Matt Harvey on forming Exhumed: "We were the angriest fifteen-year-olds of all time"

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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.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.