Interview: Karl Willetts of Memoriam

With five albums recorded in seven years, British old-school Death Metal outfit Memoriam have been one of the most prolific bands of recent times. Formed in 2016 by former Bolt Thrower vocalist Karl Willetts, and Benediction bassist Frank Healy, as a tribute to the late Bolt Thrower drummer Martin Kearns, Memoriam are not hanging around. Album number five ‘Rise To Power’ is set to be unleashed on February 3rd and Karl was on hand to talk about the album, the lyrical content featured within, and how after decades in the music industry the band are still open to new experiences.

As a thirty+ year veteran of the music industry, do you still get nervous in the lead-up to the release of a new album, or is it water off a duck’s back to you?

I’m way beyond being nervous! The first time around, thirty-odd years ago…yeah, I was probably nervous, but not now. At the end of the day, we are doing this for ourselves, it’s all about enjoying yourself and it’s a bonus that it is coming out as an album for people to buy…and enjoy! We would still be doing this even if it just meant going to a rehearsal room once a week, having a few beers with your mates, and knocking out some music. As long as you are enjoying what you are doing, then that is all that matters really. Life is too short to worry about what other people think.

So no nerves then?

There are no nerves, no. We know that we are doing something good, and that’s all that matters.

That does come across when you listen back to a Memoriam album, you can tell that the band are having a ball creating new music…

Yes. The glory of this is – as you identified earlier – we have been doing this for 30-odd years, and when we started Memoriam, the concept of it was to recreate that feeling of when we first started out in the late 80s. Back then, bands put out a new album every year, the creative output was relentless, and that’s what we want to achieve with Memoriam; once an album is out there, move on to the next one. It’s been five albums in seven years, so we have maintained that steady flow of output, and each album has grown from the previous one. On the first three, we were trying to find our direction and our sense of identity, as that takes a bit of time to develop, and I think that by album number three ‘Requiem for Mankind’ we had got to that point. For instance, by that time we had gotten Dan Seagrave onboard as our in-house artist and he is involved in everything that we do…it’s all about consistency for us, and that runs through everything. We found and started to work with [producer] Russ Russell on album number three, and again, that is something that works really well and fits into our blueprint for success…and we just roll with that. We stick with the things that work for us. At this point in life, you just appreciate it for what it is, and to be in a position to still be playing thirty years on, well that is a position of privilege. We certainly appreciate the moment that we are living in, a lot more than we maybe did in the past. It’s been well-documented that we started Memoriam after the loss of a very close friend…Martin…and as we get older we are very much aware that people we know and love do pass away, so we are pretty much just living in the moment and taking this for what we can, and enjoying it while we can as life is short.

The artwork from Dan is as stunning as ever…

Yes, he knocked it out of the ballpark with this one. I mean he is always consistently good…to work with Dan is an absolute pleasure. We throw him a rough idea of how we visualise the album cover will look, maybe some things to incorporate, and maybe even a rough idea of the colour scheme we want to use. We used purple on this one…something majestic about that. Dan will then come up with six or seven rough ideas and we pick the one we prefer, and then he builds it. To be part of that creative process with such an artistic genius is a sheer joy and a pleasure to be involved with it. It wouldn’t be a Memoriam album if it didn’t have a Dan Seagrave cover.

It’s obvious that it’s important for you and the band that the fans have a physical product to get their hands upon, and special mention has to be made about the unique tie-dye t-shirt that you created of a Churchill tank! It’s cool that you have a symbol of war on what is essentially a symbol of love and peace!

Ah, war and peace, yes! The eternal juxtaposition of that ideology. And it works really well! Me and my daughter [Victoria] made those, it was one of those lockdown things where we started tie-dying some t-shirts to pass the time. So yeah, we got a little production line going over the lockdown, which kept us busy and people seem to like them…in fact, I just sold another one about ten minutes ago! Everyone has to have a little bit of tie-dye in their life, it’s what it’s all about! And they are still available on our website!

Do you feel that Memoriam has developed musically with each album?

Yes, we have. We are not scared of trying something new. We all have different influences, Scott [Fairfax – guitar] is influenced by different types of music than us, we are all more 80s punk, and he’s more late 90s melodic death metal kind of stuff, so that works really well. One thing that has really pushed us on and helped us achieve such a lot in a relatively short period of time, is Scott’s prolific songwriting ability. He is the driving force behind what we do. He lives to write music. That’s what he does, every day, every night. He plugs in and writes music. So we always have loads of music ready to go, stored in the million-dollar Riff Vault at Riff Central Studios. So much so that me and Frank [Healy – bass] are off to Riff Central tomorrow night to work on album number six. To go through the riffs that Scott has written, and build a structure for the next album, already, and number five has not yet been released!

Five albums in seven years, and the constant thread running through them is war, all too sadly relevant with the invasion of Ukraine…

There are some thematics that I generally tend to use when writing lyrics for Memoriam; obviously, there is the war theme, and that is something that I have been doing for thirty+ years. That is what my default is set to, but with Memoriam, I have been able to incorporate more social and political commentary into the words that I write. And now that I am a bit older – well, a lot older – there are a lot of lyrics about life, and about loss. But, going back to war, in this moment and time, the lyrical reference to war is far more relevant than it has been in the last few decades because we have the possibility of World War III on our doorstep. It’s only a stone’s throw away in Eastern Europe where a neo-fascist state invades a sovereign state in Europe and tries to impose its will on the people. It’s savage. So, yes, this album, in particular, war has been a strong source of inspiration for the lyrics.

With 24-7 access to the internet, images of the horrors of war are only a scroll away; can people still be shocked in 2023, or are they numb to reality?

Yes. For some people, it’s so mundane now that at times it is almost like a video game. And the actual reality escapes them. I tie into some social media feeds and try to keep up to date as much as possible. The whole situation is abhorrent, the actual impact that the invasion has on people is frightening. Normal people just wanting to live their lives like you and me, that whole upheaval and the savage devastation is man’s inhumanity. When you see the children and the refugees, that’s when it hits home for me as a parent. I remember after playing a gig at the Marquee in London years ago, watching Operation Desert Storm beginning live on TV, but that was a world away, this is right on our doorstep. All we can do is support people, and if my contribution is by writing some words, then so be it. I met the guys from [Ukrainian extreme metal band] 1914 out on the road, playing Germany, and I watched their performance and I was moved to tears…you could feel the emotion that was involved in their performance, and the pain in the delivery…and very rarely does that happen to me! I’ve seen quite a lot of bands over the years, but on this occasion it really hit me. If my lyrics form a connection with people of the same mindset as myself and show some solidarity, then that is what it is all about. I don’t think that I will change the minds of people with different opinions from mine – and that’s not what I set out to do – but I will ruffle some feathers by speaking out.

Opening track on the album, ‘Never Forget, Never Again (6 Million Dead)’, deals with the Holocaust; when you sat down to write a song that deals with a subject matter as important as the Holocaust, did you find yourself having to stop, and go back to the drawing board because you felt that what you were writing didn’t do the subject matter justice?

It’s such an emotive subject, and it’s taken me twenty years to write that song. Twenty years! I’ve always wanted to write a song about the Holocaust but whenever I sat down and tried to put the words together, I never felt that I was able to give it the justice that it deserves. But when I heard the melancholic guitar hook from Scott, that was the thing that made me think that this could be the moment when I finally got around to writing this song. I drew a lot of inspiration directly from first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, and a lot of the lyrics came directly from quotes from people involved…so therefore I had the gravitas because the words came from their mouths. I wrote the lyrics through their direct statements. I think it worked well, and I am really relieved and proud of finally writing it because it almost feels like the pressure has been lifted because it was something that I really wanted to do…and took twenty years to do it. The fact that it is the opening track of the album is again something that I am incredibly proud of. I think that at this point in time when there is a global rise of nationalistic, right-wing ideology, there is a growth in the number of people who deny the Holocaust…Holocaust denial seems to be very “in”, and I felt that it was important for me as a lyricist to say something about it.

It’s insane to think that with all the first-hand accounts, the history books, and the trials of the perpetrators, that “Holocaust denial” is an actual thing…

Yes, and as a musician, it is important for me to put my head above the parapet, get on my soapbox…and pontificate wildly…in the direction of Holocaust deniers.

You mentioned melancholic guitar, another highlight of the album is ‘The Conflict is Within’…

I do like that one, specifically the last verse, I like the way that it all throws together. That one is all about the battle that we all have within ourselves. I am drawing from life experiences which is something that I couldn’t have done twenty or thirty years ago, and I think that it bears a lot more resonance with people that listen to it because the majority of the people that listen to our music are that little bit older. We’ve all been through the same experiences in life; we’ve all dealt with loss…

It’s such a great song title: ‘The Conflict is Within’, it could mean different things to different people…

Open to interpretation, yes. And that’s the glory of writing lyrics, once I put them out there people interpret them in their own way, and often reference them to their own life. People have come up to me and have interpreted lyrics in a totally different way from what I’ve meant them to be, and that’s fine because once I put them out there in the public domain they become yours. I actually got the title from [Britain’s longest-serving war comic] Commando magazine! [laughs]

There is a gorgeous guitar sound on it from Scott, almost Middle Eastern, and to an extent, it sparked memories of Echo & The Bunnymen’s classic track ‘The Cutter’…

Yep, Scott quite likes his 80s stuff so that is a possibility. There are elements of a lot of different types of music on the album, for instance, in the first single ‘All Is Lost’, there is a riff in there that is almost black metal. If you had said to me ten years ago…even five years ago, or two years ago, that we would be writing a song that had a black metal riff in it, then I would have told you to do one! But we like to test the water by doing different things, and it is going to be ongoing that we do that. Creatively, we are still pushing forward.

You mentioned ‘All Is Lost’, correct me if I’m wrong, but the video the band made for this one is the first-ever non-lyric video that Memoriam has made…

It’s the first-ever actual proper video that I’ve ever done! It’s only taken thirty-odd years! [laughs] And again, it’s another example of us achieving things that we’ve never done before. We are still having these new experiences…which is incredible. It’s all still fresh. It’s all still new. And because of that, we are relishing everything…and having a bloody good time!

 

‘Rise To Power’ is available February 3rd via Reaper Entertainment, pre-order here.

Interview – Dave

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