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Surgical Strike: Bill Steer & Jeff Walker Of Carcass Interviewed
Toby Cook , August 8th, 2014 10:10

Ahead of their performance at Bloodstock this weekend, Toby Cook speaks to Jeff Walker and Bill Steer about the Carcass CV of melodic aggression and death metal innovation

The term 'legend' is thrown around so frequently in metal these days that it hasn't so much lost all meaning as it has come to mean virtually any band who have got more than three albums to their name. In a genre of 'cult legends', 'scene legends', 'veteran legends' and 'soon-to-be legends' death metal pioneers Carcass are one of the few who can, however, legitimately be tagged as such. Why? Carcass are legends precisely because they actually have no business being legends at all. They are legends precisely because they shouldn't be.

Let me explain. Formed in 1985 by three teenagers from the Liverpool and Wirral area, Carcass' first LP, 1988's Reek Of Putrefaction, recorded at the now legendary Rich Bitch studios in Birmingham – the very same place in which their close friends Napalm Death recorded the Grindcore classic Scum – is about as harsh and objectionable sounding an album as you're ever likely to hear. It is a porridge of vocals gnarling under an impenetrably dense dirge of frenetic guitars and blasting drums. It has lyrics that deal with autopsy, vivisection and cannibal faeces, with such titles as 'Vomited Anal Tract' and 'Excreted Alive'. Championed by John Peel, whilst the like of Napalm Death – whom Bill Steer briefly joined as guitarist – were infecting the larger musical consciousness via the pages of the NME and the like, Carcass remained firmly underground. 1989's Symphonies Of Sickness continued the gore and grind themes, and an unexpected US tour with Death (offered to them after Swedish death & roll act Entombed pulled out) broadened their audience, but it wasn't until the addition of Swedish guitarist Mike Amott and the release in 1991 of Necroticism – Descanting The Insalubrious that the quartet locked into the disarmingly melodic death metal sound that was to eventually define them, and a whole genre.

Still riddled with gory aesthetics Necroticism… showed a progression in musicianship and scope that few, if any, were matching – from seven-plus minute songs to riffs influenced by Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and the increasingly harmonious guitars. While their former studio mates Napalm Death slipped into death metal uniformity, hammering blast-beats into stagnant ground, Carcass continued to progress and evolve. And, two years later the band virtually invented a genre with the viciously melodic masterpiece Heartwork. Perhaps one of the best extreme metal albums ever made, while at the time it may have angered parts of their fanbase, the likes of 'Buried Dreams' and the wailing title track are now metal classics. Although things subsequently began to fall apart, with the departure of Amott and a split from their major label, Columbia, Heartwork's follow-up, 1996's classic rock influenced (and prophetically titled) Swansong has arguably stood the test of time better that many would've expected, with tracks like the deceptively playful 'Keep On Rotting In The Free World' still a live favourite.

With that band officially splitting in 1995 – before the release of their then-final LP – it wasn't until 2008 that Walker, Steer and Amott reformed (original drummer Ken Owen was unable to take part due to suffering a cerebral haemorrhage in 1999 which left him unable to play the drums, although his continued recovery is no less astounding), for what was planned to be a short run of festival dates that saw them play to tens of thousands of fans around the globe. Then, last year, completely out of the blue, a new album, Surgical Steel, captured their classic sound and featured in many end of year lists. There was a new line-up featuring guitarist Ben Ash and former Trigger The Bloodshed drummer Daniel Wilding which was debuted at three sold-out shows at The Underworld, a basement venue in London, before the group embarked on a world tour.

So, three albums of grinding gore, made before Cannibal Corpse made it cool; two albums whose scope alienated parts of their fanbase, and an acrimonious, drawn out split that ended things with a festering whimper. Legends? Really?

Yes. Why? See. Them. Live.

Some weeks ago I found myself in a field in Hertfordshire at one of the UK's monstrously oversized metal festivals, staring up at the four men on a monstrously oversized stage when a friend – and, latterly, a converted Carcass fan – asked me: "So, what's so special about Carcass?" With little actual thought, admittedly, I told him: "Carcass are probably the most important and influential metal band to come out of the UK since Black fucking Sabbath, dude! They're legends." It was only then, squinting into the setting sun as Jeff Walker's sulphurous growl echoed out from the giant stage, sending several thousand sunburned metallers into headbanging frenzy, that I realised what I meant. Carcass never compromised, they never stagnated or fell into a formula. They are one of few bands who look and sound just as at home on a huge festival stage as they do in a basement club. Iron Maiden might rule in front of 200,000 people in some gargantuan arena, but could their pantomime escapades cut it in the Dog & Duck? Doubtful. Carcass are one of only a few British bands to have defined a sound that has since gone global; underappreciated at the time, it is us that have finally caught up with them. If you ever needed a reason to go to Bloodstock this weekend (and, like Emperor wasn't enough?!) catching Carcass in all their filthy rock pomp g(l)ory ought to be more than reason enough.

So with their triumphant live and recorded return behind them and a spot on the bill at the most metal festival in the UK ahead, I caught up with guitarist Bill Steer and bassist Jeff Walker for a pub lunch in East London…

Obviously you did the reunion dates in 2008, but certainly given some of the comments Bill especially made around that time, the new album almost seemed to come out of nowhere – what happened to get you into that zone where you felt it was time to make a new album?

Bill Steer: Well, on those occasions when we said that 'there probably isn't likely to be a new album', we were mainly saying that for political reasons, because we couldn't just come out and say that there is half of the band here who don't want to do new album. Once they were gone, of course, we were able to do an album, so it was a viable subject at that point. But up until then our hands were tied really, it wasn't something we could even consider.

Jeff Walker: I actually made it pretty vocal back in 2008. We were in Brazil and I said I'd be up for it, because by then I thought it'd be a squandered opportunity – to be in band with Bill, Mike Amott and Daniel Erlandsson is like, really good musical pedigree, so it was like being a kid in a candy store – especially for someone as untalented as myself! And, y'know, that's a great foundation for a band. But as Bill points out, there was no chance in hell Mike Amott was going to sign up for it, although in all honesty Daniel Erlandsson had said to me on the side that that he'd be up for doing anything we wanted to do in the future, but in the end he had to go with his pay master. And to be honest, even Bill wasn't showing much interest back then, and if he was we never really talked about it; the only time we would've discussed a new album back then would've been back at the first rehearsal. We really enjoyed that rehearsal, but I think the consensus back then, with myself included, was that, "This is good, but let's not tarnish the legacy; let's not fuck it with." But, as time went on we just thought, "Fuck it, why not?"

BS: Also for me, I was playing riffs at home and was thinking, if I'm really honest, "This is the kind of riff I could use in Carcass", because it wasn't really stuff that was applicable to any of the other bands that I was involved in, and it kept happening! Eventually I realised that I had loads of stuff, not just at the time, but I had stuff going back years that had never been used, so the least we could was to try and write some stuff; if it didn't really work or it didn't feel right we could've dropped it….

JW: But you've got to look at why we did the reunion, it was only meant to be a one summer reunion thing, but it dragged on, we kept getting offers, and by the third year it was a case of, "Ok, if we're going to continue, what are we going to do? We can't just carry on playing the old stuff." I was getting bored of just playing the old songs anyway. It's hard to explain, but I think we'd been so long away from it, it was enjoyable again. And I think us taking that break meant we could genuinely get fired up again about playing heavy, extreme music – most bands that have existed for the past 17 years are just going through the fucking motions because they're too fucking scared about getting a real fucking job! Y'know what I mean? When you start a band when you're a kid you don't envisage that 20 years later you're still going to be doing it, you do it because you're young, you enjoy it and it's a way to express yourself. But for some people it turns into a job, doesn't it, and there's a fear of life after being in a band. And we know, we got jobs. Sure we were still dipping our toes musically and doing stuff but our bread and butter was getting our hands dirty and being regular citizens. But, y'know: why do an album? Because we wanted to!

It had obviously been a long time since you recorded Swansong, and although you've been touring old material for a number of years, with respect you're both older gentlemen now – how much of a challenge was it to get back into the right frame of mind for actually writing Carcass material?

JW: Not at all for me, but maybe for Bill because he'd been doing the Firebird stuff, but for me I'm still that same person. I mean, as my dad said to me – it's probably the only philosophical thing he's ever said: "You're always that 17 year old kid in your head, the only thing that changes is your physical state." Some people are mature at the age of 17 and they'll always be mature, but I mean, I've never been married, I don't have kids; I'm still this long haired, slacker motherfucker who's still trying to enjoy his life… I mean, the 17 years has flown by, really… [Pauses as his veggie sausage and mash arrives]

Bangers and mash? I half expected to it to be a stainless steel kidney dish of entrails or something….

JW: And anyway, I don't think that what we do is that far removed from classic heavy metal – I mean, it's a bit faster and a bit heavier, but as Bill points out, we don't sound extreme compared to some of the stuff that's around these days. Play us next to Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse and we sound like fucking Saxon or something!

With Surgical Steel, was there ever a concern, with the lyrical content and subject matter of the songs especially, of being seen to be a bit disingenuous and just trying to sound like the old Carcass, even though you yourselves are much older now?

JW: Lyrically it's very easy for me to slip into that mode because I'm still mentally the same inarticulate, uneducated idiot – I mean, there's a lot of vitriol and venom, and a lot of humour in there too, which still sums up my personality, y'know. It's like the guitar riffs, it's very easy to lock into that Carcass mode, there are definite parameters of what we can and can't do with the band; we're not going to start playing reggae or free jazz or anything. And we have a 'sound' at the end of the day, we kind of invented that downtuned to B thing. It's like a recipe when you're cooking food: you can have the same ingredients but the resulting dish can be very different. What a good metaphor, he says, looking at his plate of mash. So yeah, it's just Carcass, y'know? We know our limits and what we can and can't do and hopefully we play to our strengths.

It's interesting, I think that over the last few years an number of bands from the late 80s and early 90s, bands of a similar generation to yourselves, seem to be reforming and writing new material – I don't want to use the words 'midlife crisis', but why do you think that is?

JW: Well it's not just our music; it's everything in popular culture. And you're trapped by your past anyway. I mean, whatever Bill tries to do musically people are always going to be reminding him about Napalm Death or Carcass.

BS: Yeah, exactly. So, y'know, you may as well make the most of it; have a bit of fun.

You touched on it a little there, when you talked about the initial reunion with Mike Amott and Daniel Erlandsson; was there a particular reason that they weren't interested in being part of any new material?

BS: Well, just to say firstly that there was no animosity there, not at all, it was just a case of divided loyalties, really.

JW: Let's be very vulgar here: The reason why Mike wanted to be part of the Carcass reunion was partly financial and partly to do with credibility. In all honesty Arch Enemy wasn't really making money due to 'mismanagement' or whatever you might want to call it. Because, y'know, they're a big name and they're always doing big gigs with Maiden or Slayer or whatever, but they weren't necessarily making any money, and the Carcass thing was a good way for everyone to make some money. But I think also that Mike and Angela [Gossow], from seeing how we operated, saw a way for Arch Enemy to continue and start making money – I mean, that's the brutal reality of it.

But in all fairness it was only meant to be a short term thing anyway and Mike's built Arch Enemy up from scratch, so it's his baby and he's in control of that. I don't think he'd have been comfortable being in a band where he's not the boss… Even though he's not really the boss in his own band!

BS: The dynamic would've been too weird, we could feel that. We could get through shows without any trouble, but if we tried to move forward and do something new…. I mean, when Mike was in the band originally he was the new guy, and he didn't have a huge amount of say. But, since then he's gone on to have a career of his own; he's become a mega star in Japan, so there's no way he's going to go back to being 'that' guy, he wants to be in charge of everything, which is understandable, but it can't really work in Carcass.

Did having two younger guys come into the band, in Ben Ash [guitar] and Dan Wilding [drums], in terms of refreshing your approach, actually help focus you?

BS: Yeah, it definitely did… And none of us have anything else that comes before this band. I mean, before we sort of got into the subject of replacements and so on, we had discussions about it and people tried to push us in the direction of getting 'names', like 'oh well there's so-and-so from' this band'….

JW: We approached Jesper [Strömblad] from In Flames and even Gary Holt – he got the Slayer gig anyway, but Gary was up for it – but looking back it would've been the wrong choice. I mean, Gary's a great guy and a fantastic musician, but he's right for Slayer, not for Carcass.

Despite the new blood, as it were, you've got Ken [Owen] doing some backing vocals on the new LP – how important was it that he was involved in some way?

BS: Essential really, because we just wanted as many connections with our past as possible – that's why we had Colin [Richardson] producing too. And, y'know, the thing with Ken is that obviously he can't play drums on the album, but anyone who understands his condition knows that he's done remarkably well to get to this point.

Well yeah, I mean, it's miraculous that he's even able to get up and walk around really…

BS: Exactly – that's the way we look at it. We do get people looking at it the other way saying, "Oh it's such a tragedy; will he ever recover and one day play the drums the way he used to?" And that's a very awkward question to answer, because you don't want to upset people and say, "No", point blank, but if they really knew the situation they wouldn't ask the question. So we look at it the other way round: he's achieved a hell of a lot to even get to this point, because he was at death's door for months. But we knew we could definitely get him to do vocals, and strangely he sounded exactly the same on the microphone as he did when he as 19/20 years old, it was really weird – and he had a load of fun doing it. The main thing is that he heard the record and he gave it the thumbs up, which I was a bit nervous about. I mean, I knew he'd like it deep down, but it was still nerve-wracking because we really wanted him to approve of it. And he loved the drumming! Which is the main thing – thank god.

And is he just following you around on tour these days, then!?

JW: He's like our [Iron Maiden mascot] Eddie.

BS: We try, when it's feasible for him, we try and bring him out with us.

JW: And again, when we did the reunion it was important to have him feel involved; he did a little 'drum solo', for want of a better word. But life goes on, y'know, and for want of a better way of putting it we don't want to turn it into a gimmick or have him feel that we're patronising him or anything – he came to the Underworld shows just to hangout because he's a friend….

BS: He likes to try and come out for the special things – he was there at Damnation for instance… Perhaps he'll be there at Bloodstock – who knows?

JW: At the end of the day he's a fucking middle aged man, he's got better things to do than follow a fucking band around. We haven't got anything better to do, that's the problem!

Going back a bit, you did those three dates at the Underworld and again they seemed to be something, even for a feckless journo like myself who's lucky enough to know PRs and get the inside track on upcoming gigs so to speak, it just seemed that all of a sudden one day: Carcass are doing three dates at The Underworld! For £6 a ticket!

JW: Well, to be honest, the idea was that it was meant to be the record release party, but of course the mix didn't get done in time! But we were also actually about to go to South America to do some gigs not long after that so it was a good way of breaking in the new guys, rather than going straight on to a big stage and seeing Ben Ash behave like a deer in the headlights and possibly freeze. And the reality is we could've played the Forum to the same amount of people – personally I'd have liked to have done a week at the Underworld, a bit like The Clash on Broadway when they took over that fucking club for a week, y'know; I like the idea of keeping it cheap as chips and it becoming a bit of a spectacle and people talking about it for a while afterwards. I don't think it quite had that result.

But it was just nice, y'know, playing a big stage is not the be all and end all – the US gigs we just did were small as well, the same kind of vibe – we could've played the House Of Blues and probably sold it out, but when we go back in five months what do we do, play the same venue? The same in London, if we play the Forum and then go back there six months later it's kind of like stagnation. At least we've got somewhere to go once we've played the Underworld, and at least we never have to play the Underworld ever again! Every time I play there I always say never again, but…

Not a fan then?

JW: Nah, to be honest this time it was really good, it was enjoyable, but it's just really tiny, isn't it; it's really hot and all that. But again, this time I really enjoyed it.

BS: I love it; I mean I'd rather do clubs all the time if it was possible….

JW: Oh, it's going to happen Bill, the way your career is going!

BS: But what I mean is, yeah, if we just did this the whole time people would just think that that's where they're at, there's that danger in that too, obviously. But in terms of the fun involved, playing smaller venues, it's just way better to me than playing a huge festival – you get something back immediately; if something's not working you find out straight away.

One of the interesting things about it was the price too. I mean, even at the Underworld these days you can expect to pay £10 - £15 to see a band there, and you can go online anywhere in the world to book a ticket, and yet to see fucking Carcass was £6 and you had to actually go to the venue – that's pretty old school. What was the thinking behind that?

JW: Well, we just wanted to sell it out! My philosophy was: If we can't sell those gigs out I'm never playing London ever again, simple as that! And it's just a cool thing; we can give something back before we start fleecing people with high ticket prices and merchandise. But I don't know, it was just an interesting idea; it was something cool to do.

BS: And it really was a good way to break in the news guys: a fairly low pressure environment compared to later on.

JW: And it took pressure off me, being the supposed frontman.

How much trepidation was there on your part then, playing a smaller gig, having the crowd right up in your face, rather than miles away as they often are at bigger shows?

JW: I definitely feel more stressed nowadays, now I'm older, because there's more expectation on the band delivering – when you're younger you don't give a shit, you just play and you couldn't give a fuck.

BS: Also, because there was no expectation at that time. Those albums were happening at the time; there weren't considered anything special; the band wasn't taken very seriously most places we played, so we could get away with all sorts of tomfoolery onstage. It's very different now, though, every little mistake you make is suddenly online with plenty of people commenting on it. I guess you're just aware of the fact that people expect something from you now – you can't always live up to it, but you've got to do your best.

So, to start wrapping things up then – what does the future hold for Carcass? I guess we shouldn't be be expecting Surgical Steel's follow-up to be this mammoth, 24-track double concept album then?

JW: Yeah, why not a triple album!? And, y'know, I don't think we've made our best album yet, so as long as you feel that way, you're still friends and you still play, you've still got something to achieve haven't you. None of our albums is my favourite but I'd like to think we've still got it in us, somewhere, so there's still a future in that sense.

So when you think back to the period when the band split, how surprised are you to find yourselves in this position, twenty years later, with a new Carcass album and being back on the road touring the world?

BS: Well if you look at it through those eyes, speaking personally, taking it back to when I was 25 or whatever, it was unthinkable. I just couldn't have imagined this, because I really thought that not only was the band finished, but that no one would even remember the band in two years.

JW: I don't agree – call me arrogant, but I always believed that there was something special about what we were doing.

BS: I did too, I just stopped believing in it when we broke up. That's the difference I guess.

JW: I think the most surprising aspect is that metal itself has survived, and that it's probably bigger than it was when we called it a day, because you're talking post-Nirvana, post-grunge and all that; major labels were dropping all the bands they'd hastily signed. And there were no festivals; now in the summer you can't get out of bed without tripping over a festival; the industry surrounding it is massive. And there're so many fucking bands. I think it's the last of the youth subcultures, y'know? There's no tribes left; there's no punk or mod or whatever you want to call it – it's just heavy metal or…

BS: Or you're normal!

Carcass play the main stage at Bloodstock Festival, which takes place this weekend, 8th – 10th of August, at Catton Hall, Derby. Click here to visit the Bloodstock site