Memoriam's Karl Willetts Is Leading the Death Metal Resistance
The former Bolt Thrower frontman reflects on new beginnings, the necessity of political resistance, and Margaret Thatcher
I used to think that there was an inherent separation between those of us who write about music for a living (or for fun, or as a passion) and those who cover hard news—a sort of gossamer-thin but diamond-strong barrier between music journalists, and real journalists. Now, though, given the heightened state of crisis currently gripping our dying world, those who have always considered it important to explore sociopolitical themes in music-related coverage and criticism (myself obviously included) have been joined by those newly horrified at the state of things. This new wave of wokeness has resulted in an overwhelming feeling that it's just no longer responsible for any writer with a platform to remain purely apolitical. When even the New York Times is publicly at war with the current sham administration, bleating "it's just music!" doesn't quite cut it.
It's a phenomenon we've seen manifest in music itself, too, as formerly apolitical bands decide to break their silence and speak out (for better, or for worse). In doing so, they join those who have long committed themselves and their music to speaking truth to power, and fighting against right-wing influences—those like former Bolt Thrower vocalist Karl Willetts, who is now busy adding his storied roars to new project Memoriam. Alongside bassist Frank Healy (Benediction, Sacrilege), guitarist Scott Fairfax (Benediction), and drummer Andy Whale (Bolt Thrower), Willetts has crafted an extraordinary old school death metal debut that hews closely to the genre's beloved conventions while adding the sort of depth and sheer might that only seasoned hands could deliver. On For the Fallen, the band's first full-length, Willetts pulls from his usual box of lyrical weaponry to deliver a warning, a testament, and a rallying cry—juxtaposing the horrors of war and our collapsing society with more personal reflections on death and mourning, and with the need to resist the creeping tendrils of autocracy and repression.
When he's not facing down a microphone or noodling away in the rehearsal space, Willetts maintains quite an active Twitter presence, which is how we first became acquainted. Watching him merrily skewer trolls and offer political commentary (he's pissed about Brexit) amidst metal memories and excitement about Memoriam humanized a person who is—whether he'll admit it or not—a bonafide extreme metal legend, and made it clear the kind of person he is both on and offstage. By the time I rang him up to learn more about the album, it felt like we were already pals—and by the end of our conversation, I felt more like I should call him a comrade.
Willetts pulls absolutely no punches, whether he's talking about what it was like growing up during the Cold War, explaining the cathartic effects of recording, or discussing the ruinous legacy of Thatcherism and the right-wing elements in metal itself. His refreshing honesty and utter lack of pretension make perfect sense once you've had a listen to For the Fallen (or if you're at all familiar with his work in Bolt Thrower, who remain one of the most uncompromising metal bands of all time). When I told him I wanted to talk politics—a prospect from which many metal bands still shy awkwardly away—he was positively delighted, and we managed to cover quite a lot of ground, from the Falklands to the Midlands and many points in between.
Read on for a transcript of our conversation (and snag yourself a copy of For the Fallen whilst you're at it—it's out now via Nuclear Blast!).
Noisey: You joined Bolt Thrower in 1988, at the height of Margaret Thatcher's reign, and were born and raised in the Midlands. What kind of impact did you see her policies having on your area?
Karl Willets: I grew up in that era of Cold War politics. The threat of nuclear war was real, and was an issue back then as well. Margaret Thatcher had a massive impact on the industries in Birmingham and the Midlands in particular—the big steel industry and manufacturing were all devastated by Thatcher's politics. Technology and modernity had an impact on the general labor force and the region as a whole. I directly saw the impact that it had on the working force— the destabilization of the proletariat, the people that that do all the work. I directly saw it with the impact it had on my family. My dad worked the Land Rover factory just up the road from where we lived. He was a production manager, and his job became redundant basically. He lost his job, and that loss of identity, his loss of livelihood and who he was a person, contributed to his ill health. Very soon after he lost that job, he got cancer, and died fairly quickly after that. The region as a whole was massively affected, and in the North, [with its dependence on] coal mining as well. The divide between North and South in the country became wider, and the wealth gap and skills gap, which hasn't really been addressed to this day, was widened by her polices of greed. The bankers got rich and the poor people— the workers—got poorer. That still exists today—that policy and ethos of mass consumerism exists in the great nation that we once were... the former United Kingdom, which no longer exists anymore due to Brexit.
We're similar to your nation, the divided States of America—we're are the un-United Kingdom. That impact that she had on policies as a whole pushed us toward the right wing, and we've still never really been pulled back from it. Her crowning moment of glory, her political decision to fight in the Falkland Islands—which was a massive publicity stunt for her regardless of loss of life—managed to save her tenancy in parliament for quite some time. The right wing media rallied behind her and supported her all the way. It provided us with a firm figure of the establishment to which we could rail our anti-establishment ideas. In that respect, [she was] pretty much like Reagan, cut from the same cloth. [It was] one positive thing that united a whole generation of discontented youth to rise up and form some anti-system punk rock bands, which went on to do great things and change the face of the music scene as it was
So you were all broke and miserable, trying to scrape together a band and get these ideas out there. How hard was it to create art in that environment?
I think the feelings of despair and anger fueled the music we were making back then. I'm talking about bands that inspired me to want to be a band—Discharge, Anti-Cimex, Crass, all those punk bands we were listening to back then all had a real political angle. It was inspiring to hear those voices of discontent from my generation. That's what really galvanized my ideology and made me who I am today, really. I've grown old, but I still got those ideals within my heart and my thinking. It was tough, it made us who we are. It was difficult to get ahead in life. The only way we could express ourselves was through the medium and art which led us to be who we are today
So much of modern metal seems to have lost that political impetus—that feeling of being the voice of the people, of rebellion and revolution.
A lot of that has to do with the way that we've all been indoctrinated by the society we live in. I think the political situation and the media played a massive part of dumbing down the people and totally disenfranchising them from politics, and making people not wanting to be involved or being aware. They diverted people's attention to wanting a bigger TV or a faster car. That's happened over the past 10 to 20 years.
The one positive thing I can see that's coming out of the world around us, with this massive rise of xenophobic right wing nationalism driven by the fear of difference, the fear of people, the rise of Trump in your country in particular—the thing one positive I can see [is that] younger people are becoming more involved because it's directly affecting their lives. The one positive thing that may come from this negative void we are facing [is that] people will become more politicized; this generation will find a voice for themselves, and standup to the hypocrisy. Become actually disgusted and discontent about what's happened. How can anyone view any light in this darkness that we have?
You have to, even though I worry about people becoming politicized but then falling into that right wing trap.
It's the easy option in a world where things change; it's easy to blame someone and point the finger. By creating this society where we are scared of different people, where we try to build walls instead of embracing change and difference, in my opinion that's playing right into the hands of ISIS and the terrorists out there causing a lot of the world's issues. And the people that are directly affected more tham Western white people are the Muslims themselves that live in those countries and are affected by [terrorists'] actions. To react against them because of a few political fundamentalists? Fundamentalism is the curse of our age. It's a dangerous thing.
That's what really riles me, that people do react in such a negative way to people which are different. It stands directly against my ideology completely. I feel I've got to a point in my life where I'm a bit older and I'm a bit more experienced in the world, and I'm not really afraid to get on my soapbox and state how I feel about things. Maybe in the past, maybe I've said some things that are political., but I've caged it or hidden it or subverted it in the text. In the new band I'm in, I'm prepared to openly to state my feelings in an open nature. It's quite refreshing. I'm quite enjoying my time doing this.
You don't have anything to prove. You are already a legend. You can do whatever the fuck you want.
Absolutely. It's a great privilege to be in this position at this stage in my life, to be doing something I love doing with people with people I love playing with. If I didn't use that for what I feel is a positive reason, I'd be wasting that position of privilege. I'm quite prepared to put my money where my mouth is and shout from the rooftops about what I think is right and wrong. You may not agree with me, but hey, I don't really care. I don't ask people to subscribe to my ideology, but at least I want people to hear what I have to say and to consider it a choice of thought. And make some considered opinions on their own instead of indoctrinated by the press.
It sounds like you're really, genuinely loving this new chapter of your musical career. You sound delighted!
It's a great position to be, and I'm enjoying it. That's the bottom line opinion—regardless of what level you're at, if you released a demo or are practicing with your mates in a local garage, that you're having a good time. That's the bottom line. Everything else on top of that is a bit of a bonus, really. The philosophy of what we are doing with this band is that we just want have some fun. We just want to get back to when we were first doing bands and it was fresh and exciting. A midlife crisis if you will [laughs]. We want to recapture some those feelings and rebuild some of these social bonds and re-engage with people we've lost touch with over the years. It's an absolute joy to do it, and people are digging what we're doing, enjoy what we're doing, and understand where we're coming from. They've grown with us over the years. That's why we've managed a good bit of success in what we're doing. It's all a bit of a bonus [laughs].
You've all been doing death metal for so long—what still gets you excited about walking into the rehearsal space and getting down to business?
For me, being in a band is all about the creative aspect in what you do. It's something I've missed for quite a long time. Making music and the magical moments in the rehearsal when it all comes out and it clicks is a fantastic experience. It's hard to explain to people that haven't experienced that directly. It's that magical spirit that's within you. Sometimes when that's not fulfilled and you don't have that period of creativity, it becomes quite frustrating. With Memoriam, we've got a blank canvas. We haven't got a specific set of formulas that are expected from us. We could do acid jazz and funk [laughs] but we do old school death metal. That's where our hearts live and what moves us. That's what made us want to do that—that power, that energy.
We got the old 'uns—me, Frank, and Wale—putting the 'old' back into 'old school death metal,' then we've got Scott with the new, more technical approach and it works really well. He's the younger whippersnapper in the band at the age of 38, and brings a whole different element to what we're doing. Songs come at an alarmingly rapid pace because we don't have set formulas, we are experimenting, we're trying out new ideas. It's all really exciting. It's new. It's fresh. A lot f these experiences are firsts for me. Being in a band from the very start is something I've never new for me. [When I joined] Both Thrower in 1988, by that point they had done two demos. I was their driver, and they were on the verge of doing their first album, and that's when I stepped into the breach. With Memoriam, we've done it from scratch from the very beginning, and the whole process moves in an extremely rapid pace.
I mean, you guys have done this before. I can't imagine its too hard for any one of you to write a death metal track at this point.
We know what we're doing. We know what sounds good, we know what we feel comfortable with, and more importantly, we know what sounds shit [laughs]. The way we put songs together is a process where Scott has got a bag of riffs he's written over the past 10-15 years that have never been used; he keeps us supplied with a constant flow of these riffs that he keeps firing and firing at us. Originally, back when we first started, the concept was to do punk covers, do a couple local gigs, maybe release a seven inch, do it all ourselves, and keep it underground. But then, he was throwing these riffs at us and that changed everything. We're in the process of putting together the tracks now for the next album. It works really well. He fires over the riffs. Frank is a fantastic structurer of songs, Wale comes along and puts his signature drum patterns all over it. then I've got a complete song to put the lyrics to. It's inspiring and very easy to do so. There's a lot of things going on in my life that I draw direct reference to as well—those are the things that affected and influence the lyrics I've written on For the Fallen, and will continue to do so for the new album
Knowing you, it seems quite fitting that you're also writing about war, which is the most political thing imaginable.
We're not writing from the 'glory, blood, guts' angle. All my lyrics have taken a somewhat measured approach. They've been more about the psychological effects of warfare and the effects it has on people as individuals. I spend a lot of time working on these words. My signature is, which is well known, is delivering lyrics that are more clearly audible. That's something I work on, and I've continued on the new alum as well. The theme of war is always going to be the main central tenant of what my lyrics are about, but it's the power of the audience to interpret them. Maybe that be interpreted as the war of life and the everyday struggles we all have to exist, or the physical aspect of war itself. It's part of the two blades within the same sword.
When you're researching specific historical episodes, do you have any specific authors or eras that really inspire you?
In the past, I've read heavily, watched a lot of documentaries. That's been quite a good source inspiration, and I feel that going to a place where things happened—like Flanders, or various places across the UK, like the spot in Cornwall where the American 5th Infantry Division disembarked for the Normandy landings. You get a feel for the atmosphere. All these places with a rich, historical taste. As for authors, before I had kids, I used to read a hell of a lot. Since they've been born, no chance whatsoever. But there are several authors that inspire me. Steven Pressfield is one.He's written great books about Alexander the Great and the Spartans, Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander series as well, about the 18th century naval expeditions of the East Indian trading company. I've read a lot of first person accounts of being a soldier on the front line, too; one particular one that jumps to mind, The Forgotten Solider, was a big influence of lyrics I've thought of in the past. Nowadays, I've got enough going on in my life to use as subject matter for lyrics. It's a rich source.
You've lived a lot.
I have. I've done some good stuff. I've achieved a lot in the past 30 years with my former band, and then what I've achieved in the past 18 months with Memoriam, it feels like it almost surpasses what I've done in the past 30 years. It's all been so condensed and at such a fast past.
It's all in your own steam too. You're not joining anyone else's project, it's your project.
It's exactly what I want to do with the people I want to do it with. It's a joy to be doing that. That comes across when we play live—the dynamics of band with a four piece, and we're experimenting with samples, which gives it a sort of edge. There's lots of elements of the past, it definitely has that old school death metal feeling, but we've managed to move on from that. We're not just a clone. We're not Benediction of Bolt Thrower. We've created our own identity.
Speaking of old school, it was so fucking cool to see that you brought in Tam from Sacrilege to guest on "Some Last Words."
She's my hero! That was such a crowning moment within my career in the music industry. I don't think anything can actually top that moment of being in the studio with her. She is the main inspiration as to why I want to be a vocalist in the first place. When I saw Sacrilege perform at the Mermaid, a legendary pub in Birmingham, in 1996-1997, seeing her perform is the main reason I wanted to be in a band. To get her to come and be involved in Memoriam, it felt everything had come full circle, the stars had aligned, and the world is complete, to have her as part of the song "Some Last Words". Again, possibly because of her involvement, my proudest moment in lyrical writing as well. It's my favorite song I've been involved in writing to date.
The process of making this record sounds like it's been really cathartic and healthy for you, especially since you and Frank were both dealing with terrible losses right before the band got together. It sounds like this has really helped.
Absolutely. The band itself is kind of born out of that dark place—that place of mourning and of misery and despair in a way. That's what we got together to do, to try and get ourselves out from that darkness because we both experienced the loss of people who were quite close to us. That formulates a lot of the lyrical content to the new album, and there was a huge element of mourning, grief, and sorrow within the musical structure as well for the music we created with Memoriam. That was the starting point for us back in the tail end of 2015. Both Frank and his dad, and with [Bolt Thrower drummer Martin "Kiddie" Kearns] we were both in quite a dark place, asking big questions about who we were and our identity as people. What could we do? Could we sit around and continue wallowing in this bit of despair, or do something positive and try to create something good from those experiences, and make something new and fresh, and try to find some lightness from that?
I think we've really achieved that tenfold in the time we've been together. We've rekindled those bonds of friendship with Wale, too—he's my best mate, I kind of lost contact with him over the years and I wanted to rebuild that friendship with Wale. When you go in that position and you lose people, it gives you a kick in the ass and makes you realize that life in short. If you want to achieve things with your life and do something positive, we're all on a timer, and you have to do something about it. If you sit back and wait for things to happen, it may never happen. It gave me that push to move forward and create some positive and put some joy back in our lives. We're doing that.
One is very much reminded of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
From the darkness, light shall cometh. You can very much feel the phoenix rising. There's a few references to that in the lyrics, actually. That's quite a poignant point of reference.
Let's get a bit philosophical. As someone who's obviously spent quite a lot of time thinking about death and war, why do you think humans are so eager to kill one another, but still so afraid of death?
Death is almost the last taboo in a way. It's one of the few certainties we have in life: we all will die at some point. Generally, in society, it never gets talked about until that point where it happens to someone you know, and then it becomes relevant. It happens to all of us, and as you get older, it happens more often. It fascinates me, the subject of death, the way it affects people and society, and the way it is unmentioned. When it actually affects you, it really puts you really in touch with your humanity.
That whole subject matter really intrigues me and has become a central point to what I write about. We still maintain the lust to want to kill one another; war still continues and we know it's a negative thing. It's mankind's struggle, and has been since the day we picked up fire and were throwing stones at each other and being squashed by dinosaurs. That need, that blood lust, the dark side of human nature—it's an issue that's a constant source of inspiration for lyrics. And the struggle continues. I always will. It's a fatal flaw of mankind. Who knows where it will lead us.
With that said, as someone who lived through so much political unrest, and has generally seen some shit, how does the current uncertain political climate right now compare to how you felt during the Cold War? How does it compare in scale?
Good question. It's very similar in very many respects. These images are very real and prevalent in the album as well, particularly on "Reduced to Zero" and "Corrupted System," those are products of my feelings towards the rise of the right. It's a disease that's spread right across the world. The rise of xenophobic nationalism is something that's a threat to the stability of civilization. It's very similar in many respects to the feelings I had when I was 18. The only positive thing that came from it is reigniting the politicization of a whole younger generation. They will take to the streets, they will demonstrate, they will stand up for what's right, and try to denounce what they think is wrong.
The whole issue of Brexit is the same as America—people thinking they are putting a protest vote in and demonstrating against the system. At the end of the day, they're just falling into the trap of those really in power. It's the biggest mistake I feel we've made in the UK in decades. The whole decision appalls me. The rise of hate crime in our country is a result of it. The nation itself is virtually split 50-50, and everyone seems to be more polarized and unwilling to talk about things. People are becoming factionalized. The lines are being drawn. Let the war commence
At least the Scots are trying to get the hell out.
Fair play to them. I'm with them. I'm going North to the border and becoming an honorary Scot myself [laughs]. I love the Highlands, and I do have a wee taste for the single malt whiskey as well. I'm pretty sure I would be fairly comfortable living up there.
That's my escape plan. Once shit goes down and this idiot we have in power decides to get us nuked, my other half and I are grabbing the dog and heading up to the Orkneys.
We shall gather there. The union of metal will live up there.
Start it all over from scratch, 'cause lord knows shit is not working now.
That's the one thing about the metal scene. In a way, it just transcends a lot of politics and cultural boundaries and race and gender. There's a whole wide appeal that unifies people. That's a great thing about the music as well. When people from different people and cultures getting into it, that's a great place to be, and to witness that. I've seen that over the past 30 years, and it's fantastic. If only the politicians took our lead.
One more thought: What could we as artists and writers and media and musicians do to affect actual change? What can we do to help make things better?
We can comment on the things that affect us directly. We can create positive action through encouraging others to think about their lives and the way that they view things. We can make a stand. We are in a privileged position to actually make a difference by stating how we feel. By putting our heads in the sand and letting things happen without us making statements, I think we are doing the world we live in a great injustice. If we are in a position to be able do something positive, then we should do it, and the only way to do that is by creating great art, great visuals, great music, that actually means something and touches people and makes them want to do something, make them want to get up and make a change. And that is the way we should do things.
Kim Kelly is waiting for the cannons to fade on Twitter.