Veterans of the Dubai scene, Juliana Down this year became the first UAE-based act to be picked up by a major label. Jihane Miller talked to the group as they worked through a closed-door, semi-acoustic session.
Juliana Down: Dubai's rising musical stars
It's late on a Sunday evening and I'm lost in Al Quoz, driving in circles, trying to find the large, nondescript warehouse where Juliana Down, one of the stalwarts of Dubai's music scene, are rehearsing.
The band sprang into life more than a decade ago and the current line-up has travelled a long way since their earliest days. Several members have come and gone, although Dia Hassan, the band's lead vocalist and Sari Ramadan, the lead guitarist, remain as constants.
The pair recruited three new members in the middle of last year: James Sinclair on drums, Andrew Gibson on bass and Lionel Fernandes on keyboards. Their arrival galvanised Juliana Down's always flickering potential and within a few short weeks, the five-piece had written a clutch of new songs and reworked existing material. This year, they also became the first local artists to sign to a major label, after concluding a distribution deal with Sony Music Middle East and North Africa.
Empires, the band's first album, was released in April and has since gained widespread recognition in the UAE and around the region. It's not hard to understand why. Both Control, the album's opening track, and the title track, Empires, lead with strings and the latter, in particular, combines a wonderful juxtaposition of violins and cellos with layered guitar tracks dripped over the top. It is a powerful and entirely intentional mixture.
"For us, every song has to be big enough to play in a stadium," Hassan tells me a few minutes after I eventually find the Al Quoz rehearsal space.
Gibson agrees. "It makes a big difference when you add these instruments. We're not a standard rock band and it adds a bit of flavour ... it [strings, drama] is really developing into becoming so much a part of the Juliana Down sound. There are many times when we've had a song that's been really close to being right, but we've had to put it away. We've had to have the courage to sometimes say 'this isn't good enough'."
Nevertheless, Juliana Down have become the band of choice to support international acts when they appear in the region, not to mention the fact that they have begun to draw a considerable following of their own. In April, Juliana Down opened for Maroon 5, (having previously fulfilled a similar role for Muse, Justin Timberlake and Guns N' Roses) then played a hometown headline gig at the Irish Village and the following month took their sound to Beirut, for a one-off gig.
Back in the rehearsal rooms they are working through a semi-acoustic set, and it strikes me that the band might be a horrible disappointment in their unplugged state, shorn as they are, of the gloss of studio production.
I needn't have worried. The semi-acoustic version of Run to Me has, to my ears at least, that signature Juliana Down sound - drums-led, a melancholy melody on keys, a leitmotif on lead guitar and the grumble of Gibson's bass, all countered by, and garnished with, Hassan's powerful vocals.
Likewise, the band's unplugged cover of the Foo Fighters' Best of You, trumps the Fighters' own acoustic version on Skinand Bones. Ramadan's guitar work, softer and more evocative than the original, sits deftly underneath the vocals. Somehow, even the bass line is soft. Separately, the two instruments would be lost; together they exist in somewhere close to perfect harmony. The same can be said for the acoustic version of Hollow Man, which is exceptional.
Interestingly, the band seem to struggle with this arrangement and the Al Quoz session is abruptly stopped for a lengthy debate on how the track should be interpreted. I ask them how they feel about playing their music in such a stripped-down fashion. Gibson replies: "It's quite a personal thing for a band to do an acoustic session. It's a bit like airing your dirty laundry in public."
I also ask about the jazz version of Empires (jazz rhythm, not instruments) which is, according to Sinclair. "one of those Dia Hassan moments".
"Dia is an instinctively musical person. So if he's singing in a particular key or he's listening to particular chords, he'll start dropping in bits from other songs," he says. "It wasn't until our last rehearsal that he started singing 'Hallelujah' over the middle of 'jazz' Empires and it just worked."
I mention that the stripped-back nature of the acoustic session really highlights their unity as a band. They seem to agree.
"It's actually the best way of doing it [coming together as a band]," says Gibson. "We probably wouldn't play like this unless we had a reason. We would just go into our normal rehearsal session and turn our amps up to 10 and just do what we know best."
Sinclair agrees: "I'm a huge fan of doing this - whether it's playing a random cover version in a different way ... or doing an acoustic set, it gives you a new perspective on your own music. It also really highlights the relationship between all of the players."
It transpires that this is only the second time the guys have rehearsed these songs in this acoustic arrangement and the guys don't need to explain that, to a greater degree, they like to feed off the adrenalin of playing in the raw.
From a neophyte's perspective, this seems like something of a gamble, especially when I pitch up at a gig at Dubai's Mojo Gallery the following day.
The venue couldn't be less accommodating from the point of view of acoustics. The ceilings are extremely high, which is wonderful for an art gallery, although not so great for a live music performance. The guys are utterly unfazed and play with a surefootedness that only comes from being extremely comfortable as a unit. It seems like the gamble has paid off.
When I catch up with them afterwards, I ask if an acoustic release is on the cards. This elicits a smile from Hassan, but it's obvious that this is probably not at the top of his list of priorities. No one seems to hate the idea though. Here's hoping.
Jihane Miller is a freelance writer based in Dubai.