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Interview: Karl Willetts (Memoriam, Ex-Bolt Thrower)

Photo by Timm Sonnenschein
Photo by Timm Sonnenschein

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For Karl Willetts, singer of beloved and historic british death metal institution Bolt Thrower, war will always rage on. After losing drummer Martin “Kiddie” Kearns” following a short Canadian tour in 2015, Bolt Thrower hung up their guitars. Kearns, though, hooked up with Ex- Bolt Thrower drummer Andy Whale, as well as Bassist Frank Healy of fellow birmingham old school death acts Benediction and Sacrilege. Guitarist Scott Fairfax rounds out the outfit, named Memoriam. Their excellent debut, For the Fallen, just dropped via Nuclear Blast. The record simultaneously pays tribute to every member’s fallen band and bandmates, as well as lights the way to a future where the letters O-S-D-M don’t signal murky tones and sloppy songwriting.

Memoriam is a tight military unit the same way Bolt Thrower was, but their songs are more varied and darker in sound and theme. For the Fallen is already a critical darling and worthy successor to the legacies of every members involved. What could be a one-off capstone, however, is actually the beginning of a whole new and varied body of work. At least that’s what Willetts said when he spoke to us

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I’m sure my readers will be either elated or disappointed that I’m not talking politics with you.

Well, they can read that in other places. I’m pretty sure they know my stance on that. If not, they should just listen to the album and I’m pretty sure it will make it quite explicitly clear.

What sort of feedback have you been getting on the new album?

Well, we’ve had absolutely and overwhelmingly positive response from the journalists and the music press that have heard it so far. Alarmingly good, actually. So we’re a bit overwhelmed by the responses we’ve seen. All the reviews so far today have been eight out of ten, nine out ten, ten out of ten, five out of five which is brilliant. So we’re really, really, really, really chuffed about it but it gives us very little room to maneuver for the next album. We were kinda hoping it might get sevens or 7.5s or something that like that so we would build up and maybe get more on the next one but, yeah. It’s set a good precedent for us and, generally speaking, it’s been very, very, very well received, both by the press that have heard it and from our friends that we’ve played it to as well. I’m pretty sure that once it gets out there into the public domain and everyone out there gets to hear it, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. They’ll be comforted by the elements that it contains which hark back to our musical tradition and our heritage which there is a strong element of that, and it is definitely an old school, death metal album at the end of the day but I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised, maybe shocked, at some of the changes that we’ve put in place. I think people can expect the unexpected in a way. It’s not an extension of Bolt Thrower. It’s not an extension of Benediction. It’s Memoriam in its own right. We’ve created our own identity with this album by utilizing new sounds, new textures, new feels. We’re really excited about the prospect of it being released to everyone and everyone getting to hear it at long, long last.

You’ve sort of beat me to my next question.

I’m good at that.

There are a few differences that I picked up on pretty quickly and I wanted to touch on the two big ones for me. The first being these are some of the longest songs you have ever sung on. The closing track’s eight minutes.

Absolutely. We’ve thrown the textbook out the window with great pleasure and we have a lot of creative freedom with Memoriam. We’re not working to any formulas which may have existed with previous bands we were in so we have got almost a blank canvas so we can try out new things. We can do longer songs if we want to. We can do shorter, punchier songs. On the album, there are longer songs which I think gives us a chance to express our feelings and the music in a much wider context which is great. I think the dynamics of our band are very different because we’re a four-piece for a start so that makes the sound that we create something different tonally. And we have stocked Fairfax as the main, constructive songwriter on this album. He is the guy that predominantly comes up with the riffs of which the song is structured about and he comes from a different generation, he’s the whippersnapper of the band at the age of 38.

I personally am a fan of “Corrupted System,” which brings some of the more punk elements of your sound more to the fore.

Yeah, absolute pleasure to record that song. It’s the first type of song that I’ve ever recorded of that nature. That type of music has been a massive influence on me throughout my life. It works so well live as well, that song does. But also, towards the end of that song we’ve used samples, which added a new kind of element to what we’re doing as well. I brings a whole new flavor to the music we’re creating. For me, it’s an exciting thing to be trying out these new things and developing new ideas that we haven’t touched upon in the 20 or 30 years of making music. We’re doing fresh new stuff, and it’s a great place to be in.

It’s got to be sort of interesting for you to sort of come… I don’t want to say “out of retirement,” but you haven’t really been a commercial performer or musician for some time. You haven’t had a record in over a decade, and now you’re already talking about another new one.

Very true and spot on the mark. But creatively, I was fairly redundant, you know. The last album I contributed to was written in 2004, which is a hell of a long time ago. To be blatantly and brutally honest, I found that most frustrating and annoying, because the main reason to be in a band is to be creative and to write relevant, new material that’s exciting. For me, that actual songwriting process and the creation of new music is the most exciting thing about being in a band. It’s all well and good going out and playing gigs and turning out the same old songs over and over again, which is great, but you know, ultimately it’s not what being in a band should be all about. It should be about creating new music and having a good time and challenging yourself and making things happen. That’s what we’re doing with in Memoriam. As you say, we’ve recorded this album, and already we’re in the process of writing new material for the next album. The creative energy within Memoriam is huge and we’re on fire with ideas and trying out new things. At this stage of our lives, to be in that position is a sheer joy. It’s a real privilege to be in that position, and we are relishing it, every second of it.

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I need to ask, why the long wait?

Why the long face? Why the long wait? Really, because when you’re in a band such as the band I was in previously, you’re pretty much tied to that. There’s almost an unwritten law that you don’t do anything else outside of that. You know, there were no side projects allowed, it was Bolt Thrower and nothing else. It suited me fine back then. It was great to go on out there, doing a few shows every year and playing the old classics, it always went down very well. But ultimately after 10 years or so of doing that, you start to drag a bit. It was ultimately quite frustrating that there was never gonna be another album after Those Once Loyal. I think that, to a certain extent, the formula the band used had been exhausted, and the creative spark within the band itself had disappeared completely.

So yeah, it’s a great place to be in right now, to be in a position where we are creatively active and we’re enjoying what we’re doing. Really, that’s the bottom line of what Memoriam is all about. The actual reason we got together in the first place was to get into the rehearsal room with some friends and to have a good time and to enjoy ourselves and to have some fun making music, have some laughter, doing it, which we had kind of lost in a way. So in that respect, we have achieved that goal tenfold. Our weekly rehearsals, are the highlight of the week. Everything else on top of it is a bit of a bonus really. It’s quite nice that everyone else seems to like what we’re doing too. The bottom line is we’re kind of doing it for ourselves, really, and trying to inject a bit of joy into our lives. It’s great fun.

It’s funny that you say joy, because not to say that you’ve ever made particularly uplifting music, but For the Fallen is a real bummer listen, dude. Emotionally It’s pretty sad!

Well, I didn’t mean to get you down. But if you like listening to songs about the downfall of mankind and the destruction of the world and humanity ripping itself apart, well, you know you’ve come to the right place. Our lyrical inspiration on this album comes from quite a dark place, really. The songs were written off the back of losing Martin [Kearns, former Bolt Thrower drummer], and also Frank losing his dad as well. We were in a quite dark, mournful place of grief really. We were thinking, “What can we do? We can’t go on feeling this way indefinitely for the rest of our lives” and we were in a very dark place before Memoriam got together. That was one of the reasons we did it, was to try and create something positive out of the darkness and try to do something good and make life good again. We did that in a pretty short space of time and we haven’t looked back since then. It’s only really been 19 months since the band’s inception, and we’ve achieved such an incredible amount within such a relatively short space of time. It feels to me that with Memoriam we’ve achieved more in that 18-month space of time than I have in over 20 or 30 years on and off with the previous band I was with. It’s a joyous occasion because we’re at a very good place in our lives.

We’re very experienced at what we do, we know what we’re doing, we’re getting some good offers. We can pick and choose what we want to do as well. We’re in a very privileged place to be able to do that. So when we do things, the chemistry between us is very special as well, and I think that comes across when we play live in particular. It definitely comes across on the album as well, I think that you can tell there’s a good social bond between us in Memoriam.

It certainly has been productive. It’s never before that I’ve gotten two new purchasable pieces with your name attached to it, because there’s the demo tape and the album. But I’ve gotta say a small moment of criticism.

Yeah, good. Criticism is good, we all like criticism.

I really liked “Drone Strike” and I was kind of sad it wasn’t on the album.

Yeah, absolutely. We had to rename it. I’m going to call it “Drown Strike” now due to Nuclear Blast’s typo error EP, on the 7-inch.

It was a quite difficult decision to make, in all honesty. But when we were recording the album, we were very much focused on it being a vinyl release. We had this vision of the gatefold in mind. We really were thinking of the ultimate deep-cut vinyl grooves. We really were aiming at a 45 minute timespan, which is the optimum level for vinyl. And when you put it all together, the songs went over that, and so we had have to lose one. The rerecorded version of “Drone Strike” in the studio didn’t come out right. So that was the one that got lost first. It’s not lost forever, I think we can rerecord it and rehash it and maybe change it around a little bit and probably re-use it, still, on the next album, because it’s a really a strong song, one of our favorite songs, it works well live. I like the way it breaks down to different sections as well. I think you haven’t seen the end of “Drone Strike” or whatever you want to call it. It will reappear in another format on the next album.

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“Drone Strike” underlined something interesting. Your music has always been serious to an extent, but there has always been an element of escapism to it. The Warhammer stuff is obviously not really based in reality, and even with Those Once Loyal it’s pretty safe to say very few people from World War I ever had a chance to listen to it, so it’s all sort of a bit removed. That’s not true of Memoriam.

We are very much a band of our time. Lyrically I’m influenced very much directly with the world around us, and the lyrical content of the songs are all born from direct experiences of the world we live in today. There is obviously the war element which we will always focus on in lyrical content. Obviously, once I’ve written the lyrics, written the song, they go out there and people interpret them the way they wish to interpret them. I think I’ve got to that point in my life where there are real things that directly affect me and I think people as well can relate to.

They also drew on experiences that are going on in the world around us, so there are some political things. But I have got to that point in my life really where I’m prepared to stand on a soapbox and make social comments on what I think is important or what I think is happening in the world. Maybe that’s just because I’m a little bit older and don’t really give a fuck what other people think, I think I’m using my position of privilege or authority to actually say something to make people think about the world and pretty much hope to make a positive change.

I want to pivot back to something. I was at the last Bolt Thrower show that you played with Martin in Vancouver.

Ah, in Vancouver! Right, yeah, fantastic. At the Rickshaw Theatre.

Correct. Sort of an interesting venue in an interesting part of town.

Yeah, absolutely, we sat on the roof and watched the world go by for a few hours. It was a very interesting part of town compared to what was up the road half a block. It was a very interesting area. We loved playing in Canada. It was a fantastic experience for us and a big highlight. I couldn’t wait to finish it, in a way.

It was a very solid show. Every time I saw the band it was really something special.

I think we kind of knew those songs inside out. We were all very confident in what we were all doing playing those songs, because we’ve done them so many times throughout the years. We were very confident as a band, we knew what we were doing, and there wasn’t a lot that could go wrong, really. And we enjoyed it I think because we were very limited in what we’d do and very, very, very selective in what we did. The events that we did were very special, not just to the audience we were playing it to but to ourselves as well, because we only did a handful of shows a year. So it became very special, a precious experience to do those shows. It was great to do that, but I always felt that I wanted to do something more than just a handful of shows a year. There was always something in me that wanted to press on. I always wanted to record some new material or do more shows in other places we haven’t played before.

Not to press the point, but you said that you want the new band to have a separate identity, and I definitely get that sense, but that hasn’t stopped you from playing some Bolt Thrower songs so far.

Absolutely. I mean, there are two reasons we’re doing that at this point in our career. The first reason is the fact that sometimes we get an hour to play and we’ve got about 45 minutes of songs, and the reality of it is we need to play some extra songs, so the obvious choice would be to play some songs that we know, we love, which are a couple of Bolt Thrower songs and a Sacrilege song, we always do a Sacrilege song in our set as well.

The original conception of the band was just to be a covers band. When we first started out doing this, the sole purpose was to get in the rehearsal room and play some old classic songs by Discharge and Dissector maybe, all the songs that influenced us when we first started out, and that was really the reason we were gonna do it. We dropped that idea fairly quickly, but the idea of doing covers is still in us, we still want to do that. I think to a certain extent, the people who come and see us really want to see or hear some Bolt Thrower songs, and seeing me and Andy Whale do them is probably the closest that they’re ever going to get a chance to see that, you know? So we do it as a necessity of filling time, and out of respect to the audience that are coming to see us. I mean, that’s something we do right now and we plan to continue doing that to a certain extent this year. But there will come a time when we will stop doing that and we will just purely be doing our own material. I think that time will come fairly quickly within the next six months or so. We are very selective, we only do one or two Bolt Thrower cover versions, which is more than enough, really.

That seems right for you.

It helps us to engage with the audience on that level. But, you know, because we’re a four piece, our sound is very different, so people often say, “That didn’t sound like Bolt Thrower”. But we’re just doing it just to engage with the audience and out of appreciation for them. We almost feel it’s kind of expected of us at this point, so we are fulfilling an obligation, you may say. But that obligation is waning quite fast.

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For me as a fan, that footage of you guys playing “Inside the Wire” with David Ingram, that really did mean something to me.

That was a real special moment, and that was a real one-off as well. That probably won’t ever happen again. But, you know, it was just due to the fact that Dave was there because he was playing with Hail of Bullets the night before. Me and Dave and the rest of the band, we’re all great mates, we go back years. He’s like a brother of mine, in a way. That connection was something really special. It was a unique, one-off experience that had to be done. If we hadn’t have done something, I think that would’ve been a real wasted opportunity. It was real special and it was definitely a highlight for me of last year and our gigs as well.

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