Interview: Jeff Walker of Carcass
. . .
The critical consensus is that the new Carcass album, Surgical Steel, is a strong album of the year contender. It has earned positive reviews here, as well as at less metal-oriented sites such as Pitchfork and Stereogum. After a 17-year hiatus, the Liverpool grindcore (and melodic death metal) pioneers have produced maybe the strongest comeback album in a year full of them.
None of that means much to bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker, whose snarky and literate lyrics, delivered in a nasal snarl, drive Surgical Steel home. Walker—every bit as sarcastic and darkly humorous as his reputation suggests—insists that there's no secret ingredient in the Carcass recipe. Except hunger. Even if there's no meat on the table—but more on that, as well as new drummer Dan Wilding, and our mutual love of Queensryche, below.
. . .
You are aware that there's been this tremendous groundswell of support for Surgical Steel, aren't you?
Is there? Are they going to vote me in as president? [laughs] I'm not really aware. I know that there's a groundswell of people that downloaded it. [laughs]
It's getting just fantastic reviews.
Well good. As an artiste, you don't want people to hate your albums, so that's kind of cool.
Well at the same time, it's remarkable how much it sounds... I mean, not to be condescending, but it really does sound like a Carcass album, if that makes sense. Especially considering the tremendous stretch of time between Swansong and now.
Yes, I see. Well It's not that fantastical when you consider the band in the studio has always been. Bill [Steer]'s always done all the guitars, so it's not that different. Dan Wilding, he's done a great job on the album. We didn't have to give him too much direction—he's done his homework, and he's done a great job of playing tribute to Ken [Owen, original Carcass drummer]. I don't feel like people should be too surprised. We're not stupid. We went into the rehearsal room and the studio well aware that people would have been quick to put the boot in if we didn't deliver, you know? And at the same time we don't want to shit on the Carcass legacy. So it's not a cash cow. We went in using our own money. So if we weren't confident that we could deliver on that, we wouldn't have bothered. We weren't going to gamble all that money away. I think it's quite simple to do what we did. It's a lot easier to return after 17 years than to continue for 17 years and record another album. We have a lot to prove, don't we? And it's easier when you're hungry as a band. It's easier to make your first album than your second or your third.
I meant to ask you about the choice of Dan as drummer. I'm actually a big fan of Aborted [one of Wilding's previous bands] but the albums he did with Aborted, Strychnine.213 and Slaughter and Apparatus, are actually not that well liked by the Aborted fan base. He struck me as a dark horse in that respect.
But he's not responsible for the musical output of Aborted really, ultimately. He recorded the drums for those records, but that's about as far as it goes.
Ok, then when did you know 'this guy—he's the new drummer in Carcass.' What was that moment?
Well he did come to the rehearsal room and audition for it, but when he was on tour back in 2008, over in the States—I think he was 19 then?—he impressed us more than any of the other ones. When Bill called me to talk about the new album, he already was thinking of Dan Wilding, or at least wanted to try him out. Bill gets what he wants. In that respect it was already settled. We did try another guy out, a mutual friend of ours, but all he really did was play second fiddle to Wilding. I mean, you name a famous drummer I've probably played with them once, and Wilding is the one guy that fits us perfectly.
I saw you guys at Marlyand Deathfest. You sounded amazing, but I was surprised because on record you've used many different tones, but live everything melded together really well—how do you do that in a live setting?
Well, we don't use a hard disk recorder or click track, for a start. What you see is what you get. We just play guitars and plug them straight into amps. I believe we were using EVH 5150's at that gig. We don't need any distortion pedals on our guitars. We use just good ol' Gibsons. My bass goes into an Ampeg. Dan uses triggers on his bass drum, just to get consistent beats, but that's it. It's just the sound of a band playing live. There's nothing we need a hard disk or click track for. We don't record like that so why play live like that?
I'd like to talk about Surgical Steel, and how it relates to your diet. The email I got from Nuclear Blast made it a point to say that 'someone' is no longer vegan, just a vegetarian.
Is that big news? [laughs]
Groundbreaking I'm sure. It did seem to me that the vegetarianism factors more into the lyrics on Surgical Steel than it has since your early albums. I'm talking about “Captive Bolt Pistol”, and after all, isn't the chorus for “Unfit for Human Consumption” something like “after all, you are what you eat”?
Maybe we're just playing to our strengths with the gore, the vegetarian thing, the medical stuff. But at the same time it's all tongue-in-cheek. We're making light of what people's perceptions are of us as a band. It's true, Bill and I don't eat meat, but this has never been an agenda. Like you said, Nuclear Blast mentioned it in an email—why? It seems like all these bands try to have some angle or agenda to sell records. I remember when we first signed to Combat in the States, they wanted to make a big deal of it. If we had been more shrewd and cynical and collaborate then we would have. It's something that's private. We aren't really interested in doing PETA adverts and that bullshit. That would alienate people. We aren't on some kind of zealous mission to convert people to vegetarianism. That's not what it's about.
But you are correct. Lyrically, maybe, I am purposefully, sarcastically taking the piss out of these things. Ultimately, it's all there. If you think about it, no matter what your diet is, you can't argue that the whole process of slaughtering cattle in a slaughterhouse is pretty horrific, regardless if it makes a tasty burger or not. There is no denying that the process of killing and butchering an animal is a horrific process. Most Carcass lyrics are about the macabre, or horror, so I'm taking something that exists in reality and celebrating it I guess.
That's odd that you say celebrate. To me, Surgical Steel sounds at its heart to be a very sad record.
I think so.
If anything, Heartwork and Swansong were, lyrically, very serious. This is a throwback to the old days of Carcass, where it was very lighthearted. But this is cool because you're extracting something from this album. Which is fine. I'm not here to dictate how people should perceive or enjoy this album. People who look at the lyrics and titles and think what the fuck they want are ultimately fragile and stupid. There's no real agenda here, no real issues, nobody's trying to brainwash anyone. I'm not Barney Greenway. You can look at it at whatever level you like. You can view the lyrics as throwaway, or look very deep into it, and that's fine. People keep asking me what the chorus is, the numbers on “The Dark Granulating Satanic Mills,” and I'm not going to say. I've heard some interesting theories as to what those numbers are about, and that is far more interesting than the reality.
It is a throwback in another way as well. One of the first thing I heard about Carcass before I actually heard Carcass, was that your band used very 'expert' or 'technical' language in the lyrics, which really appealed to me. In a way, Surgical Steel also goes back to that. The song titles are technical, the adjectives are technical.
Yes, that is deliberate. I mean, Swansong was a dumbed-down album. Totally. And this album has gone back to try and be clever again. You can't just keep writing the same thing over and over again. And I enjoyed writing the lyrics again. Swansong was the result of me being exasperated by the fact that nobody was really taking the lyrics that seriously back then. There's a lot of people that do enjoy, as you said, the wordplay of the older stuff. And I enjoyed writing that stuff, and now I enjoy doing this again. I've enjoyed trying to be clever. I was trying to avoid repeating myself, but we've got 80, 90 songs now, and as you can imagine, there's only so many ways you can describe what we're describing without using the same adjectives. I think for the most part we've avoided it. We do like to give a nod to our pasts, but its a challenge again to keep it interesting for us and not plagiarize ourselves.
Would you describe to me the moment when you realized you were happy doing Carcass again.
The first rehearsal. I was just happy to be playing with Bill again. He's a far superior musician to me, and a far superior human being as well. It was cool to be back where we started.
It really seems like, retroactively, Carcass is the relationship between you two.
Yes you could argue that. If I hadn't met Bill, Bill would have achieved musically, but I don't think Carcass would have existed, so in that sense you're right. But the central songwriter of Carcass has always been in flux. In the old days it was Ken who wrote a hell of a lot of the riffs. If you look at Reek, we had an equal three-way split. On Symphonies Bill started doing more, and I did more of the lyrics. Necroticism is 95 percent Ken and Bill. Mike came in at the end with one riff. Heartwork was all Bill and Mike's riffs. So as you can see the core of the band is constantly changing in terms of who's writing the riffs. On Surgical Steel it's all Bill who's coming up with the riffs. The more I think of it, you can't really call the band mine and Bill's because in the past so much of it really was Ken. Ken cast a long shadow on this album, and his ghost is in the drumming, is in the lyrics and the song titles. And he even tracked some backing vocals. He's still there in spirit very much.
That's sort of poetic considering the way he is mixed into the record, his vocals are lower, so he almost literally is a ghost in the songs.
It's important as far as credibility. If you look at the Slayer situation they're going to have a hard ride now with no Lombardo and the death of Hanneman. You could accuse the same thing of Carcass—there's no Ken, no Mike Amott. Especially from Mike's fanboys [we could hear those accusations]. Mike does deserve credit, but sometimes I think he's extracted a little too much credit from Carcass considering what he put in. Some people will hate this album on the basis of there being no Ken and no Mike Amott, so we're very conscious of that, but we're not stupid. We know what sounds good. We didn't want something that would sound like Swansong when you compare it to Heartwork and Necroticism. We know what people want.
I actually have a friend—he used to edit this website—and he's one of these people who have been coming out of the woodwork in defense of Swansong. You didn't play any Swansong cuts at Maryland Deathfest. Was it a convicted decision to cut it from your live set?
No, no. I just think it was an intense set, and we wanted to give people what they wanted to hear. No matter how vilified people try to make Swansong, it actually sold more copies than Symphonies of Sickness, and we get lots of people who love the album. I think it's just the time and place that it was released. It was out of step with everything that was going on, and in a way we left the door wide open. If you look at Heartwork and what we did afterward, if we'd delivered Surgical Steel it wouldn't have had the impact it's had. So instead we did Swansong, which was totally different, and people were disappointed that we didn't step it up again. And if you think about it, shortly thereafter, David Vincent left Morbid Angel, Nicke [Anderson] left Entombed—the old guard kind of died off and it left a power vacuum.
But at the same time you've always been ahead of the curve. Carcass always predicted trends. Accurately.
If that was true we would have made millions. We just do what we do. We make good music because we're clever—we know what's dumb about heavy metal, it's that simple. We try to avoid the dumb shit, and the cliches. We try to make... not academic, but thinking man's metal in the vein of, say, Queensryche, who were always a bit cerebral.
I love that band.
Oh? So do you like the Geoff Tate version or the other?
Ugh. Both versions have come to within an easy drive from me, and I refuse to see either of them.
I don't know. I still love Queensryche. I really liked Promised Land. It's sort of gone down for me, just because if I don't like someone in a band I can't really listen to them. I can't extract a person from a band. But yeah, Queensyche cast a large influence over Carcass, and what Mike Amott did later. I'm not sure they're the kind of band that merits 10 albums. And this is going to look awful in the press of course, but I'm not sure Carcass is, either. The cool thing about Surgical Steel is our back catalog consists of five albums. If we'd made 12 albums and then Surgical Steel, people wouldn't be as enthusiastic as they are. It's obvious. It's logical.
. . .
Surgical Steel comes out today. Purchase it here, and stream lead single "Captive Bolt Pistol" below.
. . .
. . .