CANNIBAL CORPSE’S ALEX WEBSTER: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Cannibal Corpse have been the face of death metal for almost twenty-five years. Since their debut full-length Eaten Back to Life was released in 1990, they’ve dominated the scene with their brand of in-your-face brutal lyrics and slamming death metal. They’ve also managed to make a name for themselves as one of the most commercially successful death metal bands on the planet. Metal Blade will release their latest offering, Torture, on March 12 — you can pre-order it here.
I recently spoke with bassist/founding memeber Alex Webster about the new album and the band’s upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary, as well as tons of other Cannibal-related activities. Read our full chat after the jump!
Let’s get right to it. You guys have a new album coming out sometime this year. Tell me about it!
The name of the album is Torture. It’s going to be coming out March 12. It’s got twelve songs. We recorded it with [producer] Erik Rutan again. This time we recorded one month at Sonic Ranch studios and then a second month at Mana Studios. It was like September 2011 and October 2011 when we did the recording. We wrote the record throughout 2011, from around early February to the end of August, so that was seven months, almost eight months of writing that we did prior to entering the studio. So we had all the songs done other than a few lyrics before we went into the studio.
Oh, so you guys weren’t writing until relatively recently. What were you doing before — just touring behind Evisceration Plague?
Yeah. Basically, we never really take a break longer than a month, or maybe two months, tops. For example, in February 2009, Evisceration Plague was released. We were immediately touring Europe at that time, and then we just basically toured on and off with only a few weeks break here and there until the end of 2010. So it’s basically like a two year tour cycle. We didn’t really write at all during that time. So we took off the end of December and most of January 2011, and then at the very end [of January] we began to practice together again. So we took about a month off after that last tour and then we started writing again. Practice four days a week, we got everything together so that we could get into the studio in September. There hasn’t really been a break. As soon as we finished recording, we went and did Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, and we toured South America in December, and in a week or so we’re going down to 70,000 Tons of Metal, and next month we’re going on tour with Behemoth. We like to keep busy.
Well, you guys have established a pretty solid “tour, write, record” pattern over the years. And I assume at this point you guys have pretty much determined a good writing process for the albums. Was anything different this time around?
It was a little different. Maybe not in the way the songs were written. What happens is, usually we write the riffs at home and bring back a completed or mostly-completed song to show the rest of the guys at band practice and show the guys how to play it — play it with each other, see how it sounds. But the songs are generally written by one person. The big difference this time was that Pat [O’Brien, guitarist] and Rob [Barrett, guitarist] definitely added a little bit more than normal. Rob in particular — Rob did three songs. Pat did four, I did five. We’ve been able to have a really good variety between the songs, because in addition to having three different music writers, we also focused on making our own songs sound different from each other. So I think a lot of emphasis was placed on having each song sound very unique and individual. We don’t want the songs to just run together. We want every song on the album to have its own individual character.
Haven’t you written most of the songs on the albums in the past?
Yeah. It got to be more and more until it kind of peaked when Evisceration Plague came out. I wrote seven-and-a-half of the songs [of the twelve total tracks on that album]. I kinda consciously scaled that back a little bit this time. And also, I had to work on the Blotted Science EP [The Animation of Entomology]. I recorded that throughout 2011, and worked on learning those parts and recording them, so that when I was sitting down with my bass at night, instead of writing a song, I’d go, “I know Rob’s writing a song right now, so I’ll just sit here and work on this Blotted Science stuff instead.” I write pretty fast — once I get started it flows pretty quickly, so I kinda tried to rein myself in just a little bit, because Rob and Pat write a little more slowly than I do, and it gave them more time to come up with some stuff. I’m really glad I did it, because I think that the best songs on the album are some of the ones that those guys wrote. Rob’s got a couple total rippers on this album, as does Pat. When you’ve got a bunch of guys in the band that are creative and like to write music, you’ve got to kind of make room for each other, and I did my best to do that this time. And I still got to write plenty of songs. I’m quite satisfied anyhow.
So were you trying to consciously make any stylistic or technical changes from previous albums, or were you just aiming for solid, unique songs?
I don’t think we’re trying to do anything much different. You know, we’re a death metal band. That’s where we want to be. We don’t mind working within the boundaries of what’s considered to be death metal. There are a few things here and there — there’s a song called “Rabid” on the album where it does have some thrash metal picking patterns. It’s definitely a death metal song, but the picking might remind you of thrash, like more of a Slayer kind of vibe. So, to me, if we are going to have something small come in from the outside of being 100% pure death metal, it’s always going to be something closely related anyhow, like darker sounding thrash, or doom, or even something that’s just a tiny bit like black metal. We’re okay with adding things to our sound as long as it’s all evil metal. And generally we just do straight death metal, but we try to work as well as we can within certain boundaries.
You’ve added elements of other genres to your music before, and it hasn’t really diluted the metal.
Yeah, that’s definitely on purpose. We really want to keep it death metal. The challenge is keeping it interesting while keeping it true to what we started out as. I like to experiment musically, but if it’s going to be something that isn’t appropriate for Cannibal Corpse, I’m going to play it with different people. There are just certain things it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to do, even though everyone in the band likes other kinds of music, too.
You guys have had a fairly stable lineup throughout the entire history of the band. It’s almost twenty-five years now, and that’s almost unheard of these days — you’re always hearing about someone quitting or getting fired and joining their friends’ band. How do you guys do it? Do you see the band staying together with the same lineup for the rest of your time as a group?
I wouldn’t be able to predict that, because you just never know, but if it were up to me, this would be a lineup I would be happy with for the rest of the band’s career. Everyone’s very motivated and we work well together, so I’d love to stick with it. Throughout our career, I think we’ve always appreciated how lucky we’ve been to do this for a living, and that’s why there have only been a few changes. We try not to do anything hastily. The decisions we’ve made to kick people out were not based on anger or arguments, but based on what’s right for the band musically. We’ve had plenty of arguments, but you just have to let it go, because we’re all too damn lucky to be playing metal for living to give it up over something stupid. I write a lot of the songs, but I realize that the reason they sound so killer is because of the guys that I play with, so I think everybody has to remember that the band is great because of the people that are in the band, not because one individual is great or something like that. Some bands run into problems where there’s a band leader kind of guy who thinks that the band members are expendable. They’ll fire completely good dudes because they didn’t want to treat them like a full member of the band, and didn’t realize what they had until it was too late. For example, George [“Corpsegrinder” Fisher, vocals] doesn’t write, but he’s a hugely important part of this band. And the same songs written with a different singer would not be nearly as good. We appreciate each other and the talents we bring to the band, and we put up with the personal difficulties we have with each other occasionally because we know it’s for the best.
And I guess that’s why you guys are one of the only death metal bands who have had a consistent lineup over the years.
We’re very thankful to the fans for where we are today. And we don’t want to screw up, and we don’t ever want to let them down, so we’re just going to keep working hard to make the best death metal that we can. I’m glad that you’re noticing this. A lot of people go, “Oh, these guys have had a lot of lineup changes.” But we’ve been around since 1988, and there are only three ex-members of Cannibal Corpse — four if you count [guitarist] Jeremy Turner, who filled in for Jack [Owen] after he quit in the middle of the Wretched Spawn tour. For a five-man band, having four ex-members total is not really that bad over the span of twenty-something years. The only change that’s happened since 1997 was Jack leaving and Rob coming back. There was one thing — when we put out Centuries of Torment, it covered all of the lineup changes in three hours because it’s just a movie. And a lot of people thought, “Wow, you guys had a lot of lineup changes,” but those changes didn’t happen in three hours — they happened over the course of twenty years. They did a great job, but certain things wound up seeming like they happened more quickly than they actually did.
Speaking of Centuries of Torment… that was your twentieth anniversary DVD. You’re almost at your twenty-fifth anniversary. Is there anything special planned for that?
You know, we’ve got something in mind, and I probably shouldn’t talk about it for risk of getting in trouble, but it will be something a little different from anything we’ve done up until this point. So anyway, we’ll talk about that in about a year or so. Our full-on twenty-fifth anniversary won’t be ’tilabout December 2013.
Earlier, you mentioned working with Blotted Science. I talked with Ron Jarzombek a few months ago about the EP, and I just wanted to know what you thought of the work you did on it, because he seemed very happy.
Oh yeah, I’m very happy with it as well. It was definitely very challenging, and on this particular recording, Ron did a lot more of the songwriting than I did. He did most of the writing on The Machinations of Dementia as well, but I contributed a lot more on that one as far as writing goes. When it came to The Animation of Entomology — gosh, the way he wanted to write everything was just very challenging. I don’t know if there’s anybody besides Ron that would really put that kind of time into it. He’s got the brains to do these things, but he also just has the patience and the work ethic to do stuff that’s really complex. A lot of people think we synced the videos to the music. No. He wrote the music to the videos. And if anybody doesn’t think that’s hard, they should just try to do it [laughs]. That’s just all I’ve got to say. It took him an incredible amount of work, so when it came to the songwriting, I just kind of stayed out of the way and waited for him to send me the music and then I just learned the music and recorded it, which was in itself plenty hard. I did learn a bit about how he writes music and how to write music to go with movies, and it’s a complicated process that requires a high-level musician, and Ron is that. I’m proud of the work I did on it, but really, Ron is the guy that deserves the praise for how excellent the EP turned out.
It took four years to get twenty-two minutes of music written, recorded, and synced. It sounded incredibly rigorous.
It was a huge effort, especially on his part. I mean, me and Hannes [Grossmann, drummer] worked our asses off too just to play the stuff, but to write it and sync it up with everything was the biggest challenge of all. It’s rewarding to finally hear it finished and sounding so good. I hope that if and when there’s another Blotted Science release, that we’re able to do something… I don’t know if we should try syncing things up again, just so we can get a full-length out before 2030; if we were going to do seventy-five minutes, all synced up to clips, honestly, 2020 would be a realistic guess.
Did the work you were doing with Ron impact the writing process with Cannibal at all?
Yeah, I would say so. Anytime you work with a different musician, you’re going to pick up things from them. I picked up things from Erik Rutan working with him on Alas and Hate Eternal over the years. I was on the first Hate Eternal demo, and then I worked with Erik on Alas for their demo. So you know, I’ve learned things from the other guys in Cannibal, and I’ve most definitely learned things from Ron. Ron is a fantastic musician. I don’t think I need to need to explain that to anybody who’s reading this. He’s one of the masters of progressive metal guitar. To be able to play with him has been a little like going to music school for the past 6 or 7 years. I know that some of the things I’ve learned — a better grasp or odd rhythms or how to use odd meters — have continued to put some new life into Cannibal’s music. I think the biggest difference was with time signatures. I got a much better grip on that stuff working with Ron.
I wish I could do half the stuff he does on guitar. Do you think there’s a chance of a Blotted Science tour ever happening?
It’s very difficult to think about that being possible, because we’d need to get together and really just live in San Antonio. Cannibal practices four days a week and we play some challenging shit for sure, but we’re considerably less technical than Blotted Science. And we like to practice for a minimum of four days a week together for months before we go on tour. If me and Hannes lived in San Antonio for a couple of months, we could do it, but we can’t do that because it’s not financially feasible. We can’t just fly somewhere and live there for free without doing any other work.
You and Hannes both have main projects anyway.
Yeah. I’m very busy with Cannibal Corpse and Hannes is very busy with Obscura. I’d love to do some shows. I’d love to play “Bleeding in the Brain” live. “Synaptic Plasticity.” I love those songs. It’d be so much fun. But to be realistic, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Maybe sometime way down the road, but in the immediate future, no. For us to be able to do it as well as we do it on the record, we’re going to need to practice together quite a bit. And we just don’t have a chance to do that.
It sounds like you take the touring with Cannibal Corpse quite seriously, more than some bands would.
Oh yeah. We practice our asses off for that. I think our whole thing as a band is that we all are so happy that we managed to make it that we all want to do it as well as we can. Everyone works really hard. We never drink or smoke before we play — it’s just against the rules. We are going up there and want to be 100% as kick-ass as possible. We want to give everyone in the audience what they paid for and more.
That’s not a very common mentality these days. A lot of bands look at tours as an excuse to go crazy, not as an option to play their best.
We’re very serious about this. You should see how we beat ourselves up over mistakes. Like if we do make a mistake, one of us screws up a part or something — it happens to everyone, but God, we’re so hard on ourselves. If I mess up a bass thing or anyone screws something up, the mood’s ruined for the night, and we’ll be thinking about that part until the next time we get a chance at it. It’s very important for us to give a great performance to our audience, because we owe them our career. We owe them the best we have to offer. I don’t want to sound corny or whatever, but without the fans, we can’t exist. We’ve had such a great career.
So since you guys are so seriously about the touring, do you have any preferences country-wise, or bands you like working with or anything?
Oh, we love to tour with everybody. Any of the bands we tour with, it usually turns out to be a great time. We particularly had a great time touring with Immolation back in the 90s, and I’d really like to see if we could do another tour with those guys. They’re some of our best friends in the scene. But there are so many bands we’ve had a great time touring with: Dark Funeral, Marduk… there’s just a ton of great bands out there and everyone on the death metal scene are generally really cool dudes. It’s a lot of fun. There’s real camaraderie when you’re out there touring together, and pretty much any band we’ve toured with in the scene we’d be happy to tour with again.
Do you guys keep in touch with the metal scene then? There are obviously the older names like Immolation and Suffocation still making waves, but there’s also the brutal death stuff popping up — like Defeated Sanity and similar groups. Are you paying attention to any of that?
We’re aware of some of it for sure. It’s hard to keep track of all of it. I love all kinds of different metal and I listen to lots of different stuff, so I don’t listen to all the brutal death that comes out, but I do try to keep my ears open for the bands that people seem to be really freaking out about. Like Defeated Sanity, yeah, they’re great. I got to know the bass player when he was substituting in Obscura when we toured with them over in Europe in 2009 and he gave me some of their CDs and they’re great. I like Hour Of Penance from Italy a lot. There’s a bunch of good stuff though. A lot of the death metal I do still listen to is just the classic stuff, like Immolation’s new EP “Providence,” that’s awesome. I love Autopsy – that was my favorite record from last year. Hate Eternal’s record [Phoenix Amongst the Ashes] is fucking awesome. I still listen to a lot of death metal, and I’m always looking for hot tips on a new band. I kind of need help from our fans. That’s one of the cool things about going out and meeting people after shows and hanging out and talking. They’ll usually tell me about their favorite new band, and that’s a good way to learn about some of these bands because it’s just too hard to keep up. Early on, I would just get anything that had anything to do with death metal. But now it’s a lot harder.
I really love your guys’ interactions with your fans. It’s just really cool that you guys are willing to go out and meet people. Some guys aren’t.
That’s just another part it. If the fans want to hang out and talk about metal, unless it’s pouring rain, we’ll usually be out there.
One more quick thing — you guys have always been one of the few popular death metal bands to have a more publicly violent lyrical direction, and there are always the critics who are calling it a bad influence or inappropriate or whatever. The metal community gets that you’re doing it from an entertainment perspective, but a lot of outside people don’t. How do you guys feel when you get slammed with all this criticism, whether it’s accurate or not?
At this point, unless it’s directly affecting our ability to perform in a show, the way it sometimes does in Germany, we don’t really care. The complaints make sense to me in that they don’t understand the scene and they don’t understand where we’re coming from, so we recognize that they are just misunderstanding us. A lot of musicians will sing a song, and it will be like a love song or something, and that love song will be expressing something they went through in their life. Obviously when we sing something like “Entrails Ripped From a Virgin’s Cunt,” that has nothing to do with anything any of us every have done or will do or would ever want to do. Real-world violence is bad. We don’t empathize with the characters in our songs. They’re not people we admire, and we don’t endorse violence in any way. But because a lot of music has people writing songs where they empathize with the lyrics very much and the lyrics are very expressive, people assume that maybe we’re like that, too. And that’s not the case. So that misunderstanding is annoying, but I understand it. I’m not angry, I just get that they don’t get where we’re coming from. That’s all. I think if they looked a little deeper, they’d see where we’re coming from and it wouldn’t bother them, but I understand it.
You do what you can with it.
Yeah. Again, we’re so accustomed to having that kind of stuff directed at us that we don’t let it bother us unless it’s actually canceling a show in Germany or not letting us play certain songs, then that’s aggravating, because it’s cheating our fans out of the experience. In Germany, they’ll tell us that we can’t play songs off the first three albums, and that sucks, because right off the bat, that means no “Hammer Smashed Face.” It’s like seeing Motorhead without “Ace of Spades” or something like that. It’s just not cool. That’s the only time the censorship bothers us.
Looks like we’re almost out of time, but is there anything else you wanted to add about touring, or the new album, or in general before you go?
The album is coming out in March and we’re going to be doing a ton of touring in support of it throughout 2012 and probably well into 2013. I just want to say thank you to all the fans. We hope to see everyone out on tour over the next two years!