Interview: Chris Barnes of Six Feet Under

With Six Feet Under’s latest album, Torment, now out for a month and being very well received (certainly, we liked it), what better time to talk to legendary frontman Chris Barnes? The honour this time went to Mike…

On February 24th the band released their sixteenth album, entitled Torment. What was the main process like for you compared to the band’s last record Graveyard Classics IV – The Number of the Priest?

Well I mean this is totally different. That was a cover album so we were playing other people’s songs, whereas we wrote all this material. This is our own creation not someone else’s that we are interpreting, so in that way it’s different. It was no different than other albums that we wrote, that I had a part in writing, like Crypt of the Devil, Undead and Unborn. Even the earlier stuff. I always approach it as being in the band, just listening to the music that others feed me, and kinda just going from there – from that starting point.

I read something before that said for this album there were a lot more time changes, and when I was reviewing I found that there was a lot of difference in the guitar and the bass lines that really stood out.

I think I said interesting time changes and tempos and stuff like that, so yeah. Jeff wrote some really neat ins and outs for me. He kind of understands where I come from vocally, how I approach things structure-wise, the physicality of my writing and where I go from that point as in the syncopation against the rhythm.

Torment is very groovy, very powerful and I think for what it is it really stood out as an album. It really gave something even new listeners could get into.

Well thanks, man, thanks. Yeah, for me it was a really good experience. It was cool working with Phil on Crypt but I’ve been with Jeff for a while and he has toured with me and we’ve known each other for a bit. It’s just a more focused group of songs and I think that he just had a lot to get out as a writer himself and not anything to prove, but he just had some interesting things that he wanted to show.

That’s pretty cool.

Yeah, and I picked up on it man. I mean, the album has a really cool heartbeat, so I enjoy it.

Who did you go with for the artwork, and what would you say the main idea behind the design for this album cover? We can see a very tormented figure but there’s a lot more going on from what I can see.

I think there is a lot going on there and I think it’s hard for people to pick up on unless they know and they have seen my artwork in the past. I worked with Section Devenom on this one, and he’s a friend of mine that I met online was a fan of my music, and he’s just a great artist. Not only in the digital realm, but he works in physical art too, like painting and sketching and pen and ink and all sorts. He’s very proficient in both things which is kind of odd nowadays like you either see one or the other.

He gave me this piece and it spoke to me because it focusses. The title of the piece is “Duality” and you have two bodies stitched together. If you look at it it’s in the position of my backwards Six logo, which is an interpretation of yin and yang and good and evil and the idea of duality – but I’ve always perceived that to be one thing. Going back to the first album, that was the logo. That was my idea in creating that logo. I don’t believe that there’s good and evil, I only believe that there is one entity and that duality makes up the one source. So when I saw that I understood and I started to delve into that duality and I started to find out about non-physical entities, a hall or records. I mean all sorts of things – kind of an odd rabbit hole that I had always known but I never had titles for.

My perception opened up a little bit when I started to think about duality in kind of a strict philosophical way (other than what I’ve perceived good and evil as, and what I titled it as) so it kind of led me down a real spiritual journey. I just felt that the album cover encapsulated a lot of my ideas that I’ve always had, and that I’ve always tried to portray. With this album being so specific and focussed it was just very odd and at the same time perfect that the artwork interpreted all of that together. I just kind of went with it, man!

I just looked at and as soon as I saw it in white it reminded me of the void of nothing. I mean people look at black and think of the void of nothing, and I look now and I see something more frightening – always light. That torment, the physicality and the spirituality of the cover brings that all out and brings out everything in what I try to talk about, symbolically and in this reality within my lyrics.

One of the things I was looking at just now was the the white background, because with a lot of bands always try and use very dark colours. You rarely ever see an album like this focussing on the figure, you just have that empty void. I understand what you mean about the white void because with the darkness you never know what is lurking within, but with the light there is nothing to see all around you  – just one figure in torment.

It never ends and the other thing is that you have an idea of white and black – that’s just totally good and evil, positive and negative, so it’s balance. For the LP version we did a white background and we did a black background. I’m just very interested in many facets of existence, I always have been, and I’ve been criticised for it by people who don’t know me and people that do know me, because I find this to be  a puzzle. Where are we at? That’s interesting to me, discovery and unraveling mysteries about life and our existence and portraying that within my lyrics and storytelling… and the way I sing things, it’s what’s interesting to me and that’s what’s part of my being, so I’ll continue to explore those ideas.

Torment is one of the most powerful albums so far this year, a very aggressive but very powerful and focused record with a lot to offer different fans of death metal. It really feels like there is a lot more to come from the band in terms of material.

[Laughs] Thanks, Mike! Yeah man, I think we’ve got a lot more to come with Jeff and Marco. Jeff’s an amazing songwriter and musician and Marco is a great drummer, they both know their instruments down to the fullest – they’re masters, they’re still interested in pushing the limits of what they can do and what they know and those are the type of people I like being involved with. Now that I’ve got back with Jack Owen on guitar, it’s like all the things that I wanted to do have kind of come of come together with this album.

Jack’s been wanting to do stuff and I’ve been wanting to do stuff with Jack writing-wise and it just… well we’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work together again, so I think that’s gonna help keep it interesting for all of us, because we all kind of feed off of each other’s energy. Jeff’s honed in on some weird frequencies [laughs], I know Jack is as I’ve worked with him before, [laughs] I know Marco is for sure, and Ray’s a great guitarist to work with. He is just an expert at his instrument too, so all the guys keep me pushing myself forward because I have to try to keep up with them.

I saw Jack at Hellfest last year with Deicide and he’s a very proficient guitarist. Seeing him play live is a whole other experience all together.

Yeah, he’s interesting. He takes care of business you know, he just sits up and he does his thing and whenever I was up on stage with Jack we had a real cool stage repertoire. [Laughs] We just played little jokes on each other, it’s gonna continue. [Laughs]

How did talks come about for you and Jack to start working together again?.

Me and Jack, through the years and through the break up, we never had any harsh words about each other. I’m sure there were interviews where he’s tongue in cheek about things, but I know Jack and I’ve never taken anything personally about anything that anyone has said about me. Jack and I never had any problems with each other when we were in the band or when we were out of the band, so we were always friends but just disconnected.

At one point we just started talking casually. I don’t know when it was, but we texted each other at one point we just started giggling about something [laughs] and we started talking about writing together. It was a few years back and we just stayed in contact. It was always in the back of my mind if I was going to have another guitarist in the band, or if he became available and wasn’t in Deicide and it happened… Some people believe in the idea of quantum energy and the idea of thought and energy and stuff like that, and maybe that was the beginning of a chain of events that were put in place, but I’m glad if that was the case because now I’m back with a great guitarist.

I took some time to look at the lyrics, especially for the album’s track “Sacrificial Kill”. In the second verse:

A deep cut to your crushed windpipe
All it takes to stop your frightened breathing quickly
Captured you for my sick pleasure
No escape, I own you, no return.

That’s a very powerful piece of writing. When it comes to writing lyrics like this, what would you say motivates or brings you these kinds of ideas?

You’re the first person to be very specific when asking me a question like that, Mike. In probably twenty-eight years you’re probably the first who’s cited a lyric and then have been very specific about it. It’s usually: “What are these?” or: “What’s this song about?” I can’t do that, but when you’re specific about it then I can kind of answer that. This is the way that I draw that inspiration, I just listen to the mechanics of it. That verse comes up, I’ll try to pair a rhythm with it. I don’t know where it’s coming from, I don’t know where the storyline’s coming from but all of a sudden the words start to appear. That is why I look to the idea of duality and the idea of a hall of records because I can understand that.

Are there any new bands at this time that you have been listening to, that you would recommend to anyone reading this?

Yeah, there’s cool bands out there. People know who’s cool more than I do! You guys know the good bands and the bad bands. I don’t wanna say that someone’s really good. That’s up to you guys to critique. There’s a great band here in Seattle which is a black metal band called Inquisition, their last album was excellent. I like some of the new black metal stuff. It sounds really focussed down.

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