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Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster Discusses ‘Torture,’ Summer Slaughter + Religion

Cannibal Corpse
Metal Blade

‘Hammer Smashed Face,’ ‘Force-Fed Broken Glass,’ ‘Sanded Faceless’ — these are just a few of the charming song titles that death metal legends Cannibal Corpse have used throughout their career. Having been vilified for their gore-encrusted style of brutal death metal, which is well documented in the film ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,’ Cannibal Corpse bassist and creative lynchpin Alex Webster may seem an unlikely candidate for a pleasant and mindful discussion to some, but those naysayers couldn’t be more incorrect.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Alex Webster, who spoke with us about the new Cannibal Corpse album, ‘Torture’; the band’s long history of revolting album covers; headlining the 2012 Summer Slaughter festival; how a religious upbringing mixed with a taste for horror flicks shaped the sound of Cannibal Corpse; + much more.

Check out our exclusive and fascinating interview with Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster:

‘Torture’ is the latest album and I was wondering how you would compare the writing and recording process of making that album to making albums like ‘Eaten Back to Life’ or ‘Tomb of the Mutilated.’

For sure, we’re a lot more experienced now and we have more time in the studio. ‘Eaten Back to Life’ we did in a week and a half and it was the first record we’d ever done. [Laughs] I think the budget was $5,000 and we wound up going a half day over so we got $500 extra from the record label. So it wound up being a $5,500 budget I think for the first record. It’s obviously considerably more now as per our contract and inflation, of course. It’s something where we have a lot more time now and you know, it helps a lot. You have time to get a tighter performance and to concentrate on getting better sounds. When you’re dealing with limited time like we did in the old days, you would just set things up and get the best sound you could in a hurry and then just start recording.

Now with ‘Torture’ we were able to spend a couple of days just getting the guitar sound and things like that. You know, just a couple of day working on drum sounds. The actual writing process is fairly different too. The first three albums we kind of wrote songs together and then by the fourth album, [The Bleeding] we started seeing a lot of songs that were written entirely by one guy in the band. That happened a lot more. It happened a couple of times on the first few albums, where one guy wrote a lot more of one song than someone else but in general it was a pretty collaborative effort. There is still collaboration going on, but actually all of the songs on ‘Torture’ for example, the music for each one was written by an individual. Four of the songs are written by Pat [O'Brien, guitar], three of the songs are written by Rob [Barrett, guitar], five are written by me. It wasn’t like we came into the room with a couple of riffs and then some other guy added his riffs to the song, it wasn’t like that. It did used to be like that on some of those earlier records you mentioned where there would be more of a collaboration. Now it is more of an individual process and it has been that way since ‘The Bleeding.’

You guys got Erik Rutan, who did your last two records, to produce this album. Why have you decided to stick with him in particular and what do you think his biggest strengths are as a producer?

Erik is a real expert at death metal in general, being that he’s been in Morbid Angel, Ripping Corpse, and now he’s in Hate Eternal. So, from a guitarist and a singer’s point of view, he’s got a lot of experience, and as a producer he’s also got a lot of experience. You know, he’s got all kinds of records for heavy bands like Vital Remains, Goatwhore, all kinds of stuff. So he’s got a really strong background on two sides of our music — the performance side and the production side and it’s a real asset in the studio. Nobody we’ve worked with knows death metal better than Erik Rutan. We’ve worked with some guys that are really good at it, but Erik is a true death metal expert, there’s no questioning that. So that right there is the reason that we use him, but also he has a great work ethic. He’s a good friend of ours as well and we know we can count on him to tell us the truth in there. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. If something sounds bad, he’ll just tell us it sounds bad. He’s just really good to work with for a variety of reasons and we’ve enjoyed working with him on those three albums a great deal.

I love that new Goatwhore album.

Yeah, he does such good work with those guys. They’re great and he’s a great producer. It’s a great combination.

Was it through Erik Rutan producing ‘Kill’ that he recruited you to play for Hate Eternal?

Actually, me and him have been friends for a long time. There was even a period of time where me, him, and Nile soundman Punchy Gonzalez all shared an apartment together. So me and Erik have been close friends for a long time, I played on the first Hate Eternal demo as a matter of fact. The band Alas, Erik Rutan’s melodic, symphonic metal side project that he had going on in the 90s, I played on a couple of demos for that. I also played a couple of live shows with that band. So I’ve worked with Erik for quite a few years now and we’ve been friends for quite a few years and then I’ve worked with him on some other musical stuff as the years have gone by. I live down here not too far from where Erik lives, and when he was having problems with the bass player situation in Hate Eternal, he asked me if I can come in and do the record and I said sure. I mean, Hate Eternal is an awesome band, I had already recorded the demo with him back in ’97, so yeah it was something I was very happy to do and the connection had been there for a long time.

Taking a look at your live set, I noticed that you’ve been performing, pretty much, at least one song from every album that you’ve released. Is that important for you guys to present the fans with the entire spectrum of your career in your live show?

It really is if we’re doing a headlining tour. Whenever it’s our own tour, we generally have enough time where we can play one song from all 12 albums that we’ve done, the 12 full studio albums we’ve done. You know, it gets a little more difficult as time goes by. The more albums you have, the harder it is to put together a set list without neglecting something. But yeah, for any of those headlining sets, we always try and represent all 12 albums. It’s important to us because we worked hard on all 12 of them and we don’t want any of them being forgotten.

‘Bloodthurst’ is a record of ours that didn’t sell particularly well, but we had a lot of faith in that album and felt that was a really killer album and we want to keep playing songs from it live. Just using that as an example right alongside albums that are more popular like ‘Kill’ or ‘Evisceration Plague’ — some of the newer stuff, and some of the really old stuff like ‘Tomb of the Mutilated’ or ‘The Bleeding’ — ‘The Bleeding’ probably being the biggest seller of the records. So all of these albums have material that we’re very proud of and we worked equally hard on all of them, really, so we want to represent all of them. We’re proud of all of our records.

You guys were chosen as the headliners for the 2012 Summer Slaughter Festival. How were you guys chosen for that position?

You know, I don’t know exactly how they chose us, I mean I just assume they knew we’d be a good band to ask to do something like that. Oh, I should mention, allow for me to connect me to this briefly aside to the last question. For Summer Slaughter, I believe we will have a little bit of a shorter of a set list simply because it’s a ten band tour, so we might end up missing a couple of albums on our set list, unfortunately. When you’re limited to an hour it’s really tough to get twelve albums worth of material in there and still cover the new material and some of the classics. But anyway, as far as how we were chosen to be on Summer Slaughter, I’m not entirely sure.

I think that over the past two years, we’ve managed to establish ourselves as one of the main representatives of death metal outside of the death metal scene. There’s a ton of amazing death metal bands, but there’s only a few like us and maybe Dying Fetus and Nile — bands like that that actually do a lot of touring with bands from other genres of metal. We’re happy that we’re one of those bands that can sort of jump out into the metal scene in general and represent death metal. Hopefully we do a good job of representing death metal on these sort of crossover-type of tours. Summer Slaughter is definitely one of those kinds of tours, where it’s not just a death metal tour. It’s an extreme metal variety package tour, and I think having done some other tours that were similarly mixed, like the Mayhem Fest tour in 2009 or the Sounds of the Underground tour in 2006, Having done some tours where we’ve proven that we can do well beyond the death metal scene, like we can actually be able to appeal to metalheads that might not consider themselves a 100% death metalhead. I think having proven that in the past, that might have been part of the appeal for having us headline this festival tour.

‘Torture,’ it’s basically the first gruesome album cover you’ve had since ‘The Wretched Spawn.’ Is there any reason you decided to change that long history of gory albums for ‘Kill’ and ‘Evisceration Plague’?

Nothing really in particular. I mean, speaking frankly, some of it has to do with difficulties of getting records into stores that was occurring around that time. It was a combination, because it wasn’t like we were specifically buckling to censorship or anything like that, but we had to really think about what was the most important thing to us and our band and the most important thing to us in this band is the music that we’re making. If having an album cover that was going to prevent our album from being sold anywhere — that didn’t seem logical and there was a limited number of places to sell records at that time. So that was one of the considerations, and I’d like to mention it first, because why not get that out of the way? It’s not something that we even like having to think about, but unfortunately we have to think about it.

If you’re going to release a record you’d like it to be available to people and if it can’t be in the one or two record stores that still exist, then what are you going to do? So what we wound up doing was putting a gorier piece of artwork in the interior and had something that was kind of dark and suggestive and we were also kind of just artistically happier with that anyway at the time. It just seemed nice to have something a little darker and more subtle that was more menacing, not so obvious and so it was for a number of reasons — pragmatic reasons and artistic. Now having ‘Torture’ again, I think we’re just now like, ‘F— it.’ We’ve done two records that have covers that were more subtle and we’re really in the mood for it to be brutal again and, you know, what have we got to lose? We’ll just make a slip cover to go over it and that will solve the problem. You know, and that’s probably a good solution we can deal with from here on out, just have something over the top that covers up the goriness until you’ve actually bought it and unwrapped it.

We want to have the gore and we don’t want to self-censor in any way, but we also want to make sure that we don’t accidentally make ourselves unavailable, make our music unavailable. It’s something we’ve been dealing with our whole career, that struggle to express ourselves how we want but still be able to do it in a way where we’re able to distribute it and to get it out there to people. So it’s challenging when you want to push the envelop the way that we sometimes do.

‘The Wretched Spawn’ album cover — even for you guys, that one was brutal. So is that really when it was like, ‘Oh God, is this preventing people from listening to our music?’

With that one, everyone was forced to buy the censored cover. You know, they released a version with the censored cover and that was the only one you could find anywhere. If you wanted the other one, you had to go to the few remaining “mom and pop” stores that would actually stock it or get it on Amazon, which more and more people are doing anyhow, so I end up never seeing the uncensored cover these days. When people bring stuff to a signing to have us autograph or whatever, since ‘The Wretched Spawn,’ it almost always is the uncensored version. So I think people would rather buy whatever is sitting there in Best Buy than to just go order what they really want. ‘The Wretched Spawn’ was the last time we really had a duel version for general release. It probably will be the last one. The only place where we have to do separate packaging is in Germany and that’s a whole ‘nother story. [Laughs]

What was truly interesting about you guys before the whole internet age, is that the only way most people would come across your albums would be if they were to see it in a record store. That would be their only experience, and it kind of created this horrifying mystique about Cannibal Corpse. Nowadays, anybody can just go online and learn about the whole band’s history. Is there any part of you that misses that mystique back in the pre-internet age?

I’m not sure if we were ever aware that we had it, because we’re just ourselves, So we don’t know how people perceived us, I don’t think. I mean, we would meet some people that were disappointed that we weren’t crazier. Every now and then you’d meet somebody where you could tell they just expected us to be complete barbaric animals. [Laughs] Which is like ‘Sorry, man, we just make this kind of music and it’s what we like to do.’ But in general, we weren’t really aware of there being a mystique, because it’s just us. But with the internet age and then with some of the DVDs and stuff we’ve released that has let people know us and see us on a little bit more personal level, if we had anything like an aurora, we’ve certainly done our best to get rid of that aurora and to let people know we’re regular folks just like anyone else. [Laughs]

Speaking of the Internet, you can just go online and find the most horrific, gruesome stuff you could ever think of. Is there anything online that you cannot bring yourself to watch?

Plenty [Laughs]. Kind of going back to the last question, as far as what kind of people we are, I mean, I’m not as into gory stuff as people might think. I think gory stuff is disgusting, therefore, if I’m making a band that’s super extreme, than I’ll try to be as extreme as possible. It’s a good thing to write about. But I don’t think the things Cannibal Corpse writes about, that I write lyrics about, are particularly cool. [Laughs] You know what I mean? It’s not cool at all. It’s evil stuff, it’s evil, disgusting stuff. My personal life — I don’t find actual violence appealing. I mean there’s certain morbid fascination, like I look at news stories about bad things that have happened around the world and I’m interested in what’s happening, but I’m not sitting there thinking those things are good and I’m certainly not going to seek out the grossest stuff I can find. I know there’s websites out there where you can find just like appalling scenes of people who have been hurt in accidents and things like that, but I’m not looking for that kind of stuff. [Laughs]

[Laughs] I don’t blame you, but I know that you’re a big horror movie guy.

I do enjoy horror movies, for sure.

Is there any particular subgenre of horror that you find yourself appealed to. Like slasher, gore, maybe old-school expressionist horror stuff?

I love horror movies, but I wouldn’t say I’m as big of an aficionado as people might think. Again, I can’t stress enough, in Cannibal Corpse, the focus of this band is on music and making dark and aggressive sounding music and the lyrics have always been meant to compliment that. It hasn’t been a band where we’re thinking about lyrics first and then music. So, in my life, I’m generally more focused on music. If I’ve got three extra hours one night, I’d rather sit around and practice my bass and try to write some music than watch a movie nine times out of ten. The times I do watch movies, a lot of the times they are pretty dark. I like dark, disturbing and realistic horror, when I can find it.

I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I do enjoy supernatural horror if it’s put together in a way that suspends my disbelief while I’m watching it, like ‘the Exorcist’ or ‘the Shining’ — the Stanley Kubrick version — those kind of movies. Why I cited those two is because they are two of the best. I like a lot of the stuff that scared me when I was young — the first ‘Phantasm’ movie, ‘Burnt Offerings,’ a ghost movie from the 70s, ‘the Sentinel’ was a good one from the 70s that scared me a lot. I think the stuff that made a lasting impression was the stuff that I watched when I still had a belief in the supernatural, which I did. I was brought up with a fairly religious upbringing — Protestant, Methodist background and everything when I was a kid, so I was taught that demons and things like that were real. I took it literally, as you would when you’re like eight or nine years old. Seeing movies that accurately depicted that kind of stuff, like ‘the Exorcist’ — that blew my mind, seeing ‘the Exorcist.’ I thought that could really happen at that time. [Laughs] So that had a lasting impression.

Being older now, being agnostic when it comes to religion and supernatural type stuff, those things won’t have the same impact anymore, but boy it had a big impact then. So the horror movies that will stick with me are the older ones. I tend to go back and find movies that I didn’t watch back then and check them out because there was more of a subtlety to them. That might sound odd coming from a guy in Cannibal Corpse. We’ve definitely have had some of the least subtle lyrics ever throughout our career, but my favorite kind of horror is the kind where a lot is left to the imagination, and it goes back to the old ’70s horror movies. I like them a lot.

You guys are infamous for your gruesome song titles and straight-to-the-point lyrics. Are there any songs that, for one reason or another, didn’t put on any of your albums that just had an especially awesome, gruesome song title?

We’ve pretty much used everything, as far as, if we’ve written music for a song and recorded it, we ended up releasing it at one point or another. Even if it doesn’t make the album. We had a song called ‘Skull Fragment Armor’ that we recorded for ‘The Wretched Spawn,’ which we ended up shelving and then we put it out as a bonus track on ‘Evisceration Plague,’ I believe for the Japanese release or maybe the European release as well, but anyway, we generally use any music.

Now, we definitely have possible song titles that we might have never used. Usually if we don’t use them, it’s not because they are too gross, but it’s because they’re too stupid. I mean again, some people who, you know, don’t take our band particularly serious, they might just think everything we do is stupid and I understand that. So they’re probably having a laugh at me even talking about this, but there is a line that we draw between something that’s corny, cheesy, and then something that has a really good, dark vibe to it or is over the top in a way that is still convincing. Like ‘Demented Aggression,’ that song there, that song title, or ‘Scalding Hail.’ Some of these songs that are really aggressive, it’s still not cheesy, where some of the song titles we scrapped, we’ve just determined they’re too cheesy.

I remember when Chris Barnes was in the band we just kept thinking, ‘Man, should we have a song called ‘Drink My Piss’ where it would be about a killer who just forces people to drink his piss?’, something like that, and we’re like, ‘No it’s just too f—ing stupid.’ [Laughs] It would actually be a pretty horrifying story, but just the title, we wouldn’t have wanted that title in our catalogue. ‘F—ed with a Knife,’ sure! ‘Drink My Piss,’ no! So there’s that line that we draw. [Laughs] And like I said, some people might be like, ‘What’s the difference?’ We have an area where we won’t go. Even with more over-the-top elements of horror we really do wanna have a serious element to it.

So it’s all about context, is what you’re saying.

Yeah, yeah. I would like to make that clear too. We never intentionally made something humorous in our lyrics. If it ever does have an edge of black humor to it, it’s more-or-less unintentional, because, you know, different people look at things differently. I had some people think, ‘Oh, this song’s funny, oh, that song’s funny,’ and I’m like Jesus, what’s funny about it? A guy is getting torn to pieces, you know? I don’t think that’s funny. [Laughs] Apparently, from a different perspective it might be, but for us, we’ve always wanted these to be serious horror songs.

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