Published Jul 06, 2012As one of the forerunner bands of technical death metal, South Carolina trio Nile have made quite a name for themselves with their unique Egyptian-themed approach and their latest offering, At the Gate of Sethu, is the seventh studio album in their highly-revered repertoire. Although Nile have continued to maintain their iconic sound that features Middle Eastern flourishes, they have also adjusted their recording style and have used some different elements to expand on their distinct sound. As frontman and mastermind Karl Sanders explains, the band have taken a more old school approach to the recording of At the Gate of Sethu and they have also employed a diverse range of vocal styles to provide a different, and more interesting, listening experience for long-time fans. Featuring more of their engaging, intricately written tracks, At the Gate of Sethu is yet another classic example of Nile's intense musicianship and remarkable attention to detail.
Is there a specific concept or theme for this record? What is the meaning behind the title, At the Gate of Sethu?
Vocalist/guitarist Karl Sanders: It's not really a concept album, other than the songs have to deal with a lot of ancient Egyptian kind of stuff, but most of our songs do. So it's not necessarily a concept. The title, At the Gate of Sethu, refers to a passage from the text The Book of Gates, which is an ancient Egyptian religious text, dealing with the Egyptian underworld. The underworld of the ancient Egyptians is divided into 12 divisions, each one corresponding to an hour of night. Each night, Ra the sun god must pass through the underworld and pass through each of these gates, and each gate has hideous serpents guarding the gates and various underworld demons and deities that have to be negotiated with. So after Ra goes through this entire 12 hours of darkness, night and evil, he finally emerges triumphant as the morning sun is coming out and there's a new day.
Is there enough Egyptian-themed content to keep writing about? Do you think you'll run out at some point?
I think with thousands of years of Egyptian history to draw from, I'm not worried about running out of topics any time soon. I mean, what's a few death metal albums compared to thousands of years of history?
What draws you to these Egyptian themes for your lyrical subject matter?
It was always kind of a personal interest of mine. So when the time came and I found myself playing in a band called Nile, I just said to myself, "Well, what would I want to hear from a band called Nile?" And it just seemed like an obvious answer. Do like what Mark Twain says, "Write about what you're interested in."
What was the writing and recording process like for At the Gate of Sethu?
We started in May of 2011 and we actually wrote songs all the way up until November. I and the other guitar player [Dallas Toler-Wade] would write the songs and make song demos, where we record everything: guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards, other instruments, literally everything that goes in the songs. Then we would send them to our drummer George [Kollias], who lives in Athens, Greece, and we would just go back and forth for a while and develop the songs and scrutinize them and hone them done until eventually we thought we were ready to start playing the songs together in the band room. Then after we felt we were ready, we took it to the Sound Lab in South Carolina and started tracking drums, then after that we came back to Greenville and tracked everything here at my home studio and then we mixed it over at Dallas's home studio.
There's been a recent line-up change with Todd Ellis now on bass. How are you feeling about the current line-up?
It's doing okay, Todd's a really low-key kind of guy so there's not as much drama going around, which I consider a nice thing. He's definitely a talented bass player, he's got a really solid foundation kind of approach to his playing where he's just so there and it's solid, which I appreciate. With all the freaking crazy drums that George plays and all the insane guitar work, it's nice to have somebody laying down a foundation for it that's solid.
How do you feel Nile's sound has progressed over the years?
Well we've had member changes and with each guy that comes and goes, the sound naturally mutates along the way. At this point, I think we've evolved to where we're just really focussed on the musicianship aspect of the music, writing the songs, playing them, trying to nail them, trying to make it listenable on the record. I think one of the mark things about this new record is it was made in such a way so that you could hear everything we were doing, for better or worse. It's not quite as heavy, heavy, heavy on the production sound because when you're going at 280 beats-per-minute it gets hard to hear all the details. So we kind of had to find a way to find a sound that would actually let people hear what we were actually doing and that's quite a ballsy move. The guitar tones are very naked, it's very raw and honest, it's a mic in front of the speaker and really old school. So what you hear on the album is the sound of our hands on the guitars, the sound of hands on the drums, the actual sound of our voices, we did those things the old fashioned way. Records aren't really made like that anymore, so there may be some element of an audience that doesn't quite relate to it, I get it, but for people who actually want to hear what we're actually playing, oh man, this record does it, fuck yeah!
As the only original member in the band, do you feel any pressure to retain parts of the sound that Nile started with?
No, not for that reason. The reasons to retain whatever parts of our sound that have been there over the long term are simply being honest to ourselves and loyal to our fans. There are elements on this new record that do go all the way back to the origins of the band, but it's not out of any crazy thing like being the last original guy, it's just what we do.
There are some different elements on At the Gate of Sethu, particularly with the new vocal styles. Was that an intentional change?
Well, we definitely wanted to expand the sounds of the vocals, the vocal colours, and get some different stuff going on. One of the things, one of the criticisms that we got, that after a while I started to see the sense of, was that all the vocals all sound the same. So we wanted to get some different vocal expressions and I started wondering to myself, "Why not? Where does it say in the rule book that vocals on a death metal album have to only be a certain way? Why can't you do other stuff?" And once I thought about it from that perspective, then the whole creative range of possibilities kind of opened up. I really wanted to find lots of flavours, lots of colours, lots of different ways of expressing the lyrics. It's kind of like the lyrics determine the expression of the vocals. So in that way, yeah, there's a lot of varied vocal things on the record, it's definitely not one-dimensional.
Is it challenging to develop as a band, adding new elements, while still maintaining that distinct Nile sound?
I think that's the eternal quest for any band. To retain one's identity yet find new and interesting things to do and not develop so far crazy left that you lose your fan base. You've got to find that delicate balance somehow.
Nile are considered one of the forerunner bands of technical death metal. How much of a role does technicality play in the writing process these days?
With Nile, we definitely try to make the technicality be subservient to the needs of the songs. In fact, in some ways, I don't really consider Nile a technical death metal band, although we are one on paper, we try to focus on the song. You know, a lot of technical death metal bands get so technical that it becomes hard to listen to them. So that's one thing we always try to keep in mind; the songs still have to be fun for us to play, fun for us to listen to, and it can't get so technical that you get lost in the math.
Is writing technical, more complex music a conscious decision? Or does it just come naturally?
The technicality is definitely second in importance to the needs of the song, like whatever that song happens to need, well that's what we do, and maybe it's technical and maybe it's not so technical. If you don't think about the technicality too much, then you're not focused on it, you can just enjoy the song.
Is it challenging to transfer the more technical songs to a live setting because of the level of difficulty?
Of course it is, but we've never been afraid of that. In the history of the band, we've had some pretty ridiculously impossible songs. Like, I remember "The Burning Pits of the Duat," we toured that one year, a few years back, and people were amazed that we actually played it live because holy shit, those guitar and drum parts are impossible. But we did it, I mean, we had to learn how to play it in order to record it. So we're kind of like that, we don't put anything on the record that we can't actually do, except in the case of some of the huge songs, like "To Dream of Ur," it's not a technical song at all, but it has like 100 tracks of extra instruments so there is literally no friggin' way that song is ever going to get played live.
During the writing process, do you take into account how the songs will sound live?
Actually yeah, that's what I'm thinking about, like "How much fun would this be to play with a crowd all right there with us?" Yeah, it's actually inspiring, there's quite a few pieces on the new record that, when I was coming up with it, that's what I was thinking. It's like, "Man, this would be fun to do live."