Blaakyum have an incredible history for a metal band. Persecuted by the authorities in their native Lebanon, surviving conflicts and struggles, they have emerged stronger as a result of a mission against the odds. Founder Bassem Deaibess talks about the band’s origins, metal in the middle east and their native Lebanon, touring Europe, their music and their aspirations for the scene.
Jack: Good evening, thanks for your time. How are you?
Bassem Deaibess: I’m good, thanks!
Jack: Blaakyum formed in 1995, how did the band form?
Bassem Deaibess: I wanted to form a band shortly after I learned the basics of guitar playing (which I learned in a monastery as I was studying to become a priest!). My neighbour helped me find a lead guitarist and just before our first gig we found our drummer. Forming a band was the only way I could think of to express myself on a wider scale (before the age of social media). Later on I did a 180-degree shift on religion but the music stayed.
Jack: As a thrash metal band, what bands drew you into thrash?
Bassem: We didn’t start as a Thrash Metal band, in fact we played many different styles at first, including Grunge if you can believe it! But hey it was the 90s. Just few months into the band’s life Doom Metal struck the world with fury and we were influenced a lot by that. But as the waters cleared we found our sound to be midway between Heavy Metal and Thrash Metal, taken that at the time the whole band was mainly influenced by Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth and Judas Priest. Blaakyum split in 2001 (at which time it was more of a Prog Metal band) but then we reformed in 2007 with a completely new line up, at that time co-reformer bassist Rany Battikh and myself were major Thrash Metalheads… and that is what got us more and more into Thrash, a bit of Death and few more surprises in our next album as well.
Jack: How important to you is it that you have Lebanese influences too?
Bassem: It was after the reformation of Blaakyum in late 2001 that we began incorporating Lebanese and Levantine folk till late 2007. But after the release of our debut album in 2012, we decided to try and take a more radical approach to having folk mixed with Thrash Metal. It was and still is a big challenge.
Jack: The band was conceived five years after the Lebanese Civil War, did this have any effect on the future direction of band?
Bassem: I think that back then, the fact that we were a war generation did affect a lot how we looked at things. The civil war was a nasty 15 year-old conflict, and has only ended militarily, while the cultural war remained! So we are the children of war… and I think this gave us the resilience of surviving whatever was thrown at us.
Jack: You were jailed back in 1998 for simply being a metal fan as part of the anti-metal witch hunt in Lebanon. What was the anti-metal witch hunt like in the 90s?
Bassem: It was very sporadic! At times it would become almost impossible to walk in the street because people will point at you, spit at you, take their children and move away from you as if you are the devil himself. At times people would forget. But what we faced the most was the fear of the police, we would avoid police checkpoints like the plague. Daily news broadcasts got people mesmerised on TV screens, filling their sheep-like minds with fictional and exaggerated stories about the metal-heads/hard-rockers/devil-worshipers who are threatening the very existence of society. It was a mass panic really, and a ridiculous one! Sadly a lot of our people are highly superstitious and this leads to arrests and people’s lives being utterly ruined.
Jack: Is the climate in Lebanon still very anti-metal?
Bassem: As I said there is no real pattern here. But what is obvious that today it is not as hysterical as things were in the second wave of “witch-hunts” that happened between 2002 and 2005, which was the most violent. But that said, in 2012 a third wave of arrests and investigations came along as well. I can say a big part of society is still anti-metal, especially the religious conservative part. Sadly unlike civilised countries where such anti-metal communities exist, we have no one to protect us from these bigots, in fact the authorities prefer to satisfy the church and the mosque rather than truth, reality and culture.
Jack: How involved are you in the metal scene in the county? What is it like right now?
Bassem: The Metal scene in Lebanon has always been a part of me, and vice versa, which is the case for most Metalheads in Lebanon. I have been involved with the Metal scene since 1995 when I organised the first major Metal concert after the end of the civil war. From there I have been part of the scene whether as a band frontman, solo performer, Metal club owner, band promoter or concert organiser. The scene now is on the up after being dormant for few years. You will meet a few of those idiots who would claim the scene is dead (as they have been claiming for the past 10 years or so) but these are usually the “tr00” metal idiots. Like any other scene we pass through downtimes, but unlike most other scenes we have been oppressed and fought, and this has created a sense of solidarity. At a certain point, if for nothing, we will just want to remain there to spite all the bigots around us.
Jack: A lot of people consider you to be scene leaders in the country with your appearances on TV, Radio and on Europe. Does this give you any pressure?
Bassem: We believe that Metal is an anarchist system, thus leadership is not something we really like. Today Blaakyum is a mix of 3 generations, the one our bassist Pierre Le Port and I belong to which is the 90s generation, the one that my brother Rabih Deaibess belongs to, which is the new millennium generation, and the one our drummer Hassan Alkhedher belongs to which is the post millennium generation (2010). But ever since we won 3rd place at the Wacken Open Air Metal Battle in 2015, we feel the responsibility to represent the Middle East Metal scene as best we can.
Jack: Bands from the Middle East are starting to get more exposure in recent years, why do you think people are starting to notice?
Bassem: Two main reasons: 1. The Middle East has become more popular ever since the second Iraq War. And many people became interested in the culture and then realised there is Metal there which came as a shock!
2. After the information age began and social media’s invasion and total occupation of planet earth, the whole world became a small village on a screen, so everyone was able to check out everyone else, and the Middle Eastern sound became accessible, it came as a welcomed fresh addition to a music style that has been around for over 40 years and that can easily stagnate..
Jack: Your latest album Line of Fear came out last year, are you happy with the response?
Bassem: To be honest, I never imagined this overwhelming response that the album received. When we recorded it, we knew that we did something much more powerful than our first album, we know that we made a very good record. But we would have never guessed the impact it had. We are still digesting the whole thing.
Jack: Was it a stressful recording process?
Bassem: Not really, considering the fact that we took our time! But it was the first time we record outside the Middle East, it was a new experience with its own advantages and stresses. But the real stress is now, it is on us to better ourselves in the next album.
Jack: How was touring Europe been like?
Bassem: A dream come true. Europe is for me personally the stronghold of Metal, the stronghold of freedom, and the stronghold of civilisation. Sadly a lot of things are threatening that view of Europe. And when I say Europe I mean the UK as well, as in our minds the UK is the pioneer of the European advancement.
Jack: You’re taking part in a talk called Art as Defiance on the 5th April in London. What topics will you be discussing at the talk? Is there anything you hope people take from the talk?
Bassem: I will be talking about the politics of defiance through music. I hope people realise that nothing is black or white, but that almost everything is grey, and everything is related: Music, arts, social justice, life experiences, politics and entertainment are not separate entities.
Jack: Do you have a day job outside music or is the band full time?
Bassem: I had jobs along the years, but one of the main reasons why our debut album got delayed was my job. I was a regular performer in a prestigious live club where I performed classic rock. But it wasn’t till I quit that job that we were able to properly record. Also I ran a Metal club for a bit more than 3 years between 2006 and 2009. But nowadays I went back to university to work on my second masters in Psychology, also I am a socio-political analyst and I regularly write articles on socio-political issues in Lebanon.
Jack: What are your upcoming plans?
Bassem: Basically we are in the process of finalising the writing process of our new album, then we will go back to Italy to record it, and then we will be having our first ever UK tour in the summer… so keep on the lookout as we start announcing the tour dates very soon.
Jack: What is your main aspiration for the future of the band?
Bassem: We really do not know what the future will hold. But what we want is to be able to freely perform. With the whole change in the European social and political landscape, things are bleaker than ever, the last stronghold of civilisation seems to be in danger. So our aspiration is that Europe remains free from the conservative right-wing bigots, and not fall into nationalism.
Jack: Finally, what is your proudest achievement with the band?
Bassem: The fact that we are still here, after all these years, and despite the attempts to shut us up, is by itself an achievement, we will never give in, we will never give up.
Jack: Thank you for your time and I hope you have a good talk.
Bassem: Cheers to you mate.