Carcass Guitarist Bill Steer Discusses Scottish Separatism, “Yorkshire Swagger," And His Rock Band, Gentlemans Pistols
Plus listen to Gentlemans Pistol's new song "Devil’s Advocate On Call."
Bill Steer is packing his bags for the Far East when we ambush him on Skype. The famed English guitarist will be hitting Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Japan with legendary Liverpool death metal squad Carcass before returning to London to play a record release show with Gentlemans Pistols (no apostrophe, for reasons explained later), the Leeds-based rock outfit he joined in 2009. The Pistols’ latest, Hustler’s Row, is only Steer’s second album with the band led by singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer James “Atko” Atkinson. Prior to Steer’s enlistment, they’d released one full-length and a pair of seven-inch singles on Rise Above Records, the highly reputable stoner/doom label run by Steer’s onetime Napalm Death bandmate Lee Dorrian. Hustler’s Row comes via Nuclear Blast, who plastered copies of the album with a sticker advertising its contents as “full of melodic groove and general Yorkshire rock n’ roll swagger.” Which we figured was as good a place as any to start our interrogation.
NOISEY: First and most importantly: What is “general Yorkshire rock n’ roll swagger”?
Bill Steer: [Laughs] Well, I don’t blame you for the skepticism. If you haven’t spent much time in Yorkshire, it’d definitely be baffling reading that. But as someone who has spent time there—even though I’m not from there—there is a certain Yorkshire swagger. It’s a country in a country, really. They’re a funny bunch. Just to give you some perspective, I’m sure you’ve heard about this enormous prospect of Scottish separation from the UK…
Yeah, absolutely. Scotland put it to a vote, but it didn’t pass.
Right, that’s a whole other subject that I wouldn’t want to get into. I’m split in two on that one because I’m half-Scottish—my mum’s from Glasgow. But anyway, the interesting part it is, because of the strength of the SNP [Scottish National Party] and how close that referendum actually got to ending the union, you had politicians in Yorkshire saying, “Well, we’re gonna be next.” They were being laughed at across the rest of the country, but if you actually look at the population of Yorkshire, it’s bigger than Scotland. Personally, I’m not of a separatist mind. I like being together with people. [Laughs] But there was some strength to the argument just based on sheer numbers—and the pigheadedness of people in Yorkshire. They’re notorious for it, and they pride themselves on it.
Culturally, it’s a fascinating place. I think it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. They have a great beer tradition, great food, and they’re very warmhearted. They’ve had their share of great music, too.
You grew up not far from Yorkshire, didn’t you?
I grew up in County Durham, which is just north of Yorkshire. If I’d been born a few miles south, I would’ve scraped into North Yorkshire, I guess. But you’ve probably picked up this much over the years: For such a tiny piece of land, Great Britain is entirely compartmentalized.
It’s incredible, really.
Yeah, it’s ridiculous because Great Britain is smaller than most US states, but people have this mentality—it’s a very tribal thing that goes back centuries.
Was there any friction between County Durham and Yorkshire when you were growing up?
Oddly enough, no. [Laughs] Historically, the problem has been between the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire because there was this very big thing in English history called the War of the Roses. You had the white rose of Yorkshire versus the red rose of Lancashire. That’s another subject I wouldn’t want to get into because it’s quite complex, but to this day there’s some rivalry there. But in the late ’70s my family moved to the Wirral, which northwest, just across the river from Liverpool and so forth. That laid the groundwork for the bands I was in later.
You were turned on to Gentlemans Pistols by a friend. Anyone we know?
Possibly. I think the way it started was that a good friend of mine, Alan French—who at the moment is playing drums in Angel Witch, actually—told me about them. He’d seen Gents Pistols on one of their early London dates and said I might wanna check them out because they were pretty old school. You know, there’s some bands that try and do music of a certain flavor, but it’s like they’ve just raided a fancy dress box and listened to a few Sabbath albums and they think the job is done. But Alan was saying they were a lot more real than that. Even then I was a little bit skeptical, but I went to see them the next time they played London and I got into it immediately. It wasn’t just the vibe coming off the band—they were definitely committed to what they were doing—it was more the songs, actually. They were being lumped in with the “stoner” scene or whatever you want to call it, and that scene is not necessarily about songs. But with Gents, the first time I saw them there were recognizable songs with hooks, and I was very impressed. I spoke to James or “Atko” as we call him, and it was the beginning of a friendship.
You were playing in Firebird at that time.
Yeah, and so after I saw Gents that first time, Firebird would do strings of dates with them and we all became good friends. But I was also a fan—I really loved their band. At some point, their original guitar player, Chris [Rogers], stepped out. It seemed like the obvious thing for them was to approach me—or so they say. [Laughs] But I was chuffed. We all knew it would work because we all have similar tastes in music.
Did you ask them why there’s no apostrophe in Gentlemans Pistols?
[Laughs] I didn’t need to, because people were always mentioning it. The version I’ve heard from Atko is that it doesn’t look good on a page, especially when you’re doing a logo, to break it up with an apostrophe. But it has led to confusion because some people are like, “Is it Gentlemens Pistols or Gentlemans Pistols?” And we have to explain that it’s Gentlemans, singular—the pistols belonging to one gentleman—no apostrophe.
You joined Gents Pistols in 2009. By that time, Carcass had already reunited and Firebird was still going. Joining a third band must’ve seemed like a lot of extra work.
Yes and no, because it was something I really wanted to do. I knew Firebird was kind of petering out, anyway, for a whole lot of reasons. Part of it was that that band wasn’t super-practical. We tended to play with Ludwig Witt—he’s a monster drummer and a dear friend—but he lives in Sweden. And you can’t really practice when your drummer lives in a different country. So for me, the penny was gradually dropping. Firebird was on a plateau and it was unlikely that we’d get any better because we didn’t really practice enough. Whereas with Gents, it’s just two hours on the train from London to Leeds to see these lads and we can play fairly regularly. That’s my role—I like playing guitar in a band, off to the side. But there was a stretch of time there when I was in four bands—Carcass, Firebird, Gents and Angel Witch. So a couple of those bands had to go by the wayside. It was only natural.
What was playing in Angel Witch like? As a classic NWOBHM band, I imagine you listened to them quite a bit as a kid.
Yeah, totally. Playing with them was fantastic because that first Angel Witch album really meant a lot to me as a kid. To be honest, the first Angel Witch meant just as much to me as the first couple of Maiden records or the first couple of Saxon records. It was definitely a big deal. Naturally enough, I never thought I’d be involved with the group. When they approached me, I was already in three bands so I didn’t necessarily need to do it—I already had a bit of a headache with the logistics of the other three—but I just really wanted to do it as a fan.
That first practice with Angel Witch really sent my brain all over the place because you’re in a small room and there’s Kevin [Heybourne] playing and singing next to me, and it really sounded and felt like Angel Witch. It was exciting. It’s like completing a circle in your mind, because here’s something that meant so much to you when you were 11 or 12 years old, and here you are playing with the man who created it. But I knew it wouldn’t last forever because at some point the dates were going to collide with something Carcass was doing. Angel Witch has had so many lineup changes, anyway. I think Kevin needs fresh blood to keep the thing going. So I looked at the diary and talked to them about working in a replacement because Angel Witch could play a gig without me but maybe Carcass can’t.
What was your first gig with Gents Pistols like?
I think it was a gig in Nottingham. We played an old bank that had been turned into a wine bar or something. It was an odd venue because the ceiling was very high and it was all made out of stone, so all the sound would just bounce off the walls. You couldn’t hear any clarity from any of the bands. Some of the bands we were playing with were kind of noisy and fast anyway, so it was odd. But it was a good way to ease me into the lineup because I didn’t really have to worry too much about making mistakes. If you played a bum note, people weren’t gonna hear it for at least five seconds. [Laughs]
The first album you did with Gents Pistols was 2011’s At Her Majesty’s Pleasure. By that time, Carcass had already been back at it for a few years…
Yeah, and maybe there is something significant in that because it was a fantastic time doing those reunion shows with Carcass, but you’re really looking at a lot of large festivals and, if we did tour, large club shows. So joining Gents was keeping me in touch with my roots because you’re out there playing to a smaller number of people in smaller venues. Those gigs can be the best gigs ever or they can be not so good, but I wouldn’t really want to lose touch with that sort of thing because that’s how I started out. On balance, it’s maybe the best way to play music because you can feel it better in a room that’s smaller and more contained. With the festival shows, often you don’t know if you’ve played a good show. You’ll play for 45 minutes or an hour, but it’s not very clear if people liked it or not.
After Carcass split up in 1996, you formed Firebird. You went from a death metal band to a blues-based rock band incorporating an almost totally different guitar style. Going from Firebird to Gents Pistols seems like a fairly natural transition, but Carcass to Firebird was pretty drastic. What was going on there?
There was a part of it that was very natural because being a bloke of a certain age, I had grown up hearing a lot of Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix and Ten Years After—bands like that. It was still in my DNA, but I hadn’t actually been out in the public domain playing that kind of music. By the time I was anywhere near competent on the guitar, it was the early days of the extreme metal movement and those were the kinds of bands I played in. So naturally enough, people associate me with death metal and grindcore because the first albums I played on were that music.
More than ever, people are obsessed with genres, but let’s not forget: This is all electric-guitar based music. I was old enough to remember not just true heavy metal but the stuff became before it—but definitely, it took me some time to get it truly into my playing. You can’t really mess around with that stuff. If you’re gonna do it, you have to do it properly. You have to steep yourself in the music. That’s probably why I spent so long away between the release of the Swansong record with Carcass and the first Firebird record. I just got lost in my own world because I didn’t have any pressure on me to do anything—I was free to explore. Then suddenly I realized I was almost 30 and hadn’t done another record, so I sort of cracked the whip on myself a bit.
Playing in Firebird probably primed you perfectly for playing in Gents Pistols.
Oh, absolutely. It’s not too far. The difference would be in how direct the material is. The way Atko writes for Gentlemans Pistols is effortlessly snappy. The songs are very hooky and immediate. That’s something Firebird never had. But in terms of the approach and the influences involved, yeah, the bands aren’t too far apart.
Do you have any plans to bring Gents to the States? The band hasn’t been here yet.
We don’t have any concrete plans, but certainly we’d love to. I think we’ll just see how much interest there is, really. But I’d say we’re fairly optimistic about getting over there next year.
Last but not least, what’s next for Carcass?
After the Far East shows, Carcass will do four weeks across Europe with Napalm Death, Obituary and Voivod. That’s what’s in the diary so far. Hopefully, we’ll work on new Carcass tunes around Christmas. There’s definitely some songs in the bag, but it’s very early days.
J. Bennett prefers the proper use of apostrophes whenever possible but realizes he can’t have everything his way.