Q&A: Carcass On Surgical Steel, The Pitfalls Of Legacy, And First Aid Kits
A fertile partnership often yields great music. Two different personalities can work collectively to mold creative putty into something lasting. It’s been the case of some of the great pairings in rock (see McCartney and Lennon and Page and Plant). And it’s been the case in metal. The English grind and death metal band Carcass has been in part defined by the partnership of Jeff Walker and Bill Steer. Vocalist and bassist Walker is the acidic wise guy who jokes at the beginning of an interview that “the pub beckons.” Guitarist Steer is the more relaxed of the two, a foil to Walker’s rapier wit. Drummer Ken Owen suffered a brain hemorrhage that made playing with a band unfeasible — although he remains an integral part Carcass. Today brings the release of the band’s sixth album, 17 years in the making, Surgical Steel: easily one of the best metal albums of 2013 and an instantly vital piece of the Carcass discography. (If you haven’t yet, read our Premature Evaluation of the album, which also provides a pretty comprehensive look at the band’s career to date.)
A quick breakdown of the band’s long-gestating reunion: After initially spitting in 1996, Carcass reunited in 2008 for a series of shows with former guitarist Michael Amott, now of Arch Enemy, and Daniel Erlandsson on drums. Rumors about a new record surfaced quickly but tapered off after a few years. Steer and Walker, however, always felt there was room for a second chapter.
Amott helped Carcass scale new creative heights in the ’90s with Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious and Heartwork. When he said he didn’t want any part of a new record it was up to Walker and Steer to reenergize a metal institution. And they’ve done so with Surgical Steel. Did you expect anything less from the band that created melodic death metal? The pair told us how it all happened.
STEREOGUM: When you finally put the band to sleep back in the ’90s it went away with a bit of a puff. What is it like to have this enormous amount of interest in Carcass and the new material?
WALKER: Of course it’s gratifying for the ego. That’s why people perform in bands. They want to show off and be noticed. It’s nice that we’re finally getting the recognition that we felt, arrogantly or not, we deserve. There’s definitely been more interest since the band split up in 1996. I don’t know what that says about the state of modern metal (laughs). When you form a band you want to be popular. We’re not trying to be ‘kvlt’ — we’re not a black metal band. But we’re also not stupid. We know our limitations and know there is a ceiling on sales and the appeal that a band like Carcass can have.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like this album is what people deserve rather than Swansong, which some are ambivalent about?
WALKER: Swansong is vilified and some people are down on it but it’s totally unjustified. It’s sold more than Symphonies Of Sickness. We meet a lot of people who are genuinely enthused about the album. For some it might have been the first Carcass or heavy album they heard. It’s what people refer to as a gateway album. We recorded it at Sony so in many respects it’s dumbed down. But it’s not like I couldn’t sleep at night worrying that we ended on Swansong. It has its space on our discography. I’m not ashamed of it. The only problem I had is that some of the best songs were left off the album and put on the Wake Up And Smell The Carcass compilation.
If we had made Heartwork Part 2 people would have been dissatisfied. You can’t win. We did the world a service because it left the door open for bands from Gothenburg to have careers. Now, 17 years later, we have room to maneuver with this new album. We couldn’t fail with the album in a way. Because we would never make an album worse than Swansong! (laughs).
STEREOGUM: Has the way the two of you work together changed?
WALKER: I think it’s the same but we are a lot more tolerant of each other’s ideas. I can be completely pig-headed as the vocalist. I’m the guy who stands in the front. Bill also has strong ideas. But I think we’re more chilled out and have more respect for each other’s ideas. It’s also business as usual.
There’s no formulaic way to wrote. Sometimes, Bill comes to the studio finished and other times he comes in with a riff and Dan [Wilding, drummer] will put a beat behind it. It’s always been a collaborative effort. The axis of who is writing material is in constant flux. Ken [Owen] wrote a lot when we started. Then Mike [Amott] contributed. On this album it’s 90-percent Bill with one song written by me. That’s what keeps it interesting. It’s never the same individuals. The one constant is Bill because he always plays guitars. Until he puts his touch on it, it’s not Carcass.
STEER: I thought it was hugely enjoyable. I really started to miss this music. I went on a completely different tangent for years. At first it was liberating because I felt more spontaneous. After a while that became its own little trap. There are limitations in any genre. When we started working on this stuff it felt incredibly free. There are so many things to do with riffs and solos in this music. And I’ve obviously missed working with Jeff. He’s a huge part of the Carcass sound. He can take in chunks of music I’ve written and shape them. I can bring in riffs and they will undergo a transformation because of him.
[For example] we spent the longest time on the last track “Mount Of Execution.” There were so many different versions. There was the same verse and chorus but there were so many twists to the arrangements. That tune took a while. Jeff had a vision for it. When I brought in those riffs I thought it would be a four minute song and now it’s eight minutes. And that’s Jeff’s doing.
STEREOGUM: How did you approach the writing of this album?
STEER: The decision to embark on this came about in around 2010. We’d done a load of stuff on the reunion cycle. It was three years of festivals, random gigs and small gigs. Michael and Daniel then stepped out of the bad which was understandable given their commitments to Arch Enemy. Jeff and I had sort of come to the same conclusion — that it would be nice to try to write Carcass material. I got the fire back as soon as we started playing but we couldn’t with that lineup. It was sad to see those guys go but it gave us the opportunity to be creative and move forward.
STEREOGUM: You both had such disparate careers and projects.
WALKER: We’ve brought in new stuff although it’s not overt. Bill has added a lot more bluesy classic-rock playing on this album, which you could blame on his days in Firebird. My vocals are stronger than they have ever have been and maybe that’s being involved in a few projects. We’ve learned some things but I’m certainly not dragging a string quartet in the studio and Bill isn’t bringing a harmonica. We know what to leave out of the studio.
STEER: We’re very different characters. He’s gifted in many ways I’m not. I can get together with him and pull resources. I’m good at putting together riffs but didn’t want to be the frontman and lyricist and artist. He’s also capable of being the guy who can be tenacious with people on the phone or via email.
STEREOGUM: As soon as you went on that tour it seemed like people were already asking about a new album.
STEER: Half the time people would say, “You have to do a new record,” and the other half it would be, “Please do not do a new record.” We got mixed signals. Michael said very early on that he didn’t think there was any need for a new Carcass album. That killed it in its tracks.
STEREOGUM: People worry when a band messes with legacy.
STEER: That’s a natural reaction. But there are different ways of looking at it. If you look at the new Black Sabbath album, I’ve heard all sort of different things. Some people think it’s great and others were condemning it before they even heard it. People had this irate sense of ownership like “how dare you do something to my band!” I found it kind of amazing. Surely, Tony Iommi is the best judge of that. If he wants to record a bunch of skiffle tunes that’s his business. The classic Sabbath records aren’t going anywhere and I don’t understand why people get so worked up. Now, we’re getting people of tender years telling us what is and isn’t. Clearly, they weren’t around when we were originally doing this.
STEREOGUM: Do you hear from teenagers who are bent out of shape about you making a new record?
STEER: Just have a look at our Facebook or go to forums. There are some very opinionated young people out there (laughs). I quickly made the decision to stop looking because it gives you the impression that there are a lot of morons. I’d like to think people actually are alright. Most of the metal community is decent and open minded. It’s just people with personal issues venting them are more conspicuous.
STEREOGUM: At the same time the people who’ve heard Surgical Steel have said positive things.
STEER: There’s no question that the vast number of things have been very positive. We knew when we started doing this we could receive a lot of flak. There are many cases of a band coming back after a long layoff and doing something good. Some people just won’t accept it either way. People are clearly connecting with the music and that’s fantastic.
STEREOGUM: What do you think of Surgical Steel being called Heartwork Part 2? Have people run out of things to say about records?
WALKER: It’s cool because for a lot of people Heartwork is the Holy Grail. But some people are probably saying it negatively. There are a lot of grindheads who think our career ended with Necroticism. This album is a hell of a lot more aggressive than Heartwork. Heartwork is quite pedestrian, I think. I keep going back to the fact that this album is a consolidation of our back catalog. There are riffs here you could place on Reek Of Putrefaction or Symphonies. But some people can’t differentiate between how a riff is structured and then what’s done with it production wise. Just because this doesn’t have the same terrible production as Reek Of Putrefaction doesn’t mean it’s not the same band.
We took elements of all five albums here. We didn’t listen to our back catalog and then glue bits together. But we’re a product of the music we listened to and we’re a product of our back catalog. Some things might sound familiar but I don’t think we’re repeating ourselves.
STEREOGUM: When you did Reek I imagine you got a lot of mentions in zines and for this album you are doing a worldwide press tour.
WALKER: Actually, Reek was album of the year of The Observer which is a broadsheet newspaper. There was an eclectic, cerebral response to Reek. Some of the higher echelons tagged on to the band because of Jon Peel and the BBC. Some serious people took an interest in the band.
STEREOGUM: Are you happy with the attention now?
WALKER: I could live without doing interviews but, ultimately, I want the album to be successful. If you have to answer the same questions it can be a drag. If I was a journalist I would almost take for granted that people have already asked that question. I guess I should count my blessings that anyone wants to talk to me (laughs).
I’ve never wanted to be in a band to be famous or any bullshit. I never did this to be rich and I’m still not wealthy. But it’s nice to get this recognition. I think Carcass has been in danger of being written out of the history books. There are certainly things we’ve done in heavy music that we didn’t receive credit for. Most modern music is tuned to B these days. Besides the blues guitarist Leadbelly I can’t think of any band that has dedicated their entire catalog to B. Nowadays, it’s common. We made a deliberate decision in 1987 to tune that way. It’s things like that — we don’t get credit. Unless you are around to shout and speak up you will never be heard. Those who speak the loudest get heard. But me and Bill are really chilled out and we don’t chase it. We think the truth will prevail but the reality is that it won’t, especially with the Internet. The Internet is filled with revisionism.
STEREOGUM: When you and Bill started working on this in earnest did you feel challenged to equal your past works or just go with where you are now?
WALKER: Well, it is a competition. You are always trying to do better. Bill’s favorite album of ours is Heartwork and he’s always trying to outdo it. We’re definitely trying to make the best Carcass album. And that’s all you can do, isn’t it? We weren’t going to put together an album that’s almost as good as something you did. We have a lot to prove after 17 years. There are a lot of people who would love to see us fall flat on our faces. And we don’t want to shit on our back catalog. I’m a music fan and I cringe when bands reform. It makes me a hypocrite, of course. But I think we’ve done it the right way. The test of the pudding is whether people like the album. With the exception of a few grind freaks who don’t like anything post Symphonies it’s getting an extremely strong response.
STEREOGUM: Is it interesting to be in a band where people embrace certain periods rather than the whole catalog?
WALKER: I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who likes all five albums. I think it’s cool that we have such a wide body of work that causes partisan responses.
STEREOGUM: When Colin [Richardson, producer] left the project there was stuff all over the Internet suggesting that this spelled disaster for the record…
WALKER: People were commenting on things they didn’t know about. The album was never in any danger. Colin passed it along to a very safe pair of hands. I don’t mean playing it safe. [Andy] Sneap is an accomplished mixer and he’s the guy Colin wanted. He’s one of the two people he trusted to mix it. We’ve always had problems with Colin when we’ve done albums. We might have been expecting too much for it to be an easy ride. He made his decision to let Sneap take over. And I think it’s turned out for the best.
STEREOGUM: He likes the finished product?
WALKER: He says he does, unless he’s just trying to get me to pay the invoice.
STEREOGUM: The record looks very contemporary but the imagery is a throwback to Necroticism.
WALKER: We’re plagiarizing ourselves. The circular toolset is something we’ve used since Necroticism. We’ve updated and modernized it. In a way it’s a corporate symbol for the band. It’s a reassurance that things haven’t changed; that it’s still Carcass. But it’s also a cynical ploy to bring back to ghost of Necroticism and Heartwork. It’s always good to have something in the past to trace your roots. We tried to soak up as much credibility as we could for this album. If that meant getting Colin to produce it and dragging Ken’s ass to the studio to do backing vocals that’s what we did. Seventeen years is a friggin’ long time and we’re aware that people would love to shoot it down or say, “It sucks because Ken isn’t playing on it.” I understand that logic, so we’re doing our utmost to put a sock in detractor’s mouths.
STEREOGUM: Where did the idea come of putting a special edition of the album in a First Aid kit?
WALKER: That was the Germans’ idea [label Nuclear Blast is based in Germany]. I thought it was cringeworthy at first but I like it now. It’s a bit of a gimmick but labels have troubles selling product. They need to think of things people might buy.
STEER: The number of options on this record is bewildering. Labels have to work so hard to get people to buy stuff. They have to get creative with products, even if that’s a word I hate. I find it very hard to keep up with.
STEREOGUM: Didn’t they sell out in 24 hours?
WALKER: In the UK they sold out in like two hours. There is a market for these things the same as vinyl and cassettes. They need to do what they need to do to recover their advance.
STEREOGUM: What have the two new members added to the band and Surgical Steel?
WALKER: Well, Ben [Ash, guitarist] only joined in January. Dan is a perfect replacement for Ken Owen. Ken’s always been an important part of the sound. Part of the reason this has worked is because we discovered Dan. He fits in on a personal level and playing wise. We could have easily got any old drummer but when you get some who fits perfectly it works better. He’s enabled the band to function like it’s business as usual even without Ken.
STEREOGUM: Was Ken in the studio for the whole project?
WALKER: No, he came in for a day. Ken gave the thumbs up to Dan and gave him a pat on the back which meant a lot.
STEREOGUM: How is Ken’s health?
WALKER: The same as it’s been. People seem to have this idea that he’ll be back fighting fit but it’s not going to happen. He was in a coma and had two brain operations. His short-term memory is damaged. His physical fitness is not as great as it should be. But he’s still Ken, y’know. This has had a large impact on his physical health but he’s still getting on with his life. And he has better things to do than play in some shitty grindcore band.
STEREOGUM: He’s continued to be an integral part of Carcass.
WALKER: Well, his Dad has good lawyers (laughs).
STEREOGUM: Is the band’s history still waiting to be written?
WALKER: I still like to think we have the definitive Carcass album in us. As long as I feel that way, that gives us ambition.
STEER: I think so. I wouldn’t want to look too far ahead but it’s amazing we’ve gotten to this point. There’s a lot of momentum. We came away from this recording feeling like we could do another one. You always learn stuff in the studio and you want to keep that fresh. If things go well over the next few months and we still have a good vibe, something is bound to happen.