• Adrian Erlandson
Ahead of Carcass' show at the Roseland on Sunday, March 30 as part of the Decibel Magazine tour, I spoke with Carcass guitarist Bill Steer in preparation for the Mercury's article (which you can read here). Meanwhile, here's an edited transcript of our conversation about getting back into playing metal, the band's comeback album Surgical Steel, and the notoriously shitty sounding Reek of Putrefaction.

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MERCURY: How often, when fans heard you were making a new record, did they ask you not to? This sort of thing doesn't normally work out so well.

BILL STEER: The answer to that is “never,” because we didn't tell anybody we were making a new record. In the time prior to that, yes, of course. Loads of people kindly instructed us not to make another record. I do appreciate the advice, but obviously it's our band.

Did you have a bunch of riffs writing to go or were you just itching to write the riffs?

I had a whole backlog of stuff going back to the mid-'90s. It was a situation where my impulse was, “It would be great to try writing some material as a group,” but it was instantly shut down because of the dynamics in the group at that time. It didn't even really get to the discussion point because certain people in the band at that time made it clear instantly that they wouldn't entertain the idea of making a record. In all honesty, Jeff [Walker, bass/vocals] and I didn't even discuss it until after Michael [Arnott, guitarist] and Daniel [Erlandsson, drums] had officially quit the band. There was a long stretch where it wasn't even considered as a possibility.

Was it tricky to shift from writing songs for Firebird to getting back into Carcass mode?

It wasn't really that difficult because obviously we had done a large number of shows by that point.

Oh, right. Well then maybe when first doing the reunion trip, was there any, “All right, I'm going to tune this way down. I forgot what it's like to play with the strings this loose”?

You just named probably the biggest thing. It was very, very enjoyable because for a number of years I had written myself off as somebody couldn't play that music. If you repeat the same thing enough times, even it starts off as a lie, it ends up becoming the truth. You've reinforced it. So I was going around saying, “I can't play that stuff anymore,” and eventually I convinced everybody, including myself. When we agreed to get started back into it, all the sudden I found I could play it… It was my entire life for several years and it's pretty much programmed into me.

As the album was coming out, you and Jeff talked a lot about how, if it didn't sound or feel like a Carcass record, then you weren't going to bother with it. I'm curious what that means to you now, for it to sound and feel like a Carcass record, because it seems like the first time around you guys liked to fuck with that notion a lot, of what a Carcass record should sound like.

Good point. That's definitely the case if you look at the initial string of albums. Yes, every record was significantly different from the previous one. With Surgical Steel, I don't know how to summarize it because obviously I'm too involved to be objective, but I would agree with what some people have said, which is that a lot of it is like a summary of what we've achieved in the past, just updated. There's maybe a few elements, particularly on the last song on the record, where you can hear other things come in that probably weren't present on any Carcass records. But for the most part it's almost like consolidating what we've done in the past. Stylistically, it isn't as much of a leap as say the second and third albums, for example.

I think it had to be that way because if we had come out with something that was radically different from the previous five albums after such a long layoff, there's no way that people were going to make that link with the music now as opposed to back then. And the same goes for us because we have all of us done so many different things during that off-time period. But yeah, I think when it comes to doing another record, assuming that we do, we would have to make some kind of significant step forward. It would have to be that way because that's what the band's always been like.

I've read where Jeff has called Heartwork “pedestrian,” and I'm pretty sure you've said a few times that it's your favorite Carcass record. I was wondering if that ever causes friction because it seems like you guys have different ideas about what the best parts of the band are.

God, you really nailed that. Yeah, that's absolutely true. But I think it's to a degree quite healthy actually because, maybe he would disagree—in fact, I'm sure he would—but I would say we can't really do this without each other. I bring something and he brings something. And he is the self-professed ultimate cynic, so I don't think he'll really come out in favor of any Carcass record. I mean, I'm pretty tough to please. If I'm being honest, yeah, I do prefer that fourth record from our initial run of albums. Naturally enough, I like the new one more...

I think with Jeff, he's very, very critical of everything and everyone, and naturally he doesn't regard any of our stuff as being that good. I think he probably tends to side with the third album because it's so difficult. It's very angular music there that's hard to reproduce, especially in a live scenario. I think some of the people that want to score underground points cite that as the Carcass record, but I'm just being honest; for the kinds of things I want to hear from a record, my favorite two would be the current one and Heartwork.

How did how the way Swansong was handled, as far labels go and it getting juggled around, influenced the decision to self-fund Surgical Steel?

Probably not a tremendous amount because the decision was based more on the present day… Early on, we sat down and chatted about it and we agreed that there was no label that was going to take us seriously. Without citing past examples, there have been bands that have come back after long a layoff and delivered a turkey of an album. We figured that's what labels are going to expect from us, and I don't really blame them. There aren't many precedents for a band having a 16- or 17-year layoff and coming back with something that's genuinely valid.

As much as we believed in what we were doing, we had to maintain an awareness of how the outside world is going to look at it. So we figured, if we could actually afford to make the record ourselves, then we can just slap the finished product on the table, and they just take it or leave it because then there's no discussion. We've got the thing finished. It's mixed; it's mastered. If you don't like it, just don't take it. We really don't want people to be trying to make suggestions about what we're doing because we're far too long in the tooth for that kind of thing. Luckily that gamble paid off.

You've pretty much said that you didn't pay much attention to metal while Carcass away. How much do you think that actually helped you in writing the album?

It's funny that you put it that way because I do think it was a help actually, in several senses. It's kind of bewildering the number of—not just bands out there, but subgenres, and obviously with the internet being so important now, everybody's a critic. Everybody's got an opinion. Now, I'm seeing this as an advantage, the fact that I just stayed away from all of that. I think it's safe to say that anybody listening to Surgical Steel would have a hard time spotting any influence that connects with contemporary music because I don't listen to any, and I guess the same goes for Jeff. With the newer lads in the band, obviously they're younger and I can't really speak for them, but even they're leaning toward preferring the old stuff. We were drawing from the same pool of influence that we were drew from around the middle period of the group, the third and fourth albums...

Whether it's the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or Mercyful Fate or early Slayer, that's the stuff I connect with. I'm not writing off what's happening now because I've heard some very, very strong players. It's just that there hasn't been much that's grabbed me. I'm not particularly interested in us embarrassing ourselves by trying to keep up with what the youngsters are doing.

I started revisiting the first record a lot recently [Reek of Putrefaction], and I know you guys have talked about how you hate the production quality on that. I'm wondering: So you did that record and then you did a bunch more after that, so during the others, did you ever think back and wonder how the fuck that guy had a recording studio? How did he not know what he was doing?

The guy who engineered the session—it wasn't actually his studio, I think. He was one of the house engineers, but he was definitely well respected at that place. I guess he was at a loss to know what to do with us because you've got three teenagers who aren't the best musicians, have zero studio experience. I don't fully blame the guy. We have to take our share of the blame. Now I'm kinda fond of that album because it's this bizarre accident that has an identity of its own.

I like it in a very different way than I like the other albums. I almost like it more as a noise-rock record than a metal record. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it doesn't really have enough finesse to be proper metal.