Interview with guitarist Bill Steer
By Peter Atkinson
Promo photos from Official Carcass Facebook page
Live photos by Peter Atkinson
With the mid-September release of their brilliant comeback album Surgical Steel, the return of English extremists Carcass that began in earnest with a spate of reunion shows in 2007 is now complete. And 17 years after the band went out with a whimper, issuing the toothless Swansong in 1996 after they’d effectively already split following several years of label and internal turmoil, they are indeed back with a vengeance.
Surgical Steel manages to at once capture the surging riffs and sinister wit of Necroticism and the crunching melodies and robust production of Heartwork; pay occasional homage to the gnashing vitriol of Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies Of Sickness; and bring the catchiness of Swansong into the mix, though with decidedly more oomph, all while making it sound fresh, new and vital. This is certainly no mere trip down memory lane, Surgical Steel raises the bar for modern metal the way Reek and Symphonies set the mark for gore-grind back in the day and Heartwork paved the way for melodic death metal.
Oddly, founding guitarist Bill Steer (ex-also of Napalm Death) and bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker essentially removed themselves from the metal scene altogether after Carcass split, despite having spawned numerous sound-alikes who can still be heard to this day. Steer formed the blues rock band Firebird. Walker recorded an album of tongue-in-cheek country covers – though he did join with Latin narco-grinders Brujeria in 2006. But they obviously never lost the “Carcass spirit,” if you will, and when the time finally came to give a go at crafting new material, they went at it with abandon.
Having walked away from the Carcass reunion in 2010 to focus on Arch Enemy, on again/off again guitarist Michael Amott played no part in Surgical Steel, nor did Arch Enemy’s Daniel Erlandsson, who’d been playing drums. Founding drummer Ken Owen was physically unable to perform, the result of a near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage he suffered in 1999. He did, however, contribute backing vocals on the new album and has lent his full support to Carcass’ reanimation.
But with two new members on board – guitarist Ben Ash, who did not play on the album, and drummer Dan Wilding, who did – the band haven’t missed a beat. Indeed, they’ve got a lot of the life back in them – and then some – that was sucked out during the rather trying final few years of the first go-round.
Via Skype, a chatty Bill Steer offered the following on the life, death and rebirth of one of metal’s most groundbreaking, yet misunderstood bands.
Nice to speak with you Bill. This is an interview I’d pretty much given up hope on ever having the chance to do.
Bill Steer: (Laughs) I’ve heard that a few times. 17, 18 years, however long it was, is a long time. I guess all we can do now is thank people for their patience. It’s good to know people still want to talk to us.
So where do they have you today?
Bill: I’m just home in England. We’ve been practicing actually, that’s why I’m a little bit late getting a hold of you.
No worries. Like you said, after all this time, 10 more minutes is nothing. Since you mentioned you were practicing, how have things been going?
Bill: Very good. It’s been a really busy time for us. Unexpected festival appearances and more press than I’ve ever done in my life.
I remember there was a press push for you when Heartwork came out and Columbia was promoting the record. There’s more going on now?
Bill: Oh yeah. There’s simply no comparison. The way I remember it, when we did a record in the past, if we were lucky we’d do a handful of interviews. And now we’re doing a handful of interviews per day. It’s really quite astonishing. Obviously this whole metal thing has become something of an industry over the past couple of decades. It’s quite amazing to witness actually. I just hadn’t realized how things had developed while we’d been away.
Now that you’ve gone beyond dipping in your toes and have jumped in headfirst, are you wary of how things are proceeding? Do they seem to be moving too fast?
Bill: No. Were really grateful for the interest that is there. And it’s good to be on a label [Nuclear Blast] that’s taking care of business, too. We really have no complaints so far, to be honest. It’s just a little strange, speaking for myself because I don’t have anything to compare it too, it’s really a new thing doing press with this level of intensity and seeing so much stuff out there about the band already.
It seems like when it became definite that there was going to be a new Carcass album, the buzz about you guys grew exponentially. All of a sudden, the band’s name was being dropped all over the place.
Bill: I’m well aware of how things can get saturated very quickly. But I think we’re just making the most of it while it’s there and naturally we don’t really want to piss the label off at this early stage (laughs). Maybe if we were to do another album in the future perhaps we could take a few liberties and be a bit stricter on the amount of stuff we’re doing, but at this stage I think we just have to be grateful about what we get.
Like we were just talking about, the band didn’t really have that much publicity the first time around, so I guess to get that kind of attention is a bit of a novelty. Jeff is always fond of saying it’s a way of keeping our place in the history books. He had this strong feeling that if your band breaks up and goes away and no one is banging the drum for you, gradually you just get filed away further and further toward the back of the whole thing. Maybe you don’t get remembered the way that certain bands do because they are continually in your face or have a stronger profile.
I know you and Jeff kept yourselves out of the “extreme metal” scene for quite a while, but over the years a lot of bands have come along that either drew comparisons to Carcass or mentioned you as an influence. So the Carcass name was able to carry on.
Bill: Yeah. I wasn’t really aware of that until relatively recently. But it’s nice, it does feel as though the records did have a momentum of their own and found a more sympathetic audience long after we broke up. We really did make the effort to leave the past behind when we moved on from Carcass, so for many years whatever influence the band might have had wasn’t something I paid much attention to.
You’ve got two new members, how are they acclimating to the band and you to them?
Bill: Really well. With Dan, he was a fully participating member of the band up to and including the new album. We got him on board quite some time ago and when it came to working on arrangements in the rehearsal room, he had a lot of involvement, it wasn’t just Jeff and myself, Dan had things to say too and we trusted him implicitly.
He’s such a good drummer, he’s so tasteful in terms of bringing his style to the music without compromising the kind of Ken Owen signature style. So he was a huge factor in actually writing the material and getting it recorded. By the time we actually started playing live early this year it felt like he had been in the band a long time.
In the case of Ben, our second guitarist, that was a more recent thing. We had discussed him as being a strong contender for that role, but he didn’t actually get on board until around Christmas time, so the album was long finished by then. But he’s been playing live with us all year and he’s fit right it, it’s been feeling pretty good.
Originally, had you hoped that Mike Amott and Daniel Erlandsson would be part of this once you started making new music, or had they already bowed out by then?
Bill: Yeah, they left the band in 2010. I think we did a festival in Finland and we all had a chat about it and it wasn’t really unexpected, it was quite understandable really because Arch Enemy is their main band, and Michael also has Spiritual Beggars. So they made it clear, “we can’t do anymore shows we’re going to be busy for the next two or three years” and everybody went their separate ways.
After a bit of time to ourselves, Jeff and I got talking about it and we felt like it would be really interesting to just get together and write material and see how it felt. We had some good ideas, we were just interested to see if it actually sounded like Carcass. This was all private, it was not something we were publicizing, we had the luxury of spending as long as we wanted working on material and if at any point we felt differently about it or just lost confidence in some way, we could just drop it and you wouldn’t have to hear it, ever.
So that was pretty much how we approached it and it was a really nice time, there was just a tremendous flow of ideas. Every time we went into the rehearsal room, creatively, something happened. Over the course of a few hours, we had if not a song the bulk of a song at the end of the day. So it was really fun.
Other than having it sound like Carcass, was there anything else you were looking for in the music?
Bill: Individually, we knew what we were capable of, and that’s all we were really trying to get across. Jeff, when he does vocals, that’s the way he sounds and he’s got a very distinctive voice as a lyricist as well. For my part, when I pick up a guitar tuned to B and plug it into a Highgate amp, it tends to sound very Carcassy.
But even when you look at all those factors, you just don’t know if it’s going to come together and feel the right way. I don’t mean in terms of rehashing things from the past, because we were never gonna do that. You’ve got to get on with the present day, so you’re walking this difficult line between having the flavor of your old music but pushing it forward at the same time.
Initially, it would just be Dan and myself putting down basic tracks then I’d stick on an extra guitar and then Jeff would go home and record a rough vocal and it was at that point that I knew that it sounded like Carcass. I guess we just got stuck into working really hard.
We didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing or comparing, we just wrote lots of material and crafted it as best we could. You’re hearing 11 of the songs on the album, there were a few more that we put to one side for later use. But we’re quite happy with what we came up with. Enough so that we felt it was worth releasing them (laughs).
Having heard the album, and seen some people’s reactions to it, it seems like by accident or calculation or however you guys did it, you managed to come up with something that most people were hoping it would be – and I think a lot of people are pretty relieved by that.
Bill: (laughs) Yeah, it does seem that way. I was kind of surprised by how much positivity we received. We felt that the album was really strong, but you just don’t know how it’s going to be received in the public domain. The present day metal scene, particularly online, can be somewhat bitchy (laughs), so I kind of assumed that no matter how good the album was, a whole bunch of people were going to slight it. That just seems to be how things are. We were well prepared for that. So once the thing got leaked and we started to actually get nice reactions from people, that was probably the most shocking aspect. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of negativity, too, but it’s just not as much as we expected.
People have had so much time to work out their negativity slagging Swansong, maybe they got most of it out of their systems?
Bill: Yeah, maybe. Christ, it would never be possible for a band like us to please everybody, because there are different phases to our career, if you will. The first album does not sound like anything else we did, and on and on. I’m quite pleased that we did that, that we made abrasive albums that are different from each other, but there is a built-in problem there because you have, say, a 17-year-old kid getting very angry with you because you haven’t recorded Symphonies of Sickness Part II. But that simply can’t happen.
Anybody who has actually got their brain switched on would realize that that wouldn’t be possible because you can’t return to that level of naivete and intentionally do a muddy recording with sloppy playing. I really like those records, they’re very true to who we were at the time, but you cannot turn the clock back. I cannot even get back into the headspace of being a teenager.
I think when people raise the first two albums as being “the ones,” and they are really irate that we didn’t recapture that vibe this time around, I’ve got a feeling like it’s more about point scoring, like trying to show off online about how much more “hardcore” and “true” they are than anyone else (laughs), because they couldn’t realistically expect us to play like that now. Surely.
You guys certainly had your share of frustrations with the industry and whatnot the first time around, are you trying to insulate yourself from that kind of thing this time, or just putting blinders on marching ahead?
Bill: (Laughs) It’s a little of each I think. It’s hard to make comparisons with the Columbia situation because with the passing of time it has been exaggerated by people. The way I remember it was, somewhere around the time of Heartwork Columbia decided to snap up our band for the states, so that record was on Earache for the U.K. and Europe and whatnot, and we were on a major for the U.S.A. and Canada. And then the next album was intended to be on Columbia worldwide, so that was the next big step. And we all know what happened next. It got very awkward. The album [Swansong] was completed but the band broke up shortly afterward and it end up trickling out about a year later on Earache.
But I always say the same thing on the subject, the Columbia thing was just one factor. To me, the main thing was really the band. The band was actually finished. We weren’t really cooperating the way we used to. It was just one of those things, really. We’d been living in each others’ pockets for years and suddenly it just wasn’t harmonious at all.
Speaking for Jeff, Ken and myself, we had gone straight into playing in bands as youngsters, we had no experience of the real world. None of us had had jobs, so I think we almost needed the band to break up and a bit of reality to creep in before we could learn a few lessons because we’d been living in a bubble. Socially, I didn’t have any friends outside of the music world. I was just a one-track mind in those days.
At least now, we can see things from a different perspective. Our whole lives aren’t so dependent on the band, and we’re not depending so much on a label and things list that. We’ve taken a lot more control of what we’re doing and how we do it. We’ve learned our lessons. We’ve had our real world experiences. We’ve grown up, dare I say.
You mentioned Ken, how is he doing these days?
Bill: He’s doing very well. He’s stable for a number of years, really. It’s such a massive subject, it’s hard to know really where to begin. We have had the odd interview where people have asked if it may have been possible for him to play on a couple of songs on the album, which is very touching in a way, but it also indicates that they don’t understand his condition.
Unfortunately, the only way we could feature him on the album was have him do backing vocals. He did a great job, he sounded like the Ken of old because he did plenty of backing vocals on the first two records. That was great because we got to have his stamp on the album.
The short version is, his body underwent a couple of very, very serious traumas in a short space of time and he’s just been fighting to get back. By the time he’d recovered in any meaningful way, so many years had passed, even if you’re a full fit human being you can’t go back to being 29. But it’s absolutely incredible what he’s been able to achieve because at one stage people didn’t really know if he was going to be walking, talking or engaging in any type of physical activity at all.
He’s got himself up to a really high level and he has a good standard of living. He’s got a place of his own in a small village out in Nottinghamshire. We keep in touch quite regularly and he’s been extremely supportive of everything we’ve done with the band. Generally speaking, he’s always pre-empted whatever has taken place. Before the reunion even happened, he was suggesting we do something like that. And then, once it was up and running, he was the one suggesting that we do an album. That wasn’t really possible at the time because of the Micheal/Daniel Arch Enemy angle, we had to wait a couple of years for that to start happening.
For the music that is on the album, is this all fresh and new, or had you been squirreling away riffs in a stash somewhere over the years, just in case?
Bill: It’s a little of everything, really, because I did have quite a lot of ideas left over from the ’90s. And every time I went back to them, I still thought they were valid. I was really hoping to get chance to finally nail arrangements on those songs. Then there were other things I’d just come up with here and there in the years between. And then once we were up and running, doing regular rehearsals and working on material, there was a whole new deluge of stuff that just came tumbling out. It was just a very exciting time and I was having ideas left, right and center.
I guess Firebird has been put to rest, but you’ve been playing guitar with Angel Witch and also with Gentlemans Pistols, are you going to be able to keep playing with them when you can, or is it going to be all Carcass all of the time for the foreseeable future?
Bill: Well, with Angel Witch, I had to step out from that one. It was clear that there were going to be some clashes in the schedule later in the year and I didn’t want to let them down, so I just said to them that it would probably be best if they found a second guitar player now rather than in the autumn, and it was all very amicable and easily sorted out.
I really enjoyed playing in the group, but that was the first thing to go as far as things that were potentially threatened by Carcass. This is the band I’ve been playing in since I was a teenager, so naturally this is my priority. With Gentlemans Pistols, I’m still hanging in there for as long as that’s possible. It’s a very fun thing to do and very different from Carcass in a lot of ways.
Carcass have been playing festival shows, one-offs and short tours since the band reunited, but you have a much more extensive tour coming up opening for Amon Amarth, is that something you’re going to try to see how it goes before you agree to do more big tours?
Bill: We’re just taking it as it comes. That offer came up and it was something that seemed to suit us. I’m aware that some people are questioning why we are supporting Amon Amarth, and not the other way around. That’s very flattering, but the reality is in Europe that band is far, far bigger. There’s simply no debate about it, they have to be the headliner.
Plus, they have the Viking boat stage set.
Bill: (laughs) Exactly. That should show you right there who should be headlining. But take a country like Germany, I suppose we have some sort of following there, we can do club shows, we’ve sold the odd record over the years, but Carcass has never been a particularly popular band in that country and the bulk of that tour is in Germany. So it’s quite a big deal for us to go out and play with a group that attracts, say, 2,000 people a night, because if it was just us playing, it would be a fraction of that.
The half-dozen or shows you announced over here for fall are all sold out, so there’s definitely a lot of excitement for them.
Bill: Yeah, that’s great. I have had to explain in a couple of interviews that this isn’t really an attempted American tour, it is just a handful of small club gigs to generate some hype or whatever you want to call it for the album. We’d have to be deluded if we thought of playing a 200-capacity room in Brooklyn was doing a proper New York gig.
It’s just kind of a street level, grass roots thing that we wanted to do. Similar to what we did at the beginning of the year in London, we did three gigs back to back at the Underworld and again some people misunderstood it as being like that’s where we think we’re at. We just wanted to play in an intimate venue and pack it for three nights.
We’ve had to reassure certain people that we intend to do a proper tour of the states, and Canada, too. This does not scratch the surface, we’re well aware of that.
I saw you guys in Baltimore in 2009 with Micheal and Daniel, and that was good, but the performance you guys put on at the Maryland Deathfest in May with Dan and Ben was just awesome. I think everyone walked away from that show feeling that Carcass was definitely back.
Bill: Good. It wasn’t really the slickest performance. It was kind of the classic festival thing where it’s complete chaos on the stage, particularly with the sound, but what carried us through it was the audience, because it was a really nice atmosphere. There were a lot of people there, a sea of bodies from what I could see, and they seemed really into it, so you’re always going to feel welcome in that kind of situation and I think that comes through in the performance.
You start your round of shows in the fall here with a festival show in Calgary, do you know anything about Noctis 666 or is that kind of a mystery gig for you?
Bill: I’ve seen the poster, but I don’t know much about it because that’s a part of Canada I’ve never been to. I don’t think any of the others have either, so that’s quite exciting because traditionally a band like I us would get to play Toronto, Montreal, maybe Vancouver, that would be it. So I’m looking at this as a really nice chance to see a different part of a massive country.
It’s actually a cool lineup, quite a nice spread of bands. The day we’re playing [Sept. 21] Candlemass and Girlschool also are on the bill [as are Possessed and Sacrifice], so I guess it’s like Old Timers Day that day or something (laughs). It should be good fun.