After the worldwide success Metallica enjoyed with the Black Album, the band took a break to record new music (while still playing gigs in the midst of that whole process). Once they began their own proper headlining run in support of 1996's Load, it was Corrosion of Conformity who "circled the globe" in the coveted opening slot.

It was a huge break for the sludgy hard rock group from Raleigh, N.C., who had been turning heads since retooling the band's sound to move from their punk/hardcore roots in more of a heavier direction. As singer-guitarist Pepper Keenan recalls during an interview with UCR, Metallica's James Hetfield was among the early converts.

During a wide-ranging Zoom conversation to discuss Sleeping Martyr, a new box set which collects Corrosion of Conformity's recorded output between 2000 and 2005, Keenan shared some memories of how the two bands formed a lifelong bond as a result of the lengthy time they spent traveling the world together.

What was it like getting ready to tour with Metallica and making that jump from clubs to arenas and stadiums? It seems like there would have been a lot of preparation involved with that.
Huge preparations! The whole thing started, because Metallica was in London. They were going to do a secret show at the London Astoria II [concert venue] in London. We were on tour in the United States. They called us up and wanted us to be a special guest on this secret show.

They changed their name, I think they were called Harvester of Sorrow or some shit like that. I can’t remember what we called ourselves, probably something stupid like Albatross or something. I don’t fuckin’ know. But they flew us over there to play this one show! I think it was just a little test so they could see us [under] the radar and see what was going on.

It ended up that it was a killer little secret show. But they’re like, “Dude, your gear sucks!” One thing led to another and [James] Hetfield hooked us up with a bunch of people and we got Takumi [Suetsugu] involved [as our guitar tech] and the next thing I knew, we came back, like two months later or something and we were rehearsing in a blimp hangar in Birmingham, England, in the round!

Our little club punk rock amps weren’t going to fuckin’ make it. Takumi was in charge of helping to create all of [the right gear]. We needed stuff that could be movable and packable in trucks, etc.

James makes an appearance on Corrosion of Conformity's Wiseblood album. How did you all come to know the Metallica guys prior to that?
Oh man, I’d known Het from the Master of Puppets tour, sort of, [we were] just buddies. I remember they played a long time ago opening for Ozzy [Osbourne] and I had a Jagermeister shirt on. An orange shirt, back in the day before Jagermeister was even a thing. They were testing it in New Orleans.

I had [that shirt on] and I’m in the front row, headbanging and all of that shit. To be honest with you, I didn’t really care about Ozzy. I just wanted to see Metallica. So I left after Metallica played and I was sitting outside by the tour buses and shit outside of the arena, just hanging out.

I think Hetfield walked by or something and saw the Jagermeister shirt again. He offered me money for it and I said, “Fuck no!” [Laughs] So we started talking there and shit and that was kind of the beginning of it, I guess. But years later, we had recorded [the fourth Corrosion of Conformity album] Deliverance and Metallica had a party in New York City.

I think they just sold like eight kajillion copies of the fuckin' Black Album, so they had a party. Somebody finagled me and [Corrosion of Conformity drummer] Reed Mullin in there. A press person or something. So we went to this killer crazy Metallica party in New York City. Hetfield walked straight up to us at the party and said, “Man, that’s a great fuckin’ record.”

Listen to 'Man or Ash' by Corrosion of Conformity and James Hetfield

That’s validation right there.
Yeah, at that time! And I said, “It’s funny, Hetfield, all I was trying to do was not be you, but I was trying to impress you!" [Laughs] You know, we weren’t trying to be Metallica. We wanted to be like, “Whoa, Metallica,” thick [sounding] kind of shit. We were just kind of moving way ahead in our brains and it just became mutual admiration from there. Then they offered us that big tour and it was off to the races. And that wasn’t no easy feat. Opening for Metallica in Poland, having never been there, it’s not easy. [Laughs]

What were the big moments and turning points for Corrosion of Conformity as a band? It seems like the Metallica tour obviously could be one.
One of the big moments, well, there’s a couple of them. And a lot of them are tied to Metallica, which is kind of strange. Because I was such a massive fan before I was even in COC. One of them was when they picked all of the bands at Monsters of Rock at Donington back in the day and they picked us.

There was just one show and we had just finished a European tour or something. We got to open up there at Donington and that was something that we’d never seen before. Playing in front of that many people back in the day, you know, going from playing punk rock clubs in Leeds to fuckin’ being at Donington, which I knew [how much that meant]. I was like, “Shit, dude, we’re here!”

It was scary. We were there that night and I remember being in a hotel and there were just headlights pulling in all night long. We’re like, “Holy fuck.” Hetfield was super cool and we hung out that day and had a wonderful time. I think we took off, I rode with him in a car and we went to a couple of pubs and stuff after, in some other small town after the thing.

It was a big start and that was the beginning of the relationship. They’ve always been first class to us. I guess the second thing was getting offered that giant tour [opening for Metallica in the Load era]. It was ‘96/’97/’98. The tour book was fuckin’ thick. That’s when they were monsters, just killing it around the globe. We played 14 soccer stadiums in Germany, you know. It was just massive.

How receptive were Metallica's fans to what you guys were doing as the opening band on the Load tour?
Hetfield and I talked about it. He goes, “Your only job is to make sure they don’t start screaming Metallica.” [Laughs] We never heard it once. We weren’t dummies, it was just amplified by umpteen degrees. You know, the same thing that we were doing that Hetfield and the rest of the guys dug, it was just a bigger situation.

It was just a matter of getting it on. Deliverance was out and Wiseblood was out. We had the songs and a lot of them sounded good in those big giant huge PAs. Mullin was killin’ it, you know, the drums were slamming. I mean, they’d have booed us if we weren’t fuckin’ pullin’ it off, trust me.

Going in armed with songs like "King of the Rotten," from Wiseblood, as you mention, you had some good artillery with the songs from those two albums.
You know, we only played 45 minutes or something. But it was so long to spend that much time with people and their crew and 28 buses. You know, all of that shit. You’re basically a family. It was very special. I’m still in touch with a lot of the crew guys and stuff to this day. They said that was one of the most fun things they’d ever done.

It was real and we just circled the globe and hung out. It really gave us a perspective of what we were supposed to do and [how to] get up there. But you know, COC is a little hard headed and we weren’t going to quite play the game that hard. We enjoyed doing it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if they would ask us.

But the Wiseblood record was a slammer and we just kept going and going and going. And then it was over. The decompression mode to reality was a big crazy weird thing. Three years of that and then you’re back at your house that you ain’t been in in fuckin [a long time], it’s like, “Oh, that was cool.”

Is there a new COC album on tap?
We're talkin' about it. You know, the COVID thing put us all in the ditch.

Yeah, I've heard that a lot. Separately, it seems like there's also been a Down record starting to take shape. What's the status there?
Everybody's just trying to come up for air. It's been stupid. We played Psycho Fest in Vegas and we played the Fillmore in New Orleans and they were both slamming shows. We did a livestream and it was just so bizarre to be sitting on your ass for a year, literally. I mean, we had shit planned all over the fuckin' place, both bands. We just got hobbled. Now, we're just trying to slowly put it back together without going too fast, you know. But yeah, it's definitely on the radar.

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