Y Spy: Hypernova Goes Solar

Hypernova: Kami, Jam, Raam, and Kodi

Hypernova doesn’t want to be your One Iranian Band. In fact, if the band’s country of origin wasn’t tacked onto every scrap of its press and promotion, one would never know the difference. Its recently released first full-length album, “Through the Chaos,” stops short of being cheerful, but it is a full-bodied rock record with a spring in its step and a promise of a bright future. If you’re expecting cheap shots against the Ayatollahs or President Ahmadinejad, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, Hypernova’s themes of love, sadness, and rebellion are universal, readable without a frame of reference – and the accompanying music is great fun to dance to.

It’s difficult to avoid the subject of Iran coming up in connection with the band, and to be fair, it is part of the story. What this band has gone through to get where it is puts the majority of so-called rock rebels to shame. In our conversation, Hypernova’s singer, codenamed Raam, was content to discuss the band’s history with Iran, so long as it never became a dwelling point. Throughout, Raam minced few words, freely speaking his mind on his band and life, never fearing to be self-critical. Yet whenever we moved into more political subjects, he always turned the conversation back to the music. This wasn’t an evasion, but an implicit statement of where his focus lies.

Y Spy: Many bands that come to America become advertised as being from their home country, and Hypernova is no exception. Do you ever get tired of your band being looked at as an ambassador for Iran?

Raam: Oh, all the time. It’s hard being pigeonholed into this idea that you’re of interest due to the nature of where you come from. It takes away from what we’re really about, which is the music. We want our music to speak for itself, and we want people to appreciate that and then care about the story and what we’ve gone through. To us, that is secondary. We came here to be able to play and share our music. We didn’t come here with an idea of being peace ambassadors or [to be] this image that people have made us out to be. Obviously I do feel a responsibility in representing my culture, my country, my history in a more positive light. But that’s a cool thing on the side.

Y Spy: How did Hypernova come together?

Raam: I met my drummer at a military camp ten years ago in Iran when we had to do our mandatory time. We didn’t do the full two year service; we only did a couple of weeks, which was more like a summer camp for kids who could afford to buy off the military thing. We both loved rock and roll, and we started our first band together. I didn’t play any instruments, but I spoke English so I became the singer. For several years we played on different names in the undergrounds of Iran. We went through many different members, and eventually we came up with the lineup that is Hypernova now. We realized that we were on to something while playing as Hypernova for these last couple of years, [so] we decided to let go of everything else in our lives and commit ourselves full-time to this, to what we love, the only thing that we’re half-decent at.

Y Spy: What influences did you bring into making music, and how does one find such influences in a theocracy?

Raam: Growing up in Iran we used to have bootleg cassettes. I still have my collection back home. We used to trade mixtapes and whatever we could find. It’s very hard to find new music; people just shared whatever they had. We came across all these random and obscure bands, but also the big bands like Queen and Pink Floyd. We listened to all sorts of rock and roll: punk, new wave, garage, Britpop, grunge, indie. We just kept listening to as much as we could, trying to find our own sound. We started up in a very garage, punky band, and developed and evolved. To this day, we’re still expanding our musical horizons. We’ve been trying to confine ourselves to a specific genre, but it’s harder and harder to listen to rock music now because it has a way of seeping into your brain, causing you to lose the originality of your creativity without even knowing it. So I try to limit myself in terms of listening to rock music.

Y Spy: How does one operate a rock band in Iran?

Raam: It’s not an easy thing to do at all. The whole nature of the game is: it’s illegal. You can’t perform publicly; you can’t distribute your music. You have to do everything on your own, whether it’s putting on underground shows, or recording, or distributing. It’s quite a hassle. There’s no money to be made in this. There are always people making fun of you, [saying that] you’re crazy trying to be a rock band in Iran. But the whole idea behind rock and roll is the ability to dream of being a rock star someday and putting everything into your project. For us, we’ve been through so many struggles. We just believed in ourselves so much and we were so passionate about what we were doing that we just never gave up. We worked harder and harder in the hope that we could one day leave Iran and travel around the world and be able to play freely, without fear of reprisal.

There’s only so far you can go in the underground scene. Ultimately, you’re gonna have to leave the country to tour and distribute your music and be heard. The Internet has become very helpful in sharing your work, but there’s so much competition to be heard. We’ve been very fortunate to make it this far. When we first came [to America] there was so much hype around our story that I didn’t feel we deserved all this attention. I was embarrassed about a lot of it. But as musicians, we were just trying to get a break, trying really hard to make it. We’re such hard workers and we know that we have so much potential. Hopefully down the road we’ll get to the place in our lives where we’ll look back and say that we did something really cool, that we did something that we believed in.

Y Spy: Did you have run-ins with the law in Iran?

Raam: All of us have been arrested on random things. In terms of our music and underground shows, we were so careful. A couple of parties got raided but we never got arrested. We were very careful in terms of always bringing lookouts and having extra money put aside to bribe the police if they came. You can bribe the police, but you can’t bribe the moral police. Those guys are pretty tough.

We planned things out in advance to make sure that [the shows wouldn’t get] too crowded. That was one of the problems – once the word would get out, everybody would want to come. One of our friends threw this big concert, and several hundred people showed up. Obviously, it caused such a commotion that the cops showed up and took a couple hundred people away to jail.

Y Spy: You recorded your first EP (“Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?”) while in Iran. What were the processes involved in recording and distributing this?

Raam: There was a friend of ours who was a producer. We had built this in-home, really crappy studio at our place and started recording demos. We put bits and pieces together, sometimes at my place, sometimes at his place, using whatever knowledge we had at the time. We usually sent it by email to all our friends and fans. We didn’t have a CD first; it was a very basic way of getting an introduction to what Hypernova is all about.

Hypernova live at Studio Seven in Seattle

Y Spy: When did you decide to come to the States? How did it happen?

Raam: We came to the States in 2007. I had heard about this festival called South by Southwest, and I decided to send one of those crappy demos to the festival. I didn’t think they would care about us, and when they sent us a letter [inviting us to] the showcase, it was one of the coolest days of our lives.

We had to go this whole process of getting petitions for work permits, having to go to the U.S. consulate in Dubai to apply for visas. This whole process took so many months, waiting for the paperwork to go through. There were so many security clearances because of the nature of where we’re from. The first time, they denied our visas because we were unable to prove that we are a legitimate band. How do you prove that you’re a legitimate band when there’s no musical press, when everything is underground? We got very lucky that the people who were doing our paperwork got in touch with the New York Senator’s office of Charles Schumer. They sent a fax to the U.S. consulate. We don’t know what they wrote, but the next time we turned up for an interview, two weeks later, they didn’t even interview us. They just gave us our visas. We were absolutely surprised.

When we came here, we had no intention of staying here more than a couple of weeks. We had round-trip tickets for three weeks, and we didn’t have that much money, just a guitar and a suitcase. We didn’t have a clear idea of how the music industry operates. One thing led to another, and three years later, here we are, still! We got signed, we’re doing tours, and hopefully we’re going to be doing tours in Europe and the rest of the world pretty soon. It’s been a journey full of ups and downs and many adventures, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Y Spy: What’s your current legal status in the States?

Raam: Currently we’re on entertainment visas. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more permanent status as we achieve more success. No band from our country has ever come as far as we have. We sort of set the bar in terms of rock and roll from Iran; now we’ve opened the way for so many other bands to do the same thing. So many people have supported us and our cause over the years that I wanna help out and be there for the kids back home who believed in me and gave me a chance to do this.

Y Spy: Each band member goes by a pseudonym, the given reason being to protect family and friends back in Iran. Is the government’s reaction to your music a real danger?

Raam: Some of my friends who are musicians and have gone back, they’ve been arrested at the airport, they’ve been hassled, their families have been hassled. [Due to] the nature of the jobs that some of our parents have, some of them are in very delicate places. To be honest, I’m pretty sure that none of [the authorities] know who we really are. One thing that we’re trying to be conscious about is staying away from a lot of the Iranian press, because they try to politicize things. We have very strong ideals and we stand up for what we believe is just and right, but at the end of the day we want to be first about the music.

It’s a hard thing. Because of the nature of where we’re from, a lot of people try to politicize the band. I hate questions like: “What do you think about the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Iran?” What do you want me to say? I don’t even know how to answer that question. I’m for the abolishment of all nuclear arsenals. Sometimes they don’t realize that we’re a bunch of kids who came here for the love of music more than anything else.

Y Spy: Let’s discuss your song, “Viva la Resistance.” It’s a song that feels political, but could be read as a normal rebellion song if one didn’t know the origin of the band. Was it meant to be specific of your country, or a more universal song?

Raam: I write from the perspective of a kid growing up in the underground of Iran, but within a global context. The first album is a pretty simple, straightforward album. The whole idea of “Through the Chaos” is to tell the story of all the things we’ve been through to get where we are today. All the songs are very personal, but anyone in the world can read between the lines and lyrics and relate to it as well.

Y Spy: How was “Though the Chaos” put together?

Raam: We were in L.A., and we were very fortunate to find people to help us out in finding proper producers, or helping us with funding, and getting the album recorded. We met the producer, Herwig [Maurer], and we got Sean Beavan, who has done Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, to mix the album. The whole process didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to. It was our first real take at a studio project, and we were very naïve. In terms of understanding how the studio works, we weren’t that knowledgeable. The whole process seemed a little rushed. In the end, I’m really proud and happy to finally achieve something that kids have tried for back home. At the same time, we always strive for perfection, and I don’t feel that we were able to do justice to the sound that is Hypernova. But it was an interesting process for us to learn.

Y Spy: What would you do different on the next album?

Raam: For the next album, there are a lot of things that we’ll do different. If you’ve seen the live show, so many people are blown away. We’re a live band first, then a studio band. I understand how hard that is to transfer that raw energy of a show to a polished studio album, but hopefully in the future we’ll be able to represent the richness and fullness of the band more in the way we are live.

Raam at Studio Seven in Seattle

Y Spy: One other song that caught my attention was “American Dream,” which describes idealism turning into disillusionment. How autobiographical was that song?

Raam: It’s the idea of not being able to go home to the life we once had. Once you get a taste of this whole crazy, insane rock and roll lifestyle, it’s hard to go back to the normal, innocent kid who you once were. Everybody has this dream of coming to America and trying to make it here. We were no different than anybody else. When we came here we accomplished many things, but there was a price we had to pay. There were many sacrifices, especially in L.A. There was so much vanity catching up with us that I realized that I had turned into anything I had ever hated in this world. It was asking myself: is this the life that you wanted?

Y Spy: Was there a culture shock involved in this?

Raam: I was born in Iran, but during the 80s I grew up in the States for six, seven years. My bandmates haven’t been that familiar with life outside of Iran, so it was a bit of a culture shock in the beginning. Very quickly, they adapted to the lifestyle. In terms of coming to the States with nothing and having this rollercoaster of a life, it really messes with your head. There are a lot of things in this line of work that mess with your head. You always have to stay grounded and stay humble, and not let your ego get out of control. Just do what you love without fear of consequences. It’s just sometimes so hard. There’s all this madness around, but that’s the cliché of rock and roll.

Y Spy: What songs on the album have hidden meaning?

Raam: I feel like our song, “See the Future,” tells the story of these two kids who fall in love during the war. Growing up in Iran, I still remember the sounds of sirens going off when bombs are falling on the city. All of us went through really crazy things during the war. I think that song’s another really personal song, trying to figure out what’s going to happen at the end, for all of us who are on this ride. But from the first song to the last, [“Through the Chaos”] is a very simple introduction to what Hypernova is. For us, it’s trying to find our sound. Both musically and lyrically we’ve really evolved ever since we recorded this [about] two years ago.

Y Spy: What has reaction been to the album?

Raam: It’s been really overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many people are digging the album and enjoying the tunes. As artists we have to play these songs so many times. Sometimes it gets hard for you to get in touch with the meaning of the song when it becomes so repetitive for you. But that’s the beauty: even though you write a song, sometimes I feel like you’re not the fully rightful owner of the song. Your fans who listen to the song, they relate to it sometimes more than you do. We don’t even listen to our own music.

We’ve gotten so much praise; there are also critics who gave negative reviews, and I appreciate that, too. It keeps you grounded and reminds you how much harder you have to work in becoming a better musician and a better band.

Y Spy: Have you met any prejudice in America?

Raam: We had some hate mail when we came here in the beginning, people telling us to go back to our country. We didn’t know much about a lot of Americans. We toured for 36 days, and we’ve seen so many great things in America, so many cool people that I would have thought otherwise if I hadn’t met them personally. That’s one of the cool things about our journey: we’re able to bring people together through music. We play Midwest America, and there are all these people who have never seen someone from Iran. They’re very skeptical about us at first, but after our shows they connect on such a personal, human level. Everyone realizes the fundamental human truth that we’re all really the same. Our similarities outweigh our differences.

Y Spy: As part of a band that has literally had to fight for its music, how do you view the convenience and availability of music, which today often feels produced by default?

Raam: Obviously the convenience of being able to walk into a venue, playing and drinking their beer without worrying about the police is a great comfort. But at the same time, it makes people complacent, sort of indifferent as well. You have to work that much harder to entertain people; I think that’s a really cool challenge, actually.

I see people on the subway in New York all the time who are such amazing musicians that I wonder: how did this guy end up in the subway? Every day I hear a band or musician and wonder: how is it that no one’s ever heard of this? You realize how hard it is to make it in this industry. There’s so much competition. Almost every single person I know in [my] neighborhood is in a band. Because of the internet, people have been given this power to share their music freely without the big record label monopolies dictating what’s going to be distributed or not. At the same time, what do you listen to? I listen to a lot of classical music, because trying to catch up with all the music is just so hard.

There are so many bands that I wonder why they’re even playing. I’m surprised that a lot of people even pick up a guitar and start playing. I assume everybody starts out like that. Maybe there are too many bands in the world. Maybe it’s better to have bands and musicians than people who make atom bombs.

Y Spy: With music coming from every angle and often as a corporate product, what is its role today as a tool of legitimate dissent?

Raam: The reason why governments like Iran are afraid of artists and musicians is because they understand that art and music have this ability to inspire people the way that politicians can’t. I think that’s why they try so hard to put [them] down. [In terms of] the corporations of the West, it’s become very difficult, because the corporations have a pretty strong grasp on the market. All the radio stations and music television stations are dictating what the general tastes of the masses should be. But there are a lot of cool people finding innovative, creative ways of trying to share their music and staying true to what their ideals are. Everybody has a price; it’s just how low it is.

Hypernova

Y Spy: What are your touring plans for the future?

Raam: We’re going to be touring across the States in mid-June, which is very fun. For us, the ultimate form of freedom is when you’re on the road, and you don’t have to worry about the landlord and the rent and all the other nonsense. When you’re on the road you don’t really think about anything, and that’s such a blissful state of mind. Every night, you’re going to be playing in front of an audience and they’re going to be digging your music – or even not! It’s the opportunity to travel and meet interesting and new, crazy people. Every city we go to, we find the weirdest people; we party with them; we have the times of our lives. We’ve become so addicted to this lifestyle of change and variety; it’s really hard for us to stay put.

Y Spy: So adventure trumps stability.

Raam: We’re all about the adventure. It’s not going to end anytime soon for us.

Hypernova is Raam, Kami, Kodi, and Jam. “Through the Chaos” is out now. More information can be found at www.hypernova.com.

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