Over the past few years, Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila has grown - its music has evolved, its audience has expanded. Today it's one of the biggest music acts in the region, and its journey has just begun.
The band's music works on two fronts: tackling subjects that are considered taboo in the Arab world and breaking the Arab image out of its orientalist mould - all in an intricate layer of edgy melodies and strident synthetic pop.
We sat down with three band members, Hamed Sinno, Haig Papazian and Firas Abou Fakher during Step 2017 back in April in Dubai.
We got to know more about the band's story, their progress over the years, the different messages they'd like to send Arab youth and some fun facts about the band members you may have not known.
On how Mashrou' Leila started off as an "overnight project" in 2008
Mashrou' Leila started off as a workshop project, when several band members (and contributers) were just design students at the American University of Beirut in 2008.
At the time, the core band consisted of 7 members.
"It was an overnight project really," band member Haig Papazian told StepFeed.
"We were just playing around, but then at some point we were asked to perform a concert at the American University of Beirut. So, we had to come up with a name on the spot.
And that's when we named ourselves Mashrou' Leila. It was all inspired by our lifestyle, like an 'overnight project' type of thing," Papazian added.
Originally the band's name was "Mashrou' Layle" (a one-night project), which then evolved into "Mashrou' Leila," band member Carl once explained during an interview with MTV.
Now, the band is composed of five members: Hamed Sinno (lead singer), Haig Papazian (violinist), Firas Abou Fakher (guitarist), Carl Gerges (drums) and Ibrahim Badr (bass guitar).
On the launch of Ibn El Leil: What message were you trying to convey?
"It's not really about trying to convey a message for us, ever, though Ibn El Leil in particular does revolve around certain particular themes including masculinity, gender and mourning," Hamed Sinno told StepFeed.
The band's Ibn El Leil album - which translates to "son of the night" - was released in 2015. It has garnered significant attention from fans and media alike.
"It was an album we were writing at a time when we were all dealing with our own intense life struggles ... like my father's passing," Sinno explained, but the band doesn't "ever get into the studio with the intention of 'having a message' outside of making the music itself," he continued.
But, there are a number of songs that clearly convey a message, without the need for an explanation.
For example, the track Maghawir critiques gun laws in Lebanon.
"‘Maghawir’ narrates a possible version of a club shooting in Beirut, drawing on references to real Lebanese case histories from two different shootings that took place within the same week, both of which resulted in the deaths of extremely young victims, each of who was out celebrating their birthday.
[...] the lyrics constantly bring up gender to situate the events within a broader discourse on gender and the recruitment of Lebanese men into locally-revered militarized masculinities, where said violence often becomes not only common, but rather part of a list of gendered provisions for the preservation of men’s honor," the band told Noisey.
On Arabic music and 'Orientalism'
Arabic music is oftentimes seen through an orientalist lens; it is collectively bundled into one neat, inaccurate box despite the many voices and genres.
Mashrou' Leila is fighting that, by producing music that speaks, not just to them as band members, but to the wider Arab audience.
"I feel if we were to get into the studio and try to force a derbake into the music, it would sound - to us - like a lie," Sinno told StepFeed.
"It's not who we are, it's not how most people in the region are. It's some sort of weird myth about culture and identity, and this is what it is to be Arab," he added.
"The music industry is adamant on pretending like the internet does not exist in the region. Mind you, there are super interesting efforts that have been made in that genre, to try and revolutionize the field.
But, for us it's just not a sound we relate to or that we identify with," he said.
Why do you choose to sing in colloquial Arabic?
"That's how I speak... What as opposed to singing in fos7a?
No one ever really speaks in fos7a (modern standard Arabic) ... so for us we write the way we speak.
I think the music has to come naturally. It has to sound like who we are," Sinno said.
On touring the United States for the first time:
"[Mashrou' Leila] is such an impressive performance that stadiums seem not only possible but imminent." - The Guardian wrote on the band's concert at the prestigious Barbican concert hall in London back in 2015.
Since then, the band has been making it big on stages across Europe, the Middle East, and more recently with the Ibn El Leil tour in the United States.
"The first time we went to the U.S. we were speaking at Columbia University, which was kind of like a point of entry," Firas Abou Fakher told StepFeed.
"The United States is a country where there are a lot of Arab expats, and in the early days this was a big push for us to spread our music over there," Abou Fakher said.
"In places like New York and Los Angeles especially, there are a lot of people who are conscious about music that is being produced outside the U.S. -- like directors, people in the music industry, people studying language, sociology, anthropology," he explained.
And it's not just Arab expats taking part, it's basically anyone who just resonates with the music and who is a fan of the live music scene.
"In the U.S. there's a huge live music culture, so even when people who come to our concerts don't speak or understand Arabic, it's all about being present and listening to the music itself," Papazian explained.
On being queer: Hamed Sinno's message to Arab youth struggling with their own sexuality:
"There is no real message. The question is more about why is the rest of the industry so keen on not having that form of representation. It's a weird question of representation," Sinno said.
In 2010, Sinno raised the LGBT flag during the band's Byblos concert, publicly taking a stand with respect to homosexuality in the Arab world.
Sinno fearlessly made his own sexuality crystal clear, making the band one of the biggest LGBT allies for Arabs struggling with their own sexuality.
"I think for me and for rest of the band, as allies, there's a big question about visibility being one entry point to actual change," Sinno explained.
"I know it's a controversial thing to say, not controversial in the sense where it's polemical, but controversial in that people don't necessarily agree -- that visibility should be the first step to changing things.
Personally, I am a proponent of that. I think the whole band - as allies - have been quite vocal about that as well, being on stage with a queer member, themselves being straight, and being stigmatized because of that," he added.
But, Sinno explained that it's not something you can expect others to do.
"At the end, it's a question of whether or not you think it's worth it to get into that battle. It's a personal struggle that people have to decide for themselves," he said.
The band's song Shim El Yasmine has become a "gay anthem within the Arab LGBT community," as The Huffington Post once put it.
It's a break-up song written by Sinno independently but later on adopted by the band. In it Sinno sings about being a housewife.
"I would have loved to keep you near me
Introduce you to my parents, have you crown my heart
Cook your food, sweep your floors
Spoil your kids, be your housewife
But you’re in your home, and I’m in mine
God, I wish you had never left"
He once said in a interview that he always expects a "tomato or a gunshot or something" when he sings that part of the song.
What you didn't know about Hamed Sinno
Sinno explained that he doesn't faint and black out but gets very minor "vasovagal syncope" - a condition where an individual becomes lightheaded and nauseous prior to losing consciousness.
It's not like I faint and black out, but I get very minor vasovagal syncope ... so I kind of like fall over and then by the time I hit the ground I notice so I get right back up," Sinno said.
What you didn't know about Firas: "I faint a lot, easier than most people. Never on stage ... yet, thankfully."
"We're touring with an album that has a lot of songs about alcohol, and some of us are sober," Sinno said.
This profile is part of StepFeed's Personality of the Week series, featuring Arabs you should know. Read last week's here.