The 4-piece Lebanese alternative rock outfit Lazzy Lung released their debut album in late 2010, and by all accounts they’re the hardest working crew in the Arab alternative rock scene looking to win their fans over – one listener at a time. Beats and Breath sat down with the band’s co-founder and frontman – Allan Chaaraoui to find out more about Lazzy Lung and their future plans. Note: in the time since the article was published, Lazzy Lung has gone on to win the Rolling Stone Magazine’s ME ‘Battle of the Bands’ contest in February 2011, and is scheduled to complete their Rolling Stone Mag recording session in Dubai in the next two months. As well Lazzy Lung is busy working on a video for their track “On Standby” from their debut album “Strange Places.”
BEIRUT – I always have to ask the same question when I interview members of the burgeoning indie rock scene coming from Lebanon. Is it possible to actually succeed playing rock-n-roll in the Arab world?
Answers vary, but there’s always hope that at least in Lebanon, there’s some amount of space to grow and challenge conventions. Certainly with the proliferation of corporate, English-language radio stations in the Arab world like Spin FM, Radio 1, Nrg, Urban FM, etc, there is a growing Arab youth audience that is being fed a diet of mainstream rock, R&B, hip-hop and bubble-gum Arabic and Western pop – enough so to expect that someday local Arabic alternative rock acts might just get a shot at the big time.
Clearly, young listeners are increasingly turning away from the staples of Arabic-music past and relying heavier on occidental sounds in their I-pods to get them through their days. Of course, throughout the world, in the Middle East as well, techno and electronic music are already staples of the youth music menu. But rock-n-roll from within – indigenous rock-n-roll as it were, well that’s a problem for anyone trying to forge ahead and gain audience share in the Arab world.
There have been precedents. Zeid Hamdan and Yasmine Hamdan’s group Soap Kills, though not a rock outfit, certainly redefined the way Arab youth relate to sounds coming from their own peers. More recently there have been the vanguard attempts of the post-punk crew Scrambled Eggs and the indie rock sounds of The New Government, another Zeid Hamdan project. Then there’s the glam-pop sound of Lumi that had some success touring regionally in Amman, and Dubai.
One has to mention the 7-piece band Mashrou3 Leila, another Lebanese act represented by indie Arab music label Eka3 Records. Theirs is a music that might not have the Western crossover appeal, but they are certainly one look at the future of the Arab indie music scene with a sound that blends acoustic rock with oriental musical influences (Arabic soul/T’arab, Armenian, Spanish/Andalusian). But they’re not pure rock-n-roll.
There is a rock-n-roll act emanating from the Lebanese shores going by the name of Lazzy Lung that has continued to gain notoriety in the last year – at least in Lebanon. Their debut album, Strange Places, was released in October, and has been getting solid reviews by local critics. The 4-piece band has, as one critic put it, “created an homage to the true spirit and grit of those incredibly sweet bands that emerged from the height of alternative rock music in the mid to late 90s.”
To hear frontman Allan Chaaraoui speak about their sound, you’d be more apt to find references to his Canadian background and groups like Ohbijou, Caribou, Best Coast and Winter Gloves rather than Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden or the Foo Fighters. Chaaraoui is from Ottawa and is half-Lebanese. Although he doesn’t like to speak about identity politics, in Chaaraoui’s own words Strange Places is an existential exercise in identity and firmly rooted in the aforementioned alt-rock traditions.
“Strange Places is basically autobiographical – covering a chronological story of about 10 years of my life. Life experiences – lost relationships, unfulfilled relationships, rowdy behavior, moving on – that I wrote down into lyrics, and all 11 tracks, although highly personal, still have a very universal message to them,” Chaaraoui explains.
Indeed, the other 3 members of the band – Patrick Hanna on lead guitar, Hady Oueini on drums, and Imad Jawad on bass – have all professed that the tracks speak to a sort of life arc that they can relate to. I daresay anyone that has been through love and loss can relate to the brutally honest lyrics of songs like “Moving On” which is about – well, moving on from past love:
“I live it every day, from the moment that I wake
Today is another day, to forget
To forget the times that we shared
Place myself in a place that I can focus.”
As for the question of whether he thinks that forming an alternative rock act in the Arab world is such a good idea, Chaaraoui waxes poetic with something he and the band like to tell people: “We know it’s tough trying to do this here. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that the Middle East is filled with strange places.”
BEATS AND BREATH sat down with Chaaraoui a few weeks after their highly successful album release concert, which drew a packed house of some 400 people to Beirut’s Masrah al Medina (City Theater) to find out about the evolution of Lazzy Lung and the what’s next for the band.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is Lazzy Lung your first band experience?
ALLAN: Actually, I was in a punk band before for about 7 years. A very political band actually named Sunday Riot. This was the end of high school, and into college when I was 17 or 18.
BEATS AND BREATH: What happened to the band?
ALLAN: Funny story – I entered the band in a Battle of the Bands, and we won it. And we got free recording time in a studio and a photo shoot and more. As soon as we won that, the band was like, “Fuck it!”
BEATS AND BREATH: In the true punk sense of things (laughing).
ALLAN: (laughing) Exactly. We were getting to…I mean people started liking us so it wasn’t cool.
BEATS AND BREATH: Tell me a little bit of your evolution playing here.
ALLAN: I started out Lazzy Lung as an instrumental project. That’s why it’s called Lazzy Lung. I was writing some of my personal experiences and using it as an outlet for what was going on in my life.
BEATS AND BREATH: And Lazzy Lung? I mean is it tough being an Arab alt-rock band here?
ALLAN: What’s for sure is that the music we play is definitely Canadian influenced or it’s western music. And this is definitely one of the setbacks or challenges in what we’re dealing with here in the Middle East. One of the things we say is, “We know it’s tough. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that the Middle East is filled with strange places.”
As I’ve said to journalists before – It’s kind of like we want to be the Olympians of our genre in the Middle East. The Olympians of alternative rock and have everybody say that Lazzy Lung is the tops for this kind of music.
BEATS AND BREATH: So that’s the ultimate goal?
ALLAN: Yeah, the band and I feel that’s the ultimate goal there.
BEATS AND BREATH: There aren’t that many successful models of independent, western-influenced music in the Arab world. You can go into Lebanese independent rock past – there were some bands in the early to mid 1970s (The Cedars comes to mind), and there was Zeid Hamdan’s project Soap Kills that had a big impact on the local music scene. Then recently there’s The New Government, LUMI, and Scrambled Eggs.
ALLAN: Well you see. The New Government is like edgy punk-influenced rock – indie rock. Scrambled Eggs are also more post-punk leaning towards punk and they do those experimental sound configurations of their band paired with other musicians. That’s the whole boxing us in thing – placing us into a genre or giving us an identity. There’s more of a crafted sound and identity to the New Government than we have. We have our sound, but they fit a lot more with a lot of other bands I find.
BEATS AND BREATH: With such a small market, do you look at things competitively?
ALLAN: Actually, I don’t see much of the competition you’re talking about. It doesn’t feel like a competition other than us trying to treat the process like a sport – like I said earlier. You know practicing the Lazzy Lung and competing in Lazzy Lung Olympics of the world – (laughing)
For example, I asked Scrambled Eggs to play a show with us last year. And they were like, “Who the eff are you? And why would we play with you?” But now that we have released an album and gotten a following they’ve actually said to us, “You’re good. You guys are good at what you do.”
Whether or not they want to share a stage with us is another thing.
But on the whole, when it comes to rock music in Lebanon – it takes a steep bend into HEAVY shit. Like heavy – death metal, doom metal types. With that growling four piece band kind of thing – and when four guys from Lebanon get together to play in a band then they tend to play some pretty heavy sounding music.
“We know it’s tough trying to do this here. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that the Middle East is filled with strange places.”
BEATS AND BREATH: The evolution of the album and the actual composing of the songs now – walk us through the process.
ALLAN: All of the songs had been written and composed by me, but then I would arrange the songs with the guys. So I would come up with a bass-line or whatever drum concept I was trying to go for and they would purify into what it is now. And the producing was the work of Karim Sinno at Mixdown Studios in Beirut. He was co-producer, and was a total fan of our stuff and had heard my instrumentals and wanted to record the work.
But let’s breakdown a song: I will come up with a song that I’ll produce on the computer on my loop station. I’ll let it play and then pick a subject that I want to talk about. And just flow to that. The stories – I pick little parts of what happens to me and put them down in lyrics – as the music is playing.
BEATS AND BREATH: So the music is inspiring different aspects of the musical flow?
ALLAN: That’s right.
BEATS AND BREATH: Did you have percussive elements to the raw musical versions that are changed by the band?
ALLAN: Yeah Hadi (the drummer) had to customize it his own way (laughing). He would say, “That’s good but…”
BEATS AND BREATH; Right. Because there’s a sort of drummer pride there (laughing) [Imitating Hadi]. “You were a drummer then Allan (with Sunday Riot), but I’m a drummer now.”
ALLAN: That’s right (laughing).
BEATS AND BREATH: Do you find the guys generally supportive of the process? They’re younger and very hungry.
ALLAN: Yes. But that’s the part I’ve said before. Whenever it comes to songwriting it always helps for a songwriter to really know where he’s coming from. It’s like ordering a pizza with a group of 7 people. You have to accommodate everyone.
That’s the first album. The second album they are definitely having a more active role in writing the songs. Which takes a lot of pressure off of me.
BEATS AND BREATH: What about distribution? What is your plan?
ALLAN: We have only one point of distribution in Beirut right now. Having it at one location is actually kind of nice because it’s cross marketing. We’re helping each other out. But I want to mostly sell albums at shows. Every time we’ve played a show in the past, people wanted to buy an album. Now, it’s different. I mean even if we play shows for free, it’s ok because we know we’ll sell some albums.
BEATS AND BREATH: The old fashioned method of marketing. It’s the most beautiful direct link to your fans.
ALLAN: I know there’s this whole digital means of getting the album out there.
BEATS AND BREATH: But you’re hip to that?
ALLAN: I am aware but I’m not yet taking part in the process. We’re still too young as a band and haven’t really been seasoned yet. We just released the album and we’re trying to be careful with what we do. And do it in the most effective way possible.
BEATS AND BREATH; You want to tour in the Middle East presumably?
ALLAN: Touring in the Middle East is a bit of a fantasy still. But if there were to be a festival here or a festival there that meets everybody’s life schedule, then so be it. But I don’t want touring to cost us anything as a band. That’s not the point, but we’re not looking to make a living out of this realistically. We’re all students or working at the moment. And I don’t try to convince myself that it could be something to sustain me.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is that limiting?
ALLAN: If I were to dedicate more of my time solely into marketing and networking and pushing this thing on to people – well I’m sort of afraid of that. Because as soon as you push something on to people – they question it.
It’s been a natural growth. But at the same time what else can you do? One thing I want to do is to communicate to colleges and radio stations all over. Start with the students and the people that are keen to what we’re doing.