Back in 2016, one of the all-time greats of death metal, the mighty Bolt Thrower, announced they will no longer continue, after the tragic loss of their drummer, Martin “Kiddie” Kearns. Who would have thought that Martin’s passing could also be a trigger for a completely new band to be formed, in his memory, and that band was Memoriam. In the five years since their formation, Memoriam has not only been carrying forward the torch lit by Bold Thrower, but has evolved into a band of its own identity, injecting their epic death metal with a dose of crust punk and doom. With a trilogy of albums already completed, the forthcoming To The End is already a new start and a nice opportunity to talk to the legendary Karl Willets. We caught him in good spirits and as you will read yourselves, he not only shared his favorite beer styles with us, but also found the time for one of his last interviews in the capacity of full-time musician, before launching a career in the film industry!
-Good evening! (Karl sounds really amused) I wasn’t expecting a call from Bulgaria!
Oh, yes – look how small the world is. A guy from Bulgaria, writing for a UK-based website.
-How globally connected can one be! Hahaha!
It is really a pleasure to talk to you again, Karl. I have really warm feeling towards all of the bands you are connected with and have been lucky to have interviewed you several times in the past. Well, this seems like a fresh new start for Memoriam – new album, on a new label, with a new drummer! First of all – tell us how did the label change happen?
-It’s really nice to talk to you in this cold, dark evening, man. This is indeed a fresh new start in many respects. The label change was something that happened as a consequence of a few things. After we did three albums on Nuclear Blast, we came to the end of our contract and started to talk of a new one. At the same time, Nuclear Blast were taken over by Believe Digital and as a result there was a shakeup in their roster. They wanted to keep the bands which tour a lot and sell more numbers. We are not that kind of band and have always wanted to do all things on our own terms. Another result of the takeover was that some of the people who worked there, specifically the ones who worked on the promotion of Memoriam, left Nuclear Blast. Florian Milz, in particular, left and created his own label. During this process, he made us an offer that we couldn’t really refuse. Nuclear Blast is a great label, but they have such a huge roster. The number of albums they are releasing is phenomenal – at least two or three albums a week. With Reaper Entertainment we feel that instead of being a small fish in a rather oversized pond, we are actually in the reverse position now. Flo has been fantastic in the way he works to achieve his dream with this new label. There is more time invested on quality, instead of quantity. So, yes, new beginnings, new starts and it’s great to be a part of that.
You sound excited and this sounds like a logical and a clever step to make. Logically, the next question is about how you got your new, no less legendary drummer Spikey T. Smith (Sacrilege, English Dogs) and why did you part ways with Andy?
-Oh, Spikey has such an immense array of bands he has worked with: a CV filled with massive icons for me personally. For example The Damned, Conflict, Sacrilege, English Dogs and even more importantly, he has worked with Killing Joke, which are my favorite band of all time! So, towards August last year, Andy was diagnosed with a type of shoulder strain injury, which was a cause of years of intensive drumming. Age was also a factor, because as you know, we are no spring chickens anymore, haha! This meant that he could not play drums for long periods of time and he couldn’t commit to recording the album with us. So, he kind of stepped back on the advice of his physiotherapist basically, because he told him there is no time frame for his recovery. It could take 6 months or it could take a year. He is doing exercises and taking it easy right now. I actually spoke to the lad about an hour ago and he seems to be on the path to recovery. It’s been about 6 months since his diagnosis and he is planning to start working on some other projects like Darkened. So, for now, Spikey is the full time drummer of the band and I think he will have a much bigger role in the next album, arranging the drum patterns, having a more active involvement. Andy is one of my best mates and always will be. I hope at some point in the future, our paths will cross again, whether with Memoriam or with another project. And no disrespect to Whale, but I think what Spikey has brought into this new album is a different interpretation of the music, new drumming style and patterns, which really enhances what we do. So here’s to the future and let’s see what happens.
I also totally stand behind your good words about Spikey’s drumming on the new album. To The End will be out on March 26th and I have been listening to the album a lot these days. It sounds doomier and it seems more inspired musically speaking. Can you agree with that?
-Well, first of all I think what we did with the last album Requiem For Mankind is we defined our sound, the sound of Memoriam. The importance of recording in Parlour Studio for the second time around now is really big – it is almost like the missing link for us. We could have done Requiem For Mankind part 2 with the new album, but we are trying to go forward. Sometimes it works that way, and sometimes it doesn’t. An important factor in the way the new album sounds different is what we already mentioned – the new drummer. We tried to maintain the creativity and enrich it with different textures, flavors, themes and styles, which really enhances what we do. The reason we’ve been able to do that is because due to the impact of Covid, we had more time, we had extended periods available for us to work as a band. We just didn’t have to rehearse for live shows every other week and that gave us all the time we needed to concentrate on the new album. That’s what makes it so special and I actually think there is a positive feeling surrounding this album, in contrast to the negative times we live in.
The new album can easily be among the best death metal releases this year, but if I must find a flaw, it should be the lack of more guitar solos by Scott. Please tell that man that it is allowed to play more solos, haha!
-Well, the thing is we actually steer clear of solos. We are not into that guitar wanking. What we try to do when we are in the studio is recreate the sound when we play live. And because we are a four-piece band and we want to stay a four-piece band, we don’t inject the recording with a lot of guitar overdubs. We like the balance that we have. So, there will never be loads of guitar solos in our albums, it just doesn’t work for us, so we’re not going to do it, mate, forget about that, hahaha!
Well, I can settle with just two or three more solos then, haha!
-Haha! No, we are not a technical metal band, we are all about the groove.
OK, Karl. The ongoing collaboration with legendary Dan Seagrave continues with the new cover artwork. Please tell us what is the lyrical theme of the new album, which is obviously portrayed in the artwork?
-Yes, we had to use Dan Seagrave again. The end of the trilogy we did told a pretty strong story. The first three albums were obviously a tribute to Martin Kearns, and so they had that main theme of grief, sorrow and loss. The new album To The End is a different kettle of fish. Whereas the first three albums had death as a central theme, I think this new album is a start of a new trilogy of albums around the life cycle. You can see that the central figure in the new artwork, the leader, who has always laid in a coffin until now, is very much alive now. He is carrying a glowing green sphere, as a symbol of life and the background of the cover also shows a sign of hope. This is actually in some way a symbol of the point in time we live in right now, looking to the future. So, the story in the new album is actually a prequel, a point in time just before the first album. The leader is leading his troops onto the battle, after which the story in the first trilogy starts. So, the second trilogy is going to go in reverse. It’s got a kind of a George Lucas feel to it in many respects. It will be interesting to explore the theme in the second trilogy and also interesting to create it as a celebration of life, especially through death metal. Actually, just before your call, I was already working on some lyrics for the next album.
OK, listening to what you just said, I guess you are open to offers from Warner Bros. to film all of that?
-Absolutely, haha! It will be an epic story! I am always waiting for someone to knock on my door and offer a couple of million pounds, I’ll be absolutely willing to do that. After all, we already have the soundtrack ready, haha! I could retire, man, hahaha!
No, we don’t want you to! Karl, you’ve always actively expressed your views on social injustice, politics and human relations. Songs like No Effect and Failure To Comply are among the best new songs and lyrics. Do you think that when the pandemic is over, it will have brought us closer and more unified or just the opposite?
-Oh, that’s a question nobody has asked me before and I’ve done more than 20 interviews on the new album so far. So, well done on that one! Well, we live in very polarized world, in political and social dichotomies. This seems like a global pandemic as well – the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. These things have been a source of lyrical inspiration for me on the last few albums. Failure To Comply on the new album is dealing with things like that, as well, like Trumpism and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Brexit, in the UK, is also a consequence, even if not direct, of nationalism and the fear of the outside influence. As a musician and a lyricist, it is really important for me to be able to voice my opinion on such issues. As you said, the result of the Covid is this isolationism we’ve all gone through, we are all closed in our own online communities. On the other hand, in these communities sometimes one feels a lot more strength. However, the feeling is of being in something like an echo chamber, because you reach out to people who share your views and values and you block out the people who are with different mindsets and views on the world. So, on a local community level, maybe people have become more open and friendlier, but I think the isolation and division that is going on in the world around us is there. It won’t go away. But we have become stronger on our own opinions and our own mindsets. I think that the division will even grow in many respects and will be a very difficult thing to overcome.
There was recently a posting on facebook that hinted of a new project you and Scott Fairfax are working upon. Can you reveal more about that?
-Oh! The little side project that we are doing. We are kind of inspired by that cinematic, soundtrack feel, so it is very much a studio project what we are doing. It is Scott’s exploration of keyboards and synths technology. It’s very keyboard, electronica based, very atmospheric. We’ve got one song, called The Dreamer. It is totally different than the bands that we play with, so it is challenging to do it. When you hear the track, it will definitely surprise you.
This sounds interesting to check out. Looking forward, Karl. Finally, as everyone following you in social media can testify, you are a big beer lover! Can you tell us what your favorite styles are?
-Oh, you caught me on Friday nights, haha! Right now I am drinking my favorite brewer in the UK, which is called Deya. The brewery is based in Cheltenham and they are doing a pale ale called Steady Rolling Man. I really like my pale ale. The criteria for a good beer for me are A: it’s gotta be more that 5% and B: it has to be cloudy. Oh, and another one – it has to be with a stupid name, haha. So, yes, I tend to indulge in that in social media BUT: always with moderation, haha. One or two cans are all that my liver can cope with. It is more of a hobby and not a path to alcoholism I am displaying, haha.
Karl Willetts – ex-Bolt Thrower | vocals
Frank Healy – ex-Benediction | bass
Spike T Smith | drums (Sacrilege, Conflict, Killing Joke, The Damned)
Scott Fairfax – As The World Dies, ex-Benediction live | guitars
To The End can be pre-ordered from HERE