2013 was a banner year for Carcass, something that seemed extremely unlikely just a few years ago. Even though the band reunited in 2007 for the first time since their 1996 breakup, no one was holding their breath for a new album, largely because the two main members, bassist and vocalist Jeff Walker and guitarist Bill Steer said it wouldn’t happen. That the band members changed their mind and have recorded a new album, Surgical Steel is no small achievement, and a genuine cause célèbre for old-school fans of extreme metal.
Anyone who had labeled Carcass sell-outs or hypocrites quickly changed their noise-infested tune after hearing the new record, a blow-torch-to-the-face torrent of technical death metal, crafty arrangements and raw-throated rage. With two-thirds of the Carcass lineup present and motivated, why should anyone have expected anything less. In its first week of release, Surgical Steel debuted at number 41 on the Billboard album chart, with sales of 8,500 copies and the band quickly sold out a bunch of small rock clubs across the country. In March, Carcass return to sweep the States starting March 18 in Orlando, Florida as part of the Decibel Magazine Tour. Dates run through April 13 in Silver Spring, Maryland. The Black Dahlia Murder, Gorguts and Noisem will open.
For those unaware of Carcass’ significance to metal, the band pioneered grindcore in the 80s, and blew open the doors of extreme metal with gales of buzzing, screaming guitar, battering blast beats, and vocal growls that influenced everyone from Cannibal Corpse to Nasum. Carcass named their songs after phrases they pulled from medical texts, such as “Swarming Vulgar Mass of Infected Virulency” and “Lavaging Expectorate of Lysergide Composition,” and attacked the listener with previously unheard levels of gurgling distorted vocals and freewheeling speed (Steer was formerly in Napalm Death). After two albums of low-fi, volcanic filth, Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness, Carcass gradually learned to play with a new level of agility, which they showcased on the technical guitar storms of Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious in 1991 and the slower and more tuneful Heartwork in 1993.
Taking baby steps seems like a diametric opposite to the chaos and turmoil Carcass embraced from their formation in 1985 to the moment they first broke up in 1995 because of musical and personal differences. Yet the only way a full-fledged Carcass reunion was going to happen was if the members went into it like an old man who gradually lowered himself into a freezing cold swimming pool. They had to acclimate and inch forward, adjust and continue until they were fully submerged. Walker recently walked Noisey through the process of what it took to get the gears of the Carcass death machine grinding again and how the forked wheels took on their own life once they were spinning.
Noisey: You reformed Carcass in 2007 after a 17-year hiatus and had a great reunion tour. Was there ever a reluctance to do that? Did anyone need arm-twisting?
Jeff Walker: Yeah, I certainly said it’d never happen -- especially in light of the fact that [drummer] Ken [Owen] couldn’t be in the band anymore. That drew a line under it for me.
What changed your mind?
I’ve been playing shows with Brujeria since 2006, traveling and seeing how big the scene has gotten, and I started to realize that as fun as it is playing with Brujeria, I have a history with a quite popular band. But I figured I could always rely on Bill Steer to refuse the invitation, so I’d never really have to consider doing it. Going back to who can take credit for it, it’s [ex-Carcass guitarist] Mike [Amott]. He really wanted to do it. He actually approached Bill in Halstead, where Mike lived. Bill was over there jamming with [Spiritual Beggars and Firebird drummer] Ludwig [Witt]. Mike invited Bill to his apartment and stuck a guitar in his hand, and the two of them decided to jam on old riffs. It all came flooding back to Bill. So Mike said he collaborated in that respect – it was like a trap..
What turned those germs of ideas into a full-fledged reunion?
When I was playing with Brujeria, I saw Emperor at the Key Club [in West Hollywood] when they reformed. I texted Bill that night and said something very, uh… No disrespect to Emperor, but I texted Bill and said, “Come on, let’s reform. We’re like Thin Lizzy compared to this.” Not to sound arrogant, but I was thinking, “Jesus, Carcass is so revered and so well respected.” I was watching other bands reform and seeing how successful the reunions were, and I figured, well, the Carcass thing could easily be this, if not more, successful. At that point it was just a case of getting Bill onboard.
What kind of substances or mind control did you use to convince Bill?
I just waited him out. First we started doing some reunion gigs in 2008 and Bill was taken aback by the adulation the band got. I don’t think he really had a handle on how much of an impact Carcass had on the metal scene. He never thought our crowds could be that big, and I think it shocked him, but he liked it.
Was it great to be back together?
Yeah, I mean that was the whole reason we did it, regardless of any financial implications. People obviously assume we did it for the money. Of course, that’s very enticing, but we don’t do anything we don’t enjoy. We stopped doing the band once in 1986 because it was no longer fun. We need to keep this fun now. After we played our final gig for the reunion tour in Atlanta in August 2010, Mike made it explicitly clear that he had no interest whatsoever in playing any concerts with Carcass in the future because he wanted to bring Arch Enemy out of hiatus. That’s fair enough, because we had no gigs booked anyway. But the next logical step, if there was going to be any future for Carcass, would be to do a new album.
Were you unanimously in favor of writing Surgical Steel?
Our final gig of the reunion tour was in August. Two months later, Bill called me and said, “Do you fancy getting in the rehearsal room?” I never tried to coerce or strong-arm Bill because I know it doesn’t work. At that point, I, myself, needed to come around. I mean, you could have argued that it’s impossible to do a real Carcass record without drummer Ken [Owen] because he was such an important element of our sound from the beginning. Actually, when we did the original reunion, the moral justification for doing it for me was because we never did anything for Ken when he got ill [and suffered a major brain hemorrhage in 1999]. I chased Earache for every last penny they owed Ken and I got it from them, but we never did any benefit gigs. I justified the tour to myself by thinking, “Well, if we give him an equal split of the profits from the gigs, that would be a cool, charitable act.” So that’s what we did, and that’s what made the reunion palatable to ourselves at first.
Is Ken still receiving medical attention?
He has a close friend that gets paid to take care of him. He’s like a home nurse. Ken got a house out of [the money we gave him from touring] so we’ve managed to give him some security for the future.
How impaired is Ken at this point? Can he walk? Can he play drums?
His injury left him with damage on the part of his brain that manages short term memory. He can vividly remember things from 10 years ago, but he’d come across as quite forgetful, because of what’s happened with the coma and operations. And physically, he is not 100 percent. It’s like he had a stroke. There’s no way he could play in Carcass today.
When Ken had a brain hemorrhage, Carcass were already broken up but you were playing with him in Blackstar. How did you find out about his affliction?
Our old manager Martin rang me. I was really shocked, but I’m a cold-hearted son of a bitch [laughs]. We went down to see him, and he was in the hospital in a coma and looked like he was going to die. I probably shed all my tears that day when I first saw him, because anything after that was… it could only get better because he didn’t die. He had two brain operations, and he was in a coma for a while, and he’s come through. He’s still the same guy, it has just affected his physical and mental strength a bit. But he’s still the same person.
Returning to the present, Mike Amott decided to continue Arch Enemy rather than be involved with Carcass. Why?
What he actually said was, “I’m going to be too busy to commit any time to anything. You guys go do what you want.” It’s not like Mike, at that point in time, was making a conscious decision to not do a new album with Carcass because that option had never been discussed. I mean, if it had been discussed in the rehearsal room, then the original consensus would’ve been, “This sounds great, but let’s not ruin the legacy by doing another album.” I would have subscribed to that. I’m an idealist. I never wanted the Clash to reform, which makes me a fucking hypocrite [laughs]. Mike basically got what he wanted from the reunion, be it money or credibility. We didn’t look beyond that first summer we got those reunion gigs. At some point, Bill went on a musical journey that took him from the 1920s and 30s and the origins of blues and rock and roll to everything that followed. He’s now back in the head space where he was when he was a teenager. He’s a born-again New-Wave-of-British-Heavy-Metal freak. His musical journey brought him full-circle, which was perfect timing. So when he said we should do another record I was right there as well.
Carcass are pioneers of gore-grind and inspired a lot of bands to write about vile and disgusting scenarios. Is that something you’re proud of?
To a certain extent, but some people have missed the point, sexualizing violence or being gross for the sake of it. Whatever we were doing with Carcass, there was definitely some thought behind it. It’s easy to be shocking, isn’t it? It’s easy to say horrible things. I’d like to say we did it with a sense of humor.
What’s the most shocking thing you’ve seen a band do or sing about?
Nothing springs to mind. Nothing’s shocking anymore. Our first album, Reek of Putrefaction, was, for want of a better work, shocking. Now it just seems harmless to me. Culture has gotten so extreme that people are numb to graphic subject matter. And if they want to see extreme stuff, they can go on the internet and see people getting beheaded. Some things are in poor taste, but they’re not necessarily shocking. It’s just too easy to write songs about stabbing women in the vagina. It’s stupid. Real life is far more disturbing.
What’s a Carcass groupie like?
Normally male or fat. You wouldn’t really want to take them to bed.
So, unlike Lemmy and Gene Simmons, you were never in it for the pussy?
Nah. What kind of idiot would form a death metal band thinking there’s pussy, as you put it, in it. You do it because you’re a fucking social misfit and you love the energy of the music. People of our generation were actually driven by music. How sad is that -- sitting in our bedrooms when we should have been having social lives?
Many 80s bands have gotten back together and put out mediocre albums. That didn’t happen with Carcass. Surgical Steel is a monster that incorporates a lot of the death metal brutality you brought to the scene in your early days, with the technical melodicism that you emphasized on your latter albums? Did Surgical Steel come naturally or did you sit there and go, “Fuck, what are we gonna do?”
No, it was easy. If it was a struggle, then that would have been a sign that we should just not bother. The creative process shouldn’t be a battle. If it’s a battle, that means you’ve run out of ideas. In a way, we felt like we did when we were making our first album. We were hungry, we had something to prove. We didn’t want to shit on our legacy, but it became clear at an early stage that wasn’t going to happen. Bill’s my favorite guitarist from our generation and when I hear him play a good riff, that inspires me as a fan. There are riffs he wrote on this album that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Drummer Dan Wilding, who plays in The Order of Apollyon and Trigger the bloodshed played on Surgical Steel. How did you find him and did he immediately fit the Carcass mold?
He was playing with Aborted when he was 18 and he was interested in playing with us on tour when we first reunited. Bill liked the way he played so when it became clear we were going to do a record he seemed like the natural choice. He just fits. He didn’t grow up playing in the Carcass-style, but he adapted his playing to fit what we do. He’s amazing. He’s half our age, but he’s not some sycophant, like, “Yes sir, no sir, three bucks, four, sir.” He’s been instrumental to the creative process.
You didn’t have a record label when you started writing Surgical Steel.
Nope. I think it has more impact and credibility and proves it’s more of an artistic statement for us to do it this way rather than letting someone dangle a carrot in front of our faces. We could easily have found a deal upfront. But the cynical side of me knew damn well we’d be a stronger position once we had material for people to hear. We didn’t want to deliver a turkey like certain other bands who have gone after getting the money up front. I like to believe we could have just released this album ourselves, and we’d make more money. But what’s really important to me is people hearing the album and the distribution with a label is better. It’s not all about the money. I’ve got an ego and at the end of the day. I want to see this album chart. I see other bands that are weaker chart on the Billboard Top 50, and I think, “Well, we just delivered a really fucking good album.”
Did you go into these songs with certain new ideas or did you say, “Fuck it, let’s just be Carcass?”
This is a continuation of what we were doing before. I think we took -- without sitting down and analyzing the whole back catalog -- the best of the past five albums and mashed it into one new patty. Just because this doesn’t have the terrible production of Reek of Putrefaction doesn’t mean there aren’t riffs on Surgical Steel that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Reek of Putrefaction. And that goes through our whole discography. There are riffs on this album that could have appeared on any of our albums. That’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s very difficult after 17 years… I mean, what were we expected to do, come out with fucking programmed sequences and keyboards and drum machines and stuff that really doesn’t interest us? We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, we just wanted to write a great album.
Jon Wiederhorn did not get into writing about death metal bands for the pussy. Follow him on Twitter - @louderthanhell