We spoke with Bill Steer, lead guitarist and founding member of Carcass, before their show in Dublin last weekend, almost twenty years since they last played here.
Alan: Welcome back to Dublin. It’s been twenty years since you last played here. And tonight’s show has been sold out for a while. Do you feel under pressure to live up to the high expectations of the fans that have waited two decades for this?
Bill: A little bit, yeah; just for that very reason. The fact that it’s been so long, and the fact that it sold out so quickly. That makes you think “Christ, we’d better do our best tonight!”. Obviously, we should be thinking that way anyhow, but particularly in a situation like this. I just can’t believe it’s taken us this long to get back here. But we had a few years where the band didn’t exist.
Alan: And how was the gig in Belfast last night?
Bill: Great! I love Belfast. It’s always good going there. But it was the same situation; a twenty year gap since we last played there. We’ve got a lot of friends there and we met some really nice people afterwards.
Alan: I see you’ve been playing a good mix of new and old material in your recent setlists. Are you still enjoying playing the old songs?
Bill: Yeah, of course. It’s a real buzz realising that something you did when you were a lot younger still has life left in it musically. Some of this stuff I originally came up with when I was 16/17. To be playing that on stage now, and to see it going over well, is really exciting.
Alan: Of course, it’s old to you, but it’s new to younger fans that are just discovering your back catalogue.
Bill: Exactly. More often than not, the front row at gigs, for us, is full of younger people. People who were just far too young to have been there the first time around.
Alan: Coldwar are supporting here tonight. Have you heard of them before and what do you think of them?
Bill: Yeah, they played last night as well. I thought they were really good. Pretty powerful stuff. You never know what you’re getting into when somebody throws a support act at you. I was pretty relieved actually, because sometimes it’s stuff that’s quite hard to listen to, but it sounded a bit more old school, and easier to relate to what they’re doing.
Alan: Your latest album; Surgical Steel… Seventeen years is a long time between albums! The theme of the album is quite coherent and consistent. Where did the whole concept come from in terms of the album title and song titles and so on?
Bill: That’s totally Jeff’s [Walker] thing. He does all the lyrics. He’s very much the ideas man. So I wouldn’t try to explain his lyrics because I’ll get into trouble! But the other thing is, I don’t think he’s a big believer in saying too much, because he wants to just put the lyrics out there and let people hear what they wish. What I would say is that it’s very personal stuff. It really couldn’t come from anybody else. On the surface, looking at song titles, they appear to be going back to the old school surgical Carcass stuff. But once you actually read the lyric, it’s almost always something quite different; be it a personal thing or a political thing. I was really blown away with what he did this time. I think it’s the best set of lyrics he has ever come up with.
Alan: So Jeff looks after the lyrics. What about the music itself?
Bill: Well that usually starts with me bringing in riffs, and like chunks of music, and we work on it together. Usually what happens is we end up with something quite different from what we brought in. So yeah, you get a finished song where all of the riffs are things I came up with, but it’s just in a different form because Jeff’s very good at arrangements. So he’ll hear something in a different way, and sometimes his suggestions are really left field and I just don’t think it’s going to work, but then we try it, and it does, more often than not. Of course, with Dan on drums; he’s contributed to the arrangements a lot too. He was kinda reticent at first, because he didn’t want to butt-in to a band he had just joined, but once he had his confidence up, he would make suggestions, like “maybe I should do this kind of groove here” or “we could go into the next section this way”. And again, his taste is very very good, so his suggestions were always really useful.
Alan: According to Wikipedia, Surgical Steel was recorded in 2012. So the release was delayed by a year or so. Can you tell us why?
Bill: Yes, I’m trying to remember the sequence of this; it was such a long time ago. When we were writing the stuff; that seems like an eternity ago. Then we went into the studio; I guess it was 2012. There were two factors in the delay: One was the mix; so the whole thing was recorded and ready to go, but Colin [Richardson], our producer, had real trouble mixing the thing. I guess we’ll never know exactly what that problem was, but I’m guessing it was the fact that he just lost interest in the record. But luckily for us, Andy Sneap stepped up and said “I’ll do this”, and we had always been mates with Andy, so we just kept it in the family that way. In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened, because Colin worked really hard on the album itself, and he did a killer job, but we could really feel towards the end of the tracking, he was just losing energy. We could just feel his focus wasn’t there. So when he eventually sent us the rough mix, after three months, we were just baffled; we couldn’t understand why he thought they sounded good – because they didn’t sound right to us at all. And that was the beginning of the end really. Obviously Trivium came and offered him a job with them. Andy came in with loads of energy and enthusiasm, and as soon as he started work, I knew we were going to hear the finished mix within a fortnight. Because for a while, we didn’t know how we were going to get the thing finished.
Alan: Did you feel like you had lost control of the album at that stage?
Bill: A little bit, yeah. Because naturally, you trust your producer. We certainly trusted Colin, because he’s an old friend. We worked with him in the old days. But things have changed. We all make different progress in life. We’ve all got our own little journey. And looking back, it was unrealistic for us to expect Colin to be able to last the distance on this record. It’s not the kind of thing he really wanted to do. I think he prefers working with newer American acts. It’s a very different style of working.
Alan: There’s a few tracks that were listed in the original information about Surgical Steel that didn’t appear on the final release. A couple were bonus tracks on the Japanese release, but a some more have yet to surface, I believe?
Bill: Yeah, that’s happening right now actually. There’s an EP [Surgical Remission / Surplus Steel]. I think the idea behind that, is rather than doing another special bonus edition with those tracks for people that have already bought the album and don’t want to waste their time and money, there’s this separate thing that they can buy if they wish. I could be wrong, but I believe all of those tracks are already out there, somewhere in the ether, somehow or another. I know one of them appeared on a flexi disc with Decibel Magazine, and one of them is a Japanese bonus track, and I don’t know how the other ones got out there, but I’ve been told that people can access them if they want to.
Alan: Have you ever considered recording a live album now that you are selling out venues on tour?
Bill: I really couldn’t imagine it to be honest, because I don’t think it’s that kind of group. With the kind of music we do, a live album will inevitably need a lot of tarting up afterwards in the studio, and that’s just fakery, isn’t it? I always think of live albums as being that different era in music when bands were a bit looser and tended to jam a bit, and then that’s a virtue; having very different live versions of songs. It doesn’t matter if there’s a little bit of sloppiness here and there. But with this kind of music… yeah, we’re not the tightest band ever; we’re not perfectionists… but it has to be of a certain standard to work.
Alan: I saw you at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival earlier this year. How was that for you?
Bill: It was fun. I think we were all surprised at how well it went for us. The crowd was very good. The festival had a good vibe actually. It was interesting contrasting it with something like Sonisphere. They’re very different festivals; they just both happen to be in England. Sonisphere is a much bigger thing; it’s a huge spread of different styles, but Bloodstock is just focussed on the extreme end of metal.
Alan: There seemed to be some technical issues while you were performing your set. What exactly happened?
Bill: A lad near the front had a seizure; he was bleeding from his mouth, people were panicking. They alerted us; we stopped; and they got medical people in very quickly; and before we knew it, he was back on his feet. We met the lad afterwards actually. He seemed ok.
Alan: Then it seemed that the festival organisers were trying to cut your set short because of it, and Jeff had a little bit of a rant…
Bill: Oh yeah… He certainly wasn’t bitching about the fact that somebody had had a seizure, but I think he was ticked off that we were going to pay the price for something we had no control over. And in a way, it’s hard for other people to understand if they just see us in that isolated situation, because he’s talking as a bloke who has done festivals all Summer, and been continually cut back. It’s just luck, the way it goes; but we got cut on almost every festival we did this Summer. Usually because the band before us over-ran or whatever it might be but we just got used to people running on stage doing the slitting motion across their throat, saying you’ve got five minutes, and Jeff’s the kind of guy that it’s like a red rag to a bull.
Alan: So did you actually get to finish your full set? Or did you end up cutting a song or two?
Bill: I believe we did. It’s a bit hazy.
Alan: Jeff also make a bit of a joke about one of your songs being “a bit like Megadeth; only a bit heavier, and a bit better”. It maybe seemed a bit cheeky to be poking fun at the band that were ostensibly the festival headliners?
Bill: Yeah, I guess so. It’s Jeff’s sense of humour. But you’re right, yeah; it does minimise our chances of playing with that particular band again in the future. Jeff is very much his own man. If people ask him not to say a certain thing, he will say it. And I think he likes to just push the envelope a little bit, and take things as far as he can get away with.
Alan: One final question about Bloodstock: At one point in your set, Jeff said something like “And now a word from our sponsors”, and some guys walked up on stage, said something into the microphone and walked off again. What was that about?
Bill: Oh! That was Ken [Owens]! Our original drummer.
Alan: Oh, OK! I didn’t recognise him!
Bill: I think quite a few people didn’t, because it was so quick. But it was one of those things… We invited Ken to the festival, and we wanted him to make an appearance, but the schedule was so tight we couldn’t spend more time.
Alan: He does backing vocals on the new album, right?
Bill: Yes, he did some songs on the album. We keep in touch a lot, actually. We speak quite often. He’s always texting, pretty much every week. If we do something in Britain, he can come to that, but I think anything that involves a fair bit of travelling overseas, it’s going to be harder for him. He has done it on occasion. Especially when we first reformed. If we did things in Europe, he often came to us. But I think, maybe it got a little bit tiring. And then, there’s also a financial issue. For us and him. You know, everyone’s trying to be careful with their money these days. But yeah, he was very involved in the album actually, because we got him to sing on quite a few tracks. He was so enthusiastic about it as well. It was a huge relief. I knew he would like it, but until you actually hear somebody say that, you’re always a bit nervous.
Alan: There are a couple of TV comedy references to the band. I know you and Jeff were in an episode of Red Dwarf a long time ago. As a big fan of that show back in the day, I was wondering how that came about?
Bill: Yeah, it’s amazing how many people mention that actually. If I remember correctly, it started because Craig Charles…
Alan: Oh yeah, he’s from Liverpool too…
Bill: Yeah, well that’s not really the connection, because a lot of people think Carcass is from Liverpool, but it’s not really, if you’re looking at it strictly. We’re from the outlying regions. Ken and myself, as teenagers; we lived in the Wirral, which is across the river. So if we were to say we’re Scousers, that’s like a guy from Surrey saying he’s a Cockney. So we wouldn’t get taken very seriously in Liverpool if we claimed to be from there. But I guess, because we come from small towns, that’s the nearest place people can refer to. But yeah, going back to the Craig Charles thing… He had this TV show called “What’s That Noise?” which was a children’s TV show, and he really seemed to like Napalm Death, so when I was in Napalm, he invited us to play on the show, and he kept the band in mind for a Red Dwarf episode, and when they needed two people with long hair who looked like they were hippy idiots, I had left Napalm. And nobody in that band was available or had the right look, or something, so the offer got passed on to Jeff and myself. I wasn’t that bothered, but Jeff was really keen, and it was good money. I think it was like three hundred quid for an afternoon of sitting around really. I’ll be honest with you; I’ve never watched an episode in its entirety so I don’t have much else to share.
Alan: You also got name-dropped on an episode of Friends. Did you guys know that was happening?
Bill: No, that was insane, because obviously the band had long since broken up, and I had moved to London at this point, and I was in my own band which was a completely different style of music; old style rock. And then one of my neighbours came up to me and said “Oh they mentioned you in Friends last night”. I just couldn’t believe it.
Alan: Finally, any future plans for Carcass that you can share with us?
Bill: Well, we’re busy for the remainder of the year, pretty much, with just gigs and tours. And then next year is wide open. We’ve only got a couple of dates in the diary for next year, so I’m really hoping we can get to work on some new material. I couldn’t possibly speculate as to when we might record an album, but I know that around Christmas or New Year, Dan and myself will get together and just slowly ease ourselves back into writing. It’s not going to happen quickly, because we need this album to be substantially different to the previous one, but I think we’re all up for the challenge.
Alan: So you still have the hunger for it then? When you got back together after such a long break, there was always the prospect of doing one album and then realising that it wasn’t going to work out.
Bill: Well, as things are presently, we’re totally up for it. It’s something that I’m definitely looking forward to.
Alan: Great! We’ll look forward to that and seeing you back in Dublin again soon!
Interview by Alan Daly
Photos by Olga Kuzmenko