It’s a hot Wednesday afternoon, I climb up the stairs to Beyt, take a seat at one of the tables surrounded by all kinds of greenery. A few minutes later, Salim Naffah walks in with his helmet in hand, greets the waitress and sits down in front of me. First thing we learn: Salim is sort of an undercover businessman. Second thing we learn: the story behind his moniker. He was at the airport once when he realized that they had written “Salim Al Kob Naffah”, including half of his mom’s last name (Al Kobeh) in the middle. He found it weird but decided to own it and call his solo project Alko B.
A few phone calls later and an Espresso down, Salim opens up about the mysterious heartbreak that inspired his new album. Other topics of conversation include his fivesome with the people who helped him turn Alko B into a band, scoring, movies, traveling back in time, and breaking coconuts.
Without further ado, here’s how our interview with Lebanese singer/songwriter Salim Naffah (aka Alko B) went down:
I remember watching you perform at Wickerpark last year with the boys from KOZO and you were all wearing tropical shirts which fit the whole Surf Rock identity you had going on perfectly. You recently played at Sofar, sitting on a chair, sharing the stage with nothing but your guitar. Are you riding solo now?
Alko B was always a solo project… I think it’s a continuity of what I started 3 years ago. It still has the same story, it’s just a new project. What you’re referring to was me 3 years ago and it’s still me but it has evolved with time since I’m growing older. The shirts fit more the surf vibe I was going through back then.
I wanted to have so many things in my songs because I thought they’d sound good together so I recorded every instrument on its own and put layers on top of each other. Then I realized that I need a 5-piece band to execute that so I called the guys and we formed a band. We had a nice thing going on, the 5 (or sometimes 4) of us, and I have to give a lot of credit to them because writing songs in your bedroom and recording them as a solo artist and then taking them to 4 other people and saying “OK, this is what I have, everything is written so far” and having them cooperate is hard. But there was a part of me that didn’t want them to just play what I had written; I wanted them to feel it and for us to be an actual band. They understood where I was going with my music and what I wanted my songs to sound like and they added their own thing to it beautifully. It was great to play with Andrew, Charbel, Pascal, Elie Khoury, Camille, and Ramzi Khalaf. I love them dearly. Now the most recent lineup is with Marwan Tohme (Postcards), Pascal (Postcards) and Ramzi Khalaf.
The second album is much softer, much calmer, and more sober. Sober in my head, I mean. I took out all the unnecessary ornaments. More on that later.
Who broke your heart for you to call your album Dreaming is Not for Two and to make the glimpse of hope and the dreamy melodies that were present in your first EP disappear?
I love this question! I think I broke my own heart. That’s the answer. I think I’m the worst person to be in a relationship with, unfortunately, because I am so bad at knowing myself that I can’t interact with people who are entering my comfort zone, starting to discover who I really am VS what I show.
Dreaming is Not for Two started because I really liked the title but I think it actually reflects how I feel about this whole relationship thing. There’s always a part of yourself that is a solo player and then there’s a matching point of yourself and that other person. But the dream is yours, it belongs to you as a human being, you live with yourself every day, you wake up alone, you sleep alone even—whether or not there’s a person sleeping next to you. You’re inside a box and then you open it to go out into the world. Other than that, it’s only you. That’s my vision of the world and of life. I think how I write music has always been around that subject, be it in my first EP or in this album.
You recently scored an add for Burberry, is that your intro to the cinematic world? Is it an area you would like to pursue or is it a no-go zone?
I went to film school so I always did film-related things and I love that. I feel like what I write as music has always been very themic: very easy melodies that can work well with vocals and instrumentals. This album has a lot of instrumentals in it. It was always visual to me. What I did for Burberry was completely new to me—it’s a genre I’ve never touched before—it was a lot of fun and I’d love to do it again. A big Yes.
What’s one famous movie you would have liked to score and why?
That’s a very difficult question… There’s a movie called “A Summer Place” and its soundtrack has a melody that I would have loved to write had I been born then. Other than that, and to be honest and modest, I think most of the movies that I like have music that I’ll never have the skills to write.
I’m also a big fan of Woody Allen’s music selections. The Woody Allen world is something that moves me a lot—a combination of sarcasm and crap VS the lovely, nice jazz that fit together so well.
…Is there an existing Alko B song you think would fit well in a movie?
Sex Tapes has a song called [looks for the name of the song on his phone]… What’s the name of that song? Ah, yes! “Music for the Lonely” would have been a nice theme for a movie. Maybe a nice Godard or Truffaut or one of the movies from Nouvelle Vague. Anything that says “character was troubled but with a glimpse of hope. Complex yet simple”
What’s one fun fact about Salim Naffah that very few people know?
I really don’t like to talk about myself like that… I think that the people who really know me, know these facts. Those who don’t, go into 2 sections: the ones who just know my music and can understand that there’s a really nice, gentle person behind it—they don’t know the asshole, manipulative bitch part. And then there’s the other section of people who only know that last version of me and don’t know the soft-hearted, really sweet and nice part. I think I’m both.
Oh wait! You said fun FUN fact…I’m not really a fun person.
Ok, fun fact: I’ve been a musician and a professional guitar player since forever and I still don’t know how to change the strings of my guitar. That’s a fun fact. You think I didn’t try? I tried. I’m just really bad at manual things.
Following the unfortunate events of the past couple of weeks, with the cancelation of the Mashrou’ Leila concert in Byblos, many artists gave up and are convinced that there is no future for the alternative/indie scene in Lebanon while others are fighting against repression. What are your thoughts on the whole situation?
What happened is very critical but let’s not dwell on what happened with Mashrou’ Leila alone because this is not the point. This is what triggered a sleeping monster that’s been living among us out of ignorance. The issue clearly started with Mashrou’ Leila but it became something much bigger than that. It’s the so-called freedom of expression which is followed by violence. This is our issue. It’s violence, the threats. It’s our institutional right to have freedom of speech and when that’s being threatened, it’s not the person who spoke who should be sanctioned, it’s the person who’s throwing around threats.
The issue here is not about Mashrou’ Leila not performing, it’s not Byblos’ fault for canceling the event. The issue is that the government couldn’t protect the festival that was under violent threats. If you use those same words that were used to threaten Mashrou’ Leila to threaten the president or a political figure, you’d be in jail in no time.
As for the local alternative scene, I’m not sure it got affected because it’s so small and so insignificant on a national and political level.
What are we talking about? Some people like El Rass are talking about very important issues but he, too, is talking to another subculture that I don’t belong to already. He’s a great artist and I have so much respect for him and what he does but what he’s talking about is not something I can relate to. This is something people don’t understand. We don’t choose the way we’re born, nor our circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t bond over music and talk about different things.
There’s a certain nostalgia omnipresent in your songs, a vintage sound even. You even rocked a very oldies-looking mustache for a while. Is this always going to define Alko B? What is it that about nostalgia that attracts you?
Alko B shaves and should shave now because it’s been 4 days. No more mustache. It’s over. It was fun, we did it when no one did and when people started doing it, we did something else. Nostalgia is the thinking that what happened in the past is better than what’s happening now. When you look at the past in the way it’s being shown to you, you always see it as better, nicer, more beautiful. I think it’s an instinct to look back at the past and think it was better. I like to play on that because I am somehow attached to music that belonged to a certain era because I grew up listening to that music. My mom was a huge fan of Classical music and of The Beatles and we used to watch movies with amazing soundtracks. She introduced me to this world that she belonged to and I really connected to it because I felt like it spoke to me aesthetically, and I thought that these guys were cool, they look good, I wanted to look like them. I even had the Beatles haircut at some point.
I think we pushed the digital age too far, too fast that we quickly missed the physical aspect of things and the human feel of things. Everything is so wide today that we wanna go back to be able to limit ourselves. That’s why everything vintage is coming back and becoming popular again. As human beings, we always want more. Always further and further. There are so many possibilities that we are so lost and don’t know what to do.
How do you see your style changing had you been born a few decades earlier?
No idea. I never thought about it. I mean, I think I would have been making the music of that time. Or Classical music, or Jazz.
…Jazz, really? Why don’t you make Jazz now, then?
It’s so hard and I don’t have time to learn it. I do but just a bit. Some of my songs have teeny tiny Jazz elements but that’s it. If I could go back, I would be a double bass player. That’s what I told Anthony Abi Nader once. We were on tour with The Wanton Bishops and we were at a cafe in Vienna and there was this very nice Jazz tune playing and I remember telling him “If I don’t make it in music, I’ll be a double bass player in a band at some forgotten bar, playing on a weekly basis.”
That’s what I’m going to do when I’m very old.
Congrats on the new album! Can you tell us more about how it came together? How would you say it is different from your previous work?
The thing about this new album is that some songs were written while the 1st album was being released. “Some things” and “Elephant in a Room” were written in 2017 and have been performed since then. Which means that they changed a lot because of how many times they were played and recorded. So It took some time for them to become the way they are now because I kept changing my mind about the way I want them to sound.
When I came back to the studio this June, we had 4 songs recorded from the previous summer and Fadi had mentioned that it would be nice to have an instrumental album in which you’d find songs, not the other way around. I liked the idea so I opened the door to whatever was happening in my life and I realized that all I was doing musically these days is: having an idea, plugging my guitar to the amplifier I have at home, plugging the loop pedal, recording a core progression, playing a melody over that, filming myself and putting it on Instagram. Those were 30 secs to 1 min of melodies that I wanted to record and turn into songs. I wanted to be true to myself for once in my life and stop lying like I have been doing since the day I was born. And that’s what we did. We recorded those snippets, plus the magic that always happens in the studio while tuning and recording with Fadi.
You’re lost in the middle of nowhere and you’re bored to death. You want to make music to keep yourself entertained and avoid going crazy. What instrument would you build and how?
I think the easiest solution would be to create a percussive instrument because it would be easy to manoeuvre. I mean you can grab a coconut, then break a branch and hit it repeatedly to make drum noises. And then you take another coconut and empty it, creating a resonance so another sound. It would be a bit like one of these xylophones except with different levels of water for different sounds…
If you could walk in the shoes of one artist, dead or alive, for an entire week, who would you choose and why?
I would choose 2 people: George Harrison and Miles Davis.
George Harrison because he’s one of my favorite artists. He’s very down-to-earth, humble, and an incredible guitar player so I would really like to have his skills for a week. The life that he had, from having everything and all the fame, then deliberately choosing to get away because he was looking for something else—that’s impressive.
Miles Davis because I would like to have his soul that is just… no one can describe and understand his power over us. The kind of power he has over creatures with just the sound of his trumpet is just magic.
Maybe I would have liked to be Frank Sinatra too, just to be Frank Sinatra.
We were all making music together, doing shows together. it was all so fresh and we were all so down-to-earth
What does the future hold for Salim Naffah? Are we going to hear about new projects with weird names anytime soon?
I’m seeing this from a different perspective. This second release is completely different from the first one because I have a different approach to music today. It’s fun and a way for me to express myself. Of course, it was fun before but I had other plans, dreams, things I wanted to do with Alko B. Today, Alko B brings me happiness if I’m in a small room playing music to people who really want to attend the show. For example, the Sofar gig was a really nice experience for me because people responded and it was organic and genuine.
Fuck the sponsored shit on social media; it’s exhausting to have so many expectations with zero return.
I don’t make a living out of music anymore so, for now, whenever I have something to say I’ll just write music about it. I will keep making music till the day I die.
I think there’s a bigger gap today between my generation and the younger generation trying to make music in our small scene. The way this alternative music scene was born is very interesting because there was nothing before it. I mean there were some cover bands, sure, but no one really cared about that. This street (Mar Mikhael) didn’t exist, all the attractions and the options of going out weren’t there. Musically, in terms of the alternative scene, I think that Adonis and Mashrou’ Leila were the only active ones back then if I’m not mistaken. WKBL was still a cover band, The Wanton Bishops was still a few months old. We were students back then.
Karl and I created Loopstache at the same time Safar and Postcards were boiling up, so we all grabbed on to him and he grabbed on to us. We were all making music together, doing shows together; it was all so fresh and we were all so down-to-earth but then things escalated really fast and people wanted to get bigger. We all got our share of disappointment, plus many of us wanted to leave the country to study, and life happened to some of us.
What I want to do in the future is to keep writing music as a solo artist but also to collaborate and to go back to all this: really making music with other people. Khodor (Kid Fourteen) and I have been talking about wanting to collaborate on something, which I feel is gonna be super interesting because we have so much in common yet have such different personas. I think the combination of the two of us can give something visually and sonically really cool. So this is my plan, after doing some scoring and maybe continue writing songs and stuff like that.