Meet Hypernova, exploding stars from the Iranian underground
Since the beginning, there's always been an element of rebellion attached to making rock and roll. Rarely, however, has such defiance meant facing jail time, paying fines or being publicly flogged.
"Our Iranian culture is very conservative, so you either have to grow up to be a doctor or an engineer," explains Hypernova's lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Raam, who doesn't want his surname used. "If you want to be a rock star, everyone just laughs at you. They always made fun of us. No one ever believed in us."
Fortunately, the members of Hypernova believed in themselves. They must have, for them to move around clandestinely as spies, playing late-night roach-filled basements or underground car parks that would hopefully muffle the sounds from authoritative ears.
"It's not easy being a rock musician in Iran," declares Raam. "There are many difficulties and challenges involved. The authorities allow performances of pop music and things like that, but the more intense stuff like rock and roll is basically illegal.
"The whole irony of Iran is that it's very strict with very ancient and archaic laws, but they aren't even enforced," he clarifies. "It's the image the government wants to give out that they are tough on these things. Every now and then, there are people who are made examples of. But still, you are always cautious about what you are doing."
Thus the nicknames. Even now, two years removed from its last underground party in Iran, the members of Hypernova — which also includes Kodi on guitar, Jamshid on bass and drummer Kami — still worry for their families' safety. "I'm pretty sure they already know exactly what we're doing, that they already know our full names and everything," says Raam of the authorities expected to uphold cultural law. "I don't think we'll have any problems, but just to be on the safe side of things, I don't want what I am doing here to cause my family any problems. I just want to be extra cautious about things."
Imagine if Hypernova had been playing when the style of music they're making now was popular. Back then, an even more strident hardliner than current ruler Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Ayatollah Khomeini, was in power and ushered in the Cultural Revolution that banned Western music. Though there are some modern twinges to the act's music, Hypernova is firmly rooted in the '80s. The music — pulsing with dark electronic beats, a syncopated yet broodingly gritty backbeat and Raam's deep baritone vocals — when broken down is equal measures Joy Division and Psychedelic Furs, with a pinch of the Smiths and the Cure tossed in for good measure.
"The first time someone told me we sounded like Joy Division, I was like, 'Who?' I didn't even know who they were," Raam confesses. "We'd sort of heard of these bands, but we never studied these bands."
Born in Iran, Raam spent the 1980s in Eugene, Oregon. His father frequently played tapes in the car. Raam admits he didn't always know what he was hearing — and was pretty sure his dad didn't, either — yet soaked it up all the same. (One of those bands was Sisters of Mercy, which Hypernova is currently supporting on tour.) When he returned to Iran in 1991, that same music was on the upswing. "Before the Internet came to Iran, there was a lot of '80s music
"Even during the late '90s we listened to '80s music. Grunge happened in 2000 in Iran," he adds with a laugh. "Maybe we just had so much '80s music in Iran, it subconsciously affected us."
Middle East politics and the social situations plaguing his homeland had an equally profound effect on Raam and his mates. Though he could never be so bold as to pen a song as blatant as Pearl Jam's "Bushleaguer," his carefully veiled songs — all sung in English — when not speaking of love, rally against the social and political issues he sees at home. But with titles like "Viva La Resistance," "See the Future" and "Empty Times," Raam stresses that there is a broader, global scope.
"The things I sing about are definitely from the perspective of someone from the underground of Iran," he explains. "But the songs could be about America or Iran. It's not done with one particular country in mind. The governments in American and Iran have so many similarities. Fundamentally, the ideologies are the same; they just believe in different gods."
And have different immigration policies. After seven years of toiling in the underground, Hypernova landed an invite to perform at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin but couldn't swing the entertainment visas in time. The hold-up: Hypernova needed proof it was a real band, not a bunch of hooligans escaping to America. "But how do you prove you're a legitimate band when you're from Iran?" Raam asks. "There's no access and there's no press. We had to bring an article or something. So we finally had an interview that we printed out, put together our CD and pictures from our shows. Still they were not convinced."
Their visas were initially denied. On their next trip to the U.S. consulate in Dubai (there isn't one in Iran), visas were handed out without question.
"We asked them, 'What happened? You hated us two weeks ago,'" Raam recalls. "They said, 'You have a very, very powerful fan in the United States. We had no idea. It was only later we found out what happened."
It seems, at the behest of a music agent, that New York senator Charles Schumer faxed the consulate a letter on the band's behalf. The men of Hypernova are hopeful that this type of good fortune (just like landing on the Sisters tout) stays with them. When the guys hit these shores, they carried little more than $400, a guitar, a suitcase and a big heart. Energized by the band's success since then, Raam says he wants to prove rock music can come from "an obscure place like Iran." With their visas expiring in 2011, that leaves them just three years to make their mark.
"We never planned on staying more than two weeks, and two weeks has turned into two years, almost," Raam happily recounts before breaking into laughter. "Back in Iran, my mom walks around telling everyone, 'My son is a rock star.' Every day, it just keeps getting better."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.