Growing up in Iran, where making a song critical of the government can land you in a solitary confinement prison cell, where all musicians are supposed to seek approval from the highly restrictive Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for any music and lyrics they want to perform or release, where Rock music is considered de facto “Western” and is associated by the regime with the “Great Satan” of the United States of America, The Yellow Dogs Band really took their chances in not only recording and uploading their unapproved music, participating in and being filmed guerilla-style for the illegal, Cannes award-winning film about Iranian underground music, “Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats” by Bahman Ghobadi, but also playing illegal, unapproved live shows in Tehran–putting them in direct danger of detection and arrest. These kids cherish freedom of speech, and they spoke very freely during this interview. Sadly, the realization set in later that although they are free to say whatever they want now, this may not always be prudent. Having awareness of the dynamics involved, and possibly severe repercussions, I deleted some potentially highly controversial things from this interview at their request.
Obaash (vocals and guitar): Our first legal show was in Istanbul. Turkey has the best rock scene in the Middle East. Two weeks after this concert, we flew to New York. Our second and third (and fourth) legal shows were in New York.
How many illegal shows in Iran?
Obaash: Two illegal shows. We played in a soundproofed old basement with the Free Keys. We had a genius lightman who brought lasers and smoke to create a real rock show atmosphere. 90% of the audience had never been to any rock shows. And we used to practice everyday in a room on a rooftop. Friends came and watched. 10 or 12 people in room when we played.
The rooftop where Bahman Ghobadi filmed you in “Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats”?
Wow, I thought you guys literally only played underground in heavily soundproofed basements to avoid detection by police. How did you get away with playing on a roof?
Obaash: Neighbors were kind.
How did you soundproof a room on a roof?
Obaash: Pillows and foam and egg crates. People walking in the street could hear us.
That reminds me of after the election when people in Iran went up on the roof and yelled, “Allahu Akbar!” Do you guys follow any religions? You don’t have to tell me. You can keep it secret if you want to.
Obaash: We don’t follow any religion. We just want to live in peace and freedom.
Koory (bass and vocals): We don’t follow any kind of religion. In our identity cards we are Muslims, but…
In Iran, the government can kill you if you change your religion.
Zina (drums): We don’t have any problem with Jesus or Mohammad or any prophets. We just don’t want to follow anything we don’t have to.
Some people are followers. Some people are leaders.
Obaash: Some people like to lead the followers.
Yes, they do. Hmm… I’ve seen you guys play twice now, about a week apart, and I already noticed a change. Do you feel less innocent now?
Obaash: More confident, more joyful. We’re getting used to playing in front of crowds.
Koory: Shows in Iran were really crazy–their first experience of a rock show. People jumping around, dancing, when they go to a real live show.
Obaash: They gather all of energy just to have fun.
Koory: I have lots of friends in Canada. They say that if Tehran had bars and clubs, they would move there. You will do anything to have more fun–dance for four hours, and they drink really a lot.
But the police could show up any minute. (Alcohol is illegal for Muslims in Iran. Muslims who have been caught drinking in public may be whipped as punishment, leaving their backs covered in blood.)
Obaash: That adds more adrenaline to the show.
Yeah, but were you guys ever arrested?
Sina: I was arrested for my hair.
Obaash: I was arrested for my hair too. (laughing.)
Koory: We are lucky. (That they were not arrested for music.)
Zina: A father of a friend was always in front of the house for two hours just to make sure no police comes. He watered the plants for two hours. One time there he was watering on a rainy day!
Koory: But police never came.
Obaash: We didn’t announce on the internet when we were playing.
How many people came to your shows in Iran?
Obaash: 250 people one time in Tehran, the other time 150.
Tell me about the song lyrics. In “New Century,” you sing about people eating burgers and ice cream, and then later in the song you sing, “this is how the human race will fall.”
Obaash: Everyday we make trash. Sometimes i think to myself, there are billions of houses making trash. Someday we will fall by our trash cans.
Did you see the movie WALL-E?
Obaash: Yes, this was great!
I’m more familiar with Iranian hip hop than rock. They usually rap in Farsi, and some of their producers use Iranian instruments. But The Yellow Dogs not only play “Western” rock music, you also sing in English and don’t use Iranian instruments. Have you gotten any criticism for this from young people in Iran?
Obaash: Playing music was our biggest hobby. We decided to make the music that we love. We don’t give a damn what people think. If they like our music, that’s good. But if they don’t like it, we are still playing music that we love.
Koory: We are not professional in Iranian instruments, but we could get sounds out of them. Maybe if someone gives us those instruments we will add them.
Have you guys studied music, or taken lessons? How did you learn to play?
Obaash: A little bit lessons, we searched tableture on the internet, Raam from Hypernova helps us. Koory and Looloosh (guitar and synthesizer) were in Hypernova when they were in Tehran. Iranian underground music is a small community and we help each other. Well, other people helped us. We are the punk rock musicians. We are always the young kids playing dirty music.
Speaking of dirty, can you explain the slang meaning of the term “Koskhol”? That’s the name of one of your songs.
Obaash: Koskhol means “real maniac”–but really impolite. Friends can say, “yaro koskhole”. The song is about how the foreigners think about Iran and Middle East–and how our leader shows the whole country, and how we are soldiers riding on camels. “Koskhole” is about those things. A German friend came to visit in Tehran, and asked if he could rent a camel to go to Esfahaan.
He was joking, right? Those are both very modern, developed cities.
Obaash: No, he was serious. He had just flown into Tehran that night, and he didn’t know much. So we told him to just go outside the next day look around and see how the city is.
Koory: Sometimes media shows us really bad–that they hit their women all the time–like, the media is making Iranians seem like crazy maniacs.
Well, the Ashura ceremony where guys make their heads bleed with swords is pretty scary looking.
Koory: Yeah, but that’s out in rural areas. I’ve never seen that.
Obaash: Maniacs in religion, politics, music, on guitar…
Your lead guitarist does not look like a maniac.
Obaash: Looloosh is shy.
Looloosh looks very serious on stage, very dedicated to the music. Hey, do people tell Koory he looks like a young Jimmy Page?
Koory: But I’m the bass player, not the guitarist.
I know, but you look like him. How about the drummer? Zina, Iranian traditional music has a very different beat from Western music. Did you grow up listening to rock music in Iran?
Zina: My parents listened to rock, but nothing hard–Simon and Garfunkle, Bee Gees.
No Pink Floyd?
Zina: Pink Floyd is the most popular rock band in Iran.
Obaash: “We don’t need no education.” That stance against control really means a lot to Iranians.
Zina: There was a time that when a record got spread in a university–just that record, before internet. People would listen to that record for a year–one record, a million times.
Obaash: I love “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.
Me too! What other music do you love?
Obaash: We’ve got some Joy Division influences. Their music and lyrics were very specific. They were unique–really simple, but also really moving. I like to listen to minimal music. There was a time that painters used to paint realistic, but then there was a new wave of painters who just wrote a line on a board and it was considered a painting.
Do you like to go look at art?
Zina: Back in Iran I went to art university for graphics. I like to paint with my hands. I can also do it with a computer.
Obaash: In Iran there is not a lot of entertainment, and a lot of youngsters get into art and making music. Everybody likes to find some hobby just to escape from the daily routine life. Now in Tehran there is a lot of art and music happening.
I found Tehran really exciting, even though I was just a tourist, you could just feel it. But there’s always the danger there that the government will take what freedom you have away. What’s it like for you, being in New York now?
Obaash: New York is really, really freer than Iran. Here it is much more free. Now we are discovering it.
Koory: But we will still speak about freedoms that we don’t have.
How do people in New York react when you tell them you are Iranian?
Obaash: For us the reaction of people is good, when we tell them, “Yes, we are Iranian”, they are shocked. It’s really strange for them to see rock musicians from Iran.
Security forces and police in Iran can be very scary to say the least. How do you feel when you see police here in New York?
Obaash: Well, I notice them. I try to act like a good guy. I didn’t have any problems. They are cool people.
Do you have groupies yet? Do you know what a groupie is? (The bandmembers look at each other, and are silent for a moment.)
Obaash: Well, yes we have. We have one. I will show her to you. She is sleeping.
Wow! Do you guys share her? Is that how Persians do?
Obaash: Here she is. (He shows me a big housecat that is sleeping on a cushion.) She is our groupie.
(Laughing) That’s nice! Well, given time… I saw you interviewed on CNN in Tehran, and you kissed your mom goodbye before going to practice with Yellow Dogs each day. Do you miss your mom?
Obaash: Yes, definitely. But she wants me to make success. I especially miss her cooking. In Iran we used to live really easy. We were really comfortable in our houses. Everything was in the right place…But now we have concerts coming up. (They played the Delancey in New York on March 11th.) We go to SXSW (South by Southwest) and play the festival at The Wave in Austin, Texas on March 17, at 8pm. We were also invited to play the CMJ music festival, but we couldn’t get visas in time. We will be back in New York for Noruz, Iranian new year on March 21. On April 16th the Bahman Ghobadi film we are in, “Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats” opens in New York. To see upcoming gigs and hear our songs, visit www.myspace.com/theyellowdogsband. (To see a trailer of the film, visit http://www.youtube.com/jigsawnovich#p/a/f/2/_pBGbs… . To see photos of all the band members, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/jigsawnovich/ Read my interview with Mahdyar Aghajani, another musician involved in this film http://iranian.com/main/2009/oct/seeking-refug… and my interview with the Bahman Ghobadi, the director http://iranian.com/main/blog/jigsawnovich/inte… )
Tell me about the meaning of your band’s name, The Yellow Dogs.
Obaash: As friends, we call each other yellow dog. “Koory, sage zard.” There is a Persian saying, “sage zard baradare shoghaleh.” The translation is “the yellow dog is the brother of jackal.” That means, the yellow dog is just another bad dog, not a loyal dog. You cannot control this dog like another dog. This is an old Iranian slang. Nobody can control us.
Later, after the interview, I listened again to The Yellow Dogs, “New Century,”and found lyrics I hadn’t understood before, “There’s a mind for sale. Uncle Sam’s gonna buy the thing.” Yet they also have a song, “My Country,” where Obaash sings with regret that his country is “stuck in the Middle Ages.” Somehow I have faith in the 20-something Iranians in The Yellow Dogs to navigate the Free World with the balance of skepticism, sophistication, caution and enthusiasm that will keep them from falling into traps commonly associated with the fame and fortune that surely await them.
Julie Jigsawnovich is an artist and writer living in New York City. Contact her at: email@example.com