Alex Webster / Part Two: “Vince Locke defined how our band is presented visually”

Since the release of their 1990 debut album ‘Eaten Back To Life’, Cannibal Corpse have been at the forefront of Death Metal and have become the best selling Death Metal band of all time.

On 16 April 16, the band will release their fifteenth studio album ‘Violence Unimagined’ via Metal Blade Records.

Interview: Brandon Oberkrieser

MetalTalk recently spoke to Alex Webster, co-founding member, songwriter and bassist for the legendary band about the making of the album, songwriting the contribution of Vince Locke and much more.

Part One can be found here.

MetalTalk: To go back to the songwriting for a moment, you had mentioned finding the right tempo and kind of messing around with different time signatures. I find that you are a little bit unique perhaps in the Metal world, because you do have a background and knowledge in music theory.

Do you find that is a great advantage to you as a songwriter?

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Alex Webster: “I think it is. I think the more you know about something, the more options you have.

“I have tried to build my vocabulary over the years. I have taken lessons from a handful of bass players over the years and I did take a music theory class in high school that they offered… it is just basic stuff, but knowing the basics and then just teaching myself as I went along… picking things up from other musicians.

“If I am jamming with somebody else, I will pick their brain. Like I have a really good friend who is a drummer… I would jam with him sometimes and he went to PIT… which is a part of Musicians Institute, and I would always be asking him, ‘hey tell me how this odd meter thing works’.

“You know we would jam together and I learned so much about rhythm from him… so I am self taught, but a lot of it I learned from other musicians that I have worked with.

“And I am always trying to pick things up from the guys I work with and it just helps… you know the bigger your vocabulary, is the more… it is like an author… the more words you have to work with, then potentially the more interesting your prose will be.

“Well with music, the more you know, the more you have to work with. And a lot of guys who do not know theory, they kind of have it anyways… but I do think it helps to learn it.

“Like, Rob Barrett [rhythm guitarist]… he is an amazing songwriter, but he never really studied music theory, he is not really interested in that side of it… but he will end up writing these things sometimes where I am like ‘oh that’s cool, that is in this timing or that is in this timing’ and he is like ‘oh cool’.

“He might not necessarily know what its called, but he knows it anyways because he is just a naturally good musician. I think that can only be a benefit, the more you know, that is my opinion on it.

“Like I said, there are so many guys that are naturals, that they do not necessarily have the need to learn it, but I think the more you know, the more you have to work with when you are writing.”

Photo of the band Cannibal Corpse
Cannibal Corpse. Photo: Alex Morgan

Totally! I was asking because from my personal experience working with musicians, sometimes if they are really engrained in music theory, I feel like sometimes it can take away from what just feels natural.

Like you mentioned before, going down a wormhole and you can almost get a little too much in your own head sometimes when you are overthinking.

“Yeah! I think the thing to remember is it is good to know this stuff, but it is also good to realise there are no rules. Like if you get too hung up about rules… musical rules of stuff that you were taught… and you start feeling like you are going to be doing something “wrong”, because you are not staying strictly with these rules, then they can be a limiting factor for some people.

“So I have seen that actually, what you are talking about where a guy technically is really good but he does not seem to have a style anymore, because he learned everything just the right way. It is almost like some of the guys who have the best styles are the ones who are doing things that officially are “wrong”, but you know it ended up making them have a style.

“I think it is good to find a balance there. Do not be afraid to do things that might be wrong in a textbook when you are writing… just do whatever sounds right. Like, just speaking as a bass player, some of the old bass playing I did for the old albums, I was playing the picking as fast as I could… and trying to keep up with the guitar players, but one of the guitar players might have been playing really fast and the other one may have been playing even just a little faster, and we were all more or less supposed to be playing the same speed, but we weren’t.

“So technically that is a mistake, but it is not really, because it ends up being tremolo picking. And tremolo picking, I think, is something that really entered Death Metal’s musical vocabulary because people were trying to play faster than they could.

“So it kind of became a mistake, because the picking was not as tight as it should have been, but it actually ended up making a great musical effect and became a signature part of an entire genre’s sound.

“Something that probably started out as something that could be viewed as a mistake. You know ‘hey everybody’s picking at a slightly different speed’… but it sounds really cool. Even though you could argue it’s a little bit wrong, but how is anything wrong in music? It is an art form.

“I hope that was not too long of an answer there, but yeah, I know exactly what you are talking about, so my advice would be learn as much as you can, but do not let any of it bind you.

“Do whatever you want. Knowledge is power, but do not let it restrict you either.”

I think that is perfectly put. I know obviously the lyrics and imagery are a big part of Death Metal in general and you are a big horror movie fan. Were there any specific movies or anything that inspired the lyrics that you wrote?

Or is it just, at this point, you have this well of movie knowledge and inspiration from other sources, that you are just sort of ‘well that sounds cool’.

“A lot of times I will start writing something, come up with an idea and about half way through I will remember, ‘oh this is kind of like this movie’.

“For example, ‘Surround, Kill, Devour’… I started writing that and actually part of the inspiration for that was just a pretty well publicised news story from last year, where some wolves surrounded an elk and ate it up at a national park. Just the idea that teamwork… the song is not about wolves [laughs] it is about human cannibals… but just the idea of that very primitive but effective teamwork that wolves and other animals utilise… other predatory animals utilise… that was sort of inspiring just for that song.

“So there was that little element, ‘ok this is going to be about some post-apocalyptic cannibals hunting people’. And it occurred to me while I was writing ‘oh this is kind of like The Road’ too. Sort of that kind of thing.

“So there it is… the initial influence was just a photo… a news story with some pictures of wolves taking on this elk and that led to something quite different. Inspiration is not always as direct as would be assumed, I guess.

“Like I do not remember ever sitting down and being like ‘ok I’m going to write a song about this movie.’

“It has never been like that for me. There is, you know, “influence soup” in my head like every other artist and musician has I guess… various different things from sometimes, some fairly unlikely places add up to the direction you end up taking in a song. So none of these songs are about some particular movie, but some of them are kind of like movies.

“So many things have already been thought of. For us, as long as the music is really good, if the lyrics are sort of something that has already been done… we are not too against that, as long as they fit the music in a new, fresh way.”

And to tie in with the imagery of course are the album covers that are always very visually striking and memorable and sometimes controversial. The artist Vince Locke has done the album cover for each one.

I am curious to find out where the concept of ‘Violence Unimagined’ came from and does the band play any role in the concept of the album cover or is it just sort of like “here’s the title, what have you got”?

“It is usually ‘here’s the title, what have you got’. That is how it has been most of the time. There have been a couple times where we went to Vince and we actually had a little bit of a concept or a rough idea and told him to try and come up with something coming from that direction

“But we found the best way is to just let him loose and do his own thing, because he is a very creative person. He gets gore and he gets what our band is about.

“I cannot overstate how important Vince has been for the visual presentation of Cannibal Corpse.

“I mean, he is our artist. He really has defined how our band is presented visually. Like the albums, the merchandise and things like that… you know, it has just been perfect, a perfect combination.

“So yeah, we will just give him titles most of the time, sometimes lyrics too. I think with ‘Violence Unimagined’, Paul just gave him the title, because Paul came up with that title and Paul is usually the one who communicates with Vince about the covers… just gave him the title and he came up with maybe three or four pencil rough sketches of ideas and that is how it usually goes.

“We will pick whatever idea we feel will be the coolest one and he will base a painting off of that. So that is how it went this time, as far as I know all Paul gave him was the album title.”

Photo of the band Cannibal Corpse
Cannibal Corpse. Photo Alex Morgan

I know album covers for so many young people, at least back in the day when I was growing up, would draw you to a band. And I remember the first time my friend from high school came over with a Tomb of the Mutilated, and seeing that album cover, I was like ‘I must listen to this band!’

“Yeah! I remember when Chris Barnes [original vocalist] brought ‘Eaten Back To Life’, the cover of our first album and, you know, I remember it to this day. We were up in the practice room, or actually in the hallway outside of our practice room at this place called Ultimate Storage in Buffalo, and he is like ‘hey I got the artwork today, check it out’ and he takes it out of the package it came in.

“And I just looked at it and I was like ‘Wow! you know, I think I would buy this’. If I was not in this band and I saw this album cover and saw the song titles that we have, with the name of the band… I would buy it without having heard it.

“Because that was the deal back then… you just had to hope that this album sounded good, there was no internet, not in 1990 that I was aware of… there might have been some kind of primordial internet, but it was not what we know now. So really you are just hoping for the best when you plunk your 12 bucks for an album, or whatever it was.

“And sometimes you got some albums that were underwhelming. But a lot of the times you could kind of tell ‘oh wow this is a cool cover and the guy is wearing a Kreator shirt on the back of the album, it must be good because Kreator’s killer’ so… that was how we judged… like this is probably going to be good, because this band likes these other bands and their album cover’s cool. [Laughs]

That’s exactly right! [Laughs] Is there a song on the new album that you are personally most proud of or that is a personal favourite of yours right now?

“Oh boy!!… I am really proud of the whole record and I think it is tough to pick a favourite. But I feel like, out of all of them, maybe ‘Follow The Blood’ right now… it is one of the songs Rob wrote. It is so heavy, but it is really different for us. Like something about it is just different.

“Rob gave me a couple little spots where I got to do some bass licks, so that of course is cool. I am always happy to have a little space where I can stretch out. But in general, just the song itself is really unique for us. I am proud of all of them…

“‘Condemnation Contagion’ is another one. I think that Erik came up with some of the catchiest vocal lines we have had, on that song. There are a couple good ones that the other guys came up with and I guess that out of my own songs, probably ‘Surround, Kill, Devour’ might be the one I kind of like the most.

“But we are proud of all of them. It is a diverse collection of Cannibal Corpse Death Metal songs.”

Now obviously with COVID-19, it changes plans when the album comes out. Normally I am sure you would launch the tour, and that is not a possibility, at least immediately following the release of the album.

Has there been any talks in the band about any other ideas, in terms of maybe a one off performance, or a live stream, or any other kind of virtual fan events?

“We will see, maybe a livestream later this year. Me being over here on the other side of the country of course, creates a situation that we have to consider, safety wise, travel and everything. But I would think by the fall, it would be good to go for a livestream at the very least.

“And hopefully, things start to get a little bit closer to normal by that time and we would like to be able to tour by 2022, but livestreams are something we are looking into.

“It is not our first choice, you know, we really just want to get back in the clubs and start playing, that is what we want to do, as do literally tens of thousands of other bands.

“It will come back. It is just a matter of time. We just have to wait and do it in the safest, most responsible way possible, so probably no live shows this year other than maybe a livestream later in the year and then hopefully in 2022 things can start going again. We will see.”

Alex thank you so much for your time. The album is fantastic and I can not wait until everybody else gets to hear it.

“Thanks so much for having me today and I look forward to seeing everybody out there again whenever it is possible and thanks so much for the support.”

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