Philosophical (non) Flamboyance and How He Found Himself Listening to Nancy Ajram – By Noha El-Khatib
Hamed Sinno was wearing a plain white t-shirt, skinny black jeans, and a disheveled Mohawk haircut—quite a departure from the bright assortment of hipster couture that he sported before his fame. I was sitting at a small table in front of the stage at The Music Room in Dubai, watching the seven Mashrou’ Leila members undergo their sound check while Hamed politely asked the sound engineers to raise or lower the levels on respective instruments. They were preparing for a concert in the UAE for the second time after having won over a larger audience in the region.
I was so proud of this band, proud that we were of the same generation, proud that we were of the same community, but I was mostly proud of Hamed, who I first met in 2006 when he was a freshman at the American University of Beirut. Hamed was an intellectually rebellious art student whose presence never went unnoticed, thanks to his ostentatious jokes, inappropriately sharp commentary, and beautiful voice that fetched many admirers before he even performed in public. Sometimes his impromptu lyrics were about sour or taboo topics like child molestation, homosexuality, and violence. Being exposed to his bluntness and volume, however, convinced most of the onlookers to think that he was confident, sexually ambiguous, outgoing, and unfazed by social expectations. Most of that was not true. He was shy, apologetic, struggling through social turbulence, and anxious for knowledge and peace of mind. But his journey through college and through the formation of Mashrou’ Leila has not only humbled his pseudo-arrogance, but has also added confidence to his self consciousness.
He shyly glanced at me and spoke into the microphone, “Sorry Noha, almost done.” I waved my hand at him to take his time. I was touched that he would give me this interview at all, given his limited time and near-celebrity status. Finally Hamed and I went to a nearby café where I turned on my voice recorder and we started to catch up.
Discord Magazine (DM): So, with the first album, did you have a certain kind of message in mind, or was it just jamming?
Hamed: It definitely wasn’t just jamming. Not that just jamming is not its own message or that it’s less valuable… We were over-indulging that part of everyone that wants to change the world without understanding how the world really works (smirks), to a certain extent, and it was also just a lot of pent up anger. We were all really angry at everything. Not that it’s traumatic, and [no need to] call in Oprah.. it’s just unnecessarily difficult in Beirut. Difficult is an understatement, actually. And it’s not just Beirut, it’s the whole region, and I guess we were all at a point in our lives where we really were considering whether or not we wanted to stay. So naturally the city had to make its way into what we were writing about… writing about our own lives, trying to be as objective as possible about certain issues.
DM: I got the vibe that you were the main voice – not in the vocalist sense – but knowing you as a college freshmen and seeing the way you approached songwriting, it sounds like an evolution of your style. Are the lyrics all “you”?
Hamed: Yeah.. mostly. The content on the first album was stuff I wrote because we had a band together and we were going to write songs, it’s not like there was a stock of lyrics that I had written before that I wanted to use. That might be done for the second album. My own stock of … rubbish. But the first album is all stuff we were either negotiating or talking about, it’s nothing profound, it’s stuff that everyone in Beirut talks about: Sectarianism, gay rights, gender equality, most people in college at that point have those questions marks.
DM: Anything that helped you deal?
Hamed: Not in the obvious “I need to vent” kind of way – that doesn’t actually ever change anything (smiles) – but it’s actually funny, like a lot of the stuff that we wrote about, I guess, is the product of being in a collective body of narration and negotiating how you can live as an individual in a particular social group or social background or whatever… What ended up happening is that we were venting about that and because people started liking it, it was a bit cathartic for me that people could identify. Because it was a lot of stuff that makes me feel like I’m different from my family when it comes to these things, or from most people around me when it comes to these things… so when you get 17,500 people on your Facebook page saying “Hey I really like your music!” it sort of means something, you know? So it was extremely cathartic. It helped a lot with my confidence.. it was a bit rewarding to know that your ideology or whatever you want to call it is not just yours alone.
DM: As a band, do you have a specific kind of schedule to practice, or some kind of routine?
Hamed: We used to when we were in college, we’d jam like 2-3 times a week, that’s why we were that productive actually. At this point, everyone has jobs, and different schedules, so we always jam before a gig at least twice, especially since often we need to find sessionists to fill in. (Ibrahim, the bassist, is a student at MIT and is not always around for gigs) Otherwise it’s once a week if we’re lucky.
DM: What’s the hardest thing about keeping that up?
Hamed: It’s not enough. Before Byblos (Summer 2009) we got this apartment together in Bhamdoun (a village in the mountains of Lebanon) and we stayed in it for a month and a half. The 7 of us lived there for a month and a half and we just wrote. We ended up writing 7 tracks in a month, which is super cool so we’re doing that again as soon as Ibrahim comes back, for next time.
DM: Byblos again?
Hamed: No, it’s for our launch party actually, it’s not an album, it’s an EP. We took our sweet-ass time recording it, we went all out, we got all this new equipment, Carl and Firas did their own mixes and they sound beautiful, we got a string septet, we got a choir, children, but it is stuff that we’ve played before but we majorly tweaked and reworked everything.
DM: Which tracks might you revisit, or always include?
Hamed: For me, Shim el Yasmine. It’s something I will never outgrow.. it’s not a song I can ever… see it’s a very visceral thing that happened.. it sounds very fartsy, and I have a pet abyss or whatever (we chuckle), it was just very real at the time, so I’d always include that.
DM: Could you tell me more about that song? Your experience writing it?
Hamed: I had a really bad breakup. I got really messed up about it for a while. It’s not really a mindfuck of a song.
DM: We know why you chose the name Mashrou’ Leila, for “overnight project”, but can you tell me about the day it happened? Was it an epiphany/spark or more a logical conclusion of sorts?
Hamed: Our name was going to be The Architecture and Design Department Band. I’m serious. The second gig we wrote it as Mashrou’ Leila – ليلة (written as the word for night) and then we decided fuck it let’s just make it ليلى. The plan was that we’d always have room for people to cycle in and play with us, as we were still cycling bassists, but then we decided it would just be the seven of us. So let’s give it a proper noun. It just sounded and felt right, and then we made all these justifications and stories for it after it, but the truth is it just felt right.
DM: What’s the best bullshit story you’ve given to explain to people “Who is Leila?”
Hamed: [We once said that Leila] was a sex worker in Hamra who Carl was in love with. I said it on a television show once and the woman panicked!
DM: One of the hardest things to explain about living in Lebanon?
Hamed: People might not be following the laws, but we are still very much controlled.
DM: How “out” are you?
Hamed: It’s a very difficult conversation to have, but it’s not a shameful one.
DM: How do you deal with how difficult that is? In the classic sense of someone who has matured, as most of us do when we graduate from college, you seem to have gotten slapped in the face, or perhaps have gotten humbled by your experiences.
Hamed: We lived in a bubble [when we were in college]. AUB was a big bubble. It’s one that promises you that you can function within some sort of cultural alienation practically; I mean it still very much is a sort of protestant colonial mission. And then you walk out and it’s NOT the way the world is working here.
DM: Would you consider those the best years of your life?
Hamed: No. The first two years, maybe. I was with Sophie, who is just a phenomenal person, I was reading Nietzsche, had my black turtleneck and everything.
DM: So what changed?
Hamed: I think you start coming to terms with the fact that you don’t necessarily get to change everything about your core, unless it’s reformative. But otherwise, things don’t change. Maybe they do and we die too early for that to happen or something. I got a lot more sympathetic. My life stopped being so much about myself. I don’t know why.
DM: What do you want music to be?
Hamed: What I look for in music is writing. Lyrics, comfort, words. I want it to be what listening to Tracy and the Plastics was when I was 20.
DM: What other music has affected you?
Hamed: Everything. A lot of stuff! At this point, literally everything I’m listening to is affecting me, even Nancy Ajram – ultra-generic Lebanese pop. [Nancy Ajram] actually less generic than you think, she has a great voice! But in terms of obvious influences, I really like Dylan, Morrisson, I know it’s really cliché.
DM: What do you like about them?
Hamed: Again, the themes.. the existentialism. I really like Tracy and the Plastics… actually I don’t really like Tracy and the Plastics, I KINDA like Tracy and the Plastics. But I went through a phase at 20 where it was THE most inspiring thing for me and made me feel like I belonged to something. What else? I really like James Blake. His sound is really particular.. ridiculously prolific.
DM: Do you feel you write as a character or as yourself?
Hamed: I feel often when I’m writing that I’m thinking “What would I say if I were someone who was doing blablablabla?” So there’s a scenario and I’m writing performatively. There’s a catharsis in it and there’s a distance. There’s a really easy way to waiver responsibility from doing things (laughs), so if you get in trouble, hypothetically, someone calls you a racist or whatever, blame the character.
DM: Has music become more important to you – more powerful?
Hamed: Yes, definitely. Music… It’s this thing you’ve always been waiting for and aiming for [as we did when we were in cover bands] and it’s now here. It’s life. It’s also become more trying. I do research – theory, songwriting, literature, scripts, reading about performance, rock history, what other bands did, philosophies so I can create shared platforms – it’s more accessible to write about than neuroscience – everything.
DM: Any of those ideas that really affected you – that you found in your research?
Hamed: Judith Butler, gender performativity. But I’m not gonna pretend to be the first person to say that. It’s what Bowie did, what Oscar Wilde did, it’s why Bowie said he was an Oscar Wilder. Performance in general, amplifying these things is fascinating, and when it comes to gender, it becomes even more fascinating. She has this thing where she says that all gender identities are socially constructed; behavioral patterns that exist a priori to an individual need to be internalized and reproduced, and you get controlled via social systems of punishment and rewards. It’s not something that comes as instinct or as part of your sex, it’s something that’s constructed. The way that comes into performance – I find mindboggling.
DM: Do you write prose, too?
Hamed: Yeah, and it’s going much better. It’s not as restricting as music – with music I have a problem because I stick to comfortable meters that repeat, and with prose, that drops.
DM: Is music important to you in itself or is it a means to an end?
Hamed: The cool thing about music is that it’s very for me as a vocalist is very physical. You’re singing, I don’t care how many people say it’s about the lyrics, it’s really not. If you want profound lyrics, you can write them down, you can get up and read them or whatever. As soon as things start coming out of your mouth, it’s the most narcissistic thing you can do because it’s really just you… it’s someone demanding something human about language. With instruments you’re doing something a lot less natural. With your voice it’s kind of like taking care of your hair. It’s not about meaning, it’s very narcissistic, and you have to be there as a body, it’s more like acting.. Anyway what was I saying? Right. With music, if you told me we’d lose our fan base or make no money at it, I’d still love to make music. It’s never been a way to get to something else. It is its own end.