Interview with Carl Stokes, Drummer of Cancer
Recorded at California Deathfest IV
October 13, 2018
Interview by InfamousButcher
When metalheads talk about classic death metal, England’s Cancer always comes up. Raw, sick, and catchy, Cancer made their mark with seminal albums TO THE GORY END, DEATH SHALL RISE, and THE SINS OF MANKIND in the early ‘90s. Since reforming 4 years ago, Cancer has been busy playing festivals in Europe and the US and they also completed a South American tour a short while ago. With new album SHADOW GRIPPED about to drop in November, I was fortunate enough to catch up with drummer and founding member Carl Stokes at the California Deathfest in Oakland. We chatted about the new album and some Cancer history.
Metal Rules: Your new album SHADOW GRIPPED comes out Nov 2! What was it like going back in the studio with the original Cancer lineup?
Carl Stokes: It was done in two studios. In Spain and in Wales. A studio we’ve used before in Wales (Foel Studio). It was a bit weird because John (Walker) wasn’t actually there. John recorded the guitar which he put down in Spain and sent it to me. So yeah it was weird, different, but it worked really well. We’ve played together for so long, it’s like as long as I hear his guitar we’re good. The whole album took about three weeks to record.
MR: Had you been writing it for a long period of time?
CS: Yeah probably three years. We were just trying ideas out and we played a couple of things live in South America to see how they went down. And they went really well so we thought we were on the right track. Since John lives in Spain, I flew across here and there. The internet is amazing for sending riffs and jamming tunes. By this time last year, we had nine tracks. I think we did twelve altogether, ten on the album, and two spares. If you download it, you might get a free track, that kind of thing.
MR: What does the title of your new album SHADOW GRIPPED mean?
CS: This is about all the dark stuff that people don’t like to admit to themselves. And I guess if they embody it, you get the Hitlers of the world that get gripped by the shadow. So the opposite of their shadow would be a light inside. I guess with heavy metal everyone accepts the darkness and the light together. It’s the state of the world, isn’t it, because everybody is so oppressed, or they are the oppressors? It’s as if people go around very unconscious of the fact that they too have a dark side.
MR: Were you trying to get back to the old sound from the first two albums (TO THE GORY END and DEATH SHALL RISE)?
CS: Yeah it kind of happened naturally. We’ve just been playing the first two albums. The writing naturally went that way, which is good, because that’s what we were after. We kind of view this album as like the third album. It’s like a direct follower to DEATH SHALL RISE. It slots in there. It’s strange, but it does. THE SINS OF MANKIND is the third album which is a bit different, it’s a bit thrashier. This new one sits back with the first two.
MR: Are you excited to be on the Peaceville label? They are a great underground label!
CS: Yeah I was surprised because they contacted us and said, are you writing stuff? And we said, yeah we’ve got some stuff. So again through the internet, John did some riffs, I put some drums on, and I sent it back to him for vocals. We did two songs in two days, demoed it and Peaceville was like yes, we want to put your album out! We are pretty excited really because they’ve got the heritage (Autopsy, Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Baphomet, etc). When we spoke to them I think they were worried that it wasn’t going to be old school. We told them not to fret, it will be okay. We didn’t even think about shopping a label, it just kind of happened.
MR: That’s awesome! Can’t wait to hear the new album! I last saw you 4 years ago at MDF, looking forward to tonight!
CS: The band is much tighter now compared what you saw at MDF 4 years ago. That was only our third show since coming back, without the guitarist Barry Savage who had just left. That was actually blessed, perfect, got us back to being a three piece. Now the band is really tight. We are not doing any new stuff tonight, just old stuff. This is the last time we will play some of those songs, the old ones.
MR: With the new material do you have to wait until it is released to play it?
CS: Well I think we just made a decision. We are playing Damnation Fest in Leeds, we kind of got slotted in the last minute. The show is on Nov 3rd, the album will be out the Friday before. And there we will probably showcase six new songs. We’ve only got 40 minutes, so probably six new songs, and four classics.
MR: When I saw you four years ago, you played “Body Count”, and you told me you hadn’t rehearsed it.
CS: Yes that’s right. We have an attitude of, we know this. We like to take a risk sometimes and try things out. We are looking forward to playing it all. We’ve got fifty minutes tonight so we’ll just give you the old stuff. Some of these songs it is the very last time they will get played live. You know the festival set you never get a chance to do everything. Hence the reason why we never do anything from THE SINS OF MANKIND. It’s just the first two albums and there’s so many good songs there.
MR: How did you get the name Cancer?
CS: Well we were coming up with names, and a friend of ours, he was really into glam rock. He liked Dokken and stuff like that. He was a good friend and we’re sitting around trying to find names. One of them we came up with I think was, Cunt Death Surprise, and we were like oh that’s horrible. We had lots of really horrible names, so he was like, oh man if you’re going to be that horrible just call yourself Cancer. He was so grossed out and just trying to come up with like the worst thing ever. There’s another band of the same name out of Australia making music. Totally different music.
MR: Your debut TO THE GORY END has a very ghoulish vibe to it, is that what you were going for?
CS: It wasn’t contrived. It really was about what we were doing at the time. We all watched gore movies. We were in the studio at the time demoing some songs. We went into Birmingham and Robocop was in the cinema. So we watched Robocop, and when he goes into the acid bath (Emil going into the toxic waste), it inspired us to go back to the studio and we wrote those lyrics for “Into the Acid”.
MR: So you wrote “Into the Acid” about Robocop?
CS: Yes. It’s got a double meaning. And John said I got a riff and we demoed and we knocked it out. And we said okay that’s on the album. The film Hellraiser inspired the title track “To The Gory End”. There’s nothing special about it. It’s just what we do.
MR: I always felt TO THE GORY END had a creepy feel to it compared to other death metal albums coming out at the time.
CS: Me and John do most of the writing, pretty much. We just find this kind of thing amusing. There’s humor in it, and I think that’s what it is. That’s what the gore movies are, they are twisted black humor. We try to write songs, choruses, and hook lines. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
MR: Songs like “Die Die” are very catchy.
CS: Well that’s probably my influence. It was all about the hook.
MR: How did Scott Burns end up producing TO THE GORY END?
CS: Nobody in England knew how to produce us. We were friends with Big Mick, Metallica’s sound man, and he did a demo for us and even he was like, whoa what are you doing? I don’t know, it’s just what we do. Nobody was interested in us. The name completely scared people off. Scott was recommended to us. We couldn’t all fly out to Florida. We didn’t have the budget. So we flew him across and we just had a week in the studio. Knocked it out really quick, first takes and everything pretty much. That’s why it’s a little bit rough and ready. That’s what it was. It’s raw. Scott was horrified by English food and the English weather, fucking horrified! He had thin blood. It was in February and it was like -20. He was like, man you got your heating on in the house?
MR: How did you end up having John Tardy do the backing vocals for “Die Die”?
CS: Again just by chance. When I went over to Florida mix the album, they (Obituary) just popped by the studio. We went out and watched some American football game. I was like let’s get some beer, and I just bought five cases of beer. And they were like, that’s a lot of beer! And I said yeah I’m going to drink a lot. Because beer was only like 3 or 4 percent alcohol in the US at the time. It’s better now in America. We hung out with them at their place and we asked John, do you want to do some backing vocals, and that was it. I hung out with them and their snake. They had this massive python called Elvis. It was a snake on the couch. The goddamn thing was out. Oh I don’t mind snakes, I love ‘em but that thing was, get that away from me. I don’t like it. It’s looking at me funny. So yeah it was pretty crazy. I hung out with them and got stoned and had a few beers and that was it. Been good friends ever since.
MR: If you guys toured together, and John came out on stage to do “Die Die”, I would fucking shit!
CS: He did it once. Back in the day. Milwaukee Metal Fest I think. He just came out and did it. It was great. And Glen (Benton) did his too.
MR: Glen’s done “Hung Drawn And Quartered” live?
MR: I guess being at Morrisound for DEATH SHALL RISE enabled you to have Glen Benton do backing vocals on “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered”?
CS: Yeah same thing. He turned up. Before we did some shows in Europe with them. And actually, I met Deicide around the same time we were mixing “TO THE GORY END”, they were doing the Amon demo SACRIFICIAL in the studio. I took the Amon demo back with me and I was like this is awesome. I’ve also still got it on the Morrisound tape, this is going to be worth some money! I got friendly with them and they asked us to play in the U.K. supporting them. And then when we did DEATH SHALL RISE at Morrisound, Glen just came in. He came to the studio and said, hey man I’ve got some things here. Oh alright. He brings out a whole bag of weed and a bunch of firecrackers. We had to go out into the garden of Morrisound and set these firecrackers off. It invoked something. Crazy. So yeah then he just went in and did “Hung Drawn and Quartered”.
MR: I’ve seen the picture of Glen and John next to each other with the mics.
CS: Yeah it was strange because we met a lot of people at Morrisound and became friends with Malevolent Creation and guys like that. People thought we were from Florida. I was good friends with Bret Hoffman and he just died recently. We talk about that sometimes, about how many people from those days have passed. Our road crew isn’t doing too well either. So we try to keep ourselves fit.
MR: I want to ask you about James Murphy and DEATH SHALL RISE. People have this impression that he was in the band.
CS: He was never in the band. He turned up at the studio. He’d been kicked out of Obituary, even though he said he left. He did a guest lead on “Hung Drawn and Quartered”. I was like, that’s pretty amazing. He was just making them up so he did the leads. We decided now you’ve got to come and do this a bit live. So we did Milwaukee Metal Fest and the European Tour. And we managed to get through it. Huge personality clash with us. We weren’t serious, if you know what I mean, and he was a really serious guy. He’d get really stressed. After the European tour, we were like, that’s it, that’s the end of the road. And I think he struggled with that with all the bands he was in, to be honest.
MR: When did Barry Savage come in as your second guitarist?
CS: Right after James left. We put something in Kerrang that we needed a guitarist. And we said send a cassette tape, since that’s what it was at the time. So we had quite a lot of tapes and we listened to them and said yeah that’s good, he’s good. I get a phone call. Where he got my number from I don’t know. He was like oh my name is Barry and I play guitar. He played the lead from “Hung Drawn and Quartered” over the phone. I said you better come up. He came up and he was an idiot, but he was our kind of idiot at the time. He had to quit his day job and we were like, you’re playing in Israel next week. He had to learn all the songs in a week so it was pretty funny. After we played Israel, we got out and we got off the plane and somebody was shouting in whatever they speak, and he was like what’s this? They were saying get their guitars, somebody help him. It was quite funny. He was with us for a while but again he became a quite difficult character.
MR: THE SINS OF MANKIND is a thrashier album. Was that intentional?
CS: I think we did a lot of speed on tour. I think that influenced the speed of everything and it became faster. The whole thing became much thrashier. That’s just the way it was. It was never contrived. It is what we are in the moment and that’s gone through many phases. We couldn’t do it unless it’s honest to us. Whatever comes out, comes out. People like it or they don’t. That’s the way it goes.
MR: In 1993 you toured with James Murphy’s Disincarnate, which is the tour that I saw back in the day. Did you do that tour because of your relationship with him?
CS: God knows why he wanted us on the bill. He did, so I was like okay we’ll do it. It was alright but again it became quite a difficult tour near the end. A lot of issues with transport. I think we didn’t get to California. We toured with Deicide in the U.S. in 1992 and the same thing it went on forever. It was like 46 shows. By the end of it everybody was like, take me home. But it was good, the people on the tour, it was with Demolition Hammer too. The Disincarnate tour was a good tour. I don’t remember too much of it. I wasn’t drinking then. Which is strange.
MR: How did you get back together in 2014 and decide to start doing festivals?
CS: A German label (Cyclone Empire) licensed the first three albums and reissued them. So we thought perhaps we could do a couple of shows. But I said I am only doing it if Ian (Buchanan)’s doing it, because if we try it without the three of us, it’s not the band. It’s me and John writing and it could be solo projects. It was a lot of, come on you can do this man, and Ian was like I haven’t played the bass in like three years. Yeah you’ll be alright.
MR: When I looked back at some of those other EPs and albums (CORPORATIONS, SPIRIT IN FLAMES), Ian’s not on them.
CS: No he hadn’t played music in a long time. Well he had done a few things for himself. And as far as he was concerned he was done with it. But I kind of dragged him up to do the remastering on the first three albums. So he got back into it. And when that happened it felt right. And once Barry left. I don’t know, having another guitarist made things more complicated. It’s the three of us that started the band. The three of us are really kind of tight as friends. It’s only the three of us that travel. We have no road crew. We do it all ourselves. And it just meant that there was no rehearsing and no extra stress. Just the three of us. Just in our bones I think. Then the demand started. Play here, play there. We were turning down more than we were doing which is good.
MR: So earlier you said you’re just going to be playing festivals but no big US or Europe tours. What about 70,000 Tons Of Metal? If they approached you, would you do it?
CS: Yeah probably. It all comes down to money really because we don’t have to do it. We don’t have to do anything. We’re not desperate for it. We’d rather keep it for us, make it a special occasion when we play.
MR: Besides Cancer, what other bands do you play in?
CS: I am not doing it at the minute but I play in a band called Current 93. Which is ex-members of Coil, remember that band? Pretty, pretty out there. Former members of Throbbing Gristle are in it too. They’re all from that time. Nick Cave was involved at one time. And that’s completely different, in a sort of avant garde way. But everybody comes in to play. Bjork has been involved at times too. It’s pretty eclectic. One guy he kind of does apocalyptic poetry. It’s a pretty big band in Europe in particular. So I’ve been doing that. And I play the blues and stuff as well sometimes. I just like any music and I enjoy playing the same. Just keep busy.
MR: Carl thanks very much for the great interview!
CS: No problem mate!