By: Scott Alisoglu
CANNIBAL CORPSE is a band of the people; well, the death metal people anyway. Since forming in 1987, the unit has always given the fans what they've wanted — consistently good albums, gore-drenched lyrics, and staggering levels of brutality. The quintet's dedication, work ethic, and business sense has turned them into one of the biggest death metal groups of all time.
In celebration of CANNIBAL CORPSE's 20th anniversary, Metal Blade has released a three-DVD set called "Centuries of Torment: The First 20 Years", seven hours and 20 minutes of comprehensive band history, live performances, and pretty much every tidbit of information you would ever want. One of the founding members, the always-affable bassist Alex Webster, phoned me to discuss the DVD, his personal insights into the band and the music, as well as death metal in general.
Q: I recently reviewed "Centuries of Torment: The First 20 Years" and let me tell you, it took a while to get through that sucker.
Alex: Yeah, it's a lot. We're thankful for all the good reviews, but pretty much all the praise should go to [director/producer] Denise Korycki. She basically did everything. She shot the footage, she edited it, and she was the one who was in charge of organizing it and making it into a coherent story. That had to be a pretty difficult job for her because there is a lot of ground to cover. We did not know how dedicated she was going to be to this and how much work that she was going to put into it. She really made it her full time job for several months and we've never really had anything like that.
Q: The cool thing is that it is a great DVD for CANNIBAL CORPSE fans, but if you're interested in death metal in general it's a great documentary because it reaches beyond CANNIBAL CORPSE. There are all these other bands included and it provides insight into the death metal community.
Alex: I guess when you look at it and you're really going to talk about any death metal band that's been around for as long as us, then you're probably going to end up talking about a lot of other bands along the way. All of us have done so many shows together, we've all recorded at the same studios, and we've all been friends with each other and that sort of thing. We've influenced one another. I'm really happy that there are all these other bands featured in it and talked about because to me it makes it more interesting because I already know all the stuff about our band because I'm in the band. It's a lot of fun to see like Lee Harrison [MONSTROSITY] talking about some of the Florida death metal bands that recorded at Morrisound Studio and that sort of thing. Denise just did a great job and that was all her doing, putting it together that way. It's cool stuff. The whole thing is really interesting. When she told me the first disc was going to be over three hours long, just the history portion… We hadn't seen a rough edit of it or anything at that point and she was like, "Oh yeah, it's a little over three hours." Wow! Is there any way to make our band interesting for over three hours [laughs]? And she did it. A lot of that is by incorporating the larger story of American death metal.
Q: And when you go to Disc 3, "Bonus Chunks," you might be inclined to think, before you watched it, that it's all odds-and-ends bonus material, but it's a bunch of other relevant parts of the CANNIBAL CORPSE story that just weren't captured on Disc 1. So even more ground is covered.
Alex: Yeah, she really got a lot of material. She had something like three terabyte hard drives full of footage, so it's like hundreds of hours of footage and a lot of it didn't really fit into the flow of telling the story of the band on the first disc, but it was still interesting enough that it seemed like it would be cool to use it for something. So she kind of broke it down into various different topics — the merchandise, the tattoos on fans, tour stories, band personnel close-ups, the little side project bonus section, "Diverse Offerings" instead of "Perverse Suffering."
Q: "Kill Crane" was definitely one of the neatest and creepiest segments of the entire collection. I didn't see that coming at all.
Alex: You know that was made without our even knowing about; Denise wanted to surprise us. Originally, she was thinking about having some of it threaded into the history part and we weren't really sure how well that was going to work and we thought it really stood well as its own mini-movie and that's what it wound up being. I believe her friend, Jim Storace, the guy who made it, I think it was all his idea; I'm not sure how much collaboration he had with Denise on it. Obviously, the whole crane thing ties in a little bit with George's [Corpsegrinder Fisher] obsession with those crane machines and winning toys [laughs]. They just thought of it and surprised us with it. We thought it was really cool. She originally thought of using it to bookend various sections of the history, but we thought it would work much better on its own and everybody has really been talking about how cool they think it is, that little animated piece.
Q: It's got that darkly comedic thread that tends to run through some of CANNIBAL CORPSE's body of work.
Alex: It does. It's claymation, so of course it's not to be taken too seriously, but there is something kind of grim and creepy about it. I can't quite put my finger on it, but they did manage to capture a kind of dark vibe. I'm really happy with it.
Q: It sounded as though you were very surprised with the first week sales of the DVD, 2,100 copies and a debut at number eight on the Top Music Videos chart.
Alex: Yeah! It's a three-DVD set and it's $25 or more in most places. To sell that many… "The Wretched Spawn" sold like 3,800 in the first week and that's an album from 2004. "Kill" did really well, like about 6,000 or something, but what surprised us with the DVD sales is that it would have been fairly respectable for a death metal band to sell that much of an album, so we were really happy that our fans supported us that much and got out in those kinds of numbers to buy it.
Q: It really speaks to the dedication of the fan base.
Alex: These days there are so many different places you can lay your money down for entertainment and then there are so many ways to get things for free, so when people do go out and buy something that you made it's flattering.
Q: Prior to "Kill", wasn't "The Bleeding" your best seller?
Alex: Yeah, and probably overall it still is. I think "Kill" has done well enough that it's on pace to close in on that eventually. There is a chance we might never get past "The Bleeding" just because the whole climate of selling CDs is so much different than it was in 1994. It's interesting because CD sales are not what they used to be for us and a lot of bands, but it seems like tours have done much better. Different areas of the music industry do a lot better these days because everybody knows who you are because they can hear your music for free immediately [laughs]. I think it improves the live situation for bands with the whole Internet and downloading aspects. It might not be great for CD sales, but it's definitely great for promoting the bands.
Q: Maybe I'm delusional, I'm not sure if the impact has been quite as damaging the last year or two, like it has tapered off somewhat. But then I have no figures that back up that assertion. Of course, death metal fans tend to want to buy the album anyway.
Alex: Yeah, I think you're going to see more and more heavy bands getting higher and higher on the Billboard charts because the fans of metal generally like to have something in their hands to look at. You buy the CD, you've got this nice artwork, you've got liner notes that you want to read, lyrics that you want to read… Fans of dance music and pop music don't care about that stuff; they just want something in the background.
Q: Maybe that is why we've seen such high debut chart positions for extreme music lately.
Alex: "Kill" debuted at number 170 on the Billboard in 2006 with about 6,000 sold and then WHITECHAPEL ["This is Exile"] sold like 5,900 and debuted at like 117 or thereabouts. So it's taking less and less sales to get higher and higher on the charts [laughs]. I look at Blabbermouth for the news all the time, but I look at the SoundScan numbers particularly because I find that kind of information interesting. I've seen that people are getting on to the Billboard Top 200 having only sold 3,800 or 4,000 and that sort of thing, where they never could have even got on there with sales that low just two or three years ago. So things are changing a little bit.
Q: I've also seen more vinyl releases these last two years than I've seen in a long time.
Alex: I was just at a Virgin Megastore in Orlando and that's one of the first music stores I've been at in a while because so many of them have closed down. They had a big wall of vinyl in there. When I was growing up listening to music I remember always coming home from school and I'd put the headphones on and sit there on a chair with the album in front of me, reading the lyrics right with the song. It's like reading a book. It's still not quite the same with a CD, but with a CD it's still something physical, whereas with a download you have nothing. But with an album you had this nice, big package and you could sit there and look at it. I definitely miss the big packaging of albums. I think most people that grew up with albums are going to be nostalgic for that. That's my idea of a release. It'll never be the same. Kids growing up with CDs, that'll be their thing I guess, but I can't imagine people growing up with none of it.
Q: Going back to the DVD, it was great to see the involvement of so many of the CORPSE players past and present. It was cool to see Barnes involved too. I think there is still a handful of people out there that believe there continues to be some kind of animosity there without realizing just how long ago that split occurred.
Alex: We were a little mad at each other by the time it was over, but there was never really a blowout. We were never as mad as people probably thought, but there was a little anger and bitterness about certain things. But man, it's been a long time now. We'd rather at this point remember the good stuff than the bad stuff.
Q: His contribution to the DVD was vital to the history.
Alex: It was really cool that he participated. We're happy that he did and it definitely made the DVD better than it would have been without him for sure.
Q: The only past member that wasn't included is [guitarist] Bob Rusay.
Alex: As far as we knew he didn't want anything to do with the band anymore, and then Decibel wound up getting him and that was right toward the end of the making of the DVD. Decibel got a hold of him for the "Tomb of the Mutilated" Hall of Fame edition. "Tomb of the Mutilated" was inducted and they managed to get Bob to do an interview, so we reached out to him and Denise tried to get in contact. She left a few messages and he never responded and we heard that he's still angry with us about the whole thing and wanted to leave it all behind him so we didn't want to bother him any further. He did the interview with Decibel and I think he wanted to leave it at that. That's what I heard.
Q: It seems a little strange to continue to be that angry so many years down the road, but to each his own.
Alex: I don't know. It sucks because you don't want things to end on a bad note like that with somebody where they don't ever want to talk to you again. There is nothing we can do about it, but we wish him the best, regardless of how he feels.
Q: With regard to the "performances" disc, it was great to see that across all those different shows that you don't repeat a single song.
Alex: That was mostly Denise. I know I keep referring to her [laughs], but she really did all the work on this. This year we've been concentrating on doing the next album. She would just occasionally contact us — call me on the phone or contact us via e-mail to ask us questions, like what songs do you want where and that sort of thing. She was in charge of figuring that out and putting it together as well. I think it turned out really well because we managed to find some songs from some of those live shows that we don't do all that often or some of them that we haven't done in a long time. It's cool to be able to have a bunch of different songs on there. The main focus of the DVD is definitely the history and the documentary stuff, but we wanted to make sure the live stuff was cool too.
Q: The quality isn't quite as great on the earlier performances, but I thought all of it was at least acceptable. Even the '87 performances of "Shredded Humans" and "Rotting Head" with the single camera was decent, if not hi-definition.
Alex: We didn't even know that was around, but John, the owner of the River Rock Café in Buffalo used to film a lot of the shows there; he'd have a stationary camera just sitting there on a tri-pod or something, or maybe he had it mounted from the ceiling; I can't remember. Denise went from place to place, she flew all over the place to do these interviews and stuff. While she was up in Buffalo we went to River Rock and talked to John because he was instrumental in getting us into that club. Most folks in Buffalo wouldn't let you play if you were any kind of band that would inspire slam dancing; you just couldn't find gigs. While she was doing the interview he mentioned, "Oh yeah, I've got some footage of these guys the first year they were around." That's really good stuff to have on there. The same thing with Jack Owen, back when he was filming everything Jack always brought a video camera for the first few albums we recorded. We're so happy now, but we never could have planned it. It would up being very useful for this thing.
Q: Have you still not met [artist] Vincent Locke? That was one part of the history section that surprised me.
Alex: I've still never met him in person. The only guys that talked to him in the band were Paul [Mazurkiewicz] and Chris Barnes when he was in the band. Denise is the one that did the interview and flew out there and she also did the interview I think with Charlie Benante [ANTHRAX] on that trip.
Q: Yes, Charlie's comments were very informative.
Alex: All these other guys that did interviews on the DVD I'm extremely grateful they did it. It's really strange and very flattering, humbling to be watching this DVD about your band and seeing yourself and your band mates being talked about and being held in such high regard by all these people that we hold in high regard. It was really something.
Q: The faces lit up and there was this deference in the voices of your peers when they discussed CANNIBAL CORPSE.
Alex: It's a big honor. We would definitely be happy to return the favor to any of those bands if they ever need interviews on any DVD they do. It's a big deal to have all those great musicians saying nice things about us on there.
Q: Switching gears now, what are you personal favorite CANNIBAL CORPSE songs?
Alex: It varies because there are a whole bunch of them, but one of my favorite songs is actually the instrumental from "Gallery of Suicide" called "From Skin to Liquid". I really like the vibe that song has, like the sound and the way it was recorded. I like it because it was the first really, really slow song we ever did and it also had no lyrics. We had done one instrumental prior to that on "Vile" called "Relentless Beating", but that was a fast technical song. I feel like "From Skin to Liquid" was one of the first songs that we did that kind of showed that we were able to be heavy without using our old bag of tricks necessarily all the time. We were heavy without being fast and without having gory lyrics or any lyrics. I just like listening to it and I enjoy how that song turned out. It's got a really creepy vibe to it.
Q: Of course, Pat [O'Brien] penned the closing instrumental on "Kill".
Alex: Yeah, "Infinite Misery", that's another good one. We like all the different ways to be heavy [laughs]. We don't want to limit ourselves. If a song can be slow and equally heavy, particularly as heavy as a fast song, we'll do it. If a song is technical or simple or slow or fast, it doesn't matter to us as long as it is heavy and a good song.
Q: Are there really any songs that you get tired of playing? I can guess what your answer is going to be.
Alex: Not really. The ones that we play the most are also the ones that people react to best. Lately, we've been doing "Hammer Smashed Face" and "Stripped, Raped, and Strangled" back to back and we're thinking about the crowd almost more than the songs because the crowd is usually going completely crazy at that point and it's a lot of fun to see. We've played each of those songs probably over a thousand times each at least, maybe more. It's always a little more exciting to play the newer songs because they're fresh and different, but the old songs are cool, even though they don't hold a whole lot of musical surprises for us anymore. It's just great to see the way people react to them live.
Q: You mentioned the most difficult song to play, "Frantic Disembowelment", on the DVD and former touring member Jeremy Turner [ORIGIN, ex-UNMERCIFUL] was discussing how hard it was to get down before he want on tour with you.
Alex: It's very difficult to play live. Actually, we only played it live once. We practiced that when Jeremy was in the band, which was for pretty much the second half of 2004 and we were like "Yeah, let's learn how to play that one!" So we learned that one. Once you record the album you generally forget how to play the songs that you're not doing live. So we re-learned "Frantic Disembowelment" and Jeremy learned it, which was difficult for him, I'm sure. He's a great guitar player, but even great guitar players would have a hard time playing that song. But George hadn't gotten the lyrics down in time for the tour and there was one day where he was sick; he had a viral lung infection. That was in Pittsburgh in 2004 on the tour we did with NAPALM DEATH. We ended up playing "Frantic Disembowelment" at that one show since George wasn't singing with us anyway that night. We figured we'd just do an instrumental set and we gave people an opportunity to get their money refunded at the door if they didn't want to see us that date, but most everybody still came in. So we played with no singer that night and let a few people come up and help out and do some guest vocals. But we did "Frantic Disembowelment" and it was hard. I mean it definitely made my forearms sore by the time it was done [laughs]. It's one thing to play a song in practice, but when you're on stage and the adrenaline is flowing it actually can be a little more difficult. I was tired by the end of that song. A lot of the songs Pat writes are really hard. We don't end up playing a whole lot of his songs live, but I'd like that to change in the future because I think some of his songs are some of the best ones we have.
Q: What about the runner-up to "Frantic Disembowelment"?
Alex: "Brain Removal Device" on the last album is really hard, mostly just the one part of it, the end of it. We've never played that one live. There are a few that are hard. As far as the ones we do live, the hardest ones are probably "Make Them Suffer" and "Five Nails Through the Neck". All the newer songs are harder to play than the older stuff.
Q: Do you ever play "Necrosadistic Warning" live?
Alex: No, we haven't played that live."
Q: That is my favorite song on "Kill" and I don't hear other folks talking about it.
Alex: I actually was just looking at the performance royalty statement that we got that shows how many times you got played on the radio. Some DJs — college stations, XM, and those sort of things — are actually playing it and seem to like that one a lot. So people do like it.
Q: The tempo shift on the chorus is killer. It's like this weird switch.
Alex: Over the past few years, like for the songs I've been writing, and I think Pat a little bit too, we try to mess around with different rhythmic ideas. It's trying to make a song interesting by screwing around with the rhythms, instead of doing things in that 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 kind of feeling it. "Necrosadistic Warning" definitely has some weird timings.
Q: What about a favorite CANNIBAL CORPSE album?
Alex: A favorite of the old ones is probably "The Bleeding". My favorite of the recent ones is probably "Kill". One answer I always like to give when people ask about the best album is the next one [laughs]. We always try to make the next one the best one.
Q: I remember when I was writing the review of "Kill" I noticed several reviewers and fans describing it as the best album since "The Bleeding". That never really clicked in my head because they are such completely different albums. Maybe it was the nostalgia for that album.
Alex: I know, it's weird. We've had a few times where we had critics say things like that. I remember when we released "Gore Obsessed" and people were saying that CANNIBAL CORPSE is back. Then when we released "The Wretched Spawn" it was "CANNIBAL CORPSE is back!" We didn't go anywhere, man! Maybe you didn't like the last record or two, but we've been steadily putting out records since we started. Every record we've done has been a 110 percent effort from us. Every record we did was the best we could do at that time in our career. Some of them definitely turned out a little better than others, but I think they're all decent. Some people who just don't like a band will just dismiss their album immediately. That's normal. But for people that actually pay attention I think you can hear that there is an effort put into all of them. We're the same band and we still have the same mission, but things have changed over the years. If we sounded exactly the same as when we first started I don't think that would be very interesting for us or our fans.
Q: The other lesson you learn, going back to the DVD, pertains to how a band is able to survive in death metal. You've always been the poster children for that. The members of many death metal bands are forced to retain day jobs. You've done it through album sales, touring, and merchandise. Acts like DEICIDE and MORBID ANGEL are able to do it as well.
Alex: There are actually a handful of bands that are able to make it a full time job. There was always a small portion, like four or five bands in America, that were probably able to make a living playing death metal. Us, MORBID ANGEL, DEICIDE, NILE… There are a lot of amazing musicians in death metal and it sucks that we tour with some of these bands and we hear from someone that the day after tour, "It sucks, man, we have to go to work." Fuck man, these guys have been out here working just as hard as anybody in show business and he's got to go home and work because gas prices ate up every nickel that he made on this tour. It would be nice if a lot more bands could make a living doing this. Fuel costs are definitely a factor and it's been hurting a lot of smaller bands out there. A lot of those bands, like the first band on the bill, on the bigger tours might only be getting a hundred to two hundred dollars a night. That used to be ok, like four years ago that was enough, and when you calculate merch in there with it. But now it's hard on them because fuel costs have basically doubled. Until they start getting paid twice as much it's going to be really, really difficult for bands that are just getting started.
Q: Name your all-time favorite metal bands.
Alex: Definitely MORBID ANGEL has been one of my favorites for a long time. My favorite metal bands would be ACCEPT, IRON MAIDEN, old METALLICA, the old SLAYER, old KREATOR… SADUS was one of my very favorite bands and still is. IMMOLATION is a big band for me; I really love their music.
Q: What did you think of IMMOLATION's "Shadows in the Light" with them shortening up the songs?
Alex: I thought that was a very good album. I love Ross's [Dolan] voice and I've always thought that the band really knows how to make the darkest-sounding death metal. I think they're one of the best death metal bands, one of those tragically overlooked kind of things. They should be one of the biggest death metal bands. They have a good fan base, but they should be bigger. Those guys are some of my favorite people and musicians. IMMOLATION is just a class act all the way around. KRISIUN too, that's another incredible band. I love the music and the guys in the band are awesome too. That's one of the really great things that we all feel really lucky about is a lot of the bands we tour with are some of our favorite bands. Getting to know the bands with music that we are really into and becoming friends with them is really cool. There is a lot of camaraderie and brotherhood in the death metal scene. It's awesome.
Q: What about some of the newer death metal bands? I recall you were impressed with the most recent AEON album ["Rise to Dominate"], as was I.
Alex: They're an excellent band. One of things I like about them is that they can play their asses off, but that's not what it's about. It's about how killer and brutal the songs are. They definitely play technically and their songs do feature a lot of technical parts, but it's not what you really end up focusing on when you're listening to them. You're focusing on how good the songs are. That's I think the ideal way we ought to be as musicians, regardless of what kind of music you're doing. You should strive to have the best technique you can within you own natural ability range, but the technique should be used to make great music, as opposed to making a band where you show off your technique. I love extreme, over the top chops, believe me, but I like it when it is being used in a way that is heavy and brutal, when it's being used to make a great song. The musicianship for bands like BRAIN DRILL or ORIGIN is over the top, but it's savage and brutal. The musicianship is at a super high level, but it's not losing any brutality in the process and if anything it's adding to it. I like to see musicians in death metal that when their skills are growing they make even heavier and more brutal music, as opposed to going in a different direction with it. UNMERCIFUL is killer too. There are some good bands out there.
Q: And your favorite albums of all time?
Alex: Probably "Reign in Blood" by SLAYER, and, this changes all the time because I've given this same list a few times and it's always a little bit different. ACCEPT "Restless and Wild", METALLICA "Master of Puppets", KREATOR "Pleasure to Kill", MORBID ANGEL "Altars of Madness", and SADUS "Illusions". That's a top 5. I like creepy, eerie, and foreboding stuff and like "Restless and Wild" captured that somehow. That's why we covered that song "Demon's Night". Even though it was a traditional heavy metal song, it had some elements that death metal later adopted, like diminished runs and that sort of thing. That song made a smooth transition to being a death metal cover song. Some songs from the old days wouldn't work as well.
Q: When will the next album drop?
Alex: We're shooting for February of 2009, but that's always subject to change. We're going to start recording in September. We're slated to get in there on September 1st. It's with Erik Rutan in Mana Studios, so it's the same team that did "Kill". We're hoping to start at the same level as "Kill" and then take it up a notch, as far as sound quality and intensity goes.
"Centuries of Torment – The First 20 Years" trailer: