Guitarist Pepper Keenan is driving through New Orleans' beleaguered Lower Ninth Ward, and even though he's done so hundreds of times before today, he still can't believe that more than 17 months after Hurricane Katrina touched down, the city he lives in — the city he loves — is still in such disarray.
"It looks like something out of a different country," Keenan said over the telephone, with anguish in his voice. "I just can't see how they're gonna figure this sh-- out. They can put 10 gazillion dollars into Baghdad, but nothing's changed around here. Dude, I am driving past houses, and it just looks like the house threw up all over the street. It's sickening."
But Keenan hasn't abandoned New Orleans. In fact, it's here, in this ravaged metropolis, that he and the rest of his band Down have been writing material for what will be the sludge metallers' third full-length album. For now, they're simply calling the effort — which producer Warren Riker (Crowbar, Sublime) has signed on to helm — Down III. Katrina's devastating aftermath has helped inspire a great many of the 18 tracks they've composed for the LP, the band's first since 2002's Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow.
"It's been a rough couple of years for everyone in this band," Keenan said. "We've been through a lot. We're trying to use all of that but really keep a positive energy and write some killer, heavy sh-- for people. I feel like the story of New Orleans ain't been told, and I wouldn't mind telling it from our point of view. Not that I want to use the band as a political platform, but we do have a certain voice and I think that the people we'll be talking to [with this record] are people who will understand."
Phil Anselmo, singer for Down and ex-Pantera frontman, has been penning the disc's lyrics. The album will be the band's first since Anselmo underwent back surgery in late 2005.
"Phil's really good at [lyrics]," Keenan said. "Several songs address Katrina's aftermath and how life changes on you, man. We've got a lot of ammunition for this one, I'll put it that way — a lot of things have not necessarily gone right for everybody these last couple of years. Everybody's just trying to stay positive. We're not writing Christian songs. These are still angry, frustrated songs."
Down began writing material for the LP well before the storm hit. Like most of the city's residents, the bandmembers — Keenan, Anselmo, guitarist Kirk Windstein, bassist Rex Brown and drummer Jimmy Bower — were displaced by Katrina, which inevitably delayed Down III's creation.
"We weren't allowed back here for months," Keenan said. "By the time we got back, everything was in shambles. It was a year before we even spoke again. We were all knocked off-track. But this band doesn't ever seem to die. It's just this energy that keeps us alive."
Another track addresses the death of Anselmo's former Pantera cohort, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, who was gunned down in 2004 while performing with Damageplan in Columbus, Ohio. The guitarist was shot five times at point-blank range and died onstage (see "Dimebag Darrell, Four Others Killed In Ohio Concert Shooting"). Anselmo has remained quiet on the matter ever since.
"He's got a lot of demons he needs to get off his chest," said Keenan, who also fronts Corrosion of Conformity. "This is gonna be a hard record for us to make because there's just a lot of emotional things going on. I think we'll all be better after we get this thing done. But Phil's got one beautiful song about Dime that really surprised me. When I heard it, I was pretty watery-eyed. Those [Pantera days] were beautiful days for him. The whole song is pretty intense, and it's actually a heavy song. That's the wild thing about it — it's not a ballad or anything."
Down plan to begin recording the album February 15. They'll take about a month off, first to tour Canada with Heaven and Hell, the band that is reuniting Ronnie James Dio with his former Black Sabbath bandmates (see "Half Of Black Sabbath Reunite With Dio; Tour Begins In March"). That trek, which will also feature Megadeth, kicks off March 11 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Then Down will play four headlining gigs between March 30 (Worcester, Massachusetts) and April 2 (Washington, D.C.).
"It's Heaven and Hell — we have to do it," Keenan said. "It's a good excuse for us to get out there and expose ourselves again."
After the tour wraps, Down will return to the studio to track the remainder of Down III, which the guitarist said could be out by summer's end. "Once we get in the studio, we shouldn't be more than six, seven weeks," he said. "We've already spent all the time [writing it] — we're just getting ready to bang the sh-- out."
Keenan says some of Down's fans are going to be surprised by how much the band "went backwards" on this LP.
"We've progressed a lot, but we didn't forget those first Down demos," he said. "We still get off on those big, giant, heavy riffs. But at the same time, we're not afraid to play acoustic guitars in a circle. It's not a one-direction evolution for us."
As far as Corrosion of Conformity are concerned, Keenan says he's still recovering from the recording of 2005's In the Arms of God and has no immediate plans to do anything with the band.
"We've had interest from a bunch of labels to do another record, but that last record took a lot out of me," he said. "I want to be more cautious about the next move COC does, if [we do] anything at all."