Pants are Optional: An Interview with Karl Sanders from Nile

Karl Sanders is a genuinely awesome guy. I met him for the first time a few years ago at the Bloodstock Festival, and interviewing him was really a blast. He’s surprisingly easy-going and quick to laugh. Back then our allotted 15 minutes turned into half an hour, as the label representative, a young intern, looked desperate to get us to shut up so he could get the next journalist in line.

Finding easy going, down to earth people is not as easy as you might imagine in this business, particularly when we talk about musicians who have achieved a certain degree of success. In the case of Karl, widely considered one of the best death metal guitarists, maybe you’d expect some level of cockiness, and yet the opposite is true.

As we get ready for the release of What Should Not be Unearthed, the 8th studio album by this American technical death metal band, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Karl and pick his brains about the album, his solo career, and our shared love for not wearing pants.

It doesn’t have to be constant wall-to-wall technique

MB: I was reading about What Should Not Be Unearthed, and I was surprised to see that you said that At The Gate of Sethu was not meant to be a “definitive” Nile record. What exactly did you mean by that?
Karl: 
When we talk about an album being “definitive”… in the case of The Beatles, for example, you wouldn’t say that it is Sgt. Pepper, but instead something like The White Album or Rubber Soul; something that really says “this is who the Beatles are.” While Sgt. Pepper might have been an interesting record, with a lot of great shit on it, it doesn’t  totally define The Beatles.
In that same way, At the Gate of Sethu was a reactionary experimental kind of record, and which grew out of the mental insanity that was going on with us at the time. Was it a “definitive” album, in the same way as Annhilation of the Wicked or Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka? No, and I think of those as definitive Nile albums.
I don’t think that the new record is necessarily a “definitive” record either; it’s not the sum total of what Nile is about, but another way of looking at what we do.

MB: What do you feel makes an album representative of Nile?
Karl: 
I think that In Their Darkened Shrines is as close as it’s going to get to being exactly what we want to represent with the band. But you can’t make the same album over and over again; I know that there are bands that do, but we are not one of them. There are other things that we wanna do, other things that we wanna express about ourselves.
This time around [with What Should Not Be Unearthed] we wanted to do an album focused on songs, something straight for the fans. I think that it was time for us to reward our fans and give them a fun album that they can enjoy, without necessarily having to prove anything; I think Sethu suffered from that. Now that I can look back on it, 3 years later, we were trying to prove that we could play really super clean, and make a super clean record… that’s all well and good, but I think somebody should have spoken up while we were making the record and told us “Hey! don’t forget about your fans! They have expectations too!”

MB: It’s interesting that you say that, because At the Gates of Sethu did get a lot of praise, it did quite well. I guess the fans were satisfied after all, right?
Karl: 
Sure… but I think that it kind of divided our fans. There were people who really appreciated it, and there were people who absolutely hated it. It did turn out to be our highest-charting record ever…
After I finish a record and it’s done, I don’t even listen to it anymore. I hadn’t listened to it for a long time, and last night I stumbled on a website where someone had the video for “Enduring the Eternal Molestation of Flame”I listened to it and, holy shit, I could listen to every note of every fucking thing that I played but… the new record sounds a lot heavier.

MB: Well, I saw you said that Unearthed is much heavier than what you’ve done before. Do you think that maybe with Sethu, since you say that you were trying to prove something, it was a case of playing extremely well, but not extremely well for your fans?
Karl: 
I absolutely agree with that; this is something that I was talking with Kreishloff of Lecherous Nocturne, who is a good friend of mine. I think that now, in 2015, we have played with a lot of technical death metal bands that are so freaking technical, that it’s not even fun to listen to them anymore. After you go “OH MY GOD, THAT WAS INCREDIBLE!”, after a while your brain just can’t fucking take it anymore, and you lose the listening enjoyment. This is something that we really wanted to address in this record; it doesn’t have to be constant wall-to-wall technique. In fact, I think that if it’s a little more balanced, then people can absorb more of it and it becomes more effective. There is a bit of push, pull and release, of varying things a bit, and I think that it’s more pleasing to listen to.

MB: This is something that I’ve discussed with other artists, because at some point, as you get better and better, there is always the temptation of just showing how good you are. The problem is that there’s always the risk of making the music sound like this weird mental masturbation of showing that you’re good, without creating music that is accessible.
Karl: 
Yes! Exactly! You said that perfectly.

MB:  Thank you very much, I’m happy to see that we have this back-and-forth praising thing going on today.
Karl: 
[Laughs]

Photo by Hannah Verbeuren
Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

MB: I was surprised recently to read that your writing process starts with the lyrics, because I think most bands do the opposite. Most start with the melody and then they sort of write lyrics around that. Why do you work like this? Is it because the lyrics are the most important part for you?
Karl:
I think that doing it “in reverse” automatically guarantees that it’s not going to go down the same path as everybody else. As you said, those bands write some cool riffs; the guitar player brings a riff into the band room, then the drummer adds a drumbeat to it, then the bass player comes in and usually fucks it up and gets ignored… but eventually they have a song and they go …shit! now we gotta put words to this!
Over the years, playing in bands, I got really tired of that system; I thought wait a minute! what if I wrote the words first, and used them to guide the path as you’re building the music? When you’re making sentences, like when we’re speaking right now or when you’re making a song, the different words that we assemble have a different rhythm to them; if you start right out of the gates with rhythms that are fresh, the vocal rhythm, it takes you down a different path than what you would have normally gone down, simply because you started with the words, and they shaped how everything else was going to go.
There is a subtle difference to my ear when I hear bands that are following the lyrics and their meaning, and that is what is dictating the path, as opposed to the “normal” way.

MB: Do you feel that this gives you a better opportunity to make better lyrics? Because I guess than when you already have the instrumental parts written down you’re quite constrained into what you can actually write.
Karl:
Yes! Yes, my friend! You said that excellently. You are limited, it’s like your hands are in chains; you have fewer opportunities to explore something new when you’re basically starting out chained. I like the liberty, because the words can go in whatever rhyme or meter or rhythm you fucking choose to; it’s freedom, you can do whatever you want with it.

MB: Well, it’s pretty clear that for you the band has always been this venue to nerd out about how interested you are in Egyptology; I can imagine that it would have really sucked for you if your ability tell these stories wasn’t as big, because you’d have to stick to whatever the music was. It definitely paid off for you, because your lyrics are really fun to read… if you’re kind of a nerd
Karl: 
[Laughs] Well, they don’t call me a nerd in my MMA class.

MB: You’re just going to drop that into the conversation for no reason? [laughs] Karl: [Laughs] You see I gotta work it in, since otherwise my sensei would go “Hey! don’t you give a shit about us too!?

MB: It’s like that thing about being a vegan marathon runner, because you never know what’s the first thing you need to casually drop into the conversation [laughs] Karl: [Laughs]

MB: Going back to the lyrics; is there a central concept within this album?
Karl: 
It’s not a concept album like Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon or anything like that, but the question of the origin of mankind does reoccur in several songs in little ways. Also mankind’s basic ignorance; we’re doing stuff without even thinking about the fucking consequences, why we’re doing it, or what will happen to the next generation.

MB: If I’m not mistaken “What should not be unearthed” deals precisely with that; making these discoveries, unearthing something that shakes the foundations of what we understand to be our world or our society.
Karl: 
Absolutely.

MB: Is there a spiritual interest for you in that issue?
Karl: 
Lovecraft? I’m very spiritual when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft [laughs]

MB: You read little pieces of the Necronomicon every night?
Karl:
[Laughs]

MB: I ask because in regards to that particular title you mentioned, for example, how earth-shattering Darwin’s The Origin of Species was for society, the effects of our actions, etc., I thought that this was some kind of spiritual thing for you… but I’m guessing that, in light of the Lovecraft comment, you’re sort of nipping that possibility in the bud.
Karl: 
[Laughs]

MB: Speaking of spirituality, back when we met in Bloodstock you mentioned something about gas prices saying “Jesus Christ look at the price of gas!”… well, and someone left a comment on that video bitching about you clearly not being metal enough for saying “Jesus Christ”. [laughs] 
Karl:
It really makes you wonder what culture this person comes from, because if you Jesus Christ, look at the fucking price of gas! you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain, it’s a cardinal sin… You’re not supposed to do it! If you believe in God you do not take the name of the Lord in vain. So, I was doing something that, by Christian standards, is very wrong. To call me religious from that, while I’m committing a heretical sin, I think is complete ignorance.

MB: The thing about Youtube is that you need to be just very invested into something to actually leave a comment there.
Karl: 
[Laughs]

MB: If you’re the kind of person that needs to leave a comment to complain about something like that, I guess you don’t have that much else going on.
Karl: 
That’s exactly how we feel about it too; I can’t tell you how many times Dallas, our guitar player, has talked me off of the ledge when I’ve read something incredibly stupid about the band, myself or whatever. If you’re busy making comments on Blabbermouth or on Youtube, you’re probably not practicing with your guitar.

MB: Back in that interview I also asked you about your solo career, and you told me that you already had some ideas for a follow-up to Saurian Exorcisms, and that you were hoping to work on them on your break from touring… Clearly that did not happen.
Karl: 
[Laughs]

Photoby Hannah Verbeuren
Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

MB: Are there any possibilities that the Karl Sanders solo project is going to create something new, or is the size of Nile simply making that impossible?
Karl: 
Well, the size of Nile is making that a great challenge; Nile keeps me very busy. I’ve had some ideas for this project for quite some time now, but I haven’t had proper time to get them done.
Whatever it takes, I’ll have to find some time or make some time… maybe I’ll stop going to bed at night or something. [laughs]

MB: In other topics… I think you’ve had some run-ins with journalists; sometimes they’re texting during the interviews…
Karl: 
[laughs]

MB: They forget who you are, or they just downright don’t know who you are, or they don’t bring a recorder…
Karl:
[Laughs]

MB: Have you had that sort of thing happening lately? Because I always try to make sure my interviews in person look professional… by phone is different, of course, for all you know I could be texting or playing a video game. I mean, I’m not even wearing pants right now.
Karl: 
I’m not wearing pants either. Since there are thousands of miles between us, there’s no inherent disrespect. I don’t feel disrespected because you’re not wearing pants.

MB: Well, I don’t feel disrespected because you are not wearing pants either!
Karl: 
[laughs] But if we were sitting together in the same room, I would have to say… “wait a minute… why isn’t this guy wearing any fucking pants? Does he think he’s being funny? Is he making a joke out of this interview?”

MB.. Or “Is this man on crack right now?”
Karl: 
If somebody comes to interview me, and they ask me a question, I take the time to answer their question, and then I see that they’re writing with a pencil. And so out of my 200-word answer they write down 3 words. I mean, what the fuck!?
This happened to me once in Ireland, and I asked the guy why the fuck I spent all the time giving an immaculate answer that would make for a helpful interview for his magazine. I told him to come back with a recorder, so we can do it right. The dude actually got so mad that it almost turned into a fist fight… then like a month later on his blog the dude crucified me; called me every fucking name there was.

MB: But in general do you find that music journalism isn’t particularly professional?
Karl:
Well, I would say that not everyone is concerned with professionalism. There are plenty of journalists who are trying to do the right thing; but there are also some guys who are less concerned with doing the right thing, and more concerned with just getting hits on their website.

MB: That’s what I find more worrying; trying to transform heavy metal into something that wasn’t supposed to be; this sort of click-baiting media. I’m always surprised when you see stuff like Blabbermouth talking about the prize of somebody’s house being sold or shit like that. Supposedly heavy metal started as a rebellion against this kind of vapidity in mainstream culture, and so I feel quite bad when I see that it has ended up embracing it. 
Karl: 
I have to totally agree with you on that my friend.

MB: That’s excellent; not only are we both not wearing pants, but we’re also on the same page about stuff.
Karl: 
[laughs]

MB: I’m also very happy that this isn’t on camera, since our generous girths may not be the greatest thing to look at on video.
Karl:
[laughs]

MB: I mean… they might as well imagine our six packs and bulging packages.
Karl:
Exactly. If we’re going to fantasize we might as well do it right.

MB: Karl, it has been a pleasure talking to you; thank you so much for taking the time. 
Karl: 
Thank you; it’s been great fun talking to you.

Photo by Hannah Verbeuren
(L-R) Karl Sanders, Brad Parris, Dallas Toler-Wade, George Kollias, Photo by Hannah Verbeuren