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CANNIBAL CORPSE: Expect the Expected - An Interview with guitarist Pat O'Brien

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Saturday, February 18, 2012 @ 11:57 AM

"I think it’s a little bit easier album to get into. If I had to compare it to all the Judas Priest albums...this is more like our British Steel."

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Cannibal Corpse have been standing atop the death metal heap for more than two decades now. They’ve been banned and slammed around the world for their unapologetically ghastly album covers and grotesque songs, yet remain the genre’s best-selling band and have become something of a cultural icon thanks to appearances in Jim Carrey’s "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and frontman George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher’s recurring voice work on the "Metalocalypse: Dethklok" animated series.

They bounced back from the 1995 departure of original vocalist Chris Barnes - whose guttural voice and gruesomely perverse lyrics were hallmarks of the four Cannibal albums, including what many consider their true classics, Butchered At Birth and Tomb of the Mutilated - and have grown stronger with the iron-lunged Fisher behind the mic. They’ve also lost both original guitarists - with Rob Barrett having the distinction of replacing each, first taking over for Bob Rusay in 1993 only to leave himself in 1997, then come back in 2005 to take over for Jack Owen. Only the rhythm section of bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz remain from the original 1988 line-up.

And they’ve survived the thicks and thins of fickle music and business climates, having enjoyed their highest Billboard Chart positions with their last two albums, Kill and Evisceration Plague, at a time when album sales have been heading down the toilet.

More than anything, it’s Cannibal Corpse’s remarkable consistency that has kept their heads well above water over the years. Fans know what to expect from the band - brutal death metal with a technical flair and lyrics and imagery that will turn their stomachs - and Cannibal Corpse always deliver.

The band’s 12th and latest studio effort, due out in March, is simply titled Torture. And it’s yet another bludgeoning affair that jockeys between the all-out fury of opener "Demented Aggression" and "Encased In Concrete," the churn and chug of "Sacrophagic Frenzy" and "Intestinal Crank," and the menacing thrum of "Scourge of Iron" and "Followed Home Then Killed."

As the band prepared to leave to be part of the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise/festival in the Caribbean - with the horror of the Costa Concordia disaster off Italy still fresh in everyone’s minds - guitarist Pat O’Brien, who replaced Barrett when he left in 1997, spoke on the phone from his home in Tampa, FL., about Cannibal Corpse’s remarkable staying power, the new album and his stint last summer with the mighty Slayer as a fill-in for guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who continues to recover from a bout of necrotizing fasciitis (aka flesh-eating bacteria) he apparently contracted from a spider bite.

KNAC.COM: How is it in Tampa today?

O’BRIEN: Very rainy and shitty actually. It’s one of those days you would expect in Seattle. Not the typical sunny Florida you would expect. It’s just been raining all day, but what are you gonna do?

KNAC.COM: Sounds like a good day to be picking out your cabana wear for the cruise you guys are going to be part of next week?

O’BRIEN: Oh yeah. We leave on Monday [Jan.23]. We’ve got a show in Fort Lauderdale the Sunday before the cruise and then we do the cruise. So we’re all getting our Hawaiian shirts out of the closet (Laughs).

KNAC.COM: How long has it been since you’ve played live?

O’BRIEN: It hasn’t been that long. A few weeks maybe, a month or so. We just did a tour of South America. We were down there with Suicide Silence and Black Dahlia Murder. It was good. So we’re all warmed up and ready to go. We’re not going to be that rusty.

KNAC.COM: Have guys done anything like this before?

O’BRIEN: I’ve been on a cruise ship before and as a band we’ve ridden on these ferries from like Helsinki to Stockholm, which is a huge overnight ferry that is like a cruise ship. I never have played on one though. I’m looking forward to it, it should be pretty cool. It’s gonna be hard not to cut loose and let it rip and drink the whole time, but we’re gonna have to back it off a bit because we’re gonna have to play. So it will be like a working vacation. It should be a good time.

KNAC.COM: How many sets will you play?

O’BRIEN: We have one going to whatever island we’re going to [the Cayman Islands], I don’t even know what island we’re going to, it’s somewhere in the Caribbean that’s all I know (laughs). And then we play one coming back. So two sets, and I’m not even sure how long they are. We’ve been rehearsing older songs we haven’t done in awhile so we can put together two different sets. We’ll be doing some of the same songs in both sets, but we’re gonna try to make them as different as possible.

KNAC.COM: You going to test drive any new material?

O’BRIEN: We’re probably going to wait until we actually tour to do that. We’ve been rehearsing some of the songs, three that we know for sure that we’re gonna do. But I don’t know. I think the plan is to "stick to the classics," as it were.

KNAC.COM: Well, hopefully the guy steering the ship will do a better job of it than that cruise ship captain in Italy.

O’BRIEN: Yeah. I saw that. It’s like "oh great, here we go." It’s just the kinda thing you want to see the week before you get on the boat. I guess we’ll just actually have to pay attention when they give us the emergency instructions this time.

KNAC.COM: I’m sure over the years you guys have played just about every kind of venue there is, what is the weirdest place you’ve ever played?

O’BRIEN: Ah, that’s a good question. Since you mentioned the ship, there’s this club in Budapest, Hungary, that is this big ship docked on the river and it sits there and rocks and shit while you’re playing. That was a really strange gig. All of them are kind of strange in their own way. We’ve played some incredible shitty places, too, in our day, places I can’t believe we played. You’d be amazed by how many shitholes there are to play in the states. It can be brutal for an underground band.

KNAC.COM: After this you jump right over to Europe for a tour with Behemoth, yes?

O’BRIEN: Yes. I’m looking forward to it. They are a great band and I’m glad to see that [Behemoth frontman] Nergal’s coming back [from his recent treatment for leukemia]. He’s a great guy. We’ve played on and off a bunch of shows with those guys actually, including the Mayhem Festival a couple years ago in the states. We know them pretty well, I consider them friends of ours. It’s gonna be a great package. I can’t wait.

KNAC.COM: Do you have anything cooking for the states yet. I saw the band’s name mentioned with a few things, but nothing seemed concrete?

O’BRIEN: No, nothing I can really talk about that much, because things are being firmed up - or what you’ve seen just might not be true (laughs). Things are still in the development phases. I know we are going to be doing secondary markets, I believe, in April. But that’s really all I know for sure right now. [Cannibal Corpse will kick off a headline tour with Exhumed, etc., April 5 in Jacksonville, Fla., then return to headline the Summer Slaughter tour with Between The Buried And Me, obviously, during the summer.]

KNAC.COM: Before we get to the new album, I wanted to ask you about your stint as a member of Slayer for a couple weeks last summer?

O’BRIEN: Oh yeah, that was intense. That was hard, very hard. I had like a week and half to learn the set and then go up there and play it live. It was very intimidating. It was almost surreal in a way. I’d be jamming and I’d look over and see Tom Araya and Kerry King and be like "What the fuck, I’m I dreaming this? What the hell am I doing up here?" It was really weird, but it was really cool. It was a really great experience.

KNAC.COM: How many shows did you play with them?

O’BRIEN: You know, I was so focused on learning the stuff and making sure I played it right, I can’t even remember. It really was like a blur. It was like nine or 10 shows spread out over like two weeks or so. Gary Holt had some obligations with Exodus down in South America, they had some shows with Iron Maiden, so when he went to do that, Slayer needed another guitar player and somehow my name came up, so they gave me a call. I played my ass off, I can tell you that. I gave it my best.

KNAC.COM: We’re you able to enjoy it?

O’BRIEN: I enjoyed a lot of it. But a lot of it was basically going out there and hoping I’m not going to screw the whole thing up, only because of the time frame I had to learn the songs, the fact that these were pretty big shows and it’s Slayer! People have expectations when they come to a Slayer show, and you don’t want to be the guy that sends them home disappointed. It was very stressful. I would have had a better time if I had had a longer time to prepare for it, but that’s just the way things go.

The whole time, I kept listening to the songs over and over again, getting them in my head. But there’s a psychological bridge between sitting in your house in a room and jamming them and bringing it up on a stage and playing in front of a bunch of people (laughs). And then you’re being watched by the whole metal scene too, at least I felt like it. But I think it went pretty well, considering the circumstances.

KNAC.COM: I don’t remember really seeing anything on the Interweb about "man, they really sucked with that Pat O’Brien guy." So mission accomplished.

O’BRIEN: That’s the main thing, as long as it didn’t come across like that, that I was bringing thing whole thing down or something. I thought the shows went well, and it was a great experience looking back, it was just very intense.

Gary’s been playing with them for a while. Gary’s great. He’s a great guitar player, he fucking shreds, and I was working with him, too. He was helping me go through parts. He’s a really cool guy and helped make things a little more comfortable for me.

I think I put more pressure on myself than anyone else. If I fuck up with these guys, it’s like "Oh, you know." But if I fucked up with Slayer, it was like "son of a bitch." If I missed a note or something I was really being critical about it. That’s just the way I am, I’m just like that.

KNAC.COM: Now that Torture is done and you’ve had a chance to digest it, how do you feel about it?

O’BRIEN: I’m pretty happy with it. You’re always gonna look back and think "I should have done this or I could have done this a little bit better." Just minor little things. But I think, overall, it came out very well. I think Erik Rutan, the producer, did an amazing job. I think it sounds good. We worked on the guitar sound a lot to try to get the bass and guitar to mesh really well. I think Paul Mazurkiewicz, our drummer, stepped it up. I think this album definitely has his best drum performance ever, by far. So I think it’s gonna be a good album.

KNAC.COM: The title, Torture, is that meant to sum up the overriding theme of the album, or did it just sound cool?

O’BRIEN: Well, a lot of the songs are based off of torture, which I guess you could say is true of 90 percent of our songs, they’re either about torture or killing people or being killed (laughs). Alex wrote a bunch of songs that are based on actual methods of torture, like "Strangulation Chair" is an instrument of torture. We didn’t write every song about that, but a lot of the songs are about torture, so it does fit in. We were going around with a bunch of different names and we just ended up with Torture. Kept it simple.

KNAC.COM: In the bio, Alex talks about how the songwriting was more of a shared effort this time, where in the past he wrote the bulk of the material. How did things break down?

O’BRIEN: I wrote four songs, Rob wrote three and Alex ended up writing five. I wrote the first one, "Demented Aggression," I wrote "Followed Home And Killed," "As Deep As The Knife Will Go" and I wrote a song called "Torn Through," the very last one on the album. On the last album, I wrote two and Rob wrote two and Alex pretty much wrote the rest. So we definitely divvied them up some more on this one.

KNAC.COM: Since it was more of a shared effort this time, was there more talk beforehand about just what you all wanted to do or where you wanted to go with this album, or did you just go and write your songs, bring them in take it from there?

O’BRIEN: Well, kind of both. Before we wrote this album, Alex was saying that he wanted more writing from me and Rob to even it out more, which I think is a smart plan. With Evisceration Plague, he had a bunch a material already ready and we just started in on it. I didn’t start coming up with ideas until almost the end of the writing cycle. So that’s how this turned out, what was planned was that we were going to even out the writing more.

But when it came to the actual writing, it was basically everybody working how they work. Alex works his stuff out usually at home on his own on the studio and pretty much has his stuff mostly ready, like 95 percent, by the time we start working on it. Rob does kinda both, he’ll work at his home studio or come in and work with Paul, whereas I just go in with Paul and hash it out. Then we just refine it all as a band and make suggestions about maybe that part should go longer or "what do you think about that?" Just minor suggestions.

Since I usually hash my riffs out with Paul there, I usually just give the lyrics to Paul and say "Go for it." Paul writes the lyrics to my songs, Alex writes his own and Rob sometimes gives them to Paul and sometimes writes his own. But we always have "The List," the famous list of song titles. Some of them are so stupid (laughs) but at least it gets us started thinking about lyrics and titles and things.

KNAC.COM: I remember "The List" from the Centuries of Torment DVD. On there, everyone seems to agree that "Frantic Disembowelment," which you wrote for The Wretched Spawn, was the most technically difficult song the band had ever done. Is that something you guys have ever tried to top, or was that the pinnacle of technicality and you just left it at that?

O’BRIEN: "Frantic," that is just kind of the way I play. I wasn’t deliberately trying to write the most technical song. I just wrote some riffs I thought were cool and I liked the way they fit underneath my fingers and I could play them. For me, I have a lot of trouble playing a lot of Alex’s stuff, some of the timing is so weird and out there. I think because they are coming from somewhere else.

On this album, the songs that I wrote were definitely written with a little bit more feel, if that’s the right word. I think it’s a little bit easier album to get into.

If I had to compare it to all the Judas Priest albums, which I think a lot of them a very different from one another, I would have to say this is more like our British Steel. The songs are not completely straight-forward, but for us the songs are more song-oriented, if you know what I mean, from what we do anyway. Where Judas Priest had a lot of tech stuff before that, or at least more epic or progressive, British Steel was more straight-forward, It was really kick ass songs, great album though, heavy!

KNAC.COM: There’s some pretty wild, squeally, Slayer-like solos on Torture, did some of your brief time with Slayer rub off on you?

O’BRIEN: Probably, yeah. But not like you might think. Rob saw a video of me playing "Snuff" with Slayer where I was playing one of that song’s crazy leads and he wanted me to put a lead like that in one of his tunes, "Encased In Concrete." So I said "all right dude, I’ll come up with something like that." So that’s what I did.

KNAC.COM: Even though you were working with Erik again, was the move to Texas an effort to get you out of your comfort zone after two albums with him in your hometown?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, absolutely. We had been out there [to Sonic Ranch] before, working with Colin Richardson and Neil Kernon. It’s a great facility. What we really wanted to do was get out there and be able to get up in the morning, get breakfast and, boom, be right there at the studio. Not have to drive and deal with traffic for an hour to get to Mana, Erik’s place.

It’s just a great place, it’s got a great vibe and it made us work a little differently for sure, because the only thing you can do out there really is work on the album. You’re pretty much stuck out there. We didn’t have a rental car like we should have and you have to drive to get anywhere. We wanted the isolation to focus on the details, and it’s definitely isolated out there (laughs).

They actually have a couple different studios running at the same time. Billy Gibbons [from ZZ Top] stopped by, which was kinda cool. He was out there representing some kind of tequila. I guess he had done work out there, studio work or guest solo stuff or something, so he brought like three cases by, and I drank my fair share of it by the way.

KNAC.COM: Did you actually get to hang out with him?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, he came in the studio while we were starting to get guitar tracks down. He sat down and I gave him my guitar and played this cool tune on it. It was pretty surreal. He didn’t really know who we were, but he’s a cool guy. Friendly.

KNAC.COM: Too bad you couldn’t sneak a guest solo from him on your album, that be an interesting thing to plug on the cover of the album next to the ghoul looking through that hole in some dude’s chest cavity.

O’BRIEN: I wish he would have, actually, it would have been awesome. We just weren’t that far along. That would have been a hilarious thing to stick on the cover: "Featuring Billy Gibbons." People would have freaked.

KNAC.COM: You’re coming up on the band’s 25th anniversary, have you guys got anything special in the works to mark it?

O’BRIEN: Oh, that’s scary. But no, not that I know of. That’s a good one though, That is coming up. Wow. I’d imagine there’ll be something, but I don’t know what. I guess we could make a T-shirt or something like that (laughs). I guess we’ll have to do something.

KNAC.COM: Amazingly, you guys seem to be getting more popular in your old age?

O’BRIEN: (laughs) The last few years it does seem like it’s stepped up in popularity a little bit. It feels like it anyway. It is still business as usual, I guess it’s a matter of just not stopping and keeping going. Being consistent with what we’re doing. We are able to appeal to a lot of the younger kids, too, which I think is good.

KNAC.COM: After almost 25 years, you must be cycling through like your third or fourth generation of fans?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, we got parents bringing their kids, which is pretty wild. I guy I went to school with brings his two kids to see us all the time in the San Francisco area.

KNAC.COM: Given the way the industry has changed so much in the past few years, does it feel like you have to work harder to keep business going as usual?

O’BRIEN: We pretty much just work the way we work. That’s where you can really psych yourself out, if you really start thinking about things like album sales and the business and all that and worrying about stuff you really can’t control. All you can really do is do your job and work hard. We work hard, but I guess you could always work harder and that’s what keeps us going.

KNAC.COM: So you feel like the band still has something to prove?

O’BRIEN: I think, at this point, we don’t really have anything to prove except being who we are. I don’t think there’s really anything to prove. Anyone who’s going to go out and buy this new CD, they shouldn’t expect to hear anything other than what they expect out of it. It’s gonna be Cannibal Corpse.

It’s like going out and buying the new AC/DC, for example. People might be "Oh, it sounds just like all their other shit." Well that’s AC/DC, do you want AC/DC to sound totally different when you go buy one of their albums? No, you’re buying because it’s what you want. That’s what you expect. Of course, there’s going to be some variety, some different kinds of things we’re going to throw in there, but I think it’s the consistently that people know they are going to get from us that keeps them coming back.

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