Though it’s something of a cliché, to anybody with much familiarity with metal, Carcass is a band that requires no introduction.
Though it’s something of a cliché, to anybody with much familiarity with metal, Carcass is a band that requires no introduction. From their 1985 inception until their 1996 dissolution, the band defined and redefined many of the tropes that are taken for granted within the genre, but did so with a panache that few of their followers could muster. Though many death metal and grindcore bands utilized the sort of harsh, gory imagery Carcass featured on early albums like Symphonies Of Sickness and Reek Of Putrefaction, the verbosity, political astuteness, and subtle wit present therein were unparalleled. Though the melodic tendencies that were more prevalent with each of their subsequent albums became a widely imitated template, few emulated their songwriting ability to any notable extent.
The band took tentative steps towards becoming an active entity in 2007, with a scant handful of reunion shows snowballing into more and more activity that has in turn coalesced into the band’s first new album since 1995’s rock-and-roll inflected Swansong. Aided by drummer Daniel Wilding, assuming percussive duties for Ken Owen–who has undertaken a slow recovery after a 1999 brain hemorrhage left him unable to perform–Carcass’ core members Jeff Walker and Bill Steer crafted Surgical Steel, set to be released September 17th. The album acts as a direct extension of Carcass’ body of work, blending the memorable hooks of their later albums with the bracing, violent force of their earliest work without sounding like a cheap attempt to duplicate either. In the unlikely event that any Carcass fan would have doubted their ability to come back strong, even after a decade and a half, Surgical Steel would quickly allay those concerns. I managed to get a few questions in with Jeff Walker regarding the band’s history, their creative process,and what’s wrong with heavy music these days.
You’ve said elsewhere that you had initially harbored doubt regarding whether a Carcass reunion would be worthwhile, and then after it had happened whether a new album would be a possibility. Was there a single moment that changed your mind, or was it a gradual reconsideration?
It’s more like attrition, isn’t it? You’re broken down over time. Mike Amott from Arch Enemy was always the guy who wanted to do the Carcass thing while me and Bill [Steer] were always resistant. With that said, I’ve been playing with Brujeria since 2006. When you’re a hired gun in another band, you start to think “hang on, I’ve got my own band.” Traveling with Brujeria, people are always asking me about Carcass. It just got to a point where I thought, well, fuck it. When I was younger I said I’d never do it. It’s hard to explain.
It’s easy for people to be cynical. For example, I love the Clash. They were gonna reform and Joe Strummer died. That’s probably the best thing he could have done, because from my point of view as a fan, I would never want the Clash to reform. So I can fully understand why people would feel weird about Carcass, but all I can say is that it just felt right. The reunion, the album – it’s a genuine thing, it’s really sincere. It’s not about money, it’s not about anything except that we really wanted to do it. Why not? While we’re still living and breathing.
Do you foresee it being a continuing project or something with a more limited lifespan?
It’s going to be limited. I’m forty-four years old. It’s kind of bizarre. When you’re a teenager you think you can’t be an old man in a band, but I am an old man. The only clever thing my father ever said to me was “no matter how old you get, you’re always going to be that eighteen-year-old kid in your head.” And he’s right. My body betrays me, but mentally I’ll always be young.
What helps me and Bill is that we don’t have kids and we’re not married, so we can devote our lives to music. I definitely do see a new album in this band because I think this new one’s good; I’m still searching for the ultimate Carcass album. People ask me about my favorite album from the back catalog, but the reality is that none of them are. I’m still trying to make that album. I don’t think this new one is the definitive Carcass album, but I also don’t think Heartwork is, I don’t think Necroticism is, or Reek…, or Swansong, or Symphonies. We also have a very partisan audience. Heartwork sold the most copies, but that doesn’t make it the best, and I’m still searching for the best.
Your work after Carcass’ initial split stands in fairly sharp contrast to what you had done before. Has any of this affected the way you’ve written newer Carcass songs?
Possibly. We’re victims of the past seventeen years. Bill went off and did Firebird, maybe got that out of his system. I did what I did. You have to play to your strengths. We understand fully what makes Carcass tick. There are elements of what Bill learned doing the whole blues trip that he brought to the new Carcass album. With me, what the hell did I do? I don’t think I did anything of merit after Carcass. Only a few individuals have ever escaped their past. For example, Ozzy with Sabbath. He was successful to escape the kind of black hole drag that takes you back. It’s not a bad thing though, that people love me or Bill for the fact that we were in Carcass, but it may not necessarily have been what we wanted ten years ago. But I’m proud of the Carcass thing.
How has the incorporation of Daniel Wilding on drums affected the way Carcass plays and writes?
It’s a very weird thing, because obviously Ken [Owen] was a very important part of Carcass, but I think Daniel steps up to the plate and put Ken’s slippers on if you like. He’s paying homage and being very respectful. Dan’s a fantastic drummer and he could easily overplay. We were laughing in the studio about drummers who overplay, but Dan plays fantastically and doesn’t try to overshadow the riffs. I’ve never actually asked Dan whether he’s deliberately trying to play similar to Ken, but I think he understands his role in Carcass. He could easily overplay but he doesn’t. And it’s not because me or Bill are dictating or telling him what to do. He’s just been very respectful to the position he’s been in, replacing Ken.
He’s from a different generation, as far as the drumming goes, but we never pressured him to change for Carcass, but he did. I don’t want to get too bogged down in technicalities, but if you understand the way most modern drummers play the fast stuff, it’s with two kick drums, but we’re from the old school where it was all on a single kick. It sounds childish but it’s really important, it’s where we’re from.
Was the recording of Surgical Steel more difficult than previous efforts? I notice the promo materials for the album make mention of Colin Richardson walking out on the sessions and Andy Sneap having to take over.
In all honesty, no. Swansong was very difficult. Heartwork was difficult – we spent nearly a week trying to get a guitar tone. When I look back, the only easy album we ever did with Colin was Symphonies. Actually, Necroticism was a pain in the ass as well. Not because of Colin. But we funded that album ourselves. We didn’t have a record deal. It cost us, if I remember correctly, sixteen thousand pounds. We started to record the album, ran out of money, and then signed with Earache and managed to finish the record. Surgical Steel we also recorded with our own money. But we’ve done it before. We did it with the third album, we did it with Swansong – we went into the rock field and Sony refused to pay for it. We’re not afraid to take a gamble. No matter what people might think about what we do musically, we’re prepared to put out money where our mouths are and just do it, fuck the consequences.
Lyrically, one of the moments that struck me the most on Surgical Steel was“Their Granulating Dark Satanic Mills.” Between the William Blake references and the repeated number sequences, it seemed somewhat more arcane than some other Carcass songs. Would you care to expound on that at all?
There’s a lot of things on this album that talk about nationalism, slavery of different types. I don’t want to get too into it because most of the lyrics are very typical Carcass, very light-hearted. There’s no overwhelming polemical dogma to the stuff.
That’s the only song on the album that’s mine, that I wrote the riffs for. It’s an homage to my past, to where I grew up, to people who had it worse than me. I’m from an industrial town. My favorite line is “beneath the pavement, there’s only collieries.” That’s a take on the Situationist movement in France in ’68 where they were telling people that beneath the paving stones lie the beaches. As in, liberation and fun. But I’m from a town where beneath the paving stones there were only coal mines. To me that’s funny. I like to take those things and spin them on their heads.
Have you ever entertained any concerns that the way you approach lyrics could be a tad obscure for the average listener?
Musically and lyrically, we’ve always tried to avoid the obvious and the cliched. That’s why I’d like to think people find what we do interesting. It’s easy to say “I love you,” but if you can say it in a roundabout way it’s more interesting. I like the idea that people have to fucking Google what we’re on about. Isn’t that better than being so bloody blatantly obvious? For example, when I write the lyrics I don’t write them in one sitting in a half an hour. They evolve with the music. That’s what’s interesting for me, and hopefully for the people who like what we do. Maybe I’m trying to say a simple thing, but I deliberately try to say it in as complicated a way as I can. I did an interview where the guy was saying Geddy Lee uses a thesaurus… well, fuck yeah. Dictionary, medical dictionary, thesaurus. It’s not a case of trying to be clever for no reason, but why just try to say the same old shit everyone else has said before?
There’s lots of words in English that have lost their meaning over the last few hundred years. Really harmless words that, when you know their origins, turn pretty brutal. To give you an example, shambles. When we say something’s a shambles, we mean it’s a mess. What that actually means from three hundred years ago was a slaughterhouse or a butcher’s yard. It has a really brutal connotation. That’s what I like about the English language. There’s lots of throwaway words we use nowadays that have got really deep roots. I love it, it’s really funny. That shambles means a fucking slaughterhouse. These are the things we’ve always celebrated in this band.
I can respect that. You definitely caused me to sit down with the dictionary when I was young and listening to your albums. A good vocabulary builder.
I cause myself to do the same. I write things down when I’m drunk and come back a year later and wonder what the fuck I’ve written. It’s not like I’m really gifted with the English language, it’s just interesting to avoid the obvious.
The album’s opener, “1985,” is more melodic and atmospheric than anything I’ve heard Carcass do, though its title seems to refer to the year Carcass was first conceived, a time when your music was considerably harsher and less melodic. Was that irony intentional?
There was no real intent, it was just something that happened in the studio. I found the rehearsal tape and told Bill it was cool, that I could imagine it being fantastic. And typical Bill, the way our relationship is, was resistant. But, and this is a true story, we saw a cover band doing “Hellion/Electric Eye” by Judas Priest and suddenly Bill was like “okay, okay, I get it.” In my head, I could imagine this grandiose thing.
But this idea that suddenly Carcass was more melodic from ’93 onwards is bullshit. We’ve always had melody, it just hasn’t always been overt, in your face, or cheesy. Because, let’s face it, that intro’s quite cheesy in a way. It’s fantastic, I love it. We didn’t intend for it to happen, but it happened. It’s really organic.
If “1985” is your “Hellion,” is Surgical Steel another Priest reference, your British Steel maybe?
Yeah, definitely. You hit the nail on the head. Priest is a classic band and we’re a British band so, cheesy as it is – British Steel, Surgical Steel – it makes sense.
Have you perceived any distinctions between heavy music now and when Carcass was initially active?
What passes for heavy music now is all about image. Page Hamilton from Helmet has got a lot to fuckin’ answer for. If you listen to his whole thing, the syncopated duh-duh-duh locked into the kick drums. It’s easy to put it on Pantera, but I blame Helmet more for this whole disgrace of modern music. There’s no riffs anymore. Isn’t it sad? Heavy metal is all about the riff, but modern stuff is all rhythm and kick drums. There’s no real riffs. No matter what you think, heavy metal is all about the riff and I won’t even be bothered mentioning bands’ names, you know these bands, it’s all about post-Pantera bullshit. And that’s not even to blame Pantera exactly. Even though I only like a couple of songs, it just transformed into breakdowns, hair gel, and tight jeans.
Yeah, you can’t necessarily blame a band for their followers. Which begs the question: Carcass was a fairly widely influential band, whether in terms of the lyrical content of the early albums or the melodic and structural tendencies of the later work; is there anybody you think ran with those elements well?
Um… Korn? [laughs] Fear Factory? Machine Head? I don’t know where to start. These bands don’t sound anything like us, but what we did with the down-tuning, all these bands took something from us. If you’re asking whether anyone took what we did and sounded identical, then no. It’s weird, for me, the most interesting period of metal was the late ’80s. I’m an old man. It’s like if you talk to Dave Mustaine or the Metallica guys, all they’re going to talk about is Angel Witch and fucking Diamond Head. All I’d talk about is Morbid Angel or fucking Insanity [laughs].
We’re all victims of our youth in a way. Carcass propels itself, in a way. We don’t claim to be original but we took a wide palette of influences and added our own thing to it – like the B tuning that people take for granted now. Anything that’s been influenced by Carcass that blows me away? Honest answer is no. Which kind of explains why we made the new album. We’re tired old men [laughs] but I think this album fills a gap. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we’re old school and we know what sounds cool. If we thought the state of affairs didn’t need a new Carcass album we wouldn’t have bothered. We didn’t want to shit on our legacy and we don’t want to embarrass ourselves.
Is there anything you hope to achieve in Carcass’ current incarnation that you weren’t able to during the earlier run?
I could say something very cheesy.
Go for it.
I look at the Billboard chart and how soft it is. It would be great to have a top twenty fuckin’ Billboard album but I guess it’s never gonna happen. We just do this because we enjoy it and it’s fun. We just played in Colombia over the weekend, in Manizales, for seven thousand people at a free festival. It’s fucking great. But is there anything I want to achieve? Maybe to rub people’s faces in it [laughs]. Some of my old peers. But this is not a fast track to get rich or famous. We genuinely love the music that we make. This album is a statement of intent.
You had some songs that didn’t end up on the new album, including one that was used on a flexi that came with an issue of Decibel. Are the others eventually going to see the light of day?
Oh definitely. One’s on the Japanese release, and that leaves I think one or two more. I’d like to see the whole collection on one album for the people who feel cheated like we’re somehow trying to rip them off. We want everything to be heard, but the reality is the other songs that didn’t make the album were great tracks but would’ve undermined the flow of the album. They’re a bit more rock, whereas we picked the most aggressive songs for the album. The other stuff’s great, but it doesn’t really fit in the concept of Surgical Steel. This stuff’s like if you can imagine Swansong but not shit, really well-done rock stuff. We want people to hear it and they’ll get to in the end.
I’ll probably be speaking for any fan of yours outside a certain radius of each of the upcoming US shows you’re doing when I ask whether you’re planning on touring more extensively after the new album is released.
Yeah, definitely. People should not be mistaken by thinking that all we can do is five gigs in North America in September. Those shows are to create a bit of hype. We want to do some cool small club shows and then come back next April. I don’t want to give too much away but it’ll be a killer tour.
Now you’re officially on record about the tour stuff, so we’re all gonna hold you to it.
Oh, it’ll happen. Of course we’re gonna tour the States. We can’t just come and play a big show in L.A. or New York and come back six months later and play the same fucking place, that’s not cool. We wanted to go back to the clubs, back to our roots.
Definitely something a lot of people are gonna be looking forward to.
Where are you located, by the way?
In Richmond, Virginia.
Ah, Richmond. Great town. I’ve got great memories of Richmond. First tour in 1990. Played at the Jade Elephant then got offered a show with the Alter-Natives that night. Got to hang out with Dave and GWAR in their old workshop. Long time ago. I feel old now [laughs].