GOLF BALL FACTORIES, TERM PAPER CHEATS, AND THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH KARL SANDERS OF NILE
True story: I went to see The Faceless and Decrepit Birth almost four years ago in Oakland and was positive I saw Karl Sanders in the crowd. But I didn’t want to be the tool who asked his doppelganger “Hey, are you Karl Sanders from Nile, man?” I finally got a chance this summer to ask Sanders if he was milling around at the Oakland Metro in November 2008. The answer is an unqualified yes. “That was me,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite places in the Earth and I wanted my wife to see it.” It turns out that Sanders was on his honeymoon and decided to get in a little tech death during his special week. With his new bride at his side, he jumped on the train to Oakland to get in a little extreme metal to accompany the nice dinners and cable car rides.
The anecdote illustrates why the 40-something Sanders has longevity in a genre that causes quick burnout: dedication. Whether it’s practicing guitar, learning about Egyptian minutiae, or supporting the scene, he’s an example of what happens when you both have talent and bust your ass. You don’t get to make any kind of living on extreme metal, even if you are a guitar prodigy, without relentless work. Sanders works hard and expects his bandmates to do the same. The prolific Nile recently released their seventh album, At The Gate Of Sethu. Sanders talked to MetalSucks about his life, including nearly losing his mind managing inventory in a massive golf ball factory. Little wonder that there are a few Nile songs about creative uses for shit.
How did you get so interested in Egyptology?
It was always a personal interest. In the band’s early years we were struggling. Where do we go with this? What direction do we take? I kind of said to myself what would I want to hear from a band called Nile? I was already into Egyptology and thought it would be a lot more interesting than all the Satan mumbo jumbo. It seemed like a real, honest topic to bring to a musical idiom.
Did that come from childhood or did you study it growing up?
The interest was fostered by watching a bunch of big, epic flicks when I was a kid. I loved Ben Hur, Sodom and Gomorrah and The Ten Commandments. They presented Egypt on this incredibly grand scale and it really grabbed the imagination of a young boy. There was also the original Boris Karloff Mummy. It was intriguing, powerful stuff for a young mind.
I remember seeing those movies and The Ten Commandments, probably because they played it in every class I had to go to at church. All of them presented Egypt as the evil, monolithic empire. There was no subtlety. They were the villains.
Yup, and that’s why we always try to delve into all the hidden crevices with Nile. By the time I went to college, the local Greenville Technical College, they had an incredible library with connections to all these Division One libraries. You could order books through other college libraries. I spent a lot time there instead of going to class researching Nile songs. Don’t tell my Mom that or she’d be pissed [laughs].
Do a lot of Nile fans dig deeper behind the songs or are they happy with the music?
There are plenty of people who are fascinated and want to learn more. There are even people who have gone to college and taken courses. Then they write letters asking for help with their homework which is always funny. I’d say the vast majority of Nile listeners are willing to take things at face value and just enjoy them as metal. And I think you can enjoy it and listen to it as just metal.
What was the funniest letter or email you received from a student?
[laughs] There was a time a student wrote and asked me for help with a term paper. I said no, I wasn’t going to do his homework . I got a letter like a month later from his college professor comparing his term paper to the liner notes of a Nile record [laughs]. Of course, the teacher was laughing about the plagiarism and thought I’d want to know about it. The student ended up getting a C, for at least having the ingenuity to steal from an interesting place.
At least it’s better than something like Termpapers.com. Maybe he learned something through osmosis?
When I was kid in high school and actually made a cheat sheet I never needed it because I ended up remembering what I fucking wrote down. It’s a perverse way of studying.
Our history teacher would let you cram as much as you could on an 8 x 11 sheet of paper and bring it to an exam. In the course of trying to cram the whole book on a piece of paper you actually learned.
That’s really funny.
When you have a band like Nile known for its technical elements and listeners often expect a leap with each album how do you deal with the challenge?
That sound is part of what we do. We never talk about making things more technical. We try to make the technicality subservient to the song. I get bored with bands that are so technical that they lose sight of the songs. So we try to make it entertaining; that’s the goal. Even if you don’t know a thing about the guitar you should be able to find something interesting on a Nile record. That’s my goal: to keep it entertaining, keep it interesting.
Your most famous song, “Lashed To The Slave Stick,” is a great marriage of those things.
That song has become a concert favorite. Interestingly enough when the song was the pre-released everyone hated it. Everyone complained that it was mid-tempo and what is Nile doing. Like they are only supposed to play fast and what are those catchy riffs doing in there? And what’s what catchy rhythm that makes you want to get up? Fuck all this! I think about it years later now that people love the song and it generates huge mosh pits.
If you were to ask a metalhead to pick a Nile song, that would probably be the one that came up.
I guarantee it. It’s such a well-known song. Yet people weren’t ready to accept it. It was a real brain fuck for us because we thought people would like it. Eventually we were right but it did take people a long time.
Do you think there are any songs on this record that are similar, that will cause brains to spin?
One of the first tracks we put out from At The Gates of Sethu was “The Fiends Who Come To Steal The Magick Of The Deceased.” It has so many different elements in it that people are aghast. It has different vocals and rhythms and a lot of Palestinian influences on the riffing. And there are jazz elements on the drums. There are some upper register vocals that people don’t know what to make of. If people decide this record sucks because they can’t get past this one song, well, sorry. There’s a lot that people will love. This song has a lot of catchy elements and it will grow on you.
I think when people preview tracks they put out the most confounding song to get people talking.
There’s an element of truth to that. If we put out a song that had no new elements people would just say “It’s the same thing, why even bother listening.” We wanted something where at least people would have to say it’s strange and different. It’s supposed to be somewhat perverse. It shouldn’t be eating some more chocolate. It should make you think.
What do you think sets this record apart from your earlier albums?
Whistle clean production. You can literally hear our hands on the guitar and the hands on the drums, everything in its raw stripped down quality. This isn’t an artificially fat record. It’s a record that sounds exactly like we do in the band room. There’s an element I want to get; the connection between our hands and the listener’s ears. We wanted it to be primal and savage because of the notes, but not because there were five distortion panels. It is raw, clean and honest. When I listen to this I can hear everything I play. In the past things got a little blurry because it’s a challenge to record this music and capture it cleanly. But the articulation on this record is very apparent.
Are there every times when you are jamming with George [Kollias, drummer] and you question if he is human?
[laughs] He will often do things and we are like “Where the fuck did that come from? “ When we’re recording an album we might ask George to do something a little out of the comfort zone, even for him. He’ll say “It’s impossible” and “Stop telling me what to do.” Then he walks in there and just does it. He loves playing practical jokes. That’s a long running gag; to argue like a whiny girl and then do something amazing on the first take that goes beyond what we were even asking for.
What happened with Chris [Lollis, former bassist]?
He finally showed up and told us what happened and by then it was too late. We had hired a replacement. It’s a sad story. We put a lot of work into our relationship with Chris Lollis so to see him go AWOL for four months, not even bothering to pick up the phone, was heartbreaking. I’m not going to tell you why; it wouldn’t be in his best interest.
How is Todd [Ellis, bass] fitting in?
We trained him to be a live session player while we were making the record. We had to teach him the live set on the weekends and record as we could. Dallas and I played the bass.
What makes your partnership with Dallas [Toler-Wade, vocals and guitars] work so well?
We’re born one day apart. We understand each other but are different enough. We get along really well except when we are fighting [laughs]. Over the dozen years we’ve worked together we see eye to eye on a lot of stuff. Dallas and I also push each other to do our best. There’s no complacency. He sets the bar so high with his playing. Neither one of us are allowed to be lazy. We each have to bring it.
How much do you both practice each day?
It’s like waking up and breathing. It’s part of my daily routine. I wake up, make some coffee, come upstairs, answer some email, and then start shredding. Then I keep shredding until something gets in the way like mowing the lawn.
Is Nile now viable enough that you can do the band year round?
During the In Their Darkened Shrines era we would leave to tour for a month and be home for a month and repeat. After a while I’d go into my boss’s office and he knew what was coming. He knew I was going to ask for time off to tour. After a bunch of times you could tell he started thinking: “Why don’t I get someone else? Why go through a headache for this motherfucker?” It became really hard to find jobs that let us tour like we wanted. Finally, we just decided to tour and do it well enough to hopefully come home with money in our pockets.
What were you doing?
First, I was driving a forklift in in a warehouse. By the time of In Their Darkened Shrines I was doing inventory management for a golf ball factory. Counting golf balls is an insane existence. I absolutely never wanted to be any kind of bean counter.
In the warehouse there were like six million cases of golf balls. They had moved from one warehouse to another. But they didn’t do it in an organized fashion. It was like a detective job for two years; where are 150 cases of golf balls? It was this vast warehouse with mountains of golf balls. It was a lunatic job. You tried to figure out one case of golf balls from another. I had a whole team to help me do this shit.
Why is it that I’m thinking that warehouse looked a lot like the one at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark?
[laughs] I loved that scene. I want to make a music video in that warehouse.
Did you figure out any Nile songs in the golf ball warehouse?
That’s what kept me sane. I could always escape into my head and work on songs. It would be hard to remember which ones, but still.
Do you think the liner notes for this album will end up in another term paper?
They won’t be able to do it so easily. There’s a lot of tongue and cheek humor. Quoting all of these passages gets tiring to read. I don’t think you could take these liner notes and use them for a paper.
By the time your music career concludes I think you’ll be able to show up at a college somewhere and teach Egyptology.
I was asked to speak to a museum of Egyptology in England, give a lecture. As nice as they pitched it to me I think their real intent was to get more students, like, we’re hip because we have a metal guy coming. I think I was supposed to be the icing on the cake.