The year of the (un)lucky 13 is now in full swing, and not quite two weeks into it, New Orleans powerhouse Down are packed up and on the road to deliver what has been described as the final leg of the touring cycle behind their September release, “Down IV Part I – The Purple EP.” The tour kicked off in Houston, TX, somewhat a sister-city to New Orleans, and what vocalist Phil Anselmo has previously called his “third home.” This Friday night, 11th January, saw everyone, band and crew, in high spirits and ready to dominate the crowds that flock to see them.
First order of business for the night is for ZT to catch up with Down who we had previously spoken to in May of 2012 when they last hit Houston. During the time lapse, the band’s EP had been released and they had played across the United States and Europe in its support. While the band has explained that they love being on the road, they are certainly itching to get back into the studio to work on the next installment of their EP series, which will hopefully be out to the public by this December. “We’re constantly writing on the road and have lots of riffs,” explains guitarist Pepper Keenan in the back lounge of the band’s tourbus. “Jimmy [Bower – drummer, ed.] brought some recording stuff with us. So when we get back we’ll dissect them, piece them back together and if Phil digs what he digs and grabs what he wants out of them, we’ll patch them into songs, get back in the Lair and bang ‘em out.” This ‘Lair’ that Keenan speaks of is Nodferatu’s Lair, the barn-turned-studio located on Phil’s property just outside of New Orleans where the band rehearses, and recorded its 2002 release, “Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow,” as well as its most recent EP. Recording in their own hometown and in a quaint studio seems to be the band’s preference when Keenan goes on to explain that “It allows us to make a release that’s not so over thought. A lot of the EP idea is to keep the raw energy instead of going into the studio 10 times and demoing. Some of the time a lot of the demos sound better than the album.”
The band’s most recent full-length album, 2007’s “Down III: Over the Under,” was recorded out in Los Angeles, due to the fact that much of New Orleans was still being rebuilt due to the damage of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath two years prior. The fully equipped studio the band used allowed them to make what Pepper calls “a big bombastic, giant sounding record,” but guitarist Kirk Windstein has previously stated that he didn’t necessarily enjoy the experience. “[It was] Bad vibes bro. A lot of shit had happened before that,” says Bower. But big studios might just be a thing of the past for Down, as clearly the band is happier working at home and going at their own pace. “It’s nice to do stuff at the Lair and not pay a ga-jillion dollars for a studio,” explains the Pep. “Now we can take our time and do it our own way without all the fancy equipment. The next one should be cool, we’re excited about it.”
The series of four EPs that Down are planning to release will each focus on a different aspect of the band’s sound. The first installment of these releases saw the band giving fans a throwback to their first album, 1995’s “NOLA,” and definitely carries on that demo/rehearsal room vibe. It’s much more stripped down and back to basics in a way and still carries the grit and raw energy that Down possess in spades. Most notably is that this EP is the first release to feature new bassist Pat Bruders, who also occupies the bassist position in Crowbar alongside Down band mate Kirk Windstein. To those unfamiliar with New Orleans’ music scene, it should be noted that it is a rather tight network of musicians that are cooperative, friendly, and supportive with one another. The best way to describe Pat’s transition into the band might just be to compare it to putting on a pair of shoes that is comfortable, not only in terms of music but personalities. “Part of the new EP and the way it sounds like it does is because of Pat. He’s that kind of bass player,” states Keenan. Bruders was no doubt an excellent choice, not only due to his skills, but appears to be a workhorse when Bower sings his praise saying “You gotta give it up for Pat, he works his ass off. And he appreciates it. Pat did his homework bigtime! And he’s already the kind of bass player that Down wanted anyway. Every day it’s just more and more comfortable.”
Aside from the fact that Down are a standout when it comes to their sound, their approach to their band and material are the no frills or bullshit mindset that you’d pretty much expect from them. These days, bands are adamant about outdoing one another and popularity isn’t really measured by record sales or concert attendance, but rather iTunes downloads and YouTube hits. “90% of Down’s record sales are tangible items. We have very few downloads, which blows away the record companies. That’s why they let us do these damn things,” explains Pepper. “People don’t download Down records, they want to go to the show or have the CD. And all that comes from spending time on the artwork and connecting with the fans and doing our thing, not just putting a single on iTunes, it’s not our thing. I don’t want to toot our horn, but we’re the real deal, not just some flash-in-the-pan bullshit.”
So far, the only single released from their new EP has been the song “Witchtripper” which the duo of Keenan and Bower claims took on a life of its own. Keenan came up with the idea and pressured Anselmo to follow-up on it, but appears to have been met with a bit of resistance on Anselmo’s part when Bower explains “He was apprehensive about it. He didn’t think it would work and said ‘prove me wrong.’” For such a strong song that was met with open-arms by the awaiting public, it’s hard to imagine that a man as musically confident as Anselmo would be wary of this approach, but Keenan explains that “it’s a nonsense word and Phil’s not a nonsense kinda guy. So to have him come up with nonsense lyrics for a nonsense word for Phil Anselmo…. But it worked and led him on a new direction too.”
The accompanying video gives a nod to New Orleans’ historical reputation of voodoo and surly colonial-era explorers, and clearly seems to have been an experience enjoyed by all, judging from the smiles that come out when it is brought up in discussion. “Me and Phil talked about doing it and wrote this little screen play up while drinking a bunch of beer and pieced it together,” says Keenan. “The title is so cool that we had to do something with it.” Rather than hiring actors and making a big production out of it, the band enlisted its own members and friends to join in. Present in the video are Mike Williams [Bower’s bandmate in Eyehategod] as well as Phil’s girlfriend Kate Richardson, and all filmed on Phil’s property. “It was fun to make, we had a really good time with it,” states Bower. “Hopefully we’ll do it again.”
After wrapping up our discussion in the back of the bus, the eager Houston fans start to queue up outside of the venue. Roughly one hour before the door opens, the line is already stretching around the block and when the first band hits the stage, the venue is already at about one-third capacity. First up for the night, replacing haarp, are Texas’ very own Honky, who can best be described as the drunken bastard cousins of ZZ Top and feature former Butthole Surfer JD Pinkus on bass and vocals, alongside Down roadie Bobby Ed Landgraf on guitars and vocals. Donning cowboy hats and long bears, they stomp out their brand of whiskey-meets-bongwater blues rock that shake the crowd up early on in the night. Their set is heavy, tight, and groove-laden which is an impressive feat considering it was the first night of the tour, and the fact that their touring drummer hadn’t played with the band in roughly 6 weeks. Could have fooled me.
Next up for the night are Dallas/Fort Worth thrash kings Warbeast, who are currently signed to Phil Anselmo’s Housecore Records, and who have been the support act for much of Down’s touring cycle this last year. Vocalist Bruce Corbitt recently suffered a harsh blow when his good friend and Rigor Mortis bandmate Mike Scaccia suddenly died while performing onstage at Corbitt’s 50th birthday concert. Corbitt most certainly might have been in a mind-funk, but was eager to hit the stage with his energetic band, who quickly whipped the crowd into a frenzy. His voice was incredibly strong and his band was super-tight and definitely brought their A-game to the table. Their set consisted mostly of new songs from their forthcoming album due later this year, with only two songs from their debut album “Krush the Enemy.” Watching the Warbeast set from behind a row of amp cabinets was longtime band supporter Anselmo, who would later join the band for their song “Scorched Earth Policy,” which only amped the crowd further.
Once the time for Down rolls around, the venue is packed, if not oversold, with concertgoers filling the air with smoke and the stench of perspiration. In a laidback style, the band casually strolls to the stage one by one to strap on their instruments, tune up, and get acclimated to the stage set-up. Slow bits of feedback or quick guitar riffs become audible before the slow bass riff that opens “Eyes of the South” suddenly become prominent and Phil Anselmo shouts the opening “God-Damn!” line. To those who have never witnessed a Down show, it would be hard to fathom the continuous flow of crowdsurfers and relentless pushing of thousands of people surging towards the front. But with a fanbase that’s diehard and emphatic, maybe it isn’t a vast stretch of the imagination. The band’s set continues on with “Witchtripper” and “Open Coffins” from their most recent release before Phil finally acknowledges the crowd and thanks them for coming out on this first night of the tour. The recent holiday break has no doubt done the band good for their performance as they all appear relaxed and ready to play with wide smiles all around.
Surprisingly enough, their set doesn’t consist of any songs from their third full-length, and only three from their new EP. Instead, they concentrate on first album gems like “Lifer” and “Losing All” with only “Ghosts Along the Mississippi” and “New Orleans is a Dying Whore” from their second release. The crowd never loses its enthusiasm for the night, and the endless waves of bodies continue to flow over the barricade and various pits break out at random. Closing out the set for the night are two undeniable classics from “NOLA,” which have always been crowd pleasers; “Stone the Crow” and “Bury Me in Smoke.”
Following a furious set like this, especially on the first night of a tour, the band retires backstage for a much needed breather. “I’m fuckin tired!” exclaims Jimmy Bower. “When I’m at home, I’m usually in bed by 9pm, and tonight we hit the stage at 10:50pm.” It probably feels good to break through the rust and pound out the first night of the tour to get in the swing of it, I ask. “Oh yeah, I’ll be in fine form in a day or so, no problem.”
(Extra special thanks to Ben Yaker of Grooverock Photography for pics and assistance! Additional live photos of Down can be viewed at this location.)
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