"some music was meant to stay underground..."

Interview

Nightrage Guitarist Explains Key To Success: "You Need To Get Out There And Do It."

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Band Photo: Nightrage (?)

Future editions of dictionaries ought to display a picture of Nightrage as the definition for "determination." Built from scratch amidst the Swedish Gothenburg metal scene by Greek guitarist and songwriter Marios Iliopoulos, the band is his life's work - an ongoing passion project and a true labor of love. Their stunning fifth album "Insidious" (reviewed here) was released late last month to wide acclaim, just prior to their current North American tour with Firewind, Arsis, and White Wizzard. As the tour kicked off, Marios checked in with me over the phone about all things Nightrage.

Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): Bravo for “Insidious!” Honestly, I’ve lost count of how many spins I’ve given it.

Marios Iliopoulos: I really appreciate that. Every time somebody tells us he likes our new stuff, that makes us really happy, because we’ve worked a lot to make this album happen. It’s good to hear. We always try to make a better album than before. I know that every band always says that when releasing a new album, and it sounds like a super clichéd thing, but this is exactly how we feel about the new album. We worked a lot and felt really inspired, had some good ideas down, and just wanted to go and record them to keep the intensity and the metal feeling. We didn’t want to change, or do something else, just to be able to sell more albums and get more famous. We just wanted to play the music we really love to play, and that’s why we do Nightrage.

Mike: And there’s always a correct and appropriate time to execute your ideas when they’re fresh. I think when that happens naturally, it shows in the results.

Marios: Exactly, and a lot of people also think that melodic death metal is dead, but we’re always coming back to show them the opposite. If you really love the music you want to make, you can make a good album. We’re playing music from the heart, music we really love as metal fans, and as fans of melodic death metal.

Mike: Before we move onto the present and future, let’s look at the past a bit. You’ve been heavily involved in famous metal scenes from two different countries, Greece and Sweden. Do you feel that your multinational or multicultural past has had any significant effect on the music of Nightrage?

Marios: Well, the band was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in the summer of 2000. It was me and my buddy Gus G. [Firewind, Ozzy Osbourne], and we created Nightrage after my old band Exhumation split up. So we’re Greeks, and the reason I moved to Sweden is that at that time, there was no future for metal in Greece. It was a dead end. I felt that to make a better band, I had to try my luck somewhere else, so I decided to move to Gothenburg, where I lived for nine years. I can tell you that it was a really, really wise move, but it was really difficult too, because I had to start from zero. But even though I’m the main guy who’s been there from the beginning and is always writing the music, you can call it a multicultural band for sure. Other people in the band come from different countries like Finland and Belgium and Sweden. And our vocalist Antony Hämäläinen is a Finnish guy, but lives in Phoenix, Arizona. We stay in pretty good contact over the Internet, writing lyrics together, and he’s a really cool guy, y’know? I’m happy to have Antony in the band.

Mike: You’re obviously very interested in the style we call melodic death metal, or the Gothenburg genre. Let’s discuss that a bit.

Marios: Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. This kind of music started with At The Gates, I think, and always combined these aggressive riffs and brutal vocals with melodic hooks, and stuff like that. I think we took a lot of influences from that. But I think Nightrage is different as well. Of course we like Gothenburg death metal, but we also like to listen to hard rock music and acoustic music. We always combine different elements in our sound. We’re lovers of ‘80s metal, bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and we like thrash metal like Metallica, and all kinds of different stuff. I think Nightrage is a mixture of different styles, and we always want to be brutal and melodic at the same time. So we try to make a good balance and create a good metal album. I think we have our own style, and when you listen to a song, you know right away that it’s a Nightrage song. After five albums, I think we’ve found that sound, and it really shows on the new album “Insidious.” It sounds fresher, the guitars are more in your face, the production is better, and this time we didn’t record in Sweden. We recorded at Zero Gravity Studios in Athens, Greece, with my friend Terry Nikas engineering the whole thing, and we produced it together. Then we sent all the files to Studio Fredman, where Fredrik Nordström and Henrik Udd mixed and mastered the whole album. Also, Antony recorded his vocals in Arizona in Ryan Butler’s studio, so we recorded in different studios before the mixing and mastering at Fredman’s. That gave the album a different kind of sound, because we wanted to get out from Fredman’s and record somewhere else. That really paid off, I think. I was a little worried about the outcome, but I’m very pleased. In my humble opinion, it has a better sound than the previous album, “Wearing A Martyr’s Crown.” [2009]

Mike: For two years, I swore by that album and considered it your best, but I can feel my opinion starting to change. It’s rare that a band improves so consistently with each effort.

Marios: That’s how we want to do it as a band. We always think, “The next album’s gonna be the best one.” We don’t want to say, “Our latest is the best,” because we feel like we have a lot more to offer. So I believe personally that the next Nightrage album will be the best. I’m kind of optimistic, and I just want to see the bright side of life. I believe that as long as we’re healthy and we feel inspired, we’ll continue doing this.

Mike: Some of the original Gothenburg bands, like In Flames and Dark Tranquillity – and later on, The Haunted – started out sounding more or less the same, but went on to evolve their own sounds and put more and more twists on the genre. A lot of people have reacted pretty differently to those changes. What’s your take on the situation?

Marios: Well, those bands are the godfathers of melodic death metal, but they probably got bored playing that kind of music. That’s the only way I can really explain it. They wanted to do something else and evolve. I wouldn’t do something like that, because I like to play the music that I enjoy as a fan of metal, and I think if you play in a metal band, you should never forget where you come from. And if you want to do something else, maybe you can change the name of the band and do some other project, but if you play metal and have so many fans who love you for that, it’s kind of disappointing for them if you really change your style and do something else.

Mike: The number one example, I suppose, would be Metallica.

Marios: But then again, Metallica is Metallica. There’s only one Metallica, y’know? They can do whatever they want, and still, people love them for that.

Mike: I’ve always been interested in watching fan bases split down the middle when bands take a new direction. It’s fascinating.

Marios: I’m an open-minded person. I’m not against trying some other kind of music if you really feel it, but when you’re a band playing for so many years, and you have a certain style, if you really change it completely, people of course will react to that. If I wanted to do something else, to try some other kind of music, I would never call it Nightrage. Nobody can call you closed minded if you think like that.

Mike: Nightrage seemed to start out as more of a project than a band, and the lineup has really evolved, both in the studio and live. Can you take me through some of your ups and downs as you built the band over the past decade?

Marios: You know what, though? Nightrage did start out as a band. That was my plan from day one. I never felt it was a project. But the problem was, we had no members in the beginning. It was only Gus and me. Then I moved to Sweden and started looking for musicians to play with, and Freddy Nordström helped me with that. He put all these amazing musicians on the first album, “Sweet Vengeance,” [2003] like Tomas Lindberg [At The Gates] on vocals and Per Mollar Jensen [The Haunted] on drums. I wanted to start from somewhere, y’know? Otherwise I’d have to wait so many years to find the right guys to be in the band. I think it was a good thing in the end, because we got started with “Sweet Vengeance.” Of course we had some lineup problems later, because people wanted to do something else, or just didn’t want to follow the Nightrage train. But I found some other guys, and I’m really happy with the last two albums, which have the same lineup. The people in the band are burning for the music that we’re doing, and everything is going fine so far. It took me a long time to find the right people. It’s like starting a family; it’s difficult to find people that will love the music you want to do. But we’re happy with each other. We’re friends, and they like to play in Nightrage, so I’m happy. So far, so good. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, you never know that, but I hope we can play music for years to come with the same lineup.

Mike: Your professional relationships are pretty diverse. You’ve worked with artists in death metal, traditional metal, progressive metal, and more. Are you consciously trying to span such a wide variety to keep things fresh?

Marios: Not at all, man. I’m just trying to write some good songs. Sometimes the songs we’re writing will call for different kinds of vocals here and there, or just a different kind of vibe. But that’s the only reason: it’s about the songs. I’m not trying to combine genres and “do something original.” [Laughs] I’m just trying to write the best songs I can. And I have a lot of ideas about acoustic guitar, riffing, clean singing, and stuff like that, so that’s why that happens. As long as you feel inspired to write a good song, you will do it. Some people think differently, and play music for their own reasons, to fulfill other expectations. But if you just do it because you feel you have something to give, then there’s no way you’ll be wrong.

Mike: Listening to Nightrage is a strange experience for me, because while the music is intense and aggressive, I don’t sense any real hatred or hostility – just passion. Are you deliberately trying to avoid spreading negativity through your music?

Marios: I don’t think there’s negativity in our music. I think there’s a bright side, a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s how I want to think. When it comes to music and lyrics, we always try to talk about subjects that affect our lives in general. For example, on the new album, we’re talking about the darker side of human beings. But if you read the lyrics, you’ll find there’s kind of a light in the end. They’re not hateful lyrics. We always want to think that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that people will change, and become better persons, y’know? That’s how we think.

Mike: It kind of reminds me of seeing a great movie that may show a lot of dark things, violence, or intense drama, but still tries to shed light on something serious and real.

Marios: Exactly, that’s a good comparison. That’s how I think our songs are built, like an epic movie or something, with a lot of different moods and emotions, and in the end you can see the bright side. You can see the light. Like I said before, we always try to write the best songs, but then again, we don’t want to forget that we’re a metal band. Evolving your sound is good, but you can’t forget where you come from.

Mike: On that note, let’s move on to your present tour with Firewind, Arsis, and White Wizzard. You had to temporarily replace your other guitarist, Olof Mörck. Is he all right?

Marios: He’s okay, but he couldn’t do the tour, and we didn’t want to cancel for that reason, so we got hold of Bill Hudson, who played before in Cellador and Circle II Circle. He’s a really cool guy. We played a lot through Skype to research the songs, and now we’re here, and he works really well. He likes the band and he’s a really good guitar player, so it’s very nice to have people burning to play. That’s what we want in a band.

Mike: Any memorable moments from your travels so far?

Marios: So far, so good. We had a long flight, and I was supposed to meet Bill at the airport, but they cancelled his flight or something like that, so I had to wait for a while. [Laughs] Something always happens at airports. Either you have to wait four or five hours, or you lose your bag. Something like that. Also, if you have long hair, a beard, and black clothes, I’m telling you – you’re gonna have a big problem. And most of the time, those are the nice guys! The guys with ties and nice clothes and nice shoes, a lot of the time, they’re the criminals. [Laughs] You can’t really tell.

Mike: Your sound is very European, and while it’s gained more popularity over here in the past decade, Nightrage itself may not be nearly as well known as it is back in Europe. On this tour, are you facing any challenges to connect your music with a large North American audience?

Marios: I know what you mean. That’s probably another reason those big bands you mentioned before changed their sounds, because they wanted to appeal to a bigger audience. So they had to change their music. But I’ll never do something like that. I’d rather stay true to what I feel is good for me, and what kind of songs I love to play. If there are more people who like the stuff we’re doing, we’ll be really happy, but we don’t really think like that, in terms of what we can do to sell more albums and get more popular. Then you’re not really playing the music you want to play. It’s like a job, and we don’t want to take Nightrage in that direction. It’s worth it, because we can sleep really well at night without worrying. You’ll never ask, “Was it worth it?” if you do what you really want to do. This is the reason Nightrage has stayed underground for many years, because we didn’t want to change and do something else to get more popular and record singles.

Mike: I’d still venture to say that Nightrage now is a lot LESS underground than Nightrage then.

Marios: Yeah, probably. [Laughs] Of course, every musician in every band wants more of a commission for his work, so we’re open to that. But we don’t want to change our sound and do it on purpose, like some other bands are doing. I listen to many different styles of music, and while your sound will evolve, like I said before, you can never forget where you came from. If you’re playing metal, you’re a metal band.

Mike: Speaking of music appreciation, what kind of stuff are you listening to for fun these days – metal or otherwise?

Marios: I listen to a lot of rock music nowadays, and a lot of ‘70s music. I get inspired from older bands. I think in the ‘70s or ‘80s, the bands were more creative, y’know? Nowadays, you can find a zillion bands out there on the Internet or Facebook or something, and every band can record very easily, and you can put a machine on an album, and fix your voice… All that kind of stuff affects the songwriting and quality of the music, and I think in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you were a singer, you needed to get the right notes, because otherwise you’d sound like shit. If you were a drummer, you needed to drum exactly on the riffs, and otherwise, you would sound like shit too. In the older times, the bands were trying harder.

Mike: And there were fewer genre rules back then. Bands were freer to invent and create without being constricted by too many elitist expectations.

Marios: And also, there were greater bands, like the ones coming from the ‘80s – Metallica, Iron Maiden… You don’t see those kinds of big bands nowadays. When those guys stop, who’s going to be the next big band? I don’t know. I’m kind of an old school guy.

Mike: Let’s say on this tour, some American or Canadian kid who’s never heard Nightrage approaches you at the merch booth, and all your albums are for sale. Which would you recommend, and why?

Marios: I would say the latest one, “Insidious,” because for me, it contains all the different elements and influences from the previous four albums. It’s like an amalgam of everything before. And probably, maybe also the first album, which is one of the best albums we’ve ever released. It was really difficult to record, I can tell you that. It took us a long time, and a lot of work and effort to make it happen. It still feels like yesterday that I was in Sweden, and struggling with hardship to make that first album, and now we’re talking about the fifth album. So I’m glad we did it. It was my dream at that time to record “Sweet Vengeance” and continue with the band, and after eight years, we’re still alive and still feel inspired to put our music out there, and some people like it. For me, it’s amazing.

Mike: If you could offer any tips or advice to young players and/or songwriters out there, what might they be?

Marios: Just follow your dream, and don’t be afraid to do what you want to do with music. Take every chance and make every sacrifice you need to make to fulfill your expectations. Otherwise, you’ll end up playing in your room. [Laughs] You need to get out there and do it. If you really believe in it, and it makes you feel good and happy, you have to do it. Some people complain that nothing’s happening, but it’s all in your mind. If you really want to make it, you need to work a lot, and do everything you need to do.

OverkillExposure's avatar

Mike Smith is a Southern-born, New England-based writer and a diehard metal and hard rock fan. As a music journalist, he is a staffer with Metalunderground.com and Outburn Magazine. As a screenwriter/producer, he is currently working on his first film with director Jason Matzner ("Dreamland").

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