It was a relatively sunny (yet very windy) day on the morning of April 14th, when I headed out to the city of Batroun in order to meet up with the members of the Lebanese math-rock/post-rock ensemble known as Kōzō. In what was slightly short of 3 years, the group has managed to gain quite a reputation for the music they played, and I was happy to receive an invitation to spend the day with them. After months of studio recording for their debut album, Tokyo Metabolist Syndrome, there was much to learn about the off-stage Kōzō.
Being greeted by the enthusiastic Andrew and (the quite colourful) Georgy, I was driven to our location to the tunes of Blackgaze, ’80s Punk Rock, and Hip-Hop, creating quite the unusual mix of genres. Soon enough, the rest of the band were to follow, where I was joined by Camille, Charbel, and Elie of Kōzō, as well as the photographer Laura Karam.
– by Nour Hassoun & Yara Mrad
What followed was an afternoon of exploration, walking, and joking, as the band scouted the industrial suburbs of Batroun for photoshoot opportunities. From emulating Wes Anderson shots, to being told off out of a factory by a guard dog, the group’s spirit shone. A fun, vibrant spirit with a knack for art and adventure.
So, it was no surprise that my afternoon with Kōzō just had to involve passionate talks about their favourite food, goofy videos taken by the beach, and lots of mindless dancing and musical parodies in the middle of brutalist factories.
Yet the band is more than just its fun spirit, as was to be seen after the sunset. Heading out to Tunefork Studios, I was joined by my colleague Yara Mrad so the two of us can get to learn more about the band. We were then greeted to a brand new song by the band, who had already begun writing their second album.
After some odd-signature head bopping and fun tunes, we grabbed a coffee and told them it’s time to begin our interview, to which we were treated to Elie’s revelation, “Oh shit there’s an interview?”
Tell us the story of how you came together as a band.
Andrew: We were basically two bands, Banana Elephant [now Filter Happier] and my band Lambajain, and I was stunned at how a band like Banana Elephant actually existed in Lebanon. They sorta intimidated me. Georgy is quite intimidating. He had one of those sharp “V” Ibanez guitars he could stab me with.
Georgy: And then at one point after one of our gigs, someone told us there were people who wanted to talk to us.
Andrew: So I basically told him about the crush I had on him.
I (Yara): You had a poster of him in your room?
Andrew: No, I removed that a while back. Anyway, a while after, we had a concert as Lambajain at Quadrangle, and we practically begged Banana Elephant to play with us. They didn’t want to, but agreed to do it if we provided a bassist. So our bassist Charbel became the bassist in both bands, and we began watching each others’ practices. Then Elie from Banana watched us practice once.
Charbel: And we bought him with one song.
Elie: *laughing* They were auditioning drummers and I thought I’d stay for their practice. I really wanted to play…
Charbel and Andrew: … Olsen Olsen
Elie: Well I wanted to play post-rock, or something louder. Filter Happier is Dream Pop, which just hits the edge of something I wanted to do.
Andrew: Then we had a gig at Yukunkun and it was very fun. That was also where we met Ziad Boustany, and he’s been a great supporter ever since.
Georgy: I watched them there and thought, “Shit… I wanna play with them, too.”
Charbel: So that was around the time when our guitarist left, and we thought we’d ask Georgy as a joke, not thinking he’d say yes.
Georgy: Guys, I’m not that scary.
Andrew: We were scared of you because you had the best gear and I was still playing with garage instruments.
Georgy: Fair enough. So we played a gig together as Lambajain.
Andrew: And that was around the time when we still had our synth player Joe, whom we deeply love. However, after our gig at Beirut Open Space, it was time to rebrand and change our direction, embracing the exploration of architecture through music. We changed our name to Kōzō and noticed that synthesizers didn’t make much sense with the vision we had, so we decided to layer more guitars instead. And that’s where Camille came, our lord and saviour.
Camille: Joe had to miss a gig so I learned all his synth parts on guitar.
Elie: So basically all of Filter Happier joined Kōzō.
Andrew: Well Camille made so much sense because she’s a close friend and we’ve all played with her before, whether with Alko B or Filter Happier. She’s a guitar goddess and has mastered all the chords and music theory. Hearing her guitar renditions of what were previously synths made us want to include more guitars and let her experiment around.
Camille: So a lot of synth lines eventually became my guitar lines.
Andrew: And we started recording the album with her.
This entire process happened after several of the songs were already written. This meant that they went through a lengthy evolution of band member and instrument changes. Some fan favourite songs like “Don’t Leave! Kurokawa!” even didn’t make the cut. What would you say about that?
Elie: The last versions of the songs were the ones we recorded after meeting Fadi [Tabbal].
Andrew: And we scraped a lot of songs, like “Don’t Leave“. We’re never playing that song again.
I (Nour): Yara doesn’t want to admit that.
I (Yara): I’m still in denial.
Andrew: It doesn’t speak to us anymore.
Georgy: Yet many people really love that song.
Andrew: I understand why people would appreciate the song, but it no longer resonates with what we’re doing. Maybe someday it’ll make sense for us again. Even [title track] “Tokyo Metabolist Syndrome” didn’t make the album cut, but we kept it in our live shows after it evolved. We, as a band, love fine-tuning in an extreme sense. So we either want something to be perfect, or we scrap it. Many might complain about the cuts and changes, but it led to a very cohesive album that ties all the songs together, not just throws singular hits.
Each member of Kōzō is in more than one band. When do you know that something you wrote belongs in Kōzō instead of, say, Filter Happier or DJ Gameboy System?
Andrew: Whenever something sounds bad, we know it belongs in Kōzō. The worst notes I write are what I put in Kōzō—at least from my end. And I put those in a way where I know no one can make them sound good except for Kōzō.
Elie: There’s something about songwriting for Kōzō. Me, Andrew, and Charbel are architects. In architecture, when you design, you follow a process. What we try to do is the same thing with music. We establish a concept, or a statement, then follow the process and go through with it until the end, seeing where it takes us. Even with the structure, we visualize it architecturally, with highs and lows and stretched out parts. You cannot transpose this into the different bands we play in. We don’t write our songs in Filter Happier that way, for example.
Camille: We had a different approach in Filter. We’d have a small tune or idea and then build on it, without having a “concept”.
Elie: And in Alko B we wrote our parts but most of it was Salim [Naffah]’s writing.
Camille: Yeah and when you’re following someone else’s song, it’s different. Kōzō is the band where we all have equal input, while in other bands sometimes we’re adapting to a certain style.
How do the non-architects of the band manage to follow up?
Camille: We… try.
Georgy: I think we’re free to do what we feel is right.
Elie: What’s cool about the process is that you establish a base and with this base you have so much room to explore and layer soundscapes. There are 3 guitars.
Georgy: Sometimes it’s very difficult to make all of them sound good together while still standing out as their own parts.
I (Nour): Yeah, the guitar polyphony sounds very clean.
Camille: Honestly, Fadi [Tabbal] helped a lot with that. Before, we’d all have the same frequencies and they’d mix and get muddy. He kept our parts the same but told us to play them in different frequencies.
Elie: We had at least 4 months before recording, where we brainstormed every last detail of the songs.
Tell us about the Bernard Khoury feature on the album.
Andrew: Well on the album, other than working with Fadi, who’s everyone’s idol here, we got to work with two other people we really admire. One of them was Charbel Haber [Bunny Tylers], who played over a then-very redundant track. That song is the epitome of process. It was like passing by something and not even reaching it, before he got it where it is now. And, besides being a great musician, he is also [architect] Bernard Khoury’s friend.
Elie: And our album is a concept album that revolves around the metabolist architectural movement in post-war Japan. So the person who brought this movement to light is Rem Koolhas, writing a book on it called Project Japan. It’s the bible of metabolism, and basically, Bernard Khoury hates Rem Koolhas. He says he should’ve stopped architecture years ago. We found that hilarious.
Andrew: It spiked our intrigue. What Bernard brought to Lebanon is a political aspect to architecture. Metabolism had a political and communist message, and he brought a lot of the same political standpoints to our country. He’s not scared to send a message in his buildings; they scream out a lot of structuralist principles similar to those of Metabolism’s founders—like Kenzō Tange. And his father is Khalil Khoury, one of the fathers of modern architecture in Lebanon. He was the post-war architect.
Elie: So Bernard made sense. And his voice is deep, which works with the songs. We actually said it as an absolute joke, like, “Yeah let’s just get Bernard Khoury on the album.”
Georgy: Actually, at first it was Marcel Ghanem, but then we thought that’s too expensive.
I (Yara): But why Marcel?
Andrew: His voice is badass. Imagine having that voice on an album.
Georgy: And imagine an album “featuring Marcel Ghanem”.
Andrew: We’d cross all the charts.
Georgy: We’d put him on the album cover.
Andrew: But that didn’t work. So we talked to Charbel to see if he can get Bernard, and we were sure it was never gonna happen.
Elie: But then we had a conversation with Bernard, where he told us stories about his father and talked about the state of architecture in Lebanon. It was a great conversation, and the part that made the cut was him talking about his father’s passion for making wooden models of planes, and his dreams of becoming an aeronautic engineer. His father told him he couldn’t do that here; it’s not the right place. For some reason, it resonated. And in one of the songs we have the lyric, “tiyyara 3am te2lob tetghayar” [a plane is turning and changing]. Bernard talking about his father wanting to fly airplanes but realizing he couldn’t, only to end up excelling in architecture, worked perfectly with that song.
Andrew: So we drank some alcohol, arrived late, and forgot to get recording equipment. There was a storm and everyone was at home, except for us and Bernard Khoury.
Georgy: There was barely any light, and he was talking with his deep voice.
Andrew: It was insightful to us as people, at least the architects of the band. I don’t know what the rest felt.
Georgy: I was a bit scared.
You’ve been a live band for a long time, around 3 years. And now that you’re releasing an album, you’re a recorded band. How does that change your live shows?
Georgy: I think live sounds one way, and recorded another way. We have a philosophy where in our live shows, anything goes, but when recording you have to be very precise.
Elie: So you start out by being a live band, play the songs all together, then take them to the studio and deconstruct them into separate parts. You layer, fine-tune, and reassemble those songs into studio songs. And then you have to play those studio songs live again, and they change once more and go full circle. That makes it really interesting, because now, we think of live sets like we thought of the album.
I feel like the last gig we played [the first one after recording the album] was the first one with a perfectly coherent set.
Andrew: Recording made us discover things about our music. It also influenced our writing process because we now know what works and what doesn’t in the studio. We know our place when we play now, and we don’t tread on each others’ parts. It’s like a butterfly effect. You could do the tiniest things and ruin the entire song.
What has the album release journey been like?
Andrew: The album was recorded for a while, but we needed to be financially done with it before releasing. We’d rather own the album and everything about it, so we can put it out there with a clear conscience. We weren’t running to get it released.
Georgy: We wanted a vinyl release and we wanted to do it justice.
Andrew: And we had to press the records, and pay for them, and deal with our financial depression.
Elie: It’s a bit hard in Lebanon to figure out those financials. You don’t have a lot of places where you can play and not be overplayed.
Georgy: And the venues don’t give us very good profit.
Andrew: You can fill places to the rim and it still wouldn’t matter much, so… Excitement! Being a musician is great!
Elie: We were also working with Mohamad Kraytem, an amazing illustrator. Our music is serious but it’s also very childish in the way we scream the lyrics and shout open-ended phrases that mean nothing but also say a lot. We thought about using a photograph, and then Fadi came up with the idea of getting some friends to draw childish sketches while we played. Mohamad was part of that process, and when we saw his sketches, we knew we wanted him for the album.
Georgy: He came to practice, heard us play, sketched us, and sent us an album cover I won’t forget.
Andrew: It just clicked, he understood everything we wanted to do.
Is your focus right now to keep your music local or get it out there internationally?
Andrew: Of course we want to get it out. I hate the dumb mentality of “I wanna stay underground”. Why would you want to stay underground? I know a lot of people who purposely want to be hard to listen to. I’m not saying you should write your music for other people, but if you don’t believe in something and forcefully want to make it unaccessible, then that’s bullshit. Our songs are very hard to play with small difficult technicalities, but at the end of the day, for the viewer, they’re just fun pop songs. We want it to be accessible. We want to tour. We want to take our music out there.
Charbel: We definitely want to tour.
Camille: Please if you’re reading this give us a tour.
Elie: We had a chance with Filter Happier to play a couple of gigs in Germany, for the Goethe Institute, and it was an amazing experience. A fucking dream come true.
Camille: It felt like 2 years. Even at the festivals, everyone was so respectful towards our music, and no one made a single sound.
Georgy: It was so foreign to us. We wanted to say, “Please talk. Are you dead?” We’re almost not used to people staying silent through our music.
Andrew: That’s why I love gigs like the Sofar concerts. People are there to listen. They’re silent. I don’t like when gigs become a social event instead of gigs about the music. We learned that you have to try and enforce this. Every time I see people talking and bothering others, I’d bang my guitar a bit harder to catch them off-guard and scare the shit out of them.
Georgy: *laughing* Ouch
Andrew: That’s the fun part about live crowds, there’s reciprocation. You communicate with them.
I (Nour): So did you learn your Japanese parts yet?
Andrew: I didn’t learn those. Sorry guys.
Camille: Maybe next concert.
Andrew: Yeah… Next concert…
It took a while to record your first album. Will it be the same lengthy process for your future projects?
Georgy: We already wrote two songs, one of them is the one we played for you. And they’re actually nicer than any song off of our debut.
Andrew: It’s a much faster process now. First, we needed to take this much time to find ourselves. We changed members and genres. We were Post-Rock, then we added Hip-Hop influences, and accepted what we actually enjoy listening to. We know who we are and now we’re unashamed and ready to write more songs. I mean, we have a quarter of a second album and the first hasn’t even dropped.
Now, throw out some fun facts and fun stories about each other.
Fun Fact 1: They have a sixth secret member.
Andrew: Marwan from Postcards is on every single song. He sang on every song as part of the choir we became.
Georgy: The process is on our Instagram, with Fadi singing off-tune.
Andrew: And Marwan plays guitars as well. He edited guitars on the last song, “Tokyo Bay Plan”. By the way, all the songs have official names that we never use.
Camille: I don’t even know their names. I call them by our own names. “Mathy”, “Track 2″…
Andrew: “Tokyo Bay Plan” was written a long time ago, and we haven’t touched it since. And then all the good parts in it were written the day it was played in the studio with Fadi. Most of it happened on the spot at the studio because Fadi started yelling and we got scared. The coolest things on our album are the spontaneous ones, that’s what makes it very innocent and fun despite the serious songwriting.
Fun Fact 2: They spent an awkward day with Gavin Ford.
Elie: We want to send the album to Hip-Hop artists so they can sample it. In Oakenfest two years ago, we played with El Rass, and it was one of the best improvised freestyles that we’ve ever heard.
Andrew: And maybe Electronic musicians who would remix it. We wanna see what people can do with our music. We also played with Belly of Paris in our early days, and that was amazing. It really excited us to play with other musicians who had a lot to offer.
Charbel: We played with The Poetry Pot as well. And a basoonist played with us.
Andrew: He was amazing. His name was Nicole Zapp. The gig was also in a Dada art exhibition. That, and The Poetry Pot, and El Rass were instances where we explored broader horizons.
Elie: Reaching a wide audience has been really hard. In our gigs, we get around 200 people and a lot of them are our friends. We want our music to be heard. And many other people are not interested in the local scene of Lebanon. Or maybe not local music, but generally alternative music. But Ziad Nawfal [Ruptured label] is helping. He’s the patron of Lebanese bands.
Georgy: There’s also some random old couples that like us and come to our gigs. But this is true. Radios didn’t even know who Lil’ Uzi is. Walaw? That was during an interview we did with Gavin Ford. We chose the poppiest most #1 charted song we could think of. XO Tour by Lil Uzi.
Andrew: The interview was so awkward because apparently, we weren’t allowed to say the word “fuck”, and then I’d be talking and would say “what the fuck?”
The whole thing was fun because many people talked to us and liked us, which proved to me that people don’t dislike alternative music, but just don’t get the chance to listen to it. It sucks. And then came the part [Georgy] talked about, when they told us to pick a song for them to play on the radio. It’s a great song and everyone knows it. But the host asked us, “Who is she?”, about Lil Uzi. It was awkward, and says a lot about modern Lebanese radio. They aren’t just underexposed on the local alternative scene, but also the international one.
Elie: Yeah, it’s not like we asked for Death Grips.
Andrew: Don’t you wanna ask us how much we love Led Zeppelin? It’s zero.
Camille: Come on, I have a special place in my heart for Led Zeppelin.
Georgy: Me too.
Elie: Same here.
Fun Fact 3: They had cover bands they’re not too proud of.
Georgy: I even played with Led Zeppelin. Me and Robert were best friends. No but for real, my first band was a cover band and we played some Zeppelin songs.
I (Nour): Didn’t you say you played Muse?
Georgy: Yes but that was before. We also played Nightwish.
Andrew: And I played Marilyn Manson and Muse. It was horrible, so naturally, I could only go up from there.
I (Nour): What’s noticeable about you as musicians is that many bands couldn’t evolve from their teenage cover years into music that’s more mature, yet you’ve evolved greatly.
Andrew: And that’s what I love about Kōzō, because this is what we do. We evolve. This is one for the big quotes. But really, we never write the same song twice.
…that’s what I love about Kōzō, because this is what we do. We evolve. This is one for the big quotes.
Fun Fact 4: Andrew is the band’s philosopher.
Georgy: There’s a thing Andrew does. He always has the weirdest, most random standout sentences, like the one he just said. One time before practice, he just went like, “Guys. Don’t Forget. Don’t forget everything you’ve learned.” We all just spaced out.
Fun Fact 5: Fadi Tabbal punishes you for having an ego.
Andrew: When we started playing around Fadi, he couldn’t remember our names. So he gave us numbers to remember us. At first, I was Kōzō 1, Charbel Kōzō 2, and Joe Kōzō 6. And he’d leave the rest empty in the middle just in case. I was so happy to be Kōzō 1. And then, I got fat. I don’t know if it was proportional to how much weight I was gaining, but the number just kept getting higher. I became all the Kōzōs. He gave me Kōzō 1 for one second, and when I called Charbel to brag, he took that away from me.
Camille: Charbel became Kōzō 1.
Georgy: And Andrew started cursing at Charbel.
Charbel: Now I’m Kōzō 1. But please don’t write this because Fadi will change it. It’s related to our ego.
Georgy: It’s fine, Fadi can’t hear this.
Camille: Unless his spirit is haunting Tunefork right now.
I (Nour): So who would be Kōzō 1 then?
Andrew: It’s hard being Kōzō 1. I love the view from #2.
Fun Fact 6: Georgy is a doctor, only he isn’t.
Camille: Georgy works at a hospital… But not as a doctor.
Georgy: I’m an auditor at a medical institution. I don’t know why.
Andrew: There’s a very funny story about this. One time I was driving with him, and we passed by a security checkpoint. So they asked me to park on the right, but they weren’t in uniforms, so I thought the officer was a valet driver, and I just kept driving. They freaked out and told me to step out of the vehicle, then started looking for illegal substances.
Georgy: He was shaking. I started asking ‘drew if he had something because he was really scared, and obviously he didn’t, but he just kept shaking.
Andrew: I was scared shitless. I was clean but couldn’t even talk to show it.
Elie: He thought our internal security forces were valet parking. Of course he was scared.
Georgy: So the man tells me to step out of the car and I did. And Andrew wanted to step out, too, so they asked him to stay in and he started crying, “WHY?”
Andrew: He took my papers and the whole car began shaking at this point. But Georgy didn’t have his papers, and I thought, “Fuck, that’s it. I lost Georgy.” So he asks him what his job is, and Georgy replies with, “Audit.” Then he asks what that is, and he tells him that he works at a hospital. So the officer takes a pause, says, “Oh! A doctor?”, and lets us go.
Elie: And Georgy tried explaining he wasn’t a doctor. But no. He was a doctor. That’s what the officer decided.
Georgy: I finally got a promotion.
Do you think there’s an advantage to our local scene? You met through different bands, and are personal friends with members of Postcards, Bunny Tylers, Alko B, and more. Does this make it easier for all of you to work together?
Elie: For me, my relationship with Pascal [Postcards] for example is that we talk about drum sounds and what to do. He’s always there. Marwan is always there for guitar parts. Anthony Sahyoun [Kinematik] is always giving us feedback. Postcards are our close friends and help us out. I was a huge fan of Scrambled Eggs and now suddenly Charbel Haber is on our record.
Andrew: I remember when Scrambled Eggs went to Wickerpark in their boxers and put a flanger on everything. I wondered how this was happening here in Lebanon, yet wasn’t the biggest thing on Earth.
Georgy: I think it’s the environment at Tunefork that brings us together, not the local scene in general.
Andrew: It creates a place where people who are doing music here are constantly learning from each other. I can trace my progress as a musician by looking back at concerts of them playing. They’re amazing musicians and their critique is very valuable. I’ve been a fan of these bands long before I made music with Kōzō.
Camille: I was a big fan of The Incompetents. And suddenly Fadi from that band was my teacher in ALBA. And now I’m somehow recording music with him.
Georgy: And ignoring him in class.
Camille: That’s an extra fun fact for you, actually. Awkward, but fun. I didn’t want everyone in class knowing that I knew him or was becoming friends with him, so I just chose not to answer him anymore. He’d ask me something and all I’d say is “…” and turn around.
I (Yara): What did you study?
We’d like to thank you for this very lighthearted interview. Is there anything else you’d like to say to everyone reading this?
Camille: Thank you!
Elie: Come to our gigs because we need to pay for our albums.
I (Nour): And buy the albums, obviously.
Elie: No, once the album’s released we don’t give a fuck anymore because we already paid for it.
Georgy: And we’d have done it without forcing Andrew into prostitution. He’s the most suitable one.
Andrew: I’d like to thank Mr. C for the support, and this interview’s been really fun. Thank you!
So, after a long day and a lengthy conversation with the band, and just when the clock was about to hit midnight, the members treated us to a full live performance of their album Tokyo Metabolist Syndrome at Tunefork, which will be released on CD, vinyl, and streaming platforms at SoundsGood Festival on September 7th.