Interview: Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse
Interviewed by The Bearded Monkey
Cannibal Corpse are 33 years into their career and are showing that there is no stopping them. Well known for controversy, pioneering the death metal genre and putting out some of the most brutal music known to man, The Bearded Monkey caught up with Alex Webster, one of the founding members and bassist of the band.
The Razor's Edge: Welcome Alex, first of all, how are you?
Alex: Doing well, everybody I think is in the same position. You know, professionally right now. In the music industry we're all on hold, so that's the one thing that's really a lot different this time around for us, normally when we're getting ready to put out an album. Touring is on our mind, you know, normally tours are already scheduled and everything and we're normally getting ready to go. So normally when we're putting this out in April, well, normally we'd be on tour in April 2 and yeah. Currently we have nothing scheduled, so looks like that won't be until probably early next year. But you know other than that, yeah, everything is good. Can’t complain!
The Razor's Edge: Cannibal Corpse are getting ready to release your fifteenth album ‘Violence Unimagined’ on the 16th April. Fifteen albums, what a legacy. How do you feel when you look back and analyse your legacy?
Alex: It's it's pretty crazy really, because when we when we started the band in 1988 we started it with the idea we wanted it to be a death metal band from the beginning and everything, and at that time death metal, depending on how you define it, was not more than five years old. Heavy metal itself was probably about 20 years old. Again, that's depending on your definition or whatever. So the fact that we're here now in year 30 something of being a band with fourteen albums getting ready to put out the fifteenth album. It's something we never could have imagined when we started.
That kind of longevity didn't exist for even the biggest bands of regular heavy metal bands, let alone. You know, some new subgenre like death metal. At the time it was relatively new. So yeah, to look back it's something we're all proud of.
Each of the 15 albums represents the best that we could do at that time. We worked really hard on all of these, and each of them represents the best that we could do, and also there's a little bit of development there. I feel like we've been pretty consistent, but there's been development right along, so it's it's cool. It's a permanent record of where we were as musicians and songwriters, and it's a good progression. I feel like there's been a little bit of an improvement from album to album. Leading us up to this one hopefully being one of the best, the goal was to make it the best one, but of course. That's subjective, but yeah, I'm proud of it though. I'm proud of our career. It's been a long one and we're very lucky to have gotten this far.
The Razor's Edge: Being pioneers of the death metal genre, how do you feel the genre has changed over the years? Do you prefer it now to the early days?
Alex: I mean, I think what's been cool about death metal is that it never got so big that it went away completely. There's been some mild ups and downs, but overall there's been a pretty consistent death metal underground for the entire time we've been a band. I mean things are different for sure. A lot of that is because of changes in technology and just the times change in general. But I liked it then, I like it now and it's been a steady progression, sort of like our career. The entire scene has steadily progressed and new things get added to the sound a little bit. There's still plenty of great old school stuff and a lot of young bands these days are starting out. Sounding very old school, which is cool. But then there's also certain bands that continue to kind of push the envelope and move the music a bit forward as well so. It's pretty strong and it's been strong consistently and I'm happy to see that.
The big changes would be stuff like when we started out you would hear about a band by reading a fanzine that you might have got. Yeah, you sent your demo to that fanzine. They send you a fanzine back, you know you did. You did an interview with them or something and sent the demo. Then they send you the fanzine while you're looking at the other bands in the fanzine and you were like “oh man, I keep hearing about this band Morbid Angel. I keep hearing about Sadist. I keep hearing about regurgitation.” All these different bands. So, then you would maybe write to those bands or write to a tape trader that you know and try and get stuff so we might hear about a band and then not even be able to listen to them for weeks or even months yet because we're waiting for a cassette to arrive in the mail, where now everything is very instantaneous, so it's cool, but there was certainly something special about really having to make this massive effort just to hear something. Now everything is very readily available, but I think that's overall that's for the better. You know that people hear the name of a band, they look it up and they're listening to it that fast.It wasn't always that fast, that's for sure.
The Razor's Edge: When did Cannibal Corpse break out into the UK?
Alex: First time we actually went to the UK was in 1991 to meet up with Napalm Death and get on a bus with them. I hope I'm remembering this right too; cause boy that's literally 30 years ago, but I seem to remember us flying to UK, we hooked up with them, got on a bus. Yeah, yeah, this is definitely what happened. We then took the bus to mainland Europe over a ferry and everything and first show I think was down in Switzerland and there was part of this festival with us, Napalm Death, Death, Dismember and Pestilence, great festival tour and that was early '91 but we didn't actually play the UK. We had been there, you know, we had physically been there, but we had not played it, but we didn't play the UK until '92. Those '92 shows were with Anathema and Monolith, that was the band Nick Barker was in. They reminded me a lot of Entombed and they were great. That's when we first met Nick. We've been friends with Nick ever since, it was then we met the Anathema guys too. Whenever we see him we still all remember that tour. Well, 'cause all of us were pretty young at the time and you remember your early tours almost more than a tour that you did a year ago. It's weird like that but the first handful of tours, they kind of really imprint on you because everything is completely new. So yeah, I remember that one. It was just like 5 shows Monolith, Anathema and us and then I think the final show was in London and Cradle Of Filth were also on that show. It was great. That was our first time and then we wound up coming back many more times after that.
The Razor's Edge: In your personal opinion, I mean obviously taking Cannibal Corpse out of it. Who does it better, the UK or the US?
Alex: Oh, it's hard to say really. Both are so great, you know we probably have our biggest shows. It's tough because put London against New York or against LA. It's very hard. These are all huge amazing shows when we do them. You're talking about like massive metropolises with amazing metal scenes, so those are highlight shows, you know what I mean? All the UK shows are always killer for us. It's always been great, but really the past ten 10-15 years seems like it's picked up a little more.
We started going there more and we got a booking agent over there, who wa sactually in Cradle Of Filth back in that 1992 show, Paul Ryan. Paul started bringing us to the UK a lot more and things kind of picked up from there. We had been in a routine of playing like London and Bradford. It would usually be those two shows maybe a third or possibly fourth show, but with Paul, he started having us come over a bunch and playing a lot more places and it's been fantastic. Yeah, I love it, you do a couple of big shows and that's great, but it's really fun to go to smaller cities, we try to do that in America too. Very, very hard to choose between the two though, 'cause they're both excellent.
It's really fantastic to play in the UK though, and we will will be back as soon as we're able that is for sure.
The Razor's Edge: Look forward to it.
You have been quoted saying “you can drop the needle on any point of on our albums and know what band you are listening to” I find this so true for Cannibal Corpse but at the same time each song is so uniquely different and intriguing. What's your secret to the constant anthems that you release?
Alex: Oh, I think we're lucky that everybody in the band, when we get someone new in the band and anybody who's been in the band all this time, you know like me and Paul and George who has been in for a long long time. We all kind of understand what we are and what our music should be. So even though we have a lot of songwriters in the band. All of us, really contribute to the songwriting, except George, he steps away from that, but he would have the option if he wanted to, but really he's just happy just to see what we write.
We all have sort of different approaches to writing, but we all know what the music is supposed to be for Cannibal Corpse, we have these kind of “self drawn” boundaries that we want to keep everything within and then beyond that it's just about making it as heavy and as memorable as possible.
I think all of us, like when you look at Violence Unimagined. Erik, Rob and I try to write songs that are quite different from each other. So like the four songs I wrote the music for are all really different from each other and same thing for Erik's three and then the four that Rob wrote, same thing so you end up with, like I said, we're making sure it's all within the boundaries of what we consider to be our style, but it's a collection, maybe eight then on this particular album it's 11 so it's songs that are all really unique.
That's that's the real goal is to have it be consistent, but also have a lot of variety. That's the tricky thing, but I think we've managed to accomplish it with a lot of it work we've done over the years and for sure on Violence Unimagined it's a very, varied album and like I said, yeah, you can drop the needle on any one of these songs and say, oh that's “Follow The Blood” or “Necromantic Resurrection, or that's “Condemnation Contagion.” You'll figure it out pretty quickly. Where it's not not always the case with with Extreme Death Metal. It's not always immediately clear which song you're listening to. Nothing wrong with that. But for us, we really wanted to focus on making each song very individual and unique. You know that way. If you listen to one and then the next song starts and it sounds quite different than the one you just heard, and then it carries on like that before you know it, you've listened to the whole album.
The Razor's Edge: Yeah, definitely. Last year you added Erik Rutan to the ranks, how has he settled in and what has he brought to the band?
Alex: He's been great. It's worked out really as smoothly and as naturally as a transition could be, and it goes back to what I was saying. Knowing what our band's music is and what it recalls for, we couldn't have added just another guitar player. I can't think of anybody that would have had a better understanding of what our music is about. Erik had already produced four albums for us. Violence Unimagined is now the fifth album he's produced for us, and then he had toured with us for a year before he officially joined as a full time member. So he had already worked with us as a producer and really got to know our music that way, then of course he played the songs in our setlist that we were playing in 2019 and he played that for that whole tour year, probably like 100 or some shows, I can't remember, but it's a lot. He had our music in his brain and in his hands before he even started writing with us. The transition was smooth and we were already very good friends, you know, and had been for decades, so it was easy. It was like having someone who was already in the family just take on a different responsibility within the family.
He brings a lot to the band. Obviously he's a producer, a very accomplished producer. Then if you look at his résumé as a death metal guitar player it would be tough to think of someone with a stronger résumé, you know, so he's clearly got the talent and then, like I said, on a personal level he’s been a perfect fit as well, so a very easy transition for sure and he brings a lot. He's so talented in lot of different ways: songwriting, as a performer and then as a producer, he is really an asset to any band that he's in for sure.
The Razor's Edge: We have had a pretty rough 12 months with the pandemic, how has this effected Cannibal Corpse?
Alex: Well, as I mentioned earlier, touring is probably the biggest difference for us, because we are such a touring band. This will be the longest stretch we've ever gone without doing a show. We haven't played a live show since December 2019, so hopefully we'll be breaking through that by early 2022 it's very hard to predict. Of course, there could be surges in the virus or new variants and things like that. Nobody knows the future, but that's kind of what we're keeping our eye on, maybe like February 2022. All of these things getting a little bit more normal for us again, that's the hope anyway.
That is one big change the other thing was just in Violence Unimagined in particular. I didn't go down there and record with the guys. I live over in Oregon now and the other guys still live in Florida and normally you know it's a few hours to fly there, but I would just do it whenever they needed me, before a tour, before an album I would go down and practice with them for a week or so and then come back home again. I'm very good at doing homework and so are the other guys you know. I practice a ton at home so it hasn't been detrimental. But this created the new challenge because essentially things were locked down. I don't think it was necessarily illegal to travel at that time, but it was such an uncertain thing. I mean, our session began in April 2020, and that's when things were really getting. Getting very serious and worrying in the United States, I know it had hit other areas a little earlier. So anyway, we decided I should stay back, I had gone down there in March to do photos with the band to do some pre production worked were teaching each other songs and things like that. Then I went back home and by the time I was going back home we already knew I probably wasn't coming back to record the album. So I recorded in my home studio and recorded the bass tracks there and that's no problem, the technology exists nowadays, like re-amping, which is exactly what we did. We re-amped a direct signal that I recorded here, put it through a really killer old Ampeg that Erik has at his studio and used a Darkglass pedal that I like a lot and got a great bass tone. I'm super happy with it, it is pretty much the same bass tone I would have if I were in the studio anyway so no quality was sacrificed.
I would have liked to have been there because of course I write a lot of the songs and I'd like to be there when Paul is playing the drums on a song I wrote or Erik is playing guitar or Rob is playing guitar on one of the songs I wrote or George is singing lyrics I wrote. That stuff I missed out on this time around, so that was a bit different for me as normally I'm pretty involved with everything. I kept involved through email, talking on the phone, whatever but it was still not the same as actually being in the room with everybody.
The Razor's Edge: Have you ever had moments where you question the future of your career?
Alex: For sure, we'll keep doing Cannibal Corpse because we can record, but we just record it in a way where I'm here and they're there and it sounds great so not a problem on that end of things. As far as actually making a living, another year or two with no touring and it just wouldn't work because that's how a band of our level makes a living. There are other sources of income, album sales and things like that, but that stuff is not really what it used to be, and it never was that big. It's really the bands that are not huge that are making a living that are able to do music as their job are bands that tour a lot. Bands like us that are. I mean, we're big for death metal, but we're small compared to a band on the radio.
Without the touring it's not really sustainable, so I would have to do something else if touring was done for like 5 years. We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed that we can get going again in 2022 and all of us you had enough in savings and we still make a little money. It's hard on us and it’s hard on a lot of other bands and a bunch of other industries.
Of course, even within our industry, there's all the people that work at venues, and there's all the people that work for us and the guys who are our management. Our tour manager, our road crew, you know all these guys, there's no work for anybody in the live music industry right now, so it's hard.
Everybody's kind of wondering what's happening and what’s going to happen next. Of course, health and safety is our number one priority, but everybody is hoping that we can soon safely return to what we've been doing, because if not people don't know what to do. Alternate means of employment will have to be thought of, and that's obviously hard for a band like us that's been around for a long time. I would like to teach but it's something we hadn't even contemplated, because everything had been going well enough. Nobody predicted a scenario like this so I don't think it will come to that. I think if things look like they're heading in a decent direction, we would just keep going. I have so many friends who are in killer bands that tour sometimes and then when they go home they're working. It's not the end of the world if I'm also doing some other job, I will still keep Cannibal Corpse going so no worries there.
The Razor's Edge: Brilliant
32 years as a band, you have seen and done it all. What’s your favourite Cannibal Corpse moment?
Alex: Wow, it's so hard to say because it's been a lot of time. Obviously, doing the movie Ace Ventura, was this really weird, oddball, awesome thing that happened to us that never could have been predicted. It was a long time ago we did that, but still very memorable, so unusual but a great experience way back in 93.
There's been a lot of really big shows that we've been able to do stand out, for example, I think it was 2007 at Wacken in Germany. We were finally able to play ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ and other certain songs that we had been prohibited from playing for a while in front of this huge audience. That was a really fantastic show and a great feeling. It's hard to say, I mean we've had so many great shows all over the world and those are really the things that stick out. Like I said, London, New York, LA and then some of the little shows. It doesn't have to be some monumental thing actually. If you've got some little show where it's like 350 people, but everybody's crammed in there and the atmosphere is perfect, sometimes that feels like the best night of your career because somehow they all gelled and it’s just this perfect night, where you just had so much fun. We've had a lot of great moments. I guess it's very hard to narrow it down, and we've been very lucky, and we're very grateful to our fans for making it all possible, you know, so hoping the best is yet to come. That's what everybody likes to think, regardless we've had a great great career so far.
The Razor's Edge: Cannibal Corpse have been at the height of controversy from the start, we are into an age where “cancel culture” is now a thing. What is the most entertaining, yet controversial thing Cannibal Corpse have been blamed for?
Alex: All the censorship stuff, we really feel like it's been quite misunderstood. The way we approach this band is we're writing a horror novel, they are horror stories put to music. That's where the misunderstanding happens because I think the censorship people get it. Horror novelists like Stephen King, Clive Barker, they're not wanting you to do what's happening in their books. This guy who made the horror movie, same thing he's making a movie, but if you're singing about it, that means you must want them to do it. Especially if you're a bunch of long haired, heavy metal musicians. Maybe if we were sitting around in suits and we were writing horrors or making horror music. I'm not sure what it is that makes them go after us, where they don't seem to really bother with those other kinds of media. You know, horror entertainment. I don't know, so I think it's been sort of a misunderstood thing, to me some of the most amusing censorship is in Germany, where they'll censor certain songs and some of the songs that they're censoring aren't even as brutal as ones that they are allowing us to play. Every Cannibal Corpse song has some sort of violence in it. Pretty much I can't think of any, other than the instrumentals. All the lyrics we have, they're pretty violent, pretty dark, some more than others, and some of them, like ‘Scourge Of Iron’, has been censored a few times. We've been prohibited at certain shows in Germany from playing ‘Scourge Of Iron’, thats a song about tyrants literally being tortured in hell. You know it's dark, there's violence in it, but it's certainly not the worst stuff that we've written about. But then we are able to play songs about serial killers and things that you would think were more offensive and they ban that one, so I don't get it. It all seems kind of arbitrary like they pick and choose what they want to censor. It just doesn't make much sense, like I said, I think they misunderstood all along anyway.
The Razor's Edge: Do you play to it nowadays and go ”Oh I want I wonder what will happen if we do this.”?
Alex: Well, yeah, that's not why we're doing it. With the lyrics we're just writing lyrics that we think are cool stories, these really dark, evil, violent stories that we wanna tell, horror stories. With the artwork for sure like when Vince came back to us with the piece that he made for ‘Violence Unimagined’, with the mother eating the baby. We know what's going to happen here, in certain markets this is just not going to be allowed, period. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out, when you see that piece of art. So therefore we have him make an alternate piece so that instead of getting a blank cover, you're getting something that still looks really cool, so we learned a long time ago about that. Working around some of the censorship that way is kind of standard to us now, because we've had to deal with it since ’Butchered At Birth’ you'll notice ’Butchered At Birth’ had that really epic cover that Vince did and that got censored in Germany and a few other places, so the release of it was just a red cover and we're like, well, that's not something we want to do every time, so any time it seemed like it was going to be too much, we had him do an alternate. ‘Violence Unimagined’ is not the first. The first one that we had two covers for was ‘Tomb Of The Mutilated’, which is directly after ’Butchered At Birth’, and it was a response to what happened on Butchered and that way there's two, no matter which version you get, you're getting a really cool piece of art that Vince Locke did. Just one of them will be more gory than the other.
The Razor's Edge: Your artwork is a huge part of your aesthetic and brand. In the beginning did you ever have any issues with getting your albums into stores?
Alex: I think that's a better question for the label and the distribution guys, but I think they were having a hard time. Especially back then as that really mattered. They did have to think of various different things to get it into the stores because some of these big chain stores, they were pretty important to be in back then and they just were not going to have, some super graphic, violent album cover sitting right next to Canned Heat and whoever else. I guess it just wasn't going to work those kinds of covers, some of them would get through, but I bet you they would get complaints and then they would need to replace them or send them back. Therefore we had to have the alternate cover idea and this is something that we've been doing for a long time and it's been successful. If they still won't take us, just because of who we are and the alternate cover if that's not enough, there's nothing we can do about that.
The Razor's Edge: ‘Violence Unimagined’. Fifteenth album. What is the story behind the album? Is there a specific theme around the songs?
Alex: We all are writing the songs individually and like I said earlier with the music, we kind of want them all to be different. Really most of them are unrelated. The only ones that I can think of just off hand like that might have the slightest similarity are 'Condemnation Contagion', which Eric wrote the lyrics for and 'Surround, Kill, Devour’ which I wrote the lyrics for and both of those songs, the music was pretty much finished by March. Like I said I went down there for pre-production and the music was done we were just teaching each other the songs and working out the finer details. The lyrics get written last for us so those lyrics were written right around the time the news stories about Covid were breaking, and although most of them have nothing to do with that ‘Condemnation Contagion’, I think for Erik, was inspired by what he was seeing. I don't think it's meant to be about Covid, but something similar.
For me 'Surround, Kill, Devour’ I was thinking about the collapse of society and things like that, of course the my vision of it for this song, is a very severe collapse where there's no more food. I was writing the lyrics. I was realising about halfway through that this is a lot like ‘The Road’, the movie. Where there's no food, there's no possibility of more food, and so certain people end up you know devolving to the point of like deciding that they're going to eat other people.
These are two apocalyptic kinds of songs that even if they're not directly about Covid or anything like that, just seeing that kind of stuff on the news every day will get you thinking about apocalyptic scenarios. Obviously, like I said, the one in 'Surround, Kill, Devour’ is extreme and hopefully not possible ever. I hope but you never know. I guess thinking about instability, one when you're used to living in a fairly stable society. Can inspire horror stories, makes you think is it really as stable as we think.
The Razor's Edge: Definitely.
Alex: And maybe, the past year or so people have have contemplated that, not just musicians and artists, but everybody. You know?
The Razor's Edge: It's one of those things, when you look at it. You saying about food running out, in the UK we had a shortage of toilet roll. I think, is the closest we've ever been to looking at an apocalyptic scenario. Isn't it, really?
Alex: Yeah, it's certainly tragic, but certainly there could also be something worse you know? I think that people probably have realised that. Of course, in our band we're gonna write about worst case scenarios. That's the sorta band we are. We're not writing about happy stories. If we're going to write about something dealing with the apocalypse, it's going to be about the the worst parts of it. For sure, devolving into cannibal hunting packs. Is an extremely negative outcome. You know that's about as bad as it gets really so, but for sure with no food for years and years, it's quite possible people would do that. At least some people.
The Razor's Edge: Well, Thank you Alex for talking to us here at The Razors Edge
Alex: Yeah, likewise man.
‘Violence Unimagined’ will be released on the 16th April through Metalblade Records.