In Conversation with NILE: Frontman KARL SANDERS on Ethnomusicology, His First Trip to Egypt, Nader Sadek Single, Gear and New Music

- Mar 05, 2018 at 12:48PM
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Death metal legends Nile, known for their highly technical music inspired by ancient Egypt, have been around for over twenty years now but are showing no signs of slowing down. They are just finishing up a European tour supported by Terrorizer and Exarsis, and not long afterwards they will be off on a spring US tour, co-headlining with Soulfly. I was lucky enough to catch up with Karl Sanders, the powerhouse behind Nile, before their recent Geneva gig. How are they all managing with such a heavy tour schedule?

“Compared to what we did last August, this tour is a walk in the park. We did four straight weeks of fly-ins, where you fly every day, and then that morning you fly somewhere else. Man that was a grind, it was too much. A week of that is enough to really exhaust you, and we did four weeks. It was.. I’m not doing that again!”

The setlist on this tour surprisingly includes only one track from the most recent album; and with eight studio albums to choose from, it’s a real retrospective of Nile’s career. I ask Karl about the thinking behind this setlist. “We knew we would be touring with Terrorizer, which is kind of an old-school band, so we thought you know what, let’s play some stuff for the old school fans, because that’s who is going to come to these shows. And we’re happy to play the old songs. They’re under the fingers, as they say, it’s muscle memory. We’ve been playing them for twenty years so it’s like autopilot.” I wonder if amongst all the fretboard wizardry there are some tracks that are just too difficult to play live. “We do them anyway! It’s just not as much fun, it’s like going to work, you have to really focus with this stuff.”

One thing that has always struck me about Nile’s music is its authenticity. Without ever descending into gimmickry, it really does sound like ancient Egypt, which is fascinating when you consider that we can’t possibly know what the music of ancient Egypt actually sounded like. Nile’s meticulous lyrical research is well-known; their album liner notes explain in great detail the historical and mythical references. So, I wanted to ask Karl about his musicological research; has he studied the ethnomusicology of ancient Egypt, and does he try to emulate that, or does he work from the scales and motifs and tropes that we all have somehow have in our subconscious?

“I think it’s kind of like that. Like movies. And if you were making music for a movie that were to do with that time period, you would have to use tropes, idiomatic things that put people in that frame of mind, because music really is an emotional reference point. So even if somehow you were able to time travel back 5000 years and get the actual real thing people were playing 5000 years ago, if you put it in front of a modern audience they may or may not be able to make that kind of association when they hear it. So I think you’re kind of stuck, you know, limited by the parameters of the listening experience of modern listeners.”

This off-the-cuff comment by Karl is not only a profound observation on ethnomusicology, it’s also incredibly modest. Because whether or not he actively studies the finer points of the Phrygian dominant scale and other stylistic components of middle Egyptian music, his compositions are filled with them, in a very natural sense. And it is perhaps this lack of pretension that has allowed Nile to write and perform within a fairly narrow theme for so long, whilst maintaining critical acclaim. Furthermore, Karl does play traditional middle eastern instruments, including the baglama saz. “With the stringed instruments, it’s just guitar technique carried over. With percussion instruments you can just go on YouTube or whatever and work out how it’s being played. I’ve done everything very organically, and I think that’s in keeping with the traditional ways of doing things, you know before written music it was all taught by ear, passed down from one generation of musician to the next by ear.”

Watch the band's “Call to Destruction” lyric video here.

Twenty years of playing “ancient civilization metal”, simply because the band was called Nile and Karl figured he should probably roll with that theme. So does he feel trapped - does he ever wish he could just make some music that had nothing to do with pyramids or Lovecraft?

“I don’t feel trapped. Constrained is also probably too strong a word. I think we have managed to carve ourselves a niche. If we were to go too far outside that, would it still be recognisable as Nile? I think it would be counterproductive to toy with it too much. Maybe a little bit if I pushed the edges, you know, and tried to do it in new ways, but I don’t think it would be in our interests.”

In January this year Karl had the opportunity to visit Egypt, incredibly for the very first time, as part of a collaboration with Nader Sadek. This must have been an eye-opening experience. “It was a lot of things. It was a fulfilment of an expectation that I had for so many years, but it was also an opportunity to see it as it actually is, not how it’s presented on TV or in books or on the internet or whatever. With your own eyes, it’s just it’s own thing.”

A “supergroup single” will result from the Egyptian collaboration between Karl, Nader Sadek, Derek Roddy (Hate Eternal) and Perversion’s Mahmud Gecekusu but it will be even more fascinating to see if Karl’s Egyptian trip inspires his new music for Nile. “It already has worked its way into some of the lyrics on the new record.”

Some shots of Nile, Terrorizer and Exarsis from a recent show at L'Usine in Geneva, Switzerland.

Technical death metal such as Nile’s attracts gear nerds like myself, and I am keen to ask Karl about his guitar equipment. But a quick search on YouTube reveals that he has already been grilled multiple times about his rig, and has kindly provided fascinated fans with plenty of details. So are there any new developments, gear-wise? “I’m now working with the Marshall guys again for my amps. Engl closed their US office, so now if you need tour support or whatever and you call or email them, you might get an answer like a month later, so without proper support, why am I with them?”

Karl plays his own signature Dean guitar, always in dropped-A tuning, as well as a Dean 7-string which, to my delight, he allows me to try out. Rather unusually Karl plays with scalloped frets. “I would say it gives you more control. Your finger is not flat, your finger is round, so the scallop makes a really nice place for your finger. Not so many people do it, I stumbled upon it years ago, and decided it was something I really liked. It’s really easy to sound terrible though, playing this guitar.”

It’s definitely not for me then, and needless to say I carefully hand Karl back his guitar without launching into an impromptu “Sacrifice Unto Sebek”. I always like to try learning to play the music of my interview subjects, but I gave up very quickly with Nile because it is so nightmarishly difficult. How does Karl feel about his compositions being tabbed by amateurs and put up online? And would he ever consider making an official Nile tab book?

“They’re not right, they’re incorrect, but having said that I’m thrilled that someone cared enough about those songs to try to learn to play them. People put a lot of effort into these tabs so you can’t rain on them, they’re not right, but wow, still. A tab book is very time consuming. We had an offer from a guy a few years ago who wanted to make a tab book of Annihilation of the Wicked, and he did it, but it was so horribly wrong that we had to shut it down. We said no. These are all wrong, and I don’t have the time to fix them.”

Karl is devoted to Nile and, the Nader Sadek single notwithstanding, he doesn’t have as much time as he would like for side projects. He has produced two solo albums though, entitled Saurian Meditation (2004) and Saurian Exorcisms (2009). Both retain Nile’s ancient middle Eastern themes, but are atmospheric, contemplative, and very beautiful. He’d love to do more, but time is the problem. “People do ask me, when is the next solo album coming. I have three pieces written for it, and I’m really really happy with them…. Nile takes a lot of time. I wish I had 36 hours in the day, but I don’t, I only have 24.”

Another side project he’d love to do more of is martial arts. Beginning in his forties, he has reached an impressive 3rd degree black belt in Sen-I Jutsu and a 1st degree black belt in Tae Kwondo. He sees a lot of parallels between metal and martial arts, but does he ever get the chance to practice while on tour? “I used to - I even used to bring my own sparring mats, I had enough for a full tournament size area. But that got to be a lot of work, dragging that out of the bus every day, tearing it down in time for soundcheck… and space is always an issue as well.” So it’s something for him to look forward to when he finally gets home to South Carolina. “Yeah. I always have what’s called ‘ring rust’, when I haven’t trained for a month and I have all the younger guys beat me up!”

Finally to the big question: the new album. Nile’s last album was What Should Not Be Unearthed in 2015, and there have been rumours of a new one in the pipeline, but the touring schedule makes recording difficult. “We’re six songs in to the album, so probably in the gap between this and the Soulfly tour we’ll probably work on a few more, and this summer we’ll finish it off.”

So on that basis we’ll probably have to wait until December for the album release, but can Karl give us any clues about what we might expect from a band that have been remarkably consistent in their style and quality over the years?

“I can’t give away any song titles, I would be crucified by our manager! But what I can tell you is that having Brian (Kingsland, new guitarist) helping out and contributing to the songwriting is really a boon. It has really given us a boost. Things are a little bit different this time. You’ll still recognise Nile in what we’re doing, but we’ve got a fresh take on things.”

Check out the guys’ “Enduring The Eternal Molestation Of Flame” music video.

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