Iranian rock band hits New York, and unknown US indie bands hit Iraq
1. Iranian Rock Band Has a New York Moment
By FREYA PETERSEN/NY Times
Performing Monday night at Fat Baby bar on the Lower East Side, the four members of Hypernova almost made it through their set before distinguishing themselves from the many other hip and hungry young talents who come to New York seeking musical recognition.
“We have no idea how good or bad we are — we’ve just been playing in Iran,” blurted out Raam, the group’s 25-year-old songwriter and frontman, to howls of encouragement from an audience of about 30 people stacked with Iranian-American friends and supporters. Nonchalance is a hard act to master.
“It may not seem like much to you, but it’s a dream to be here,” he went on, his fluent, accented English hinting at years spent on and off in the United States. “It took us forever.”
He was referring to the lengthy delays in obtaining visas to travel from Tehran, a waiting game spent agonizing over the deteriorating state of United States-Iranian relations. “Every day we’d wake up and say, ‘Please, don’t let Iran be on the front page again.’ ”
Raam, like his bandmates Kodi, 17, the guitarist; Jamshid, 26, the bass player; and Kami, 25, the drummer; goes by a derivation of his first name to avoid undue attention at home. “What we do in Iran is not as easy as it seems,” Raam said, with a verbal swagger belying the risk, in Iran, of performances that can lead to arrest, large fines and even a public flogging.
Rock music has been officially deemed contrary to the Islamic republic’s moral code. In December 2005, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , banned all Western music from state-run airwaves in a reversal of reforms made under his more liberal predecessor.
Elsewhere, outside of Iran, Raam pointed out, musicians enjoy freedom. “We’re jeopardizing our lives every show we play,” he said. “I guess there’s that adventurous side added to the process that gives it that extra rush, that makes it even more rewarding and exciting. It’s definitely worth it. Performing underground in Tehran is the best drug.”
The product of a liberal upbringing and education in the West, Raam returned to Iran to collaborate with other musicians in the underground of Tehran — “you know, in places full of cockroaches,” he said.
Gigs are still played in only private spaces: basements in large homes in Tehran, or villas out of town and ostensibly beyond the reach of a vast and prying network of state agents loyal to the ruling clerical establishment. The band is not too choosy, either. He admits to playing at a girl’s 14th birthday party.
Raam said he saw rock as a force for social and political change in a country of 70 million people, where the median age is 25, access to satellite TV and the Internet is widespread and ineffectively censored, and the ideals of the Islamic revolution have less hold over a younger generation. Young people in Iran “just want to do things that normal kids do around the world,” Raam said. “They just want to listen to music, they want to dress nice, to party.”
Like many other unsigned bands, Hypernova has a MySpace page on the Web, with a list of musical influences almost entirely Western in origin. And all of its songs are written in English, though most of the members barely speak the language. “Farsi for me, it’s a really poetic and harmonious language,” Raam said, not one well-suited to the “harsh and really energetic rock sound.”
Raam largely stays off the topic of politics in interviews, but amid his hyperpaced lyrics is the occasional reference to world events. And perhaps even a disparaging remark about a president, though which president, in the context of an Iranian rock band playing in New York, remains open to interpretation.
2. Rock in a Hard Place
With the USO short on big-name acts and the military trying to entertain troops in remote bases, unknown bands are braving battle zones to build their fan base.
The 21st-century answer to Bob Hope.
By JOHN JURGENSEN /Wall Street Journal
At a U.S. military base in al Qa'im, a dusty town in the Anbar Province of Iraq, 400 soldiers crowded into a storage building doubling as a concert hall for a night last year. The entertainment was a six-piece country band and a young Nashville singer named Carly Goodwin. Few of the soldiers had heard of her, but they wound up cheering, dancing onstage and singing along. Some sat on the rafters above the makeshift stage.
As the war in Iraq enters its fifth year, the USO is having some trouble recruiting A-list stars. Increasingly, the military's old, Bob Hope-style approach to entertainment is being partly supplanted by a different model. The new approach relies on sending little-known bands to the Middle East in an effort to provide more concerts at more remote bases in combat zones.
This reflects the way troops are now being deployed. Many soldiers are posted in remote bases in active battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, accessible mainly by helicopter. Troops are facing the longest armed conflict since Vietnam and, in many cases, multiple tours of duty.
It also mirrors an entertainment world increasingly defined by MySpace and "American Idol." The divide between fringe and mainstream acts has gotten smaller as unknowns become stars on the Internet and TV practically overnight. That has created a receptive environment for up-and-coming bands hoping to raise their profiles by touring with the military. But it's raising difficult decisions for young musicians now wrestling with their own political views and fears of danger as they weigh tours to battle zones.
The group responsible for recruiting these bands is a little-known division of the Pentagon called Armed Forces Entertainment. Last year, AFE sent more than 100 small acts to camps around the world -- compared with the nonprofit, civilian-run USO, which last year sent 37 tours abroad, mainly to big hubs like Kuwait City and Baghdad. Recently, AFE has been on the rise, organizing a record number of concerts and ramping up its band recruitment efforts.
For the four members of Edison, a hard-rock group, the question of whether to go to Iraq prompted some heated discussions. The group had mainly been playing bars in Connecticut and New York City when AFE contacted singer Ethan Isaac to ask if he and his group would consider a tour to the Middle East. Mr. Isaac had done an AFE tour of Europe with a previous band.
Mr. Isaac and two other band members were enthusiastic, but lead guitarist Jonathan Svec refused. A staunch opponent of the war, he worried about the symbolism of working with the military. "Are we the entertainment cog that gets thrown in to help keep the war machine turning?" he remembers thinking.
He also had a paralyzing fear of flying in helicopters, which would be the group's main transportation in Iraq. His bandmates suggested he try hypnosis or counseling. Eventually, Mr. Isaac signed Edison up anyway, and Mr. Svec gave in, worrying that he was being selfish.
Mr. Svec assumed that his father, who had served as a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, would support the idea. But instead, when Mr. Svec broke the news at a family party that he was going to Iraq, his father said, "No, you're not," and walked away. Three weeks before the band was to leave, a friend of Mr. Isaac's was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb, and Mr. Isaac's family asked him to reconsider. Mr. Isaac was shaken but says the tragedy made the tour seem even more important.
Getting to Iraq was a challenge of its own. The group had to disassemble their amplifiers to meet weight restrictions on the commercial flights overseas. Half of their equipment got lost between England and the United Arab Emirates, resulting in a 10-day hiatus in Dubai that almost scuttled the tour.
Soon, though, the band was hovering over Iraq, strapped into the seats of a C-130 jet as the pilot made a swerving combat landing to avoid potential enemy fire. At their first shows, they played to fairly reserved audiences, partly due to the ban on alcohol. But at Forward Operating Base Sykes, near Iraq's border with Syria, something changed.
With the temperature outside topping 110 degrees, Edison took the stage in an air-conditioned mess hall packed with several hundred soldiers. The band launched into "Helter Skelter" by the Beatles. In front of the stage, a camouflaged throng sang, danced and pumped their fists. Some soldiers strummed their unloaded machine guns like electric guitars. "It was the most moving musical thing that has ever happened to me," Mr. Isaac says.
Now back home, Edison's members say they often get messages on their MySpace page from soldiers who saw them play overseas. James Lougee, a member of the Air Force National Guard, drove six hours from his home in Spring Grove, Pa., to a ski resort in New York to see Edison perform last winter. He'd been in the audience at one of their Iraq shows -- in fact, it was the first rock concert he'd ever seen.
Last year, AFE organized 118 tours overseas and a total of 1,433 performances -- a record for the group, which was founded in 1951. With a budget of $7 million for fiscal 2007, AFE is still much smaller than the USO, which is funded almost entirely by donations and which relies on the AFE to coordinate tours with the military. In 2005, the last year for which tax records are available, the USO brought in about $60 million in donations and spent almost $47 million on services ranging from tours to canteens. But while the USO typically only marshals stars for one-week tours to a limited number of bases, AFE recruits acts for stints of up to a month that reach many more outposts.
Mr. Shepherd says an itinerary of Middle Eastern countries scared off some potential band members. "Five out of 10 said their wives wouldn't let them go, but the people who wanted to were just on fire about it."
Recently, in an effort to attract more high-quality bands, AFE has been working to boost its profile. It's hired a marketing agency, which helped design a slick Web site and new logo for the group. It's also taking part in more industry events, making contacts with labels and sending more recruiters to clubs and music festivals.
Touring with the military can translate to a boost in album sales for some bands. Pop-punk group Ballentine played for an audience of 3,000 soldiers at Guantanamo Bay -- compared to the crowds of a few hundred it usually gets at home in L.A. Singer Niki Barr, who is about to leave for her fifth AFE stint, says she sees about a 40% bump in merchandise sales after every tour. Rock group Cinder Road landed a record deal with EMI and an opening slot on tour with "American Idol" star Chris Daughtry after building a big fan following on AFE tours.
Bands aren't paid for the tours, but receive free lodging and a stipend of $75 per person for each day they're away. In remote areas, performers usually eat alongside soldiers in chow halls and stay in the same cramped quarters.
Bands are banned from selling their CDs and other merchandise on the bases to prevent competition with the military exchange stores. Instead, AFE gives bands up to $1,500 to pay for promotional items such as T-shirts, CDs and fliers, which they give away to the troops. Some acts bring laptops and burn their music onto blank CDs.
Some in the music industry say AFE is emerging as a force in helping bands get noticed. "It's filling a void. They're actually helping to break artists," says Tamara Conniff, executive editor and associate publisher of Billboard, which plans to sponsor an AFE tour of R&B bands.
All this has turned a Marine captain named Jesse Davidson and several of his AFE colleagues into unlikely arbiters of indie bands. Capt. Davidson, 30, served three tours of duty in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 as a logistics officer in the infantry battalion that helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In 2005, he was given a new assignment: sending rock bands to the war zone he had just left.
Capt. Davidson mans a cubicle on the fourth floor of a building complex near the Pentagon. Dressed in a service uniform of a khaki shirt and green pants, his brown hair cut in the "jarhead" Marine style, he spends most of the day on the phone, coordinating gigs.
Once every two weeks, he and his colleagues file down the hall to a conference room for a ritual they've dubbed "AFE Idol." They gather before a flat-screen TV connected to a DVD player and stereo system. This is where they screen submissions. Partly as a result of its recruiting efforts, AFE receives dozens of applications from musicians, magicians and comedians each month. Only a third are accepted.
On a recent afternoon, the staff assessed a rock group from the Midwest. A video montage showed the leather-clad band riding motorcycles and sweating it out at biker rallies.
Capt. Davidson gave the band points for having an electric fiddle player -- a sign they could adapt to mixed military crowds. "These guys straddle the line between country and rock," he said.
Each band is graded on a scale of 1 to 5 in 20 different areas, a system that AFE recently introduced to make the process more objective. Categories range from the fairly standard (stage presence, audience engagement) to some particular to the military (appearance, sobriety). Profanity and religious references are considered red flags.
The biker band scored low on sobriety -- the video didn't show them drinking, but they seemed at home in front of hard-partying fans. But a mix of 3s and 4s on other criteria meant they'd likely be accepted if a follow-up phone interview went smoothly.
The next applicant -- a folk singer who played guitar on stage accompanied by instrumental tracks he'd prerecorded in a studio -- didn't fare as well. "Someone doing this in front of a crowd of soldiers would get booed off the stage," said Capt. Davidson as he aimed the remote control at the stereo. "Let's just stop the pain."
Last week, AFE went on one of its biggest recruiting missions yet. Fifty AFE staff members and affiliates descended on the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, a major industry event. Last year, its first time at the festival, AFE sent five representatives, who manned a table in uniform. This time, they opted for civilian clothes to blend in. Also part of the strategy: never using the word "recruit" with bands.
During the four-day event, the group approached hundreds of bands and handed out metal dog tags that doubled as business cards. In the evenings, they moved quickly from one bar to another to check out acts.
At midnight Wednesday in a bar called the Viper Room, they saw one they liked: Reeve Carney & the Revolving Band. Mr. Carney, in a velvet blazer with a black scarf knotted around his neck, was singing part of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," in a high, steady voice.
When the song was over, Daniel Cook, a former Marine who works with AFE to set up concert tours in the Middle East, raised his beer bottle and clinked it approvingly with his thick Marine Corps ring. "I've got goose bumps," he said.
After the show, he and his colleagues buttonholed Mr. Carney outside the Viper Room. The singer was enthusiastic about the idea of a tour. Mr. Carney's lawyer, Ken Abdo, also approved. "It's a very great marketing move that could put the band in front of thousands of open-souled soldiers," he said.
While an Iraq tour has clear publicity benefits for a little-known act, selling stars on the idea can be more difficult. The USO has scored some new celebrities, such as singer Jessica Simpson and rapper 50 Cent, for Iraq tours, but it's relied heavily on its old guard of regulars like Al Franken, Robin Williams and Wayne Newton. Some entertainers affiliated with the USO say the group has had trouble bringing on new A-list performers.
Singer and cable-TV host Henry Rollins, who has been on seven USO tours, says he hasn't been able to recruit other stars to tour. Neither has Drowning Pool, a rock band that the USO calls one of its key ambassadors, particularly to young musicians.
John Hanson, a spokesman for the USO says that in cases when top celebrities haven't signed on, they haven't cited politics or danger as a reason, but that scheduling is often an issue.
Another challenge for the group, Mr. Rollins says, is bringing on the kinds of acts that soldiers in their late teens and early 20s care about.
He says this could be a point of strength for AFE: "The days of Wayne Newton are kind of over."
(Write to John Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org)
BANDS IN THE BATTLE ZONE
Artists Who've Recently Toured Bases With AFE
Mr. Fowler, who lives in Texas with his wife and two daughters, left for Iraq last week. He says he's surprised by how many soldiers know the words to his songs.
Mr. Robison's wife is a member of the Dixie Chicks, a band that's been vocal in its opposition to the war. Now on tour, he says only one soldier has joked about it.
The Niki Barr Band
This weekend, the Baltimore resident and her three-piece band will set out on their fifth AFE tour in four years.
In 2003, Ms. Goodwin wrote a song called "Baby, Come Back Home," which spread through the military community via an online "audio postcard."