Q&A with Iranian formed band KIOSK - stinging political satire hidden within its blues and folksy sound

"There are a lot of similarities between blues and some of our folk music, I am not educated in traditional music of Iran ... I can hear a lot of elements that were probably adopted by western music from Persian music."

Kiosk: The Universal Message Of Music 

Kiosk (Persian: کیوسک‎) is a rock band formed in Tehran in 2003, known for its blend of musical styles and its wry lyrics confronting Iranian cultural angst. Kiosk is a pioneering Iranian rock band, founded by Arash Sobhani in Tehran in 2003. After censorship and restriction by Iranian authorities, its musicians immigrated to the U.S. and Canada. The band has since toured throughout the world and released seven albums. Kiosk is known for its satirical lyrics, which provide a socio-political commentary of life in Iran, as well as its blend of several music styles, from Iranian folk to gypsy jazz to rock. Kiosk's music has been described by BBC World as "songs that speak to a generation...Kiosk's stinging political satire is hidden within its blues and folksy sound." Haaretz has referred to Kiosk as the most popular Iranian rock band in the Iranian diaspora, while Ahram Online describes how the band gives a voice to their generation. Kiosk's live album "Triple Distilled," recorded at Yoshi's Jazz Club, was chosen by presenter Mark Coles from BBC World's "World of Music" as one of the ten best world music albums of the year, alongside such artists as Paolo Conte and Ali Farka Touré.

TIME Magazine has called Kiosk "a band that can criticize the Iranian government without retribution," while Frontline PBS has praised their "eclectic sound that incorporates a multitude of instruments and styles." The Guardian and Radio Free Europe have reported on Kiosk's popularity amongst young Iranians. Frontman Arash Sobhani's lyrics have been referenced by The New York Times and referred to by the Frankfurt General Newspaper as "a guiding light for many,” while Frontline PBS refers to Sobhani's “poignantly powerful lyrics...and smooth, melodic tone that belies the fire and rage of one of Iran's most prolific contemporary social critics." As Aslan Media, founded by Reza Aslan, writes: "Kiosk offers an honest opportunity for self-reflection in a society that has nearly seventy-percent of its population under the age of thirty. For younger generations of the diaspora who have yet to visit their parents’ homeland, Kiosk delivers unpretentious music that speaks of a society caught between East and West, trapped between past and present, leaving no direction to look but within." Kiosk are: Arash Sobhani (guitars/vocals), Ardalan Payvar (keys), Ali Kamali (bass), Tara Kamangar (violin), and Mohammad Talani (guitar).

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos © by Danish Saroee, Hami Roshan I / All rights reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Arash: It’s a constant education, you may listen to a song you have been listening for the last 15 years and discover something new, that’s the beauty of music and that’s the beauty of blues, it is not a fixed frame, it’s constantly growing within you, it’s like life!

Ardalan: One of the most important aspects of the Rock and Jazz culture is playing within the context of a band as opposed to responding to individual urges. Playing in a band, I learn that I have to let go of my “self” and be respectful and tolerant towards what other band members bring to the table. It’s a collective process. To me, the blues is perhaps the most universal musical language. It’s the most profound and expressive form of music, stripped of all the unnecessary formal complexities. With extreme tensions and releases, it can provoke contrasting emotional experiences in the listener.

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Arash: I may not be the best person to answer that, I know things that I like to achieve in my music, how successful I have been in doing so is not for me to say. I like simplicity, I like layers both in sound and lyrics, I like to get the listener’s reaction but more than anything I want my music to be described as sincere, I don’t want it our sound to be fabricated even if it has the biggest sound and greatest message, if it’s not sincere it’s not art.

Ardalan: I always try to understand music objectively and collectively in the context of styles and music history, and at the same time, I try to free myself of forms and styles to explore my individual expression.  That’s how I’d like to shape my sound. I believe personal expression can only flourish within the framework of.

"We have a lot of exciting musicians doing amazing works, we have instrumentalists who are mixing elements of Persian music which is totally different from Arabic, Turkish or Indian music with jazz and I really enjoy their work."

What were the reasons that you started the satirical, social, cultural and Rock researches and experiments?

Arash: I started writing when I was inside Iran, the only art form that you had some opportunity to get away with was satire, if you said anything serious you would be in trouble but satire for some reason was not taken serious by the authorities – to some level- on the other hand I think showing the contrast is a very effective way to get your message across, so when everything is dark, everything is tragic, some humor can go a long way, the other issue was that the situation in Iran had gone so extreme that tragedy became comedy. I mean as they say if you look at tragedy from distance you get comedy, in Iran if you are within a tragedy, too close to a tragedy you get comedy also! That was why it made it easier for me to use humor in my lyrics, it just came natural, the status quo was ridiculously humorous!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Arash: There are lot’s of memories, good and bad from performing inside and outside Iran, the funniest is probably from a time we were performing in Iran I was a guitarist in a band this is before KIOSK, we had a performance and the government was really sensitive to allow rock music acts play live, so we were really cautious what we do or say on stage not to get them ticked off, in the intermission as we were back stage we get a call from the control room and there is a security person on the other end, and he says “tell your vocalist not to move so much” that killed the spirit of the band right there and then, but later whenever I look back I find it funny, I try to think what was going through the guys head and who gave him authority to tell people exactly how much movement is allowed on stage!

Ardalan: One incident I’ll never forget is when we were performing in Munich back in 2012 (if I’m not mistaken). In the middle of the set our former drummer, Shahrouz, had to go to the bathroom but he had no way of telling Arash to take a brief intermission because Arash was in front of the stage and he was behind the drumset. So he tried to signal me to let Arash know. Before I even got a chance to give the news to Arash and while Arash was talking to the audience about the next song, Shahrouz disappeared through the back of the stage. After Arash was done preparing the audience for the next song, he turned around to cue Shahrouz to start the song but found no drummer on stage!! He turned to me with surprise and that’ when I told him why Shahrouz was not there.  So Arash had to turn to the audience and entertain them for a few more minutes without any music until our drummer returned.

"I would wanna go to New Orleans for a day in the 1930s when swing was taking shape. To a night club where people are dancing to Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson!"

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Arash: Analogue recording, live recordings and albums are a thing of a past now, I miss the fact that you had to wait a year for an album to come out from your favorite band and you got to live with that album explore it for a long time before they captured the mood of the coming period of time in their next album, right now with the singles and the qualities that are lifeless, I feel the notion of time has disappeared from music.

Ardalan: There are a few things that I miss about the music of the past.  There was a time when Jazz was considered pop culture. People danced to jazz at night clubs. Later, in the 50s and 60s, Rock ’n Roll was pop.  Then in the 70s, funk and disco became pop. All of these styles existed not because a producer with huge financial and marketing power was behind them, but because talented musicians were creating them. The focus was not so much on the production as it was on the music itself.  Back then, if you didn’t have talent, it was unlikely that you’d become famous. Nowadays, marketing and promotion plays the most important role in the pop music scene. Jazz and Rock have been pushed to the margins, for people who are eager enough to discover them.

Another aspect of music of the past that I truly miss is the way in which we heard music. There was a time when even records were not common and you had to hear music by physically being present at a club. Then there was records, then cassettes, then CDs, and finally digital music. As technology advanced, it became easier and easier to skim over a whole album without understanding the depth of what the musical had to offer. And now, with the introduction of music apps such as Spotify and Apple music, so much is at your fingertips that it gets harder and harder to be focused on just one song or one album (even though the listener should share the blame for that too).

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Arash: Distribution! I think even though technology and internet have given us the opportunity to explore and discover more music, but the distribution companies and outlets always find a way to sideline some musicians or genres. I think if more people were exposed to different styles of music and musicians, the quality of music in the world would have been so much better.

"The blues is perhaps the most universal musical language. It’s the most profound and expressive form of music, stripped of all the unnecessary formal complexities. With extreme tensions and releases, it can provoke contrasting emotional experiences in the listener."

Make an account of the case of blues rock jazz in Iran. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Arash: We have a lot of exciting musicians doing amazing works, we have instrumentalists who are mixing elements of Persian music which is totally different from Arabic, Turkish or Indian music with jazz and I really enjoy their work. I know a lot of Turkish and Greek musicians are doing that too and they are both more experienced and produce a lot more for various reasons mainly because the financial model is healthier in those countries than Iran, yet there are a lot of interesting fusion works being produced from Iran that are in a global level high quality.

Ardalan: I have hardly heard any blues coming out of Iran. I would say that there are bands that play rock with a touch of blues, but Iranian blues in the true sense of the word is rare.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Arash: I live in San Francisco now, for political reasons I cannot go back, everytime I hear my friends performing in Iran it makes me happy, it is a good feeling to know your friends are fighting and changing the scene, at the same time it’s sad that I know I cannot be there to enjoy it, and we as a band which has had 8 albums has a decent following inside Iran cannot perform for our own people. We perform regularly outside Iran we have had performances in Australia all the way to Canada, Beirut to Oslo, but we have not been able to perform our music for our own people that makes me sad.

Ardalan: Recently, many bands try to include humor in their lyrics. If I were to pick out two bands with great humor, I would pick Ballgard and Koochneshin. Among the bands that touch me emotionally, I would pick 127.

"I think even though technology and internet have given us the opportunity to explore and discover more music, but the distribution companies and outlets always find a way to sideline some musicians or genres."

Are there any similarities between the blues/jazz/folk and the genres of local folk music and traditional forms?

Arash: There are a lot of similarities between blues and some of our folk music, I am not educated in traditional music of Iran but sometimes I think Greek traditional music maybe the closest to it even closer than Arabic and Turkish so yes I can hear a lot of elements that were probably adopted by western music from Persian music.

Ardalan: There are some similarities. Both Jazz and traditional Persian music are based on modes. They are both mainly improvised. The main difference lies in harmonic structures and form. I would also say that there are similarities between the blues and local folk music of Iran, especially from the southern areas. The main similarity would lie in the emotional expression carried through the vocals.

What is the impact of Rock n’ Roll & Jazz culture and music to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Arash: The rock music in particular and jazz and hip-hop in different degrees have become a form of resistance, meaning the Iranian government is trying to promote a very restricted life style based on Islam which does not regard music very highly, in fact it regards music as a distraction from religion, so anyone who is doing music in any form is basically part of a resistance movement in away.

Ardalan: Just like any other form of art, music influences the culture of a society. Iran is no exception. With more musicians learning and playing jazz and Rock, the whole society gets exposed to these western styles and gradually becomes accustomed to them. It’s like being introduced to a new language which will inevitably affect the psyche of the society.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Arash: I am a big fan of Dire Straits, I would like to be in at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on 22–23 July 1983, where they recorded this album live. The cliché answer would have been Woodstock I guess.

Ardalan: I would wanna go to New Orleans for a day in the 1930s when swing was taking shape. To a night club where people are dancing to Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson!

Kiosk - The Band -- Home

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