Alex Webster is a part of a truly pioneering band. Cannibal Corpse are about to release their fifteenth studio album entitled Violence Unimagined (our review here). Since their formation in the late 1980’s, they have blazed a trail with their gore heavy death metal that has caused waves in many parts of the world for its controversy, but also with its sublime musicianship.
We spoke to Alex Webster about Violence Unimagined, touring, influences, digital streaming, vinyl and much, much more.
Congratulations on the album. In a time when the world is how it is, you can always rely on the constant that is Cannibal Corpse. How do you keep up the consistency in your output after so many years?
When we got the band together way back in the day, we knew what we wanted it to be from the get go; horror oriented death metal that was fast and relentless. That has never changed.
We look at each album as an opportunity to do the best version of the original plan. We never wanted to stray from the style that we set up. The boundaries that we have drawn up for ourselves are pushed up against sometimes adding a little bit here and there to our sound.
Consistency has been very important over our career; it’s something that we always wanted from the band. There are other legendary bands that we look up to like Iron Maiden and Slayer, which are favourites of ours, that have been very consistent with both their imagery and music style. We want consistency in the regularity of albums and touring them like these bands.
I think you can hear the consistency in Violence Unimagined too. Take a song like Necrogenic Resurrection or Overtorture, some of the fast ones, and put them next to some of the earlier stuff, it’s the same band apart from some line-up changes. The style is still the same after fifteen albums and thirty something years. The songs from our career sit well together in a live set.
How does it feel saying fifteen albums and thirty something years?!
It’s pretty crazy! We never could have imagined it. When we got started, heavy metal itself was only about twenty years old and to imagine a career longer than the genre had existed, and a sub-genre that was younger still – it was a very new style of music. Death metal was maybe 5/6 years old in the late eighties depending on your start point. None of the other bands that are around from that time that are still doing stuff could ever have foreseen the longevity. It’s remarkable. We’re really happy, and very grateful to our fans for making it possible.
Do you ever look to any newer bands for inspiration? Maybe in their sound or aesthetic? Or do you just stick to your tried and tested formula? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!
There’s a lot of death metal bands that I like, that haven’t been around as long as we have. I’m not sure they would be considered new. As far as being inspired by them in our writing, we try to avoid that. We want to dig into our own minds for inspiration. Plus, if we are thinking about other bands when we’re writing we look to our roots in terms of Kreator, Sodom and Slayer etc.
I do listen to a tonne of other bands though…maybe not newer bands…bands like Blood Red Throne, Aeon, Defleshed (although I don’t think they’re doing anything anymore – but they’re a fantastic band), Spawn Of Possession was one I listen to a lot, Hideous Divinity, Our Penance…there are a bunch of killer bands out there. Perdition Temple is another great one. There’s a bunch of great stuff.
For all the bands I follow, there are hundreds more that I don’t know about. I’m always on the lookout for good advice on new bands. And as I said, we try not to take writing inspiration from them but we listen to a bunch of ‘em because we’re fans of death metal.
When I’m thinking about writing a song and taking inspiration from somewhere it might be somewhere a little bit unexpected. Maybe I’ve heard a really interesting rhythm in some funk-fusion band or something like that; a jazz-fusion band where there is a really interesting rhythm. I think about how can I metalize this, or how can I add some odd meter thing or some syncopated rhythm to what we’re doing so it doesn’t sound to out of place. I also might hear some interesting classical piece where there is some interesting harmonizing going on. Those are places that I would look rather than to other metal bands as I wouldn’t want it to be derivative of those bands. Personally, I would look outside the genre for inspiration.
I guess that’s the bass player side of you isn’t it? A lot of funk-fusion and jazz-fusion is built around the bass isn’t it?
It is. And when you get instructional videos to teach you different things on the bass, it tends to end up being those genres…and blues. I’ve learnt a lot about rhythm from just trying to improve as a bass player. I’m not writing things that are funk or jazz for Cannibal Corpse but having that knowledge of that style and rhythm affects my writing.
The album flows really well. Whilst being completely crushing, there are plenty of slower tempo parts in amongst the album. Do the band ever butt heads over track listing on albums or is it all diplomatic?
We get along well with that. For example, with Murderous Rampage, everyone just wound up knowing that it should open the album. It sounds like an album opening song.
It’s a thunderbolt of an opening.
That’s the kind of song we want at the start; charging out of the gate.
The sequencing of the album, perhaps it’s less important than it used to be, but it’s still very important to us. We want to put the albums songs in an order that flows very well and hopefully makes you want to listen to the songs in that order and listen to the whole album if you have the time to do so. We want those ups and downs and having variety from song to song is very important to us. One of the ways we accomplish that is through the different tempos and rhythms, scales and time signatures, different types of harmonizing.
There are lots of tools that you have as a musician to mix things up. That goes back to consistency; we like to push against the boundaries a little bit. That’s one area where will we do that How creative can we get within these boundaries? We’re full on death metal, full on super heavy all of the time and singing about horror subjects, but how can we get creative? Hopefully the variation in the music has created a distinct group of songs that stand out from one another. We feel that is a key part of sucking the listener in to make sure they listen from start to finish; that’s the goal.
The onset of ‘shuffle’ has taken away the magic of album listening in some respects.
‘Shuffle’ kind of ruins the album thing, but I use it for certain playlists as it doesn’t matter. However, some albums I want to listen to from start to finish; Slayer’s Reign In Blood or Iron Maiden’s Powerslave. I like the arrangement and sequencing of the songs on these albums. It’s part of what makes it cool and it’s part of the experience.
Powerslave is really something isn’t it?
Yeah…what a great record; probably my favourite of all the Iron Maiden albums. I love a bunch of their stuff but that one is probably my favourite. If you have the time, you want to listen to the whole thing. The songs have such a variety.
I know he has been around the band in different roles for many years. How easy or hard was it welcoming Erik Rutan into the fold full time? Did it give you fresh impetus? Did you have to change your playing style in any way?
It’s a unique scenario really.
He probably has as much experience with our band as anybody possibly could who would come into the band. There are not a lot of people that join bands that know the band as well as Erik knows Cannibal Corpse. He’d already produced four of our albums, Cannibal Corpse and Hate Eternal had toured together maybe four times in the past twenty something years. We’ve been very good friends for decades and he played with us on tour for a year. Once you’re playing with a band, you will find yourself picking out extra details you never knew were there. I found that teaching myself Iron Maiden songs! You get a deeper knowledge of things that had breezed by.
Erik has a deep knowledge of the band and the music; he was already part of the family and it was a very smooth transition. It was him just taking up some new family roles! He can write with us and it doesn’t sound out of place. He does have a style that he has developed over the last thirty years playing with Ripping Corpse, Morbid Angel and Hate Eternal. He’s got a very distinct style and he’s been playing death metal as long as we have. He’s managed to integrate his distinct style into our music very well with the songs he composed for this album, and his lead guitar playing. He wrote Condemnation Contagion, Ritual Annihilation and Overtorture; those are three killer Cannibal Corpse songs but I can hear Erik’s style in them. He’s done very well in melting his own musical identity with ours.
Overtorture has a wicked bass section in it…
Have you got any personal favourites off the new album?
It changes from day to day, but recently I’ve liked Follow The Blood the most I think. That’s one that Rob (Barrett – guitarist) composed. It’s so heavy but so different. It has slower parts in it but slow parts like we’ve never done in the past. It’s a really different song for us but it’s still 100% us! Plus, Rob let me do a couple of bass solo type parts in that one!
To skip back to Overtorture and the bass part…that’s just me banging away on one note! It seemed like the best thing to do in that particular part and it works so well for that little part where you hear me playing. Erik, as producer, had the tone be extra growly in that spot. Sometimes, less is more when it comes to writing little standout parts.
It still sounds vicious though. You break it down as something quite abstract but it’s still vicious in the context of the song.
Yeah. Erik wanted me to do something there…it’s so low in its register and the strings are as thick as telephone cable! Instead of trying to put a bunch of fancy notes in there, why don’t I just bang away on the lowest note and keep it really tight?
Not to make this too much about bass guitar, but the solo-ish stuff I did was for Follow The Blood. Beyond it having some bass licks in there, it’s something new for us; it’s just a little bit different.
Sometimes, as musicians, we can get caught up in our own instruments or certain details. When Cannibal Corpse put songs together, it’s always ‘song first.’ Then we will dress things up and add details. The song has to be super heavy and catchy first and foremost, but then the extra details mean that different bits appear when you listen more.
That’s what gives the records their longevity. A ‘grower’ if you will…
Yeah! There’s a whole bunch of albums like that. You can have owned them for years and years and you still find details in there.
Going back to the records; how much of a say do you have in the physical product that comes out? There are a tonne of vinyl variants available for the new record.
We work with Vincent Locke on the cover artwork and Brian Ames is the graphics guy at Metal Blade; we work with him to make sure the graphics are good. Alex Morgan is our photographer so he does the band photos. As far as the different vinyl variants, that’s the label. They share digital mock ups and ask if we’re ok with it.
It’s such a huge market these days. I guess a band makes a lot of their money through physical sales.
Honestly for us…that money doesn’t trickle in for years. Hopefully COVID will be in the far rear view mirror by the time we actually recoup the expenses of recording Violence Unimagined. It takes a long time! If you’re a DIY band you might makes money immediately when a product is sold. There are a whole lot of hoops to go through for money to trickle through to the artist.
Vinyl is what people like to collect the most. You don’t actually need the vinyl to listen to the music. If you have Spotify or Apple Music you can get it where. Of course, you can listen to it on the turntable, and if you’re an audiophile who has an excellent turntable and great sounds system, it can be the best way to listen in a lot of people’s opinions. But I would say people buy it because it’s collectible. You can look at the artwork and read the lyrics without a magnifying glass.
Are you much of a record collector yourself?
Not really. I have most of our stuff and my collection of albums from back in the 80’s and 90’s but once I switched to CD’s, I stuck with that. Now, I occasionally buy a CD, but I mainly just do digital. I have the free version of Spotify and I have a huge collection that I have in iTunes. My wife and I have lots we listen to.
To me, the appeal of vinyl is less. I just remember having all these records with skips on them! They had scratches and crackles. I would make cassette recordings for the car with crackling on! I think it is the best and most collectible way to enjoy music and the product, but the easiest is digitally.
Being able to have access to so much music on a streaming service has an obvious appeal. It costs about $10 a month in the US; it’s a good deal. It’s not such a good deal for the artist.
Fairness in streaming revenue is something that is very prominent in the UK.
It’s tough. Most artists take it in their stride when touring is an option, and you can sell physical products that way. I understand that everyone wants to get the most for their money. If there was one thing that I would like to see change in the music industry it would be that artists get a little bit more from streaming services. I don’t know how much more; there are a million lawyers that can figure that out for us; but it would be nice to get a little more. There are a tonne of artists out there and you’re able to listen to all their stuff for one low price, and that’s awesome, but somehow it should work back to them a little more than it does at the moment.
On touring, the first time I saw Cannibal Corpse was on the Metal Hammer Destroyers Of The Faith Tour with Triptykon, Job For A Cowboy and Enslaved in Manchester. I also saw you a year later with Black Dahlia Murder, DevilDriver and Our Penance.
The line-up for those particular bills was spectacular. Is it better touring with a stacked bill like this? Does it help with costs? Is this going to be the future in terms of the touring industry getting up and firing again after the pandemic?
Those were some killer shows. We only did about five dates together on the tour with Triptykon, Job For A Cowboy and Enslaved but they were all awesome.
It’s always important to have a good tour package, pandemic or not. Good booking agents and managers can always put something together that they know will do well. Ideally, I think, they look for a package that has variety but also still has a cross appeal. Enslaved, Job For A Cowboy, Triptykon and Cannibal Corpse, that’s four very different bands but there is a decent chance that there is a core of fans who liked all the bands. There are also enough other fans that might have only gone to see one of the bands as they like them a lot more. The package for that tour was great; the same for the Black Dahlia Murder, DevilDriver and Our Penance tour. The variety was great but chances are that if you love one of the bands, you’ll like some of the others and that’s great for everyone.
Sometimes we’ll do a strict death metal package and those can work out really well to. That can be great, but they’re not usually as big in terms of turnout. But they’re just as good but they’re in smaller venues; but that’s fine too as the atmosphere is special. We will look to continue to do both types of tour.
Which tracks from the new album are you looking forward to playing the most? It’s going to be a special feeling for everyone when gigs start happening again. As you said, the opening track has to be a must?!
Yeah! It will be that much nicer for everyone. Those first few gigs will be so much fun.
Touring is so far in the future for us so we haven’t talked about it but I suspect it would be songs like Murderous Rampage, Inhumane Harvest and Condemnation Contagion. I think we’ll also play Necrogenic Resurrection; that’s another fast one. We’ll be belting out a lot of speed from this record.
One thing I’ve always liked about Cannibal Corpse live shows is that you try to check off a track from each album as best you can.
Throughout the fifteen albums have songs that people want to hear. We’re proud of all of ‘em because we worked really hard on them. It’s not possible at this point for us to represent all of them in a set but we try to get as much in as we can from our career.
We’ve been consistent enough in our style that they generally work well next to each other in a live set anyway. Songs from the beginning, middle and more recent parts of our career sit well together. We want to represent our career in our live shows because we’re proud of it all and as I said, it represents a bunch of hard work. Hopefully people like it when there is a ‘deep cut’ that makes it into the set; like Dormant Bodies Bursting from Gore Obsessed or something like that. We will keep playing sets with lots of variety like that.
We’ll be there when it happens again. I, personally, can’t wait. I can’t wait to greet a stranger and have that look on your face like ‘Wow…that was awesome!’
I hear ya! We can’t wait to get out there and see everyone again. We always appreciate playing for our fans but I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that everyone will appreciate it that little more; bands, fans, crew, everyone involved.
Alex, thank you so much for your time. Just off the cuff, as you’ve mentioned them a little, what are your five favourite Iron Maiden songs? We published an article about the Top 20 Essential ‘Deep Cuts’ from Iron Maiden not so long ago (here).
Oh, let me think…gosh…I’m going to go for Wratchchid.
Losfer Words (Big Orra) is one of my absolute favourites.
Number Of The Beast.
Sun & Steel. That’s a bit of a sleeper but I love Sun & Steel. There are so many great ones!
Let’s go with Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. It’s so long and has so much going on! Those are just off the top of my head…that could change daily!
I usually listen to the earlier Iron Maiden stuff. Their first five albums stopping at Powerslave and Live After Death. I have listened to the later stuff and I really like what I’ve heard but those first five albums are ones that I constantly listen to.
I only saw the Live After Death stuff on the Somewhere Back In Time tour at Twickenham in 2008. When they payed Rime and Powerslave back to back, that twenty minutes was unreal. It goes back to that feeling of meeting strangers and sharing the excitement of music.
I got to see them on that tour in 1985. It was absolutely amazing. I still remember it. They did a whole bunch of songs off Powerslave; what an amazing band. Their consistency is something that all metal bands should look up to.
Thank you again.
It’s been a pleasure. Hopefully we will see you on the road! It might not be next year but it will be 2023 at the latest we’d hit the UK we’d hope.
Our thanks goes to Alex Webster for taking the time to chat to us. Violence Unimagined is released on 16th April 2021 through Metal Blade Records. You can pre-order the album here and read our review of the new album, here.
Watch the official video for Inhumane Harvest from Cannibal Corpse below.