In The Moment - With Ash Koosha

In The Moment - With Ash Koosha

Noisey sat down with Ash Koosha to find out about his journey to London and his career to date.
August 18, 2016, 9:40am

Kopparberg believes that life's what you make it. That opportunity lives in every moment and all we have to do is be open to it. To see, do, feel and experience life to the fullest and share it with the people we love. There's even a saying for it in Swedish, Fånga Dagen. With the festival season upon us, In The Moment is a celebration of those artists who do it to the fullest. Those who have risen to where they are through creativity and ingenuity. Those who do it for the love of doing it. For our third instalment, Noisey sat down with Ash Koosha to find out about his journey to London and his career to date.

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London is full of dreamers who have come from places afar (art school, Kent, Australia) in hope of making it as a creative force. Some succeed, some fail, and just about all of them slink back to the home counties they came from. Ash Koosha is one of the rare success stories. Except this DJ, artist and producer didn't just hop on a train from outside the M25.

Koosha, real name Ash Koshanejad, grew up in Tehran, Iran. He took an interest in music at a young age, eventually dropping out of school to enrol at the Tehran Conservatory of Music (TCM). Despite having a focus on more traditional forms, the TCM didn't prevent him from pursuing his interest in rock and electronic music - genres the Iranian government dismissed as overtly Western and 'decadent'.

It was for this reason that police arrested Ash, along with his band Font and 200 other people, when he performed at a clandestine rock festival in the suburbs of Tehran in 2007. He spent three weeks in jail. The incident served as a loose plot for No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film that fictionalised Ash's experience as a rock musician in Iran (he also starred in the flick). No One Knows… achieved accolades when it screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, acclaim means nothing to the Iranian government if it deems the art in question to be critical of their rule, so it became clear that Ash and his pals would no longer be welcome at home. When the film debuted, they were touring in the UK. They immediately sought asylum in London.

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In the years that have followed, Ash has seized his new creative freedom and established himself as one of London's more innovative musicians. He is obsessed with the relationship between audio and visual, and his music is as much about what you see as what you hear. He's taken many personal risks throughout his life, and this approach is definitely translating to his music. We recently caught up with him to discuss growing up in Iran, Synesthesia, and grasping opportunities in moments of huge uncertainty.

Hi Ash, tell us about your relationship with music while growing up in Iran…

I started playing guitar when I was about 12. Before that I used to listen to music from tapes I'd collected. I started with string instruments like guitar and bass, and then drums. During high school I started a couple of bands, and then I enrolled at a music school, The Tehran Conservatory of Music. That's where I started experimenting with more electronic music. I started recording sounds from field recordings, sounds from objects, making soundscapes.

Did TCM encourage your interest in electronic music, or did they want you to learn more formal instruments?

The thing is, the school only opened two years before I started there, so while it was mostly focused on classical and traditional music, they had just added the western music department which was mostly jazz and rock. But in terms of computer music, there was not much going on. Experimental music wasn't very popular at that time. So I did most electro stuff by myself.

So tell me about the 2007 festival in Tehran that you played with your band Font, where you ended up being arrested?

Me and my brother started Font. We'd recorded an album and we wanted to play this festival in Tehran that had been arranged by UNICEF. They'd sorted out this Woodstock-type festival for 10 to 15 bands. It got cancelled about the week before it was set to start. Everyone was frustrated, so our band and another band decided to start our own event. And we got arrested at the end.

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Is it true that police swarmed the place SWAT-style and arrested 200-plus people?

Yeah. It was a huge arrest. It was not normal from what we'd experienced at other parties - you get arrested in Iran for parties and stuff, they take you to jail. But this one was proper special forces kind of shit. It was intense.

How long were you in jail for?

21 days.

Bit of an obvious question, but were you scared?

The first ten days were really scary, because we didn't know when we'd even be released from the prison. You have to wait for your court date.

Did you have to go to a trial in the end?

Later on there was a trial. We had to pay a massive fine. Which we didn't. But that was the same time that we left Iran.

After the whole experience did you feel like making music was now more of a precious thing for you?

The problem after that was that we couldn't perform live anymore. And our music was 100% live, we couldn't record any CDs or anything. But I was always making music and recording stuff on my own. Making music wasn't an issue as long as I did it in my own space. It was a matter of live shows.

How did No One Knows About Persian Cats come about?

So we got released, a year after we started making music the band split up, and I changed to other projects. We were hanging around with the director, Bahman Ghobadi, who was a friend of a friend, and we were discussing how music and film in Iran is underground. He was waiting for a permit for a film, which the government didn't give him after four years of waiting. So we decided to make another film, an underground film about underground music.

The film generated quite a bit of buzz at Cannes while you were touring the UK with your band Take It Easy Hospital. That was when you decided to seek asylum right? Why then?

We were touring at the same time as the Cannes festival. Prior to that the 2009 election happened in Iran. Persian Cats was against government policy. The government found out that there was this illegal film - a protest film - about music in Iran playing at Cannes, so we were kind of forced to stay in London.

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Does the Iranian government have to pre-approve all film output, otherwise it's deemed illegal?

Both film and music. So if you want to perform or release a record you have to go through a permit system, where they assess whether it's in line with the Islamic…I mean it's not a fundamentalist Islam thing, I don't want to say it's a religious part of it, because it's a very specific law that you can only find in Iran. In Pakistan or Saudi Arabia there are strict Islamic rules, but in Iran there is a strict political rule: The Ministry of Culture is controlling things that could make people more interested in western culture.

So it's more about political power than anything religious?

Yeah, it is. It's about controlling what material is released and where and when people gather. So if you want to do a rock concert or a dance music night it's not going to be approved.

Did you feel like seeking asylum represented a new opportunity or was it a more unfortunate event, seeing as you couldn't go home?

For the first two years I was really confused because settling down in a place that you didn't plan to be is difficult. But as time passed and we started forgetting about the happenings of 2009, it became kind of positive for me. The environment, the multicultural aspects of London, seeing different people from different countries, it helps you start developing more projects. Overall I think it was a positive thing. But at first it wasn't. It was just confusing.

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Has being in England allowed you to take more chances with your music?

I think your environment does have a big impact on how I choose to use sound. The change from Tehran to London definitely has an impact. Even if I'm not aware of it, there's going to be an impact. If I move somewhere else the sound is going to change, the mood is going to change. Music is a direct translation of your emotions. And London definitely causes different emotions and expressions.

Given your environment's effect on your work, do you think you'll have to move again to keep making progressive music?

I think so. I believe that creative people shouldn't stay in one place for more than a couple of years. You should explore and move around and see new places, try to get inspired by different scenery.

Do you ever see yourself returning to Tehran?

Yeah, if things are easier, definitely. But I lived there for 23 years and I think that's enough for any country.

How did Ninja Tune come to sign you?

I released my first record, GUUD, with Old English Spelling Bee, a label from New York. After that, Ninja Tune emailed me asking if I wanted to release a record with them.

Your music poses a lot of questions about the relationship between audio and visual, and you've talked previously about how you 'see' sounds and treat samples as visual objects. I was hoping you could explain what all this means?

When I was at music school in Tehran I would record sounds from objects and things that I would see around me. I realised that by closing my eyes, I could mix sounds based on shapes that I saw in my head. I would equalise them and decorate them that way. Recently I realised there's something called Synesthesia, where sounds can have some sort of geometry or shape to them. It's senses unified basically. So when you hear a particular sound, you see or feel something at the same time. So that's how I developed my method of mixing, it's based on shapes that look best in my head.

Is this why you work with VR a lot? So you can fully immerse someone in your music?

The idea is to show people what I see when I mix music. To get as close as we can graphically to what I saw when I play it. Then people can experience that music with the same visuals in a 360 degree environment. The visuals react to the sounds as well.

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As an artist do you feel the visual element is a crucial part of your work, or are you happy for people to just listen to your music?

I think it adds to the experience. If you listen to an orchestra you know you have a visual sense of what's going on - like you can picture the movements of, say, the violin player, because people have been playing the violin for hundreds of years. But with electronic music there are a lot of details in mixing and manipulating sound that people don't see. I think a lot of producers have a visual sense when we're mixing. Visual art and digital art really can help people distinguish sounds from each other, immersing them in the music.

Do you think this approach is helping you explore new opportunities with the relationship between humanity and technology?

That's a big part of my life. Dealing with humans versus technology, and how we can build a relationship there. I basically live with a computer and work with a computer all the time. I send commands to the computer and I receive results. There's a relationship there. So we start to understand that we can become one with technology.

So you really welcome the idea of technology as an extension of man?

Definitely. I'm all about the technological enhancement of human beings. I'm sharing this process with the computer 50/50. What's in the computer is still me, but in a different language.

How do you project this audio-visual music during a live show?

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During a show I usually have visuals generated in real time. They're responding to the sound and people can see it on a screen in front of the stage.

Does the technology you use allow you to improvise during a live set?

I really like improvising and doing unexpected stuff. But I usually do a mix of both. But in my kind of music I let the computer have more power.

So the technology leads the way - it's guiding you?

Yeah. There are about 40 to 50 parts in each on my tracks that could be performed, and maybe one day I'll get an orchestra of electronic musicians to perform them all. But that would be kind of pointless. The beauty of this kind of music is the mix, the craft in the sound mix, how you prepare your sound.

If you'd stayed in Iran do you think you'd be creating the same kind of music you do today?

I think I still would. I started this kind of music way before I did anything else. But I was keeping it to myself because it wasn't a popular thing. It was really heavy for people around me. When I was younger I didn't have enough confidence to say "I'm doing this", because no one really cared. But I always had this interest in electronic sound - painting with sound.

Read more 'In The Moment' articles here​​.