Parties are shut down by the police regularly here in the UK, but unless you’ve committed some kind of crime or have been caught selling drugs, you’ll likely walk away at the end of the night, with an Uber home; hanging the next morning, but waking up comfy. In Iran, if your gig gets shut down, it’s an entirely different scenario, as musician Ashkan Kooshanejad will tell you.
Playing at a house party in the suburbs of Tehran, with his band Take It Easy Hospital ended with a stint in jail, just for the live performance. After appearing in a music docu-fiction film ‘Nobody Knows About Persian Cats’ which received a mixed reaction after the presidential election in 2009, he found it safer to leave Iran and seek asylum abroad. Now residing in the UK, he is making beats as one of Ninja Tune’s latest signings. The tight controls on media and influence of Western culture have made it difficult for many youngsters in Iran, but nothing stops kids from finding alternative culture and music, however dangerous it may be. Ashkan was introduced to one of his key influences; Aphex Twin via illegal satellite streaming of MTV, which was one of the ways to circumvent the curb on pop culture. While first beginning as a rock vocalist, the discovery of electronic music marked Ashkan’s transition from metal-head to beat obsessive. The influence of Aphex Twin can be heard in Ashkhan’s ambient soundscapes, which are reminiscent of Aphex Twins more chilled out tunes.
Ashkan is interested in digital enhancement and how it impacts on our most basic human instincts, a set of urges we cannot alter no matter how sophisticated we become in the digital age. When we meet him, Ash is lying in a black leather chair in a pair of sunglasses, replete with a black overcoat and trousers. It’s a grey, windy day outside. We’re surrounded by a collage of colourful old Ninja Tune gig posters and shiny platinum discs on the wall. “You know… I wonder when electronica will be seen as a primitive tradition, ‘ he says, maybe in the future, it will be like folk music…”
Can you tell us a bit about how you consumed pop culture during the 1990s ‘destructive’ phase in Iran?
So you know there was the war in Iran in the ‘80s? Well, just after it ended, all VHS videos became illegal. So what we would get was like, black market tapes and cassettes; TV shows recorded over in Turkey or European countries which people would bring in – from Europe, mostly. You would get really random access to whatever was out there and had to be lucky enough to be able to get hold of the good material.
What kind of stuff did you get?
I was lucky because I was introduced to Pink Floyd and a lot of deep, heavy metal stuff, like Pantera and Nirvana! And that grunge band… Erm. What were they called? Help me out here.
The famous one. You know that one with the guy with the low voice? He did the soundtrack for Into The Wild.
I’ve completely forgotten all of the bands from that era that I listened to…
Anyway, yeah. So I was pretty lucky, cherry picking between cassettes. Of course, there was no Internet back then, but then satellite network came along – which was amazing – and it brought in TNT and MTV. I mean, in the beginning I was just looking at the screen but the first thing that actually shook me was the MTV interview with Aphex Twin.
Oh, he was on MTV?
Yeah, with the blonde girl interviewing him.
…Don’t think I’ve ever seen that!
Yeah, it’s from1996…?
Maybe we can find it on YouTube…
Yeah, it actually is on YouTube, check it out!
Aphex Twin is a smooth transition from metal into electronica.
Well, actually rather than just metal, I can easily say I was into anything and everything! ‘Cause everything was restricted, we all just took whatever we found. The range people listened to was ridiculous; you wanted to listen to anything that came in. In Iran, there was none of this “oh, we are headbangers” or “we are hip-hop”, but now you’ll find there is a lot more of that grouping. In the ‘90s, everyone was listening to everything because you didn’t know what the social background was behind each genre – what it stands for. We would read about it in issues of Rolling Stone sent over to Iran, but mostly it was just sonic pleasure. It was the feeling of the music.
But I guess in that context the underground cassette collecting was a subculture in itself.
Yeah, yeah it was!
So… You had MTV broadcast on TV?!
Well, satellite TV, which was illegal.
We’re talking everything illegal here! Back then it was after the war, after the revolution, the government wanted to keep Iranian culture strong, they didn’t want to let any Western stuff sneak in and turn people into Americans. Ha.
You do a lot of field recordings as well – obviously they’re manipulated a lot. Where do you go and take them from?
Well, I have an archive of sounds that I’ve recorded throughout the years. I have tried to classify sounds, like ‘this is good for bass’ or ‘this is good for a beat noise’. I couldn’t say that I do it anywhere in particular. I have this device that I take out and record whenever or wherever I feel like doing it… In the streets, in the city. Mostly I record sounds with my vocal microphone on my phone and I just try different objects, like amplifying the sound of this! [Scratches against the wall].
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever recorded?
In 2011 actually I was walking around the area where I lived, I was next to the road where the cars were moving. One of the cars forgot to stop at a red light and it made a sudden break and a pump noise, then scratching, like, SCREEEEE! It was a really heavy, amplified sound, and I was like, OH MY GOD, I gotta sample that! So the first thing people saw was this car screeching to a halt and then me holding out a microphone towards it! It must have looked pretty strange.
The sound of hair clippers is pretty cool… You know, the buzzing…
Yeah, that could be a really good drone sound… Also, I realised that juice makers make a lot of good sounds!
You’ve previously talked about visualising music… People involuntarily start to visualise things when they’re listening to music; like daydreaming. It’s an interesting aspect to look at.
Yeah, people do, it’s somewhere between seeing and hearing and thinking… In live electronic music we can emphasise this with background visuals, however, now I think its time to use virtual reality.
Is that the headset that you put on? Can you imagine playing a show where the entire audience had one of these on!
Yeah that’s the device! Although at this point in time I don’t think it’s a good idea to do a show with hundreds of them because each one still needs to be attached to a computer… An exhibition would be good, like stations that each person can visit and experience individually…
From a musician’s perspective, what are the sounds in Tehran like?
It’s a lot like London, but so much louder. There’s a lot going on, it’s crazy. It’s manic. The traffic is scary – I call it moving parking! In Tehran you don’t hear these crazy London sirens, though! What’s that all about?! Who’s mastering those sirens! They sound worse especially after a night out, it’s like… Oh man… Stooopp. Hahaha.
What did you set out to accomplish with I AKA I…
I think the two main things that I look at when I do music, film or anything in art for that matter, are… Well, first of all, I think we’re entering a technological apocalypse… Hahaha. You know, the new generation is experiencing a massive leap with technology. Eight year olds are coding. Most of my generation doesn’t even know what coding is! However, this massive leap requires an understanding that you are still a human and that were not all gonna become machines. We are gonna be enhanced digitally, but whilst keeping our primal instincts as humans. So that’s the main thing I wanna talk about, how we progress, how we become one with technology. Also, what I wanna accomplish musically is to make electronic music that is alive.
You mean with the 3D visuals?
Yes. So, to explain how I see it… If I do a process in the computer on a sampled sound, it reacts, right? And most of the time, it doesn’t come out as I expected. I let that be. That sound is not biologically conscious, but I still think of it as alive; it’s speaking out after a few processes. I look at it as being slightly intelligent.
It’s like, having respect for the sound as an entity.
Yeah! ‘Cause most of the time sounds that come out randomly, on their own. They’re so alive and strong. Sometimes, I’m like, “woah, what did you just say?” to the computer! So, I think with electronic music, we need to treat it as if it is alive and organic, rather than boxed or controlled in a pattern or a sequence in the software. We normally just turn on the clock, put the kick drum in, give it a bit of swing, and that’s it; we have dance music.
What’s the meaning of I AKA I?
So, going back again to what I said earlier about human progression… There are these two sides in me; one is the machine one is human. One is the progressive human, one is primitive. I am facing myself, basically. My point is that there’s no difference between them. At the end, there is only I. So, if you can see, it’s mirrored – it’s I Ash Koosha Ash I.
It’s like I’m facing myself in the mirror.