Karl Sanders of Nile Recounts Making "At the Gate of Sethu"
South Carolina’s swampy, humid environs hardly recall the sand-swept, sun-baked where Pharaohs lay their bandaged heads. The electronically fused sounds of death metal also present a disparate comparison when juxtaposed against the organic sounds of exotic acoustic instruments. These locations and musical styles may seem Chimaira, but like the sun god Ra who rises in the East every mourning, Karl Sanders has illuminated the field of death metal with his hybrid creation, Nile.
Even though Sanders and the rest of the world do not know the precise sound of what emanated on the banks of their namesake, the instruments he uses combined with his knowledge of the ancient Near East has a cinematic effect on the mind. Horn-driven armies, incantation chants, hand drum rituals, “mummy growls,” chiming sitars and many other non-traditional metal instruments can create a hypnotic, blissful experience.
“At the Gate of Sethu,” the seventh chapter in Nile’s book of “Ithyphallic Metal,” shows the band testing the waters with numerous vocal techniques. Some parts consist of three separate vocal tones guarantee to open the mind’s third eye. These experimentations are important; Sanders feels many of today’s death metal acts fail to step out of the norm, vocally or musically. Nile’s fresh take on an old sound partially explains Nile’s position near the top of death metal’s great pyramid.
In the following interview, Sanders expressed a strong opinion about the importance of creativity in death metal. Additionally, he speaks on topics such as the making of “At the Gates of Sethu” and his time living with Morbid Angel.
Cowan: You seem to have a lot of that going on in the new album “At the Gate of Sethu.”
Sanders: Absolutely. I like to think of Nile as being metal, but there is a cinematic aspect where if you close your eyes and just listen, you can see all kinds of stuff going on in the music. In a way, it’s like soundtrack music: if you close your eyes during a movie and just listen to the music and the sound of people’s voices, you can almost tell, exactly, what is going on in the screen. There is a whole art to that shit.
Cowan: Early Nile albums were death metal records with a little bit of Old-World instrumentation. Now, I hear more Old-World instrumentation. Do you agree?
Sanders: I think it’s a lot easier to hear the stuff that’s on the record. Nile albums are always a challenge to mix to fit the basic elements of the genre I’m in—super fast, d-tuned guitars, blasting drums and vocal insanity. It’s awfully tough to hear all the details, and when you pile on all the exotic instruments, it becomes hard to hear everything that is in there. That’s one of the reasons on this record that we really strived for a production that was clean and streamlined, so you can hear all the elements. It might not be as thick as other metal records that people expect. This time around, we really wanted people to hear everything that was on the disc. All the individual sounds had to be clean.
Cowan: You worked with Neil Kernon. Is that correct?
Sanders: Absolutely, Neil came to pre-production and he said to us, right there in the rehearsal room, “Guys, what I want to do with this album is cleanly capture all the fire and the inner flame that is burning inside you guys in this rehearsal room.” He said the absolute stuff that I wanted to hear because I wanted to make a record that is raw, primal and savage, but not because it had some holy, dressed-up, glossy production. I wanted simple, clean production where you can really hear the old fashion, actual vibe of what we’re really playing on the guitar, drums and everything else.
Cowan: Who played the instruments on the instrumentals? Do you have a keyboard or did someone actually play the exotic instruments?
Sanders: You may be referring to the track “Ethno-Musicological Cannibalisms,” which is me primarily playing the Glissentar, which is basically a cross between an Arabic Oud and a classical, solid-body guitar. It lets you get the fretless Oud kind of sounds, but doing it on the context that any guitar player can pick it up and start to make notes on it. This instrument is very doable if you’re a guitar player. It’s one of the reasons I love it because the guitar technique definitely crosses over, but you’re actually making sounds that are close to an actual Oud.
Cowan: Is that an instrument that the Egyptians used or was that something that came out later on in history?
Sanders: We can be certain that the Arabic Oud and the Egyptian Oud were developed in A.D., after Christ. There are pictures where you can see ancient Egyptians playing a lute-like instrument with a couple of strings, which was common in that day, but it probably didn’t sound like the modern version of it. My way of thinking is there is no way that anybody could actually claim to know what ancient Egyptian music sounded like, anyway. No one who has heard it is still living today. So in that respect, anything we do you can’t call it ancient Egyptian music because we’re living in the year 2012. I like to think we’re just playing music that will put you in that kind of mind set, but does it legitimately sound like what they were playing at some Egyptian soiree in the desert, 5,000 years ago? Come on! That’s a very naive kind of thought.
Cowan: They probably didn’t leave any papyrus scripts containing musical notes.
Sanders: I haven’t seen any. That would be a pretty good thing to say about our music, “Yeah man, we found these ancient musical scripts. We’re playing them note-for-note. Fuck yeah man, check it out!” That would be cool to say and all, but that’s not real.
Cowan: The vocals on “At the Gate of Sethu” are quite varied. You seemed to have taken many different approaches. There are less death metal vocals and more chanting-type vocals.
Sanders: We wanted to expand the vocal expressions that are spliced all throughout the record. A lot of death metal bands have just one vocal style throughout the entire record. The entire genre, in fact, is built upon a pre-conceived notion of what death metal vocals have to be. I said to myself, “Wait a minute. There are all kinds of extreme, sick-and-disgusting possibilities for the human voice. Who is to say that it has to be this or it has to be that.” Once I challenged that pre-conceived notion, it opened up a whole world of possibilities.
Cowan: Who does the vocals—you, Dallas Toler-Wade and Jon Vesano?
Sanders: Me, Dallas and Jon Vesano are the voices you hear on this record. The clean singing like the parts heard on “The Fiends Who Come to Steal the Magick of the Deceased” was done by Jason Hagan and Mike Breazeale. They did the clean, harmonizing vocals. All the rest of the stuff is me, Dallas and Jon using different ranges of our voices to try to bring different kinds of expressions to each lyric idea. Each gives his own unique sound, identity. Sometimes I think people are so stuck in believing that death metal vocals have to be this that a lot of creative potential is going by the wayside. I think there will be people who say, “What the fuck is going on with these vocals. That can’t be on a death metal record. Fuck you!” Probably at one point in my life, I would have had that same attitude, but Nile has already made six records that have plenty of that voice. There is plenty of that voice on this record, too, but we wanted to do some other creative things as well.
Cowan: Are you doing the death vocals on the album?
Sanders: You can definitely hear the familiar, Karl, super-low death growling. I like to call it the mummy growl because it is super deep and has its own thing going on. I do some mid-range, kind of old school, screaming things. There are some high screams. There is one type of vocal harmonizing that a friend of mine called “Egyptian high priest casting curses.” I told him that was pretty cool because it was sort of the vibe I was looking for. I was trying to take those lyrics and bring them to life. There are several voices that Dallas uses as well. Fucking Vasano, man, he doesn’t some sick shit on this record! Holy crap!
Cowan: You mentioned old school vocals. My first thought on this statement was this reminded me of the vocals on your “Nile/Worship the Animal” demo. The beginning of the album contained no death metal vocals. The vocals were more in line with James Hetfield.
Sanders: Those vocals that you’re talking about were done by Chief Spirers. There are also parts on that recording where he and I are singing in harmony with clean styles. It was Chris Lollis (bass) called me up, while we were just starting the song writing, and said he had been listening to the “Festivals of Atonement” CD. He said there were ideas that we hadn’t used in years and should work some of that stuff in because it really gives another flavor to the music beyond the stereotypical death metal vocals. I thought that he was fucking right! There is a lot of stuff that we have the potential to do with music that sometimes falls by the wayside. Frankly, I was ready to hear a metal record that wasn’t the same cookie-cutter stamp that people seemed determined to force you into that box.
Cowan: One thing people can not argue about Nile is that you sound like nobody else, while 500,000 bands sound like Cannibal Corpse.
Sanders: Dude, you are telling the truth right there. There are so many bands that follow the same formula that it’s a self-perpetuating rut. I call it a “glut” of clone bands that I’ve seen over the last two decades. Because Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation are so awesome at what they’re doing, that is therefore the rule book. If you sit down and talk to the guys in Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation, they listen to bands besides Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation. I guess there will always be copy-cat bands. It’s just part of the way of the world. The real thing that I think is worth spending your time with is stuff that’s unique. There is already one Cannibal Corpse and they are the best Cannibal Corpse they can possibly be. No one is going to sound more Cannibal Corpse and Cannibal Corpse, so why bother? Why bother trying to sound like Cannibal Corpse, to my way of thinking. It’s a pointless pursuit.
Cowan: I understand your statement about those bands listening to bands other than their band. Before meeting members of Slayer and Morbid Angel, I thought those musicians only listened to metal. I remember Dave Lombardo telling me he listens to Bjork and other stuff. It’s kind of a diseased mindset of, “Oh, you’re listening to mainstream music. You should only listen to death metal.”
Sanders: In it’s own way it’s the exact Yin Yang opposite of people who reject death metal because it’s now popular. They are doing the exact opposite thing. It’s just as bad as people who blindly follow Christianity and then decide “this sucks,” so they blindly buy into the Satanism bag because it’s the complete opposite. It’s two sides of the exact same motherfucking coin!
Cowan: Speaking of death metal, Nile has a big tour coming up with Morbid Angel, Kreator and Fueled By Fire.
Sanders: Yessss sir! That’s going to be good. Fuck yeah!
Cowan: I know you toured with Kreator, but I had read in the book “Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal” that you used to live across the hall from the guys in Morbid Angel.
Sanders: What that was about was I was doing a classical gig with a friend of David Vincent’s. The material was quite extensive. We were doing two hours of classical guitar and classical flute music, so there was a whole lot of rehearsing to be done on that project. I moved up for a month and lived at the Morbid Angel house, while I was working on that classical gig. I had an incredible opportunity to witness Morbid Angel rewriting the book on metal. The stuff they were doing back then, right before “Altars of Madness,” that shit was revolutionary. They were taking music to an incredible place back then. I count myself very lucky in life. I had a front row seat to watch the musical development of Morbid Angel. I watched it happen right in front of me. I went to their rehearsal and heard them all day. I hung out with them, got some guitar lessons from Trey Azagthoth. Dude—very exciting stuff!
Cowan: I feel there is a bit of Morbid Angel in Nile’s sound. Obviously, Morbid Angel and Nile are very different in many aspects, but I feel some of the death metal in your sound is similar to Morbid Angel.
Sanders: What I really liked about early Morbid Angel was they were looking at death metal as a legitimate art form. It was an incredible, challenging musical form they were pioneering. You couldn’t look at Morbid Angel and say, “Oh, here’s a Judas Priest riff” or “gee, there is a Metallica riff” or “I heard the same thing on an Iron Maiden record.” No! Dude, this was entirely new stuff taking an art form to entirely new places.
Cowan: Nile recently canceled a tour in India. Why did you cancel this tour?
Sanders: That was kind of sad. The Indian embassy rejected our visa application eight times for no reason. No reason, whatsoever, was given for the rejection. They kept making us reapply, reapply, reapply. Finally, when they rejected our last application, we had to depart for the rest of our Asian dates, so the window just got closed. I think the recent Metallica riot in India left a bad taste in the mouths of the Indian government. They are not too keen on metal bands coming in there right now. That’s the only thing I can fathom because they had no legitimate reason to deny our visas.
Cowan: Have you played in India?
Sanders: Nope, this was going to be our first time going there. It’s kind of sad. Hopefully, we’ll try again next year, maybe when things have calmed down.
Cowan: Has Nile played in Egypt or the Fertile Crescent Valley (the cradle of civilization in the Middle East)?
Sanders: No, not yet. There were offers to go to Israel a few years back, but there wasn’t even enough money to cover the cost of the plane tickets to get there, so that never happened. Egypt—good luck getting a metal gig out there. There are a few underground metal bands out of Egypt, but there aren’t a lot of available gigs. It has also just undergone an Islamic revolution there, so good luck trying to get a gig in Egypt.
Cowan: “Metal in Baghdad” focused on a few bands from Iraq such as Acrassicauda.
Sanders: There just isn’t any money to make there. I suppose if one had a big enough bank account, if they had an account big enough to fund a band to come play there. Dude, the people there, the metal fans—I’ve got to hand it to them. They are still metal even when it’s not convenient to be metal. That’s a totally different situation than what we have here in America where people blindly follow whatever trend happens to be going on musically. From a metal head’s perspective, from a guy who plays all over the planet, who has played metal to metal fans everywhere, I have to say the dedication by these guys living in a country where it is often illegal to have metal is amazing. It’s just amazing!
Cowan: They are willing to go to jail for it.
Sanders: It’s a real test of your convictions. You have to ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing worth going to jail?” Most of the time the answer is no. It’s just not worth throwing away years of my life. These guys in places like Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon can go to jail, so they have to be really serious about it.
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