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- Published on Thursday, 08 March 2012 18:06
- Category: Artist Profile
Nuclear reactors are hardly the thing that poetry is made of, let alone Iranian culture. Yet in a country where politics infiltrates into every aspect of daily life, everything becomes an act of opposition. This is the state of a hijacked society.
It's also the state from where Arash Sobhani, lead singer and lyricist for the hit Iranian underground band Kiosk, finds not only artistic inspiration, but also his own musical form of civic duty. Known best for both their synergy of blues, gypsy and traditional Persian music and their satirical lyrics, Kiosk's tracks are humorous, but cut-throat, crossing thresholds between generations, economic backgrounds, cultural boundaries, even censored distribution as a voice to the rupturing dissent against a government that has held Iran hostage since its revolution in 1979.
Formed in Tehran in 2003, the band is heralded today as one of the most preeminent bands to emerge from Iran's underground (and illegal) music scene. As the group reaches its ten-year mark, it has a lot of success to boast: five CDs, international concerts on four continents, and a team still intact with its original members. Their first album, Adame Mamooli (Ordinary Man), released in 2005, made them the first Iranian underground band to hit iTunes. "Esgh e Soraat" (Love of Speed), the title song of their second album (released in 2007) blasted through the airwaves as the first underground Iranian track to be released in the West. In 2008 the band won the Best Blues Band Award from the World Academy of Arts, Literature and Media. In 2010 they released Seh Taghtireh (Triple Distilled), the first live album to be released by an Iranian underground band.
Yet all the accolades and pioneering moves don't "necessarily mean anything, because somebody else would have just done it at a later time," says Sobhani, who finds more pride in the fact that the band, now above ground, has been able to grow its following by remaining an independent band that doesn't buy into the ideas of fame or money. Aslan Media Arts and Music editor Safa Samiezade'-Yazd had a chance to chat with Sobhani on the phone about the band's origins, its latest album Natijeh e Mozakerat (Outcome of Negotiations) and the responsibilities he feels as an Iranian-American artist to bring awareness to the current situation gripping his home country.
Aslan Media: What inspired you to start Kiosk?
Arash Sobhani: I was involved in various music acts in Iran underground and some that were not underground, playing as a guitarist or songwriter. The problem was back then — and the problem still exists, I just don’t have to face it myself anymore — to release an album or to get permission to perform live, you have to go through this loophole and through different stages of getting approval from the authorities in the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. What they do is basically butcher your lyrics or poem or whatever you have, so they make sure that you’re not doing anything that they find intriguing. It’s funny, like you’re not allowed to use the word “red” because it reminds you of blood, and that’s violent — stupid things like that. I would get really frustrated because as a lyricist, as a songwriter, you end up just being able to write about the weather and flowers and things like that.
I decided to start a project that was meant to be for myself, like a diary, it was just going to be a personal note. I decided, I’m going to write whatever I want, whatever I feel like writing, and forget about all the permission policies and things like that. That’s how Kiosk started as a project.
AM: Where does the name Kiosk come from?
AS: Back then, when we were in Iran, we used to go practice or jam every weekend, whenever we had time, whenever we could. We’d go somewhere, and it wasn’t one specific place. My parents would leave town, and I’d call people to come over to my house, somebody else’s parents would leave town, and they’d call us to come to their garage or their storage or the factory. We were basically moving around, and the word kiosk is actually a Persian word, in Farsi they call it kioosk, and it basically means a temporary structure. So one week we would go to Ari’s kiosk, next week we went to Ali’s kiosk, it just meant that we were going to a place to jam, because it’s temporary, like a kioosk, not a permanent place to play music.
When we started the band, and because we had that whole soul and essence of the underground music of Iran, I thought the best way to relate to the underground music of Iran was through kiosk, and we chose that name.
AM: How has your sound changed or evolved since coming to the States?
AS: Lyrics-wise, which is more important for me, because I think of myself not so much as a musician but as someone who writes lyrics — as I left Iran and wasn’t living there anymore, the details that I was living and feeling everyday when I was writing in Iran, I couldn’t feel them anymore, so I was more different. But at the same time, I would sleep and breathe Iran, I would wake up still feeling like I was in Iran. It would take me ten minutes to realize I’m in a different country. I was living in a Tehran state of mind: I wasn’t living in Tehran, but I was still there in my mind trying to imagine what my friends were doing, what was happening to the people, why we ended up in the places where we are. That paradox, that tension, was a big influence over my lyrics. I was still writing about Iran, but as a more distant, more generalized idea.
AM: What sets your most recent album, Outcome of Negotiations, apart from the rest of your repertoire?
AS: Well, you know what happened, we had three albums and then the elections happened in Iran in 2009. After the elections we were speechless. Our music has a satire element to it, and after seeing those images come out of Iran, there was nothing funny to write about it- it was blood, it was killing, it was people getting beat up. We made an album that was really dramatic, really personal about what was going on in Iran, which we never released because it was too emotional. We recorded it and then we put it aside and we didn’t do anything for a year except performing.
This album is our first studio album after what happened in Iran in 2009, and this album, for me personally, it’s kind of a snapshot of what I think people like me think about the situation in Iran, that it’s a deadlock. The title of the album is called Outcome of Negotiations, and the cover is a gun pointing at you, and I think that’s the situation in Iran. They’ve managed to get to the core of the people, they have a gun pointing at them, and they say, this is the negotiation, this is the end of it, do what we say or you’re gone.
It’s really difficult: every time I talk to my friends in Iran, everybody is under stress, everybody is unhappy about the situation but they can’t do anything because of a lack of leadership, because they think they’ve been betrayed by the West maybe, they think they don’t deserve what’s happening to them, it’s not for Iran, it should be somewhere else. I always ask my friends, how can you live with this, it’s been 33 years, every single day so many Iranians have been thinking about how they’ve been treated wrong and what happened to us. Thirty-three years, people are still thinking about the same thing and haven’t been able to come up with a solution yet. That’s something, and this album kind of captures it. In “It Never Rains Here, Morteza” (Sobhani’s favorite track on the album), it refers to what some of these politicians, these opposition politicians think we should be doing, negotiating with the regime and stuff like that. It says something along the lines of, “the cows are in line at the sausage factory,” meaning this is happening to us- they killed all the Communists, they killed all the left-wing activists in Iran in the ‘80s, they got rid of the reformists and now they’re getting rid of the rest of them. This is what’s happening — they’re going for a North Korea, they’re going for an Islamic North Korea. We should do something about that, and that’s what makes this album different from the rest.
AM: What responsibility do you think artists have to get involved in politics?
AS: I can’t tell artists what to do. I just feel like at this situation, at this moment of time, this moment in history that our culture, and I’m not talking about politics anymore, I’m talking about a culture, I’m talking about a language, I’m talking about a way of living, how families function, as Iranians. We’re under attack 24/7 from a government that’s basically using all our infrastructure and all our assets to destroy our own values. These past 32 years, they’ve done a great job destroying the language, they’ve done a great job scaring away all the best directors Iran has ever produced in cinema- look who’s left Iran: Kiarostami, Ghobadi, Makhmalbaf — best directors we ever produced, Panahi’s in jail, the best writers we had, the best musicians we had, everyone who was something in the sphere of Iranian culture, they had to leave Iran because these people who have taken this country hostage, they’ve had their minds set to destroy the culture, and they’ve been doing it systematically for 32 years. They’re closing down universities, they don’t want people to read certain books. This is like the Dark Ages for Iran, and I think as an artist, I think it’s our responsibility to reflect that, to say what’s happening in Iran...
I think as an artist, you want to talk about what’s most important in your life, and if humanity is the most cherished and most important thing in your life, the value of a human being, the human being that can love, that can be passionate and show creativity – if you worry about that, that’s your most important issue when you create something as an artist, then you have to talk about what’s happening in Iran, because what’s happening in Iran is killing all the human values and killing hope, destroying hope, and destroying a whole generation. So I think as much as you can, you should talk about it.