Ash Koosha: "Harbour" (via SoundCloud)
As first gigs go, it could have gone worse. Burgeoning rock group Font had never played in public before, but lead guitarist Ashkan Kooshanejad and his bandmates still managed to draw a crowd of 600 to a private suburban villa. Then again, it could have gone a lot better, too: As their set ended, the band heard audience members screaming—not in approval—and caught sight of police officers coming over the villa's walls on ropes, ninja-style. A helicopter hovered overhead.
It sounds like something out of an ‘80s action movie, but no; this was Iran in 2007, and concerts featuring rock music and a mixed audience were strictly forbidden. More than 200 people were arrested that night, and Kooshanejad and the rest of his band were sentenced to three weeks in jail. "Usually when you get arrested in Iran you go to jail for one night and your parents come to take you out and it's fine," he says. “But this was crazy.”
Not long after that first fateful concert, though, Kooshanejad and his friend Negar Shaghaghi were already at work on a new project, the electro-pop-leaning Take It Easy Hospital. In what seems now like an equally fateful series of events, Manchester's In the City Festival invited the pair to play, and around the same time, the Kurdish Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi invited Kooshanejad and Shaghaghi to collaborate with him on a film about Iran's underground music scene, loosely based on their own experiences.
The film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, ended up winning the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes. But not long after that, as a wave of protests following Iran’s 2009 elections swept the country, the authorities once again began cracking down on musicians and young people at home. Take It Easy Hospital’s drummer was arrested and beaten, and an Iranian-American co-writer of the film, Roxana Saberi, was charged with espionage and sentenced to an eight-year prison term (that was later overturned). Kooshanejad and Shaghaghi decided to remain in the UK, where they eventually received asylum.
Given all this turmoil, one might expect Kooshanejad, like so many exiles before him, to be making protest music. Instead, he's delving excitedly into technologies that test the limits of representation itself. He began experimenting with electronic music when he was still studying classical composition at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, dropping samples into Cool Edit Pro, a rudimentary piece of sound-editing software; five years ago, he began working with Logic and resumed his experiments. He was drawn to samples for their real-world qualities, he says, because they seemed to capture something essential about life and the world. And that, in turn, opened up a curious acoustic rabbit-hole.