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Bill Steer of Carcass: Interview

Carcass have recently released their new album, Torn Arteries (our review here).

We were lucky to be able to get some time to chat to the legend that is Bill Steer. We talked all things Torn Arteries, recording, producing, playing live, and democracy in the band.

Carcass – (L-R) Bill Steer, Jeff Walker, Dan Wilding & Tom Draper.
(Photo: Hannah Verbeuren)

Congratulations on the new record.

How do you keep up such high standards in your music? Does having a longer break between releases help?

Cheers!

Yes – it has been a factor for sure. If had been up to me, we would have had this out a lot sooner but in a way it’s helped because there is more depth going on in the material. The original bunch of songs that I worked on with Dan back in 2015/2016, and then there was a whole load of other stuff that came about further down the line.

Once we hit the five year mark of touring off the back of Surgical Steel, Jeff became keen to get involved at that point. He didn’t see us getting into any kind of record until we’d notched up half a decade out there! We didn’t discuss this in the band; it just developed that way.

As that half a decade had gone by, I had some songs in the bag in various forms and then once Jeff was on board, things accelerated very quickly. We had the momentum. The older tunes got reappraised and in many cases, rearranged, and then there was the new stuff coming through.

So, going back to the point, as frustrating as it was at times, this album has benefitted from the length of time it took to get into the studio.

It clearly shows in the album. There is a whole lot of depth and a lot going on. There is the obvious trademarks of Carcass but there is plenty of other stuff to deal with that unfurls as the album goes on.

Which of the songs have been around for quite a while then?

The first obvious one would be the track that became Kelly’s Meat Emporium. That was the first tune that Dan and I tackled all those years ago. Once Jeff was involved, that tune underwent a transformation. It was the same raw material but he just found a new angle and a new way of rearranging things so it was a little less standard and predictable.

The Devil Rides Out is another of the first numbers that I brought in.

Watch a drum playthrough of Kelly’s Meat Emporium.

Surgical Steel was a triumphant comeback. Do you feel pressure to live up to the expectations of a community that revere your work?

I think the only pressure that existed was from ourselves; the kind where you have a standard in your mind that the material has to get to. Certain things that worked last time aren’t necessarily going to work this time. Sometimes you catch yourself playing something and you notice that there is something predictable about it. You stop and critique the song again, and again, until it’s in a state that you’re happy with. I hate to use the phrase, but it was business as usual. We’ve never tended to let the outside world intrude on new material.

Making music for yourself, that’s fun and keeps you happy?

Precisely; it has to start there. It has to be something that you can get behind.

There are some hulking moments on Torn Arteries. The solo work on Eleanor Rigor Mortis is a highlight; and the whole of Dance Of Ixtab to name a couple. How do Carcass set about putting together new songs and ideas? Dance Of Ixtab feels a little different than other Carcass songs.

You’ve just mentioned that Jeff came in and things got rearranged but do you have a particular way of doing things?

You wouldn’t book a rehearsal if you didn’t have some raw material or decent riffs to play with; sizeable chunks of music to play with. This has happened with every album we’ve done.

I bring stuff in at the beginning, and Jeff and Dan have got very strong ideas of their own. They’ll add to and enhance what I have brought in. It undergoes a mutation. We end up with a distant relative of the music that I brought in.

It must be great to have so many creative forces within a band?

It’s definitely helped us. Jeff and I are coming from very different angles when it comes to music. Dan is substantially younger and he has his perspective. He’s the one person within the band that has some musical training as the bedrock. But aside from his obvious skills and qualities as a drummer, his biggest strength is his musicality. You can throw anything at him and he will just jump on it and find a way to lift it immediately.

There must have been some special moments in recording then? Those moments where you know something really clicks?

Oh yeah; tonnes of those with Dan. He is a monster player. It’s a bit like that now; drumming has become this kind of sport almost. There are people doing some very impressive physical feats but sometimes it just doesn’t swing and support the song it’s supposed to be behind. Dan is not that kind of drummer; he plays for the song. When you ask him to, he’ll go bananas! He can play some crazy stuff when called upon.

Was the album finished prior to the pandemic?

It was. It was finished months before the pandemic struck. When you finish a record you just want it out there but the time that elapses between the final mix and the label releasing it is getting longer. There was a bit of back and forth with the label around the release date and things like that. It got pushed back a few times. The argument became irrelevant due to what was going on in the world. We just had to be patient.

Is that why the EP came out last year?

It is. We had all the material. We did this in a similar fashion to Surgical Steel where we deliberately recorded more than we needed and wrote slightly too much material. Toward the end of the session, we decide which songs go onto the album. We assumed it would be the same arrangement as last time; get the album out first then follow up with the EP where people can hear the leftovers. Obviously, with the world being turned upside down, Nuclear Blast said they wanted to do the opposite. They wanted to wait until we were in a position to tour before the album could come out.

That sounds like a good strategy.

Yeah. We couldn’t really argue! You can rail against a label and force them to carry out your wishes but you won’t get a good result. They have to be confident and comfortable with what they are doing. Our relationship with Nuclear Blast is very good. Hey deliver on the things they promise.

There is something poetic about ending up in Sweden to record a Death Metal album, such is its history with the genre.

The bulk of the recording was done there. Dan had been working with another band as a session drummer. They were tracking drums over there. He got in touch with Jeff and I and said he’d like to work with the engineer there. We said fine, but I’d had my heart set on doing my bits at The Station House in Leeds with my friend James Atkinson.

First things first; we laid the drums and the basic tracks in Sweden. I went back to Leeds and laid down my parts. That is the most time consuming part of the recording. Jeff wanted to do his bits back in Stockholm; so all the vocals, bass, overdubs and percussion. Jeff liked the idea of getting out the UK.

Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited is a great song title and potentially the longest Carcass track ever?

It is the longest, yeah.

Did it start out that way or did it just grow as you were recording?

It did start out that way. It wasn’t quite that long but I had some fairly lengthy stretches of music. There were minutes that would go by before there were any repetitions. We had an idea it would be a longer piece. As time went by we just added more parts. It was a surprise to find that it was just short of ten minutes!

How important is it to have that variety in a record?

It helps being self-critical. We’re quite different characters but we have that in common. Whether it’s at the stage of arrangement, recording or mixing, we always want to make it better. Because this stuff is more varied dynamically, than anything we’ve done before, there were more parts that needed embellishing.

Am I mistaken or are those hand claps on In God We Trust?!

You’re absolutely correct. You’re only about the third person to notice out of the many interviews we’ve done!

Who came up with that idea?

That was Jeff. We were doing a load of percussion and we were throwing ideas around. He came up with that thought ‘What the heck?’ We’d done lots of stomping and tambourines and triangles…so it made sense to give it a try. It ended up being surprisingly loud in the mix!

Cover of Torn Arteries by Zbigniew Bielak

Where did the idea for the artwork come from?

It was purely Jeff sorting that. He worked with his Polish mates on that! Dan and I only knew of it when it was completed. Looking at it, I’m sure it took a long time to execute it.

It’s very distinctive.

Are there any particular songs that you’re looking forward to playing live?

Yeah, but most likely the ones that I favour will probably not make the setlist! It’s always a tussle for which ones make it. We try to keep it democratic. If two people want something, that carries the vote.

What would your picks be?

I’d say, In God We Trust. The Devil Rides Out. I really like the opening track (the title track).

What about Dance Of Ixtab?

It’s funny you should mention that. I think that would probably go over well, live.

It’s quite different in terms of its beat. It feels a little bouncier.

It’s almost in danger of sounding uplifting! Fortunately, the lyrics are classic Jeff Walker so it’s still grim!

With that song, I had two things happening in my head at the same time. Luckily they coalesced. There was a drum groove from an old 70’s Priest record and I had a riff that was an old fashioned down picked riff. Luckily they went together and that was how the song started. It gradually started to write itself. We had a chorus and we were away.

But you’re right; you don’t hear that too often, especially in this kind of music, where the primary drum groove doesn’t have a hi-hat or a symbol. It’s just a tom and a snare. That was the intention. We just wanted some serious variation on the record. We had to bring something new otherwise there would be no point in recording.

Is it that drive and desire for something different and new that keeps you wanting to come back?

Yeah; that’s a huge part of it. I wouldn’t want this to become a re-enactment of a medieval battle.

I guess it would be easy to churn out ten death metal tracks.

A lot of it is down to how much fear is involved as well. With one or two bands of our vintage, there has maybe been the temptation to plagiarise your own material and re-hash things that you have already nailed years ago. We were quite anxious not to get into that zone. If something sounded too cosy or too familiar, it just got altered or binned.

Very self-critical and brutal about how you go about doing things.

Yes. Fortunately, that’s something we all agree on. Whatever amount of time it takes to get the desired result.

Are you looking forward to playing Damnation Festival? UK bands have really stepped up after the American bands having to pull out.

Definitely; that was kind of inevitable with the American bands though. Kudos to the festival organisers for finding a way to make it happen and ploughing ahead with it though. I just hope we’re on course for it without any more problems.

For me, it’s a big one because there is something special about playing on home soil and in my opinion; this band doesn’t do that enough. Then there is the location. That venue is special. It’s history. It’s really significant in music history; Live At Leeds (The Who) and all that.

What’s more is that you are getting the whole festival vibe but it’s indoors so you get more control over your sound. I like that element of it. I just like visiting Leeds and Yorkshire though.

You were slated to be on the Behemoth/Arch Enemy tour but that has sadly been cancelled.

I felt that that was inevitable. When September came around it was more a when rather than an if it would get cancelled. We were just waiting for the promoters to come forward.

Will you be looking to do your own headline tour with Torn Arteries?

It sounds pretty lame, but I am pretty much just the guitar player. Those kinds of decisions are made between Jeff and the agents. They sign us up to different areas. There are some places they feel confident that we can headline and there are others where they don’t feel that we should. I guess we’ll just have to play that one by ear.

The last time I saw Carcass was with Napalm Death, Voivod and Obituary. Do you feel that bundle bills like that is the most sustainable way of touring moving forward?

I wouldn’t be the most knowledgeable to ask to be honest, but with some of those larger tours, I have mixed feelings.

The Behemoth thing hasn’t happened, but part of me thought at the start that it would be like when we supported Amon Amarth. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but it was a difficult few weeks because we were playing to a lot of audiences that a) had no idea who we were and b) just didn’t care. I think it was six weeks, and you could count on one hand the number of decent gigs we had. You immediately sense that is the wrong kind of audience. I did wonder if that would happen with the Behemoth thing.

I guess with Napalm Death, Voivod, Obituary and Carcass, there is enough similarity in the bands. I’ve been in an Amon Amarth crowd and it is wildly different to a Carcass crowd.

Yeah; it’s a lot bigger for a start; hence the desire of some people to stick us on that bill. You play in front of more people, but have you actually reached those people.

Many thanks to Bill Steer for taking the time to talk to us. You can read our review of Torn Arteries here.

Check out the video for The Scythe’s Remorseless Swing below

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