When I get to the lobby of the Hotel Napoleon, near the Arc De Triomphe, Carl Gerges is already sitting on a plush red sofa under a large photograph of a man pulling a stack of mattresses on a rickshaw. The drummer orders a basket of croissants and some omelettes. You can eavesdrop on conversations either side of us. One is a sales pitch about some sort of beauty product, another a preparation for a conference panel later that day. You know, hotel lobby stuff. Mashrou’ Leila spend a lot of time in hotel lobbies.
From left on Haig: Sweater, $980, trousers, $1090, boots, $1210, Gucci. On Carl: Shirt, $2205, waistcoat, $1225, trousers, $1225, sneakers, $925, Gucci. On Hamed: Shirt, $1060, bracelet, $1210, trousers, $1090, socks, $135, loafers, $980, Gucci. On Firas: Shirt, $625, sweater, $1225, rings, $490, jeans, $955, boots, $1090, Gucci
It’s mid-October and half the band – possibly the most successful to ever come out of the Arab world – have stopped over in drizzly Paris on the way back to Beirut. Last night they performed an experimental piece at the opening of FIAC, the contemporary art fair at the Palais de la Decouverte. Firas Abou Fakher, the band’s guitarist, joins us – in a colourful Saint Laurent bomber that he loves. I know this because I’ve been friends with him, and the rest of the band, for a few years. It takes them a minute for the notion of me seriously interviewing them to sink in. As Lebanese men we revert quickly to humour, then power through.
I don’t want to mention recent events in Lebanon, where a massive concert at the Byblos Festival had to be cancelled because of threats against the band. I know how traumatic those weeks were for them. I ask about the North American tour they’ve just wrapped up.
“We desperately needed to be on the road and perform,” says Carl. “It was a while since we’d performed and anticipation was huge around our Byblos concert. We had planned so much around it. And it all fell apart.”
Lebanon comes up after all, as it always does. “A big part of the tour was just the feeling of being on stage, which was taken away from us in a weird way. The number of people that came, the size of the shows, it was awesome. The audience was very diverse. It’s changed a lot since our last tour,” says Firas.
I had a similar feeling at a sold-out gig at the Roundhouse in London’s Chalk Farm recently. I’ve been going to their gigs for 10 years, including many in Europe. At that gig, and an earlier one at the All Points East festival where they played before Father John Misty and Björk, it felt like the composition of the crowd had changed. Fewer expats out for a nostalgia hit and more music-lovers who went to dozens of gigs a year.
“We were playing new, unreleased music for the first time. It was very exciting. We wanted to start playing the new material in Byblos. But we had to do it in the US. It caused some conflicting feelings,” says Carl.
Conflicting feelings have been part of their lives for the past couple of years. Even today, there is a melancholy entwined with their enthusiasm about the recent tour. “The concert in Lebanon in August was meant to be a homecoming,” says Carl. “It was sad to go from playing at the Met in New York to having all that trouble in Lebanon. It was devastating,” adds Firas. “And it’s not a coincidence that it happened at a time of huge economic problems and fears being stoked. We’d performed the exact same songs in the same place before; there was no reason for what happened.”
Lebanon’s economy is crumbling and the powerful – or those close to them – have been keen to scapegoat anyone they can, from demonising Palestinian and Syrian refugees to stoking fears around a band’s lyrics.
A couple of years earlier, they ran into trouble in Egypt, home to their biggest audience anywhere in the world. Following a concert in Cairo in the autumn of 2017, where they played to a crowd in excess of 35,000, there was a wave of arrests targeting minority communities. The band were promptly banned from coming back. They went through a dark phase. They had gotten used to being attacked, but never expected their fans would suffer as well. Mashrou’ Leila essentially broke up for months, something they now speak about in interviews and on stage.
“At some point we didn’t know what the point of it was anymore. People were getting arrested, beaten up. It was rough and complicated. Each one of us saw different ways of fighting back. So we had problems. It took a while for all of us to calm down and figure out how to be smart and effective. If we break up, it’s the worst way to fight back.” This sentence is pure Firas. Taking something that could break a person, and turning it into a problem to solve.
From left on Firas: Sweater, shirt, sneakers, prices on request, Valentino. Jeans, stylist’s own. On Carl: Turtleneck, coat, jeans, shoes, prices on request, Balenciaga. On Haig: Sweater, $355, Acne Studios at Matches Fashion. Jeans, $260, Jacquemus at Matches Fashion. Boots, price on request, Calvin Klein Jeans. On Hamed: Jacket, price on request, Kenzo. Turtleneck, trousers, prices on request, Bottega Veneta. Sneakers, $900, Versace
The other half of the band, Haig Papazian (violin) and Hamed Sinno (vocals), live in New York now. I wonder how the geographic split affects them as a band. “It’s like a long-distance relationship. You need to put in effort from both ends. But it’s been positive. We were glued together for 10 years. It’s good that we have space. To create separately, then meet up. It might make us slower. But it is healthier,” says Carl.
“Actually, being apart might make us quicker,” says Firas with a shrug. “We got comfortable in Beirut. So, this forces us into a new set-up. We were very co-dependent in our twenties.”
“We still are!” shouts back Carl, croissant in hand, laughing.
In their thirties now, they’re carving spaces away from each other. I see parallels in the lives of most thirtysomethings. In my own. As they navigate away from all-consuming friendships and professional lives, to different priorities. Life partners, cosy homes, a calmer pace, aching knees. But they have had to contend with more than most on their way to this point.
“Every time you get banned somewhere, or there’s a polemic, you need to find a way to move forward. They’re big blows for the band,” says Firas.
“Yeah, as a creative, you can’t just move on.” Carl pauses, searching for the words somewhere in front of him with his hand. “You need to get back to a place of mental stability. It is traumatising. It was tough for us, our families, our friends.”
“We now know who supports us. Who we can count on,” says Firas.
“And the backstabbers!” Carl bursts out laughing again.
I’ve always thought he was the most playful of the four. A kind of big, crazy goofball. “We miss the days when people just told us our music was s**t, rather than physical threats,” he adds.
I’ve noticed recently that they all seem to be taking an interest in things away from the band. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years, so there’s stuff we miss doing. It’s an escape. A breath of fresh air,” says Carl.
“We started this band before we even graduated university. This has been our first and only job. It’s good to go outside to see how other practices function,” says Firas.
Their attention to detail has always been fascinating. In 2014, when I was managing another Lebanese band, The Wanton Bishops, I was looking around for ways to go pro. I remember being struck by Mashrou’ Leila’s set-up. I tell them they seemed to me like a stadium band in a country without stadium gigs.
“It’s funny because when we launched [second album] El Hal Romancy at the Beirut Hippodrome, we wanted to do it as a stadium band. We forced ourselves to professionalise. Coming from architecture and design, we were very rigorous. We decided to learn about gear and ear monitors. We analysed other bands, and figured it out,” says Firas.
They carry that attitude with them into their second decade as a band. Still independent, still figuring things out alone. At festivals, they peek at other bands’ set-ups and see what they can learn. They’ve created one that works with their limited means. It seems that they might have reached the limits of what’s possible as an independent band, playing massive festivals and sold-out gigs in some of Europe’s best venues. I know they’ve been interested in finding a label.
For now, they’re focused on writing that album, their sixth. “Now that we’re done with the tour, we’re back to working on it in November and December. We do our individual stuff first, then we meet in January and February to get it done,” says Firas. “I’ve been listening to The 1975, The Japanese House, Billie Eilish, Anderson .Paak. A lot of these people are doing a lot with very little. That’s something I want to be able to do. We want to simplify the sound.”
They opened shows in North America with “Sandking”, a stripped-back English-language track, with an Arabic-language outro. Just one keyboard, one drumline and a baseline that stays determinedly fixed in place. I listened to it on a MacBook in Carl’s hotel room. I found Hamed’s vocal delivery so different than it is in Arabic or even on “Cavalry”, their first track with an English-language version. I’m listening to a new singer in a way. When I call Hamed, he’s in a park in New York and we struggle against the ever-present sirens.
“The position the band is in is quite special. We’re the first band in the region’s history to really have a shot at expanding to audiences abroad, even beyond the US and Europe.”
I think I know the answer, but I ask him why he ended up in New York. “Before what happened in Lebanon this summer, there were smaller versions of that all the time, for years. And I started to feel stunted creatively. It became hard to see anything or feel inspired. I wanted a break from it.” It can’t have been easy to leave, I say. “It took me a long time to get to the place emotionally where I was able to leave Beirut. Being from Beirut and being there means constantly being nostalgic for Beirut. You’re always looking for something. You’re there and amiss, at the same time. It’s a kind of burden, where you feel responsible for the city, for its future.”
I say there’s nothing wrong with being kind to yourself.
“Definitely. But it’s a necessary kindness. I got to the place where if I was gonna stay any longer, I don’t know what would have happened. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Hamed tells me that his song writing process for 10 years has been to come up with ideas in English and translate them into Arabic. “Cavalry” was the first song he wrote in Arabic and translated back into English. It seemed odd to me, like a way to exorcise the decade-old process. Get it done one last time, the other way round. I tell him I felt as if he’d broken free of the process on “Sandking”.
“I’m trying something different from what I’ve been doing for a decade. It felt like going back to square one.”
Given how much Mashrou’ Leila mean to hundreds of thousands of Arabs, I wonder if there have been negative reactions to the English-language work.
“There has been minor resistance,” he says. “But it’s not something I want to factor into my writing process. It’s very dangerous to bring other voices into your creative process. It makes things insincere.”
He adds, “I have no intention of no longer writing in Arabic. Arabic is such a gift to a writer. Single words that mean a billion things at the same time. It’s a lot of meaning, condensed.
“There’s value in a bunch of very Arab, and very Arab-looking men, trying to succeed internationally, even if that means doing it in another language. It’s not like it’s suddenly easier for Arabs to chart internationally if they switch languages. There’s a structure we want to try and transcend.”
It seems to me as though the band has emerged stronger than ever from their particularly difficult couple of years. Hamed confirms it. “There’s kind of a relief to losing so much. We have nothing to lose right now. It’s very liberating, in its own way. We got to a place where we had reason to believe we could succeed just in the region. Then we lost everything. We split up. There was nothing left. Then getting back together was like starting over.”
I tell him what Carl and Firas told me about moving away from the back catalogue, wanting a fresh start, and a simpler approach to the music. “Every time we’ve released an album has been like starting over. Our discography is like I, The Divine by Rabih Alameddine. We’re a book written in first chapters. But this feels like a first chapter written by another narrator. It’s fun. It’s liberating.”
On the third day, I call Haig. He sounds tired. He says his body’s given up on him after an arduous tour and he’s nursing a cold. “I’m not in my twenties anymore,” he laughs.
Up until the recent The Beirut School, Ibn El Leil, the band’s fourth album, had been keeping the band touring for the past four years. Not a traditional way to tour, but an indication of how much goodwill the band generates.
“When we show up at a venue we’ll often see other bands that show up with a team of 10 to 15 people. Engineers, managers, merchandising. And we just show up as these four guys,” says Haig. “Sometimes venues don’t take us seriously. Because we’re Arab, we sing in Arabic and we just show up as this small unit. Then, when they see the shows, they’re pleasantly surprised.”
He stops to ask, “Were the boys more positive and fluffy?” It’s a very Haig thing to ask. I assured him that they sound like they’re on the same page. Like they have taken stock of what has happened to them as individuals and as a band, and they seem to have emerged in the same place.
“We do all have the same vision. We’re all very invested. The last two years, we were just trying to figure out as adults how to negotiate how this works. We’re not twentysomething guys anymore. We had so much in common back then. But now as we build lives as individuals, that changes. And the core of what binds us –the band – has taken so many hits. Others might have given up by now.
“The music side of things has become easier in some ways, but it’s the constant negotiation and discussion between us that is complicated.” It sounds like adult life, really. In many ways, the band has grown up alongside their audience. I see my own life mirrored in their trajectory. From the hope I felt the first time I saw them play a gig a metal factory outside Beirut in 2009, to the combination of weariness and ambition I feel today.
“You know, this last tour was a good reminder of why we do this,” says Haig, serenely. “And why we like to do this.”
Photography: David Urbanke
Styling: Keanoush Zargham