History has a terrible habit of repeating itself. With another civilization teetering precariously on the brink of self-inflicted extinction, destined perhaps to disappear off the face of the planet, I exchanged words with Nile talisman Karl Sanders to find out what The Imperishable Stars might make of it all.
Twenty-one years and nine albums after my first exposure to the unique phenomenon that is Nile, ‘Vile Nilotic Rites’ quite literally took my breath away when it appeared last year. It’s an awesome record by any standards, not just due to the devastating power of the music but also thanks to the fascinating lyrical content, which is brought into clear focus by the extensive, extremely detailed, informative and humorous liner notes, which have become such a vital component of the whole Nile album experience. No other Death Metal band does liner notes like Nile! For me, the time and effort that goes into this process underlines indelibly how much passion you have for a) your art and b) your fans. Do you enjoy putting these notes together or do you sometimes find yourself thinking you have in a way created a rod for your own back?
“Hahaha, a rod for my own back. That’s pretty good. I don’t feel that way though. I enjoy the time spent on the Nile liner notes; it can take a couple of weeks of serious work, but it’s absolutely worthwhile for me because it actually means something to the fans. I feel like it also brings a deeper level of understanding and enjoyment of the music to people. For me, it often brings clarity and focus, even a winding down at the end of a long recording process. Once a Nile record is finished and mixed, there’s a lot of pent-up nerves, volatile anxiety and vitriol that’s been encircling me for the long months making those albums of brutal, demanding music. Working on the liner notes is a breath of fresh air and brings closure for me. The only time ever in the history of the band it wasn’t fun for me was the ‘Ithyphallic’ disc. There was a lot of toxicity surrounding us in those times both internally and externally. The Nile liner notes had become yet another thing our former label had come to view as THEIR domain, and we as a band had had enough of that sort of thing. The mindset of the band as a whole and me in particular during that time was very much ‘you can’t tell us what to do anymore’ because we had moved over to Nuclear Blast, who have a very different way of working with bands; which we completely welcomed because we were done with feeling manipulated, owned, misled, and misused. So, sadly, the liner notes, which had always been about the fans from their very inception, had become a tragic focal point – for me- of the disintegrating label relationship. We weren’t going to do them because we were in every way saying ‘no one can tell us what to do anymore’ – even though our new label NB wasn’t telling us what to do or not do in any way – but we just needed to get it out of our system. Which, in hindsight, was fucking stupid; a tangible expression of cutting off one’s nose because ‘you can’t tell me I can’t’. It was a real growing pains life lesson, to not let business parasites destroy the things that actually matter – the music, the art, the fans. Since then though, the liner notes have been back in their proper perspective. The liner notes really are exactly what Bob and Ross from Immolation suggested so many years ago – for the sole purpose that fans would love to read what these songs are all about. Plain and simple.”
There’s a veritable treasure trove of themes and ideas contained throughout and within the songs on ‘Vile Nilotic Rites’. The first one that jumps out at me – particularly pertinent to the times that we are living in – is the opening track, ‘Long Shadows Of Dread’, where you talk about the feeling that as a species we are heading towards our own inexorable demise. You are toying with the idea that, hypothetically at least, the Ancient Egyptians must have sensed their approaching doom. With the madness currently going on all around the world, and nothing to save us as our leaders seem clueless, to put it mildly, we probably should be feeling that ourselves right now? It seems like the human race is either at a crossroads or maybe even a dead end…
“It does seem that way. Especially right now in the States. One curious thing I experienced first hand – in the days leading up to the Corona Apocalypse, I was unable to escape this nagging, terrible, uncertain dread of unforeseen, inescapable, impending doom, and a feeling of anticipatory personal grief that had been building. It felt like someone dear to me had died – it was really bothering me, so I went to go talk to someone about it. And then, as soon as the pandemic was actually on us here, it all went away. I am still scratching my head about that. But it underscores for me exactly what ‘Long Shadows…’ is talking about: that we as humans can feel – on an instinctive level – when terrible things are about to happen.”
In the liner notes for ‘That Which Is Forbidden’, you touch upon the widely-held belief that the Ancient Egyptians were so skilled in all their deeds that they may have been in possession of advanced technologies lost to modern civilization – gravity-defying tech, genetic engineering, possibly even space and time travel. Modern engineers have been left baffled by the pyramids, for example, and it appears that some of what was achieved in Egypt thousands of years ago would be difficult if not impossible to replicate today. I remember reading somewhere – possibly on Nile liner notes? – that this could only be explained either by magic, time travel or alien intervention! Which of these do you think is most likely? Aren’t there also hieroglyphs that could only be explained either by time travel or the Egyptians being able to read the future?
“Well, this isn’t going to be a popular viewpoint but, to my mind, if we can only explain the achievements of the Ancient Egyptians by way of magic, time travel or alien intervention, then maybe we as a modern people are the ones lacking. A more likely explanation – for so much of human existence and all the confusing theories about our entire early history – is that we probably have had many advanced civilizations already, which, being entirely human, have managed to destroy and annihilate themselves. If no lasting widespread record of human education and history survives, then how are people supposed to do anything else other than start all over again from scratch? Take a look around our current planet. Not wiping ourselves out by any of a hundred different ways would be a real miracle. So it seems to me that whatever aliens were supposedly helping out the ancients, they weren’t aliens at all, or time travelers, or magicians. They were us. The last remnants of whatever people came before us, who were just like us. At some point in the course of their civilization’s development, whether by their own fault or naturally occurring external forces, they managed to fuck things up just like what we are doing now. By the thousands of years of time it takes for the course of human progress to rebuild, it is no surprise there is nothing left of whatever came before.
You also allude frequently to the Ancient Egyptians’ preoccupation with the night sky. I love the concept behind ‘The Imperishable Stars Are Sickened’, which brings together the prevailing astronomy theme and the advanced technology one. The idea is that perhaps the Egyptians’ observation of expanding universes could have led them to believe that the offended Gods were turning their backs to the Earth in disgust due to the “despicable acts of humanity”. You ask ‘can we really blame them?’ Again, this is highly applicable today? The Eternal Stars would be long gone if they could see us…
“Yes. Long gone. The horrible truth is we actually probably do in fact, collectively as a species, deserve whatever fate is in store for humanity. The events of the last couple of months have demonstrated this to me so clearly. I have come to believe that even the mere existence of a musical form like Death Metal should be a big warning flag that something has gone tragically wrong with humankind lately. Think for a moment of what music is: it’s a miracle of sound waves, vibration, harmony and time, that people enjoy for all sorts of reasons. Music is capable of fulfilling a vast range of human expression and communication – nearly an infinite universe of potential. And yet something like extreme metal has become a celebrated, cherished art form. I say that, as someone who has devoted basically the last three decades of my adult life to Metal music. I love Metal, all music really, in all its forms, and I find great purpose in its ability to communicate and unite people from every culture, regardless of nationality or worldview. But to what end? To help others face the blinding, blazing finish of our civilization with eyes open? The whole thing reminds me of the end of the movie Rogue One, where our two protagonists, incapable of escaping their obliteration, go out in a beautifully poetic, visually spectacular finale. I suspect, though, our own end here will be much more inglorious, and most certainly not poetic or beautiful. The stars observing from a distance will likely shake their heads, uttering the words ‘dumb asses’ at our unsaveable stupidity.”
When you observe the mess the world is in at present, with so much inequality, such suffering, greed, selfishness, inhumanity and indifference to the trials and tribulations of others, do you worry that things are really going to come to a head soon? The way people are behaving is not conducive to a sustainable co-existence for our race. And if a civilization as advanced as the Ancient Egyptians eventually fell, surely this modern world will also come to an inevitable and ominous end?
“Well, yeah. Which dovetails perfectly with the idea that this isn’t the first time we have done this to ourselves. As smart as the Egyptians were – and all the amazing shit they did that is still with us thousands of years later – they weren’t smart enough to last. Nor were the Atlanteans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, and a whole long, long list of civilizations that thought they had it together. What makes us think we are going to do any better? It’s hubris of the worst kind. Like, what if the ancient people living on Pompeii had cell phones and Facebook, internet news and Twitter? Would it have saved them one bit from their shortsighted, self-important folly? No, it wouldn’t. And today, we would ruthlessly mock them with memes for their unbelievable foolishness. When, in the far distant future, they dig up the petrified ashes of people consumed in nuclear holocaust, I can picture a would-be Kim Kardashian-ite holding her cellphone, preserved in the moment of posting something inane on Instagram.”
Of all the records I’ve listened to in the past few years, ‘Vile Nilotic Rites’ has blessed me with the most rewards, providing not just stellar music, but also a wealth of information and so much to think about. It strikes me that, prior to listening to Nile records, I knew virtually nothing about the topics you deal with so eloquently and intuitively. It’s remarkable how your music has that power to reach out and educate, to bring the message and the information to people all across the globe who otherwise would know little or nothing about the wondrous feats of the Ancient Egyptians. You must be pleased that you are opening so many Death Metal fans’ eyes to a subject you are so passionate about.
“I believe that everything needs to have a viable reason for continued existence. If one is not adding or contributing something of positive value to their fellow man, then it becomes, by laws of social physics, a negative factor, detracting from the benefit of society. There is currently a glut of vacuous music today that has absolutely no value, except maybe erasing people’s capacity to think for themselves. Which I suppose is serving the needs of the 1% ruling class, who absolutely don’t want the greater part of the population to start thinking for themselves. There is plenty of good music available, if one takes the time to look for one’s self. But that’s not what’s being served en masse. But I digress – I think if one is going to find one’s self in the position of a sustained music career, then it’s important to give something back, and at least deliver to the listening audience something worth their time.”
I have a confession to make: when I first heard Nile’s head-turning debut, ‘Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka’, and then the magnificent follow-up, ‘Black Seeds of Vengeance’, which were released 22 and 20 years ago respectively, I assumed that two albums might be the most you could squeeze out of Egyptian-themed Death Metal. But Nile’s longevity has been astounding. I guess you really fucking meant it from the start! Where have you summoned the drive and energy from to keep Nile going so strongly and in such a meaningful way? And do you feel there’s much more left in the tank?
“Yeah, we meant it. From the earliest formative years, moving forward, the niche theme was really just another expression of no one can tell us what to do, we don’t care if we are choosing a path acceptable to whatever everyone else in Metal is doing or not, or whether we achieve wide success or not, we are going to do whatever we want. Which sounds very Eric Cartman-like to me, in retrospect, ‘I’ll do what I want’, haha… Egyptian-themed Death Metal was about as unlikely as we were capable of envisioning. And today I see plenty of Egyptian-themed Metal bands, with varying degrees of inspiration / plagiarism. It’s kind of funny and unsettling at the same time.
“The energy and drive? Well, they aren’t inexhaustible. They need to be periodically replenished. Usually after a record is done, the tank is empty for a while and just needs time to regenerate. After 20 something years, I have seen that its cyclical. Musical creativity is like a well, and one needs to take care to let it fill back up once in a while.”
The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the health of our nations and also on people’s livelihoods / freedoms due to the lockdowns and social distancing practices that have consequently been imposed. I’m sure it has been quite disastrous (artistically and financially) for Nile from the point of view of having to suspend all live activities indefinitely? Are you confident that you might get back on stage soon? How much do you miss playing live?
“Well, we miss it a lot. It’s what we live for. It’s been a huge part of my life since I was a teenager. It’s who I am and what I do. When will live shows start back? I don’t know. Whenever it is, bands and fans are going to be hungry for it like never before. One thing I have noticed when we play shows in countries that don’t get a lot of Death Metal is that fans appreciate it way more than locales that get Metal every day of the week. I think we will see that same level of hunger in all of the cities – even the ones where fans are normally, formally blasé and jaded. With all the pent-up frustrations people everywhere are feeling, those first extreme Metal shows that happen when things open back up are likely to be like nuclear meltdowns of energy.”
The upside is that we’ve all been able to spend more quality time with our families. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed that aspect of the temporary suspension of everyday life, even though it’s difficult to relax when there’s so much bad news coming through the television every day?
“The fucking news. It’s better to just turn it off. It’s mostly DIS-information anyway, that will leave one a nervous, anxiety-ridden, fearful animal. Maybe that’s its current purpose in our growingly-dystopian world. I have found I feel better if I limit news to a few minutes only a day. My time is better spent playing guitar.”
Finally, have you been able to use this unexpected / unprecedented spare time at home to work on some new material – either the tenth Nile LP or perhaps the eagerly-anticipated third Karl Sanders solo album? Either way, I sincerely hope that you, your family, the rest of the band and their families are all keeping well and hopefully we will see you back in business soon…
“I got lots to keep me busy anyway, writing Nile songs, playing guitar, working on the third ‘Saurian’ disc, working on other guest musical projects, I have no shortage of work on my plate. Yes, I will wholeheartedly agree, I am also looking forward to being back in business – and being back on tour seeing Metal fans and making Metal.”
[Nile band photo credit: Francesco Desmaele]