On April 28, 1998, Greenville, South Carolina, band Nile unleashed their debut LP Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka on an unsuspecting public. Avoiding many of the cliches surrounding death metal and utilizing a whole new sound and approach — which included ample Egyptian-inspired themes and pairing their extreme metal with exotic experimental musical devices including chanting, gongs and more — Nile's debut was a breath of fresh air that became a hit within the death-metal scene. From then on, Nile have remained a cornerstone in the world of technical death metal, releasing ambitious, acclaimed albums and touring the world over.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, Revolver cornered mastermind Karl Sanders to discuss the album's genesis and legacy.
HERE WE ARE 20 YEARS OUT FROM THE DEBUT OF AMONGST THE CATACOMBS OF NEPHREN-KA. WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS ABOUT THAT RECORD THAT MAKES IT STAND OUT FROM THE REST OF THE PACK?
I think it was the extra time we had to really hone the songs. They say you get a lifetime to work on your first record, but only six months to do the second one. When we were making that record, we were really trying to focus in and trim the fat from the songs to make sure that they had maximum impact.
GOING INTO CATACOMBS, DO YOU THINK YOU HAD HONED IN ON YOUR SIGNATURE SOUND YET?
I think it had just began to show. It was really fresh with us and we were really excited at the creative possibilities within this little niche that we had managed to carve out. But at that point, no one had heard us. So it was also very, very much present in our minds that there's a sea of great death-metal bands. So we knew that we really needed to make [the most out this] one little chance we got to be heard. We were living in Greenville, South Carolina, where it's quite off the beaten path and we really felt if this is our chance to do it, then let's make the most of it.
MUCH OF DEATH-METAL IMAGERY RELIES ON LEFT-HAND PATH IDEOLOGY OR STORIES ABOUT GORE AND ZOMBIES, BUT NILE PRETTY MUCH THREW AWAY ALL THOSE IDEAS AND LANDED ON EGYPTOLOGY. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
Well, I think in context of the time of that period, the early to mid-Nineties, the underground scene was flooded with bands that sounded either like Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse. In fact, if you weren't doing that or going down the Satanic paths, you were absolutely not accepted.
I felt most people saw us as an unknown band from South Carolina who had little hope of ever being heard, so we didn't feel tied to do anything other than what wanted to do. And I have this interest in Egyptology, so ...
WHEN YOU WERE CREATING NILE DID YOU SEE THE PARALLELS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL DEATH-METAL FODDER AND EGYPTOLOGY? MUMMIFICATION, SLAVERY ... THERE'S ALL THIS KIND OF BRUTALITY.
I did see the connection, but also there was H.P. Lovecraft to help bridge the gap because Lovecraft is very much an inspiration for so many metal bands. [Lovecraft's 1924 essay] "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs" very much tied all these things together. So the concepts seemed to lay in bed with each other and get along. So I thought why not? The imagery works, it's already there, implanted in people's minds through 50 years of Hollywood.
HOW DID YOU HOOK UP WITH RELAPSE?
Well, it's really a fascinating story. [Nile's 1997 EP] Ramses Bringer of War sold like 900 copies entirely in the underground, and we sold a couple thousand copies of [1995 EP] Festivals of Atonement before that. So we were actually causing money to flow in our direction. And all of a sudden people were writing us, and little independent labels were making sad little offers. We'd been like beating our brains for five years to get people to pay attention and no one gave a fuck.
All of a sudden now I realize the great truth in life — no one is going to give a fuck until there are dollars being exchanged. If you aren't worthy of exploitation, then you're worthless. So we had three decent offers on the table and one of them was Visceral Records from Ohio and that was the most reasonable, so we went with that one. It had the most pitiful budget to make a record, like $3,000. But we didn't fucking care! This is our chance. This is our fucking chance. Yeah. We're going to go do something, you know.
Anyway, we got a call from Craig [Rowe] from Visceral and he said, "Guys, I really love this record, but I decided to go back to school and I'm selling all my stock to Relapse." This was pretty devastating to us at the time. We'd worked so hard, and now the record was being given to somebody else who may or may not give a fuck about it. In the end, they shelved it for six months, which was really just so heartbreaking for us as a young band, you know. Just sitting on the motherfucking shelf.
But when it finally came out and it did so much better than everyone expected. We got a few lucky breaks, thanks to [Incantation's] John McEntee and the Morbid Angel guys, who took us out on tour. It really helped expose that record to the right audience. If it hadn't been for them, I don't think the record would have done as well as it did. You can have the greatest automobile in the world, but if no one knows it's swell, who's going to buy it?
SO AFTER ALL OF THAT DID THE SUCCESS OF CATACOMBS FEEL LIKE SWEET REDEMPTION?
[Laughs] Yeah, it did. We felt vindicated after all of the many years of hard work. Yeah, the metal gods truly decided to smile down upon us.
ESPECIALLY IN A CROWDED FIELD LIKE DEATH METAL. OBVIOUSLY NILE HAVE A UNIQUE THING GOING, BUT I WOULD IMAGINE THAT YOU PROBABLY KNOW DOZENS OF BANDS WHO DO AS WELL THAT NO ONE CARES ABOUT.
Today, there is this tidal wave of apathy because there's so many bands and we have so many choices. I mean, why should anybody give a fuck? I think for the advancement of the art form it's great, but for a young man starting out, that's a tough mountain to climb.
CATACOMBS IS A BRUTAL RECORD, AND IT MAY BE INTIMIDATING FOR SOME. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BEST ENTRY POINT FOR THE RECORD?
I'd put on side one, track one "Smashing the Antiu." Yeah, we came out swinging, absolutely came out swinging.
DID YOU GUYS EVER CONSIDER DOING ANY ANNIVERSARY-RELATED SHOWS AROUND THIS RECORD FEATURING THE ORIGINAL MEMBERS THAT PLAYED ON THE RECORD?
Our bass player Chief [Spires] has been trying to get something going on that, and I think it's a wonderful idea. But I know [drummer] Pete [Hammoura] doesn't want to do it. Pete hurt his shoulder and that's why he's not playing death metal. He's got this other band going, the Mojo Medicine Machine, and is doing a lot of session work and stuff. The songs are very physically taxing. So I would love to do it, but I don't think it would be right without Pete.
SO IN LINE WITH EGYPTOLOGY CONCEPT, CATACOMBS ALSO FEATURES UNCONVENTIONAL MUSICAL ELEMENTS: EXOTIC CHORDS, INSTRUMENTS AND THE LIKE.
Definitely. I mean it all kind of congealed and rolled around together: using exotic instruments, song structures that had nothing to do with modern music. To me it was all part of the same concept. I used to go to my local music store and shop in the world-music section, getting inspiration from various types of records. I'd listen and say, "Here's a lick that sounds bizarre. Maybe I'll try something similar." I was also a fan of soundtracks. Some of the John Williams scores were inspirational, but Basil Poledouris' soundtrack for Conan the Barbarian gave me so many ideas.
There was another incident that I want to share with you from the formative period of Nile. I went to my jazz guitar teacher and said, "I need some guitar chords that sound like ancient Egypt." He looked at me blankly and said "What? There are none. What the fuck are you talking about?" So I thought to myself that if there are none then maybe I could invent some. That just told me that the field is wide open, so I found my own way.
WAS THERE A SPECIFIC RECORD FROM THAT WORLD-MUSIC BIN THAT YOU WANT TO CREDIT WITH INSPIRING THE CATACOMBS RECORD?
Not from the world-music bin, but SPK's Zamia Lehmanni: Songs of Byzantine Flowers was hugely inspirational. But there were so many other influences as well, everything from Ulrich Roth, Robin Trower, old Sabbath and Zeppelin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck ... a lot of non-metal. But you take influences like that and you put them through your own brutal filter to become something else.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WAS A TURNING POINT FOR YOU AS FAR AS DEATH-METAL RECORDS ARE CONCERNED?
I think [Morbid Angel's] Blessed Are the Sick. It's funny because I just didn't get Altars of Madness until later — I didn't understand what they were fucking doing. And every time I put on "Immortal Rites" to try and learn the song, I'd throw my guitar down because the structure was confusing. I didn't even understand what the fuck was going on. I think I prefer Blessed Are the Sick though. The song structures, I got them and understood what they were doing. Years later, I get it now. But back then, that record, blew my young mind.
SO WHAT'S GOING ON WITH NILE AS WELL AS KARL SANDERS SOLO?
Well, we've been diligently working on the next Nile album. We have 10 songs in various stages of construction and we'll probably record at the end of the summer or maybe September. For Karl Sanders, I've got three tracks written for the next one. Nile seems to chew up so much in my freaking time, so it's difficult to find time to work on it. We're really trying to make this next record as killer as it can be.
WHAT DOES THIS ANNIVERSARY MEAN TO YOU, PERSONALLY, LOOKING BACK ON WHERE YOU WERE 20 YEARS AGO?
Well, I think that Catacombs is really a testament to the original guys and how willing we were to work hard on the behalf of simply just giving something to metal fans to kick their asses. I really, really appreciate Pete and Chief, the brotherhood that we had back then. It was something real and tangible and every time I play Catacombs, that's what I think about.