INTERVIEW: KARL WILLETTS / MEMORIAM
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Jamm Tomorrow recently spoke with Memoriam’s founder and vocalist Karl Willets who was in archetypally great form. Over an online beer, we covered everything from the face-slapping To The End album, writing albums in the pandemic, Brexit, politics, and Warhammer.
JT: Well done with the new album, it is a belter. It seems to have an old school honesty and genuineness.
KW: I think it’s very much the product of last year (2020) and the strange situation of what happened in the pandemic. It actually afforded us a lot of space and time to work which was odd for us as we were always busy and fast moving. Before lockdown we had packed lives with our families, work, band rehearsals and recording. That’s how we enjoyed doing things and it always worked well for us. We had a busy schedule of shows lined up and were busy promoting the new album but then with lockdown everything ground to a halt and the lights went out. Life as we knew it ceased to be. Everything changed.
It did, however, give us that opportunity to have more time to focus on song writing and we were hardly doing anything else. We are not really a hard touring band anyway, except on our own terms. The idea of jumping on a tour bus and going round Europe for weeks on end doesn’t do it for me anymore as we all have jobs and families. But saying that, we were still playing every other weekend throughout the year.
JT: A lot of bands say lockdown gave them unexpected time to get off the treadmill and have added space to concentrate on making music and maybe refine it a bit more. A lot of good albums came out during lockdown.
KW: That’s it! Some phenomenal albums have come out. And we got the opportunity to focus completely on putting the new album together. So many factors of doing this were really different to how we did it previously. For example, over my 30 years of doing this, I have never been able to demo the lyrics before – that was an absolute first for me! I’ve never been able to do that before now. Our song writing process usually involved the music getting written first, then we’d play and practice it in rehearsals and I would be there to get a feel for it. Then I would take it home and work out lyrics at the very END of the process just before we go into the recording studio, or even in the studio. This time, though, much of it was done way in advance. Of course, everything is now technology driven where we could share via Dropbox or have virtual catch ups.
JT: Is it doing it that way cheaper for an underground band where you don’t need to hire out rehearsal time etc?
KW: Yeah. Absolutely. But you can't beat that informal social aspect of meeting up. The social part of being in a band, for me, is the major reason for doing it all. It’s equally as important as playing gigs or recording music - the social chemistry of a band is key so not having that this time was weird. But when some lockdown restrictions eased I got to meet up with Scott (Fairfax, guitarist) and demo lyrics. That gave me the chance to try out different ideas. Normally when it comes to writing lyrics, I have a picture in my head but until I actually try it out I don’t know if it is going to work or not. And well, I am not Rob Halford! Sometimes I have this great idea of what I can do but when I try, it’s like oh no no no! So I had a chance to experiment before we went to record. The album was written by June and we had a good few months to have everything ready as the studio wasn’t booked until October! Being so prepared was a massive bonus.
JT: You’re right you are definitely not Rob Halford…
KW: He comes from the Midlands the same as me but I think that’s where similarities begin and end.
JT: To the End sounds properly revved up. Did the new label and drummer add to that?
KW: Having a new drummer was a sea change for us and added really positively to the new album. As for the new label (Reaper Entertainment), the owner was our previous focal point at Nuclear Blast where he made everything work for us. So there is an element of trust. When he left and established a new label it was only natural that we went along with him. It’s worked wonders, rather than being a small fish in a large pond we are a pike in a puddle.
JT: There has been a positive response to the new album. Are you getting wider exposure and new reach.
KW: Yeah. I think we are. I would go as far as saying the reviews we received for To the End have been 95% positive. Better than any previous album, but then we are more developed by now. With the last album we really found our sound and this is a more mature extension of that. We have definitely seen people get on board with it. Of course, you always get the Bolt Thrower comparisons – they will always be there – but they are starting to fall away now and we are getting accepted as Memoriam.
JT: Your band is full of guys with strong band CVs.
KW: People will always automatically link us to what we were known for in the past. I will never decry what I did with Bolt Thrower and without that I wouldn’t be in this position today and I understand fans’ reverence for that.
JT: Has Memoriam’s profile been boosted? Your online presence is greater.
KW: Yes, and the feedback on the new album is that it’s diverse. It does have variety and when we asked for opinions on people’s favourite tracks, the response was really spread. We are open to trying new ideas. We could have re-vamped Requiem but we wanted to keep alive the flair of creativity. For example, Scott knew I wanted to try a really slow, epic doom track, which I’ve never attempted in my life, and the closer track As My Heart Grows Cold again has a very different feel to anything we have done before. Getting Spike in on drums, with his experience and affinity to Killing Joke - who are my favourite band of all time – meant we had to try Mass Psychosis which has a Killing Joke vibe to it that really threw a lot of people. That’s what I like about the album there are many textures that keeps you on your toes. It’s not monotone!
JT: It was the right length too. It didn’t outstay its welcome.
KW: Indeed. We had new songs recorded and lined up but we thought this was the right length. One song Content Grows was intended for inclusion but it was six minutes which would have made the whole thing too long. So we used it as a 10 inch EP which was sold specifically in a box set and as a limited edition vinyl which shows there is a vibrant market out there for small runs of vinyl. Vinyl collections have kicked off again.
JT: That is a huge part of Jamm Tomorrow’s following is vinyl collectors – and some of their collections are jaw dropping.
KW: It has breathed new life into the industry. Labels are struggling because of online streaming and free downloads and it was hard to make money from physical sales of CDs - so vinyl has helped them financially, and provided us with a little useful revenue especially when there are no concerts. But we run our own merchandise and we get a lot of support. We are, as a band, not generating any income from not playing shows, so people have gone online and bought a shirt and we have seen healthy sales for the last eight months. It helps sustain the band and more importantly, it keeps our morale and spirits up as well when we see people supporting what we have done. This lockdown won’t last forever, of course, and we will get back to playing.
JT: When you were jamming these songs were you dying to play them in a live setting?
KW: Absolutely! It was really frustrating we had all these shows we postponed last year and this year too. Now they are postponed again all over Europe which is our main touring block. So the opportunity to get to play new music we are dying to play is diminished. There might be some UK shows that survive. But with any new downtime we will use just to concentrate on a new album. That’s all we can do is build on the momentum.
JT: It is almost an old school work ethic of pumping out albums.
KW: That’s exactly it! Exactly how it used to be. Whenever you start a band, and for me it was late-80s, and there is just high levels of creativity. That is what you did, you pumped out albums. The longer you leave it then your creative impulse slows down and the fire starts to diminish. But that is what Memoriam is about is to rekindle those flames and that early magic. And we have worked at a fairly frenetic pace over the last four years. We might take our time a little bit to work on finesse a little more in the future. We have committed ourselves to writing another two albums with the new trilogy. That shocked the band when I told them that one! But it will keep us out of trouble!
JT: You will be fine. Memoriam is a new-ish band manned by veterans. Do you listen to new bands or are you inspired by new music - or are you just grumpy old men?
KW: Yeah. There are lots of great things out there and superb bands. But most of the time I have heard it before and often done better. I am indeed a grumpy old man! And I know what I like from the old days. Every now and again I hear a band that will really jolt me as being something different. Lots of it sounds like a re-hash though. I have come to accept that each generation has to create its own style and identity – that is what we did in the 80s. Therefore, I find it hard to identify with new styles of music if it just doesn’t do anything for me but good on them it keeps the scene going - but I am a grumpy old bastard.
JT: And how about your grumpy old voice, how do you maintain your vocals?
KW: We had a rehearsal the other week and, because I hadn’t done it in such a long time, it was bit of a struggle – actually I couldn’t remember the words which was a bit alarming! The more you do, the more you get used to it. Because we don’t do big tours, I think I would probably struggle to perform a lot of nights in this style. But it just comes naturally with the music a lot of the time. I try to be as clear in my enunciation – I take time to write the words so I want people to understand them. So it is not as guttural as other metal vocalists.
JT: You have been asked about this a lot but the social awareness and social themes you have talked about and brought into the music, where did that come from? Did you have a politically aware upbringing or environment?
KW: Yeah. I think that was really being brought up in a musical household and my dad was a music booking agent. I was always around musicians and exposed to music. But the political aspect to what I do comes from the musical style I was involved with in the 1980s. The whole anarcho-punk scene was my awakening to politics. Through that is where I developed my own sense of identity. I’ve changed and matured as I got older but that core identity is still there. Over the years, my confidence in my ability grew and my convictions got firmer - and I don’t care what people think about me so much. I am quite willing to put myself out there and say things about the world. I know it might piss people off by making observations about the world but I’m prepared to do so as a lyricist, vocalist, artist. If you are not prepared to take your head out of the sand then you are almost part of the problem. Things like the rise of right wing ideology is just frightening.
JT: Those themes of equality, environmentalism, anti-fascism captured in scenes like anarcho-punk were, at the time, seen as extreme or odd. You were a tree hugger, a hippy, or a soapbox type, but these themes are now normal and in the mainstream limelight.
KW: Absolutely! Those concerns have filtered into wider society and it is great there are younger generations who are more environmentally aware. When we were growing up in the 1980s, we were on the backlash of Thatcher, the coal miners’ strikes, and the threat of nuclear war was a very real possibility. So we were politicized really and the anarcho-punk encapsulated that. But I would say 10 to 20 years later with consumerism, Tory rule, the power of banks, people were almost de-sensitized and too comfortable and put off from being politically aware. Consumerism took control. It seems like now things have come full circle. The polemics of politics are back to the fore. The world is in a perilous state and younger people are the only ones to change it and take their ideals forward in life. And they are more politically aware again. We are likely still stuck with another 10 years of Tory rule and the whole Brexit episode will take a while for the negative effects to have their full impact. From my perspective it has increased Memoriam postage costs and administration for the band! But seriously, the Brexit decision was made by a thin majority. So much of it seemed based on right wing xenophobia. Fear of other cultures, fear of foreigners, and the right wing mainstream media really pumped this up endlessly. And it was often the older and comfortable voters who pushed this through for the younger generations who will feel the impact most. It’s pretty fucked isn’t it?!
JT: If nothing, inspiration for a few more good Memoriam songs?!?!
KW: There is always that – good solid inspiration!
JT: Bolt Thrower and also Memoriam have a history of using Warhammer imagery.
KW: Yeah I used to play in the 1980s and I was a Deputy Store Manager at Games Workshop briefly. I was into Warhammer in the 1980s when I had time. In the early days I used to sit in a room playing demo tapes with the likes of Metallica’s The Four Horsemen while painting figures and playing massive table top games with my mates. I had an undead army which was great and I base myself in real life on a necromancer ha ha! But I always lost! This was before video games and it was a great way to expand your imagination and have a laugh. I would highly recommend it to parents as it gets kids off screens and teaches strategy, tactics – thinking about consequences and how to win or lose. A bit like chess. But it really tied in with Bolt Thrower’s music and imagery at the time and marked us out.
JT: What is next?
KW: We are focussed on the positives. Some European shows are being cancelled so we are looking at hopefully UK shows still going ahead. We will play UK shows when we can and use the extra time to write material for album number five. If we ever slow down it would probably kill us. We are trying to do what we can in the time we have.
JT: To the End?
KW: Yes! TO THE END!