George Kollias: Priest Of Speed

george kollias

Death metal needs a life force, and Nile got exactly that when they happened upon Greek-born drummer George Kollias. A multi-instrumentalist of prodigious technical wizardry, by the time he joined the band in 2004, Kollias had already been much talked about for his seemingly superhuman precision and speed in a number of Greek rock and extreme metal bands including Nightfall and Sickening Horror. The first of Nile’s four drummers to play on more than one of the trio’s full-lengths, Kollias has now recorded four albums with the band, including Annihilation Of The Wicked, Ithyphallic, Those Whom The Gods Detest, and the certifiably wicked new At The Gate Of Sethu.

The extent of Kollias’ impact behind a kit is evident in how he got the Nile gig: The rest of the bandmembers were so impressed after they saw a single video he’d played on, they hired him without an audition. “And I was in the band for two months before I started actually playing with them, so that was pretty funny,” Kollias says. “When we played for the first time, it was a very good experience. I knew that was my gig. I said, ’I’m here to stay.’”

Born To Drum

Kollias is an accomplished musician who’s also an instructor at Modern Music School, in Athens, a worldwide drum clinician, and the creator of an instructional DVD titled Intense Metal Drumming (2008) (there’s a volume two out imminently). He’s so accomplished, in fact, that his rapid rise in the music business seems a bit like fate. Yet Kollias hadn’t exactly been pushed by his family and friends toward a career as a professional drummer. “There were no musicians, no drummer friends, no nothing,” he laughs. “We had no musicians in the family, except for my brother, who’s a guitar player, and the reason I play guitar as well.”

He’d started with guitar when he was ten years old, and was crazy for drums, too, but he couldn’t afford to buy a “real” drum set. When he finally managed to get his hands on a used kit at age 12, that was it – he was hooked. He has, he says, no logical explanation for it. “I don’t know why that happened to me; I just wanted to play drums. And from the day when I got my first kit, I was a drummer! Every day I feel like a drummer.”

That first drum set, a cheapo, non-brand sort of thing, was fine for a while, but when Kollias had saved up the scratch to get a set of Pearl Exports, things started to get serious. “It was actually my first ’semi-pro’ drum set, my first nice drums,” he says. “And from that day I’ve been a Pearl drummer.”

Though Kollias is mostly self-taught, he did take some early valuable lessons – from a guitar player. “There were no drum teachers in Korinthos, the city I was born in. I started with a guitarist who taught me how to read basic drum notation. Other than that it was mostly ear training and listening to music a lot and trying to understand what the drummers were doing.”

He reckons that there being no YouTube with which to study drummers’ techniques visually when he was coming up, it was a good thing because it forced him to train by ear. “I started to listen, and forming explanations in my head for everything the drummer does – and then tried to play everything he was doing.”

Kollias mentored for a year with Greek jazz drummer Yannis Stavropoulos, which was the beginning of a new musical mind for him, radically expanding his playing style and, crucially, his attitude toward the instrument’s possibilities. But even after a few stints in relatively popular Greek bands, he hadn’t decided whether or not he’d become a professional drummer. In fact, he’d definitely decided against it. “I didn’t want to be a professional musician,” he says with a grin, “mostly because I was feeling people were saying musicians don’t make money.” Even so, from the start he’d been determined to act like a professional musician, an attitude that he’s maintained throughout his career.

When the offer from Nile came, however, Kollias’ feelings about going pro did an abrupt about-face. “The first money I made from music was when I started playing with Nile. And I decided, yes, I’m a professional musician.”

Pounding Beats Flat

Kollias’ explosive blastbeats in Nile bear traces of his early fascination with drummers in wildly varying genres, from the varying strands of metal-aligned bands like Metallica, Sepultura, and his beloved Kreator, to hard rock crews like Def Leppard and jazzers such as Jack DeJohnette. The point is, he listened to everything, and learned.

“Today I still get so much influence from everybody that’s played,” he says. “I used to listen mostly to my favorite bands’ drummers, but right now I’m just looking for great players. And there are too many to mention – thousands.”

The techniques of the great jazz players that might’ve impacted Kollias maybe aren’t so apparent in his playing with Nile. “You can’t really play death metal with traditional grip,” he says. “Well, it can be done, but you’re going to get so tired. And it’s not going to work trying to impart dynamics that way, because death metal is a flat music, you got to have the same volume all the way through a song.”

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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.”

Fancy Footwork

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.

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He shakes his head at the memory. “I did a lot of head-drumming back in the day because we were living in an apartment, and we didn’t have enough money to rent a studio. So the first ten years of my ’playing’ was mostly like ear training and no drumming, but it got me to the point where I could play for any class of metal band, professionally. Importantly, too, I was very serious about it from the first year, even if just in my own head, and from the age of 13 or so I could play some insane songs, like Slayer’s – I mean really tough songs.”

George Kollias

Kollias’ Setup

Drums Pearl Reference Pure (Piano Black)
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6.5" Snare
3. 8" x 7" Tom
4. 10" x 8" Tom
5. 12" x 9" Tom
6. 13" x 10" Tom
7. 14" x 14" Floor Tom
8. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
9. 14" x 12" Tom (left side)
10. 12" x 5" Snare

Cymbals Sabian
A. 14" AAX Stage Hats
B. 8" Chopper
C. 7" Signature Max Splash
D. 20" AAX Metal Ride
E. 14" HHX Evolution Mini Chinese
F. 17" AAXtreme Chinese
G. 17" AAX Dark Crash
H. 8" Hand Hammered China Kang
I. 10" HHX Evolution Splash
J. 17" AAX Studio Crash
K. 10" AA Mini Hats 10 (half open)
L. 12" AA Mini Hats 12 (closed)
M. 18" HHX Power Crash
N. 22" AAX Metal Ride
O. 18" HHX Evolution Chinese
P. 19" AAXtreme Chinese
Q. 13" AAX Stage Hats
R. 18" APX Ozone Crash

Percussion
S. RhythmTech Ribbon Crasher
T. Pearl Tambourine “foot snare”
U. Roland KD-7 Kick Pad

George Kollias also uses Vic Firth SGK (George Kollias Signature) sticks, Evans heads (EQ2 Clear on bass drums; HD Dry Coated on 14" and 12" snare; G2 Clear on 8", 10", 12" and 13" toms and 14" and 16" floor toms; Hydraulic Glass on 14" tom (far left); G1 Clear on all Toms/Floor Tom resos, and Hazy 300 on both snare resos), Axis A Longboard pedals on bass drums, electronic kick, foot snare, and ribbon crasher; Pearl hardware (Eliminator Hi-Hat stands, Roadster Throne, OptiMount Suspension System), Axis E-Kit Kick Triggers, Alesis DM Pro module, and Extreme Isolation Headphones.

All this practice, mental or otherwise, is still aided occasionally by a metronome, though Kollias’ feelings about that device are ambivalent. He has, he says, a “daily relationship” with the metronome, like when Nile rehearses in the studio and also when he does clinics. “Of course I use it, but I try not to use it. When I was younger I was forcing myself to practice with a metronome, and now I force myself to not practice with a metronome. I think my inner clock is good enough, and I just go for the feel and groove.”

Nile’s immense world tours keep the band on the road for months at a stretch, and the players’ health and well-being are prime considerations, too, as they’re in it for the long haul. Kollias’ doctor harshly warned him about the importance of warming up before performances. “If you perform everyday and play so much for months and months, then you get a little bit lazy,” he says. “Picture going out onstage and from the first song playing 280 beats per minute, single kick or double kick. Sounds very athletic, yeah, but the fact is, I was being lazy by not stretching before playing, and developed tendonitis in my leg as a result. You need to warm up and stretch just to save yourself.”

There are other physical ailments that, as every drummer knows, are just par for the course, like blisters and cramps. “Whatever happens, you have to just keep going,” Kollias laughs. “You can’t tell the crowd, ’Hey guys, I’m sorry, I have a cramp, let’s take a break!’”

Triggers: The Necessary Evil

Onstage, Kollias’ drums and miking setup are near identical to the gear employed in the studio. On most songs he plays the Pearl Reference Pure series, and he also has the new Reference II set, which he uses for clinics and for his DVD projects. His drum techs in Europe and the U.S. are always on hand to get his massive setup ready and able, and to deal with sundry weird jobs like figuring out how to cope with … melting beaters?

He laughs again. “I played with the plastic ones for years, but the problem with them is, when you’re onstage doing all these, like, miles of double-bassing, they melt and stick to the heads. So recently I began using felt. The plastic ones have a little more punch, so I can hear my kick louder, but I got so tired of the sticky thing, I got rid of them.”

Kollias is only so picky about his drums’ tuning, which he keeps wide open, with two obvious exceptions. “I like as much super-natural sound as possible, so yeah, I fine-tune to pretty low tuning, except we tune up the kick drums.”

The kicks are triggered off the heads for Kollias’ trademarked zillion-bpm footwork. No doubt, Kollias is ungodly speedy even without the triggers, but even he’s got to have a little help down there to get the full bullet-spray effect. “I’m not a big fan of triggering, but when I play metal I always use triggers,” he says. “Triggering for death metal is a necessity. I mean, if you like triggers, you have to use triggers; if you don’t like them, you still have to use them. There’s so much crap talk around about triggers; people think it’s cheating, etc. But they don’t understand that triggering is not only to show off a superfast drummer’s skills, it’s also for the band – the band needs the kick drums quadrupled or whatever so they can play the riffs.”

In the studio and onstage, Kollias likes a combination of organic and synthetic patches for his triggered sounds. “Everybody has already used the same digital or synthesized samples, and we use some of them, too. But in the studio we always mix them with acoustic things. In my studio here in Athens I use the Shure Beta 52 and the Beta 91 and mix them to get a lot of boom and punch and as much naturalness as possible.”

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Each member of the band records his basic studio tracks separately, with Kollias laying down his drum parts to a click and the guitars. To ensure the feel of a real live human band playing their instruments and not merely a producer mix-and-matching sounds on a computer, in the studio Nile indeed play their instruments. “Nile is one of the few bands that don’t sound-replace on their tracks,” says Kollias. “That’s why I always hear, ’Oh, man, your drums are so raw, not so clean!’ Well, because they’re natural, that’s why.”

Kollias’ preferred mix for his stage monitors is intriguing for its almost total exclusion of anything but drums. “It’s so funny, because with Nile I never have guitars on my monitor or anything. I get a little bit of kicks and click in my headphones, but, mixed from the bottom, I can hear a little bit of low end, so it’s kind of like an illusion. Sometimes I’ll have a little bit of guitar, but usually no guitars, no bass, no vocals, no samples, nothing – just kick and click. Everything else is in my head. I just close my eyes and go for it.”

Riding Nile’s High Tide

To hear him tell it, George Kollias is living in the most excellent of all possible worlds. He’s got his drum clinics, his DVDs, and solo projects, all of which he couldn’t be happier about. But when he speaks of his experiences in Nile, it’s with an infectious glee and more than a little awe at the honor of doing right for his favorite band on planet Earth.

“You know, we’ve played some really important tours and some big festivals. I mean, we played with Black Sabbath! And my drum clinics, they grew so much – last year only I did, like, 23 clinics around the world. So these things were always my dreams and they’re happening right now.

“But mostly I like the fact that I joined Nile, and I’m proud that I’ve done four albums with them and have been doing my best for them for seven years and a half. About this, I feel really good.”

Groove Analysis

George Kollias plays fast. Really, really fast. In the time it took you to read this far he could have played a whole song. Kollias has been playing with Nile since 2004 and has everything fans of speed metal could desire – nightmarish atmosphere, blistering riffs, demonic vocals, and drumming so fast it seems inhuman.

“Tribunal Of The Dead”
The tempo of this song feels like the pace pallbearers walk at a funeral and creates a similarly dark mood. This oppressively slow pace allows Kollias to play a simple groove on his ride bell and add dramatic fills using his China cymbals for accents. The time signature shifts back and forth from 4/4 to 6/4 making the intro feel slightly odd and uneven. The last line abruptly changes everything. Here the contrast between the slow intro and the brutal speed of the thirty-second-note bass drum sextuplets is quite jarring and kicks the anger quotient of the song up several notches.

DRUM! Notation Guide

george kollias

“The Fiends Who Come To Steal The Magick Of The Deceased”
On this long-titled track, Kollias plays some absolutely mind-bending drum parts, though if you’re familiar with his playing this should come as no surprise to you. His China cymbal accents follow the guitars very closely and he throws thirty-second-note fills in the gaps between the riffs. The assortment of shifting time signatures and odd rhythms is guaranteed to make your head spin.

george kollias