Interview with Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse

After 24 relentless years on the road and in the studio, you’d think that Cannibal Corpse would’ve lost some of their lust for chaotic, razor-sharp guitar solos, gore-spattered album covers, and gruesome tales of bodily mutilation. One listen to the death metal masters’ 12th studio album, ‘Torture,’ proves any such fears (or hopes, if you represent the Australian or German governments) completely wrong. The band remains incredibly technically gifted while never missing the perfect opportunities for hooks, even if they are as viciously serrated as they are catchy. Just try listening to the chugging groove of “Sarcophagic Frenzy” or the crushing, looming riffs of “Scourge of Iron” without getting the urge to incite a mosh pit with the nearest hapless bystanders. And ‘Torture’ being a Cannibal Corpse record, it would be a shame to overlook the lyrics: a mere glance at song titles like “Encased in Concrete,” “Intestinal Crank,” and “The Strangulation Chair” suggests a splatterfest that would satisfy any of the headbangers’ bloodthirsty fans.

During a recent day off, Cannibal Corpse bassist extraordinaire Alex Webster was nice enough to chat with Rock Edition over the phone. Head below to check out our conversation about the new album, keeping murder fresh, and what he would do if he could bring the band’s music to the silver screen.

How’s it going?

Everything’s good. We just got back from a European tour a couple days ago, so I’m just settling in. We arrived Monday night, and so we had the past couple of days to get used being back home and everything. It’s also the big week of our album being released, so we’ve been keeping an eye on that, too. So I’m relaxing, but it’s an exciting week, anyhow.

Yeah. And that was the Destroyers of the Faith tour in the UK, right?

Yeah, the final five shows were the Destroyers of the Faith tour. The first, I believe, 23 shows of the tour were the Full of Hate tour, which was in mainland Europe. The Full of Hate tour was comprised of Behemoth, Misery Index, Legion of the Damned, Suicidal Angels, and Nexus Inferis. The Destroyers of the Faith tour was Triptykon, Enslaved, and Job for a Cowboy. We headlined both of those tours. They were a couple of really cool tours. We had a really good time. We’re happy to be back, but it was a fun month.

Those are really diverse lineups, especially the Destroyers of the Faith one. Those are four very different bands.

Yeah, it was that. Definitely. That one was a little bit more out there, but I enjoyed it very much as well. Full of Hate was a little more of a straight-ahead thrash/death/black [metal] tour, where the other one was a bit more of a variety tour. But went really well.

Definitely. Any favorite moments from those tours?

Nothing I can really think of offhand. I mean, there were some. In London, there was a really cool thing that happened where George — our singer, George [Fisher; also known as Corpsegrinder] — sang “Dethroned Emperor” with Triptykon. Triptykon is in Tom G. Warrior’s band, his current band, and of course, he was in Celtic Frost, and they play a couple Celtic Frost songs in their set. So they invited George to sing “Dethroned Emperor,” and we felt George did a great job and everything. It was just a really cool thing to see because there were like 1500 people at the London show. That was definitely a good moment. That’s one that comes to mind readily.

That sounds pretty awesome. Let’s talk a little bit about the new album. How did the writing and recording of ‘Torture’ compare with the making of your past few albums?

It wasn’t all that different. If anything, I really like to write a lot, and once I get going, I will just spend all of my spare time writing. That, in the past, has kind of put it to a place on a number of the albums where I’ve written more than half of the album myself. It got to the point where for ‘Evisceration Plague,’ I’d probably written more like 75% of the record. I kind of wanted to step back a little bit and make sure that the other guys had a chance because they do write a little bit more slowly than I do. They end up making really amazing songs, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t getting in the way of them doing that, so I stepped back a little bit and didn’t start going into a full writing frenzy until they’d already got a couple in the bag. Meaning, Rob [Barrett, guitarist] and Pat [O’Brien, guitarist].

On top of that, I was also working on recording the Blotted Science record [‘The Animation of Entomology’] throughout the spring while they were writing songs. I like to really keep busy playing bass and writing music, so having the Blotted Science to work on kept me occupied while those guys were getting the jump on me by writing some songs before I got some written. So the split of the writing wound up being a lot more even this time, musically. I still ended up doing a bunch; I did five songs, Pat did four, and then Rob did three. It was a pretty even split, and I think it’s resulted in a diverse album. If you have different people writing, that’s just going to lend itself to the album having more variety, I think. So that was the main difference from the prior two, that there was a much more even split of the songwriting duties this time.

Yeah, I definitely feel that. All the songs are — there are a lot of different tempos and playing styles on it. Who wrote which songs on the album?

Sure, I’ll run down that real quick for you. “Scourge of Iron,” “The Strangulation Chair,” “Intestinal Crank,” “Rabid,” and “Crucifier Avenged” — those are my five songs. I did the music and lyrics for those entirely. Rob did “Encased in Concrete,” “Sarcophagic Frenzy,” and “Caged…Contorted.” He wrote the lyrics for all of them except for “Encased,” which the lyrics were written by Paul [Mazurkiewicz, drummer]. And then Pat’s four songs are the remaining four songs: “Torn Through,” “As Deep as the Knife Will Go,” “Followed Home Then Killed,” and “Demented Aggression.” Paul Mazurkiewicz wrote the lyrics to all four of those. As you can see, between the four of us who do the writing in the band, we definitely share duties. Everybody gets their voice if they want. George, our singer, has always voluntarily opted out of the songwriting portion of the band. He’s just never felt inclined to do that. But everyone’s welcome to contribute if they want to. It helps; it’s for the better of the album that everyone is so active in that way.

Definitely. Lyrically, do you guys ever find that you’re running out of ways for people to be killed?

[laughs] I mean, probably not. Like the TV show or whatever, there’s a ‘1000 Ways to Die.’ And we’ve only got like 140 songs, so we’re not even 20% of the way there.

I guess that’s true. [laughs]

But in all seriousness, I don’t think that will be a problem. What we really try to do is make each scenario a bit more focused and a bit more specific. Of course, you can have a song about a serial killer, but what’s the serial killer doing? And if you have two songs about serial killers on your album, one of them might be doing something in a very different way than the other. We don’t want to do general subjects. That wouldn’t work. If we had a song that was just about zombies in general, that would be something we would’ve covered 20 years ago. The songs have to be more specific in order for us to keep from repeating ourselves.

Do you ever have to catch yourself — you’re writing down some lyrics about a certain scenario — do you ever have to catch yourself and be like, “Wait, I’ve written something that’s really similar to this before”?

Yeah, sort of. A lot of times what will happen is I’ll end up writing something and realize I’m using the same sort of words that I’ve used before, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of using particular words and phrases again and again. Part of that is your “style,” but…sometimes, I think when people say that’s my style, that’s kind of a way of saying I’m repetitive. [laughs] My style is using the same shit again and again. We don’t want to be repetitive any more than necessary. Of course, there’s a certain amount of it — we are singing about horror. Everything’s going to be about horror, so there’s going to be a certain amount of repetition, of course. But, in general, we want to have a nice, diverse style. And again, having three different lyricists on the album I think helps us avoid repetition and creates diversity. Paul’s lyric writing style is quite different than from mine, as is Rob’s, so I hope that it’s a very interesting listen as well as an interesting read from start to finish.

Yeah, I definitely think so. You once said in an interview that you all really try to push the limits of musical complexity on every new album. Do you think that’s true for this new album?

Well, I think what we’ve wound up settling into is instead of having the goal be to make things complex and more difficult to play, the next step for us was to try and write the best songs we could. Learning how to arrange things in a better way, how to create excitement with our skills as musicians rather than writing songs that show off the skills, necessarily. There’s definitely a few moments of some pretty serious chops going on, but that’s not its reason for being. What we’ve gotten to now is we still want to push ourselves, but we’re kind of pushing ourselves in the songwriting department. There’s some fairly technical things going on on this record that are at a higher level than we’ve ever been at as far as writing rhythms; we’ve learned to work better together as a band. Having, for example, the way the bass and the drums work together and those sort of things. I just think that the songs overall are just better. There are better drum fills. Every last little detail of every song was thought about. Every drum fill, every bass line. Our attention to detail has gotten better than ever, I think.

We probably didn’t push as hard as we had before as far as making shit hard to play. I mean, it’s going to be hard to play by nature because we’re good players, I think. We’re not the best or whatever, but we’re definitely decent players and we enjoy writing challenging music. But the fact that it’s challenging is just a side effect of us trying to write the best songs we could, the heaviest stuff we could. It’s not the be-all, end-all of the song itself. The songs are written to be good, and if they wind up being hard, it’s a side effect.

Yeah. I definitely think that there are a lot of extreme metal bands out there that have really talented musicians, but they just push the technical side of it so far that it’s unlistenable.

Yeah. I love technical music, but I think you should develop your technical ability as a musician in order to write music that you love. [laughs] You know what I mean? And by being a really good musician, you don’t have any technical limitations. You can write whatever you want, but you don’t have to write songs that are specifically designed to show off what you play; you should just have a high skill level so that you can write whatever you want.

Yeah. It’s like a tool.

Yeah, exactly. If you have the best set of tools, it doesn’t mean you have to use every drill bit in your drill box in every project you do just because you have all these tools. You just use whatever is appropriate for that particular piece.

For sure. And I have to say that the bass tone on the new album is one of the best I’ve heard on a metal record recently.

Well, thank you.

How do you get that sound?

Okay. That was a combination of things. The amps I use are SWR amps. They’re a really good, versatile amp you can get a good, cutting sound from. I use my Spector basses, and again, they’re great basses. But I have used them before. They’ve always been the key since around 2003, when I started using them. They’ve been a key part of my sound. But I think the big difference this time is definitely the SWR amps, and also, I used a Boss overdrive pedal. Since the recording, I’ve actually gotten an even better overdrive pedal made by a company called Darkglass — I should just mention that because I’m endorsing them. It’s an awesome company. But on the album, I did use a Boss Bass Overdrive. Now, the thing is is it’s not really a distorted sound. I turned the gain and the drive all the way off. I dialed it all the way to the left so that really all it did by having the pedal engaged was add a little bite and a little bit of midrange. It gave me more presence, and it enabled Erik [Rutan, producer] to put the bass in the mix in a place where it can be constantly heard. If you have a decent ear, you should be able to hear just about every note I’m playing on this record. It’s something that we’re very happy about, and we want to continue to have — from here on out, I want the bass to be on that level on every album we do. I don’t see any reason for it not to be.

It’s been a little bit of a mission of mine throughout my career to make the bass an equal member in a death metal band, and I feel that unfortunately in a lot of death metal and other kinds of extreme metal, the bass is not an equal member. It’s almost an invisible member, and that’s no good. We need to have it be an important thing where you hear it the entire time. It’s a little bit of a personal mission of mine, and I don’t want to get too sidetracked here from the interview being about the band as a whole. But yeah, making the bass an equal member — not more important, but just equal to the other instruments — is a big deal to me. This album, it’s one of the most successful we’ve ever been at that, for sure.

Especially considering the complexity of the parts. It’s one thing if it’s just playing root notes, but you’re all over the place.

Yeah, thanks. It took a while, and I practiced a lot on the parts. I also tried to make sure I wrote parts that were going to pop out. Having some interesting bass lines in combination with having good sound and being well-prepared and being able to give a good performance in the studio — those things came together and made it possibly the best bass Cannibal Corpse album there’s been. ‘The Bleeding’ was a really good one back from the old days. That might be the loudest up until this point.

Well, I have one more question for you. If you could make a full-length movie based on any song in your discography, which one would you pick?

Hmm… that’s a good question! I would probably need to go back and think about that one for a while. I’ve never really thought about that. It really depends. There are so many songs where something could be expanded. Each song is only about three to four minutes long and has lyrics that are written in a way that they can be — they’re certainly not as detailed as even a short screenplay, not even close, of course. There’s really a lot of room to build on these. From the new album, you can take a song like “Crucifier Avenged” and build a story off of that idea about an executioner who’s going so far as to inspire the other members of his judicial team to try and kill him. [laughs] That sort of thing. There is a plot to be pulled out of that. As the songs stand by themselves, they’re all relatively barren compared to a full-on story. I think any of them could be potentially turned into something good. “Followed Home Then Killed” — I’m just thinking the new record because it’s fresh in my mind, but there’s a bunch of old songs, too. “Bloodlands” would be interesting. That would have to be a lot of CGI, probably. “Rotted Body Landslide” — again, that would be a pretty gross one. [laughs] Yeah, any of them. I hate to be wishy-washy about this one, but we’ve got like 140 songs or something around that. I’d have to sit down and look at all of them before I could pick that one.

Yeah. I figured it would be a difficult question. [laughs]

Yeah, it’s tough.

Pick up Cannibal Corpse’s new album, Torture.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.