Bluesbreakers: The Wanton Bishops

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Most bands start with a classified ad. The Wanton Bishops began with a 20-man brawl. “This was four years ago,” remembers Nader Mansour. “At the time, I used to hold a jam session in a blues bar in Beirut. Actually, it was the only blues bar in Beirut. Eddy [Ghossein, guitar, banjo] would come up and jam. One night, when I went out of the bar, I saw him fighting with at least 20 valet-parking people. I knew both parties, so I had to intervene, and I got an accidental beating from both of them.”

Given that the Lebanon War dovetailed with the pair’s childhood in the early 80s, journalists have been quick to assume it must have flavoured The Wanton Bishops’ debut album, Sleep With The Lights On.

“I personally can’t hear it, but everybody else can,” grins Mansour. “Our lyrics are mostly, ‘I love you, you don’t love me, what the fuck do we do?’ Or about drinking your liver half to death. We try to be poetic sometimes, but the blues is direct./o:p

“As a matter of fact,” he adds, “Beirut is quite normal, quite modern, quite western. You’ll bump into a couple of tanks and soldiers, and a lot of bullet-riddled buildings, but that’s pretty much it. Every now and then, you’ll hear an explosion and it’s either a wedding or an actual bomb.”

It might equally be the Bishops rehearsing. With Mansour and Ghossein leading the line – and occasional bassist Salim Naffah recently promoted to full member – this band have attitude. “We started out playing classic Chicago and Texas blues,” explains Mansour. “But at some point, we started something that encompasses blues, rock, steroids and psychedelia. We’re trying to do our own blues. We don’t want to do anybody else’s blues.”

Though still based in their beloved Beirut, the band have patently outgrown that city’s negligible circuit. “We couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Mansour. “But there’s nowhere to play. That blues bar I mentioned has now turned into a karaoke bar. In Lebanon, you mostly have purist blues bands that look down at you when you play anything that’s out of the usual.”

No wonder the Bishops are casting their net wider, touring India, South Africa, Mississippi and the Arctic Circle. “We mostly live in hotel rooms now,” says Mansour. “To be able to put the blues on an international scale, where we headline a festival with MGMT, is the proof to us that blues can be sexy, it can be hip.”

The Bishops might be going places, but Mansour has his feet firmly on the ground. “One day you’ll play for 10,000 people, the next you play for 20,” he muses. “It’s a mindfuck. Does it scare us to be called the next big thing? No, I love it. But I don’t feel it yet, honestly. It’s still got to reflect on the bank account.”/o:p

Sleep With The Lights On is out now on Keeward Records./o:p

INFLUENCES

“I’m into hill country blues, the Fat Possum label, RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough… these cats were underrated, they didn’t wear suits, they died unknown. But they had this droney quality that you don’t find in Chicago blues. They had this one chord, and they kept on doing it until it hurt.”/o:p