Kozo talk post-rock, debut album, and live performances

The diversity in musical styles and interests among the different members of Kozo makes it difficult to categorize the band into any single subgenre of post-rock

Kozo practicing at Tunefork Recording Studios the night before their Beirut Open Stage performance.

Kozo don’t actually sing in Japanese, despite the East Asian island’s architecture heavily influencing the post-rock band. Guitarists Andrew Georges and Georgy Flouty laughed about the impact that their mumbled Arabic pronunciation plays in founding the common misperception, reflecting the “fun, nerdy guys” who openly enjoy catching their audience off-guard.

Although Georgy says he’s cursed to spill coffee on his shirt before every interview, the conversation we have flows smoothly. The self-deprecating humor emerges almost as quickly as the chemistry, with the two guitarists regularly finishing each other’s sentences. That chemistry also translates on stage, where all five members of Kozo –currently comprising of Andrew Georges, Georgy Flouty, and Camille Cabbabe on guitar, Charbel Abou Chakra on bass, and Elie El Khoury on drums– feed off each other to layer and structure smooth textures and rhythms. Their music, more importantly, emanates warm feelings.

The diversity in musical styles and interests among the different members of Kozo, which is a merger between Filter Happier (previously Banana Elephant) and Lambajain that started with Andrew “fanboying” over Georgy’s performance and outfit at AUB Outdoors, makes it difficult to categorize the band into any single subgenre of post-rock.

As Kozo practice in Tunefork Recording Studios a day before their Beirut Open Stage performance, Andrew and Georgy signal warnings to me right before their music becomes undeniably loud. The loudness is well-placed, falling into a dynamic scheme where their songs progressively build up, quiet down, and explode in reverberating narratives that require very few vocals.

Between the sips of orange juice he drinks out of a mason jar that he thought looked rather appealing, Georgy describes that these narratives are being reworked into Kozo’s debut studio album, “Tokyo Metabolist Syndrome.” Translating live performances, which feed off the audience’s energy, into studio recordings takes time. The band anticipates that their album will be ready by the end of the summer.

The conversation with Andrew and Georgy takes place on an afternoon where Mar Mikhael’s Memory Lane is nearly void of other people. The space is large and Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” plays softly in the background, fitting for a discussion on the intricate relationship between spaces and the emotional impact of music.

“We’re a live band,” says Andrew, who studies architecture at the Lebanese American University. “We like making loud sounds, and low sounds, and dynamics that I don’t think would show on an album, so what we’re doing now is to try and relook at some ideas we have and make them flow better.”

Let’s talk about “Tokyo Metabolist Syndrome.” Some artists make albums for fun or self-expression, and others produce albums as a statement or to support some sort of ideology. What do you think you’re trying to achieve with yours?

Andrew: A lot of our music comes off as preachy because of what we’re writing about. A lot of our focus is on architecture, so it comes off like we’re trying to teach or educate people, but it’s not really that. Whatever instruments we might take from architecture or anywhere else, it comes from a sense of just feelings. We feel that way because half of us are architects, so we feel that way about a certain building and we feel that way about a certain space, and we just translate that into music. We also feel that way about the music, so we just find similarities. It’s honestly just about expressing feelings, if anything. It’s not preachy at all, there’s no agenda to it, and we don’t want to change the world or anything. We’re just kids who want to speak their minds.

I can understand that, but at the same time the first example that comes to my mind is Mashrou’ Leila, whio started off as people in a band who wanted to express themselves and make music for the sake of making music but ended up, perhaps unwillingly, carrying the torch of the LGBTQ+ community in the Arab World.

Georgy: I think we’re first in it for the music without anything.

Andrew: For Hamed, I guess it is a struggle for him to even be where he is. I think he comes with this baggage that he has to own up to and address in some sort. That’s why I think a lot of their music has to address that and, honestly, I think we’re privileged. We don’t feel we need to. I think there’s this whole image of artists having to have endured so much. The whole “tortured artist” thing. Honestly, I think that’s not us. Of course, everyone comes with hardships and we’re just vulnerable people –

G: It’s a generation thing. We’re all depressed.

A: But I don’t see us holding a message any time, other than just melodies and enjoying that. Anyway, we make music that’s so vague and so up to the listener. People understand different things when they listen to us.

G: Everybody thinks we sing in Japanese, by the way. We don’t, we sing in Arabic.

A: But we’re not good at speaking Arabic.

G: So it sounds Japanese to them, I guess?

But there is a lot of Japanese influence in your music.

G: Tell her about metabolism. I can’t really express it because I’m not an architect.

A: As musicians, we’re really influenced by a lot of what’s happening in Japan and a lot of what’s happened in Japan, and a lot of Jazz from Japan. We really, really love a lot of composers from Japan. Other than the fact that the Japanese are amazing as individuals and a society, and in terms of their ideology. What we’re doing right now with the band was probably why we ended up choosing this name.

We’re really focused on a movement that happened in Japanese architecture in the 70s that’s called “Metabolism.” It was this post-war movement, and I don’t want to call it a communist movement because it wasn’t, but it did have communist ideologies. I think it was the last movement where architecture was for the people and it served an urban function as architecture, not just as urbanism or designing an urban space. It was about creating a space that served urbanism and the whole idea of rebuilding a nation.

I think they were really scared of what happened with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II, and so they wanted to create an architecture of resilience, an architecture that could grow. There’s a lot more to this but I’m not going to go into this entire architectural ideology now, but I think we’re just interested in that, and we think it kind of applies to Lebanon, as well, and we try to translate that and transcribe it into music. This seems preachy now, right?

It sounds a lot like a cause to me at this point.

A: But it’s not a cause, we’re not holding a torch or anything. We’re not like ‘you have to build this way or think that way.’ It’s just what we’re interested in and it seems natural. We’re talking about feelings, and we feel something when we see that or think about that and that’s the same way we write.

Do you think people in Lebanon are receptive to the kind of music you play?

G + A: Some. 

A: Here’s a nice anecdote. Irtijal is the oldest and, in my opinion, most prestigious festival for experimental music in the entirety of the Middle East. It’s a pretty big deal, and although I don’t think that KOZO is really that experimental, but the fact that we got to play there, and a week before that we were playing at the O1NE which is, well –

G: It’s the O1NE.

A: Honestly, it’s an entirely different world. I think, people are receptive, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of being in the middle and bridging a gap of some sorts. We’re commercial, we’re accessible, we don’t try to be niche, you know? But at the same time, we present so many elements that are peculiar and worth focusing on and that work well with people who listen to music in a more –

G: Connoisseur kind of way?

A: Sure, you can say that. People are receptive and it’s surprising that people from both sides are receptive. […] To have someone like [Lebanese comedian Shant] appreciate our music, someone I think of as coming from a really different mindset from what we’re used to, […] and to have people who we’ve looked up to for so long, like Charbel Haber and Fadi Tabbal, support us as well, it feels good.

Speaking of influence, “Don’t Leave! Kurokawa!” has two exclamation marks in it and it sounds a lot like –

G: Explosion in the Sky?

No, to me it feels like a reference to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I hear them a lot in that song and the exclamation marks remind of their band name.

A: I wouldn’t say it sounds like Godspeed, although we love Godspeed. This song, in particular, was, our exercise in post-rock. When we started out, we played post-rock, but we looked at it very formulaically, like it’s a formula you can follow, and we looked at bands that do that. Mainly, at the time, this song was inspired by “Explosion in the Sky” but that’s why I think we all look at this song like it was so naïve and childish, not that that’s a bad thing. I think it’s so genuine because of that, but we don’t make that music anymore at all.

G: It’s how we started out. Although, the song got massive success on SoundCloud. That was a huge shock and it was successful in the States only.

A: No one here liked it but people in the States really did. If you consider us post-rock in that aspect, then yes, but right now, what we play is what we listen to and we listen to hip-hop. We really love hip-hop and jazz. We like post-rock as well, so it’s just about finding a mix of that and it just so happens that post-rock is such a big blanket term. When someone says post-rock, they just mean using rock instruments and not making rock music, for us at least. And we’re not making rock music.

How would you describe your music?

G: A mix. A mix of everyone’s influence. We have some many influences in the band.

A: Definitely, this is why it’s so collaborative what we’re doing. It’s not one person’s music and it can’t be one person’s music. It wouldn’t be Kozo if it was just my brainchild, or his brainchild. It’s a common ground.

G: And working with spaces is super cool, because you have to listen to the other to see what you can give that would make sense with it and yet you have to play, but not too much to cover the other. It’s nice teamwork.

You were talking earlier about being a live band. What do you think is the toughest part of playing to a live audience?

A: People talking. People are so fucking rude. There have been a lot of venues that we’ve played where it’s been gloriously respectful and when people already don’t want to listen to live music, and honestly when you’re a musician, you don’t get to cherry-pick every single concert you’re playing and sometimes you have to play to crowds that you don’t know and crowds that aren’t there to see you. When you do that, there are people who just don’t want to listen to you and we do our best to try and grasp their attention. I mean, we’re loud. We get to do weird and annoying things that force people to look at us eventually but if people aren’t there for enjoying music or there to just see their friends and are talking and chit-chatting over our music, it’s not going to be the best concert. We’re not going to feel comfortable. We like feeding off people.

G: I think it’s the fact that in Lebanon, culturally, people love to talk when they go out. They don’t have this feeling that “Okay, the show is beginning. It’s this show that these guys have worked hard to present to us so we’re going to listen,” so everybody is talking the entire time. I played in Germany and it was the weirdest shit I had ever seen. I got on stage and everybody shut up. I thought “yo, talk a bit so I feel comfortable.” You could hear everything, and it was so different. I guess we got used to people talking.

And do you think the crowd you’re playing to hinders your artistic vision?

A: At the end of the day we’re still playing the same thing.

G: In life, I see that I want to create something that I can show my kids and I can be proud of. Like “I worked on this.” So, it’s basically that. We play for our own pleasure, and the crowd doesn’t affect that.

A: We’re never thinking about whether the crowd is going to like what we’re playing when we make music.

G: We know they’re not going to like it, but we still play it.

Going back to how your music is reactive to the audience when you’re performing live. How much is it reactive and how much of it is reactive when you go back and write new music?

A: I think for now we’ve written the songs, the live versions of them if you want to call them, in a way where there’s enough new space to play around with them without them stopping being what they are. So, they’re still the same song but we leave spaces in them for different sounds and different dynamics so that we really get to feed off the space we’re in. But the song will always be the same song. We’re not an improv band.

G: And we don’t write with reactions in mind. We don’t think of whether people will like the music or not. For example, the first song we talked about “Don’t Leave! Kurokawa!”, we’ve never written anything like it although it is the crowd favorite. Of course, we haven’t recorded our other songs, so we don’t know if they’d like the other ones as well.

A: There’s a lot of pressure on us to write that song again, to create something similar at least. Obviously, they still haven’t seen the other sounds and they’re so accustomed to it, so they want to hear it again, but we’re not giving it to them again. It’s a lot of pressure and we’re not doing it for financial success, but we obviously also don’t want our album to flop.

Do you ever see yourselves leaving your respective careers to pursue music?

G: I tried that.

A: If the opportunity shows itself, I think we’d be pretty stupid not to. I don’t think anyone would forgive themselves if they said, “no I’m going to stay in my office job.”

G: And then you become forty and you’re an accountant and you’re wondering “what if.”

A: I think a lot of people in the music scene already do take breaks from their jobs for maybe five or six months.  Maybe it’s not sustainable for a long time for now and it’s not easy, but I think we’re all comfortable with doing that if we had to.

G: If it’s the music you like, also, and that you write. I was a musician for hire with a band and the thing is, when you play music that someone else writes and you tour with it, it takes a toll on your body. For example, I went to ten countries in ten days, played ten concerts. On the seventh day, I look at the singer and I’m like “what country are we in?” I swear, and I was actually scared. I didn’t know what country we were in, that’s how tired I was. Then I started thinking about whether or not it was worth it. It wasn’t even my own music, and I had quit my job for this, but it was a cool experience.

Have you ever considered making soundtracks? Maybe video game or movie soundtracks?

A + G: Of course.

A: Our music already fits in so well to the whole idea of sound-tracking. I think we also take a lot from soundtracks. Given the opportunity, we would. And we hope on working with someone local for this. “One of These Days” by Nadim Tabet was recently released and the Bunny Tylers worked on the soundtrack for that and we’re not only blessed to be friends with them and work with them, but we’ve also been huge fans since before we made our own music. We definitely look up to them and maybe see ourselves doing something similar.

G: I did one soundtrack, for “Listen” by Philippe Aractingi. It was a cool experience, but it was also a very different experience because clients can be very demanding and picky. And sometimes they don’t really know what they’re saying, but they’re still trying to tell you something and to give you input to make it theirs.

What about within the band? Is there a lot of conflict?

A + G: Oh, definitely.

A: I mean there are always minor conflicts going on and mainly not a degree where it goes overboard, but for example, there are a lot of songs that we don’t get to write because honestly, we all have different visions for them.

G: But it’s a learning process.

A: Of course, but for example, one of the songs we were working on recently got dropped because someone wants it one way, I want it another way, and he wants it a third way.  As I was saying, this isn’t one man’s band. That makes for harder music to write, but for more rewarding music when it actually gets written.