x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

After fleeing Tehran, three young Iranians release album in adoptive US

On the heels of their latest release, Mark Lepage chats with the post-punk band Yellow Dogs about rock'n'roll, playing in soundproof rooms in Tehran and life in the United States.

The Yellow Dog band members in their Brooklyn neighbourhood. From left, Arash, his brother Looloosh, Obaash and Koory. Dave Sanders for The National
The Yellow Dog band members in their Brooklyn neighbourhood. From left, Arash, his brother Looloosh, Obaash and Koory. Dave Sanders for The National

The Iranian post-punk band Yellow Dogs - Obaash, 23, guitar and vocals, Looloosh, 25, guitar and synthesiser, Koory, 23, bass, synthesiser and backing vocals and Arash, 26, drums, all of whom go by their first names only - fled possible arrest in Tehran to settle in Brooklyn, New York, in 2010 and chase the rock'n'roll dream. Their EP Upper Class Complexity was released on May 9.

How do you play in a rock'n'roll band when it's illegal?

We all met in 2006 through the skate park in Tehran - skaters, punk rockers, it was a Shangri-la for rock'n'rollers, that kind of subculture. We were underground. Our rehearsal space had soundproofed walls. There is the ministry of culture in Iran and any sort of art you wanna do, you have to get their permission. But getting their permission is so hard - you have to play the music that they want. So we went underground all the way. Playing concerts was a really, really risky thing to do, but back then we were 18-year-old kids, so we didn't care.

Was it dangerous?

Yes. You could be arrested, and the punishment was unpredictable. They could send you to jail for a couple of years, or fine you, or lash you - the lash is such a common punishment in the court system of Iran.

Then how did you find out about western rock'n'roll?

We grew up as teenagers listening to The Clash, the Sex Pistols, then as we got older we got into more electronic music. We basically downloaded it all - with a faulty internet speed. I remember there was a time when you would start the download, go to bed and when you woke up, you had it in your computer.

How did people hear about you? I mean, the Iranian rock scene isn't very prominent internationally.

We were in this movie [No One Knows About Persian Cats which received the audience prize at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2009] by Bahman Ghobadi, this famous Iranian director, made about our scene and the general underground scene in Tehran, including hip-hop artists, not just rock'n'roll. That film got huge [it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2009] and suddenly brought a lot of attention to the scene, especially the government's attention, which sucked. We were afraid of getting caught. We had cops taking pictures of us, so we were paranoid. We wanted to go to America, but we had no passports.

We had a lot of problems getting out of Iran, but we did it at the right time, when the movie was everywhere. We sorted all the paperwork and went to America to play. First we came with an artist visa, then we got political asylum. Now we're a travelling band, but we're based in America. Our first stop will be Istanbul.

What was your first day like in Brooklyn?

We got to JFK and the first night, we ended up sleeping on the couch of our manager, Ali. Just to be in New York, where the history of this music is in the air … and you want to go to a place where you can make progress and get motivation and inspiration.

What's the best part of being a band from Tehran?

The best part was we knew our passion. Most of the youth there are kinda lost because it's not a really good place to spend your youth. We were kind of the cool kids of the town who had the balls to try all this crazy stuff.

We picked up a wide range of influences. Dance, punk, psychedelic, old punk stuff. Mostly British and American and German bands. But we're not trying to sound like anyone, we've always had our own sound. We identified with the feeling and we were living the lifestyle. We grew up in that kind of subculture. Here it's a normal thing but there it's not normal at all. It's like being the first person with a mohawk in London. So Tehran has the intensity of New York times 10. It's an intense town.

Do you feel free in America?

That's a good question. In America, we can do what we love to do. If I had come from London, it might be different, but we come from a strict Muslim country, the opposite side of the experience.

You know, the most famous song by The Clash is Rock the Casbah. Look at the video, the lyrics. They're actually about Iran, the revolution of 1979, the government-banned western music. That's why the chorus says, "Sharif don't like it, rock the kasbah!" Well, we've been there.

Given what you've been through, does the typical American hipster seem lazy or spoiled to you?

Lazy? I wouldn't say lazy. But you can see all the Brooklyn stuff, Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, they want to do the DIY underground thing. We did the most extreme DIY thing, I think, in music history. I'm not bragging, but it's true. They kinda wanna be underground. But - there's no reason to be.