Cannibal Corpse’s debut Eaten Back To Life hit the nascent Death Metal scene like a bomb going off, raising the bar for musical and lyrical extremity. Now, with twenty-six years and thirteen albums behind them, they are without argument one of the most influential and consistent bands in Death Metal. Bassist and founding-member Alex Webster spoke to Ghost Cult about the band’s past and future, the current state of their genre and used the words “Death Metal” seven-thousand times…
A Skeletal Domain (Metal Blade) sees you breaking a run of three albums with producer Erik Rutan that saw a rejuvenation of your sound and are regarded by many as some of your best work. What inspired this change, and to what extent has it influenced the sound of the new album?
We’re very happy with the three albums Erik Rutan did with us – as far as the change to Mark Lewis, we just wanted to do something a little different, to mix things up. The last guy we’d worked with other than Erik was back in 2003, so we just wanted to try something a little different – we just wanted a change of scenery. Erik and Mark are both great producers, they just have slightly different approaches regarding the studio in regard to getting guitar and drum sounds – their technical approaches were different, but their general attitude was the same, they wanted to make the heaviest record possible. In terms of how it influenced us… we go into the studio with all of the material written apart from maybe some extra guitar harmonies or bass parts, so although the producer helps up to find the sound he has no influence on the artistic direction.
The release of A Skeletal Domain marks an impressive run of thirteen albums, during which you’ve developed your technical skills but not strayed far from the template you laid down on your first three. That consistency has always been one of the band’s strongest selling points, but can it be a disadvantage? At this point, how hard is to keep from recycling your own material?
That can definitely happen. What we try to do is avoid that – it’s a conscious effort. If I write something and it reminds me too much of something from the past I’ll make a conscious effort to change it. One thing that is very helpful in this band is that we have more than one or two songwriters. We have four guys in the band who contribute to the song-writing process – you end up having a lot of different ideas, and good variety from song to song. I think that’s one of our biggest strengths – it’s not a band with one song-writer, and I think this album really puts that on display, our division of song-writing duties.
One thing that has always been clear with Cannibal Corpse is that you are technically accomplished musicians who are committed to developing your own playing. Have you ever found the limitations of Death Metal restricting, and have you ever been tempted to follow your technicality beyond those genre restrictions?
We definitely want to stay a full on Death Metal band – that was part of the initial objective of this band, to be the best Death Metal band we could be, and we don’t want to really go beyond the boundaries of DM, but we are looking for things that we haven’t done before. There are certain things that we wouldn’t have done in the past but we will do now. For example, in the earlier part of our band’s career – or more about the middle, I should say, around Gallery Of Suicide – we avoided anything that sounded Thrashy. The gallop-type picking, things like that, and we’ve really stopped avoiding that recently. We’re a Death Metal band, but Thrash is part of our background, you can hear it certainly in our earlier albums – Eaten Back To Life is a very Thrashy album, and there are certain elements of Thrash throughout our earlier stuff, and we just haven’t made any effort to avoid that for the last couple of albums. We thought, why bother – if it’s something that sounds really heavy, why not use it? We felt like there was no reason why a Death Metal band couldn’t have those intricate picking rhythms – it’s a particular sound of Thrash, but if you’ve got guitar players who are good enough to do it, why not do it? We’ve added more of that over the last few albums, and I think it’s added really seamlessly into the overall Death Metal sound that we have. We’re willing to try to add certain outside influences as long as they work well with our sound, and don’t make us sound less Death Metal.
One of the things that often comes out in interviews with Cannibal Corpse is your blue-collar background, and the very down-to-earth attitude that seems to have given you to the job of being in a band. Despite the obvious musical differences, in terms of attitude you seem to be a coming from a similar direction to Iron Maiden. Which bands have been an influence on your attitude and longevity?
That comparison is something that we have thought about specifically… they’re a band that’s done everything pretty much the right way. I’ve always been impressed with Iron Maiden, they’re one of my favourite bands, and the level of consistency that they have and the level of musical professionalism. All of their players are great, they’ve been consistent in their music and imagery throughout their career. I think any Metal band, Death Metal, Thrash or otherwise can look to and be impressed with them. Obviously our music isn’t like Iron Maiden’s, but we definitely look at their career and are inspired by them, I think any Metal band would be, so to be compared to them is a high compliment and we appreciate that. Also, if you look at the other successful Metal bands, they have similar things going down – like Slayer for example, who are another band whose career we find very inspiring. I look to Iron Maiden and Slayer a lot as examples of being consistent, and continuing to work non-stop throughout your career, I find it very impressive.
In the Centuries Of Torment documentary you talk about revisiting old decisions, and speak quite candidly about some of the choices made by the band in your early days. Did looking back at these decisions cause you to regret any of your past choices?
Any time you look back on decisions you made you’re going to second-guess things. You can’t do that too much, of course, because it’s too late to change things you’ve done – you need to always keep moving forward. Doing history DVDs – and we’ve recently worked on a book too – you look at the past a lot, but it’s in my personal nature to keep looking forward. There’s nothing you can really do to change the past and make it turn put differently, and to be honest all the decision we’ve made in the past regarding personnel… I don’t think we made any mistakes that way. The choices we made about asking people to leave the band, I think those were necessary choices that made the band better in the long run, but… you know… what changes is the way you handle it. You’re going to handle decisions differently when you’re forty-four than when you’re twenty-two, but we did the best we could and we’ve never tried to be uncool about things with other band members when we went our separate ways. We always tried to be professional about it, but we’d probably do a better job now that we’re older and more experienced.
The fall-out between yourselves and Chris Barnes was well-documented at the time, but recent interviews with both show a much more relaxed attitude about it.
Yeah, I think that’s a natural thing – everyone’s very upset when it happens, but time heals the whole thing or whatever. We’re in a very good place with Chris right now, and I think he’s in a good place with us. Whenever I bump into him in gigs or in Tampa we always have a good time, and we always hang out and talk, so I’d say everything’s in a good place now.
You are often described as being one of the most influential bassists in Death Metal – a title that you’ve sometimes disputed in interviews. Who would you put on that list?
I would say that, for me, Steve di Giorgio was the guy who inspired me, so I’ve always put him at the top of the list. I learned how to play the way I play by imitating him. Also Roger Patterson from the first Atheist album… there are others who are really great too, Tony Choy, Martin Rygiel who used to be in Decapitated is one of the best bass players out there, Jeff Hughell from Six Feet Under, Erlend Caspersen from Blood Red Throne, Mike Poggione who used to play with Monstrosity, Mike Flores from Origin. I’m not saying that I’m not good at what I do, but I like to mention that there are a lot of other great ones too, and some of them were very big influences on me. I’m proud of what I’ve done, of course, but there are a lot of other great players who deserve recognition.
Another relatively recent development in Death Metal has been the emergence of “Deathcore”, but this has been something of a negative development by many older fans. Is this just empty elitism, in your opinion, or do they have a point?
You know, I actually have no problems with Deathcore at all, I think it’s just another form of Extreme Metal, it’s obviously very close to Death Metal. Some of those features are considered a little too…. I don’t really know! Maybe a little close to something else… for Death Metal purists, but for me they’re similar enough that it’s fine for the two genres to play shows together. I think [the wide variety of sub-genres] just helps validate what a great form of music Death Metal is, that it’s able to have been so strong for decades.
Despite its reputation as something of a monolith, Death Metal has undergone a surprising renaissance in the last few years, with bands like Portal, Ulcerate and Pyrrhon leading it in some genuinely fresh new directions. Have you been following any of these bands, and what do you think about the current state of Death Metal as a genre?
There are so many killer bands out there that it’s not always easy to keep up – I kind of need tips on it! I’ve actually not listened to Portal, but I’ve heard a lot about them so should probably just go and buy an album, but there are tonnes of great bands who’ve come out in the past ten years or so, some of them are newer than others. Obviously Psycroptic have been around for a while but there an amazing, super-technical band. Spawn Of Possession I’ve always been really into. Ulcerate from New Zealand. There’s all sorts of great stuff out there right now, and it makes me happy to see all that sort of stuff, really killer technical stuff that moves Death Metal forward. It also makes me happy to see that there are other bands who are keeping it in its original formula and trying to expand by writing better songs. A band like Aeon from Sweden, they’re a technical band but how they develop their Death Metal is through their song-writing. I love hearing the cutting-edge stuff like Ulcerate, but I also love hearing stuff that’s a bit more rooted in the Old School, like Corpus Mortale from Denmark, Hour Of Penance from Italy.
I’m just happy to see that the scene is healthy on all fronts. You’ve got older bands like us and Autopsy who are still going, you’ve got bands coming back like Gorguts and doing a great job, then all these newer bands that are playing lots of different types of Death Metal, and everyone’s doing very well.
Words by RICHIE H-R