Cannibal Corpse's Alex Webster and the Architecture of Horror Music
Photo by Alex Morgan
Cannibal Corpse are one of the most extreme bands on the planet. Their music is known for its heaviness, relentless speed, and gruff "Cookie Monster" vocals, while their lyrics depict some of the most vile images ever set to song. Most of their album covers are so impossibly macabre that they're borderline ridiculous. This is beyond death metal: it's horror music.
Bassist Alex Webster is one of two founding members who have remained in the Buffalo, NY, band since its inception in 1988. (Drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz is the other O.G.) Famous for his three-fingered "galloping" playing technique, Webster has crafted many a technical bass line and penned a large share of the band's unsettling lyrics. He spoke to us last week by phone from his hometown, and Cannibal Corpse will be terrifying the audience tonight at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with Napalm Death.
Cannibal Corpse's music has a very specific sound. After twenty-five years, do you find it challenging to innovate within that rather strict definition of what your music is? Are you ever going to run out of riffs? I don't worry about that because, looking at it from a mathematical point of view...the combinations are endless. You have twelve notes to work with, in Western music, and then limitless rhythms. Put those two things together: it might look like it's simple at first, but it's like a Rubik's cube--there are millions of combinations just on that little thing. Same thing with music: there are twelve notes but limitless combinations...I can come up with an idea just based on numbers, before I've even heard what I'm going to play. I think, "Oh, it would be really fun to do a song where you had a group of seven [notes], then a group of five, then a group of nine, then a group of six," or something like that, and I start to think about it before I've even picked up the instrument. Then when I get home, I can pick [my bass] up and see how it actually is going to sound. I have the song mapped out pretty good while I'm writing it.
The way you construct your music seems almost architectural. Looking at a song, you could almost look at it like a building, like the structure. The drums are sort of the framework. The drums need to be rock solid, and every beam, so to speak, has to be in place. And then you build the bass, which would usually be the next thing, or the rhythm guitar, sort of like the brick-and-mortar. And then the melody and the vocals that go on top, that's sort of the paint. In a sense, [the vocals are] what you see first, but the rest of it is holding it together.
Your lyrics are famously gory. You've said before that you're emotionally detached from them. Does that mean you're completely unaffected by hearing this gruesome stuff, night after night, year after year? Honestly, when we're doing the performance, I'm just thinking about playing my bass. The lyrics aren't really crossing my mind very much when we're doing the performance. But as far as actually writing them, I'm trying to write lyrics that I think are disturbing, in one way or the other. I want the people who get into our music to be able to get a good creep-out from it. It's supposed to be dark-sounding music, aggressive-sounding music, or preferably a combination of those two feelings. That's just what we're going for. I'm definitely not desensitized to violence in any way. It still grosses me out, makes me ill to think about it--if it's real. It bothers me a lot when I see something on the news where someone was really injured in real life. Any violence you hear about, that it actually happened, that's very disturbing. With us, we're writing about people that don't exist. It's all fictional.
When you're writing the lyrics, when these words are coming out of you, how do you feel in that moment of creation? You're just trying to get the maximum scare out of it. "What would be really, really bad?" is what I'm thinking about...Sometimes the lyrics are disturbing even to the writer, and you know you're onto something good when you feel that way, when it's like, "Wow, that's very uncomfortable, even to be writing about this." It's probably a pretty effective horror lyric at that point. We don't want to make vanilla-flavored horror music. We want it to really be something that strikes a nerve, and it's got to strike a nerve with us first. We're normal people like anybody else, so we're going to be affected by these things, too. And if it affects us, we assume it will affect the listener.
Have you ever been in a situation in real life when you were truly afraid for your life? Not really. There's been a few times when I've been afraid of dire injury...One time I was climbing the side of a cliff with my brother when I was a kid, and we were above a cave entrance. My footing gave way, and I was just hanging by my arms. It wouldn't have been a long fall. This wasn't a high cliff, but still, it would have been like a twenty-foot fall onto a bunch of rocks. That would have been messed up. And that was a feeling I've never forgotten. My brother actually helped me. He was behind me, and he was able to help push me up, to get the strength to climb up to the top and get some better footing. But that sort of thing, you remember. When you have one of those situations where you're in deep trouble, you never forget it. To be able to capture that feeling of deep trouble in a song--I don't know that we've ever been able to quite get there. But it's nothing you forget, that's for sure.
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