SIX FEET UNDER’S CHRIS BARNES: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Six Feet Under vocalist Chris Barnes is scheduled to call my cell phone for an interview to discuss the new album Undead. I decide it would be cool if I switch my ringtone to “Hammer Smashed Face.” That way, when Barnes calls I’ll get a little sample of his work. So the call comes in but it’s not Barnes; it’s a Metal Blade employee connecting the call. My plot is foiled.
Barnes and I chat about how strange it is that a band like Cannibal Corpse even has a ringtone. Boy, times have changed; wasn’t Barnes targeted by former Senator Bob Dole back in the day? Now, he’s available on an iTunes ringtone. Even more unexpected, Barnes is best known in his adopted hometown of Tampa for a television ad where he talks about test-driving a Porsche Boxster and busts out a death-metal tinged sales pitch. When people stop him at home, they usually ask if he’s the guy in the Park Auto Mall ad, not if he’s one of death metal’s first-ever low growlers. When I mention the ad he laughs for about thirty seconds and says, “Oh, God.”
Barnes was upbeat and animated as he discussed new album Undead and a new lineup that includes guitarist Rob Arnold (Chimaira), drummer Kevin Talley (Daath, Misery Index, Chimaira) and bassist Jeff Hughell (Brain Drill). Much like Ed Gein carved up body parts to make a suit, Barnes has cut and pasted musicians to make his ideal death metal band. Maybe he was excited I didn’t ask the question he probably gets asked twenty times a day: dude, when are you going back to Cannibal Corpse? Barnes told MetalSucks about the latest part of the musical journey that started in Buffalo, N.Y. and how many of his songs are more about confronting death and the desire to live rather than a gore-fest. Then, I was forcefed broken glass, pulverized, and murdered in the basement.
Does this feel like a completely new start for you with the new lineup?
I expect the best and prepare for the worst, always [laughs]. No, seriously, I love the album [Undead]. I have the greatest musicians playing and writing with me now. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. I wish I could have accomplished something like this during the past fifteen or sixteen years, but now the stars are aligned. I feel like I’m ready to break loose.
Had you stopped enjoying music? It’s been almost four years since Death Rituals. Did you need to just reset entirely?
I never stopped enjoying music. It’s the basis of who I am. I don’t get tired of it. It’s just a lot of things came up in a lot of different facets of my life, personal things I had to deal with. I was in a band with a couple of guys that seemed like they didn’t want to be in the band for a long time and didn’t seem motivated. That definitely made me feel a little pensive. I just wanted to get things moving in the right direction and had to concentrate and think about what I wanted to do. I needed to accept the idea that if I didn’t do something now, it would probably be too late. I needed to move forward with this idea for a long time but I also felt like I was being held back. So, I wasn’t unhappy. But I didn’t feel satisfied.
When you decided to part with a lot of the old lineup, was it amicable? How did you find your new members?
Terry [Butler, bass] and Greg [Gall, drums] were unhappy and felt like they weren’t going to be able to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish on this record. Terry was working with Obituary and having a great time. So, when Greg quit, Terry just wanted to move forward. I love those guys to death and we had a lot of good times, but things just needed to move on. For this band, it was really necessary to get in contact with new writers. It was something I was doing before they quit; I was working with Rob Arnold, writing three or four songs. He was my first real choice for my songwriting partner.
During a 2005 tour [with Chimaira] I became great friends with Rob. One time we were sitting around and talked about [forming] a side project, but like seven years went by. It was always in the back of my head; Rob had always been enthusiastic and his writing is amazing. I gave him a ring one night and he was really into it. For pretty much sixteen months we worked on the album.
The work earlier in your career – the classic SFU albums – were written the same way. They were side projects. For these guys, SFU was also a side project initially. Did the ability to just have fun allow you to focus?
I didn’t think of it that way. You mentioned how SFU started with another writer when I was in Cannibal Corpse. It’s interesting; whenever a new guy or a new writers come along, it seems like the albums are different. When Rob Barrett came into Cannibal, The Bleeding had a special feel. The same thing happened when I was working with Allen West on Haunted. The same thing happened with Steve Swanson on Maximum Violence. And it’s happened on this album. It seems like when I’m working with someone and feeling a vibe, it gets me to the point where I need to be imaginative and feel inspired.
That’s what Rob Arnold did here. He inspired me. I knew going into it that I had writers that had a great techniques and style. Ben Savage from Whitechapel also wrote six songs with me. He’s another guy who is amazing and knows what works. He knows how to write so vocal parts and riffs fit together. When I get to write to stuff like that, it’s effortless, because people are thinking about your spot. All the Rob songs are on this album and some of the other songs from the sessions will be on the next record. It was such an exciting experience, to have these great writers around. I knew what it was going to get to make an album I would be one hundred percent blown away by. Hopefully, the fans are still there with me.
Greg was always a solid drummer, but Kevin has power and technicality that you haven’t had during SFU’s career.
True. Greg is very, very solid drummer, but the things Kevin brings into the band are things we wanted much earlier. Steve and I have talked a lot; how we wished we could write other stuff but we had to write to Greg’s strengths. I’ll tell you what — I sure as hell missed singing to a blast beat. That’s the essence of a death metal vocal.
This is the first time on an SFU album where I’ve been very aware of the drumming and how much it adds.
There’s a lot going on there with the dynamics and what Kevin is playing. To me it’s insanity. I know how hard he hits and how consistent he is. He’s a fucking drum machine with organic living tissue surrounding his skeletal system [laughs]. He may be a cyborg. I haven’t really figured it out yet.
I think the interesting thing about Undead is the balance of the powerful, direct music of the 90s with a little more to hang on to. Does that make sense?
It does. That definitely makes me happy. I think the album touches on some things. I hate making statements about albums. I know I’ll be ripped apart by half of the people out there. But this does remind me of The Bleeding — certain elements, like the riffs on “18 Days.” It doesn’t sound exactly like it, but there’s something on the album that clicked like The Bleeding. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I feel good about it. It’s an important record to me. If it was the last album I ever did, god forbid something happened to me, I would feel good about resting on this.
Glen Benton said the same thing with The Stench Of Redemption, and he’s made two records since.
[laughs] I didn’t say I was going to stop, I meant if I croaked! He was supposed to be dead at 33 or something.
Around the Iraq War, you were becoming a lot more political with songs like “Amerika The Brutal.” Have you reined some of that in? Do you do your best work when you are driven by political themes?
Well, I think if I commented on that, people would think “Does he hate everything he’s done before this record”? [laughs] When things speak to me and lend themselves to a riff and they feel right, I go with it. I don’t think those ideas or those notions came into my mind when I heard this music. I tried not to worry about stuff like that so much. I tried to focus on what I do best and what I feel are my strengths. I tried not to be all over the place. It wasn’t conscious.
I think simple and direct has always been better with Six Feet Under. One thing I don’t think gets talked about nearly enough is those songs on Alive and Dead like “Insect” and “Drowning.” They were very minimalist but have always stuck with me.
I really like those songs. There are some elements that I concentrated on the next album, I don’t want to give a lot away, but a lot of things like those two songs show up on the next record.
A lot of people talk about the over the top stuff you did when you were younger, but the Chris Barnes stuff that has resonated with me is stuff like those songs or “The Enemy Inside.” They are about very human things like isolation, loneliness.
When you read the lyrics of Undead, it does touch on a lot of those things. The faster tempo makes it harder for some of that stuff to stick with you. But I like to give everyone a little bit of everything. So what do you do; you write twenty-six songs and see what sticks to the wall. Except they all stuck to the wall this time, so we decided to split them!
A lot of your songs are about being caught in your own mind.
Yeah, the human condition, the darkness behind it. That feeling is incomprehensible but it is comprehensible. Then something happens and you see death close to you and you understand it a little bit more. A lot of people take what I do at face value, but one guy recently said to me, “Are all your songs about life?” And it was like, finally, someone realizes it twenty-three years later.