Carcass' Bill Steer: "We have a little bit of harmony with our past.”

The softly spoken British guitarist has a chat with MaF ahead of his impending Australian tour with the legendary Carcass.

Ah, the joys of international phone coverage. 

In this year of 2014, there are a lot of ways in which the world has clearly advanced but there are many more in which it has stayed the same. One example is that we still haven’t gotten over the technological limitations of a phone conversation. Another has to do with the lovely chap that I’m speaking to today; the one and only Bill Steer of Carcass. 20 years after the fact and Carcass is back on top of the extreme metal heap and I was fortunate enough to pick the guitarist’s brain about the band's recent success. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same eh?

You released Surgical Steel last year to much ovation from the metal world, how has the album’s success been received by those of you in the band? “Well obviously we’re delighted. It outstripped whatever expectations we might have had. We were confident in the material; we just didn’t anticipate this many people caring if you know what I mean. Initially we felt the album would be of interest to a minority, the really hardcore Carcass freaks who were prepared to give it a chance. But beyond that, we probably figured that it would get slated or ignored. So yeah, it’s been quite surprising in all honesty.”

Now Carcass had been doing reformation shows since about 2007-2008, what was the impetus for you and Jeff [Walker, vocals/bass] to get together and put out a new album? “To be truthful, I would have liked to tackle [a new album] quite some time ago. But as soon as we got into the reunion cycle of shows it became clear that there were two people in the band who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even contemplate the idea of making a record, that was Michael [Amott] and Daniel [Erlandsson]. I don’t really hold it against them, because they were always clear that Arch Enemy was their priority and that this was something they were just doing on the side for a brief period of time. So as much as I liked that line-up, it was almost a relief when they quit a couple of years later because that gave Jeff and myself the chance to at least try and write some new material. I mean, there were no guarantees and we didn’t know it was going to work, or if we’d see it through to completing an album. But we wanted to at least have the freedom to get creative again. I guess it’s that classic thing in life, sometimes something that appears to be bad happens, but it actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise.”

Was there ever any trepidation about whether a Carcass reformation, and particularly a new album, would succeed?  “It depends on how you measure success. For us, it was successful straight away in the sense that we’d made an album that we were happy with and that Ken [Owen, the band's former drummer] approved of. That was quite important too, because Ken was there from the beginning of the group and as everybody knows, he’s unable to play with us now, but we’re still close friends and it meant a lot to us to play him the new stuff in the studio and get his feelings on it. He was ahead of the game on this in a lot of ways, I remember he was saying before we even reformed that he would encourage us to do so. And when the time came to do a record, he said ‘I’m surprised you took so long to even broach the subject’. So he’s always been supportive there in the background and that really means a lot, because we have a little bit of harmony with our past.” 

During the interim years of Carcass you played in bands like Gentleman’s Pistols and Angel Witch, all of which are based much more in rock and traditional metal than the more extreme sounds of Carcass. After spending so much time away, what was it like coming back to playing extreme metal on a full time basis?  “It was surprisingly easy. But then of course, I spent so many years playing that stuff the first time around it was kind of programmed into me. It was muscle memory and it just becomes part of you. I think it was something over the years that I had built up in my mind as being difficult oreven impossible, but when I actually picked up a guitar, tuned to low B and started riffing, it was almost like flicking a switch. 

“I think the little details like when we first got back out there I think I was still playing lead maybe more in the bluesy style that I’ve been accustomed to for the last few years. Very gradually I started to realise I had to dip into the original recorded solos a lot more. For some of them you really need to play them almost note for note because they’re melody based and other ones you can kind of take liberties and throw in a couple of passages that are improvised. Because I still feel that way about playing, I don’t want everything to be mapped out because that’s boring but sometimes you do have to plan ahead if you want something to be a melodic statement.”

I read somewhere that you improvised a number of the solos on Surgical Steel. Did your years in those other bands influence that a little bit? “Yeah, I mean, the solos on Necroticism and Heartwork were quite improvised. That’s always the approach I think, you go in with a couple of things very carefully planned out and then the rest was more of a kind of sketch and you’d just jam your way through it. I think that the only difference this time was that Colin [Richardson], our producer, has a lot less patience for that stuff because he didn’t really have the strongest memory of the old days and in the interim he’d been working with countless new American acts who don’t leave anything to chance, every single note, every bend, everything is mapped out and it doesn’t vary at all from take to take. So I think he found it rather uncomfortable.” 

[I get a quick message informing me that my time is nearly up]. Oh boy, I had better try my best to wrap this up fast.

As a final question from me Bill, what can we expect from your Australian shows in terms of a setlist? “I guess it’s safe to say that we’re going to try and balance things as much as we can. It’s tricky because we obviously have a past and now have six albums to choose from and you want to represent every era of the band. You want to keep people happy as much as possible. Although inevitably you are going to piss some people off with your song selection. We play some stuff from the first two records, a lot of material from the middle two which I guess up until now have been our most popular, Necroticism and Heartwork. We do include some bits off Swansong, which has gained a bit of a following over the last few years and it seems to go down really well live. And that leaves Surgical Steel, we make sure we play at least three tunes off that, sometimes four depending on how it’s going. That’s been the biggest surprise, the reaction we’ve been having to those songs because we were expecting some kind of dip in energy in the audiences, but if anything it went the other way.”

Knowing that I have precious seconds left before my phone time runs out, I ask Bill to sign off for us. “I’d just like to say thanks to everybody in Australia who campaigned for us to get back there to play. Because it was really important to us to...” [a dial tone informs me that my time has in fact run out].

Ah, darn. Well, it was nice talking to you Bill...