By David E. Gehlke
Karl Sanders has been leading Egyptian-themed death metallers NILE for nearly three decades. Their late '90s/early 2000s ascension resulted from unfathomably brutal studio albums that housed mythological themes and an impressive gamut of exotic Egyptian guitar scales that breathed new life into death metal. Greek drum titan George Kollias joined the fold in 2004 and elevated NILE's sound to even greater extremes (if that was even possible),paving the way for an unlikely appearance on Ozzfest 2007 and a rightfully earned place among death metal's elite.
It's not all death metal all the time for Sanders. He launched a solo career in 2004 with "Saurian Mediation", which found him relying solely on acoustic guitars and percussion — creating the perfect ambient detour to NILE. Sanders released "Saurian Exorcisms" in 2009 but didn't get around to releasing a third solo album until this year's "Saurian Apocalypse". As the soft-spoken guitarist tells BLABBERMOUTH.NET, his solo work provides a fresh creative outlet and much-needed respite from the never-ending death metal onslaught from being in NILE.
Blabbermouth: "Saurian Apocaplyse" is your first solo album in 13 years. NILE is your full-time gig. Was there anything else getting in the way?
Karl: "We had some member changes and the new lineup took a lot of time and work. A lot of focus. Those years were spent deeply involved in giving one hundred percent to NILE. The side project had to go on the backburner. Once the 'apocalypse' happened or, the pandemic and all the tours were canceled, I was like, 'You know, I have no reason not to work on the 'Saurian' project. People have been asking me about it for years. Now I have no excuse!' I got busy and the ideas just started falling out right out of the fucking sky. All that time not working on it built up a huge amount of ideas that were just waiting to find life."
Blabbermouth: I would imagine you need to be in the right frame of mind to write music like this, too.
Karl: "I think so. Not only is it necessary, but it's also the purpose — to find that quiet, peaceful place for its ambient, tranquil aspect. That's what I'm trying to get to. When you play death metal for a living, not only am I spending a lot of time practicing guitar just to be able to play this kind of music, but on tour, there are usually four or five death metal bands, all of which I hear their soundcheck every day. Then there's the show. So I hear them all again, day in, day out. For a guy who loves death metal, that sounds like, 'Okay, you're spending all day every day listening to what you love.' Yeah, I can do with a little bit of motherfucking peace and quiet every once in a while. I just want to hear myself think without having my brain pummeled into jelly by blast beats and double-kick drums and people screaming at me all day. A little bit of peace and quiet goes a long way."
Blabbermouth: You rely primarily on the acoustic guitar for your solo work. Playing NILE music is no walk in the park, but some people may not know how hard it is to do an album entirely of acoustic music like this. What are the challenges?
Karl: "You are naked as a player. Even from a technical standpoint, you have to execute the note and make that note fully speak, or you just get a clunk. I have an amp and all the gear making it easy — not that NILE music is easy. Certainly, trying to play difficult things on an acoustic guitar, you have to be on. There is no room for slacking. You have to do it, and you have to make it sound good. There's a certain purity in that. There is also a built-in aspect of you having to make the notes each count for something. If you're playing death metal and there are five thousand double-strokes in a song, you certainly aren't going to play an acoustic guitar song that has that many notes. The ones you play have to have meaning, or else it's just not going to work. You have to make note choices. That's one thing I really like about it. You have to think about what you're doing: 'Which note is going to do this and make this sound to convey these musical ideas and be effective without the crutch of [mimics death metal guitar sound]."
Blabbermouth: Was the concept behind "Saurian Apocalypse" timed with the pandemic or was it planned earlier?
Karl: "It is part of the story I've been building since the first album. I've had the concept for the record laying around for a couple of years. Before it even happened, I already knew it. If you were one of my friends in my little circle, I was like, 'I got this concept. It's going to be 'Saurian Apocalypse'. When we had the actual apocalypse of sorts, I was like, 'Okay, how do I not do this?' [Laughs] Just because an actual apocalypse happened? Or do I do what the fuck I was going to do anyway? It was pre-ordained to me. The universe was saying, 'Hey, make this fucking record. Now you have no excuse. There you go.'"
Blabbermouth: The beauty of "Saurian Apocalypse" is that while there are no words, you can create the visuals from the music.
Karl: "I think that's the fun of telling the story with just the music. Often if you're watching a movie, half of whatever you're feeling is emotional cues given to you by whatever music is in that scene. That's why they put music in there. Half the story of any good movie is helped along by the music. Okay, if that's the challenge, with NILE, we're writing songs, we have all this history and mythology to draw from, but if we tell stories with just sound, that has its own challenges and rewards. I like it. I have a lot of fun with it. There are so many possibilities when you can get people to relax into wherever you're taking them. Their minds will do the rest. I just have to start it. If I can get you into my music, half the stuff that will happen in your brain after it is dependent upon your brain. I'm just the transducian medium. I'm providing the soundtrack to the movie that's already in your head. If you listen to this record, you will hear things and your mind will wander. The images you will see in your brain will be unique to each listener. I had an idea in my head when making these songs about the things I saw. They may or may not be the same ones as whoever is listening. It doesn't matter. We're going somewhere."
Blabbermouth: You and Rusty Cooley are both Dean Guitars guys. Did that make it natural for him to guest on the album?
Karl: "He's no longer with Dean Guitars. We were friends before Dean Guitars. He's also a super-nice guy. He's given me so many guitar lessons over the years and never charged me a single time. During the pandemic, we kept sane by staying up late at night and having Skype guitar lessons until early morning. I learned so much from him."
Blabbermouth: What is the accomplished and technically capable Karl Sanders trying to learn on guitar?
Karl: "The more you learn, you learn you have an incredible more amount to learn. I used to do martial arts. As one progresses, you get your first black belt, second, third and I went up to a fourth degree. What I discovered is that your first black belt is just the start. You have so much more to learn. It would take several lifetimes for any single person to master every aspect of the guitar completely. It's endless. There are several million guitar players on this planet. Each of them do it a little bit differently. Each is good in their own way or terrible in their own way, depending on how you look at it. But does one person possibly know everything there is on the guitar? Impossible. My grandfather's exact words are what you said: You are never finished learning. You can keep learning until the day you die if you want."
Blabbermouth: How did (original NILE drummer) Pete (Hammoura) get involved in the record?
Karl: "The better question may be, 'How did Petenot get involved in this record?' He loves playing percussion, so I asked him, 'Do you want to play some percussion on this record?' I see him all the time. We not only play tennis, but we recently started playing pickleball. It's a great, fun game. We have a blast. We play pickleball and he played percussion on this record. [Laughs] He did some incredible, mind-blogging shit. All the cool shit you hear if it's percussion and something cool, it's probably Pete. My percussion is the stupid percussion. Pete does all the cool shit."
Blabbermouth: Finally, how's the new NILE album coming along?
Karl: "You can't see it, but I have a whiteboard with ten NILE songs on it. We're probably going to write three more hopefully before the end of summer. At the end of summer, it's time to start recording drums. It's on. That's what my summer is — writing this NILE record."