One-on-one | Music

Nemesis: This isn’t a story about girls wanting to be boys

By - 03.01.2020

A women’s death metal group from Serbia is breaking down barriers and conquering the region.

First of all, it’s rare for a girl/woman to play in a band. Secondly, it’s an even greater rarity for a girl/woman to play in a death metal band. If five girls/women create a band on their own. Then it’s a unique phenomenon.

This isn’t as big of a spectacle as in some other countries. But in Balkan societies, imbued with patriarchy, it attracts attention. The women from the Nemesis band know that and point to this problem constantly. They have paved the path for other girls to pick up a drum, guitar, bass or some other instrument that is deemed inappropriate.

This is their story

There are five of them. The frontwoman Sanja Drča, guitarists Aleksandra Petrović and Tijana Milivojević. Bassist Biljana Sovilj and drummer Selena Simić. You will rarely see them all in one place, except when they have a rehearsal or gig, because Aleksandra and Biljana don’t live in Belgrade. This is why K2.0 spoke to only three of them.

At the end of 2018— five years since they were founded — their first album: “The War Is On,” is out. Their video single “Dead End.” has also been released. Nemesis performs often. Especially at festivals. The release of this album signalled a new phase of their development.

Over the period of five years, girls from Nemesis focused on playing live all over the region. Photo courtesy of Nemesis

K2.0: I’d say that you sort of have an old school approach to your work. Especially this new album that is coming out five years after your band’s creation. This also speaks volumes about your commitment. It doesn’t matter that we are living in a time when albums on their own aren’t so important for bands. To you this is relevant to a certain extent precisely because it is the conclusion of a period of active engagement?

Selena: Yes, this is definitely a conclusion of one era, to put it dramatically. And the start of a new one. Why are we this late with the album? Because we had way too many gigs. We were too focused on concerts. We haven’t had a moment to sit down and agree that all songs are ready and that we will record an album. Even now, when we listen to the songs, we can say that they aren’t ready but we could do this indefinitely. Until we reach levels of sick perfectionism. We decided to record and I believe we have found the best record company there is in the region — Grom Records, which is all-underground. The person running this record company supports us fully.

Tijana: If you think about the five year range, you have to bear in mind that this isn’t five years of album creation. Nemesis started off as a cover band and then changed its setup. It’s only been two years since we began to work on our music. Two years isn’t a short period, but we needed the time to figure it all out.

However, albums aren’t the first thing to do nowadays. Many performers offer their albums for free download. By doing so, they are opening the doors for new performances. For you, on the other hand, performances aren’t an issue. You already had a lot of gigs before you released the album.

Selena: With regards to recording the album, we first want to have this as our own product. Something that will remain for us, our families, somewhere in the drawers. So that we know that we did this. Like when somebody writes a book and then pays to have this made for them. This is why we want to have a CD.

Apart from that, we honestly believe that a narrow circle of the audience is listening to our music and staying with this old school approach. They would like to have a hardcopy release of the album. This is the only reason why we haven’t turned to streaming completely. We believe there are a certain number of audience members who would want a hardcopy edition. People who have those shelves with discs. We want a place on these shelves.

Who influenced you to pick up an instrument and was it the one you are currently playing?

Tijana: As for me — it is the same one [instrument]. My first instrument was a guitar. And who influenced me? I can’t say that someone had a particular influence. My parents were listening to this kind of music. I have discs with that music. I listened to bands… this inspired me to start playing.

Selena: In my case, this was different. I started playing piano when I was enrolled in an elementary music school. Just like all the other good kids of good parents. Later, they kicked me out of that school. I never wanted to attend music school, play piano or sing solfeggio (a vocal exercise) … I had an overwhelming desire to play the drums despite everyone and everything. I enrolled in secondary music school, where I played jazz drums. That has nothing to do with what I am doing right now. This [the band] seemed like a great thing for me.

Sanja: I came across this by chance. I sing but this wasn’t my plan at all. As a little girl, I was self-taught. I played the synthesizer and later wanted to learn how to play guitar. However, this didn’t go so well. Then I attended a gig. The microphone went from one audience member to another and somehow reached me. That is when I started growling. Our guitarist heard and asked me if I had a band. She said we can make one if I wanted. This is how I started. It wasn’t planned.

It was difficult in the beginning. I would sing three songs and then lose my voice because I didn’t know any tactics. We were all together and I saw that we can make this happen. That’s when I started enrolling in some tutorials to learn how to sing and not lose my voice in the process.

Nemesis started as a cover band, but i 2019 they announced their first album. Photo courtesy of Nemesis.

I never wanted to become a frontwoman. I always wanted to be in the background. Playing bass. Or possibly backing vocals. But it happened anyway. I always say that this came about by accident. I liked it. So I stayed.

Did the band arise just like that, by accident?

Selena: Yes, it was completely accidental. Aleksandra talked to Sanja during a gig. Sanja sent me a message via Facebook. At that moment, I had six bands I played in. All I wanted in life is yet another band. Then she texted me: “Hey, hi! I saw you playing with that band. I wanted to make my own band that would be an Arch Enemy tribute.”

If she hadn’t mentioned Arch Enemy (a Swedish melodic death metal band that also has a female singer)  I would have never accepted. At that point, this was my favorite band. From day one, since I started playing drums, all I wanted was to have a women’s band. And for it to sound like Arch Enemy.

If she hadn’t mentioned that band, I would have told her she was nice and sweet but I don’t have time for that. I met up with her and she brought along Aleksandra, the guitarist. I looked at her and thought: “Two girls, that’s it!” That’s when I said that we should find two more girls and make an all-female band. They liked the idea. This is how Nemesis was born.

"We managed to survive somehow because the band had turned us into friends, as well as colleagues that help each other with everything."

Selena, drummer

Tijana: Me being here is also a coincidence, and Bilja as well. She was a person we knew from Facebook. She was holding a guitar. So we just asked her: “Do you want to play in Nemesis?”

The band may have come about as a coincidence but everything surrounding the band wasn’t. From the sternly styled performances, to the album.

Tijana: We spent a lot of time hustling, as the youngsters would say. Doing a lot of everything.

Selena:  You are doing something with your life that isn’t profitable at the end of the day. You neglect your personal life. This isn’t something you can perform at the same level for a long time. But nonetheless we are doing that. We really went through a lot together and had issues no one could imagine.

We managed to survive somehow because the band turned us into friends. As well as colleagues that help each other with everything.

When we were little, we all watched male bands and wanted to be like them. We were all little girls who wanted to get on stage one day. Then do all that entertaining stuff and have people applaud us. I think we achieved some of it. If not here, then in Bulgaria for sure. We perform there more often than in Serbia. Those concerts are incredible with huge audiences. We usually perform at festivals dedicated to this type of music. A bunch of people come. They all love us. They give us drinks and food for free. They let us sleep in hotels. They provide us with everything.

"Although I'm a woman, what difference does that make? I want to imitate James Hetfield, one of my idols. Why can't I do that?"

Tijana, guitarist

I don’t want to have the stereotypical experiences of being a girlfriend of someone in the band or something as secondary as that. I want to be the big shot playing drums in the band on stage. At big festivals with that fire bursting in my head.

Tijana: I was also a child and the only thing I wanted was to get on stage and be like the male guitarists. But also to be a woman playing guitar in a metal band. It wasn’t important if there were five or three women, or if the rest were men. I just wanted to go there and play guitar. To be the one with all the moves.

Although I’m a woman, what difference does that make? I want to imitate James Hetfield, one of my idols. Why can’t I do that? The story of women was always that they either played classical music or stayed home. Admittedly, in my family this wasn’t the case as much. But when I left my house, they always told me that I would play the classical, acoustic guitar at some point. I always wanted to play with people. But those bands had always already invited some other man. I only wanted to go out with more people and to play what I love and want.

Sanja: As I already said, I never wanted to be a frontwoman but now I’m stuck with this role. For me, a woman was my idol. Angela from Arch Enemy. I watched and listened to her sing and behave on stage. I saw her energy. I said, OK, if I’m doing this, then I want to be like her.

I didn’t really have the support of my parents. They would ask me: “Why are you yelling at those people? Your grandfather is rolling over in his grave. How can we explain this and that? Why aren’t you behaving like a woman?” This only provoked me, so I said: “Okay, now I will be even louder yelling at those strangers”

"If a woman is furious then she must be insane and schizophrenic. She should be medically treated."

Selena, drummer

Tijana: Yep. The motivation came from the people who said: “Oh, come one!” I joined Nemesis because of them.

Selena: Our motivation to exist has its roots in defiance. What we defy is misogynistic and chauvinistic. They come to us and say: “And you are sort of playing drums? Impossible. But you play as well as some man would, kudos. I haven’t seen this before. You are creating a circus, you’re a clown.”

Sometimes it really feels like a circus because there are five of us, all women. People can’t understand that women are capable of doing something else. Not only working with saucepans and playing classical music. They can’t understand that women can also be furious. If a woman is furious then she must be insane and schizophrenic. She should be medically treated. Many torture devices were created throughout history only for torturing women. Because they are crazy.

Tijana: People find it strange to understand that. They will say there are many good female musicians. They are playing many different genres. But they find it fascinating that we chose death metal. This is the most fascinating thing. That we want this. I have been listening to this my whole life. Why wouldn’t I be playing this!

There are way too many reasons why somebody would choose to play death metal. Whether they are a man or a woman. There are so many reasons why they should be angry. Take a look at the place we live in. After everything that’s happened, it’s really difficult to pick up a violin or piano and play with an absolutely calm mind. We are discussing this rage, the anger arising from injustice. We can start with the name itself. The band’s name, Nemesis, the goddess of justice.

Selena: I am sure that there are some people who come home, play the violin, and enjoy what life gave them. But the five of us here… Why are there only three of us here right now having this conversation? And not five? Because one of us lives in Badovinci, which is a village close to Šabac, on the border with Bosnia. She is living with three cats, two dogs, and 750 chickens. While the other lives in Novi Sad as a sub-tenant, because she has a job there. Only our singer Sanja is from Belgrade. The rest of us come from the countryside. 

The Belgrade metal scene was always elitist and unwelcoming toward people from the country. Particularly women. I think that, unfortunately, we are the only ones doing this right now. But besides that, we can really feel that injustice when we arrive home. 

We spoke about the band name, Nemesis. It’s a song by our favorite band (Arch Enemy) that is really pretty rebellious. It’s lyrics are full of justice. They also have a female singer. Our favorite song of theirs was Nemesis. Later on, we explored and found out that Nemesis is the Greek goddess of justice that goes around with those scales. She measures the goodness in people.

We don’t claim to know how to measure the goodness of people but we do know when somebody isn’t good. So our name and lyrics most definitely reflect this rebellion we feel inside but don’t know how to express. 

I see you are continuing your engagement with the Rock Camp for girls. You are trying to convey your attitudes to younger generations. Three camps have already been organized. Hosting three generations of girls. What was your motivation for becoming part of this story?

Selena: I would say first that we aren’t alone in that. Nor did we launched the project. The person in charge is Tatjana Nikolić, who has been working to affirm women’s creativity in Serbia for years.

Beside live concerts, girls from Nemesis are part of the Rock Camp for Girls that has existed in Serbia for the past three years. Photo courtesy of Nemesis.

I joined them because I was a girl who needed a Rock Camp for girls. A place where I could play an instrument without judgement. Where I could try to play any instrument I like and to meet other girls who think like me. Who listen to similar music. My path to being involved in this was very logical. Tijana joined us there when I invited her because I knew she felt the same way.

In our home cities, we were some sort of weirdos. Some crazy girls. I was also called a cultist, junky, this and that. Because I wanted to play drums. This is exactly why we want to participate in Rock Camp for girls. So that none of the girls would have an experience similar to our own. 

Tijana: That’s right. This started in elementary school. You are playing a guitar. Already, you are a freak or whatever. In high school, this was kind of mitigated. You have some sort of identity. You become the thing you are playing but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The thing is that you cannot find a band in smaller communities. Usually, there are male bands. They are looking for a male guitarist, a male bass, a male drummer. Perhaps a female singer. My luck or misfortune is that I wasn’t a singer. In those communities, people look for guys to play in rock bands. They don’t trust women for some reason. I only wanted to change that. I am a girl currently playing in Nemesis and I think I am very successful doing that. Why couldn’t some other girl do the same thing? If an opportunity presents itself?

Selena: And this isn’t a story about us, girls, wanting to be those boys. Nope!

Tijana: We, girls, want to be these girls. To be what we are right now. We are here so they can identify with us. Then they should become people who some other girls could also identify with. 

Selena: We want to make sure that they don’t have to identify with boys on the stage but that they can see women on stage who are furious, agile and energetic. Who are songwriters. Who can feel totally. Without having to think that, if somebody is a woman, then she can’t do this or that.

Tijana: We want to change that. I’m as skilled in music as someone called Dino or Aleksandar. It doesn’t matter what we look like but what kind of music we are creating and how we perform.K

Feature image: Courtesy of Nemesis.