If one were to pick out one singular band to define Death Metal, especially American Death Metal, assuredly, Cannibal Corpse would win the contest. With a career spanning fifteen full-length albums, the band has been an absolute mainstay on the scene, unflinchingly resolute in propagating pure, brutal Death Metal that expertly blends aggression and groove into a potent, muscular concoction like no other. Alex Webster has been there from the beginning. His bass playing defines legendary, a true master whose musical playground exists totally outside the box. It was therefore a privilege to speak to Alex recently regarding the release of the new album, Violence Unimagined, the addition of Erik Rutan, and to geek out a bit bass player to bass player. Alex is a consummate professional, well-spoken, and offers his unique insight into the situation of censorship worldwide and its effect upon the music community.
ANTIHERO: The new track, “Inhumane Harvest,” is absolutely brutal! It kind of reminds me of a cross between “Firestorm Vengeance” and “Staring Through the Eyes of the Dead”.
Alex Webster: Yeah, I mean the way we write is going to…there’s a certain style we have, I guess. You’re going to have little things that crop up again, little musical devices that we use like trills and things like that or certain rhythms and chords and things. I feel it’s a unique song as are all the other songs on the album, but it’s our style and you’re going to hear things where you say, “Ok, yeah, that reminds of something else Cannibal has done a little bit.” I’m really happy with how that song turned out. That’s one that Rob (Barrett, rhythm guitar) wrote, “Inhumane Harvest,” and the whole album, we’ve got a lot of variety this time around and hopefully everyone enjoys it and finds it interesting to listen to.
ANTIHERO: When is the album coming out?
Alex Webster: The whole thing comes out on April 16th. I’m pretty sure we’re going to put out another song for everyone to check out and hopefully excited about the album something in maybe, like two or three weeks from now, and we’ll be having some videos for a couple of the songs too that will be coming out in the next few months, but yeah, the whole album should be out and in stores on April 16th.
ANTIHERO: So it’s big news for you guys getting Erik Rutan on board.
Alex Webster: Yeah…
ANTIHERO: How did that come about? I know he had played live with you guys for a while.
Alex Webster: Yes. Erik, as you probably know, he has done the production for a bunch of our albums at this point, so we all knew him really well. I’ve also worked with Hate Eternal in a studio context. I haven’t done any shows with Hate Eternal, but I did play on Hate Eternal demo and the album Fury & Flames. Plus, I’ve worked with Erik on his melodic side project from the ‘90s, Alas. We go way back. We’ve been friends with Erik since he was in Ripping Corpse back in the day up in New Jersey and we were up in Buffalo. We toured with Morbid Angel for a short festival tour in Europe back in ’94 and got to know him even better then. Really, we’ve just known each other for a long time. He, Morbid Angel’s sound man, and I all lived in the same house for a year or two. That was back in the ‘90s as well so yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time. Having him join the band really, it’s not the same as adding someone you don’t know. When it’s someone that’s already part of the family joining, it’s pretty seamless.
ANTIHERO: How would you describe the uniqueness Erik brings to the sound?
Alex Webster: You know, he has his own style of writing and style of playing lead and both of those things add something a little different to our band. He knows how to write Cannibal Corpse music too, though. I mean, he’s very familiar with us from having worked with us so much. So it’s cool because the songs he wrote for us, they’re Erik Rutan songs but they aren’t Hate Eternal songs. They’re Cannibal Corpse songs, you know. I think he made a conscious effort to write material that was appropriate for our band and these are not songs that he would have written for Hate Eternal. They’re both Death Metal bands, but they’re two different styles. To talk about his style, he definitely has a lot going on between the two guitars. That’s one of the first things that might jump out at you when you really take a listen to the songs that he wrote as opposed to the ones Rob and I wrote. Throughout his songs, at least half the time or more, the left guitar and the right guitar are playing something a little bit different from each other, and Rob and I don’t do that nearly as much in our songs. Erik’s songs have a three-dimensional element from having the two guitars be independent of one another a lot of the time. So, there’s that difference and then, as a soloist, he writes very structured solos that are sometimes fairly melodic too. That’s a little different to have a solo in a song that’s almost like a song within a song. If you listen to what he did for a song I wrote called “Slowly Sawn,” he wrote this really cool lead. It’s composed really well. I like crazy guitar leads like really off-the-wall ones, and Erik can do that kind of thing, but I really do love his approach. It’s a very musical approach. It’s still really aggressive, but musically, there’s a direction his solos take, and it makes sense. I think people will hear that if they listen.
ANTIHERO: That’s a cool concept. If you think about it, the lead guitar took the role the violin had in Classical music.
Alex Webster: Yeah, it’s a solo instrument in this case. We don’t really have that going on with say the bass. I have a couple of little solo-ish kinds of things in “Follow the Blood”. They’re pretty short little things that I do over the top of these slow chords. Death Metal and other kinds of Extreme Metal that are really structured, it’s more related to Classical music than people may realize. Absolutely, the way Erik’s writing is, reminds me a bit of Classical music.
ANTIHERO: By the way, I’m a bass player too…
Alex Webster: Killer…
ANTIHERO: I’ve really been looking forward to this…
Alex Webster: Cool…
ANTIHERO: To pick your brain a bit, how do you approach the writing process as a bass player?
Alex Webster: Well, you know for most of my career, I’m writing on the bass. I didn’t even have a guitar until the last album. I’ve had guitars, but nothing that good. My friend, Keith Merrow (YouTube guitarist and Shecter endorsee) kind of permanently loaned me a Jeff Loomis signature seven-string so I’ve been writing on that a lot just to mix things up a little bit. I figure you know we’ve got quite a few albums at this point so to try something a little different writing-wise might be cool. I do a little bit of writing on the guitar, but I do still write on bass still. I find that the things I want to write with the guitar are different than the things I want to write on bass. It’s helped me add a little variety to my own songwriting. When I’m writing with bass, there are certain things I’ll do and they wind up being chunkier kinds of songs. Where the stuff with fast picking like the real fast speed picking like “Necrogenic Resurrection.” I was mostly writing that on guitar. I will kind of go back and forth between the two. It’s a more guitar-ish kind of writing style where “Slowly Sawn” is very bass. That’s really like in a comfort zone on the bass guitar for me and that speed. So, it’s nice to kind of mix it up a bit. Throughout most of my career, I’d say most of everything I wrote was written on bass guitar.
ANTIHERO: Have you ever come across a situation where you felt like your bass playing has hit a plateau?
Alex Webster: Yeah. In terms of like speed or something, there are limits. I think that maybe it’s hard to say if you can get past them. I had to kind of take a different approach the past couple of years and I’ve been trying to learn to play a little more relaxed. I’ve always dug in so hard with my right hand and I’ve been trying over the past couple of years to get that same sound without tensing up, without putting more strength into it than needs to be. I still want it to sound like a really hard aggressive attack, but I’m trying to just be more relaxed across the board. The more relaxed you are, the faster you can go. You can still have it sound really aggressive. I’m trying to avoid straining I guess you can say. It’s a thing with age, you know, working with injuries or working around injuries, you have to learn to play with the best fluidity and economy of motion as possible. I’ve probably, there are plateaus here and there, but I think I’m always refining my technique and trying to do things more efficiently. So, I’m not gritting my teeth playing all this stuff, I want to see if I can knock it out and still have it still be kind of relaxed while I’m doing it.
ANTIHERO: So, the motto is: “don’t kill it every time”?
Alex Webster: Yeah, I figure if you can’t play something without… you shouldn’t be tense when you’re playing. I’ve made the mistake of tensing up when playing sometimes, and it slows you down. It pays to just be fluid up there, and that takes time and practice, but it pays off, you know.
ANTIHERO: How do you approach your practice regimen?
Alex Webster: Well, going back to the pandemic, I’ll roll that into this because that’s kind of, it’s weird like it’s nothing that anybody is happy is happening. We all wish the pandemic had never happened, but at the same time, to try to find something positive from it, it kind of gets you into a routine. I’m in a real routine of getting up and doing morning chores and things, walking the dog, going for a run, and just getting right into practicing. The practicing I do will be, I work with the metronome a lot which usually I’m in Pro Tools and I have a good bass sound all dialed in you know via my direct boxes and some cool plug-ins within Pro Tools. I’ll work through some metronome practice just doing basic stuff, you know, exercises, things like that. Once I’m good and warmed up, then I’ll work on whatever music I have to work on. If I’m learning some song that the guys wrote for me or whatever, and if that’s done, I like to work through old Iron Maiden songs…
ANTIHERO: That’s my favorite stuff, yeah…
Alex Webster: Yeah! I feel like, that stuff is still, it’s pretty damn hard to do it right. There’s a guy who was playing fluidly, by the way. Think about it, I can’t believe that he does all that stuff with just two fingers. I certainly use three fingers for a lot of it. He’s doing two fingers, but I’ve got to go with three. I’ll try and play, I have an Iron Maiden songbook, and I just know a few of their songs anyway so I’ll just pick a song and work on it. That’s what I’ll work on for like a week, you know. That’s my fun practice. I feel like it’s good to try and play other people’s music because the stuff I write for Cannibal Corpse is comfortable for me, but the stuff other people have written may not be comfortable for me. It’s good to practice and try and get out of your comfort zone to try and play something that Cliff Burton did or Steve Harris, and I like Rush too. Geddy Lee’s bass parts are obviously amazing, so I’ll mess around with some of those too. That’s kind of how it is, metronome practice, then working on Cannibal stuff, then maybe some fun with someone else’s music in the end.
ANTIHERO: We have a lot of the same bass heroes, Cliff Burton, Steve Harris…
Alex Webster: Yeah, I think there’s a chance if you’re a Metal bass player, you like both of those guys. They’re two of the most important and obviously, Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath. I look up to Steve Digiorgio a lot too…
ANTIHERO: He’s a monster bass player…
Alex Webster: Yeah, those are some of my favorites.
ANTIHERO: When you are crafting your bass lines, how do you toe the line between something brutal and something melodic?
Alex Webster: What I’ve found works really well is where it makes sense, like if the guitar part is really hard or really busy where it would be impossible for me to play that particular part or if it would just not sound good with me doubling it, I will try and write something that works with the drums, but I’ll use notes from the guitar part to make the bass part kind of melodic. I can think of a few examples from the new album. If you listen to “Murderous Rampage,” the first song, that one in the middle where the triplet kind of breakdown section happens, I do some stuff with the drums first and then when the drums kick in, because the beat is a little slower, so I stick with the kick drums and the snare drum. Then I switch to playing exactly what the guitar is doing once the double bass kicks in. If the drumbeat is kind of wide open, I might play with it, and then when the drumbeat switches to double bass or something a little faster and denser, then I’ll jump into playing right with the guitar so it’s almost like the intensity ramps up. The drums and the bass ramp up the intensity and the density of the part and the same time and I think it has a good effect. I do that on a couple of parts on this album and on the other albums as well.
ANTIHERO: You would attribute maintaining your sanity through the pandemic to establishing a routine?
Alex Webster: Yeah, I think a routine is pretty important. For me personally, I don’t know about the other guys. It’s probably mostly just me, I know Erik works out, I’m not sure what the other guys do in terms of exercise. I’ve found that doing some cardiovascular exercise of some kind before I work puts my mind in a good place for learning new things. I read a book called Spark that’s about ten years old or so written by a psychologist who studied the relationship between cardiovascular exercise and your ability to learn things and mental health in general. I like to run and that I think has helped keep me together during this weird time and I think it has a positive impact on my playing. My brain just feels primed when I get done exercising to work. Of a seven-day week, I run five of those days, and then the other days I might do resistance training or something.
ANTIHERO: You’ve definitely got a system going.
Alex Webster: I do. Of course, I’m very fortunate to be able to play music professionally. I realize a lot of musicians are also dealing with a full-time job. I have the option to take care of myself, do some running in the morning, and then work for four or five hours on the band. Not everybody has that much time, but if you have the time, I recommend getting a little exercise in. It’s good for your brain, not just your body.
ANTIHERO: It makes sense, more oxygen flowing through your blood.
Alex Webster: Yeah, when I started running, it took an effort for the first month. After the first month, I really enjoyed it, and now it’s something I want to do. I don’t feel like I have to do it. It’s something that I really enjoy doing. It’s always a better day if I manage to get my run in in the morning.
ANTIHERO: How would you describe the difference between the early days and now in terms of touring, recording, promoting?
Alex Webster: Certain things are different, and I guess we’ll leave the pandemic out of it because this is obviously different even still. There’s the old way of doing things that gradually turned into the current way, and then there’s the pandemic way which is everything is a little bit frozen right now as we all wait to see what comes next. There’s no touring going on, for example. That’s the main thing in our industry, obviously. We can’t tour, and that’s a big deal. Speaking generally about the old days, as you say, when we put out our first few albums, recording-wise, it’s much easier to make a very polished, perfect-sounding album now because digital editing is such a game-changer. It’s so much easier now to get things perfect where “Eaten Back to Life,” I didn’t know that you could punch in. I didn’t realize that, so I recorded all the bass with the drums simultaneously. We had a week and a half to work with at Morrisound. Our budget was like $5000 or $5500, real low budget so Paul and I went in and just knocked all those parts out. We might have screwed a song up and then redid the whole thing. To the best of my memory, I didn’t punch anything in. You can do that with tape of course, but I didn’t know that, so we just played through the songs, me and Paul, and then Bob and Jack were doing the scratch tracks on guitar. They re-recorded the guitar and I remember when they were laying down the guitar over what Paul and I had done with the bass and the drums, I was like, “how do you do that? Won’t there be a clicking noise?” (laughs)
Alex Webster: That’s how inexperienced I was for “Eaten Back to Life” so it just shows you how raw and natural things were back then. The drums and the bass were recorded simultaneously, and I don’t remember punching in anything. I don’t think Paul did either. I don’t even think we were aware that you can do that. Even though there was some punching in on the guitars, it was minimal. Everything was just so much rawer and live at that time. You can hear it. Even the tightest bands back then sound sloppy now compared to a normal band. You can just tell that difference. When you do a studio album now, you do not leave anything like a mistake on it. That’s standard practice across the board for everybody because you can fix those little mistakes. Back then, a lot of things that would be considered mistakes now would up on those albums. An interesting thing to, talking about Erik Rutan, he’s our guitar player, but he’s also our producer, and as a producer, he’s an old school guy like us. When he produces things, yes, we will fix things, but like with the drumming, he doesn’t like to over-fix stuff. He likes to leave some of the natural stuff in there, a lot of the humanity to it. Some modern Metal production, it’s almost like robots are playing…
ANTIHERO: Yeah, especially Djent stuff…
Alex Webster: Yeah, I mean, if that’s what they’re going for, that’s fine, but it almost ends up having like a Dance music feel to it. It sounds like machines are playing it. If that’s what you’re going for and what you want artistically, fine, but that’s going to be, that’s not what we’re doing in Cannibal. That’s not what we want to do. Things are different now in how you record, but we want to continue to capture a raw sound. We’ll capture a raw sound, but without mistakes, because we can go in there and fix anything that’s glaringly obvious. There’s actually a couple of parts, if you look around hard enough, there are probably parts on our albums that are actual mistakes where one guitar player is playing something a little bit different than the other and not in a good way. (laughs) They just each learned the riff a little bit differently. There are a few parts like that on those albums, but I guess that’s part of the charm as they say.
ANTIHERO: The one topic I wanted to get to that we haven’t breached yet is censorship.
Alex Webster: Sure…
ANTIHERO: You guys dealt with that like crazy back in the day and it seems like it is an issue once again.
Alex Webster: It is. For us, one of the big problems is Germany. Germany is one of the best countries for Heavy Metal of any genre: Death Metal, Thrash Metal, Black Metal, Power Metal. Germany is such a great Metal country. There are for sure the most festivals there. Out of any one country, they have the most festivals so when we tour Europe, we’ll do like eight shows in Germany and maybe like three or four in the other countries. So, when something happens in Germany, like a censorship problem, it affects the entire continent. If an album cover gets banned in Germany, it’s kind of by default banned throughout Europe because the borders are open. I can’t remember the exact reason but it’s kind of like, it changes everything over there…
ANTIHERO: Do you think it has something to do with the European Union now that they’re all…
Alex Webster: I think so, yeah. Because they’re more tied together, everybody has to meet each other’s obscenity laws. I don’t quite know how it works, but I know that there will be a European version of our release and an American version. You’re much more likely to get the uncensored version in America. The uncensored version might not be available in Europe at all. We will see. Additionally, the problems we have in Germany like I said we have like eight shows there and there will be a list of songs we can’t do because of some censorship person in that country…
ANTIHERO: I had no idea it was that bad…
Alex Webster: So, like eight shows out of thirty, if we’re doing a thirty-show tour and eight of them we can’t play our proper setlist, it’s very frustrating. So yeah, it’s still a problem. I get it. We sing about offensive stuff, but I think we’ve always been pretty clear that we approach it like horror novelists or horror movie makers. I don’t think that anybody assumes that a guy who writes a book about a serial killer wants the reader to become a serial killer. In the same way, when we write a song about a serial killer, we’re not trying to promote that kind of behavior. We think it’s horrible too, but it makes for an interesting horror song and Death Metal is horror music. If you’re going to look at a horror movie or read a horror novel, well, we write horror music. We approach it in the same way. These are works of fiction so it’s frustrating for us to have them censored like this because I think our fans fully understand that’s fictional and they’re not trying to imitate what happens in our songs.
ANTIHERO: I don’t think a lot of the younger kids realize how close we came to losing our free speech.
Alex Webster: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of stuff. It’s an ongoing thing and it’s a tricky thing. Freedom of speech is tricky, and by nature, there’s going to be some push, and some pull over what’s ok and what isn’t. People are going to have different opinions. Just because of my experience with this band, I’m always going to lean toward protecting speech, even if it’s really fucked up. I feel like if something’s bad and it’s out there, people should be able to make that judgment for themselves. Suppressing something just makes people more interested in it I’ve found. If you take something away from people, they’re just going to want to seek it out.
ANTIHERO: That’s right.
Alex Webster: Just let everything be out there. If someone thinks we’re gross and disgusting, they can make up their own mind about that and decide not to listen to us.
ANTIHERO: Well put! I won’t keep you because I know you have a bunch of interviews left to do but thank you for the opportunity. I look forward to seeing you guys on the road again. The last time I saw y’all was in 2000 with Nile, Krisiun, and The Crown. (laughs)
Alex Webster: Wow, that was a long time ago! I remember it well. It’s hard to believe. It doesn’t seem like twenty-one years ago! We’ll be back, though, as soon as it’s safe and responsible to do so, we’ll be back out on the road. Believe it.
ANTIHERO: We’re ready…
Alex Webster: We are too. Hopefully, it will be sooner or later. Again, we really appreciate it.