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Interview: Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse, Blotted Science)

Coined by producer/Hate Eternal frontman Erik Rutan, Alex Webster is the Steve Harris of death metal. Webster, one of the two remaining original members of death metal pioneers Cannibal Corpse, has been kicking ass for decades and shows absolutely no signs of stopping his signature, technical assault any time soon. I got a chance to catch up with Alex at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina on their fifth date of the Torture U.S. Tour, which also featured excellent performances from the brutal likes of Exhumed, Abysmal Dawn, and Arkaik. A thirty-minute conversation took place, in which we discussed both the past and present of Cannibal, what's been going on with this side project Blotted Science, the problems with modern live albums, and much more. 

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Kit Brown, Metal Injection: First of all, thanks for stopping by and doing this, man. I saw you guys a couple of years ago at this venue with Obscura and The Faceless

Alex Webster, Cannibal Corpse: Oh yeah, that was our first show on the Evisceration Plague American Tour.

Kit: Yeah man, killer show. So how’s the tour been going so far? I know it’s only been a couple of days.

Alex: This is the fifth show, and it’s been great. We like doing these kinds of tours where we’re playing what’s considered a “secondary market”, meaning cities that have smaller populations. You know, instead of playing Charlotte, we’re here. A lot of the bigger cities will happen on Summer Slaughter, so that’ll end up happening. What’ll happen is, instead of staying home waiting around for Summer Slaughter, we want to get out and do something.

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Kit: Yeah, especially with your new album having just come out.

Alex: We’re kind of playing anywhere we can, anywhere that’s not limited by Summer Slaughter. You know, they don’t want you to play the same place twice. It wouldn’t make sense for us to play Tampa and then play there two months later for Summer Slaughter. But yeah, it’s been great so far! All of the bands that we have with us are very happy to have them out there. They’re all killer bands. So far, so good. Definitely looking forward to the whole thing.

Kit: Awesome! I’ve been thinking about the two very distinct types of tours you’re doing, at least so far. Because you have this one which is all death metal, and then Summer Slaughter is kind of all over the place, especially now at this point. How do you feel about that? Do you like playing more varied tours or do you like to stick to death metal?

Alex: You kind of have to do both, I think. You have to do the varied tours to grow the band, and we like to do the full-on death metal tours to help keep our own scene, the scene that we came from, strong. You know? So when we do a tour that’s varied, and it’s fun too! I mean, I like a lot of different kinds of bands so I’m not saying that I’d prefer one over the other, really. They’re both fun. It’s fun to do the varied ones because you see different types of bands and you pull different fans and maybe different people will get interested in the band. But then it’s also fun to do a death metal tour like this. For example, if we gained fans by doing a tour that we did last time with Hatebreed, Unearth, Born of Osiris, Hate Eternal, and us. That’s very varied.

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Kit: Oh, absolutely.

Alex: If we gained fans from doing that, then the bands on this tour are reaping the benefits of that as well. If we strictly did varied tours then maybe it wouldn’t give as much benefit to the death metal scene, but by doing it every other time we get new fans. And hopefully when we do a headlining tour, they show up and see more bands in the scene, not just us.

Kit: How has Torture been doing? It’s only been out for less than a month now, but I know it was the highest charting release yet.

Alex: It’s the highest charting one.

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Kit: But I know that charting and sales don’t exactly match up with how they used to.

Alex: It’s different each year. Each year you can get higher up on the charts, and still sell the same amount of albums. We sold 9,600 on Evisceration Plague in the first week in the U.S., this is strictly Soundscan we’re talking about here, and that got us to #66. This one, was a little bit more, it was about 9,600 and change. And that got us all the way to #38. So that’s what, twenty-eight different? You can chart a lot higher with the same number of sales because across the board, CD sales are down. That’s part of changing times, or whatever. Hopefully if we can keep selling 9,600, give or take, with each first week, hopefully that’ll be enough to get us in the top ten in five years!

Kit: That would be awesome to see.

Alex: I don’t know about charts. Are they even going to be around in twenty years?

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Kit: That’s a good question. I don’t know, we’ll see. What made you guys decide to have “Demented Aggression” be the opening song? Was that the first one you had in the can, or was it more of an intentional process?

Alex: Every song is agonized over where it’s going to be. There’s a lot of time, and a few days will be spent figuring out the song order. “Demented Aggression” seemed like, well, it’s the fastest song, so you got to hit everybody hard right out of the gate. That’s the idea.

Kit: Blue balls are good for the sales too. When my friends saw the video for “Demented” on the internet, they were definitely flipping shit.

Alex: (laughter) Well, you know, you said it’s tougher to sell CDs these days, for all the obvious reasons that everyone’s talked about. You got to get that much more creative for the marketing to get people excited about the album.

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Kit: I was really excited with both of the songs you put out, because they were so different. “Demented” was a smash-your-face-in type of song, and “Scourge of Iron” reminded me more of “Evisceration Plague”. A mid-tempo, headbanger sort of song. I loved both of them, but for completely different reasons.

Alex: That’s one of main things we went for with this record. With the other records too, but one of the main things we go for is variety. (sighs) I mean, we have to play twenty songs tonight.

Kit: Have to? (laughs)

Alex: (laughs) You know, if you’re playing twenty five minutes or thirty minutes, it’s okay to be all fast. But if you’re doing it all fast for an hour and a half, it gets a little old. It’s also very tiring physically. I mean, it’s hard to sprint that long. There’s a reason marathon runners aren’t sprinting for twenty six miles. So when we’re doing a long set like that we want to be able to have some ups and downs. One: for the performance aspect of it. Two: for just the interest. It makes it for an interesting set to have a couple fast songs, a really slow one, and a mid-tempo one, another fast one, etc.

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Kit: I remember back when I saw you here a couple of years ago, the changes in tempos were always the most important part of your show to me. I was expecting you to just come out of the gates and crush, but then you started with “Evisceration Plague”.  I thought that was one of the coolest parts of the night simply because I wasn’t expecting it.

Alex: It’s fun to start with a slow song because it can be a warm up. Believe me; it’s rare for us to have a dressing room this nice, especially in the states. And when you’re touring smaller cities, the clubs are just the little clubs that don’t have a dressing room at all, or maybe one tiny room that we’ll usually let the supports have and we’ll just stay on the bus. So you don’t get a chance to warm up, and it’s nice to play a slow song first!  That’s your warm up, and it gives the sound guy a chance to get the mix dialed in. Oh, and the unpredictability is a nice bonus. But we always looked at it in a more pragmatic point of view. On this tour we’re opening with “Demented Aggression”, so there you go. We’re back to opening with fast stuff.

Kit: Oh, that’s totally fine by me. Speaking of songs that sprint, when was the last time you played “Frantic Disembowelment” in a live set?

Alex: We played it only once live. George never got the vocals down. Believe it or not, out of everybody in the band (laughs), we busted our asses off, and then he was like ‘Ah man, I’m having trouble with the vocal lines’, so we just never ended up doing it live. And one night, when we toured with Kataklysm, Napalm Death, Goatwhore, and…who else was there…Macabre? Anyways, it was 2004, and in Pittsburgh George had some kind of lung infection. He had to go to the hospital and everything. So we played the show anyways without a singer, and were like ‘why don’t we play it tonight since George won’t do it? This is our only chance.’ So that was the only time we played it live. It went pretty well, but my forearms were definitely Popeyed out by the end. It’s a lot of work. There are a lot of hard chops in that one.

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Kit: Would you say that’s still among the hardest? This is just from me hearing the new album, but “Intestinal Crank” and “The Strangulation Chair” were some of the craziest songs I think I’ve ever heard from you guys.

Alex: There are hard parts throughout our whole discography, really. Since Pat joined the band, definitely. He’s a very chops-oriented player, and he’s not trying to make the stuff hard…it just works out that way. It’s just going to be hard because that’s his style. All of his songs are hard. I remember when we were learning “Frantic Disembowelment” for The Wretched Spawn, and we were going to do this video for it. They had the guy there filming us down at the studio. I remember saying ‘We need to film THAT one. Because we’ve got a bunch of other songs that are just as hard, but no one ever said anything about them!’ Because you can’t really hear how hard something is, but when you see it, it’s like…wow! Look at all that that’s happening! Sometimes you need to see it, not just hear it because when it’s all low-tuned, you know? But we’ve got a lot of hard songs, but “Frantic Disembowelment” just got a lot of attention because we actually filmed it.  But there’s a bunch of these songs that would look pretty gnarly if we actually filmed them.

Kit: Right now, what would you say is the hardest song for you on the set tonight?

Alex: The hardest one is actually…well…”Demented Aggression” isn’t that hard, but since we have to do it first, it becomes hard. I have to be warmed up, and then “Sarcophagic Frenzy” we play directly after it. And that’s pretty hard. That’s a song Rob wrote, and it’s a style I’m just not as familiar with. My songs wind up being the ones that are easiest for me, because I wrote them. Pat’s songs, Rob’s songs, those are always the hard ones for me. Those guys, they’re going to have different stuff. Some things that are easy to do on bass, it’s hard to do on guitar, and vice versa. I’ll write a song where I’m like, ‘Man! This is easy!’, like “Crucifier Avenged”. For me, it’s a fairly easy song to play, but for those guys it’s hard because they have to down pick everything. I’m just playing the whole thing with two fingers just ‘dundundundundundun’. So I’m just up there banging away at it, having a great time, and they’re over there dying. They’re getting a major workout from that. But then some of the other shit that’s easy for them just kills me.

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Kit: Going back to talking about Rob, reading the album notes I saw Rob had three songs on this album. But he only had one song on the last album. Was that a conscious decision to get him more involved, or did he just happen to have more songs this time around?

Alex: I was just talking to everybody about it when we first started writing; I said ‘I want to get everyone more involved’. Every now and then, Paul will write a song on guitar because he can play it halfway decent. He’s written a couple.

Kit: Yeah, like “Carrion Sculpted Entity”.

Alex: Yeah, and there’s one other one. I think it was “Carnivorous Swarm”. Oh, and “Submerged in Boiling Flesh”.

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Kit: Oh hell yeah! That’s one of my favorites.

Alex: Thanks! I think he’s always known a little bit about guitar since I’ve known him. I wouldn’t say he’d be able to play in a band, but he’s good enough to write something, and then we can give him the rest of the ideas. But in general, it’s me, Rob, and Pat writing music. Every once in a while, I’ll write something with one of them, but most of the time we’ll write at home and bring the ideas to practice. This time, I was trying to make it even. I mean, I love writing. I’d be happy to write the whole album if it had to go that way. But it just seemed like a way to make sure that the album is very diverse. And you also just get a lot more excited about a record when you’ve had a lot of input on it. You know? It seems like everybody in the band is that much more stoked about this one because they’ve had more input on it. Excluding George, who just voluntarily opts out of the writing process, because it’s not really his thing. But the other four of us had a lot of input on it. Paul wrote lyrics for five songs, I wrote lyrics for five, music for five, Pat did music for four, and Rob did music for three and lyrics for two.

Kit: That’s a pretty even spread.

Alex: I think it came through on this record. Having a bunch of different writers makes for more variety.

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Kit: And the ordering of the album really helped bring out that variety that much more.

Alex: Yeah, you have your first song and it’s Pat and Paul. Then it’s Rob. Then it’s me. Then it’s back to Rob and Paul. And then it’s Pat, and then me again.

Kit: It just keeps switching up. As I was reading the liners notes, I remember thinking that was a very smart decision on your part.

Alex: It took a while to come up with that sequence. It was a good problem to have in that we were very happy with a lot of songs on the record. I mean, a couple of my favorite songs that I wrote ended up being pushed way to the back, “Rabid” and “Crucifier Avenged”. I’m really proud of both of those songs. But we had so many other good ones; they just got shoved to the back.

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Kit: It certainly shows. I thought Torture was one of your most consistent albums to date.

Alex: Well thanks! I think with metal bands you’re not writing hits, you’re trying to write a whole, good album from start to finish. We’re definitely not the only band that’s trying to do that, it’s metal in general. It’s album-oriented music.

Kit: I know you have twelve albums out now. So with twelve out, if someone’s never heard Cannibal Corpse before, you only get to show them one album. Which one do you give to them?

Alex: Well, if it’s only one, I got to give them Torture because it’s what the band is now. It’s the band at its best now, definitely performance-wise. Songwriting, that’s another thing. You might think our first album is the best one. That’s totally just personal preference. But if I could give them maybe three, I’d give them this one, Bloodthirst and The Bleeding.

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Kit: Oddly enough, those are exactly my top three Cannibal albums.

Alex: It’s a fairly even spread. The new one, something really good from the middle of our career, and The Bleeding is the best of the four Barnes albums, I would say. But we’re proud of all our records! They all represent our best effort at that time.

Kit: I saw your merch table as I was waiting to do the interview and saw some Blotted Science discs out on display. How’s that been going? I remember seeing an old interview hearing talk of a possible tour…

Alex: Yeah…that was something we talked about, and then it wound up not being realistic. There’s just no way.  I mean, Cannibal practices four days a week to play considerably less complex music live. I mean, the chops are hard, sure. But composition wise, it’s much more straightforward. And we still practice all the time. So to do Blotted Science the way it really needs to be done, we’d need to dedicate a huge amount of time to practice. That music’s hard enough that it needs to be your full-time band that tours. I mean, you look at other bands that are really technical like Symphony X or Dream Theater…that’s their full time band. They don’t just say ‘Oh, we’ll get together three days before a tour and just wing it.’ I’m sure they’re practicing those songs a lot. The rest of us in Blotted Science are busy with other things. Ron’s a very busy guitar teacher. Hannes is obviously touring all the time with Obscura, and I’m here right now. I wish we could all live in the same city for a couple of months and get a good live set and go tour together, but it just doesn’t seem like a reality right now. It’ll be a studio project for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t rule it out, just not right now.

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Kit: Another one of my favorite Cannibal releases was Live Cannibalism. I just love your whole approach to the live album, I love being able to take your show and just put it on my headphones. George’s dirty intros, too. Are you ever considering doing another live album?

Alex: Well, we just did the Global Evisceration DVD, and that’s got a full live concert mixed into all of the documentary stuff. Maybe? We’re not crazy about it, because we don’t fix stuff (laughs), and everybody else does! We’re not on a level playing field with these bands that fix their mistakes on their live album.

Kit: That was part of the appeal, I thought. It made it that much more of a show to me, and I hate it when live albums sound exactly like the CD.

Alex: We don’t fix our shit. I believe that Pete (tour manager, sound guy), on Global Evisceration, nothing is fixed. I believe that, um… (asks Pete Robertson, who just enters the dressing room) were the kick drums on Global sound replaced?

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Pete Roberston, Cannibal Corpse’s tour manager/sound guy: No. Uh-uh.

Alex: Because I’m just talking about how we do real live records, so it’s like a lot of pressure on us. The performance we do, that’s the performance you hear. We’re not the kind of band that goes back and fixes shit in the studio. We were not around when Live Cannibalism was mixed; Colin Richardson did it in England. They sent him the tapes, and we never saw them again. There was nothing being fixed.

Pete: Yeah, the only thing I did with the kick drums on that were once I had EQed the kick drum the way I wanted it for the whole show, I took one of the best sounding hits and made a copy of that. So if there was any spot with a bad note, a little too light or something, I could replace that. Other than that, there’s no trickery, no nothing on there. No editing.

Alex: I’ve heard stories where like the only thing that’s still live is the dude announcing the song! How can you call that a live album? So we leave our live albums, warts and all. It is what it is. With Global Evisceration, we did two shows. We also have a whole bunch of lives shows in the can that are just sitting there, so you never know.

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Pete: Yeah, I’ve got twenty shows sitting there. Half of them are 90% mixed. I was just bored, sitting in the studio with nothing to do, and I thought ‘Hey, let’s mix some Cannibal shows.’

Alex: We have that stuff. There’s a live album we could put out from the Evisceration Plague tour we could put out at any time. Cannibal live stuff always has to be live.

Pete: That probably took me two weeks to do. And I got all the drums for the entire thing done. I would go every three bars and find a guitar hit or a bass note, take the bass hit on one, go for three bars…or two bars, or four. And I’d find where it started again, and match it to the drum kit.

Alex: Obviously that was something Pete was just doing that for fun, but a lot of bands really do that stuff! Or they’ll just re-record, you know? We’ll do what it takes to make a great sounding studio record. Do it a million times, do a million takes, whatever. But when it’s live, it should be live. I always thought those live albums I bought where you could hear things were fucked up or played a little bit wrong, well that’s cool! That’s how it was that night. And that’s what we want our live albums to be.

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Pete: Pro Tools is a great thing. But I look at it like Bondo. If you have a little ding, or a dent, fix it up. But do I want to buy a brand new car made out of Bondo? No. Get it out of the gate first, and if you have a couple of blemishes you need to touch up, sure. Why not? That’s fine just for consistency purposes. Not to hide that somebody made a mistake, but if it really distracts from it, no problem. I’ll fix it.

Alex: Going back and redoing rhythm guitars in the studio…that’s not live! You’re doing another take. I think it’s ok to fix a little bit of what’s there.

Pete: I did one a year and a half ago, where they paid me a lot of money to come and record the show. And it was a big-name band, big venue. They do everything to a click, so we did an entire performance earlier in the day from noon until two just for rehearsal. Just as back-up in case the live show got fucked up. So I had two live shows in the show, and they played great! But they took it back, and just didn’t like their performance. So they took it back to the click track and basically just put the six audience tracks that I had and basically made a studio record, added my audience tracks, and sold it as a live DVD.

Alex: Wow…this is not me saying this, by the way! (laughs)

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Kit: Last question: after Summer Slaughter, do you have any more touring plans? Going overseas? More tours here?

Alex: Lots more touring, for sure. We’ve got a bunch of festival dates in Europe. Some of the shows will be us opening for Children of Bodom or Amon Amarth. Other shows will be us with Aborted, so that’ll be killer. It’s not one tour, though. After Summer Slaughter, we’re going to take all of September off, just to be home with family and rest a little bit. Then in October we’re trying to set up something in Australia and hopefully in Asia as well. Those dates are still fluid at this point, so I can’t say that it’s confirmed, though. We’ll see.

Cannibal Corpse's set (in order):

Demented Aggression, Sarcophagic Frenzy, Scourge of Iron, Disfigured, Evisceration Plague, The Time to Kill is Now, Crucifier Avenged, Covered With Sores, Born in a Casket, I Cum Blood, Savage Butchery, Encased in Concrete, As Deep as the Knife Will Go, The Wretched Spawn, I Will Kill You, Priests of Sodom, Unleashing the Bloodthirsty, Make them Suffer, Hammer Smashed Face, Stripped Raped and Strangled

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