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INTERVIEW: Mahdyar
Patrick Clarke , December 5th, 2017 11:22

We're premiering a new track from the brilliant Iranian producer Mahdyar, ahead of his debut album over a decade in the making, along with a new interview on his career past, present and future

Tehran-born Mahdyar is an enormous name in Iranian electronic music and hip hop. Beginning his career at just 16 after classical training, having immersed himself into the then-nascent Persian hip hop scene as a producer he went on to become a formative figure in the country's now bountiful culture of extraordinary electronic music.

It's taken over a decade of working as a producer for Mahdyar's debut album of his own Seized to appear, however. In the intervening years he's expanded his reach into film composition and working with museums and art institutions like Paris' Centre Pompidou and Sweden's National Theater Riksteatern.

However this widespread success and acclaim has also caused trouble for the producer. As the influence of Mahdyar and his contemporaries grew, the Iranian authorities became concerned about their rising power over the nation's youth. He was blacklisted by the Ministry of Culture and left Tehran for Europe in 2009.

Below, we're premiering 'Money, Money', a superb track from his forthcoming debut album Seized that glistens in its momentous sprawl. Meanwhile, read on for an exclusive interview with the musician on his career past, present and future.

You’ve been working in music for over a decade, why is now the time to release your debut LP?

Mahdyar: Since I started I was always making experimental music on the side at the same time that I was producing other artists or scoring films. It was just a joyful process to give myself a lot of space with no boundaries in order to express my emotions and thoughts, testing different limits and seeing if I could push them further. I knew one day I would eventually put them out somehow but had no precise plan and wasn’t in a hurry to do it because I was quite busy with other commissioned projects that I was working on.

It was actually only a couple of years ago that two close friends of mine who had heard many of these unreleased tracks, started pushing me relentlessly, telling me almost every week that certain people need to hear this side of my production, so I finally sat down with a theme in mind, selected and retouched some of the tracks that I had made throughout the years, composed some new ones and Seized was created. It's for this reason that I have to thank my friend Hirad Sab who’s one of my favorite visual artists, who's also responsible for the creative direction of my album and directed the video for 'Money Money' which will come out soon. The other friend is Ash Koosha who’s one of my favorite musicians and with whom I have a lot of unreleased music that we’ve made together. I’ve actually used his voice on a couple of tracks on the album including 'Money Money'.

Tell me more about the themes of dystopia, war and greed that underpin the record. How are you approaching these topics?

The concept I had for the album was extremism, the album is not necessarily dystopian, although one could say that the majority of the album sounds dark but I think it's realistic rather than dystopian, at least according to the reality I was and am dealing with. I think most of the problems in the world such as war boil down to extremism. I was born at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. My father had fought years in that war and he came back with mental and physical issues, in a way he was a constant reminder in front of me of how devastating war can be, even years after it's finished. Later, before becoming a teenager, we had the Iraq war on one side and the Afghanistan war on the other side and there were always talks about how Iran could be the next target since Bush called it the 'axis of evil'. To me these wars being waged by the west in fact appeared to be examples of extreme behaviors from first world countries such as the US.

When I became a teenager and started producing for underground artists the Iranian government started cracking down on us, closing the studios we used and arresting the studio staff as well as arresting the artists I was working with. They even came after me and this was all simply because we were not making music under the guidelines of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Before I left Iran, at the end of my teenage years, I was in a peaceful protest for Iran's 2009 elections results during which police started beating us and at one point one of them pointed a gun at my face and told me I should run away or he would shoot me in the face. I saw these experiences as examples of extremism but this time from the Iranian authorities.

A few years after I moved to France, we had the obvious example of extremists, ISIS, killing innocent people in Paris. Today even when you look at social media, people try to say the most extreme things, because the most extreme ones get the most reactions and people don't care how dividing their messages can be, it's all about getting the attention which is becoming worse everyday as people's attention span shrinks. Extremism has even become a well-known political tactic, look at Brexit and of course Trump. What I'm trying to say is, extremism is everywhere and extreme greed for power and money has been destroying the world. We all need to be less self-centered and communicate more with an open and welcoming mind.

Why is it important for you to draw heavily on traditional Persian music?

I think it can be something special that I can bring to alternative music fans around the world. I started practicing violin when I was around five years old, studied classical music for six years and then studied Iranian traditional music for four years. At the same time next to classical and traditional music I was listening to all types of music such as rock, hip hop and electronic, all of which inspired me. My music is influenced by many modern genres as well as Iranian traditional and western classical which can be a new experience for the listener since there are not many modern Iranian composers out there who do this type of fusion.

How did you first come to be involved with the Iranian hip hop and electronic scenes?

When I was around 14 years old, I started doing graffiti. Through graffiti I got connected to the underground scene which was very small at the time. Persian hip hop was in its first days and rappers were using downloaded instrumentals from the internet. I told the rappers that I could make music for them using Iranian instruments so we could come up with our own version of hip hop instead of copying the Americans. I became a well known producer quite fast and from there I went on to make other types of music.

You were blacklisted by the Iranian government, why did they see fit to do that to you?

In Iran you have to get what we call a mojavvez (an Islamic seal of approval) from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance in order to publicly release all forms of media such as films, books and also music. At the time they were only granting mojavvez to traditional musicians and a few pop acts who were working for national TV and radio, promoting the government's ideologies and values. There was no chance that a music such as hip hop could get a mojavvez, so we released it on the internet illegally and it became very successful and went viral globally.

I was producing for the majority of well-known rappers and the success of these rappers encouraged others and the underground scene grew very fast. We went from less than 30 rappers to thousands of rappers within a few years. At first the Iranian government tried stopping the movement by making legal cases against us and even produced documentaries broadcast on national TV stations calling us Satanists and all kind of crazy names, but no matter how hard they tried they couldn't stop the growth of the underground scene and right now it's totally out of their control, to a point where they are even trying to make their own version of hip hop. Long story short, they hated me for feeding the movement because they were totally losing control over the youth and the culture.

Have you returned since?

No I can't, I would be arrested. Even to this day, they are still interrogating people about me, and my case has got even worse. It started as a cultural case, now they have elevated it to a national security case which is the worst case you can get in Iran.

What are the differences between working in Western Europe and working in Iran?

In Europe I'm not worried about police breaking down my door at any moment, I have an easier access to technology, I can do concerts and work on many different international projects, but I'm not really a part of any specific scene or community yet and I have less influence compared to Iran where me and my friends were basically running the scene and had a lot of power and influence. In Iran big names were trying to reach me, here I have to try to reach big names. It's quite tough to leave all your colleagues, friends and family behind and start from zero again but at the same time I kinda like it, it's a humbling experience.

What’s next for you creatively after this project?

I'm working on a soundtrack for a British film and also trying to develop a female singer from the US besides doing my own music and collaborating with a few international artists, I don't want to name any names before they are done. But to be honest right now a lot of Iranian fans are probably annoyed at me because they are impatiently anticipating a Persian hip hop album called "Mojaz" by the father of Persian hip hop Hichkas which we've been working on for a very long time to the point where it's becoming a situation similar to Dr Dre's Detox. The delays have been due to circumstances that are out my control but we're trying our best to finish it before the Iranian new year in March.

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