By Justin M. Norton
A common narrative in extreme metal is the story about the longtime touring musician who leaves the road to live a workaday life and perhaps start a family. The musician might tour during vacation or record an occasional album but most leave the nomadic lifestyle behind. Rarely do you hear about the musician who leaves the road for a workaday life and returns to the grind years later. Exhumed guitarist and vocalist Matt Harvey is one of the few people who made that choice. He toiled in IT and sold televisions in Hawaii until a few emails kickstarted his longtime band. All Guts, No Glory will be released July 5 via Relapse. Harvey talked to Hellbound about his time in Dilbert cubicle hell and the evils of paycheck advances.
When you started playing in a band it was 1990 and you were 15. How have you kept a passion for extreme metal? Did the passion ever wane?
The passion for music didn’t go away but my passion for Exhumed went away. I was just sick of it. Music isn’t something I’ve had to work at. It’s just something that’s happened for me. I remember real clearly right after Christmas of 1986 when I was 11. I got the twelve tapes for a penny deal in Hit Parader and one of the tapes was Master of Puppets. I remember putting it on and I was like: “fuck, something just happened!” That night my whole life direction changed. I was like: “Ok, cool. This is what I’m into now.” From there things got heavier and heavier. This is something you have inside you; there’s not a choice. It’s something I learned being gone from Exhumed for six years. I tried to get a real job and be a normal person in the real world. And I was kind of like, ultimately I’d rather be in a van with four other smelly dudes driving overnight across the country. This just makes me happy and makes sense. It might not to other people. But once it gets inside of you that’s it. You’re fucked (laughs).
Why did you lose passion for Exhumed in the years you took off?
It was a lot of things. (Former drummer) Col (Jones) and I had spearheaded the band since 1991 when we did our first rehearsal tape. We put a lot of time and work into it. After he left it was a big adjustment. I was trying to run shit on my own creatively and logistically. The anatomy of the band just dissolved and everything fell apart. I felt like we worked really hard and it had been a long journey. I also put a lot of pressure on things. When Anatomy Is Destiny came out I put pressure on myself for good production and better playing. I started thinking about getting to the next level. I’m not even sure what that means but somehow it was the goal.
I kept trying to put the band back together and it wasn’t taking. I was really frustrated. I was working at different labels. I turned 30 and I had made no money. Finally, I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. Everything felt like a clusterfuck, a hassle. It wasn’t worth it. So I said fuck it. I wasn’t into the brutal tech-death scene that was the only thing putting people in seats and selling records. I didn’t identify with it at all. Fourteen years is a lot of time to do anything, even a marriage or a business.
Fourteen years is an especially long time when you might be starving.
Oh yeah (laughs). I wasn’t ever thinking about buying a new car. It was a struggle to make ends meet and to keep people happy. I just wondered what I was doing. I felt like I worked so hard so why not just work and make regular money? I’m glad we did stop because the stuff I was thinking about had all of these melodic parts. I pulled some of the demos out of storage recently and listened to them. And I was glad I didn’t put them out, because they sucked. It wouldn’t have been Exhumed.
Do you remember a low point for you financially before the band broke up?
I was doing a lot of payday advances. I was caught in this cycle of doing it every week or two weeks. By the time I would get paid I would have to pay them back and it would cost more. I was working at Necropolis Records and it was falling apart and also trying to tour. I’d get a paycheck and wouldn’t cash it for a few days. I tried to save it to pay rent and eat. It wasn’t like I was homeless. But it gets frustrating. After years of this you reach a point where you feel like you aren’t living like a normal person.
Were you one of those people they wrote about in newspaper articles who get in a vicious cycle with payday advances and they become your credit card company, except with more exorbitant rates?
That’s exactly it. I learned my lesson. It was awful. The rate is like 25 percent. It’s like 250 bucks to get 200 bucks. When you need 200 bucks that bad you start to realize there are some fundamental issues. You should have 200 dollars lying around or at least be able to access it. That’s a reasonable goal for an adult (laughs). But when you spend three or four months on the road you can’t hold down a career type job. Even if you make decent money on the road it dries up quickly. We’ve never been Morbid Angel or Cannibal Corpse.
Things do seem a lot easier now. We’re able to get shows and things are flowing. The challenge for me is I’ve been out of it for a few years. But that’s a hell of a lot better than scraping things together with no resources.
What did you do in the years Exhumed was on hold? Did you take a stab at conventional life?
I did tech support for a few companies around the Bay Area. Those are the types of jobs that are around. For the first time in my life I was like, wow, I’m making twenty dollars an hour. Ultimately, I wasn’t very happy or fulfilled. I worked at one company for almost four years. It was semi-normal. I did a record with Dekapitator and started a band called Scarecrow. We had a whole album worth of stuff we didn’t release.
So you turned around after all these years on the road and then have a life that is like Office Space?
It was a really weird transition. It’s tough to take the things people stress about on jobs too seriously. I was always like, really, these are your problems? They changed a form and you are super bent out of shape about it? The shit people talk to you about is crazy. They’ll ask if you’ve seen the new reality show. And when you haven’t heard of they don’t know what’s going on. I don’t read People so I don’t know what’s going on in the regular world. But in the Bay Area you can meet cool people even in the most mundane jobs. You can meet people that like to drink and party. But it was a big adjustment.
When you heard about these problems did you ever think “none of these people have had to live on a dollar a day or change a tire in a snowstorm?”
Here’s the thing. No one made me do any of that stuff. No one made me drive a van for ten hours. It was always my choice. I never felt sorry for myself. Some people would think it was foolish and others might think it was noble. I don’t get into blaming people; it was just different. I am just a regular guy who likes to drink beer and watch sports. But when I hang out with normal people I realize I’m not that normal. I remember I was with my ex-girlfriend and some of her friends. They were asking about Exhumed and the things we did. And I said we covered ourselves in animal blood and smashed bones onstage, and we had a guy that threw up on people. The look on everyone’s face was like: “Holy shit.” I was just being honest.
If your employer at the time saw a copy of one of your old albums would you have been escorted out by security?
I wouldn’t have been hired. But I had been there a while. The boss was a British guy with a pretty good sense of humor. He was a vegan so he might have appreciated it from the Carcass standpoint. But if I handed them a copy of Gore Metal with my resume I wouldn’t have been hired.
When did the wheels start turning again for Exhumed?
After doing all of that stuff I realized I wasn’t into being a normal job guy. I decided to move to Maui and was there for a year and a half. I didn’t think I would live there forever. It was strange living there. You think people just want to go snorkeling every day. Of course, I fell in with all of the people on the island who liked metal. They kept saying Exhumed was rad and why aren’t you on tour? Wouldn’t you rather be making records than drinking beer on the beach with us? I was getting ready to move back and I knew I wanted to play. I got in touch with Wes (Caley) because I thought he was a great guitar player. I was moving to San Luis Obispo and wanted to jam. He said: “fuck, we should just do Exhumed again.” It sounded like he might be joking but I was cool with it. We talked to (drummer) Danny (Walker) and (bassist) Leon (del Muerte) and it literally took ten minutes. We dropped Relapse a line and they wanted an album. Everything was in place and we hadn’t even played a single note together.
You went from sitting on the beach to having a contract for All Guts, No Glory in a few minutes?
That’s how it felt. The whole thing took like a week. It was super fast. Before I knew it we were working on songs. The last five or six months in Hawaii I had a shitty job selling televisions. All I did was boogie board, snorkel and write Exhumed songs. By the time I got back to California the whole record was written and then some.
What did it feel like starting to play as Exhumed again?
It was a challenge at first. I remember one night I went back and listened to our discography straight through. I wanted to approach it as an outsider. It gave me a cool perspective and dictated the direction of the record. I thought about what the band does well and crystallized it. The first few songs I wrote didn’t make the record. After the third or fourth song I came up with stuff that was strong enough. We were all emailing back and forth. It was collaborative even though we weren’t in the same state.
We all recorded at home as MP3s and shared it among the four of us. We whittled down a list. By the time I was back in California we had an idea of what we wanted to work on. We recorded fifteen new songs for the record and eleven ended up on the album.
When did you move back to California and how soon did you get back into the studio?
I got back last July (2010). I went on tour with Gravehill playing guitar about three weeks after that. We were in the studio by September. We only rehearsed four times before we recorded. We had so much worked out by then. It had to move fast because of Danny’s tour schedule with Intronaut.
How was it getting back together with Leon after such a long pause?
Leon is one of my oldest friends. One of the reasons I like playing with him is he doesn’t take things too seriously. That’s a good thing in the studio where things are tense and there is a lot of pressure. He just laughs things off. We’ve all known each other forever so it’s easier to tell someone something sucks and needs to be done again. No one needs to walk on eggshells. No one gets mad about fuckups; we just do it again.
What makes a good Exhumed song?
The criteria for me is what would make a good rock or pop song. Number one, it has to be catchy. Number two, everything has to serve a purpose. One of things we wanted to cut back on from the Anatomy record was the number of repeats and extra parts. Everything that could be taken out should be taken out. You should only have what’s essential. It’s not necessarily about speed even if we play fast. It’s about keeping intensity and aggression. When we play slow it should feel attacking.
How does Danny manage to play in so many bands?
Well, he’s immensely talented. Playing Exhumed stuff is kind of a vacation for him (laughs). Intronaut is really jazzy and technique driven. He has a personality that’s all over the place all the time. He can be drinking a beer and talking to three different people and texting. He’s like a hummingbird. But he’s such a good drummer and grasps things immediately.
On the new album the gore and blood is there but some of the medical terminology isn’t…
I love Carcass and they are a big inspiration. But we’re trying to be memorable first and it’s tough when you are spending your time trying to pronounce a song title. One of the differences now is that I try to go with what’s happening rather than make something happen. Hopefully, people will enjoy the lyrics. But we didn’t go out of our way to make a linguistic labyrinth. We’re just trying to be a rock band.
Other bands that have reunited like say it’s much easier to get gigs and play on the second go-around because you are a brand name. Are you surprised to see things much more businesslike than when you were younger?
It’s like night and day. We’re not fucking rolling in dough but things are easily doable. Things aren’t a problem. We don’t have to think about moving things around. Apparently breaking up and getting back together is a good business model (laughs). But we’ve been able to do things much easier than six years ago. I think part of it is age, too. We’re able to make better decisions. In the past we put pressure on ourselves to outdo the last record. Now, if someone offers us something we don’t want we pass. In the past we’d just take any opportunity. That’s why we had so many splits and so many shows. We’d play a VFW hall or a house. Now, we don’t need to kill ourselves. It’s great to do that for a while and grow but it gets tough.
Where does All Guts fit into the discography?
In one way it’s a continuation of what we did. In another it feels like a first album. It feels like a mission statement. We just wanted to remind people what we are about. If I didn’t think we could do a great album it would be stupid to reform. We’re not so big that we can do a greatest hits set and watch the money roll in. We’re a working band. We can’t rest on our laurels.
Marissa Martinez from Cretin is one of your lifelong friends. Have you kept up with her during her gender transition?
We were in close contact in the beginning and then lost touch a little. Since I just played guitar with Cretin at MDF it was a nice way to get back in touch. It’s an interesting journey. You have to change your take on things. Now, it feels normal. But it felt weird at first. I was wondering how to react. But it’s been cool because it’s the same person I’ve been friends with almost 20 years. But I’ve also been able to meet someone else. So I get a new friend but I still have my old friend.
A learning experience…
I would never begrudge anyone their life decisions. Do whatever makes you happy. But when you know someone a long time like I did you have to readjust.
Are you playing music full-time again?
Even if I wanted to work now it wouldn’t be possible. We were just in Maryland and I took a quick vacation on the East Coast to see my Mom. Then we have Europe and then we do the U.S. and Canada tour. Then we’re going to Mexico. The schedule is so packed we’re too busy for anything else.
Going back to Office Space, was returning to music like the scene at the end where Peter Gibbons sees his friends working in IT and he’s happy cleaning up a burned down building?
Returning to Exhumed was my great capitulation. I was just honest and said this is what I do. It’s not lucrative but ultimately stripes on a tiger don’t wash away. We are who we are. I’d rather deal with the problems of being a musician than not be doing what I love. It’s not about the glory. It’s about doing what I do.