When your job is athletic, as death metal is in a way, and you’re doing some of your best work well into middle age, that’s worth examining.
Not only has bassist Alex Webster climbed the mountain with his band Cannibal Corpse, he’s stayed on top into his 50s, writing, recording, and performing some of death metal’s heaviest and most finger-twisting anthems with uncanny consistency. “Death metal is one of the most physically demanding types of music, so for the musicians in it, they have to almost be thinking like an athlete to have longevity,” he says.
Accordingly, Webster maintains a steady regimen of weight training, running, hiking, and mountain biking. When I talked to him, he had recently gone for a run after Cannibal Corpse’s set at Reload Festival. He joins the likes of Gina Gleason and Scott Hedrick in making a practice of going running while on tour.
Tell me about your run after your set at Reload.
I think our set time was a little bit after six. Normally if we’re playing in the evening, I’ll try and get the run in in the afternoon. This is kind of a hobby for me, where the day before a show or the day of, I’ll start looking at Google Maps and maybe Strava, and start trying to find places that would be good [to run in]. If I’m not sure something’s going to be good, like it might have terrible traffic or not have a good sidewalk, I’ll do a walk first. Doing the reconnaissance walk in the afternoon, I’ll look around for street lamps. I don’t want to be out there in pitch black and dealing with speeding cars and things like that.
Do you tell your crew where you’re going?
I won’t really tell the guys where I’m going, but they always know I keep my runs, especially on tour, under four miles. If it’s ever more than four miles, it’s because I got lost. I usually try and do like a 5K minimum.
Do you do other fitness stuff on the road? Nate Garrett told me that you had some dumbbells.
Pretty much every tour, we’ve had weights with us, so, yeah, we’ll have the dumbbells. If we’re on a tour where we know we’re going to be in parking lots a lot, we’ll bring a squat rack, and we have a bench and everything. If there’s a lot of other bands, they might see it and ask to get in some sets.
Tell me about your fitness journey.
From the time I graduated high school to about 1996 or ’97, I didn’t really work out much at all. I decided to start lifting weights when I quit smoking. I smoked from the age of 17 or 18 until I was 26. Once I quit, I thought, let me jump on this. So I bought weights, and I put them at our band’s practice room. We had a big enough practice room that I could have a little bench in there. I stuck with that, and then I got into Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo between ’99 and 2004. I did that when I was off tour. Occasionally, I’d find some people who would want to wrestle around on tour, but I never found a steady workout partner, and that needs some mats, usually, or people are going to start messing themselves up doing that.
When you put weights in the Cannibal practice space, did the other guys think that you were weird?
They were like, “Sure, OK, why not.” Everybody understands the value of getting in shape. Like our drummer [Paul Mazurkiewicz]—he’s always been the fit guy in the band. In death metal, being a drummer means you’re already exercising, and then on top of it, he’s a good hockey player.
I was looking at live videos of you, and your posture now on stage is better than in the ’90s. Back in the day, you were more hunched over, and now you’re more upright.
There’s a couple things going on there. I’d lifted weights here and there, but I didn’t really follow any kind of regimen until 1997. And from there on out, I’ve stuck with it, more or less to where the longest I’ve gone without lifting weights would maybe be a couple weeks. Not that I’m really big into it, but it’s more like a maintenance thing, where I just don’t want to lose what I have.
As far as posture goes, I had a problem in my right hand called focal dystonia. It’s a motion disorder—neurological, mainly. The best thing to do if you’re interested in focal dystonia is to look it up online, specifically Joaquin Farias. He is probably the biggest expert on rehabilitation for focal dystonia in the world. It’s an injury where somehow your programming – in my case, my right hand for the plucking—can be scrambled.
Part of my recovery from focal dystonia was developing better posture with the instrument all the way around, not just the hand, but shoulder, everything. I’ve had old injuries from jiu-jitsu and lifting weights over the years that probably made me change my technique a little bit sometime in the mid-aughts. And this is just me taking a guess at it, but those little things can actually lead to a big injury.
Another thing—I had started running in 2017. And when I got to meet up with Dr. Farias, he asked me, “Do you do cardiovascular exercise?” And I said, “Yes, I run all the time.” He’s like, “Good, keep doing that.” From talking to him and doing more research, I think when you’re trying to retrain your brain to do something, when you’re trying to learn things, cardiovascular exercise can prime you for that. So running for me, it’s more than just staying in shape. It’s helped me with some other things, too. It’s just a really good thing for your mood. It’s good for learning. There’s this book called Spark that I’ll recommend to everybody.
Who’s the author?
John J. Ratey. It’s a book about exercise and the brain and how they work together. There seems to be no downside to exercise and its effects on your brain, both in terms of learning and emotional health as well.
Do you find that fitness affects your musical composition?
One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a point of diminishing returns where if I completely wipe myself out, then I’m not in the mood to sit down and play. But if it’s just that sweet spot where my heart rate’s up, and I had a killer sweat going, then I feel I’m in a great mood and I’m primed to be creative. The sweet spot for me is—I know it’s not much—like three and a half miles. Just getting in that half hour or 35-minute run can make the whole day better.
You mentioned mental health. That’s been a big area of discussion recently. Is any of the stuff that you’re doing oriented that way?
I’m not qualified to say if I’ve ever been clinically depressed or not, but I’ve definitely felt depressed. You can feel angry about things, you can have negative emotions. And exercise helps a lot with those. It might not solve the problems, but you’re going to be feeling a little bit better with how you can handle the problem. You just feel more empowered. It’s like, gosh, I went out and did this moderately challenging thing, and so this other challenge I’m dealing with, I can maybe handle that, too.
Sometimes when I talk to people who are early in their fitness journey, they are apprehensive about which way to go. What would you tell someone who’s overwhelmed by 10 million things on YouTube?
Part of the fun is trying to figure it out. I like stuff that’s fairly risk averse. The more adrenaline something has, the more fun it is, but also the more chance it is that you’re going to wind up with a broken bone and sitting on the sidelines for a few months. I enjoy riding mountain bike, but I would not call myself a mountain biker, certainly not by the standards of the state I currently live in, Oregon.
I like running because it’s a base for everything else. And you can stay in pretty good shape in a minimal amount of time. If you’re running 35 minutes a day, the next time you try going for a hike or riding your bike, you’re going to be a little more prepared. I’ve kind of picked those three things and just stuck with them—mountain biking, but fairly low risk, I pick the easier stuff and just have fun exploring the forest that way—and then running and hiking.
Do you pay attention to healthy eating on the road?
Yeah, and not as much as we should, though. That’s always the tricky part because eating is such a source of pleasure for people, and it’s also not always convenient to keep track of healthy eating. So I’ll end up eating a little more junk on tour than I would at home. At home, I’ve got all my ducks in a row. Everything is lined up, and I can follow exactly the diet I want.
I’ve been doing a vegetarian diet for a little over a year and a half now, and that kind of helps. The catering at the festivals when they have vegan stuff set out, it’s always just a bunch of vegetables and tofu and nice brown rice and stuff like that. That’s pretty healthy stuff. So just sticking with the vegetarian thing kind of leads you in a healthier direction most of the time.
What made you become a vegetarian?
I just had been wanting to reduce the amount of meat I was eating, and I’d gradually been doing it and as I got towards the end of 2020, I thought I wanted to just try the whole thing. Our drummer Paul, he’s been vegetarian strictly for, like, 20 years, so I thought, you know what, I won’t be the only one. I give him credit now that I’m doing it. There’s some days where you wind up with very limited options on the road. I’m impressed that you could do this for 20 years.
it just seems like the right thing to do on a few levels. I’ve heard that reducing meat production would be good for the environment overall. Obviously there’s all the animal issues as well. Like most people, I love animals, so any reduction in cruelty is good, I think, and it seems like factory farming is not particularly kind to the animals that are part of it.
Do you talk with other musicians about diet and fitness?
Anyone who’s interested, I’ll usually end up talking to them about it and ask what they do and what they eat, what’s worked for them. They’re pretty easy to spy. [Fitness] is just a good thing. You don’t have to go super gung ho, but it helps everything to be in decent shape. I have no big goals other than to just lead a happy, active life where I can pick up the things that I need to pick up, run if I need to, go on a hike if I need to, you know, just be functional. I’m 52 now, so it’s becoming ever more important to keep track of these things. You can slack a whole lot in your 20s and get away with it and even into your 30s. But once you hit 40 or so, you start to realize, hey, I’ve got to keep this stuff up because your fitness can slide away really quickly.
Bass can be a heavy instrument, and given what we’ve talked about, do you pay more attention now to the ergonomics of bass?
Definitely. I use a strap with the biggest surface area I can [find]. Mine are four inches [wide], where a lot of guitar straps are maybe like two inches. More surface area equals less of a load on your shoulder. And then going back to the earlier question, I’ve really focused on posture. I still want to put on a good performance and be headbanging and stuff. I know headbanging, there is probably not a single doctor out there who would recommend doing that. But some things I’m just going to have to keep [laughs]. That’s just what I do on stage.
I never really was a guy who had oblong, strange shaped instruments or big, pointy instruments. The Spector basses I play are really comfortable, and they’re nicely balanced. When Stuart Spector and Ned Steinberger designed this kind of a bass way back in the late ’70s, they were thinking about ergonomics before other bass companies were. That design is still called the NS bass design, for Ned Steinberger.
So, yeah—big, wide strap, good posture, positioning, and a bass that lends itself to being played in a way that’s ergonomic—it all works together. If any part of that chain is broken down, you set yourself up for injury, either something acute or chronic, like something that builds up over time.
In your band George and Erik have really strong necks – they’re like the all-neck team. And when I talked to Harley Flanagan from Cro-Mags, he mentioned how important it is to have a strong neck, and he does BJJ. So maybe headbanging’s not all bad for you.
I remember MMA used to have very few rules in the late ’90s, and that allowed a lot of headbutting and stuff like that. I thought, man, anybody who headbangs could probably throw a pretty mean headbutt, and repeatedly. Fortunately, I’ve had no altercations since I’ve learned [to do] that. We’re keeping our necks strong, but I can hear some crunching and stuff when I move my neck around. I’m in my 50s, so we’ll see, check back with me in 10 years.
For someone who’s starting from ground zero, who’s been sitting on the couch and eating badly, what advice would you have for them?
Just start walking first. Walking is good exercise, and you can look around and check things out. Hiking is basically walking that’s in a beautiful setting. Running can be a little frustrating at first. The first month or so, you’re probably going to suck and the idea of running five miles seems ridiculous. So go incrementally. Keep your goals reasonable at the beginning. Like if you do want to start running, maybe try a half mile first and go slowly. And then the next week, maybe try three quarters and see where you can go. And just gradually add to it. Before you know it, you’ll be up to a few miles.