Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 September 2020

How Karl Mattar captures the beauty and frustration of modern Lebanon in new album

Recorded under the name Interbellum, the album is 'as gorgeous as it is weird'

Karl Mattar, who performs as Interbellum. Courtesy Sama Beydoun
Karl Mattar, who performs as Interbellum. Courtesy Sama Beydoun

Karl Mattar’s creative process relies on space and time. First of all, he has a mandatory break in his European base of Berlin. This is followed by a trip back to the family home in Beirut where the songs are constructed and recorded. Once the album is out, he is back on the road with his guitar and keyboards for a long-winding tour across Europe.

He catches up with The National when that tour bus, so to speak, arrives in Madrid. “It has been going really well so far,” he says. “I am playing really small and intimate venues so a lot of the time the show works when the people, the lighting and the right vibe is there. This is what has been happening.”

None of this would have mattered without Mattar’s collection of tunes, of course. Recorded under the name ­Interbellum, Mattar has released two albums of delicately composed songs that blend elements of folk with ambient and garage rock. It is gorgeous, ethereal, slightly weird and perfectly suited for intimate audiences.

On his latest album Dead Pets, Old Griefs, Mattar digs deep when it comes to the subject, with its key themes being memory, time and childhood loss. But it was not something he mused about while decamped in Berlin, he says. Instead, these are the emotions experienced when he returned to Beirut in 2018 to begin work on the record. He points to one of its key tracks, the dreamy waltz that is Ink.

“That song is pretty much exactly what it says. I am a bit of a hoarder, so the song is about me going back to my old room in the family home and finding all these things,” Mattar says. “It was one of the first songs I wrote for the new album, so it became almost like a statement of intent.”

Other songs in Dead Pets, Old Griefs are not that direct. Whether it is the lo-fi folk of Distortion or the synth cacophony of For Air, a heavy sense of disappointment permeates the album.

While the songs were written before mass protests took hold over Lebanon, Mattar says some of those festering tensions that led to people taking to the streets made its way into the album.

Those themes of “decay” and “destruction”, he says, can be linked to the current struggling state of the Lebanese independent music scene. “Look, it is still a very small scene and the good things that happen within, you can only count on one hand,” he says.

Despite such a bleak assessment, some hope can be gleaned from Dead Pets, Old Griefs. The album features a smattering of exciting Lebanese indie musicians, such as singer Julia Sabra, guitarist Camille Cabbabe from Kozo and influential producer Fadi Tabbal on the drums. With all that talent in the studio, not to mention the quality of the album, maybe it’s too early to call time on the country’s indie music scene. Mattar gives into the suggestion, somewhat. “I guess you can romanticise the idea of making music there and I will admit that there is some truth to that in that it can inspire you because it’s such a frustrating place to be,” he says.

“But the reality is that it is a scene that doesn’t have much support and it is carried by people who are doing everything they can. In such a situation, I think it is commendable that anything is coming out at all.”

Updated: January 7, 2020 07:11 PM

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