Exhumed Interview

Relapse Records

Exhumed have become a staple on Relapse Records. The San Jose-based grinding death metal group have been with the vaunted label since their initial full-length recording, Gore Metal, left a bloody print on shelves 21 years ago. Don’t expect anything less than a VCR full of guts on their latest album, Horror. The said album is a slimy mixture of death metal, thrash and grindcore. The title pays homage to one of the band’s main sources for inspiration, horror films. We’re not talking the modern, CGI sort of films, but the old school, VHS variety. Imagine chainsaws flinging floppy innards and shaving skull matter, but don’t take them too seriously. Exhumed are akin to a low-budget horror film, rife with campy humor.

Heavy Music Headquarters caught up with vocalist/guitarist Matt Harvey on the first day of the complete, co-headlining tour with Gatecreeper, Necrot and Judiciary to discuss Horror. The day of the interview fell appropriately, on Halloween. The band took the stage not dressed in jeans, metal t-shirts and the usual garb for a death metal band. Instead, they came dressed as California yuppies. Before their mascot, Dr. Philthy, dripped blood from a severed head onto audience members’ faces and ran through the crowd with a smoking chainsaw, Harvey filled us in on making the album, their tour and how band life has changed after nearly three decades.

Darren Cowan: Today is the first day of your co-headline tour with Gatecreeper, Necrot, and Judiciary. This is a massive undertaking. How do you feel about this tour and lineup?
Matt Harvey: I think the lineup is great. It’s really strong. Gatecreeper was building their package with Judiciary. We were building our package with Necrot. Both our agents were out getting holds in the market and clashing. Their agent would be, “I don’t know, I have a hold for Gatecreeper on that day.” Our agent would be, “I don’t know, I have a hold for Exhumed on that day.” Through the agencies we got talking and decided to just combine the tours. It would be better for everybody, rather than competing with each other. Let’s just combine forces into a bigger tour, and hopefully it will get more people out. People will be excited. We both had a record that came out on October 4th. We had a split, 10 inch record that came out today (October 31, 2019). As soon as we made this decision, the label got behind it. It made sense all along. It’s a good package. All the bands are making good music. We’ll get to bug the shit out of one another in a couple weeks (laughs).

It should be a good show. It’s a cool match because we’re the grizzled veterans, and Gatecreeper are the hot, young Turks. I think there is going to be a younger crowd that hasn’t given us a chance because we’re more of a legacy band at this point. They’ll come in and see us, and then there will be some older dudes who have been listening to death metal for 20 years that might be like, “I don’t know? This is like some new shit” and check out Gatecreeper. It’s going to be a good thing for everybody. It should be a lot of fun.

On October 4th you released Horror. How do you feel now that the album has been released?
I feel mostly relief. Getting a record together is kind of a stressful process, and then it’s such a long period between finishing the album and its release. We finished recording at the end of March and the beginning of April, so there is such a long lead time. There are deadlines and stress, getting everything ready. Then, there is nothing for months. You’ve done all this work, and you think if people are going to like it, are they going to hate it, was it stupid, was it good? I always go through the period of thinking, “This record is great. It is amazing! We really outdid ourselves!” Then about a month later, “This record is a piece of shit! This was a terrible mistake! What were we thinking?”

Now that it’s out, it’s more of a relief because people seem to like it. We seem to be doing alright. The label is behind it. They are happy with how it’s doing. We have a tour lineup up with the release. We’re trying to do things in the correct way. Now that it’s underway, it’s really a massive relief because of the preparation. Once you’re on tour, you just have to be somewhere by 4 P.M. We already know how to play the songs, so it sort of continues to take care of itself.

Horror is a simple, but telling title for an Exhumed album. Why did you choose this single word for the title?
The last album that we did, Death Revenge, was a concept album. It was really elaborate. Every song had its own piece of artwork. It’s based on historical events. I did a bunch of research. I used quotes throughout the record about the actual events. We composed these film score pieces that went in between the songs. It was a gigantic, complex puzzle that was really elaborate. I knew after we did that unless it was wildly successful and we started making way more money we needed to pull back. We needed to simplify and get back to the core of what we’re all about. The core musical influences are the core aesthetic influences. I was thinking about what really sums it up. The first thing that came to my mind was walking into a video store, looking around for that sign that says “Horror.” That’s where I’m going. That’s it. I was like, “Cool; now we have a direction.” Then, we went from there.

Relapse.com is issuing an exclusive Horror deluxe VCR Slaughter Video. Tell our readers more about this release and its special aspects.
The cool thing about this record is we came up with the title, and then I came up with this idea that the track listing on the back would be like looking at the spines of a bunch of VHS tapes. I said we’d do the whole layout with a VHS vibe. Once I threw that idea out there, everybody working on the design and the artwork aspect apparently loved the concept because they kept coming up to me with these great ideas. Relapse was like, “OK, so we want to make a cardboard VCR. Inside the VCR is a VHS tape with the album on it.” “That’s fucking ridiculous! Let’s do it!” I remember 20 years ago when we were putting out our first record, the market was completely different because of the internet. It was only about physical sales. They didn’t want to make an elaborate packaging. They didn’t want to do vinyl. They didn’t want to do different versions because they wanted to make CDs. CDs don’t cost fuck-all to make, and you can charge 15 to 16 bucks for them.

Now, the entire business is streaming. The physical market is more of a collector’s thing. Collectors want the most over-the-top, elaborate shit you can get. They want four or five different records. They want something unique. We used to pitch dumb ass ideas like this all the time to the label around ’99 or 2000. They were like, “Nope, we’re going to license it to Europe for one picture disc version on a CD. That’s it.” Now, they’re coming to us, “We want five different versions. We want a cassette.” We want this. We want that. It’s really fun to play around with these different formats. Our cover artist really knocked it out of the park. Relapse and our merch person, Rachel Deering co-designed the whole thing. Everybody came up with such great designs that it kept building. “We could do this! We could do that! We could put it out on VHS.” The whole thing was great. I love it.

What about campiness? It’s a major component of certain horror films. Is it important on Horror?
Yeah, we’ve always had an element of camp to what we do. It’s great you take death metal and the music seriously, but at the end of the day you’re writing songs about bubbling pus, rotting corpses, and all this sort of stuff. It’s so over the top that there is an element of ridiculousness to it. It’s an element we’ve always acknowledged. I love it regardless. I’m OK with saying, “Maybe this is sort of dumb, but I like it, and that’s fine. I’m going to embrace that it’s dumb and enjoy doing it.” Obviously, I’m going to try to do good work, make the best songs we can, and give the best performance that we can. We have no illusions about what we’re doing. We’re a death metal band. We’ve always been a death metal band. It’s a weird and goofy thing to do. We’re all weird and goofy. That’s fine.

Horror was recorded at your home-built studio, Darker Corners. It is the first album recorded there. What was it like to record in your own studio?
The recording part was fine. Everything else was a fucking nightmare. We started building in January. We had a warehouse with a box inside the warehouse. That’s all we had. We had to put in all the walls, all the insulation, insulation on the ceiling, three layers of drywall on the ceiling. We had to drill through the walls to run the cable. Mike Hamilton, our drummer, deserves the vast majority of the credit. He does construction or else there was no way we could have done it. We wouldn’t have been able to afford it. He would be there five or six nights after work. I would be there four nights a week trying to help him. I don’t know shit about construction, but I can carry stuff around, hold stuff up and lift shit. It’s one of those things you think is going to be a big job and about halfway through, “Oh, this is a really big job.” We got all the recording stuff, and then we had to build the control room. Holy shit.

We ended up starting the record 18 days late on March 18th. So we went from having a month to relax, kick back, take our time and do a couple songs here, try out different ideas to having 12 days before we leave for Latin America. If we weren’t done by then, by the time we get back and turn in the record, it probably won’t be release until 2020. If we didn’t finish in 12 days, our year was over. There was no more tour, no more nothing. That was it. Everybody was like, “It must be so nice to have your own studio. You can take as much time as you want.” We had no time for anything. It was incredibly stressful. Hopefully, the next album is going to be the one where we relax, work on it for three months, and do whatever the fuck we want! The hard work is done.

You produced the album with Alejandro Corredor (Brujeria, Nausea). What was it like working with Alejandro?
He’s not with us on this tour, but he’s done our live sound for years. He and I play together in a traditional metal band called Pounder. It’s like Judas Priest, Angel Witch kind of stuff. We knew each other incredible well. That part of it was seamless. He knows how to work with us. We know how to work with him. We’ve lived together in a van for weeks at a time, so we know each other’s quirks. The concept of the record was straight forward, so that’s what I wanted to do for the first time in our own studio. We didn’t want to do something really elaborate. “We just got all this equipment we’re trying to learn, and we want to try all these crazy ideas. Maybe we finish it on time [laughs].”

Alejandro is great because he knows us inside and out. He knows, “That’s your best take. Stop there.” “I want to try something else.” “Nope, I’ve seen your band play like 300 times. That’s your best take. Leave it!” I might think, “This take kicks ass.” He’s like, “It sounds like shit. I’ve seen your band 300 times. You’ve got better. Do it again!” That’s infinitely valuable having someone there so familiar, not so much with the material because it was new to everybody, but how the band works and our personality. That’s the most important thing.

The album was mixed and mastered by Joel Grind (Toxic Holocaust). Why did you choose Joel?
We’ve known Joel for a long time. I’m a big Toxic Holocaust fan. He’s been into our band since the beginning of Toxic, which I thought was very flattering. We toured together a couple times. Doing a record with Joel was always in the back of my mind, but it never seemed to line up in terms of his schedule, our schedule, the vibe of the record, and everything else. This time that was the idea for the record from the very beginning. We came into his schedule from the beginning. We knew that he was going to be the right guy to mix it because he gets really direct, punchy, raw, clean and powerful but unpolished. That’s what we were going for. We wanted it to be audible, but we didn’t want to remove every bit of noise. It was very much a team effort between us, Joel, Alejandro, our friend Michael Kline who makes our electronics.

It’s been 21 years since your initial release Gore Metal. How do you view your band’s progression?
Musically, we are certainly way better now. The lineup we have is the best lineup we’ve ever had. In terms of what we’re actually writing, composing and creating, we’re doing the best work of our “career.” It’s sort of a career, kind of. On that sense, I’m really stoked. We all have a good time. We still enjoy playing. We all like each other as people, which is great. On the other hand, it would be great to see the band grow in terms of playing for more people and making more money. We always set out to be an underground band, which we are, but I wouldn’t mind being a little less underground [laughs]. In terms of the realities of doing all of this, the more you do it, the longer you do it, and the older you are while you’re doing it, you need to make it viable.

When you’re 21, go out and tour and lose money, it’s like, “Whatever. I’m 21. I work at a gas station.” Now, I’m 44 and I have to make sure everybody is on a certain level because they have families, wives and careers. You’re not going to disrupt your career to go out on tour and lose money. You’re not going to piss off your wife and leave for a month to lose money. You piss off your wife to go play a festival for a weekend, sure. Absolutely. Leaving for a month… no, you can’t do that. You always want to be looking to the next thing, the next level, the next event or the next move forward. I haven’t lost that, but I am very grateful for everything we have done. I’ve seen a lot of bands that have come and gone. I’ve seen bands become more successful than us, but also a lot of bands that have split up and disappeared. I feel very fortunate we are still here, and people still give a fuck about what we’re doing. That’s way beyond what I ever hoped for when I started playing this kind of music as a teenager.

Have you been with Relapse Records the whole time?
Yes.

What kept you with them?
It’s a mixture of loyalty and peoples’ perception of the band. After working with them for 21 years, we started looking around at other options. Everybody was like, “Wow, you’ve been on Relapse for so long. You’re kind of like a Relapse house band at this point.” I wasn’t trying to knock on them or escape, but I felt like it would be foolish to not look around. That would be dumb. My intent was if someone brought us a better deal, I would go back and ask, “Can you do this?” I would rather stick around for continuity. When we first signed to Relapse, nobody else would piss on us if we were on fire. To me, that’s worth a lot because when we got signed death metal was at a low point in terms of popularity. Everybody was into Cradle of Filth, Machine Head, shitty ‘90s metal. Phil Demmel is a wonderful guy, so I’m sorry about saying that about Machine Head. What we were doing was universally snubbed. The fact that a reputable label gave us a chance at that time really meant a lot. I love Relapse. I have nothing bad to say about them.

I went to Milwaukee Metal Fest in ’97 to see Venom, which is probably my favorite show I’ve ever seen. Actually, that’s where I met the guy who helped us get signed to Relapse. I was in a Relapse booth wearing a Dark Angel pin. He said, “That’s a cool Dark Angel pin. Where did you get it?” “Oh, I got it at a rock shop in San Jose where I’m from.” He said, “You’re from San Jose. Do you know Exhumed?” “I’m in it.” He said, “I love you guys!” He was their college radio promo guy, and was also the roommate of Matt Jacobs, the owner of Relapse. He was always playing Exhumed for the owner of the label and saying, “We should sign them. Come on, man!” That was very instrumental to us getting our foot in the door.

What’s next? Have you planned more tours?
We are going to Europe next summer. It hasn’t been announced because it’s still getting booked because it’s next summer. We are doing a bunch of festivals in Europe next summer. We’re going to give it a little bit of time and then think about doing something else in the States. We’ll see what makes sense. We have to finish this run, first. We’re also looking at doing some dates in Japan and Australia in the early part of next year. That’s the next steps for us at this point. Mostly, we’re just trying to really get out in front of as many people as we can.

For us, this is already day three of the tour. We’ve been on tour since Sunday. It was us and Necrot in L.A. and El Paso. Now, we’re here tonight. Then, the tour will end in Vegas. Then, us, Necrot and Deathgrave, who is another Bay Area band, will have four or five shows after. Because we’re from California, we tend to cover more ground in California than other bands. We don’t just do San Francisco and L.A.; we’ll do Santa Cruz, Fresno, Sacramento, San Diego, Orange County, etc. We did around an 11-day tour just in California. That’s our home market, so we try to hit everybody there. That’s what we’ll do at the end of the tour, and then we’ll go home and have Christmas [laughs].

(interview published November 11, 2019)

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