Interviews : Cannibal Corpse
With Alex Webster
Cannibal Corpse are a band who really need no introduction. As a group who have created a legacy for themselves as one of the most heavy and brutal death metal acts out there, their newest release, Kill, has landed them a spot as headliners of the Sounds of the Underground tour. Having sat down with bassist Alex Webster - a legend in his own right - I wanted to get insight not only regarding Cannibal Corpse or the new album, but into death metal and the death metal scene in general as he sees it. I figured; who better to ask than a man who has been part of its formation and development for over a decade now?
So first off I'd like to thank you on behalf of Deadtide.com for taking the time to do this interview. How has the tour been so far for you?
So far it's been good. It's pretty early into the tour; this is only the third show of Sounds of the Underground. We've done a couple other shows in addition to this, but so far so good. All the bands are really cool and we're having a good time.
All right. So I noticed that Hot Topic is one of the sponsors for the tour. To me that's significant because in the past, to have a chain store that can be found in malls across America sponsor a tour like this would be unheard of. And it can be interpreted in a number of ways; on one hand it could be seen as a really great thing for North American metal, but on the other hand it might be seen as a sign of its commoditization. How do you read that?
I think anything that helps get killer music out to people is probably a good thing. If the bands are still playing the same kind of music, then getting a bunch of publicity for it is better than not getting any for it. I've found that a lot of people in the underground tend to complain about how nobody pays any attention to their favorite bands, but when people finally do pay attention to it, then they say their favorite band sold out, even if their music hasn't changed an iota. I think anything that gets good music out to a wide audience is okay, because you don't want good musicians to just give up because they're obscure bands that can't make a nickel. If good music can become popular and good musicians who work hard on killer heavy music can actually do a little better financially - because a lot of bands give up because they're so broke - I think it's okay. That's how I feel about it: if the music hasn't changed and if it's still just as brutal as it always was, then why not have more people learn about it?
Yeah, that's way I see it too. I think there's a bit of an elitist attitude that surrounds a lot of metal.
Most guys, you know, they basically want their favorite band to not even release a demo, and they want to be the only ones that know about it and that sort of thing. There's always going to be people like that out there and if you can't make those people happy it's okay, haha.
Okay, so how about you describe your time in the studio this time around? How did you like working with Erik Rutan? Did you feel as though his experience with guitar contributed positively to the production of the album?
Yeah, definitely. Erik is an awesome producer; he's been getting really great over the past few years too. He's obviously a great guitar player, everybody in the scene knows that, but he's a great producer. He's really been learning and becoming a better and better producer as the years have gone by, and we felt like he really had been doing stuff that was up to par with the other people we've worked with. So we thought it would be no problem to work with him. He's a good friend of the band and a great producer, great guitarist, and he understands death metal inside and out. So he contributed a lot; it was great to work with him.
So would you work with him again?
Yeah, I mean we haven't decided what we're going to do with the next album yet, but based on our experience with Erik we would definitely consider working with him again. Definitely.
Okay. Now, there's a lot of talk about how the album cover's really tame compared to past album covers. Some see it as a means to evade censorship; is that true at all?
You know, we got a piece of art from Vince, and we just weren't 100% convinced that it was going to make the best album cover for us, so we decided to just have Metal Blade put together a simple cover, and we put the other one on the inside. We like the piece of art Vince gave us, it's really cool, but we just weren't sure it'd be a good cover. So it was kind of self-censorship in a way, in that we just wanted to try something new.
A lot of people say that death metal calls for a certain image, as almost any music genre calls for a type of image. Do you feel that there's any pressure that's placed on death metal bands to fall prey to or satisfy that image?
Well maybe a little bit. I mean, for us obviously, all of our lyrics are like these really disturbing, horrifying horror stories or whatever, but that's something that we're pretty comfortable with. We don't mind doing lyrics like that; that's what we want to do. We're like a horror band. Where you have horror movies, we're a horror band. So we're comfortable with that. We never have tried to convince people that we were ourselves crazy or evil people, you know what I mean? We're just like, "Hey we're just normal guys. We think our lyrics are disgusting too, and that's why we do them." I'm sure guys who make horror movies are not telling people to be axe murderers. It's the same way we're definitely not telling people to do things that we sing about. We're normal people and we've never tried to put on a front that we're a bunch of crazy, wild guys, 'cause we're not. We're pretty calm and mellow 90% of the time.
Except for on stage, haha.
Haha, yeah, on stage that's the only time, that's the other percent when we're nuts. The only time is when we're on stage, we're crazy. That's it.
Yeah. So would you say that the actual music intrinsically calls for that image? You know, that, "Oh, it's aggressive music so you need to have aggressive content/subject matter?"
Yeah, I think that you don't necessarily have to have a gore band, but death metal should sound dark and it should be aggressive, and so your lyrics are going to have to be dark and aggressive too. I think it's the only way it's going to fit. I guess some grindcore bands have political lyrics, and if that fits with them that's good. But death metal's different in that you've got dark riffing; the notes that we choose to use are supposed to be dark and foreboding or whatever, so we want the lyrics to match. For us, the gore kind of stuff always worked well for the lyrics that we were doing. For other bands it might be Satanism or whatever, some other dark kind of subject. But it should be dark. Death metal lyrics have to be dark.
How would you say the death metal or the metal scene in general has changed since you guys started?
Well I think the level of musicianship is getting better; that's one thing I've noticed. There's a lot more communication between people than there used to be, and that's just because of technology. You find about new bands just about instantly. Where it used to take a while for a buzz to build up, now it can just happen almost overnight. But definitely I think - and this could be because of technology too, just better learning tools - that there's just a lot of better musicians, and they're better at a younger age. You know, we'll meet guys who are 18 or 19 who are just incredible players, and some of these newer bands have got guys who are way ahead of where we were at the same time. So I think there's a bright future for death metal because you've got a lot of young, very talented musicians who are interested in it, and they're pushing themselves really hard. It's cool because it's a kind of ever-growing music. Some kinds of music are sort of meant to stay the same - rock and roll, blues, maybe even punk, I don't know that much about those scenes, but death metal is something that's always meant to be kind of pushed forward, to get heavier and get more brutal and more technical as the years go by. So I see a bright future for it musically at least; I don't know if it'll ever get really popular, but musically it's always going to get better.
Would you say that change has affected your music?
Well definitely, when you tour with bands that are so great. Like we toured with Spawn of Possession and Severed Savior and bands like that who can really play their asses off; it definitely is inspiring to see people playing and working that hard on their music, and it makes us want to work hard on our music too. Everybody on the scene's pretty enthusiastic, and we all kind of feed off of each other's enthusiasm, which just kind of builds on itself. And you can tell; if you look at bands now who are putting out their first album, and then look at our first album or some of the other albums from back in the day, things have improved a lot over the past fifteen years or so.
Do you sense a difference in fans geographically? Do you go some places and it's like "Wow, people over here are way more enthusiastic than people over here," or...?
You know, we have a pretty good response everywhere we go, but some places seem to have a stronger scene as far as the number of bands, and the amount of people who are actually playing. Obviously Scandinavia's got a huge number of killer bands, and Poland. Canada actually has a lot of great bands; in particular, up in Quebec there have always been a number of excellent bands. So I think the interest with fans is pretty much worldwide; any country where you're free to listen to whatever kind of music you want to, there's usually a pretty good death metal audience there. But there's certain places where it seems like there's a lot of killer bands concentrated, and I have no idea why that is.
So Cannibal Corpse have evolved over time, just as you've said the metal scene has evolved over time, as you guys have been in existence for quite a while now. Now, there are some bands that keep going perhaps to ride the coattails of a previous legacy, and there are others who continue to put out good material and who still have that exuberance from back in the day. So my question is, do you ever see your work in Cannibal Corpse ever becoming Ďworkí?
Well, you know, thereís certain parts of it that already seem like work, and you just get through that. The parts that seem like work are the daily annoyances of just, you know, having to find a toilet or something stupid like that when youíre on tour. But the actual music part is the fun part - and itís still fun. And that is something that I donít think will change, because music is a lot of fun to play. You know, I canít really picture hating it at any point and being like, ďOh fuck, I gotta go play.Ē I mean, sometimes you might be tired and playing the show takes a little bit to get psyched up for, but once weíre actually doing it, itís a lot of fun. And as far as writing music goes, thatís my favorite part of being in a band; Iím pretty sure the other guys enjoy writing music too. Itís my favorite part, and thatís something where every time we start writing a new album itís a new chance to make something hopefully thatís better than what weíve done before. So weíre always exciting about writing; weíre never going through the motions when it comes to writing. Never.
Good, good. Now, personally Iím always really excited whenever I see a death metal band do an instrumental. From Skin to Liquid is one of my favorite instrumentals of all time, and the one on the new album, Infinite Misery, surely doesnít disappoint. So how important is it for you guys to write instrumentals?
Well for me, personally, I love doing instrumental music because, for Cannibal in particular, itís a way that we can show, ďHey, we can be really heavy without necessarily being fast or having any kind of lyrical content to make this song extreme.Ē Like, this song can be heavy in its own right, without any kind of graphic imagery going through your head because youíre reading lyrics along with it. And I think you could easily do a whole album that was really entertaining and brutal just without lyrics at all or without any kind of singing. Honestly, for our band, the primary focus is the music, and the lyrics have always sort of been secondary, even though a lot of the press pay more attention to the lyrics than anything else. But for us, the music is really what weíre thinking about most of the time. And weíll do more instrumentals for sure, and Iím actually working on a side project thatís all instrumental with Ron Jarzombek from Spastic Ink. Itís not death metal so much - I mean there are parts that are similar to death metal - but personally I love instrumental music; thatís why I listen to a lot of it. It seems like vocals are one of those things that kind of divide audiences. You know, like people might hate death metal because of the vocals, they might hate a technical band like Dream Theatre or something because of the vocals, but they like the music. People are very opinionated about what kind of vocals they like, so if you have an instrumental it kind of gets that out of the way and people can just listen to the music. So itís fun to do that once in a while.
Yeah, I totally agree. So with regards to death metal and Cannibal Corpse in particular, I would say it takes a darker sense of humor (or at least a good sense of humor) and an open mind, as well as an understanding of the genre, the bands, and the people in the bands, to really ďget it.Ē
Yeah it's weird. It seems like everybody gets it who's in the scene, and a lot of people outside the scene just don't get it. They're like, "Oh my god, these guys are demented!" And it's like, "Nah man, it's not it at all."? We were interested in horror movies, and this band is like a horror movie band.
To me, a lot of it is so outrageous you just have to laugh at it. It's amusing, you know?
Yeah. Honestly, we try and write it so it's serious and disturbing, but when you go really overboard with the gore it winds up being like Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, where guys are attacking zombies with a lawnmower. You're going to be laughing about even though there's blood flying everywhere. I don't think that was a scary movie; it was a bloody movie but it wasn't scary. Lately we have tried to make stuff a bit more frightening; that's what we always kind of wanted to do; make it disturbing and frightening and that sort of thing. But sometimes it came out a little bit leaning towards a black humor kind of thing. But we've tried to make things a bit more serious and frightening over the past couple of albums. And sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you don't.
So to touch back on that topic of people who get it and people who donít, I was wondering if you happened to see the documentary Metal: A Headbangerís Journey?
Well weíre in it, but I didnít get to see it yet.
Okay, well basically what the director tries to say is that whatís so good about metal is the fact that itís a cohesion of outsiders, and he asks the question, ďWhat is it about metal and metalheads that make us stay together in this way?Ē because it ranges all across the world and over all sorts of ages. And another thing is that once you get into it, most of the time you never get out; youíre a metalhead for the rest of your life.
Well like I said Iíd like to see that movie because I heard it turned out really well. But yeah, I think a lot of us have probably felt like outsiders in one way or the other, and when youíre one of maybe three or four people that gets it in your neighborhood, like Iím from a neighborhood of 6,000 people outside of Buffalo, and thatís where I grew up. And thereís maybe a dozen people that kind of got it Ė if that Ė where I lived, so when we would go into Buffalo and actually see a show and thereíd be a couple hundred people that liked the same kind of music we did it felt really good, because we were so used to being outcasts in our own community, that when you come together at a show itís very empowering to be around a bunch of people that actually like the same kind of music you do, and ďget it.Ē So yeah, itís cool, and I think once you get that camaraderie of being at a metal show with all the metalheads and that, in addition to just loving that kind of music, there also is a kind of camaraderie with it that youíre never going to want to be without. Itís great to go to shows. And the interviews for that metal history were done at Wacken, and thatís about as big of a metal gathering as Iíve ever seen. Itís like 30,000 or 40,000 people Ė and itís awesome. You wonder what it would be like sometimes, you know, small cities like 40,000 people. Iím like, ďWhat if all these people lived in the same city? Wouldnít that just be crazy or what?Ē Like a metal city. But thatíll never happen, so once in a while when we come together itís always really killer. I donít know why it is, but itís just killer.
Yeah, I agree. So this is a question that Iíve asked a lot of people, and Iíve asked myself; and Iíve never had an easy time answering it. Itís so basic, but why metal? Why listen to it, why play it?
I guess for me it just sounded great. I just loved how it sounded. Iíve always loved music and I like aggressive, up-tempo-sounding music. And from the time I was little, pretty much the heavier something was, the more I liked it. Especially once I became a teenager, I was like ďAnything thatís heavier is what I want.Ē So I just kept getting heavier and heavier. I just always really liked heavy sounding music. Iím not sure why, I mean maybe it helps with the catharsis thing; you know, everybodyís frustrated; everybody has frustrating stuff that they deal with in their life, and being able to listen to music thatís angry, you kind of can relate to it because youíre like, ďWell these guys who wrote this music, in order for them to have written it, they must have felt sort of how Iím feeling right now.Ē So you know you can relate to them somehow, like the person in the band that wrote it. Youíre like, ďMan this is aggressive music, and Iím feeling pissed off right now,Ē and once in a while you get a song that just really fits how you feel. You know, like some of the old Slayer stuff really did it for me when I was in high school, like Reign in Blood would really calm me down. When Iíd be pissed off about something, I could listen to that record and Iíd be all amped up when I was listening to it, but by the time I was done listening to it Iíd be mellow. So it was really like a stress relief thing for me to listen to heavy, heavy stuff.
Yeah, well that just about ends it, so is there anything else youíd like to say?
Just, thanks to all of our supporters, and weíll see everybody on tour I hope, and thank you for the interview.