This past Saturday, I had the amazing pleasure of talking to Pepper Keenan, guitarist for supergroup Down. With the long-awaited “Diary of a Mad Band” DVD set finally released, Pepper spoke at length about the live DVD and CD, meeting his rock idols, and jamming with Metallica and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among many other topics. Read my review of Down’s last local performance here, and highlights of the interview below:
Examiner: So you have the live Down CD and DVD out now, you’ve been working on it for years… I’ve personally seen Down play a half dozen shows since you really got back on the road in 2006, and I always felt that the studio records don’t capture the live energy of the band. Do you think these discs do justice to the live show?
Pepper: Yeah, pretty much. We did it as crude as could be done, it was really important to me I didn’t want it to look like some ESPN shot thing, I wanted spit on the camera lenses and just up close, cause Down is not really a pretty band. Not much finesse, don’t need much filmwork to make it happen, it’s more about the energy, you know? That’s why I was so set on editing the songs, and not letting anyone else do it.
Examiner: Who did the actual editing?
Pepper: Me. Me and Jimmy, just making sure that when the heavy parts come in, it feels like it does when I’m on stage seeing how it goes down. It was a fun process, it was definitely cool trying to keep the energy and just the raw cameras and all that stuff kinda add to the edge of how the thing looks, and sounds. So when you hear something, when you see a live DVD nowadays, large fancy cameras and stuff, and the band is really raw, it doesn’t match each other. The Song Remains the Same, Led Zeppelin, when they’re playing Black Dog, the footage looks how it sounds. Nothing digitized, nothing like that.
A lot of people don’t know this, but it’s a different show each night, in the order of the setlist, in the order of the tour. There’s different sets each night, but I wanted to try and make each night on film be the order of the tour. So it starts in Hamburg or whatever, ends in Donnington,
Examiner: So each track is from a different show?
Pepper: Yeah. Yeah it was tricky. I wouldn’t do it again, but the concept of doing the European tour, not just one city but the whole night, so all that footage, all the venues you see, that’s the actual venue in that city. The one that says Stockholm, Sweden, that’s the show in Stockholm.
Examiner: So that’s the CD and DVD?
Pepper: No, the CD I don’t remember how we pulled it together, it’s the same tracks but I think in a different order.
Examiner: Talking about live Down, one thing that really makes the experience for me is the song Jail, because everyone’s moshing, rocking out, and all of a sudden the lights go down, turns purple, and you guys just jam for five really tranquil minutes. First of all, how did that song even make it onto the NOLA record, which is otherwise pure metal.
Pepper. It was just a good riff I had, mellow thing, and Phil’s into that kinda sh*t, as am I, and we might even do an EP of a whole bunch of songs like that, we’ve been talking about that for awhile, some campfire sh*t, play it at a funeral, wherever. Something to play outside of a heavy metal parking lot or something, somewhere where your friends put this on if you’re sittin’ in the middle of nowhere in the dark, it’s another dimension. But we enjoy playing those kinds of things in those situations, and I think our fans enjoy listening to them in those situations.
Examiner: You have the whole band harmonizing at times too, not just on Jail but on songs like Eyes of the South, and Beneath the Tides. How do you guys decide when you need a four piece harmony?
Pepper: Well we all can sing, we all play in different bands so we can’t just stand there. A lot of bands don’t have that option, in the heavy world, nobody does that sh*t.
Examiner: What are the lyrics in Jail about? I’ve always wondered.
Pepper: Dude I have no idea. You’d have to ask Phil. It’s just a doomy, heavy song, people love it. And I guess they can extrapolate what it means to them, but I guess it’s about being trapped, somewhere inside yourself, who knows? Everyone’s got their own opinion on that one.
Examiner: I guess the other really defining live Down song is Bury Me in Smoke, which always closes out the set. Can you ever see moving that around the setlist, or is that the closer for now and forever, like Freebird?
Pepper: Well I guess it’s like our Freebird, you’re right, I don’t think we’ve ever not played that song last. It’s just riffs, what else is there to do?
Examiner: Who wrote that riff?
Pepper: I did. I remember when I wrote it. We wrote that song all in the same room, that thing just fell out, we were done in like twenty minutes, and we just sat there and laughed our asses off.
Examiner: And you knew right away there was something golden in there.
Pepper: Well I already had the concept of a song called Buried in Smoke, and Phil just ran with that and we were gone.
Examiner: Can you talk to me, generally speaking, about live tracks versus studio tracks? Obviously the live ones have the roar of the crowd, sometimes improvisation or on-stage jamming, would you consider them better than the studio, or just different?
Pepper: Well studio is one thing, you have to throw those ideas out when you’re playing live. If you wanna hear the record then stay home, but we definitely put the edge on some of the live stuff, try to make it more entertaining. People don’t realize, on that tour, on this DVD, we didn’t have an opening band. We were playing two, two and a half hours a night.
Examiner: I remember, the US shows were fantastic, easily some of the best I've ever seen.
Pepper: Yeah, so no other bands on the bill, and no other bands in our world were playing two and a half hours, other than Metallica, but that’s arena sh*t. So we had the opportunity to stretch stuff out and do all kinds of sh*t.
Examiner: Phil is pretty well known for his onstage… rants, for lack of a better word. Are those included on these discs?
Pepper: (laughs) Yeeeah. Go to the Norway show, he really lets loose. It’s funny, it’s hilarious.
Examiner: So these were based off recordings from 2006, which was before Over the Under came out. And so it only has songs from the first two records, was it tough not to include footage from new songs and later shows?
Pepper: No, we were just picking strictly from that era. The whole reason we even did that European tour was because we got through a bunch of rough sh*t with Katrina, and Dimebag being murdered, and all of us dealing with different sh*t, so we decided to go to Europe and just play shows, we’d never been to Europe before. So that’s the whole premise of the DVD, we go to Europe to get our heads straight, and lucky we were smart enough to bring a film crew with us, and the rest is history.
Examiner: So it’s more than just a live CD or DVD, it’s really the story of the band coming back to life.
Pepper: Yeah, I think the whole intro is a whole spoken word thing, talks where we’re at, where our heads were at, the whole 2006, where it came from, where it leads to. It starts with us just trying to jam in Phil’s barn, and ends with us playing in front of 100,000 people at Donnington during Bury Me in Smoke. Yeah, that’s heavy man. It’s not just a live DVD. It’s a film about overcoming obstacles.
Examiner: Everyone in the band are already established musicians. You’re in CoC, Jimmy in Eyehategod, Kirk’s in Crowbar, but I think Rex and Phil’s time in Pantera is the best known, especially record sales-wise. And obviously after Dimebag’s death there was a lot of drama in that regard, but in the early days, was it ever tempting to cover a Pantera song? Or a CoC song for that matter?
Pepper: Everyone was so busy in those bands, Down was just one thing we did for sh*ts and giggles when we weren’t on tour. We all lived in New Orleans, we’d just come home during Christmas, and we’d all get together and jam and catch up and get to writing songs. It started out pretty simply like that.
Examiner: Well is it ever tempting to tease the crowd with a riff from say, Walk, or Becoming?
Pepper: No, they’re pretty separate entities. People know, we could do it at the drop of a hat if we wanted to. But Phil doesn’t like to go back, unfortunately you can’t go backwards, it ain’t ever gonna happen, without Darrell there’s just no point.
Examiner: Well I don’t know if you’re the right guy to ask this to, but the fantasy floating around the metalhead world is that Phil and Vinnie will reconcile, grab Zakk Wylde, and go out on one last reunion tour, just for the fans. Could that ever happen?
Pepper: Absolutely not. Not with Zakk Wylde I wouldn’t think. When Bonham died in Zeppelin, that was it. Ain’t nothing you can do man.
Examiner: Sure, but then they did the O2 shows a couple of years ago with his son on drums, and it was a nice farewell bit.
Pepper: They did one show, and they’ll never do it again.
Examiner: I think that’s more of Plant / Page issue than anything else.
Pepper: It took ‘em what, 29 years to do that though?
Examiner: Well Plant doesn’t seem to really care about it anymore. Page seems like he’s dying to get back out on the road.
Pepper: Well Plant’s on the road, he’s busy all the time. There’s a bar around the corner from my house, I saw him there about four months ago. In New Orleans, Maple Leaf, right around the corner, famous music joint.
Examiner: Wow. Do you get a lot of opportunities to meet your own personal rock heroes?
Pepper: Yeah, I met Jimmy Page this summer. I met him, we were playing a festival in London, and he was there to see ZZ Top I think, and we were playing the same day as ZZ Top. I went to the window and there he was, old dragon pants. But he was very cordial, super nice man, what do you say to a guy like that? I asked him about Achilles’ Last Stand.
Examiner: Are there any other rock stars or celebrities you want to meet that you haven’t yet?
Pepper: I’d love to meet David Gilmour.
Examiner: Oh you and me both.
Pepper: He’s a bad son of a bitch, man. I’d like to pick his brain for two hours, maybe more than that.
Examiner: Speaking of guitar gods, I wanted to ask about the solos in Down. Because you and Kirk don’t really write flashy, Van Halen-style double tapping solos, but it’s not the atonal stuff like Slayer does either. How do you decide if a song needs a little lead guitar, and how to do it?
Pepper: Well the song does the talking man, when you’ve been doing this for so long… how many people try to overpower a song and put their stamp on it, as opposed to letting the song do its thing? For me, going (mimics flashy guitar solo) at some place that didn’t need it, for me that’s off. The song tells you what to do. It ain’t rocket science.
Examiner: But you don’t really see much double tapping stuff that tends to be stereotypical heavy metal.
Pepper: I live in New Orleans, Louisiana, I don’t live in f*cking Germany. I live in the South. I listen to Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. I don’t need to double tap. I can do more with one note than most jerks can do with double tapping out their ass.
Examiner: Okay, so now I think we’re at the most critical question of this interview, which is when does America, and especially us here in New York City, get to see Down play live again?
Pepper: That’s a good question. Right now we’re working on new material, so we’re trying to keep up more of a brisk pace, once we get some new sh*t out. We’re moving backwards towards the NOLA sound, go-for-the-throat kind of sh*t. We’re not putting too much time into the production of it, like the last two records we did. Which I enjoyed doing, but now it’s time to go backwards a little bit, have some fun. So maybe this summer.
Examiner: So summer 2011?
Pepper: 2011 summer, bank on it kid.