Interestingly, while Kollias considers his own playing style open to new approaches, advancing his craft is not something he’s overly concerned with. “My playing is still developing, and not only speed wise. There are so many things you can do, and with Nile we always try to evolve and play better and use fresh ideas. But I don’t really care if I or the band evolves or not. For now, it’s important that we just have fun.”
Having fun, he believes, is as essential to feeding the life force of a band as a band’s songs themselves. And while technique is cool, it’ll always be the song that matters. “Some of us try play faster and some others more complicated and stuff. But for me, the longer I go the more I see that it’s all about the song. Now, if the song needs a backbeat, or a very raw blastbeat, that’s what I’m going to do. If the song needs to have some fills, I’ll do some fills. But it’s all about the song itself.”
For the band’s fans, and for Kollias’ own enjoyment of his playing, those fearsome blastbeats are a thing of pure shocking beauty. He loves playing them, and has honed them to something of a science. “It’s a sixteenth-note, like singles in between foot and snare. That’s the traditional blastbeat with one foot. There’s also the two-foot blast, in which you actually separate the eighth-notes on both feet, which is a bit easier but the results are the same. The main difficult thing with blastbeats is that the snare is on the offbeat, and that can be a little bit tricky.
“But really, blastbeats can be very simple to play, even especially if you play in superfast tempos, like 260 to 280 bpm. Now, imagine playing eighth-notes with one foot – it seems difficult, but the music itself actually helps you. And when you get a feeling of space in the surrounding music, everything’s possible.”
The key, he says, is not to get too mental about the rhythms he’s playing. “I just think about the song, and that’s it.”
Kollias’ attitude toward the supremacy of the song extends to his feeling about playing solos, which he doesn’t much care for, at least not in the framework of a Nile show. “I’m not a big fan of soloing, especially live. I don’t really like shredding, maybe because death metal is a shredding style itself, where you play with maximum speed and everything. But on the rare occasions when I do play solos, I prefer the more melodic stuff, with a lot of dynamics, like what Dying Fetus’ Trey Williams does, for example, or Matte Modin of Defleshed and Dark Funeral.”
Kollias points out that death metal is really not the ideal setting for a nuanced drum solo. “Even when I do, my kick drum is triggered, so dynamics is a flat thing and it really sounds like hell!” He laughs. “I really prefer to do solos on a smallish 5- or 4-piece kit, and then apply a little dynamics and space.”
A few jawdropping facts here regarding George Kollias’ renowned kick drum prowess: On “Sacrifice Unto Sebek” from Nile’s Annihilation Of The Wicked, he’s blastbeating at 265bpm; on Ithyphallic, “Papyrus Containing The Spell To Preserve Its Possessor Against Attacks From He Who Is In The Water” hits at 271bpm, says the album’s producer Neil Kernon. And on George's instructional DVD, Intense Metal Drumming, you can witness Kollias ratcheting up a complex sixteenth-note beat all the way to 280 beats per minute!
For Nile or any death-metal-type projects, Kollias plays two kick drums with two single pedals, though when he performs jazz or funk or anything else other than metal, he prefers a single pedal. And while there’s fast, and then there’s super-fast, there’s George Kollias. Heels up or heels down, the speed of the man’s legs and feet is almost curiously superhuman. There must be some kind of trick to it.
“In death metal,” he says, “with all this fast double-bassing, some people are putting their ankles way up so it kind of feels like you play the rhythms backward. My way is a combination – basically heels up, but it moves like heel down. I have to place my ankles very low in order to play, to move my pedal faster. I use all the muscles of my leg, and this is actually where I get the power. The very last detail would be the toes.”
And if you don’t use it you lose it: Yes, Kollias keeps up on his practice schedule between tours, working on his rudiments and his ongoing study of jazz-style syncopation – as well as a lot of just plain grooving. “In the past I did a lot of speed exercises,” he says, “though, nowadays, with playing so many gigs every year, I don’t really need to practice speed.”
What Kollias does need is something quite different: He credits an overall daily immersion in music as an important part of his “practice” routine. “I listen to a lot of music,” he says. “This is an absolutely vital thing that drummers tend to forget. I get so disappointed when I talk to my students about music and they’re like, ’Ah, well, I don't listen to music so much.’ I’m like, What? You’re a drummer, you’ve got to listen to music. So as well as drumming, I play a lot of guitar, and I’m composing music, playing keyboards, percussion, everything. Music is my everyday life.”
Really listening to music, Kollias stresses, is a critical part of a drummer’s larger understanding of and enthusiasm for the instrument. It’s a belief that’s rooted in his own experience growing up in crowded urban settings where it wasn’t always possible to play the drums without the neighbors getting on your case.