Beirut-based alternative rock band talk to Time Out
Arabic for ‘an overnight project’, Mashrou’ Leila is the stage name of an act comprising the various musical talents of Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges, Hamed Sinno, Omaya Malaeb, Andre Chedid, Firas Abou Fakher and Ibrahim Badr. If you didn’t manage to catch them during February’s Skywards International Jazz Festival, think Damien Rice meets Red Hot Chili Peppers, with Arabic lyrics. Following the release of their second album, El Hal Romancy, in July, we spoke to the band to find out more.
Tell us some of the ideas behind your new album. Carl: It’s not really the same vibe [as the self-titled first album], it’s more us, but more evolved. I think it’s the new direction we’re taking.
Firas: The first album was us witnessing what was going on in the country. In terms of political situations, social situations, taboos, [it was a] commentary on all these things. These five EP songs are the consequences of those things on a very individual level. All these songs talk about people reflecting upon themselves or talking to someone. It’s not just a commentary any more; it’s introspection.
Carl: Even musically, it’s more intricate, it’s more detailed. We tried new sounds, instruments. We recorded everywhere.
Andre: Basically, anything we thought we really wanted to do personally, we did it.
You’ve said your EP reflects your new direction. Is this the future of Mashrou’ Leila? Carl: The music is less in-your-face. It’s more theatrical, more sensitive.
Andre: We’re not making a literal statement; we’re making a statement through the music and through the sounds and the mood we choose…
Firas: Even through the artwork, Hamed did all [of it]. We shot pictures in an old hotel with abandoned beds; it’s these introverted, interior spaces. This is the EP, it’s someone sitting alone in a room; in one song he’s bashing the walls and in the other he’s sitting in a corner and crying. It’s not out on the streets, it’s not out in protest. It’s really inside that everything is going wrong, or right.
You recently performed in Serbia. Do you find you have a big international following? Andre: This was the first time we played in Europe and we had fans in the audience who didn’t speak Arabic, but they were still singing the lyrics, just voicing them.
Firas: It was inspiring, because we thought there was always going to be a limit to language. But a lot of people who spoke to us after the show were very positive, even though they didn’t understand a word we were saying.
Andre: It feels good for us who don’t write the lyrics, because in Lebanon a lot of people like music because of the lyrics and they connect to them. But then to see people connect with the music, that feels good [laughs].
Would you ever sing in English or French in the future? Firas: We’ve all listened to English music so much and it’s hard to break any ground there. With Arabic music there’s still so much that hasn’t been covered; the second we started doing something it was already different. Even when we covered Gorillaz we sang in Arabic. I don’t think we’re interested in [singing in English] yet, we haven’t saturated what we do at all.
You played Dubai earlier in the year as part of the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival. Are you planning to return to the UAE? Firas: I don’t know. We might be playing the Formula One in October in Abu Dhabi.
What do you make of the emerging talent in the UAE? Carl: The thing about the UAE is we don’t really know anything…
Firas: Music communication across borders isn’t very good in Arab countries. Not a lot of people tour, because they don’t have the funds or nobody invites them with funding. The closest you get is through Facebook or through YouTube or whatever. And even that is rare, I mean, you have to have someone who knows the band tell you to check it out, otherwise it’s really hard to [find other Arabic acts].
Tell us about one of your most memorable onstage experiences. Carl: In Egypt we had a concert in an outdoor amphitheatre. It was filled with people, even in the trees, everywhere! When we played the last song and left people went crazy. We went back, played two songs and Hamed made the mistake [of telling] two guys to come dance on stage.
Firas: It was really dangerous because there were about 400 people on stage with us, it was really crazy. It was our first time in Egypt then, and we have one of our biggest fan bases in Cairo and Alexandria. It was incredible, they knew every song, and all of the lyrics. They were all really enjoying the music across all ages, from 12-year-old teenagers, to 40 or 50-year-olds. They’re passionate people, which you can really understand, they’ve just come out of a revolution. Our Gorillaz cover song [‘Clint Eastwood’ as ‘Ghadan Yamon Afdal’] was kind of dedicated to the revolution at that time…
Andre: It [the cover name] means ‘tomorrow is a better day’. El Hal Romancy is available to download now from iTunes.