Still going down well: interview with Carcass guitarist Bill Steer

Carcass Bill Steer

During the time Carcass has been on my radar, the band — and metalheads’ perception of what Carcass signifies — has passed through several stages. When Carcass and I were just being introduced they were one of a select few death metal bands that everyone seemed excited about. Then much of the buzz faded away as Carcass’s legacy passed into recent history, only to recirculate in the kinds of streams and eddies that turn history into myth.

And then, in a blink of an eye (and a decade or so) they were back, packing venues with fans barely (if even) born when Heartwork earned Carcass a brief taste of major label recognition — an old band meeting new audiences seeking a (seemingly) rare chance to see and hear a myth in the flesh. Only it wasn’t a temporary resurrection, and with last year’s Surgical Steel, Carcass proved that they’re not only resurrected, but very much alive, vital and relevant, despite the time that has passed.

CarcassSurgicalSteel

Carcass – Surgical Steel (2013)

Along with such reinvigorating success has come many more opportunities for Carcass fans around the world to catch the band in live action. The current round of dates in North America sees the Brits headlining the current Decibel Magazine Tour, playing alongside The Black Dahlia Murder, Gorguts and Noisem.

This spring’s Decibel tour kicked off in the southern clime of Orlando, Florida and concludes up the coast in Silver Spring, Maryland. In between the bands had to navigate some snow and “slippy” conditions to find themselves, somewhere around the midway point, in a welcomingly sunny Minneapolis. And Minneapolis is where Hellbound caught up with Carcass guitarist Bill Steer.

The interview

How is the tour going so far?

BILL STEER: Really well. The crowds have been really cool. There’s been nothing we can complain about. It’s been surprisingly smooth so far.

You’ve been in North America a fair bit recently… How was your experience at “Kirk Von Hammett’s Fear FestEvil” this past February?

It was good. I didn’t really know what to expect, because it’s a horror festival, so in a way the music angle was secondary. But it turned out to be fun. I guess we were just flattered that we were asked to do it. And we like San Francisco as a town anyway, so it was an excuse to play there.

Are you a horror fan yourself?

No, not at all. I don’t really watch that type of film, to be honest.

Do you have a type of film that you prefer?

I wouldn’t say so… I mean, I guess there are some directors where I would try and see most of the stuff they’ve done, people like Alfred Hitchcock. I do watch some contemporary films as well, I suppose, but I don’t really have a particular type of film that I would watch.

I was lucky enough to see you perform at Noctis Festival in Calgary last September. What were your thoughts on the festival?

It was fun because I think it was the first time in Calgary for most of us. It’s nice when you get the opportunity to play a place that you wouldn’t normally get a chance to visit. I suppose it’s one of the less obvious places to play in Canada. And the festival, yeah, that was a really nice vibe. You could kind of tell it was being done for the right reasons by the right people. We were told that was the last year, which was kind of sad to hear.

Then versus now

How does touring North America now compare to 20 years or so ago?

Well, I suppose the obvious difference would be how easy it is to find vegetarian or even vegan food. In ’90 it seemed to be incredibly hard. I mean, obviously I’m not vegan anymore, but I was on that initial visit and I don’t recall eating very much. It was just tough finding anything that suited us, whereas now it seems to be quite big, that whole lifestyle, over here. So that’s the most obvious difference in a sort of positive way.

Carcass Earache

A much younger Carcass. Courtesy of Earache.com.

On the more negative side, going by appearances it feels as if there’s more poverty here now than there was, say, twenty years ago. You really notice it just walking the streets. I don’t remember seeing that level of desperation, you know? But of course, this wouldn’t be the only country to be affected in that way. It might be quite similar at home too.

As a vegan myself, I’m curious as to your reasons for initially going vegan and then deciding to leave that behind…

I got into it as a teenager, when I was 16 maybe. It was probably a whole host of reasons. I guess I started to read up on the subject and I found some of the information quite persuasive, really. Plus, there’s a lot to be said for just being a teenager and needing a cause. I was definitely of the mindset where I wanted to separate myself from everybody else and that was a really good way to do it.

But yeah, I think it’s probably safe to say that, at the time, the animal rights issue was the main one for me. And then as years went by that became less of a factor. The main reason I don’t eat meat to this day is probably just as much down to habit, because it’s been so long since I ate that kind of food it feels like it would be impossible to go back even if I did want to. But I just don’t.

With the vegan thing, I guess I just burned out after six, seven years. I arrived to the conclusion that I didn’t want to eat meat, fish or whatever, but beyond that I was really a bit tired of the whole lifestyle of reading ingredients wherever you go, always being the awkward person when you go to somebody’s house for dinner or whatever, you know?

Carcass’s current resurrection goes back to roughly 2007, correct? What was the primary reason for you for being part of that resurrection?

That’s difficult. It’s very hard to isolate just one reason when there’s really several. And the other thing is, I was the last person to get on board with this, so it’s not like I came up with the idea — that would have been more Michael Amott and Jeff Walker. Between them the idea had been bounced around a bit and I think they were just having difficulty persuading me because I’d been avoiding the metal world for quite some time. Which meant I didn’t have a grip on whatever status our band had.

To me, the band was finished. There was no call for us to come back. But those guys, they actually had been in the metal world in the intervening years and had a clearer picture of how well those albums had — I don’t know how to put this… — how they had developed a following long after we had broken up, I guess.

That’s kind of where the whole thing began, with that. And in the end Michael persuaded me to get together with him and just jam a bit. It was the nicest way to get back into this because it’s just a sort of private friendship basis and you just play music. And if the feeling really isn’t there, no problem. You just drop it and nobody needs to know about it. But of course it didn’t work out that way, and I ended up enjoying it, so we just went forward.

Defining Carcass

Whenever a band reforms and decides to release new material, there’s the potential for some serious pressure in terms of people’s expectations, and possible tensions between the desire to move forward but also wanting to stay true to the band’s original sound. How did you deal with this tension while writing a new Carcass record?

We didn’t really give it any thought. It’s just gonna tie your brain in knots if you do that. You can really mess with your head by spending too much time dwelling on people’s expectations and ultimately, if you’re really really worried about what a complete stranger thinks about what you’re doing, it’s just gonna inhibit you.

Fortunately for us, looking back, we appeared to be in the right zone mentally to make a Carcass record. And again, going back to the pressure thing, we started writing this material when the band was kind of inactive and people didn’t know if we were going to come back and do anything again, really. So this is just behind closed doors and that was quite liberating. You have a situation where you can just write, and if the material you’re coming up with doesn’t feel good or doesn’t sound like Carcass music you can just file it away and nobody needs to hear the stuff.

Do you have your own sense of what Carcass should sound like that you use as a benchmark to measure new material against?

I suppose I must have in some way, but I couldn’t articulate it. It’s more down to a gut feeling. Obviously, I come up with riffs all the time and some of those aren’t gonna make the grade for Carcass because I just know automatically it’s not got the right feel to it. I couldn’t really tell you what the measuring stick is, but yeah, there is something that I’m using as a kind of guide on what I think is right for the group.

You mentioned being away from the metal scene for a while — do you have a sense now of how has death metal has changed since you started out with Carcass?

Yeah, that’s unavoidable because you’re playing with newer bands here and there. For example, a tour like this, there’s four groups on the travelling package but often there’s local support, so on a typical night there will be five groups. And needless to say, we’ve done countless festivals and there have been newer death metal bands on those too. So, yeah, you do hear bits and pieces…

It’s a completely different scene from how it used to be. I’m sort of struggling to think of the similarities, because they’re just all differences really. For a start, there’s just a complete saturation of groups. If you look at 1990, it felt like there were a few bands doing this stuff, but in essence, the groups that actually mattered were a small handful across the world and you could name them quite easily.

It’s not really like that today, I think, because everything’s carved up into numerous different subgenres. And you could meet a guy who claims to be an extreme metal fan who potentially has not heard of any of the bands on this bill… It’s bonkers.

I think the other thing you see, with the players, is… it’s almost… how can I put this? — you see this with the drummers in particular but guitar players too to some extent. It’s like it’s kind of been fetishized in some way, so they’re actually turning playing an instrument into some kind of weird sport. You do see evidence of people, especially if you look online, people who are just divorcing their chosen instrument from music making and being a member of a band. It’s almost like bench pressing, you know: ‘I can do this particular stunt better than anybody else and more times, therefore I’m a great musician.’ And I don’t know if it’s actually pushing the musical content forward at all.

It is a very different sense of ‘extreme’… 

What does the music mean to you now compared to when you were younger — music in general, or metal in particular?

Well, music in general, I’d say the same. It’s still something that’s an obsession really, and I just want to hear music wherever I go. When I’m at home, it’s something that’s playing from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. I still love collecting records and hunting down obscure stuff… Yeah, I don’t really see a huge difference.

With regard to our band, the crucial difference is the popularity, I suppose. It’s not like we’ve become big — that would be a stretch to say that, but it seems to be a lot more ‘appreciated’ than it was when we were around the first time. You see that with the kind of attendance we pull at gigs, and also I suppose just the kind of reaction you get from people in general.

And I can only see that comes down to longevity to some degree. If you’ve been around long enough and the records have aged reasonably well then you seem to get some kind of respect for that. Whereas, I don’t know — say the first time we were out and about, around the second album, for example, the group wasn’t really taken particularly seriously. I mean we were just kids, so I can kind of appreciate that. It’s only natural I guess.

Naming favourites

What’s your favourite Carcass album, song or era?

My favourite album would be the current one [Surgical Steel], just because that’s, I guess, the biggest achievement. There was more stacked against us making a decent record on this one.

Carcass_Heartwork

Carcass – Heartwork (1993)

If you’re looking at the original run of albums, I’d have to be predictable and say Heartwork, because that was the period when the band was happiest, whether it’s creatively, socially, whatever. And we got the production that we’d always wanted. I remember coming home with a cassette from the studio and blasting it at home and it just felt really really satisfying to have an album that was finished and actually represented what we were trying to achieve.

Not that we didn’t like anything we did prior to that. It was just more a case of that being tempered with some kind of disappointment about some of the sonic stuff that was going on. Experience is a factor too. By album number four you should be able to get what you want out of the studio to some degree.

Is your favourite material to play live the same — Heartwork and Surgical Steel?

Yeah, generally. It’s very fun to play the early stuff too though ’cause that takes your brain somewhere else entirely. It’s quite a thrill realizing that the stuff you wrote as a teenager is still being played on a stage today and going down well. And also, there’s just a kind of super aggressive primitive quality to that stuff that to some degree we maybe had less of as we became more musical.  It’s always like that, as you gain one thing you’re losing something else along the way.

Where’s your favourite place to play live?

That’s tricky… In terms of reactions on this tour, we’ve been very fortunate throughout but I would have to say the standout has probably been Austin, Texas thus far.  That was a really really great reaction, just way more than we were expecting.

In terms of the world as a whole, again this might be predictable, but Japan’s pretty special because that’s such an amazingly devoted music country. If you meet a Japanese music fan they just tend to be more knowledgeable than any other fan in another place, so you feel if you’ve reached some of those people, that really means something. They take their music incredibly seriously and I just love that.

The one other place that would spring to mind would be the whole area of South America. It’s extremely different from Japan in every possible way, but again just a very very fervent audience.

On this tour do you have any surprises for your audiences — any unexpected songs, for example?

I wouldn’t say anything radically surprising. It’s not like we’re doing any cover versions or anything like that. But we try to cover the different eras of the group’s history, so that can even involve playing one or two bits off the supposed least popular album, Swan Song.  We discovered that has a following of its own now, which I quite like, to be honest. I mean, it’s not my favourite Carcass record, but I can’t really get into that category of people who just condemn it. I think there’s some pretty good stuff on it so for me it’s always a buzz if we play a tune or two off that one.

Check out Carcass and the rest of the Decibel Magazine Tour on the following upcoming dates:

Decibel tour 201404/08/14  The Opera House – Toronto, ON
04/09/14  Metropolis – Montreal, QC
04/10/14  Paradise Rock Club – Boston, MA
04/11/14  Best Buy Theater – New York, NY
04/12/14  Trocadero Theatre – Philadelphia, PA
04/13/14  The Fillmore – Silver Spring, MD

Laura Wiebe

Laura is managing editor of Hellbound.ca and co-host of weekly metal show Kill Eat Exploit the Weak on CFMU 93.3 FM. She believes in equality and social justice and is not cool with any form of discrimination, marginalization, harassment or hate.