Carcass’ Bill Steer: “You Can Drive Yourself Insane Thinking About What Your Audience Wants From You”

This time around, Carcass has their work cut out for them. The band’s last full-length album, 2013’s Surgical Steel, was released after a 17-year hiatus, and threw fans for a loop by being one of the most impressive metal records of its time, and one of heavy music’s most respectable comebacks. Hot on its heels came tour after tour, sharpening death metal’s most legendary anatomists into a polished live act. Now, with their new record Torn Arteries in the chamber, Carcass can’t very well pretend like there was no pressure on them to perform.

“It might be worse for Jeff [Walker, bass and vocals], as he’s very plugged into the industry, being essentially our manager as well as our frontman,” says guitarist Bill Steer, who cofounded the band with Walker in 1986. “He keeps up with a lot of that stuff. But Dan [Wilding, drums] is similar to me in that he wouldn’t be online reading a lot of comments and stuff. It’s got to be down to tackling one thing at a time, and then moving on. We’re well aware of the fact that there’s probably going to be a fair bit of flack for this record. With Surgical, we had the element of surprise, because people expected that record to be a real turkey. When it wasn’t, that was really cool. But we can’t play that trick again. The bar has been raised.”

To Bill’s credit, Carcass are definitely meeting the standard they’ve set, and then some. Torn Arteries is a dynamic record that revels in every style the band has ever explored, from melodic death metal to breakneck grind-thrash. While old-school fans who cling to the Liverpool quartet’s early albums like life preservers might find the record’s challenges unacceptable, countless more will appreciate the band’s ability to break the mold. Even the cover, with its vegetable heart and white background, proves that even 35 years into their career, Carcass can still turn heads and furrow brows.

“To be honest, to this day, I don‘t know exactly how the cover came together,” admits Steer. “Jeff was collaborating with his Polish friend [Zbigniew Bielak], the artist who’s responsible for the cover. And it was only when it was completed that he came to Dan and me and showed it to us. By that point, the album was all wrapped up, and there was a general sense that it would be a good thing to have a sleeve that’s complete non-generic. I’m sure Jeff is enjoying the amount of polarized opinions. There are some people who think it’s cool and different, and some who say it doesn’t look metal enough and it’s ugly. And then there’s some people who seem to think it’s a vegan statement, which didn’t even cross our minds, but here we are. As with everything you do, especially in this area of music, it’s not going to please everybody. But that’s fine. It’s quite good to keep people on their toes. Especially us.”

Given how long you guys took between 1996’s Swansong and Surgical Steel, was something like the COVID pandemic that big a deal? Did it chap you to wait to put the album out, or was it like, What’s another year?

I’d say it was a bit of both. It was a drag, in the sense that we’d waited so long to get to this point. But you had to be philosophical when this thing kicked off. There were dreadful situations going on — it’d be hard to indulge in too much self-pity just because of an album. There were lots of bands and artists who had their release plans thwarted, but in the general context of what was happening, it was minor, really.

How are you feeling right now? Are you dying to tour, or did you enjoy the time off?

I mean, yes, we would like to get back out there, but we can conceive that it’s not going to be as easy or rapid as we’d like it to be. And if I’m completely honest, some of that enthusiasm will be tempered by anxiety. That whole environment is alien now. After more than a year and a half of this stuff, the idea of being in a crowded place again would be odd. I mean, I’m sure it’d be great, but I’m sure it’d be very odd, at least for the first couple of hours. 

Are the crowds your thing, or no? Do you enjoy the crowd energy at a live show, or is that just a hazard of the trade for you?

Yeah, it’s definitely a big part of it, and I think as long ass the vibes are good, it’s completely fine. And in terms of different ways of playing live music, a festival, for example, is an open-air event, and it does give people a bit more freedom to move around so it’s less claustrophobic. But on the other hand, I think for metal music, you can’t get around the intensity of it happening in a room. For me, that’s still the benchmark of live rock music, is it happening in a club.

That’s funny — lots of bands are dying for that huge fest crowd, and you’re like, Nah, give me that capsule of beer sweat.

Yeah, precisely! It’s very 3D, isn’t it?

Was your Despicable EP written separately from the album? At what point did you sit down and say, Okay, new full-length?

Well, the whole thing was done in one session, though the sessions were broken  up over a number of months. But the stuff that you hear on the EP was done in the same sessions as the album. Much like Surgical and the EP that followed that. So we deliberately over-wrote and over-recorded so that down the line we could pick and choose what we thought was best for the album. 

What in your mind distinguishes the songs that made it onto Torn Arteries from the EP tracks?

That’s tricky — it’s hard to crystallize that. But fortunately, that decision-making project wasn’t too difficult. There’s three people at the core of this thing, and we all have very different perspectives. The way I remember it, we didn’t have a lot of trouble making those decisions. I think you’re just going with instinct. Like, one or two of the things on the EP, going back down the line, we would’ve been very fond of and thought, That’s GOT to go on the album. But then as the time gets closer, your priorities shift, and you’ve got a new set of favorites. And thankfully for us, we agreed on most of that.

Was there any preconceived concept or themes you wanted to explore going into this album?

It wasn’t something that was ever spoken about, but it really wouldn’t be with us. There’s just an understanding — an understanding of where the music is going. One thing that was always implicitly understood between us was that we couldn’t do another record like Surgical. I think it would be kind of shameful if we’d just played it safe and tried to repeat the same trick this time around. It would’ve been very dishonest — we’ve been out on the road off the back of Surgical for the last five years. That’s a lot of shared experiences, playing on stages all over the place together. There’s lessons you learn about which kind of material works. I wouldn’t say we were writing for the stage this time around, consciously, but more of this material would work in a live environment. There’s more happening in the way of dynamics. 

Is there a track or riff from Torn Arteries that comes to mind, which you wrote thinking, This will bring down the house?

Nah, I mean, I always try and insulate myself early on. You’ve just got some riffs and some parts that seem to flow together, and you take it into the band, then it goes through the mincer, and then we try lots of different arrangements. In those stages, we’re very, well, focused, I guess, because you don’t want to jump ahead and try to imagine what your audience might think about this. That’s just dizzying, and can really throw you off. So, yeah, first and foremost, get the songs written and arranged the way you want them. And if you feel like it’s something you can stand by, you will live with whatever the reaction might be, including the criticism. 

That’s an interesting one-two — writing with the live environment in mind, but not what the fans want from you.

And this is a contentious subject in a way, because there are some bands who probably say something almost the opposite. But my feeling is, when you start the band, you don’t have an audience. You don’t have fans. You’re doing it according to your feelings, your aesthetic that you’re building up. And I’d rather keep it that way. We have an awareness of certain things that would never work with this band. But equally, it’s only natural to want to forge ahead and maybe test the boundaries a little bit. So yeah, I do think you can drive yourself insane thinking about what your audience wants from you. Especially when your audience is comprised of individuals, and not all of those people have a uniform agreement on what their ideal Carcass is. It’s better if you stick with your gut instinct.

Carcass’ Torn Arteries drops September 17th via Nuclear Blast, and is available for preorder now.

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Words by Chris Krovatin