America has always welcomed all kinds of imported music — from Europe (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Phoenix, Bjork, etc.) and Australia (John Butler Trio, AC/DC, etc.) — but you rarely hear about bands from the Middle East, and it wasn't until 2007 that the first band from Iran came to the United States.
What took them so long? For starters, Western music is banned in the country, especially in the form of performance. The indie rock quintet known as Hypernova formed in the early 2000s and would practice and hold shows underground in the country. And when they say "underground," they mean it.
"We had a practice room that was four stories underground in this half-abandoned home," says singer Raam during time off in Los Angeles. "We soundproofed it. We pretty much lived in that dungeon of a room. For us, music was the only escape we had from the madness around us."
Starting a band — aside from finding a place to practice and perform — is difficult on many levels. Finding equipment in Iran isn't easy due to high tariffs. A $200 guitar in the U.S. will cost $900 in Iran.
"We had friends and family coming from abroad that were bringing effects, microphones and guitars," Raam says. "We had the most horrible equipment in Iran. Everything was a piece of shit. We didn't have a proper PA for me to sing through — we used a broken guitar amplifier and my voice sounded like it was coming through a megaphone. There is only so much you can do when you're underground — you can't release music, you can't record, you can't promote."
The band applied to perform at the South By SouthWest music conference in Texas and were shocked to be approved. The only problem was getting visas in time, and proving they were a band. "We applied for the visas, but being from the Axis of Evil, you have to go through a lot of security clearances. The first time we applied, we were denied because we couldn't prove we were a legitimate band. How do you prove you're a legitimate band in Iran when there's no press covering music and your whole life you're trying to not be known?"
Missing SXSW didn't stop them though. They played a Monday night gig in New York for a few people, and their dream was starting to come true — there were reporters and cameras there from publications such as the New York Times who wanted to interview the band.
"I thought we were unworthy of all that because musically we were awful," Raam says. "I was embarrassed of all the attention. We've worked so hard and are perfectionists and are confident in reaching all of our goals and dreams."
Raam and his bandmates have changed their names to protect their families who are still in Iran. Here on entertainment visas, the band got help from the Iranian community in the States, after having arrived in the U.S. with not much more than the shirts on their backs.
"We didn't say proper goodbyes," Raam says. "We had a round-trip ticket, a guitar, suitcases and a couple hundred bucks — that's about the journey is that we came here with an empty heart and an open mind. We didn't have high expectations. We didn't expect the world to accept what we were. It's just one show at a time."
The band released its debut CD, Through the Chaos, earlier this year, and hopes to record its sophomore effort later this year.
"I can't say how much I miss home, but we're on a bigger journey right now," Raam says. "If we go back to Iran and get thrown behind bars, it won't do any good. The dream is to become so famous that, when we do go home, we'll be untouchable."