Back Up Again

Southern metal supergroup Down releases a big third disc in the wake of Katrina

When old friends Pepper Keenan and Phil Anselmo got together back home in Louisiana for the first time in two years, the first thing that came to mind was reforming heavy metal supergroup Down for a third album and tour.

Mother Nature had other ideas.

"We hadn't seen each other in a while, with everyone doing their own band thing," says Keenan, who is also singer/guitarist for Corrosion of Conformity. "Phil came to my house, and within a matter of minutes the conversation turned to Down, trying to get the band back together. A couple of days later, Katrina was on the radar screen.

"It was another six months before we could even get back, get organized. At that point, we decided the best thing to do was just go to Europe, play some shows, get our feet wet again. After that is when we decided to start making an album. Now Down has moved to the forefront of what we're all trying to do musically. We'll go from here."

A metal meta-collaboration that includes Keenan, former Pantera and Superjoint Ritual singer Anselmo, as well as former members of Crowbar and Eyehategod, Down has legs that have carried it well beyond the point where most supergroups fall victim to egos and the conflicts inherent to having members whose first allegiance is to other bands. The group's first record, NOLA, from 1995, was an instant classic of neo-Sabbath riff metal that blended the best elements of its contributing outfits: Crowbar's crushing heaviness, Anselmo's kinetic howl, and the viscous swamp-blues of C.O.C.

According to Keenan, it was readily apparent, on NOLA's release, that, other commitments notwithstanding, Down had taken on a life of its own. "The fans kind of let us know that every time," he says. "That Down lives, whether we want to continue it or not. The records kept selling, and it was keeping us out there. And it continued to stay like that."

Down's third and latest effort, Down III: Over the Under, is perhaps its strongest yet, still chock-full of powerful, indelible riffs, but with more textured songwriting and space to breathe even amongst all the roiling metal fury. Keenan says the songs were heavily influenced first by Katrina's devastation of their home New Orleans, and then by the death of former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, particularly its effect on former bandmate Anselmo.

"The Katrina thing, and then there was Darrell, that kind of pushed us over the edge," Keenan says. "Then we just focused on playing music, because that's all we really had left."

The band's current tour features a two-and-a-half hour set by Down, with no opening act; Keenan says the show will open instead with an hour-long movie featuring old and rare footage of some of the members' own favorite bands, including classic rockers like Led Zeppelin and even Lynyrd Skynyrd.

"It gives you a little awareness of what we're all about," Keenan says. "We show this movie first, and then we come on and play two hours. Plus, I don't think there's really anyone who could touch us, as far as an opening act. And I don't think there are really any bands out there who could add to what we're doing."

Most of the members of Down have a long history together, especially drummer Jimmy Bower, Anselmo, and Keenan, who all spent many of their formative years around New Orleans. Nearly all of the band's music was penned on a farm in North Louisiana owned by Anselmo, in a barn converted into a studio and nicknamed The Lair. Keenan says it's their shared history, as much as anything else, that's made the band's music so resonant with metal fans, and the partnership so enduring.

"That's the whole thing; we've all been friends since before we were even in these bands, from teenage days," Keenan says. "I've known Phil since we were kids. We've all been through a lot together, and we know each other so well, no one can bullshit anybody.

"What really makes our music stick with the fans is just the honesty of it. We created it from some of the best bands we love, that we grew up with, then kind of made our own twist to it. But it's five guys playing real music. We're not wearing spacesuits, there's no laser light show. It's not trendy. We focus on writing songs for a band that we ourselves would freak out over if we didn't know who it was. That's been our mantra."