Q&A with Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse

Cannibal Corpse didn't invent death metal, but it has become one of the genre's definitive bands. Forming in Buffalo, New York in 1988, Cannibal Corpse quickly came to prominence due to its decidedly brutal music and horrifically detailed lyrics to match. From the beginning, Cannibal's album covers were a source of controversy, leading to bans on the albums and songs in several countries. Former senator Bob Dole, among others, accused the band of being purveyors of immoral music capable of undermining the culture of America. Anyone with a functioning capacity for discernment, however, quickly realizes that Cannibal's corpus is like a series of horror movies and not a dictate to its listeners to actualize that world in real life. Nor is it an attempt to desensitize listeners to the very real violence going on somewhere on Earth every single day. Its latest offering, Evisceration Plague, may be its tightest, most cohesive album to date including some of the act's finest songs. We had an opportunity to chat with the band's original bassist, and one of its primary songwriters, Alex Webster, while he was at a stop in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tom Murphy (Westword): Did your latest album get banned in Germany or anywhere else right away and do you know why Germany and Australia lifted their respective bans on your previous albums?

Alex Webster: As far as I know, things are okay in Australia these days. Even though we're in the band and you'd think we'd keep up with that sort of thing, we don't really keep up with any of it, unless it affects us directly while we're on tour. With Germany, we do have problems with some of our older releases, but with Evisceration Plague, nothing so far. But in certain parts of Germany, Bavaria in particular, the local government will insist that we don't play certain songs. But most of Germany is alright. I guess with any law you can interpret it in a number of ways. Some of the areas of Germany will interpret the music censorship laws they have a little more strictly than others.

In general it's been okay, though, and we've been able to play whatever we want. The last time we played Munich, we had to cut a number of songs from the set, but a couple of years before, no problem. It comes and goes. It seems a little capricious to me but I suppose they have their reasons.

WW: The picture in the middle of the lyric booklet is incredibly evocative. When did you first start working with Vince Locke, what drew you to his work and do you ever give him any direction on the artwork?

AW: We first got interested in Vince Locke because of this comic book Deathworld that he did in the late '80s and early '90s. It was a zombies taking over the world type of thing. Our original singer, Chris Barnes, contacted Vince and he was involved with our very first album. He's done artwork either for the interior or the cover for every album we've done since then. Vince is great. The kind of art he does is right up our alley, so it's really a no brainer to use him. He's perfect. We don't have to coach him that much. He kind of knows what we want. We'll generally give him song titles and let him go for it from there, when we ask him for a piece of art. We maybe give him the lyrics as well and say, "Hey, do your thing." We don't give him that much direction.

WW: Paul Mazurkiewicz said that he had all but reinvented his playing style for your latest album. Was that shift a result of a change in songwriting and what effect did that have on the rhythmic dynamic of the band?

AW: I think the big change for Paul was playing along to a click track and practicing with a metronome for the entire seven or eight month period leading up to the recording of the album. I think it made a difference. I did work out a lot of the drum parts in my songs for him. The drum parts for Rob [Barrett] and [Pat O'Brien's] songs, they worked out a little more the old fashioned way. I just programmed a bunch of drums, and Paul played very similar parts to what I programmed. That stuff I just programmed to play at home or whatever. I certainly give Paul free reign to play what he wants. Though, generally, what he played was really close, but he added his own little stuff here and there.

I think the writing style is similar. This album still sounds like a Cannibal Corpse album but probably it's a little tighter. When you're constantly practicing to a click track in your headphones in the background, you start to internalize that click. So what I've noticed now is that when we play live, those songs we practiced that way all sound extremely tight. And his meter is really good on those in particular. That's how I've been practicing at home for years. Just put on a metronome and practice with that to help develop my timing. So when you take the metronome away you still have better timing. I think it's a useful tool for any musician.

WW: On this tour you're also performing with Hate Eternal, I assume. How did you come to play in that band, and what is your role there, as opposed to your role in Cannibal Corpse?

AW: Oh no, I'm not playing with Hate Eternal. I just did the album with them; I've never done a show with them. Because the last group of promotional pictures they did had me in them, everybody thinks I'm still in the band. They are great friends of mine and everything, but honestly, it wouldn't be right for me to do two shows every night because each show would be compromised in the intensity for what I'm able to give. I'm forty-years-old, and I want to give 100 percent, and you can only give 100 percent once. If I just played 100 percent with Hate Eternal, I wouldn't be able to give 100 percent to Cannibal, because I'd already be tired.

Shadowboxing will make you tired -- well think about shadowboxing with headbutting, because that's basically what you're doing when you're headbanging for an hour straight. A fairly heavy object, your head, you're moving it with your neck as fast as you can, playing difficult songs -- it'll make you sweat. If you're really going to put on the kind of performance you want to give, you can only do it once a day, in my opinion. I know some guys try to play twice a day, but I find it hard to believe they're not compromising their intensity level by spreading themselves too thin. It's one thing to stand there and play, it's quite another to be hunched over and banging your head and playing difficult stuff. It's more intense than some people realize.

WW: You're known for your three-finger walk on bass. How did you develop this technique and did anyone serve as an inspiration to that development?

AW: Definitely. I developed it by trying to imitate Steve DiGiorgio from Sadus. I've been following Steve since back in the late '80s -- since Sadus put out the D.T.P. demo. Me and our old guitar player Jack [Owen], we had their their self-released album called Illusions, before it was on Roadrunner. We had it on vinyl because you had a lot of DIY stuff back then. I could tell that the bass playing was finger style, but it was also very fast, definitely too fast to do with two fingers.

I actually tracked down Steve's phone number, and gave him a call, and he was gracious enough to give me some tips on how to play. The original way he told me how to play is a little bit different from the style I developed, but he was definitely the guy who got me started in that direction. I'll always consider Steve to be a teacher of sorts. He's an amazing bass player and a good friend, and he got me going in the right direction way back in 1989.

Why was Slayer such a big influence on you and your band? I listened to Evisceration Plague closely last night and "Skewered From Ear to Eye" is really reminiscent of "Angel of Death."

AW: Oh really? I never thought of it like that, but honestly we listen to Slayer so much that the influence is probably very pervasive. It's nothing intentional, but if there are some parts in that song that reminded you of Slayer, it's probably something that happened accidentally. Reign in Blood is one of the greatest albums ever. I love Hell Awaits, too, so that kind of stuff, I just listened to it so much at a very important time in my life as a musician when I was first starting out. That stuff got embedded in my brain, I guess.

The other thrash bands were good, but they didn't have that dark sound that Slayer had. I think that the dark sound that Slayer had is why they're such an influence on the death metal scene. Because that, to me, is one of the big things, far beyond the vocal stuff, that makes death metal different from regular thrash is the effort to make it sound dark. And Slayer had that. So many Slayer songs could be death metal songs if Tom had a different vocal style. I know they had a big impact on us, and I know we're not the only death metal band they impacted.

WW: What has fueled your continued interest for going on three decades for the type of music you're making?

AW: It's just my favorite kind of music. I listen to tons of other music, too, and so do the other guys in the band, but the stuff that I think is the best is well done death metal -- well done forms of extreme metal. Of course I don't love every death metal band or every black metal band or every thrash band, but when it's something really aggressive and done well, it's the best. It doesn't take a lot of motivation to want to play your favorite music. We're able to play our favorite kind of music and get paid to do it. It's how it makes me feel -- the aggression and the darkness. Some music is aggressive and some music is dark. Thrash is aggressive but death metal is both of those things. It's capturing something I have a lot of [laughs]. It hits the spot. It's the kind of music that reaches something in me. It's hard to put into words. That's why I love music so much - because it can express things that words can't. It's the right kind of music for me.

Cannibal Corpse, with Hatebreed, Unearth, Born of Osiris and Hate Eternal, 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 23, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax, $22.75 - $25.00, 303-830-8497.

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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.