, we’d do it.

Examiner: Like Metallica just did.

Pepper: Exactly. Didja go to that?

Examiner: You bet I did. Two killer days in Atlantic City (read about day 1 (Ride The Lightning) here and day 2 (Black Album) here).

Pepper: Good, good. They don’t bullsh*t.

Examiner: Man, I was really hoping Down was going to be there too, seeing how Metallica had had you open for them a couple of years back.

Pepper: Yeah, we’d been in the studio. Too bad.

Examiner: In just a few hours, I’m heading to the Gramercy Theatre because Phil’s in town for the Metal Masters Clinic. This is the fourth version of the Metal Masters, do you have any thoughts on it?

Pepper: Is this the first time they’ve done it in New York?

Examiner: They did it here last year, at Best Buy, right before the Big 4.

Pepper: Well I’m sure Phil will do just fine. I don’t know if he’s doing Pantera songs, I know he’s going to do some Slayer songs because he’s a Slayer maniac. It should be great. It’ll be good practice for him to get back and start rehearsing. (Read my review of Metal Masters 4 with video of Phil performing 5 Minutes Alone right here.)

Examiner: Does it take you guys a little time to get up to speed when you first get on tour?

Pepper: No, not really. We’re gonna start rehearsing on Monday, so a whole week of knocking it out. We don’t like to go out and bullsh*t. We see what songs Phil wants us to learn, and go from there. We’re excited about playing live and playing new songs.

Examiner: Rex Brown has officially left the band since you last came to New York, and you guys are now carrying on with Pat Bruders. Did I pronounce his name right?

Pepper: Yep!

Examiner: Does Pat change the dynamic of the band at all?

Pepper: The biggest dynamic change is that he plays with his fingers and not a pick, so it’s more of a Geezer Butler feel to it. It’s a different animal. But it works fine. He’s got a brutal bass sound.

Examiner: I know Rex wasn’t a founding member. If anyone else chose to leave, would that be the end of Down or would you say that yourself or Kirk or Jimmy or Phil are replaceable too?

Pepper: I don’t think so. I think the four members of the band are pretty solid. I think where we’re at right now is what it is. I can’t imagine if one more person was to exit the scenario, I can’t think it would still work. It’s just a bunch of friends in a jam room going at it, pretty simple process. It’s a different ballgame than an L.A. band that creates an image. We’ve grown up together.

Examiner: Well that’s what cool about Down, back in 2009 I remember you guys spontaneously playing Ain’t Talkin’ About Love here in New York.

Pepper: Ha yeah. That’s on the list too, for cover songs. We’ve been talking about that for awhile.

Examiner: Are you talking about doing a covers EP?

Pepper: Yeah, we’ve been talking about that for years. Plenty of ideas on the backburner, but I don’t wanna be that band that puts out a Christmas record, you know? But we do covers all the time in the jam room.

Examiner: Killer. I’m looking forward to the shows in a couple of weeks.

Pepper: Can’t wait to be in New Jersey and New York, my boy!

Pepper and DOWN will be playing at Best Buy Theater on Friday, September 28th, and Starland Ballroom on September 29th. Tickets for both shows are still available and surprisingly cheap at only $25. You can also read my 2010 interview with Pepper by clicking here.

As always, stay in the loop with the Hard Rock Examiner for further information on tickets on-sales and all local rock and heavy metal news by subscribing at the top of this page, or follow me at twitter.com/NYROCKEXAMINER.

Concert photos can also be seen on my tumblr: Heavy Metal NYC.

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