Interview: Cannibal Corpse Bassist Alex Webster on 35 Years of Sonic Butchery
Few, if any, bands have contributed more to the death metal canon than Cannibal Corpse. The American death metal stalwarts formed in 1988 and have subsequently dished out 16 albums, with the latest, Chaos Horrific, touching down later this month.
Chaos Horrific is the band’s second with Hate Eternal guitarist (and former/current Corpse producer) Erik Rutan and features 10 of the darkest songs of Cannibal Corpse’s career. MetalSucks caught up with bassist and founding member Alex Webster to discuss the band’s 35 anniversary, the impact of lineup changes, live sets and the importance of consistency.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A second part discussing Chaos Horrific in detail will run next week.
This record marks 35 years for Cannibal Corpse as a band. How does it feel to be at this point with the band? You’re one of the founding members.
It’s just as surprising now as it was a few years ago. It’s all been something unexpected. Ever since we started doing well back in the ’90s, it was hard to believe. For it to have lasted this long and showing no signs of being something we’re going to stop anytime soon is pretty incredible. Obviously we’re very grateful to our fans for making it possible.
When I think about it, we started in late 1988. At that time, heavy metal—not death metal—heavy metal itself had been around for maybe 20 years. So to imagine having a career that lasts beyond that, it’s nothing we could have ever conceived. I’m 53 now, if you told me then that I’d be doing this now, I’d never have believed it.
You have been able to keep going at a pretty impressive clip for all these years. You release albums every couple years and you tour pretty heavily. You’ve managed to be a super consistent band throughout all that time.
That’s really part of the reason we’re still around: we’ve tried to be consistent in every area that we could. We’re consistent artistically. The style that we do now is really the style that we did in the beginning, it’s just evolved a bit. These songs on the new album and everything in between, all the way back to the first album, they sit together quite nicely in a live set. Nothing feels drastically out of place or anything like that. Our imagery, the type of lyrics we’ve had, that’s always been consistent.
We’ve been consistent in that we’re always touring and that we’ve released albums steadily. If I’m not mistaken, this is album 16. It’s hard to keep track of, obviously, but that’s a lot. THat’s averaging not quite once every two years but that’s pretty consistent for 35 years to have that many albums out. That’s part of the secret to our success and then, obviously, luck. That’s one thing that always has to be there, I think. You have to be in the right place at the right time too and we have been a few times in our career.
You guys have gotten that ball, but you’ve been able to run with it once you had it.
That’s what I think you should try to do. You get the opportunity, that’s luck, but what you do with it, that’s your part of the success. Without the opportunity in the first place, you know… there’s a bunch of killer bands that maybe just weren’t in the right place at the right time that just didn’t go as far. We keep that in mind. It would be easy to pat yourself on the back when you really have a long, successful career but you gotta keep in mind that a lot of it is opportunity and luck.
And being able to weather the changes that the industry has gone through. Even despite being toward the top of the death metal pile, the music is still underground.
Things have changed a lot. One of the things I think about and that I’ve talked about is just how listening to an album from start to finish, that’s not as common as it was when I started. When we make an album, we really do think about the sequencing. It’s something that we go back and forth about for a few days, everybody coming up with their lists of the order that we think the songs should be in. We’d like people to start with the first song and see if we can hook ’em in for the whole album.
There’s just so much more out there and the way people listen to music now has changed. With streaming services as opposed to when I used to put an album on, we’d get vinyl and that was it. Maybe I’d make a cassette from the vinyl or whatever but when you’re putting vinyl on, you’re listening to that whole side of an album. Once you put the needle on, you’re just gonna listen to the whole thing and flip it over and listen to the other side.
It’s funny, there are a bunch of albums that I had where I liked one side better than the other.
When I think about records, that process of sequencing isn’t as much on my mind anymore. I might think that a record picks up or drag somewhere, but that A/B comparison isn’t something I would think of anymore.
When we working with Neil Kernon, he was our producer for Gore Obsessed and The Wretched Spawn, I remember him saying—because they weren’t really doing a whole lot of vinyl, everything was CD—”What’s the beginning of virtual side B?”
He’s from that old era and I remember him saying that, “virtual side B.” And we really did try to sequence things, even back when they weren’t doing vinyl quite as much, we would think about, “What song is going to start off Side B?”
Things have changed a lot and that’s just one example of how things have changed. There have been a ton of changes. The thing that stays consistent is the live show. Live shows are a lot like what they were then, that doesn’t change that much.
You’re up there, you’re playing your music and people are raging to it. That’s very similar. Nobody missed out on that. I talk to some people who are like “I wish I had been around for the tape-trading days,” and I’m like “Yeah, it’s never going to be quite like that again” but the shows… a live performance music, that is what it is. I don’t think that’s going to change.
You just have more material to play now. There’s more stuff to hear. When Cannibal Corpse plays live, you play like 20 songs now.
I remember we used to try to play the whole album when we had just our first couple albums out, we were playing all of Eaten Back to Life just because that’s all the material we had. Butchered at Birth, I think we played all those songs live too. After a few albums, we had to start whittling things down. For a while there, we were trying to represent each album in the live set.
Now, that’s almost impossible. We could do it but we’d be forced to neglect certain “hit songs” or whatever, not like we’ve ever had some top 10 hit or something but we have certain fan favorite songs.
You can’t really skip [songs like] “Hammer Smashed Face” but a song from each album would take up the whole set.
“Hammer Smashed Face” and “I Cum Blood” are both from Tomb of the Mutilated and we really want to play both, especially “Hammer,” but we want to play both. Right there, that’s an album that’s getting double and then whenever we do a new album, we want to play more than one song. We’ll usually play at least three.
It’s impossible to completely represent every album in a live set without it being an unwieldy length.
When you’re writing songs now, do you try to make them sound like a Cannibal Corpse song, so to speak? Or is that Cannibal Corpse song more a product of the fact that you and [drummer] Paul [Mazurkiewicz] have been in the band forever and a lot of the band members have been in for so long?
I think we do know what the band, what our sound is, and we know what wouldn’t work. We try to keep things kind of wide open when we’re writing. As long as it’s heavy, aggressive and/or dark, creepy sounding, it’s usually going to work. There’s very few things that any of us would come up with that we feel like don’t fit.
Because of who we are and how we play our instruments—Paul’s drumming style, George [“Corpsegrinder” Fisher]’s vocal style—even though we’ve got various different songwriters in the band writing music… This album, it’s three songs that Erik wrote the music, four that I wrote music for and three that Rob wrote music for if I’m not losing track of things here. We have a variety of writers but it all still sounds like us.
If you look at, for example, “Blood Blind,” and then how it’s followed immediately by the song “Vengeful Invasion,” those two songs sound really different but they both sound like Cannibal Corpse. Erik wrote the music for “Blood Blind” and Rob [Barrett, guitar] wrote the music and lyrics for “Vengeful Invasion.” Somehow it still all sounds like us; I think it’s a combination of us knowing what Cannibal is supposed to sound like and then also the way we play our instruments makes it sound like who we are. George’s voice, Paul’s drum style, the guitar players’ guitar styles, my bass style. That all adds up to giving it that character but we have a lot of variety from song to song, and that’s pretty important to us too.
One of the things that I think is most impressive about Cannibal, they all sound like the same band throughout, but it’s little things [between albums] that build on the core thing.
When somebody is in the band… anybody who joins our band, they’re in it and they’re allowed to put their personality and style into it. When Erik joined, we didn’t want Erik to not be Erik when he writes. He has a well-developed, unique style of his own. The songs he writes, they sound like he wrote them but they also sound like Cannibal Corpse. He knew how to do that. I’m not sure if everybody who has a really distinct style could pull that off but Erik really knows. He worked with us so much as a producer that he understood how to work his own style into our band.
Every person has that opportunity to put their own part in there and every time the band changes—a member or something, the bit they contribute is leaving, and some new person, their personality is going to be into it—there’s a growth there too.
We haven’t had hardly any lineup changes for a band that’s been around for 35 years but when they do happen, I think you can tell. Anyone who’s been in the band has always been important and contributed a lot. That’s the way we like it. We want the band to be a team where everybody’s important, not just one or two key people.