Nader Mansour of The Wanton Bishops says growing up in crisis-hit Lebanon has given him a deep sense of connection with his chosen music genre, writes Shirine Saad
Members of blues band Wanton Bishops point to Beirut upbringing as inspiration
"I like to think of our sound as foreplay for young lovers," says Nader Mansour, one half of the whimsically named Beirut band The Wanton Bishops. With his rowdy demeanour, unruly beard and hoarse wail of a voice, Mansour is an odd hybrid between a southern bluesman and a rock 'n roller with a bad attitude.
He cites blues legends Skip James, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson as influences, while his partner, guitarist Eddy Ghosein, is a Beatles and Rolling Stones fanatic. Together they mix mad foot-stomping, deafening harmonica and heavy guitar riffs, creating a hard bluesy sound tinted with rusty nostalgia. Established in Beirut in 2011, the band released their first EP, Bad Rhymes, earlier this year, and have been touring extensively after opening for Guns N' Roses in Beirut earlier this year.
"For our first experience abroad," says Mansour, a tall, dark man with sailor's tattoos and a taste for dandyish outfits. "Turkey was a hell of a ride. Between packed shows in Istanbul and Ankara, tasty kebabs, swallows on the Bosphorus, fashion shoots, interviews ... I had to play the last gig with a fever and no voice, but it was a great night. The Turks love the Lebanese, so we were welcomed like locals. The crowd was ready: they knew most of the songs, which was kind of freaky to us; good freaky. We can't wait to get back. And then no rest for the wicked - a week after Turkey we hit a show in Metro Al Madina in Beirut. It was a packed room, nice and sweaty. Just how we like it. The crowd was so into it, singing back the words to us."
A couple of months after the release of their album, the Bishops have become well-known in Lebanon and parts of the Middle East, drawing hoards of euphoric fans to their shows with their unique sound and energetic performances. While Lebanon has seen its share of Oriental rock and hip-hop bands, the band's attitude and music are refreshing and, most importantly, boisterously fun. And while Mansour and Ghosein feel that they don't quite belong in Beirut, the city's gritty reality creeps into their music, making it "nastier" - and more interesting.
"We can relate to the blues," explains Mansour, "because as Lebanese we've been having the blues for three decades - we've been living in this situation for so long. The blues chooses you, and then you can't get away from it."
Mansour says he sings about pain, which is universally the deepest emotion. Sleep With the Lights On, perhaps the band's most powerful tune, begins with a fierce guitar riff giving place to Mansour's raw voice: "Well the Sun went up/Sun went down/I couldn't see/You around/I left the city/Breeze of the mountain/But the night had no pity/ Shattered my dreams."
He says: "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 to see her."
To channel this primary spleen, the Bishops keep their music fairly simple: "So much stuff 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," says Mansour.
"The stomping 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."
Yet the musicians' sadness is obstinately detached from the turbulent reality of Beirut or the Arab revolutions. They say they strive to live in complete oblivion.
"I'm jaded," says Mansour. "I don't 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. 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."
Mansour was born in the small town of Firzol, next to the city of Zahlé in the Bekaa Valley, and grew up listening to old Lebanese folkloric music. His family broke out in improvised song after meals - "the exact equivalent of the blues, actually. Simple poetry, inspired by everyday life."
Often they played the oud too. Mansour travelled to France after high school and, while studying financial engineering, listened to a lot of music. He discovered harmonica thanks to a self-teaching CD and quickly learnt to play the instrument, jamming all over Paris "until people started clapping". When he realised he could get paid to play music, he became a professional musician and started singing. "I attended jazz school but didn't really get it."
Mansour later moved back to Lebanon and met Ghosein.
"I used to play a Chicago blues show at Bar Louie," he recalls. "Eddy came to play with me. One night I was going out of a gig and Eddy had a fight with a good number of parking valets. I jumped in and tried to help. Then we bonded. We bonded through two beautiful things: fights and music."
Ghosein had been playing the guitar since age 12 - mainly jazz and blues - and had grown fond of the rock revival bands borrowing from vintage sounds, including Jack White, The Black Keys and The Kills.
Finding a middle ground between Mansour's taste for old blues and Ghosein's pure rock spirit, the musicians began to practise in precarious situations - struggling with power cuts, expensive rentals and poor facilities. Mansour even built a guitar with a meat can, a piece of wood, a bass string and two nails. "It still smells like meat," he says. "It's really raw."
Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.