Death metal legends Cannibal Corpse have been around since the late ’80s and are one of the genre’s best known and most successful bands. Their latest album is Violence Unimagined, their fifteenth studio album and first with guitarist Erik Rutan as an official member. I spoke with bassist Alex Webster about Rutan’s addition, the new album, when live shows might resume and other subjects.
Chad Bowar: When did you begin the writing process for what became Violence Unimagined?
Alex Webster: That was something we got going in mid-2019, I did anyway, I started writing what became “Surround, Kill, Devour” in probably July or August of 2019. That was a pretty early start. We were still in the middle of touring. I didn’t write that on the road. I wrote it between tours. But the bulk of the writing really started probably later in 2019 and then kicked into high gear throughout December of 2019 into early 2020.
What was the impact of having Erik participate in the writing process this time around?
It’s a pretty big impact because he’s got such a distinct musical voice on the guitar and as a song writer and he wrote three songs, music and lyrics. I should mention that some of the lyrics were written post pandemic, at the very beginning of it, actually. But the music was completed before things really started to change due to the pandemic, say in March or April of last year. We were done with the music by March, I think, or even late February. But yeah, Erik brings a lot to the table. He’s got so much experience in this kind of music, in many different areas. He’s a singer with Hate Eternal and a guitar player, both rhythm and lead, and a writer of music and lyrics.
Plus he’s a producer and engineer, so he’s got a pretty impressive skillset as a death metal musician and all of that came into play other than the singing. I don’t think he did any backing vocals. I actually don’t know because I wasn’t in town for that. I had to record up here in my own home studio. Erik brings a lot to the table for sure. And the three songs he wrote, I think they’re killer. They’re all full on, Cannibal Corpse style death metal. You can tell it’s Erik, but it’s still all us.
30 plus years in, is it easier to write songs because you’ve been doing it so long or has it become more challenging to avoid repeating what you’ve done in the past?
It can be a little challenging. Sometimes you end up catching yourself, writing something that’s a little bit like what you’ve done and you have to make a decision. Is this too similar or is it really just part of our style? You just have to make a judgment call there, because part of the things that make you what you are are the things you’ve done in the past. So to have a little bit of your old style mixing in with some new ideas is not a bad thing. It helps with consistency and continuity, but you also don’t want to just do the exact same thing again and again. I don’t think people can reasonably accuse us of just repeating the same ideas over and over and over. People that don’t really like our band that much and don’t pay much attention to us say, “Oh yeah, all that crap all sounds the same,” but I think we’ve had a good progression while maintaining consistency. It’s something we do think about, though. We don’t want to repeat ourselves overtly and we want to make a new unique group of songs with each new album.
And having new blood helps rejuvenate people and give different perspectives to the process as well.
Yeah, definitely. And Erik is a very hardworking, energetic guy and he’s very creative. So the future is really looking bright for us on the creative side of things. We have no concerns that we’re not going to be able to write some great albums in the future. It’s a beginning of a new chapter really, and we’re excited moving forward. Erik has a lot to offer and that kind of energy is infectious. A positive, hardworking ethic rubs off on the rest of us. We’ve always worked pretty hard too, but this further motivates us, having someone who’s such a go getter in the band, it helps motivate the rest of us.
You mentioned that the pandemic affected the recording of the album where you had to do your parts at your home studio. On a personal level, how has the pandemic affected you?
I’m 51. Me and my wife are up here. I don’t do a lot of the social things I used to do, anyway. We would go to see a show once every couple months. That obviously stopped. Last show we saw was February of last year. Word of the coronavirus was just starting to hit the news on a regular basis in America. But at the time nobody was particularly concerned back in February, 2020. I think a lot of people were thinking, another false alarm, like some of these other things that they had warned us about. And clearly it wasn’t, this was a full on pandemic. And everybody knew that in another month and a half or so.
But for me personally, other than not going to shows, it hasn’t changed that much. Professionally, things have changed quite a bit. We’re not touring and that’s a huge difference. But personally, my wife and I like to do things that are in the outdoors and that’s been safe to do and permitted for most of the pandemic. Going to a state park to go for a hike is one of the safer things you can do. And we always bring masks anyway and keep our distance with people. So the things we like to do aren’t the kind of things that were necessarily restricted due to the pandemic. In my twenties, I was going to every show that there was even if it wasn’t a band I was that into just to be social and because I just liked getting out. So I imagine this has been extremely hard for younger people to adjust to, but for us, things didn’t change as much as it may have for other people.
Getting back to the album, over the years, sometimes the album title has been a track on the album. Sometimes it’s not. This time, it’s not. So what led you to come up with the title Violence Unimagined?
Paul Mazurkiewicz our drummer came up with it. He would be able to say where it came from, because it’s from his creativity, something from in his head. But to me, what I think of when I think of the title is when you have a band that’s written about violence on every one of their previous 14 studio albums, to have a title that suggests that there’s some sort of violence that they may not yet have imagined. And it’s depicted on this album either through the title or the music or the lyrics. It’s an intriguing title, and also it’s open to interpretation. The cover artwork is Vince Locke’s interpretation of the title. He came up with a few sketches based on the title. As far as I know, that’s how it went because Paul was in communication with Vince for that. He came up with this really gory, disturbing piece.
there are tons of different vinyl variants of the album available. Are you a vinyl collector?
I have a lot of vinyl, but I’m not a vinyl collector. I wouldn’t call myself that. I have the vinyl that I got back when that was my main format for buying albums back in the eighties and into the early nineties. Once CDs became commonplace, I switched to CDs, and now I occasionally buy a CD. I can’t remember the last time I bought vinyl actually, so I’m not a collector. I take good care of the stuff that I have. I have them at my house and they’re in a safe place and of course I get the stuff from Cannibal. They’ll send me that. But I’m not a collector the way some people are. I am happy to have unlimited songs available to me through a streaming service or have a bunch of MP3s downloaded to my phone. As someone who’s dealt with a whole bunch of albums that ended up getting scratched or cassettes that got eaten in my car stereo, I actually appreciate the convenience of digital technology. It certainly has its pros and cons, but one of the pros is that it’s very convenient and it doesn’t get stuck in a cassette deck. (laughs)
The promotion process has changed a lot in the band’s thirty years. Instead of an album just being released, with social media there are months of lead time and several singles and videos and a lot more transparency. Do you like that transparency and interaction, or do you prefer the mystique of the old days?
We have a mixture of those things. For example, I don’t think we did any studio updates or anything like that. We’ve done that in the past where basically we’re like, okay, now we’re in the studio doing guitars, and now we’re doing bass and now it’s vocals and now guitar, an update every week or two. This time we kept it fairly quiet. We were telling people we did an album in 2020, it’s coming out in 2021, but the promotion didn’t really start until recently.
I think sometimes you can let people know too soon. And then by the time the album comes out, they’re already maybe sick of hearing about it. So there’s a balance there to where you keep a lid on it for a little while and then start to let people know gradually. It all depends on what you want to do and how you want to promote things. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just really up to you.
You’ve been on Metal Blade Records for 30 years. What has made that relationship work so well over the decades?
We just get along with them so well on a personal level. They’ve always been great to us. They’re our friends, we have a great relationship with them and they’re the right label for a band like us. If you’re a metal band, you can’t do better than Metal Blade Records, in my opinion. They’re just such a great label. There are other cool labels too, of course. But we love being on Metal Blade, even way back before we were one of their big bands. We got to meet the CEO and founder of the label, Brian Slagel, on our first American tour. We got to meet with him and hang out. I don’t know if that’s possible with every major independent label. I don’t know if that’s something that all labels do, but Brian Slagel is really available to his bands. And same with the other top people at Metal Blade. You really feel like you’re part of something when you’re on Metal Blade Records, there’s a really good rapport amongst the people that run the label and the bands that are on the label. So we have never seriously entertained the idea of leaving at all. It’s just always worked so well.
When do you think you’ll be able to play live shows again?
I think we’re probably not going to end up doing any shows in 2021. We’re hopeful that touring resumes sooner than later, of course, like everybody else. We want to see the world get back to normal and everybody being safe and healthy again. But we don’t have any plans. When you’re planning a tour, you really have to do it normally six to eight months or even more in advance. So our plans right now, we’re looking at early 2022, but the one thing that I really think everyone’s learned over the past year or so is that you just can’t predict what’s coming next. So it’s too far away right now to say that, yes, we’re going to be absolutely definitely doing a tour in February of 2022 or something like that. It’s just too early to say. We’re hoping. But if it’s not safe and responsible to do so, we won’t. And in the meantime, if it continues to look like there’s not going to be any touring opportunities, we’ll probably start working on doing some live streams. And while we’re home, we’ll keep practicing and writing new material and whatever, and just keeping busy while we’re home.
It appears that some venues aren’t going to be able to make it through because of the economic impact of the pandemic. Are you concerned that there might be fewer places to play going forward?
I’m probably not qualified to even take a guess, but I will take a guess and I’ll say that sadly, some places are going to go out of business. This is just such an unprecedented thing for everyone and the entertainment industry. Look at a small death metal show. It’s impossible, really, to properly socially distance in a sweaty mosh pit. So those kinds of places that specialize in shows where there’s a really tightly packed audience, they’re going to be some of the last places to reopen and it might be hard to stay afloat.
More places might go, but those buildings are going to be sitting there with empty stages and someone will probably buy them and reopen them to do live music or something similar. Some kind of entertainment will be taking place in a venue that’s built for it. I think there’ll be places to play when it all opens up again. There’s going to be a tidal wave of concerts. So even when things open back up, I don’t think it’s going to be normal for the first year. I think there’s going to be a glut of concerts because that’s how bands make their living. The bulk of their money comes from touring revenue and merchandise sales on a tour. Without that, everybody’s in a tight spot. And when it’s finally available again, everybody’s going to jump on it all at the same time. So it’s going to be challenging and like you said, there could be a reduction in the number of venues. So I can’t predict the future, but it’s probably going to be a pretty crowded market when things do open back up again. It’s going to take time to get back to normal, but it will. Things will get back to normal sooner or later.
It’s been coming up on two years since you were part of some Slayer’s farewell shows. As a big fan of the band, what did that mean to be part of that?
It was a huge honor, and that’s how the whole band felt. We were so happy to have been able to be part of a Slayer tour and of course it being a farewell tour, it was a huge, big deal for us. We had toured with them as part of the Mayhem Fest package tour back in 2009. And that was also amazing. So that was killer, but this was actually a tour where we were performing on the same stage. It was great. We really had an amazing time. You can’t ask for more. You get to play in front of this great big audience and these excellent venues, have a great time doing your performance and then get cleaned up and ready to go and then come watch your favorite band play. That’s a great way to spend a day. We toured with them for a little bit less than a month. We would have been happy to tour with them for a year. We’re happy that we’ve got to be a part of it.
Is there anything else that you need to mention?:
I want to say thank you to all of our fans and hopefully we’ll see you on tour sooner than later. We’re looking forward to getting back out there again. So hope to see you all soon.
(interview published April 15, 2021)