This Is… Hypernova
Childhood friends with a love for rock n’ roll, work hard, defy the odds to play the music they love to sold out crowds across the American heartland as they prepare to lay down tracks for their first album.
Sound like a classic rock n’ roll story?
For Hypernova, the fast rising indie rock band from Iran (yeah, they are really from Iran not Beverly Hills), politics is personal and it’s all about the music (good music!.) As they navigate between the worlds of humble musicians, traveling artists and aspiring rockstars, their story is familiar with enough of a twist to keep it more than interesting
Ausma Malik tells the feature story for This Is Worldtown.
Imagine a band, born and raised in Iran, whose upbeat dance-rock brings to mind the Strokes, Joy Division, and Depeche Mode. Throw in some catchy hooks, and the distinctive deep voice of front-man (first names only) Raam, and you’ve got North America’s fast-rising indie-rock outfit Hypernova.
In the climate of the ‘War on Terror’ with Iran being the latest threat, coverage of a story like Hypernova’s might aim to shock. Despite the fact that rock n’roll has pervaded every corner of the earth, it is still seen by some, at its core, as American as apple pie.
So while the U.S. threatens sanctions on Iran, the very idea of Iran and rock music is odd or difficult to fathom, or in the political context, even blasphemous.
“We have been very lucky to get so much attention, because of the nature of where we are from,” says Raam, acknowledging this as one aspect of promoting their art. He’s quick to add, however, “I don’t always want to be pigeonholed as ‘that Iranian band’ We don’t want to be like animals at a zoo, like an exotic experience.”
While the band does get a kick out of breaking stigmas and stereotypes about their homeland, Raam is unequivocal, “It is about the music. We want people to come to our shows to have a very beautiful unique experience.”
So far it seems others agree. Since forming in Iran in around 2000, Hypernova has seen their success take off of late. The band was the opening act for veteran rockers Sisters of Mercy’s recent tour and sold out their recent Toronto stop so quickly that they needed to add a second date.
Raam and his childhood nemesis turned friend Kami, Hypernova’s drummer, bonded over their love for rock n’ roll during their mandatory military training in Iran. Raam’s fluent English made him the default lead singer when the friends decided to turn their mutual appreciation into a rock band. They settled on performing in English as it better suited the energetic rock sensibility they sought.
“It was fun and games in the beginning for us” says Raam, but it was the ability to make a genuine connection with people that kept them going, despite the potential consequences if they were found out. Playing rock music in Iran is considered illegal, and the consequences can range from large fines to jail time to worse. In the Iranian underground scene, careful soundproofing was required for every venue. But to see their audiences moved– dancing and singing along as they performed for hours– was the greatest honour for the young musicians. It felt powerful.
Raam briefly pursued studies in International Relations in Canada, hoping for his chance to change the world. He eventually returned to Iran and devoted himself to the band. “I said ‘Screw it, I’ll be a rockstar.’ It’s much easier changing the world if you are a rockstar than a politician”, he reminisces.
After continuing to defy state police to play the growing Iranian underground music scene for a number of years, they decided that making music was truly their calling and devoted themselves to it.
Hypernova’s success has come against many odds, ranging from the banality of constantly rotating band members to the more unique challenges that come with being a rock band in Iran, contending with obscurity, danger and lack of opportunities abroad. “Expressing yourself in a closed society is difficult”, Raam describes a bit wearily.
“You have to dream. You have to believe in something, and for us, we had nothing to believe in. Music was the only thing that we believed in. It was the only thing we had.” As the only member of the band who had previously traveled outside of Iran, Raam concedes that exposure perhaps made him more determined and confident in the possibilities for Hypernova’s success.
The break came when they were invited to play a showcase at South by Southwest. Quickly, they added a young guitarist, Kodi, and bassist Jam– both filling the immediate criteria needed: played instrument, had passport.
Obtaining the visas to actually go was the next challenge, the band was denied entry until a US Senator came to their aid. Leaving everything else behind in Iran, they arrived in the United States for what started out as a 2.5 week visit. It has now been 2.5 years.
Since arriving, naive to the music industry and the competitive New York scene, with just “$400, a guitar and a suitcase” Hypernova has been incredibly fortunate.
“Our hearts were so pure that, you know, that we were drawn to all the right things, and all the right things were drawn to us. Somehow we were able to survive,” remembers Raam. The New York Times and MTV were among the first to relish in the novelty of the band’s heritage and “making it” story. Raam however, recalls how he was embarrassed by the band’s music and perplexed by all the attention, knowing that the band had potential but wasn’t quite there yet. His determination to exceed expectations and the support of the Iranian Diaspora solidified their early fan base.
“Without the help of so many people, we never would have survived. People took us in to their homes, and they would feed us, help us, help fund the album for us. So generous…so proud to see these kids coming from Iran trying to make it here as artists.” Raam continues, “we are forever grateful…Hopefully we can repay that, or pay it forward some how.” This gratitude has translated into a commitment: Hypernova has helped bring over young bands from Iran, most recently, the “Yellow Dogs” as a means to “pay it forward”.
Though politics is imbued in many aspects of who they are, from their heritage to questions about their citizenship and the “random” security checks at the airport, politics is still very personal. When it comes to writing a good rock song, Raam opts to find the universal in the personal experience, coming from the underground in Iran, and incorporating the global context in a way that really relates to all kinds of people. “Music transcends, barriers, boundaries and differences. That is the beautiful thing about this art form,” he contends.
Their inspiration comes from life, and lately, a lot of classically music to stay centred. “Its such a hectic life, the way I always say it, is like, our lives are like a rollercoaster ride. It’s fun, but sometimes, you want to get off, but you can’t, you are stuck on this ride, whether you like it or not. But it is the life we chose, so we have to stick with it.” It is that sense of freedom, opportunity and obligation that is the balancing act for the band.
In terms of heritage, when it comes to arts, culture, history, the cradle of civilization, “Iranians are a very proud people,” Raam says, and that is an inspiration as well. “I’m super proud too” he insists, “I was taught to be a citizen of this earth first, then whatever boundary I am thrown in to.”
When they first landed in North America, they cautiously side-stepped delving into the political and social dynamics of Iran. However, recent events in that country following the contentious election of President Ahmedinajad last June and the subsequent people’s movements that have overtaken the streets of Iran have made it difficult to remain politically ambiguous.
During the interview, it takes some time for him to let on, “I really think, it shows the real side, the real face of this regime, to the world, if it was a mystery to anyone.”
His hope shines through as he unpacks his country’s situation, “I do think that ultimately the people’s will, will be respected, and will be heard, they will prevail, (…) the aspirations of freedom are will never die in any human being. People can only be afraid for so long, (…) they keep the movement alive, it was a very multifaceted, multi-class sort of movement, where different generations and different classes united for the same cause.”
As a musician, he laments, “Our role is very small, we are like nothing, in this, the real heroes are the people who are on the streets risking their lives, (…) and all we can do is, stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, and show them that they have our support.”
But he acknowledges, “Music is a very profound and powerful artform,” Raam explains his frustrations at feeling “helpless”, evoking the politician-musician dilemma again. A dilemma that it feels Raam himself has merely sidestepped, but not reconciled, “I mean I’m not a politician, I have to stick to what I am best at, just from being what I am, I can help others as well.”
Working with a number of other artists to be a part of the Freedom Glory Project, Hypernova has done just that. First recording a song in support of the movement, they are now expanding the initiative to help artists in Iran.
“We shouldn’t interfere, nor should anyone outside of the country interfere. People should decide on their own what they want.” Raam says in regards to the need for Iranian people to determine their own future. He feels a sense of responsibility to ensure that there is a free flow of information, of what is happening on the ground. Social media has been at the forefront of this kind of access.
Raam speaks with a firm but quiet optimism, “Justice will prevail at the end of the day, the generation right now is, a young one, a very open minded one, a very globalized one, so this whole archaic way of thought can only live for so long, as Jim Morrison said ‘They got the guns. But we got the numbers’ ”.
So what lays ahead for these rockers? A new album, coming out in April entitled, ‘Through the Chaos’
“It tells the story of the band, what we did, where we are today, its a prologue, an introduction to what Hypernova is,” according to Raam. “It is like a bit of a teaser,” he continues “I feel, honestly like we were infants when we first came to this place and we are only growing and evolving everyday as a band.”
There are some conventional things that they feel truly lucky about: the support of their families back in Iran “Most families are very traditional and they want their kids to be a doctor or engineer and pursue a career in the arts is very difficult”
While they toy around with the dream of returning to Iran as such enormous rockstars that they would be untouchable, no matter what the political regime, Raam insists that fame and fortune are not what they are about, “We came here to just play our music, and if I could do this for the rest of my life, I’ll be one happy camper.” However Raam thoughtfully mulls over the idea of one day going back to Iran and playing at a large stadium there. Amused, he says, “a man can dream.”
“If you work hard and you are really passionate about something, you actually achieve results, even if you are in a totalitarian state, or a fascist state, or a friggin democracy, wherever you are, if you really want to achieve something you can. We set our own limits. That’s what my belief is.”
In that way Hypernova’s story is as ubiquitous and transcendent as any good rock song, as familiar and elusive as a fairy tale– hardly a foreign story.
Just a little Persian slice of the American Dream.
Hypernova’s debut album is set to be out on April 6th 2010.