Iran's Hypernova braves cultural repression to rock out

Indie rock has become so washed out in recent years that it's a challenge just to stay awake through many songs, never mind whole albums. Through the Chaos, the full-length debut by Hypernova, is a thrilling exception. Frontman Raam cuts a striking figure in the video for “Fairy Tales”: His bald head, glasses, and booming voice give him a vaguely professorial demeanor that contrasts with the band's propulsive, gothy disco-rock. And if that's not enough to set the band apart, Hypernova hails from Tehran — not exactly a regular rock 'n' roll incubator. Hypernova, in fact, is the first Iranian band to be signed to a U.S. label and tour here. Raam isn't even the frontman's real name: He changed it to protect family back in Iran.

Together since 2006 (though Raam and drummer Kami have been playing together in various bands for a decade), the group released an EP prior to Through the Chaos, opened for the Sisters of Mercy in 2008, and played South by Southwest last year. Their English-language lyrics are oblique and frequently witty: In “Fairy Tales,” Raam describes being enraptured by a 17-year-old girl with an overbearing father, singing, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned again/And again and again and again and again and again.” Eventually, it becomes clear the song is a critique of Iranian society. “These are fairy tales that don't have happy endings/Don't you know the more you push, the more she runs?”

“We're pioneers, in a way,” Raam says by phone from New York, where the band members have been living for about a year. They're hoping their success will allow them to stay permanently in the United States. “The problem is, if we want to leave the country, every time we want to come back, we have to reapply and go through the whole process again, so it's a bit of a burden — we have to go through all the security clearances, and that takes so long we've missed deadlines for shows.”

Of course, stateside bureaucratic hassles are nothing compared to the chances of getting arrested, paying massive fines, or having their instruments smashed in their home country. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has banned all Western music from state-run airwaves, reversing the more relaxed cultural policies of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. “You have to get permission to play or to record, and it's so hard because there are so many guidelines to be in accordance with their vision of Islamic law,” Raam explains. “If you sing in English, that's an automatic way of getting yourself banned. If you sing songs that are politically motivated, you won't be allowed to record them.” Many bands, convinced the censors will reject them, simply go underground: “Everybody records in their own home studios and spreads it around, whether it's by the Internet or just through CDs.”

Some believe that public exposure will lead to the relaxation of governmental restrictions. But as the “green” protests in the wake of the 2009 presidential election proved, Iran doesn't seem to work that way. So when Raam isn't recording or touring, he's using Hypernova's success to support other artists through NeverHeard, a management company he founded that works to bring Iranian musicians to the U.S. They have to be at least as wily as he was, though. “We had so many different strategies for every show,” Raam recalls. “We'd bribe the police, or soundproof the house so we wouldn't draw too much attention. The shows that got caught were because [people] printed out flyers with an address of the place, and they printed thousands of these. Of course, sooner or later the cops are gonna find one and shut you down. If you're trying to put on a secret show, printing out thousands of flyers isn't gonna help.”

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