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Interview: Karl Sanders (NILE) talks Saurian Apocalypse, new Nile album, Ronnie James Dio and more!
Since the early 90s, Karl Sanders has channelled the spirits of ancient Egypt and turned their words into blistering death metal with Nile. With 30 years of universally acclaimed, intensely heavy material under their scarab belts, Nile have earned their place in the metal pantheon, but their mastermind also has another sonic identity. This week sees the release of Saurian Apocalypse, the final album in Sanders’s solo trilogy that began all the way back in 2004 with Saurian Meditation and explores the ritualistic powers of ancient instruments. It’s heavy in a whole different way.
With the sound of bone drums and Anubis sistrums ringing in our ears, This Day In Metal sat down with Sanders for a coffee and a chat about the Saurian trilogy, the upcoming Nile album, classic metal and, uh… how to kill a man with your bare hands…
This Day In Metal: So for the benefit of anyone who’s not heard your solo material, how would you describe the sound of Karl Sanders in 2022?
Karl Sanders: I’d call it… acoustic… exotic… kind of meditative… cinematic… dark… Yeah, these are good adjectives!
TDIM: These are good adjectives. I mean, it’s very different to what you do with Nile but when you sit down to write the songs, is the creative process more or less the same?
KS: It’s radically different. With Nile, it’s all based in history and middle east mythology, ancient religion. With the Saurian stuff, it comes from mystery books and science-fiction. The whole place of origin is different and the intent is different too. With Nile, it’s death metal, so it’s forceful, it’s violent, it’s meant to overwhelm and crush the listener! With the Saurian stuff, it kind of moves your brain into a hypnotic trance, that’s how it works its evil. [makes snake gesture] Yeeeeah… It’s insidious, like an evil lurking serpent worming its way into your consciousness…
TDIM: That’s exactly what I want when I sit down and listen to a record. Evil serpents in my brain. So how do you go about constructing hypnotic tracks like these, just building them from nothing?
KS: Well, you know, I always try to say to myself “alright, I’m not going to stick to a formula”. I think if you’re too rigid in your formula, you end up with results that narrowly conform to that rigid formula. So I try my best not to let the process be constrained. If I get an idea, I just think “ooh!” Mostly with this record, I pick up the guitar or the baglama and just start playing and hit the record button.
TDIM: The old ways are the best ways…
KS: If I hear something I like, then I’ll start working with it and I’ll start building. But there’s a lot that just gets thrown away. When people hear the record, they don’t hear all the stuff that got thrown out. They only hear the stuff where I went “well, that could be fun!”
TDIM: You’ve got a lot of guest musicians on this album who weave their way in and out of the whole tapestry. Was that all done remotely or did they come and jam with you?
KS: Normally, in the past, I’d have people come over and do it here. But the pandemic this time necessitated to a lot of the guest work being remote. Which really bothered me. The singer, Mike Breazeale, he’s living down in Florida now, so part of the process is usually just me and him hanging out and trying a million different wacky things to come up with some unique shit. But this time we didn’t have this luxury, he recorded his parts remotely, which I think was not ideal but not every situation is gonna be ideal. Sometimes in life you gotta work with whatever you are given and just do something. What else am I gonna do? Cry? [laughs]
TDIM: [laughs] Yeah, I mean, these songs lend themselves to that kind of ritualistic feel, which I can imagine is easier if you’re together in one place, but at the same time, there’s such a different vibe on this album to the previous two. I think it’s a really good one and maybe working differently is part of what helped to achieve that vibe?
KS: I really believe in that, yeah. If you change up how you’re doing something, it’ll naturally lead to some measurable amount of difference in the end result. Even if it’s just as simple as “hey, let’s go in the other room! It sounded better in there! Let’s go in there!”
TDIM: [laughs] Yeah. So, as you said just now, there’s a lot in the Saurian albums that’s inspired by classic science-fiction and fantasy. What is it that drew you to these genres in the first place?
KS: Well, my dad, who also got me started as a history buff, he had an incredible library. He loved science-fiction, he loved historical fiction. His library set me on the path of doing the thing with Nile and ancient Egypt but there was a whole lotta stuff like Frank Herbert and Robert Howard and Lovecraft in there too. If I wanted to name on and on and on, we could be here all day [laughs]. My brother got most of the library when my dad passed away. I got to take the stuff I really, really wanted but my brother got most of it.
TDIM: I hope you got all the ancient Egypt books at least!
KS: Oh yeah.
TDIM: You earned those! Although, you know, there’s a little bit of Lovecraft in Nile with Nephren-Ka and such. Can you ever see the two projects colliding in, like, some kind of epic crossover project? Gods vs Gods?
KS: Well, they’re already mixed up right here in this space in between these two bones [taps his skull]. I’m doing my best to define them into listenable projects. If you put too much Saurian in to your Nile, then it’s not Nile any more, it’s not death metal. If you got a bunch of ambient stuff in some metal, at some point it’s not metal any more, or it’s not as much metal anyway. Is that fair to the audience?
TDIM: Yeah, I guess not. I like the idea of keeping it pure so everyone gets what they want. So you’ve got a bunch of exotic instruments on all your albums, Nile and Saurian and I’m curious. I dunno where you go to buy, like, an Anubis Sistrum, but do you have any weird stories about getting one from a mystical bazaar or some shadowy desert nomad?
KS: [laughs] You can find online shops that sell world instruments. These days, it’s pretty easy. Although back when I started, it would only be like when I was in New York, Seattle or Montreal that I’d pick up cool stuff, or London…
TDIM: You never bought a bone flute off an ancient monk then?
KS: [just laughs… then laughs again…]
TDIM: That’ll be a no, then…
KS: Well, the Tibetan monks came through here years ago and they had their own merch table and they did have all kinds of stuff for sale there. They had a great merch table, right! As far as musical groups, touring around, they got the best merch table, an incredible merch table, I wish all merch tables were as cool as the Tibetan guys.
TDIM: I like that. What do you reckon to the idea of some Nile bone flutes for sale at the merch table? Can you make it happen?
KS: I try! Every time, we start talking about it, like, “what are we taking out to sell on tour this time?” and I always have some wacky ideas but they always get shot down, like “no, that’s not practical…” [laughs]
TDIM: You never know, you’ve got a new record deal, new record coming out… could happen this time! Speaking of weird wacky ideas, there have been a couple of animated videos on YouTube for the new Saurian tracks, which are super cool. Do you have a lot of input into those visuals?
KS: Well… they asked me, they said “okay, what are these songs about?”… so I told ’em! I wrote it out for them in a big long email, like “this song is about blahblahblahblahblahblah and here’s my suggestion” so they kinda took that and made this artistic interpretation of whatever the fuck it was I was talking about. [laughs] Y’know, often when you’re talking about film or video, the words that you say and the words that people hear don’t necessarily exactly intersect but I think that’s okay, that’s alright, because it’s an entirely different way of looking at the music. As soon as you add someone else’s creative interpretation in there, you go some place that you might not have gone otherwise.
TDIM: Yeah, I read your description of The Evil Inherent In Us All that was inspired by, like, what, a north African exorcism that you attended? I guess that’s a pretty intense and personal thing – it must be weird seeing that interpreted by someone else.
KS: Ah, no, it wasn’t an exorcism, like an exorcism exorcism. It was a performance of north African exorcism music.
TDIM: Ahhhh. Sorry. So there was no one possessed who actually, like, needed exorcising, it was just for the sake of playing it.
KS: Exactly. Nader Sadek when he was pitching it to us, he said like “it’s not like in the Exorcist movies, not like that at all”. It’s like people who make music all night onstage in different combinations and the purpose of the music is to fill the room with so much positive spiritual energy that negative spirits give up and go away! They’re like “hey, okay, we’re not wanted here, we’re leaving!” [chuckles] And man, you can feel that positive energy, flowing from the people in the audience, flowing from the musicians, it’s a tangible musical spirit that they’re conjuring to life. And it’s so positive. You’re happy, you’re happy to be alive.
TDIM: That sounds incredible.
KS: It is!
TDIM: That leads me to the next question perfectly actually… Have you ever considered doing the Saurian thing live?
KS: My manager said this to me just yesterday. He said “Karl, if it keeps goin’ this well, you may have to take this out on tour” and I went “dude, do you realise the budget we’re gonna need to play this music live?” [laughs, rubs his temples for a long period of time] I’m rubbing my temples because, man, maybe Hans Zimmer can do this but… I dunno if you’ve ever seen Hans Zimmer live?
TDIM: I haven’t but I know the kind of thing he does.
KS: It’s incredible what he does. If you give me a Hans Zimmer size budget then yeah! Of course we can do it.
TDIM: How many people do you think you’d need onstage?
KS: A dozen?
TDIM: Wow. Okay. Well, good luck with the Hans Zimmer budget! Of course, something you can play live is Nile. In fact, you’re touring soon. Like, real soon?
KS: Yeah, we’re just home right now, writing.
TDIM: Yeah, I read you’ve got about 10 songs ready for the new album?
KS: Ah, now there’s 11! On the board! [points to the board]
TDIM: Woah, 11! A This Day In Metal exclusive, one extra song has been completed!
KS: We’ve got maybe 3 more to come and then we’ll start recording in October.
TDIM: I know you’ve been teaching guitar and learning a lot from your students in terms of different styles. Is there anything that you’ve picked up that’s gonna be a real shock when we hear it?
KS: Hmm. I would say that the spirit of what we’re doing hasn’t changed but our understanding of the artform… well, give us two years at home to do nothing but record shit, and what are we gonna do with that time? Some of this stuff will just totally rip your face off. Say, have you ever seen monkeys rip the face off another monkey or a person?
TDIM: [laughs] I’ve not had the pleasure, no.
KS: Monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons, they have five times the hand strength of humans. They can literally take their paw and rip your face off. Which does happen to be in one of the songs!
TDIM: Nice, another exclusive reveal!
KS: [laughs] But I digress. That is what we’re going to do to listeners. We’re going to literally rip the faces off people and throw monkey feces. That’s what we’re gonna do. [laughs]
TDIM: [laughs] I couldn’t ask for anything more. So… uh… very silly question now. What’s your favourite hieroglyph?
KS: Favourite hieroglyph? [long pause] I don’t know, man. That’s like saying “what’s your favourite letter of the alphabet?”
TDIM: [without a second’s pause] X, obviously.
TDIM: Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s like, brutal. [makes “X” stance with arms]
KS: Oh, that’s like overhand knife form. You can block an overhead knife strike if you do this. [makes “X stance, demonstrates knife block]
TDIM: See, I’m right. X is awesome. It’s defensive, it’s brutal. Then you’ve got X certificate movies. They’re always the best ones…
KS: Hey, if you do a choke on someone’s gi, you reach with this one… [moves arm, encourages TDIM to do the same]
TDIM: Umm… [moves arm awkwardly]
KS: …and grab with this one… [moves other arm] that’s how you choke someone with their own gi! [laughs] You can’t really do it with a t-shirt, it doesn’t work as good with a t-shirt.
TDIM: Of course. But with a gi, it’s… [makes “X” gesture]
KS: Yeah. Or a jacket! Someone’s wearin’ a jacket, you can do it with a jacket.
TDIM: Well, that question went in a direction I wasn’t expecting but hey. I’ll take that answer!
KS: I think violence absolutely belongs in metal interviews. Just like in video games. Violence belongs in video games. Not necessarily so much in real life. If we can get some of those violent tendencies out through video games, we could be happier people.
TDIM: Yeah, video games, movies, metal… it’s all catharsis. Which brings me on to a question I often ask, since This Day In Metal likes to look back at things… what was your first ever metal show?
KS: Black Sabbath, 1981. Heaven and Hell tour came through our town, Greenboro Auditorium, that was the first metal metal show. Like, we had lots of shows, hard rock concerts, but this was metal metal. Iron Maiden also came through, right around the Number of the Beast. That was great. Then Judas Priest…
TDIM: Wow, I mean, that’s a great start. What a fantastic time for metal.
KS: Duuuuude. Duuuuude. I will never forget Screaming For Vengeance, being there, just like “oh my Gooood…”
TDIM: Yeah… My first metal metal concert was Maiden, on the Seventh Son tour a few years after you, and that was amazing. Literally changed my life.
KS: Well, Ozzy came through too and I got to see Randy Rhoads playing at the Omni in Atlanta, just like 3 nights before he died. We were waaaaay up, waaaaaaay up in the stands and I remember me and Larry Gore drove down and it was a Wednesday night and we were seniors in high school. We drove all the way to Atlanta which was, like, just unthinkable on a school night. Atlanta’s two and a half hours away and for high school kids that was something. But we saw Ozzy and we were like… man… Randy Rhoads. Incredible talent. Sometimes it’s easy to let time whitewash the memory of transcendental experience but seeing Randy Rhoads was one of those life changing experiences for young guitar players like us. I thought “this is what’s possible”. Even moreso than when I saw Van Halen. I mean, of course, Eddie Van Halen, duh, but…
TDIM: It’s a different kind of playing…
KS: Yeah, the power Randy Rhoads had. The power, the passion he commanded, and he was just a little skinny guy. I mean pffft, you could snap him like a twig but his musical soul was so powerful. Like Dio. He was a short little guy too, but oh my God, he’s a giant of a man. He’s Godlike in his person. Hugely inspiring.
TDIM: Yeah, I saw Dio just once and I’m so glad I got that chance. Like you say, his soul is incredible and there’s so much power when you hear him sing. There was no one like him, really.
KS: His presence in a room too. I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times and the kind of person that he was, it was mindblowing. The way he treated people was exemplary. He could make every single person feel like they were a person who was appreciated and respected and I still carry the memory of that with me everywhere. He was a guy who was a Godlike talent, so successful, but was such a good person, such a strong example of how to treat other human beings. Wow.
TDIM: I think that really comes through in his lyrics too. There’s so much compassion in his lyrics, it was quite unusual in metal at the time. And yeah, he clearly had a great heart.
KS: Yeah. Wow.
TDIM: Well, on the topic of 80s metal, and Dio, obviously all these bands used to have a mascot. Dio had Murray, Maiden had Eddie, Megadeth had Vic, etc. If Nile had started in the early 80s, not the early 90s, and you’d had a mascot, what do you think that mascot would’ve looked like?
KS: Oh! I know exactly. It would’ve been an eight-foot-tall Anubis in black and gold, and I’m still thinkin’ about doin’ it! I want two giant statues on either side of the drumkit, eight-foot-tall Anubis statues. Mmm, yeah. That’s what I want.
TDIM: That’d be awesome. Okay, so last question. On This Day In Metal, we always like to drop in little trivia facts whenever we post about an album, but the commenters say our “Did You Know?” bits are too obvious. Can you tell us something about Karl Sanders that no one else knows?
KS: Okay, here’s one. I still take guitar lessons. I’m 59 and I still take guitar lessons.
TDIM: Woah. YOU take guitar lessons? What’s your teacher like? In my head, he’d have to be like some kind of ancient Chinese dude who plays with four hands…?
KS: [laughs] Kind of the equivalent! It’s Rusty Cooley. I’ve been friends with him for years now and I’ve had so many incredible guitar lessons from him, but he is definitely like a Bruce Lee kinda guy! And you don’t wanna get in the ring with Bruce Lee… No matter how good you are, if you step in the ring with Bruce Lee, more than likely… [imitates explosion noise]
TDIM: Well, that’s a great fact, thanks. You still have guitar lessons from the Bruce Lee of guitar! Thanks so much for your time today and good luck with the tour and the new album!
KS: Thank you for having us!
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Interview by C.J. Lines
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