INTERVIEW: Karl Willets – Memoriam

Interview by Sam Gibson


When Bolt Thrower drummer Martin “Kiddie” Kearns passed in his sleep on September 14th, 2015, the members of Britain’s longest standing death metal band were absolutely bereft. Three weeks after, bassist Frank Healy, of UK death metal legends Benediction, lost his father. All that sorrow left a massive hole in the hearts and minds of the Midlanders. The untimely demise of Kearns forced Bolt Thrower to go on an indefinite hiatus, while Healy was seven years removed from Benediction’s last full-length, ‘Killing Music’. Key members of both bands needed an out. A way to cope with the emotional hardship. So, vocalist Karl Willetts and Healy teamed up with ex-Bolt Thrower drummer Andy Whale and riff-master Scott Fairfax to form Memoriam.

We talk to Karl Willets about the formation of Memoriam, the debut album and more.


Sam: For those who are unaware how did Memoriam come to be?

Karl: Okay, straight into it. I like that. Okay, so Memoriam was born in the late end of 2015. Um, in September 2015 Martin “Kiddie” Kearns big friend of mine, drummer from Bolt Thrower sadly suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. That was a massive, a massive impact on me personally and my life in general and put me in a position where I really didn’t know what was going to happen. It was almost as if over night the whole of my world has kind of imploded. So it took a few months to kind of get over that loss, and it’s something we’re still dealing with now to be perfectly honest. I was kind of like in a position where I could either sit and wait for things to happen to me and see what was developing with the band Bolt Thrower, if it ever would. Or I could try and pull myself out of that kind of pit of despair and misery that I was in towards the end of 2015 and try and do something about it. So I really kind of took stock of my life at that point and really thought about what I wanted to achieve, and because when you lose someone so close to you, you eventually realise that life is short and you can’t really sit around and wait for things to happen. The only way you can achieve anything is by getting off your backside and trying to make things happen for yourself. So that’s how Memoriam came to be really.

I decided that you know, music is in my blood you know but I create a new band, you know, and that’s what I do. That’s what my identity is all about and without that, you know, I was completely lost. So I needed to have some kind of outlet, some creative outlet in my life to be the person I am. So I’ve always wanted to do a band with Whale, Andrew Whale who was the original drummer from Bolt Thrower back in the day. He was the reason I was in Bolt Thrower in the first place and I always wanted to do something with him musically again so we met up had a few pints and discussed the whole concept of just getting in the rehearsal room and just having a bit of fun, you know, no more than that. It was just really a question of trying to get into a room, a space and make some music and try create that fun feeling that we had when we first started in music back in the late 80’s by doing some cover versions of some songs that had inspired us to be in bands in the first place, you know we’re talking the old bands like Discharge, Amebix, Anti-Sect all the crust punk stuff that we were really into back in the late 80’s and he agreed, you know, he wanted to do something it had been a long time since he had played the drums, probably around 14 years. So he was willing to get back and do something creatively and we got Frank, Frank Healy, got involved, he was always going to be the bass player in any project or band I ever did because it’s something we’ve always talked about. I’ve known Frank for 13 years and we’ve always talked about doing something together musically but never really got around to it.

You know at this point in our lives our stars kind of aligned, he had recently lost his father so he was in a dark place too so we all needed something to do positively and create something good out of a bad situation. So that’s when we got Scott Fairfax which is the guitarist in Memoriam involved as well and he came along to the party as we say. Before we even got into the rehearsal room to bash out these cover versions of songs we wanted to do the whole concept which was very low key originally we didn’t really have any major ideas beyond rehearsing and maybe do a few local gigs and ultimately you know release a 7″, but very very soon within that process before we even got to the rehearsal room to do that Scott said “Well you know, I’ve got some riffs that you may want to have a listen to that could form some new songs that you could write” and he sent them over to us on an mp3 player (the wonders of modern technology) and from that the first two track ‘War Rages On’ and ‘Resistance’ developed and very very clearly. So before we even got into the rehearsal room we scraped the idea of being a covers band and the new songs that we were writing came along really quickly. Scott has a whole hard drive full of riffs and ideas that he’s been storing the last 10 – 15 years which he’s never used and from that the whole band was born and very quickly within 3 or 4 months we had 5 or 6 songs completed which we recorded in March 2016 at Hellfire Studios which we released as a 7″ and from that Nuclear Blast got involved and Decibel Records said they want to be part of what we’re doing and we went on to do a few European shows, we got some really good feedback off people, recorded the first album back in October, ‘For The Fallen’ which is to be released on the 24th of March this year. So the past year things have moved very very fast for us and from very small ideas and original concept of what we were doing to where we are now it’s a massive massive change of our ideas and it’s been a fantastic experience. I think that generally speaking people understand the band and they appreciate what we are doing. It’s amazing the whole experience has been really life affirming and as I said the original concept was to just have some fun you know doing that, everything else is just a bonus to us right now.

Sam: You mentioned your album ‘For The Fallen’ is being released on the 24th of March, what else can we expect from Memoriam for the rest of the year once that has been released? Are there any tours or other things planned?

Karl: Yeah, absolutely yeah. This year can be quite busy for us receptively. We’re in a very privileged kind of position to be able to pick and choose what we want to do, so to this point so far we’ve got about 48 (at this point the phone cut out so the interview picks up again when everything was fixed). I think we got to the point where I was trying to explain where we got a lot of festival shows lined up and that’s really where we are kind of focussing our attention at the moment. Major festivals with a new European market, Germany in particular France, Belgium, Holland all those sort of areas are our primary focus right now. We’d love to be able to get down to Australia, we’d love to get to America but logistically speaking it’s a lot more difficult for us to do that financially. And I think I was talking generally about the fact that we don’t really want to go on a long protracted tour on a tour coach for weeks to promote the album because we’ve done that all in the past. The whole idea of getting on a tour coach and being away from home for such a long time is not an idea we all really wanna do. We’ve all got different things in our lives you know we’ve got responsibilities at this point in our lives I’ve got children, young children. We’ve all got jobs so yeah we can pick and choose, I’m not saying if the right offer came along and it fitted in well that we wouldn’t do it, obviously we would. But at this point we’re quite happy to fulfil the contractual obligations of the festivals we’re playing and again go back into the studio October/November and record another album to release again early part of next year. So that’s quite a busy schedule.

Sam: No rest at all?

Karl: No rest for the wicked as they say. But yeah, it’s a real privileged position to be in for me at this stage of my life, it’s fantastic to be able to do this. You know, I consider myself to be very lucky in a way because this is almost the third time around for meet get to do something once in your life which is fantastic that you really enjoy doing is brilliant but to be able to do it 3 times in your life is absolutely phenomenal and I’m really appreciative because I consider the first time round as being in Bolt Thrower in the late 80’s and I left in the mid 90’s rejoined again in 2004 and was in the band for another 10 years. So I say this is the third time round and courageously it’s a fantastic new position to be in, I’ve never been in that position where I’ve been in the band from the very start, I’ve never been in the position where I’ve been in the band where we’ve done demos and we’ve released 7″ so this is all brand new experiences for me and it’s a fantastic place to be in, its great.

Sam: When you are writing music with the band what is that process like? Do you have the music first or the lyrics? Does everyone contribute to each others parts or do you mostly stick to writing your own parts?

Karl: Yeah, from my experience it’s changed a considerable amount from how you used to create music back in the 80’s and 90’s you know back then it was pretty dependant on going to a rehearsal room and jamming out the songs and going back the following week and building the songs in that way, but now with the impact of technology it speeds the process up considerably as I said Scott has got a hard drive which we consider a gold mine of riffs he’s written over the past 10-15 years which he’s never used and from that hard drive we are pillaging the best, he fires over a number of riffs to us which he formats with a basic drum pattern and he fires them over to us on mp3. From that Frank generally kind of like suggests how to formulate the song, Frank’s really good at constructing songs he’s a very accomplished song writer in many respects. So he’s really good at structuring the songs and building the bridge sections to link the riffs that Scott provides, coming up with the ends and the starts to the songs. So from that before we even go into the rehearsal room we generally got a song to work with, so once we’ve heard that a few times we’ve got an idea in our heads where it’s going to go. When we get to the rehearsal room Whale puts his signature drum patterns down to that, I’ve already got an idea in my head where the lyrics are going fit within the song, within the structure of the song and it’s a question of just working out the timings and putting it together and that pace is really really fast. We don’t dwell too much on what we are doing we just create music for what we like doing, there is no formula there is no set kind of pattern to what we do.

On the new album there’s a lot of different styles of music that feature within that, there’s a few slower doomy metal sounding songs, there’s a few old school death metal sounding songs. There’s a couple of hardcore kind of more punk edge sounding songs and we’re quite happy to play with a whole different style of different songs, because we’re a four piece as well that brings a whole different dynamic to what we’re doing as well. Scott’s style of playing guitar is completely different from what I’ve worked with previously, he brings a kind of element of technicality to his playing style which is different and a more modern approach to playing guitar than we’ve had previously. And of course because we’re a 4 piece as well we’ve kind of filled out the dynamics of the band by adding samples and creating new sounds and new feels to the music, which is great, you know the whole creativity of being in a band has been reignited. Because ultimately that’s what being in a band is all about, is creating new music and doing something fresh, and I’ve always missed that. I missed that when I rejoined Bolt Thrower, it was great to do that but ultimately it was going and there and playing all the old classic songs that everyone knew and loved which was great and I enjoyed that for what it was. But I always mussed that kind of element of making new music and doing something fresh and new and with Memoriam we are able to do that, the kind of whole formula is out the window we are able to work with a fresh clean palate as you may say, and we are enjoying that process and as I say we’re still in the process of writing new material as we speak, and it’s great fun. Ultimately we are doing it for ourselves and everything else is a bonus.

Sam: Excellent, congratulations on being signed to Nuclear Blast. How did that come about? Did you approach them or did they approach you?

Karl: Good question, when we first started out the whole idea of being signed to a label like Nuclear Blast wasn’t really on the agenda you know we just wanted to just go and do some local gigs and maybe release a 7″ through our own label and do it all ourselves, you know the whole kind of hardcore punk ethos there. But Frank has worked with the guys, Marcus in particular the guy who runs Nuclear Blast and we’ve known them for 30 years we’ve seen them grow from the dream that he used to develop you know, he put the records out and we’ve seen them grow from the roots of the scene and it’s purely through the love of the music. They do really well they’re commercially very successful but it’s primary through the love of what they do, the success is derived from their pure enthusiasm and passion for what they do and you gotta commend them for that. As I said Frank had a relationship with Nuclear Blast through his work with Benediction and Marcus has always been a big fan of Bolt Thrower he’s always wanted to be involved and when he heard what we were doing in the very early stages he showed some interest and when he heard the Hellfire demo 7″ that’s when they approached us and said look we really want to work with you guys and take this to a totally different level than what you anticipated doing.

We had a few offers from a variety of labels but when Nuclear Blast stepped into the equation it was just really a no-brainer to say no we had to accept the offer. We feel like we’re part of a family in a way, it sounds a bit cheesy but they are so full of enthusiasm for what we do, I’ve never been on a label in my life and I’ve been doing this for 30 years now that are so enthusiastic about what you’re doing and positive about what they can achieve for you. Being on Nuclear Blast has already for us opened up a lot of doors and avenues which we couldn’t have even contemplated going down without their support so it’s great to be a part of that big family, and the support they have provided to us already has been amazing and we’re really happy to be signed to Nuclear Blast. It’s been a really good positive experience for me because throughout my career in the music industry my experience of working with record labels has always been fairly negative without mentioning any names in particular, you can read between the lines. My experience of working with record labels has been almost us as a band versus them as a record label, but with Nuclear Blast we feel like we’re working with them to create something bigger and better. We are really really pleased with how it’s going with the guys there, they really know what they’re doing and eases off a lot of pressure for us so we can concentrate what we’re good at doing what we’re best at doing which is creating music and being a band. So ultimately it’s a win win situation for everyone.

Sam: Well thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me and answer my questions. I’ve been a massive fan of Bolt Thrower for as long as I can remember and I am loving the new band so it’s been an honour to be able to talk to you.

Karl: Excellent, well I’ve enjoyed this conversation and I’m sorry I lost you half way through the conversation.

After the interview we began talking about Australia and Karl spoke about how much we would love to get the band back out to Australia and shared with me a touching story about when Bolt Thrower came to Australia, so I would like to leave you with this story and hopefully we can encourage a promoter to organise a Memoriam tour of Australia.

Karl: We played in Australia in 1993..92/93 and for me that was almost the pinnacle of our career, I remember very very well a moment that we all had as a band when we stood on the beach in Perth and watched the big waves rolling in off the ocean and we all stood there and we all looked at each other and we thought… yes, we’ve done this, we’ve actually gotten over here, we’ve achieved something special here. So we’d love to get back over to Australia, we know we’ve got a big fan base over there, the amount of support that we have received from the Australian scene over there has been phenomenal on Facebook on twitter,  and we know that the people would love us to go there and play. It’s just difficult, the logistics are difficult and getting a promoter to stump up the costs of getting us over there is a difficult thing. So if there is anything you can do to assist in that process please do so sir.


Interview Date: 2017-02-09

Interviewer: Sam Gibson