What Should Not Be Unearthed – A comprehensive interview with Karl Sanders of Nile

Picture this:

It’s the late 80s/early 90s and landmark releases are everywhere you look. The boundaries and indeed, the very meaning of what it is to be heavy is changing constantly. One minute you’ve got Reign In Blood, then comes Appetite For Destruction. Scum comes outta nowhere and takes things to a whole new level. Death metal leads to black metal, black metal splinters into blackgaze, shoegaze, true black metal, symphonic black metal and too many others, stoner and doom is influencing everything under the sun and grunge is ruling the roost.

It’s a headache really, but in amongst all this comes a very unlikely story. After a couple of obscure EPs attracting a fair amount of excitement… WALLOP. Amongst The Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, the debut full release from Nile lands on your lap, effectively spawning one of the least imitable of the aforementioned subgenres; Ityphallic Metal. While it wasn’t necessarily classed as that at the time, the marriage of brutal and technical death metal that laces Catacombs, combined with the all-too-appropriate narrative of Ancient Egypt, was a whole other thing. Nile were making history and while they may not be held in such reverence as the above albums, the story they tell is a truly fascinating one.

It begins back in the mid 70’s when KISS Alive fell into a very impressionable pair of hands. “I remember that was my first album” guitarist and vocalist of Nile, Karl Sanders reminisces. “A little later on when I was 15 or 16, I was watching Ronnie Dio on the Heaven and Hell tour and I remember sitting in the audience thinking to myself ‘I could do that, I think I really could do that. That’s what I wanna fucking do’”.

The adolescent Karl Sanders also took heavily to watching films with his father, developing an unusual obsession for his age. “It was all these films like The Ten Commandments, Land Of The Pharaohs, Sodom and Gommorah and it kinda fired up the imagination.” Later on, when he found himself leading Nile, Karl begun research into Ancient Egypt “so I can at least do a half-ass job of it”.

Despite these key elements being so forefront in his childhood, his first endeavour into making music was perhaps not one we would usually associate with the tech-death pioneer. Playing with his thrash band Morriah in the mid to late 80’s, Karl moved down to Charlotte in North Carolina where he took up a classical music gig in a rich women’s dress shop. “Mark Anderson (a friend of David Vincent) and I were in a duo. He played classical flute and I played classical guitar and we were playing at these champagne and music parties where these dresses cost 5,000 fuckin’ dollars .There would be models modelling all these fucking fancy dresses and we were there playing the flute and classical guitar. It was ridiculous but it paid incredibly well so I took the gig. I really needed to rehearse though because that wasn’t my normal thing”.

The modest income meant he had the means to create the music he really wanted to with Morriah but what happened next can only be attributed to fate. During his time behind the classical guitar, Karl found himself crashing at his friend David Vincent’s house in Charlotte where a then unknown band rehearsed. That band soon became the more widely recognised global death metal force, Morbid Angel. Karl’s first-hand interaction with their music became the catalyst for what would ultimately shape his life’s work. “I got to see, first hand, in its infancy, Abominations Of Desolation and stuff that would also become Altars Of Madness. Witnessing it first-hand was just mind-blowing because to me, the extent of my knowledge of heaviness had been Slayer and Metallica. I thought that was heavy. To see it taken to this fucking new extreme was just mind-blowing. I sat there in a chair in their living room watching them play and thought ‘Holy shit, It’s time to start all over again’. I thought I knew how to play… I thought I knew how to play”. Shifting in his chair slightly in their dressing room, he summarizes: “It was a mind-boggling expansion of what I had previously known metal to be. It was time to go back to the drawing board”.

At the same time, believe it or not, Morbid Angel were also still finding their direction and expanding their sound. Much like Karl’s KISS Alive find, Morbid guitarist Trey Azagthoth had a similar experience upon his child-like discovery of Napalm Death’s debut, Scum. Karl reminisces, “Trey came running into David’s room and we were in there jamming out to some Voivod demos or something and he was like ‘You won’t believe this! This is the fucking fastest beat I’ve ever heard’”. He continues, “It was a pivotal moment in the evolution of what we know now to be Morbid Angel – the discovery of the blast-beat”.

It would’ve been incredible to hear how Karl summed up those formative years, providing we had extra time. However, our conversation is hurried on as main support for tonight’s show, grindcore legends Terrorizer take to the stage. It’s fair to say though that Karl sees Nile’s earlier years as a far cry from where new bands in the modern metal scene are today. He opens assuredly, saying “What we have now is a completely, entirely different ball game than what my generation faced”. Elaborating on just what that means, Karl offers: “Now you can get your band heard on YouTube and the internet and promote yourself on Facebook. But, by that same thing, because it’s so easy to do, there’s literally a million other fucking bands across this planet of young kids, trying to do their thing. So, where does that leave the listener? The listener has so many choices”.

The way the internet has shaped the industry, the scene and even society is something that weighs heavy in his answers. “If you don’t like something, you can click on something else two seconds later or however long it takes you to click a fucking mouse and you don’t have to listen to that any more. There’s a giant wave, a tidal wave of apathy that bands have to overcome”. Admittedly, he adds, “As a listener, if I had a choice between listening to Immolation or 20 other bands who are just starting out, what am I gonna do? Immolation can play circles around these guys because they’ve been perfecting their craft for 30 fucking years. I’m as much a part of the problem as anything else because I’ve got a giant wave of apathy, even towards my own craft. So, where does that leave the state of the art?”

He certainly makes some valid, convincing points but if I took anything away from our conversing, it was an absolute admiration for his ability to sum up what he means perfectly in a sentence. “Nowadays, if you can’t fucking operate a guitar pick, there’s 9 year old Japanese girls who can play circles around you, so you better be able to play”.

Naturally, talk of the modern day veers toward where Nile are in 2018. Between having recently lost Dallas Toler-Wade from the line-up after nearly 20 years of friendship, and the groups preparation to put out album number nine, there’s a lot to talk about and it begins with another of Karl’s brilliant summaries: “I wanna move forward. Too many people are sucking the cock of nostalgia”.

In response to whether the changing cast of Nile made the new record a different experience, Karl addresses the internal state of the band, saying “We’re actually really happy, Brian Kingsland is a treasure. He’s very talented and a great guy to work with. He writes incredible songs so it’s actually quite a team effort this time around”. Pausing hesitantly, and somewhat tellingly, he proceeds slowly, “In recent times Nile albums had become… you know… not every relationship lasts. After a while, sometimes it’s not the way you want it to be”. After another uncomfortably subdued moment of thought, he continues “…but right now, we’re fucking happy. Things are going really well for us and the stuff we’ve written so far, we’re really happy with.”

Unsure of whether I was prying too far into the band’s internal workings, Karl opens up on the increased contribution from his bandmates. “I’m actually kinda happy about that. I think yes, the changes have brought us together. We’re much tighter as a unit, you can fucking see it, you can feel it and you can hear it.” So what does all this mean for the forthcoming record? “This one…” he begins with thought, “…it’s gonna have its own dark flavour because it’s just the feeling in the band right now. We’re really happy to be playing fucking evil music so we’re making it kinda evil this time.” With the recording set for completion by October, Karl rounds up talk of the new record, saying “We’re really taking our time with each song, to let each song do its own unique things. These songs don’t sound like the other songs which we’re very OK with. It’s perfectly fine.”

While it seems the band have an acute agenda of readjustment on the cards, following the departure of such an integral part of the Nile machine, Karl elicits an aura of confidence, shown clearly in his message for going forward. “You can’t make somebody like you, it’s their loss. All we can do is try to do the best job we can do, play the best songs we can write, be good to the fans and play good shows”. The future looks bright for this Nile 2.0 and if the show that follows suggests anything, it’s that Sanders and company still have plenty to say, and much more musically left in the tank.

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