DATE OF INTERVIEW:
17th February 2009
Last year, American death metal veterans Cannibal Corpse celebrated their twentieth year in the business. Transcending the incessant waves of controversy and censorship they have been faced with over the years, one consistent fact has perpetuated their hegemony within the death metal scene - that is, they have continued to produce quality, brutally heavy music; progressing their sound with each release while still rooted in the subgenre's idioms. And new album 'Evisceration Plague' is no exception. Masterfully produced by Hate Eternal mainman Erik Rutan (as with previous effort 'Kill'), media and fans alike have been hailing it as Cannibal Corpse's best work to date. Entering the American Billboard 200 at number 66 in its first week of release with 9,000+ copies sold, it seems that the death metallers' popularity is greater than ever. Main support to Children of Bodom on their 2009 European tour, I took the opportunity of hooking up with the band for an interview at their stop off in Nottingham. Sitting with Alex Webster in the his dressing room, Cannibal's bassist and one of two surviving members from the original lineup, we chat for just over half an hour as I quiz him on a range of subjects including censorship, the new album, and drunken Finns! Extremely laid back and friendly, Alex answers my questions thoughtfully and sincerely - I begin by asking about the band's present day fan base...
METAL DISCOVERY: Cannibal Corpse have been around for a fair few years now, of course - about twenty years?
ALEX WEBSTER: Yeah, it’s twenty years as of December 2008...so twenty years and a couple of months! [laughs]
(Alex Webster on Cannibal Corpse being labelled as "the world's most controversial death metal band")
"We’re certainly not in a competition to remain controversial or anything like that. It’s a nice tagline but we’d be far happier hearing that we were the world’s heaviest death metal band..."
Alex in his dressing room backstage at Rock City, Nottingham, 17th February 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: How’s your fan base these days; are you still able to attract a younger fan base as well as the older, established fans?
AW: Yeah, you know it’s been actually quite a diverse age group coming out. I would say it’s anything from as low as twelve or thirteen, which is not so common, but all the way up to guys in their forties and even beyond a little bit because we’re all in that late thirties/early forties kind of range right now. You know, we’ve been around for twenty years so it’s weird saying that but we started pretty young, but we’re still at that age and there’s a lot of fans that have stuck with us the whole time. We’ve run into quite a few fans actually on this tour that saw us on the first tour we ever did back in ‘91...
MD: Wow, how old are they?
AW: Oh, they’re our age. It’s weird, a lot of the guys who listen to the music and stuff, for some reason they don’t look like a forty year old; they still look young. I guess maybe the music keeps them young. But yeah, we have a pretty wide age group coming to the shows, and it’s really cool to see a lot of new faces and then a lot of our old friends as well.
MD: How have Children of Bodom audiences reacted to your music so far? Like have you had any feedback from people that have just come to see Bodom but maybe discover your music?
AW: Yeah, definitely. I mean if there’s anybody who’s not impressed they didn’t bother to come tell us, you know what I mean. So I’m sure what we’re doing is not for everybody, of course, but a lot of fans that didn’t really know about us, or hadn’t even heard us at all, like one guy yesterday told me “I’ve never heard you guys before today, but I really loved it”. You know, he’s a fan of CoB. There’s been a few instances like that on this tour and I suspect there’s a lot more than we’ve heard about just from talking to people because there’s been well over a thousand people at a lot of these shows, and you don’t get a chance to talk to everybody, of course. We figure we’ll probably gain a few new fans on this tour because Bodom’s an extreme metal band, they’re just not exactly the same kind that we’re doing. We’re full on death metal, they’re a bit different, but they’re still attracting fans that are interested in extreme metal, and we’re part of that broader category I guess too. So it’s been working out really well, I think.
MD: Do you enjoy the challenge of playing to someone else’s audience because I guess you’ve mainly done headline tours in your career, so it’s probably a bit different for you to do?
AW: It is, but I love it actually. I think the whole band really enjoys it because…I mean, of course we love to do headlining tours because that’s our fans. You know, if you’re playing last, anyone who’s still there is your fan; if they didn’t like you they would have gone home already. So we’re playing to a whole audience of people that really want to see us, and that’s awesome, but playing these kind of shows where we have to potentially win over a few fans is pretty exciting too ‘cause you can see it growing. Like, maybe not all of them are sure what’s going on at the beginning but there’ll be a lot more people in the pit by the end. And yeah, it’s exciting you know.
MD: I was reading some fans negative reactions on your forum when it was announced you’d be supporting Bodom - were you surprised by such reactions or do you not really care? Personally, I prefer diverse metal bills because it’s more interesting, and it’s not like you’re supporting Nickelback or Def Leppard or someone!
AW: Well I think these days there are so many different bands, and there’s so many subgenres of every genre of metal or whatever, that if you choose to be really focussed on one particular kind of music and shun everything else then that is possible. You know, you can be completely just into one particular strain of death metal like the American style stuff that we do and, if you don’t like anything else, you’ve still got a couple dozen bands to listen to, minimum. So some guys are like that, and when they hear that we’re touring with something that’s a bit outside of our immediate subgenre, you know, there’s the occasional protest. But I think, in general, people have been pretty open minded. It’s just the folks you’re gonna hear from the most are usually the ones that have something to complain about. They’re of course entitled to their opinion about that as well - you know, we’re not gonna instruct anybody to like something. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it, be it one of our songs or a band we’re touring with or whatever. But I think, in general, people have been reacting pretty well to it.
MD: That’s good. How have you been getting on with all the Finns? I heard you’re sharing a tour bus with Diablo, so any funny stories so far on tour?
AW: Oh, just those guys drink a lot and so that creates some humour for sure, you know! But they’re a good bunch of guys and we’ve been actually having a great time sharing a bus with them because as much as they party and that, they’re a very respectful bunch, you know, really cool. They’re neat; they don’t leave stuff lying around, and neither do we in general. I mean a few things get left here and there - it’s sixteen people on a bus so it’s not gonna be sparkling clean but in general both bands are fairly neat, and we’ve managed to keep the bus from being a complete disaster area, which it can become! I’ve seen some tour buses that are probably health hazards, and ours is not one of them…not at this point!
MD: Maybe after a few more dates on the tour!
AW: Yeah, it doesn’t take long for a bus to look lived in when you’ve got two bands on it and crew!
MD: That’s quite understandable.
AW: But yeah, it’s been cool so far, they’re both great bands to tour with, and we’ve gotten treated very well as an opening band by Children of Bodom. We get a nice, long sound check every day, just a lot more than I would’ve expected.
MD: And you’re doing a forty five minute set?
AW: Yep, forty five minutes, which is still pretty long. We get to play twelve songs so we’re very satisfied with how we’re being treated on this tour.
AW: Yeah, you know, we’re super happy with the work he’s done on both ‘Kill’ and ‘Evisceration Plague’, and I think we all feel ‘Evisceration Plague’ is just that little bit better than ‘Kill’ in certain areas. Particularly guitar sound, we feel like we really got focussed in on what we wanted this time around. With ‘Kill’ it was good but not…we were still just a hair beneath what we wanted exactly. Now we got it, so that raises the question - are we gonna go back and work with Erik again? There’s a very strong chance we will, and if we didn’t it would simply be for variety’s sake - like, okay, we’ve done two great albums with Erik, let’s roll the dice and try someone else just to see what someone else can bring to the table. It wouldn’t be out of dissatisfaction with Erik if we did decide to work with another producer. We haven’t come that far along in the process yet. This album’s only a couple of weeks old at this point so, right now, we still think just focus on this tour, but when it comes time to get ready to do another album then we’ll decide okay, should it be Erik again, which we’d be quite satisfied with because he did an amazing job, or maybe we will try somebody else. You know, go back to Colin Richardson, you know, who knows. There’s a lot of great producers, and there’s lot of options out there, and Erik is one of the best options and we’ve been incredibly satisfied working with him, so there is a strong chance we’ll work with him again.
MD: And you’ve played in Hate Eternal as well, haven’t you?
AW: I did just the album, yeah, I play bass on his album.
MD: You weren’t out live with them?
AW: No, I didn’t do any of the live gigs. They ended up getting…it just wouldn’t have been possible. I play a fairly significant role in the song writing for Cannibal Corpse, and during the time that Hate Eternal started touring we were home getting ready for this album. Cannibal’s really damn close to being a fulltime job for me or…I mean it is; it’s a fulltime job really. It’s an amazingly fun fulltime job but it absorbs all of my time. It absorbs so much time actually - the more you put into it, the more you get out of this, so I try and put a lot into it. I’m always working on the songs and if I’m not doing that I do a lot of the interviews for the band as well at home. Things like that, and I take care of some of the band business, so if I were to just take off for a couple of months, I’m not saying the other guys couldn’t pick up the slack for me, but it’s still…I would feel like I was not putting everything into Cannibal, and Cannibal’s my top priority.
MD: So beyond the music, you’re still doing the other kind of…
AW: I help out a little bit. We recently got professional management but before that me and our drummer, Paul, had been doing all the managing ourselves, and that took a lot of time. But, regardless, I still have plenty to do with the band, and Hate Eternal’s also a fulltime, professional band and they need a fulltime, professional bass player, not someone who’s trying to fit it in here and there. So I did the best I could on the record and they seemed very satisfied with what I did, but they need someone who can commit to them fulltime in my opinion because that’s what they deserve, because they’re as serious a band as Cannibal Corpse is. So they don’t need a part-timer, they need a full-timer. That’s probably how they feel about it.
MD: I read that ‘Evisceration Plague’ entered the Billboard 200 at number 66...
AW: Yeah! [laughs]
MD: Apart from 666 which would be quite a low number to enter the charts…if there is such a number in the charts, well, not in the top 200! And that’s your highest chart entry to date?
AW: Yeah, by far actually. We had entered, I believe, 151 back in 1996 for the ‘Vile’ album which was our fifth album, and then for ‘Kill’ we entered at 170 I think, and that was pretty good, but 66 is a real step up for us. It’s pretty crazy for a band to be having it’s biggest moment when they’ve been around for over twenty years and on their eleventh album. It’s something we’re really excited about and it’s killer. We’ve had a very slow and steady kind of career where it’s been on a slight incline the whole time I guess, and this is a little bit of an upwards swing. We’re not used to this actually but it’s really exciting.
MD: Did you look at who you went in above of that week and thought, hey, we’ve beaten so and so?!
AW: A little bit. Yeah, it’s kind of fun because I think we were ahead of Fallout Boy or somebody like that.
MD: Which is fantastic!
AW: You take it with a grain of salt though because we’re probably not gonna be on that chart next week, you know what I mean, it’ll go to 66 because all of our fans bought it the first week and then it will drop off, where all those other popular bands, they’re on there for eight weeks, ten weeks, twenty weeks. So you have to put it in perspective. It’s a significant accomplishment for a death metal band. A band that’s still one hundred per cent death metal to get so high on the charts is a big accomplishment but, relatively speaking, even the biggest death metal band like us is still underground compared to these bands that are on there for weeks and weeks and weeks selling, you know, nine thousand, ten thousand records a week steadily for several months. We sold nine thousand, six hundred in the first week - that’s our biggest first week ever in the United States, but I’m sure it’s not gonna stay consistent. Although if I’m wrong, I’ll be very happy about it! [laughs]
MD: Were you surprised it went in so high considering illegal downloads are becoming more widespread?
AW: Well, you know, we had a lot going for during the ’Kill’ tour cycle. We made our first really good video in a long time that actually got some airplay on American MTV, and that helps. We also did a big tour over there called Sounds of the Underground where we were touring with…it’s a variety kind of tour, sort of like what we’re doing here but on a much bigger scale, like a Summer festival tour where about half of the shows were outdoors and the other half were in really big venues. And a lot of the…not just death metal fans, but like just mainstream metal fans learned about our band on that tour and it really gave us a little bit of a boost I think. So we had a few things going for us, and not to mention also enlisting a good management company - Channel Zero is our management as of about half way through last year - so we’ve had a few things going for us this time around. Everything’s been just kind of building so it all came together to help us beat that slump that the CD sales business has been having. You know, record companies have definitely been taking a beating the past few years because CD sales have been on a steady decline just from illegal downloading, and for us to do significantly better than the last record is…it means something’s going on, indeed.
MD: Your band is often labelled as “the world’s most controversial death metal band”…I think that tagline’s on your forum actually…do you feel that’s a label you have to perpetuate, or do you just carry on doing whatever?
AW: Yeah, you know, just kind of doing whatever we do really. We’re certainly not in a competition to remain controversial or anything like that. It’s a nice tagline but we’d be far happier hearing that we were the world’s heaviest death metal band, you know what I mean, because that’s what we’re focussed on more than any kind of controversy. We’re focussed on making heavy sounding death metal, so that’s the goal.
MD: Well, it’s all good publicity!
AW: Yeah, controversial sounds maybe a little more exciting or whatever. It’s an eye grabbing word and we definitely have had our fair share of controversy but we’re not seeking to be that as much as we’re seeking to be just bone-crushingly heavy. That’s what our goal is.
MD: Good answer!
AW: Yeah! [laughs]
MD: Cannibal Corpse seem to encounter less controversy now than in your early days with the album covers and song titles, at least in the UK anyway - do you feel less of a need to try and shock these days or do you think it’s because people have become more desensitised to that kind of extreme horror aesthetic in metal?
AW: You know it could be a little bit of both. I mean you look at the modern horror movies - 'Saw' or 'Hostel', you know, 'Wolf Creek', movies like that where there’s just massive amounts of gore and torture even. You know, it used to be you’d just have murders like the old 'Friday The 13th' kind of movies. You’d have murders but now it’s not enough so they throw torture in as well…and these are popular movies. Extremely popular movies that sell far more tickets than any death metal bands ever sold CDs no matter how gory or whatever so, clearly, extreme violence as some sort of entertainment is actually very popular, and it’s popular far, far beyond the death metal scene. It’s popular in mainstream Western culture. You know, it is, otherwise those movies would be as underground as…
MD: …as they were in the eighties.
AW: Yeah, exactly, and they’d be as underground as a death metal band, but these are movies that are top ten movies in America. I don’t know how they fare over here but in America all the 'Saw' series does great, and 'Hostel'. I think those movies are great but it’s certainly gonna be… if a person’s just seen that movie, they may not be particularly shocked by some zombies eviscerating themselves! You know what I mean, like it might just take the edge off that a little bit so, like I said in the previous question, we’re not necessarily trying to be controversial or anything because controversy these days would be harder to gather in the first place. We’re really just trying to make a super heavy, horror oriented death metal band. You know, the music has got to be super heavy and then the image should be very horror oriented and if that includes graphic violence, fine, and if it includes some sort of more subtle horror that’s okay too. Some of our album covers like the censored versions tend to be…they’re still dark and capture a creepy vibe, but they’re leaving more to the imagination, and that’s a good kind of horror as well. My two favourite horror movies, I’ve said it again and again, are ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Exorcist’. And those both leave plenty to the imagination for most of the movie.
MD: ‘The Shining’ more than ‘The Exorcist’.
AW: Yeah, ‘The Exorcist’, you do have some projectile vomit and some heads cranking around…
MD: And a girl masturbating on a cross.
AW: Yeah, so that still had some pretty graphic stuff, but nothing in the way of like 'Hostel' or 'Hostel 2' or something. The scariest parts are the parts where you’re questioning what the hell’s going on. I think letting the imagination play a big role in creating horror is a smart idea for anyone in any kind of dark entertainment.
MD: Definitely, yeah, absolutely. Do you have any boundaries in terms of what you deem would be too offensive lyrically or cover art-wise? Do you ever come up with something and you think nah, nah, we can’t do that?
AW: I think we’ve already stepped so far over the line, you know, I look at some of the old lyrics that our old singer did, Chris Barnes, and we gave him carte blanche to do whatever. We were like, hey, we’re taking care of the music, you can go as gory as you want, so he has ‘Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt’; ‘Necropedophile’; ‘Fucked with a Knife’, all these songs so there’s not a whole lot left really, is there?! [laughs] And obviously we’ve tried to make it very clear back then, and then of course a lot more lately too, that we are singing about extremely deviant and disturbed characters that we do not relate to. You know, and we do not admire the characters, but they are interesting characters for a horror song. We certainly don’t admire any of the violence or activity that’s going on in our songs, but it fits quite well with the music.
MD: It’s an awesome new album and you’ve used Erik Rutan as producer for the second time - how is your working relationship with him, and is he someone you’re always gonna aim to use for future records?
MD: …which is a very apt number for any metal band I guess!