The legendary death-metal band Cannibal Corpse is headlining this year's Summer Slaughter tour, which stops in Knoxville on Thursday, Aug. 2, at the Valarium. Read our preview of the show here; the full Q&A with Cannibal Corpse bassist Alex Webster follows.
The new album, Torture, is out, and you managed to crack the Top 40.
It came out in March; it's been out for a couple of months now. Yeah, apparently we cracked it for one week. The Billboard Top 200, we managed to get in I think at No. 38 or something like that. I'd have to look at it again.
It's definitely something I never would have thought was possible years ago. I don't know if it means we're so much more successful now or if it means that pop music is less successful today, that it's creating an opening for metal to actually climb the charts. Because we have fans that actually buy albums, as opposed to pop music and those other genres where people are a little less loyal, I think. Either way, it's something we're proud of, and we're happy it happened, for sure.
And you definitely didn't go Top 40 to do it.
No, no, no. We always knew that if we were going to succeed and get any more popular that people were going to have to change for us, as opposed to us changing for them. That wasn't going to happen. I think what you've seen over the past 20-something years is that heavier music has gradually become more acceptable. Now you'll find that mainstream forms of metal are really almost as heavy as the underground versions of metal, in many cases. Older bands like us who have been banging out the really heavy stuff for a long time, we're finally reaping the benefits of that.
It's wild that the death-metal growl is kind of mainstream.
It is, and blast beats and downtuned guitars. Hearing all these elements of music that was considered very underground when we started, hearing all those types of things that are signature sounds of our genre, hearing it work its way into much more popular forms of metal, it's crazy. It's cool, but it's definitely something I don't think we could have predicted.
I read an interview today where Cannibal Corpse guitarist Pat O'Brien describes Torture as Cannibal Corpse's British Steel. I think he was trying to make the case for it being streamlined and reining in some of the more experimental, expansive stuff that's popped up in your music. What do you think about that?
British Steel did have more compact songs than Priest had been known for, and more of a conventional song structure to some of the tunes. We might have that on Torture as well. We always have had some songs that were sort of conventional, but in the past, especially the earlier records, there were some very strange arrangements, songs that went in a lot of different directions before the end.
I think it's a learning process that you go through as a musician and a songwriter, and you gradually learn how to write effective songs. Now, in having made a more streamlined record with very catchy tunes--we have done that, but maybe Torture isn't the best example of that from us--we have done that, and having done something like that we have tried to keep in mind that if you're going to have a conventional song structure you need to have very interesting riffs in order to make that not be boring. If your song structure's the typical A-B-A-B then C and D and back to A for the solo and B to finish the song, okay, that's a conventional song structure and it works, but you don't want your song to sound conventional. You do want it to be interesting and exciting. So if the structure is going to be straightforward, we need the riffs to be interesting, and hopefully we've been able to do that for this record, and for the other records, too. But for Torture, it was something we focused on, giving each song its own individual character, through making the riffs as interesting and unique as possible from song to song.
The previous couple of records, you had written most of the music, right?
It's kind of been working its way toward that ever since the fourth album--actually, the third album. I started writing a lot more than the equal share that I had been doing. Then it just carried on until on Evisceration Plague it was at an all-time high, where I wrote, I think, seven and a half of the songs, of the 12 that are on the record. That's quite a lot when you've got four other guys in the band.
In addition to having some other projects I was working on during the writing of Torture, i just consciously tried to rein myself in a little bit to make sure that the other guys got some writing in, as well. I think part of what could have happened on previous albums is that they were so busy learning the songs that I was writing that they weren't really working on their own songs as much. I tried to step back a little bit, and i think the album benefited greatly from it, because [guitarist] Rob [Barrett] and Pat are both really good songwriters, and having them add songs created variety that I could never create on my own. Three brains are gonna come up with different ideas than one.
We've always had a certain amount of division of songwriting duties, but it's never been more equal than it was on Torture--three songs by Rob, four by Pat and five by me. It's a much more even spread of songwriting, musically. I'm speaking strictly of music at this point, not talking about the writing of the lyrics. Even though it's a streamlined album with fairly conventional song length and song structure, we still wind up having a lot of variety, in part due to that split of the songwriting duties.
What about lyrics? Chris Barnes used to write all of his lyrics. How has it changed since he left? Who writes lyrics now?
Chris had written lyrics for all the songs on the second, third, and fourth albums. On the first album, he wrote most of them, but I had written some, and [former Cannibal Corpse guitarist] Jack [Owen] and [drummer] Paul [Mazurkiewicz] also contributed. For the fifth album, once we got [vocalist] George ["Corpsegrinder' Fisher] in the band, we realized that George really wasn't that interested in writing. He was interested in singing--that's what he loves to do, he loves to sing death metal, but he's not much interested in writing death metal lyrics.
So right from the get-go we had to start writing most of the lyrics, and by the time we were on our third album with George, Bloodthirst, he wasn't writing any lyrics at all at that point. We tried to get George involved, but he really didn't seem that interested, and on the songs where he did contribute, he wrote only one or two lines in each of those. He just didn't take to it. So it wound up mostly falling on Paul and my shoulders.
Since Chris has been out of the band, the lion's share of the lyrics have been written by me and Paul. Jack Owen wrote some of the lyrics for his songs back when he was in the band, and Rob Barrett generally writes lyrics for the songs that he writes music for. For any of the songs Pat writes music for, it's pretty much always Paul writing the lyrics. And Paul has actually written the lyrics for one or two of my songs--oh, I think he wrote the lyrics for "Blowtorch Slaughter," which is my music but his lyrics, on Bloodthirst. But yeah, it's mostly me and Paul, some Rob, some Jack.
How much of a challenge is it to come up with new ideas at this point?
It's a little bit easier, musically. On my end of things, I'll look at music in a kind of mathematical way. There's an unlimited number of combinations you can come up with with numbers, if you look at scales and notes in a mathematical way. If you're looking at your melody as unlimited and your rhythm options as unlimited, between those two things you can just come up with anything. I don't ever see there being a problem with us coming up with new ideas musically.
Lyrically, it can be a little bit more of a challenge. Our way of getting around that is trying to make each song a very specific horror topic. If you're going to have an entire career where every album is based on horror of one form or another--much of it gory, but not all of it--if it's all going to be based on horror, we have to make each song a specific story.
We wouldn't be able to have a general serial-killer song or a general zombie song, you know what I mean? If we're going to write a song about zombies, since we already have 10 of them, we need to write it about a very specific thing that's happening. Like the song "Unite the Dead" off of Gallery of Suicide--it's about zombies, but it's also about zombies copulating and creating more zombies, I guess, by having some strange undead sex.
Our serial-killer thing, we need it to be a little different. You have "Evidence in the Furnace," off of the last record, where it's a guy chopping people up and putting them in a furnace, or something else, like "Five Nails Through the Neck," that's clearly a very specific thing happening to somebody. Yes, it's a serial killer doing it, I guess, but it's not general. It just has to be specific. So we have a whole bunch of songs that are about serial killers and about the undead and other horror topics, but they're all about a specific thing that's happening, as opposed to being general.
You're telling stories.
We do the best that we can, given the fact that most of these songs are about three-and-a-half minutes long and the lyrics have to rhythmically make sense. It limits your options. You don't want to use the same words again and again. Writing lyrics is pretty challenging, to make them good and make them musical, make them something you're going to want to sing along with but still convey some kind of interesting meaning. It's not always easy.
There's that story about Bill Steer from Carcass--his sister was in nursing school, and he used her medical dictionary to write lyrics.
That's one way to approach it. For us it's a little bit different. We've got a bunch of songs that are perhaps more Neanderthal than cerebral, but that's kind of the nature of our music as well.
What's the current setlist like?
For the Summer Slaughter tour that we're about to embark on, its going to be an hour-long set, as far as I know. We will try to feature as much old and new music as we can. With only an hour to work with, we're going to end up missing one or two of the albums, I'm afraid, simply because we want to get out there and push Torture. So we'll probably play at least four songs from Torture in the Summer Slaughter set, but we'll also want to play a bunch of the old classic stuff--"Hammer Smashed Face," "Stripped, Raped, and Strangled," stuff like that.
Over the next couple of days, we're going to have to figure out which songs are going to stay and which are going to go, and we'll probably end up missing a couple of albums in order to squeeze everything into that one hour. Normally, if it were our own headlining tour, we would absolutely make sure that all 12 studio albums were covered in the set by at least one song. We want to make sure that each album is represented, because we worked hard on all 12 of those albums. There's absolutely no album in our catalog that we're not proud of, 100 percent. We worked really hard on all these records, they're all pure death metal, and we're really proud of all of them, so we don't want to just forget about them. Any time somebody comes to see us headline, they're going to get to see the full scope of our career represented, not just the newer or the older stuff.
What exactly is a Cannibal Corpse?
I'm actually the inventor of the name, just to let you know that. I was just thinking about the Night of the Living Dead-type movies. It's an undead thing--to me, a body that's been reanimated by either an evil spell or some kind of fictional plague or whatever that you'd find in one of those movies, and it's going back and trying to eat living versions of its species. The remaining living humans are always the target of the zombies, it seems, rather than them attacking each other.
So it was like, oh, yeah, Cannibal Corpse. And it's got the two Cs, which--what is that called? Alliteration?--so that gave it a nice ring. You want it to be something memorable, when you're making the name of your band. You want it to be something you're going to remember. So I thought of that--'Oh, this is perfect,' because we were very influenced by Scream Bloody Gore by Death, and that album had zombies on the cover and a song called "Zombie Ritual." That was an album that for sure Cannibal Corpse was inspired by, Scream Bloody Gore. And other bands that we liked--like Necrophagia had that album Season of the Dead, so zombies and that sort of thing were very much a part of some of the bands we liked.
The interest in horror movies and in particular those zombie movies, that was something we were into, and some of the bands we liked were into it, too, so it made perfect sense to have our band be named after that kind of stuff. It's about zombies. A cannibal corpse is a flesh-eating zombie. That's it.
Your lyrics have been pretty controversial, probably not as much in the last 10 years or so as they were in the '90s. I want you to defend Cannibal Corpse's lyrics and image.
For me, it's no different than if somebody made a movie based on something offensive or gross. If you're going to have good horror, the imagery is going to be ugly sometimes. You could make a movie, like Irreversible--I don't think I'm giving anything away to say, 'Spoiler alert, there's a rape in Irreversible--that movie, that's got some very intense and ugly imagery in it. But would it be as good of a movie without that? That's the way we look at our lyrics.
We've got some intense and ugly lyrics, but if we self-censor, I don't know--we need to be able to express ourselves. I think as long as we let people know that no, we don't think that what's happening in our songs is good. We absolutely don't. We don't want to condone actual violence in any way. But as far as having violence in our songs, extreme violence--sometimes extremely gory, reprehensible violence--is represented in our songs, or depicted in our songs, I should say. That stuff is necessary for the song to be the way it is. Even though we don't enact it in any way, our songs wouldn't be the same without it.
We wouldn't want to make vanilla, safe songs. We need to have the option to use extreme violence if the song calls for it. Like I said, we always want to make clear that we don't condone actual violence. It's just something that works with the music we're writing. If you're writing extreme music, it stands to reason you should have extreme lyrics as well, and they just match. That's the way we've always looked at it. The kind of music we're writing sounds like somebody being torn apart--"Shredded Human" sounds like somebody getting shredded, you know what I mean? That's from the very first song on the first album. If the music calls for it, we don't want to limit our lyrics. But we always make it clear that it's strictly a fictional thing and that we aren't condoning violence in any way.