Interview: Thomas Attar Bellier, on his new project Al-Qasar, where Middle East meets West

Al-Qasar (photo by Rodrigue Mercier)

Thomas Attar Bellier’s musical journey has taken him from the City of Lights to the Old West to the Middle East and back again. The Paris-born guitarist, known in Los Angeles for his critically acclaimed psych-rock band Blaak Heat and the three years he spent as axman for spaghetti Western heroes Spindrift, set off a couple years ago in search of a new musical direction.

Attar Bellier conjured up Al-Qasar while working in the studio with famed producer Matt Hyde (Deftones, Slayer, Monster Magnet, Porno for Pyros). “It started off as a love letter to 1960s-1970s Middle Eastern psychedelic pop, but as the songs matured, it became its own thing,” Bellier says.

What makes it distinct? “It’s garage-rock with Middle Eastern instruments and vocals in Arabic, Ludwig drum kits-meet-the daf and darbuka, ’60s Fender amps-meet-the acoustic oud,” he says. “For me, it was a natural evolution. I always had a penchant for music from North Africa and the Middle East, and in 2017 I think I finally reached the ‘maturity’ it took to write and collaborate with Arab musicians.”

Things moved quickly for Attar Bellier: “My friend Fareed Al Madain helped me do vocal pre-production (Madain wrote the lyrics for two songs on the album) while in Los Angeles. Shortly after, I started getting called for gigs in Europe and Egypt, so I quickly put together a live lineup with members of Ekova, Tinariwen, Africa Express and Blaak Heat.” Within a few days and having just met the members of his band, Al-Qasar was up and running.

Recorded between Cairo, Paris, Los Angeles and Nashville, the seven-song EP “Miraj” is best described as “Arabian Fuzz,” which harks back to a time when you could hear the psychedelic Beatles and Stones on the beaches of Beirut, alongside the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and the surf-guitar scene, which has its roots in Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” (based on an old Egyptian folk tune).

With Attar Bellier on one side, and Moroccan singer Jaouad El Garouge on the other, Al-Qasar is a duo at its core. But that core has some spectacular satellites orbiting it — the likes of Mehdi Addab (the electric oud player of Speed Caravan, Ekova, Africa Express), Moroccan vocalist/percussionist Simo Bouamar, darbouka player Amar Chaoui of Tuareg heroes Tinariwen, bassist Guillaume Theoden and drummer Paul Void.

Maidan’s classical Arab lyrics convey stories of power, oppression, liberty, passion and the refugee experience. Adding to the strangeness of it all, the EP was mixed by Bellier’s pal, Chris Rakestraw, known for, among other things, working with the likes of Megadeth and Danzig.

Steeping himself deeply into the culture, Attar Bellier relates how he became privy to some pretty phenomenal experiences: “Recording in Cairo was a trip, especially since I collaborated with musicians of the zar sisterhood, an ancient healing ritual of percussive trance. We spent hours jamming into the night, performing some of their material and some of mine. It was pretty awe-inspiring to see this crew of 12 mystical musicians jamming away to my material, with the loudest percussion you’ve ever heard and the sheikha (who was leading the jams) locking eyes with me.”

Here is a video of that profound evening.

“I was born in Paris and first came to the U.S. as an exchange student at UC Berkeley at age 19,” Attar Bellier says of his journey. “It was a cultural awakening. I discovered the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Oakland metal bands, motorcycle gangs … I didn’t want to ever leave! I then moved to NYC and later settled in L.A. The U.S. is completely fucked, but there is real cultural diversity there, and it’s more visible than in France. I do miss some aspects of it.”

Al-Qasar are in the midst of planning their full release, along with extensive live dates across Europe and the Middle East, along with trip back to the U.S., pandemic permitting.

||| Watch: The video for “Selma”

||| Stream: “Miraj” in full

Al-Qasar · Miraj