Bill Steer’s guitar has soundtracked much of my life in the past two decades. His work in Napalm Death and Carcass helped lay the groundwork for grindcore and death metal today. Now he has a bluesy retro rock trio called Firebird, for which he sings and plays guitar. I’ve listened to their latest record, Grand Union (Rise Above, 2009), countless times. It’s raw, honest, and dripping with six-string goodness. (Think James Gang, Cream, and other such good stuff.) As you can see below, he was one of the most pleasant, well-spoken interviewees I’ve ever encountered.
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Are you back in the UK now? I think at one point, you were living outside of it?
Oh, yeah. I’m originally from the north of England, but I’ve lived in London for about 12 years. I had about two years in Paris halfway through. I’ve lived in Australia, too, so I guess I’ve lived in a couple other countries, but never [for] very long.
Were these places after your time in metal?
Yeah. Once I quit Carcass, I had a period of a few years where I was drifting a bit. But that was good in a way, because I could travel. I could properly travel and see some places — not just visit for one day but stay there for weeks or months.
With the Carcass reunion tour, did you have a better time with the band?
It’s a lot more fun. To be honest, in the old days I just took it way too seriously. Which is not a bad thing. I don’t think the quality of our music would have been as high if I wasn’t so obsessed. But in terms of touring and generally meeting people in the music world, I’m a lot more relaxed about it now, just from age and experience.
When did you first get the idea to do Firebird?
That was germinating in my head during the last year or two of Carcass. I did find myself thinking about the kind of band I would start if and when Carcass fell to pieces. Gradually some kind of idea took shape. I had the idea that it would probably be a three-piece. I wanted to do something that was a little bit more in step with the music I listened to at home. Around that time I listened to a lot of Cream and Johnny Winter.
It took a long time to really get the thing moving. I did a lot of weird stuff out there on my own, playing with different musicians, learning things that I needed to learn. I realized that it wasn’t just going to happen overnight. If I was going to do something totally different, it meant I’d probably be out of the music scene for at least a couple years.
Were you responsible for the rock influences in Swansong?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I guess maybe I stretched the concept of that band to the breaking point on that record (laughs). I’ve got kind of mixed feelings on that. Yes, I think there’s some great moments on that record and some very strong riffs. But I can well imagine that certain Carcass fans didn’t like it.
It’s only now that I’m meeting people who love the record. That’s really quite a recent development. We’d run into people now and then, and they’d tell us how much they hated the record. And then the last five or six years, it’s been the reverse, actually. I keep meeting people who tell me it’s their favorite.
You mentioned the idea of learning when you left Carcass to do a trio. You didn’t have it in you already?
With any musician, people tend to look at their roots as being the first album they recorded. I would say that any musician’s roots go back to the first album they were into. Which obviously is a very private thing, not public. In my case, the first batch of records I had as young kid tended to be things like Deep Purple, Rory Gallagher, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull. So obviously a few years went by, and I got into the heavier end of things, because that was really kicking off at that time. That coincided with actually getting into a proper band, and that’s when I made my first record [side B of Napalm Death’s Scum]. But certainly old rock is the backbone for me. That was the first hard rock music I ever heard. So that side is very natural.
But the playing side — god, no way. I knew I could approximate some of that style, but I really wanted to be steeped in it. For me, it wasn’t just enough to play the same bunch of power chords and throw a couple pentatonic licks on the top of it. I really wanted to explore. So that meant getting into not just early rock, but [also] blues and soul, and even some folk and country music — just trying to get a perspective on what put me and thousands of other guitar players out there playing heavy music.
Now that you’re doing Firebird, was it hard to switch playing styles for the Carcass reunion tours?
I was very curious about that beforehand. But to be truthful, it hasn’t caused any problems at all. It just seems to work. The only thing I can come up with is the fact that in my late teens and early twenties, I played so much of that music — i.e., Carcass — [that] it’s just kind of programmed into my system. Even after avoiding it for years, when I did actually pick up a guitar tuned to low B, the riffs were there. It was really surprising how easy it was to play the stuff again. And then after a couple of months on the road with Carcass, I came home and had Firebird things to do. I just picked up another guitar in a different tuning, and off I went.
Michael Amott also does the retro rock thing with Spiritual Beggars. Have you ever jammed in that style with him?
We did very, very early on. In ’95, Michael, Ludwig Witt, and myself had a band, which we couldn’t really complete because we couldn’t find the right singer or the right bass player. So we definitely jammed around that period, but clearly we went off in different directions from that point. Spiritual Beggars is a much heavier outfit than Firebird will ever be. They manage to blend some of the contemporary metal stuff with a slightly older vibe. For me, I’m not really comfortable with going to the studio and stacking super-distorted guitars. I did that for many years with Carcass, and the whole purpose of doing this now is to do something outside of that.
With Firebird, was the original intention for you to be the singer?
Not strictly speaking. I wanted a three-piece, but my ideal scenario was a group where everybody did some vocals. Seeing early clips of Humble Pie was a big influence in that respect. There’s two guitar players and a bass player out front, and all of them are sharing vocals. I really fancied that. Or, for example, you see Cream — Jack Bruce sings a lot, Eric Clapton sings a little bit. That seemed like a nice scenario to me, but it just didn’t work. I couldn’t even find the right bass player for a long time, never mind wanting him to sing. So I just had to be realistic and ended up doing it myself. It’s just a learning process. You’re never going to be as good as you want to be during the initial few years. But you just try to get better.
What was that learning process like?
I tended to do it in an organic way, as I probably do with most things. My whole life is either listening to or playing music. So some of it just happens naturally. If you listen to something a lot, you will absorb it, and it will come out in what you do in some way. Going from playing really extreme guitar in a very, very heavy metal outfit to playing a more stripped-down approach with roots, and also handling the vocals — yeah, that’s quite different. But that was part of the fun. I wanted an adventure, really, because I did feel like I’d hit a brick wall when I reached my mid-twenties playing in the previous band [Carcass].
|L-R: Amott, Steer
Photo by Metal Chris
Do you ever worry about sounding white when you sing?
(Laughs) I am white. Why should I be worried? (Laughs) I mean, christ, you just gotta be who you are. I love a lot of black music. And a lot of skinny white guys are very envious at times listening to certain [black] singers. If I hear a ’70s Bobby Womack album, part of me would like to be able to sing like that. But it’s just not me. I have my influences, and I strive to get better, but ultimately you have to bring yourself to the table.
The reason I ask is because I think of Eric Clapton playing blues. He can do the guitar aspect, but when he opens his mouth, I can’t help but think, “God, that sounds so white.”
(Laughs) That’s a hotly debated topic. There are some artists I like who totally base what they do on what people call black music. They’ve taken all their influences from old blues and old soul. And yet somehow they take it somewhere else. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but you can’t disagree with the fact they’ve written some classic tracks. It’s really odd, though, because that’s a band that’s all about Americana, particularly black Americana. Yet they’re from the southeast of England, and they’re all white. It’s a complicated one.
Over there in the UK now, you have this retro soul thing going on, like Amy Winehouse.
Yeah, it’s quite big.
What do you think of that? That’s a throwback, and what you do also looks back a bit.
Yeah, it does. I actually think almost all music looks back. Unless you’re extremely radical, you’re influenced by music that’s already been recorded. It’s all down to how far you’re looking back — if you’re looking back to the last couple of years, the last couple of decades, or an even wider view than that. I don’t think of many genuine innovators in terms of totally coming with their own set of rules in popular music. I know people would say maybe Radiohead, or somebody like that, has genuinely done something different. But that’s just not music I enjoy at all. I’m really not interested in stuff that’s that challenging or wants to shock or blow people’s minds. I’m actually quite a conservative type when it comes to music. I’m just listening for certain things, and if I don’t hear those things, if I don’t experience certain emotions, I tend to just switch off.
Do you think your mindset has changed over time? Carcass was about shocking people and blowing them away — and innovating.
That’s an interesting one. I guess that crop of bands…I’m talking about the early crop — Napalm [Death], Carcass, Entombed, Morbid Angel — they were really on the crest of a wave. There was an underground thing happening, and then these bands came out with records. And that was genuinely new. There was no question about it. Nobody had made albums in that style in that way before. The whole thing had been pushed forward a bit. So that was a very exciting time. But you can only be that cutting edge for so long.
I think Carcass would be a very good example of that. The first album [Reek of Putrefaction] is, to many people, totally unlistenable. And it’s obviously not a very pleasant sleeve to look at, either. But if you just fast forward a few years, the Heartwork record has a very, very good production. There’s some semblance of melody on there. Certainly with the guitars, there’s plenty of harmonies and so forth. It’s quite a tidy sound. And the sleeve isn’t particularly offensive. So I think that indicates that for us at least, the war was over years back. We’d totally run out of steam when it came to trying to shock people and confuse them. We actually became a more conservative act. It’s all down to what you’re looking for. I actually prefer what we were doing at that period. I think we were making better music. That’s the bottom line. It’s not as radical, and it’s not the kind of thing that will anger your parents as much as the first album. But I do think we got better. Heartwork might be our finest moment.
|L-R: Reek of Putrefaction (1988), Heartwork (1993)|
With Firebird, what’s your signal chain like?
That’s easy. I use an early ’70s Marshall 50-watt [amp] head, and a ’50s Gibson Les Paul Junior. And I just plug straight in.
What’s your signal chain when you tour with Carcass now?
I’m always using hired gear, so the head could be anything. It’ll usually be a modded Marshall or a 5150. With flying, I didn’t really fancy taking my Les Paul Juniors, because they were going to get hammered with all the travel we were doing. Jeff [Walker, bass/vocals] and Michael kindly arranged me to get two free guitars off ESP. They’re vaguely Les Paul Custom-looking guitars. So those are really perfect for traveling with. You just put them on a plane, and you don’t really worry about them getting thrown around. They’re quite durable. When I started, I didn’t have anything. I just plugged straight in, like I normally do with Firebird. But very quickly I realized that wasn’t going to work with Carcass, because the other guys have got stuff plugged in. So the very first thing I had to do was get a stage tuner, which I’d never used before. And then a noise gate, for those parts where you have to be very quiet.
So when you went back to Carcass, you found your mates playing differently than before.
[In] the old days with Carcass, our gear was very basic. But that was the case for most of the bands we knew. Not so much the US acts, because American bands have always tended to be very, very picky about their gear. But European bands — they were just normal, just using any old head and crappy distortion pedal. But a lot of time has passed since then, and Michael’s been out there with Arch Enemy, playing extreme metal. He’s got his own thing where he has a specific guitar, a specific amp, and a moderate-sized rack so that he can have more of the same sound wherever he goes. And he has a pedal board to trigger off certain effects. There’s no way I could ever get into that, because that’s just not me.
Do you fetishize retro gear?
Yes and no. I love old gear, no question about that. I like old things, in general. I like old records, old drinks, just everything. But I’ll tell you what I don’t like is the collector mentality. That drives me up the wall. I’m lucky enough to own a couple of ’50s Les Paul Juniors, because I bought them at a time when they had almost no value. It’s only recently that they’ve accrued some value. That’s mostly due to the bloke in Green Day. When he started using one a couple of years back, they went through the roof.
What differentiates me and other players from collectors is that I don’t
really give a shit if all the parts are original. My Juniors aren’t all original parts. On one of them, somebody changed the tuners. On another, somebody changed the bridge. I’m really happy with that. I certainly didn’t want the original ’50s frets, which is what I’ve heard some people requesting. That’s insanity. I had the original ’50s frets on my Junior, the ’55, when I first bought it, and it was unplayable. Why somebody would want that, I don’t know. What matters to me is the saddle, wood, and the pickup. If they’re original and haven’t been messed with, then I’m happy. To me, that is an unbeatable tone. There is just something about a nice, old slab of wood and a P-90 pickup. When you get a lot of natural amplified distortion, and I’m not talking about the fuzz pedal variety — I’m talking about just turning a 50-watt amp past the sixth notch — something about that just drives me crazy.
Are you happy with the sound of your new record?
Moderately. (Laughs) I’m never completely happy. I think we did OK for the limited amount of time we had. When it comes to recording, I’m pretty much obsessed with ambience. I always want things to be ambient. I’m not talking about some huge arena sound or even a hall. I like an intimate, rehearsal room vibe. You’re in a studio, so you naturally want things to be high quality. But I like to have some of that ambience there, where you can hear the room. On this record, we achieved some of that. There are certain tracks where I think we definitely did. And there’s others where for my taste, it’s a tad dry.
How much tracking was done live?
All the basic tracks were live. And then we’d go and do whatever we had to do afterwards — vocals, leads, additional guitar. I tend to avoid doing that when I can, but sometimes a chorus might need a bit of extra rhythm guitar.
I like the production, but I have mixed feelings about the mastering. It’s very loud. It’s kind of a strange thing, to have this very old approach, but what’s coming out of the speakers sounds very modern.
I think you’re right. That’s what intrigues me about those people who say the stuff sounds exactly like Cream or Humble Pie. I’ve listened to records by those artists for eternity, and I acually don’t hear that much similarity. I think it’s clear to people that we’re influenced by those acts, but goodness me, it’s a very different time now. Studios are managed in a very different fashion, and bands play with a totally different dynamic. Even when you’re playing a bit softer, as we are, it’s all relative. Next to late ’60s [bands], we’re an insanely heavy band.
And you’re totally right about the mastering. There is this competition right now — everyone’s just trying to get the loudest CD possible. I just wonder where it’s going to end, because everybody’s stereo has a volume knob on it, anyway. I think it’s all about mastering at a decent level without spoiling the natural dynamics. Like you said, some CD’s are too loud. There’s no doubt about it, it is actually changing the music when you squash it that much.
Are you a vinyl collector, then?
Yeah, I just listen to records. I don’t even have a CD player. And I don’t know how to download — never done it. Life is just too confusing. If I just stick to buying records, then I don’t have to worry about spending my money elsewhere or maintaining an iPod. And to be honest, I still think they sound better. There’s something about cranking up an old record that just feels right.
When I hear older stuff, it often has a tone of authenticity that new stuff doesn’t. Hearing stuff like less processed vocals, less processed guitars, less processed everything — it’s a simpler time, and that resonates with me. Today’s world can be so dizzying that something simpler can be a relief.
That’s right. It’s good for me. I guess it’s not for everybody. Some people get very turned on by that technology, and they have got the patience to spend weeks and weeks in the studio getting absolute perfection. But I think it’s actually a pursuit that leads nowhere. If perfection exists, it wouldn’t be found that way. Perfection to me is hearing a really great moment. I can’t say I’ve ever heard that on a record that’s been auto-tuned, played to a click track, [or] edited to death in Pro Tools.
With regards to extreme metal, that stuff is playing a big part, and it’s kind of weird because the stuff that got us into the underground — Death, Repulsion — that stuff’s raw as hell, and it’s very irregular when you’re looking at the tuning or the timing. But there’s just an atmosphere about it. I think it’s fair to say that there are some very proficient death metal acts out there who can really play. But they just haven’t got quite as much of the edge that the [older] bands have. Having said that, though, I think that at any given point in time, there are great artists doing great stuff. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there’s just a good time for music, and everything since has been shit.
It really appears to most people that that’s my standpoint. But I actually don’t think that. I mean, I favor music from a certain era because I love the production values and the ethos behind the whole thing. But I’m still up for checking out new stuff. I can actually feel things changing a little bit, too. I don’t think everybody wants to go down the laboratory approach to recording that you’re hearing in the charts. There’s definitely going to be some kind of backlash to that.
|Photo by little dandelion queen|
What is Firebird’s audience like?
It’s a little mixed. There’s a lot of people who like old-style rock, obviously. Within that group of people, there are those who just love old stuff. They’re very much like us. They go home, and they listen to Frankie Miller or Traffic. Then there’s some people who like the new crop of vintage-sounding bands — the Black Crowes or whoever. Then we have actually some metal people. This is something I hadn’t really anticipated, but it’s great. Basically some people liked Carcass and then went on to check out my next band, and strangely enough, liked it. I was expecting a lot of flak from that community. You know how it is — it’s very fundamentalist. There’s no perspective or sense of humor. It’s just, “You’ve done something wrong. You should die.”
(Laughs) My way of looking at it is, I’m so happy that a few people feel about music the way I do, which is that it’s there to be enjoyed, and you check out different styles. There are people who still love metal, but are old enough to want to hear other things, too. The age spread is massive, as well. It goes from people as old as us, and even older, to 16 and 17 year-old kids.
With Firebird, do you find that you are playing to more women than with Carcass?
(Laughs) Yes and no. Obviously Carcass plays to far bigger audiences. So there would be more women there. But proportionally, yes, you’re right (laughs).
As far as metal people being into your band, I don’t think that’s so strange now because of things like Rise Above, your record label, and stoner metal, and Lee Dorrian doing bluesy things sometimes with Cathedral. I could see someone who’s into Sleep or Electric Wizard getting into Firebird.
Yes, you’re right. It’s kind of like a chain. Looking at the so-called stoner/doom scen
e here in London, there’s a lot of guys who’ve grown up in the metal scene, and they’ve hit their mid- to late-twenties, and they’ve started to branch out a little bit. You’re right, I guess the way they’d do it would be maybe to get into something a little bit more Sabbath-y, like Cathedral, Orange Goblin, or Sleep. And then it goes on from there. For some of them, that’s it; that’s their comfort zone. They don’t want to listen to anything less distorted. But a few others have moved on, so for them maybe Firebird is palatable.
It’s no shock to me that Firebird finds itself just outside several scenes. We’re not really part of anything just because of the approach we’ve taken. If we were a bit more heavy and distorted and maybe had a more morbid sound, then I guess we could reach a larger audience. But that just isn’t what we’re about.
I think you guys could find a larger audience in America.
Americans could approach Firebird from the lighter side, like the jam band angle.
You’re right in that respect. Sadly, there’s no equivalent that I’m aware of in the UK or the rest of Europe. That’s a very North American thing, the jam band scene. In some ways, yeah, we fit right in with that. And, really, getting to America is our number one priority. It’s fantastic playing across Europe, but we’re very curious to see how [America] would be for us. Besides being the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and various other strains of popular music, it’s just a very good testing ground. The quality level there is a lot higher, as far as music, I feel. When you see a band play, even if they’re not very good, the quality is generally higher than it would be over here. For all the good acts there might be in the UK, they’re generally more amateurish. It’s just a different mentality, I think.
Plus maybe people in the States aren’t as fickle as the British when it comes to music. People here definitely go through phases and then discard something after a couple years. I’ve just noticed that from being in the States over the years and listening to the radio, there’s a hell of a lot of respect for established artists, whether it’s Bob Seger or Ted Nugent. You wouldn’t even hear those artists on the radio over here. They’re just not allowed to be on the radio because they’re not considered to be fashionable.
I could see you guys touring America with Gov’t Mule.
Oh, yeah. We tried to get on to play with them when they were over here. But they do an extremely long set, so there is no support act.
Or even a band like Clutch.
Clutch is actually a possibility for us because Ludwig, our drummer, has been friends with their drummer for years. He’s always been very keen on Firebird, and I believe he’s trying to get us on their tour when they’re over here again next year. I don’t know. These things are often hard to pull off, especially when there’s money involved.
Do you follow metal now?
Not at all. I’ve really no idea what’s going on. I hear bits and pieces from Michael because he does keep up. Even the word “metal” — it’s kind of a funny one because what I thought was metal when I was a kid, I’ve noticed now is almost considered to be old rock. I’ve heard some of the younger kids referring to bands like Iron Maiden as not being metal. To me, that is metal, and this new stuff isn’t. So I’m just losing perspective. If you’re talking about old, classic, early ’80s British metal, I love stuff like Tank and Tygers of Pan Tang. When it comes to extreme stuff, like a lot of people, I’m a big fan of Slayer. And the first couple of heavy Pantera albums I like very much — the same stuff everybody got into. But after that, it’s always tapered off for me. I just needed something else, I guess.
But ultimately, I’m still listening to music that’s predominantly guitar-based. One of the things that people mention about Firebird is how different it is from Carcass. On one level, they’re right. But on the other level, it isn’t very different at all. I mean, christ, it’s guitar-based music. There’s a drum kit, a bass player…
Yeah, exactly. There is some connection there. It’s not like I suddenly trained up and become a classical musician or started making dance music with synths and sequencers.
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How did your appearance with Jeff Walker in Red Dwarf come about?
It’s amazing how well-known that little appearance is. Craig Charles, one of the actors, was allegedly a big fan of Napalm Death. When I was in Napalm, he’d had us on this kid’s TV show during the daytime, something to do with music. [Ed. note: see above.] A bit later, I’d quit Napalm, but he asked for a couple guys to come down. It didn’t matter who it was, as long as they had long hair. Nobody from Napalm was available or interested, so then me and Jeff were in the firing line as another Earache act. I wasn’t very keen, because I’d already made a fool of myself on television a couple times in the Napalm days. But Jeff hadn’t. He was very keen: “Come on, this could be fun, and we’ll get paid well.” We were sitting around for the best part of a day and got paid £300. I don’t really remember too much about it, to be honest. I’ve actually never watched the show.
You’ve never watched your appearance?
You can find it on YouTube. It’s awesome.
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