An interview with Shahin & Sepehr
by Behrouz Bahmani
About a year ago, while I was browsing the New Age section of the record store . . . wait, they don't sell records anymore. I'm sorry, in the CD store, my heart stopped for a moment as I recognized the all-too-familiar names, Shahin & Sepehr.
What shocked me was that I was unprepared to find Iranian musicians in the New Age section. I had just gotten over my disappointment at finding out that Yanni wasn't Azerbaijani.
But there Shahin & Sepehr were in all their Iranian glory. No punches pulled, no apologies, Shahin & Sepehr, as if they were in my face daring me, "C'mon, we dare you to listen!"
So I did.
The album was One Thousand and One Nights and the experience was unbelievable. Rarely these days do you find an album that is worth listening to from start to finish. You're lucky if you get two good songs. This was not only worth it, this was deserving of the extremely rare Play and Repeat.
I can best describe their sound as a cross between Ottmar without the clapping, Gipsy Kings' instrumental stuff, Enigma without the chanting, and just enough of the traditional tar (a classical Iranian three-stringed instrument similar to a sitar) to hook you.
On their second venture, "e," the mood definitely changed, but I should have expected that. I was so afraid that the one-hit wonder phenomenon was going to play its evil hand once more, as it had with so many other groups I had heard in the past. But they scored big again. I found "e" to be most personal.
Now, they have just finished recording their third album, Aria, and I can actually relax, knowing it'll be great, knowing I'll have a new friend I can trust to take me to a safe place.
I recently interviewed Shahin & Sepehr and found them to be as gallant as their music. They took the time to talk and opened their lives to me. I hope you enjoy the interview. I have included the following samples of their music, which I encourage you to download and play as you read the interview.
The Last Goodbye [ RealAudio (1k) | WAV (858k) | AU (858k) ]
East/West Highway [ RealAudio (1k) | WAV (861k) | AU (861k) ]
Skyline Drive [ RealAudio (1k) | WAV (921k) | AU (921k) ]
October Moon [ RealAudio (1k) | WAV (1013k) | AU (1013k) ]
Q: How did you get started? Whose idea was it and how far back did the concept of your musical style originate?Sepehr Hadad: Actually, we both started playing music quite young, I started in the 10th grade and Shahin began playing the guitar in the 7th grade. Neither of us is classically trained so we literally "play by ear."
Shahin's main instrument was the electric guitar and mine was the acoustic guitar. When we came to the United States for college, Shahin moved to Washington D.C. after a brief stay in San Jose, Calif., to study business and international finance at the American University.
There he formed two bands, "Amsterdam" and later "Feast or Famine," which did quite well in the Washington music scene. Amsterdam performed with Marshall Crenshaw and Spyro Gyra in concert in 1982.
Feast or Famine broke up in 1989 and Shahin and I started collaborating on a few projects that included a song for Barbara Bush's literacy campaign called "Reading, My Friend," and a song for Earth Day 1990.
We decided to create a 10-song compilation as a hobby and, to make a long story short, one thing led to another and the compilation eventually became One Thousand and One Nights.
The idea behind the style of the music was to write compositions that had no lyrics with Shahin's guitar the single voice that sings the melody for the listener. We felt this would allow the listener to decide where they wanted the song to take them.
Q: When did you leave Iran and which high school did you attend?Sepehr: I left Iran in 1975 to go to U.C. Davis in California to pursue a degree in agriculture, a field I felt Iran needed. My elementary school was "Miss Mary" or Bahar Now and high school was Iran Zamin (Tehran International School).
Shahin Shahida: I left Iran in 1977 for the U.S. to study international finance and business. My elementary school was the British school in Vienna, while my father was working for OPEC in Austria. My high school was also Iran Zamin where Sepehr and I met.
Q: What did you enjoy most as kids and to what extent do you think it has influenced your music?Sepehr: I enjoyed music and poetry, and of course soccer. Before I learned to play the guitar the only way I could artistically express myself was through poetry, which I later incorporated into ballads and folk songs.
Shahin: I enjoyed music and hiking and skiing. I was also very fond of design and architecture and try to pursue this interest in my spare time by taking courses, reading, etc.
Sepehr: I must add that his interest in design has been very useful in creating our album covers, since Shahin is usually the one who comes up with the idea for the cover. He has a great eye for that kind of art.
Q: How would you define your musical style? I mean, it has a definite "New Age" feel but each song seems to have a unique strain of Iranian-ness to it.Sepehr: I would define our style of music as "contemporary instrumental" with definite roots in rock and pop.
Shahin: You could even call it something like "contemporary world dance" because we try to use different rhythms such as reggae, samba, mambo in addition to the conventional rock and pop themes. You could say the melodies blend various influences of Persian and Spanish music as well as blues and jazz.
Q: Who are your musical influences?Sepehr: My singer/songwriter influence was Cat Stevens. I think his albums Catch Bull at Four and Foreigner were truly fantastic. My group influence was Jethro Tull, my favorite album being Living in the Past whose title is symbolic of our philosophy of life. As a famous Persian poet once said, "Az dee ke gozasht, fekr farda makon."
Shahin: Eric Clapton for his guitar-playing prowess, and Sting as a songwriter. A group that I enjoy very much is R.E.M.
Q: What music are you currently listening to in your cars or homes?Sepehr: I am currently listening to Ottmar Leibert's "Nouveau Flamenco" and Leonard Cohen's "The Future."
Shahin: I'm currently listening to Deep Forest's "Boheme" and Natalie Merchant's "Tigerlily."
Q: Although your songs are instrumental, the names of the songs inspire a great deal of imagery and spur the imagination. How do you decide on the names of your songs?Shahin: We both feel that the name of the song is an integral component of the song. In some cases, we spend more time coming up with the name than we do in writing the song.
Q: Will you be singing on any of your albums?Sepehr: We would like to. Both Shahin and I started out singing as a hobby, but Shahin took it to the professional level. Shahin was the lead singer for both of his bands and has professional experience singing in front of thousands of people.
I just sang the cliche love songs when I performed in small venues in Davis. If we did sing on our future albums we probably wouldn't sing lyrics but would be a bit subtler. Actually, Shahin has "chanted" a bit on our upcoming (July 1996) third album.
Q: Some of the titles on "e" your second album appear as if they are places in the San Francisco Bay Area. Did you ever live in the Bay Area at one time? Do you plan on returning soon?Sepehr: We have each lived in the Bay Area; Shahin for a few years before moving to D.C. and I lived there from 1979 to 1988. So for me, San Francisco does feel like home away from home.
Shahin: The names of the songs are actually real locations in the East Coast. Skyline Drive is in the Appalachian Mountains and East/West Highway (used symbolically on "e") is in Bethesda, Maryland.
But it is interesting to see that you feel the songs are from areas in the West Coast. This is exactly what we strive to do with the music, i.e., to make the listener feel an intimacy with the music, even if it is because of the name of a song.
Q: Until One Thousand and One Nights debuted in '94, I hadn't heard of you. I recently saw Kristy Yamaguchi, the American world figure skating champion perform to a song of yours on a primetime TV special on NBC. How long did it take you to become established and get to the point of "e" and now your latest album due this summer?Shahin: If you mean getting a record contract, the answer is it took us a long time of hard work and perseverance. If you mean how long it took for the music to be recognized by the industry (for example, "e" has just been nominated for Best New Age album of 1995), I would say about three years.
Sepehr: By the way, my wife gave birth to a baby boy named Kian exactly on the same day April 2 that the our album Aria was completed, now isn't that awesome. We have named one of the songs on the album in his honor Cante Kian.
Q: Do you plan on touring or performing at the concert level soon?Shahin: Yes, hopefully, we will start with at least one concert after the third album is released in July. The concert would probably be held in Los Angeles in the fall.
Q: When was the last time you were in Iran?
Sepehr: Summer of 1978.
Shahin: 1978 was also the last time I was in Iran.
Q: When you were growing up back home, were you Persepolisi or a Taji?Sepehr: One of us was a Persopolis fan, the other an Acropolis fan!
Q: Well, thanks guys for taking the time to talk to me. I just have one final question which I think everyone wants to know. And that is, do you consider barg better or koubideh? Or are you soltani fans? Also, in your opinion who serves the best chelokabab outside of Iran?Shahin: Soltani. You get the best of both worlds! The best we have had anywhere outside of Iran so far has been the chain of Moby Dick restaurants in the Washington D.C. area (and they don't serve whale kababs either).