Iran's rock stars and their underground scene
Photographer Jai Brodie meets some of the capital's biggest stars, in a country where rock music is illegal and brandishing an electric guitar could land you in trouble with the police
Iranian indie rock band Langtunes in Tehran. Photograph: Jai Brodie
The cargo hatch door on the side of the bus has just opened. Bright sunlight floods into the tiny compartment where I’ve spent the last ten hours sharing ‘cargo class’ with two Iranian men who also missed a seat on the bus. An accommodating driver said we could ride there for half price. We were given a bottle of water and some bananas before he closed the hatch.
At the time I was desperate to get to Tehran. The last bus I was on took off and left me late at night at a remote spot along the border that separates Turkey and Iran. The computers at Iranian customs had crashed and they couldn't process my visa. The officers were very friendly, but there was nothing they could do to help me back on my way. So it was with immense relief that I made it through the night to my destination and I crawled out from under the bus.
With only whisperings of what really goes on in Iran, I sought out to learn about Tehran’s youth culture and the underground rock music scene. I had a strong feeling the western media got Iran wrong, that it wasn’t a land brimming with religious fanatics and terrorists, hating the west and all its freedoms. To my relief, I was right. It's a mistake to think of the regime as a reflection of the people it rules.
Within the first few days after my arrival I met a girl at a cafe frequented by artists. She invited me to a friend’s basement flat that they had converted into a music studio. We were there to watch a band rehearse – a five-piece called Langtunes, who wouldn’t look out of place in Williamsburg with their skinny jeans and month-old beards. They’ve been together for several years and have a solid indie-rock sound with a great cover of Phoenix’s 1901 in their repertoire. They kick off a European tour next week.
Indie musicians in Iran playing non-traditional music say it's illegal to play rock in any form. There may be no law on the books, but many Shia clerics consider it debauchery and thus un-Islamic. Public brandishing of an electric guitar is an act worthy of police harassment, they say. The Langtunes tend to rehearse at 11am, an opportune time to stay clear of offendable neighbours likely to report them to the police.
The band asked my opinion about their sound. They're passionate about what they do and who they are. In a society where homosexuality and infidelity are hangable offenses, the legal system gives authorities vastly broad powers to interpret the legality of every day acts. I believe it's not just about the music and more about self-expression and refusing to conform to a hard-line regime.
Their sound is still maturing but at this stage they are as good as any young, up-start band gigging around London. Their only audience is as many friends as they can fit in to a small flat. The only way to get exposure is through Facebook – for which they have to use proxy servers to access - and word of mouth. Some bands can make a trip to Istanbul to perform, an often prohibitive out-of-pocket expense. Iran has no street press of any kind for the arts or local musicians. The only things broadcast over the airwaves is state sanctioned, much of it anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda. Radio stations are forbidden to play anything other than traditional Iranian music or pop. Since the Revolution in 1979 access to foreign music has been limited largely to the black market or smuggled in cassette tapes. International tunes became more plentiful with the internet.
I also met up with a prog rock band called Mavara who have been together for ten years. Most of the band members are in their late twenties. A notable exception is the 38-year-old guitarist who claims to have started one of the first rock bands after the Revolution – in 1995. They reminisce about the band, Echoes, crediting them with helping bring back the rock sound to Iran, playing songs by 1960s and 70s bands like Pink Floyd and Santana.
Many Iranian rock bands describe the constant struggle to gain foreign exposure. They are shunned by music labels and European festival organisers are reluctant to invite Iranian acts because of their difficulty in obtaining visas. Things are worse in the United States where diplomatic relations with Iran barely exist.
Non-traditional Iranian musicians simply can’t make any money from their art. On rare occasions bands play in a room at the Music Conservatory of Tehran. While only classical music is taught, the music conservatory sometimes accommodates concerts for underground bands to play for up to 120 people – illegal activity with some proceeds from ticket sales used to bribe police to look the other way.
Informants are plentiful, especially among students given the choice of ratting out the bands or expulsion from university. Authorities can block a chosen career path in other ways as well.
Given the limitations, the life of a typical band is short. Just about all the bands playing in the underground scene want to leave Iran so they can play their music. Many describe the fatigue of closed-door performances, dodging the law, and lack of audiences. Like most musicians, they want to be heard.
On another evening, I’m invited out by another group of people and we end up in the same basement flat where I heard the Langtunes. At this jam session, a drummer, guitarist and a guy on keyboard start playing new sounds that seamlessly weave into a spaced out psychedelic trip. After about half an hour they swap instruments and continue creating new improvised sounds. I settle back into a well-worn couch in the tiny, dark den, padded out with foam and egg-cartons, every so often observing a face sway in and out of a dim light make abstract vocal sounds at the mic accompanying a mellifluous drone.
Later that evening, I join another group of guys who want to go cruising. Up and down north Tehran, we traverse the same roads. The air is still thick with smog and humidity, but much cooler from the relentless heat during the day.
“It’s time to get high” one guy says, brandishing a bag of weed, proudly proclaiming its Afghan origin. I am told it is in a car driving where it is safest to get stoned and drink, steering clear of police. For alcohol we seek out a street vendor. We happen to find one on the side of a freeway next to the entrance to one of Iran's most notorious prisons.
The man, with his rickety make-shift stall, propped up on wagon wheels, displays the usual array of snacks and drinks. He doesn't have to reach far for the contraband. It doesn't come cheap - £5 for a can of beer. While exchanging cash for goods the vendor asks if we're interested in purchasing hashish. I wonder what else he sells. Back in the car, we take off listening to Portishead. Elated, smiling at each other, I'm overcome with the feeling of excitement of being a teenager again, breaking mom and dad’s rules.