Gizzmo sit in Mar Mikhael’s AR_KA, a few tables away from where their debut EP’s cover art was skillfully hand-drawn by Ivan Debs. Sitting in the cozy cafe where a handful of customers are silently studying or working on projects, the three electronic funk musicians offer up their distinct perspectives on living in Beirut as art students, the science fiction narrative behind their six-song collection System Failure, and the ever-complicated, newly-thriving local indie scene.
Joy Moughanni, whose supportive parents lied to him about enjoying his performances until they actually started enjoying them last year, sits on the other end of the wooden table. He emits the quirky energy of a guitarist, electronics and drum machine operator, and vocalist who has no problem diverging into side-conversations. To his right, facing me, Alex Chahine makes sure the conversation redirects back to the original question we most certainly strayed from. Straight-forward but unreserved, the keyboards, synth operator, and vocalist jokes about the band being “mysterious” and tosses in the occasional snarky remark. Camilio El Khoury, who plays bass and “low frequencies”, is a man of few words. He hovers comfortably in the background, smiling warmly from the chair to my right before delivering snippets of wisdom or bits of information his band members might have left out. Edwin Harb from Cloud Cuckoo Land sits in with us, intrigued by the interview process that managers like him often miss out on.
Their characters are the result of distinct backgrounds that found a middle ground as Gizzmo, a band that kicked off playing Gorillaz and Air covers before creating their own music. Moughanni gravitated towards post-punk and psychedelic music, Chahine studied classical music before delving into jazz and blues, and El Khoury studied classical guitar before joining an oriental band as bass player. Recently, they came full circle by covering the Gorillaz at Beirut Open Stage at one of their three performances during the 2018 version of La Fête de la Musique. Their covers stood out as their own. Although personal renditions of crowd favorites are often difficult to pull off, they managed to do just that.
“What started as covering Gorillaz and Air became its own sound, because even Gorillaz and Air were played in our own way. We crafted our own sound with each individual,” says Moughanni, who wears round glasses and a pale blue Captain America t-shirt that night at the cafe.
Even before they came together as Gizzmo, Moughanni and El Khoury experimented with progressive noise and electronics as part of a jamming band at the ALBA Music Club. Chahine was thrown into the mix later, after meeting Moughanni at a camp with mutual friends and leveling with him musically. That encounter would be recollected when the two vocalists would run into each other again at ALBA, where Chahine had newly been enrolled. They would then agree to experiment together, eventually becoming the Gizzmo we know today. Moughanni and Chahine would also go on to form Pomme Rouge, a live electronica project that will soon be heading to record an EP in Berlin after its recent win of the 2018 Beirut Berlin Express.
Gizzmo went through different phases to find the funk, oriental, punky aggressiveness that their current sound can be identified as. The jazz and piano riffs in the first version of Debug they recorded left their soundscape early on, along with the drummer previously involved with the band. Their own EP, when taking into account the chronological order of when the songs were produced, also stands testament to that development.
“Inspiration goes on a line. Like us, we didn’t at one point make our sound. We were very different, but we had elements that started adding and adding to each other and eventually found our sound,” Moughanni formulates his sentences carefully as the entire band discusses the difference between maturing musically and burning through whatever genre of music sells at the moment.“When someone matures, you see that they matured but when you see the same guy playing something new every day and he’s not improving at anything, that’s the difference,” Chahine chimes in. As musicians, architects, and animators, creating original work is a prominent theme in their lives, one that is highlighted both in our conversation and System Failure.
It’s interesting that you come from pretty diverse backgrounds, but now you’re more into playing these electronic, funky beats.
Alex Chahine: The electronic was the middle ground in a way. I was discovering electronic and electronic production, and then the guys discovered it but each went a different path into electronics. We would find ourselves into Air, Gorillaz, Tame Impala, Pond, which are all different types of electronic acts. But we’d still find a middle ground in electronic music.
Do you think that getting into this was kind of a reaction to you being into classical music in the first place?
AC: No, it’s more of a buildup that happened. With all the technical and theoretical knowledge that classical music gives you, it becomes easier for you to go into that. So, I went more into the technicalities of synthesis, which helped me a lot with giving this style to our music. Each one gives his touch.
Camilio El Khoury: Plus, when you study classical music, it’s studying in the school of art. In the end, you’re going to do something but you’re studying all the classical theories first.
Let’s talk about your EP. There’s this whole narrative behind it where humankind finds an ancient machine and they try to impose their own will on it. What inspired that?
Joy Moughanni: The second degree of it was kind of explaining our situation as art students and what we’re going through as musicians, architects, and as future architects and future animators. Frustration, anger, doubt at the future, doubt of the pasts.
AC: Fuck the system.
JM: Yeah, “fuck the system” in a way. And a bit of us being kids trying to figure out politics in Lebanon, I think. Maybe. I don’t know.
It’s kind of difficult to associate this political, social statement to your kind of music in specific.
JM: I think it’s the attitude towards music. I always talk about attitude towards music. Ours, whether you feel like it’s punchy or happy, has this “fuck you” vibe at the same time. That for me came from punk or post-punk and has political and social messages in the end.
How’s the reaction been to your EP?
JM: Pretty positive, surprisingly. Things just went up since the EP release. We’ve always been told “release our EP and you’ll know if shit will work out.”
AC: And it worked out.
Joy: Since the EP, we’ve been getting further and further into the scene in a way that, I feel, we like. We’re enjoying it.
And did anything surprise you in the process of making this EP? Or even releasing it?
JM: We learned a lot in structure. We had two songs that were the same in the beginning: Debug and Naked Sheep. It would go for the same structure. They were our first two songs, so obviously we’re going to follow a formula without thinking about it.
AC: It’s the easiest thing, you just stick to it without thinking about it. It’s unconscious.
JM: But eventually, we were like, “Okay but we did this and this song so let’s do something different” and we would talk about different processes.
AC: The whole process takes a lot of time and effort. It surprised me how much we gave effort into the EP and how much time we spent making it. Throughout all the time we spent making it, you learn something new from each song, which helps you with writing the next song, for example. You mature musically in the end.
JM: What I’m really happy about with this EP is that we did it ourselves, through our own means, in our own studio. We got a bit of help, eventually, when I finished mixing the EP, I went to Fadi [Tabbal] and I asked if the mixing was good. He had a bit of remarks. What was nice as well, is that I hate writing lyrics, I was always in the background, but for once I decided to just get myself to write lyrics. I’d sit in class and write lyrics and then the guys were also pitching ideas, so that was a fun team effort.
Do you prefer studio work or live performances?
AC: Live is crazy, I fucking love it.
JM: The album was made for live performance.
AC: The EP is something and us performing the EP live is completely different.
JM: It’s so much nicer. While recording the EP and mixing it, we were like, “Okay this is not live, so we cannot give this live feel to it.” So we recorded it differently and it sounds a bit different than it does live. It has a different studio quality to it but I prefer the songs live, myself. I don’t know about you guys.
CEK: I prefer it live too, but in performance, there’s always some problems of “I’m not listening well to myself or something” and in the studio we can manage those problems.
AC: Yes, it’s challenging but it’s a fun kind of challenge. I never know what to expect.
CEK: The monitors don’t work, and we don’t hear anything, for example.
Joy: That was horrible.
Edwin Harb, Cloud Cuckoo Land: You always send a tech rider [document that gives the venue an understanding of what your technical requirements are to set up the stage] and then you get there and there’s nothing up. And then the promoter would chase you, week after week, day after day, to send him the tech rider and when it’s ready you send it and then you go there, and nothing is ready.
JM: “What happened to the tech rider, guys?” But I feel like this rush is fun. I used to get pissed at bad performances but now I just go like “Hey, it’s the magic of it.”
Edwin Harb: You go there waiting to see which surprises come up.
So the beginning wasn’t the same for you.
JM: Oh no, the beginning was horrible. We were hating ourselves, and we’d go like “Oh we suck, people don’t like this” but people would actually be telling us that it was surprisingly great. They would expect something, but come and get excited, which was very ego-boosting. I feel like now we have this problem a lot less.
AC: Yeah, you were very pessimistic about our performances.
JM: I would go more with “perfectionist.” I’m a lot less of that lately. I’m so much more relaxed.
Do you think you feed off the energy of the audience while performing?
AC: We take energy from the people and us three, between each other, we give each other energy. It’s a common energy boost from everywhere.
JM: The first time we performed with in ears [in ear monitors], we felt like we were shut down from each other. Everyone was within himself, and it was our most awkward show ever. People didn’t notice, but it felt like “Joy, you’re alone playing. If you’re trying to say something to Alex, he’s not going to hear shit” because I couldn’t hear myself touching stuff. It felt like just having stuff in your head, so I prefer monitors because I could shout shit to Alex and Camilio, and we can communicate instead of just mimicking the words for him to understand. But obviously, the public affects us a lot.
AC: Although, it’s something that the public doesn’t notice. We don’t make it obvious. Even if you’re feeling super awkward or something, you just go into it.
JM: Edwin feels that stuff, because he knows us. I see his face sometimes and he knows I’m not well or how I’m well.
If you had to pick one song off the album as your favorite, what would it be and why?
JM: System Failure for me.
CEK: I would also go with System Failure because it’s the richest song. Even structure-wise, I get excited for every element in it. I don’t know, it’s touching.
AC: It’s one of the most rich songs on the album, musicality-wise, structure-wise, and sound-wise. I guess it’s our favorite.
JM: I would add up as well that, for the lyrics, I had the most fun with it because it sums up the whole idea behind the album. If you concentrate on each song, and then concentrate on System Failure, each part is like an answer to each song that passed and even Naked Sheep, which is not in the album but it has an answer to it.
AC: I would add Interlude. Interlude is a very cool soundscape.
JM: Interlude is a nice song. It’s not our sound but it’s an experiment we tried.
CEK: And it’s a part of the story.
AC: I would add Debug, as well. Flux.
Does the choice of song differ when performing live?
AC: Yes, Naked Sheep. It’s so fun to play live to people and when they sing along.
JM: And I feel like a public favorite is Flux. They sing the song before it starts.
AC: A really fun song as a cover we do is Pond’s Don’t Look at the Sun or You’ll Go Blind. It’s really fun to play live.
What’s going on in the background in the beginning of System Failure? There’s weird noises and laughter.
JM: I forgot to press pause. I always forget to pause the recordings.
AC: Those are our easter eggs. Make it seem mysterious, and like we’re cool.
JM: Those are our easter eggs. I have a shitload of parts recorded that we wanted to keep in the album. In Birthed, there’s another easter egg. You can hear my dog’s footsteps on the floor if you concentrate.
AC: Find them all.
CEK: In System Failure, there was a fun vibe going on between us, so we thought we should put it somewhere.
AC: It was the disco in me popping out. We were having fun recording it, so why not?
JM: It’s homemade, it’s not super professional. We wanted this homemade vibe and fun, friendly feeling to it.
CEK: The first version of Debug with the drums, we have it on SoundCloud and there’s around 15 minutes of Alex laughing in it.
JM: I think we also put the same laugh in Birthed. Easter eggs. Best part of the album.
Whoever reads this is going to have fun looking for all these Easter eggs. Is there something specific you want people to take out of your album? A dominant message?
JM: We’re not trying to inspire people to change the world, but I feel like a lot of people our age are going through the same stuff. Someone came to me from ALBA once and told me that System Failure is something they’re living through every day. So I feel like we’re all going, as art students, through a lot of the same issues.
AC: It’s not only that. You can take it on a personal level, whether or not you’re an art student, and kind of relate to it seeing that we live in Lebanon.
JM: So it’s just putting to words what I’m feeling, what we’re feeling, and what other people are probably feeling as well and would relate it. It’s like Currents from Tame Impala, it doesn’t inspire me to do anything through this album but I’m feeling the same thing now so it’s just putting my feelings into music and words.
CEK: And on a musical level, to go on a trip with this EP.
JM: Enjoying every moment, having fun with the punchy songs and going on a trip through the ambient parts, which would put you in the mood of the first degree story you were asking us about in the beginning. I didn’t answer that quite fully. It’s the story of the machine that would go through several parts of the already-structured human base, questioning it because it’s new to it but still trying to integrate into it. And each song shows the phase it’s in, from meeting them, to trying to be them, to questioning them, to refusing them, and putting its own parts into it.
AC: And it fails.
Do you think it’s still difficult to be musicians in Beirut?
AC: Less lately, but it still is. Super hard.
JM: There’s more leverage now, more pushing other people into the scene.
AC: You have a lot of venues now, a lot of older musicians that are pushing younger musicians.
JM: We’re still struggling with the whole “yeah, we’ll give you exposure” part. Do you want me to excel at this and push me into this or do you want to take advantage of the show? If you want me to excel as a musician, I need means to pay for recordings, tours, and whatever.
AC: They take advantage of musicians sometimes. Especially because we are young. In the beginning, we didn’t have experience so they’d tell us that they’d give us exposure.
JM: This part is still hard, but at the same time, which is great, the alternative scene has thrived and everyone is trying to push everybody, and everybody is so friendly with everybody, which is great. Collaborations have never been so easy and fun.
AC: There’s always exceptions, though.
JM: At the same time, there are people who are trying to take advantage. Debug or for the first song we wrote, someone said they would push us and inspire us and take over the world with us but he was just trying to make money off our backs and we were going to crash into a wall later on. We didn’t take the contract with this guy and two months later, we discovered that he backstabbed two artists. What we thought would happen with this guy, happened to two other people and he just got away with it, very easily, because there aren’t any good musical establishments here yet, I think.
AC: But not only on that level. Even musicians. Some of them aren’t very involved in this scene and want to integrate themselves into it but they don’t know how, so they start copying other artists. They try doing something similar to them, they see what’s working in the scene and they do exactly the same thing.
JM: It never works out though. They change moods every two minutes, so they never stick in one scene and that it why basically it doesn’t work out. They don’t build up. They just make noise here, disappear, make noise there, disappear, which is not consistent. But everybody knows them, because they’re everywhere.
This idea of changing moods every two seconds, in specific and in my opinion, is a bad thing –
JM: We talked about this in the last song, actually, in the lyrics “Some might pretend / and take what you make / because selling is easy if you’re selling what’s fake.” That’s exactly about this part of the art scene, whether it’s in architecture, painting, or music. You feel like there’s a person who makes something and a whole crowd that mimics that thing after them but it’s not true to themselves, I feel. They do it because it sells and not because it’s a part of them they’re putting out there.
This happens for sure but at the same time, people can change sounds all the time because they’re maturing.
JM: If you see Radiohead, for example, they started from purely alternative to moody, punkish and then you see some touches of electronics, and then you see a side project like Atoms for Peace, and there’s a line they’re progressing on. But when you’re here doing indie pop and then you’re here doing commercial music covers –
AC: But even then, you can work on two different things. You can work on the indie scene and on the techno scene at the same time.
JM: But there’s a line. Atoms for Peace sounded nothing like Radiohead but it still had that Radiohead touch, and was added again into the Radiohead sound. You can have side projects as long as it’s your sound and you’re creating your own sound. It’s not doing something because everybody loves it.
Where do you consider yourselves to be on this sonic “line” right now and where do you see yourselves heading?
JM: For now, the newest song we wrote was a bit more pop than what we usually make, but for now, I feel like it’s not done yet. Maybe it’s the pop part of it that might be reduced.
AC: It’s something we’re searching for. We don’t plan where our sound is going, it just comes along without thinking about it.
JM: We’re still trying to figure out the sound behind the next EP. We also have new machines added to our sound, so we’re just figuring things out now until we find our sound for the next EP. Nothing is official.
So right now you’re working on another EP.
AC: That’s what they say.
JM: Let’s leave it at that.
What else are you focusing on right now?
AC: Mainly, we’re promoting the old EP. In July, we’ll be in Berlin.
JM: I feel like we’re going to learn a lot from Berlin that we can add up in Gizzmo, as well as our other project [Pomme Rouge]. I feel like Berlin is going to give us a whole new touch that might teach us technically or inspiration-wise in what to write about.
Are you in more than one side-project?
JM: We have our personal projects, each one individually. We had what was a side project that became a project, Alex and I. It was a side project just to make money to buy gear for Gizzmo, basically. Then it developed into our own sound and our own touch, so we just said “Let’s make it a thing,” and it’s becoming a thing.
How do you find a balance or prioritize?
JM: As long as we say that both projects are as important as each other. They became two separate things that do not affect each other. Maybe only positively, as in we [Pomme Rouge] are going to Berlin and we’d love to make Gizzmo go to Berlin as well, since we’re there. As long as they’re pushing each other forward, but at the same time, c’est pas Gizzmo qui dépend de Pomme Rouge et c’est pas Pomme Rouge qui dépend de Gizzmo [Gizzmo doesn’t depend on Pomme Rouge and Pomme Rouge doesn’t depend on Gizzmo]. Each one is its own project and I’m going to give it the importance it deserves.
AC: If you manage your time well, you’d be able to work on both, and on university, and your projects, and everything.
JM: And you don’t get any sleep.
AC: But you’re getting something you love in return.