Beirut doesn’t have the most thriving of rock industries. Indeed, in a business sense there’s barely an industry at all, which makes The Wanton Bishops a pleasantly surprising discovery. To the UK they’re dynamic rock newcomers, while back home they’re sort of famous – not that appearing on MTV Lebanon necessarily equals ‘fame’, apparently.
“It’s very easy to become popular in Beirut,” concedes Eddy Ghossein (guitar/banjo/backing vocals), in softly accented, near-flawless English. “There’s only ten bands: one reggae band, one rock band, one electro-pop band… But we help each other out, we lend our instruments. Most of the bands in Beirut have played on my amp.”
The duo is completed by Nader Mansour (vocals/guitar/harmonica). Their debut, Sleep With The Lights On, is a garagey cocktail of rootsy blues, Eastern touches and even rockabilly moments – proof of what vibrant richness can grow from an essentially very raw core. Not to mention an eclectic musical past.
Having absorbed his doctor father’s jazz records, Ghossein moved on to Britpop, before getting into The Beatles and the Stones. At 13 he picked up a guitar and turned to blues, initially to improve his skills. “The first live gig I watched was a blues band. I wanted to be able to improvise like that,” he says. “Bit by bit I fell in love with it all. I went back to the Mississippi blues, Chicago blues, the electric British blues… I love the simplicity of it, the whole culture.”
In 2009, Ghossein was watching a Chicago blues band – Mansour’s band, specifically – in a local bar. He joined them on stage and subsequently became something of a regular. A couple of fights outside bars later (bailing each other out of different disputes), the pair’s friendship was sealed. They started playing together every night, at first in the aforementioned Chicago blues band. “We improvised a lot. It was about twenty per cent covers, eighty per cent coming up with shit on stage,” Ghossein recalls. “After a year we decided we’d had enough of the same songs and jams, and to start writing our own songs.”
Thus The Wanton Bishops were born. In 2012 they released Sleep With The Lights On independently. Touring ensued, but it wasn’t until eight months later that their fortunes really turned. Word spread to Red Bull Media House, who offered a publishing deal and helped the band fulfil their desire to travel to the US Deep South. They made the exciting pilgrimage there last year, including shows at SXSW. The whole experience was shot for a documentary, Walk It Home, due out in summer – preceded by the full European release of Sleep With The Lights On. “The minute we stepped into New Orleans was magical,” Ghossein remembers. “Everything there speaks music to you. It was a lot of fun.”
_Sleep With The Lights On is out on February 23 via Suburban Records. Walk It Home, a documentary by Red Bull Media House, is due in the summer_.