Interview – Karl Sanders (Nile)
Crumbling obelisks. The gilded tombs of kings. Impersonal deities with the heads of animals and the oblique whims of young children. The crescent of Islam rolling over northern Africa like a slow but vivacious tidal wave. These are the images that Karl Sanders conjures in Nile. His images and sounds carry power and mystery, imbued to them by a cocktail of research and oriental fetishization. The greatest strength of his music is melodies and note intervals that his presumably Western audience are not accustomed to. It’s part of what makes Nile an excellent band. It’s also a bit academic.
The headiness of Sanders’s music betrays a kind of social dissonance when one meets him. Sanders is a very modern man; he speaks colloquially, loves jokes and expounds on pop culture with the aplomb of a college student who spends too much time on Twitter. To be blunt, talking with Sanders is fun, a quality that is not always present in his discography.
What Should Not Be Unearthed is fun, though. The latest album in Sanders’s repertoire, and his strongest in years, packs more mid-tempo mosh riffs and big shout-along choruses than any of his work in the past decade.
Sanders yacked with us about his new, more fun approach to music and cracked a few jokes.
I’m going to be honest with you: I haven’t had a chance to really let What Should Not Be Unearthed sink in. I had been listening to your last one for like a month before we spoke. This one, I’ve only had about a week with it.
But you have heard it?
I have heard it, yeah.
Okay, alright. I mean, there are some interviewers who haven’t even listened to it yet, which I find just insane.
People actually do that?
Some people actually are unprofessional enough to do that, yes. It’s a mind-blower. It’s, like, something that should not be, but there are people who try to get away with it. They ask fancy-dancy questions that try to throw you off the trail, but, sure: I can tell that they haven’t listened to it. I’ll go, “By the way, what did you think of this new record?” They go, “Blah, blah, blah.” I don’t know what’s going on with people these days. The human race, I think, is devolving.
You really believe that?
I really believe that. I remember when I was a youngster and the band Devo came out. At first, I hated the band Devo. I was a younger who loved Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, so the music of Devo seemed just like an insane disrespect to established music. But as I came to realize what their actual message was, about the de-evolution of the human race, I went, “You know, they’re right.” The last 20 or 30 years have really, really shown them to be right about what the fuck they were saying about humanity.
So, my friends love Devo. The group of people that I hang out with on a day-to-day basis really, really like Devo. There’s a neighborhood bar where we all go to and some of them work there. They frequently play Devo. I don’t get it. I don’t like it. I like post-punk. I like sort of groovy, dance-y music as well as metal. But no one’s been able to sell Devo on me ever.
[Laughs.] I felt the same way until I saw an interview with the guy. He explained their message, where they were coming from and what they were trying to do with that album. I was like, “Okay. Alright, taken at face value, I’m not really a fan of that style. But, as far as the de-evolution of the human species, they were right. They were ahead of their time.
You’ve seen the film Idiocracy?
Oh, I love that movie! You don’t have to wait 500 years into the future. We’re living in an idiocracy now.
It’s scary—specifically just that montage in the beginning. The montage is terrifying in its accuracy.
Yep. I totally agree, my friend. People talk about how we can sustain only 500 million people and that’s it, so we need to get rid of those other six and a half billion people and that’s what the world population should be. I forget the name of this group or organization, but they made a monument somewhere in Georgia or something. The question, of course, is, “Which six and a half billion people deserve to be exterminated and which group deserves to live?” Everyone, no matter who you ask, would put themselves in the group that lives.
I’m about to be crushed under the weight of my ego at all times, so that’s a good way to eliminate me from the human race: some sort of device to give ego physical weight. The horrible people would just fall over dead.
Wow. Someone should make that movie.
Patent pending. I’m trademarking it right now.
You could have Kanye West star in it.
Kanye West is like Devo. I know seriously intellectual, very astute people who find a lot of value in his music, excusing him as a person. I know people who think very highly of his music. I just don’t get it. I like hip-hop, but I don’t like him or his music.
The extent of my knowledge of his music is limited to what I’ve seen on South Park. So, I don’t know. My entire view of someone is built upon a parody of him. It’s quite interesting that we’re willing to do that as people: Form opinions on stuff that we know almost nothing about except some dumb shit that we saw on television.
To bring it back to metal a little bit, that sort of reminds me of something. I was having a conversation with one of the writers earlier today about Taylor Swift talking about music streaming. Everyone lauded Taylor Swift for saying that. The point made was, “But, she’s Lars Ulrich.”
It’s the exact same argument. But, we make fun of Lars Ulrich for it.
I’m sure he’s quite a character. He is outspoken and opinionated. He kind of revels in it, as well. So, he’s kind of made a target out of himself.
To an extent. I’m beginning to wonder how smart it is in any music—metal or otherwise—to really expose themselves to the public that much. The black metal: “No interviews, no live shows, no fun. Show nothing of yourself.” I’m beginning to see the attraction in that.
I’ve got to tell you, as a person who’s been in music for two decades, there is a painful price for every time that you have an opinion. You alienate anybody else who doesn’t share that opinion, which is ridiculous. But, that’s the way it works. So, there is a very strong impetus to not having an opinion. If I’m doing interviews all day, I actually turn my own opinion switch off. I don’t even have an opinion.
I was doing an interview with this guy from North Carolina. He asked me what I think of the recent controversy concerning the taking down of the Confederate flag. He assumed because I live in South Carolina that, probably, I was going to have a South Carolina-ish opinion of it. As soon as I told him, “Dude, I’m actually from San Francisco, so I don’t consider myself a Southerner or a Yankee or anything. I could care less about all those arguments.” I’m from fucking California. It’s irrelevant to me. I might live in South Carolina, but I don’t consider myself a native. I don’t have an opinion, nor am I going to take one on the subject. He actually ended the interview right after that, even though he still had 20 minutes left on the clock.
So, what does that say? That says that oftentimes artists are asked for their opinions by people who turn them into headlines. Many times I’ve done interviews and they’ll take something I said and make a headline out of it. The quote at the top of the fucking thing. Because it’s taken out of context, it means something probably different than how I initially meant it, but it makes for, like, controversy. That feels really painful. So, I’ve got a fucking thing now where I refuse to have an opinion on anything publically.
This probably has existed in tabloids forever. Essentially, I think social media has kind of made everything a tabloid. Such a large part of your traffic is redirected from social media. There’s this constant pressure on me to make something that people sort of want to click on instinctively.
Right. You see it and it’s like, “Oh, I gotta read what the fuck this is.” I totally get it.
I’ve actually found it a stimulating challenge, but it’s a tremendous challenge, as well: To try and find a good balance between, “I want something that people will want to click on and want to share,” but at the same time, “I want to give people something that has some sort of intellectual content to it.”
If I were writing this article, I would just chop what you just said. I would say, “Joseph loves to be stimulated and wants you to click on his words.” Right? That’s what I would do.
A lot of people aren’t above that.
[Laughs.] It’s a dirty world we live in, my friend. A dirty world.
It’s cutthroat, you know? Said the writer to the musician. The two people at the bottom of the social ladder.
Well, sometimes I wonder who’s holding the ladder, anyway. And do I trust that person holding the ladder? Right?
That’s a question, too. It’s a house of cards, you know?
[Feigning bad hearing]How’s my car? Well, I drive a Dodge pick-up truck and it’s running pretty well. It’s getting older, so there’s a little bit of a transmission problem with first gear. So I start with second gear.
Have you ever considered being a stand-up comedian? I’m not saying you’d be good at it. I’m asking if you’ve considered it. Not the same question.
It is not the same question. I don’t necessarily think I would be great at it. Solely if I got heckled, I’d throw the microphone down, walk out into the audience and beat the crap out of him. That’s the kind of guy that I am. Which is not really conducive to a comedy career.
Last time we spoke, you said that you read your reviews and Dallas [Toler-Wade, Guitarist] doesn’t.
Right. Dallas has a wonderful capacity to genuinely not give a fuck what anybody else says. They could be praising him up and down and sucking his cock and makes absolutely no more difference than if they were saying incredibly negative things about him. He actually, genuinely doesn’t give a fuck. That’s an incredible achievement. It’s helped to insulate him from some of the insanities that have plagued myself over the years. I do give a fuck what bands think. I do care about the stuff that gets written about the music of this band. That has caused me immense mental anxiety and grief over the years.
So, I have this idea of critic-proof bands. Not to say that people won’t criticize them, but I think that criticizing them is kind of a moot point. AC/DC is a critic-proof band. They’re, like, the first one. It’s so consistent that there’s no point in saying anything negative about it because every AC/DC album is so solid.
That’s a pretty good point, there.
I think of Nile in that way. I’ve thought: “I’m having trouble thinking of a band that’s as consistent as Nile is.”
Wow. You know, [someone] said something very similar a couple hours ago when I spoke with her. She spoke about how we’re consistent. I guess conceptions are all in the mind of the beholder. Certainly, when I look back over my history of work, I can see the ups and downs. Given enough time and objectivity—the only way to get that objectivity is time—I can look back and say, “This was pretty good. This could’ve been better. What the fuck was I thinking?”
If people at least know when they’re talking about Nile and can manage to say, “Those guys gave 100 percent of themselves every time they made a record and every time they stepped on stage,” that much is true. I did give everything I fucking had to give every single night. Some of it was worthwhile, some of it could have been better. But, at least I gave it all when I had the chance to give it.
Could you name one up and one down for me? I’m curious.
Well, I think Ithyphallic, as a record, not everybody got behind. There were things that we really, really loved about that record when we made it, and still do. But, not everything on there translated to everybody. As an artist, you want people to get what you fucking do. If you do something that you think is interesting, hopefully they think it’s interesting, too. But, it doesn’t only work that way. You might be giving your all and putting 100, 110, 150 percent of whatever you’ve got to give. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to like it. That’s something I’ve had to wrestle to find peace with: Not everybody’s going to love everything you fucking do, no matter how good you think it is. That’s just the way it is. There’s no use crying about it or going on a rant on Facebook about it. There’s no point in that. I think what you really can do is do the best you can and hope people will get something from it.
It’s sort of funny that you mention Ithyphallic because that was my first new Nile record. I remember when Ithyphallic came out and remember that, right before, I got Annihilation of the Wicked to prepare myself and then I got Ithyphallic the day it came out. I really liked that record.
I’m not saying it’s a bad record. If you liked the record and you understood what we were trying to do, then fuck yes. Come join us in our little boat of people who understand and appreciate that record and we’ll celebrate you. Fuck yes.
That record ends with “Even the Gods Must Die.” That song’s the jam, but it’s 10 minutes long, and I bet you never play it live.
You’re absolutely right. We have never played that song live. I think we should, but we’re reaching a whole other subject here: The painful experience of trying to write a Nile setlist and get everything in that set that people want to hear within one hour. It’s not possible and it’s a source of great anguish as a band. Like, “Okay. It’s time to write the setlist. Which favorite song do we not get to play?”
There’s some really good jams on the new one. “Evil to Cast Out Evil” was immediately—when I was listening to the album through for the first time, I probably hit that song on repeat many times. It’s on my gym playlist.
[Laughs.] Well, we like that song, too. It happens to be one of our favorite songs. We’re really confident that it’s going to do well live, as well.
So that is going to go on the tracklist?
Oh, yes. For sure. That one, “Call to Destruction,” probably “In the Name of Amon”—George really wants to do the title track. So, there you go. We’re planning on playing several songs off this record.
I’ve never had the chance to see you guys for more than 15 minutes. The only time I’ve ever been able to see you was the Ozzfest you guys did with Behemoth and Three Inches of Blood.
Where do you live?
Well, now I live in Seattle.
When we roll through Seattle, I expect to see you at the fucking show.
I will if you play “Even the Gods Must Die.”
[Laughs.] There was a guy in Finland that, for the last 10 years, every time we came around, was screaming at me to play, “The Howling of the Jinn.” He said, a couple years ago, “If you guys do not play ‘Howling of the Jinn’ on this next tour, I will bring a baseball bat to the show and break your kneecaps.
[Laughs.] That’s awful.
Well, he didn’t really mean it. He wasn’t being literal. The next time we came on tour, we still hadn’t added “The Howling of the Jinn” back into the set. He came to me and said, “Well, you didn’t play it. But, I’m not going to break your kneecaps because if I do you’ll probably never play that song for me.” You know what I did on the next tour? We fucking brought that song back.
I think it’s because you’re a personable man, but is it inappropriate that people express their desire to hear a particular thing?
I think it’s a natural, human thing to share your thoughts with other people on things like this. I think it’s just natural. So, I don’t think you’re wrong and I don’t think it’s necessarily crazy. I personally am glad that you even have a fucking favorite Nile song that you want to hear. If you’ve gotten to that point, I think that’s a thing to be cherished as an artist. That somebody cares enough about your music to go, “Hey: please play this song.”
Well, kudos to you, then. Here we are. We’ve been talking for half an hour and we’ve barely spoken about the new record.
Well, what did you think about the new record?
Again, you’re remarkably consistent. I think it was really backloaded—I liked a remarkable amount of songs at the end. Usually, I’m a Side A guy, but on this record I’m sort of a Side B guy. I really liked, again, “Evil to Cast Out Evil” and the last song, “To Walk Unharmed Through The Flames,” [as well as] “Raising the Black Earth.” All those songs, I listen to consistently in the gym or walking home from work.
Wow. [Someone] said, “This record starts out with a hammerfist, and then gets even more interesting.”
Yeah. I think that’s true. The opening track’s kind of a barnburner. Then, I think it sort of becomes more melodic, intricate and hooky as it goes on, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I would totally agree with that. I totally agree. We definitely wanted to have a barnburner-type song right out of the gate so that there was no mistaking our intent on this record. You know? You put it on and you go, “Okay. I understand what’s going on here. This is going to be a brutal record.”
Sometimes some of the more spacious songs sometimes stick with you a little bit more—only in specific instances. You released a collection of early stuff a few years ago. It had the track “Worship the Animal” on it.
I was surprised. That song also kind of stuck with me for a while. I was like, “Yeah, it’s kind of simple by Nile’s standards. But, it’s pretty fun.”
You know, I’ve got to tell you that we only ever played that song early in our career when we were just a local band. But, people in this town where I live still remember that fucking song 20 fucking years later. They still ask us to play it. Of course, we’re never going to fucking play it. But, yeah: The power of simple, tribal hookiness. It’s just got that fucking groove that makes you want to get into a moshpit.
Yeah. That’s Nile to me: The balance between technical and anthemic. I think a lot of bands, especially recently, lean way too much on the technical side. They forget that the song’s got to make you want to move.
I so totally agree with that. This whole, entire album is premised on that idea there that, lately, technical death metal has become so technical. There’s so many bands doing so many awesome fucking things that I think the listeners’ brains are, like, short-circuiting. I, for one, want to hear a fucking song now and then. I play technical death metal, and I’m going, “Please: Give me a fucking song.”