CANNIBAL CORPSE – The Rolling Stones Of Death-Metal
"It was great! It was the motherfucking greatest!" With sweat pouring down his face, my friend tried to put into words what he had just seen. Looking around I realized everybody was doing the exact same thing. A big mass of flesh all covered in black, all concert and band t-shirts, but one name dominated: Cannibal Corpse. I doubt that the original architects had this in mind when they built this ammunition bunker in the service of the Führer some 70 years ago. Little did they know that it would be taken over and used a drinking spot and concert venue, called Hulen (The Cave). The Germans are long gone, and Hulen has prevailed. So has Cannibal Corpse. Five minutes earlier I had moshed to "Hammer Smashed Face." With my chest pounding and my legs aching and begging for mercy, I realized that I’m not Riggs anymore. I am definitely in the Murtaugh category in the Lethal Weapon universe. I don’t pack metal. I love death metal. I’m just too old for Justin Bieber.
I had tried to conduct the interview in a normal fashion. Just relax and come up with some questions. Somehow it didn’t work that way. I couldn’t get anything down and it frustrated me that almost every angle was exhausted, or at least that’s how it felt. Whether you like death metal or not, you’ve probably seen one of their morbid album covers by Vincent Locke or heard one of their songs. If that isn’t the case, then you’ve probably seen them in Ace Ventura or the now-famous clip of vocalist Corpsegrinder nerd-raging about World of Warcraft. Finally I sat down. I put on the Eaten Back To Life record on the stereo and I watched Dario Argento’s Suspiria on the computer. Right after this immersion, the questions began to crowd my notebook.I then thought: Have fun with it, and quoting Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, "What the fuck, fuck shit up." Sitting down for a one-on-one with George "Corpsegrinder" Fischer in the backstage area of Hulen isn’t an everyday occurrence for me. The man is maybe most famous for his massive neck, which is used like a jackhammer during shows. With Vincent Locke’s album covers in mind and their lyrics, which depict zombies feasting on human flesh and bloody murder, I told Corpsegrinder about my method of coming up with questions, and asked if Cannibal Corpse is the perfect soundtrack to horror?
Some movies do need a classical soundtrack. I think there’s some movies where metal music don’t fit them at all. Let’s say The Shining or Suspiria. It just doesn’t work for me. I think we definitely could do something that would fit a certain kind of movie. Like if there’s a movie with a classical type of soundtrack and there’s a scene where teenagers are partying in the graveyard and zombies start ripping them up, I think we would fit that. Other than that, I sure there’s a lot of different ways any number of our songs could be used in any horror movie.
Have you had any offers?
I think there was a couple of things that could’ve happened, but not for an entire movie. It kinda fell apart for all sorts of reasons.
(Photo: Alex Morgan)
Death metal deals with, unsurprisingly, death (with some exceptions). If I had to describe myself, I would say that I’m a pop-cultural whore and the cultural perceptions of horror fascinates me. You have other bands than Cannibal Corpse that base their lyrics on topics of gore and horror. From the opening of Possessed’s The Exorcist to Chicago death metallers Macabre, we can say that there’s a link to horror, but how deep does that connection go and how essential is it? I’m not trying to say that death-metal bands are imprisoned by certain concepts, but I still find it difficult to see death metal existing without the genre of horror.
The bands would exist regardless. It just would have had different subject matter. We probably wouldn’t have had the covers that we have, but ultimately the band would exist, because what drives us is music.
How has horror movies affected Cannibal Corpse as a band?
I don’t know how it has affected us, you know. A lot of the movies we watch on tour are comedies and I watch a lot of superhero movies, because I’m big into that. When we record, we just come up with a lot of song titles and start from that. I don’t know if it affects me that much. I just watch horror movies, if it’s The Shining or The Exorcist or something cool. If not, we’re watching Smokie and the Bandit or something ridiculous like that. We just have a title and then we write what that title says, like "Dismembered and Molested," pretty self-explanatory.
Of course, the record sleeves are one of the things that Cannibal Corpse is most famous for. Whether it’s the zombie oral sex act on Tomb Of The Mutilated or the zombie relishing the agony inflicted on the wretched piñatas on the latest record Torture, Vincent Locke has created the perfect gallery for a gore-laden party, art imitating life, like your grandma’s tea parties I’m sure. How does the band’s relationship to the cover art play out?
We just figure out what the album’s gonna be and the title, maybe some other song titles and then he starts coming up with stuff. Sometimes it only takes one good sketch and we’ll tell him what to add and then he’ll go with that, and then he’ll send the final good sketch to us. Sometimes we have suggestions, here’s what the album is gonna be called or something like that and let him go with it. Because he’s been doing it for so long and I don’t think he’s disappointed in any of the covers, so we don’t wanna handcuff him, so he’s got a lot of free rein.
What is the cover’s function in relation to the music?
[He points to the newest record as an example]. Everybody on the cover except the guy who is torturing is being tortured. It’s simple. It’s got to be brutal and it’s got to fit with the music. It’s aggressive and the cover should look that way. We don’t want the cover to be the main focus, but obviously it has its purpose and it should reflect the album, and there’s a lot of songs on that album about torture. So the cover totally represents what we’re trying to put forth. The music is fast, the music is heavy and brutal, and the cover has to be disgusting. For us a simple formula. The cover has to look sick. You can’t have a cover with flowers and hippies on it, unless they’re dead!
‘Controversy’ is the tag that has followed Cannibal Corpse for a long while. It’s common knowledge among the governing academic elite within metal, that Cannibal Corpse has in the past been banned from playing any song from the first three albums in Germany(Eaten Back To Life, Butchered At Birth and Tomb Of the Mutilated.) The ban was put in effect after their lyrics and covers came under scrutiny. This criticism hits closer to home than many Europeans would like to admit, but I doubt there are christian moral sentiments at work from the side of the German legislative branch. Germany takes certain issues to heart, especially if it deals with violence, as a result of the historical burden of the second world war. That is as far as my understanding and objectivity will take me, ’cause I don’t think censorship protects people from harm nor prejudice. How did this issue start?
The biggest problems we’ve had had been in Germany. Some schoolteacher in Stuttgart, I believe, saw some teenager in a Butchered At Birth t-shirt and she went to certain people and talked all this BS or facts, I guess. Here’s their covers and this is what they’re all about. For a while we couldn’t play any song from the first three albums. Like, we could play "Dismembered And Molested," but not "Born In a Casket." Now which sounds worse? We’ve had a problem in Korea and New Zealand, but Germany is the only country that every other year comes up. Sometimes we can’t play any song from this album or that album. People at the record label are badgering the German government to find out which songs we can play. If we’re prepared we can change our set list. It has happened that we’ve rolled into town totally unprepared and have to change our set list and that fucks everything up. On this tour we have twenty songs and they say six of these you can’t play, that fucks with everybody who bought a ticket. We’re going there soon, so we’ll see what happens.
But have you ever been picketed?
We played Mayhem Fest a couple of years back and I think Mayhem Fest in general was picketed. Marylin Manson and Slayer were playing and we were playing. A lot of bands were playing that I don’t think would be very offensive to people. It was just the metal world in general. That was just a show that I remember people picketing, cause I didn’t go out to look at them, I don’t care. They can fuck off, but I don’t really think we’ve been really picketed. If that happened, I was probably asleep – which shows how much I care about their fucking signs and what they think.
(Photo: Alex Morgan)
Controversy usually goes hand-in-hand with right-wing Christian moralists. Cannibal Corpse found themselves in the crosshairs of Bob Dole in 1996, when he was busy trying to beat the incumbent Bill Clinton in the presidential election. One of Dole’s tactics was to drum up support with the banter of "family values" and so Cannibal Corpse found themselves on a top-ten list of bands that were harmful for children.
In the US Bob Dole had a top-ten list of bands children shouldn’t listen to, like that guy knows a fucking thing. It was basically us and ten other rap groups, so we were the token white band on that list. It didn’t hurt us at all. I was just thinking, "Wow, we’re on CNN!" But again it didn’t hurt us, because the people he was talking to wasn’t going to listen to us anyway and any of the kids that didn’t know about us before or housewives washing dishes, they knew about us then.
Metal has had its fair share of bad press. Just think about the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) campaign of the 1980s in the US or the lawsuit against Judas Priest, but metal isn’t the only genre in the last twenty years, which has been examined under the microscope of conservative politicians and talk-show hosts. If there’s one genre that has "rocked the house" on Capitol Hill, it is hip hop. In 1991 Ice T’s rock band Body Count released the album and song called Cop Killer. Body Count is a rock band, but the politicians in charge of the smear campaign insisted that it was a hip-hop group. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy behind that mistake; they just didn’t know anything about the band or the music. This campaign contributed to a public outrage that is hard to rival, to the point where Ice T was held responsible for the Los Angeles riots of 1992, all because of one song. Another famous example is the group 2 Live Crew, who were also included on Bob Dole’s filthy ten, but the criticism aimed at this group goes back to early 1990s. 2 Live Crew’s songs revolve around getting naked and getting it on. Their songs weren’t an issue until white girls started grooving to their song "Me So Horny." Today this seems plain silly since 1990s hip hop is today’s pop. Still, I have to ask if is there an element of racism in this kind of censorship?
Like I said, we were the token white band on the top-ten list and many people view Republicans as racist anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised, but most people who are in hip-hop groups sing about what they saw and had to go through growing up and how they got out of it. Here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter what music you listen to. You’re listening to it because some part of it touches you. If you are listening to a rap album and feeling it because you grew up in a bad part of town and they’re singing about it, you are going to identify with that. Metal is just a little bit different, because you’re not feeling dismembered and molested. The music grips you. The speed, the intensity and the way I’m singing and the intricate guitar playing. A lot of things can grip you with metal and with hip hop. You can just like the beat, you know. It’s just music. The problem is that the people who are so against it don’t have a fucking clue and they are not in touch with any of it. The people who blame music for the world’s problems are out of their fucking minds, you know. There’s no way of talking to those people because they don’t like the music and they don’t like the people playing it. They look different and act different and that’s it. They are just going to go against that, because that’s not their vision of how the world should be, but the world is the world and anyone should be able to live in it and be free.
(Photo: Alex Morgan)
But do you feel that they underestimate the kids when it comes to these issues?
They don’t talk to them. All of these guys who are so into solving the world’s problems, who are so against rap and metal, why don’t they talk to the kids? Don’t you sit them down when they do something wrong and ask why did you do that? That’s the fucking problem. Nobody does, so these kids do whatever they fucking want or they do that to get attention. They want you to talk to them, they want you to sit them down and they want you to discipline them or at least show them that you fucking care. Then they start listening to Slayer and stuff and maybe Slayer isn’t telling them what to do with their lives, but to them that’s their parents almost and they feel better after that, because they know what I’m going through. If you wanna make this world a better place, it’s not by attacking us, it’s by talking to the kids because the kids are the future. All these assholes who think that they can have what they want, don’t realize that the world has changed a lot in the last twenty years. That’s why they attack rap groups, certain ethnic groups or because of sexuality. They are afraid. They don’t want the world to change from the way they had it, but it’s too late. It’s too late assholes!
With that in mind, though, is it still possible to shock people with gory lyrics and gory album covers?
We don’t write these lyrics or have these album covers just to shock people. There are some assholes who think that and I think that what would really shock them is if they saw us play. They’d be like holy shit! Look at those guys play, this isn’t really noise you know. This is not the easiest music to play or sing well. If it was then everybody would be doing it and we wouldn’t get paid shit for it, and music would suck.
Eirik Rutan has produced the last three albums (Kill, Evisceration Plague, Torture). Rutan is a man who already has his place in the history of death metal – not just because of his own band Hate Eternal, but also for his beginnings in the legendary death/thrash band Ripping Corpse. He has also contributed to Morbid Angel’s albums Domination and Gateways To Annihilation. Cannibal Corpse has used other legendary producers and technicians during their career, including Scott Burns and Colin Richardson, to name two other names that are well known in metal circles. With those facts in mind, what were the benefits of working with the infamous Erik Rutan?
For me it’s like a second gear. Scott Burns could hear the slightest crack in anything and he has worked with some of the greatest death-metal singers ever, like Chuck Schuldiner, Glen Benton and John Tardy just to name a few. He was amazing. Erik IS fucking death metal! He sings with power and sings with fire, when he plays and he looks at you, he looks like he wants to kill you. Plus he also plays guitar. Sometimes when we work together there’s a slight butting of heads, but I like the second opinion better if it’s someone who has done it and been there. Whether your voice is fucking tired or you have plenty of gas in the tank and you’re ready to go. So from my perspective I like it. I know that nothing is gonna get past him. Because there has been a couple of times on different albums were I’ve been adamant about not changing stuff and listening to it in hindsight, I wish I would’ve. Plus he lets me fuck around a lot! If I’m having a hard time doing certain parts, he’ll let me vent and go off and then he’ll go, okay ready? Then he’ll start rolling and I’ll start with some high-pitched bullshit and he laughs and it gets all the tension out. He lets me screw around a little bit, just ‘cause I know him. When you’re making an album it’s hard, but if it’s fun, then it’s good.
(Photo: Alex Morgan)
Closing off with Corpsegrinder we started to talk about what’s going on within metal today. From my perspective – and there might be some who disagree with this – but I feel that the focus has changed in some ways. It seems like underground bands get much more attention now than they did in earlier years. The coverage of underground bands has always been there, but if you look back a few years, the mains focus then was reunions. Now you have the swedish occult rock act Ghost and they have toured the world, even opening for Metallica. In Copenhagen you have Killtown Deathfest at the punkish youth house, with the entire scene surrounding the youth house made popular a couple of years back because of the protest surrounding the closing of the old one. Bands like Bastard Priest, Teitanblood, Necros Christos and Norway’s own Obliteration, Execration and Nekromantheon. A lot of these bands don’t just have an underground appeal, but they also have an underground approach to how they make their music. The result for much of it doesn’t sound like Spawn Of Possession, but more like Autopsy, where the sound isn’t polished. How does Cannibal Corpse approach these issues? Are they issues for the band?
We don’t want anything we make to sound like it was made ‘84. I’m not looking down on that. I grew up listening to Celtic Frost, Voivod and early Slayer albums. They weren’t the greatest-sounding albums, but nobody can deny that they are classics, but things were different then than they are now. I’m not waving the flag for technology, but if it’s there, use it, but not to the point where it gets robotic. It’s got to be somewhat loose, but you also have live for that. If you see a band and you’ve heard their record and they don’t deliver – that’s where no amount of pro tools and studio magic can help you. You can make the most insanely technical stuff in the world, but people are gonna watch it and some of those people are gonna be in bands. Then they’re gonna know if you can play it or not. I know there are bands out there trying to rediscover the ‘80s dirt and I’m not against that, but that’s their business, not ours.
With that the interview ended. The dressing room was now in the band’s hands and George was talking about his favorite metal memories, dealing especially with Celtic Frost. I felt that the band needed their well-earned moments by themselves before the show, so I skipped out. Sorry about that, Chief. I know that it’s common practice to come up with some well-placed cliché on what the show was like and to put Cannibal Corpse in some historical context. I doubt they need it since their legacy speaks for itself. If I were to be put to the test, I guess the best analogy would be that Cannibal Corpse is the Rolling Stones of death metal. Cheesy, I know, but it’s one of my less-celebrated qualities. If you don’t believe me, check them out live and find out for yourself, even if you’re a Murtaugh, but don’t tell me that you are too old for this shit.