The phone line has gone dead for the third time, and it takes a few minutes to dial the epic sequence of digits that connects a shaky New York cell to a Dubai office. When Obaash, frontman of Iranian band Yellow Dogs, comes back on the line he is laughing: “Man, maybe I talk too much,” he says, as we try to pick up where we left off. Something about an illegal show in a Tehran basement. Oh yeah, he says. That show.
It had been Yellow Dogs’ first, held in the days before the documentary No One Knows About Persian Cats made Iran’s underground music scene the stuff of legend, and before subsequent heat motivated the indie-rock four-piece to head for safer pastures. It was just a couple of hundred kids gathered in a basement garage, two local bands – dancing, smoking, mingling, rocking out.
“We really had no idea what crime we were committing by playing music,” explains Obaash. “In our concerts everything that was illegal was legal. People didn’t have to wear the veil; boys and girls were together; there was a dance floor. None of those people had been to a rock concert before, including me.
“We did everything we could to avoid being seen,” he recalls. “But after our second show we heard that some neighbors were calling the cops, telling them that weird activity was going on. So we said, ‘F*** that. We’re never playing here again.’”
After the venue was shut down, Yellow Dogs moved to a rooftop ‘practice room’ on the outskirts of Tehran, which was where they met filmmaker Brahman Globoid. Globoid included the band in No One Knows About Persian Cats, which told the story of musicians fighting censorship and repression in Iran. The movie won a Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – was not received quite so sympathetically in Tehran.
“The government suddenly got very interested. They made a TV series about musicians and said all these people are Satanists and we have to execute all of them and they don’t believe in God. So, after we saw that stuff and after the film, we thought, ‘Man, we have to get out of the country before we get our asses busted,’” Obaash explains.
And so they did, first flying to Istanbul at the end of 2009 – where they played their first legal show – and then to Brooklyn, where they hooked up with Iranian-run record label Never Heard. Since then the band has come forward in leaps and bounds, playing a U.S. tour which encompassed everything from empty halls in Phoenix, Arizona, to sell-out shows in L.A. and Brooklyn. In 2010 they released In the Kennel, their first EP, and in March they started a run of shows at SXSW (South by Southwest).
“We didn’t expect any of this, no. Of course we always had the dream to do this and just travel around playing shows but we never expected that it would become reality,” Obaash says, pausing for a second before adding, quickly, that it is not only luck that has brought Yellow Dogs from a Tehran basement to U.S. tours. “We really pushed ourselves,” he says. “We pushed all the limits.”
Persian Cats certainly gives the impression that the majority of young bands from Iran seek eventually to flee the country, unlike in Saudi Arabia, where musicians face significant odds but still choose to organize shows and record albums. It’s a point that Obaash is happy to concede, not only because of the risks that bands are forced to take in Iran, but because the future of the music scene is, shall we say, bleak.
“I’m telling you, it’s a sick society. In Saudi Arabia they don’t automatically punish you and throw you in jail for playing rock & roll, but in Iran they will put you in jail. When we did all those concerts and all that crazy stuff in Iran, we were just playing for a small community, it was all passion. You’re never going to play stadiums in Tehran,” he says.
“There’s no future for musicians in Iran right now, even the folklore musicians, any kind of musicians. It’s really hard, you have to either sell yourself to the government or get out of the country. That’s it.”
But if Yellow Dogs moved from Iran to make it, it is just as true that they want to make it on their own terms. They are not, Obaash explains, going to rant and rave about their country every chance they get as a way of garnering support. Yellow Dogs may hail from Iran, and their experiences in the country have certainly shaped the band, but Obaash believes that the music speaks for itself.
“We try not to say ‘Iran, Iran, Iran;’ because the essence of the band is not only that we’re from Iran. I like our music and I know a lot of other people who like our music. We really want to play and make progress like any other band from any other country,” he says.
“The things we sing about right now, they are surrealistic, symbolic… They are stories. You can relate them to Iran or to America, whatever. We don’t want to be only a political band.”
Photograph by Sylvester Zawadzki