Enjoying some quiet time with Mashrou’ Leila multi-instrumentalist Firas Abou Fakher
Finding quiet in New York City is, some would argue, a privilege reserved for those with access to soundproof spaces; others would beg to differ. On a summer’s afternoon in late July, a library study room was my chosen refuge from the tireless symphony of ice cream truck jingles and sighing buses switching gears down the avenues. Though a sterile backdrop for my call with Firas Abou Fakher, the guitarist and keyboardist for the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, our conversation about his music and the inspirations behind it was quite the opposite.
From his end of the line, during the band’s stop in Boston, Fakher too found a quiet moment in the midst of a lengthy world tour. Recently, a banned (and soon afterwards, unbanned) concert in Jordan resulted in a slew of media attention for the group. Though I wanted to hear Fakher’s thoughts on the matter, I deliberately avoided making the subject the focus of our conversation. He let out a ‘whoah’ after my first question, and perhaps wasn’t expecting to go down the path I’d chosen beforehand; yet, Fakher soon became more comfortable and open as our chat progressed, responding with heartfelt joy about his life and love for music, the compositional intentions behind his band’s latest album, Ibn El Leil (Son of the Night), and the importance of silence.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a musician?
Woah. I started playing music when I was 13, so about 15 years ago … I guess when I started architecture school, I lost touch a little bit with [music] because things were kind of intense. I didn’t have much time to do everything I wanted, but then the band started. Then, you know, things started happening, and I realised at some point that I’d much rather be writing music and composing than doing anything else. I didn’t even think. I guess when I was younger you could say it was a dream, but for me, it wasn’t a realistic dream. I didn’t think it would ever really happen.
Did you have a musical epiphany of any kind? Did a particular record or concert have an impact on you?
In 2006, I guess, which was right after my first year of university. There was a big war in Lebanon – the July War – which lasted for a month. I was stuck in a little house in the mountains with no electricity or Internet – nothing. All I had were four Radiohead albums, and I’d never heard of Radiohead before; so, I listened to those compulsively for about a month. I think that [played] a big part in making me want to write music. You know what I mean? But … in Beirut, we don’t get [to see] many kinds of big shows, or rock bands in particular. It’s harder to go to a concert and be inspired.
So what was the first concert you attended, then?
I don’t know. In the mid-2000s, when I was about 16 or 17, there were a lot of raves and parties [happening] in Beirut. Insane, you know. I guess the first big concerts that were really inspiring on a professional level were [the ones] I saw when we were on tour in festivals, or in cities with big concerts. You know, we saw the Arcade Fire in Serbia when we were playing at a festival there. Their live show blew us away – like, all of us. The intricacy, the amount of visual sophistication, and the energy were really very nice.
Is there anything beside music that inspires you?
I like to say that design had a huge influence on me. I still consider myself a designer in many ways. Most of my reading, if not music-based, theory, or memoirs of musicians, etc., is usually very design-oriented – and I’m very big on literature. I read a lot of fiction, poetry, history, and non-fiction. Architecture school opened up all these doors about the ideas of space, film, theatre, and photography. It allowed me to look at things in a very different way, especially when I started to realise how much music was considered an extension of these things. You can’t have music without a space for music to happen.
Let’s talk about your latest album. On Ibn El Leil, it seems that mythology has played a really big role, thematically speaking.
Yeah, definitely. [It also had] a very big lyrical influence. In terms of music, for me, it was about finding the space of a song that was ambiguous. If you’ve heard our previous records, the songs tend to develop towards a single place. Even within one verse, there’s an end. When it starts again, and when the chorus kicks in, it’s more obvious. On this album, I guess I was looking for progression to have a more ambiguous space for the listener; more mantra. It was more open to reiteration and repetition, and kind of gets you in a different mood, similar to dance music. I guess that was where it started. Dance music has a very particular way of making repetition interesting and keeping you within the space of a song.
Telling somebody the story of a song is a ridiculous thing to me. You have to hear it; you have to understand the silence before the music starts, and the silence after the music starts.
Mythology also has to do with the artwork of the album.
Of course. We did a lot of writing in the beginning, and you know, when we start writing, we don’t have clear ideas or intentions. We start writing from a need to be writing music, rather than a need to translate an idea into music. We started with feelings, grooves, and things we found ourselves attracted to, and at some point, said, ‘OK – what direction are we going in?’. Once we had established the importance of the logical references in the lyrics and the visuals in the approach of the album, they took over. They took the artwork into the visuals we have on stage, into our outfits … Everything was permeated with this mythological kind of cult influence.
Is there a specific reason why you guys went with that statue with the wings and the jackal mask?
It’s a hyena mask, actually. We liked the idea. We wanted to create a powerful symbol, and we didn’t know if we’d use it for a cover or a poster. We liked the idea of this Greco-Roman statue being reinterpreted with a very modern, shiny, chrome-y, dance-pop-looking mask.
And all of this plays into nighttime being a major theme. All the songs seem to, at some point, mention the night.
There’s a natural association with rituals, with these kind of mythological fables and nighttime stories, mostly. It seems like there’s [a sort of] magic in the night … There is also a lot [on the album] about our experiences in Beirut and our daily lives, and the importance of those hours between 9 PM and 5 AM to our lives as professional musicians; you know, [we] usually work during the night, or into the night. [They’re also important] on a personal level. We don’t have nine-to-five jobs: our rhythm is different. The way we interact with Beirut and [the people there] is very different.
Why do you think music and politics are so often intertwined? You were recently banned from performing in Jordan …
It happens all the time. You know, like Salman Rushdie, or like … I guess us in Lebanon. It’s quite a complicated situation, because art cannot become propaganda. Once art becomes something that is subject to the whims and desires of a government, it becomes so close to propaganda that it stops becoming art; that line is very hard to walk. I guess [this is true] in the Arab world today, especially, because governments there want to give off this image of tolerance, coexistence, and fighting for equal rights for minorities or genders – but at the same time, there’s a very conservative strain still present in [Arab] societies.
What would you be doing now if you weren’t a musician?
I mean, today, if something were to happen to the band, I’d still continue on my musical path, one way or another; I don’t think I’m able to do anything else. I’m definitely not able to stop making music. Even if I were doing something else, maybe I’d still have to be making music [as well] – there’s no choice for me. But I guess eight years ago, before the band really happened, I didn’t know what I’d be doing. I’d probably be doing architecture somewhere, or working as a designer. I don’t know.
You’ve told me that music has the ability to reach us in ways that other art forms sometimes can’t. Is there anything you’re listening to now that has … ‘reached’ you?
Had that profound an effect on me recently? Yes, yes. The way we treat music is very different than [the way in which we] consume it. We study it. We’re a part of this field, so we need to be up-to-date with all of the new music – all of the good and bad trends. We have to be aware of what’s going on.
For me, I guess, it would probably to have to be soundtrack work. I’ve been listening to a lot of ‘incidental’ music. Trent Reznor has been making a lot of film scores, and I love his approach to music in film, because it’s really subtle and much more powerful than theme songs or Harry Potter-style scores; it connects so much more on a subconscious level. You don’t understand why you might be frustrated or claustrophobic in a scene. Once you sit down and watch a scene again, you realise there’s a drone going on somewhere in the background that’s really annoying or tense. It’s those kind of moments in films that show the potential of music. There are a lot of good soundtracks [around], actually. Birdman had an incredible one.
Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything you’d like to put out there and make known?
I don’t like it when people ask us to explain a song, because explaining a song is an impossible thing. A song is something that you experience. You know, time is a very big part of music – music cannot unfold without time. So, telling somebody the story of a song is a ridiculous thing to me. You have to hear it; you have to understand the silence before the music starts, and the silence after the music starts. These are things that we study, things that we take the time to think about – do you know what I mean? Even how long the silence at the end of each song is is important to us, because it gives you the space to recuperate before going to the next song; or, it doesn’t give you the time [to do so], and keeps a little hanging feeling or thought there. Listening to the music, for me, is enough of an explanation.
Cover image courtesy Charlélie Marangé.