Guitar World: How do you define death metal? Can you explain what
makes it different from other extreme forms of metal such as thrash and
Bill Steer: As a player who's supposedly involved in death metal, I'm probably one of the worst people to comment on it. We don't even use that terminology. We accept that nine out of 10 people see us as a death metal band because you have to call music something, and we sound closer to death metal than any other genre--mainly because of the way Jeff [Walker] sings. As far as we're concerned, though, that whole scene is more or less dead now. We feel that it peaked in the late Eighties. So it's a bit weird to be approaching the mid-Nineties and find that the major press has just caught up on it.
GW: What bands played a major role in the creation of death metal?
Steer: It really does depend on what period you're talking about. The groups that really kindled the flames were people like Death or Possessed--the kind of bands that took their cue from the first couple of Slayer records but were initially just releasing demo tapes. Although Slayer was never a death band, they had a lot to do with starting it up. It's been said a million times but Reign in Blood is a very strong record, and there are still a lot of groups that strive to match just 10 percent of that aggression. I must stress that when the scene first started it was made up of people who were just music enthusiasts. There was none of this crap about how crazy you are or what you believed in and so on--it was purely musical. All the other rubbish associated with the genre came about much later.
GW: A great many death metal bands, including Obituary, tune their
guitars down to D [D, G, C, F, A, D, low to high]. In fact, some,
like Carcass, even go lower. Is detuning essential to play this style of
Mike Hickey: Carcass tunes down to B. By that I mean we take a normally tuned guitar and then drop each string down two-and-a-half steps, so they go: B, E, A, D, F#, B, low to high. To counteract the string slackness created by this tuning, we use pretty heavy gauges--.012 to .056, I can't remember the ones in the middle, but the G string's a plain .022. B isn't the most practical tuning in the world, but it's probably the heaviest, and we're stuck with it whether we like it or not!
Steer: It's like playing something that's almost halfway between a guitar and bass, actually. We've tuned this low ever since the band started, because it's so crushing--there's nothing else quite like it. Having said that, it has a lot of shortcomings in terms of tone because it's a very unrealistic tuning; we've really had to struggle to make it work. Since we've been doing it so long we can just about pull it off, but to be brutally honest, I think D, or, at a push C# [C#, F#, B, E, G#, C#, low to high], are the best tunings.
GW: What gear and settings do you guys use to get your tone?
Steer: Just for simplicity, I only use one amp live--a Peavy 5150 with a Marshall Guv'nor pedal in front of it to beef up the overdrive just that little bit extra. In the studio, though, it's a different matter; I use several different amps--a selection of Marshalls and the 5150.
Hickey: One of the amps Bill used on Heartwork was a Marshall 30th Anniversary head that's really fierce, and he also used a tiny Marshall stack on pretty much every track to add some extra high end.
[Note: Mike didn't join Carcass until after the Heartwork album was recorded.]
Steer: Yeah, if I remember correctly, almost all of the guitar tracks were done with at least two amps going at once--one of them being a large amp, like the Anniversary [on channel two], a Marshall SL-X 100 watt or the 5150, and then also more often than not, my 10-watt [Marshall] Valvestate micro-stack for extra texture.
Unlike a lot of other bands who do the kind of stuff that we do, we tend to use a lot of mids. I don't think some people realize how important middle is to a guitar sound.
Hickey: Absolutely, mids are essential in a solo--without 'em your tone is real thin. My current backline setup is a Marshall SL-X 100-watt head and a Peavey 5150. I suck the mids out of the Marshall but not out the Peavey. I started the Heartwork world tour using a Guv'nor pedal too, but I just got tired of stage divers stepping on my shit!
GW: Describe how you write your material.
Steer: Aggression is woven into what we do, whether we like it or not. It's just such an accepted part of our musical vocabulary that we don't even think about it. When we play together, we don't force ourselves to play something intense--that's just the way it is; we're not really capable of playing in any other style. We're not subtle players.
Carcass has developed by doing things unconsciously. We find ourselves shying away from certain things and leaning towards others, without really knowing why. So, the way we tend to write and phrase our riffs is just what we like to hear--we never think in terms of intervals, time signatures or tempos. That's how my guitar style has developed, too. I'm not a disciplined enough person to practice, so I just play and do the things I like hearing and feel most comfortable with. One of the most important things for people to learn is that some of the most respected guitarists out there are absolutely riddled with idiosyncrasies that, going by the rule book, are incorrect. And often it's the stuff that's missing that actually makes them great--they have a recognizable style that leaves a thumbprint on whatever they do.