Yellow Dogs with the author, second from right
This morning, I turned on the TV like any other Monday. The local news was telling some story about a murder in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood I hang out in a lot. I thought nothing of it. When I got to my office an hour later, the story had developed—now it was four dead in an apparent murder-suicide involving a band. I know a lot of Brooklyn bands, but surely it couldn't have been one of them. Finally a friend sent me a Wall Street Journal article about it, and the first thing I saw was the word Iran.
My heart sank. It was Yellow Dogs.
Yellow Dogs were a little-known Iranian punk band who escaped oppression in Tehran to bring their music to Brooklyn. I first discovered them through an award-winning documentary called No One Knows About Persian Cats, which portrays the dangers of playing modern rock music in the police state of Iran. Ever since then, I’ve kept their EPs with me at all times, and listened to them constantly while I trekked through New York.
Early this morning in East Williamsburg, Raefe Ahkbar, a member of another Iranian band called the Free Keys (who shared a manager with Yellow Dogs), allegedly moved through a three-story building and killed three people with a .308 caliber rifle (a fourth was injured). Two of the deceased were members of Yellow Dogs: the guitarist Soroush Farazmand, and the drummer Arash Farazmand. Ahkbar then turned his weapon on himself. Allegedly, Ahkbar had been kicked out of the Free Keys for selling band equipment.
I ran to my backpack, to the smallest pocket, and pulled out three crumpled pieces of paper. This was all I had to document an interview I recently did with Soroush. I had been struck by their music immediately, and had to know more about why a group of kids would leave all they’d ever known just to play a few small shows in Brooklyn. After speaking with Soroush, I learned that it was much bigger than that. The average concert for Yellow Dogs in Iran went something like this: the show would start, and the police would shut the whole thing down within minutes. They came to America because they wanted to make socially aware music filled with rhythm, soul, and victorious aggression, all of which are illegal in Iran (except for the aggression thing, but you have to be part of the military or police).
This is the last interview that they ever did.
VICE: You guys are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. How did you all get started?
Soroush Farazmand: Well, it happened when me and our bassist left our old band back in Iran. We’d been in that band since we were 16 or 17, and we decided to start something new, with new concepts and new ideas, no rules, and tons of passion. Soon we found a drummer with a small secret rehearsal space on the roof and a crazy punk rocker/skater/shoplifter guy who could play guitar and sing. This was all centered on a park called Ghoory, which was the place to hang out for punks, hippies, and skaters. We used to hang out there a lot. Recently Arash joined the band as the drummer. He happened to be one of the founders of a well known Iranian band called the Free Keys. He is also my brother, and we always wanted him to play with us. Now that he’s with us, I think we’re in a pretty good shape.
Your music is pretty edgy and intense. Do you consider your band rebellious?
Yeah, but I think our band was much more rebellious when we were living in Iran.
Would you say that indie music is automatically rebellious in Iran?
Definitely. Independent music is rebellious anywhere, but if you’re talking about Iran, yes, all of it is! To make state-sponsored music in Iran, you have to be extremely optimistic about everything in society. We were not.
Is creating music that breaks established social rules considered Illegal?
There are so many types of music that are illegal in Iran: any music with English lyrics, or dance music, or with anything that’s against Islam. Basically, anything that makes you feel good or happy is illegal.
What happens when you guys play at an illegal show in Iran?
Actually, there’s a big difference. We liked to think that at an illegal concert, everything illegal becomes legal. This made shows more epic and fun, right? They became a place of freedom, and each crowd member reacted based on their personality.
What happened if someone in Iran got caught making Illegal music or going to an illegal concert?
The rules are changing and getting worse each day. It can be extremely dangerous in most of the situations.
You guys appear in one of my favorite movies about world music, No One Knows about Persian Cats, which details the difficulty of making music in Iran. Indie rock has a lot of meanings here in America, but what does it mean to you?
It means so many different things, but for us it means freedom of expression in the way we want it.
There’s one line in the movie where the main character says, “Here you can’t do anything—in this country you don’t have a chance.” Do you agree with him?
Totally. It’s the way you feel when you're playing music in Iran. You can’t help it, even if you think it’s not true.
The movie showcases the difficulty in getting out of Iran to share your music with a larger audience. How were you able to do that and why did you come to Brooklyn?
For years we were invited to come to the US and perform at South by Southwest and CMJ, but we had passport issues. Just one of us had a passport, and the rest of the band couldn't get them because In Iran all the men have to do their military service before they can leave the country. So with a lot of help, we found a way to get passports without going through military service or even by bribing the government. With money you can do almost anything in Tehran and Iran. But we've been through a lot of bullshit, and we struggled a lot for a whole year. Some of us even got in serious trouble, but we finally found a way out. We wanted to come for CMJ 2009 but we couldn't make it on time, so we went to Turkey, played a concert there, and went to the American Embassy and got visas. We’ve decided to live in Brooklyn because we knew our music would make more sense in New York, and this was a place we could grow.
Finally, what music influences you guys the most?
We usually listen to all kinds of music, from the late-50s to recent upcoming local bands from all over the world. In Iran, we were mostly into post-punk and dance bands like the Rapture, Moving Units, the Faint, Modest Mouse, Joy Division, and the Clash. There are so many bands, musicians, songs, and even chords that influence our music. I don’t want to go over all of them one by one, but will include just one I think would make the most sense in all aspects: “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash!
Matt is the founder and editor-in-chief of Every Day, Another Song. You can follow him on Twitter here: @EDAS2Go
More on Yellow Dogs: