Here at Terrorizer, sometime's it's as important to watch a band shuffle off out of extreme music as it is to welcome one into it. As the founding fathers of grindcore and gorecore Carcass head off into the history books after label wranglings, internal splits and a horribly delayed album, it's time to wave goodbye. Satpal Kalsi went to yak one last time with bassist/singer Jeff Walker about Swansong and the joys of major label A&R departments.
This interview is a bit special to me. It has a personal angle to it, because Carcass were the first band I ever interviewed for my fanzine, back in '91 when Necroticism had just been released. I remember going backstage of Birmingham's Edwards No.8 venue with a tape recorded and 52 pages of blank writing paper stapled together and 'Carcass interview' scrawled across pages 12-15, as if to lend some legitimacy to my intentions. I was naive enough to think that even underground bands would be on some superstar trip! After showing a slightly bemused and sweat-drenched Bill Steer and Jeff Walker said draft copy, they gladly answered my obscure questions while putting away their instruments after their set. Though backstage was a hive of chaos, they found time for me. A last impression for any youthful 'zine editor.
So, when news recently started coming in about internal splits, major label bullshit and the inevitable demise, I wanted to be there again to find out what went wrong since those great days of a dynamic death metal scene; especially as this would probably be the last round of interviews the band would ever do. There is a moral to be learned from this story...
Much of what caused the year long delay of the much anticipated Swansong, and, as a result, the demise of Carcass, has to do with Sony/Columbia Records. It's not, however, as if Carcass jumped into the Corporate World head first with eyes closed. As a pumped up Jeff Walker told me, "When Heartwork was released by Columbia in the States, we had a honeymoon period where everything was great. We did a lot of tours and promotion, and sales went up from 30,000 to 70,000, so we were in a really strong position. But as soon as we signed directly to Columbia, as opposed to just a licensing deal, we started getting all this bullshit about spending so much money to do this or that. At the end of the day, we didn't want to do any of that."
Columbia had taken seven of the major Earache bands as part of a distribution/licensing package deal, but as the months passed, said bands were dropped one by one, not on artistic grounds but due to their lack of market value, considering the state of the depressed Metal scene in the U.S. So much so, that the band were even dictated to in terms of creativity.
"It affected us. You'd have to ask the guy at Columbia who signed us about what he thought was going to happen with us. The guy who signed Cathedral ended up signing The Presidents of the United States of America! We later found out that the guy behind the idea of signing the Earache bands on an artistic level had been sacked. Five days before we went into the studio, the A&R guy, Jim Welch, rang to say the tour manager doesn't think the band is ready to begin recording. Who is he to judge? We've done four f***ing albums and sales have increased with each record. It all comes down to people wanting to take credit for things. But we stuck to our guns and fortunately we were lucky enough to be released from our contracts. I think what really killed it was the changing climate in America in rock music."
Even touring for Swansong was knocked off the list of priorities: "I remember Bill saying that if the record doesn't come out by the end of '95, he's just going to pack it in and start something else. It was a hell of a long time to sit around doing nothing. We offered the Iron Maiden tour last summer, but we were in limbo, just sat around on our arses. I would rather have seen this album come out and done the tour by last October. But it's all water under the bridge."
But could Jeff seriously consider Swansong as a true fresh work he could be pleased with?
"That's an awkward question, because it has been recorded for over a year now, and obviously you can look back. I've had the tape for ages and it got mastered two months ago. My enthusiasm's kicked in a bit more. About 80% pleased. Some of the songs we recorded haven't made it on the album that Earache are releasing, but from my point of view some of those songs are better; but we believe in a democracy now. Earache might do something with those left over songs; I heard a whisper that Heartwork might be re-released with some extra songs, so I don't know. They may release all the EPs on one CD."
With remixing all the rage in the Corporate World, maybe the band's enthusiasm could have been further kicked into gear, with Swansong being rerecorded: to move with the times, so to speak.
"When we came out of the studio last April, there was talk between us and our old label about remixing it, but I think it's a case of too many cooks, because no one in the band or the manager or the label could agree on what was wrong with it or what they wanted. A lot of ideas and collaboration went into the recording. It wasn't just Colin Richardson controlling the situation. We all had a hand in the way the recording turnedout. At one point the A&R guy from Sony was saying like, 'if you get Terry Date [Pantera and Prong producer] to remix it, then it'll definitely get released on Columbia blah blah blah.' This was last summer when they weren't sure whether they wanted to release it or not. We don't necessarily want Terry Date to remix this. Is his name more important than the recording?"
Listening to Jeff speak and the new musical direction, I couldn't help wondering if we should have all seen it coming years ago. The novelty value of the legendary gorecore slabs Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness left you wondering how far the band were willing to push themselves before they became purely a comic horror band. Even from past interviews it was obvious that the commitment that went into these records never transcended the basic idea of creating something purely to shock on one level. The band needed to set themselves an agenda or artistic goal. Necroticism - Descanting the Insalubrious went some way towards addressing the criticism of shallow musical creativity. Looking back, are the first two records really all that revolutionary and shocking? Necroticism is Carcass at its most extreme and creative peak, marrying all that is great about death metal and dark industrial violence. Heartwork was notable for a new lyrical style, and a more hard rock approach. Still Caracss, but hardly underground extreme metal. It is, though, a good record. Swansong is the most accessible and most likely to appeal to fans of mainstream heavy metal, but for me, it lacks a dark side to it. I asked Jeff if he felt that maybe Carcass had let down the fans who look to this band as the voice of uncommercial extreme metal.
"Not at all. It's a Catch-22 situation. If we had made Heartwork part two, people would be complaining. The few people who have heard the album are pretty surprised it doesn't sound like Heartwork. By no stretch of the imagination does Swansong not sound like Carcass. It does sound more accessible, hopefully. For me, I would like to think that people who liked Heartwork will like this album. It has a better soul to it. Surely, that's what music is about. Any idiot can downtune a guitar or get somebody to play blastbeats and growl over it. I don't think extreme is the right word to describe it, but it's got an edge. If death metallers are going to be disappointed, it's just tough shit, mate. We did it all for ourselves and hopefully people will be mature enough to like this album as well. We don't write albums to cynically please our audience. Lyrically, it's basically the same as Heartwork, but put into simplistic terms. With this album, I really didn't spend that much time agonising over the lyrics. It's straight to the point, and it's made a refreshing change to do that. The lyrics are more about generalisations, observations - like having a remote control on life, flicking through each channel. Ultimately, it's my own cynical little snipes at certain things which probably doesn't reflect on anyone else in the band. I've never really complained about anyone writing riffs in a certain way, but they were moaning that we can't have this song title, you shouldn't have that... My additude is that I didn't ask to be the f***ing vocalist. If anything, I was left high and dry and eight years later, I'm still the only one prepared to do it. If that's the case, I'll write about what I want to write about."
With Bill Steer calling it a day, there seemed little point in Carcass carrying on in its present entity. In tribute to Bill, Jeff felt "we could have found a new guitarist to replace Bill but that would have been absolutely f***ing stupid. Bill was THE guitarist for Carcass."
So, from here on in, Carcass will be known as Black Star.
"I'll still be playing with Ken and Carlo, which is ironic really. Last October, I was trying to get Carlo to split with me to form another band. Then Bill finally said he didn't want to continue. It's like a mid-life crisis [laughs]. Bill was getting into stuff more like Cream or Free. Then we got a guy called Griff who was in the original lineup of Cathedral and Year Zero, and we've just done a seven track tape. It's more rock 'n' roll and bluesy than the Carcass albums. It's good stuff. It's definitely what I'm into and I look forward to playing clubs again. It'll be a hell of a lot more fun to play. It'll stop people stagediving, because they'll find it impossible to stage dive to [laughs]. It's more like Thin Lizzy meets Trouble meets heavy rock 'n' roll. Carcass is best left as a closed chapter."
Despite my lukewarm feelings towards Swansong, I for one will miss Carcass, the one band who seemed least likely to be touched by major label success. So the moral of this tale is...