Interview with guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey
Exhumed are the undisputed masters of all things horror, death metal, and grind. On Oct. 4, they unleashed their newest slab of gore, simply titled Horror, on Relapse Records. It’s the bands ninth full length and comes on the heels of 2017’s Death Revenge. Since 2011, Exhumed have been cranking out an album every two years. As impressive as that is, it really only tells half the story.
Exhumed founder/guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Matt Harvey is a really busy guy. Somehow, he still finds the time to speak about a life in metal, balancing multiple bands, the new Exhumed record, his creative process, and the relationship between metal and horror.
You started Exhumed nearly 30 years ago, when you were just a kid. Did you imagine it lasting this long? Do you ever get burned out?
First, you’re making me feel really old. Stop that! Secondly, I really didn’t think it would last this long. I assumed that at some point I’d have two-and-a-half kids and a house in the suburbs. But at the same time, I never really put in any effort into doing anything else, and I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be doing. I get burnt out sometimes, mostly just from the non-music side of doing things. Filling out Excel spreadsheets and making tour budgets is not my idea of a good time, but I recognize that doing things the right way enables us to make more records and play more shows, which is my idea of a good time, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff. I get burnt out on anything after a while, but if it’s something I truly love, like death metal and grindcore, I just need to step back and clear my head and then when I come back to it, I’m refreshed and excited. I’m also never really satisfied with my own stuff, so I keep trying to get it right, and the fun and discovery is in the process of trying again and again in different ways.
Between Exhumed, Gruesome and Pounder, You’re a very busy guy. How do you balance your multiple projects?
I’m sort of a workaholic, because the creative aspect is what I find the most stimulating. I’ve also sort of honed my skill set – songwriter, vocalist, guitarist in that order of proficiency – where I can produce work very quickly. Whatever level I’m performing at, the first or second try is usually better or just as good as the fifteenth or sixteenth, so I’ve learned to just trust the initial instinct and run with it. I’ll write and demo three or four songs in a weekend if they’re short and simple, or in a month if they’re more involved, without really breaking a sweat. I find doing the same thing all the time kind of dull and repetitive, so it’s a nice challenge to step away from playing really fast death and grind and do something really melodic like Pounder. I also came to a realization a few years ago that I’m in a very, very fortunate position, where I can get people at record labels to at least entertain whatever idea I have, and that’s huge. That’s really the dream, to be able to take your ideas from concept to finished product. So, having that opportunity is something I don’t wanna take for granted, because I’m not going to be around forever. So instead of saying “That would be cool if someone did this”, I’ve tried to adopt the mentality of “That would be cool to see, so I should give it a shot.”
Are they all active at once, or do you only work on one at a time?
They’re all sort of going concurrently, but there are times when one or the other definitely comes to the fore. Logistics are the biggest challenge as far as keeping them all going, since nobody really lives in the same area anymore. The Pounder guys are in the Bay Area, the Gruesome folks are in Florida, and everyone in Exhumed now lives in different places, so I can’t be gigging and rehearsing every week with all three bands. But that’s kind of an advantage, because the time I’d spend in the rehearsal room or doing local shows is time I can use to write material, manage the bands, and generally have a semblance of my own life with my wife and our dog.
When you start writing a song, do you know from the beginning which band it’s going to be for?
If I’m screwing around and I come up with an idea, it’s usually gonna be either for Exhumed or Pounder, which are pretty different, so it’s clear from the beginning. Gruesome is a bit more deliberate, since it’s a tribute to Death, and not just me expressing myself as myself, if that makes sense. It’s a bit like method acting, where I have to get into a different headspace to really work on that stuff. But I’m always working on different ideas and stuff. I’m doing a film soundtrack in the next few months, the movie is in editing right now, and I’m working on an album of synth soundtrack type pieces that will tie together. We’ll see what comes of all that, but I’m always working on a few different things at once. I’ve been playing death metal for almost 30 years at this point, so it really shouldn’t take me two years of agonizing effort to come up with something compelling. It’s really natural at this point, and not something I sit around and torture myself over, although I do occasionally unintentionally end up torturing my bandmates with this shit!
Where did you draw musical inspiration for Horror? Has that changed since you first started?
I think we’ve had the same sort of core influences since about 1994 or so, which is kinda when we found our sound. It’s the early Earache death metal and grind, mid ’80s evil thrash and proto-death metal, a pinch of intense hardcore, and traditional metal for dynamics. That said, we’re always trying to find new areas of that palette to explore. The last record, Death Revenge, was really expansive and elaborate, so this one is the exact opposite. It’s as stripped down as we can possibly get without becoming a different band, really. I really try to defy people’s expectations and make every album at least somewhat surprising within the template of what we do. I don’t want us to make something as shockingly different as Cold Lake [Celtic Frost,1988], but I don’t want to just keep churning out the same record every two years either, so it’s a hard balance to strike, staying true to the core of the band’s sound while being non-repetitive. This record is more like the kind of death metal that I get excited to listen to as a fan, and Death Revenge was more the kind of death metal that’s exciting to me as a guitar player. This one leans into the Repulsion, Slaughter, Exodus, Sacrifice, Napalm Death, Terrorizer, Extreme Noise Terror kind of vein. Just mean and nasty shit that is really in-your-face. There’s no fat or excess adornment on any of the tunes here at all. No subtlety and no fucks given.
How about the lyrics? Were they inspired by classic horror elements, or current events?
We did a current-events record a few years ago with Necrocracy, which was basically attacking neoliberalism from the left. The situation is so much worse now, and I honestly considered returning to that kind of stuff, but I feel like so much time and energy is sucked up with the insanity of current events. I didn’t want to give Trump and his asshole friends my energy. I felt like those fuckers already occupy too much space and time in my day, just reading the news and trying to keep up with which environmental protection they’ve gutted today. This record was just for me, and just for pure enjoyment. It’s actually a really positive record in that respect. I wanted to recapture the fun I used to have watching gory movies and drinking Meister Brau with my buddies in the early and mid ’90s, when all I cared about was metal, horror, beer, and maybe someday getting a girlfriend. There’s nods to loads of the movies we were into, even the bad ones! I just wanted to write lyrics and not give a fuck. The last record was basically a musical, and there was a lot of historical research and stuff that went into it, so it was a real relief not to have to go much deeper than “Re-animated cannibals, rise again to eat their fill, flesh to rend and blood to spill, return to life to fucking kill”, you know?
The name of the new record, Horror, is so iconic. I’m not sure if I should ask you what inspired it, or what took you so long to use it! What was the thinking behind it?
After the political stuff on Necrocracy, I was doing the first couple of Gruesome records, and tapping into the early Death vibe got me revisiting a lot of the old horror films from those days. Half the songs on Scream Bloody Gore are directly inspired by specific horror movies, and I really kind of fell back in love with that aesthetic. With Death Revenge, I did the classy, sort of gothic period-piece thing, while Gruesome was kind of in the splatter-era of our Death worship. As we’ve started moving into the more sophisticated era of Death with the newer Gruesome stuff, I realized how much I was going to miss just writing songs about Re-Animator and Hellraiser. I was trying to just boil everything down to something really simple and stripped down, like the music on the album, and I just thought of the Horror sign in the video store. That would be the first thing I looked for. If I saw Horror, I knew I was on the right track. And it was as simple as that.
Metal and horror have been linked since Black Sabbath. Are there still untapped connections to be explored?
At this point, 40 years after Black Sabbath, I don’t really know how much gas there is in the tank for finding new things to do with metal, but I also don’t care. I’ve heard so many ‘innovative’ takes on metal that don’t do anything for me, that I’m not really interested in that at all. After 40 years of developing a genre, most unused ideas have probably remained unused because they are shitty ideas. I know what I like, and I know what resonates with me, and I’m very happy to spend my time exploring that. Artistically, I’m very conservative. I’m sort of a death metal originalist. If it’s not building off stuff that Possessed, Death, Repulsion, Sepultura, Sarcofago, Celtic Frost, Slayer or Master did, I probably won’t think it’s a good idea. Horror and metal go together because they tap into a similar set of stimuli, stuff that’s dark and forbidden and can act as a catharsis for those negative emotions that mainstream society has been denying or suppressing for years, like anger, hatred, rage, sadness, loneliness and misanthropy. Metal and horror let you express those emotions in a constructive way so you’re able to let go of them and go about the rest of your life being a good person. And they both have thriving fan cultures where you can transmute those negative emotions into positive ones by bonding with others who feel the same about this specific art form and what it offers. Plus, if you’re playing dark, aggressive music, the lyrics should be dark and aggressive too. There’s a musical principle called prosody, where the lyrics and music reflect each other. A song called “Your Love Lifts Me Up” should have ascending melodies, for example, just like a song called “Deranged Consumption of Human Remains” should sound grimy and disgusting.
Are there still musical paths you want to go down with Exhumed, or is it more about maintaining or maybe perfecting the Exhumed sound?
There’s always a new twist to be put on this stuff. I’m not exactly sure what the next step is, but I don’t feel like we’re out of ideas at all. We actually have six or seven songs already written for a future release. They’ve been waiting to be heard since we were doing Death Revenge, but they didn’t fit in with the stuff for Horror. So, there’s always the next thing, and we always try to make sure the next thing isn’t just a retread of what we’ve done before. Hopefully we’re succeeding.
I love the artwork on the new record. What’s the story behind it?
Thanks! I love it too. We had been kind of casting around for ideas for stuff for the last few records when it hit me that we, like Iron Maiden, have a monster mascot onstage with us every night, so why weren’t we taking advantage of that from an artwork standpoint? Why not tie the album visuals in with the live show visuals, and keep everything cohesive visually as well as musically? We had been wanting to have Marc Schoenbach do a cover for us for a while. Our schedules didn’t line up for Death Revenge, so I made sure to get him involved very early on in the production process. I really think he knocked it out of the park with the cover. I had some basic ideas of the vibe I wanted for the layout, and Jacob at Relapse did a great job putting together the VHS collection graphic for the back. I had my friend Rachel Deering put together a mockup of the VHS cover vibe for the front of the record, and it turned out so well that we and Relapse both decided to use it basically as it already was for the final layout. It was very much a team effort, and everyone involved really enhanced the concept, which really took on a life of its own.
You guys are going on a heavy tour in November. Can you give us a preview of what Exhumed is going to be playing?
The tour should be a good one. Gatecreeper are the hot young band that’s captured people’s imagination of death metal’s future with massive riffs, and we’re the grizzled journeymen who have been there, snorted that, and lived to tell the tale, and are still grinding away, pun intended. Necrot is one of my favorites of the newer crop of death metal bands, and also hails from the Bay Area like we do. Judiciary has the metalized hardcore thing down, so every band brings something a little different to the table. We’re playing loads of new songs on this one, which is great because even doing nine new songs or whatever, only displaces like 12 to 15 minutes of the set! So, we’re able to balance it out with a lot of older stuff as well. There’s of course the hits that are pretty much always gonna be rotating through, and a few songs we haven’t really played in a while either, as well as a deep cut or two. We have some new production for the tour, and I’m really excited about getting that out in front of people as well. We try to bring people an actual show, as I know I’ve seen a lot of guys in jeans and camo shorts headbanging before, and I know the audience has as well. Obviously, the music is the focus, but we hope it’s entertaining as a show as well.
Exhumed has reached a certain cult status. You’re widely respected and have been very influential in the metal scene, even if commercial success has been a bit more elusive. If the band ends tomorrow, are you at peace with your legacy?
On one hand, I’m never really satisfied, you know? I’ve always been looking at the next thing, the next record, the next tour, the next door to cram our grubby little metaphorical foot into, you know? On the other, if it all ended tomorrow due to some unforeseen force majeure type of event, I feel like we’ve been really lucky and I’m very grateful for all that we’ve accomplished and seen. There are so many talented bands out there, and through whatever combination of skill, luck and determination, we’ve managed to carve out our own niche in the underground, which is well beyond anything I could have imagined when I was 14 sitting in my bedroom playing along with my Spiritual Healing cassette. I’m very grateful we get to keep doing this and people seem to like it, but I just don’t wanna sit reminiscing about the glory days. I wanna go out and make some more glory days right fucking now.
Top photo by Alan Snodgrass