I first met Dirty Backseat a little over a year ago at the old HIZZ house in Garden City. Still a duo at that point, they pulled up dressed from head to toe like true rock stars — ripped jeans and all — in a way that seemed organic, rather than forced and cliché. They had the sound to back it up, too. Synth-pop fused with a tinge of no-wave melancholy, and the occasional punk riff scattered amongst massive, reverb-soaked soundscapes.
Now a solo act, Moe Hani has been putting out a steady stream of EPs that puts even the most diligent release schedule to shame. As part of the team running SLOVVDK, a Cairo-based imprint focused on making ‘forward-thinking pop music’, Moe has been an integral part of their regular label showcase at Cairo Jazz Club, as well as one of the main forces pushing indie music throughout Cairo. Through SLOVVDK, Moe has helped debut acts such as Felukah, Mineral Kult, and Zeyada to Cairene audiences.
Egypt’s once active rock scene has been all but erased as electronic music has gone mainstream, and begun slowly infiltrating the bars and venues previously home to bands. Instrumental musicians are faced with the choice of either relegating themselves to roles in cover bands, or shifting careers towards electronic production and DJing. Amidst this shifting landscape, Moe is one of a handful of artists fusing the two genres, with one hand on a guitar and the other on a midi-keyboard.
Yaseen: Take me through a short history of Moe Hani in music.
Moe: I’ve been in a lot of silly bands over the years, [back when] I was just trying things out. In my school days I started as a bassist by learning on a Spanish guitar. In 2006 a friend of mine was a bassist in an Iron Maiden tribute band. He was the cool kid around school. My school had a shitty music program, and I wanted to play that kind of music, so I stole a Spanish guitar from school, and cut the last two strings so it would be [like] a bass. My friend would come by every now and then and teach me things. I had this other friend who had started to learn guitar properly and he used to listen to System of a Down, Metallica, Iron Maiden, those sorts of groups. We started jamming, but I didn’t know [anything about guitar]. After a bit I picked up a few songs, one at a time.
Later on, I started to realise, “dude, you come from a musical family” — my mom is a pianist and lead singer already. She sings oldies and stuff like that, and used to join this band at the Shooting Club in Dokki, Cairo. Mostly Arabic music, oldies and covers.
I started to feel like there was something that I can relate to my mom: music. So, I joined a few bands. The first time I stepped into a studio I sat down at the drums, because I wanted to play the drums alongside the bass. I only knew how to make a 4/4/ beat with the kick drum, hi-hats and snare.
After that I met George Aboutar at a party. He was in a Guns n’ Roses tribute band. This was very cool back then and they used to play covers of the Dire Straits, AC/DC, a lot of classic rock stuff. George was the lead singer and he didn’t play the guitar at all. I met him and told him, “we should do something together.”
By the time we went down to the studio and jammed I had introduced him to a friend of mine — my best friend now — a guitar player who was with us in our band, The Jokers. A year passed and we had become this proper group and we started writing a lot of music. After that, we went through the whole process of being band mates; we did everything together, went drinking together and all that, you know?
This was around the time of VENT. This one time I went to see a band called Living Too Late, and when I saw them for the first time I was like “wow! There are bands in Egypt that actually sound nice.” After that I saw PanSTARRS and was like, “there are bands like us!”
By that time, I had
already left The Jokers and I joined Hani Mustafa in Egoz, and a couple
other projects. I think in 2013 there was something happening, something moving
[in Cairo’s] community, the underground/indie scene. Wetrobots, PanSTARRS,
Ismail Hosny, ZULI, Asem Tag — there was stuff happening for real. It was
really great, and I wanted to join [that scene] at the time, but I was in a
really different place.
That’s all regarding bands; I stayed in bands for a really long time. Dirty Backseat was me wanting to do things in my own way. I used to feel like I was the second guy in any band I joined. Like, I’d have these ideas and songs, but I couldn’t integrate them with the band well. It was time to do my own thing and explore a bit. I had my ex-wife with me at the time [and] she used to help me out as well. Now, I’ve started to feel like I’m ok with playing solo, I like a certain style and I want to continue in it and develop it a bit more.
Y: It sounds like you’re making music on your own terms now, rather than having to deal with dynamics between band members.
M: Yeah, pretty much. I believe that — in every band — there’s always a songwriter [in charge]. In the Beach Boys, for example, Brian Wilson was the one who had the vision for the tracks, albums and all the projects that would come out from the Beach Boys. He was the mastermind behind it. I admire him for this; someone with ideas who’s able to bring them out. He wasn’t using [his band mates] of course, everyone gives his or her contribution in one way or another, but there always has to be someone who has the vision.
Y: Like the director of a movie.
M: Like a filmmaker, exactly. If everyone plays that role, it doesn’t work. There’s always a filmmaker, a producer, an assistant producer. There’s a hierarchy, you have to know where you stand. With myself I feel like I’m more of a musician than a producer. I’m trying to develop as a producer all the time, so that I can reach the higher and higher places I want to reach.
Y: It’s a constant process.
M: Yeah, it’s a process, but I enjoy it, you know?
Y: Since you mentioned Iron Maiden and Metallica earlier, any idea what’s happened to the Egyptian death metal scene?
M: Fuck, man. I didn’t even notice that [it had disappeared]. I once volunteered at a metal festival in Egypt. I don’t remember when it was, it was a while ago. I had a couple of friends who used to organise Metal Blast Festival at El Sawy Culture Wheel. They were asking for volunteers, so as a friend I volunteered. I wanted to see the process, you know, death metal bands coming in from abroad – bands from Sweden, Norway, and the United States.
Y: The Swedes!
M: The Swedes and Norwegians man! Longhaired, long-bearded guys you don’t want to fuck with (laughs). I don’t know what happened to the scene though, all of a sudden Metal Blast stopped, and you stopped hearing about things. I never really followed that scene honestly; I never understood it and I never really liked it. My friend who was organising it said that there were a lot of issues between people within the metal scene; no one wanted to volunteer or help each other.
This is a major problem that we have here in Egypt, in general, with each other. Even as producers, or artists, or musicians, those who help each other or collaborate are very few. This was the idea with SLOVVDK, you know? We wanted to build a community together, like VENT did and succeeded back then. They built a community and the likeminded people all connected. We didn’t know how to do it the way VENT did, with a club and parties, but we’re doing a more of an online-based imprint. [We thought], lets gather up graphic designers, artists, and producers, musicians — whatever — to work together. To collaborate.
Y: Volunteering, without the expectation of getting paid, is really important in building a community.
M: Exactly! When you look back at history, with every wave of music there was always a community supporting each other, partying together, working together and collaborating with each other. If someone knew a promoter or club owner, they’d connect them with [the right] people and then these things move forward. But if we’re going to fight with envy, jealousy, [with] everyone closed-up and not wanting to collaborate or contribute anything, it’s not going to work out, you know? It’s not going to work out for anyone. All the people around me realise that this attitude is just useless.
Y: Having access to physical spaces is also really important for this to happen.
M: One of the best
things I’ve seen — regarding community — is at Cairo Jazz Club. Ever since
someone from the community, Omar Foda of Living Too Late, joined
[Cairo Jazz Club] it’s been a lot better. Before Foda joined Cairo Jazz Club, Alt
Tuesdays and that sort of thing didn’t used to exist. It would just be a
couple of well-known names [and] it wasn’t as versatile as it is now. It was
mostly cover bands, DJs and all that. Before Foda there was Mai Waleed, Youssef
Abouzeid and some others from the community who were totally supporting. I
[just] mention Omar a lot because he came up with new ways to develop [Cairo
Jazz Club], like with this Wall of Sound series of gigs. He’s bringing
in bands from abroad, some really heavy players.
Y: When I saw the announcement for Homeshake, I thought: “they’re not even playing in the U.S. and they’re playing a gig at Cairo Jazz Club?”
M: He sort of developed
the idea of the indie musician [in Egypt], the indie artist and indie art in
general. This happened because there was someone from the community working at
CJC as a promoter, and he’s got the attitude to boost things, to encourage
[the] local indie artists that we have here to perform more, which is an edge
to be honest.
Y: The ‘band scene’ in Egypt has shifted a bit recently, hasn’t it?
M: It’s shifted a lot. Like I was telling you, a while ago — which I was playing in bands — there [used to be] a lot of rock bands. It was a sort of trend, there was always a live band playing rock. There was a cover ‘format’ or an ‘original’ format, and promoters used to ask you, “are you a cover band or original band?”
The original music
always used to bring a smaller crowd. There were some bands that started
singing in Arabic. There were big names, of course, they’re now making music
for advertisements and making money. It’s evolved [since then], but that’s all
we could’ve done with the rock scene. The rock scene is dead now, for a number
of reasons. Rock musicians didn’t reach success in the short time that rock
music was popular. If you’re in a cover band today, you either get your money
and accept it, or you shift career completely; shift [your] style and go to
electronic music, learn production or how to DJ for the dance floor.
Y: The rock scene definitely peaked. You’ve got bands now doing songs for soft-drink companies and stuff like that for ridiculous amounts of money. I heard that one of the top bands did a gig at some hotel, and got paid easily over EGP 100,000 for a standard set length. There’s so much money involved, every song they make is guaranteed to go viral, and that’s as big as a band is ever going to get in Egypt.
M: In the end, this is how it goes. They’ve managed to make a living; they’ve managed to make something catchy [enough] to reach the ordinary people living in Egypt. You have to be smart about it, write things that are catchy [enough] that they’d understand. It also has to have that heshek beshek sound, and then you’ve got a hit! There used to be a friend of mine who played in an Arabic singing band who’d always tell me and George: “you guys need to write the same music, just sing them in Arabic. Try to translate the music.”
We weren’t convinced at all. I don’t want to do that. I still believe that there are people in the world that listen to music that’s different. In Egypt there’s a social category, or social class, that listens to what we’re doing. It’s just the fact that we don’t know how to reach them properly; but I’m not going to change what I do best in order to reach more people. It won’t make a difference to me what social class someone is from, what matters is that the music just has to reach the proper listeners. I think this is how the rock scene faded; nobody is interested in rock music anymore.
People now, and over the past few years, are looking for more ‘to the point’ music. People want to go out, have drinks, hang out with friends and have a nice party. That’s it.
Y: Would you say the performer themselves is less of a focus? That the crowd is going out to have a nice night, not necessarily listen to music that deeply?
M: Yeah. Unless they’re like FKJ, or something.
Y: It’s obviously a huge privilege to be able to travel, but looking at the big clubbing cities of the world (New York, London, Berlin), going out to listen to music/dance isn’t a khorooga. It’s happening so often that it’s become a normal outing, like going to a park. It’s a public service. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone out in Egypt and seen people dressed nicely. It makes me think: “why, what’s the point? You’re all going to be sweaty at the end of the night anyway.”
I feel like it’s because people aren’t entirely comfortable in these kinds of social settings yet. The constant photography at gigs makes you feel like you’re always being seen. It makes you want to dress nicely, to act nicely and show everybody around you how much of a good time you’re having. It seems a bit unnecessary.
M: It’s a psychological thing, and it’s a pity. Like if I’m looking at CairoZoom or something on Facebook, looking for an album that I might be in, I find hilarious comments like: “look at these kids who go to be photographed by CairoZoom,” they dress up really well and go pose for those photos. They have a reputation.
Y: looking at the comments there’s some really savage ones.
M: It’s like internet bullying, really shitty [behaviour].
Y: I feel like there’s a genuine desire amongst people in Egypt to be more comfortable going out, you know? To not make it such a high-pressure thing. We’ve all seen too many pointless fights at clubs, too much unnecessary machismo.
M: It should be simple. Just the fun of enjoying good music, a couple drinks, dancing if the vibes are good. You don’t need any of that other stuff. To be honest, regarding music scenes, I think the DJ scene in Cairo is booming. That’s where the real party scene is.
Y: Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown you played a show, part of a SLOVVDK showcase, where you brought on a couple friends and collaborators during your performance. Since historically Dirty Backseat has gone from a duo, to a solo act, are there any plans to open up Dirty Backseat into a larger collaborative project?
M: I’ve had an idea for
an album with multiple collaborators on it. I’m in contact with a number of
people, mainly old friends. There are a couple songs featuring Omar Foda,
Hashem El Saify, George Aboutar and Mariam Ghareeb. There are also two tracks on
the album with Yosr from SLOVVDK. There are a couple of solo tracks, but they
all fit together perfectly. The album is very chill, I’m using guitars more
than synthesisers. It’s more of a mixtape in an album format. I decided to try
it out during the SLOVVDK showcase, to play the tracks live and see how people
Y: We’ve talked about some of your influences in the past: The Strokes, Caribou, Tame Impala and Ariel Pink. Most of these artists fall more towards instrumentation than the electronic side of music. Are there any electronic acts that currently inspire you?
M: Darkwave and synth-pop stuff. Boy Harsher, for example, and Marie Davidson. There’s this French duo from the eighties called Deux. Oppenheimer Analysis. Musicians that are mainly dark-wave, synth-wave and synth-bass mostly. The Hacker. There are a few more electronic people that I listen to, [but] I don’t usually listen to dance music, or even IDM and that side of electronic music. Jamie xx is one of my favourites though, there’s a lot.
Y: At what point did you first decide to start putting together the ideas for SLOVVDK with Blufrank?
M: Since January 2019, but we’d been working together already by then. I had this EP that got released in 2019, we talked [about it] online and he said he really loved the song. He kept asking, “How did you record it? How did you make this sound and that sound?”
I liked that he talked specifics. At the time, I was following the demos he was releasing on SoundCloud and told him “I think you’re really legit, lets collaborate sometime.”
When you really get to know Ragy (Blufrank), you realise that he’s the type to sit alone in his room making music all the time. He told me that he’d gotten tired of playing in bands where everyone wanted to go in their own directions, he said: “I want to write my own tracks my own way, fuck that shit.”
We’ve been hanging out for a really long time, working on things together. Recently we started making music together, we did a couple tracks. Since we started working together two years ago, we haven’t had the time to work on music together [until now]. We’ve got three songs done.
Y: Blufrank reaches out to everyone. He’s really open to new music and there are not many people like him.
M: He influenced me a lot in that sense; gathering people and making more connections, in the sense of creating something that could sound even better when you collaborate than when on your own. It pushed me, honestly. To push barriers, to reach to someone from a different background that me to write a song together. I did this with an old friend of mine (Marian Ghareeb) at the last SLOVVDK showcase. She had called me a year ago to make a track together. She’s in a totally different musical style than mine and it turned out great. I really liked the track, it’s on the new SLOVVDK mixtape. That was her first properly recorded song, she’d never written a song before that.
That collaboration really made me feel like a producer. When I was younger, I thought a producer was anyone who sits in a studio and manages the instruments, manages the whole process; the person who is in charge of how the song would sound like. Yes, this is a main part of being a producer, but there’s another part that I feel is more important. That’s for you to create something really nice, or sounds completely different to what’s happening, turning something that’s very basic into something with a lot of instruments and a lot of progression. It changes the whole thing into a good song, into a hit. I’m learning a lot along the way.
Y: Do you find yourself playing different roles in the studio depending on whom you’re with?
M: It doesn’t change that much, honestly. I usually perform the way I usually do; the same workflow, the same process. I just try to come up with creative ideas out of the box. There’s this track that got sent to me with just guitar and vocals. The writer wanted to have drums, to have a proper song. Normally I lay things down like, “ok, I have this song, let’s just jam on it with different sounds.”
Sometimes it shifts from my style depending on the song’s style, [and] this is when things change a little bit. But I always use my own sounds, my own touch on the music. It gives it a sense of collaboration in the end; this is the producers touch on the songwriter’s song. The process or workflow doesn’t change, but what’s different is the style of the songwriter and the direction the song wants to go in.
Y: What about collaborating live?
M: It’s a lot more intimate. If you’re a solo artist, it’s very intimate. The SLOVVDK showcase went really smoothly. I featured a couple old friends who I mentioned before, and [the show] sounded good. It was a lot of fun. I miss having someone on stage with me. [Coming from a band background] I’m used to having people, you know? The first solo gig I did, I was a bit frightened. I had a sort of stage fright. Blufrank was really shocked, he was on the same line-up and told me: “why are you stressed out? You’ve been performing live for ten years!” I’d never performed solo until then, it felt so stressful.
Y: Being onstage alone, especially after being in bands, must have been difficult at first. There’s no one with you to carry the energy with you throughout a show.
M: It’s also tricky.
Usually I feed off my band mates’ energy. At the same time, if the crowd is not
giving you energy you’re still [getting] it from your band mates. When I
perform solo, especially when I’m performing with this current setup (laptop,
midi controller, backing tracks) it sounds like rock, but it’s done
Y: How do you feel like the crowds in Egypt react to seeing rock acts in what are usually electronic music spaces?
M: The very first time I performed [as Dirty Backset] our drummer quit for some reason, and it was just me and another former member. I played drums as a backing track while we played guitar and bass. It sounded a bit weird, for a rock band. The only element missing were real drums, [instead] they were played with a drum machine. It felt weird, to the audience, especially since we were playing on the same line-up as two other rock bands. Over time, when I started playing solo, people got used to it. I believe it’s mainly psychological, what people get used to listening to. Imagine Kevin Parker [from Tame Impala] playing solo or with his band, all his instruments would sound the same. The music coming out of the speakers would still be fucking good, it would be the same, but it would be weird visually. Now when I play, people know that I’m playing solo and give me the energy I need. They got used to Dirty Bbackseat as a solo project.
Y: You’ve been keeping busy in between shows by releasing a lot of music – a quite a high output compared to a lot of other people in the scene. How do you know when a song is done?
M: I don’t know. I don’t think about making a very complicated piece of music. I just always think of making music as simple as fuck. Basically, all my songs have a verse/chorus kind-of format; the basic pop format. I’m not trying to make it more than it is. If it sounds nice it sounds nice, it’s okay. Ever since I started working with Ragy, he always tells me: “if it sounds nice just proceed, don’t overcomplicate things.”
Neither of us likes overcomplicating the music, unless it needs it. I know it’s finished and I know it’s done when its sounds good, and I feel like the verse/chorus is fine. If there’s a catchy melody, there’s a nice intro and outdo, and a nice feel in general, it doesn’t matter how long or short it is. I never cared for that to be honest.
Y: You’ve put out like five projects over such a short amount of time. One which I’m really interested in talking about is the Apocalypse soundtrack, which you released under your own name rather than Dirty Backseat.
M: It was a very interesting process and it was very challenging as well. There’s a filmmaker friend of mine who was directing this indie film called Apocalypse alongside another filmmaker. Ramy – the filmmaker and a friend of mine – had an idea for the music and wanted me to score the film. I told him I had never done that before, that it was going to be very challenging and would need some time. To be honest with you, I was too overwhelmed with the process. I wasn’t acting myself at the time, which was more than a year ago when it started. It was overwhelming and challenging. He came up with the idea that he wanted to mix spaghetti western influences and bass-y, synth-y sound. Heavy industrial bass sounds. I went back and forth a lot, I spent two/three months writing, and in the end those three tracks were released. When they were released, I felt really honoured when the film got played in the cinema, and I got to hear my music in a movie theatre. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my whole life, honestly. Imagine you’re sitting in a cinema watching a movie and you realise, “I’m listening to my music in a fucking movie theatre!”
Regardless of whether it’s a big movie or a small movie, it didn’t matter to me; I was listening to my music in a movie theatre. You [get to] hear all your mixing and mastering.
Y: And everyone there has to listen to it intently. You know they’re going to hear it properly because they’re so focused on the film.
M: Yeah. Before the
screening, I was at home listening to the EP and soundtrack of the film. I’d
turn the volume all the way up, to hear that the bass and everything sounded
good. I had already submitted the music, but I was just reassuring myself that
things would be fine (laughs).
Y: It sounds like you enjoyed the experience. Is soundtrack work something you’d like to do more in the future?
M: I would love to do it
again and I’d also like to study it. Film scoring is very different than what
we do as music producers. There’s a lot of depth to it. What I did was really
fitting for the film, because I sat and studied the film for a very long time;
to know where to put the tracks, shift the transitions between scenes. Film
scoring is on a much higher, more substantial level; you need to do a lot more
studying. There are a couple tricks you play with to make it sound good. If I
was going to go in the direction of film scoring, I have to learn a lot in
order to do it. Right now, I’m focusing on what I do best; producing songs and
writing songs, that’s it.
*Some passages of this interview were translated from Arabic to English