The truth is I was a bit nervous at first. After all, it is not often that I have the chance to meet a total stranger whose voice has become a part of my every day routine. Odd as it may seem, this one dimensional nature of fame is an inevitable reality for all successful artists including the one I was about to interview. Adapting to increased recognition and celebrity is an adjustment that Arash Sobhani will most likely have to make in the upcoming years because both he and his band Kiosk [kiosk-music.com] have gained significant popularity and recognition recently across the US, Europe and Iran and show no signs of slowing down. Accompanied by two dear friends/hosts from the Bay area, (one of whom is the infamous Jahanshah of Iranian.com) I walked in to the Steps of Rome Cafe. Our trio had been running a bit behind driving into San Francisco from Berkeley and Arash had been on time so he must have gotten bored and left to go walk around. I took advantage of the few extra minutes I had to set up my laptop and order a latte, while someone else called him and within a few minutes he was walking into the café. Dressed both very casual and very San Francisco, Arash is the type of person who puts you immediately at ease. Easy going and calm, he has a big smile and a balanced, effortless energy which makes understanding and connecting with his music even more real when you meet him in person. After a few minutes of small talk and some pictures, my friends leave for a stroll around North Beach, and our conversation begins.
M: What influenced you growing up? A: I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Dire Straits and Rock music in general. I also read a lot of books and that gave me a good balance of exposure to both Western culture and Iranian literature. I think those who left the largest impact on me personally are Sadegh Hedayat and Shamloo.
M: How long have you been living in the States now and what type of music do you listen to for your own pleasure? For example, what would I be able to find on your iPod right now? A: I left Iran 3 years ago to settle here permanently, but I used to live in the US when I was younger. As for music, I am currently into a lot of Argentinean, Gypsy, Eastern-European, World, or Ethnic music. Not the same as what I perform in Kiosk obviously.
M: Kiosk has existed for a very long time now and has gone through many changes. Can you please explain where the concept came from and how the band has evolved? A: The concept and inspiration for Kiosk came from me and then there were other individuals who joined in and helped in forming what later became the band. Some of the original musicians are still in the band today, but there are others that came and went and then there are also those who will participate on a limited as-needed basis.
M: I have heard Kiosk classified under a variety of different types of music, but I would like to know what you personally would call your style of music. A: There are variations in every track and each album, so it is not easy to call it one thing. You can hear Jazz, Blues, Rock, and even a little Country in there. The music is definitely “Alternative” from what currently exists and is the norm in our culture, which is mostly pop. Traditionally, this style of music was always referred to as “underground music” in Iran and while it may not be called underground anymore, because we are not literally performing “underground” here anymore, it is still underground to me because it cannot be sold freely in Iran and Iranian society still continues to be underground in so many ways.
M: There have been many attempts to bring Western influence into Iranian music, especially in the area of pop, which have mainly had awkward results at best. How then, do you explain the success of fusing foreign music with Iranian lyrics to create something that is so naturally representative of Iran and of our generation? A: I am not really sure I can comment on why something works or not in the Iranian Pop industry, but as far as Rock is concerned, I think it is the same across the world. Rock is the music of protest. It is the music of simple feelings, and of simple expression. It is not intended to serve a specific class or certain group of people. It is the music of all people. I think the biggest challenge that Rock music had in Iran was with the lyrics. Because of our rich and complex literature and verse we have this extremely elevated standard set for ourselves and we think all good work must have that level of verse to go along with it. We felt that we must use deep lyrics from deep sources, and that simply does not work in Rock music.
M: Well, your Lyrics are extremely deep and I think they are what actually “MAKE” the band stand out and really be remembered. Not only is the message in each song very thought provoking but the words just seem to roll out naturally. It seems ironic to me that, in a society where we have such a hard time speaking clearly and directly about the simplest things, you manage to communicate your feelings about all the social maladies around you in a very informal, effortless and direct manner. A: It was the lyrics that made us; I won’t deny that. The music is huge too, but I think we have always been about the lyrics and the message first. The cultural restrictions that you’re talking about, I see in 2 forms. There are 2 sets of restrictions imposed on us right now; the first is government-imposed and the second is self-imposed. In order for Iranian society to reach the same level of maturity as its western counterparts in a capacity of open and direct communication, it first needs to have the government-imposed restrictions lifted. Once this happens, the society itself will still need to go through the growing pains of learning and developing to reach the next level so that it can then remove the self-imposed restrictions that remain. Only then will it reach the maturity of open and direct dialogue, but the first step still remains the lifting of government-imposed restrictions which are very much in place right now.
M: You have 2 great albums out and a successful North-American tour behind you now. Should your fans expect a continuation of the same or will they start to see the influence of your new environment in your new material taking on a new direction? A: We really do not come up with a concept or idea first and develop it, the way the big record labels operate. We try to express our message in a way that is genuine and true to ourselves and according to our standards and values and we hope that it is received well by the fans as well. We never create any of our music with any marketing ideas or final product in mind, so if there is a connection, it is truly direct. Most importantly, we won’t limit ourselves or try to force anything. We are not going to try to force our Iranian identity on a track by sticking a piece of santoor on there, but if it fits in naturally and we feel like it sounds good there, then we will put it in. The same would be true if it was any other instrument from anywhere else.
M: Iran and social consciousness is not only the universal theme of your lyrics but also an essential part of the band’s identity. Now that you are all outside of Iran and have lost that daily contact, how do you feel that will change your inspiration? A: I think you can always spot a liar from far away. My commitment to myself is to always be honest with what I write and the message I speak, whether it is about Iran, about myself, about here, about San Francisco, about Mashhad, it doesn’t matter where. As long as I feel it genuinely, then I will say it. I am sure that certain experiences about my life here will eventually find their way in my lyrics but honestly, I think I have lived in Iran long enough that I will have 2 lifetimes’ worth to speak about Iran without ever feeling like I will run out of material.
M: Some Iranian artists who have achieved recognition for their talent in highly competitive European countries have criticized the Iranian art community for failing to establish adequate standards and critics, both as a means to institute basic guidelines as well as a means to weed out those who fail to meet them thereby preventing them from polluting the industry. What is your opinion about this suggestion? A: I have to disagree with whoever said this. I don’t think music belongs to any one particular person for them to judge what should or should not be. I think the best judge is the listener and whether they connect with the message or not. As for establishing any type of standard, I think it would be cool to have a top 40s or something like that to keep track of what is popular, to know what is selling and what doesn’t, just to be able to follow what the trends are over time. Other than that people should just be allowed to do their own thing.
M: Now that you have gotten the chance to go on tour and you have gotten to see Iranians all over the US and in Canada, what do you think of your fans? Who are they? A: Well, Iranians are really different in each city as you know. It was interesting to see the characteristics of each community in each area. For example in Toronto we went in nervous at first and then we psyched ourselves up and we thought we were going to blow this crowd away, and they were the ones that really ended up blowing us away. They knew all of the lyrics and they truly blew us away. For the most part I would have to say our audience is comprised of professionals, mostly college educated, mostly male, over the age of 50, broken-hearted, followers of Iranian current events, and internet savvy.
M: I know you’re an architect and that is your main job and music is your hobby, but how committed are you to music and how long can we expect to hear from Kiosk? A: There are 2 conditions that this group is based on. The first is that we perform for our own enjoyment and the second is that we do so at a high standard. I think as long as we continue to enjoy ourselves and keep up a high standard, our audience will also enjoy it because the feeling that is shared on stage is passed on to the crowd.
I am sure somewhere, someone has written a “How-To” manual on interviewing and Arash in all probability might have secretly been wishing he had bought me a copy of it sooner but he was too nice to let it show. Before we knew it, 2 hours had rolled by and some of my questions had taken us on various tangents which were all fascinating of course. Ultimately, what I found most captivating about Arash is that, although he may think he is just an ordinary guy, he embodies an ideal, especially for our generation. He is what Iran might look like without those 2 types of restraints we spoke of earlier. He is a great example of what Iranian identity looks like when it is unleashed with the kind of limitless freedom of expression and self-definition that is emblematic of the west. A young man who communicates with such openness and ease that I find it difficult to give him an example of the opposite. But, fortunately for me, he knows exactly what I am talking about and it is precisely this equilibrium I see in him which is what I like the best.
I catch the flash of a camera from the corner of my eye and turn to my left. It is Jahanshah standing outside and taking a very artsy photo. I also take this as my cue that they are back from their stroll and it’s time to wrap things up and let poor Arash leave. I was told repeatedly how nice he was before meeting him and of course when he agreed to meet with me for an interview on such short notice, despite not feeling well and coming down with a cold, it made him even nicer. However, this was not a care bear cartoon and we were not giving out free hugs. I wanted to know what really drove him and as we were wrapping up a conversation about (my favorite topic of 2007) Iranians in Iran versus abroad, he mentioned something that finally hit the spot. He was talking about how often when Iranians want to show disapproval or criticize someone they feel they need to do so in a competitive way.
It is not good to be competitive. We have nothing to prove. Life is not competition. It is simply about a scream that is caught in your throat and that has to be released and that has to be let out. If you can get it out, then get it out, and if you can’t then stand aside and let someone else do it.
There it was. I found it! The “bug”, the “kerm”, “el duende”, however you want to call it, there is something that all artists have in common, and he was no exception. Those who perform, are questioned rather often as to why they have chosen to do what they do and in my limited experience, their reaction is typically the same. They have chosen their art because they have no other choice. Just as he mentioned it is a scream that needs to be let out, whether it is in the form of music, or poetry, or live performance or something else. In Arash’s case, while finding and fine-tuning his scream, he also has given a voice to the frustrations and daily plights of a generation of his peers. It may not be completely traditional, or have the widest range but it fits us only like our own skin could.
For more information, please visit kiosk-music.com. My gratitude goes out to Arash Sobhani for the time he gave me for this interview.
Mersedeh Mehrtash is the English editor at Peyk magazine published in San Diego, California. This interview was first published in the magazine’s January 2008 issue.