Q & A: Dubai's death metal export Nephelium on reclaiming its Canadian roots and the current state of Toronto's metal scene
by Tyler Munro
March 26, 2012
Mention that a death metal band comes from Dubai and they’re bound to get someone’s attention, but while Nephelium was born in the Emirates, they eschew their most marketable beginnings. Talk to guitarist and founding member Alex Zubair and he’ll talk your ear off about his pride as a Canadian death metal artist, because while he and drummer Alan Madhavan formed the band in Dubai, Nephelium is a Toronto based band working hard on the Canadian circuit.
Ten years in the making, Coils of Entropy is their first full length, and while its release has been quickly followed by a few line-up changes, the band is now fully intact and ready to rep Canadian death metal with pride and conviction. We sat down with Zubair to talk about the band’s cross-continental trek and, most importantly, to find out what Toronto needs to do to better support its bands.
AUX: You’re not a new band, but this is your first full length. What can you tell me about your early days.
Alex Zubair: The band started out in the United Arab Emirates, in Dubai. We started off in ’98. I used to live there, our drummer Alan lived there. Dubai was a very metropolitan area right in the middle of the GCC, which is right outside Saudi Arabia. Even though it’s a Muslim country, it’s a lot more open compared to the other places, but they still had some restrictions as far as metal was concerned. They really didn’t like the “satanic imagery,” so they were kind of strict back then, so it was really hard. We were just a bunch of kids, we used to smuggle in tapes back in the day. CDs and stuff like that. That’s how it started off and then a lot of people from different parts of the world started coming in, because Dubai started booming as a tourist attraction. That’s how I met Alan. I used to play in a thrash metal band called Anthology. We were the first thrash metal band coming out of the Middle East, but we used to play a lot of covers, like Testament, Pantera, Metallica, Megadeth, that kind of stuff. I bumped into Alan after I left that band around ’98, we formed a band and we went and played…they used to have those battle of the bands. Really underground but with a lot of kids. It was risky at the same time because the cops would come in, stop the shows and arrest kids because they were causing shit or drinking under-age. But that’s how we started. We won the battle of the bands and so we started pushing it. We started getting a lot of follow ups, so that’s around the time we recorded our first demo, Archaic Malevolent Sorcery…
AUX: That was 2002, right?
Zubair: It was recorded in someone’s home studio. That’s the time when we were kind of experimenting. We added touches of black metal and death metal into it because we wanted to know what our aim was. Right after that, that spread all over Syria, Lebanon, Jordan…it even went as far as Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia. But that was more word of mouth, giving copies to people and copies spreading from one place to another. Even when we went to Syria, Lebanon, we’d make copies and sell them, give them out to people because it was really strict back there. Then in 2003 we recorded our first EP, Ignite the Wrath of Silence, and that’s when we realized what we really wanted to do sound-wise. Boom. Everyone loved us. We started playing a lot of shows, a lot of underground gigs all over that region and then boom, we built that name over there. But it was really hard for us, because first of all getting a jam space was really hard. That’s the time that I realized, “hey, Toronto’s home for me…”
AUX: So you’re from Toronto?
Zubair: Yeah. So I moved back here and I told Alan and the rest of the guys, “hey, let’s move out there if this is what we want to do. It’s a lot better than doing it over there.” The other guys couldn’t make it, the Lebanese, Turkish…they couldn’t get their Visas to come here. I lived here in 2003 and then Alan followed me like 8 or 9 months later. When I moved back here I contacted one of my old buddies, Boyan [Guerdjikov], this Bulgarian guy who used to play in a lot of other bands, he sang in a lot of other bands. I contacted him and told him, “hey, you want to be the vocalist?” and he said sure. We waited for Alan to show up…
AUX: It was a lengthy process, then?
Zubair: It was. You’ve crossed Europe and the Atlantic sea and then coming back home, it was really hard. I had to mingle around the local scene, try to find the promoters, what kind of bands there were and to find out how things happened over here. People knew, “Oh, Nephelium’s a band that’s relocating here.” We started opening for bands and tearing faces apart. People were like “holy shit, where’s this band coming from?” We played with Deicide, Skinless, with Augury, with Neuraxis…we played with a lot of bands. That’s the time we went “okay, we’re going to go record the record.”
And so we went to Ridge Valley Studios, Darius [Szcepaniak], the producer on our record…he’s done a lot of big stuff over here. We went in and the process was crazy.
AUX: How so?
Zubair: It was pretty intense…a professional recording. He was extremely meticulous, and that’s where you know where you stand as a musician. That’s where you correct yourself. We honestly became better musicians after we recorded the record. The process went a little bit long and the other band members decided they wanted to part ways and do their own thing. The singer wanted to go back to Europe because he was homesick, and the other two guys, they didn’t want to pursue and go out and do the tour thing. It’s not easy. We’re not Mötley Crüe.
AUX: No. You’re living in a van on the road.
Zubair: Exactly. You’re living in a van or in a motel or someone’s basement when you’re travelling. But we want to do it. Alan and I, we always thought “we’re never going to give up, no matter what happens now.”
AUX: And you have the chance to do it now where as back in Dubai it’s not the same…
Zubair: It’s not the same at all, but things are changing. They still have that barrier over there, but it’s extremely modernized. It’s extremely Americanized and Canadianised…A lot of things have changed now. A lot of bands play over there….
AUX: Have you had the change to go back and play at all? Obviously you’d want to…
Zubair: We are going to go back and play. For sure. That’s the spot where the band started off from.
AUX: And you can do it now.
Zubair: We can do it now. We’re a Canadian band. We want to go back there and I guess we’ll be the only Canadian metal band playing in the Middle East. None of the major Canadian bands have ever been to the Middle East.
AUX: You’ve got a bit of an “in,” you could say.
Zubair: Absolutely. We’re known in that area and people are dying to watch us play.
AUX: Have you gotten any feedback lately from anyone in the area?
Zubair: Oh yeah. They’re going crazy. We’re trying to get our CDs over there, we’re just trying to figure out the distribution stuff. We’re talking to a couple of labels, stuff like that. We were stuck, Alan and I, because after the rest of the members left we had to go find the right members, which we did…
AUX: So that was after Coils of Entropy when you had to do some line-up changes?
Zubair: Yeah, that’s the reason why we waited for a little longer, so we could find the right people. And we did. Flo [Ravet] is a Belgian bass player, a phenomenal player. He played in a lot of major bands in Belgium. We have James Sawyer, who’s a very famous guitar player over here. He did a lot of sessions with European bands but he’d never played in a proper death metal band. Then there’s Devlin Anderson, a great singer. Funny part: Devlin’s dad used to be the bass player for Platinum Blonde.
The most important thing was the chemistry that we have. The stuff that we play is not really easy. You need to build chemistry. You need to know that we have members, that every one is really strong and part of it. The most important thing is…it’s not only the chemistry, it’s the commitment.
AUX: It’s like on the album. A lot of the music is complicated, but not abrasively so. There are songs to it.
Zubair: It’s the blend. It’s all the influences we grew up with, we want to express it in music. At the same time, we love old school death metal. I grew up on it.
AUX: When did you start getting into extreme metal?
Zubair: Back there. I started listening to metal when I was a kid, when I was in Dubai. I lived in England as well, but when I moved to Dubai, that’s the time when I started smuggling CDs from Europe.
AUX: That’s really what I was wondering, where the influences comes from with a band that started in the Middle East.
Zubair: We subscribed to Metal Hammer and Terrorizer magazines. There was no internet, it was so difficult. We used to get samplers with CDs. You were excited, there’s no internet, there’s nothing over there. You’re just waiting every month receive your magazine that you subscribe to in the middle of nowhere. You listen to all this stuff going to school, you put it in your walkman. I used to walk around with old school Obituary, Entombed, Pestilence, Suffocation. All that stuff when I was just a kid.
AUX: It shows on the album. It has that mid-90s sound, sort of like New York and Quebec combined…
Zubair: That’s what we say we sound like, we’re a very old-school sounding new-school band. Sometimes we like to be technical, sometimes we’re brutal, sometimes we’re sludgy, sometimes we’re groovy, and at the end of the day we’ve got the guys now, the album is out and we have amazing reviews.
AUX: Now the fun really starts.
Zubair: We started getting endorsed. I started getting endorsed by this band, Blackheart Guitars in South Dakota, really good, amazing company. We got endorsed by Vader cabs, DR strings, SIT strings, a lot of stuff. It’s like the door just opened.
AUX: Every bit has to help.
Zubair: Absolutely. Our other guitar player just got endorsed by Dean. The funniest part is he’s getting an 8-string guitar, it’s a Rusty Cooley, a very rare 8-string with fanned frets on it. That’s what we’re getting into right now. His guitar is being built by Brian Hoffman, who used to play in Deicide. So he’s building his guitar, listening to our music…it’s crazy.
AUX: Feedback from your influences has got to be cool.
Zubair: Absolutely. When I got endorsed by Blackheart Guitars, Jack Owen, he’s a legendary guitar player who used to play in Cannibal Corpse and now he plays in Deicide. He’s endorsed by the same company and it feels so weird. It’s like, “hey, I was a kid listening to that kind of stuff” and now I’m with them on that roster.
AUX: Just to get a full length out it took a long time.
Zubair: Even though we had a demo and an EP, the full length was this whole process. It’s hard, because when you move, you settle down and you have to pay your bills. You have to get a job. It’s easier said than done. You can’t just go and record a couple of tracks, go play a couple of CDs.
AUX: That was one of the arguments the government made last year when they were trying to cut back grants. They’d said that if bands wanted to play, they should just go play. But you can’t just walk into a bar and play a show.
Zubair: There’s always a lot of things the government does to cut bands off, but you’ve got to utilize that. What really bothers me is we have so much talent here in Canada. We have so many great musicians, but it’s just a lack of unity. A lot of good bands, they come up and do one big tour and then they give up and go back to doing “regular” jobs.
AUX: It does feel like Toronto’s catching up, though. The metal community is still catching up, but it kind of feels like everyone is rooting for each other now.
Zubair: Which wasn’t really there before. There’s always one or two major booking agencies trying to
control stuff, which is not really a cool thing. I played in a band called Burn to Black, with Sam Dunn and Alan. That’s another reason why the album took a little longer, we had two different duties to do.
AUX: That had to help though, getting into a band that was based out of Toronto.
Zubair: Yeah, yeah. Sam’s been an old friend, from even before he did his movies. Even Paul Harrington and the rest of the guys, they were my buddies. It’s a crazy, small little world. Burn to Black went well, but [Dunn] was busy.
AUX: I remember the band, I liked the album but then it kind of faded away
Zubair: Yeah, he got really busy with his movies. We still keep in touch and I’m really proud of what he’s doing. But what I’m really trying to say is that it pays off. I played in Quebec and I saw the unity between the bands and the promoter, it’s just beautiful. It’s like a big family.
AUX: I hear they have an incredible scene there, but in Toronto it seems like venues are disappearing for metal.
Zubair: Yeah, the Big Bop is gone.
AUX: And there’s the Opera House…
Zubair: The infamous Opera House. It’s a good place, it feels weird but it’s the Opera House, right? But like the Big Bop, the Reverb, the Kathedral, that’s gone. All these venues are disappearing, and that’s why I think the most important thing is unity. We have so much good material coming out of here, so many good musicians, so much talent, but we don’t promote it as much as the United States does.
AUX: That’s why I was glad to hear Coils of Entropy. It’s a good album and it’s a local album worth telling people about. I always get nervous with new death metal albums, because I’m not very big on the more modern aspects of the genre, but I feel like you have some of those without falling into a reliance on them. You’ve got that old, muddy sound…without sounding like shit, which is a hard mix to find.
Zubair: That’s the sound that we went for. There’s a lot of new school kids, getting into the new school stuff, but they don’t realize about the old school bands. That’s what we’re trying to do, to bring that blend in.
AUX: How does your background fit in? There are a lot of bands who market themselves on having “Middle Eastern” scales and riffs…how does that play with a guitarist from there?
Zubair: I grew up in the Middle East. I played the oud as well, which is like the Arabic guitar. Me, being a guitar player, I’m self taught and it’s very difficult. I was taught to play oud, not guitar.
AUX: And from that you’re self-taught?
Zubair: Yeah. And from that I’ve always had a passion and love for music. I grew up with my uncle spinning old vinyl stuff. From Dio to Ozzy, all that kind of stuff. Blue Oyster Cult, Pink Floyd, all the old progressive stuff.
AUX: Pre-metal stuff.
Zubair: Even my older sister, who’s six years older than me, was listening to the earlier thrash stuff. That’s how I got into it. At the same time, we do have the Middle Eastern feel.
AUX: It’s not like when you’re listening to some bands and it’s straight through tech-death and then they’ll throw in a random scale. It feels more organic, which I guess is a product of it being organic.
AUX: Is there anything going on that you want to bring attention to? IEven Toronto. Like you said, it’s all about supporting the community.
Zubair: Yeah, there’s one message I want to send to every single musician or fans or people that support music in general, and it’s just to come out and support your local bands. Push your local bands. We have so much talent in Toronto, and when you look at it, where are the major metal bands coming from in Canada? It always points to Montreal. None of the Toronto bands ever make it other than Sacrifice back in the day.
AUX: I mean, Toronto had a big thrash scene but that was what, 1987?
Zubair: Slaughter…all those bands. Where are they? Nowhere.
AUX: Even though bands cite them as huge influences, they just kind of disappeared.
Zubair: The only band I can say which is heavy metal that’s doing really well is Cauldron. They’re signed to Earache and going out and playing shows in Germany and stuff like that.
AUX: And that’s what a lot of bands do. They start, get a little buzz and then disappear to Europe.
Zubair: We have to.
AUX: It’s a catch-22. You have to go because you want to play shows. You can’t play shows because…
Zubair: There’s no support. It’s so sad. When a major band comes here, they go to the Opera House and it’s packed. They’re not all coming from Toronto. There’s people from Cambridge, smaller towns. But what happens when the local bands are playing? There’s no support. No support at all.
AUX: Do you think that’s the result of there being no places to play, or?
Zubair: It’s a bit of both. It’s a bit of, “oh, it’s just a local band who cares,” and that’s so negative. That local band could be something.
AUX: Every one is a local band when they start.
Zubair: Support your scene.
AUX: Are there any bands people should really have their ear on?
Zubair: In Toronto there’s a lot of bands which are really good. Fatality is an amazing thrash band. Aggressor is an amazing thrash band, those kids are crazy. As far as extreme stuff, there’s a lot of good bands. Look at Eclipse Eternal. I actually mastered their second record. They’re another band, doing black metal and they’re struggling. They’re still not signed. I wish they’d get signed.
AUX: They just distribute it. It’s almost gone back to before my time, where there was zine trading and tape trading. That could benefit in the end, but it’s a transition.
Zubair: The only benefit of a label right now is getting in touch with booking agents. Right now, as long as you’re in a roster where you’re doing a tour and going out on the road and selling merch, that’s the only way you make it. To do that you need a strong booking agent.
AUX: So what’s the end goal now that you’ve got everything going?
Zubair: If this is the beginning, the end goal is we want to be touring all over the world, we want to spread our music everywhere. We want to be a band that’s from Canada, from Toronto. Toronto is home. We want to represent Toronto. We want to be the death metal band coming out of Toronto, representing Canada. That’s our goal and hopefully it comes true and people support us and vice versa. We’re supporting local bands in the metal scene and we want our scene to go up.
AUX: Quebec’s had their build-up, you want to be part of Toronto’s.
Zubair: I want to be part of Toronto’s build-up, and i want to be part of Canada’s build-up. If the States can do it, so can we.