Few bands in the Middle East have had a loyal, cult-like following over the years. And even fewer still manage to maintain an authentic sound that’s uniquely their own and remain true to their art in spite of it. From the fray rises Sandmoon, the Lebanese band making waves with fluid music frontwoman Sandra Arslanian flippantly calls "indie pop-rock-folk, if that means anything."
Growing up in Belgium, Arslanian played in several bands and clearly soaked up the knowhow and cultivated - even perfected - her aesthetic in the alternative music scene. But as is often the case with artists who grow up away from ‘home’, her influences are not stiff or simplistic. In our conversation, she describes them as “melodies I’ve heard growing up and over the years, from classical music to rock, Armenian folk and liturgical hymns, to gospel and blues, to folk.” Returning to a post-war Lebanon that’s as rich in multiple identities as it is its music scene, Arslanian started her band Sandmoon in 2010 and released the “demo-album” Raw. A few years later, with a reshuffle of band members and a reshaping of their sound, they released their sophomore record Home. They followed their 2017 release of their #InTheEnd EP with a collaboration with producer Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Cat Power, PJ Harvey) for their Berlin Sessions. Sandmoon also won at the 2017 Lebanese Movie Awards for best soundtrack for the Lebanese film Listen.
Sandmoon at Sofar Courtesy of Nathalie Kargaian
We had the pleasure to speak to Sandmoon’s Sandra Arslanian about the indie scene in the Middle East, her influences, and the ground-breaking In The End video, for which Arslanian herself shot protest footage for. The song features a bassline reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s strongest sounds, circa post-punk-90s. It’s that sound that lingers in your eardrum long after the song finishes and sets the mood for the entire day to come. A marching beat, to which your tempo is set.
I am very sensitive to what happens around me, socially. The video depicts a protest in reverse, inviting the viewer and listener to reflect on social movements and global issues.
Seeing as you shot the protest footage for the video, how artistically involved are you in the band’s direction?
Most of the artistic direction comes from me. The band members contribute with their opinion and exchange of ideas. My other occupation is director/producer of corporate films. So I am very much involved with video production. However, I don’t normally shoot. It just happened that I had my camera with me during the 2012 Beirut protests and I thought the images could be used in this music video.
Listening to your music, I’m reminded of Portishead, Cat Power and a few other names I love. Tell us about what and who influences you musically and in terms of other forms of art.
Those two artists certainly rank very high in my favourite artists list! Together with PJ Harvey, David Bowie, Feist, Radiohead… But my influences do not end at rock and folk, or similar sounding artists. I think they embody a mixture of sounds and melodies I’ve heard growing up. And over the years, [my influences have included] from classical music to rock, Armenian folk, and liturgical hymns to gospel and blues to folk. As for the writing, I believe you cannot write unless you like to read. So I would definitely count books as a source of inspiration; one of my favourite writers Naguib Mahfouz.
Emotions. Journeys. The passing of time. Love. These are all influences. And I am very sensitive to what happens around me, socially. Sandmoon’s video and song ‘In The End’ asks questions about the society we live in. The video depicts a protest in reverse inviting the viewer and listener to reflect on social movements and global issues.
Besides censorship, [there are] challenges we all face...the lack of support and the professionalisation of the ‘alternative’ music scene. The audience is very small, and the only way to ‘keep going’ is to ‘get out’.
How would you classify your music?
It’s hard to say. ‘Singer-songwriter’. ‘Indie pop-rock-folk’ if that means anything.
Why was it important to sing in English? Many artists choose it to reach wider audiences. Do you feel that’s true for you?
When I started writing songs, I wasn’t really thinking about an audience (she laughs). I believe that English suits the genre, the style I sing in, the way I sing. I grew up listening to music in English, not exclusively of course but mainly. But yes it’s totally true. Everything in my music is totally true. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. If I sang what I am singing and the genre I am singing in, in Armenian, Arabic, or French, I would find it to be untrue. I am however contemplating singing in Armenian, but I haven’t really found the right opening.
[5 years ago,] the scene felt like it was bursting...Now, I feel like the flurry has subsided a bit. Lessened energy. But maybe it’s the calm before the next storm…
Do you feel there’s enough space for female-led bands here in the Middle East?
Definitely! Look at Lebanon. There are a lot of female singer-songwriters or female-led duos or bands out there, and it’s very refreshing! Of course, the most well-known Lebanese alternative singer is Yasmine Hamdan. There is also Nadine Khouri, based in London, who collaborated with John Parish on her latest album. And the ones back home are also doing a wonderful job and are successful in their own way. You should check out Lumi, Postcards, Safar, Project Seer, Youmna Saba, Frida Chehlaoui, Wanderland, Filter Happier…we even have an all-female rock band: Iklil.
Sandmoon live Courtesy of Karl F. Sfeir
What challenges do you face as a band in the Middle East?
Besides censorship, it’s the challenges we all face...it's the lack of support and the professionalisation of the ‘alternative’ music scene. The audience is very small, and the only way to ‘keep going’ is to ‘get out’. But for that to happen, you need a structured industry, labels, managers…and stamina. There are some individual initiatives but they’re limited for the moment. Some bands have succeeded to export themselves, backed by strong sponsors and management. Like Who Killed Bruce Lee, Wanton Bishops and of course Mashrou’ Leila.
[My influences are] sounds and melodies I’ve heard growing up and over the years, from classical music to rock, Armenian folk and liturgical hymns, to gospel and blues, to folk.
So how has the local indie music scene evolved or changed since Sandmoon’s formation?
I actually find that it did a parabola. It was a bit sparse when I started. A few original bands like Scrambled Eggs, Lumi, The Incompetent, and others. A lot of cover bands. Few events, small events, mainly bar venues. Then there was a flurry 5 years ago, with some very supportive individual or sponsor-led initiatives, events and activities like Beirut Jam Sessions, Beirut Open Stage… and art and music venues opened like Onomatopoeia or Station. Even Anghami now included indie bands, and there’s MidEast Tunes. The scene felt like it was bursting. More and more original bands came to light, younger ones as well. Opportunities and motivation go hand in hand. Now, I feel like the flurry has subsided a bit. Lessened energy. Some online music portals closed down. But maybe it’s the calm before the next storm…
Here’s hoping. And speaking of storms, where and when was your favorite gig?
When I look back, I have a lot of good memories. And a few lesser ones. Generally, there is always something special about each performance. The best performances are when there is a beautiful synergy between the members, and between the band and the audience. To name just two: our EP release gig in 2016 at Station and our Sofar Sounds gig in 2017.
Sandmoon live Courtesy of Cliff Makhoul
What's your relationship to the regional alternative music scene? What is it lacking? What are you hoping to see?
There are a few regional initiatives, but I think there should be more support, activities and events, collaborations, and especially tour opportunities/facilitation. Locally, we are a small market, so it would be a great way to broaden our horizons and get to know each other.
Everything in my music is totally true. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. If I sang what I am singing and the genre I am singing in, in Armenian, Arabic, or French, I would find it to be untrue.
Tell us about the role art (music video, album artwork and typography, and even fashion) plays in your band.
I’ve put a lot of emphasis on music videos, not only because it is part of what I do but also because I believe they are a must nowadays though we are constantly bombarded with all sorts of information on social media and it is becoming more and more difficult to stand out.
Since the ‘Home’ album, I collaborated with local upcoming filmmakers, giving them at the same time a new platform for expression: Selim Mourad, Cherine Khouri, Damoun Ghaoui.
With ‘In The End’, it was mainly shot and edited by me, there is a particular synergy in concept between the song, the video, and myself. However, I’ll be working with a young local filmmaker again on the next one.
As for album artwork, it has its share of importance because, at the end of the day, image and sound go hand in hand. You create a universe and people recognise you through it. I worked with talented local photographers/designers for the two latest albums, Lara Zankoul and Sawsan Nourallah.
Sandmoon live Courtesy of Cliff Makhoul
The eclectic, enigmatic sound of Sandmoon is made by Sandra Arslanian on vocals, piano, ukulele, and electric guitar; Sam Wehbi on acoustic and electric guitar; George Flouty on electric guitar and soundscapes; cellist Ribal Kallab; drummer Raja Rahbani; and Europe-based guitarist Maen Rajab who contributes on recordings.
Feast your eyes, and ears, on In The End.