Two days ago, Memoriam released Rise To Power, their fifth album since their thrilling debut, For The Fallen, hit our ears in 2017. In Part Two of an interview, Willetts talks with MetalTalk’s Paul Hutchings about how it is important for Karl to be able “to stand up and make a point, make a stand, and say something important about things that I think need to be said.”
You can read Part One of the interview here. Our review of Rise To Power, another high-quality release from a band that is lean, hungry, and focused, is here.
Memoriam – Karl Willetts
Interview: Paul Hutchings
Memoriam’s writing process has always been impressive. It’s well known that Scott Fairfax is the machine who generates the riffs for the band. Karl Willetts doesn’t usually write the lyrics until Scott provides the riff. But does he keep any ideas for themes and lyrics written down or stored away anywhere?
“It’s always about the riff, you know. Scott writes all the songs over at Riff Central, and then they flow into Dropbox. I have a listen to them and select the one that I want to work on. Then I’ll listen to it and get a structure and a timing pattern for it in my head. That will fire off different kinds of words.
“A good example of that is we went over to Riff Central last week to structure and formulate the songs for album #6, which are kind of nearly in place already. Whilst we were in that kind of structure of listening through to the riffs and structuring them, I was kind of there, and ideas bounced off into my head, and so I wrote them down. At that stage, it always comes from the riff. It’s the power of the riff that fires off these ideas into my mind.
“I’m not one to sit down and write lyrics without having any specific music. I can’t write something blank and then make it fit into a riff. There’s always gotta be the riff that comes first and the structure that inspires me to write the lyrics. I draw from a variety of sources and from my own experience of life. I used to read a lot of books before I became a father ten years ago. I haven’t read a book since. I haven’t got time. I watch a lot of documentaries and read a lot of news articles and social media.”
The opening track on Rise To Power is called Never Forget, Never Again (Six Million Dead). Karl’s in full flow, and our conversation segues into the inspiration for this rather sobering track. “I was reading about this time last year around the Holocaust Memorial Day. There are always a lot of documentaries on television and articles in papers. And I just drew a lot of inspiration from what I was reading and what I was watching. I watched some documentaries that were from people that directly experienced it. All different perspectives, and I drew a lot of the lyrics directly from those documentaries and watching those people.
“It is quite an emotive subject, a hard song to write to give it the gravitas and the justice that it deserves. I’ve said before it’s a song that I’ve been trying to write for about 15 – 20 years but never found the right kind of feel or emotion behind it to make it work. On this occasion, with that very melancholic riff that Scott provided, which gave me the hook for it, the chorus structure, it all came from there.”
Karl continues. “I’m very much inspired by the world around us. Relevant social and political topics and issues that are happening in the world. They are very much documents of our time, you know. I think each album is inspired by what’s going on around us at that point in time. I think the last album, and maybe the one before, was influenced by the issues that were going on around racial equality. The rise of right-wing ideology and the Black Lives Matter movement. That was a big, big thing and a specific point in time.
“This album has very much moved forward to current events that are happening in the world. I draw a lot of reference to the war in Ukraine that has formed a major source of lyrical inspiration on this album.”
Whilst Memoriam makes music primarily for themselves, in some respects, they are leaving a record, a legacy. For two people in their 50s, we are still both acutely aware of the Holocaust, but we are probably the last generation to do so, as we still have parents and grandparents who were alive at the time. There are generations below us that won’t be able to get any direct contact. Does Karl feel that their songs are a memorial in some respects?
“Absolutely,” he says, “because you know that point in history, ten, twenty years down the line, there won’t be any survivors left there because they’ll all have passed away. So really, it’s continuing that message and keeping that message alive, specifically in the face of Holocaust denial, which seems to be an issue that comes along with the radical extremist right-wing ideology that is prevalent in the world around us today.
“Rampant nationalism seems to be a reaction to the fear of other people, you know, spread by right-wing media. So, yeah, I feel it’s important for me to stand up and make a point, make a stand, and say something important about things that I think need to be said.
“I think as a musician, as a lyricist, as an artist, it’s a position in opposition to do that. It always has been, and I think if I was not to do that, I would be really doing myself an injustice. So that’s one of the things I can explore politically.
“I didn’t have the confidence and didn’t really have that kind of formula to do that in the past, so it’s now a good opportunity to embrace my roots, my punk rock roots and yeah, put in place a bit of political rhetoric into the lyrics that I write.
“I don’t want to do it in a kind of preachy way. I don’t ever see myself as challenging other people’s ideology, but all I seem to do is put my point across there and maybe engage with people. They’ve got a similar mindset and set of ideals that they can relate to. Just to engage with those kinds of those people… But I’m very prepared. If it fucks off a few fascists, then that’s a good result in my book.”
Has Karl ever had any particularly challenging pushback from online trolls about his views over the years? I doubt he’s the type to take any crap. “I’m old enough and ugly enough and able to rise above any negativity,” he says. “You’re never gonna keep everyone happy all the time, and I don’t really want to either. As I say, we’re quite happy doing this for ourselves. Most people are very happy with what we do, but you know there is a bit of a contingent out there.
“We struggled when we first started to kind of break the bonds. We are not what we did previously. There was a discourse, saying that ‘Oh yeah, Memoriam, they’re not, like Bolt Thrower at all’. And then some would say, ‘they are too much like Bolt Thrower’. You know we’re not trying to be; we have never been trying to be. It would have been easy to have been a tribute carbon copy. You know, with me, Andy Whale, etc, it would have been easy to do that, but that’s something we set out from the start not to do.
“We wanted to create our own sense of identity, so yeah, there’s that kind of discourse that we just tend generally to ignore and rise above because it’s pointless engaging with it. It’s an argument you’ll never win. So, we kind of trundle along doing our own little thing, enjoying it for what it is, and that works well for us.
“Once you’ve written your lyrics, and they’re out there in the public domain, then people interpret them in the way that they want to, and that’s great. It’s great that people often refer them to their own existence, their own lives. It’s the personal things. I very rarely get any negativity or any troll-like behaviour, and there’s always a lovely block button that can be used on social media to get rid of them!! That’s the beauty of it. It’s just a button away.”
If you are familiar with Memoriam’s music, you’ll be aware that they threw a couple of what Karl previously referred to as ‘curveballs’ on songs like Mass Psychosis and As My Heart Grows Cold. It was quite unlike most of their material. On Rise to Power, we reach This Pain, the final song on the album, which has an intro and outro that bookend a quite unique Memoriam song.
For me, it’s the standout track on the album. Karl agrees. “Yeah, it is for me as well. You know, it always tends to be the last song in the album. And it always tends to be a track that’s got so many multi-layers on it that, as a four-piece, we can never perform it live. One of my favourites is Last Words [final track on For The Fallen] and the classic example of my favourite type. As My Heart Grows Cold, we tried it once, didn’t work, and again This Pain probably won’t work live either so.
“But it’s there. Seemed to be a nice epic way to end albums and give people a bit of a cliffhanger. Preparing them for what’s to come on the next album moving forward, you know. And yeah, on this album again, you know, we’ve thrown in some different kinds of riffs in there, which we potentially wouldn’t have thought about using in the past. A bit more melodic, kind of like tech-influenced Death Metal. I’ll blame it all on Scott.
“There’s even almost a kind of Black Metal riff in All Is Lost, which when I heard it, I thought, I’m not having that Black Metal in one of my songs. I don’t like it, but it works. It works really well, you know. And when I deliver my vocals, I dilute it a little bit. We were quite aware and quite willing to try out new things.”
Rise To Power sees some phenomenal performances. Karl is in top form, his guttural roar as intimidating as ever. What does he see as the increase in level? “I think that Scott has developed in his ability and his confidence as a guitarist over the years, which is, you know, pleasing to see. But what really sticks out from my perspective is Spike’s drumming.
“He was phenomenal on the last album, but he’d only been with us for about six weeks before we went to the studio, so he only had a relatively short amount of time to learn the songs and imprint his authority, which he did. Incredibly well, especially on the last track, As My Heart Grows Cold, which gives you a taster of where we were travelling. On Rise To Power, we’re 18 months down the line. And Spike is firmly within the band and had a chance to grow with these songs.
“So, when it came to record them, he had the ability to put his trademark, his stamp, his signature drum sound onto it a lot more than maybe the last. I think that’s really what makes a huge difference. There are a few things we haven’t kind of explored with Spike, which are yet to come. He’s pretty much known as being the King of D-Beat. We haven’t really gone down that avenue, so anticipate hearing some D-Beats on the next album.”
As we chat, I recall that Karl had mentioned that Rise To Power was almost finished before To The End was released. During our interview, he’s already made reference to album number six. “We don’t rest on our laurels,” he says. “We are driven by Scott’s phenomenal songwriting ability. That is all he does. That’s what Scott lives to do. He gets up at breakfast, goes to work, paints four cars, comes home and then throws himself in the studio and writes songs every night.
“As a result of that, the billion-dollar riff vault is absolutely full of riffs, you know, so much so that he can use them for As The World Dies, his other project and the project I do. He’s got all these different outlets for these different songs. We’ve probably got enough songs in his closet for about another six albums!”
Before we wrapped up, I wanted to ask Karl about a point he made on one of the promotional videos for the album, where he talked about the fact that the album is designed and the tracks are ordered specifically. I referred to a friend who says that a track should stand on its own. Karl is clear. “Well, this is it,” he says. “This is a different generation, isn’t it? He’s probably younger than us (He is!!). When I grew up, it was all about the joy of saving and then, on Saturday, going out to the record shop, buying a record, and looking at it on the bus home.
“Just looking at it and getting excited looking at it all and taking all the visuals in and you know, reading all the words and then getting home and playing it. And they tell a story. From start to finish, they flow. We spent a bit of time working out that structure. It’s not something we just plug together.
“That’s the way it should be consumed, but you know we live in a society where it’s all digital downloads. Spotify has destroyed the flow of these albums, so people pick and make their little playlists. To hear a track off an album, it really has to have the context of the song before it and the song after it for it to make sense.
“We are telling a story as we flow through that album. And that’s where we come from. Always been that way, and it always will be so. But it is what it is. You know, we can’t complain that these whipper snappers are creating their own sense of why they want to listen to music. We can’t impose our old fogey ideals on them. If they enjoy it and get something out of it, it doesn’t really matter.”
It’s always a joy chatting with Karl. He’s intelligent and articulate, with a strong message that resonates with me as an old-school Metalhead. The new Memoriam album has just been released, and it’s an absolute bruiser.
I’m already looking forward to album number six and another chance to catch up with a true Metal legend.