It looks like Andy Sprague has just been kicked in the head. He’s on the 11th Street sidewalk in San Francisco, pressing his fingers to his forehead. Between them, a trickle of black liquid runs down his face. It’s a drizzly rush hour and the glassy street is locked with sedans and SUVs trying to squeeze onto an expressway on-ramp. The drivers — mostly suits on their way home to the burbs — seem to have a look of inexhaustible apathy on their faces. They pay no mind to the traffic signals or other cars or addicts who dot the street holding wet cardboard signs. They pay no mind to Andy Sprague, the gangly metalhead mock-up in camo pants and combat boots, with chalky-white skin and stringy, shoulder-length black hair. Freshly dyed black, apparently. And the rain is making a mess of it.
Only because of the weather, Andy and I immediately become chummy. We’re kind of in the same boat: We’re both waiting to interview Buffalo’s godfathers of death metal, Cannibal Corpse. We’re both unable to get around the burly mook at the door. We’re both soaked and pissed off. Sure, there are key differences — Andy is a bona fide Cannibal Corpse superfan. A couple years ago a high school buddy of his played him the band’s 1991 gore-thrash manifesto, Tomb of the Mutilated, and he was hooked. Andy was 8 years old when that record came out.
“When I first heard Mutilated I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that this band exists. I can’t believe that there is music that is this exciting and real,’” he says. Andy seems a little confused about why I would want to be interviewing him, mere moments before I’m to gain an audience with his heroes, but he’s willing. He’s here to do an interview for a Portland-based metal ’zine. An issue is quickly thrust into my hand. On the photocopied cover there is drawing of a naked woman sitting spread eagle. From her genitals crawl a swarm of maggots — an image that I’m to learn is the cover of the Cannibal Corpse’s Worm Infested. This particular issue is dedicated entirely to the Buffalo group — 24 hand-stapled pages that brim with interviews of young metal bands gushing about the Corpse’s influence. Andy brought it to be signed.
As I thumb through the ’zine, we can hear the rumble of the sound check permeating the club’s walls. Andy names every riff. “That’s ‘Orgasm Through Torture,’” he says. A few minutes later: “Oh, that’s a new one, ‘Nothing Left to Mutilate.’ Dude, check this out,” he says, listening intently to a mess of rumbling bass through the wall. “Listen right here where— “
“Hey reporters!” the mook at the door says with notable sarcasm. He gives us a nod and we’re in. “Dude, this is so ...” Andy is giddy and nearly speechless. He’s wiping the black hair dye off his face with the sleeve of his black T-shirt. “I can’t fucking believe this is happening,” he says. My sentiments exactly.
The fluorescent lights in the basement of the venue are reflecting off Jack Owen’s head. It seems that the founding guitarist of Cannibal Corpse has dealt with his receding hairline by shaving it. But, when the band started up a decade and a half ago, Owen was slinging drywall by day and thrashing his long, dark hair in a handful of Buffalo heavy metal bands by night. One of them, Cannibal Corpse, started making waves in the regional underground for their groundbreaking sensationalism. In the early days, they could hardly play their instruments, but tunes like “Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt,” “Addicted to Vaginal Skin” and “I Cum Blood” made other heavy acts at the time sound like a bunch of pantywaists. They were legitimate pioneers of gore — taking stomach-turning messages of violence and misogyny to the vilest reaches of the imagination — a place where no band had gone before. And it made them huge.
I had to ask: What did your mom think of this?
“Well, a lot of people just kind of see it as funny,” Owen says, skirting the question. “When people want to hear it, most of the time I’ll play just a few seconds of it and they laugh. But people who know me know that I love to play all kinds of stuff — blues, jazz, country, metal.”
Any jazz junkies waiting for Owen’s post-bop odyssey may want to avoid Wretched Spawn, Corpse’s recently released aural bloodbath. It’s the 13th proper full-length in the band’s history, but Spawn might make as good of an introduction to the band as any. It’s the band’s most technically accomplished recording for sure — with loads of light-speed guitar wizardry, mathematical time changes and punishing beats. But, even though it’s head-and-shoulders more technically adept than their early efforts, Owen’s greatest pride is in the songs.
“Anymore it’s not about how fast or heavy you can play, or how gory the lyrics are,” he says. “People have gone as fast as they can go. They’ve said every disgusting thing that you can possibly say. There is nothing new left. All that matters is the stories. I look at every song like a piece of short fiction, and it has to be that good to really get to people. I mean think of Poe or … you know, any great writer. That is the only thing left to push with metal — the stories.”
Let’s take a look at some of the more discernible stories on Spawn. The opener, “Severed Head Stoning” features a narrative about being killed by a hail of bloody heads. Other colorful storylines include “Rotted Body Landslide” (about suffocating under a mountain of rotting bodies) and “Blunt Force Castration” (an up-tempo ditty involving testicles and a sledgehammer). Owen’s own “Nothing Left to Mutilate” has been taken by some critics as a statement of self-awareness from the band, that — after 13 records and 15 years of musical slaughter — the grandfatherly growlers are beginning to run out of fresh ideas.
“Actually, that song is about real life, there is no hidden meaning in it,” Owen says. “I have this friend who is studying to be a doctor and he was telling me about pheromones. So I thought that would be a good idea of a song, and I wrote it about this killer who falls in love with girls because of their pheromones, and wants to smell them so bad that he cuts them open to see where they come from, but then the girls don’t smell anymore so he has to go on to the next one and its just an endless cycle.”
Uh, OK. But enough of this Poe crap, let’s rage.
An hour later Owen stands at stage left, wearing dark sunglasses and nodding in this I’m-a-freakin’-badass kind of way while his fingers blur up and down the neck of a seven-string guitar. Count ’em: seven. The place is shoulder-to-shoulder with metalheads in black T-shirts, camo pants and dyed-black hair. Amongst look-alikes, my new pal Andy proves impossible to find. As the band launches into “Nothing Left to Mutilate” toward the end of the set, people go crazy — throwing each other around in the mosh pit, nodding their heads and fists furiously to the beat. The singer, George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher barks out the lyrics in a meaningless orgasm of guttural grunts while the band blisters along with the same riffs they’ve been playing for 15 years. I try to make out the term “pheromones” but it’s hopeless, no one could possibly understand a word.
But the words don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that everyone in this room is dressed like mall-bought extras from The Crow or that they’re banging their heads along to five middle-aged clowns who make a career from low-rent slasher music. What matters is that we are all here, a sweating collective of disenchanted outsiders — wholly opposite to the apathetic automatons that lock the streets outside every rush hour. Inside, the collective energy is nearly tangible, a rush of impassioned living and youthful rebellion.
And the band raged on.
Cannibal Corpse will perform Tuesday, March 2, at Harpo’s Concert Theater (14238 Harper, Detroit) with Hypocrisy and Septic Asphyxiation. Call 313-824-1700 for info.Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org