Punctuating the Middle East's music scene with their unique brand of Indie-Rock Blues, Lebanon's The Wanton Bishops have changed the sound of the Arab world. Now on their world tour, starting in Cairo last week, we find out what makes them so cool...
Every so often, a band comes out of the Middle East garnering the same sort of attention that you’d expect from international rockstars and they become musical messiahs in the regions microcosm of the scene.
Nader Mansour has a permanent just-walked–of-a biker-bar-fight in Austin look, covered in tattoos with a menacing beard and intimidating gait but it’s a stark juxtaposition to his character. He’s charming and scattershot, constantly letting you in with these little moments of silent reminiscence, where you can see the bumpy ride he’s come along, before he zooms back into presence with affable dark humour. In another life, Eddy Ghossein would be rocking out melancholic guitar tunes in 90s Manchester bar. Before he opens his mouth, you can tell bands like Oasis and The Verve have had a big influence on him, thanks to his bowl haircut, and he embodies a similar attitude. Laid back, brooding and opinionated, he casts a living, breathing figure of his own inspirations and aspirations. With Nader on vocals and harmonica and Eddy on guitar they make up The Wanton Bishops, an Indie-Rock and Blues band out of Lebanon that have been making huge waves since starting up just a couple of years ago. Supported by Lebanese publishers Keeward, their brand of hard hitting, energetic, heart-felt and gritty originals have witnessed contemplative whiskey-drinkers and teenage panty-throwers a like from Oslo to Paris, Ankara and back, and this year alone, they’ve opened up for Guns N’ Roses and Lana Del Rey. They're currently on a world tour that kicked off in Egypt last Thursday for Red Bull's Quater Tone Frequency, so a couple of hours before they were due on stage, we had a chat with Nader and Eddy about living like rockstars, Lebanon's music scene and their penises...
Nader, when did you start looking like such a badass?
Nader: As soon as I started growing facial hair.
Did it come before the music or after the music?
Nader: During... I had a goatee before.
How did it all come about? It’s quite strange that there’s a Blues band coming in from Lebanon...
Nader: I used to have a show, a Chicago Blues show, where I'd do covers, then he [Eddy] used to come and jam with me and we drank too much and decided to ruin both of our lives and start a band.
Eddy: That was around three years ago. Blues was always popular in Beirut but it was only commercial Blues; well-known songs done by cover bands.
Would you say you were the first band out of the country to be performing gritty, Blues originals?
Nader: Everybody plays Blues but we’re probably the first to do our own material – why is that?
Maybe it’s not ‘cool’ and it’s not contemporary in people’s minds?
Nader: I think that’s absolutely bullshit, especially after a couple of bands have made it sexy again, internationally.
Eddy: Like the Black Keys, Jack White, John Spencer and the Blues Explosion, among others.
So when you started up in Lebanon how were you received?
Eddy: Well actually it was fast, to be honest. We did a very small gig in Beirut in July last year with like, 15 or 20 people. And at the next day people started calling us for interviews and then our first show was in September I think – we had maybe 400, people in a venue that holds 100. It was huge.
What jobs did you have before the band?
Nader: Oh shit, you want to know? I used to be a financial engineer.
Eddy: I used to be a banker, a financial auditor in a bank for two and half years.
Nader: It’s the Lebanese curse.
Eddy: And then I was a medical equipment salesman.
So you decided to be rockstars instead? what’s wrong with you?!
Eddy: It’s not like you decide to be a rockstar; it’s not like I wanted be a rockstar. I still don’t want to be a rockstar, just a recording musician.
Nader: I kinda fucked myself up [points at his tattoos]. I can’ have a tax paying job.
Tell us a bit more about the Rock and Blues scene in Lebanon:
Nader: It’s a beautiful one.
Eddy: It’s definitely growing.
Nader: I don’t know if you’ve heard of Soap Kills – 5/6 years ago maybe even 10 or 15.
Eddy: He’s the one that, after the war ended, started playing music on his own label and made the first video and made the first album with a beautiful lady called Yasmine Hamdan who has now made it really big in Europe. Others came along, like Mashrou’ Leila who have made it really big.
Are you fans of Mashrou’ Leila?
Eddy: We’re fans of Mashrou’ Leila, we’re friends with them. I like the last album they did; this is when I really started to like them. Before that I wasn’t really sure about them.
Have you ever thought about singing in Arabic?
Eddy: Absolutely not. Because we do not like Arabic music so we cannot sing in Arabic. People ask us this question a lot – why do we sing in English and not in Arabic? Thing is, we only play the Blues because we like, it not because it’s a strategic thing – we play what we like. So that’s why we sing in English and play Blues-ey tunes
Nader: Mashrou’ Leila are doing a great job at that though.
Here in Egypt it’s all about Deep House. What’s the popular thing in Lebanon?
Nader: Until we came out it was Deep House and Deep Shit; it was minimal.
Eddy: Since we came out, alongside a few other Indie bands, it’s all about Dance, Electro, Rock – things like that.
Nader: Indie, Folk – kinda Rock-ish stuff. And in under a year, you now have all these good bands, doing good shit.
Does the fact that you’re from the Middle East and making this kind of music annoy you in the sense that people don’t focus on the art, just where you’re from?
Eddy: The thing is, the way that I see it is that we never really focus on bands, like we never really promote Wanton Bishops as a band from Lebanon who’s playing the Blues – we just write songs and we play them.
Nader: It is intriguing to them - it is quite intriguing to international press but does it bother us though? Do we play on it? No.
Where did the name come from?
Nader: Oh shit. You’ll have to answer this.
Eddy: It was a very fast decision over a phone call. Nader was like yeah, let’s put Wanton – what does it mean? I’m not sure – but I like the word. Then I was like let’s put Bishops in it, okay – and that was it. It was The Wanton Bishops.
If you could rewrite history and think of a better story to tell about that, what would you say?
Eddy: The thing is, I don’t like names and labels because people ask us how we would describe our music and I really don’t know how to describe our music because we never felt the need to belong to a certain style of music which is why we didn’t really think of the name that much – it’s like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, it means nothing.
Your song writing process – how does it work? Do you make the music first or the lyrics first or is it just a case of experimenting?Nader: Not really, we tried to jam and experiment and it didn’t work. So we settled on a dynamic that would work where I would soak in whatever is in the city - because I can’t live too much in the city because I’m a country boy and that’s where I belong - then I would go out to the country and he would disappear and I’d come back with a riff for him and we’d sit together and then, shit works. That shit works. I’d keep insisting stuff and he fucks with the arrangements and he makes it a decent song out of a jam and I’d write a few lyrics.
What’s the worst argument you’ve ever had together?
Nader: We’ve had so many arguments in our day.
Eddy: We’re still adjusting to become a bit cooler.
Can you fight for us on camera?
Eddy: It never got physical – I never hit you.
If you had to name your penises after a film, what would you name them?
Eddy: Haha, we have discussed this before, that’s the problem! Mine would be the Count of Monte Cristo – that was a long movie.
Nader: Does it have to be a movie? Oh Jesus.... American Psycho.
Eddy: Why American? Why not Lebanese?
Nader: Because that's what the movie is called!
Do you have groupies?
Nader: Oh… We have friends.
Eddy: Of course we do!
The question is, since becoming Rock superstars in Lebanon, have you got mad bitches?
Eddy: What do you think?
Nader: We should say no, not as many as we would like to have.
Give us a figure?
Nader: No, we’ve got the numbers man, it’s cool. The quality is getting better, too. At first it wasn’t but now it’s getting better.
What’re your first impressions of Egypt?
Nader: We’re both Egyptian fanatics – fanatics is a big word – let's say "interested" in the whole Egyptology thing, archaeology is kind of my thing.
Eddie: I love this city, I love it – I mean all of my family went to Egypt at some point and nobody mentioned the whole Salah ElDin castle – it’s beautiful, it’s fucking amazing. I used to read a lot about the whole Crusades that happened and then he fucked up Beirut, by the way, so that’s why I don’t like Salah ElDin, but the castles are great.
Are you obsessed with him?
Eddy: Not obsessed, but I read a lot about this time because it was crucial to the history of Beirut and the city was fucked by Salah ElDin. But I love how this guy built so many castles around the world – he was a big guy.
Nader: For Egypt, so far, we’ve seen traffic. A lot.
What’s your favourite drink?
Eddy: Tequila with gunpowder… No, I’m joking, probably beer. I don’t like cocktails but I drink vodka and beer, tequila, whiskey.
How much do you drink before you get on stage?
Eddy: It depends, I don’t know. Sometimes I drink, sometimes I don’t. There’s no pattern.
Nader: I have to eat before we go on stage. I eat eight times a day.
Were you a fat kid?
Nader: I don’t know, it’s nothing I did - I guess it’s my metabolism.
What’s the weirdest shit that has ever happened to you during a gig?
Eddy: We had a fucked up gig two months ago – it was a great gig and people loved it and they didn’t notice what was happening with us – Nader had like six problems in five minutes; he broke the guitars and his gear wasn’t working, then the amp wasn’t working and then the other guitar broke – it was chaos.
Nader: Everything broke down, I was like fuck it, give me a cigarette. We had this quote and it was ‘Shut the fuck up, and play’ so whatever fucks up we just say shut the fuck up, man and play. Something really weird happened once; I had a reed from the harmonica I used to play get stuck in my throat – I had to cough it up, live.
Eddy: I remember once you were electrocuted by the mic!
How did you get into to playing the harmonica?
Nader: I bumped into it and that’s what kind of ruined my life. I always knew harmonica as a sound but I never knew how to play it. There was this album that I bought with five tracks with the harmonica, and five where you play the harmonica along with the rhythm. So, in a couple of weeks I was like, dude, I can do this.
Why do you talk about music in this masochistic way like it ruined your life?
Nader: Well, it did ruin my life until now – it’s been a tough five or six years, man. That’s all I can say; it’s been really tough. Now? Well I’m here.
When did you feel that change?
Nader: Last year when we started The Wanton Bishops.
Eddy: When people started to approach us, to support us, to help us – whether they were promoters or a management company or a venue, or fans – people who like us.
Nader: And when bankers start to make coffee for you.
Eddie: I still don’t have that.
Do you have a favourite gig that you’ve played so far and why was it special?
Nader: I do, in Oslo – for some reason when we played in Oslo it was like hipster central, everybody had a moustache.
Eddy: My favourite gig is always the next one – but to be honest it would be the first one actually because it was like five minutes and we needed to decide what to do, we had no idea, but it was great and people loved it. Then I realised that wow, this shit is working.
What’s Lana Del Rey like?
Eddy: Plastic. Not as in, plastic surgery but, she doesn’t have a soul.
Do you enjoy her music?
Eddy: Absolutely not but to be honest I know her first album well and I think that the guy who produced the album is a genius.
Nader: I mean when she gets on stage and sings that her pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola...hey, you got me!
We dare you to say that on stage tonight. Go on the mic and say ‘my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola’...
Nader: What’s in it for me, man?
You can say ‘my pussy tastes like Red Bull’ then.
Nader: That reminds me. We were at Cairo Jazz Club yesterday and some douche ass bag, man, he was so ugly, and he had a shirt saying ‘Who would like to be fucked?’ Technically, everyone would like to be fucked, just not by him.
Is there anyone that you’ve met in the music world that you’ve been star-struck by?
Eddy: When I was a kid I met Roger Waters once – it’s meaningless because you meet the guy for like 30 seconds and you shake their hand and get an autograph and that’s it.
Do people ask you for autographs?
Nader: We get that. We do. But there’s this snobby vibe we get where it’s like ‘who the fuck are they for us to talk to them?' But after a gig, they all want to take photos with us.
How important was it for you to be accepted or to prove something to the Western music scene? Or would you be happy just playing in your country for the rest of your life?
Nader: Absolutely not, because it’s not financially feasible. We have a very small country; we can’t tour or play any more than once every two or three months. We have the attention span of a fucking goldfish in Lebanon. We have to get the fuck out of there.
Do people in Lebanon go out for the music or for the party?
Nader: They go for the music. At first we were the cool thing that was happening, like “we have to be there” but then we start noticing that sometimes they start singing louder than us – I’d like to say I was taking a dump when writing a lyric and now these motherfuckers are singing it, it’s weird.
Do you come up with lyrics in the toilet?
Nader: It’s very meditative, like you’re really relaxing somehow…Jesus I’m talking about this...
Feel free to poop on our toilet and come up with lyrics, we find a lot of inspiration there. If you could warm up, or have someone warm up for you, who would it be?
Nader: That would be two different questions.
Just play with?
Nader: That’s another, different question, collaborate with? To collaborate with I would definitely look for Lotfi Bushnaq. I don’t know if you guys know this guy, he’s a Tunisian ex-Sufi singer.
Eddy: I’d like to work with Leonard Cohen, I love him. I’d also like to play with the Rolling Stones.
If Lady Gaga approached you and wanted to work with you on a track – Lady Gaga featuring the Wanton Bishops – but she had total creative control would you do it? she’s going to pay you a billion dollars....
Eddy: Of course I’ll do it.
What’s the lowest amount you would do it for?
Eddy: I’d do it for half a million, for each.
Nader: We’ve faced a lot of financial problems so if Lady Kaka was to have a song with us and we’d get paid, then yeah. But I’d try to influence her.
Eddy: But the question was like, she’ll have full creative control.
Nader: But I have a big cock...I’ll convince her!
What advice would you give to those who want to be rockstars?
Nader: Not to become rockstars until they become rockstars. Nobody is a rock star until they work their goddamn ass off and are ready to lose a shit load - loved ones, money...
Eddy: Just don’t do it for the money though, it’s not going to pay off anytime soon.
You say don’t do it for the money, what do you do it for?
Eddy: The adventure and the music.
That was deep.
Eddy: That’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing it because I love doing it and I do it because the adventure’s great, it’s crazy. When we are invited to Egypt to play on the Nile... that's music that we wrote two years ago.
Nader: I do it because I can’t do anything else.
Do you ever put things in your beard for fun, Nader?
Nader: Yeah, like pens and stuff.
Listen to more of The Wanton Bishops and find out their next tour dates at www.thewantonbishops.com or visit their fanpage here. Check out all the photos from their performance at Red Bull & Nacelle's Quarter Tone Frequency here.