Few bands are recognised as the true pioneers of a musical sub genre. Formed in Liverpool, England in 1986 by school chums Bill Steer and Jeff Walker, Carcass is one of a handful of acts that have been given credit for the development of two extreme music styles. Thanks to their obsessively detailed gory lyrics, the gut-churning artwork, and the primitive production of their 1988 debut Reek of Putrefaction, they were pegged as the originators of goregrind; five years later Carcass were hailed among the instigators of melodic death metal with the release of Heartwork. 27 years on, Carcass maintain a healthy respect from all quarters of the extreme metal world for their groundbreaking work and tireless campaigning in the live arena. Guitarist Bill Steer opened up about their long history and their ever-shifting musical muse.
Bill Steer, thanks for your time. How are things with Carcass right now?
They’re pretty good, I would say. We’ve had a couple of weeks off, which is unusual for us, but this week we start rehearsing again because we have a festival in Sweden at the weekend.
For a lot of bands that have been around as long as Carcass, there’s usually an anniversary of some kind around the corner. Is there anything from Carcass history that needs to be celebrated in 2020?
I’m not very good with this stuff! Jeff’s very good at it. He’s very good at facts and figures. But it’s safe to say that when a band gets to this vintage, there’s some kind of anniversary almost every year! Something that you’ve done. I mean, it’s just nice to be around and be out there playing, really.
For the sort of band that Carcass is, do you find yourself surprised that you have been able to keep it going and keep playing and recording for such a long time?
Not every single day, but quite regularly, yes. Especially on one of those American tours that we did on the last album, because we did maybe five or six tours in total and we went to lots of different places, occasionally you would just wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “This is totally nuts!” I would never have dreamt of reaching this age in life, anyway, but now that I have, and playing with this band, playing these riffs… some of these riffs I wrote when I was a very young kid. It does give you a sense of harmony, in a weird way. Which is really nice. The gigs are a lot of fun to do. I think we probably enjoy it a lot more these days that we did back in the early 90s.
That word harmony is something of a strange word to use with regard to Carcass, because you were one of the bands that removed that aspect from music, at least early on, and that’s what seemed to resonate with a lot of people.
Yes, but I guess there’s different phases with this band. With most bands, really, but with this band in particular, because I suppose if you look at the initial run of albums that we did, from the late 80s through to the middle of the 90s, each one was at least a couple of steps on from the previous record. We didn’t really think much of it at the time. It was just natural to us to operate that way. But in hindsight, it’s been spoken of a lot. For some of the bands, some of our contemporaries from that era from the UK, it wasn’t quite the same way. Everyone’s got their own approach, really. Some people like to plow a particular furrow and stick with it doggedly and there’s other people who want to keep pushing forward. I don’t think we’re a particularly progressive or experimental band, in the grand scheme of things, but in the small sub genre that we occupy, we’re a band that – maybe – has taken a few more risks.
It could be said that Carcass took a lot of risks, because at first you certainly weren’t attempting to be a particularly accessible band. Then of course, as you said, you began to transition to a different sound and there were a lot of people who got very upset with Carcass for that direction you took later on.
Yeah, and that’s totally cool. There were plenty of other bands that were quite content to continue in that vein, and we weren’t. It’s not like people were starved of that style of music. That’s part of the reason we continued to shift. There’s two sides of that coin. At the tail-end of the 80s, [grindcore] was “dangerous music to make”. But it pretty rapidly became safe for us, because wherever we went, there were bands chasing our tail who were sounding similar and using a similar lyric theme and imagery. What are we going to do, continue like that? It didn’t feel natural. We started doing the crazy stuff because it was mad at the time and it was a little different. After a while when everyone was doing it, you just wanted to keep moving forward.
When we were out doing those early tours and you started encountering all those other bands that were sounding like Carcass, did you feel they were copying you, or did you feel they were using you as an inspiration or an influence?
Probably the latter. There have been one or two bands that were self-proclaimed Carcass copyists. They certainly weren’t hiding it, they were very open about it! That was flattering. Otherwise, I think it was an influence. Show me a band that isn’t influenced by somebody! We have borrowed and stolen from countless acts. I can hear those things in our music, even if most people can’t. That’s how music is. It’s a continual flow like that. But you start to kind of question where you’re going if you hear somebody and their stuff resembles yours too closely. You might want to start thinking about moving on, even if it’s slightly.
The thing about that of course was that Carcass moved forward in your own direction. You were innovative, and then you started doing something else, but not because all the other bands were moving on, and not really in a direction that other bands were necessarily going either.
Yeah. It’s just quirky. It’s just the way we’ve always chosen to do things. The timing’s often been weird. Sometimes… well, not sometimes: we always tended to do the wrong record at the wrong time. Later on in life that tended to work out for us because those records started to find an audience after the fact.
A long time after the fact too. People were still coming back to Carcass after you had that long break, people were still discovering you, and it’s almost like they went backwards with you, as well. They discovered Swansong and Heartwork and then went backwards to Symphonies of Sickness or Necroticism.
Yeah. It’s almost like there isn’t… at least, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t really a stereotypical Carcass listener. Because every time you meet somebody, there’s always a different story, a different timeline. It’s usually quite unorthodox, and that’s quite nice, I guess!
It certainly makes a Carcass setlist a very interesting one, because there is such a wide sonic spectrum across your catalogue that’s really probably much more evident when you play live.
I think with the style of music that we’re involved in, it’s considered a rare thing. If you played any of our records to a listener of mainstream music, I don’t think they’d be able to differentiate any of it very much!
That’s very true. Even among people who say they listen to metal, there’s probably a lot of them who would leave a room if somebody started playing a Carcass album! It’s certainly music for the fans, isn’t it?
Yeah, but I think that’s the same with any genre. Whether it’s country or reggae or whatever, anybody who’s from the outside is going to find it very confusing or confronting, while people on the inside know about the nuances and all the stylistic differences and stuff.
Even a lot of those on the inside can find it hard to pick the nuances after a while too, especially as a scene gets older and newer bands with newer sounds and ideas begin to appear and become more prominent. It can be hard for older fans to feel like they understand it anymore.
It’s the same with us. The youngest guy in the band is Dan, our drummer, and he’s quite good at keeping up with what’s happening. Sometimes you’ll hear him getting very enthusiastic about the newer bands, and obviously because he’s a great musician, he’ll take that seriously and he’s curious to hear it. But it’s kind of intimidating trying to wade through the enormous number of new bands. When it comes to metal, if I’m going to listen to something that’s really aggressive, it’s very likely that it’s going to be something old. That’s just expected, I think, for my age group.
Carcass’ Australian and NZ tour has been cancelled.