Mummies, Metal and Mayhem

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Karl Sanders: Would you buy a used sarcophagus from this man?

They may hail from modern day South Carolina, but death metal veterans Nile have their minds firmly planted in the world of ancient Egypt. Driven by harsh growls, ferocious guitars, pummeling percussion and the lyrical ruminations of guitarist/co-vocalist/founder Karl Sanders, the group continues to mine dark, aggressive sounds ripe with influences from the distant past. The quartet’s sixth and latest opus, Those Whom The Gods Detest, takes their sound to the next level with top-notch production from Neil Kernon (Queensrÿche, Cannibal Corpse and Hall & Oates). And, of course, there is their penchant for song titles both exotic — “Kem Khefa Kheshef” and “Iskander D’hul Karnon” — and epic — “Utterances Of The Crawling Dead,” “Permitting The Noble Dead To Descend To The Underworld” and “Yezd Desert Ghul Ritual In The Abandoned Towers Of Silence”.

I recently spoke with Sanders for ShockHound, and there was plenty of extra material for an exclusive A.D.D. Q&A.


Is it true that you guys recently played in Africa?
Actually, we were scheduled for three shows, and the money was pretty good. But then they decided to cut it down to one big show, and of course correspondingly cut down our money to next to nothing. So by the time it was over we were maybe going to lose a couple hundred bucks, and we’re not in the business of losing money. We’re in the business of playing music and earning a living. So the African shows did not happen, much to our dismay.

Where were you supposed to play?
A couple of South African [cities] — Johannesburg, Cape Town and one other place.

In response to a review of your new album on Blabbermouth, one fan posted that you play “mummy metal”. I was curious as to what other tags have been given to your music over the years?
Mummy metal, that’s a good one. We gave ourselves a tag, or Ithyphallic metal. I’ve seen “Egypt-core”. I can’t think of anything else that stood out.

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Masters of mummy metal.

Over the years, after all of the albums you’ve done and all the different styles of music you’ve absorbed, how do you keep things fresh and interesting when you’re doing a new Nile record? How did you approach this album differently than things you’ve done in the past?
You’ve got to think beyond things like it has to be fast, it needs this particular minor scale and have this stuff in there. It’s about the musical ideas themselves. Having new riffs, new ways of layering things together, putting new instruments in there certainly doesn’t hurt. Also, [co-vocalist/guitarist] Dallas [Toler-Wade]  and I really work hard on the guitar playing. I still take guitar lessons, even though I teach myself. There are some incredible jazz guitarists in this town [in Greenville, South Carolina], so you can never stop learning. Superficially death metal is always going to have the elements that make it death metal. It’s going to be fast and brutal, it’s going to have those growling vocals, it’s going to have insane drums and minor tonalities and a sense of doom and destruction. That’s just a given for the genre. So you’ve got to dig deeper than that and actually examine the musical content rather than just the superficial, stylistic given.

Metal is more diverse now than it’s ever been. The subgenres themselves have a lot of clichés, but the playing field is wide open. There are still plenty of vintage metal bands that listen to, like Living Death and Bulldozer. Some of it was cruder and a little sloppier, but people weren’t playing that fast at that point.
Dude, when you listen to records made in the ’80s you go, “Holy moley. That’s so primitive sounding. People can play circles around that stuff nowadays.”

But there’s still a freshness to a lot of it that doesn’t go away. Certain bands back then might not technically have had the proficiency that you hear today, but I don’t think many people are making music of that quality today.
I would agree with that. It’s about musical content, the idea themselves. I’ll even put on a Beatles record now and then and just go, “Wow. That’s incredible. I wouldn’t have thought to put that chord there.”

Nile live in 2007. (Photo credit: Cecil.)

Nile live in 2007.
(Photo credit: Cecil.)


What parallels do find between ancient Egyptian society and modern American society?
I don’t know if I necessarily find any, but I think there are some universal truths. Human beings are still the same evil, vicious creatures that they always have been, and I think societies are generally ruled by the top 2% or 3%. Everyone else is some form of slave. In modern America with our capitalist structure, we don’t realize that we’re slaves. We’re just economic slaves. We’re still all peasants in the eyes of the ruling class. We’re just here to be exploited. I think in recent times Americans are getting used and used a whole lot more.

Given how tough everything is for bands nowadays, how is Nile holding up?
Taking a beating. In the age of downloading, everyone thinks that all the money will be made on tour. Dude, that’s also where we’re getting hit really hard. Just the rising cost of transportation — the bus and the cost of diesel fuel — is our biggest fucking expense. That stuff has skyrocketed, yet we don’t see an increase in the amount of money from the promoters. They might be charging higher ticket prices to kids, but that money is not really trickling down to us. We’re getting it on all sides, man. Some of the larger cities are imposing higher and higher fees for selling your merch. Concert T-shirts are at a stupid[ly high] price now because you get taxed 40 to 45% right out of the gate, off the top. The band has to buy the shirts to start off with, and somebody is taking 40% of the gross in every city. It’s no picnic out there.

The latest Nile CD cover.

The latest Nile album cover, featuring Akhenaten, the Egyptian pharoah who instated monotheism and was quickly deposed for his reforms.

Many musicians are now doing other things on the side to make more money.
I’m giving guitar lessons, and I’ve got my side project, so that helps a little bit. But times are tough, man, and I don’t see them getting any better.

How does your son feel about what you do?
He thinks it’s cool and all. He thinks I should buy him a guitar for Christmas, but he’s already got four electric guitars. I’m going, “What do you need another electric guitar for?” He answers, “Dad, you’ve got twentysomething electric guitars. Why can’t I have one?” I’m trying to explain his 14-year-old guy that I have those guitars because that’s how I make a living. You’re 14, why do you need four guitars?

When you’re creating art for your album covers, how much of a stickler for detail are you?
That’s always been an issue with me, because no matter how much of a stickler I might be, the reality is the record company gives you X amount of dollars for an art budget, and you have to come in under that budget with whatever artist you choose. Historical accuracy or artistic consideration takes the second tier of importance. Oftentimes you have to accept what the record company is willing to give you.

As far as production, how much comes out of your pocket and how much comes out of their pocket?
That’s a funny one because today I got my balance sheet for the record budget, and in there is $900 worth of expenses that I turned in that I didn’t get reimbursed for and had to eat. That’s always a bone of contention there, and it’s not going to get any better. CD sales are declining 35% each successive year, so in the next five years we’re going to see bands have their budgets completely slashed. We have to take a budget cut as well.

Karl has already picked out his casket thanks to the untold riches that the music industry generates for death metal bands.

Karl has already picked out his casket thanks to the untold riches that the music industry generates for death metal bands.

On this album you worked with producer Neil Kernon, and he’s known for doing a lot of high-profile albums. Some people are saying this is the best sounding album you’ve done. Was it like to work with him, and how did he work within your budgetary constraints?
We had to work on a great bit of the album here in my little home studio. I have a spare room that I turned into a place to record stuff. It’s where I did my [last] solo record, and we did a lot of the new Nile record here. If you’re working at home you don’t have to pay for hotel rooms for everybody or pay for studio costs. That helped, but this is still the most expensive record we’ve ever made. Aside from money and all that, Neil’s a great guy. We love him. He knows what’s going on. He’s made a lot of really incredible records. He has so much experience and is such a musical guy, and he does incredible work.

How do you feel he helped Nile improve their studio sound on this record?
This time around Neil was a Nazi. He demanded perfection on every take. There is stuff where we did 100 takes before he was happy. It got to be a running joke. We would do a spectacular take, and Neil would say, “That’s great! That’s awesome! That’s perfect! Now do it again.” There was no room for anything less than perfection on this record. Everything’s in tune and everything’s in time. It’s what you’ve actually got to do. We figured out that to be able to hear everything clearly and cleanly takes a level of precision for music this fast and this dense. If you’re going to hear it, then it needs to be done right, just so that you can hear it. Otherwise if there are little bits that aren’t dead on, they add up. Even if it’s so imperceptible that you can’t even tell, that little bit still adds up. On this record every instrument was meticulously done. Christ, we spent from June to mid-September tracking and mixing this thing.

And your vocals sound pretty clear, growls and all. Everything is separated out.
Absolutely. We spent meticulous attention to detail on everything, on a microcosmic level, and it adds up to an album where you can hear stuff. You can tell what the fuck I’m growling, you can hear that high-speed guitar run, and the fast drums are all there and you can hear them. With declining budgets and all, we’ve raised the bar to that point. How can we ever go back? We can’t.

Ancient axe attack.

Ancient axe attack.

That makes your career more expensive.
Yeah, it means we take the hit. All record companies are going to go out of business in the next five years. So what does that mean? How does that translate down to us? That means that if we want to have a record deal, the amount of available record contracts will shrink. The amount of money the record companies can afford to pay you is going to shrink. But the costs to make these records is not going to shrink. Think about that. So that means a music career, making records, is not going to be easy in the foreseeable future. It’s going to get tougher.

So what is the game plan for Nile?
It boils down to how we are going to make money to counteract that. We’re talking about expanding into new, emerging world markets, like India and China, where there is a middle class that has disposable income. People in China have jobs. There’s work there. They have disposable income.

At least in India they might be able to relate to some of your Eastern sounds.
I actually get a lot of letters from India, and a lot of people there dig what we do. It looks like we’re going to have to go outside of America because America is starting to suck. I think it’s going to get worse here.


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