Recently I got the chance to pick the brain of one of the most intense and influential bass players on the planet, Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse. He digs at the brains of the censors, and at the violent history of the planet. With their disturbingly visual lyrics, could you imagine what they could do with a horror film? Walk with us through a psychological look at why we as humans do what we do; how extreme music ties in, and what we can expect in the future from one of the greatest death metal bands in the world. An interviewer and an intellectual musician once said…
First of all, congratulations on 20 years of shocking and slaying the globe. Is there anything you feel Cannibal Corpse hasn’t achieved yet?
Alex: Well, we get to play with Slayer this summer and that’s something we’ve always wanted to do, and we want to play all the venues. Also this summer we’re going to Japan and that’s the first time we’ve been to Japan since 1996 as well, you know things like that. We play all over the place. And, as far as musically – we want to make better records than we’ve ever made. Try and make the best record we’ve ever made each time.
It does show in the music and people can tell you’re making it better each time.
Alex: Part of the reason we’ve been able to stick around for so long is that we’ve been pushing hard each time, basically. We’ve been writing material for a new album, from before this one. That’s what it’s been for our whole career, never took any time off, except for a month or two or something like that. Even on our months off we’re writing. Always pushing and touring and getting things out there. I think the fans appreciate that you’re not just going through the motions; they appreciate if you’re up there feeling the music.
Having an album come out almost every two years since 1988 and extensive touring, when do you find the time to live?
Alex: What we’ve been trying to do is stretch an album. For example, the Kill tour we played 42 countries, I counted them. We played all over the place: Brazil, Peru, Columbia and Ecuador. I mean all over the place, Russia. That’s an extensive tour, 6 or 7 months spread out over a year and a half. Go home for 3 weeks, then tour for a month and so on. It went like that as opposed to how we would do it when we were younger, with less family obligations. We would just go for 6 months straight, the same kind of touring we do now for a year and a half-we did in 8 months or something like that. So it’s the same amount of touring, just spread out. As you get older, the off-time and family time become more and more important. Enjoying the family time and still kicking as much ass as possible.
It seems like it would have to be that perfect balance. Whatever comes up next you have to evolve and adapt to and make that your new balance. That’s the side I think most fans don’t get to see.
Alex: You want to do as much for the band as possible, if you don’t have a happy personal life because you’re working too hard, that’s not good either. So the perfect balance is important.
All these years and just two trips to Boise, the fans here can really fill a room with energy. How much of the intensity that goes into the live show is the fans?
Alex: It helps a whole lot if the fans are getting into it, because it makes us feel so much better. It gives you a charge, you know what I mean. You see a lot of energy in the crowd; it makes us as performers be more physically into it on stage. If the crowd is a little bit on the sleepy side it makes it a little harder for us to get into it too. We do our best no matter the circumstance, no matter the reaction from the crowd, we try to give our best performance we can of the night. It definitely helps if a bunch of people are going crazy, it really adds to the atmosphere big time. So, we appreciate a good response, so we feed off of the crowds energy and that in turn makes us more energized and then the crowd more energized as well. It’s… I don’t know, symbiotic.
That’s the perfect word, symbiotic. The fans need the release and so do you. It’s almost atomic. You would think at one of these shows a chemical reaction would take place and someone would spontaneously combust. [laughs]
Alex: Really, there’s been some shows where were going hard and so is the crowd, bodies are flying it gets pretty intense. So when it’s done, we’re just about beat. You’re just about high off of that. The endorphins or whatever are going. I guess it’s like a great workout like that. We’re in the best mood we could possibly be. Just seeing that kind of audience reaction, it’s a great thing.
Being so influential to so many bands, what has influenced you guys all this time?
Alex: We like a lot of different types of metal. The metal that really got us going in the beginning were the darker more evil sounding thrash bands. The old Sodom, the old Kreator and also the beginning death metal bands, before us in the early 80’s. Slayer for sure was a big influence for us. Dark Angel, you know those kinds of bands. Over the years we’ve listened to a lot of stuff and I’m sure some of it influences us, but what we try to do is when we’re writing we try to come up with stuff out of thin air. You’re going to hear the influence no matter what I guess. It’s impossible for us, we listen to Slayer so much, that there’s no way there is not a little Slayer influence in our music. [laughs] So we’ve never tried to intentionally copy any of our favorite bands, except for a couple of spots on the first album where I can hear a direct influence from some of the stuff we were listening too. Over the years we’ve gone away from it.
It’s obvious you’re not copying anybody; I think someone would have to dig real deep to make that assumption.
Alex: Due to lack of experience in the beginning, we basically kind of imitated things but didn’t imitate it well and it wound up becoming our own thing. Those bands ended up being mutated by our own lack of experience as musicians, and that sort of thing. We grew our own style out of a mixture. There is no way you’re band isn’t going to be heavy as well. It’s important to have your own identity as well. We have had things we’ve written where we thought that riff really sounds like this other thing we wrote, so let’s change it or scrap it all together. You want your own style. We didn’t plan to have our own style, we really just developed it being the kind of musicians we are- it’s been really natural. One of the things I’ve noticed with the bands that were really great musicians right from the beginning, they were the ones in danger of really ripping off other bands styles, because they were good enough that they could. I think it’s the younger music; we were very young when we started out. We grew our own style instead of being good musicians and copying other bands. We sort of grew our own style.
A lot of people are glad that happened. I know you’re a big part of the imagery with the lyrics and music. With the negative and violent history of our planet, has it been easy to draw up the dark imagery?
Alex: Unfortunately for the human race there’s been no shortage of cruelty over the millennia-an unfortunate part for the species I guess. [laughs] A lot of humans have the capacity to do bad things to one another. You can see it with crisis and war, throughout the world there’s always been tons of violence. Certainly not exotic to death metal, like the censors would have you believe, which is obviously not the case. If any violent thing has happened throughout the course of death metal, it’s been a handful of isolated cases, where as violence is widespread throughout human history, for thousands and thousands of years. Violence entertainment, like death metal, like violent video games or even horror movies like “Saw” or “Hostel”, all of those things might be a product of, you know, violent energy rather than something that produced it. People didn’t start being violent when horror movies came out; they’ve been violent throughout history.
It’s been ingrained in the DNA.
Alex: It’s a survival thing. People have good and bad things about them. Some of the bad things were needed to survive history; the peaceful caveman might not have survived as well as the caveman who was a little more aggressive. We all now know that there is a civilized way to be with any aggressive side that might exist. One of the great ways for us as a band was getting into extreme music. Some people have extreme sports, some kind of painting or art, everybody has a side that might be a little aggressive maybe pent up aggression about certain things in their life, but there is always a positive way to get it out. For us, music is one of them. I wish people who are concerned about censorship would just see the overwhelming positive side of death metal. Whenever we play the shows, everybody is leaving happy, at least 99 percent, there’s the occasional injury from a stage dive or something but in general it’s a positive experience for everybody.
Like Phil (Anselmo) said, “The releasing of anger can better any medicine under the sun.”
Alex: Yeah, if you let things build up, you’re going to lose your mind. It’s good to be able to let off a little steam, if you do it in a positive way like banging your head at a show or lifting weights and running, there’s ways to deal with it. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have something aggravating, you might have the urge to punch your boss but you don’t do that because you feel like it. Instead, you go listen to some death metal.
I think the censors got the cart before the horse, which came first-the slaughter of a village, or the Cannibal Corpse album cover? [laughs]
Alex: Not any war that has taken place had anything to do with horror movies or video games or even death metal. Those things wouldn’t exist; none of the violent entertainment would exist. I’m not a psychologist, maybe it’s some way of us dealing with a world that’s violent, you know maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It’s an effect, not a cause [laughs] if we were a completely peaceful species, then maybe this stuff wouldn’t exist. Because there is a pre-existing aggression in the species, it’s not surprising some of the entertainment is aggressive too. That in my opinion is a positive outlet-the negative is the actual violence.
The ones that hold it in usually snap and go postal.
Alex: Exactly… people who go postal, and it’s probably a case by case that someone would have to spend some time checking into, but there is a good chance they didn’t have a positive outlet for all the pent up frustration. An outlet is important for all people.
With all the violent and dark imagery of Cannibal Corpse, have you ever thought of turning it into another form, such as movies? You could really blow the hell out of the horror film industry.
Alex: We would love to actually. It’s inspiring to see somebody in the horror side of music like Rob Zombie do so well in the film industry. He’s done a great job, like the remake of “Halloween” and the others like “Devils Rejects”. Those are really great; it shows a creative mind for music can also succeed in a different area. We would definitely be open to being creatively involved for sure. It’s really a matter of somebody from the film industry approaching us and seeing if we want to contribute a song or story ideas based on lyrics or something like that.
Maybe this will kick it into gear. A lot of people would be interested in seeing that.
Alex: We would be happy to do it. If anyone who’s got anything to do with that is reading this-then by all means, get in touch. [laughs]
You’re the poster children for carving your own path, how much has censorship affected the band?
Alex: Not much, we hope, not really. If anything there’s just some things we don’t want to cover. Really disturbing songs that we still, you know are happy to have in our catalogue “Entrails Ripped From A Virgins Cunt” things like that we don’t necessarily feel obligated to one up that every album. We’re not thinking about going for ultra shock-value like that. We’re trying to think really cool horror, that kind of thing. I wouldn’t say its self censorship, just not as interested in grossing people out as much as we want stuff to have a really creepy atmosphere these days. Hopefully the censorship hasn’t affected anything we do, I guess maybe with the artwork where we’re forced to in order to get it into any record store, we have to have a cover that they will let in there store. So we tried to have a cover that looks pretty cool, that isn’t censored, but on the interior something just as gross as we’ve done in the past, but had so many censorship problems. Like on the new album, “Evisceration Plague”, and on “The Bleeding” it was like that too, where you have a cover that no one would censor but on the inside there’s a cool dead body and some gross stuff going on. Same on “Evisceration Plague”, the cover is a darker more evil cover and on the inside we have gore, so that way we manage to beat the censors. Kind of side step them keeping us out of record stores. Especially now days, there’s only a handful of record stores you can get into as record stores are going out of business unfortunately.
Is there anything that has been done to adapt to that?
Alex: Mostly the label has to deal with those things. The Napster thing started a little before the turn of the millennium, we noticed a drop in record sales around the time of “Bloodthirst and Gore”. We started seeing more people coming to the concerts, it was weird, because it didn’t add up. Why are more people coming to the shows but we’re selling less records. It got to the point people would rather spend money on the live show than on an album they had the chance to get for free. They spent the money on the live show, and not just for our band but all across the board. The business of touring and playing live has actually proven to be great to us. Our tours have never been better, we are actually selling really good too, which is counterintuitive to what you think would be happening seeing how overall cd sales business has gone down, ours has actually gone up on the last 2 records. I can’t explain that kind of right place at the right time. It’s not affecting us in a negative way adjusting to that. I don’t think it will be hard because concert sales haven’t gone down. The same technology that made it easy to steal music also leads to less expensive to record a great sounding album for a fraction of the price you would spend in a huge analog studio 20 years ago. You can do at home with a ProTools studio; you can make a great album with digital recording software. So you have to look at the positive side of technological advances rather than the negative cd sales, a positive for the recording business. To spread the word about your band, sites like MySpace and the internet in general, it’s very easy to find out about bands. For example, you see an advertisement for a band playing at your favorite bar in town, and you’ve never heard their music before. So you can put their name in Google and their MySpace page comes up. In a couple of seconds you’re listening to their music. Times change and technology changes and we have to look at the positive side, and be happy for the good things. Bands are still in fine shape really, it’s more of a worry for the labels because the touring business is doing fine. There is no current technology that can truly imitate a live bands performance. I think we’re okay for another 5 0 years or so.
Even then it wouldn’t be the same.
Alex: It wouldn’t be the same as sharing the community experience of being in a crowd with everyone catching that same vibe; it’s just not the same. The live performance is the part of the business that will be safe for a long time.
The wall of intensity you project at a live show is genuine.
Alex: We get up there and bang it out. There will be times this summer we will be playing on big stages in front of huge audiences. We do the same show on a big stage that we do in a small club, play the songs the best we can with the highest intensity we can, banging our heads as hard as we can, and that’s the show. So, we don’t need a huge stage to have that wall of intensity. It’s the same in a small club of 200, or tens of thousands of people. You get the same show.
So with the longest legal killing spree in history and a new album out, what is next for Cannibal Corpse?
Alex: Just keep doing what we’re doing and trying to get better. We’re going to try to make the next album better than the last. We’re already getting plans for song ideas. We love what we are doing and we want to do it the best we can. For us there is no end in sight. For the fans that are concerned about that, I’m 39 and I’ll be 40 in October. It’s not really that old in the music career. There are plenty of Jazz musicians and metal musicians that are 20 to 30 years older than me. There’s no end in sight. The fans don’t have to worry about that, we’ll just keep pushing forward with the same tenacity we’ve always had.
We’re glad to hear that. Well, it’s been an honor and I appreciate the hell out of your work. That’s great we can expect you to be yourselves, that’s rare these days.
Alex: We’ve always been really good at what we do, so we will do it the best we can.
I appreciate you taking the time to do the interview. I’m looking forward to the possibility of a Cannibal Corpse movie in the future.
Alex: Yeah, I’d love it. If you know anybody or if they read this, we’re game for sure.