Interview: Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster
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The mental effort to envision a death metal world without Cannibal Corpse would invariably leave cortical entrails that would be found miles away – in fact, the mere act itself would probably make perfect fodder for one of their ‘intentionally frightening’ songs. Pounding stages just shy of a quarter of a century, Cannibal Corpse has almost become a synecdoche for American and indeed global death metal. Founding bassist Alex Webster reveals to us the quintessence of brutal death metal as only he can.
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Hi, Alex. Where are you at the moment?
I’m home in Tampa, Florida right now.
You’ve mentioned your top 5 records or ‘desert island discs’ include Restless and Wild by Accept, Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, Master of Puppets, Powerslave, and Reign in Blood; all metal, but diverse choices as well. How did those records shape your playing and songwriting?
Probably in ways in which I couldn’t explain. It’s just, that kind of stuff, if you look at most of those records that I listed, it was the stuff I was listening to in the '80s when I was just becoming a musician. I started playing bass around 1984, and right around that time I was listening to Accept and Iron Maiden and Metallica and Slayer. Morbid Angel was probably the newest release on the list, from 1989 I think. So all those discs were from the '80s and they all had a very big impact on me as a musician. Both as a songwriter and a bass player . . . and some places in particular, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden is someone whom I look up to a lot, Peter from Accept as well is really another influence. I like David Vincent’s bass playing a lot, too . . . the bass solo in "Suffocation" was one of my favourites. It’s been a big influence on my writing and on me as a musician. I couldn’t explain exactly how, but I’m sure it works its way in there. Those metal records are my idea of what good metal records should be, songwriting and musicianship-wise.
Your idea of 'what good metal should be' . . . can you explain that?
Well, we've never been very good at imitating the bands we like. On Eaten Back to Life, I remember certain sections or riffs or whatever, where we might have been thinking about one particular band when we were writing - we would think, “Let's make a part like something Dark Angel would do or what Slayer would do,” or whatever. We never tried imitating bands, [so ultimately] it winds up being your own style. As far as imitating or emulating, we're not that good at it. It’s the overall attitude and commitment to excellence that the bands I mentioned have, that's what inspires us. Slayer and Iron Maiden in particular. For standard heavy metal, Iron Maiden are extremely consistent in the way they present themselves as a band. Their logo has stayed the same, they've had similar album covers, they have very consistent music - I definitely like some of their albums a lot more than others - but they're all heavy metal albums. The same with Slayer; all their albums are thrash metal, except maybe Diabolus in Musica was a little 'whatever' but most of their records are very consistent, too. Again, they have that consistency in image. Those are two bands we've looked up to a lot: me personally for sure. The other guys have admired the consistency those other bands have shown as well. I think that's a big part of heavy metal; being dependable and consistent.
When bands stray too far outside their niche and there's a backlash, do you think consistency is the key?
I think it's a very big part of it. Unless you're an experimental metal band by nature people don't really want that experimentation, I don't think. They want us to try and out-do what we've done - I don't think people want us to stand still and put out the same album again and again but I think what they want is something stylistically consistent and hopefully even a little better than the last album. When bands go too far away from their style it's generally not well received in the metal community. Consistency is a big part of our genre.
You’ve mentioned your father had some records from the '50s that inspired you to pick up the guitar, and eventually the bass. Being from a musical family, do you think your becoming a musician was almost an inevitability?
I think it helped. My father was in a bagpipe band, having a little bit of Scottish heritage on his side of the family. He was really interested in that kind of music, so he got involved with one of those bands when I was very young . . . I was about three when he began playing the pipes. He picked it up fairly quickly and the band would play songs that weren't overly difficult, just standard parade songs. And they’d go play parades and all that. So when I grew up, all summer long, the family would be going to all these various small cities around the western New York and my father's band would be performing at all these different carnivals. So I grew up around that kind of music. My mother had taught herself to play piano by ear, so I do think music is something in our 'genes', for sure . . . I had a proclivity for music on both sides of the family. Both of my brothers played in the brass band in school; they were actually trumpet players. They didn't follow a musical path; I'm the only one who did. But music was in our whole family.
In the past you’ve called Cannibal Corpse the “Evil Dead of death metal” – would it be fair to suggest you’re winking at the audience while scaring the shit out of them?
It depends. We've really tried hard to make our songs serious horror songs. But the ones that have the more extreme gore in them, those lyrics sometimes make the audience realize there's a bit of black humour to it, much in the way Evil Dead or Evil Dead II did. Those movies were meant to be frightening, for sure. But it takes some of the scare out of it because they were so over the top. None of our songs are written to be intentionally humourous or anything like that, but I think when you're describing something that bloody considering the context: it's coming from a band. It's coming from a band and you're enjoying the music and you're reading the lyrics that's describing something completely atrocious, you know, and people aren't going to take it particularly seriously.
When it's something a little darker . . . it's strange, but if you edge off the gore a little, the song becomes more frightening. I would say Cannibal Corpse has a little bit of Evil Dead to it, but we have more serious horror songs too. Not that any of them were intentionally not serious. But when you edge the gore back a little bit and leave something to the listener's imagination you can wind up with something scarier. That's the same way with horror movies, I think. The movies that I found to be the most frightening weren't particularly graphic, as far as violence goes. The Exorcist, The Shining - they're two of my favourite horror movies but they weren't particularly violent. Burnt Offerings, The Sentinel. There's a number of dark, frightening movies that I really like and they aren't that gory at all. Some of our songs are Evil Dead-like, but we have songs that are more like The Shining.
Bands like Lazarus A.D. and Evile are leading an American-style thrash metal revival - do you think we'll see an American death metal revival in the same vein?
I think the difference between thrash and death metal as genres is that death metal has been ongoing, whereas with thrash metal you have this big drop off where it was really big and a lot of the bands started doing different things and broke up and what not. Whereas death metal never really stopped. There's no need for a 'revival' because it hasn't gone away. I can show you very distinct examples of it being around for a long time. Like, in 1983 you have Possessed. A couple of years later you have Death release Scream Bloody Gore; a couple years later, Morbid Angel release Altars of Madness, and then us. After that you have Hypocrisy, and a few years further you have Nile putting out an album, then Krisiun, and Angelcorpse, and then you have Aeon come on the scene and bands like that - there have been bands throughout. Deeds of Flesh came out in the mid-'90s. It's not so strictly defined by one small period of time, it's been an ongoing thing with a steady scene - we can attest to that with the tours that we've done. We've been doing really brutal death metal tours right along for over 20 years now. If there was a revival it would be kind of redundant because it's not something that needs to be revived! [laughs]
Thrash is different because you can pinpoint the mid-'80s as its heyday. For a long time [after], a lot of that stuff was a really far out style, and the bands coming back are doing a great job of playing that kind of music. But there's this big gap where for twenty years there wasn't a whole lot going on in thrash metal, it's not really like what was happening in death metal.
The band was featured recently on MSNBC as “the” death metal band, and you were also featured in the documentary Metal: A Headbangers’ Journey, which was well received. Do you think Cannibal Corpse are death metal’s unofficial ambassadors to the world?
[taken aback] Oh boy, that’s a pretty big responsibility! I think I might be one of the guys that does some decent interviews, and the other guys in the band represent our genre well. But there are plenty of other guys out there that do a great job representing our genre, too. Being the most well-known band at the moment, we probably get a lot of these interviews before some of the other bands do. It kind of compounds itself, I guess. You become the biggest band over a period of time and you get these opportunities to get this sort of press, which help make you even bigger. We’re good representatives but there are plenty of others as well. David Vincent, Steve from Deicide, the guys from Immolation. There are a lot of articulate musicians in this scene that give great interviews. I think we might be above them [in terms of popularity], but we’re certainly not the only ones.
How has your personality changed over the last 25 years and how does that come out in your music?
I’m sure it’s a gradual thing like anything else. The difference between a 42-year old guy and a 22-year old one is pretty easy to see, really. You mellow out a little bit. We’re open to having a heavier, slower kind of song but when we’re writing we really do try to capture that same aggression that we had at the very beginning. You just have to reach into that part of your mind - it’s still there. It might not be the driving part of you as much as it once was. I mean back then you’re just aggressive. All the time. If I heard one slow song from any of my favourite bands, I was disappointed. ‘Oh, I hate that song, I only like the fast stuff.’ I guess we’ve become - in time, as you mature, you open up to having songs at different tempos and things like that. But overall, it goes back to that consistency thing. We’ve managed to keep things very consistent and we really do try to harness that original feeling in the songs. If you listen to “Demented Aggression” or “Rabid” or “Scalding Hail”, a lot of the really fast ones we’ve done over the past few years could easily have been songs on our first or second albums. Of course we’re going to change as people over time. But we’re not going to let it affect our music.