INTERVIEW WITH JEFF WALKER BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ESTER SEGARRA
Over the course of Carcass’ history, the Liverpudlians have demonstrated it is in fact possible for a death metal band to create a body of work in which no two albums are alike. From the uncouth and unhinged early years through to mid-period progressive maturity, melodic spit shine, and balls out rawk to the glorious mixed bag put on display with 2013 comeback album, Surgical Steel, vocalist/bassist Jeff Walker, drummer Dan Wilding, and guitarists Bill Steer and Tom Draper have remained at once iconic and respected while pushing buttons and poking the hornet’s nest of convention. Their latest parry is Torn Arteries, the band’s seventh album and one imbued with classic rock vibes, elevated amounts of shredding guitar, slinky bits of math rock/metal inspired rhythmic sequences, and choruses burgeoning on anthemic sing-alongs. The band has made public the internal joke that this is Carcass’ “dad rock album,” and while it’ll likely be a long time before we see deck shoes and Dockers polluting one of their photo shoots, Torn Arteries possesses equal amounts accessibility and furtherance, indicative of a band refusing to sit still.
We tracked down Jeff Walker for a chat about the long awaited album and ended up peeling back layers pertaining to music, lyrics, album artwork, provocation, and in turn discovered that the wait for this masterstroke has been longer than we—and even he—realized.
Carcass was originally set to have Torn Arteries released at the beginning of the pandemic and pulled it back for a variety of reasons. How far back does the new album go?
We started doing the drums in 2018. Hang on, the album was finished in 2019, so maybe we started in 2017? No, that can’t be right. Wait, what year are we in? 2020? No, 2021. It was definitely finished in 2019, and we were doing it through most of 2018, so yeah, the drums must have been done in 2017. How fucked up is that? It’s worse than bloody Chinese Democracy (laughs).
Beyond that, when did you start writing it?
Bill and Dan started jamming on stuff in 2015, or maybe 2016. They would have the odd rehearsal and start putting stuff together. We actually thought we were going to record in 2016, but that was the year we got offered that Slayer tour. Every time we thought, “Okay, we’re going to stop now and concentrate on doing an album,” something would get thrown our way that was too good to pass up. So, the circus continued from when Surgical Steel dropped until…I mean, we were meant to go to Australia in March of 2019. We had dates already set up for Australia, Switzerland, some festivals in America, and Japan. We would have been continuing it if we hadn’t had this break forced upon us. We would have continued playing and probably would have been dead by now.
“WE WOULD HAVE CONTINUED PLAYING AND PROBABLY WOULD HAVE BEEN DEAD BY NOW.”
Bill and Dan have said that they would write stuff, and you would come in and rearrange. How would you characterize the material pre-Jeff versus the material post-Jeff?
They might have had two or three songs on the go when I walked in, and I don’t think I drastically changed them that much. I help them finish stuff. That’s the same way we worked on Surgical Steel. I must have come in with three or four songs maybe 80–90 percent complete, and I’m not necessarily changing things, I’m trying to shape what they’ve done into a song. Them two never seem to have any sense of where the verse or the chorus is. They always seemed surprised when I say, “This part should be the verse,” but to me it’s obvious. I have to have some influence or impact because I’m writing the lyrics and they have to fit somewhere. I have the final say as to what’s what, but I don’t think anything was drastically changed too much. I just helped them get to the finishing line from where they started.
In what they presented you with, were there any surprises??
No, not really. Maybe I was underwhelmed (laughs). No, what they were presenting me was good, solid Carcass and there was nothing too surprising or shocking to me. I spent a lot of the time with Dan trying to speed things up and using more blast beats and that kind of thing. I definitely tried to harden things up.
Did Tom have a role on the album? It’s not hard to notice that all the recent band photos are just you, Bill, and Dan. Is that because he hasn’t been able to travel from California to England?
No, and I’m not even sure he’s going to be in the band anymore because of his immigration status. He can’t even leave the States at the moment, and we obviously can’t be at the mercy of one guy who isn’t even on the record. So, I’m not sure about his future. We can’t even get him on a plane to leave the country, that’s why all the latest promo pictures of the band are just the three of us. He’s going for his green card and once that process starts you can’t leave the country anyway, never mind COVID and the travel restrictions. It’s a shame, but he wasn’t involved in the writing and he doesn’t play on the album.
“THE MORE YOU LIVE WITH SOMETHING, THE MORE YOU CAN BE CRITICAL ABOUT IT”
Given that the album has been done and sitting for so long, were you ever tempted to go back and tinker with it?
You need to know when to stop. If I listen to it, I can think we should have done this and done that, but I’ve not been tempted to go back into the studio because none of these tiny embellishments that no one else is going to pay attention to are going to change the songs in any way. The more you live with something, the more you can be critical about it and you’d want to change things, but I’ve no personal desire to do that. You’ve got to have closure at some point, especially after three years or whatever the hell it is after we started doing the drums, plus I think we’d done a demo a year before that. That shows you how long we’ve been sitting on stuff.
Dan has referred to Torn Arteries as Carcass’ dad rock album. Because of the age difference between him and you and Bill, is there ever a generational gap conflict in Carcass?
He must have stolen that off of me because I’ve definitely said that. But as far as a generational divide, no not all. I don’t know if that shows his maturity or me and Bill’s immaturity because it never feels like there’s any kind of age gap. I feel sorry for him in that sense (laughs). He’s definitely the way we can tap into what’s going on with the kids, so to say, but honestly even he’s getting a bit long in the tooth now. I think he’s in his early 30s now. I’m not exactly sure, but he’s not the 22 year old we originally met. He is able to grow a full beard. That’s got to count for something. And a better beard than me and Bill. He could join the Taliban if he wanted. I hear they’re making a comeback (laughs).
What’s the story about the album’s title being a reference to an old solo project of former drummer Ken Owen?
It was one of Ken’s bedroom projects he had in the mid 80s. It was just him. I’ve never heard it, but I can imagine it was probably him just messing around with a tape machine and making a racket. I had other ideas for titles for the album and they were getting dismissed, so this was a compromise where I threw out a title that was neutral in that I didn’t come up with it and no one else in the band came up with it. Ken came up with it, so let’s use it so it gives that link and nod to the past. It’s nice to have the lineage all the way through Carcass.
And as far as the artwork, do you feel that Torn Arteries not being as Carcass-y as usual is you guys being shocking by not doing the same thing?
I think it’s still a very Carcass-y cover. When I suggested it to Gerardo [Martinez], the label manager in the US, I warned him that he was probably going hate it, but he was like, “No, that’s totally Carcass!” And I think it’s still totally Carcass. It’s still got the human heart on it even if it’s obviously made out of vegetables. It plays on this notion of Carcass being this vegan band or some bullshit. It’s a joke on that. We can’t just continue to have sleeves like Reek of Putrefaction. We had something similar with Symphonies, then Necroticism was something moving away, obviously Heartwork was something completely different, and Surgical Steel was similar to Heartwork but with the medical thing. We can’t have the same album cover over and over, and I like the fact it’s a white sleeve and it’s not trying to look evil or malevolent. It’s nice to have something different and eye-catching. The whole artwork is based on Kusôzu, the Japanese art of watching a beautiful woman decay, and all through the booklet you’ll see this heart decay. It’s still got some kind of macabre angle to it.
“THE MUSIC ON THE RECORD IS GOING TO PROVOKE THOSE REACTIONS AS WELL. SOME PEOPLE ARE GOING TO REALLY HATE IT, AND I’M EXPECTING A BACKLASH.”
We all know how metal loves to look towards the past. Is Torn Arteries’ artwork being provocative by presenting those themes in a way that’s outside expectation?
What would be expected of Carcass? None of the album covers look the same, and we’ve never had covers with any sort of fantasy or Dungeons & Dragons thing or that were cartoony. It’s not trying to be provocative, but as it turns out, it is. I’ve heard people who’ve seen it have complained about it. It’s always good to provoke a reaction, good or bad from people who really like it and people who really fucking hate it. That’s good as opposed to people saying, “It’s meh.” It’s good to get people to think. Never mind the artwork, the music on the record is going to provoke those reactions as well. Some people are going to really hate it, and I’m expecting a backlash. There was so much love given to the last album that the obvious thing is there has to be a backlash against this album, even if personally I see it as a continuation of Surgical Steel.
Do you enjoy being provocative and reveling in that backlash in a perverse sort of way?
It’d be nice to please everyone because then everyone would buy your album and enjoy it, but some people have to be provoked and pissed off because their taste isn’t in line with my aesthetics. So, of course, they’re going to be pissed off and have adverse reactions, though it’s to be expected and deserved. They deserve to have their blood boiled. Only if you get a reaction do you know if you’re doing something interesting.
“THEY’VE BEEN RANDOMIZED COMPLETELY BECAUSE I WANT PEOPLE TO NOT BE SPOON-FED. IF THEY’RE INTERESTED, THEY CAN WORK IT OUT FOR THEMSELVES”
As you get older, are you finding it increasingly difficult to write or find lyrics, words, and phrases that stand out and that you want to use?
You mean clichés (laughs). I think what you’re saying is there’s a lot of use of idioms and English language sayings, but I’ve always used that all the way through Carcass anyway. I like using what I think are strong words and strong sayings and sticking them together in the same way that if you write a riff you put it together with another strong riff. I like trying to be playful with the English language and trying to be clever, playful, and elevate myself to a more academic level than I am in reality (laughs). Paraphrasing other things is a lot more interesting than me trying to stick a sentence together. There isn’t a lyric sheet with this new album. The lyrics will be on the album, but they’ve been randomized completely because I want people to not be spoon-fed. If they’re interested, they can work it out for themselves. There’s enough clarity in my diction and annunciation that people will be able to reasonably work out what order the lyrics will go in. And I think that gives longevity and listening pleasure that people can sit there with a pen and paper and if they can be bothered, they can work out for themselves what the lyrics are. Maybe that’s being cruel or hard, but there are certain people who are very interested in Carcass lyrics and certain people who are not, so I’d rather let people work for it.
It would have been the perfect pandemic release. People could have been sitting around during lockdowns trying to figure out the lyrics and what the songs were about.
(laughs) Yeah, there was talk of giving out pads and pens with it so people could sit there and join the dots, if you like. I was thinking we could have had a competition where the first person who got the lyrics correct wins something, but can you imaging trying to judge that. That would take forever. You’d need some kind of AI program to do it.
Does that lyrical playfulness translate to musical playfulness? There are a number of points on the album where you’re singing in unison with staccato stops and starts, some cowbell, and on “In God We Trust,” it sounds like handclaps.
Those are handclaps. I don’t think the music is playful and I don’t think the riffs are playful, but there’s an element of trying to have some fun in the studio. It was a case of “Let’s try it and if it sounds good we’ll use it.” Whereas in the past there would have been arguments in the studio if someone had that kind of suggestion. Someone else would have been pissed off about even trying it. But everyone has become a bit more open-minded about trying these kinds of things in our older, graceful age. The part just screamed out for handclaps, so what the hell?
Have your lyrics become more personal because you’re essentially singing to yourself?
Nah, I’d love to be able to write personal lyrics, but I can’t. I’ve got a lot of respect for someone who can put their heart on a plate, but the problem is that a few years later, you’re not the same person and you don’t feel the same way so you’re historically locked into this period of time. Maybe on this album I started writing a certain way, but my frame of mind changed. I don’t feel that way anymore and I don’t want to be reminded. Everything I write is personal, not necessarily in an introversion sense, but it’s personal because I’m writing it. It’s for the people to get it if they can and maybe that’s why I’m being difficult with the lyrics.
“IT WOULD HAVE BEEN HORRIBLE TO BE THE GUINEA PIGS GOING OUT THERE TRYING TO PAVE THE PATH FOR OTHER PEOPLE.”
Are you working on a plan as to how and when to come back to touring or still sitting back and waiting?
We’re still waiting. We were meant to be on tour in Europe, but COVID and the post-Brexit thing has really fucked things up. It’s still early. Bands are playing in the UK, but no one has toured the UK properly yet and no bands are touring Europe. Concerts are taking place in each individual country, but no one is really crossing borders, so I’d rather see someone else do it first. I’m actually relieved the tour we had with Behemoth and Arch Enemy got cancelled because it would have been horrible to be the guinea pigs going out there trying to pave the path for other people. I want to see things happen before I throw my lot in. We were talking about a tour next March, but maybe that’s too early because we don’t know how the winter is going to be in Europe. What I really see happening is the summer festivals returning and taking place as normal, and that way we can dip our toes back into playing live. The Behemoth tour has been rescheduled to next year and we have a US tour scheduled with Amon Amarth, but we’ll see. I mean, we didn’t think we’d be where we are 18 months ago did we?
What has Brexit’s impact been like, and what do you foresee for the future?
It’s a pile of bullshit that we have to deal with, the same pile of bullshit people had to deal with 40 years ago. It’s still possible to travel and play shows, but there’s a lot more cost involved and a lot more paperwork. It’s not as insanely drastic as you might imagine, but it’s still a pain in the backside when you’re used to free movement. It’s hard to gauge the impact yet because COVID’s been happening, so that’s been a smokescreen to hide the bigger impact of Brexit itself. In the UK, prices are increasing on food and what have you due to trucking issues and stuff like that. So, the full impact isn’t going to be shown until bands start touring properly, and that’s why I’m relieved the tour didn’t happen because we’d have been one of the first to go through all the bullshit. To give you an example, a bus or a truck with gear traveling from Europe to the UK or back again, can only make three drops in any one country. So, if you’ve got 10 dates in any one country, technically the bus can only do three cities and has to return to where it came from. There’s a lot of bullshit that has to be ironed out, and I’m not sure it ever will be.
“IT’S ANNOYING KNOWING THAT WE HAD FREE MOVEMENT AND NOW WE DON’T FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON WHATSOEVER.”
Can Carcass, as a UK band, rent a bus from a company in France for a European tour and get around it that way?
Yeah, but when we cross into the UK, we’d have the same problems. But you have the same problems anyway when you go to Switzerland and Norway because they’re not in the EU, but they’re a bit easier because they have agreements in place with the EU block. The problem is that the UK and the EU don’t have any agreements in place at the moment to ease this bullshit. There have been no talks that have amounted to anything yet.
And nobody stopped to think that there is no such thing as uniformity across businesses and how they operate?
Well, we had that. It was called the EU, but this idiotic population decided they wanted out. But we’ll see. Things will happen, there are going to be more hurdles to jump through. It’s annoying knowing that we had free movement and now we don’t for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Thank you Bruce Dickinson! (laughs)