Maldivian melodic metal band Nothnegal launched their self-titled EP last month for digital release in America after putting it on general international release. In that time the EP has shot up to 22nd place on Google Music’s Top Metal Albums chart.
The EP, which ranked above albums of bands such as Megadeth and Queens of the Stone Age, was produced in collaboration with Paul Reeve – producer of music for the legendary Muse.
On their new four-track EP, recorded in their native Dhivehi language, they go back to their island roots so even more locals can enjoy their work.
Donna Richardson: Tell me about your band?
Hirlal Agil: We are the only band in Maldives to tour internationally and have an album distributed by a major label on a wide scale, but lot of locals here are still not aware of us even though we are doing quite well in the world.
We have been featured on major international rock/metal magazines like Rolling Stone, Revolver, GuitarWorld and Metalhammer.
DR: Tell me a bit more about the music and your influences looking back at your first release, how have you changed your style since, are you becoming more daring since having fame?
HA: Yes we would, we have already booked summer festivals and tours for Europe for winter 2014. And next year will be busy for us after we release the new album.
We started off as a really extreme metal band, and our music was quite fast and aggressive with growled and screamed vocals. Now our sound has evolved and we have slowed down while retaining our melodic sound. We have enjoyed clean vocals since our new singer Affan joined the band and now we have a good heavy metal sound.
The new EP we released has a more experimental sound and is more Maldivian than our previous releases. We will start work on the new album in a couple of months, which will have a more progressive sound. We aren’t afraid to experiment and always try new stuff.
DR: Your EP has been released, what has been the response internationally?
HA: It has been doing quite well. We have received good reviews and gained new fans through the album as well as new tour opportunities and brand endorsements.
DR: How did the association with Matt Hyde (Slipknot, Bullet for My Valentine, As I Lay Dying) and Paul Reeve (MUSE) come about?
HA: I sent them our music from the previous album, and discussed working on the next release together and they were readily onboard. We had a lot of help from Shamheed as a producer and engineer who has a lot of experience in the Maldivian music industry as we intentionally wanted to steer the sound towards a more Maldivian sound. He has worked with other Maldivian artists, like Ahmed (of the legendary Maldivian band Zero Degree Atoll) who recently released his solo album. Shamheed has a lot of experience with the Maldivian culture and its music.
DR: Describe the writing and recording process of your latest album, and describe some of the themes?
HA: We usually write the songs at our home studios before we enter the studio with the producers. We had Shamheed, a Maldivian producer handling the overall production of the songs, me and him worked on the concept and themes.
We had a new singer and guitarist this time. Affan and Chippe’ who played the guitars with me. By the time Matt and Paul flew here from the UK, we already had the song compositions done.
Matt gave instructions on arrangements and Paul gave tips on the vocals.
The main theme of this record was inspired from traditional music of the Maldives with the lyrics being based on the folklore, beliefs and legends of the islands here.
DR: What are your plans for the future?
HA: We will be starting work on the next album in a month or so, the follow up to our debut album Decadence. It will be a concept album and we are planning to record most of the instruments in Europe, like we did with the first album. It always helps to have more resources.
This winter we will tour in Europe from December to January. It will be a smaller tour of 10 shows across Germany, Switzerland, France, Netherlands and Belgium. We see it as a warm-up before our major tours for 2014 which kick off after our album release around April or May.
Over the summer we will play all the big summer festivals around Europe. This will lead into a fully-fledged European tour at the end of the year to support the upcoming album.
DR: Lyrically, you draw upon your Maldivian roots, do you want to use your fame to highlight the problems in your country? You bring these issues to a wider audience using your fame and that is something different, people can learn more about the mystical and exotic Maldives, is that your intention?
HA: Yeah, we would incorporate this even more for the next release. It would be our second major album and out next year. Overall it will have a more focused sound.
Because we are from Asia, and far away from the major music markets in Europe and the US, labels and promoters are reluctant to take the risk of taking a band from an unknown territory. Luckily we seem to have been able to pass this barrier. It was a huge challenge and we had to put in everything we got, but we managed to get through somehow.
DR: Are you a political animal? What do you make of current election preparations?
HA: Not really, I am not too involved with politics but I do keep myself updated with what’s going on around me.
The music scene has been quite inactive the whole year, with no shows or anything in the capital. But we operate differently, focusing more on the international market. At home, people seem to be involved in politics and too distracted for music.
Right now I’d say everybody is too occupied with politics and the upcoming elections and on promoting their choice of candidate. I don’t think people even find time to entertain or enjoy themselves.
DR: Do you think that the political problems will have a negative effect on the Maldivian music industry?
HA: Yes, obviously. We used to have bigger shows but that has changed mostly due to the fact that not a lot of people would show up for shows as there is always some political event or rally.
Businesses too are reluctant to sponsor music concerts and this is leading to smaller events.
DR: How would you like to see the record industry evolve in the Maldives?
HA: We don’t really have any official music charts here, so it would be interesting to develop one and it would be really great to have a major rock music festival like the Download Festival or Wacken Open Air.
DR: When you are writing material, what influences do you draw from your environment – for example poverty, environment, religious extremism – all reign on your islands – so a lot to shout about?
HA: On our first album we wrote the lyrics based on a concept we came up with, which was a fictional story about machines taking over the human race, our environment being destroyed and stuff like that.
We released a new four song EP last month, which is more focused on promoting our culture, music, by making use of traditional instruments here with some songs being sung in our native language, the lyrics were mostly based on the darker side of the Maldivian history.
We don’t really incorporate what is currently happening around us to our music.
The only obvious influence from here would be the environment, our culture, traditions and that’s basically it.
We are already discussing our next major album, which would be our second album and we would mostly focus on creating something based on the natural environment around us and our culture.
DR: What challenges are you facing as a musician in your home country, even though you are an international band?
HA: I’m not sure if it’s due to Nasheed leaving government, but I do feel that the music industry, especially the rock and metal music has really gone backwards in the last year. The year before that, we had a quite active rock and heavy metal music scene from 2003 to 2010 with frequent shows and festivals which catered to larger audiences.
Now it has slowed down. Music has been promoted – kept alive – by the public with not much involvement from the government, maybe the bigger businesses aren’t too motivated to sponsor and fund this area of music anymore. There are shows happening occasionally, but not a lot of people care to go as its mostly smaller shows and i guess people expect certain standards in shows.
I would say that music was at its peak of activity from 2004 – 2008 and then for some reason it slowed down as companies stopped sponsoring music shows. It hasn’t been easy for organizers to put on shows without good sponsors. Dhiraagu and Wataniya sponsor commercial music shows, but not a lot of ‘metal’ shows.
One thing we would like to point out is that, all of European and American bands tell us that they have government programs to aid their internationally touring bands finance their tours since it takes a while before a band can really take off. In our case it’s hard because the Maldivian government does not have such a program. We find that we are mostly funding things ourselves. Sometimes we get help from private businesses. We did get grants in 2010 for our European tour by the then government which was a huge step forward for us.
At the moment, the government does not have a program to support bands internationally. If such a system existed, it would be a lot easier for us to do what we do.
The main driving force behind the band is me and Hamad right now and we have ploughed almost all our savings into it. We don’t really get a lot of sponsors and aid here.
This can be hard as we are playing outside their market. After all we are considered a Maldivian band and we are representing our country out there and in the international media.
You may know what it is like for a British band to breakout, tour and get to the next level. It’s ten times harder to achieve that being from here.
Labels, booking agents, managers are always reluctant to work with an artist from a region this far from their industry. But we have managed to get their attention, land big tours and actually do it. So I believe the least the government could do is to help us take things to the next level, I’m sure it’s not just us who would be talking about a Maldivian band being popular in Europe.
DR: Would you say that death metal is a reaction to the social conscience of the nation?
HA: I don’t really think so, it’s more about the music, the trend and the hype and most of the guys I know don’t really care about the lyrics or anything. They just listen to it for the sake of the music, and some people just like faster more aggressive music. Music is art and there are different styles of it just like everything else, extreme music is just one of it.
The band members or fans of the bands don’t usually believe what they have on the lyrics or what they do onstage, it’s just a show.
You can’t judge an actor’s real life attitude or behaviour based on a specific role he does on a movie. It’s basically the same thing here.
DR: For those unfamiliar with the Maldives, can you give a brief description of your country and what are your thoughts about the upcoming elections?
HA: I would say things have been slower since the change of the government last year. No attention has been given to the music or the arts, and no major shows have happened since then. The elections are quite unpredictable for me at this stage, but there it could make a major difference depending on who wins the election.
DR: Are you back in the Maldives now? Tell me how you feel when you go home?
HA: Yes, I’m in the Maldives right now. Right now everything is politicized over here. I grew up in Maldives and I was in Sri Lanka for a time for my studies. Maldives has changed quite much since I was a kid, maybe it is more civilized. Our debut album was recorded in Maldives, Finland, US and mixed in Canada. This EP was mostly recorded in Maldives and mixed in Canada.
We are planning to travel to Finland during winter to record the new album.
It’s always easier with more resources, and these are hard to find in Maldives.
DR: Do you believe that democracy has failed in the Maldives? Or is there still a chance?
HA: There still is hope, if only everybody would start working together to resolve all that’s happened rather than fighting for power.
DR: What’s the theme of your songs generally? What messages are you trying to convey?
HA: In earlier material, our lyrics are mostly based on a fictional story of a war between man and machines which takes place in the future. Our theme does reflect on global warming where the world is left with just water and artificial islands built to support life.
DR: So you reflect some of the issues affecting the Maldives?
HA: Yes the story takes place in the distant future where all land is under water and artificial islands are built to support life. Humans depend on machines and machines grow more powerful and enslaved the human race. That’s the basic concept.
DR: Personally, how do you feel about climate change, as a Maldivian your homeland will be the first to be affected?
HA: Everyone needs to make it a priority and start with the simplest stuff like not using plastic bags. That would make a huge difference to the damage done to the environment. It is something anybody could do.
DR: How do you feel about rubbing shoulders with the international metal music industry?
HA: It feels great. We have already gotten to a point which we never thought we could and we have been able to share the tour bus with some of the bands which we used to listen as kids. We have been able to share the stage with some of our favourite bands. It feels great that at least these bands know that we exist.
DR: What would you like to see for the Maldives music industry?
HA: I want to see more bands doing what we are doing, and more bands gaining international recognition.
What goes on tour
DR: Tell me about some of the bands you have toured with and who for you have been the best?
HA: We toured with Finntroll in 2010 and together we played in 24 European cities non-stop and enjoyed every bit of it. We had a good audience each night and we made a lot of new fans. We also worked with a producer of Slipknot and it was obviously a huge thing for us to be working with producers of that level. We learned a lot and it opened up new opportunities for us.
Of all the bands that we have worked with so far Opeth was a favourite band of ours. They are very down to earth and they drew the most people. They know how to do a good show and Mikael is one of the best frontmen in the world. We hung out before and after the show.
DR: How did you meet them?
HA: I have been in contact with Opeth’s manager Andy for some time and we discussed a concert in the Maldives. It happened to take place on February 8 2012.
DR: What happens when you go on tour? How do you combat boredom on the road?
HA: When tour on Europe we would travel on a night-liner. We travel with other bands and we do a show every night. We would wake up the next day in a new city, new country, once the crew are done setting up the stage and equipment, we would do a sound check and do the show. Some of us would back to the bus and sleep right after the show and others would wait a bit to meet fans before going to sleep. That’s the routine for a whole month or more. The night-liner is our home for the entire duration of the tour and has TV’s, PS3 inside a living area with a coffee machine. We don’t have time to be bored while travelling.
DR: Do you have any funny stories from tour?
HA: Yeah there was a lot of memorable stuff that happened on tour. Like when our bassist misplaced his passport at the Heathrow airport when we were already late for a flight. Our flight to Maldives got cancelled due to snow while we were at the Frankfurt airport and we were stuck inside the terminal for over 30 hours because our visa had expired the same day. It’s always unpredictable when travelling and on tour.
DR: What did it feel like being on stage with Arch Enemy, Opeth and the likes. Have you played with Megadeth or Black Sabbath at all – is that on the list?
HA: It was amazing. We had covered Opeth’s songs when we first started out.
I have known Megadeth’s bassist David Ellefson for a while and gave them the Decadence CD when I met them in Singapore. We haven’t played with them yet but that could happen next year
We are already booked for a festival with Children of Bodom and Arch Enemy -bands we covered extensively when we started out, so we feel quite accomplished already
DR: I read somewhere that growing up in the Maldives you would read Metalhammer – how did it feel to actually appear in a magazine you read as a teen?
HA: It was amazing. I would never have imagined myself being mentioned in it back in those days.
DR: You guys have been around for a while, formed in 2006 but had your first taste of fame in 2009 when signed to season of mist, as one of the founders of the band, what has been your vision all along and do you think you have achieved it all yet?
HA: I would say the record deal was the biggest breakthrough for us. Season of Mist have distribution with EMI one of the biggest record labels in the world, so our releases got really good distribution and promotion. We were accepted by the international community from there. I wouldn’t say we have achieved it all but we have come a long way from where we started. I would say the internet has helped a lot. I spent years researching the industry before actually diving into it. I kind of knew what had to be done, and which paths to take.
DR: What advice would you like to give to an aspiring band?
HA: Spend as much time possible with your instrument and try to come up with your own original sound. Write as much music as possible. The internet is your best friend these days, there are loads of websites and social networks to helps you spread the word about your music and band. That’s how we gained international recognition in 2008.
DR: Where is the best place you have travelled to?
HA: Probably Switzerland – the audience is amazing over there and very dedicated to the music they listen to. It was on our European tour at the end of 2010 when we played in about 14 countries in Europe. We did the tour with 4 other bands – Finntroll from Finland, Samael from Switzerland and two other bands.
DR: How can new bands gain the recognition you have?
HA: Dedication, hard work and having a plan are all keys to success. People should believe the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of bands out there around the world seeking recognition, a record deal or a tour. I guess more people should be aware of how music business model works and how the industry functions. There are a lot of potential musicians in the Maldives, but playing an instrument or being able to write a song alone is not enough to break out to international community. It is quite a challenge, takes a lot more than that.
We were led to believe global recognition is not for Maldivian bands but I ignored these critics and set my eyes on this from day one. I was 18 years when I first started out on this now I’m 26, so it has taken some years but we are finally getting somewhere. We have spent almost all our savings on getting things working.
DR: Tell me about your music, who writes your material?
HA: My cousin Fufu and I were always the primary songwriters. Others contribute once we come up with basic song structures.
Inside the Band
DR: Your cousin Fufu was not able to be part of the songwriting and recording of this EP due to personal commitments, but Chippe’ filled in for him, will Fufu return for the next album?
HA: We are hoping he will return but he was not able to give time for the band and we had to start work on it without him. It takes a lot of commitment to write and record. We hope he will return shortly as he is one of the founder members. We formed the band in 2006 as Fufu and I were both into music and playing the guitar.
DR: What is your inspiration when you write music?
HA: Probably listening to other bands we like and watching movies. But we are going to be more creative with the new stuff adding a Maldivian touch to the sound.
DR: How did you meet your international band mates?
HA: Our drummer is American, keyboard player is Finnish and I met them both online.
DR: Do you have a hobby or a pass time that most people would find weird?
HA: I am a computer programmer and that’s what I keep myself busy with when I am not working on music and the band. I studied in Sri Lanka and later continued to learn online through the Harvard Extension School and focusing on software engineering.
DR: How often would you say you are touring?
HA: We record and tour for a couple of weeks or months a year, and then take a year break, and then the same thing again with occasional tours during the break year.
DR: What do you do during your break year – do you have another job?
HA: I work on contract as a web programmer. Some of us have some day jobs and others play commercial music in the Maldives. But it looks like that has to change from next year onwards because we have five months of touring and shows planned and we wouldn’t be able to do anything else apart from music.
DR: Who have you worked with internationally that you have admired and who would you still like to work with?
HA: We have worked with some of the biggest producers from Canada, US, UK and Scandinavia. We always try to work with different people with each new recording, as this helps us achieve a different sound each time.
DR: Can you name anyone in particular?
HA: Greg Reely worked on our debut album. He has worked with such diverse artists as Machine Head, Fear Factory and Sarah Mclachlan. More recently we have worked with Paul Reeve who produced some of Muse’s albums and then Matt Hyde who have worked with Slipknot, Bullet for My Valentine.
DR: The Megadeth gig is that a certainty and where will it be?
HA: Yes it would be at a festival. It’s not announced yet but we are going to be playing about 8-9 festivals next summer across Europe with an average crowd would be 20-80,000. It should be good exposure for us. The Festivals include Rock Harz and Summerbreeze in Germany.
DR: How does the band work when you are based in Maldives and the keyboard player and drummer abroad, do you only meet when you are on tour?
HA: Our drummer and keyboard player come over to Maldives from Norway and America, to rehearse or if we are doing an Asian tour or show in Maldives. We are a very international band. Our sound engineer is Australian and light engineer is Swiss.
DR: How do you fund the band? Do you get any other sponsorship or earnings from shows?
HA: Season of Mist funds the recordings and some support for tour. Labels never cover all of the band’s expenses so we mostly pay for touring from our pockets. Mostly Hamad and I pay for it. We haven’t been earning for shows, but its slowly changing. We believe from next year we can sustain this through the band’s income. We are starting to get better deals sponsorships are hard, almost impossible.
DR: Do you have an agent?
HA: We recently hired a booking agent who handles some huge bands like Arch Enemy, W.A.S.P so should be good for us Dirk Lehberger from Germany. Before I used to handle all of the band’s management and booking stuff but since we started working with him it’s been a lot easier and we have been getting a lot better shows and tours all booked for 2014.
DR: Tell me about your journey to international fame and who has been your inspiration?
HA: The music scene could take a major turn depending on who gets elected.
DR: There are a lot of heavy metal bands in Maldives, but what’s your secret, why did you get a break?
We have been working towards this goal from the very beginning. I guess having a good plan and pushing ahead regardless of all the challenges we faced has been the key. There were times that we thought we could not continue, but we just never gave up, we kept going.
DR: How would you characterize its sound/style/genre?
HA: It is a fusion of Folk rock, Folk Metal, Alternative Rock, Metal and Heavy Metal
DR: What makes your band different to any other bands out there?
HA: I don’t know any other band in the Maldives that have been touring around Europe and the World like us here. Some bands have done one off gigs at different levels.
DR: What inspires you most as an artist and who are your muses?
HA: International artists I have listened to since childhood – I was always curious to learn how they succeeded. I’d say curiosity is what made me study the industry.
DR: What’s your favorite band?
HA: Early heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer: which I have been listening to since a kid. It is hard to say, but Iron Maiden is definitely a favorite.
DR: What’s the most exciting place you have visited on your tours?
HA: Finland. Everybody there is into heavy metal. Even at the immigration the officer there asked us, are you a metal band? We said yes. His response was ‘cool!’ It’s winter 75% of the year over there, I’m not a fan of the cold weather but it’s different.
DR: How did you get your first break?
HA: I learned the technicalities related to recording while learning the music business itself. Then I bought myself a sound interface and began experimenting and learning the recording software. I used all my own savings.
My computer background helped a lot. I started the band with my cousin Fufu on the other guitar and we recorded four demo songs some inspired from video games, just for fun.
We had trouble with finance in the beginning but since Hamad joined the band we have been more stable.
We saved up, paid for the mixing and uploaded some songs to Myspace as free downloads. Surprisingly we got some recognition out of them and we were motivated to continue.
Our biggest break came when we recorded a full album with the financial backing of businessman Abdul Majid. It was this album that landed us the record deal with Season of Mist.
Majid contributes a lot to the Maldivian music community and also our friend. Fariheen who runs the Fihalhohi resort, has been helping us in a lot of ways since the beginning and Ismail Noordeen believes in us and contributes to our activities.
I could easily say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.
DR: Also you play guitar, when did you learn how to play and what are you playing right now – electric or acoustic and brand – do you play any other musical instruments do you also write music?
HA: Me and fufu started playing guitar as kids, both electric and acoustic. I primarily play with Jackson Guitars with whom i have an endorsement deal with. Jackson is also the choice for a lot of my favorite guitarists. I am very much involved in the composition and concepts of the bands’ music and albums.
DR: In terms of your career what else do you want to achieve?
HA: There is still a lot to be achieved. I feel like we are just getting started. We want to be able to sustain this. I see a lot of bands giving up at some point. There have been times even we thought of doing that, but we have come this far and intend to continue.
DR: How have you evolved so far, do you think you have changed much for example since your last album and release before that?
HA: We have tweaked our sound for each release, we believe we have been improving it and the EP is something completely different for us, the next album would have some resemblance to our previous album, but will retain a sound of its own. We try to bring something new every time. Decadence is the only full length album so far but we have a release next year.
DR: When did you know you hit it big? Describe the moment?
HA: We were really excited when we got the opportunity to tour with Finntroll. There were also other bands which we had been listening to on that tour, and we all travelled together and performing on a different country, different city every night for over a month while sleeping on a night-liner.
That was right after we signed with Season of Mist, and it didn’t take long for our name to appear on big rock, metal websites and magazines like Guitar World, Metal Hammer. From there we knew we were getting somewhere
DR: I know it’s a digital release but what is the name of the EP and describe the artwork, is that on your cover of facebook?
HA: Its self titled -simply ‘Nothnegal EP’. The artwork is from a carving on the walls of very old buildings and mosques here. The patterns are unique on it.
You’re stranded on one of the Maldives’ many desert islands. List five albums you’d take?
Pink Floyd – Dark side of the Moon, Megadeth – Rust in Peace, Slayer – raining blood, Black Sabbath – Master of Reality, Judas Priest – Painkiller.
DR: Which songs do you like performing live most and why?
HA: We usually start off with Salvation, Sins of our Creations and Singularity – our fan favourites.
DR: Your dream band (living or dead, who would they be, vocal/bass/drums/keyboard/lead guitar/guitar/producer?
HA: My dream band would be: Phil Anselmo on vocals, Jason Newsted – bass, Dave Lombardo – drums, Jordan Rudess – keyboards, Marty Friedman – guitars, Dimebag Darell – guitars and Rick Rubin as a producer.