Making headlines for their undeniable melodies and sharp analysis of Lebanese and American societies, Mashrou’ Leila’s admiration for dance and pop music is becoming more apparent with each of their four albums. Mashrou’ Leila, which translates roughly to “An Overnight Project,” was founded on all-night jam sessions and a love for their hometown, Beirut. The Lebanese 5-piece has since grown into an international powerhouse in the pop music world, drawing attention from millions of fans, Rolling Stone, and even foreign governments. Their fourth and most recent release, Ibn El Leil, dives even further into club music and implores its audience to think critically about their own communities.
We spoke with Mashrou’ Leila guitarist Firas Abou Fakher ahead of the band’s show at The Cedar Cultural Center on November 11 about the power of pop, the political implications of their music, and their roots in Beirut’s nightlife. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.
Can you briefly discuss the evolution of Mashrou’ Leila’s sound over the course of your four records?
Like most artists that we admire, we like to avoid falling into the traps of just finding something that people like or a formula that works. We just focus on that; we are people who like to experiment. We come from design backgrounds, which means that we like to see what the limits are, what our boundaries are. Also you have to remember that we have grown up quite a bit since the beginning of the band and so the sound has obviously changed, because our interests and who we are as people have changed.
Design-wise are you involved in creating the art for the band?
Yeah. We’re involved in everything very, very heavily. From artwork, which we’ve almost always done ourselves, to videos and visuals on stage, outfits, posters, and social media. We are very much hands on with all of that stuff. We really enjoy that part of the process and being quite direct. People pick up on that and realize it.
Mashrou’ Leila, “Ibn El Leil”
Your fourth album, Ibn El Leil, delivers difficult messages about love and Lebanese and American society through a poppier sound. Can you talk about the power of pop music when discussing serious and personal issues?
When we were making this album we were looking to those pop icons that were kind of life-changing for us. We were listening to a lot of Prince and Tina Turner and Michael Jackson and David Bowie. All of these artists that, whether through their music or through their personalities and image, present quite avant-garde and forward thinking thoughts to the public – issues with race or gender or feminism or social issues or anything like that.
In terms of concept and sound, we were very interested in seeing how close could we get to producing a record that’s heavily influenced by the idea of a pop song and, at the same time, being very self-aware and very self-conscious of the fact that in the 21st century the idea of a pop song or the idea of a pop record is just kind of destroyed. Pop has become a term for anything famous, basically. There are no rules to pop anymore. Anything can be considered pop. The content is what it is because of who we are and how we feel about things. It’s very hard to write about things that don’t come from a place of honesty and a place of deep concern and value for us.
Mashrou’ Leila translates roughly to “An Overnight Project” and refers to the story of your band. Ibn El Leil also translates to “The Son of the Night.” Can you discuss the importance of the night and nightlife to your band?
Especially on this last album, definitely. When we started working on it we found it kind of helpful to limit ourselves to this framework where this whole album could be a story of one night in Beirut and all the complexities, constrictions, and negotiations that happen so much in the night of Beirut. It was just a helpful tool to help us compose and to help us set up a mindframe to produce better and quicker. I don’t know if it comes through. It doesn’t really matter, honestly. It was just something for us that was quite helpful in our process. So we thought it would make sense to reference that in the title.
What are the political implications of participating in nightlife in Beirut and how that informed the content of your new record?
We find a lot of things in Beirut happen at night because it’s kind of a space where boundaries are tested and people, for better or for worse, impose themselves and their personalities on other people. It’s also this idea that Beirut is referred to as a decadent and kind of crazy nightlife – drunk and beautiful people everywhere kind of scene. There’s a lot of darker and more subversive things happening in Beirut. Some of them are really terrible, like shootings because of silly, macho ideas of pride and arrogance. There’s kind of an idea of escapism. It’s a sad idea that in Beirut one of the only escapes that we have as people who are deciding to try to stay in the country is going out and drinking and negotiating that space. A lot of the content comes from that, definitely.
Mashrou’ Leila performing in Beirut, 2016
The video for “Roman,” created with Jessy Moussallem, feels like a timely analysis of patriarchy and secular feminism. How did that collaboration come about and what message were you hoping to convey to the world through this video?
We had known Jessy for a while. We had worked with her briefly before; she starred once in a video we made and we were kind of friends with her and then she approached us with this. We had been saying we need to release this song, which we had been working on for a long time. It changed so much over the past four or five years and so we thought maybe it was time to just make it a final thing and release it. We asked a few people to see if they have any ideas for the video and what Jessy came back with was completely unexpected, honestly, but also very on point. Even though the song does not heavily reference these kinds of ideas and conversations about feminism in the Middle East and feminism globally, Jessy saw it as an opportunity because of the chorus’ pro-active call to arms. She saw it as an opportunity to capitalize on that and work on something that we hadn’t done before, really. It was a really, really nice experience shooting this video in Beirut. We weren’t very much involved in the video; you can see we’re kind of sidelined. It’s not really important that we’re present, but it was fun watching it happen.
What is the influence of Sylvia Plath’s text “Mushrooms” on the emotional “Tayf” from the new album?
Hamed, the lead singer and the person who wrote those lyrics, was heavily influenced by the image of this poem. Sylvia Plath is someone we’ve read so much. We see so much of our personalities reflected in her work. This text is very interesting because of this visual of a mushroom, which is not a beautiful thing; it’s not an ugly thing; it’s just a thing that does its way. What she says is that one day these mushrooms will inherit the Earth. That line became kind of a starting point for “Tayf,” which is a song about this gay club that was raided in Beirut. People were arrested and subjected to terrible violations of their bodies and their beings just because they were gay, basically.
Because of these political expressions, you’ve been banned from performing in Egypt and Jordan in the past. Do these negative reactions to your band affect the content of your albums and live performances?
They definitely affect the performances. We are people that have no problem saying what’s on our mind and I think that’s a very scary thing for government sometimes. Especially governments that are trying to say that these thoughts about what we consider freedoms are incorrect and that they shouldn’t be allowed. At a lot of our shows we keep mentioning this thing that happened in Egypt and we ask people to tweet about it and talk about it, to pressure their friends and close colleagues to talk about it because it’s the only way that anything will ever change. The relief is always from pressure and public shaming.
I don’t think it will affect our music in the sense that we can’t talk about these things anymore because it’s causing trouble. We don’t really care and I don’t think it will change much, honestly. What’s funny is that, when we are writing and releasing these songs, we never think that there will be a problem. We never actually think, “Oh wow that’s really controversial.” It’s so surprising sometimes what people pick up on and then it’s like, “Wow that’s not gonna fly over here,” or something. That’s really bizarre.
Mashrou’ Leila in Egypt, later banned from performing in the country for this September 2017 concert
You’ve gained a large platform for discussing political issues, but have expressed frustration with the simplification of issues in the Arab world. Can you discuss the impact of the “mono-narrative” of the Arab world on our culture?
Something that really bothers us is that it gets sensationalized. “Oh my god, an Arab man that’s talking about all of these freedoms. Oh my god, an Arab singer that is openly gay. Oh wow, this is the liberal east that we’re talking about. This is the liberal east that we want to see.” All of these narratives come out of these newspapers in the U.S. and in Europe. In a weird way it does kind of still suggest that there is such a strong misconception of the Middle East, even within these kinds of positive ideas. These journalists are trying to say something positive, that they’re happy and that they’re proud that someone like this is gaining traction, like us. But at the same time it still frustrates us to say, “Oh look at these boys, they’re representing their whole generation,” or, “They speak on behalf of all the youth in this nation.” It’s totally not true and these things in the long run, we think, lead to an ill-informed, constructed image of the Middle East. Just a simplification of all the revolutions and all these children. It’s not really cool. Part of our desire is to show people that there are just as many nuances and complexities to every people and every religion and every part of the world as over here or in Europe. The voice of media coming out of the Middle East and coming out of the non-Middle Eastern world should be looked at critically and should be assessed with a very critical understanding of things, helping people realize that there are ways to gain information other than looking at CNN.
You were the first Middle Eastern artist to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Can you talk about your relationship with American culture and how it has developed as Mashrou’ Leila has evolved as a band?
It has kind of developed over the past two or three years, actually. The first time we came to the U.S. was in October 2015. Ever since then it’s been progressing. There are a lot of students, there are a lot of families, there are a lot of people who are from the Middle East who are living here or have moved here. I guess it began over there. It began with an interest of these people. Obviously our fans are incredible fans and they make it their mission to expose our music to as many people as they can. So it’s been a great reception and we’ve been playing more and more cities and trying more and more things. We’re going to play Indiana and Minneapolis and places we never dreamed we would ever even go to. It is quite exciting. As much as we have issues with a lot of the things coming out of the U.S. today and a lot of the propaganda and ideologies that are being propagated by the U.S. media and foreign office, we still think it’s a very good thing for us to be able to come here and voice our opinions, which are, in a lot of ways, as relevant here as they are anywhere else. The idea of shootings, of masculinity, of these opinions that are shaping the country that are based on essentially what we call freedoms. The fate of countries is decided by how many people accept to give other people freedoms or not. That’s it, really.
Personally, this class at NYU that we’ve been giving has been incredibly inspiring. We’re teaching a class about music, social change, and politics, the intersection of music and identity, and the shaping of those things across time and in the future. We’re asking students to envision a fictional music space where something like that happens, construct it, and write about it. Then we look at the agencies that happen there and just do the research and read and look at the ways that people have written about music and the ways that people think about music. Seeing these students who are extremely intelligent people and very creative in their own right has been really inspiring over the past few weeks.
I’ve been watching a lot of Iranian films and listening to a lot of Iranian music. I don’t know why, it’s just a phase that I’m going through. Inspiration for us comes from so many diverse spaces and a lot of times is very visual. Films and fiction for me in general, whether it’s novels or film is a very influential part of my process because I think that good screenwriting or good writing in general has the potential to touch a thing that music is a big part of, which is this fantastical, imagined element that they have. This idea of a utopic, unachievable, imaginary thing.
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