Interview with guitarist/vocalist Karl Sanders
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from www.facebook.com/nilecatacombs and
Egyptian-themed death metal titans Nile marked their 20th anniversary in 2013 and are marching confidently forward toward their 25th. The band’s eighth studio album, What Should Not Be Unearthed, is their most effectively punishing release since 2005’s Annihilation Of The Wicked – and stands in marked contrast to the squeaky clean, surgical precision of 2012’s At The Gate Of Sethu.
Where Sethu was about dexterity, Unearthed is more about brutality. The technical proficiency remains, it’s just got a lot more balls to go with it this time. It was a calculated move, according to founding guitarist/vocalist Karl Sanders, but one the band – rounded out by guitarist/vocals Dalls Toler-Wade, drummer George Kollias and new bassist/vocalist Brad Parris – felt they needed to make. And with more than two decades in the underground trenches under their belts, who could argue otherwise.
In a wide-ranging phone interview from the band’s home base of South Carolina, Sanders offered the following about the mindset of Nile going into What Should Not Be Unearthed and the creative process, the trials and tribulations of touring and even the confederate flag debate that was raging in his adoptive home state and elsewhere at the time following the recent race-related mass murder in Charleston.
So how are you doing on a Wednesday afternoon?
Karl Sanders: Doing well, how ’bout you?
Doing well myself, thanks. Enjoying all these interrogations?
Sanders: I’m actually much more sane this time around. It’s not the mentally traumatic lobotomy that it has been at times in the past. I’m also noticing that a lot of the guys I’m talking to seem to be much more knowledgeable about the record this time.
Your promo must have come out with more lead time than they [Nuclear Blast] sometimes give. I got the music like two weeks ago. A lot of times, it’s a matter of days. So people have had a little more time to familiarize themselves with your album. And your music takes a bit more to absorb than most.
Sanders: (laughs) Right on, well hopefully they are learning and putting those lessons to good use because you’re probably going to be getting more compelling interviews if the people who are doing them are able to ask informed questions.
By the same token, hopefully that also doesn’t make it easier for the album to leak out.
Sanders: It’s not the wild west as it was a couple years ago. The journalism scene has thinned out quite a bit, so hopefully some of those bad eggs have gone on to other walks of life and are bad eggs in those walks of life instead of ours (laughs).
You mentioned the thinning of the media ranks, what has that meant in terms of the press you do?
Sanders: I would say like 10 years ago it would be a month of press, not just a week of press. And it was all day, you’d do press for 10 hours a day instead of four hours a day. There was so much press, they would actually fly me to different cities in the world and there’d be three or four days in each major city, like London, Paris, Milan, New York, Los Angeles. It was a different world back then when there were still a lot of magazines. Those days are over, I’m afraid.
Yup. Now you can do it on Skype, and with social media, as soon as an interview is up on a website or blog, everyone knows about it and can link to it, so you get a lot more mileage out of the ones you do.
Sanders: It’s also a much more relaxed thing. When you can do Skype interviews from home, it’s just an entirely different environment. One of the guys I was talking to yesterday said “dude, do you realize I’m talking to you and I’m not even wearing any pants?” (laughs) That’s really amazing, it’s really a sign of the times. So I told him I wasn’t wearing any pants either, even though that was a lie.
I’m in my office at my real job work, so I not only have pants on, I have a shirt on as well, and shoes!
Sanders: What about a tie? You got a tie on?
Not a tie, though the shirt has a collar and I very well could have had one on?
Sanders: You’re halfway there to corporate enslavement then (laughs).
Are you still in South Carolina?
Sanders: I am, how about yourself? I saw the 703 area code on there and it seemed familiar, but where is that?
That is Arlington, Va., right across the river from D.C. How has it been where you are, being in the center of the confederate flag argument universe for the last few weeks?
Sanders: You know, I gotta say I’ve seen quite a bit of insanity amongst my friends both in real life and on Facebook. People seem to be really, really bent on one opinion or the other. It’s almost like one of those ridiculous college rivalries. And it came to a climax for me yesterday. One of the interviewers I was talking with was from North Carolina and he asked me what I thought about the whole thing and I took a very neutral position.
I’m from California, I’m not fully vested in either being a Yankee or a Southerner, I came from the West Coast. So I kinda laugh at the whole thing. So when I told him that he took it like … the interview was over because of that fucking question. Ten minutes early, he ended it. I guess he expected me to take a stand one way or the other, since it is such a polarizing issue, but, really, I’m an outsider. I may live here, but my roots are from California and I don’t have the passion for this argument like someone who’s family has been here for generations.
But that’s not what the guy wanted to hear yesterday. I hope that interview doesn’t come out bad because he’s mad. I guess we’ll see.
Other than doing press and trying to fend off controversy, how are you spending your summer?
Sanders: (laughs) Well, June was pretty much spent approving mixes, all day every day and then approving masters and approving artwork and then there was a week in there where I was still checking the liner notes from the art guy because the art guy [Michal “Xaay” Loranc] is Polish, so even though I had somebody really hip, an English professor, that did the editing of my liner notes, the art guy started changing everything. And I love that he is an incredible artist, but he speaks English a second language, so it caused all kinds of insanity. I was ready to just about kill somebody, but thank god I do martial arts in my spare time, that made quite a healthy outlet for my anger and rage and frustration with this whole business.
I guess you start your upcoming tour in Poland, ironically enough, maybe you take out your frustration on him when you get there?
Sanders: Nah. It’s all good now. There’s always a lot of stress when the album’s just about done, but everything’s done and gone now. Our artist has nothing to worry about (laughs). We actually have a Polish touring company, so it just makes sense for them to start and end the tour in Poland.
What comes after your European trek with Suffocation?
Sanders: We’ve got an Australian jaunt that is going to include two Chinese shows, Hong Kong, Bangkok and they’re trying to tie in something in Indonesia and they want to send us to Bali. Can you believe there’s a metal fest in Bali? When I think of Bali, I think of beaches and girls in Bali bras and grass skirts. In my mind, when someone says metal fest in Bali I’m visualizing an entire sea of that girl (laughs). I know I’m just setting myself up for disappointment, but I’m taking my camera just in case.
I saw a poster somewhere for the Australian shows, Unearth is actually opening?
Sanders: Yeah, isn’t that a crazy coincidence? We should do all the tours for this album with them, the What Should Not Be Unearthed tour featuring special guests … Unearth. That’d be good for a laugh.
Do you have anything set for the states yet?
Sanders: I just saw the finalized dates and we’re starting in January and it runs through February, a nice big healthy American tour. We’re even going some places in America we’ve never been to before, like Boise, Idaho. Holy shit! I used to make jokes about Topeka, Kansas, but now I guess I’ll have to start making Boise, Idaho, jokes.
Do you still plan on touring as hard as you did, say, 10 years ago? Or have you scaled things back because of, for one, the economics and, two, you guys aren’t 20 years old any more?
Sanders: Well, there is no mercy upon us for our age. Touring doesn’t get any easier, but you’ve still gotta do it. There’s no money being made on CD sales any more, so if you actually don’t want to lose a shitload of money you’ve got to go on tour. And in and of itself, the economics of touring have become a gauntlet of obstacles that you’ve gotta run.
The price of fucking gassing up the tour bus is $500 a shot. The overhead on a tour bus when all is said and done is about $2,500 a day, so you figure if you’re not generating that kind of income on tour you’re losing money. So for a band like us it’s definitely not an easy proposition, but what are you gonna do? Stay at home and cry? I’d rather go out and play some metal, take metal to the people. That’s my life, that’s what I do. I play metal.
It doesn’t seem a chore to me – unless I’m in Topeka, Kansas (laughs). I’m joking, I love Topeka, Kansas, there’s some wonderful metal people there. But there are venues, because this is extreme death metal, and it’s underground, where you’ve got a broom closet for a dressing room and you might get fed and you might not. It’s not the Stones. We’re not being treated like royalty. There are days when it’s like “I don’t want to get out of my bunk today because I know what the fuck this place is going to be like.”
There’s this place in the Netherlands, a club called The Baroeg, and it’s this shitty little biker bar that has metal bands. And every metal that’s toured Europe has probably played The Baroeg at one time or another. But the thing that blows my mind every time I find myself back there again is they have no toilets in the backstage area. If you want to use the toilets you have to go to the one in the main part of the venue, which is a dirty, filthy biker bar. And set in the middle of the toilet seat, there’s a nail. A big fucking construction nail that sticks up about 2 inches up out of the toilet seat.
I imagine somebody in the club put that nail in there so people would be discouraged from using the toilet, however, when you’re on a tour and there are four or five metal bands and tour people and merchandising people and crew and everybody else, you’ve got 40 fucking metal guys on tour, every day every one of those human beings will need to use the restroom. That’s just the way human beings were built. So you have a choice, you could either walk a few kilometers to find a decent toilet or use the one that’s there at The Baroeg. And depending on the urgency of the situation, you might just have to choose option B.
You just better be really careful.
Sanders: Yeah, you’ve gotta work around that big construction nail. And here’s the punchline, it’s been there for like a dozen years! No one has bothered to take a hammer and pull that motherfucking nail out. I wonder how many people have gouged themselves in a drunken stupor trying to use the toilet at The Baroeg. That’s the kind of stuff that makes you just want to stay on the bus sometimes.
Still, you must be pretty excited to get out and play the new stuff, it sounds like it will crush live?
Sanders: You said it brother. We’re actually planning on playing a total of six songs from the new record, because you’re right. They are meant for live purposes. They are built for metal audiences to have fun, bang your head, throw the goat horns, be metal as fuck.
We really wanted to make an album this time that was something directly for our fans, with songs that are catchy and fun and not mired in technicality and whatnot. I think a lot of times technical death metal gets so technical that it’s not fun any more. It becomes painful and tiresome to listen to an entire song, let alone an entire album, of tech-death because we’ve just reached such ridiculous proportions of technicality in this day and age that it’s hard to find the song sometimes.
So we just wanted to say “fuck all that,” and we kinda took an anti-technical approach where it is technical death metal, but the criteria we used when we were assembling the songs were if a riff was fast and technical or slow and catchy or medium and fun, or whatever the fuck it was, “is it heavy, does it have feeling, is it metal?” If it met those criteria, it didn’t matter what else it was, it could be whatever.
There was no sense of “OK, we’ve gotta prove that we’re as technical or more technical than this other band,” there was no fucking bullshit like that and I hear so much of that on people’s records. It’s insane. The listener gets left out of the equation. I thought it was time someone should give a fuck about Nile fans.
And if not you guys, then who?
Sanders: (laughs) If not us, then some other band will. But we were headed in the direction of over-technicality with the last album, and it was time to put the fans ahead of whatever technical aspirations we might have.
Do you find it more challenging to write material that is “catchier” and groovier than it is to write something super technical? Does it take a whole other mindset?
Sanders: I’d say yes, it’s another level of composition. In one sense you might think that since there are elements that aren’t impossible to play in the song that, therefore, it’s easier to write, but the inverse is true.
You’re a writer. I imagine you can spew out sentences ad nauseum with incredible use of the English language right off the fucking cuff. But actually producing a piece of writing that people want to read and they enjoy reading and they get something from that, well that’s a whole other fucking thing. That takes a little more thought, a little more actually harnessing the power of writing.
The essence of communication is, you have one person with the idea and we want that idea to be transferred over to the person being communicated to, right? If the second person doesn’t get, for whatever reason, the actual intent of what the first person was trying to communicate, well then communication hasn’t actually taken place. You’ve gotta speak in words that people will understand or they won’t get the fucking message.
It’s the same thing, I think, with music. Actually crafting something that is enjoyable to listen to and fun and has the metal spirit is a lost and dying art, I think.
Is the decision to take the music in this direction the result of some self-actualization among the band, or something your fans have been prodding you to do?
Sanders: It was kind of the result of an epiphany I had after At The Gate Of Sethu. With At The Gate Of Sethu, we went to ridiculous extreme lengths to have a super clean sound where you could hear every friggin’ note that we played, which meant that the guitar sound wasn’t big and huge and fat. We had to thin it out just so you could hear everything. And a lot of people didn’t necessarily respond to that because it wasn’t a death metal guitar tone, it was more like a guitar tone like you’d find on an AC/DC record, but we were playing death metal with it because we wanted to hear every fucking note.
Well, we took a lot of heat for it, a lot of people really bashed the album and us for that choice. Some people liked it, a whole lot of people didn’t, but whatever, live and learn. But after I had wallowed in an insane amount of abuse, a fan wrote me a letter and said “Karl, we really love all the cool guitar stuff you’re playing and all, and it’s great to hear it, but on the next record could we please have the big old Nile guitar tone?”
And I went, “you know what? He’s fucking right.” And he wasn’t a dickhead about it, he just said it nice and simple in a way that communicated exactly how he felt and he was right. Who are we playing music for anyway? Are we playing it to prove something to ourselves, or do we have a higher purpose? Our purpose is and should be to make metal for people to enjoy.
Well, there’s certainly no shortage of crunch on this album.
Sanders: (Cackles) Yes, my friend. I’m really happy with the guitar tone on this record, it’s everything it needed to be, plus we did manage to get some clarity so you can tell what the fuck’s going on and it’s still pretty big and fat.
Did you try that same sort of tactic with the lyrics, make them a bit less labyrinthian and mysterious this time? The titles, in many cases – the title track, “Call To Destruction,” “Age Of Famine,” etc., are certainly more direct.
Sanders: They are somewhat streamlined. Someone pointed out to me that on this record there’s no super long song titles. At first I didn’t realize the significance of that, but I think it is telling that these songs are aimed for effectiveness. The stuff that’s in there can still get pretty deep, but we’re not trying to confuse listeners along the way this time (laughs).
On other records, too, it seemed like sometimes the music and the words were chasing after each other, here everything is really well incorporated. There seems to be more structure, if that’s the right word for it?
Sanders: I think you’re using the right word. There is a cohesiveness this time to everything and the lyric structure, the meter of the words, it’s all intrinsically linked with everything else going on. This is something I felt very strongly about, that needed to happen in order for the songs to have an effectiveness. If everything isn’t working together, then you’ve got fucking chaos.
A lot of metal these days is total chaos with no one giving a fuck. You stick whatever words wherever and there you go. But we didn’t want to do that this time, we wanted everything to work together to make an orchestrated punch of effectiveness. Yeah.
There’s nothing in there, nothing was allowed to stay, if it didn’t help the song, which of course causes some tension in the band room because people get really attached to this bass part or this drum part of this guitar part. There was a lot of ruthless chopping out of stuff that did not help the song. If something wasn’t working hand in hand to propel the song forward, it had to fucking go.
Some people can embrace that and some people can’t, but there you go. If you want to actually make a nice omelet, you have to crack the eggs (laughs).
With the title, What Should Not Be Unearthed, are you speaking about any specific “What,” or more in a metaphorical sense?
Sanders: It speaks to the music contained within the album. If you open up that mysterious, pyramid-shaped box that is depicted on the cover, terrible things are going to happen, like in a Lovecraft movie. It will bring chaos and madness.