Western music is outlawed in their native Tehran, but with angular guitars and forceful baritone vocals, the US-based band Hypernova stake a claim to global musical citizenship.
Criminal records? Iranian rock comes to New York
Formed in Tehran, the Iranian quartet Hypernova is that rarest of Middle Eastern exports - a rock band, now based in the hipster capital of Williamsburg, New York. Indeed, this may be the only musical group in the world that owes its existence to two forms of government intervention, one in Iran and the other in the US.
In their new home, they have enjoyed favourable press from The New York Times, Billboard, Wired and NPR, and played well-received gigs in the city's clubs. But Iran is one of the last places on earth where rock still has both a critical mass and the capacity to run foul of the powers that be.
Heretofore, the republic's greatest influence on pop was surely unintended: Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 edict banning western music catapulted The Clash's anthem Rock the Casbah to global success. In December 2005, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reinstated a ban on rock music being played on Iran's government-run radio stations. In 2011, it remains illegal to play rock'n'roll in Iran. Still, in a country where the average age is 25, kids will be kids.
Kids, just like Raam.
A product of Tehran's underground music scene, this 28-year-old singer and guitarist leads an unapologetically angular rock band. He is joined by the guitarist Kodi, the bassist Jam, and the drummer Kami (the band's members go by first names alone, in order to avoid reprisals back home). Their influences include Interpol, The Strokes, The Sisters of Mercy. The band's 2006 EP, Who Says You Can't Rock In Iran?, married Raam's stentorian, baritone voice to spiky guitar work. It was, of course, a statement of principle.
Hypernova formed in "cockroach-infested" basements in the Iranian capital, playing wherever they could, dreaming of bigger stages but conscious of the genuine possibility of arrest or worse. "It's really dangerous to do what we do back home," Raam, once told MTV News. "Every show we play, we're putting our lives on the line. So it's intense, but that sort of fear adds to the rush."
In 2008, the band applied to the most important indie-music festival in the world: South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas. There, fortunes are made in clubs and back-alley barbecue showcases where label executives and A&R men hunt for the next big thing. To Raam's surprise, Hypernova were accepted. "I thought it was spam mail," he has said of the reply.
Because there is no US consulate in Iran, the group flew to Dubai, where they applied for US visas. They were refused. Undaunted, the band tried again. This time, an unlikely ally appeared. The New York senator Chuck Schumer faxed a letter to Dubai on their behalf.
Whether he knew it or not, he was working towards what we might call a rock'n'roll détente.
Suddenly finding himself based in the cultural meting pot of New York, Raam realised immediately that Hypernova would need to raise their game. No longer was it enough to be the "exotic" group from Iran. "When we first came here, our music really sucked," he recalls.
Having taken these early lessons to heart, last year the band released the album Through The Chaos. It is a powerful collection of songs. Perhaps somewhat strangely, though, it is almost entirely devoid of overt political statements. If themes of protest are to be found here, it is rarely in what the band say, more in the way they play.
However, Hypernova's signature song, Fairy Tales, contains a refrain as old as youth culture itself: "The boys they were shouting and the girls they were dancing / 'cause it ain't no… crime."
It's not all about cathartic celebration, though. After only a short while at the epicentre of fashionable New York, the band has developed a healthy cynicism towards the trappings of hipsterdom. American Dream skewers this milieu's culture of vacuous materialism with deadpan, garage-rock attitude: "With your plastic smiles and your VIPs/You are the modern day Robin Hood, with a twist/Who takes from the poor and gives to the rich… you're all so dead inside."
As Hypernova's collective stature on the indie scene increases, it is now possible to see the band as part of a small but steadily growing Iranian rock diaspora. This scene begins with the Tehran-based Gypsy-alternative outfit 127, who have been active for several years and enjoy a healthy fanbase in Europe and the US. Angband broke new ground in 2007, becoming the first Iranian group to sign with a European heavy metal label (Germany's Pure Steel Records), and have since released two critically acclaimed albums. Meanwhile, the world-rockers Abjeez are based in Sweden, the prog-metal guitarist Agah Bahari resides in Toronto and the synth-pop duo Take It Easy Hospital have set up home in London.
To capture the energy of Tehran's underground movement, the director Bahman Ghobadi shot the fictional rockumentary feature No One Knows About Persian Cats. Released in 2009, the film dramatised the dilemmas that faced an Iranian band eager to escape the country's repressive cultural regime for the more liberal shores of Europe. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and featured The Yellow Dogs, a postpunk-dance group from Tehran who have since played a number of live shows in the West.
Hypernova could well surpass all of their peers. Not only have they landed a song on the Rock Band 3 music video game alongside The Who, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Queen, David Bowie, The Police and The Doors - in many ways, they follow in stadium-filling footsteps.
Strange as it may seem, if they resemble any other band, it is U2. A vast gulf exists between both bands in terms of sound and politics, but their intentions are strikingly similar. While proud of their national heritage, Bono and his bandmates took inspiration from Irish culture and the issues that affected their everyday lives, then successfully folded them into the broader idioms of global rock music.
Likewise, there are no obvious Iranian tropes in Hypernova's sound. Instead, Through The Chaos stakes the band's claim to a much wider citizenship: that of rock'n'roll itself. As that visa is processed, the chances are that they will also serve as a vital influence for a new generation of musicians at home and abroad.
Mark LePage's work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and Spin.