This Is What It’s Really Like To Be A Musician In Iran

Ninja Tune producer Ash Koosha was imprisoned in Tehran, and sought asylum in the U.K. He talks about pushing boundaries both inside and outside his home country.

April 07, 2016

Ash Koosha has lived many lives. An artist who was born in the Iranian capital of Tehran and is currently based in London, the 30-year-old is an electronic producer, a synaesthete, a pioneer of virtual reality, a former rock musician, and the subject of a Cannes award-winning film (in which he plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself). He's also a political exile, having sought asylum in the U.K. six years ago from a home country that viewed his music-making as disruptive.

In 2008, he embarked on a project that would change in his life when he starred in No One Knows About Persian Cats, a fictionalized documentary-style film about the Iranian music scene loosely based on his experiences in the indie rock duo Take It Easy Hospital. The film follows Koosha and his bandmate and co-songwriter Negar Shaghaghi’s attempts to play live shows—via a shady but likeable promoter, dodgy smugglers in basements, and secret metal rehearsals that take place in cowsheds to avoid the authorities—before ultimately forging documents to leave the country.

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The film went on to win an award in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 2009, but Iran’s cultural scene at the time was in turbulence, as the government began cracking down on people and spaces that they deemed disruptive to the Islamic Republic’s sanctioned way of life. Whilst Koosha and Shaghaghi were touring in the U.K., the band’s former drummer was arrested and beaten by law enforcement in Iran, and the Iranian-American co-writer of the film, Roxana Saberi, was charged with espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. Worried about the fate that awaited them should they return home, Koosha and Shaghaghi sought asylum in the U.K., and have been living here ever since.

After the “nano-compositions” he uploaded to Soundcloud were picked up by blogs, Koosha’s first solo album of engulfing neo-classical productions, GUUD, was released in 2015 on New York DIY label Olde English Spelling Bee. Now signed to Ninja Tune, he has just released his second album I AKA I. Koosha describes the process behind it as an attempt to systematize his synaesthesia and to treat sound “like a physical matter which can be broken down, liquefied, rescaled or spatially positioned.” In the resulting tracks, distorted and stretched-out fragments of noise come together to create a gorgeous sonic world.

Koosha is currently working on a “post-music video experience” of I AKA I that he hopes to show on Oculus Rift headsets sometime later this year, a project that would make his new record possibly the world’s first virtual reality album. I meet him on a particularly grey and rainy London day in a Dalston cafe; after ordering an Earl Grey tea, he tells me I look like Leila Arab, an iconic Iranian female producer and one of his major inspirations. We talk about the arbitrary restrictions placed on music by the Iranian government, and uncertainty about his future both musically and in regards to his personal safety.


ASH KOOSHA: In Iran there is 'authorized' music and 'non-authorized' music—I would say the good music is almost always non-authorized. Growing up in Iran, before the age of widespread satellite dishes and broadband, we would sit there waiting for cassette tapes to come in. There was a local boutique shop that sold tapes illegally from people who would smuggle them in from abroad. It was totally based on luck: some people would get Backstreet Boys and some people would get Pink Floyd. I got pretty lucky, the first couple of tapes that my mum got us were Nirvana's Nevermind and Final Cut by Pink Floyd.

In Iran you have to get permits for all music—first for the lyrics, and then a separate permit for the actual melody. When I first started making music, I had these 12 electronic rock songs and I took them to the government office where they decide if your music is allowed or not. This harsh-looking official gave my lyrics the thumbs up, I was so shocked! Maybe she didn't really understand them.

Then I had to fill out another form and pick a genre for my music, but there were only two options: traditional or pop. I added another option myself, 'rock.' I waited for a while and this big, serious bearded guy came in and asked me, "So who's your target audience, what are they going to learn from you?" Because for the Iranian government, everything has to have a moral purpose. I was like, "It gives positive energy to young people," and he replied, "But you are aware that sometimes we don't need positive energy right?" Then he looked at the form to see what kind of music I was making and saw my little 'rock' box and he called security on me! He was so mad, he was shouting at me, "do you think this is a joke?!"

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“In Iran you have to get permits for all music—first for the lyrics, and then a separate permit for the actual melody. When I first started making music, I had these 12 electronic rock songs and I took them to the government office where they decide if your music is allowed or not.”

From then on, I had some kind of grudge, and I never took the official route again with my music. A couple years later, a group of bands managed to convince UNICEF to host an event with live music in the old King's Palace, and we had around 10 bands invested in it. We thought we'd get away with it under the protection of UNICEF—we put in time, money, there were guests coming from all over the world. Then the week before the show, we got a cease and desist letter from the President's Office and we had to cancel everything. So that was a waste of $15-20,000.

All the bands except mine and one other band bailed because they were scared, but we were like, ‘Fuck it,’ and decided to put on the show in secret in Tehran's suburbs. There was a huge garden that people use for private functions like weddings, so we set up the same stage there and invited around 150 people who were meant to be attending the original event. On the night, 700 people showed up, and we all ended up being arrested: the party was crashed by SWAT teams coming over the walls with ropes and abseiling down from helicopters. There was alcohol, drugs, music—it was so illegal. To be honest, I've still never seen a party like it. I got arrested and was sent to prison—I was there for 21 days, after which they decided to allow our families to bail us out.

The title of the movie [No One Knows About Persian Cats] was a metaphor for how people in the creative industries are treated [in Iran]. Persian cats are a rare breed—they're special, but in Iran they ignore them and treat them like shit. We filmed it in 70 days with a fake permit, and were constantly in fear of being arrested. The film ended up going to Cannes and winning a prize—this was all in 2009 and around the time of the election, it was a potentially revolutionary time in Iran. At this point, the Revolutionary Guard [a branch of Iran’s armed forces that aims to protect and maintain the country’s Islamic system] started raiding studios, attacking creative people—they wanted to instil fear and stop any kind of uprising.

This, combined with the film and the arrests around it, meant we decided to stay in England where [myself and Negar Shaghaghi] were playing some shows [in 2009]. It wasn't so much a decision as it was...forced on us due to the uncertainty of what would happen to us if we returned. I left half my instruments, basically my life, in Iran. The first year I was just in a total daze, so lost and confused. Eventually [Negar and I] parted ways musically and started doing our own stuff. She still does all the artwork for my albums. I started doing technical stuff and producing for other people, and then eventually I started doing solo stuff.

Iran is growing massively in terms of art: there are loads of cool exhibitions and audio-visual installations happening there, but not so much in terms of music. The underground scene is totally different though: people are just partying all the time because they have nothing else to do—I'll get messages from my friends in Iran at like 5 a.m. on a Monday and they're at a party! But even if I could go back to Iran, that's not what I would want from my life. There are so many issues culturally there; I always wanted to be someone who was useful to humanity, who creates stuff. When you're in that sort of environment it's not going to happen, there are boundaries that can't be pushed.

The problem is that in Iran, as soon as you realize that you're making music, you're satisfied. There's no incentive to push it to the next level. Even here, in some ways—in my opinion, Western music is getting boring in terms of rhythm and groove; it's going round in circles and trying to revive the ‘80s and the ‘90s over and over again. One of the things that I think is going to be instrumental in making new stuff in the club scene is Iranian traditional grooves, like bandari [music from the south coast of Iran]. If you can translate them in the right way you can use those rhythm sections in hip-hop [or] in club music. That's what I think Lafawndah did in “Tan”, and that's what I'm trying to do on this album. Taking traditional sounds and adapting the rhythm. It could make an interesting new wave of new dance and club music.

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I AKA I is out now on Ninja Tune.
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This Is What It’s Really Like To Be A Musician In Iran