Ash Koosha developed his abstract electronic music after fleeing Iran for defying state censorship. Stream his new album I AKA I and get to know the artist inside
While Ash Koosha was studying classical music, formal composition, and sound acoustics at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, he was secretly playing in hard rock bands around the city. Cautious not to attract attention from the Ministry of Culture, the shows were pretty underground, with audiences of no more than 20 people. But after Koosha and his bandmates tried to organise a DIY festival outside of Tehran, the authorities forcibly broke it up. He spent three weeks in jail.
Undeterred by the experience, Koosha formed a new group, Take It Easy Hospital. During this time he was approached by director Bahnman Ghobadi about making a film about Iran’s underground music scene and the problems it was facing from the state. The film, No One Knows About Persian Cats (starring Koosha under his birth name, Ashkan Kooshanejad), went on to win the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2009. But its success brought on even more problems: emerging while Iran was cracking down on dissent once again, the film’s co-writer Roxana Saberi ended up being charged with espionage and jailed for eight years, and Take It Easy Hospital’s drummer was arrested and beaten. When the band came to the UK to play a handful of shows, they never returned.
From 2010 onwards, Koosha lived in London, earning a living by soundtracking Iranian films over the internet. During this time he started producing solo music that took on more abstract and electronic forms, melding classical arrangements, ornate melodies, and glitchy production techniques. His music caught the attention of experimental label Olde English Spelling Bee, who released Koosha’s debut album GUUD last year. Now he’s back with I AKA I for Ninja Tune, an album informed by transhumanism, synaesthesia, and Koosha’s fascination with the visual properties of sound. Alongside the album’s release, Koosha has been working with virtual reality technologies in order to develop a new way of experiencing his sound sculptures.
Below, listen to I AKA I exclusively on Dazed, and read on for an interview with Koosha about his experiences as a musician in Iran, his unexpectedly permanent trip to the UK, and his discovery of VR technology.
Ash Koosha — I AKA I artwork by Negar Shaghaghi
Tell us about your experiences as a musician in Iran.
Ash Koosha: I grew up in Iran and I was there until I was 23. I grew up in a family where we listened to a lot of music. My parents were cool with me having tapes, reading magazines, and watching satellite TV. I started learning about different stuff by the tapes I received. It was mostly pretty random with music. The range was unbelievable, from folk music from Bolivia to the Backstreet Boys to Pink Floyd. It was just pure luck what you would get back in Iran, really.
How did you go from your formal music education to playing in bands to making electronic music?
Ash Koosha: I didn’t finish high school. I left in the second year. I was reading a lot of stuff on the internet and self-educating with different things, and school was slow and boring. I started playing different instruments. I was doing improv until I learned about the Tehran Conservatory of Music. I started learning classical composition and getting into music theory — more into form and structure and the movement of music. At the same time, I was recordings sound with my shitty computer. I was trying to get sounds from the environment, because [in] the first year we were studying acoustic physics and the technicals of sound. I got interested in how sound can be an object, and the physical properties of sound. I [also] formed a band and we started playing in tiny places and getting more experience. I was taking it more seriously than a lot of other people — I’d invested my life in producing music.
What sort of music were you playing?
Ash Koosha: It was funk bands to fusion to rock and punk and electronic rock. It would change depending on which people I was with. It was interesting because it made me learn a lot about being active in different genres. At one point I was improvising jazz with different people for three hours, then in the evening we’d go and play some crazy progressive rock jams. There were a couple of people we were interested in [with] electronic stuff, like Aphex Twin — we were making the glitch sound and trying to learn how it was done.
“In Iran, there’s music called the ‘Authorized Music’. It has to go through the permit system from the Ministry of Culture, who decide what’s okay to be performed or released. And yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s being released in Iran, but it’s pretty controlled. I don’t call it music — it’s just an imitation.” — Ash Koosha
I recently interviewed an MC from Iran who had to leave the country for his own safety. What was your experience with the state like?
Ash Koosha: In Iran, there’s music called the ‘Authorized Music’. It has to go through the permit system from the Ministry of Culture, who decide what’s okay to be performed or released. And yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s being released in Iran, but it’s pretty controlled. I don’t call it music — it’s just an imitation. It’s not creative. I refused to be a part of that scene. The whole point of music is breaking boundaries, trying new things, and introducing new sounds to people.
Did you ever experience any issues trying to get your music through?
Ash Koosha: Yeah, generally because there were social lyrics involved. They had a problem with both [the] lyrics and the fast rhythm. It was provocative, as a package, because people would gather round and party and drink alcohol, and all that stuff is banned in Iran.
Can you tell me about the time you were arrested for your music?
Ash Koosha: We didn’t have any problems when we played shows in basements for like 20 people. But in the year 2007, with the help of the UNICEF office in Tehran, we tried to put on this semi-festival. It failed — we spent a lot of money, we practised, we gathered people to come, and a week before that gig they cancelled the whole thing. We were in debt. In the end, we decided ‘Let’s do it on our own.’ We organised this gig outside of Tehran and invited 150 people — 700 people showed up. That’s where things went wrong. They raided the party after we finished, and there were dozens of soldiers and helicopters and stuff like that. We went to jail for 21 days. After that, the band split and no one wanted to do anything anymore. That’s when I started another band [Take It Easy Hospital], a duo with my friend. We used to just record stuff and put it on Myspace. Those demos helped us get a gig — some people emailed us from In The City festival in Manchester, and they invited us [to play].
We were preparing for this festival and a couple of gigs in London. It was funny, because at the same time we were trying to leave Iran for a couple of shows, this filmmaker [Bahnman Ghobadi] came along. We started working on a film about this whole process of not being able to make music [No One Knows About Persian Cats]. He’d waited for three years to get a permit for his film, but they didn’t give him the permit. He was frustrated and said, ‘You know what? Let’s do an underground film about underground music.” We left Iran and the film went to Cannes and won a prize. People were in shock — they didn’t know it would make so much buzz. And a month after Cannes, the elections happened — the semi-revolution and uprising. Things became complicated. After that, we just stayed. We never went back. It came as a shock, because we’d planned to go back to Iran and pack for SXSW.
“[The Iranian authorities] raided the party after we finished, and there were dozens of soldiers and helicopters and stuff like that. We went to jail for 21 days.” — Ash Koosha
How long ago was that?
Ash Koosha: I haven’t been back to Iran in seven years now. The first two years was tough in London, because we weren’t prepared to start a life in another country. It was crazy.
What was it like knowing that you weren’t going home?
Ash Koosha: What was it like? It’s like you’re in the best-looking prison in the world. It’s just so confusing. We’d always wanted to play shows, work in music, and travel around, but when it’s forced, it doesn’t feel right. The first two years was kind of like [being] in a coma, but after that I pulled myself together and recorded some stuff on my own. I’ve been in the same room for five or six years making stuff, trying to learn more about sound and music and technology.
How did you cope for those first two years?
Ash Koosha: The good thing is that I had my hard drive. I knew I had to use it at some point. I basically started setting up a studio in the room I was in. Me in my room, and my computer. That’s when I started to get more involved with computers and the digital world.
How did you get into virtual reality?
Ash Koosha: After playing a lot in bands and doing different genres, what I realised was that the ideal would sound like physical objects. I tried to create an abstract shape, a geometry, out of them. There’s something in my head when I’m making music on my own — I see sound. I try to make shapes out of them. Physical values are attached to sound; there’s geometry and colour to it. You can deal with it as you would with sculpting. When I went to a couple of exhibitions for virtual reality over the year, I realised there was a new medium for sound.
“There’s something in my head when I’m making music on my own — I see sound. I try to make shapes out of them. Physical values are attached to sound; there’s geometry and colour to it. You can deal with it as you would with sculpting.” — Ash Koosha
What did you see in those exhibitions?
Ash Koosha: You see a lot of products with 360 [degree] videos and films, and I thought ‘This is not right, this is too gamey.’ I started this project in Logic where all the processes have a physical value. I believe the poetry in electronic music is the processing, the editing, the stretching of sound — the method that each artist has for themselves, basically. I feel like you have to show it with visuals somehow. There needs to be this 360 world of sound. I think we’ll get to the point where we lose the distinction of which was made first, the sound or the object, and I think we’ll get past the point where we call that music. I don’t know what it’ll be called, but it’s gonna be something that’s audio-visual from the beginning. You’re in a world of sound and visuals — there’ll be a stone moving, but it’ll have musical value to it.
What can you tell me about your new album?
Ash Koosha: This album is a follow-up to GUUD, with the same method of how I see sound and how I deal with human vs. technology. We are merging with technology and it’s applied to us more than ever. On this album the concept is how I face a version of myself which is merged with technology and enhanced: is it a different entity, or is it me but improved? That’s why I called it I AKA I — it’s a mirrored version. Even though we’re gonna be more scientifically advanced, we’re gonna stay human beings. And we should stay human beings.
Ninja Tune release I AKA I on April 1st