Spilling blood on stage is not unknown on the death metal scene, a musical genre infamous for its horror-movie aesthetics – Ozzy Osbourne once tore the head off a bat with his teeth.
So when Avo, vocalist for the Maldivian band Nothnegal, accidentally smashed his forehead into the bassist’s guitar during the band’s third performance on its recent European tour, thousands of German fans in spikes and black make-up went wild.
“I was going down to headbang just as he brought up his guitar. As soon as the crowd saw blood they went ‘Woah!’ and got really excited. They thought it was part of the show,” Avo recalls.
“We didn’t stop the show, we continued. By the time we finished the set the entire microphone and stand was covered in blood, the places where I stood – everywhere there was blood. But people came up afterwards and wanted to take pictures while I was still bleeding: ‘Stay like that, I want to take a picture with you!’ They thought it was part of the stage act, but at the time I was getting dizzy.”
Wounds healed and fresh from their 24 day tour around Europe, EMI record contract in hand and with their upcoming album ‘Decadence’ to be released under ‘Season of Mist’, considered one of the world’s top labels in the extreme metal scene, Nothnegal is emerging as one of the Maldives’ hottest international exports after tuna and tourism.
Avo’s on-stage injury caused some confusion as to the group’s nationality, however.
“After that people kept thinking that we were from India because of the red mark on my forehead. People would come and say, ‘We didn’t know India had a death metal scene’.”
“We would say we were not from India and they would ask, then why do you have a red dot on your forehead?’ I would say ‘dude, it was an accident!’
“In Barcelona one of the guys in the venue came up and said it was the first time he had seen some Asians performing in Spain. Then he said ‘Namaste.’”
The – inadvertently – extreme image Nothnegal created for itself in Germany ensured the band’s popularity throughout the rest on the tour.
“We got so much support – people thought we were really vile. Even the other bands on tour (Samael, Metsatöll, Rotting Christ and Finntroll) were asking us if we’d done it on purpose. I said we did it all the time!”
Nothnegal’s lead guitarist Hilarl points out that while some death metal bands go to the extreme of throwing blood about on stage, it was a misconception to think that “that’s who they really are. It’s just like a horror movie – it’s an act, a performance.
“There’s a band called Mayhem, he cuts himself while he’s singing. They might show a different side of themselves on stage, but they are really normal people. But sometimes when people see the spikes on stage, that’s who they think we really are.”
To the band’s disappointment, they missed a much anticipated concert playing alongside their death metal icons, Fear Factory, at the O2 in Bristol after snow trapped them in Frankfurt airport for 34 hours – the first time four of the band members had see snow.
“That was the one we were really hoping for. Fear Factory is one of our favourite bands,” Avo says. “We were going through security as the flight was cancelled – we were really upset. The show was starting in two hours, and Hilarl had to find a terminal to mail the management and say we couldn’t make it.”
Despite the disappointment of the cancellation, Nothnegal played to some “crazy” audiences of up to 10,000 people. Highlights included Milan, Switzerland and Slovenia.
“Most of the countries in southern European countries were really into the music,” says Hilarl. “They are really crazy metal heads – especially Switzerland. They were crazy. Switzerland has fans rather than metal bands – we only know a couple of bands from Switzerland, and one of them on the tour with us. But even before then all the other bands were telling us it was a place we did not want to miss.”
In Milan, it was hard for Nothnegal to get off the bus because people were asking for autographs and taking pictures, it took a while to get used to the novelty of fame, says Avo.
“I was the first one out of the bus, and there were lots of people in front of the bus at the door. When I opened it they asked ‘Can I get your autograph? Can I take a picture with you?’ I looked back to see who they were trying to talk to. ‘Me?’ I asked. ‘Yes, aren’t you Nothnegal?’”
“There was this one crowd, they stayed from early morning until after midnight to hang out with the bands,” recalls Hilarl. “They started at 7:00am, when we got off the bus, and when we left they were still there.”
The death metal groupies “were scary”, says Avo. ‘“Corpse-paint, bones, and spikes coming out of them, and huge viking boots. They would come to us and say we’d done a really good job. They are huge – especially the Germans. We’re only small people!”
The Maldivian musicians say they were surprised at the age of many of the crowds as well: “We thought they would be really young, but there were people in their 40s who said they had been coming to shows since the 80s,” says Avo.
Anticipating curiosity about their homeland, the band armed itself with brochures and travel magazines from the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board (MTPB).
“The moment people saw the beaches they said they were coming,” says Avo. “In Slovenia and Hungary we got a lot offers to exchange apartments – they said, ‘You guys haven’t seen snow? Why don’t you move here for the winter?’”
Many people hadn’t even heard of the Maldives, Avo says, particularly in Eastern Europe in places like the Czech Republic.
“A lot of people know about the Maldives now because of us,” says Hilarl.
Every show on the tour sold out, with the exception of Austria. The band maintains that the excitement of playing to packed audiences every night kept them going despite a gruelling show schedule: “Each day we were in a different place – we thought it be tiring but it wasn’t at all.”
Unusually for a death metal band, no hotel rooms were trashed on tour, either. “Everyone was saying we were not the type for a death metal band. We don’t drink, we don’t eat pork… sometimes we might sit and smoke a cigarette, but not that often,” Avo says.
Not that the band had much time to explore, let alone indulge in a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Every day was a set routine.
“We’d wake up, go to the venue, and eat breakfast in our dressing rooms. Then we’d chill out until a crew member asked us to do sound, and by the time we got there the stage was all set up and all we had to do was grab a guitar, go on stage and plug it in. It only took 15 minutes to do the whole band’s sound.”
Most venues were located a little outside the centre of the cities the Nothnegal was playing in, so sightseeing risked disrupting the punishing schedule. “But in Madrid and Barcelona the venue was in the middle of the city, so we got the chance to check out the place.”
After playing to audiences of thousands across Europe, Nothnegal is now back in the Maldives readjusting to conservative society of Male’ in which few people even know their name.
“Nobody knows about the tour, we didn’t go on TV and talk about it,” says Avo. “It was just: ‘Oh, you guys are back.’”
“Here it’s just the same as usual,” says Hilarl. “If you don’t sing some copy songs people don’t know who you are – and when bands and artists go to Sri Lanka and India to play, it’s a huge deal. We played 14 countries across Europe and nobody knows about it.”
General indifference was a challenge when it came to organising sponsorship for the trip, he recalls.
“It was quite difficult because people didn’t understand the scope of the whole thing. It was difficult for us to convince them that this was worth it – that it was not just a show abroad, but a whole European tour.”
At first it was difficult to convince people the band was telling the truth, says Hilarl, and it spent four months searching for sponsors before being backed by Le Cute, Dhiraagu, the Youth Ministry and the MTPB, who recognised the band’s value as a country ambassador in markets untapped by conventional promotion.
Fortunately for the band, it has had a long-term backer in the shape of Le Cute owner Abdul Majid who recognised Nothnegal’s potential during its formative stages and was “very generous” in providing equipment, promotion and confidence in the group. It is unknown if Majid himself, a prominent local businessman, is a death metal fan himself – “He would say he’s a just music fan who appreciates good quality stuff,” says Avo.
The band still struggles to find a place to practice locally – an attempt to rent a dedicated (and soundproofed) room in Heniveru in 2006 faltered following a conversation with the landlord.
“We checked out the place and were examining how we could soundproof it,” says Avo. “The landlord came up asked ‘What kind of music do you play, are you a resort band?’ ‘No,’ we said, ‘we play death metal.’ ‘I’ve had another offer,’ he replied immediately.”
Nothnegal haggled, and eventually the landlord agreed to allow them to stay “as long as you keep the drums down.”
“We were like: ‘Dude, how can we keep the drums down? That’s the main thing that holds the groove of the whom damn music.’ He said that maybe we should find someplace else.”
Touring with other bands, “we saw why they are so good – it’s because they have good equipment and that they can practice whenever they like. We can’t even buy the right amps here,” says Hilarl, “and we can never play at full volume. A lot of people tell us it’s not about the equipment, but there are times when having the right stuff really makes a difference.”
Having two members of the band based overseas – keyboardist Marco Sneck and drummer Kevin Talley – compounds the difficulty of practicing.
“The flights are quite expensive, but we can practice without them,” Avo says. “We spent four days practicing in Finland before the tour.”
The prospect of local gigs – aside from ‘once-offs’ like the successful Rockstorm last year – also remains distant.
“We tried to play once in Club Faru,” says Avo. “There were only three of us and we weren’t there to play, but the band that was playing took a 30 minute break, and said that as they knew we were Nothnegal, why didn’t we fill in for them?
“Kevin, myself and the bassist went up and started to play some Sepulchre and some Slayer. During the middle of the third song these guys came back and dropped the volume and the PA. But the crowd went nuts, there were people in their mid-50s coming up and spilling beer all over the dancefloor.”
The band is now concentrating on finishing work on its new album – ‘Decadence’ – which it hopes will be released around late March.
When that happens, Nothnegal will become one of the few Maldivian bands to ever have released an album under an international label – a long way from the first two songs they released to the internet, Web of Deceit and Antidote of Realism, “which we just put on the wb for fun.”
These two songs – released during the 2008 Presidential Election – were a cynical reaction to the political violence erupting at the time.
”Those were the days when the two parties were clashing before the election. One party would say ‘these guys are doing this,’ while the other party would say: ‘those guys are doing that.’ We don’t know what the reality was anymore, and we thought that there would by little difference regardless of whichever party was ruling. We didn’t think it would get any better.”
Decadence, Avo and Hilarl explain, will be more of a post-apocalyptic narrative around the impact of sea-level rise – a pertinent subject for the Maldives.
A benefit to the band’s relative anonymity in the Maldives is that it can get on with its work, Hilarl says.
“It’s good for us in a way – we don’t really want to be on the TV all the time, but we would like recognition because of our sponsors.”
Avo says he would like to see the band receive some credit for its ambassadorial role – “We didn’t just take the band on tour – we took the whole Maldives with us,” he says.
“We’re the first band from the Maldives to tour Europe, and because of us a lot of people now know where the Maldives is and what it’s about. We didn’t even exist on their maps before.”