From Lebanon to Texas: The Wanton Bishops Are Bringing Their Blues Rock Revival Across the Atlantic

We caught up with the Middle Eastern band at SXSW.

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24 April 2014, 9:00am

It's a rare occurrence for any music from the Middle East to make its way over to Europe and beyond, much less for it to be of a blues disposition. But that's the case with The Wanton Bishops from Lebanon, who have made the big step from playing small underground clubs in their homeland to bringing their blues rock revival across the Atlantic to South by South West.

In true blues style, band members Nader and Eddy both cover a variety of instruments and met when Nader was caught up in a fist fight outside a blues bar in Beirut. Now they are touring the Deep South, and will finally get to experience at first hand the music that had such a profound influence on them halfway round the globe.

Noisey: Have you been in America before?

The Wanton Bishops: No it's our first time.

And you've come straight to Austin?

Yep straight down south!

What are your first impressions?

We were telling each other that we're quite familiar with what America is, through the influence of movies and music, so we know how to handle everything. The only thing we were not really sure about ,which is the first thing we judge, is the people and the attitude of the people. And they were very, very, very nice. Whatever you ask for it's 'you got it!'.

Well you're in a band!

Even people that don't know that we're in a band. In restaurants or whatever.

People say Austin isn't like the rest of Texas. I've heard you're doing some travelling after this?

Yeah we're heading down south to New Orleans, Mississippi and Memphis. Doing the blues tour. And we're shooting a documentary with Red Bull. We went to a really old record store today called Antone's, he's half Lebanese. He's like a legend back home in blues circles.

What is the situation in Beirut, are you a big deal over there?

In terms of exposure outside of Beirut and international popularity, we're the band that's toured the most, ever. Last Thursday was our biggest show yet. 1,200 people. If we had bigger venues we would have had more. We barely advertised the show, we knew we were going to get overwhelmed.

It's less common to make a career out of being a band there, what issues have you encountered?

We've probably chosen the hardest path to go down. We're musicians in the Middle East, and we're playing alternative, Western music. We're basically fucked, but we've been lucky to have enough good people around us who have wanted to help us. What we do is not new music, other bands are playing more electro rock sort of things. There's no industry per se. You don't have record charts, you don't have radios taking care of this, you don't even have instruments! Everything is overpriced. But we've paved the way, and now other bands are producing their stuff, recording their albums. There's a beautiful scene now.

You must have to do so much yourselves.

There are no promoters or band managers.

Then it must be good to be completely hands on with everything you're doing?

If you like DIY, then that's ideal, you know? It's tiring on another dimension, but it's fun. It makes us more hungry for it as well. We want it more than most people out here. Whatever 'it' is. Not a private jet that's for sure.

Being here, there's a lot of blues-influenced music. Is it a bit of a pilgrimage for you?

Yeah totally. To go back to the roots, we're not even going to Chicago, we're going to Mississippi where the old school foot stomping on the porch kind of blues is.

Everyone who's been to New Orleans says the same thing, it's a feeling like you're stepping back in time.

Yeah man it's like a time machine. It's a different country.

How many shows have you done so far?

None, this is the first one. We were supposed to play a show yesterday but it got cancelled. The gig tonight is a short 45 minute gig, like eight songs.

Tell me a bit about the comparison with Beirut where you do everything yourself to come here where the industry is in overload, twenty people doing the job of one person.

Absolutely. You'd never see six bands playing in one bar. There are only five bands in our entire country! The whole population is three million, and two and a half million listen to oriental music, and the rest listen to electronic, so it's quite useless but we're still working on an international thing. At South By it's quite overwhelming. We're trying to stick to a few people that we know, try to play for these guys.

It does seem that across the Middle East and Asia, there are small but definite pockets of scenes even in countries like Thailand where there's no free speech. Does it feel properly underground? I don't feel like we have an underground in London anymore.

You don't have the same restrictions as other countries. The government leaves you alone; they don't help you but they don't bust your balls either.

You must be so involved with fans and people coming to your shows.

There's quite a community to be had. They call it the 'scene'. It's a hideous word but there is genuinely a family that gathered this summer for the Wicker Park Festival in Beirut and it gathered all the bands in the scene and all the fans, and we all know each other on first name basis. We've played to all of them at some point, it's like one big musical orgy! A musical soap opera.

In a big city you can be so insular but in places where there's not so much music you get old guys and young guys coming to the shows and people into different things, you watch the more electronic stuff and they watch you...

You have to stick together. Not because we like solidarity, we're quite individual nowadays, everybody is, but it's a must. It's nice, it's fun, a bubble that we protect ourselves from the turmoil. There is a sense of belonging to such a community, more than to a country itself, which makes it nice.

And in the music you play, in the clubs as well.

People play on the same instruments, the same guitars, they even blow on the same harmonica. And that can be tricky after a couple of pork chops, you don't want to do that... But yeah it is a blues tradition.

I was going to ask those questions about what you hope to take from the trip, but maybe we should get on the phone afterwards and find out what happened then.

We're looking forward to all the cliches, the cotton crops, the alligators, the barbecues. We're going to have a lot of surprises, and I'm looking forward to stuff I don't know, and we're going to a baptist church on Sunday.

What's been your main exposure to music back home?

I listen to all the dead people, Eddy listens to new stuff more than me. I'm a bit outdated when it comes to digging stuff up. The only dude I like from the new wave is Seasick Steve. Whatever Dan Auerbach does, whatever Jack White does, I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff.

Have there been any classic films that have informed your taste?

We've watched everything on the Internet, that's our only outlet there. We've seen all the classics, the Scorsese movies, Butchy Cassidy. We watch Jools Holland as well.

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