Interview: Nile guitarist Karl Sanders on “a gazillion riffs,” vocal timbres, and endless learning

Nile: At the Gate of SethuNile: At the Gates of Sethu (Nuclear Blast, 7/3/12)

“The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh”

Nile: “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh”

Nile guitarist and occasional vocalist Karl Sanders has been living death metal for as long as the genre has existed. From a brief but storied stint living with Morbid Angel to Nile’s breakthrough in 2000 with Black Seeds of Vengeance, Sanders has been there. It is then all the more remarkable that his songwriting and lead playing have been ratcheted up another notch for Nile’s newest full-length, At the Gate of Sethu.

Listeners have reasonable expectations of what they’re getting when they pick up a Nile album: guttural voices chanting lyrics based upon ancient Egyptian texts, a torrent of Middle Eastern modal riffing, inhuman drumming with copious cymbal accents, and interludes of melody played on traditional Egyptian instruments. Sethu will not disappoint anyone expecting these things.

But Nile’s songwriting now shows a sharpened focus. Whereas songs on previous albums often have been seasoning on a large riff salad, each track on Sethu is easily discernible. This is a result of a conscious effort to tighten up the songwriting process, which Sanders describes as a kind of introverted jam session.

“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,” he says. “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.”

Though Nile always has been a technical band, Sanders initially wanted Sethu to be entirely uncharted territory for the group. However, the input of the rest of the band made him rethink his approach. “About halfway through the songwriting process, George Kollias, our drummer, sent me an E-mail,” Sanders says. “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 a while, and I was like, ‘There’s some reality to what he said.’”

After selecting and arranging the riffs, Sanders recorded full song demos, dubbed “The Cave Box Demos,” which enabled a particular focus on vocal patterns. “We recorded every single thing that was going to be part of the song,” he says, “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.”

As a result, many songs on Sethu have a well-defined vocal hook. They’re by no means constructed in verse/chorus format, but the album has a distinctly catchy feel (relatively speaking), creating waypoints for the listener amidst the winding riffage. Nile fans also may hear a different vocal timbre and assume that it’s new bass player Todd Ellis. Instead, it’s actually Sanders, and he describes the new technique as a happy accident of the extensive demoing process.

“I would sing in registers that I was thinking were for the other band members,” Sanders says, “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 okay for [guitarist] Dallas [Toler-Wade] or [former bassist] Chris [Lollis]. Then Chris came to me and said, ‘Dude, you’re fucking nuts! This other voice you’re using sounds killer, and we should be making use of this!’”

This openness to feedback — on top of the willing self-critique — has helped Nile achieve further creative and technical progress on its seventh full-length album. Though many bands have a period of creative prosperity at the beginnings of their careers and then struggle to maintain the status quo, Sanders and co. have taken the opposite path, and the blazing-fast guitarist maintains a humility and earnest passion that has enabled this evolution.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Sanders says. “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.”

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