by Alissa Ordabai
Imagine getting fined, arrested or even publicly flogged for attending to a rock concert. Imagine a place where you are not only banned from playing in a band, but are left without any legal access to CD’s and albums that you love.
While for the majority of rock fans the world over the only thing that can get one in trouble is persistent illegal downloading, in Iran playing in a band could lead to some nasty repercussions. Arrests and fines have become the customary way the government deals with rock musicians and fans ever since president Ahamdinejad came to power in 2005 – a policy aimed at stamping out Western youth culture and depriving the young people of Iran from fully expressing who they are.
From this environment of cultural repression and criminalization of rock music hail Hypernova – an Iranian quartet of remarkable talent, suavity and artistic subtlety which you won’t expect from a band which has spent its formative years struggling to survive under an authoritarian political regime.
Artful gradations of light and shade, lyrical wit and eloquence of Hypernova’s take on new wave and post-punk show how insight, absence of cliches and good judgment can overcome any disadvantages of developing under oppressive circumstances. Instead of rebelling in a furious and frustrated way, these newcomers to the American rock scene are taking a smarter route to showing their audiences that music is a unifying factor – something which can bring people together regardless of their cultural or social background.
Having been featured on MTV, written about in mainstream press and hailed as one of the most promising bands on Narnack’s roster, the band has a very simple secret at the heart of their growing success. Hypernova’s can’t-miss hooks, life-affirming energy and uncomplicated narratives sharing complex truths are turning them into an international phenomenon. After having been on the road a few times in the U.S. – where the band has been resident for the last three years – they are now getting ready to tour Europe, where fans are already intrigued by their heady mix of swaggering guitar riffs, hooky melodies and intelligent lyrics.
Hypernova’s debut album Through the Chaos released earlier this month goes over a range of moods from half-serious detachment of borderline psychedelic slow-burners to thumping punky fun of shout-along-bangers built on caffeinated riffing and catchy choruses. And although the band deliberately avoids making big political or social statements, their message hits home even stronger precisely for this reason. Where others shout about repression and exaggerated individualism, Hypernova are simply honest – their off-beat sense of humor, their intelligence and their pointed commentaries on modern realities owe as much to the British new wave and post-punk as to their own innate good taste and eccentricity.
Iran, after all, is a country of vastly rich cultural heritage stretching back millennia – a culture where subtlety and depth of insight in music and poetry has at times been reaching the most refined, sophisticated degree. Not that Hypernova deliberately emphasis any such continuity. You won’t be able to tell this quartet are Iranian from just listening to them – they are more Ramones than Rumi – but there must be something in their roots that prohibits to turn their predicament into a cry for attention for all the wrong reasons. Music is what matters for Hypernova, and it’s music, more than anything else, that the band’s singer Raam and I have been talking about during our recent telephone interview.
Hardrock Haven: I know that I’m calling an American number, but I don’t know where in the States you are right now. Are you in New York?
Raam: Yes, I am.
HRH: Are you permanently based there now?
Raam: I guess so, New York is a good base for us right now. It’s a good place to be – it’s multi-cultural, it’s very fast-paced, it’s a good place.
HRH: So how long have you been there?
Raam: Well, we came to the States like three years ago, and have been dividing our time between New York and LA. We spent and year in LA, and the rest of the time we spent in New York.
HRH: That must be really exciting – the polarity between the East Coast and the West Coast.
Raam: Oh, yeah, the vanity catches up with you in L.A.
HRH: A lot people do say that about Los Angeles. Did you really find it to be an image-obsessed environment?
Raam: I’m not sure it’s the environment, but I became a victim of vanity and I noticed I was turning into everything I’ve ever hated. (Laughs). It’s a good thing I got out of there.
HRH: What aspects of American culture appeal to you the most?
Raam: America is a very beautiful country. It gets some bad rep in some other countries, but we have done a couple of national tours, and they see us perform, and hear our music, and they connect with us on a very personal inner level which is very beautiful and which shows that rock n’ roll has no boundaries – it transcends place, gender, all kinds of boundaries and barriers, everything. It’s a very powerful medium, and it’s bringing people together. What surprises us is that some of these people have never left their home state – they haven’t traveled or seen the world-first hand. It’s a big blessing to be able to be here and to do what we love freely without any fear of reprisal. Everywhere in the world you pay a price for your freedoms and people struggle to gain their most basic civil rights. We are very lucky to be here, we are very fortunate, because there was only so far that we could have gone on the underground scene in Iran.
HRH: Do you ever go back to Iran or are you planning to?
Raam: I don’t think we can go back. We will probably get arrested at the airport. The idea is that we’ll become so big and successful that we’ll become untouchable by the time we want to go back home.
HRH: There are some tracks on your debut album where your lyrics deal with the theme of relocation to the United States, tracks like “American Dream.” In connection with that – did America turn out to be what you have expected?
Raam: Everybody comes to the States with a dream of making it. There are so many clichés of how America is the land of opportunity. It is a land of opportunity – if you work hard enough, you can really make it in this country. But as I was saying before about LA, there is vanity and madness surrounding the very hectic lifestyle which is the rock n’ roll lifestyle. This is something that has hit us out of the blue, and we were like, “What have we let ourselves into? Is this the life that we wanted?”, you know? It was a big shock to us coming to the States. We had to re-evaluate the whole situation, but at the end of the day, our passion and love for music transcends everything else, and this is what kept us on the right path. It is so easy to be tempted by so many things that will throw you off the right path, but we just try to stand strong together in the face of all adversities and just keep working hard and moving forward.
HRH: Did this move impact on your creative process? Do you find that you write in a different way since you’ve moved to the States or that your music has changed because you have moved?
Raam: It evolved. We’ve developed our sound, we are fine-tuning it, we are defining it. Back in Iran we were very limited in terms of equipment and getting access to music. Being able to experience a lot of live shows has obviously had an effect of us. Even subconsciously it influences you. It changed our perception of music and how we play, and how we perform, our songwriting as well. At the end of the day the songs and the music are an expression and an extension of ourselves, of our personalities, of our stories, and of our journeys.
HRH: So what got you initially into music? Did you get into music at an early age?
Raam: It was ten years ago when I first met our drummer. I played piano when I was a kid, but I hated that. I always loved rock n’ roll, and in Iran in around 2000 I became friends with Kami (Hypernova Drummer – AO), and we talked about how much we loved rock n’ roll, and very few kids were into rock n’ roll back then. We talked about putting a band together, and he asked me if I played any instrument, and I said no. I grew up in the States – I was born in Iran, but I lived in Oregon for several years before moving back to Iran. And he told me, “Since you speak English, you could be our singer.” And we had another friend who played the guitar, so he said, “We’ll be a three-piece”. Then I taught myself how to play the guitar, and we were just playing shows. At first it was just fun and games – more like a hobby – and then we got better and developed our sound. So we were playing more and more shows until we realized, “Hey, we might be on to something.” So we continued doing that.
HRH: Who were your musical heroes when you were growing up?
Raam: I love Queen. Freddy Mercury was always a big idol of mine.
HRH: He has Iranian roots, doesn’t he?
Raam: I think so, he has some Iranian roots somewhere.
HRH: His real name is Farrokh Bulsara, isn’t it?
Raam: Yes, yes. I was obsessed with Queen, I know all their songs. Then Pink Floyd, and then Brit-pop stuff and indie stuff, a lot of punk. We all listen to all sorts of music, basically. We were more like a garage punk band in the beginning, but now we sort of developed our sound, and it became more dark and mysterious, and it has more depth to it now, it’s not as light as it used to be.
HRH: To me, it’s very multi-layered. The tone of a lot of songs is almost emotionally detached, but at the same time it seems that there is a lot of irony to it, as well as self-irony. How do you manage to combine exploring complex emotional states with pop appeal? Is there a conflict between the two or is it a natural thing that comes to you? Do you put a lot of thought and intellectual effort into mastering this act?
Raam: Our first songs were very raw, sincere, honest, personal songs. We wanted to write songs that people could dance to but which would at the same time make them think. Hopefully they have such an impact as well. We didn’t want to be some cheesy poppy band. It’s so easy to write songs about girls and all that, but we never wanted to be a band which falls into clichés. We really wanted to have some depth to our music. I think for us our inspiration has been our own lives and what we’ve been through. It’s like a story book – we just take a chapter out of our own lives and express it lyrically and musically.
HRH: How difficult was it for Hypernova to get signed? Did it happen quickly or did it take some time?
Raam: It’s a funny thing about this industry. When we came here we were so naïve – we had no idea how hard it is to make it here. What I realized is that you can have all the hype in the world and still end up being nothing. And you can be nothing and then overnight become the biggest thing on the planet. We’ve had a lot of offers at different stages of our career. Depending on what the offer was or on the state of mind we were in, we’ve declined a lot of offers. For us the most important thing was having control over our creativity and our material, and ultimately being able to own our own masters as well. This is something which is very hard to do nowadays. But the people who we have signed with were more genuine than anyone else about wanting to work with us. Obviously it’s a business and everyone wants to make money, but I’m such a hard person to manage – if I don’t connect with someone on a personal level, I wouldn’t want to work with them. I don’t care if it will make me a millionaire or not, I just want to work with people who make me feel like family.
HRH: What do you make of all the changes that are happening in the music industry right now – the way that stuff is distributed, the way that fans are recruited, things like MySpace and YouTube? And the other side of the coin, which is free downloading – what is your take on that?
Raam: I’m a supporter of free downloading. I think that ultimately it is all going to be free – that’s my prediction. In a couple of years you will be selling your live shows or your t-shirts. Live music can’t be taken away – it will always be the main source of income for artists. But nowadays the artists are given much more power to spread the word and get the word out. And at the same time there are so many bands now – it’s ridiculous how many bands there are. Four out of five of my friends are in a band.
HRH: Yes, everyone is musician. It’s like in LA everyone is an actor.
Raam: Yes, exactly. So obviously there is a lot of competition and it’s really difficult to make it. But it’s also a platform for people to share their music and be heard. So as the technology advances, artists have to become more creative in getting the word out there. I guess every now and then someone will get a lucky ride and will get picked up by a big label. But you also often read about people getting these big deals and not being very happy. It’s a tough industry to make it in. But I just want to make my music, that’s all I care about. But even doing that sometimes can be pretty difficult.
HRH: But if you give priority to artistic fulfillment as opposed to commercial success, that way you are never disappointed.
Raam: Yes, even if my journey ends today, I won’t regret my decisions.
HRH: Going back to the record, are you happy with the way it has turned out? Is there anything you would change if you had a chance to?
Raam: We were so naïve about the whole recording process. We weren’t a studio band. Only now we are becoming more technical – playing around with more gadgets and adding more layers to our sound. Our new live set-up has also become much more sophisticated and more complex. At the time when we were recording the album, it all happened so fast for us – it was the first time we were in a recording studio in our lives. As newcomers to the game we’ve obviously made mistakes, we made bad judgments. But it was only natural – there are certain things that you can learn only through trial and error. No matter how much people try to help you, you only learn once you’ve fallen down and you have to get up. So I think in terms of our next album and the next songs we will be writing, we will take a different approach in the studio. One thing about the album is that if you see us at a live show, the energy is so intense, there is so much excitement and so much adrenaline. Everyone wants to get a live CD of us because there is so much passion at our live shows. It’s difficult to transfer that to a record because it has to meet certain commercial standards.
HRH: To me the album sounded like a very sleek, very well manipulated in the studio product. Very balanced, very well thought-through. And the your video to “Fairy Tales” which is up on YouTube is very sleek. It has an amazing visual impact, but it’s very sleek, and I’m surprised you are telling me you live shows are really wild.
Raam: But I’m such a perfectionist that I’m never happy with anything, to be honest. I’m just never satisfied. I can never imagine an artist saying, “Yes, I’m perfectly satisfied and this is perfect.” I’ll never be satisfied with anything and that’s why I keep pushing harder and harder – getting closer to whatever perfect is. I don’t even know if I’ll ever get there many albums down the road. But I don’t want to be some stereotypical exotic band that has just come from the Middle East and had their 5 minutes of fame. We want to be solid musicians and write great music, hopefully for the rest of our lives, and be able to share our music with people who enjoy our music as much as we do.
HRH: Is there any kind of rock scene in Iran these days?
Raam: Now there is some legal pop-music and some kind of legal rock music, but not of the kind that we play. Not of the kind that makes you dance and is sung in English. That kind of music is definitely illegal. They wouldn’t even bother to give you a permit to perform, and you have to have a permit. That’s why people take their shows to the underground – underground parties and underground raves at random places. We used to play at parking lots and abandoned homes – wherever we could. If the police caught us, we’d all be in trouble because there were boys and girls drinking, mingling and partying, which totally goes against the religious tone of the government.
HRH: When you started this band, could you anticipate your audience in advance?
Raam: Absolutely! We knew how many kids were frustrated about not being able to see their favorite bands. We used to cover ever single band you can think of from all the classic rock to every new band you can think of. The kids could never get a feel of a live show, so we were the next best thing to their favorite bands. The shows were more about the kids than us. This is where they could get an opportunity to see what it’s like to be at a good old rock n’ roll show.
HRH: So who is doing it now? Now that you’ve left?
Raam: Well, there are a couple of other bands that were doing it. One of them came to the UK, one came to the States. “No One Knows About Persian Cats” is a film about the Iranian underground scene, but we were actually the inspiration for that, we were the first ones to come out of Iran. But now there are hardly any bands left, I think there are one or two bands left who are actually playing. Others went to India or to Turkey. They just left the country because you can only go so far on the underground scene.
HRH: Will you be taking this album on the road? Are there plans for a tour?
Raam: There are plans. We are going to be doing a couple of national tours over here in the States, and we are going to head out to Europe – we haven’t played in Europe yet. We played a one-off show in Holland once, but it still wasn’t like the real Hypernova. We’re set to do a tour across Europe – from North to South, and the rest of the world as well – South American, Japan, and Australia. It’s like a dream come true to be able to travel around the world and share your music with people. It doesn’t get better than that.
HRH: So that will be happening this summer?
Raam: The only problem, believe it or not, that we have is that because we are from the “axis of evil”, we are from Iran, we can’t even go to Canada right now. My parents have been stuck in Canada for two months – we’ve been canceling shows because they have to wait for a security clearance that will prove that we are not posing a threat and we are not some dangerous terrorist group or something. I understand that they are following a procedure, I totally do, but I wish there was an easier way to process it. We’ve had so much press around the world and you would think that they wouldn’t need to check us anymore. They’ve already checked us already a hundred times. How many more times do they want to check us?
HRH: This is quite something, isn’t it?
Raam: Our visas were approved, we are only waiting for a security clearance which takes so long.
HRH: If anything, you’d think your band could be used for expanding the dialogue between the East and the West.
Raam: The first time we came to the States, our visas were denied and we had to get a New York senator involved who wrote a letter which got us a visa to come here in the first place. It was very hard to get a visa. And once we figure out the whole visa thing, it would be much easier to travel and tour around the world. But until that happens we are going to be a little bit more cautious about traveling abroad. Because once we do, it is going to be a hassle for us in every country.
HRH: Listen, I have one last question. It’s a bit goofy, but I hope you don’t mind.
Raam: Of course not.
HRH: If you were granted a true answer to any question in the universe, what would you ask?
Raam: Oh, it’s a tough one. How did it all start? How did the Universe come into being and how did it all start? That’d be pretty cool to know.
HRH: Are you a religious or a spiritual person?
Raam: I’m not really. I sort of just believe that the Universe is my guide and wherever it takes me, I just follow.