Q&A: Karl Willetts Closes Third Memoriam Chapter


UK death metallers Memoriam will close the chapter on their three-album saga of mourning, grief, and sorrow with new album, Requiem for Mankind. The group’s third in a three-year span, Requiem for Mankind collapses Memoriam’s previous two bruisers, 2017’s For the Fallen and 2018’s The Silent Vigil, into a compact, explosive, multi-faceted bomb. The members of Memoriam—singer Karl Willetts, bassist Frank Healy, drummer Andy Whale, and guitarist Scott Fairfax—are of the assertion that their new album is where they’ve wanted to be all along, which is epic if brutal yet melancholic death metal, the likes of which can (or has) come from the British Isles.

Produced by Russ Russell (At the Gates, Dimmu Borgir, Napalm Death), Requiem for Mankind is indeed Memoriam’s pinnacle. The Bolt Thrower-like songs continue–“Shell Shock” and “Undefeated,” for example–but there’s a darker, more menacing slant on offer in “The Veteran,” “Never the Victim,” “In the Midst of Desolation,” while songs like “Fixed Bayonets,” the closing instrumental “Interment,” and the title track give off an end-times observation (or maybe they’ve already happened). Clearly, Requiem for Mankind is a demonstration of Memoriam’s ability to pull in experience, writing songs that are familiar but not formulaic.

Read on as esteemed (and rather jolly) frontman and lyricist Karl Willetts guides us down the path of mourning, grief, and sorrow.

Three albums in three years. Normally, that’s not a feat for the weak-hearted and creatively bereft. What’s going on here?
Karl Willetts: I’ll tell you what: it feels like we’re crazy sometimes for doing it at such a voracious and fast pace. It’s intentional. When we first realized there was potential—essentially, when Nuclear Blast got involved—in Memoriam, we wanted the band to move quickly. We’re not getting any younger. Before Nuclear Blast, we were a nice little cover band, just having a bit of fun with a few beers. Nuclear Blast said, “Why don’t you do some albums for us?” That changed everything. Our ethos changed. We wanted to create a sense of joy, really. The band started from a dark place, following the loss of Martin [“Kiddie” Kearns]. That’s all been documented before. So, we wanted to create a positive out of that by creating some joy in our lives. We got together on that basis. Anyway, we thought, “We don’t have much time on this planet, so let’s achieve as much as possible in the shortest time and space possible.” We wanted to create that feel of starting a band, the feeling that we had in the mid- to late-‘80s, for example. Back then, bands did put out albums at a faster pace, at least that’s what I remember. [Laughs] Most bands in their first few years have a lot of creative output. So, we didn’t want to dwell on what we had achieved, really. We wanted to push forward, always forward. I will safely say we’ve been searching for the definitively Memoriam sound. We were searching on the first two albums, but I think with Requiem for Mankind we have got all the elements in place, all the ingredients are there for the definitive Memoriam sound. The difference between this album and the previous two—which were more learning experiences—is the fact that we engaged the services of a specialist, external producer in Russ Russell. His input on Requiem for Mankind can’t be understated. I’ve always wanted work with Russ, but because we work at such a fast pace and he’s such a busy guy our schedules never really aligned. So, with the third album we felt we wanted to work with Russ. We basically engaged with Russ right after The Silent Vigil was released. We included him in the songwriting process at a very early stage. He was involved at the embryonic demo stage, actually. So, he was actively involved in the songs as they were being born. He had a clear idea of what we were aiming for. He also had some ideas, as well. By the time we were heading off to Parlour Studios—Russ’ studio, actually—in Kettering, Russ already knew what he wanted to do production-wise. We also had a pretty good idea. So, the recording process was a joy. It flowed really well. Even the small things, like different microphones in different places helped make Requiem for Mankind what it is today. So, we have a successful blueprint, a model, for how future Memoriam albums will be constructed. I imagine we’ll use Russ again. But all that being said, I think it’s time for us to slow down and take stock of what we’ve achieved. I don’t think the follow-up to Requiem for Mankind will be next year. At least, I say that now. [Laughs]

What was missing on the first two records that you think (or rather know) you’ve found on Requiem for Mankind?
Karl Willetts: It’s the big, epic sound, I think. That was the key. The way we write the songs hasn’t changed. The way we deliver the songs—musically and vocally—in the studio hasn’t changed. It’s all Russ, really. He’s blended things well. He’s mixed everything together so it all works together. He’s got special tones for guitar, too. Russ gets the best out of you. I’ve been recording albums for a long time now, but one of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had in the studio was with Russ. I’d recommend him to anyone. So, I’d say Russ is the major difference between Requiem for Mankind and our previous albums.

Was it more about the production, getting things out of Memoriam, the passion or urge to perform better? Or, was it more the way the production was handled technically?
Karl Willetts: The songwriting hasn’t changed, as I’ve said. The lyrics are written the same way. The way we delivered the material in the studio hasn’t changed. So, it’s all Russ. The way he takes the music and works his magic—his wizardry upon it—with the music. Whatever he does (or did) was the missing link, which ironically is the big, epic sound that fits old-school death metal so well. I think we needed that external partner, someone to be involved in the writing process. To get an external expert involved—to let someone else give us guidance—really worked. Russ took a lot of pressure off us.

You’ve said in previous conversations we’ve had that Scott [Fairfax] was your “well of riffs.” I gather he’s helping expedite the songwriting process.
Karl Willetts: That’s right. But Memoriam is, ultimately, a social thing. We write music, it’s old-school death metal, and all that. But the most important thing—for us—is getting into our rehearsal room once a week, having a few beers, a few laughs. We really enjoy the process. We enjoy our own company. We’re all best mates. So, in a way, the music isn’t secondary but the importance of the social aspect of Memoriam isn’t to be understated as part of our creative process. The music is a byproduct. We have a lot of experience collectively here, so it’s we know what works and what doesn’t. The difference between me, Whale, and Frank is we’re from the old school, the anarcho-punk scene, when our identity was established. There was a sense of extremity back in the mid- to late-‘80s. That things could change with the music and our actions. Then, when Metallica and Slayer came along they really put an edge to things. But Scott is 10 years younger than us, a generation beyond us. His sphere of influence is very different. He’s more into the technical, progressive death metal that was prevalent in the mid- to late-‘90s. Bands like Monstrosity, Defleshed, Strapping Young Lad, bands that don’t mean anything to me. They’re not really what I’m into. He comes up with riffs from that school of thought. And he has this “million-dollar riff vault” that we’ve been plundering—and we’ve only just scraped the surface—for our albums. So, he’s giving us the bucket [of riffs] and we sift through what we like. We also come up with new riffs, of course, but the flow of creativity coming from Scott is really inspirational.

The songwriting process remains a group thing. Everyone gets a shot at the songs, adding their own flavor to the initial idea or ideas, right?
Karl Willetts: They do, in fact. When we lock Scott and Frank in a room with cigarettes and vodka for a week, well, out comes a Memoriam album. [Laughs] OK, they come up with the structure of things. Frank’s the bridge master of the songs, linking things together. Once that’s done, it’s sent around as an MP3—very different from how we wrote songs 30 years ago, I tell you—to the rest of the band. Whale will put his signature drum patterns to it, which often changes it completely. Because I have an idea of the structure I will then start to compose the lyrics around it. The process of writing is defined and simple. That’s obviously helped us create three albums in three years. Before, all this would result in one of us dying from exhaustion, but now it’s all pretty quick and death free. [Laughs] I will say, if we continue at this pace—if we don’t stop—there’s a very good chance one of us will keel over. [Laughs] Time to smell the roses, I think.

That’s important, right? To let time have its way with things. Also, time will give you guys a bit of perspective.
Karl Willetts: I think so, too. We have lots of other things we want to do besides albums. Everyone still has a creative fire. On the sidelines, Whale has a side project called Darkened. He’s got other people involved in that. Scott also has a side project called As the World Dies that he’s putting together. That will give them something to focus on while we’re away from Memoriam. I will likely be putting something together with my old friend—I think you him—Dave Ingram and the mouth that is Kam Lee. We’ll feature three vocalists. It’ll be called Troikadon. We’ll be getting new music together over the next 12 months. With Memoriam, we’ll still be doing gigs. We’re quite busy in that regard. So much so we turn down 70 percent of the things we’re offered. We’re never a band just to tour. We can’t go out and play every city in every town for two months on end. We’ve done that in the past with other bands. At this point in our lives that would probably kill us. That holds no glory. We’re more of the mindset of going out every other weekend, doing two-three shows, which add up over time. We still do four-five shows a month. I mean, we’ve got jobs, kids and other responsibilities. So, we’re doing it on our own terms for our own reasons. We don’t rely on Memoriam for income. We do Memoriam because we simply enjoy doing Memoriam. That comes across in the live performances. Also, we want to do cover versions at some point. That was the whole intent when we first got together. We were really just going to the rehearsal room to bash out some old Crass, Antisect, Amebix, Discharge, old punk classics. We wanted to play covers of bands that inspired us to want to be in bands in the first place. We never got around to that because (blooming) Scott had his vault of riffs. We simply did originals instead. We’ll do that independently of Nuclear Blast. I’m thinking we’ll do four-five 7-inches. Or, a limited-edition album through Cosmic Chaos, our label.

I have a title for you, Karl. What about Take Cover?
Karl Willetts: Take Cover… I like it! [Laughs]

Does Memoriam have another option with Nuclear Blast?
Karl Willetts: We do. We have another option. We’ll end up recording that next year or the year after that. We have a lot going for Memoriam right now. We’re in a good place. We’re on the map. We have a sound that works. We’re a happy band.

Speaking of happy bands, do you have any interaction with Bolt Thrower? Any interaction there?
Karl Willetts: No, not a single interaction, which is a shame. I would think they would be doing something by now, but the whole Martin thing really knocked the wind out of their sails. As a band and individually. It’s a shame. But I’m focused on what I want to do with Memoriam and the other projects I’ve told you about. Life goes on.

The first two songs that came out were “Shell Shock” and “Undefeated.” Did you pick those songs or did Nuclear Blast?
Karl Willetts: They picked the songs. They felt those were the two songs that would give the best taste of Memoriam and the rest of the new album. Ironically, those two songs are the two songs that sound the most like Bolt Thrower. [Laughs] In saying that, Bolt Thrower were known for the whole epic sound, which is what we’ve achieved on the new album.

I would go one step further, Karl. I hear a very British sound in Requiem for Mankind. There’s no mistaking it for any other country, really.
Karl Willetts: Yes, I think so too. It’s got an empirical flavor to it. The tyranny of Victoria! [Laughs] Yes, we are still ruling the waves… OK, not too much these days. We are very aware of our musical traditions, and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved in the past. We’ll never deny that. Sometimes, we do get criticized for sounding like our previous bands. And others, we get criticized for not sounding enough like our previous bands. It’s an argument we can never win, really. I hope at this point, we’ve educated the people to accept us for who we are. I hope they understand what we’re trying to do after three years. There are no surprises or unanswered questions at this point.

OK, I have to ask about the title, Requiem for Mankind. Is this a kind of Jaz Coleman apocalyptic thing or merely an observation?
Karl Willetts: Well, it’s a just a story told over three albums, visually and artistically. With [Dan] Seagrave’s cover art, there’s a clear and consistent theme that follows the three-album story or concept of mourning. Different phases of mourning, grief, and sorrow. The first album, For the Fallen, is mourning. There’s the coffin being carried across a ravaged battle-scape. The second album, The Silent Vigil, is more like laying in state, the honor, the realization, the sorrow of it. Requiem for Mankind, the third album, is the burial. The committal to the ground. That’s the flow. It can be taken as a statement as a collective. It could be a statement on the state of the world, whether it’s social, economic, political, environmental. It’s a snapshot of where we are with Memoriam, actually. I’ve been talking about the downfall of mankind for the better part of 30 years—it’s a recurrent topic in my lyrics—but it feels like we’re at a tipping point in 2019. With what’s going on in the world around us, the endemic rise, the disease of right-wing nationalism seems to be affecting every country in the world. It’s frightening to behold that mankind is at the cusp of something catastrophic.

But that’s also be said, predicted, pontificated upon by many over the last millennia of mankind. We’ve had dark ages and dim times, but nothing like the extinction of mankind. And our war machines keep getting more and more sophisticated. I’ve often wonder if Jaz, for example, was onto something over the years only to walk away with the observation that humanity will always hang by a thread. That balance is programmed into our DNA.
Karl Willetts: I take great reference from Jaz Coleman. He’s my favorite vocalist. He’s my favorite frontman. He’s my favorite lyricist. I worship him as an icon, a true artist. I think the collapse of mankind is happening throughout the ages. It’s the irony of mankind. We’re our own worst enemy. It’s such a glorious source for lyrics. I have enough material until I die. It works on so many different levels, but there’s the environmental aspect, or interpretation, as well. I’ve had people interpret my lyrics with an environmental angle, which is quite interesting. When you write music and lyrics and put them out there, you no longer own them. People will interpret what you’ve written in their own unique way, whether right or wrong. I think that’s beautiful thing. It’s life affirming, for me, to hear how my lyrics are interpreted, how they’ve change the people who have read them.

Life affirming isn’t what I’d call a song like “Fixed Bayonets.” Bayonet fighting was a gruesome part of war.
Karl Willetts: War is a recurrent theme in my lyric writing. I’ve written about war consistently throughout my 30 years, and that’s well documented. “Shell Shock” is about the First World War. To be shell shocked is now known as PTSD, which was then seen as cowardice. “Fixed Bayonets” is about the savage and brutal part of hand-to-hand combat, particularly the trench warfare of the First World War. I think “Fixed Bayonets” has a kind of Killing Joke vibe to it. It’s got a good groove to it. It’s right before “Internment,” which ends the album. So, that’s the military theme on the album. The theme of empowerment goes through “Undefeated” and “Never the Victim,” which is very much about hope and moving on with your life. Another theme in Memoriam are grief, sorrow, and suffering mixed in with desolation. I will say there’s a political theme on Requiem for Mankind as well. “Austerity Kills” and “Refuse to Be Led” are two songs have an inherent, overt political view to them. “The Veteran,” which has a Pantera vibe to it, is not about honor and tales of battle—as one might expect—but rather homeless people. The amount of homeless people—veterans!—who have been cast out by our government isn’t something we should be proud of. They’ve come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with all these physical and mental issues. You and me have no idea what they’re going through, what they’ve been through, really. They’re basically left to their own devices, and they have none. It’s completely sad.

** Memoriam’s new album, Requiem for Mankind, is out now on Nuclear Blast Records. Order various packages HERE before being thrown in the trench…