Confessions of The Wanton Bishops

The Beirut-based blues-rock duo on the verge of an international breakthrough

By Adam Grundey
Sep 05, 2013

“ALL I CAN SAY IS THAT HE’S IN THE RIGHT BUSINESS,” says guitarist Eddy Ghosein of his Wanton Bishops bandmate, singer and harmonica player Nader Mansour. He laughs. “That says it all.”

That business is raucous, raw blues-rock with an indie edge and Black Keys vibe. But Ghosein isn’t just referring to Mansour’s songwriting ability or his scorched-throat vocals. Mansour’s a man of appetites – for music and all its attendant distractions – as evidenced by one of his several tattoos; a mid-pour bottle alongside the words “Keep ’em comin’.” The duo, who formed in 2011, have established a reputation as one of the region’s brightest underground talents and most enthusiastic partiers.

Today, though, things are mellow. We meet in the back garden of Mansour’s home in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood, which has, in recent years (“Since the moustache came back into fashion,” Mansour says), become the area of choice for the city’s hipster crowd.

It’s some much-needed downtime for the Bishops after a hectic summer which saw them hit the road in Europe. “We’re big in Scandinavia, apparently,” Mansour says. That’s thanks in part to a tie-up with Red Bull; the brand helped organize and finance a recent tour of Sweden, Norway and Denmark and a recording session in Copenhagen. It wasn’t the band’s first trip that way, though. They’d played Norway before, “thanks to an ex-con-slash-gangster friend,” Mansour explains. They ended up in a town called Tromso. “You wouldn’t wish for your worst enemy to go there,” Mansour says. “Let’s be positive,” adds Ghosein. “The best thing about Tromso is leaving it.” He’s kidding. Mostly.

As their name suggests, there’s a definite personality contrast between the pair. Mansour’s hyper-everything; his conversation full of excited asides (“You know when they ask you who you’d take with you if you were stranded on a desert island and people go, ‘My wife,’ or, ‘My girlfriend’? F*** that. I’d take Bear Grylls. That motherf***er would get me back”). Ghosein is way more chill, to the point where, at first, it’s kind of unnerving – his stillness accentuated by Mansour’s animation. In fact, he’s just as entertaining as his partner, his pared-down, deadpan responses are thoughtful and, often, wickedly funny. “Eddy’s very, very OCD. He takes his time,” says Mansour. “Motherf***er’s slow. Very slow. But he’s meticulous. And that’s something I really need, to limit my … whatever-ness. And he’s a true brother, man. He’s proved to be a very true brother.”

The band name was a happy accident, they say. The result of a brief phone conversation when Mansour – inspired by reading the Marquis de Sade’s work – said he really wanted to use the word ‘wanton.’ “I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what that means, but OK, why not?” says Ghosein. “And then I said, ‘Let’s try The Wanton Bishops.’ ‘OK. Sounds good.’ ‘OK, bye.’ It was very quick. There’s no underlying metaphorical explanation or anything.”

“It’s not about boys’-ass-grabbing priests,” Mansour adds. It has, though, ended up being a fairly apt summation of the duo’s personalities. Although, Mansour insists, “It’s not black-and-white. I have my bishop moments. And Eddy has his wanton moments.”

IT WAS ONE OF GHOSEIN’S WANTON MOMENTS that first brought the pair together. He got into a fight with a valet attendant on the street. And when police arrived to try and break it up, “I was too drunk to notice the difference between a policeman and a valet,” Ghosein says. “So I started hitting everyone. Including policemen.” Seeing Ghosein fighting with “about 20 people” Mansour waded in to help him out. The following week, Mansour got himself into another fight, punching a guy who was trying to grab a girl’s ass. Ghosein bailed him out of jail. The girl in question is now Ghosein’s girlfriend. “Beirut’s a small city,” the guitarist says. “Incestuously small.”

Before that flurry of fighting, though, the pair barely knew each other. “We’d met once or twice, briefly,” Ghosein says. “I’d played with his band as a guest for, like, two minutes on stage.” At the time, Mansour was heading up a blues covers band, and “anyone with a good ear could get up and jam.” Once they got talking and discovered a mutual love for old Chicago blues, they figured it was worth trying to come up with their own material.

Mansour had some rough song ideas that he’d been working on for a few years, ever since he first picked up a harmonica while he was in France. “I was, idiotically, studying financial engineering,” he explains. He’d been through the French education system in Lebanon, and, he says, “As soon as I had the chance – like any Lebanese – to get the f*** out of here, I did. So I went and studied that, and then I studied the harmonica. Which kind of f***ed up my life until now.”

He was in his last semester when he first got hold of a harmonica, “And it came fast.” Sitting in clubs watching blues jam sessions, “I thought, ‘I could do the same shit they’re doing. And they’re getting clapped and paid. Motherf***ers. I’m broke, man. What is this shit?’”

Musically, Mansour – who was born and raised in the mountains of Lebanon – says his first influences came from his family. “The legacy of my family is, they all had good voices. But on the Lebanese folklore side. The mountain-Lebanese thing. It’s the equivalent of the blues, basically. They sing about women and food and money. It’s very lighthearted. It’s sad, but it’s got a touch of humor to it. Even musically, it’s got that question-answer thing going on.” The first three albums he ever got hold of – “back in the cassette days” – were by Michael Jackson, Metallica and Jimi Hendrix. “Luckily, I lost Metallica and Michael Jackson,” he says. “But I kept Jimi.” That got him into Sixties American rock. And when he arrived in Paris, “I had only two ways to go: Either further back, or forward to Eighties and Nineties rock, which kind of sucked. So I went back: ‘OK, where did Hendrix bring this shit from?’ Or, ‘There’s a harmonica on “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors. Where did that come from? Blues? Alright.’ And I started discovering these blues artists one by one and really digging it. And at the same time, I bumped into the harmonica.”

Ghosein, meanwhile, was in Beirut, where he grew up. He started playing guitar aged around 13. “I was the only one in the family who was really into music,” he says. “My brothers and sisters listened to music quite a lot, but they never picked up an instrument. I have no family members who took this seriously.” His father, he says, would play a lot of classical and jazz records. “But never, like, blues or rock & roll. In fact, he used to hate the blues. He’d be, like, ‘Why are they shouting all the time? God! This is annoying.’” Ghosein, though, found himself drawn to “white blues – Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton, Peter Greene and all that – and early British rock.” He started a few bands in school, sometimes even daring to write original material. “Instrumental stuff,” he says. “It was shit.” In one of them, he volunteered to be the singer. “But we had one rehearsal, and that was it. It didn’t work. I wasn’t good enough.” After school, he joined a couple of other bands, playing covers. “And then,” he says, “I met him.” 

IT TOOK GHOSEIN AND MANSOUR A WHILE to figure out the best way to work together, although they quickly discovered that sitting down in a room and trying to come up with a new song wasn’t it. “We tried it many times,” Ghosein says. “And it didn’t work. The thing is, we’re very different – as characters and as musicians. So it’s not easy – or it’s not direct – to get what we like instantly. But we’ve managed to find a way to work, with a lot of compromise and concession from both parties, to make something that’s, hopefully, good.”

“It was easy at some points, it was funny at some points, it was feisty at some other points,” says Mansour, of trying to come up with ideas together. “But you can’t just sit and write a f***ing song. You can sit and work on a song. Or jam. But you can’t sit down and be, like, ‘I’m gonna have an idea.’ You’re going to feel something first. At some point, of course, you have to sit down and write it. But what exists is a certain feel of something you want to develop; the motherf***er comes to you. You don’t go there.”

What did develop from those early sessions was a clearer idea of a sonic direction for the band. “By then, we knew what we didn’t want, rather than what we wanted,” Ghosein explains. Mansour agrees: “Yeah, the process of writing together kind of sucked, but we’d at least reached that agreement of sound.”

What they agreed on was a modern take on the blues. They had started off by trying to put together Chicago-blues-influenced tracks. Neither of them was particularly happy with the results. “Those 12 bars and those clean electric guitars,” Mansour says. “I was like, ‘It would be interesting to skip Chicago and from Mississippi blues to the electric sounds now; to the fuzz and the nastiness of it. Skip that 12-bar. Jump from Mississippi to indie.’ And that bridge made an interesting sound.”

The nasty, fuzzy result is all over their 2012 debut album Sleep With The Lights On. And it’s a much better fit for Mansour’s wild-man vocal howl than their more-polished earlier efforts.

While the sound has gotten messier, the songwriting process is now somewhat smoother. They no longer start with a blank page. “He starts with an idea of the song, or the riff, or whatever,” says Ghosein. “And we’ll start jamming on that, trying to find stuff to wrap around it.”

“It’s quite archaic, the way I write,” Mansour says. “It’s just a stomp with a riff. It has a progression, or a rhythm, but most of the time it’s not decent. It’s like, ‘It’s cool. But where are we going with that?’ So when I call Eddy, I’m usually very excited: ‘Hey man, I got a thing…’ He’ll drop by and he’ll actually make a proper song out of it, with chords and shit, adding his influences and his knowledge. ’Cause I don’t really know shit about guitar, for example. So a lot of the time I’m going, ‘Man, can you find a way to do this? But better?’ And he’ll definitely find something better to do with it. So, I provide the vibe most of the time, and he provides the actual shit.”

There’s still some tension on occasion, but Mansour describes it as “healthy.” “He’s not going to take it personally if I don’t like something,” says Ghosein. “And I’m not going to take it personally if he says to me, ‘I don’t like that, can you try it this way?’ I’m not going to go, ‘Listen, I’m the guitarist. Shut the f*** up.’ No. I’ll try it.”

“Sometimes we’ll get stubborn with our own shit,” says Mansour. “And sometimes it works when we get stubborn. It’s a dynamic. It’s very specific to the moment. Sometimes we fight for a song and eventually we both end up hating it and we’re just stubborn for nothing. And sometimes we super-agree immediately and it’s just BAM!”

However they’re working, it’s proving to be a successful formula – borne out by the popularity, with both critics and audiences, of their debut LP, and the title track in particular. “Sleep With The Lights On” showcases the duo’s knack for wrapping an infectious hook around a simple pounding beat – and their knack for creating an equally catchy melody and chorus. So catchy that even in Scandinavia, Mansour says, the crowds would sometimes outsing him. “God bless the internet,” he adds.

Both Mansour and Ghosein stress that their in-fighting is pretty much solely confined to the creative process. Outside of that, they’ve become firm friends, getting together at least three or four times a week to work on their music (“Plus the drinking sessions of course,” Ghosein adds) and there’s an easy, self-mocking rapport between them, no doubt helped by the time they’ve spent on the road. “If you manage to tour in the north of Norway, sleeping in the same f***ing room, without having a lot of fights, I think you’ll manage the rest of it,” Mansour says. Over the past year, they estimate, they’ve played at least 40 gigs. “If you’re in the States, 40 gigs in a year is not a lot,” Mansour admits. “Because there’s an infrastructure, there’s an industry, there are venues. But if you come from Beirut, that’s a shitload. Because the maximum in Lebanon is, like, one gig every two or three months. Otherwise, you’ll bore the f*** out of everyone.” Their gigs outside of the Middle East – including France and Turkey, as well as the Nordic trips – have given them a vital confidence in their music’s ability to cross borders, as well as in their own talents. “Shit’s getting better every time we play, man,” Mansour says.

Ghosein interjects with an exception – a gig at a clothing store in Tromso. “That was probably our worst show,” he says. “They paid us in clothes.”

“We got to Tromso, we were so underdressed,” says Mansour. “And everything was so expensive, so we talked the dude into booking us a gig in a clothes store. And they paid us $2,000-worth of clothes.”

“I remember seeing people watching us, ‘Oh. There’s a band,’” Ghosein says. “Then going off to try on some clothes… ‘Hey! We’re here.’”

“Yeah. That was prostitution at its finest,” Mansour concludes. “But we were cold, man.”

INTERNATIONALLY, THE INDUSTRY IS STARTING TO TAKE NOTE of The Wanton Bishops. "Sleep With The Lights On” has been licensed for use in Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s next movie, Horns, which opens in North America this month. And, at press time, Mansour says they currently have a couple of international publishing deals “on the table” with major labels. If and when those are signed, it may mean that a second album (for which they’ve already written a number of songs while on the road) will be delayed by a European re-release for their debut, likely accompanied by a tour. Not too shabby for a band who only launched their first EP a little over a year ago (“To a crowd of, like, 20 people,” Ghosein says, “including my brother, his girlfriend, my sister and two cameramen”). But Mansour is confident the attention’s warranted. “I was talking to a friend of ours, and I was, like, ‘You know what? When everybody asks, “Are you surprised?” I’m always, like, “Yeah, I’m overwhelmed” and shit. But deep down, I knew it was going to be good.’” He pauses. “That’s f***ed up to say, I know. But it’s honest. I knew it was going to be good. But did I know it was going to be this fast and this wide? No. I knew we had a good product, if you want to talk business. But I never thought it would go this fast and this wide.

“We’ve made a lot of noise,” he continues. “It’s starting to roll, man. The more shit you do, the more shit comes to you. As we understand it, that’s how the industry works. You make a shitload of noise, a manager gets interested. You make a shitload of noise with a manager, promoters get interested. You make a shitload of noise with promoters, publishers get interested. You make a shitload of noise with those f***ers, you get a record deal. So we’re on the third stage of that strategy right now.”

Still, the question remains – as always for English-language acts in the region: Can The Wanton Bishops break out of the Middle East? Can a band based in Beirut rise above the novelty factor and carve out a serious music career?

They’re confident the answer is yes. “The thing is,” Ghosein says, “it’s an industry. They want to make money. So if they think we’re good – wherever we’re based, whether it’s Beirut or Africa – they’re going to take us seriously.”

The guitarist is in the middle of explaining how Lebanon’s historical exposure to different cultures and its legacy of creativity differentiate it from the Gulf countries when a car horn blares from the street. “That’s my ride. Sorry, I have to go.” And, no hanging around, he’s gone. Mansour shrugs. “OK,” he says. “Let’s go to the bar.”