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Cannibal Corpse: The Carnivorous Swarm of Guitarist Rob Barrett

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Thursday, February 12, 2009 @ 8:23 AM

“…you've got to explain (to your kids) that writing about zombies and murder and bodies exploding is part of your job.”

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Any notion that death metal titans Cannibal Corpse might be losing their lethality were smashed like a hammer to the face with 2006’s landmark album Kill. Buoyed by the return of guitarist Rob Barrett - who holds the distinction of replacing both original Cannibal guitarists, having taken over for Bob Rusay in 1993 and Jack Owen in 2005 - and the ruthless production work of Erik Rutan (Hate Eternal, ex-Morbid Angel, etc.) Kill was not only the best, most vicious album of the band’s 20-year career, it arguably is one of the best death metal releases of this decade.

Now comes the imposing task of following up such a brutally magnificent work. On Feb. 3, Cannibal Corpse unleashed their 11th studio album, Evisceration Plague. But instead of trying to top the sheer firepower of Kill, the band opted for more depth and a bit less frantic pace. While the death-march title track is something of an aberration in its relative plod, there is a definite sense of groove on Plague that helps accentuate its heaviness. And it is heavy as fuck, make no mistake about that.

The universally acclaimed Kill coincided with a noticeable upswing in the popularity of extreme metal as a whole, as bands as far-ranging as Suicide Silence, Job For A Cowboy, Behemoth and Amon Amarth cracked the Billboard Top 200, and the Cartoon Network’s "Metalocalypse: Dethklok" — which Cannibal vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher does voices for — became a cultural phenomenon. So now, after two decades, Cannibal Corpse are more popular than ever, and look to become even more so given all the prerelease attention Plague got.

As Cannibal were getting the songs together for Plague last year, the band released the revealing, three-disc DVD Centuries of Torment. With more than five hours of documentary footage tracing back to their pre-Cannibal days back in Buffalo, N.Y. Torment provides an all-encompassing chronology that literally deals with every aspect of the band — from their trademark sickening lyrics and grotesque artwork (oddly enough, none of them have never met Vincent Locke, who has designed every one of their covers and was interviewed for the DVD) and resultant bannings and censorship to line-up changes, death metal philosophy, birthday parties at Cher’s house and tour bus funk.

Cannibal Corpse - rounded out by guitarist Pat O'Brien, bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz - are currently on the road in Europe, opening for Children of Bodom, and will embark on a North American headlining tour in April with The Faceless, Obscura and Neuraxis. This summer, the band will be part of what's looking to be an amazing Rockstar Energy Mayhem Tour, headlining the Hot Topic extreme metal stage with Behemoth, Job For A Cowboy, The Black Dahlia Murder and Whitechapel. Fuck yeah!

On the phone from the band's home base of Tampa, having just returned from a video shoot in New Jersey for Plague's title track, ex-Malevolent Creation guitarist Barrett - a co-conspirator on such Cannibal classics as "Devoured by Vermin" and "Stripped, Raped and Strangled" - talked about his return to the fold, the band's resurgence, death on a massive scale and what it's like to be the Rich Little of death metal.

KNAC.COM: How did the video shoot go? Must have been cold?

BARRETT: It was cold as hell (laughs). We were sitting there in the van between takes getting warmed up and I was saying "wow, now I remember why I moved from Buffalo to Tampa." But I think it went pretty well. It was pretty much just us doing performance stuff, us playing on snowbanks with this creepy-looking barn behind us. I know they were gonna be working on other parts of the video when we were done.

The concept of the song is about a worldwide epidemic where people pretty much rip themselves apart. We're trying to have a zombie vibe to it. I saw some of the guys during the shoot who were all done up like zombies, and they looked awesome. So it should come out pretty cool, pretty brutal. The guy who's directing it is Dale Resteghini, who's done a bunch of punk rock and rap videos, but has worked recently with Hatebreed and Trivium. I think he wanted to do a heavier metal band and he seemed pretty psyched to be working out this kind of horror vibe.

KNAC.COM: The problem with really doing one of your songs justice in a video treatment is having something someone like MTV is gonna play. You probably don't want to sink time and money into something you're only going to be able to show on your Myspace page?

BARRETT: I know he (Resteghini) made a comment about that when we were talking about it, so he's definitely censorship aware (laughs).

KNAC.COM: The videos you did for Kill were pretty graphic, did you have to make many cuts to them to get them played?

BARRETT: With the "Make Them Suffer" video there were parts that they [MTV] didn't want in there. It was only a couple small parts, but still that doesn't make much sense to me because there are movies like "Hostel" and "Saw" that are a lot more graphic and violent than anything we've ever done, and there are people lining up to pay money to go to the theaters to see that kind of horror. I guess the powers that be feel that music is more apt to affect people's behavior than if they see violence in the movies.

KNAC.COM: Now that people are finally getting to hear the new music, what's the reaction been?

BARRETT: Everybody seems to be pretty impressed. They like the songs that they've heard and I think it's going to do really well. We're really psyched about it, we worked really hard in the studio to make sure that we could get the most solid performances we could get. I'm proud of it and I'm proud of the job we did.

KNAC.COM: "Evisceration Plague" is an interesting choice for the lead track on the album since it's one of the slowest songs the band's ever done?

BARRETT: Speed doesn't necessarily make a song heavy. It's a slow, almost dragging kind of song, but it's heavy as hell, it has that sludge thing going for it and you can almost picture an army of zombies or whatever marching to it. It's a good challenge to come up with different cadences for the album just to break things up instead of just going full speed all the time. A lot of bands, they get in their comfort zone and they stick with what works. We don't really want to rehash the same stuff over and over.

KNAC.COM: But by the same token, this album isn't what you'd call a real departure?

BARRETT: Yeah, the album wasn't really about changing anything, it was more about improving on what we've done, honing sKills as best we can to just make it that much better. I'm pretty confident that a lot people who always liked the old stuff more are gonna like this stuff. We tried to capture the old style in a lot of parts of the songs. The mix of the newer, more modern sound that we've come up with over the years as the production has gotten better and we've gotten better as musicians mixed with some of that old, almost hardcore vibe. Parts of it are more complex and parts of it are more simple, so there's a more even balance this time.

KNAC.COM: Kill was pretty relentless, the new one definitely has more groove to it?

BARRETT: Yeah, totally. I think we were a bit more comfortable together on this one. The thing with Kill was I had just gotten back into the band and I think it was a case of everyone trying to prove themselves a little bit, so just about every song was really fast and really technical, a real challenge to play. The new one has more variety, that's for sure, and maybe that's because no one really felt like they had to show off (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Still, working with Erik Rutan again must have kept you guys on your game?

BARRETT: Yeah, it's definitely a comforting thing for us to know that he knows exactly what we're trying to accomplish. He's been playing death metal as long as all of us, so he's more like a coach, he can offer suggestions and knows how to get us where we're trying to get to. Someone who might have heard a lot of death metal, but hadn't ever played in a death metal band, they might not get the full picture. They might know about the sound, but they might not know what goes into getting that sound. He does, and that's a plus for sure.

KNAC.COM: Was the songwriting split up along the usual lines. I recall from the Torment DVD that you left the band because you wanted to contribute more, but it seemed like when you came back you had more of a "there is no I in team" attitude?

BARRETT: Yeah, that's true. Of course everyone wants to contribute, but this band has a bunch of guys who write great death metal songs. And that's a blessing, because it makes the band that much better. So it was pretty much the same approach as Kill. Alex wrote the majority of the songs. Pat wrote a few songs. Paul wrote "Carrion Sculpted Entity." We all contributed our own songs and there's just one real collaboration. Alex and I wrote a song together called "Scalding Hail," which is a real fast song. Basically, our approach is that when we get in the practice room, whoever has their ideas for songs will bring them out and as soon as we get everything all tight, we'll demo the song and then move onto the next idea.

KNAC.COM: There's almost something of a running joke on the DVD about George not writing lyrics. Did he contribute any this time, or leave it up to you guys to put the words in his mouth again?

BARRETT: Yeah, that's pretty much the way it's been since he's been in the band. He's not really a lyric writer, he could of course if he wanted to, but I guess he likes the stuff everyone else is writing, and it works out pretty well in the long run.

KNAC.COM: You guys certainly make him pay for his "laziness" with the patterns you write for him.

BARRETT: Yeah, there are parts of some songs where you can tell like he feels that he's kinda getting picked on, like "what the hell are you guy trying to do to me here." Every time we write a song and decide that it's done, whoever writes the lyrics will do a vocal track over it on a demo and give it to George so he can practice it at home. Then he comes in and Kills himself when he's in the studio.

KNAC.COM: There's a great part on the DVD when you guys talk about everyone's different vocal styles when you put the demos together for George. Who is that does the whisper technique, is that Alex?

BARRETT: (Laughs) Yeah, it is. The thing is, he has a great death metal voice. But a lot of times when he's writing lyrics and tracking vocals, he'll do it at night at home when his wife is sleeping, so instead of yelling and waking her up he'll whisper them onto the tape. It does sound pretty funny.

KNAC.COM: A few of you guys have small kids now, you've gotta be careful with where you leave lyrics and demo tapes lying around, lest someone bring them to school and horrify their classmates or teachers.

BARRETT: Yeah, then you've got to explain that writing about zombies and murder and bodies exploding is part of your job (laughs). They're still really young right now, they know their fathers' are in a band, but they don't have any idea about what the songs are about or anything like that. But once they start reading and can figure out what it is we do they'll know that they're only stories, that dad's not really going and doing all these things.

KNAC.COM: Still, what happens if they start asking about "Addicted to Vaginal Skin" or "Entrails Ripped From A Virgin's Cunt?"

BARRETT: Well, Chris [Barnes, vocalist on the band's first four albums] wrote the words for them, so hopefully that won't come up (laughs).

KNAC.COM: You mentioned "Scalding Hail" and the title track and there's also "Carnivorous Swarm." There seems to be more of a death on a grand scale thing going on this time?

BARRETT: Yeah, it's not so much about gore in every song this time, or man against man, it's definitely more epic in the sense that we're wiping entire cities or civilizations in some of the songs. It's all about keeping things fresh, man (laughs).

KNAC.COM: You talked before about movies like "Hostel," and now George is involved with the Dethklok show where you see people being slaughtered in unimaginable ways, it's gotta make keeping it fresh that much tougher?

BARRETT: Yeah, exactly, but we draw up that stuff and just hone it into our own way, using our own sick minds (laughs). That's why I don't understand how they can get away with that stuff in the movies and on TV and we kept getting picked on because we're writing songs about it. Like Dethklok, there's really graphic violence going on there but I guess it's accepted in a way because it's funny.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of that, has the band been able to get much mileage out of George's association with the show?

BARRETT: Oh for sure, definitely. You see it constantly when we're on tour, a lot of kids will be requesting Dethklok songs (laughs). A lot of people think that's George's voice singing on the show and that it's us doing the music, so yeah, it's definitely helps a lot for us and for death metal as a whole. It's brought a lot of attention to death metal that it never had before, and it's exposing death metal to people who probably wouldn't have anything to do with death metal otherwise.

KNAC.COM: Most of Emperor, Nevermore and Dimmu Borgir and I think all of Exodus have done voices on the show, have any of the rest of you done any?

BARRETT: So far it's just been George. Whenever we play out in L.A. they [creators Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha] will come down to the show and hang out. I mentioned something to Jon [Schnepp], one of the guys who works on the show, "yeah, when are you gonna let me do some voices on the show." And Gene Hoglan [who plays drums for Dethklok], when we were hanging out with them at the NAMM show, was saying "yeah, Rob's the Rich Little of death metal" (laughs) because I'm always imitating everyone.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, there was a segment on the DVD where people were talking about that, sounds like you're a natural?

BARRETT: It's mostly just people we all know, it's not famous people, just inside joke stuff where I pick up on mannerisms of what people day and I mimic them perfectly. If the timing's right, and if they specifically want us to do something for the show, I'm all for it. It's something I'd probably be good at, I could see myself getting into that kind of work someday, doing voice-overs and whatnot, so it would be fun to give it a try.

KNAC.COM: You'll probably have to do something to pay the bills once the band has run its course?

BARRETT: Yeah, but hopefully that's not going to be for a while. It's crazy. Sometime we'll be talking about certain events in the past, trying to remember the details and it's like "wow, that was a long time ago." We've been playing this kind of music for like 25 years, either in Cannibal or other bands. But I don't see us retiring any time soon, at least not while we've still got gas left in the tank. We don't have any plans on stopping after a certain album, so we're still full steam ahead.

KNAC.COM: If anything, especially with the last album, Cannibal's had a resurgence.

BARRETT: Oh yeah, totally. I've noticed it big time, just among the fans that we're seeing. We're getting a lot of young fans at the shows, it's not just the fans that have been into the band forever. And that's a good thing because a lot of bands, especially ones in the underground, have a certain drop off as they go on because their old fans lose interest or grow out of them or whatever and no one's there to take their place. But after 20 years we're still gaining fans and expanding. And that's good for the scene as a whole because we're always trying to support the younger, up-and-coming bands, we want to have them come out and tour with us. If there's new people there to see us, they're going to get exposed to these other bands as well and that just keeps building interest in the scene. Lamb of God has opened for Cannibal back in the day, so has Dimmu Borgir and they've gone on to be a lot bigger than us, so you never know what can happen.

KNAC.COM: By the same token, having newer bands like Suicide Silence or Job For A Cowboy break out like they have of late has got to be good for you as well?

BARRETT: Sure. It's great that bands who are that extreme are selling a lot of records. They might not be pure death metal, so they draw people from a bunch of difference scenes, people who are not necessarily from the death metal scene but are into extreme metal. And we've done things like the Sounds of the Underground tour where we were being seen by a lot of people who wouldn't be checking us out otherwise and that helped turn new people onto the band.

KNAC.COM: The first tour you're doing for the new album is opening for Children of Bodom in Europe, that'll certainly be a different experience.

BARRETT: I think it's an interesting thing for us to do because for the most part we're always headlining. It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be, hopefully their fans will like it. But again, it's a chance to play for a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily see our band and I think it's gonna be pretty cool. Children of Bodom's a pretty heavy band. It should be fun.

KNAC.COM: To go back to the Torment DVD for a minute, it was cool that Chris participated as much as he did, as well as a bunch of the other guys who go way back to before Cannibal was Cannibal. It was really thorough and fair and balanced, as it were, with Chris and Jack talking about why the left the band and all.

BARRETT: Yeah, we really wanted to present the complete picture of the band and show where Cannibal came from and how we got to where we got today. And we wanted to give everyone a change to speak for themselves. Chris was a huge part of the band from the beginning and him leaving was a major event for the band. It's always good to let someone speak their peace on their own, and he got to tell his side in the context of how and when it happened, and that was cool.

KNAC.COM: It seemed like things are pretty cool between you all and him now.

BARRETT: Oh yeah. There's not tension at all. Whenever he and his guys are playing around town, we'll go to the show and check them out and the same with them. We'll hang out after the show. There's no animosity there. He's been doing pretty well with Six Feet Under for a long time now and that seemed where his heart when he split, so everything worked out for the best.

It's the same thing with Jack, we see him all the time, he rehearses at the same spot that we do and we hang out and talk and joke around. There's no bad blood. He wanted to do other things and he's really busy with his band Adrift and with Deicide, and him leaving allowed me to come back in the band, so again, it all worked out.

KNAC.COM: How much effort did you put in to trying to get a hold of Bob Rusay? It seems like when he was gone, he wanted to stay gone. The last anyone seems to know about him is that as of a couple years ago, he was teaching golf in Arizona.

BARRETT: Denise (Korycki), she's the girl who put together the DVD, she reached out to him and I guess he didn't want to have anything to do with it. There were attempts to get him on, but no one could get him to. I guess he wants his privacy or doesn't want to dwell in the past, and that's fine. The last time I saw him was when I was still in Malevolent in '92, it might have been at his last show with the band. I think that was the last time a lot of us saw him. I guess he quit playing music and, yeah, just sorta disappeared.

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