The band’s name may not be familiar to the majority of you and their moniker isn’t going to help them stand out from the crowd, but Toronto’s Nephelium is bound to garner interest solely based on the fact that they originally called Dubai home. And not the “new” Dubai where everything seems like it prolapsed out of reality television’s most audacious and extravagant butthole. When Nephelium started, Dubai was still in crackdown mode when it came to the evils of western rock music. The band’s driving force, guitarist Alex Zubair, persevered through fourth generation cassette copies of the Big Four’s classic works, the stink eye from the religious police and general across-the-board disapproval and eventually found himself and co-conspirator, drummer Alan Madhavan, based in Toronto where these days they’re churning out death metal akin to heavyweights like Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Vader and Nile. We caught up with Zubair recently to discuss the obvious as the band works to promote their upcoming debut full-length, Coils of Entropy.
I must admit, what initially drew me to your band was the story of you hailing from Dubai before settling in Toronto. How much of your history goes back to being a band in Dubai before coming over to Canada?
Yeah, we were a band in Dubai. Nephelium was formed by Alan and I when we used to live there. We started the band in the late 90s, probably about 1998.
Everyone has an idea of what they think about metal in the Middle East, especially after the Vice doc on Acrassicauda and Sam Dunn’s Global Metal, but Dubai is a bit more liberal, isn’t it?
It’s more cosmopolitan. It’s extremely liberal. You have multi-cultural people from all over the world there. It’s very Americanized and westernized even though it’s an Islamic country. Things have changed a lot. I remember back in the early 90s, I played in a band before Nephelium and we were known as the first thrash metal band in the country, Anthology, but we used to do a lot of covers of Testament, Pantera, Megadeth and Metallica and that sort of stuff back in the day. It was very difficult back then; people used to have to smuggle CDs back into the country when we would travel to Europe or North America and there was a very small community of guys from different schools and different parts of the world who would do this. There was no internet back then and it was totally different; it was more word of mouth. If you went to a shopping mall or something and you saw another metalhead wearing a t-shirt, you’d talk to them, exchange numbers so you could exchange music. That’s how we did it. When Nephelium started off, there were a lot of people, families and kids coming into Dubai and more bands were starting. I was pretty much done with Anthology and I wanted to do something different, something heavier. I got introduced to Alan. He was pretty young, but had great potential as a drummer and we started from there. It was an amazing experience. Now, it’s crazy over there; you have the Desert Rock festival and so many bands are going out to play it and there are a lot of bands coming out of Dubai. Recently, Arch Enemy, In Flames, Melechesh, Obscura and a bunch of others have played there. That was way after I left the country.
So, what was it like when you left?
There were a lot of fans and a lot of kids getting into metal. It was really good because the underground scene was way, way big. We’d throw shows and a lot of kids would come out but it got hard to throw private shows because a lot of kids would come out and the Islamic department would be pretty strict about things. We used to risk playing metal because you’d never know if or when the cops would come in and stop the show; and there were times when the cops would come in and stop shows and stuff like that. And people thought we were crazy for listening to extreme metal in the first place.
Speaking as someone who was born and raised in Toronto, grew up in and with the Toronto metal scene and knows how discouraging the city can be for anyone in a band, it must be asked: why the hell did you decide on Toronto as a home base?
That’s the question we always get! “Why Toronto? Why did you guys choose Toronto?” [laughter] Canada and Toronto is home; I’m Canadian. I have a lot of friends, family and stuff like that here and my dad was a civil engineer and traveled all over the place and when it was time to come back home, this was home. I thought that we couldn’t really push the band over there at that time when things were just taking off. So, Alan and I thought about it and this is what we decided; we even tried to get other members to come to Canada and they couldn’t. Our original singer and bassist were Lebanese and Turkish, respectively, and it was impossible or near-impossible for them to get visas to move them over here. So, I moved back in 2004 when things started taking off in the Middle East. In 2005, they had the first Desert Rock and Alan helped a band called Nervecell, who are now sort of huge in that region, by playing with them at that show. He also recorded the drums on their first demo. When he re-located here, Nervecell took off [laughs]. But, it’s definitely challenging because, unfortunately, it’s really bad to see how the local scene is supported here. It’s terrible, but it’s our city and we want to come out and represent our city. Maybe that will change the scene here?
After moving to Toronto, how long did it take to get started again and complete the line up?
It was a pretty hard. When I came back, I had a lot of friends here… the singer who sang on the record [Boyan Guerdjikov] was an old friend of mine who lived here and I got in contact with him, told him I was moving the band here and asked him if he was interested in joining and he was. Then, what I did was after I moved here was I went around exploring the Toronto scene and…well, you know how the Toronto scene is [laughter]. I went to shows trying to network with people, but it was all people who knew each other and were in bands who just wanted to play shows at the local clubs and try and get opening slots for bigger bands. You’re typical local band stuff [laughter]. I was a little disappointed because it was not like Montreal where there’s a huge scene and it’s the heavy metal capital of North America. I actually played in Burn to Black with Sam Dunn for awhile and saw Montreal in person and it was crazy. Everyone supports everyone over there. Toronto has great musicians it’s just…
Yeah, you don’t have to tell me. I’ve known the story for years…
[Laughter] Toronto is challenging for us because Toronto is home and we want to be known as a metal band from Toronto and Canada, but we just don’t want to be known as a local band or Canadian band. We want to be known internationally as a band representing Canada.
Since Coils of Entropy has been done have you gone back to Dubai with it to show old friends and fans?
Actually, the record gets released on February 7th and we’re planning on doing that. We’re going to line up a couple of shows in the Middle East then do a tour, hopefully, of Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan of course and go down to Bahrain and Dubai. The people are really, really excited; they’re waiting for this album and they’re waiting for us to play the Middle East.
What’s the story behind your having an almost entirely different line up now than the one that recorded the album?
The singer, after he recorded, he wanted to pursue his life. He went back to Bulgaria because he was really homesick and did his masters, which is completely understandable and respectable. Our bass player didn’t really want to pursue life as a musician. He left Toronto and moved back home to Peterborough, Ontario. Dan [Glover], the other guitar player, he had his own personal issues and he left the band.
How long did it take to revamp the line up?
It was hard because we had just finished the record and Alan and I had to go back to square one. We couldn’t do much. We had to look for good musicians, which is easy, but finding dedicated musicians is hard. In the end, we found amazing musicians; James [Sawyer] is an amazing guitar player and our bass player [Florian Ravet] is Belgian and he’s played in a couple bands out here but he wasn’t happy with them because he was too good for the bands he played in [laughter]. It just automatically clicked because all kind of knew each other before and we were looking for musicians. And honestly, the band has never been stronger.