Interview with legendary Carcass guitarist Bill Steer.
The Captive Bolt Pistol was invented in 1903 by the former Director of a slaughterhouse in Straubing Germany named Dr. Hugo Heiss. Engineered to stun animals prior to slaughter, it set the ball rolling towards todays brutally systematic industrial farming methods. In 2013, British grindcore pioneers Carcass penned an ode to this piece of cold steel pragmatism for their long awaited reunion album Surgical Steel. Provocative without being preachy, it continues their legacy of drawing attention to animal rights abuses whilst utilising the rich lexicon for which they are renowned.
Like the bolt pistol itself, Carcass are masters of systematic brutality. Emerging from Liverpool in the mid 80’s, early ground breaking releases such as the dense avante-grind of Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness evolved into the scalpel like precision of breakthrough releases Necroticism-Descanting the Insalubrious and the streamlined Heartwork before the band bowed out in the mid-nineties with the appropriately titled and much-maligned Swansong.
Interest in the band never wavered, and many new heads were turned by the new wave of melodic death metal inspired by their later releases. Put simply, Carcass were pivotal to the invention and evolution of the genre.
Prior to their return to Australia in 2015 as part of the Deathcrusher tour with fellow pioneers Napalm Death. I caught up with founding member of Carcass, and former member of Naplam Death, guitarist Bill Steer, to talk grindcore, veganism, stolen backdrops and letters from mentalists.
I first caught you guys when I was all of 15 years old – you came to Australia on the ‘Heartwork : Antipodean Evisceration’ tour and did a matinee show in Sydney. Can you tell us a little a bit about your memories of that tour and that time?
God, lots of memories connected to that one! Obviously that was our first time down there, so it was always going to be memorable. I think it was just a mindblower that we could travel that far and play to people who wanted to hear our music. That was incredible.
As a tourist it was also very special – I never thought I’d get the chance to go to Australia or New Zealand, and then once you’ve travelled all that way you discover so many things that remind you of home, just in a different context. I found it very easy to get to grips with peoples’ sense of humour and their approach to life. I think it’s safe to say we fell in love with the place.
Everyone at the time was really excited that you had come all this way too. In fact there was one guy in Queensland I think that was so excited that he pinched your painted stage backdrop?
(Laughs) Yeah, that became almost a kind of legendary situation because that backdrop, for the time especially, was just huge! It was really, really big and there was no way you could remove it without a team of people. So how this guy managed to do that and have it out of the venue and past security in a matter of just a couple of minutes I still do not understand. It was kind of a surprise to hear about it but we had to see the funny side because it was so outlandish.
Here’s the best bit though – didn’t he give it back to you when you came out last year?
Yeah, last year out of the blue he patched it up, put it in a box and dropped it off at the bottle shop around the corner from the venue with a note of apology. Obviously we couldn’t use it anymore because fire regulations are so strict these days, but it was very sweet.
So where is it now? Gathering dust?
It is in all honesty – the thing is just too big, it’s not like any of us could have it and unfold it at home. None of us have a wall that’s even half as big, so its just in a box in amongst all our gear in storage somewhere. But at least we have a good story attached to it.
It was great seeing you guys again last year. If anything, I thought you were tighter and more energetic than when I saw you back in the day. How are you finding it?
I’m really glad you said that ‘cos I kind of felt that way but wasn’t sure if I was deluding myself. I think it just works really well with this current line-up, because you’ve got two old timers in Jeff and myself who are loving the fact that we’re out there still playing, and in a way we enjoy it a lot more now. And you’ve also got two newer guys who are just champing at the bit to get out and play. That’s a good combination.
It’s just been a load of fun, the whole thing; the playing, the travel, meeting people. It was very unexpected because we didn’t know the record would do so well. We didn’t really anticipate getting to travel this much. We’ve been to some places that we’ve never visited before so that’s killer.
It seems to have come full circle with Surgical Steel. You must have been pleased with the response to the record, especially considering that during the initial reunion shows you said you thought it might be impossible due to scheduling issues?
It was definitely an impossibility during the initial reunion phase of the band, simply because Michael Amott and Daniel Erlandsson had loyalties elsewhere with Arch Enemy. It would have created a very awkward situation for them if we had just ploughed ahead and made a new Carcass record. In a gentle way they made it clear immediately that they just weren’t up for something like that, so any desire that Jeff or myself had just had to be put to one side for the time being. But then a couple of years down the line when Michael was stepping out of the band we realised ‘Well, this is it, this is our opportunity – if we really want to make some new music then now is the time, let’s go do it’.
I always really enjoyed the fact that you guys were vegans and vegetarians, it really brought another layer to the artwork of those first 2 LP’s, something that other gore bands didn’t ever have, and I love that you’re still touching on it with tracks like ‘Unfit for Human Consumption’ and ‘Captive Bolt Pistol’. Is it something that’s still important to you?
It is, but now in a more personal way. When you’re a teenager and you get into the whole vegetarian or vegan thing, you tend to look at it all in a very evangelical way where things are right and wrong, black and white. I can’t speak for Jeff but I certainly don’t view things that way anymore. Most of my best friends are meat eaters, my family are meat eaters, my dad, my brother, everybody close to me eats meat – so how on earth could I be judgemental about that? I’m just saying, for me personally? I don’t like it.
It’s been so long since I ate meat that I don’t think I could stomach it. It’s really just a personal thing. And I think it is for Jeff too, but when he did those lyrics I think it showed that there’s still that side to him, that guy who was into animal rights. So that’s a really cool set of lyrics because it’s like a meeting of the Jeff now with the Jeff then. I think the words he came up with for this album were just outstanding and I think we were all blown away by some of the stuff he wrote.
Jeff initially came from a more anarcho punk background, listening to bands like CRASS though yeah? Can you take me back to the early days of when you guys met? The DIY tape trading scene, Disattack, Napalm Death, and rehearsing in your parents garage?
Wow. Well that was quite a dense, murky period! A lot of things happened in a short space of time. But as you mentioned, Jeff comes from very much the whole punk/anarcho thing and I was really on the other side of the fence entirely with the heavy metal thing. I didn’t really have any political leanings at the time as I came from a much more sheltered background, so we sort of met in the middle, as many people during that period did.
I was hanging out with these older guys who were punks and they kind of introduced me to some of their stuff and vice versa, and it was around that time that I started to play in bands that I guess were semi-serious.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet the Disattack thing has somehow been morphed with Carcass but it wasn’t really like that. Carcass was initially a band I had at school in 85, it was Ken and myself and a couple of schoolmates. We didn’t last long, we probably only did a couple of months of playing mostly bad covers. That kind of petered out and I was asked to join a punk band with these old lads, and that was Disattack. So I played with them for a few months and I think there was this weird period where the Disattack lads wanted to go more metal. Then Jeff was suddenly kicked out of his band Electro Hippies and was invited to join us on bass. All of a sudden I had a kindred spirit ‘cos he was of a similar age to me and he liked similar music. That’s when we realised that we should really just do a new version of Carcass, and get Ken in on drums. So that’s really the origins of the Carcass that people know today.
You were part of two of the pioneers of grindcore and the embryonic death scene with Carcass and Napalm Death, are you somewhat chuffed with the legacy that you’ve left? Did you have an idea at the time that what you were doing would grow into this enormous wave and that you’d still be doing it today?
We definitely had no inkling that this stuff would have had this kind of impact! Naturally it’s a lovely feeling to think that’s its left a mark in some way, but again, we certainly wouldn’t have expected to still be playing at this point. I guess when you’re around seventeen years old you can’t even really picture being 30, let alone what you’d be doing at that point in your life.
But I definitely remember us having discussions back in the old days about where this was all going. I think we tended to feel that the music was going to have an effect for a couple of years and then probably just kind of disappear. We definitely didn’t anticipate becoming an influential group or something that people would regard fondly from that era, so all of that’s been a pleasant surprise for sure.
You did evolve quite quickly out of that early almost impenetrable grind sound, and then via Necroticism and on to Heartwork and Swansong ended up really inventing and perfecting a whole new genre. I know that during that transition there was some pretty outspoken resistance from certain corners of your fan base, and you had some pretty fucking crazy fans back in the day. What are some of the most interesting responses or interactions that you’ve had with the fans over the years?
Ah, wow! I think for the really strange stuff you’d have to go back to the earlier phase of the band. One that springs to mind would be this guy in the States who used to send letters to our manager back in the early 90’s. He would send these really long letters. Just pages and pages of stuff that was rambling and delusional and centred around the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and how he was one of them and he thought that I was another one of them. So when we were playing his home town, which I think was somewhere in Colorado, unbeknown to me he sent another letter to the management which was really unhinged and seemed to indicate that he was going to come to the gig and unite with me (laughs)and it would involve someone being killed. Namely me.
You must have been freaking your knob in…
Well the band decided not to tell me about it because they thought it would put me off the gig (laughs). So I was walking around all day blissfully unaware that there was this weird death threat hanging over my head. Anyway, in the end it as fine – I think he got sectioned prior to the gig, so I don’t think he made it. They later told me all about it and gave me a copy of the letter and it was quite disturbing, I’ll be honest!
But then a bit later, a few months or a year down the line he sent another letter to our manager apologising for all of it and saying “I have mental health issues and I know now that I’m not one of the 4 horsemen and neither is Bill”. Then a little while later another letter appeared and he was back to square one! But what can you do? Music! It brings all kinds of different people together, doesn’t it? (laughs)