Lebanese rock from brothers of another cloth
Live from Beirut: the Wanton Bishops, a duo of bourbon-and-tequila loving twenty-somethings are mixing up mad, stomping vintage blues sounds with the sexual rawness of garage rock. Suspended between disillusionment and exultation, their visceral sounds echo the soul of their crumbling city. We had a spirited chat, between power cuts, tales of heartbreak and pseudo-philosophical banter, before their grand tour in Europe.
Nader [Mansour], you’re into old blues – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker. Eddy [Ghoseein], you love The Rolling Stones and The Kinks. How do you find a middle ground?
Nader: What we do is definitely a cross mix between Mississippi blues and rock’n'roll from the ’60s. I’m a blues man and Ed is a British rock person. As a teenager when I was living in Paris, I was listening to Jimmy Hendrix and the Doors and started going back until I bumped into the blues. We can relate to it because as Lebanese we’ve been having the blues for three decades; we’ve been living in this shit situation for so long. The blues chooses you, and then you can’t get away from it. A few years ago the revival of blues and vintage sounds was inspiring for us – Black Keys, Jack White, The Kills… We’re the lovechild of this anglo-saxon orgy plus a Lebanese twist. We are more bluesy and more raw than the Black Keys, whose music is sugar-coated. We’re trying to keep it as archaic as possible. A stomp, and a riff and a good lyric — and that’s it. The stomping— it just reminds me of a heartbeat. And the harmonica is a wail. It’s one of the most human instruments ever. It’s an extension of your breath; it doesn’t sound like an instrument.
“Sleep with the Lights On” is a sad song…
Nader: It’s about a friend of mine who passed away. I was talking to her brothers and they were afraid that they were seeing her shadow — and one of them told me, ‘I’m almost sleeping with the lights on man,’ because all they wanted to do was see her. The blues had a function, a way for you to escape and to heal. We do the same – we might be fighting someone or something bigger but it’s very subtle.
How do you feel about the Arab revolts, the political problems in the region?
Nader: I’m jaded. I don’t I care about it. It doesn’t affect me, I watch TV and it’s just like any other news. Life is too short for this kind of thing. I’m in my own thing, I’m completely disconnected. I live in the mountains most of the time. I’m just trying to have my kicks before the whole thing goes down.
You’re about to play outside of Lebanon for the first time, with concerts in Turkey and Europe. How does it feel?
Nader: For the first time, we’re facing a crowd that doesn’t know us personally. People kind of related to us quickly in Beirut. The blues itself is very universal. It’s the honesty of our music that people love.
Wanton means ‘bawdy,’ ‘promiscuous,’ or generally shady. Does that reflect who you are?
Nader: I’m interested in the game of seduction – the moment when a woman or a man decides to give him or herself without caring about the consequences. It’s about the moment when you surrender, the dynamics of it. But really Wanton Bishops is just a name.
Tequila, bourbon… Alcohol has played a great role in your friendship…
Nader: Alcohol puts you in a state where you need to be. I used to play a Chicago Blues show at Bar Louie. Eddie came to play with me. One night I was going out of a gig and Eddie had a fight with a good number of parking valets. I jumped in and tried to help. Then we drank cheap tequila and bonded. We bonded through two beautiful things: fights and music. We started it with sweat, alcohol, music and blood.
How do you complement each other?
Nader: I write a riff, and Eddie jumps in and turns it into music – I’m not a musician. As for the playing on stage, Eddie is the bulk musician dude on stage. I can trip as much as I want on the harmonica and then come back to it. Improvisation happens a lot, no show is like the other. You never feel the same as another night.
How did you first start playing music?
Eddy: I started playing guitar when I was 12. I played jazz and blues while I worked as a financial auditor and businessman. My dad was a big music lover, we used to listen to a lot of jazz and classical music. He had a John Lennon album, a Black Sabbath album, a collection of German children’s songs. I first started playing on a plastic flute at school – it was a Louis Armstrong song.
Nader: I was born in the small town of Firzol next to Zahle in the Bekaa valley and grew up listening to the old Lebanese folklore. My family would sing after meals, the exact equivalent of the blues actually. It’s simple poetry, inspired by everyday life. Often we played the oud too. I traveled to France after high school and studied financial engineering. I used to listen to a lot of music and discovered harmonica on a self-teach CD. I jammed all over Paris, until people started clapping. And then I became a professional musician and started singing. I attended jazz school but didn’t really get it, though.
Are you inspired by Beirut’s music scene?
Eddy: I’m very positive about the scene in Beirut, but there’s no infrastructure whatsoever. Do I have electric power cuts? Are gas prices more expensive? Yes! We have two overpriced stores, two studios that are overly expensive, no mastering facilities. But you turn whatever problems you have into strengths; I even built a guitar with a piece of wood and a bass string, two nails, a guitar pickup and a meat can. It still smells like meat. It’s really raw. What’s going on in Beirut is very interesting but musicians have to do everything themselves — no government, no infrastructure, no nothing. You gotta go the extra mile. Now I can see the identity of Beirut more than ever in its music. I see people playing folk, blues, fusion Arabic-rock music, it’s really diverse. And that’s Beirut.
Want more music from Beirut? Take a deep dive with MTV Iggy, here.