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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Theocracy bites: Indie-rockers Hypernova won’t return to Iran any time soon

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Raam (second from right) cut his teeth in basement shows - Photo by Jeffrey Grossman

If you think making it big here is hard, try being a rock band in Iran—where rock music is officially considered a decadent vice of Western imperialists.

Alcohol is banned and music venues are nonexistent in Iran, so the rock band Hypernova spent seven years in Tehran’s underground scene, playing basement shows and birthday parties. There aren’t any legal recording studios, so they recorded their 2006 EP, Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?, in their friend’s crappy home studio. They’ve been doing much better since their move to the United States in 2007—they’re living in Brooklyn and touring nationally—but they still hide their real identities to protect their families back home.

“The problem with the underground is there’s only so much you can do there,” says Raam, the band’s 29-yearold lead singer and guitarist, in a recent phone interview. “You’re either going to end up in prison or you’re not going to make any money. You’re not going to be able to pursue that other career unless you’re rich enough to just play in your own basement for the rest of your life.”

They don’t have any plans to return home any time soon—in part because it’s a foregone conclusion that they’d be thrown in jail for a song like “Viva la Resistance,” the second track on their debut full-length, Through the Chaos. Over a muted guitar and a bouncy bass line reminiscent of The Strokes, Raam sings, “Your theocratic, neo-fascist ideology / is only getting in the way of my biology.”

In a way, Raam says, they’re better off outside Iran.

“The more success we see over here,” he says, “the more hope it gives to all the kids back home.”

Iranians have always been keen on Western music (on YouTube, there’s an amazing video from 1991 of some Persian dudes break-dancing at a party in Tehran), but Iranian music has gained wider popularity in the year since the birth of the Green Movement, a grassroots civil-rights campaign kick-started by the controversial reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats shed light on Tehran’s underground music scene and an adorable indie-pop duo called Take it Easy Hospital. Shahin Najafi, a Persian rapper based in Germany, has become famous for cutting rhymes that attack Iran’s oppressive theological strictures.

But as the Iranian government does all it can to crush the Green Movement, they’ve raised the stakes for artists looking to speak out.

When Raam, who describes himself as “non-religious,” first started playing with Hypernova drummer Kami in 2000, the country was undergoing liberal reforms under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami. “Holding a girl’s hand in public was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Raam says. “But during Khatami, small things like that became more culturally acceptable.”

But today, the government is reportedly cracking down harder than ever before. Peaceful demonstrators have been attacked by paramilitary youths wielding batons. Bloggers and filmmakers have been arrested and kept in solitary confinement. In December, Iranian authorities detained and intimidated Shahram Nazeri, a respected vocalist who recorded a protest song; he’s been silent ever since.

And don’t even think about holding a girl’s hand.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance went so far as to impose guidelines on men’s hairstyles.

“It’s going to take time, but I really do think that struggle is going to prevail,” Raam says. “I think one of the greatest points about the Green Movement, and just the movement of the people, is that they’re demanding that all fundamental basic rights be respected. Everyone should have the freedom to be and follow what they want—but, more importantly, everyone should also be represented equally.”

To its detriment, Hypernova isn’t all that different from countless other bands. Straight-ahead rock songs like “Universal” and “Fairy Tales” may be incredibly catchy, but they’re not groundbreaking or unique. But maybe Raam’s being too harsh when he freely says that Hypernova’s music is “far from good.” To be sure, they’re making headway by introducing synths and live sequencing, dispensing with the tired Strokes formula that defines most of Through the Chaos.

Still, it’s unclear whether they’ll ever reach their ultimate ambition: global recognition.

“For us, the goal is to become so famous and so big one day that when we go back home, we’ll be untouchable,” Raam says. “Like, you know, ‘Do your worst.

Throw me into jail.’ “But, hopefully, it won’t come to that,” he adds. “I don’t want to go to Iranian jail.”

Hypernova plays with The Black Diamond Riders at Bar Pink on Sunday, July 18. hypernova.com

This article ran in last week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.

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Written by Peter Holslin

July 20, 2010 at 7:34 pm

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