Exhumed bury sharp politics in cryptic lyrics

March 5, 2014
Exhumed frontman Matt Harvey: "If I can see things are fucked up, they're fucked up."

Relapse Records
Released August 6, 2013

Californian death metal band Exhumed couch their cutting politics in horror-themed lyrics. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to frontman Matt Harvey.


You use a gore metaphor to sing about politics and consumerism, saying "the gore metaphor keeps me from becoming a preachy, pretentious douchebag". In your experience, what percentage of your listeners know what you are singing about?

Probably not that many - ha ha! I really have no idea. That's one of the reasons I included the liner notes, just as a sort of primer for people to get a sense of what's going on with the lyrics and everything.

I guess you could say your lyrics are cryptic in every sense of the word, eh?

To me, it's important to keep in mind the fact that we're a heavy metal band first and foremost and that ultimately we're here to entertain people. Ultimately the energy and the vibe of the music is what comes first and the lyrics are more of a reflection of that rather than the hook that draws in the listener, which makes this style of “extreme metal” or whatever you wanna call it, really different from other genres of popular music, which are more lyrically driven. Also, to me, simply being a “death metal” band calls for us being lyrically focused on death, and I've always tried to keep that as the main theme or the main metaphorical tool to explore other themes. It keeps continuity between our records and keeps us from straying too far outside of the original mission of the band, which basically is all about being aggressive, loud and morbid.

In promoting your latest album, Necrocracy, you've said: "The system in America is just entering a very corrupt phase, a lot like the robber baron-era in the late 1800s and early 1900s." Want to expand on that?

Absolutely. Corporate personhood and privately funded elections have basically made the government and the corporate sphere two heads of the same beast. It's clear that the individual voter has no influence or access to national politics. And as mass media and the internet continue to shrink our world and make things more and more globally focused, national politics are becoming increasingly local. It’s disheartening to see actual voters continually marginalised by the influence and access that corporations have sewn up. To me, it hampers both sides, left and right, and forces all politicians into a murky middle ground where their livelihoods are beholden to the people that put them in power: corporations. The concept of a Super PAC making unlimited anonymous campaign contributions should scare the shit out of the average American voter, but we're all too busy watching Honey Boo Boo and super-hero movies. (For the record, I love super-hero movies).

Many metalcore, grindcore and hardcore bands are political, yet it's often hard to hear what they are singing about because it's all done in that throaty, guttural roar. In a sense, you're taking it one step further in making your lyrics cryptic, aren't you?

It's clear to me that the “death metal” vocal style is basically a gimmick of sorts when viewed objectively. It's a bit ridiculous, and the verbosity of a lot of the lyrics is a further gimmick - to me it's almost an absurdist thing – not only are the vocals indecipherable, but the words are also so mired in vocabulary that they're not particularly understandable under any circumstances. I always thought of that as such a dick move that it made me laugh. However, we do try to make the lyrics as comprehensible as possible. Again, to me the lyrics are ultimately a reflection of the aggression of the music – playing dark, dissonant music calls for dark, disquieting lyrics.

You've said of Necrocracy: "The Presidential election was in full swing the whole time I was writing, and that really kind of inspired the whole direction of the lyrics." Given that the political situation has arguably become even worse since then, is your next album going to be just as dark, politically?

I'm not too sure how political the next record will be. Every record kind of takes on its own character, and while there are political threads on other records (“Grotesqueries” on Anatomy is Destiny and “Necrotized” on All Guts, No Glory for example), the only other album with a “theme” was Anatomy is Destiny, which was more centred around existentialism. We've barely started working out the first skeletons of songs at this point, so it's a bit too early to tell.

Your latest album's title, Necrocracy, suggests democracy's dead. Do you think the problem is that we don't have truly accountable democracy, in which politicians are made to keep their promises?

That's a pretty big question. I'm sure I could churn out about 10,000 words on this, ha ha! I think there are a number of major problems with American democracy, here's a few just off the top of my head.

■ The mechanism of government is large and labyrinthine, with millions of moving parts, and many of them are invisible. Even if someone in congress wanted to take clear decisive action, the size and nature of the government prevents them from doing so – unless it's a decision involving the use of military force, which seems to be able to happen nearly instantly.

■ Private funding of political campaigns and the length of these campaigns creates an environment where only the super-rich and super-connected have a chance of becoming a viable candidate. Publicly funded elections with a truncated duration (say 45 days) would neuter the influence of the Super-PAC culture that has arisen, abetted by a series of toxic decisions by the Supreme Court.

■ Voter turnout in America is abysmal. The only reliable voting blocs that turn out time and time again are retirement aged people whose conservative voting patterns have sustained the Republican Party for years even after it has lost any real popular support. The voting system needs to be overhauled and be inclusive. This is saying nothing of the ominous voting legislation proposed throughout the South which veers terrifyingly close to the old Jim Crow era.

■ Demagoguery is rampant in America, polluting the political dialogue from both sides - Fox News being the most blatant culprit of promoting class warfare, demonising the poor and minorities, and utilising newspeak in ways that even [author George] Orwell would marvel at. Political teamsmanship is corrosive. The problems that we face in America need a more nuanced ideology. Unfortunately each “party” presents a series of - ultimately superficial - differences that are divisive and have nothing do with each other – if you're a supply-side economist, what does that have to do with abortion? If you want to expand social welfare programs, what does that have to with gun control? But the clannish nature of the political parties and their constituents reduces the American political dialogue to an “us vs them” worldview that is disturbingly childlike - and childish.

In your song "Coins - upon the eyes", you sing:

Coins - upon the eyes
You paid to live, now pay to die

Tell us about that.

That particular song was inspired by my grandparents' current situation as they approach the end of their lives. With ludicrously exorbitant health care costs and the convoluted and under-funded pension and retirement programs in place, their financial means have dwindled with their health. They have gone from middle class homeowners to living paycheck to paycheck, no house, very few belongings to speak of, etc. Not that material wealth is what it's all about, and of course “you can't take it with you”, but the idea of having something to pass on and some sort of legacy has been taken away from them, which is very discouraging to me to watch and has been very difficult and humiliating for them to endure. It seems that with the system of personal “wealth” in middle class America, you're essentially living on borrowed money your entire life. Your home, certainly your most valuable possession, gets treated like a bank as you borrow equity from it to live your life outside of just working - and Americans have very little vacation time compared to most First World countries - so that ultimately you've reduced the value of your only real asset, which will have to be sold eventually anyway to cover the costs of simply being elderly. It's a crazy way to live your life and a humiliating way to end it, watching everything you've worked for erode in stride with your diminishing health.

Your song "Dysmorphic" says:

Dysmorphic - spawned from slaughter and war
Can't accept ourselves as we truly are - dysmorphic

In what way do you think people are dysmorphic?

Well, this bit is specifically about tremendous discrepancy between the “America” that the average citizen - and especially the “I support our troops”, flag-waving, truck driving, right-wing stereotype - perceives and the actual America. Politically and militarily, American aggression has paved the way for our unprecedented access to - and wasting of - natural resources and goods. People tend to believe what makes them feel good - which has kept religion in business since the dawn of humanity - and it doesn't feel good to know that the country you live in is basically the bad guys. It doesn't feel good to know that the products that you buy are paid for in blood, that the gasoline in your car is paid for with the blood of innocent civilians - “collateral damage”. So instead people - abetted by the American educational system - create a much more palatable version of their country. We're the good guys, we've always been the good guys, even back when we were slaughtering native Americans and Mexicans and annexing their land left and right, even when we were enslaving Africans, even when we undertake wars just to further corporate interests in the Middle East and drive up ExxonMobil's stock prices. That's what makes it easier for people to sleep at night, wilful ignorance.

On "Dysmorphic", you also sing:

So scrub the blood from your conscience
With a steady stream of comforting lies
Pray like sheep as you stand ankle-deep
In a river of corpses left behind

Tell us more.

People should be aware that their lifestyles are paid for in blood all over the world, whether it's the strikers who were shot for demanding things we now take for granted like a 40-hour work week or a kid in Iraq who gets blown up by an IED [improvised explosive device] to keep your gas prices lower. One way or another, just by living in America, you're at least partially complicit in its crimes – certainly there is enough information readily available that anyone - be they left, right, whatever - can see that our foreign policy is exploitative and we use military might to secure and sustain a level of consumption that would be otherwise unsustainable.

On "(So Passes) The Glory Of Death" you sing:

A global funeral, a worldwide wake
Lay it all to rest, for the worms to take
Experiment that failed, we now must help it die
And let our death knell now decry".

What do you mean by an "experiment that failed"?

I was thinking of America – I forget which of the “founding fathers” called the country an “experiment in democracy”, but it's an experiment that has clearly ran its course and has ended up a mockery of the democratic ideal. By tearing it down, we can start again and try something else, something hopefully more compassionate, more aware, and less predatory and exploitative.

I read the "experiment that failed" to mean humanity. Biologist Ernst Mayr says
humans' higher intelligence is an extremely rare happenstance and 'not at all favoured by natural selection'; it is therefore a “lethal mutation”. To what extent would you agree?

Interesting. I'll have to read more on that. I would say that as a mutation or trait it's powerful, and like all powerful things has a tremendous potential for misuse. I have to retain optimism for the human race, simply because I'm an optimist myself and when I think of some of the amazing things we've achieved, I have to think that we can and will do better. As much as many things I see are really fucked up, there is also progress. The situation in America for minorities, women and homosexuals is certainly objectively better today than it was 50 years ago - attitudes are changing, albeit maddeningly slowly. The world is a less violent place than it was 50 years ago, despite the deluge of sensationalised and titillating news coverage of war. These may be anomalies, but I'd like to think that they're part of an overall trend towards a more connected, empathetic world. But, like I said, I'm an optimist.

On "The Ravening" you sing:

A ravening
Voracious hungering
Consuming, slavering, a ravening, so sickening
Ever feeding - ravening
Swallowing - your self subsumed, insidiously
Your life, your death, your thoughts entombed - so callously
Regurgitating - repugnant retch repeated, endlessly
A malignant mantra metastasised - takes hold internally

Tell us your thoughts on unsustainable consumerism, resource depletion and its implications for the future.

Americans have an unfortunate sense of entitlement and the perception that if they can buy it, it can't be wrong to have it. The thought process is along these lines: “If I can afford to eat cheeseburgers every day, I will. I don't like broccoli, I like cheeseburgers better.” Then they proceed to eat cheeseburgers every day, which is obviously unhealthy. The fact that one country uses nearly a quarter of the planet's resources is pretty horrifying. The fact that people fight tooth and nail against things that would go towards rectifying it is just confusing. Whether it's smaller meal portions or hybrid cars, there is an outcry against any change that would deny Americans access to what they want – as much of it as they can afford, all the fucking time. That's an extremely self-centred and dangerous attitude that has led to such a disproportionate use of resources. The one major benefit to the decline in American manufacturing has been that more and more developing countries are getting access to more and more resources. That said, mathematically speaking, in 50 years - maybe sooner? - only the extremely wealthy may be able to afford meat and most people won’t have to be persuaded to “Go Vegan” - they may not have a choice.

You've said you have separated out the instruments on Necrocracy in the style of super-producer Rick Rubin. Funky Monks, The Red Hot Chili Peppers' film about the making of their album "Blood Sugar Sex Magick" shows Rubin getting bassist Flea to slow down his playing to bring out the melody. Is this also what you were striving for on your latest album?

I think slowing the tempos down definitely helped bring out some of the melodic and hooky elements in our sound that were previously blurred by the velocity aspect of what we do. The sound that we ended up getting on Necrocracy was all about creating a bit of space between the instruments, which is tough with music this heavy and fast, and utilising some slower tempos helped create some of that space.

Tell us what else you love about Rick Rubin.

I love his transition from working with hip-hop to suddenly - at least from the outside perspective - working with [thrash metal band] Slayer. To me, it shows that the commonalities between good music/songs/records are much greater than the differences. As a listener, I constantly hear/see common threads between songs I like in all genres, similar chord progressions, dynamic changes, structural elements, etc etc. That said, I'd really like to talk his ear off about the guitar tone for the next Metallica album, because I was a bit let down by the production of Death Magnetic. He also has a wonderful beard.

Anything you'd like to add?

I'm not a political theorist, I never went to college and I don't have answers to most things. In fact, I don't know if I'm even asking the right questions. But I do know that even as a guy who plays guitar in a death metal band and drinks way too much beer every day, that if I can see things are fucked up, they're fucked up. Ultimately, we're just trying to play heavy metal, but if the lyrics make someone raise their own questions, then that's even better, and a huge compliment. Thanks for the time and support of the band and we hope to get down to Australia sooner rather than later, I had a blast last time I was there! Cheers!

Hear and buy the album here. Read an interview with grindcore pioneers Nausea here.

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