Mastermind of tech death metal giants Nile, Karl Sanders has finally book-ended his (unplanned) trilogy of epic, mind-expanding solo records, Saurian Apocalypse (available July 22nd through Napalm Records).
The career metal-head and avid shredder sat down with Metal Injection for an expansive dive into his Saurian universe, whether or not he can see the world in the music explored in film (spoiler: he's already writing a book), nearing three decades of metal dominance with Nile (and new music on the horizon), his love of video games, and the "evolutionary explosion" of metal in 2022.
Looking back now at the three Saurian albums (Saurian Meditation, Saurian Exorcisms, Saurian Apocalypse), did you originally intend them to be a trilogy?
The record company kind of envisioned that because they're releasing all three. They're re-releasing the first two. But when I did the first one, no, I didn't envision it as a trilogy at all. And I really still don't. It was more just to have some music to chill with. You know, I play death metal for a living, so I get a lot of death metal. I get a healthy, healthy, healthy dose of metal all day. And, you know, just once in a while, I need to chill the fuck out. I need some peace and quiet.
The word that comes to my mind listening through the three of these records is epic. It really feels like it could be the backdrop of a blockbuster film, a video game, whatever. I know you've discussed how you've been impacted by these larger than life films and science fiction and that your tastes are pretty broad. When you're putting together an album like this, are you picturing that world as you're creating the music?
When I'm playing it, when I'm coming up with it I have the scene, the movie, what's going on, I can see it. And it kind of just keeps spinning the creative wheel of fortune, I guess. Like spin the wheel, let's see where this ends up. I just try to bring to life whatever movie that's coming from. And with this one, lizards and insects take over the world, enslave humanity. But it was supposed to be calm and meditative, right? So how can I have like this calm and meditative music while mankind's annihilating itself and we're slaves to the Saurian overlords? So it's a lot of whacked out imagination that went into this record.
You have the track "Skull Fuck Ritual "(Skull Breach Edition)." Any death metal fan that isn't aware of this solo project and they saw Karl Sanders: "Skull Fuck Ritual," they'd likely think 'holy shit, this is going to blow my head off'. And in a way it does, but it's maybe not what you'd expect. And I love that on this record there are these contrasts between lights and darks, anger and calm. It's a different kind of heavy. You don't need blast beats or guttural growls.
You know, I often ask myself, okay, in the modern times, we have electric guitars and big drum kits, electric basses. What did people do 5,000 years ago when they wanted to do some evil fucking shit? Well, they didn't have electric guitars. They had to make do with what they had. Or conversely, if we wipe ourselves out, which has always been a question I've had, like if the apocalypse comes, what am I gonna do for a living? If we have no electricity anymore, how am I going to play electric guitar for a living? I better learn to play this fucking acoustic because that's all we're going to have. So 4,000 years ago all they had was acoustic instruments.
You had the chance to tackle a range of instruments outside of the norm for this album (baglama saz (Turkish lute), Ancient Egyptian Anubis Sistrum, Dumbek (Middle Eastern goblet drum), glissentar and gongs). That must have been an interesting exercise over the course of these records, to be able to explore different avenues of music?
It's a lot of fun. Stringed instruments, there's a certain amount of guitar technique that crosses over. I know it's still me, Karl Sanders metal person when I pick up the baglama or the glissentar. It's still me. I mean, I don't magically transform into the maharajah or whatever. It's still me. I'm still a metal guy. So the technique just walks across and it takes an actual real effort to go listen to some other shit and try and reincorporate that back in, because I'm still coming to the table as a metal guy.
One of the guests on this record stuff, Mustafa Stefan Dill, he's an oud player, but he's also a jazz guy, and he can play the fuck out of the oud legitimately. So that's why some of the more insane things that you hear sometimes are the guest, sometimes it's me. It's all kind of mixed in there together where nothing really matters like who did what anymore. It's just music to explode your brain in a nice quiet way.
Yeah, very meditative. If you're of the herbal persuasion, maybe chill out and just let this world immerse over you and explore the outer reaches of the mind (laughs).
Yes. Especially now that the weather is nicer. You can go outside, partake in whatever it is your personal preference, and enjoy. Some people will even say that these albums are kind of like music for tripping, but there are no dangerous chemicals that need to be ingested. Just put on this record and your brain will go there.
Have you ever thought about transitioning into scoring films, video games, or a different challenge in that way?
Well of course, that's also where the money is these days. But you know what? As competitive a field as metal is, soundtrack work is way more competitive. And those guys are really jealous of those good paying gigs. So you know, finding the opportunities to do that, it's going to be a challenge. And when the day finally comes when I'm too old to get on the tour bus or whatever and I need to write soundtracks for a living, it's going to be another challenge. Like the challenges are never ending. There will never be any rest.
I think about video games in particular and I feel like having that heavier, darker sensibility that metal gives us really is a benefit. This record has such a brooding, dark element to it, but you think of video games like Doom…
(Interrupts excitedly) Oh dude, I'm a Doom fan. The Doom Eternal soundtrack was fucking godlike and man, that would be the gig to have. I even have that soundtrack. I listen to it while I'm doing housework or whatever, just so that if I'm doing stuff around the house and it's a stupid household chore, it doesn't feel like it because it feels like Doom (laughs).
Metal lends itself so well to these epic stories. Someone needs to pick this up and make a script out of it!
I actually did write a book. Actually, I've done two drafts. I need to do a third draft and finish the fucker off, but it's like the story and the concept behind all the songs. As I was coming up with it, the ideas were coming to me. I was just starting to write them down. It was too much for just lyrics. We need somebody to take this thing and make a movie out of it. And I got the script because it's the book. My manager Gunther said, 'Well, you got the soundtrack, you got the script. All we need is somebody to make a movie out of this thing and you get a trifecta, you win.'
Do you see this as being something you'd like to publish? Whether it be a novel, a graphic novel or a series? Or was this simply a need to get all this out of your head and on paper?
Some of it was, yeah, I got to do this for me, but a lot of it too was, you know, fans would really enjoy this. Why am I keeping it to myself? That seems somehow wrong. Like if the metal God's gift you some inspiration, did they give it to you for you to keep it to yourself? That's a pretty big gift that they did. Or did they give it to you to somehow be meaningful to other people as well?
What I've seen with Nile over the 25, 30 years, next year will be 30 years of Nile. I can't believe it either. It just feels like yesterday we started. But people have written me letters over the years saying 'dude, your music means so much to me … I listened to it while I was in Afghanistan or helped me through this dark time, or it inspired me to go to school and become an archeologist' or whatever.
I think what we do when we make music, it's not just for ourselves. You're doing it as part of a bigger picture, I think hopefully contributing something to humanity other than, oh yeah, here's another death metal record. Throw it on the pile. Cause there's a lot of metal records that are just more metal records. Now, not every single metal album is going to be Reign in Blood and change your life. It's just not possible.
But I think that's what we should aspire to is to make some music that touches people, that gives people something, even if it's just the okay, I'm off of work, I'm gonna fucking scream my lungs out at the metal show and it's going to be fucking good! God damn it, I can't wait for 5:00 to get the fuck out of my job! Even if that's all it gives somebody, that's still something, right? That's still something, it still helps them in some way. So I think that's our greater purpose.
Staying with Nile for a second, and obviously the pandemic has made life difficult for an international band. George (Kollias), I believe, still lives in Greece. I'm curious how you guys have approached working on new material over the last three years since Vile Nilotic Rites, particularly in the pandemic era?
Well, we are writing new Nile songs, doing a lot of it remotely, as much as you can. We got ten new songs in the works so far. We're going to shoot for 13 for this record. So hopefully by the end of summer we'll be done writing and we'll start recording drums. And I'll fly over there. George likes recording at his house. So that's what I'm going to do. So that's pretty cool. He has a beach house right near Korinthos, literally 50 feet from the fucking beach. That guy, he's got it going on lately.
You mentioned next year being the 30th anniversary of Nile. Do you see that as being something you'd honor with a 30th anniversary tour? You also have some big records with major anniversaries this year (20 years of In Their Darkened Shrines, 15 years of Ithyphallic). Is that something you pay attention to at all?
I had it on the tip of the tongue because a fan said that to me, like 'hey what are you guys going to do for your 30 year anniversary?' I went, 30 year anniversary? No, shit. Has it been 30 fucking years?! Oh, my God. I looked at the date right there on the bottom of the computer screen, you know, 2023. We started in 1993. It's really simple math. It doesn't feel like it, though. It feels like just yesterday in some ways. In other ways, man, it wasn't necessarily an easy path. People looking at it from the outside, they don't have to live it.
It's something you can look at from the outside. But when you're the one that is doing it and there's nothing free in this world. So if you want to play metal and you want to keep going, there are prices to be paid. And a lot of them aren't necessarily really obvious, but in terms of family, relationships, trying to make a living, trying to just keep a roof over your head. During the pandemic all our touring was canceled. So how far are we supposed to keep going? … you got to go do something else and keep the band going.
Giving guitar lessons and teaching students, that's been another rewarding avenue for you. You're helping to pay the bills, but you're also passing on 30-plus years of knowledge in the business as well.
Oh, for sure. You know, one unexpected part of that was a lot of the guys that are coming to me for lessons were already good players. But if you're the teacher and you have a whole bunch of students, then you are like the hub in the middle of a wheel and all those spokes that go out to the other players are different ways of looking at playing the instrument. So I found like, Wow, oh my God, I'm learning just as much from these lessons and from these other guitar players. In fact, I'm learning exponentially more because I'm the hub in the center of all these guys.
Dude, it exploded my guitar playing the last two years. I've made more progress in the last two years than a decade before that, just because I'm interacting with a whole lot of guitar players and you see their way of doing it, which is never going to be exactly the same. Everybody's got their own little take on it, right? But all those ways, they open up your mind to looking at it from a different perspective.
A record like this kind of gives you a chance to decompress from a lifetime of death metal. But I am curious, because maybe it's the rose colored glasses of being in this era and being immersed in the metal scene, but there's some fantastic metal happening right now, some fantastic death metal. Do you find yourself still seeking out new death metal? Or because this is your day job, do you listen to some smooth jazz on your off-time?
Well, there definitely is, yeah, it's time to hear some smooth jazz (laughs). Death metal finds me no matter what, because fans send me stuff. My inbox is full of bands going, 'Hey Karl, listen to my blah, blah, blah, listen to this. Hey, did you hear this?' If I wanted to try and keep up with every new metal band, or conversely, if I didn't want to keep up, I would still be keeping up because people are still inundating me with it. I can't escape it. So, okay. But I do think right now we're living, and people probably don't see this yet, but we're living in an evolutionary explosion of the metal art form because of the availability of music to everyone instantaneously.
The advent of YouTube has really changed the nature of musicianship. Before, like in the way back time machine days, like when I was learning how to play, we have the internet. There was no YouTube. Learning stuff was not necessarily as easy as it is now. But now, if you're a young guitar player, if you wanna see how Steve Vai did something and you type in Steve Vai and there's 150 videos of Steve Vai doing what Steve Vai does. And you can see it.
Seeing somebody do something is a whole different experience than just listening to them do it because you can see it and, like it or not, we're primates. We are definitely monkey see, monkey do. So now we have a whole generation of people that have instantaneous access to an incredible wealth of guitar playing knowledge right there. It's a fucking click away and it's free. For the people who can appreciate that and are hungry and want to fucking learn something, dude, it's on. The level of guitar playing in the last ten years, it's gone like this, powwww! What a time to be alive. What a time to be a metal listener.