Everyday Life is a War: An Interview with Karl Willetts
The legendary vocalist of Bolt Thrower discusses the formation of old-school death metal band Memoriam, the loss of a good friend, his love for his daughters, and the Birmingham City Football Club.
I must be honest, I was nervous while sending the petition for an interview to this man. Karl Willetts’ deep growling style adorned almost the entire Bolt Thrower discography with intimidating mastery. He is truly a legend, but I learned he is also a humble and interesting being.
His new work in the globalized metal scene is being released under the banner of Memoriam, a feat we wrote about in a News Roundup. To please the need of the bestial old-school death metal style hunger of our fellow readers, and I did my best to uncover through his impressions and opinions the true meaning of this new sonic manifestation and some experiences of his past, as well. Memoriam is still in the initial phase of writing and arranging songs, but the supergroup beast is being unleashed this year. Are you prepared for the killing?
Hallo Karl Willetts and welcome to the Toilet ov Hell. How are you doing today?
All good! It is the day after the terrible news about the bombings in Brussels (Belgium). I spoke with Belgian friends last night and I am glad that they are all ok.
Let’s talk about Memoriam, shall we? You have teamed up with musicians from Benediction and, of course, Bolt Thrower. Since Bolt Thrower has not released an album since the spectacular Those Once Loyal (2005), how does it feel to have a fresh start on song writing?
It’s excellent to be writing new songs, it really is what being in a band is all about. I have missed the creative process a lot and really enjoy the excitement of putting new songs together and creating something new from scratch!
Does the camaraderie in Memoriam help the writing process?
Absolutely, first and foremost we are all good friends, the purpose of the band was to do something creative with Whale and Frank (Benediction, Cerebral Fix) whom I have known for 30 years, so the social element of what we are doing is just as important as the music that we are creating from my perspective.
It seems you are going to investigate the war topic again with Memoriam. Are you writing the lyrics on this project? If that’s so, what are you going to express through them?
The eternal topics of war and death are something that have always fascinated me, it a topic that I know so I am going to stick to this with the lyrics that I write, working to my strengths and what I know best. The band emerged from the dark experience of losing Martin Kiddie Kearns the drummer of Bolt Thrower last September, so for me the theme of death, loss, grief and mourning are central to the lyrical themes that I will explore with Memoriam.
Which aspect do you think differentiates Memoriam from your previous bands?
We are drawing on the proud death metal heritage that we have within the bad so we will sound a little like Bolt Thrower, Benediction, and Sacrilege – however the blend of these factors has created a new unique sound. We have a blank canvass with Memoriam and we are prepared to try out some new ideas, with our other bands there is already a successful formula in place with which we stick to, So we are going to try out a few different ideas with Memoriam and see if it works or not!
How has it been working with Andrew Whale again? The last Bolt Thrower record on which he played was … for Victory.
Fantastic, after the loss of Kiddie, which hit all of Bolt Thrower emotionally very hard, everything seemed very negative and nothing good was happening, so I thought about the things that I wished to achieve in my life and at the to of that list was to be in a band with Whale again. It seems like a lifetime ago when we where together in Bolt Thrower in 1994, so being back in the rehearsal room and hearing him play the drum it is real special for me. We are both totally focused on this and it has re-established our friendship, which was always there but had drifted somewhat, now we are constantly in contact discussing the developments of Memoriam every day, if not every hour!
It looks like you are going to record the upcoming debut of Memoriam in spring 2016. I am very glad you are entering the studio soon. How many songs are you arranging for the album? Do you have a tentative release date?
It is still early days, we have so far had 8 rehearsals and from that we have 5 songs that are near completion and just need tightening up, we have a couple more in development, but ideally we would like to have 10 songs to record sometime in June 2016. There is no confirmed release date yet; we are currently in negotiation with a number of labels whom have approached us.
Memoriam news seems to be everywhere in the metal blogosphere, and you don’t even have any released material, jaja! Do you think fans will be as excited when you finally release the debut? What should we expect?
We are amazed at the positive reception that we have received by everyone, from the day we launched our Facebook page interest has been growing at a furious pace! We are overwhelmed by the support and the comments that we are receiving and it all helps us to push us on and get out there with an album and do some shows soon!! From what am hearing in the rehearsals I do not think that people will be disappointed, we draw from our heritage and will be playing Old School Death Metal, I am looking forward to see wahat the reception will be when our followers and fans finally get to hear what we are doing with Memoriam!
How has it been working with such a well-established group of musicians like you have in the band (putting up a webpage, doing web news, booking a studio)?
We all work together on Memoriam, we have delegated different aspects of managing the bad to different members, I do the website, and the merchandise, and Twitter. Whale takes care of the Facebook page. Frank sorts out the gigs and booking. Scott concentrates on writing the riffs that formulate the Memoriam sound. We have collectively a lot of experience working within the industry and we are using all the contacts that we have to make things happen! It is a very exciting time for us all!!!
I remember reading interviews of different personalities in the genre saying that the late 90s were very difficult for them. How do you feel about the current state of the death metal genre in general?
Well I can’t say really as I left the band in 1994 and returned to University to study for a degree in Cultural Studies. You could say that the scene got somewhat fragmented with the emergence of new genres such as Black metal and grunge etc… When I left the band I left the scene behind too and just got on with life, I was asked to rejoin BT in 1998 after assisting the band recording the vocals for Mercenary, but at that stage of my life I just could not commit myself 100% to it so I passed on the offer. I always missed being in a band and was pleased when I had the chance to rejoin in 2004 and record Those Once Loyal.
I think that the current scene is vibrant and healthy, there is a massive globally connected scene which is great to be part of, and I think that the internet has helped develop that feeling of being a part of something that transcends all cultural boundaries. There is great scope within the scene and room for all sorts of bands creating vibrant and interesting music.
I am very sorry for the loss of Martin “Kiddie” Kearns. How is Bolt Thrower doing right now? Have you discussed the band’s future with the physical absence of Martin, since he actively participated in the last 3 Bolt Thrower records?
We sat down and had a good discussion about the future of BT in December, at that point we just could not imagine the band with a different drummer in Kiddie’s place, so we decided to place the band on hold for the foreseeable future, that’s not to say that Bolt Thrower has split up and we will obviously talk again in the future and see how we all feel about finding a replacement, right now though that is out of the question. The loss of Kiddie has really hit us all emotionally very hard.
Based on your long history and experience, particularly in the UK death metal scene, do you have any advice for aspiring death metal bands?
Believe in what you are doing, enjoy what you are doing, make sure that you communicate with each other regularly and all want the same thing. Don’t be tempted to sign a record deal that is not in your favour; get legal assistance to check it over before you sign anything. Never sign away the rights to your merchandise!
I feel there is a kind of ethic behind Bolt Thrower lyrics and titles, mostly related to the honour of the warrior on the battlefield. You never seem to focus only on the violent aspect of war but take a more nuanced approach to the broad subject. Given your long career, do you consider yourself a warrior in the music scene? Is the more detailed discussion a reflection of your own work ethic?
I am proud of what we have achieved in the history of Bolt Thrower and intend to carry on with this with Memoriam. Bolt Thrower can be seen as pioneers of extreme metal music. I wouldn’t consider myself a warrior; making music is very different from dodging bullets with the chance of losing your life. I feel that the lyrics I write reflect the psychological aspects of war and can also be interpreted to the war of everyday life!
Aside from music, how are you doing these days? Any new hobby or passion? Do you still play Role-Playing Games?
Ha. I have no time for hobbies, I am a father of two young children, aged 2 and 4. This takes up all of my time and I take great joy from this! I kind of gave up role playing games when I started to get busy with the band in the early 90’s the lure of beer and girls in real life was more alluring!!! I am a keen supporter of Football , I follow Birmingham City Football Club and had a season ticket for around 10 years however, as I previously stated, all my time is now taken up with bringing up my children and playing in a death metal band – both of these keep me satisfied!
Can you recommend to us one book, one album and one film, please?
Just 1 – that is hard!!!
Ok 1 book, impossible! – read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle – it’s a trilogy of books, brilliantly written , historical and funny with great characters, that or anything by Christopher Brookmyre or Steven Pressfield – these are my favourite authors!
1 album – come on!!!! How Am I supposed to choose 1 album from all the fantastic records out here??? The album that currently tops my play list is the new Killing Joke album: Pylon. Killing Joke are my all time favourite band, Jaz Coleman is my hero!
1 film: the film that I have seen recently which really moved me was Beasts of No Nation, about mercenary child soldiers in Africa, the film is brutal and very emotional – it made me cry.
Is Twitter another passion? You are a beast over there. I think it is very cool that legendary musicians like you engage with the fans in a good way. Remember to block the trolls!
I know, it’s a new addiction of mine!!! I think that as you say it is a great way to engage with people and get instant feedback for what you are doing, most people are very respectful but I also love the power of the block button!!(Evil laughter….)
Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts with us. We are hoping to listen to Memoriam soon as your next musical endeavor!
Ok thanks for your support and who knows we may even get to play in South America with Memoriam one day that would be great!!!!
2016 is the year of Memoriam – The War Rages on…….
This was an amazing chat and I truly thank Karl for sharing with the Toilet ov Hell his stories and his experiences. Keep checking their Facebook page for more news on Memoriam and their website www.memoriam.uk.com. Also, you can find him on Twitter and I recommend to you to follow him because he shares his favorite listenings too!
Photo cover sent by Karl Willetts.