Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse: The Hellbound Interview

By Jay H. Gorania

Prominent American senators and presidential hopefuls have pointed their fingers at Cannibal Corpse, implying the band is partially responsible for society falling apart. Murder victim family members have also done the same. Censorship has reared its ugly head in Germany, a nation where the band has been legally prohibited from playing certain songs. And yet through it all, the Florida-based death metal machine continues to march on, hacking away at everything in sight—musically, that is—nearly a quarter of a century after its inception. In their twelfth album’s first week of sales, Torture recently debuted on Billboard’s top 40 chart. But this is death metal we are talking about. They aren’t exactly sitting in the lap of luxury. This is their day job, and according to bassist Alex Webster, it’s one they literally can’t afford to quit any time soon, not that they’d want to.

From a pragmatic standpoint, now that yall are growing older and you have families and homes, do you foresee the band continuing for a long time to come, or do you think you’ll be calling it a day in a few years?

People have asked, “Are you going to retire?” I mean, we certainly couldn’t afford to. This is how we make our living. So in addition to being creatively motivated, from a pragmatic standpoint, this is how we survive, by doing what we do. It’s something that we love to do, but it’s also how we make a living. It’s our livelihood. If we didn’t do this, there is no good alternative for anyone in this band. (Laughter) The motivation of just surviving is also certainly present. (Laughter) I have no qualms about mentioning that. It’s certainly a factor that we can’t sit around. People are like, “Do you ever feel like taking a break for a year?” We won’t. I personally do have some backup plans or whatever, but I’m not sure what the other guys have going on, so we just keep cranking away at it, because one, we love it; and two, because it’s our livelihood. So retirement is not an option in the near future. That’s for sure, and we wouldn’t want to anyway, but we couldn’t without it being a real strain. If the band wasn’t around, none of us finished college or anything like that, and it’s not like there’s a lot of jobs out there anyhow. (Laughter) So, you know what I mean. We’re very, very lucky to be in the position we’re in, and we’re not gonna drop the ball that’s been handed to us. Let’s put it that way.

If you weren’t doing this right now, what do you think you might be doing?

Well, it really depends on when I would have stopped doing this. If we had never taken off, I would have finished college. I was going to school. I was getting a history major really for lack of any other thing that I wanted to major in. I ended up having to take some time off to go on tour, and I just never went back, because we ended up touring so much. That was back in ’91. So let’s say that never happened. I would have finished college and tried to get a job. I just don’t know what kind of job I would have got. I really don’t know, because I was so focused on the band when I was in college that just passing was good enough for me. I was not passionate about my college. I was passionate about the band. I don’t know. It’s a shame. Now I can think of plenty of things I would have been interested in. But, man, it just never got that far. I’ve been doing this for my living since I was 21, and I’m 42 now.

But this is the path you’ve taken in life. And it’s been many years on this long road. At this point, how do you keep things fresh and exciting for yourself with this band? And how so regarding Torture? I hear the focus on technicality which defined Evisceration Plague captured with Kill’s extremely frantic, violent aspect. Was that the intention, to retain the technicality and the vitality and rawness of a band like Repulsion?

Yea. Honestly with each record it winds up being a similar goal, which is, “Let’s make heavy songs, the heaviest songs we can make and give each of them their own identity.” Just try to do the best that we can from a songwriting standpoint. I think that’s really where are heads are at these days. We’re certainly not in a race to be faster or more technical than certain other death metal bands out there, because, quite simply, it’s a race that we would not win. You know, there are bands that out-tech us; there are bands that are much faster. So our focus is really on songwriting. And we’re very motivated about that. That’s something you can get excited about. We make the music that we want to hear. When we can come up with a riff, we try to write riffs that would make us want to rage in the pit. Like a song like “Crucifier Avenged,” I’m so excited to be able to play that song live. That’s one of the ones I wrote, because I was like, “Man, I would go apeshit in a pit if I heard this song!” (Laughter)

As far as Torture goes, a big part of the excitement and rawness is probably in part generated by Pat and Rob writing a little bit more than they did on the last couple of records. You know, Rob contributing music for three songs, Pat for four, I did five. That’s a pretty even spread amongst the music writers in the band, and that makes it that much easier to have a diverse sounding album where each song sort of has its own character.

Half of your life has been in this band. People change over time, and in some ways they stay the same. How much have you had urges to want different kinds of lyrics? Or did you always want it to be a brutal, violent death metal band?

Yea, definitely. When we started the band, that was something we had in mind. I mean, we certainly had no idea that we’d be around now, but we did have in mind that we wanted to be a band that doesn’t blow it. A lot of our favorite bands took some serious missteps in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Artistically, in our opinions, they did things we didn’t like, and we were a bit disappointed. When we got the band together in ’88, and then on through ’89 writing the record, we knew then what we wanted to do. And we knew that we wanted the band to always be that, which is a gore-themed death metal band.

Growing up, we all loved thrash, like the dark-themed German bands. We have that influence too. It’s a part of our background for sure, but we are death metal, and that’s what we always wanted it to be. And lyrically and musically, I think we stayed fairly consistent for a band that’s been around for…it’ll be 25 years next year. So yea, I think we’ve done a decent job of keeping it thematically consistent. There’s no experimental album that we have where we try to get political or something. (Laughter) I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying it’s not for us. We want it to be consistent.

In the nineties there was an out-of-court settlement with murder victim family members who alleged that your music was partially responsible for what happened. Has that ever made you feel bad or have you ever felt any element of guilt in your heart if some fan out there took your music and interpreted it in a way they simply shouldn’t have?

We certainly wouldn’t want anyone to do that, and there has been a case of that a long time ago, which I don’t want to talk about, because I honestly did not know that much about it. It was handled by lawyers and whatnot back in the day. It’s certainly something that’s terrible, and we don’t feel good about it, but we can’t take responsibility for it because each person is responsible for their own actions. If you look at all the different types of violent media, are you going to hold all of them responsible for all things that happened, like first person shooter games for Columbine? I mean, where does it end? I think people just need to be held responsible for their own actions. You know, it’s tragic if anyone who likes our band does something violent. That makes us sick. We don’t feel good about that at all, but what can you do? Each person’s got to be responsible for their own actions, and that’s the way it is. If not, you’re gonna have completely vanilla entertainment if you take all the raunch out of it. Just about every movie I like is not tame. We were just watching Casino last night. Would Casino be as good if two of the characters didn’t get beat to death with baseball bats at the end? I don’t think it would be. The movie would be missing something very important if that part wasn’t in the movie. It’s unfortunate that occasionally somebody does something like that in reality. There are quite a few cases. Not with this band—there’s only that one thing I can think of from a long time ago—but there’s a lot of public cases where people have said they were inspired by some form of violent media and did something violent. But is that a reason to censor the whole thing? I don’t think it is. It’s just the person who commits the act that needs to be punished, and that’s as far as it can go really, or else you’re going to end up with very vanilla entertainment at the end of the day.

What seems to be lost on a lot of people who view the world strictly through a social conservative kind of lens is that other factors in the lives of such psychopaths play a role. Was person X motivated by a game or a song, or did their actions trace back to something like molestation, neglect, drugs, or other things?

Yea. There’s so many different factors. The buck has got to stop at the individuals. I mean, if you wanna talk about things that motivate violence, how many religiously motivated acts of violence have occurred? And I don’t see people attempting to censor religious books due to the violence they might have inspired. So yea, each person has got to be held responsible. When you have a guy shooting up abortion clinics or whatever like that one guy they caught in North Carolina a few years ago that had been on the run, what? Are you going to censor all of Christianity because he interpreted the Bible in a way that promoted violence? That drove him to violence? You know, that’s what I’m saying. Each individual’s gotta be held responsible for their own actions. That’s just the way it’s got to be, or you’d be censoring just about everything.

And some people advocate that, if they’re not implying it rhetorically, anyway. There was the Bob Dole nuisance in 1996 when he was targeting y’all as devils responsible for society’s problems.

Rick Santorum is a social conservative who is or was going after porn, which I don’t agree with. (Laughter) But there’s social conservatives on either side, because there’s definitely Democratic social conservatives like Joe Lieberman. They are people that we have to keep an eye on because they would want to tighten things up a little bit and maybe place some restrictions, and we don’t want that. I don’t want to have watered-down horror movies, watered-down, violent video games, watered-down music. I don’t want that. I don’t think anyone else wants it either, and it shouldn’t have to happen.

You must be used to it though. There are elements that do try to clamp down upon what you are trying to do creatively. Do you just take it in stride? In Germany you’ve had your issues.

Yes. You just have to take each case as it comes. The German stuff has been a little..they’ve been a little more effective, and when I say a little I really do mean a little, because we now can currently play there and play whatever we want. There had been a period of time where they had been somewhat effective in censoring us and had banned us from performing certain songs during live shows. But in general, the past couple of years have been quite good. We’ve gotten beyond that over there and been able to play what we need to play. They censor the records though. Evisceration Plague—they won’t even sell that to anybody under the age of 18 in Germany. I find that strange considering what a liberal society Germany is. It’s a very free, open society. You wouldn’t expect that from Germany. But that’s how they feel. What can you do? We’ve got to obey the law of the land, and if they say we can’t play something, we’re not gonna break the law.

Torture is out now on Metal Blade.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.