TO THE DEATH: An interview with Nile frontman Karl Sanders
Devotees of death metal have long prided themselves on the total inaccessibility of the genre to the casual metal fan. The convoluted guitar acrobatics, aggressive, agile drum-work and various muscular techniques involved are reserved for the chosen few, those who take the time to understand and appreciate all that impressive instrumental wizardry. However, these peacock-like displays of skill are often so intense they leave many would-be listeners alienated, while the levels of sophistication can be at the sacrifice of genuine raw feeling.
A band that appears to unite both those looking for instant gratification for their death metal itch and sticklers for complicated technical execution is the mighty Nile.
A gateway drug for freshly blooded fans and respected in high-brow circles as one of the early pioneers of this challenging, brutal art form, Nile blend intricate, exquisitely accomplished, pounding technical death with more melodic elements and intriguing fantasy themes based on Ancient Egypt, Eastern mysticism and Lovecraftian lore. The beautifully balanced result is a well-executed yet heartfelt assault of sense-blitzing, rabid death reverberating with layers of mythically-inspired atmospherics, showcased on their latest stunning opus, Vile Nilotic Rites, due to be unleashed on the world next month. Not only can the Dark Matter team, following a sneak preview, report that the new album is an absolute belter, but we recently had the pleasure of discussing it and other death-related subjects in a conversation across time zones with none other than Nile’s remarkable frontman and founder Karl Sanders.
Considering the thorny issue of accessibility, it’s clear Karl has spent much of his time thinking about how to uphold the acerbic purities of the genre without turning listeners off. “You know, a lot of death metal really tries to be inaccessible, and I understand that, right, there’s something overwhelming about the inaccessibility of it.” Karl reflects. “But by the same token, you cannot be purely 100% inaccessible or you become unlistenable. And I reference some of the Japanese noise bands, who are attempting to be completely unlistenable. If you achieve complete inaccessibility, the end result is no one can listen to you. So you have to allow a pathway for the listener to understand and take in whatever it is you want to give them or you can go nowhere very fast.”
While Karl adores the classic alumni of “real death metal… Immolation, Krisun, Cannibal Corpse, old Suffocation”, he looks to some more surprising influences to help him to balance genuine listenability with the more technical aspect of the music, “by applying song writing ideals, concepts and lessons learned from masters like the Beatles. If you only knew how much Beatles there was on this record (Vile Nilotic Rites) and also on In their Darkened Shrines (full length, released in 2002)! It was the model for Darkened Shrines and a lot on this record too, because our new guitarist is also a Beatles fan, we have that in common. It’s about deep respect for song-writing craft and composition learnt from the masters who came before us. If you wanna write songs, you need to study people like Lennon and McCartney because they were writing songs and then taking them incredible places.” And while the Beatles were undoubtedly very experimental, Karl stresses “but it was always listenable, no matter what crazy-ass shit they were fucking doing, it was always listenable. You could put it on, you could listen to it, and it didn’t matter if you technically understood what all this other stuff was, didn’t matter. You can still sing along with every Beatles song, there was something that connected directly to the listener in all their work.”
This flexible approach is perhaps one of the main reasons why Nile have pushed the boundaries of the genre and paved the way for true innovation, rather than just being stuck in a time-loop trying to recreate that same intensely echoing raw death of the early 90s. With each album, Nile evolve their sound into new shapes and patterns, helping them to stand out amidst the plethora of similar-sounding death metal released each year. This is particularly true of Vile Nilotic Rites.
“It sounds fresh because it is fresh.” Karl observes. “I think on this record there’s a very diverse range of metal and extreme, heavy elements, but there’s also a lot of mood variety, a lot of different stuff going on. None of the songs sound exactly the same, they’re each doing something a little bit unique. There’s a real air of re-invention, renovation, reinvigoration and rebirth. This is like Nile reborn. We’ve got a new line-up of guys that are on fire, really in tune with each other, on the same page and working together. I think this is self-evident in the tracks on the record and also in the live shows.” Karl can’t quite put his finger on what makes Nile so unique, but it could simply be due to the fact they do their own thing and don’t try to compete with anyone else. “I don’t know, you know, we’re just doing what we do, and that’s what we’ve always focused on, just doing what we want to do, what other people do is irrelevant to us. We’re definitely doing our own thing, which is kind of a rarity but that’s just who we are as people.”
Not everyone feels the same way about Nile’s music however, and they have often encountered snobbery for their unusual themes and experimentation, with death metal purists considering the sound to not be ‘clean’ enough. “I don’t have to look very far to find criticism of our work - it’s only a few mouse clicks away. In their Darkened Shrines was the first big push we got from a record company, taking us to a wider audience. As soon as you do that the door is opened for all sorts of people who don’t necessarily appreciate whatever it is you’re doing. You’ve ventured outside this safe little box and now you’re out in the big world fending for yourself so now, all of a sudden you’re a big target. That can be overwhelming.”
One of the main criticisms of Nile is based on their unique subject-matter and the references in the lyrics to Ancient Egypt and other antique cultures, which has sometimes been seen as a gimmick. Karl muses, “what is it about this music, those ancient themes, that seem to so seamlessly go together? I’ve been wondering that for 25 years exactly. I don’t exactly know the answer, I just know it sounds right, it feels right, but could I explain it in academic terms, you know? Probably not.” However, although Nile are keen to stress they’re not “college professors” and the intention is primarily to add a fun element to the music, the band still don’t take these important subjects lightly and put a lot of thought into researching and studying what goes into the lyrics as evidenced in the lengthy sleeve notes of their major albums. “Even a cursory examination reveals there was a lot of research that went into these lyrics, so sometimes there’s pages and pages of notes behind each song, there’s more notes than there is actual song. The song itself represents only a tiny distillation of all the research that went into it.” Somehow these elaborate ancient cultures and the epic nature of the stories Nile use for inspiration feel completely compatible with the raging ferocities of their chosen genre and it is perhaps this that has drawn more fans who are less familiar with technical death into the fold. In this, Nile can take credit for helping to broaden the reach and appeal of death metal.
Yet while the lyrics pique the interest, Karl’s main concern is the mood evoked and the listener’s connection to the music - those tell-tale shivers down the spine - and this is perhaps another reason people are drawn to Nile like moths to a flame. “How the music makes you feel is the sum total of the experience, all the other things are secondary, what matters is how a person feels when they listen to the music. That’s it! If people would just realise it is actually that frigging fucking simple.” Nile’s live performances are nothing less than phenomenal, and for Karl, metal gigs are almost a spiritual experience and a way for the disenchanted to find their people and a sense of community. “It’s about content and the human soul. The band and the audience are on the same musical wavelength and you forget about everything else and you can just lose yourself in the music. The shows remind me of something else completely unrelated - the Black Church in America, particularly in the South. It’s a spiritual experience that you can actually feel on a physical level, that whole room is on the same wavelength that’s shared with everybody in the room, you can feel that metal spirit.”
And like true metal missionaries, Nile are always on the move, taking their music to every god-forsaken corner of the globe. Although they have just completed their latest tour, Vile Desolate Sands, “there’s still lots to do to go spread the word about this record. There’s no break for us, we’re going back out in the states for the next six weeks, and that will take us all the way through December, just before Christmas. So I will have to do my shopping online this year! We’ll take time off in January then go out to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, wherever else we can tie in in South East Asia, and then the next big thing is all the big Summer fests coming up. We’ve started to plan a European tour. There’s a lot of places we didn’t get to, this last European run. We’ve still got to go to Spain and Portugal, all the Scandinavian countries, and a bunch of Eastern bloc countries we didn’t visit this time as well.”
The juggernaut that is Nile never stops; the hard work and sheer dedication that goes into their craft cannot be underestimated and is what has made Nile such a key part of the scene. Karl manages other projects along with his work for Nile and has even managed to reach the level of black belt in Taekwondo, “but the focus is Nile, that’s the big demanding beast, it demands constant hard work and sacrifice. Just ask my wife, she’ll tell you all about sacrifice. I’m lucky to have a partner in life who helps me and supports me in what I do instead of making my life more difficult. This is my third marriage, so I know all about unsupportive partners. So I feel lucky and grateful I’ve got somebody that’s playing on the same team. It’s better to be single than with someone who will fill your life with negativity.” This is dating wisdom we should all take note of!
After all the years of grafting, Karl feels that Nile’s greatest achievement to date is Vile Nilotic Rites. “We had a big mountain to climb in making this record, we had a new line-up, we had new ideas we wanted to explore, we had goals for the production that we wanted to achieve, there was a lot of stuff that went into the making of this record that was a real challenge that now that we’ve surmounted it I’m really anxious to share it with people.” The band spent an entire year holed up in the studio on pre-production, and for Karl, the devil was in the detail. “Every lick, every note of every solo, every drum hit or pattern were carefully considered as part of the whole.” True perfectionists, the band were savage when it came to cutting parts that didn’t work, making hard decisions for the sake of a cohesive whole and overall refined design, killing their darlings when a particular structure or instrumental passage didn’t fit - much as they may have looked on it fondly. At the same time, “It wasn’t enough to play it right. We wanted everything to have fire on it. The songs had to move. They had to have feel. That’s not an easy balance to strike: precision and passion.” The result of all that clever curation is a record filled with biblical levels of fury, counter-poising incredibly accomplished, beautifully well-timed instrumental execution with raging epiphanies of sound. Ultimately, with Vile Nilotic Rites, Nile have achieved that elusive balance that Karl calls listenability.
Fortunately for Dark Matter, Nile’s next tour will include another visit to the UK, but Karl isn’t relishing the prospect of experiencing the dismal British climate again. “We love our UK audiences and I always enjoy the shows in England SO much. I don’t necessarily enjoy the weather, I always manage to get sick when I come to the UK because its dreary, cold and rainy BUT the fucking shows - English metal fans are tops, you can’t beat ‘em. It’s worth whatever price must be paid.” Let’s hope the Sky Gods smile on him for his next visit to our element-battered little island.
'Vile Nilotic Rites' is out now via Nuclear Blast