Ordinary Men in Extraordinary Times: An Interview with Iranian Underground Band, Kiosk

If you have seen the film or read the graphic novel of Persepolis, then you will recall the joy that the young protagonist took in listening to western Rock music and the risks that she was willing to take to get access to tapes of recent heavy metal or punk recordings. In many ways, music was the gateway into her political consciousness. Talieh Rohani, an Iranian-born CMS graduate student, recently wrote a paper for my Media Theory and Methods proseminar which shed light on what has happened to the rock music scene in her home country and suggested the ways that new digital tools for production and distribution were impacting the Iranian underground music scene. These insights emerge from an interview she did with Kiosk, an Iranian underground band which recently immigrated to America.

An Interview with Kiosk

By Talieh Rohani

The 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran brought so many social changes and so much repression to the lives of Iranians including the decision to ban the western music. The young generation found it impossible to access any music from the rest of the world. As a result, pop music abruptly stopped progressing in Iran. At the same time in the Western World, the progressive rock scene was allegedly terminated by the arrival of punk rock, because many punk admirers incorporated progressive elements and were inspired by progressive rock bands.

Although the Iranian youngsters had already been influenced by progressive rock music from the late sixties to the late seventies, the war years made it irrelevant for the younger generation to listen to and embrace this musical goldmine. But with the arrival of satellite the Iranian young generation became aware of the current world rock music. The introduction of the Internet and the possibilities it presented allowed the Iranians to participate in the music scene.

Iranian underground music became an alternative to the mainstream pop Persian LA music. Most Iranians started to recognize this revolutionary movement. Underground bands like 127, Hypernova, Kiosk, and Abjeez have received great support in their debuts outside of Iran. And as a result, a new taste in music has emerged within Persian communities that are no longer satisfied with the mainstream LA music. What you’ll be reading is an interview with the underground Iranian rock band Kiosk conducted in Boston in November 2007. Kiosk is a Persian Blues/Rock/Jazz band established in Iran’s basements. The band’s first album Adame Mamolli (Ordinary Man), released outside of Iran by Bamahang Productions, was known as one of the most successful of Iran’s underground music recordings.

Over the past few years, Arash Sobhani, the founder and the lead singer of the band, left Iran to US and released his second album Eshgh-e Sorat (Love of Speed) in May 2007. What distinguishes “Kiosk” from other Iranian bands are the social commentaries in their lyrics. The music video clip for Love of Speed has been viewed almost 400,000 times on YouTube.

Babak Khiavchi is the founder of Bamahang Productions, which aims to help Iranian underground music gain recognition across the globe. He is also one of the main guitarists of Kiosk. Babak talks about the restrictions that were enforced on the Iranian Music Scene. He says he finds the red lines invisible but he cannot ignore their existence. According to Babak musicians cannot address certain things in their lyrics. In order to produce an album, the musician needs to get permission to start a band from Iran’s Cultural Ministry. He will also need to get permission for the lyrics, the music and even the vocals of the singers. If the ministry feels that the band is imitating a famous Persian singer in Los Angeles, it probably won’t give them permission to sing unless that music promotes the government. Babak talks about something called Laleh Zar Mafia that basically controls all music productions and distributions in Iran. This mafia knows both the audience and the market and has a monopoly on it. He refers to O-Hum group. Their lyrics are all from Hafez and Rumi and there is nothing illegal about that. However, O-Hum could not get permission for production in Iran because it was trying to fuse traditional Persian music with Rock music. This is something that is not acceptable in Iran.

According to these red lines, any presentation of Western values and style is considered decadent. Babak doesn’t face such restrictions in the American music scene. When he started working in the IT industry about 10 years ago, he decided to help his friends in Iran who were trying to get their music recorded and heard.

Babak claims that Kiosk’s Ordinary Man album was probably the first Persian underground band that was officially released and copyrighted here and he managed to add it to the iTunes catalog. He thinks that is a big step and it gives a lot of motivation to all these underground musicians in Iran to know that there is a channel for underground music on the Internet and there is an audience there for the music they are producing.

Babak believes that one of the significant things about O-Hum is that their sound engineer, Shahram Sharbaf, recorded everything on his home computer using Pro-Tools software and some other sound engineering devices. He showed everyone that they can do this at home and they wouldn’t have to go to a multi-million dollar studio. Babak strongly believes that it is the content and the idea that matters. From his perspective, it is okay to have a low quality production. But the originality of styles and ability to integrate culture into music makes it attractive to people. Babak claims that everyone followed O-Hum example and learned how to use the software and started recording. “The qualities aren’t good,” he says, “They are mostly demo quality. But even the demos have so much raw emotions.”

He compares it to the LA music market. From his point of view, the underground Persian music has so much emotion that the audience tend to forget about the quality. “You really feel the pain and frustration that these musicians burden and how they found music as an outlet to express themselves,” says Babak.

Arash sees a life that is going on in Iran underground. He describes the ways people meet and socialize with each other in underground parties. Arash says, “What you see on the streets and on TV is different than what the true life is”. This reminds him of the movie Underground. “The majority of people in Iran live underground,” he says. Arash believes that most Iranians do not live according to the values that are reinforced on TV or the Islamic values that the government wants people to live with. So he finds underground music as a medium that is exposing the emotions of those people who cannot talk on TV or newspapers to reflect their opinions to others. That’s why “These people turn to underground music and blogs…This gives voice to majority of people who do not have access to any kind of media to get heard,” Arash says.

On the other hand, Babak finds the restrictions imposed on the music scene to be the main reason for the emergence of underground music. According to him, the music produced and distributed in the LA area, although they have many resources available to them without any limitations, has no content. “What suffers here is art itself. If art is the means of self-expression, and if you can’t do this through the legal channels, and the channel that gives you the most audience, you just have to go and find your own channel underground and express yourself the way you want to be heard,” says Babak.

Some people commented that their two albums have major differences in terms of culture and restriction. The first album, Ordinary Man was made in Iran facing government restrictions. The second album, Love of Speed was released here in the US facing none of those restrictions. It took Arash three years to write the lyrics of the first album. It covers three years of his life when he was going through “different emotions,” he says, “than when I moved to San Francisco”. Most of the social commentaries of Love of Speed were created in Iran. And he only polished them here. He calls it the process of growing up. Different things are more important for him now than four years ago. I wonder what those different things are. Arash says, “Nostalgia”.

When Arash was writing the lyrics of Ordinary Man, he never planned on recording and releasing this as an album. He used to write for other people to sing and after Babak heard his demos he told him that he had to sing it himself instead of giving away such good songs. When he was writing Love of Speed, he knew he had more room to express himself. There were fewer limitations. He knew he had a chance to talk more about the social issues instead of just on a personal level.

Arash does not see the existence of censorship within his personal life in Iran as a positive factor in forming his music. He says that he did not plan to release the first album when he was writing it. He was doing it for himself so the red lines didn’t matter to him. He claims that after Khatami’s presidency, many people felt sorry for waiting for 8 years to see a progressive stable change in the society. And after, this guy, Ahmadinejad, came and took over and ruined everything. So he does not have that much time for personal songs anymore, he explains.

Kiosk received two major criticisms from people within the underground music scene. First, many people consider Mohsen Namjo Music revolutionary because it introduced new sound and rhythms to the Iranian Music. Some people believe that Kiosk has nothing new to offer other than the lyrics, and it’s an imitation of Dire Straits and Bob Dylan. Secondly, many people believe when the underground musicians moves from Iran to US, they can no longer be a part of the underground music scene. In order to be known underground, the music will need to remain underground. Kiosk no longer suffers the restrictions and limitations in underground music scene in Iran.

Arash accepts that his music sounds like Dire Straits but he says he is proud of that. “I don’t know any band that wasn’t under the influence of any other band,” says Arash, “And I don’t know any good band that wasn’t influenced by Bob Dylan.” According to him, the challenge was to use the Farsi language in a rock context, using guitar and bass. Adapting Farsi with its own music. Arash describes that this challenge started in the 70s with Koroush Yaghmayi, Farhad and Faramarz Aslani. They tried to challenge different angles. He says that the best they could do was to take poems from Rumi, Hafez and other traditional songs and mold them to Rock music.

Kiosk’s success is that it adapts Farsi lyrics to Rock and Blues. In the second album, Love of Speed, they were trying to find their own sound, similar to other rock bands that are always looking for their unique sound. “Dire Straits’ first album was influenced by JJ Cale,” claims Arash. From his perspective, everyone starts with an influence. “The important thing is that everyone is trying to find his own sound” Arash says. He thinks the second album was a big step for Kiosk in trying to establish a new sound and he finds himself hitting in a right direction.

In Babak’s opinion, if you want to get the audience’s attention, the best approach is to start from an angle that the audience is familiar with. “If you listen to “Dailiness(Roozmaregi)” you might think that it sounds like Dire Straits but it actually reflects Iranians’ social issues,” claims Babak. He argues that in Love of Speed there is a lot less influence of Dire Straits.

Babak considers Kiosk as an underground band still. He explains that they always try to call themselves an alternative to mainstream Persian music generated in Los Angeles. “Not that there is anything wrong with LA music. We all like to dance,” Babak says. Apparently Andy played in his wedding. Babak argues that Kiosk is trying to give people another alternative. “People are fed up with recycled ideas of the same old cheesy lyrics about eyebrows, eyes, lips and how tall she is,” claims Babak.

Babak mentions that they are not promoting themselves through any mainstream channels. All their concerts are being organized by grass roots support. They rely a lot on Persian student organizations in all cities that they go to. They approach them directly and ask for help. Students volunteer to do the CD sales and T-shirts. “You never see any of the big Persian promoters backing us,” says Babak.

I wonder if they know their audience and if they define underground as an alternative to the LA Mainstream music, what they would tell those people that think that Kiosk has lost the reality of Iran by immigrating here and can no longer be the voice of the underground life. Arash is concerned about that. But he believes that fortunately or unfortunately, many things has happened to him in Iran that he has content to write for many more years, he says it while laughing hysterically. But he is concerned that sooner or later he will be talking about things that people in Iran can no longer relate to. He is trying not to fall in that path. “Once we become distant from contemporary Iran we will also join others to write about hips and eyebrows.” he laughs.

Babak recalls when they started in basements. He says that they are trying to stay close to the vibes that they came up with in the basements. According to him, they were never concerned about the audience. They just did it for themselves. Fortunately there seems to be a wide range of Iranians all over the world who could relate to their music. They are from all ages. “We hear from them through emails, fan communities and social networking sites,” says Babak. They have some fans that are analyzing every word in their lyrics. He believes that no one ever sees Persian lyrics being analyzed this much. “If people would analyze LA Persian music, maybe they could do better by now,” he says sarcastically. He says that the first feedback they have got was from Persian middle-aged divorced men. Recently they have had a much younger audience. Arash thinks that is because people got exposed to their music through the Internet. They were underground and they couldn’t be played on radio or TV. So their audience was among those who had access to the Internet. Mostly educated and mostly divorced!

Arash explores more the issues regarding the restrictions on music in Iran. He reminds us that Iran has the youngest population in the world. The Islamic republic is backing up inch by inch. He remembers the time that VCRs weren’t allowed in Iran. And when satellites came around the government removed restrictions on VCR and video clubs. And then Internet came and they accepted it. So Arash believes that the government is giving room but very slowly. And the young generation wants more. They want more concerts and more music and this is not something that the government has allowed. This is because Iran is young and they need music and Radio Payam is the best they can get, says Arash. There are no other resources available to people. In Arash perspective, that’s not even what people want.

Babak recalls an incident in Iran. There was a raid at a party in Karaj (a city close to Tehran). It was a private concert in which two hundred people participated. The police arrested all of them. And the news agency announced that it was the gathering of the devil worshipers. Babak believes they were just a rock band and maybe someone was wearing an Iron Maiden metal t-shirt. In his perspective, this proves that there is a demand for rock music.

Traditional Persian music just wouldn’t satisfy Iranians. He believes that people need to have the energy of Rock music. The government knows that there is a big demand for this. That’s another thing that is pushing the boundaries in his opinion. So he believes that in the long term it might work out.

Talieh Rohani studied filmmaking at Soureh University in Tehran, Iran, before going on to do a BFA in Image Arts/Film Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and to pursue an MFA in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University. She has directed four short films and worked, variously, as a director, art director and production designer, cinematographer and editor. She is interested in the emergence post-revolutionary popular culture in lives of young Iranian women and in the larger impact of technology on the development of a new global imagination. She sees CMS as a place to broaden and strengthen the ideas and skills that she hopes to bring back to her flimmaking practice.