The cranium punctured penetrated and mashed...
Greg Prato (Songfacts)
Cerebral grey matter and temple lobe...
Skull bone cavity penetrating...
You can always count on Carcass' lead screamer/bassist/lyricist Jeff Walker to cook up some grizzly lyrics - which are once again on display throughout the band's first new studio album in 17 years, Surgical Steel.
And as Walker tells us, he does not follow a set pattern for penning his trademark lyrics, which have been known to touch upon medical terms and jargon. "A lot of ideas come, to be honest, when I've had a few drinks," he says. "Or maybe you're reading a book or you're watching TV and then you scribble something down."
Originally formed in Liverpool during 1985, Carcass caught the attention of headbangers worldwide thanks to such extreme metal classics as 1989's Symphonies of Sickness and 1993's Heartwork. Tagged "melodic death metal," Carcass was one of the few bands of the genre to have an album released via a major label, Columbia. But although Walker dubs this era as "An interesting experiment," it ultimately failed - leading to the band's split in 1996.
Belying his lyrical and vocal intensity, Walker proved to be a surprisingly mild-mannered gentleman in this Skype conversation where he discussed how Carcass and other extreme metal bands managed to score major label deals during an era when heavy metal in general was being largely ignored. He also gave us a look into Carcass' songwriting process and told the stories behind several of their jolliest ditties.
: How different was it working on Surgical Steel
than Carcass' earliest albums?
: We're a heavy metal band. So the first thing you use to construct a song is, someone comes up with some riffs. And that's what we did: we put the riffs to the rhythm.
Sometimes an individual might walk in with an idea: "Here's a riff, here is how I think it should go tempo wise." But in our band, at least with the drummer Dan Wilding, occasionally we'll pipe up and say, "Well, how about we try it like this?" And we'll turn the riff on its head.
So there's no real set way of working; it's whatever you think and whatever suits the song or the riff. If there were three individuals in the rehearsal room and someone had an idea, we tried it, and if it sounded good, we kept it. If it sucked, then we threw it out the window.
But it's just business as usual for Carcass - we've always worked the same way. For example, Bill [Steer] the guitarist, with a couple of songs in the past, he's basically written the whole piece from start to finish, and then I put the lyrics on later. With other songs, they're a bit more... I wouldn't say struggle, but there was a bit more fine tuning. So whatever works. It's not one individual sits at home with a drum machine writing pieces and coming in and dictating to the rest of the band. There's a real group effort.
: That was going to be my next question, which is how would you say that the songwriting works for Carcass?
: It's whatever works. There is no set formula. But you're guaranteed if someone comes in with something, then someone's got a better idea of how to change it. I don't think that's necessarily meddling, that's just a case of things can always be fine tuned or improved. In the past it would lead to some conflicts, but I think there's a bit more tolerance for each other nowadays. If anyone is too precious about their ideas when they come into the rehearsal room, they need to just chill out. You've got to be able to accept not so much criticism, but input from other parties. Otherwise, it just makes up one person's vision and you're just letting the ego run around for them, aren't you?
: Is it ever tricky coming up with such complex lyrics? I remember once reading an interview with Neil Peart from Rush and he says that he works with a rhyming thesaurus.
: That's almost the same as myself. You come up with an idea or a concept for a song and you write as much as you can and then you come back to it later. With Carcass, we always try to avoid the obvious. We try to avoid clichés. We try to avoid things that people have said before, unless it's a quote, where we'll corrupt them. We're basically trying to avoid the obvious, and that goes for the music for the most part, as well.
I'm as guilty as Neil Peart for swallowing a dictionary or a thesaurus when it's necessary. I'm not that well educated and my English isn't that fantastic. A lot of ideas come, to be honest, when I've had a few drinks. Or maybe you're reading a book or you're watching TV and then you scribble something down - "sound bites," I like to call them - then come back to them and try and fit them into a song somehow. It probably makes interesting reading. It looks a lot more clever than it actually is.
I never write a song from start to finish in one sitting. I mean, it's like the music - it gets crafted over time and you're always changing things. And you can always make words sound stronger and better. They're always being fine tuned. Even in the studio at the last minute, when I was putting the vocals down, I'd be changing things because I'd found a way to make the word have more impact.
Care for some examples of the "archaic" words that Mr. Walker mentions? You'll need an etymological dictionary to deconstruct the golden oldie "Corporal Jigsore Quandary," which features such underutilized words as chondrin, quiescent, sequacious, eldritch, and uliginous.
Ultimately, you can express yourself very simply, but anyone can do that. It's more interesting to try to articulate what you're saying, use archaic words or words that aren't that common. There are a lot of old words that we use in English whose meaning is from medieval times and the actual meaning of the word is a lot more horrific, in a way. We use the word "shambles," which means a mess. But it actually means the streets of butchers and slaughterhouses. So it's a really innocent word, but when you look at the history of it, it's quite a dark word.
: Have you ever had a song that was misinterpreted lyrically?
: Nothing that springs to mind, to be honest, no. Our stuff's explicit and graphic. It's not the kind of stuff that you need a parental advisory sticker on it, because we've always avoided using foul language, since that's just cheap and simple. We try to be a bit more articulate than that, be a bit more clever. We've deliberately avoided the censor. We tried to stay one step ahead of the censor, even with the artwork.
: Has a medical student ever approached the band to say that they appreciated the lyrics?
: Yeah. We've met people who have become doctors or nurses or pathologists or meds as a result of listening to our band, which is really cool. It's really awoken an interest in people, these subjects. And the end of the day, you can pick holes in lyrics. They're not 100 percent medically accurate, but it works for what it is.
: Let's talk about some of your specific songs. Tell me about writing "Captive Bolt Pistol."
: That's a song that I was away and Bill and Dan basically constructed the track. If I had it my way, I would have mixed it up a bit, because it's a quite linear song: verse/chorus/verse/chorus/break. Very simple song. It actually in some respects sounds like a mash-up of an older song we have called "Tools of the Trade." Reminds me a bit of the band Macabre in a way - the Macabre from Chicago - in the chorus.
So that was a really simple case of me just putting the lyrics down to what was already there. Maybe I had some influence on the way it ends, but that's one of those songs where I never had that much input with the music, because it's so simple anyway, there's not really much you could do with it to mess with it.
And what's funny about this album is the music has dictated the titles and the lyrics, in a way. So to me that song was short, straight to the point, had a lot of impact, it just remind me of the captive bolt pistol from a slaughterhouse. [A captive bolt pistol is an instrument utilized to stun animals prior to slaughter. Anton Chigurh used one in No Country for Old Men
: What about the song "Corporal Jigsore Quandary"?
: That was pretty much completed by the time I heard that. Bill basically wrote it from start to finish. I think one section has a riff through Mike Amott - literally one riff.
With some riffs it's simple: you know where the words are going to fall. It's just a matter of filling in the gaps, the blanks, put them down. With "Corporal," even though it's got a kind of chorus riff, there is no real chorus, because the words in there are repeated. That's something that was deliberate back then, because my attitude as a 19 or 20 year old was that chorus of being lazy - just repeating the same thing. That just illustrates how awkward we were when we were young. In fact, we were fighting against just being obvious.
: And what about the title track from the Heartwork
: I remember that. It starts with a riff that Mike Amott, our old guitarist, had. Bill told me that before he got his hands on it, it sounded more like an Entombed riff, but Bill changed the tempos, put the harmony on it, and really messed it up a bit. I first heard that song as a completed demo. Bill had worked in the studio on his own with our live sound recordist, so I heard it almost as a completed piece. I didn't have an influence on that at all, other than again putting the lyrics down. And its arrangement, again, it's quite linear, verse/chorus stuff.
: In terms of writing lyrics, can you think of one or two songs that proved to be the most difficult?
: Nothing's ever been difficult, to be honest. I think if things are difficult, then you're in the wrong job.
On the new album, the song "The Master Butcher's Apron" is a case of there's so many ways you can go and so many options. You can get bogged down sometimes. So that definitely took a bit of crafting, because it's not an obvious linear arrangement, anyway. I would say that was the most convoluted - it was somewhat jazz, there were so many versions of the way we wanted to go about ending it. So I don't think anything's ever been difficult, per se. You just come back to it later.
Like all extreme metal bands that first surfaced during the late '80s, Carcass was relegated to an indie label for their first few releases: Earache Records in the UK and Combat, followed by Relativity, in the US. But by the time of 1993's Heartwork, Carcass had made the jump to a major label: Columbia (although Earache was still listed - similar to how when Nirvana released Nevermind through "Geffen/Sub Pop, Heartwork was released via "Columbia/Earache").
However, working with a major label didn't help break the band into the mainstream, and while their 1996 album Swansong was initially slated for major label release, it eventually was distributed solely through Earache.
By this point, heavy metal was out of favor in America - we knew things were not well when our beloved Headbanger's Ball was cancelled by MTV. Replacing traditional metal were other hard rocking styles like grunge, industrial, nu metal, and rap metal, all of which spent some time on the airwaves and on the charts.
: What are your memories of the era when the band was signed in America to Columbia Records? I always thought that was quite a cool thing, because I remember at that point Stateside, heavy metal wasn't that popular with the masses, and I always thought that was pretty impressive that the band was signed to Columbia at that point.
: It was an interesting experiment: they licensed our work from our old label, and then we were unsigned so we signed direct. You could see the writing was on the wall for metal in general, because of the whole punk/grunge thing. When we got signed, Sepultura was signed to Epic, as well, with Chaos A.D. And you certainly have to take Annihilator, as well [whose album, Set the World on Fire
, was released via Roadrunner/Epic around the same time].
And all three albums, in a way, failed in so much as they weren't much of successes on major labels. But it was obvious it was never going to work, anyway. Sony was shutting down its metal department, its promotional department. At the end of the day what we were doing just wasn't commercially viable. It still isn't. There's going to be a limit to the level Carcass is going to get to, because of the vocals. It's as simple as that.
"Death metal" and "melody" may seem incongruent, but if you can get past the layers of vocal growls and the rapid fire beats and riffs, some melody can indeed be detected. Carcass is often listed as one of the first "melodic death metal" bands, with such subsequent acts as At the Gates, In Flames, and Dark Tranquillity in tow. It just so happens that all three of these acts hail from the same Swedish town: Gothenburg.
: Do you agree with the popular perception that Carcass created the genre "melodic death metal"?
: No. I think it's bollocks. We've always had melody. What I'm trying to get my head around, does that mean that we introduced traditional Thin Lizzy/Iron Maiden harmonies? Okay, we did. But we never introduced melody into death metal. The band Death had melody in them, and Morbid Angel had melody, Macabre. It's just bullshit to attribute it to us.
I guess what people mean is because of that period, '93 and then '94, what followed us from Gothenburg, people are trying to put the blame on us for all that. But we're no more responsible for inventing "mellow death" or whatever the hell it's called, as we are for inventing goregrind or grindcore. We've always been, for want of a better word, a death metal band. We've just noticed it still, that's all. And sometimes due to our terrible productions, we've been the cause of some kind of new musical movement.
What we will take credit for is downtuning to B, because no other band was doing that before us. Obviously, baritone guitars existed, and maybe Leadbelly, the blues guitarist, accidentally tuned to B, but we never copied anybody. We made a deliberate decision to downtune our guitars to B in 1987. And if you listen to any metal band now, they're all tuned to B and they've got 7-string guitars. And we never get the credit. Post Korn, Ross Robinson was a big Carcass fan. Look at all the bands he produced.
December 13, 2013