By Carl Begai
Dubai-based death metal bashers Nervecell are all about crushing stereotypes. Their agenda is entirely musical in nature and not at all politically or culturally motivated, contrary to what the mainstream media would have you believe about everything and everyone coming out of the Middle East. The whole “Nice guys finish last” adage has likewise been squashed, as the humble and soft spoken quartet – when they’re off stage, at any rate – have spent the summer and will be closing out 2009 as the first Middle Eastern metal band ever to tour through Europe. It’s a journey Nervecell earned with all-important European one-off festival shows in 2007 and 2008 and their Preaching Venom album, having made enough of an impression to warrant more dates, bigger crowds, and a growing fanbase. At press time the band was gearing up for an appearance at the prestigious Wacken Open Air in Germany, considered to be the metal equivalent of a “Yes We Can” banner. The world being what it is, however, it’s fair to say that Nervecell’s origins make them a something of a novelty on the European scene, resulting in a great deal of dubious curiosity and head-scratching prior to the inevitable full blown acceptance.
“For sure,” agrees guitarist Barney Ribeiro. “We’ve been told straight up ‘Oh, you guys are from Dubai, we’re interested in having you…’ but at the same time, when we finish our performances we’ve had promoters and fans come up to us and say they never expected us to perform at the level we did. That’s not to say we’re experts, but they feel we’re a good death metal band and we can see that they’re happy expressing how shocked they are. Here’s a band from the Middle East that writes its own music and is able to reach a European audience and comes across as a touring band. The thing with us is, in Dubai we don’t get consecutive shows, which is our biggest problem. So now that we’re getting on these bigger festivals it’s a challenge for us, and promoters definitely see us as something exotic and interesting.”
Vocalist / bassist James Khazaal – hilariously mistaken for Slayer guitarist Kerry King on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany the day before their tour kick-off at the Rock im Park – pinpoints a musical stereotype that comes with being from the Middle East.
“Because Nervecell is based in Dubai we’re perceived by many people as something Oriental, so as Barney said, when they hear and see us they’re shocked to have to get their minds onto that original death metal old school path. We get fans from all over because we don’t play only death metal, there’s also lots of thrash in our music. If there’s any Oriental element in Nervecell it appears in Rami’s solos, slight touches and phrases here and there, but other than that it’s pure death metal.”
Boasting almost a decade in the trenches, Nervecell drew much needed attention to themselves in 2005 as part of the Dubai Desert Rock Fest. Referred to by Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt as “No fake metal heiarchy, just a bloody good time,” the increasingly popular event was huge for Nervecell according to Ribeiro, having created a much needed buzz around the band. To his mind it probably would have taken longer for Nervecell to break away from the confines of home without that kick in the ass, an experience they repeated in 2007. Since then the metal scene at home has opened up considerably.
Guitarist Rami Mustafa comments: “The whole scene changed. Promoters started making smaller shows and the market opened up. Dubai is a very commercial city, so no matter what it is – even extreme metal – the idea is to make it successful because people want make money off it. That’s cool for us, and it’s happening. There’s a real metal movement going on in the Middle East right now. It’s been going on for the last three years; bands from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, but you don’t know that until you’re actually in the country. There’s a huge underground scene. Over the last year we’ve seen news channels doing documentaries on this movement. Even in Europe it started as an underground movement with bands like Iron Maiden and Motörhead coming out of the UK and being passed on to European audiences. That’s the revolution happening now in the Middle East and we’re just part of that rise.”
“Fortunately for us we’ve kept it together as a band,” he adds, including Australian drummer Louis Rando in the mix. “We could have easily broken up because there are so many reasons to; lack of shows, there’s no money in it, lack of proper facilities to even record a demo. As friends we get along well, we jam together, and we just happened to become that band to represent the Middle East and take extreme metal and offer it to the European audience.”
Hitting Europe was no happy accident. Nervecell had very definite ideas about where they wanted to take their music and how they were going to get noticed by the world at large.
“It’s always been our goal to play internationally,” Ribeiro says. “We actually started things moving through MySpace, contacting people and sending press kits here and there. We branched out and used our degrees, really. Marketing, IT skills… we were actually one of the first Middle Eastern bands to have a website for our music. No one in the Middle East did that. We started getting a small chain of smaller festivals lined up for the summer, and once that was up and running we contacted the larger ones, showing them that we’d booked these shows ourselves and kind of pushed them to let us a book a slot. That’s really how we ended up here. When you have a 20 minute slot, that’s pretty short, but it’s enough to do us some justice.”
“That’s what has kept us together. Unlike a lot of Middle Eastern bands, they don’t have the right intentions or priorities. They just look at the angle of making it big and playing the Desert Rock festival because that mean you are officially the shit. It’s way beyond that because Nervecell binds us as friends with a hobby. We started playing music together and then things got serious.”
Mustafa: “We worked hard. We knew other bands at home who were really good musically but they never promoted themselves. They didn’t work on marketing their band. It’s not rocket science, and to be honest there are a lot of bands in the Middle East that are just lazy. They sit there and wait for other bands to open doors for them. That’s happened to us, where bands have asked us to ask the promoters of Desert Rock to put them on the bill. It’s like, ‘Dude you don’t have an album out, you don’t even have a recording…’ (laughs).”
Khazaal: “Now it’s at the point where people are going back to our message board and revising the crap they said to us before. All of us have humble beginnings and we’ve never boasted about our achievements. The first time we thought about going out and touring, playing festivals, was 2007. As the guys said we sent out press kits, we spoke to the organizers, we headlined a tour and a festival in Australia, we played in Egypt. In late 2007 – and I’m not saying this pisses me off – but of you go to the MetalCamp or Wacken website there are all these Middle Eastern bands on the voting lists hoping to play those festivals. No offence to them, but when we started promoting ourselves none of those bands were there.”
“On the positive side we’re leading the pack,” he continues. “We knocked down the doors and given people opportunities, and we’ve opened people’s eyes. That’s where the confidence kicks in, but sometimes I feel pity for these people because they think all they have to do is put their names on a website under the heading ‘Please Vote For Us’. That’s not how things go. You have to work hard because things are not that easy.”
“This is why we’re really attached to each other. Luck did not play a major role as much as our hard work and effort. With hard work and effort you open up the path to good luck, and that’s how we got it. Other bands look at things differently and mess with the formula, and that’s why are where we are today.”
Ribeiro: “We never expected to reach this level. Obviously it’s any metal band’s dream to play Wacken; that’s a huge accomplishment. But to go there as a band from the Middle East, there’s pressure, but it’s also something we’ve been looking forward to doing. Up until a few months ago it was just a dream, which is crazy. Doing these festivals, it’s really putting our work to the test playing to the people that live and breathe metal. Especially in Europe, where the festival audiences are several thousand people instead of a few hundred. We believe we’ll leave an impression on the industry people there. We’re writing music for the next album, but right now our intentions is to get onto a European label and get on the road. We’ve been doing this for nine years and we’ve reached a level where it’s our time to prove we have what it takes.”
“The writing of Preaching Venom took four years, so we really want to do justice to it,” Khazaal adds. “We’ve got management, we’ve got distribution, but we feel the album hasn’t reached enough people yet. we’re touring Europe, but it had to conquer the US, it has to conquer Britain. We’re in the process of writing new stuff, but we still have to push Preaching Venom and these festivals are the best way to get the message out there.”
Fast forward a few weeks to a follow-up conversation with Ribeiro in the wake of three successful festival shows in Germany (Rock im Park, Rock am Ring, With Full Force). Nervecell was not, as it turns out, odd man out on any bill, nor were they unwelcome. A United Arab Emirates flag raised in tribute by diehard fans in one particular crowd sent a very clear message to the band.
“I wouldn’t say we were intimidated at all, but it was beyond anything any of us had expected. I mean, we would have seriously gone back home satisfied if the crowds had just headbanged to our tunes, but what was surprising was they knew our songs and were chanting along to each track. It seriously made us feel like we were playing to a home crowd. It was really special as we felt like we had played Germany for like the fifth time or something. Fact is it was our first gig ever in Germany, and that too at Rock am Ring! But, 10 seconds into our opening track the circle pits went off. Regarding that UAE flag, wow, that made us feel really welcome of course. It was at With Full Force Festival and there were these kids there front row holding it up… with ‘Nervecell’ written on it. If anything it made us all realize that we were truly putting Dubai on the metal map. Finally (laughs).”
It’s fair to say Nervecell have succeeded in crushing the cultural stereotypes the media loves to play up so much. Giving credit where it’s due, the band’s unconditional acceptance by metal fans in spite of being “different” has proven once again that metaldom is indeed home to the educated and open-minded.
“I guess we’ve certainly done our part as a band where our music speaks for itself,” Ribeiro offers. “So far, from all these festivals that we’ve been playing in Europe, a lot of the reactions we’ve been getting is the media and fans alike being shocked about how we look, speak and sound on and off stage. It’s great that we impress them, of course, so it’s a pretty cool vibe for us to express ourselves freely and have our music be accepted the way it has been so far, regardless of the fact of where we’re based. What’s really obvious is the curiosity in people’s minds when they hear ‘a band from Dubai’. We kinda know what they’re thinking when we go on stage and basically just deliver a brutal set of straight up death metal, destroying any perceptions that one may have had about the band before.”
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