INTERVIEW: Bill Steer of Carcass

There are a lot of hooks on Surgical Steel, but that has always been the case with Carcass; no matter how brutal it gets, it’s always hummable. Has that been deliberate?“Well yeah, I’m glad you think that. Yes some of the music is difficult to the untrained listener but we do wanna have hooks; they are just not hooks in the accepted commercial sense. I’ve always maintained that just because we are doing music that is very aggressive and intense it doesn’t mean it can’t have its own kind of beauty. Some people would probably maintain that it is not melodic because the vocals are shouted but, of course, with style of music it is more like the guitars are carrying the melody and the vocals are almost like another percussive angle.”

How much of the new stuff are you going to play live?
“I think the amount we play is going to depend on the situation. If it’s a headlining thing, our show, then we are at liberty to include more new material; if it is more of a festival appearance, and we are not at the top of the bill, then you do kind of approach it in more of a greatest hits way. But even then I think we would be playing one or two things off the record just because we believe in it. We believe it is strong material.”

How did you feel when the album leaked?
“To be really honest I don’t think any of us really care. It’s the kind of thing the label gets hot under the collar about. But, personally, I can’t see what harm it can do us. The people that will buy the new album, well, they are the people who buy albums, and there are some people who just resent the idea of spending money on a physical product. It is a cultural thing—and you can’t even look at it on the basis of age because there really young people out there who are buying vinyl, never mind CDs. I think it’s just down to everyone’s personal moral code. I just can’t bring myself to get annoyed; it is just a waste of energy; this is what’s happening, like it or not. You’ve just got to get on with it. When this leak happened we were just curious as to the person’s motivation, really. Was it some kind of misguided Robin Hood character? Or is it someone who resents the band and is deliberately trying to sabotage the release? I guess we’ll never know, but the point is: it’s out there, and people are getting to hear it. As I said, it doesn’t really worry us tremendously; we didn’t have particularly high expectations regarding sales anyway. It is common knowledge that bands are selling fewer albums than ever. We’ll just be grateful for whatever happens. Unless you’re massive, you don’t make money from making albums. Your album is your artistic statement, and any potential income is going to come from getting out there and playing live, selling t-shirts and so forth.”

It makes it sound pretty gruelling if the only revenue stream is getting out there and playing. What’s your plan now for touring—is it a full-time concern again?
“We are really up for playing anywhere that’ll have us. It’s really exciting. We had great offers on the reunion cycle, no mistake about that, but this has got a different vibe about it altogether because, all of a sudden, the band is contemporary as opposed to be some kind of nostalgia trip.”

You don’t seem to be the most sentimental guy in the world, did the original reunions shows seem a bit weird without any new material to play?
“It’s hard to put into words, but it did bother me that there wasn’t any future, or any attainable goal. It was a case of going out there and playing stuff that’s already established— which is great. I’m not particularly nostalgic about things I’ve been involved with myself; I am about other people’s music. I mean, all my favorite stuff tends to be from the 1970s and 1980s, musically. But, yeah, I don’t tend to spend much time browsing through old photographs or listening to records I’ve played on. I’d rather be looking ahead. I just feel there is something really stagnant about dwelling on whatever your past achievements might be.”

What do you make of the underground metal scene at the moment? There could be an argument made that it is being stagnating in the manner that it’s reviving old-school DM, N.W.O.B.H.M. and so on.
“I am probably not the best person to ask about that sort of thing because I am quite ignorant about the contemporary metal scene. I don’t keep up particularly well. But, I guess the main observation would be that metal is so splintered now compared to how it was 15, 20 years ago. It’s just so compartmentalized. You hear people being incredibly snobbish about another subgenre which is in reality very close to the music that they listen to. It is very odd from a distance. The general vibe in metal? I guess it’s pretty difficult for a band trying to do underground music now because there is a feeling of most things been done or been tried before, so it makes it harder to innovate. We were quite lucky with our timing, the way we started this band, because there was always unchartered territory. I guess now it looks like we were innovators because we were one of the first groups doing this kind of music. Some of the younger outfits out there now don’t really have that luxury; there is no escaping it, really: ever genre has its period when it is dangerous and after a while it gets assimilated. It doesn’t mean the music’s irrelevant or can’t continue in some way but you just have to accept that it is not going to be as red-hot as it was in that initial period.

Finding where that next paradigm shift is coming from is increasingly difficult. When you were breaking, it was clear that you and a handful of others had something genuinely different.
“Yeah, it’s really hard to analyse when you were there in the thick of it. You weren’t aware of what was going on you were just acting in the moment. But another thing that I’ve really noticed is that there appears to be a metal rulebook now, so whether it is hanging around new bands, or hanging around producers in the studio, it seems like there is an official set of rules on how metal is done, and that really wasn’t the case in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There were just no dos or don’ts. It was whatever you fancied doing—you didn’t even have to look a certain way. I guess that is one of the things I have noticed in terms of differences between then and now.”

Where do these rules come from? Is it the media, the fans? Is it from people’s need to compartmentalize their tastes and preferences?
“I think it is a combination of a lot of those things. I think it’s also just the passage of time. Metal is a much bigger thing than it was; the underground scene way back when was just a relatively small number of people scattered across the world. We all knew each other in some form or another. We were corresponding, swapping tapes, and everything was much more slow moving, naturally, because we’re talking about things going through the post rather than the internet. Now it just feels like the whole thing is much, much bigger. There is an industry that’s very efficient, that has built itself up around this, and that does change things.”

It is amazing, if you look at the people you played with in Napalm Death, look the music that came out of it, with Justin in Godflesh, Lee in Cathedral, and you having Carcass. And, of course, Napalm are still going strong. There is so much original music that came out of that one ideal of trying to be faster and more aggressive.
“Yeah, I think it brought together a load of people with different interests. I think the only thing we had in common was the desire to go to extremes. As you said, watching that gradually filter out to new things, yeah, different things; Godflesh is obviously a million miles away from Carcass. Later, when bands like Fear Factory began to immerge and become popular, in a way that’s when we realized that our days were numbered. The records we were making at that time weren’t right for the climate in metal. Fortunately for us, they have gone on to have become accepted, which is lovely, because at the time it really felt like a failure.”

But you look at it now, and the underground bands of that era are really strong—you’ve got Cathedral headlining theatre venues, as so too will you on this tour. There is a huge audience for these bands. You’re headlining Damnation, and you headlining venues like the Barrowlands in Glasgow, which would have been unthinkable before.
“Yeah, I remember playing there—I can’t remember exactly when—around ’93. Carcass were supporting Body Count, Ice-T’s band. It was a real buzz for me because my mum’s side of the family is from Glasgow, and playing that town has always been a big one for me. What made it for me was having one of my cousins—who had no involvement with music—come along to the show, and he was gobsmacked. He was blown away that we could play in a venue of that size. That was nice. I am really looking forward to going back.”

It is interesting to see how death and grind translates on those larger stages. Of course it is always said that it is best in clubs, but then it only ever really existed in clubs due to the size of the bands playing it.
“I would partially agree. I definitely believe that the music is better indoors. I also think that stretching it to somewhere like the O2 [Arena], for example, would maybe, I dunno, detract from the music somewhat. But, obviously, the whole thing of metal festivals is enormous now, and that is a big earner for a huge number of people, including bands, so it is not going to go anywhere, but if I am being totally honest I think people get more value for money seeing a band in a venue, whether it is a 300 capacity place or a 2,000 capacity; they are more likely to hear good sound and see a band at the top of their game. Whereas, the festival experience is pretty random; you can have some great ones then other times, sonically, it is all over the shop.

At outdoor festivals, it is always the blast-heavy bands most inconvenienced by the wind.
“Yeah, exactly. We did a couple of daytime festival slots with Carcass recently, and these were very much last minute things, other groups had pulled out and we were approached to fill the gap. Looking back, both those appearances weren’t great decisions for us because going on at that time of the day in the baking sunshine doesn’t really combine well with the kind of music that we play. If you’re going to play outdoors, I think everybody would rather go on after nightfall.”

What’s the most surreal experience you’ve had on the road?
“Wow! That would have to be something from the old days because things were so much more random then. It can still get weird on the road now but somehow it is just not the same. It is a little bit more predictable just because of the day-to-day structure. When we did our earlier tours, like the first time we went to the States supporting Death for a couple of months, every day was an adventure. You didn’t know what you were letting yourself in for. Little things spring to mind from that one, like playing Las Vegas and somebody threw a little clear plastic bag on stage, it was a little Ziploc bag I think, and inside it was a dead rat, a joint, and a piece of paper that just said ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’. I’m not sure what the deal was; were we to smoke a joint, sit back and look at a dead rat? There were so many weird things on that tour, I remember Chuck, God bless him, he was an avid record collector, and I think one of the dates on the itinerary was very unpopular with the Death boys. They just felt that it was a shitty venue and a place that they shouldn’t be playing, so rather than actually going ahead to the gig they just called the promoter and told him they would be unable to play, took a diversion to this collector’s record shop somewhere in the middle of the Midwest and just spent the day record shopping instead. That was funny because we were a bit younger than those guys, and obviously in awe of them, so we just had to go on with it.
The first time we toured Europe, we were still occasionally playing squats. One time we played in this enormous space the size of an aircraft hangar, somewhere in Switzerland—I think it was maybe in Berne. Somehow they had got some sort of dump truck and created an enormous man-made hill out of soil and rubble. They had properly sculpted it, so it was like a hill but they had created two levels so you could place cabinets and all that. At the very top it had been levelled off so you could put pallets down so you could put the drumkit and the lighting, down the hill there was another bit that was smoothed-off, with more pallets, guitar cabs and heads. It looked amazing, great lighting; the only trouble was once we had finished, you have to make your way back down the hill, and there are all these rocks and debris so it’s very easy to trip. I went head over heals. By the time I got to the bottom my guitar was broken.”

**Order Decibel #108 with Carcass on the cover here
**Surgical Steel is out 10/17 on Nuclear Blast; order it here