Matt Harvey on forming Exhumed: "We were the angriest fifteen-year-olds of all time"
Valerie Little John
Exhumed (due at Denver Black Sky this Saturday, December 14, at the Gothic Theatre) started in San Jose, California when Matt Harvey, the band's sole original member, was just fifteen years old. Rather than following the trends of the genre at the time, Exhumed has remained faithful to the older tenets of that music for the run of its career so far.
See also: The best concerts in Denver this weekend
Playing in a scene separate from the popular thrash scene in the Bay Area in the '90s, Exhumed and a handful of other acts helped to keep death metal alive. In 2013, Exhumed released its latest album, Necrocracy, which contained its most direct musical and political statements to date. We spoke with the engaging and witty Harvey about the early phase of the band's development, his wide-ranging interests in music and more.
Westword: Did you start playing guitar before you got into metal?
Matt Harvey: I started very shortly after getting into metal. I think I started listening to Ozzy and Maiden and stuff, maybe when I was eleven, and Metallica and Slayer and so forth, when I was twelve. I started playing guitar just before I turned thirteen.
Did that music inspire you to pick up the guitar?
I always liked music, but I never thought about it that much. I mean, I took piano lessons when I was a kid very briefly, but I found that it was too much practicing and not enough running around outside playing with Star Wars figures. So I wasn't that into it. Then my grandmother used to play piano for church, and she gave piano lessons and my uncle on the other side of the family was, and still is, a jazz fusion guitar player and plays flute.
So I kind of had the idea that regular people could play instruments. When I saw Metallica and got into them, they were just regular dudes that didn't have shiny pants. So I thought, "Oh, cool, maybe I can start a band. Before that, I wanted to be a skateboarder. But I was a really, really terrible skateboarder. So after seven to nine months of not progressing at all, I decided I would get into playing guitar.
So did you get to see Metallica when you were really young?
I saw them in '89 when I was fifteen, I think. Summer of '89. They're my favorite band of all time, and that's the only time I've been able to see them live. I just feel like I enjoy them so much, and the band is a lot different now, and I don't want to ruin that for myself. They were a total gateway drug, or whatever you want to call it, and opened up another realm, to me, beyond what was on Headbanger's Ball. That was the whole start of everything for me, hearing Master of Puppets.
So before you started playing death metal and other sorts of extreme music, did you get started playing thrash?
Absolutely. It started with me and a neighbor kid, and we used to hang out and play "For Whom The Bell Tolls" and "Jump in the Fire." A little while later, another group of friends and I used to jam out in my mom's living and play "Riot of Violence" by Kreator and "Persecution Mania" by Sodom. Then we started adding some songs from [Death's] Scream Bloody Gore to play. Then I started kind of trying to write my own songs.
As me and a couple of guys' tastes kept getting heavier and heavier, we found that we were losing people to jam with steadily. By 1990, we had friends who were into Kreator or Coroner, but me and our original drummer were like, "No, dude, you've got to hear Terrorizer or Carcass," or whatever. We were the angriest fifteen-year-olds of all time, musically. We were just constantly looking for something faster and faster and heavier and more brutal. That lead us to formalizing Exhumed being a band.
You mentioned Scream Bloody Gore. That's pretty extreme for the time.
Absolutely. The cool thing about it was that it was a record that was musical-ish but you could still have been playing guitar for sixteen months and be able to play most of the riffs. That, and like Morbid Tales by Celtic Frost, we used to play "Dethroned Emperor" and stuff, as well, because if you've playing guitar for a brief amount of time, you can still play Celtic Frost songs.
I think what drew me into playing more raw stuff was just the fact that me and my shithead friends could actually play the songs, and it sounded sort of like the record. You know what I mean? As opposed to if you tried to play a Coroner song, you'd think, "Wow, this is really fucking hard." Then, once we discovered Napalm Death, it was all downhill from there.
Did you find it easy to connect with other bands to play shows where you were living when you were starting out, or is that something that came along later?
In '91 and '92, when we were first starting to put the band together, outside of Autopsy, there weren't really any credible bands going. It wasn't until, I guess, late '91 and early '92, that we finally found some other bands that were a little bit ahead of us -- a step and a half ahead of us. They had, you know, better sounding demos and a better grasp on what they were trying to do. That was Immortal Fate and Plutocracy from Redwood City. We played a lot of shows with those guys.
Right around that time there started being a few more bands, but none of them really went on to particularly much of anything. But it was a start for the Bay Area because everybody was so still into Bay Area thrash from the '80s. So all the musicians there that were into being heavy were into Souls of Black by Testament and stuff. They didn't want to hear Impetigo and Blasphemy or whatever. The scenes were really, really fucking separate then, too.
I remember when I got into death metal, I got rid of most of my thrash cassettes. "Alright, I'm not into any of this anymore! Whatever I'm into this week is cool; whatever I was into last week sucks! Mom and dad, you guys don't know anything!" You know, the typical fifteen-year-old mindset. So it was a whole division. Once you got into death metal, that was it. And you'd stop going to Exodus and Vio-lence and all those bands, that I still love the shit out of. But I went through a period from fifteen to seventeen of "Fuck Slayer! They're not heavy enough!"
So it was a very divisive kind of time and there wasn't a whole lot going on in the Bay Area, and there was a couple of years from '91 to '93 where there were ten or eleven bands maximum going on and most of them had broken up by '94. Then, after that, hardly any death metal shows even came to the Bay Area, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, and that was it.
What kinds of places were you able to play?
We actually kind of lucked into some pretty good gigs back when we were kids. There was a whole pay to play system, where the venue gives the local opening bands tickets, and they sell the tickets and give it to the venue, and then the venue uses that money to pay the guarantee of the touring bands.
And even if you didn't sell the tickets, you had to come up with the money. We were like sixteen and we all had jobs -- most of us worked at the same car wash in San Jose. So we had a lot of disposable income, really. We always paid the money, and we showed up and never really asked for anything.
Being that young, we couldn't ask for beer or anything, so we were like the ideal opening band because we always brought the money. We always showed up, and didn't ask for anything. They told us to play thirty minutes, and we only played thirty minutes. We didn't have a lot of gear, we didn't know a lot about sound, we didn't ask them to turn on the smoke machine. We didn't care. We were just like, "Holy shit, we're opening for Entombed! Yes!"
So we actually got a lot of good gigs when we first started. We did the local band thing for Morbid Angel, Entombed, of course, Sadus, Autopsy a couple of times, Cannibal Corpse -- this was all like '92 and '93.
So that was really cool, just being really young kids and obviously big fans of music getting to see our favorite bands up close and personal and seeing what they were doing. And we didn't take much away from it because I don't think we were in the right mindset. At the same time, it was definitely inspiring. You know, we'd go support Suffocation and Dismember and come home totally pumped and write some new riffs.
We were really spoiled because we just had this one group of clubs that would give us good opportunities. I forget exactly what happened. I know some kind of stabbing happened, and there were some kinds of problems with the owner and all the clubs shut down. And after '93, there just wasn't a lot of death metal going on. It was kind of winnowed down to the top five or six bands and that was it. Most of the other death metal bands kind of faded away. So when all the clubs shut down the scene changed completely and by '94 it was a different landscape than it was in '91 and '92.
What were you able to do at that point?
The cool thing is that all of that stuff allowed us to do, since we didn't have any shows and we'd had some line-up changes -- like most young bands, you're sixteen and some guy makes out with your girlfriend, and you want to punch him, and you make out with a guy's girlfriend, and he wants to punch you, somebody doesn't like your riff and you want to punch him, that kind of shit.
But I think around '94, we started finding our actual sound, instead of making songs like, "Oh Dismember riff, oh Carcass riff, oh Napalm Death riff, oh Suffocation riff, repeat Dismember riff, end of song." We kind of started getting more into a lot of the thrash stuff that we were into earlier and find ways to slowly integrate that in with the heavy, death metal stuff, and that has become the basis of our sound: death metal, thrash metal, a little bit of grindcore, a little bit of punk and there you go.
A lot of people now seem to forget that once upon a time it took a while to get things going with a band.
There's so many more tools available now to a young kid starting out. When I was fifteen, if I had brought Napalm Death's Scum to a guitar teacher, he would have laughed at me: "I'm not teaching you how to play this. This isn't even music. Get the fuck out of here." Now, it's just been around for so long, that it's just a thing.
For better or for worse, death metal and grindcore are part of the musical landscape, a small part, but it's acknowledged. If you're into music, even if you're a flamenco guitar player, and you hang around musicians long enough, you're going to hear a Napalm Death album somewhere along the line.
Now kids can just go on YouTube and just be like, "Oh hey, here's a guitar lesson that Ryan Knight from Black Dahlia Murder put online. Bam! Now I'm playing sweep arpeggio's. I've only been playing guitar for six months but holy shit." The same thing with drumming. There's so many drum cams and drum clinics teaching people how to play blast beats, which never would have happened when we were starting out.
Our original drummer and I had an exclusive mindset. We didn't want to be influenced by outside people. We didn't want people instructing us or whatever. Which made us do things that were circuitous and difficult but ultimately it helped us find our own sound.
It just went at a much slower rate than maybe other bands did because we didn't avail ourselves of the tools that were available then. We never took lessons, we never bothered to learn any theory, and we never counted beats. We were just like, "Alright, just go, play really fast, and play the next part." That was it. It's kind of retarded, but it ended up working out.
And yet that method really helped you to develop a unique voice as a band. You didn't start one year and have a full-length album a year or two later on a label of any kind. You released a number of 7-inches and split releases before putting out Gore Metal in 1998. You were a band for eight years at that point. What do you feel, other than what you already mentioned, that you learned during that time? A lot of bands probably would have quit before eight years was up.
One of the things that I think helped us to continue was that we always sort of had a hobbyist mentality about it. Our original drummer was always going to college and always intended to be a scientist, which is what he is now. He's a biochemist, and makes tons of money. Our old bass player, Ross, was going to college, too, and we worked normal jobs, so we weren't really thinking like, "Hey, we play in a death metal/grindcore band to be rich." We didn't really look at it as a career path, so we didn't put that kind of pressure on it.
We had a lot of passion for it, but I think we were so disconnected from the idea of there even being a business side of it. At the same time, I remember being 21 or whatever and thinking, "We don't have an actual record deal with Earache or something, but by the time I'm 25, I'm either going to quit or just go to school full time and not worry about doing it." When I was 22 or so, we got signed to Relapse, and I was like, "Okay, cool, I guess I don't have to go to school."
So we didn't put any financial pressure on ourselves, and we didn't have much of a concept of success, outside of doing what we wanted to do and play the music we believed in. We never thought about managers, booking agents, publishing or record companies. We just thought it would be cool to put out a record you could buy in a record store. That was the goal.
With the splits and stuff, we played a lot of shows with a lot of punk bands and power-violence bands and bands from that scene, and that was kind of what they were doing, and there wasn't really a lot of interest in signing newer death metal bands at that time. So we just kind of took whatever came along, like, "Oh, cool, a track for a compilation or a split 7-inch, alright let's do it." These small things started adding up to the fact that people started knowing who the band was.
Also our old bass player, Ross, was a tireless guy always dubbing cassettes non-stop, always at the post office, always at Kinko's, printing out J-cards and glue-sticking everything together. He was, by far, the spearheading guy of that whole effort. It was sort of a long slow build-up to where, "Oh, this is a band that people have actually heard of in the underground." We kind of lucked into getting on to Relapse, and we've been there ever since.
Reading interviews you've done over the years, it's obvious you're not just into metal. So it really should come as no surprise that on Garbage Days Re-Regurgitated, you cover "A Reflection" by The Cure. How did the Cure inspire and influence you as a musician?
I've been huge Cure fan ever since high school. The weird thing was that when I was in high school, I listened to death metal, grindcore and then like Sonic Youth, the Cure, My Bloody Valentine and Skinny Puppy and stuff. It kind of just started because the only chicks that would talk to me were into that music.
The vibe and everything, especially Pornography or Seventeen Seconds, is just as stark and bleak as any necro or black metal album or any Autopsy riff or whatever. It's just taking it in a different way or responding to that same sort of despair differently. I even like a lot of the later albums. Not all of them, but most of them are pretty good.
We wanted to showcase some interest outside of rock and metal, but it's pretty difficult to take a Sonic Youth song from Daydream Nation and turn it into a death metal song. But the Cure is a little bit more simple and stripped down, and we took it in the opposite direction and went big with it. We made a Cure song sound like the intro to "Blackened" or something like that.
In an interview with Invisible Oranges you did a while back, you mentioned being into Spacemen 3. What is it you appreciate about them?
Oh, I just like shit with a trippy vibe, man. Maybe that makes me sound like a hippie or whatever, but when I was just out of high school, I tried mushrooms and my dad was always into psych rock. I grew up around Jefferson Airplane and Cream and all that '60s kind of stuff. To me, it has that same spaced out, fuzzed out, dreamy vibe. I know that kind of bums out some brutal death metal kids, but when I don't listen to metal, I listen to all kinds of music, but I really like stuff that's spaced out and kind of fuzzy.
I don't smoke weed or anything, but I feel like it kind of puts me in that same, zoned out headspace. I always hang out with people who aren't into metal, and pick up on their perspective, and see what they're into, musically and otherwise. I feel like if you're always getting the same stimulus again and again and again, you're going to be stuck on a rut. Then when you come back to it when you're doing what you do, you have nothing fresh to bring to the table because you're on a steady diet of the same thing.
It's like if you're a chef and you cook French cuisine, and only hang out with people that eat that, and hang out only with chefs that make that, you're not going to bring anything new to it. You need to go, and hang out with people that cook Thai cuisine and see what that's all about, and then, you can take something away from that and hopefully do something that's your own thing.
In that same Invisible Oranges interview you mentioned that you liked Cat Power as well. What do you like about Chan Marshall's music, and what did you think of Sun -- which was very different from everything else she's done.
Yeah, you know, I bought it, but I wasn't super stoked on it. I thought it was good, but I only gave it a few listens. I guess it's one of those things where I heard The Greatest, and it really grabbed me right away, and I kept playing it over and over. The new one...I should probably spend some more time with it because I don't mean to slag it off. It just didn't grab me as much.
Obviously she has a fucking great voice. There's something really honest about what she's doing. She seems really straightforward: "I'm being myself, check it out." That still comes through on the new record. I get jealous of other kinds of bands that get to have vocal melodies and a lot more dynamics and stuff than we can really do with our band.
And I just like a voice that just grabs me, like hers does. Just like, "Damn, there's something going on here. I'm having feelings. I like it! Good." I like female vocals, in general. It's just nice to hear a pretty voice. Again, that's not very metal, but I like it. I'm never going to get rid of my Kate Bush records, sorry.
As a guitarist, you've gone for a certain kind of sound with the band. Is there anything you do to challenge yourself in making sounds that are interesting and different but still fit in within the realm of what you want to do with the band?
I think with the new record, we went in a more conscious direction starting out. I liked what we did on the last record, but it felt a little monotonous to me after living with the album for a while. A lot of that had to do with just sort of writing it all in one five or six month period just being at home writing riffs. With this one, it was cool because it was between tours, and it allowed the songs to stand out from each other a little more. It's kind of difficult to keep things fresh because you're working with the same set of ingredients.
The real challenge, I think, that we put to ourselves, honestly, was to focus on traditional songwriting. The conceptual aspect of music is more interesting to me than the technical aspect of playing such and such a passage quickly or more quickly. To me, that just turns into a numbers game, and also, I just burn out on it. I get bored really fast trying to sit down and clean out my scale runs. After five minutes my mind starts to wander.
We just tried to look at songs we liked from any genre and find commonalities within the construction whether it's a modulation technique or a way to come out of a chorus into a bridge in a different way. And then find a way to sort of apply that to the genre we're playing. People in interviews often ask me, "Oh, do you guys try be as extreme as possible." And I say, "We try to be as accessible as possible."
We're not trying to be more extreme than we are. I mean the band is already pretty aggressive. So within that framework we try to make things understandable, accessible, catchy and enjoyable for the listener. We're not trying to overtax the listener. There's some shock and awe involved but there's not an excessive amount of thinking.
On your new record you have a song called "The Shape of Deaths to Come." Is that a humorous, perhaps not so humorous, aside to Ornette Coleman or Refused?
Yeah, and there's an old psych rock by Max Frost and the Troopers. That was the first thing that I thought, and then I realized there was a jazz album and that Refused album. I was never really into Refused, but I know it's a significant touchstone for a lot of people. It's cheeky. And also when you're riffing on something like that and you have a title, you're sort of cheating to get a title that will stick into people's heads immediately because it refers to something else.
It's like most of the lyrics on the record and a sort of metaphorical take on the modern situation and the fact that as a lot of people that work for mega corporations are making money they're poisoning the air and polluting the water while also working for a company that is working to cut their pension.
You're making them more profit, and they're trying to find ways to get rid of your healthcare and get rid of your retirement. I guess the metaphor is working in a factory that makes coffins because you're just making the thing you're about to climb in at the end. Like, "Okay, cool, we're done using you for your labor and your ideas and now fuck off."
You're a used, worn out machine part and goodbye.
It's a very apt title.
I thought it was cute. You know.
In the past you've been less overt with the political content in your music. For Necrocracy you seem more direct with that. Why was that important this time out?
One of the biggest problems with this style of music, at least for me as a listener, is that everybody gets caught up, including myself in a lot of ways, in the extremity of it all and the fact that you can be as labyrinthine with your arrangements or lyrics. And it ends up kind of becoming gobbledygook. It's gratuitous. You're just playing faster because you can. You're just putting more notes in because you can. You're putting more words in the song because you can.
We try to make everything a little bit more deliberate and pick and choose and whittle things down on the record. The songs are actually a little bit longer but it's just more because we're giving more space to each riff and making sure each riff and each drum fill and each break is right where it's supposed to be and not just running off at the mouth. We've done records where I just thought, "God, I just wrote so many lyrics. Shut the fuck up!"
We do it the same way musically. Drummers come up with these fills that they're so in love with that they just cram it in there even though it doesn't serve the song. So we took everything back a step. In some ways it may be dumbing it down. In other ways maybe it's streamlining it. It just depends on how you look at it. The idea was just to continually try and trim the fat. Use less to get more rather than just piling stuff on.
Again, I use a lot of metaphors but if you have a sandwich with shitty ingredients you're going to mask that with putting twenty-five toppings and all this different sauce on it. But really if you have well baked bread, really good lunch meat and cheese and mayonnaise and mustard, boom, that's the essence of what the sandwich is. If those parts are good, that's what you need.
Whereas if those parts aren't great you're going to put on tons of vegetables and special sauce you're sort of masking the fact that there's nothing there. And that's what we wanted to get away from. We wanted to stop piling things on and focus on the essentials and let them be as important as they could within the context of the songs, I guess. Sandwich metal!
Doing the type of vocals you do for this band, it sounds like it has to take a toll. How do you take care of your voice between shows or to prepare for being able to do that on tour?
You know, I don't really take care of it as much as I should. If it's around, I'll try and drink warm tea with honey. Certainly before the show, I avoid anything that's too cold. But I do drink a lot of beer because, not only does it get you drunk and it tastes great, it numbs out your throat a little bit, so you can rasp on it and it doesn't hurt until the next morning.
I also try not to raise my voice and try not to scream at people or scream, in general. I try to stay quiet during the day. I don't take a vow of silence or anything; I just don't raise my voice, and I talk a little bit lower than I might normally if we're not on the road. I also drink a lot of water.
Another thing I try to do is to get my own voice in my stage monitor really loud because if I can't hear myself I keep pushing louder. I could be doing just fine but I don't know because I can't hear it, so I scream louder and then they turn it down in the main P.A. because it's too loud and then I can't hear myself, then I scream louder, and so on and so forth. So by the end of the night, I feel like I have laryngitis.
I don't really put too much thought into it because it's more of a sound effect with this kind of music than like a vocal or whatever. I try to just keep it natural and not a funny, monster voice. Just a really, really, really angry guy yelling really cruelly, I guess. Outside of that, I don't really know. I do like to eat cheesy foods because it helps to coat your throat a little bit. Just build up some phlegm you can gargle on and then that makes your life easier as a death metal vocalist. Mine, anyway.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.