Nov 12, 2013 9:09AM

Interview: Yellow Dogs From Oyster #92

We talk to vocalist Obash about Iran and Chris de Burgh.

Tehran band Yellow Dogs formed in 2007, but the restrictions imposed upon them by the strict Islamic government meant that even their rehearsal room had to be built in secret. Two years ago, the band was featured in No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film that (illegally) documented the underground music scene in Tehran. The coverage encouraged unwanted attention from the authorities so, faced with a choice between disbanding and fleeing, they decided to move to the United States. Tragically, two band members (Souroush and Arash), were murdered yesterday.

In an archived extract from our interview in Oyster issue 92, guitarist and vocalist Obash talks about their experiences in Tehran and how their lives have changed since moving to New York.

Ariane: How did the band start?
Obash: Our bass player Koory and our guitar player Looloosh used to play in an Iranian band called Hypernova — they’re in the US right now and they're really well known, among the Iranian community especially. When [the other members of] Hypernova left Iran, they [Koory and Looloosh] decided to create their own band. They found our drummer, Zina, and they made a practicing room on a rooftop in Tehran, like a cosy practicing room — really small, but still a cosy place. One day Koory, the bass player, called me and said, "Do you wanna join us and play with us?" and I said, "OK! That’s perfect, that's awesome." That's how it began; I think it was the beginning of 2007. But back then it was just for fun, playing music to get out of the routine of everyday life.

Your practice room had to be built in secret. Is being in a band as dangerous as it's made out to be? Or are there so many laws that it's hard for the government to enforce them?
No, it's really dangerous. First of all, our space was in a really traditional neighbourhood, all the neighbours were really religious. If the neighbours called the cops, and the cops came and checked out the space and saw that we were playing this kind of music without permission, it was going to cause a lot of problems. For making any sort of art we have to get permission from the Ministry of Culture in Iran, so if you don't have that permission it means that, somehow, you're a criminal. That's why we tried to soundproof that place [the practice room].

Did you ever try to get permission from the Ministry to play your music?
No, because from the beginning … it was impossible for us to get permission. If we showed them the lyrics of some of the songs we'd maybe even get arrested, or they'd ban us from publishing any sort of art. We really, really decided to make our own music and not give a fuck about those authorities. We wanted to be different.
What was involved in the process of moving to the States?
We were invited to come to the US and perform in different festivals each year, like South by Southwest and CMJ [the College Music Journal
Music Marathon], but we had passport issues. I had a passport, but the rest of the band couldn't get passports because they had to do their military service. In Iran all the boys have to do their military service and after that they are given passports that allow them to leave the country. So with a lot of help, we found a way to get passports without going through military service — maybe even by bribing the governmental people, because with money you can almost do anything in Tehran and Iran. But we've been through a lot of bullshit, and we struggled a lot for a whole year. Some of us got in trouble, but we finally found a way out. We wanted to come for CMJ 2009 but we couldn't make it on time, so we went to Turkey … we played a concert there, then went to the American Embassy and flew to New York, because we got the invitation for South by Southwest 2010.
Did you have any problems getting into the States with the South by Southwest invitation?
Normally all the Iranians have problems applying for the US visa, but we were a little bit different, because even the people in the embassy hadn't seen Iranians like us before [laughs]. We had a good press kit and all this attention from CNN, all sorts of media. We had a good itinerary and we showed them that we were going to do a tour in the United States — which we did last summer — and so that really helped us.
In the CNN interview you said, "We don’t want to change the world, we just want to play music." Do you feel that people expect you to be
revolutionary because you're from Iran?
Yeah, they really want to show that the teenagers, the underground artists in Iran, are so charismatic and revolutionary. But really, we think that whole idea of charismatic leaders and all this kind of thing is gone. It's for the sixties and seventies; we are not that sentimental anymore [laughs]. We really don't give a fuck right now; we just want to play music and enjoy our life. Although I know that the situation in Iran for the youth and all these people is pretty sad, what can I do? I'm not a politician. I just want to play music and have fun.
Do you think that the way in which the situation is portrayed to the Western world is very different to how things actually are?
There's absolutely some exaggeration in the outside coverage, but there's still something going on out there and … they [the Western media] are showing all this to the other parts of the world. That's the really positive thing about it, because these kinds of people [the Iranians] don't have any access to the media. The Iranian media — the governmental media — never show them. 
Farsi is the second most popular blog language in the world — there are over 700,000 Iranian blogs. Why do you think this is so?
Because it's a closed society; even the youth, they feel this lack of entertainment. So, in their privacy, when they're alone in their houses, they sit in front of their computer and they enter another world with no limits … they communicate online with people. The internet has an important place in what's happening in Iran. We started playing this kind of music because of the internet; we used to download the music we loved from the internet. We didn't have any mentors or any bigger bands in Iran whose concerts we used to go to; there wasn't much of that.
What Western artists are big in Iran?
There is Tiësto and these kinds of people, Pink Floyd, Metallica. These people are big, like Chris de Burgh is big.
Chris de Burgh?
Yeah! He's big in Iran; really big in Iran.
[Laughs] The eighties bands — Talking Heads and all those people were big in Iran, totally. But the music we used to play and the bands we used to listen to? Nobody used to know them in Iran.
What sort of bands were they?
Joy Division, The Rapture, the new indie music and some old sixties, seventies rock and roll. They are not very popular in Iran. The foreign bands that are most popular are Metallica and Pink Floyd. You can see people tagging their skateboards with Metallica logos and Pink Floyd [laughs].
So Chris de Burgh isn't a big influence for you?
Not at all [laughs], not at all. 
What's the difference between playing gigs in Iran and in the US?
It's really different. In Iran we used to throw our own concerts, in our own places, with all our own budgets and everything. But here it's super easy, you go and load in and load out and there's no stress of being arrested by the cops. In Iran the shows are mostly stressful and so energetic — the people go crazy. Here it's definitely harder to entertain people, but when you entertain them then that means you've made it. This is the place that this music is coming from, so if you can convince these people and make them happy, it's OK. Here it's fun, we're really making a good scene here — we've got this loft, and all these crazy artists are coming in and going out. Somehow it's like an Iranian embassy of young artists in the middle of Brooklyn [laughs]. It's fun; I really like it. Here … people are so individual, but we have a scene — there are so many people that we know, and we all hang out with each other, and we do tours and concerts. We really don't give a fuck about the whole business kind of thing — making money and making it in the US. We just want to make our own Shangri-La.
It's been a year since you've moved to Brooklyn. What is it like living in the States compared with Iran?
Well, each of us is different, but here the biggest thing for me is that nobody judges you. In Iran people easily judge you, because of your appearance and what you're doing and whatever. In Iran a lot of people thought that we were rich kids — we weren't at all — and that we had nothing to do, and we were so well-fed and well-dressed that we had none of the issues of the other young people. But it's totally wrong. At first when I came, it took a while to adapt. It's really easier here … here I don't give a fuck. We go do whatever we want.
Are you happier now that you're in the States?
Yeah, totally! Really, really yes. I really like it; it's perfect.


Photos: Ben Rayner