EXHUMED – Interview with guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey
By Peter Atkinson
Life sometimes does imitate art. This seems to be surprisingly true of death metal, long a bastion of tales of corpses coming back to life and rising from the grave to feast on the living. Over the last several years, some of death metal’s legendary and long-dead acts have been reanimated, throwing open their coffins to once again walk the Earth to maim and kill – metaphorically, of course. Carcass just released their first album in 17 years, Surgical Steel, in September. Chicago’s Broken Hope will issue their first album in 11 years, Omen of Disease, in October.
Both bands, however, were beaten to the punch by California’s fittingly named Exhumed, who returned after a comparatively brief five-year slumber in 2011 with All Guts, No Glory, which they then followed up this August with their sixth full-length Necrocracy. This second life has proven rather revitalizing for the one-time hack-and-slash gore-grinders who have morphed into groovier, more technically adept – and even somewhat cerebral – death metallers. Led by guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey, the lone constant member who was all of 15 when the band formed in 1990, Exhumed have enjoyed a steady diet of touring since their resurrection, gained a ton of new fans and found, for once, a seemingly solid lineup.
During a phone interview prior to a pair of high-profile shows at The Troubador in L.A. opening for Carcass, Harvey offered his thoughts on Exhumed’s return, resurgence and less gruesome, but still lethal, “gore metal.”
Are you still in the San Jose area? All they were talking about on the radio this morning were the wildfires around Yosemite. It’s not all on fire where you are is it?
Matt Harvey: No, I live about three hours south of San Jose now. Nothing’s on fire where I live. I’m not sure what’s going on up there, but it doesn’t sound good. Where I live is pretty protected, I live right on the ocean, so the vegetation doesn’t get so dry. Where I live is more temperate, it’s foggy in the morning and stuff, so it’s wet enough. But it’s not like San Francisco, where it’s colder.
It’s nice enough so you could wear shorts every day if you want, but I’m more of a pants guy. I’m in my 30s, and you can’t be running around in shorts all the time.
Well I’m in my 40s and I wear shorts whenever I can or it’s socially acceptable.
Matt: (laughs) Well, it’s a style choice. As long as you don’t have sandals with socks. Don’t do that.
Definitely not a sandals guy, so I haven’t graduated to that. Or wearing my pants up around my chest. Still got some years in me before I go the Abe Simpson route.
Matt: That’s a good look though, it kinda keeps the beer gut in is what I find. I hike my pants up every now and again.
I guess you guys are betwixt and between things right now, you’ve got little break before you’re back out on the road?
Matt: Yeah, next week we’re going to Denmark for one show and they we basically have the whole of September off. At the end of the month, we have two shows with Carcass in L.A. and a few shows leading up to the Dying Fetus tour. That’s like a month long and then we’re talking about going to Russia and Eastern Europe, that’s something we’re going to start sorting like tomorrow when our booking agent in Europe gets back. It should be a fairly busy fall and winter.
In looking back, you guys have managed to stay pretty busy since All Guts came out a couple years ago.
Matt: We’re at a point now where nobody in our band is married or has kids or is going to college or doing anything important with their life or any of that stuff, we’re all just focused on being a band. You can tour a little bit and try to maintain a regular job or just say “fuck it” and tour a lot, and that’s the route we’ve been taking. Now is kind of the time. We have a lot momentum from the last record and we just try to capitalize on that and keep the ball rolling.
We are also lucky to keep getting a lot of good offers, like this Dying Fetus tour, the Suffocation tour we did earlier this year. We did two tours with Cannibal Corpse, we did a Black Dahlia Murder Tour, we toured with Municipal Waste and Napalm Death. We keep getting tours that it would be silly for us not to take.
We’re stoked to be in that position. Our agent throws us a lot of work and we’re a hard-working band. We party a lot and we’re idiots, but we show up to the gig on time and deliver a good show every night, put some people in the seats and try to grow with that.
I guess you made the right choice when you decided to “get the band back together,” as it were?
Matt: Yeah, it’s definitely gone better than it was back in the old days. I feel like we play better, I feel like the lineup we have now is more stable and more dedicated, we get along really well. We’re making better records, playing better shows, not only in terms of more people showing up, but in terms of the band’s execution and the entertainment factor. I think we’re on the right track, right now, like I said, we’re just trying to keep the fucking ball moving.
You’re the only holdover from the All Guts lineup, which included guys who were playing in other bands, were you counting on it holding together a bit longer, or did you just want to get Exhumed back up and running, get the record out and then change the players as you needed to?
Matt: With Danny [Walker, drums] and Leon [Del Muerte, bass and vocals], we knew from the very beginning that if we chose to tour for real, neither of them was going to be in the picture. That was just a given. Danny is super busy with Intronaut and Danny and Leon play together in Murder Construct, Leon’s playing in Nausea and he also has a real job, like an actual career and shit. We knew they weren’t going to be touring members of the band if that was the road we were going to go down.
We didn’t really have that many expectations. We thought we’d get a few festival gigs, it’ll be fun and then whatever. But once we did the first tour, which was the Macabre tour, it just was obvious this was the right thing to do. And with Wes [Caley], who played guitar on All Guts, the more we toured it just took a toll on the dynamic within the band and I think he was having some financial issues and some health issues that were just beyond the scope we could take care of, with the band at the level it is, and that just led to a lot of personal friction and it was time to make the change. We didn’t audition anybody, we didn’t look for anybody, we just called Bud [Burke, the band’s former bassist] and bugged him a few times until he agreed to get back in the band.
The first thing that we did with Mike [Hamilton] our drummer was Hellfest, and then we did the Macabre tour with Rob [Babcock] our bass player, so they have been in the band like two years now. So it’s very much like a real band, whereas the last one, we were all old friends and we’d played together before, but it was more like a session thing. I feel like the writing on the new record reflects that, like all of the instruments are involved instead of blast beats and rhythm guitar, which was pretty much what the last album was.
We’re you looking at All Guts almost as a one-off going into it?
Matt: I don’t know if it was meant to be a one-off. Once things got going it was clear that the opportunity was there to do more. As much as I love Danny and Leon, I didn’t want to structure my life around waiting for them to be able to do a gig here and there, and they knew that from the beginning and we had their blessing from the word “go” when the word “go” actually came. It just kind of snowballed and took a life of its own.
You mentioned those shows with Carcass, you guys share a lot in common, not only from your sound but your career path. Their hiatus was a lot longer than yours was, but the evolution of both groups has been eerily similar.
Matt: (Laughs) Yeah, it kinda is. Those shows should be a blast. I think it’s just one of those things where it’s just a good fit and the kids are gonna be really stoked, and I’m definitely stoked. Looking back to when I was a kid, they were one of the bands I looked up to. Them and Napalm Death and Autopsy and Extreme Noise Terror and those bands. They were one of our favorites, for sure, and it’s nice to feel like we’re kind of now lumped in with that group of bands. It’s kind of a gratifying feeling.
We’ve obviously been compared to them, and they are one of our influences, so it’s cool to get the nod to do the show. And I don’t mean this in a competitive way, certainly not for them because they don’t have anything to prove, but it’s kinda cool to sorta go toe to toe and show people that yeah, they are an influence, but it’s two totally different bands and we can stand on our own playing with anybody, whether it’s Cannibal Corpse or Carcass or anyone.
It should be really fun all the way around. We met those guys in Holland at the Neurotic Deathfest and hung out with them a bit and they were all total sweethearts, super nice dudes and the shows in L.A. sorta felt like they were inevitable. I think it’s gonna be fucking insane.
I saw Carcass in May at the Maryland Deathfest, and the two news guys in the band [drummer Dan Wilding and guitarist Ben Ash] seem to have given them a real of a kick in the ass.
Matt: Totally. When I saw them in Holland I thought it was good that they had a couple younger guys in the band now because they’re pushing the band to sound a little bit more aggressive and not quite as laid back, you know what I mean? It just has a little bit more ferocity that I thought was kind of lacking from some of the later albums. Like Heartwork, as much as I love that record, it’s one of my favorites, but it’s so controlled. The edges aren’t quite rough enough. But seeing it live, it was like “Yeah, this is better.” And I’ve seen them since Symphonies of Sickness, so I feel like I’m qualified.
You mentioned rough edges. Necrocracy seems a bit dirtier and groovier than All Guts, a bit more old school. Was that the intent going into it?
Matt: The production actually turned out rawer than we originally thought. When we go the first couple of mixes, one of them as a little bit smoother and we all kind of liked the one that was a little bit rawer. Especially because the material is a little bit slower on this record and there is a bit more melody. So I think it was a nice offset to keep the production really live and raw sounding. I don’t want it to be nice, I want it to be a death metal record, so I feel like the production keeps it from being too pretty for its own good.
It has much more of a live feel and that makes sense, we do almost 200 shows a year, we just fucking play live all the time, so it’s cool to have that vibe come across on the record. It may not be the most sparkly, perfect thing, but it is a death metal record and I think even though we took more time on it than the last one, we took a look under the microscope but we didn’t turn the microscope up to maximum intensity. It sounds pretty natural, it sounds like a bunch of guys playing.
I know you guys have been moving away from the overt goriness, even going back to Anatomy Is Destiny, but this time it doesn’t seem like the splatter is really there at all.
Matt: We trying to avoid complete repetition. We’ve always been kind of schticky, or whatever, which is great because it gives you a guideline or paremeter to get started. It’s really easy when you have a blank page, at least you know what direction you’re going. But at the same time, it gets a bit confining. You end up treading the same ground.
With this one, there’s less emphasis on how many syllables the fucking words have, but they’re still all definitely revolving around death and morbid stuff, even though a lot of the imagery is used more metaphorically now, it’s still very present. With the whole concept of gore-grind, or whatever you want to call it, there’s sort of an aesthetic that people are familiar with. There’s a set of words and images that are associated with it that are sort of de rigueur for the whole genre, whether the first band you heard was Carcass back in the ’80s or Aborted five years ago.
There’s a set of aesthetic tools there and the idea is to use them to talk about other stuff that maybe was more personally interesting to me than a guy getting disemboweled. As much as I like watching a guy get disemboweled, that’s cool for like 10 minutes, and then what? There’s still a lot of word play, there’s definitely some stuff that’s pretty loquacious on the record, but I try to take it in my own direction and put my own inflection on it so it’s not just Symphonies of Sickness Part 25, or whatever.
“Loquacious.” That’s not a term you hear very often in regard to death metal.
Matt: (Laughs) Yeah, but by that I mean it’s trying to paint in a little bit broader strokes, musically and lyrically because I think one of the problems with something that’s so niche-oriented, like underground death metal, is that it’s so busy and it’s so crammed full of things that the listener doesn’t have room to insert themselves and their own take on things into the song because the song has 20 million riffs and 18 million notes and then the fucking lyrics are so direct that there’s no room for any kind of interpretation or subtext. We’re trying to be not so heavy handed in that direction.
Have you considered or reconsidered the future of the band now that things have solidified and seem to be going pretty well?
Matt: We try not to think too far ahead because you get yourself in trouble. We certainly plan on doing more shows and making more records, but right now we’re just shifting in the mode of this album. We recorded it in back September and October and we were originally thinking it was coming out in May and then because of different reasons it was delayed and delayed, so now we’re shifting back into Necrocracy mode, like “Oh yeah, we have an album in front of us.” And relearning the songs because we recorded them, and then we went out and didn’t play them for several months while we were on tour. Right now, we’re just focused on the record and taking the next few months as their own thing and move forward from there.
Until we go out and do a couple tours on this record and play a bunch of the new songs, it’s gonna be difficult to get an objective take on the album. Once we play them live and see how they work for the kids and how they work in the set, that’s kind of the real test of the material. Seeing how it goes over and how comfortable we are playing it. And once you get that feel, that sort of pushes you in the direction of where to go next. With All Guts it was fast, fast, fast, fast, so after that we felt “Oh, we need to have more groove.” We’re not ready to react to this album yet because we haven’t had time.
Are you enjoying doing all this more now than you did the first time around?
Matt: I think it’s honestly more fun now. I just put less pressure on things now. People ask, “Do you have any sales figures for the first week?” And I’m like, “No, don’t know. Don’t care. Whatever.” That’s important to Relapse, that’s their thing. But they wrote me an e-mail and said they were happy, so that’s fine. It doesn’t make a fucking difference to me one way or another, whereas before, especially around the third record I really felt like I wanted the band to get to the next level, or whatever, I don’t even know what the fuck that means. That’s just something people say in the “music business” (laughs) and now I don’t even think about that.
It’s like, “hey, I like these songs, they’re pretty good,” and we have a good booking agent, he helps us out and it’s cool and I don’t worry about stuff as much. We’re still in charge of ourselves and don’t have a manager and do a lot of the groundwork and stuff, but I don’t get obsessed with it. And if I read I review I don’t agree with, whether it’s bad or good, and some of the bad ones are some of my favorites because they can be spot on, but I used to read a review and be like “this guy is an idiot, he doesn’t know anything about us.” And now I just I don’t care. Now I can just do it and be real honest. It’s liberating.
It’s ironic because without really trying, since you’ve come back you seem to have reached “the next level,” even though “the next level” is hard to quantify in the death metal underground. But you’re doing bigger and better tours, you’re selling more records and you’ve really raised the band’s profile.
Matt: Yeah, here we are (laughs). I think the difference is, before I didn’t appreciate what we’d accomplished, whereas now I’m pretty stoked about it. I’m not one of those dudes who meets you in a bar and tells you all about my band and all the great things we’ve done, not like that. But I’m content and realize that there are a lot of bands that have worked just as hard as we are and would love to be in the position that we are doing this style of music and I feel pretty fortunate.
All we can do is write the best songs that we can and hopefully people believe in them and like them as much as we do and we can all get together and fucking headbang and get out some aggression and have some beers together and then do it again the next night. That’s the whole philosophy.