¡NO PASARÁN! – An Interview with Memoriam’s Karl Willets

Memoriam vocalist/lyricist Karl Willets has volumes of things to get off his chest. Some of these issues have weighed upon him since Bolt Thrower filed through their hallowed spheres of chaos, while others are bound to the loss of loved ones and to the aching psychological autograph left by their absence. However, the lion’s share of Karl’s au courant antipathy is the product of the world’s current socio-political climate, which, if you haven’t noticed, is presently at a rolling boil. Having said that, nothing can properly prepare one for the extraordinary warmth and enthusiasm that simply unspools from the old Warmaster’s throat when he speaks. In stark contrast with the marrow-pestling roar that most associate with him, Karl Willets’ civilian voice is redolent with welcome and charisma.

The conversation that unfolds is admittedly likely to unsettle readers with right-leaning political convictions. Speaking on Decibel’s behalf, we certainly hope that you choose to soldier on through the discussion, despite whatever contrarian viewpoints you may encounter. It can be aggravating and sometimes even rather painful to engage with a philosophy adverse to one’s own, however, it’s only by openly encountering these contradictory belief systems that we’re able to test, appreciate and potentially adapt our understanding and appreciation of the time and space that we occupy. It’s an exercise that’s vital to our physical continuance on this globe that we share, and I mean that literally. It’s okay to be angry -you probably should be.- Karl’s angry too, (even though he doesn’t sound like it…)

Interview by Forrest Pitts

Let’s just dive in and talk about Memoriam: how you see the band fitting into the broader metal scene as well as your own life at this point in your career. It must be liberating, after all this time, to tackle different topics from a lyrical standpoint.
Absolutely! That’s a major part of what’s really been exciting to me regarding Memoriam. Bolt Thrower was a fantastic band, but in many respects, we worked through this rather stringent formula that we’d created. We had to stick within certain parameters and lyrically the songs were, of course, generally about war. There was never overt political commentary within Bolt Thrower. So Memoriam provides a chance for me to explore new areas and to be a little more reflective about the world that we live in. To talk about things that mean more to me personally and things that directly impact my life; things that I feel strongly about. So in that respect, yeah, it’s a completely liberating experience.

I’m not set to one specific format, which is great! It’s challenging too, to work outside of my comfort zone and towards new objectives… To write songs with an element of sincerity in them and retain that level of integrity is really important to me.

In that context, I think the lack of use of any overtly accelerated tempos or blasts by Memoriam is fitting. It suits the aesthetic tone of the band but it likewise seems to suit your ability to express yourself more plainly. You enunciate so clearly in this band that a blast beat could only distract from your message.
I’ve developed my own style. The lyrics have meaning to me and it’s really important to me that they’re audible, you know? I’ve really spent time regarding the clarity of my delivery and yeah, I was never one for a blast beat anyway…

I think that, with the new album, I’ve tried to focus in many respects on the clear pronunciation of the words. My lyrics all draw direct reference to personal experiences.

War is, admittedly, an exciting, interesting topic. I did [write about] that, oh, twenty, thirty years with Bolt Thrower and there comes a point where you simply exhaust it. Plus, we live in a very different world these days. The things that are happening right now… It’s just very important to comment on them. As both an individual and an artist, it’s incredibly important to stand up; to make a point of calling out what you see as wrong. That’s one of the things that I’m really trying to do in Memoriam and maybe is the main difference between this band and the band’s I’ve been in previously.

That seems like a good enough dovetail into “Bleed the Same.” It’s an absolute standout on the new album. That primary riff communicates so much emotion, almost in the vein of very early, debut-era Anathema. Within the lyrics, you ask a series of questions: ‘Who owns your mind?’ ‘Who draws the line?’ ‘What is your truth?’ ‘Where is your proof?’ Care to talk about the concept behind the lyrics? It’d be interesting to hear a few of your own answers to some of the questions you posed…

Yeah, that’s the quandary of contemporary life, isn’t it? All these questions that you have regarding the world that you live in. Our debut, For the Fallen, was born of a phase in our lives where we were experiencing grief. That initial phase of grief is a prevalent part of that album’s construct. The current album is really about exploring the next phase, where you start to question the world around you and you start to lash out a bit. There’s a lot more anger on this new album. It’s very much a documentation of the process of grief, where you come out of that initial phase of sorrow and mourning and on into the next phase, which is the anger and the vitriol, where you just want to lash out and to question everything that’s around you. The questions in “Bleed the Same” are reflective of those feelings. They’re drawn very much from bands like Antisect, who are a huge influence.

[Memoriam] draws from references that influenced us when we first started out. So we took Discharge, Sacrilege, Amebix, Crass… all those old political bands from the U.K. who happened to be some of the primary reasons that we all went off and started our own bands in the first place. There’s actually an Antisect song [“Heresy”] that has that sort of questioning vibe you mentioned.

“Bleed for Me” is a song about questioning yourself. It’s drilling into what your ideology is. In the world that we live in, with the rise of global, right-wing fascist ideology that seems endemic throughout the societies of the world, it’s important for people to sit back and really question their own values and make a reasoned assessment regarding where they’ve gotten those values from. That’s what the song’s all about.

Likewise, Memoriam’s just trying to push ourselves forward and also to assess who we are within this precarious political/social structure.

One of the things that troubles me the most is that so few of us do care to question what’s going on around us and are happy to simply be spoon fed pabulum by the people controlling the levers. I wouldn’t claim to know dick about what’s going on in the U.K. but political tribalism in the States just drives me nuts. We really can’t have a simple discussion at this point regarding differences of opinion…
Right! We live in a world where ideologies are so polarized, there’s almost zero middle-ground for debate. That’s a dangerous place to be and is a serious challenge to the underpinnings of our society. Yeah, it’s important for me to bring these ideas to the fore and say something about them.

What do you think is fueling the radical shift to the right that we’re seeing all over the place? In Greece and the Ukraine, not to mention the U.S…
And in Italy and France…Germany. In virtually every single nation of the U.K.

Yeah, there’s massive impact regarding the ‘Brexit’ issue, where we’re currently in the process of withdrawing from the European community. I think this is the product of two or three decades of the grinding down of people’s political will. I think we’ve been encouraged by the media and the people in control to not involve ourselves in politics. To not pay any attention to what’s going on. To let ‘them’ get on with it because ‘they know better.’

What we’re seeing right now is the product of that complicity and the denial of damaging rhetoric. I think everyone’s been actively consumed with forgetting about what’s important. That [action] has been promoted by the right-wing media, (here in the U.K., particularly.) You’ve got publications such as The Daily Mail and The Sun which really influence the voting patterns of people over here. That’s really what fueled the whole Brexit vote.

We’re no longer a ‘United Kingdom.’ The U.K.’s very much divided. It was a 48/52 split, percentage-wise, regarding who wanted to leave and who wanted to stay. Personally, I’m a very strong believer in Europe and a very strong ‘remain’ supporter. To see the way that people were manipulated, particularly the older generations….That’s what you tend to find: it’s the older people who are being manipulated who then wind up making these decisions that affect the younger generations, and they’re ultimately going to have to live with these decisions for the next twenty or thirty years. It’s something that I find very unsettling and it’s reflected in the United States right now as well. That whole lurch towards right-wing ideology.

Well, again, I don’t know if it necessarily correlates on your side of the Atlantic, but what’s interesting in the States is that the statutes that are discussed and ultimately mandated from ‘on high’ very rarely reflect the interests and the will of the majority of the American people… Federal decriminalization of marijuana, abolishing the private prison industry, raising the minimum wage, all overwhelmingly popular, but…
Yeah, there are a lot of political structures in place that deeply influence the voting process. In particular, you can point to the influence of institutions such as the NRA in American politics. It’s all down to the core, cultural heritage within the country. It’s a very difficult situation that you have there in America. We live a very different life here in America regarding the issue of gun control.

Again, as it would appear from over here, [within the U.K.] America seems terribly ununited.

The one positive thing that I see in all this miasma of political controversy is that young people are starting to get more involved in political discourse despite the fact that they’re actively discouraged from becoming more politically minded. They’re actively voicing their discontent. Through that, change will eventually occur. Maybe not overtly in the next few years but over the next generation, change will occur.

I’m concerned about the reductivism inherent in the argument that right, (meaning right wing,) is always bad, left is always good; look no further/ consider no further. I do happen to be very left-wing. The problem is that establishment-leaning, left-wing politicians tend to agree far more frequently with their right-wing counterparts, behind the scenes, of course, than they would ever let on publicly. Both parties need that illusion of antipathy to keep their bases juiced and therefore continuing to pull the levers corresponding with their tribe of choice at the ballot box, right? Meanwhile, both parties, when in power are choosing to bomb the exact same people, blindly allow the same monopolies to swallow up even more businesses… I mean, if a democratic congressman or woman really believes that President Trump is unstable and under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, why would they vote to grant him billions more taxpayer dollars for an already seriously bloated military? And yet, overwhelmingly they do… It’s pretty disgusting.
Well, it goes back to the old line about how all power corrupts. The status quo will always jockey to maintain its position. But through the process becoming more inclusive… that’s the only way that badly needed change is going to occur.

It’s going to be a long process. [sigh] It’s just going to be a long process but I believe it’ll occur over time.

It’s interesting how you describe The Silent Vigil as another phase in the process of grief.
Yeah, absolutely. The catalyst for Memoriam was our own personal experience of losing people that are close to you. It’s well documented that losing [Bolt Thrower drummer] Martin [Kearns] catalysed the band. At the same time, Frank [Healy; Memoriam bassist] lost his dad as well. The initial phase captured on the debut album was all about exploring that initial chapter of grieving and loss while with this new album, we’re a bit further down the line. It follows that trajectory, that process of grief that we all come to experience in our lives. You know, as you get older, that experience becomes more and more common, unfortunately.

So this second album explores the next phase which is the angrier, the more questioning, the more reflective phase of grief. We’re in the process right now of writing the next album. We largely envisioned this process, (in line with artwork that we’ve arranged with Dan Seagrave,) as almost a trilogy of visual art and a trilogy of albums that simply explore the journey of grief.

Grief… you don’t get over it, it just becomes part of you. We see the journey through the process as part of a three album concept. A tryptic. And we definitely want to punch those albums out within three years. One, two, three, to recreate that initial spark of momentum that we felt when we first started out [as musicians.]

Do you see Memoriam evolving beyond that concept?
Yeah. After these initial three, we very much want to explore the idea of doing cover songs which was the original idea behind Memoriam. Songs from bands that influenced us to be in bands in the first place, (Discharge, Sacrilege, Axegrinder) all those old grind/crust-core bands that made us who we are.

And what does the titular ‘Silent Vigil’ refer to? You’ve frequently referred to anger but the album title’s not exactly evocative of anger.
The Silent Vigil very much refers to a silent tribute to a fallen leader. It’s very much internalized in many respects. The coffin that was depicted on the first album cover is being carried across a ravaged battlefield in a funeral procession. Meanwhile, the second album [cover] depicts more of the ‘lionizing’ phase. It’s a bit more focused. You know, the followers are there, paying tribute. A silent homage. And it all centers around the coffin itself which is the central focus of the cover. We’ve already got the next album planned… It’s all a story we’re trying to tell which runs in line with our own experiences with grief and sorrow.

The lyrics to “The New Dark Ages” sum up everything we were talking about earlier pretty concisely. Those lyrics are beautiful. I had to look up the word ‘pasaran’…[which I entirely mispronounce].
Well, to be perfectly honest, the lyrics for ‘The New Dark Ages,’ (which I think’s probably my favorite track off the new album,) are very much about right-wing ideology and the world we currently inhabit. Again, it’s been an absolute pleasure to write songs that have more political content and that concern things that I care about in life. It’s fantastic to be able to express myself in this way.

I’m very proud to be able to get up on my soapbox and say these things. Maybe ten years ago, I wouldn’t have felt so confident. But I’m at this point in my life …

And how do you see your message as being perceived?
Oh, it’s definitely stirring the cesspit. From my perspective, we’re definitely putting ourselves out there. Some people may not like it. Some people have said, ‘oh, you shouldn’t put politics in metal. There’s no place for it in metal,’ and that’s bullshit. All music is political. It always has been, it’s just down to how you interpret it. The world’s a challenging place and it needs to be addressed. There’s band’s that have [directly] done this for years, but for me, this is new.

‘No Pasarán‘ is just the way it should be, ‘none shall pass.’ Meaning, that if we just turn our cheek and accept damaging ideologies, the fascism and the racism that’s out there… Look, for me, the world is a beautiful place because of our differences. I come from Birmingham in the U.K. We are a city that’s built on cultural differences, (and we’re the birthplace of heavy metal.) We accept and embrace difference. Immigration has created our country but no country exemplifies this more than the United States of America.

Your whole nation is based on immigration. You have very little in the way of short term history; your history’s based abroad. To deny that and to start building walls and to actively oppress other people because of cultural differences is very alarming. The world’s a beautiful place because of our [cultural differences] and when we choose to deny that and rather build a system that is fueled by hatred and fear of the other, that’s when we find ourselves in a very difficult place… I’ve got young children now so I’m thinking about a future for them and I want them to be in a place where they can embrace other people and take on different cultures because that’s what makes our world an exciting place to live in! If it wasn’t for those differences, we’d live in a very dull, homogenous place.

Yeah, there’s a phrase I love, and I’m going to screw it up, but basically it says, ‘when you’re being told that you should be angry at someone lower on the economic ladder than you, you’re being manipulated by someone higher on the economic ladder than you.’ We’ve been weaponized against each other for ages.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! Those in power and those who strive to maintain the structures of power always seek to blame the weak. We can’t bear to see that being repeated yet again. It’s our place to take a stand. Say something about it. Do something! We can’t just let the echo chamber speak for us. We have to rise above and smash that ‘glass ceiling,’ as I was saying in ‘Weaponized Fear,’ [The Silent Vigil’s closing track.]

The songs on the current album… many of them are politically motivated but there’s other songs that are about rising above. I call them ‘transitional songs.’ They’re about moving forward and experiencing life and taking life to a new place. There are songs on there that are quite personal in many respects about, well, dementia, (for example.) I’ve written a song there called ‘Nothing Remains.’ It’s about my mom. She’s experiencing dementia. Dementia is so fucking cruel…

You know, earlier when I was suggesting that writing and performing with Memoriam must be very liberating, I was speaking more from an aesthetic and lyrical standpoint but I’m thinking now that the approach to the process itself, at this point in your life, must be very liberating as well. It must be wonderful to be able to indulge these different aspects of your identity.
Absolutely! It’s very life affirming. What we’re all about is touching base with those feelings that we had when we started out [as musicians,] back in the late eighties. We’re recreating that feeling of joy and that feeling of creativity.