Nile's Karl Sanders On Metal Tone, Technique And The Gate Of Sethu
Nile’s latest album is At The Gate of Sethu [Nuclear Blast], an impressive slab of technical death metal loaded with ultra-precise riffs, eerie atmospherics and plenty of the band’s trademark lyrical focus, which finds much of its base in Ancient Egyptology and other equally epic fare. Nile founder Karl Sanders has an enviable grasp of death metal guitar technique along with a precise, cutting, clear but undeniably heavy guitar tone. Sanders is also a Seymour Duncan user, so we took the opportunity to discuss the new album, his approach to tone, and the truth about the new album’s inspiration. Sanders also provided a lot of pics of his unique guitars.
Word has it that At The Gate Of Sethu was prompted by an infamous reaction to the latest Morbid Angel album. Is this true?
Well, sort of more or less. That’s closer to a tongue in cheek anecdote – with a shred of truth lying at the core. Last year, a video made the rounds on the internet – “Hitler reacts to the new Morbid Angel album.” Well as Adolf is in the midst of his ferocious maniacal tirade about his disappointment with the new MA disc, outside in the hallway is a large crowd of staff persons – including generals, Military advisors, guards, secretaries, cleaning ladies and so forth. Well as one young lady starts to cry over the whole thing, another young woman leans over to console her – by saying – “Don’t worry, there will be a New Nile album soon” Well, obviously this was a comedy, and I laughed like everybody else; but it just so happened that ~ I was also the guy ~ who was in the midst of writing the song for that Nile album they were referring to. I took it as perhaps some sort of gentle motivational sign.
Moments like the track “Ethno-Musicological Cannibalisms” or the beginning of “Tribunal Of The Dead” on the new album are so cinematic. Do you approach music from a visual perspective? What’s going through your mind when you’re creating these riffs?
Well, I like music that creates pictures in your mind – so that if one closed their eyes, the music itself tells some sort of story. When I write songs for Nile, I always write lyrics first – always – and then print out a lyric sheet so that when I am practicing guitar /coming up with riffs, I have the words right there in front of me. A lot of times as I am thinking about the song lyrics, musical ideas just kind suggest themselves to me, and I more or less just try to make those words “come to life”. Like Herbert West in The Re-Animator!
Your guitar work is so precise. Are there any tricks for nailing multiple takes of those riffs?
Not really. Its just old-fashioned hard work and perseverance. It is really important to be actually in tune, which is a never-ending struggle some days;
And not bite off longer passages than you can chew. Its best to take it section-by-section, and really focus on the details. Where your right hand rests on the string, how hard you are striking the string, how much right hand / left hand mute you are using, etc. etc. If you try to take too much of the song at once – you can’t possibly remember all the little stuff. No one is super human.
Also – and there will be folks who disagree on this point- keep the signal chain as simple as possible. Every processor between you and the amp – especially digital processors – creates an additional tiny little bit of time flux/latency smear. It slightly skews the time differential between when you strike the note and when you hear it. So it makes your brain fight against itself on a macro level. If you want to be precise and in time – sit reasonably close to your monitors – and keep your signal path simple. Its best to get your tone out of your hands/pickups/amp – the old fashioned way – if you want to stack up multiple guitar parts/layers and not turn them into a giant indiscernible mess.
What was your primary guitar rig on the album?
For the quadruple stacked rhythm guitars – A Marshall JCM2000 DSL 100 head, on the low gain setting into a very old Marshall 4×12 with 65 watt Celestions. We tried a gazillion combinations of my various Marshall heads/cabs – and ended up using the cab that had spent the last 15 years as a houseplant stand…. I had forgotten how good that cab sounded – it was made in the early 70s back when they still used actual wood to build speaker cabs – and I had replaced the speakers during the eighties with the then –in-vogue 65-watt Celestions. Somehow those 65 watters just have the perfect Gary Holt crunch; super crticulate and tuneful, even beating out my vintage Marshall cab loaded with Kerry King 100 watt Celestions. I had thought that 4×12 unbeatable.
Also in the chain is a Blackstar HT Dual, set to a very low gain. It just added that little bit of tone shaping to an otherwise very clean/simple rig. Oh yeah and a – very short guitar cable!
For the leads – I used a Splawn Nitro – straight in – no pedals or anything other than guitar, Monster cable and the Splawn head. The Splawn head is an incredible tone Monster . It’s like the best –ever Marshall Plexi kind of amp – but super hot rodded for modern tones. You don’t even need any sort of pedals in front – it has all the musical yet screaming searing lead tone you could ever hope for all by itself. And with no pedal in between the guitar and amp – wham – instantaneous translation from hands to ears plus – it leaves the subtle upper harmonic structure intact; making the guitar leads now practically jump out of the mix to punish the speakers and slap you in the face.
For pickups – we have always used the Duncan Invaders for our wall of crushing Nile rhythm guitar sound, and for leads I generally employ different Duncan pickups – so that there is a tonal difference between the leads and the rhythms. For leads I am quite partial to the classic Duncan Distortion, but I also really like doing leads with the Full Shred, the Pearly Gates in the neck position, and classic Duncan single coils in the neck position. I always say – real Ttone comes right from your hands, the strings, the pick, and the pickup. If you get it right out of the gate, then you are golden.
What’s your approach to distortion? Every player seems to have their own personal take on it.
Being that I play a kind of extreme heavy music that generally uses massive amounts of gain and distortion – what I am about to sound may seem like heresy; a little less gain makes it so people can hear what one is actually playing.
As much as I love high gain shredding and mountains of distortion, the best thing I ever did for my guitar playing was throwing away my digital guitar processor in my practice rig. Since the days of the writing of Those Whom The Gods Detest, for daily practice I have been just plugging my guitar straight into a Marshall Class 5 amp. It’s an old-fashioned style amp – very simple old tube circuit, and very few knobs, absolutely no bells and whistles. I take the guitar, and with a single cable, plug straight the @#$% into the amp. It is a profound difference in terms of a direct connection between the hands and ears. I can hear and feel immediately when my hands touches the note; it is mindboggling when one suddenly realizes that all the modern guitar processor digital B.S. that most people use nowadays actually causes a minute time displacement – and clouds up the tone just enough to where you are not actually hearing your hands on the strings anymore; and that is very uncomfortable for most players, because all of a sudden – they are naked, and every tiny flaw of their playing is glaringly apparent. Its like we have all become so dependent on our distortion pedals – that they are a serious crutch for most metal players.
But for me, that realization that now I could hear every ugly little facet of my technique – meant that it was possible to hear it and do something about cleaning it all up. Practicing that clean forces one to learn to really hit each and every note. For me, this was a godsend in terms of syncing the left and right hand – and actually producing actual real tone on every note. So when I plug into my wall of Marshalll 100 watt stacks and crank it up nowadays – I am dead –on legitimately nailing those guitar parts even at ridiculous Nile tempos. In a nutshell, if you want that wall of guitar heaviness to be precise – it pays off to practice as clean as possible.
What tunings do you use on the new album?
The rhythm guitars with Nile are always drop A – AEADF#B. For leads – I do different stuff for each song. The Dean and KXK seven string guitars I use for leads are tuned AEADGBE, and I have a few guitars in drop D that I like to solo with – the 73 Strat, and the KXK V6 – The Godin Glissentar, and Dean 12 string are detuned a whole step, and in drop tuning – so I guess that makes it actually drop C, and the Baglama Saz gets different tunings for different pieces – most frequently – bottom pair – D, D8va middle pair is unison D8va, and the top three are A, E, E.
How do you set up your guitars? Do you like them to be easy to play, or do you need them to put up a fight?
For guitars used for daily practice, I have it set fairly high – not for the fight – but because it forces one to actually hit the note cleanly – or you get nothing. But for everything else, its only medium high – but still comfy. I like my guitars not to fight me – I would like for us to be on the same team – but just be high enough so that the notes actually ring out properly.
You played bass on much of the new record. Do you play bass a lot? What did you use?
I only play bass when I have to – although I enjoy it quite a lot. We borrowed /used (former Nile bassist) Jon Vesano’s green Spector. It’s an older neck-thru Euro model, and it sounds incredible. The notes are pure, dead in tune all the way down to the basement, with super solid harmonic structure. If you ever happen to listen the new Nile disc on a system with decent bass reproduction – you can hear the purity of Jon’s Spector- the fundamental bass note is rock solid and lays a perfect foundation underneath the guitars/ drums. People who accuse Nile of not having bass on this record are probably listening on their iPods; with all the crazy extreme guitar drumming on this album we mixed the bass in a very supportive role. but its down there like a concrete foundation. On a real music system it’s killer.
It’s been a while since Saurian Exorcisms – any plans for further solo work?
I have been so busy with this Nile album – that I haven’t had time to work on the next one, but I have a few ideas kicking around. As soon as I get some time- I would love to get busy with the next Saurian project. Those records are fun and relaxing – not only to listen to – but to write and record.