The Wanton Bishops frontman Nader Mansour on what it’s really like being in a band
The Wanton Bishops need a break. The members of the Lebanese rock band are four months into a European tour. On Friday, July 31, they land in Dubai for a one-off gig, then fly to Los Angeles to record an album, before heading back on the road for more gigs in Europe and North Africa. The duo don’t expect to have a week off – or any time at home in Beirut – before December.
“Man, you know what the road’s like,” says frontman Nader Mansour with a sigh. Surely it’s a dream life, right?
“It’s a dream before you do it,” says the 31-year-old. “People say: ‘You’ll see all these new cities every day’, but all you see is a hotel room – and you try not to jump out of the window.”
The band – a rough, lo-fi, garage-blues indie outfit – are on tour to promote a new version of their debut album. First released regionally in 2012, Sleep With the Lights On is an infectious haze of grizzled blues grooves, weeping guitars, wailing harmonicas and growled chants.
It was remastered and repackaged, with four extra tracks, for a global release this year, and the subsequent promotional tour of France, Germany, Holland and Morocco has seen the duo anointed as international ambassadors of the Middle East’s underground rock scene.
“Without wanting to be, or claiming to be, we are [ambassadors],” says Mansour. “There’s a lot of responsibility with that – and we’re not very responsible people.”
While Mansour makes no effort to sugar-coat life on the road, he takes comfort from the warm welcome the band have received from European crowds.
“They know the lyrics better than me, which is very helpful,” he says.
Marketed abroad as a “Lebanese Black Keys” – a comparison the bemused singer says is “not accurate, but I take it with a big smile” – the Bishops’s Middle Eastern heritage is proving to be a mixed blessing.
“There’s a lot of interest in the exotic story, but then you’ve got to twist that into an interest in the music itself,” Mansour says. “That’s a hard thing to do – everybody looks at you like some kind of exotic fruit.”
With their ragged leather- and-denim get-up, tattoos, scraggly facial hair, hedonistic intent and late-night lyrics, The Wanton Bishops make success look easy. But it wasn’t.
“I’m going to sound douchey and preachy when I say this, but [as a band] you’ve got to accept that in the first two or three years you’re not going to make a penny,” he says. “And you’ve got to accept that more than 60 per cent of what you do won’t be music, it will be Skype calls and stuff like that – and it’s very frustrating.”
After all that toil, and having finally arrived at the point where they “have people around to do those things so you can do music”, potential disaster struck this year.
Much has been made of The Wanton Bishops’s mythological backstory – Mansour came to co-founder Eddy Ghossein’s aid in a fist fight outside Beirut’s Bar Louie – but that bromance could have been shattered when the latter announced he was backing out of this tour. Why? He fell in love.
“It was the relationship or the music,” says Mansour, “and he went with the relationship.”
The band’s former touring bassist, 23-year-old Salim Naffah, has been brought in as a full-time band member, while Ghossein will still contribute to the new album.
“Everybody tends to think Salim is Eddy with a beard,” says Mansour. The irony? It was Naffah’s cousin whom Ghossein fell for.
“It’s a big happy family. Eddy is opting for a calmer life, he won’t do the road but he’s on the record – the family got bigger.”
One of the original line-up’s biggest gigs – with Naffah still on bass at the time – was supporting The Who at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concert last November.
“Man, it was probably one of the most beautiful nights we’ve had,” says Mansour. “We’ve warmed up for Guns n’ Roses and Lana Del Rey and they were complete a******s – I can say it and I’ll represent it. But The Who were the classiest people on the planet.
“These guys are rock n’ roll royalty – they can be a******s, but they weren’t. They listened to every song we played in detail and spent a good hour backstage with us giving us feedback – it was genuine, they took the time. It was just surreal, these guys are as humble as it gets.”
The Wanton Bishops are already preparing psychologically for the release early next year of album number two – which Mansour promises will add broader touches of psychedelia, and even synthesisers, to their raw roots sound – followed by an even bigger, more gruelling, tour.
First, however, is the release of a documentary film about the band’s pilgrimage to record in America’s Deep South last year, which will be launched in Los Angeles, London, Paris and Berlin in September.
“I didn’t think we were entertaining enough, but when I watched it, actually we’re not that bad,” adds Mansour, with a wry smile.
• The Wanton Bishops perform for The Other Side at And Lounge, The Address Dubai Marina, Friday, July 31, from 9pm. Dh100 on the door
Updated: July 29, 2015 04:00 AM