WKBL are a 4 piece indie band from Beirut. The guys have a huge following across the Middle East and having taken part in the Lebanese Sound Clash in 2013 they were identified by manager Dave Gappa (ex rock band H-Blockx) as having enormous potential. Gappa arranged a deal with the band and brought them from Lebanon to Germany where they have just finished recording their debut album. I caught up with them in Hameln prior to playing a benefit concert organised by a local promoter in aid of Syrian refugees. We speak with vocalist & guitarist Wassim Bou Malham & drummer Malek Rizkallah before a recent gig.
Contactmusic.com (CM): Your German tour started kicked off last night in Oldenburg. How was the reception there?
Malek Rizkallah (MR): I don't want to sound stupid by saying something cliche like 'It was amazing' but it was amazing! It is so nice to open a tour with this kind of vibe. We were made to feel so welcome and we did, we felt like stars.
Wassim Bou Malham (WB): A brilliant reception, more than we could have hoped for.
CM: We are probably more aware of Lebanon for its often violent past rather than its music. How was it growing up there?
MR: We used to think 'I want to be a musician, but it's impossible, it's kind of a dream'. It's something that you couldn't take seriously. Even as kids, if anyone asked what we wanted to be, we would say an architect or something as it was more realistic. To be a musician was something that we saw on TV, it was like it wasn't real.
WB: We all have happy memories from our childhood we were born towards the end of the war so we don't have any real memories of what it was like during that time. The rebuilding of Lebanon was the time we grew up in. I realise that most of you guys only really know about Lebanon what you get from the media and that works both ways. For us Germany was Michael Schumacher, World War 2 and that sort of thing. It's only now that we are here we've learned it is far more than that. Take our manager David, he visited Beirut once and didn't want to leave, that gives you an idea of what kind of place it is.
MR: The music scene was practically non-existent when we were growing up. Beirut is not only a small city, it's a very small community. Everyone knows each other, which is great. It also means everything is magnified. For example, if there is a singer who is not the greatest in the world, they could make it in Beirut as a good singer. This can be good because it give you self-belief, even if you only know a few chords you will go away and you will work on. When we were growing up most musicians were like that, they had that belief.
CM: Was there an opportunity to see much live music?
WB: Almost every successful band, every successful DJ from anywhere in the world has played in Beirut. There is a huge cultural movement back home, we have huge amphitheatres and clubs where all of these artists have passed through. It is maybe not exposed in the media as much as say someone playing in Ibiza or somewhere like that, but it's big. Going back to David, someone with his background, having played in a huge band in front of massive audiences. For someone like him to be impressed with Beirut and what it has to offer kind of puts the place into perspective.
CM: How did you all meet?
MR: We've been together for a long time. Although it was maybe in 2009 that we realised we were a band. We originally met a place called the Quadrangle. It's a pub where many musicians hang out. We all got into music for many different reasons.
WB: I got into music because of my father. In Beirut if your father tells you to do something, you do it, it's a cultural thing. I bought my first guitar at 14, hid it in the Attic and began skipping school so that I could practise. After a few weeks the school got my mother involved and I told her the truth. That night she got the family together, cooked a big meal and told my Dad. Obviously he wasn't happy and said he was going to break the guitar into a hundred pieces but I had beaten him to it. I told him, if anyone was going to break my guitar it would be me. My father didn't speak to me for 7 years. A couple of days later my mother took me to one of the big guitar shops in Beirut and bought me my first Fender. I've now finished School and he lets me play guitar. I think after 15 years he may be even be a bit proud of me, although he would never admit it.
MR: I was the exact opposite. I was asking my Dad not to push me towards being a musician, I wanted a professional career! We all had day jobs and music was our escape so coming here to Germany is great. The difference between Lebanon and Germany is that here it's acceptable to be a musician and there is a music industry. It's good to feel supported. In Lebanon it's more of a struggle.
CM: You won the Lebanese Red Bull Sound Clash in 2013 which lead onto you being invited to Paris to do some recording. How has that experience affected you as a band?
MR: I wouldn't really say we won the Sound Clash. To explain a bit about the concept, bands face each other on opposite stages with the crowd in the middle and basically you play your own music then play the other bands music, but you play simultaneously. I suppose there was a battle in there somewhere but not in a negative way. It's more about respect and enjoying the moment. We saw it as more of a collaboration. The main thing to come out of it was meeting David.
WB: David approached us at the end of the Sound Clash and said he would like to do something with us. He didn't make any promises but we took him up on his offer and here we are. It's been a great experience. Red Bull also invest in music in Lebanon and they encourage bands to get out and play live. What makes Red Bull different is the staff are also musicians and can relate to what we are doing, they have been there. Obviously they have a worldwide presence and have the ability to place music in any of the major hubs, Europe, UK, USA or South America. It's very difficult to get support from Government bodies in Lebanon so it's really important that we are able to to turn to these large companies for endorsement.
CM: In June this year you performed with the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra at the Beirut Spring Festival, which must have been an incredible experience. How did that come about?
MR: Wasim was a student of the orchestra conductor Harout Fazlian and we collaborated with him during the Red Bull Sound Clash. The event organiser asked for a rock band to accompany the orchestra and 'Harout' immediately asked for 'Who Killed Bruce Lee'.
CM: You have been in Germany for around a month now working on the new album and now playing shows. How difficult was the decision to relocate here?
MR: It wasn't really difficult to make the decision but it was difficult to leave. It's difficult to leave behind family and friends.
WB: And leaving our jobs. I mean we all had promising careers that we had built over 10 years or so. It's a big step, but one we had to take if we are to grow as a band. The decision is made a bit easier when you believe in yourself and when others believe in you and what you are doing. The reception we had in Oldenburg, where we played last night, probably confirmed to us that we made the right decision.
MR: The response was really crazy and humbling. The promoter even compared the reception we were given to that received by NIRVANA when they played there in '91. How do you respond to that?! We are going to Dubai in a couple of days, where we will be presented with the Esquire magazine man of the year award, for what? Because we play guitar?! It's overwhelming because we are the first Lebanese band that sings in English to get out of the Middle East, which a huge thing for us. At the moment it's all a bit surreal.
WB: We always had dreams, everyone does, but they were so far away. When we played in front of 3500 people at the Red Bull Sound Clash we thought that was the pinnacle. We have been in utter awe of everything that has happened to us since then, you know. We always have this stupid look on our faces when we're like "Really? You want to sign us? Why? It's been incredible. Even if nothing else happens, just this one concert yesterday alone is enough.
CM: You finished working on the new album this week in Berlin, how has the recording process gone from your perspective?
WB: We had an Australian guy call Victor Van Vugt working with us which was incredible. Victor has produced many artists including Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey, the list goes on.
MR: Victor created the sound that we love, the sound that we tried to create and now he is working with us? Incredible! It's taken us until now for that to sink in. We were in a magical place working with him. We finished recording the album in Berlin at Riverside Studios on Thursday, all of the songs were written in Beirut and they were all inspired by our lives back home. It was quite a challenge at first because of the disconnect and the new surroundings we found ourselves in. Victor is a very clever guy though and he somehow got onto the chemistry of the band to produce our sound and combine it with what we had written at home.
CM: You funded the album through a crowdfunding site. Is that something you would do again?
WB: No. We haven't really spoken about it, but I personally would not do it again. We needed the money and funding it this way obviously worked. We are so grateful to the people who backed us but next I think I would probably take a second job and raise the money some other way.
MR: We studied the situation at the time, our popularity, our requirements and decided that this was probably the only time we would be able to crowdfund. We don't wish to sound unthankful or ungrateful, because we wouldn't be where we are today without the backing we received. It was a very tiring process though.
WB: It's another one of those moments since Sound Clash, to raise $21,000, a lot of which came from people we didn't know was unbelievable.
CM: Do you have release date for the new album?
MR: At the moment we haven't fixed a date, possibly February next year. It really depends on when Victor can fit us in. He's extremely busy. It will definitely be early next year.
CM: Will you be playing new material during this tour?
MR: Yes we will play a mix of old and new material. Even the odd cover, we like to do the odd cover that gets the crowd going.
CM: You covered Tom's Diner last year...
WB: Even Suzanne Vega liked it. Yet another one of those moments, like when Bruce Lee's daughter followed us on Twitter! It may have been a fake account but who cares!!
CM: What's next for you?
MR: We would love to expand our audience in Europe. We want to play as many festivals and concerts as possible.
WB: We are also looking forward to meeting the rest of our management team! They have been working with us on blind faith only since day 1. I think we get to meet them around the end of this month.
CM: Monday, you play on live German TV. Is that another of those moments?
WB: I hope so. We don't really like to have high expectations, we're trying to play it down and avoid stage fright. I am sure we will all enjoy it when we are there.
CM: Finally, who did kill Bruce Lee?
WB: Suzanne Vega!
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