I know, I know...long time, no post.
Well, I had the great pleasure of catching up with famed death metal bassist Alex Webster when Cannibal Corpse played the University of Anglia in Norwich, UK, where I studied abroad this spring. He proved to be nothing short of an outright gentleman and gave some great responses.
In posting this, I'd like to both thank Andy of Metal Blade Records UK and Alex, as well as apologize to both for taking so damned long to type this up (the interview happened in February).
Asa: In addition to the gore factor in many Cannibal Corpse songs, there are also lyrics that can be perceived as misogynistic. Misogyny seems pervasive in extreme metal—for example, Devourment have a shirt that reads “SHE SHOULD HAVE SAID YES.” What’s your take?
Alex: Well, we had a lot more of that sort of stuff going on in the early days of the band. It wasn’t to be misogynistic. Chris [Barnes], when he was our lyricist, in the old days of the band, he probably thought that women made better victims for the horror stories that he was writing. Because that’s all our music is—all our lyrics are just horror stories, of course. I think that, at least for us—I can’t speak for any of the other bands, and everybody’s entitled to do what they want—but for us, we have a wide range of victims in our songs. Some are men, some are women…there’s definitely songs written from the point of view of the victim as well.
We definitely are not a misogynist band, but there are definitely songs that if you didn’t know what kind of people we were, you could hear that way.
Among other elements, you personally are known for bass breaks/solos. How did this first come up as an idea? Was this a weird or groundbreaking thing? Normally, many bass players in death metal are buried in the mix…less so now, but….
When we first started out, in addition to death metal, we’d been listening to a lot of proto-death metal stuff. To me, the first two Kreator records are as much death metal as they are proto-thrash. That kinda stuff, with the real fast drums and the tremelo-picked guitars, didn’t really have bass breaks that often. Kreator, Death, old Sodom…but some of the other stuff we listened to that was more hardcore-influenced, the crossover kinda stuff, like SOD or DRI, that stuff had a bunch of bass breaks in it. It’s kinda a signature thing of that kind of music. I think it kinda worked in that way. On “Put Them to Death” on the first record [1990’s Eaten Back to Life] I wrote that riff, and the guys said, “well, why not introduce that as a bass part?” There’s also another part in “Mangled” where the same thing happened.
For the first three records, we did write together a lot more. “Hammer Smashed Face,” same thing. It’s not really a solo, it’s more the bass introducing the part. And that’s something that so many death metal bands did. Morbid Angel did it on the song “Suffocation” [from 1989’s Altars of Madness]. It wasn’t really that common-- just something we did, and we didn’t really think about it all that much.
I was listening to Sadus’ and Autopsy’s first records a lot, and they both had Steve Digiorgio on them. [Sadus’] song “Twisted Face” started with a lot of cool bass stuff. The whole Illusions album had a lot great bass lines on it and the Autopsy record [Severed Survival, 1989] has got really cool bass playing, so those were big influences for sure, especially back then. In general, I just the bass to be an equal instrument to the other instruments. Not overpowering, just equal.
In the past, most Cannibal Corpse album covers have been very explicit. Kill  only had the title on its cover, and Evisceration Plague just has a bunch of zombies. Was this an intentional downplaying of the gore themes?
We like the gore, and there’s gore on the interior of the record. There’s actually a very gory piece of art that’s the centerpiece of Evisceration Plague, but we didn’t put it on the cover. But my favorite piece of art we’ve used for an album might just be the censored version of Gallery of Suicide  where it’s just the outside of a building. It’s all dark and evil…I just like darker, more moody kinds of stuff. I mean, I love the gore, for sure—Butchered at Birth  is probably the best of the gory ones. It and Gallery are both good. We definitely like different types of horror. Like the more realistic and frightening horror like The Shining or maybe the Exorcist, movies like that where it’s more believable because a lot is left to the imagination. We also like horror that’s much more in your face—Evil Dead, that sort of thing, where it’s very obvious and people are being torn apart. We have both kinds of album covers to reflect that.
I mean, if you look at The Wretched Spawn , that was one of our most grotesque covers and that was only a few years ago. We still might have gory covers in the future. The thing about having two pieces of art and having the gory one on the interior is…well, there aren’t too many mom-and-pop record stores left in the United States. A lot are going out of business. They were the places where you could sell uncensored albums. Now it’s at the point where if you make an album with a gory cover, it’s not going to be in one of the big chains or anywhere except online. And as you can imagine, the record company wouldn’t be too happy with an album nobody will sell anywhere. So it’s best if we can find something dark and scary on the outside we’re satisfied with, and also have something gory on the inside where a censor can’t see it. They don’t look too deeply into it.
We had been making censored versions of our records for so long and were tired of doing crappy censored versions with a boring piece of art and no lyrics on the inside. Now we’ve got two pieces of art we’re very satisfied with, all the lyrics, and at least with all the American copies, a free DVD. So both artistically and from a business side of things, it works out well to do it that way. Everyone wins—especially the fans. If there’s one big winner out of the whole illegal downloading thing, it’s them. They’re getting lower prices and more album content.
What do you think sets Evisceration Plague apart from the band’s previous records?
It’s really hard to say because they’re all death metal records. I think Evisceration Plague might have a little more variety than maybe some of the other records. We’ve always gone for variety, though… It’s another Cannibal Corpse album with a whole group of new songs, like every one before it, really. This one has some more dark melody and different rhythyms on it. In general, it’s just hopefully the best version of the kind of death metal we’ve always done. It’s hard to explain…more the kind of thing you have to listen to and decide for yourself if it’s got good variety or not. It’s hard for me to explain without getting overly technical, like, “we use this scale here,” that sort of boring stuff. We tried some different things and tried to keep it well within the boundaries of brutal death metal. That’s all we wanna be. We don’t want anything else in our sound. But I do feel that within the genre’s boundaries, there’s still a lot of room to experiment.
Speaking of which—in a recent interview with the UK’s Zero Tolerance magazine, you discussed what albums defining the death metal genre—Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, Immolation’s Dawn of Possession , Death’s Scream Bloody Gore …but what about more out there, less straightforward death metal bands like, say, Atheist? I know you’re a big fan of [Atheist bass player] Roger Patterson…
I’m a huge fan of Roger and really anyone else who played bass in Atheist, too. But y’know, I don’t think Atheist would consider themselves a 100% pure death metal band. They’re just a great band, and the fact that they might not relate directly to a genre might be something they’re comfortable with. I suspect that’s the case. I think any band that’s going for any sort of progressive or avant-garde take on death metal or any other genre are not particularly concerned with what label they get tagged with.
Have you heard of Virginia’s Cannibis Corpse, and if so what do you think of them?
Yeah! They’re cool! Obviously, they’re goofing around with our band name and song titles, but the music they’re making is actually really good. Despite all the joking and silliness, they’re making music that’s worth listening to. It’s clear that they actually put a lot of time into it.
What would you say is the best-yet-most-underrated CC song you’ve ever written?
There’s a bunch. On our albums, especially in the past five or six, the more catchy songs are the first half, and then the second half is much more obscure, technical kind of stuff. Some of Pat’s songs, like “Hacksaw Decapitation,” get lost in the shuffle, I guess, because we have so many songs, and a lot of people only focus on the album’s first half. I’ve done a bunch I’m really happy with—“Grotesque,” “Sickening Metamorphosis,” “Mutation Of The Cadaver” and on this record “Unnatural” as far songs not as many people get into. There was a lot of time put into every song, though, especially as we got better as players and songwriters.
What’s a great, oldschool Cannibal Corpse tour story?
All these questions are the hardest ones to answer—cool stuff happens, but some of it you just end up forgetting about. But there’s been a lot of good times, and it all comes back to the people you meet. Like the friends you’re hanging out with. Like when we shared a bus with Malevolent Creation back in ’92. Two bands from Buffalo. Can’t think of a particular story that merits retelling here.
In a behind-the-scenes-video for The Wretched Spawn, you mention that you like all sorts of music and often try to think of to integrate it with death metal. What’s a specific song that demonstrates this mix?
You can learn anything you want about music—it’s all going to help your brain better understand music. I think it sparks creativity. With bass playing, there’s a lot of emphasis on having a groove and doing things that are syncopated. A lot of the better bass players like Jaco Pastorius and Rocco Prestia and Gary Willis do killer fingerstyle playing and I’ve been getting more and more into how to use that with Cannibal without it not being death metal. If you have sixteenth notes in a funk song in a happy scale, it sounds like funk. But if you play in a different scale and don’t use ghost notes like funk players do, it can sound like death metal with a killer groove. With the right kind of rhythm, it can sound heavy as fuck. I try to do that on songs like “Monolith” and “Five Nails Through The Neck,”—both have a heavy, sixteenth-note sort of death metal groove thing inspired by the bass playing I’ve studied.
Do you think death metal’s future is bright? What are some newer favorites of yours?
Yeah, I think it’s bright. It’s a music that gets a lot of interest from great musicians. I think if it was simpler, there would be less interest because you’ve got your format and you follow it. With death metal, there’s no real format except for boundaries like sounding evil, playing fast a lot of the time, having guttural vocals—but beyond that, how do you do it differently from other bands in the genre? There’s boundaries, but they’re not always clear. At what point does it sound like thrash or black metal, too? I think it has a bright future because of that openness. You can add to the genre just by being involved. There’s no set tradition. You don’t have to sound like death metal bands 20 years ago.
There’s a lot of good new bands. Necrophagist definitely expanded on the formula. Spawn of Possession did too. Obscura are awesome as well. I don’t see [the genre] ever stopping. Who knows if it’ll ever get truly popular. I mean, I wouldn’t say “who cares?”, because I want to see these hardworking musicians not going home in debt and to some job they hate just because they spent all their money putting gas in the tank. I see it happen to bands that are unbelievably talented.
I think death metal can get popular, because it’s great music, even if the bands aren’t selling that well now, comparatively.
You guys have sold over a million copies, though…
Yeah, but for us, that was over the course of nine or ten albums, counting all the total sales per album. Whereas with a band like System Of A Down—who did something really different, whether you like it or not—sold a couple million records of each album. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a ways to go.
What are your current favorite records?
Blasphemic Cruelty’s record Devil’s Mayhem. Just got it on tour and it’s killer. More of the oldschool Morbid Angel/Possessed kind of death metal. Also just got the Obscura record and it’s awesome as well. [Bassist] Jeroen Paul Thesseling is amazing—we’re gonna tour with them in the States in the fall. It’s not metal, but I really like that album Art Metal  by Jonas Hellborg. Messhugah’s last one [Obzen, 2008] was good…the new Psycroptic [Ob(Servant), 2008]…oh, the new Deeds of Flesh [Of What’s To Come, 2008]! They’ve always had good bass players, but they have this guy Erlend Caspersen on it and it’s fantastic. Hour of Penance out of Italy—check them out too. Lots of good stuff out there. Anytime I hear someone go “oh, the death metal scene is dead,” I go, “you’re just not paying attention.”