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Setting Things Right

by ARASH KARAMI

24 Sep 2010 20:21Comments


Kiosk's Arash Sobhani discusses the band's forthcoming album.

[ Q&A ] "The engineers have gone into the work of import and export," sings Arash Sobhani in "Hame Ragham Mojood Ast" (We Carry All Kinds). He continues, "The fascists of yesterday have today become the leaders of reform; it's not necessary to know how to speak, or if you've just recently arrived, all you need is blue eyes to become an actor for the movies."

Then the chorus: "Here, nothing is in its place."

Whether it's business, politics, or the arts, Arash Sobhani, lead singer and songwriter of the band Kiosk, has difficulty finding anything in its rightful place as it pertains to his homeland of Iran.

Despite his poignantly powerful lyrics, which he tends to deliver at high speed, he has a smooth, melodic tone that belies the fire and rage of one of Iran's most prolific contemporary social critics. With his pen and his voice, he has taken aim at a variety of institutions, customs, trends, laws, and everyday realities of modern Iran.

He was born in 1971 in Iran and began playing the guitar in his early teens with several friends. They eventually formed Kiosk, whose named was inspired by the temporary locations, such as newspaper stands, where they would meet to play music as an underground band. He immigrated to the Bay Area for good after 2005 for reasons that he simply describes as a "common story for many Iranians my age."

Some of the other original Kiosk members have also left Iran, and with a couple new additions, the band now includes Tara Kamangar on violin, Aradalan Payvar on keyboard and accordion, Ali Kamali on bass, and Shahrooz Molaie on drums, with Sobhani on guitar. They all contribute to an eclectic sound that incorporates a multitude of instruments and styles, making Kiosk one of the most innovative bands in the Iranian expat community.

Perhaps what has kept Kiosk relevant is that one doesn't get the impression that Arash is an ill-tempered artist who harbors anger at "the man" or "the system" and feels compelled to continuously vent his countless gripes. Rather, he comes across as an intelligent and sensitive soul burdened by what he sees as wrong with his homeland and who wants no more than to see everything in its rightful place.

***

When did you start playing music and what prompted it?

I started when I was 14-15. My uncle exposed me to all this rock music and I just thought this was a magical thing. The first time I thought maybe I can play this instrument, I went out and bought a guitar.

When did you begin to organize a group to play music with? How did you meet your bandmates?

When I was in high school, Shahrouz -- Kiosk's drummer now, my classmate then -- told me about his band and I joined them. We were teenagers. The band was named Tatar 2 -- some very good musicians were in that band. Tatar 2 was among the very first underground bands. It was the late '80s, digital recording was not yet around, but we recorded four albums, all original material, all in English (unfortunately). A couple of them were concept albums, meaning the songs were following a storyline.

But through the years I was involved with many other bands...and we all knew each other and at some point had probably jammed with each other, so the Kiosk band members had some history.

Did you intend on becoming an underground band in Iran? What was that process like of organizing, promoting, and playing underground?

The Kiosk project was not planned -- it was basically a collection of songs that I knew the chances of getting permission from the government for their release or performance was really low. But these were the words and music that described my mood best, so I had to record them. When we all started to look at it as something more personal, it started to attract attention and make us realize that there are other people out there that relate and we should share this. And that's how it started. Very personal.

When I first heard "Esgh-e Sorat" [video above], I couldn't help but feel there was an essence of Tehran in the song (this was before I had seen Ahmad Kiarostami's music video). In what way do you feel that growing up in Tehran, one of the world's largest, most populated cities, has benefited and influenced your lyrics?

Well, most of our lyrics are about our own lives. Tehran, like any other big city, is a living thing and just breathing there can change the way you look at things. It is no surprise to me when I hear people say your song smells like Tehran. Tehran was -- as Billy Joel once said about New York -- my state of mind when I was writing.

In the past, you have said that the only difference between the Reformist era and other periods is that during the Reformist era you were initially given permits to perform and that once you had organized everything, your permit was revoked the day of the event. Whereas in other eras, you were denied the initial permit to begin with. Given that you and many other artists came to prominence during this era, what are your feelings looking back on this moment in time?

I still have problems with people who overlook some basic facts regarding that era. That era and its minimal freedom was not shaped by anything other than the fact that there was a huge number of people under the age 25 who were coming out of colleges and schools, and rightfully demanded more freedom.

Times had changed. War had ended so there was no excuse to put that pressure on the society. Technology, satellites, and the Internet had exposed the outside world to this young creative generation and they needed more -- more freedom of speech, to begin with. And I think for the system it would have been more costly to deny those rights with an iron fist. So they allowed some newspapers to write some controversial stuff here and there before shutting them down, or some music to be on the air before they turned it off. I think that era was shaped by the power of numbers.

In the lyrics of many of your songs, you are critical of this obsession with materialism that is prevalent among some Iranians, particularly the urban youth -- lyrics like "character is your cell phone, your home address, and the brand of your jeans." To what do you attribute this fixation on materialism, particularly among the younger generation? And how do think that materialism has affected our culture?

In societies like Iran, culture has been associated with wealth for centuries. When wealth and power shift from one group to another, you are left with a new wealthy group with no culture. They know people do not take them seriously just because of their money, so they try to "buy" culture. They create their new version and shove it down the people's throats. That's when the opportunity comes for swindlers to sell cheap or fake culture...and I am talking in general.

We are talking about a country that does not allow the culture to grow from the middle class up. They are destroying anything that the middle class has created throughout our history so far. The top-down model works best for them and that's when the nature of this class comes to surface. The materialistic way of life, a society that is extremely obsessed with sex, a culture of lying and false promises -- this is the very nature of the values this new ruling class is living with.

Look at Dubai. You feel that they are begging to buy that culture wherever you look! They are spending huge amounts of money to buy culture and history and create some legitimacy for their wealth. When you look at the materialistic culture in a country like Iran, from this angle a lot of things make sense, from the programs they produce on TV, the soccer craze, the music scene, cinema -- they all are in perfect harmony, making a disgusting sound!

Many of your music videos, such as "Esgh-e Sorat," "Roozmaregi," "To Kojaee," and "Ey Dad Az Esgh," are very innovative and unlike many other videos I've seen either inside Iran or outside of the country. Do you personally work with your directors? Is it different every time -- do you think innovative directors have just been attracted to your songs?

I think we were lucky to have such creative friends around us. The process of creation of each music video has its own story.

Your lyrics are very interesting in that many times they're a play on words, such as "the power of love or the love of power," and you are able to maintain this theme or rhythm throughout the song. This is very difficult to do without the lyrics becoming trite. How did your songwriting evolve? Do you have favorite poets that inspired this style? Are there modern Iranian poets you admire, or other poets, that you feel may have influenced your style?

Bob Dylan has always been the source, he remains my biggest influence. Tom Waits, Mark Knopfler, Leonard Cohen -- they all have influenced me a lot as well. Among Farsi/Persian poets, I have always been touched by Shamloo's strong delivery and Nima Youshij, whom I admire. But I have to point out that I do not consider myself a poet. I am a lyricist and there is a difference there.

I think Kiosk's music is perhaps overshadowed by your lyrics because very few discuss the musicianship of the band. However, I sometimes play your music for my American friends and despite not understanding the lyrics, they still like the songs very much. Has this translated into an American audience that buys your CDs or attends your live shows?

We have had many different types of people in our concerts of various ages and different nationalities. Our main audience is Farsi/Persian speakers, naturally. We have tried in our upcoming album to work more on the melody and produce a more international sound. But our most important customers, whom we always want to keep satisfied, are ourselves! We do not want to make music to get the attention of a particular group of people; we want to make music that we would enjoy playing and listening to.

I think your song "Roozmaregi" serves almost as a cultural map of your generation's desires, frustrations, confusion, sense of humor, joy, boredom. No article or movie or book has really captured that essence of what it means to be young and living in Iran, especially in a city like Tehran. Have you ever been called the voice of your generation? Does that label bother you, given that in your song "Adameh Mamooli" you extol the virtues of living an ordinary life and being an "ordinary man."

"Voice of the generation," "pride of the nation," or any other label like that, I think has no value. They're good for marketing but they don't represent anything. I am very much against anything "iconic." Any person that wants to stand out as a symbol or hero is fake!

The fact is with reality TV, video games, and the visual and audio capabilities that anyone can have access to, anyone can make music, and anyone can make an animation or a movie. There is no need for superstars when everyone can be one. The superstars were fake to begin with -- most of these beautiful, well-built actors who in their films were kicking everyone's butt were wimps in real life. Or the writers who preached or sang about morality were living a freaky life. No one is good enough to be representing anything!

Look at our heroes in our generation. They all turned out to be real humans, with real shortcomings. So the answer is no, I am not the voice of the generation. A few years ago I would have been flattered if I was called that, but now I have grown. I sometimes think if Andy Warhol, who once said everyone will have 15 minutes of fame in the future, was here today, he would probably say no one will be famous and everyone will be famous in the future!

In your song "Taghseere Man Bood" (It Was My Fault), you recite a variety of crises from "the Arab-Israeli war" to "unemployment" and you conclude sarcastically that it was "my fault." It was written after a horrible plane crash that killed many civilians, correct? You said you wrote it because no authority took responsibility for it and that this was the Khatami era and things were supposed to be different. Do you see this unaccountability just as a political problem or are there cultural ramifications as well that you are addressing in your song?

I think every political problem has a cultural root. I had a conversation with a few of my friends and they were defending Khatami. They were arguing that "if you don't see the changes it's because they don't let him do what he wants." My argument was, okay, maybe they don't want him to have control over the armed forces etc., for power-struggle reasons. But can't he accomplish other important tangible things? For instance, the traffic in Tehran was really getting out of control and it was clear that it would get to the point it is at now. Or the pollution. Or simply come out and tell people who was responsible for a plane crash!! No one is accountable in Iran and yes, that is a cultural thing also.

You have said that your writing process involves collecting phrases or sentences. For instance, "Eshge Sorat" was inspired by the term "Islamic democracy," which you compared in your song to "pizzaye ghormeh sabzi" (pizza with a traditional Iranian stew topping), as in mixing the East with the West. But now that you are in America, how you do stay tapped into the current terms, slogans, and expressions in Iran? Do you think you can feel enough of what your generation is going through in order to continue to stay relevant as an Iranian artist?

I am an Iranian and I will always look at the world through my Iranian eyes. My concerns, the things that make me sad or happy, are common with any other Iranian. That I cannot change, even if I wanted to. I may not be able to observe the details of living in Tehran like I used to, but I will keep looking and observing at the same subjects from a different angle and some distance.

In your song "The Road to Happiness," you say that "the road to happiness is under construction." This is perhaps one of your saddest songs, accompanied by a beautiful acoustic track. But there is also a yearning in the song, not just in the lyrics but also in your voice, as if hope still exists inside all of the sadness. Did I read too much into this song? And if not, what would you say is the condition of the road to happiness at this point?

There is a time of the year that I really love -- it's the beginning of spring, when you have rain one minute and there is sunshine the next. When I listen to a good song or read a good book or watch a good movie, that feeling of early spring gets a hold of me -- it's the yin and yang of life, the play of reality and what is right, the imagination, fantasies, and the truth. So I am happy that this song conveys that feeling.

You are releasing your fourth album. What differences can we expect on this record?

This new album is very different in many ways. It is recorded live and that probably makes it the first live album in this genre. Recording live is technically a very challenging process -- the team has to be really prepared and focused. We worked hard on this project and I think we succeeded in capturing the mood of the band that night.

The venue also had a special meaning for us. Yoshi's is to San Francisco what the Blue Note is to New York. Heavyweight jazz musicians play there and have recorded their albums there. There are 38 albums out there called "Live at Yoshi's" -- Al Di Meola, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, to name a few -- so it was very exciting for us to be there and record this album there among a live audience. It's like a soccer match -- you prepare for some time and you go in the field and anything can happen.

You have had some famous collaborations in the past. Can we expect any new collaborations?

We wanted the overall sound of the album to be more acoustic, more jazzy, so we had Ardalan do more accordion rather than keyboard. Tara was on violin. Shahrouz played only with brush throughout the set and Ali Kamali's tone was not as electric as it usually is in our concerts. We had three very prominent guest musicians: Paul Mehling of Hot Club of San Francisco, who is one of the giants in gypsy jazz; Jason Ditzian on saxophone and clarinet, whose performance was amazing; and Bruno Pelettier on guitar, who did an amazing solo on "Green Grass." They joined the band on different songs and contributed a lot to the sound of the band.

We did cover a Tom Waits song, "Green Grass," and added a verse from Fitzgerald's translation of Khayyam to it. We are really excited about its release and we are planning to take the same performance -- minus the guest musicians -- to 11 other cities, starting with Toronto and ending in Stockholm. I think musically this is one of the best projects I have ever been involved in.

Homepage photo of Arash Sobhani by Zoubin via Flickr.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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