Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Karl Sanders Interview

I recently interviewed Karl Sanders about the new Nile album "At the Gates of Sethu" for Alarm Press. Here's the full transcription of the interview. Enjoy.

This new record is awesome. By the way.

The new what record? The new Nile record? [laughs] Just wanted to clarify which record we're talking about. I'm sure there's a lot of new records out there.

There's plenty of new records out there. Not sure if any of them are good, but this Nile record is fantastic. Since you were just practicing, that's actually one of the questions I was going to start off with. On this new album, the lead playing seems to have been really taken up a notch, so I was going to ask what you actually do to practice.

Usually my routine starts pretty early in the day. I get up and start working with the metronome. Basic scales and arpeggios. I start off really slow with the metronome, then I gradually work my way up in tempo.

After a few hours of that insanity, it's onto new ideas. I'll work on new ideas for different melodic things or different techniques or maybe something I'm learning. I have a pile of instructional DVDs. Anything from Mike Stern to Paul Gilbert to Rusty Cooley to Jeff Loomis to Jeff Beck...I've been quite fond of that one lately.

Then, I might work on some new riff ideas for some songs. By that time, I'm pretty well warmed up and my hands can follow along with whatever my brain might come up with.

So basically playing guitar is a full-time job for you.

Yeah, especially in the last couple years. I had taken quite a bit of abuse on the internet based upon a stupid-ass video that...I should have taken more seriously. We were so completely exhausted on the Ozzfest tour that we just did not have the energy to dredge up the ability to give a fuck.

That video, which I got slammed for quite a bit, just really...It was really, really psychologically crushing. I'm going to take all of this ill will that people are throwing at me and turn it into a motivational iron will to improve. So that's what I've been doing the last few years. Just fucking working my ass off to push forward.

What are you working on right now?

I'm doing four finger patterns in diatonic natural minor. In each position, the four finger pattern changes so it takes a lot of fucking concentration. I'm working on that, trying to be able to move between the four different shapes. It's quite a challenge.

Do you do any improvisational work in practicing?

Sometimes after I'm finished with working on scales, I might just play whatever. Just jamming some blues with my kid and whatnot. That's fun. He's into...get this...Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eric Clapton. My seventeen year old kid...that's what he's into. Go figure!

Hey man, that works out fine. Those are some hot licks there.

Obviously to progress you have to continue to challenge yourself. Do you challenge yourself with other people's ideas or with your own? Which do you find to be more beneficial?

I think other people's ideas are a jumping-off point. I might learn a Rusty Cooley lick, but the next challenge is to make it your own. To take it somewhere new melodically or to take the pattern and invert it...in some way personalize it. That's really where I try to steer to. Even if I learn something, I try to make it my own and take it someplace that's a little personal.

In terms of actually composing these Nile songs, where do these riffs come from? Are you humming melodies to yourself? Are they coming out of licks that you practice?

On this record, like I usually do, I write the lyrics first.

When it came to writing the riffs, I did it just a little bit differently. Every day, after I'd gotten warmed up with a bunch of technique and stuff, I'd sit with the guitar and the lyrics sheet and just start riffing. Sometimes I'd just leave the recorder on. I've got my cabinet in the next room with the mic on it that goes straight to a digital record. I'd just record every fucking single riff. And just try to not think about the fact that the red button was pushed. I'd say to myself, “If I don't like anything, I don't have to keep it.” And saying that to myself was liberating. I'd just play a gazillion riffs.

The next day, I'd sit down and sift through them. I had so many riffs for this fucking album. It was insane. You could make a couple of albums out of all of the riffs that got thrown out.

So you'd basically end up jamming with yourself.

Yeah, I think so. Always with the lyrics sheet around so that my mind was on whatever the song happened to be talking about.

Nile obviously has a certain sound based upon certain scales and modes. Are you conscious of the theory behind this stuff while you're in your “jam sessions?” Or are you just tuning out and going for it?

I find the most beneficial things for me are to forget about the theory for awhile and play. And then examine the theory afterwards. Or, to learn a new scale and just see where it goes. Quite a bit of the leads just happened to fall into this scale that I had just come across in the last year called supraphrygian mode. It's like a phrygian mode, but it has a flatted fourth. It's got a lot of unique fingerings and pattern shapes that really worked well within some of the songs we were writing.

Now that you have all of these riffs is the arrangement a communal process? Or are you the one sifting through everything and composing with what you have?

Usually if I'm the one writing the song, I'm the one sifting through the riffs. If Dallas is the one writing the song, he self-edits just as well. Then we make song demos.

We record guitar, bass, drums, vocals. We recorded every single thing that was going to be part of the song. Down to the last iota. Especially with the vocals this time. We wanted to get the vocal patterns and phrases and melodies down there as soon as possible so that they could be under the same sort of scrutiny as the guitar riffs were.

I actually noticed that. The vocals on this record seem to be more intelligible and catchier.

I'd agree. I think the process of scrutinizing them and refining them at an early stage in the songwriting process really helped with that.

Just from a “fan” standpoint, I was thinking, “These songs are much more distinct because the vocal patterns are much more distinct from song to song.”

Also, how do you decide who songs?

There's things that Dallas does really, really well. There's things that I like to think that I can do. Usually it falls into...Dallas is really tight rhythmically, and I usually slither around the beat. Like odd phrasings.

One thing that happened while we were making these song demos...the very first song demo that we would make would be me recording all of the parts to be able to show it to the other band members. Then, the other band members would come and rerecord their parts. Those were always called the “Cave Box Demos.” I would sing in registers that I was thinking were for the other band members. Not necessarily the super low stuff that I do a lot. I ended up singing in more of an area that I thought would be ok for Dallas or Chris. Then Chris came to me and said, “Dude, you're fucking nuts! You're fucking crazy! This other voice you're using fucking sounds killer and we should be making use of this!” At first I was like, “What are you fucking crazy? These are just demos for me to show you guys your parts.” And Lollis [former bass player Chris Lollis] was like, “No man, this is an absolutely killer voice and we should make use of it.” So it turned out that we gave his idea a chance.

You hear some of that voice in track number two, “The Fiends Who Come to Steal the Magick of the Deceased,” the title track, “The Gods Who Light Up the Sky at the Gate of Sethu” and “Tribunal of the Dead.”

I actually just assumed that all of the different vocals were from the new bass player.

In a lot of the European interviews I've been doing, they said that to me when I told them that was me doing those parts. They're all like, “No, that's not you! That's the new bass player!” And I'm like, “You motherfuckers! The new bass player isn't even on the fucking record, so shut the fuck up!” [laughs]

It sounds like you guys have really tightened up the songwriting process for this record.


Is there anything in particular that is an overarching goal that you're trying to achieve with these songs?

Well, my first goal was to completely and utterly not do anything we've ever done before in terms of song structures or time signatures or tempo changes. I wanted absolutely every bit of it to be something completely foreign to us. Which is kind of insane. About halfway through the songwriting process George Kollias, our drummer, sent me an e-mail. He said, “Karl, what the fuck are you doing? All these fucking insane time signatures and tempo changes and fucking weird fucking odd time riffs. Dude, please! You're killing me! Will you please just write something like old Nile? Something simple and classic, because you're driving me crazy with all of this shit.” So I thought about it for awhile, and I was like, “There's some reality to what he said.”

You can't go so far overboard that you lose the listeners. So I rethought my approach a little bit and I toned it down and pulled it back a little bit into the realm of the accessible. And I think he was absolutely right about that, because I think the album definitely benefits from the listenability factor. Listeners have to have something to grab onto. It can't be so technical that you lose your listeners.

I think that the vocals are a big part of the listenability on the new record. The vocal patterns from song to song differentiate the songs more than I've experienced on past Nile records.

I really agree with that. Each one of these songs has its own vocal approach. The rhythms and the melodies and the way the vocals fit with the guitar patterns...each one, to my ears, has a unique and distinct identity.

In terms of this newer record, is there something you'd like to see happen with this thing that hasn't happened in the past?

We want people to hear what we're doing. That was an absolutely primary focus. We want to capture stuff cleanly enough that the listener actually hears what we're doing. There's a saying that I've been beating up everyone on this record with that was involved in the making of it: If the audience didn't hear you do it, then you didn't do it. It counts for nothing. As far as guitaring and drumming and the bass playing and the vocals...if the listener doesn't hear it, then you didn't do it! We've had struggles in the past...you might play an awesome guitar riff or guitar lead, but, if for whatever reason, it doesn't come across out of the speakers to the end listener, then what good was it?

Another goal, and this was coming more from Neil Kernon. Neil came to the rehearsals for the record, and he said, “Guys, one thing we're going to really do is capture the fire and the feeling that you guys have here in the rehearsal room and make that translate through the recording process into the end product.” Because a lot of times that shit gets lost somewhere along the way. You know, the fire that the band has. Trying to record it, and you do it a thousand times to get it perfect. Sometimes, somewhere along the way, you lose the human element. That's one thing Neil really wanted to focus on this time: retaining the human fire and the spirit.

In terms of recording then, did you play the songs together or did you instrument by instrument?

Well, we always do the drums first. That's done with scratch guitars where Dalls or I will play along with George. We don't necessarily keep those guitar tracks. They're just scratch guitar tracks. You get the spirit of the thing going on in the recording.

Once we're satisfied with the drums, then we go about the process of laying the keeper guitars on there. The real ones. And this time, man, we took about a fucking month just trying to get that shit nailed down as clean as we could.

Cool man, those are the questions that I have for you.

[laughs]Well this was a goddamn fun interview! I'm glad to be talking about fucking music, shit that is actually relevant to the fucking record. I can't tell you, my friend, how many interviews I do that have nothing to do with the motherfucking record, and it's so frustrating.

Well yeah, that's usually my attitude when I'm interviewing anybody. What do I want to know? What do people usually ask other than about band name?

[mocking voice]What's your five favorite albums right now? What's in your Discman? What's in your iPad?

And I'm like, “There's nothing in my iPad!”

I mean, I guess I would be curious what you're listening to.

But yeah, as a listener, when I hear something I'm like, “Man, that's cool. How did these guys actually come up with this?” Especially for someone like you who has been in this forever and is continually getting better. You usually see the reverse.

You know, I don't live like that. I'm playing metal because that's what I want to do with my love. It's my passion. It is my life. I didn't start playing metal just because told me it was cool. No. this is something I've always wanted to do. Ever since I was nine years old and I picked up a guitar, this is what I've wanted to do with my life. Man, I'm always trying to learn. There's so many amazing bands and so many amazing guitar players, and you never have to stop learning. It's endless.

1 comment:

knifetooth said...

Cool interview. I like the questions poised. Sanders is badass.