There is a major disconnect when you hear the voice of Corrosion Of Conformity drummer Reed Mullin. On the phone from his home in North Carolina, he sounds like a grizzled vet with a Skoal plug tucked in his cheek tinkering under the hood of a muscle car — not cofounder of punk-metal’s most important “crossover” band. Matter of fact, Mullin has been straightedge for most of his life. “That means different things to different people,” he says. “I just didn’t drink, do any drugs, or smoke. That’s hard to do out on the road.”
The balancing act between rock hedonism and a strict moral code has been the story of Mullin’s life. In musical terms, flirting with metal, or “crossover,” was one of the few ways in which outspoken, politicized punks could parley a love of aggressive music into an actual career. The approach is on full display on the new album, simply titled Corrosion Of Conformity, which features the original COC lineup of Woody Weatherman (bass), Mike Dean (vocals), and Mullin on drums.
Recorded in Dave Grohl’s 606 studios, it’s tempting to think that Corrosion Of Conformity has been Foo Fighter–ized. To be sure, Mullin’s from-the-gut drum philosophy slots nicely with Grohl’s bash-it-out approach. “I don’t play to a click,” he says of the 35 tracks he cut for the album before they were pared down to 11 riff-o-ramic anthems. “Clicks always seemed a little sterile to me. Besides, I can always tell when something’s played too quick.”
Mullin’s attitude toward the click might seem cavalier, but it’s just the way he’s always been. “Probably ’cause I can’t play to one either,” he laughs.
With production from COC’s longtime collaborator John Custer, the beats — and overall musical vibe — on Corrosion Of Conformity recall the Southern-tinged metal of 1985 release Animosity. Call it sludge with a pissed-off punk attitude. “Time signature–wise it’s probably all pretty basic,” he says. “Straightforward, slower tempos, punk-rock tempos. But there is a song on there called ‘Rat City’ that’s got some kind of Keith Moon-y parts to it. That’s enjoyable to play.”
We almost forgot to mention that Mullin is a singing drummer, which is a trip given that this is crossover, not pop-punk. Then again there are only three guys in the band. Dividing Mullin’s attention in this musically multitasking way ought to make the beats boringly simple, but most of the tunes are a delicate balance of workman-like consistency and individualist flair. (The trick hat work on opener “Psychic Vampire” is a perfect example.) But the singing side of his band duties merely reflects Mullin’s way with words, a skill he employs on “Leeches” and a few other tracks he wrote lyrics for. Straightedge political sensibilities surface on “Come Not Here,” a tune about a creepy gathering of Fortune 500 types that takes place in the Redwood forest once a year. “They run around naked supposedly and have this big bonfire in front of a 60' owl.”
Mullin, Dean, and Weatherman started Corrosion Of Conformity right out of high school in Raleigh, North Carolina. After 15 years of slogging through punk tours that left them broke, COC crossed over, not only stylistically but financially, too, when they signed to Columbia records, in 1995. Back when MTV was a powerful marketing force for bands, they shot a video for “Drowning In A Daydream” from 1996’s Wiseblood. “It felt kind of gross doing that,” Mullin says. “But we could either do it and see what happens, or not do it and get kicked off the label.” The song earned the band a Grammy nomination.
After the euphoria wore off, Mullin got a call from a label executive who flew him to Columbia’s offices for a talk. Before boarding the plane, Mullin knew the band was about to be let go. “We took a lot of the things for granted, thinking the money spigot would never be turned off,” he recalls. For example, the catering bill for a video they shot for “Albatross,” from their biggest-selling album Deliverance, was $20,000. “We just did a video for ‘Time Of Trials’ [off the new album] for a third of what the catering money was.”
There have been three different COC’s. There’s the hardcore punk era, between ’82 and ’87, when Dean and Mullin did the majority of the singing; the Karl Agell era (vocalist 1989–1993), which Mullins says “was a little more math-y and a little more metal,” and finally, the Pepper Keenan era. “All three sound like different bands,” he says. “But at the same time all three sound like Corrosion Of Conformity and I think that’s the beauty of our band: We get to play any kind of music we want and get away with it.”