Death metal drumming requires a level of endurance that would give a marathon runner pause for thought. Also, the technicalities and almost virtuoso aspects involved can be a show in themselves when seen in a live context. One of the most disciplined drummers in extreme music is Greek born George Kollias of the technically brilliant death metal band Nile. Following the success of prior drum clinics in Australia, he is here again, expanding on the format by offering rare, intensive workshops. Loud Online snared a chat with George, if you’ll pardon the pun to discover a friendly drum teacher who also happens to be an exceptionally well respected and incredibly active drummer in the music world.
You’re coming to Australia again for a series of drum clinics and intensive workshops. How will the upcoming clinics compare to the prior ones you did here with Dave Haley, the mighty drummer of Psycroptic?
Dave is one of my best friends since 2006 so the first time I got the offer to do it, I said, ‘hell yeah, that will be fun’. It was very successful and I remember it was packed at every place we played so we decided to repeat it when we had time. Finally, we did and decided that we’ll do it again. This time it is a little bit different with more dates, more events and intensive camps. At the workshops, you spend time with twenty to twenty five students for a full day and talk in between breaks and probably have dinner with them as well. So, it will be a unique and enjoyable experience. I’m looking forward to this time especially because it looks even better than the previous one which was perfect anyway.
How has your drumming style changed over the years?
Especially lately it has changed very much. If I go on stage and play some Nile songs or my old songs, I’m probably going to play them the same but I feel more creative right now. Right now we are working on the new Nile album and about to hit the studio. The new material sounds really different. We put so much work into it and applied new ideas. I am getting more on the technical side, I would say. It is a getting a little bit crazy man, too crazy maybe. I think people will judge this but for me it is an ongoing process to get better, you know, all the basic stuff for a musician.
I’m guessing you’ve got speed down pat and don’t need to practise that aspect that much more, so what is the next thing to master?
Nile is a band that no matter crazy we get with time signatures between slow stuff and then super fast stuff or whatever we do, we always write for music. So, the song is the first priority in that we are not playing for the drummer or guitar player. But this time, we have seven songs completely down and ready to record. The area I am focusing on a lot are the drum fills. I just wanted to be more creative there and I applied maybe gospel or funk fills. It is a little bit weird but I think people will love it because I have a lot of fun playing the new songs. It will be something new and we also have more crazy time signatures and today we finished one of the hardest songs I think we’ve ever played.
You tune the drums down pretty low. Does that continue to be the case in the studio?
Of course, we have an engineer and when you get into the studio you get into some amazing details. I can tune the drums to sound great and then when you put the microphones, pre-amplifiers and stuff in place, you might hear some noises, so we are very careful. We’re more careful that other bands because we don’t use a technique called ‘sound replacement’ so we try not to do that. We try to keep things natural, which is a lot of extra work. I’m happy with my drum sound. I don’t want to use sound replacement and sound like a plastic drum kit. For some bands it sounds great. Dimmu Borgir triggers all the drums and that suits their style. Nile will never do that because it would make us sound very cheap, in my opinion. For other black metal bands I’ve done some sessions and I’ve preferred to use sound replacement. It is all about the style. We try to keep it natural and true.
Does the tone come more from the drum head or the wood of the drum?
Oh it is a combination of things. First though, it is from the hand. For guitar players it is the same. I’ve experienced that by playing with Dallas’[Toler-Wade – Nile lead vocals and guitar] guitars. The hand is really important and then of course the kit. In the studio, we use a high end kit and Pearl is the best. They send the best ones, all the time. Evans drum kits are the best in the market as well. So it is a combination of things.
What would you say to the students that want to sound exactly like you?
To keep doing what I am doing as well. If you really like the instrument you will spend time with it and therefore get better at it. It is never the opposite. The more time you spend, it always pays off. Some may spend time to reach a goal but for me it was always about having fun because I like it. You reach that point where you think if I can do it then anybody can do it, you just need to put the time into it.
Your double kick technique is quite well documented on YouTube. A lot of your influences have either a heel up or heel down technique. What was it that led you to combine those styles? Was it just from trial and error?
I have this in my book [The Odyssey of Double Bass Drumming (Part I: The Beginning)] as well. For me there are three types of techniques. The heel down one is from back in the 1930’s or 1940’s and even today for some jazz players, which allows for great balance because your heel is touching the pedal. Each technique has some benefits and what I would call some not so comfortable spots. Heel down gives you great balance, control and softness but heel up will give you the speed, balance and power but especially the power. Combining those two led us to the third technique which I call the ‘modern heel up’ technique. What I do is still heel up but in a modern way that I think drummers came up with in about 2000 or 1998. I think this is the only way to play super fast whilst still having good power and balance. It combines everything and I see it on every drummer today, even pop and gospel based monster drummers. We all seem to have the same technique now.
To develop it, did you need to relearn anything?
No, for me it was from trying to play faster and faster when I was a kid. It got me there naturally and that will happen with everybody. The reason why I do the clinics and the camps is that you get a student and show it to them, they get into it and see first hand which muscles are working. It will happen because the more you push, you will get the motion. Coming to one of my clinics and seeing it right there will take you ten minutes to learn it whereas it took me five or six years to learn it. For my students to learn it that quickly is great and this is why we do the clinics.
How about your swivel technique that you use with your ankles?
That is not actually a technique, it is really a motion. Many people online think that it is the way to play super fast but for me it is only to help with my balance. It doesn’t really help but I got into it because I saw it from other drummers and thought that was the key to playing super fast. It is not the key, it is just a motion but I’ve found that it helps me a little bit with my balance. One day I decided to quit doing it because it doesn’t really do stuff for me and it is a little bit dangerous for your knees if you overdo it. Then everybody online started talking about me doing it and it seems that people like it so I thought, fuck it, I will keep it. This is the truth and it doesn’t really help for speed but helps a bit with balance and I guess it looks good.
Another technique is your sixteenth note method with double kick drumming using alternating feet on eighth notes. How do you relay that to students?
For me it was all from listening until YouTube came out in 2003 or 2004. Still, it took another five years or so for well known drummers to put up videos of what they do. By that time I had everything down but from seeing other drummers. I struggled starting out because there were not very many videos online. Today there are so many great DVDs out there. I’ve made two DVDs [Intense Metal Drumming I & Intense Metal Drumming II] and I know that Derek Roddy [drum clinician, ex Hate Eternal drummer and session drummer for Nile on Black Seeds of Vengeance] has made two killer DVDs [Playing With Your Drums & Blast Beats Evolved] as well. So, you buy it, see what he is doing and copy everything at once. It is really easy to get into it now but back in the day it wasn’t, especially in the 90’s. I started playing when I twelve years old in 1991. Up until 2000, there was no information out there. All the Slayer and Sepultura cover songs we were playing were learned by ear, which took more time but I think it helped a lot with musicality. Today, if you want to play a cover, you go on YouTube and see it to copy it. For us, it was not easy to hear in the old production what the kick drum was doing all the time, which hi-hat was being played or if there were two right cymbals or one. There were no pictures at all.
Indeed, I certainly recall that era. For triggering, did you simply adopt it as a necessity?
It is a necessity, one hundred percent. There is a lot of bashing of triggering but I say this to everybody; I don’t like triggers. Nothing can beat the natural kick drum sound, the feel and dynamics are beautiful. For death metal though, you cannot play without triggers and if you can, you’d be playing slow death metal. I can play Nile songs without triggers but you cannot really feel the kicks so we have to use triggers. That is because the kick drum itself is such a big drum with so much moving air inside so it is really hard to clean every stroke unless you punch the hell out of every stroke.
Triggers are rife in metal, really.
Yes, people think that back in the day, that it was a machine or something that played by itself. I wish. It just delivers every stroke you play. You hit the drum and you get the sample. The cheating thing is that it is a dynamic that is always strong and delivers that fast, in your face, double bass kick that you hear at the live show. That is not necessarily good because when you play with microphones on the kicks, you may think you’re super tight but when you turn on the triggers, you’ll see you’re sloppy. So, it is also very hard playing with triggers because a little mistake means everybody can hear it.
Your wrist movement for snare playing probably gives you more expression since it is not triggered.
Yeah, that is the reason I don’t want to trigger my snare because there are some dynamics involved and for a fill, it goes to another dimension. For kicks, there are not dynamics in death metal but there are dynamics in the hands and I don’t want to block them. That is why I am not triggering snares and toms.
Aside from death metal, you listen to all sorts of different music including jazz or even fusion. What would you say are the skills you take away from listening to Vinnie Colaiuta or Dave Weckl?
There are so many amazing players in every style of music. Of course you can steal licks. You can see Vinnie doing something and take it and put it in Nile and everybody will like it but that is a Vinnie thing, it can go anywhere. But, what I really like to see and feel is every drummer has certain expression. If you’ve ever seen the Buddy Rich Memorial with Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl and Steve Gadd, it is a healthy drum battle. You can see Dave Weckl with all of his precision being simply perfect. He is one of my favourite drummers. Then Vinnie has a more aggressive attitude and you can feel it. It is different and awesome. Then Steve Gadd jumps in and plays simple beats but there is so much magic in there. So I think that listening to somebody playing the drums can go very deep listening to their expression. You can also find something super cool and talk to the drummer about how they did it. You can then take it, change it and use it in your music. There are so many cool things you can do with this instrument. It is a never ending learning process actually.
AUSTRALIAN DRUM CLINIC/INTENSIVE WORKSHOP TOUR 2015
March 4th, Brisbane, Brisbane Tafe, 7:00pm (Drum Clinic)*
March 5th, Sydney, The Factory Floor, 8:00pm (Drum Clinic)*
March 6th, Canberra, The Groove Warehouse, 2:00-5:00pm (Workshop), 6:00 (Drum Clinic)
March 7th, Sydney, Adversary Studios, 10:00am-2:00pm (Full Day Intensive Workshop)
March 8th, Melbourne, Drumtek, 10:00am-2:00pm (Full Day Intensive Workshop)
March 9th, Melbourne, Drumtek, 7:00pm (Performing Nile songs)
March 10th, Melbourne, Drumtek, 7:00pm (Performing Solo Project songs)
* dates with Dave Haley from Psycroptic