Interview: Temp-Illusion

In recent years, an exciting Iranian electronic music-scene has quickly emerged and also gained the attention of Western media and listeners – for example, through articles at Resident Advisor and The Quietus, as well as the release of Girih: Iranian Sound Artists, Volumes 1-4 (by Zabte Sote, a sister-label to Opal Tapes that focuses on putting out ‘experimental electronic music by Iranian composers’). One of the acts associated with this vibrant scene is the duo Temp-Illusion (Shahin Entezami and Behrang Najafi, who also record solo as Tegh and Bescolour), whose debut album Autolected recently was released by Zabte Sote (and selected as one of FACT magazine’s top 25 album of the first quarter of 2019). It is a compelling piece that brings to mind both the most innovative forms of 90s IDM and what more recently has become known as ‘deconstructed dance music’. In the following conversation, Jon Lindblom talks to Entezami and Najafi about their work and about electronic music in Iran in general.

I must admit that I was pretty much unfamiliar with Iranian electronic music earlier, so reading the articles on Resident Advisor and The Quietus – as well as listening to your album and the brilliant Girih-compilation – was extremely fascinating. It seems that there are a lot of things happening in terms of events like the SET-festival and the many artists represented on the compilation – and it is also a very recent phenomenon. Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Iranian electronic music-scene so far, and why you think it has gained such momentum over the past few years? Why do artists gravitate towards electronic music?

SE: Electronic music does not have a long history in Iran. There were artists like Alireza Mashayekhi and Dariush Dolatshahi, who started working in this field in the 70s, and people like Mohammad Pazhutan in the 90s. And there were also some Iranians outside of Iran who got into electronic music – such as Ata Ebtekar (Sote) – but the main wave of electronic producers and musicians emerged around 2000. There is still not a proper university course or workshops on sound art or electronic music, and at first there were just a few people who were familiar with electronic music because of tapes and CDs that they brought back from trips to other countries. But after the rise of the internet in Iran, more people got familiar with electronic music and sound art – and some of them (the musician and media artist Arash Salehi, for example) started learning and producing some stuff that they began to share with other people through small workshops, lectures and live performances for small audiences of maybe just 20-30 people in small galleries or apartments. We do not hear from these people anymore since they changed careers, but they had a strong influence on the formation of the electronic music communities. During these events, people began to know each other, made friends and started working together – and the community grew larger and larger. Eventually, festivals that focused on audio-visual live performances and sound art were organised in Tehran, and the audience numbers also started to grow and are still growing. The most interesting aspect of this process is that most of these efforts are completely artist-based and independent.

BN: Well, more people are getting familiar with electronic music here nowadays – and as the number of people who discover it increases, there will naturally also be more artists producing it. Additionally, festivals like SET and Tadaex have also had major impact in introducing this kind of music to people. But I believe that there are many different aspects to this question. For me, personally, it was simply all about passion for the music and for the sound itself. For example, the simple facts that you can sculpt a complex sound from scratch – and that in electronic music the possibilities are much more, and the limitations are fewer – should be interesting enough for any person to get into it, if you ask me!

Tell me a bit about your own backgrounds. How did you meet? How did you get into music and what have been your main influences – sonic or otherwise?

BN: We met through a mutual friend and realised soon after that we have a lot of things in common music-wise, even though we come from different musical backgrounds. So, we started jamming and making music together about a year after that – and we did our first live set at Tadaex03 in 2013. I always find the ‘influence’ questions so hard to answer. I can make a long list of all the artists that I love, but I am not quite sure which ones had a tangible influence on me. I think the process of getting influenced by something is automatically done in the brain and it happens unconsciously. There are lots of factors, such as the place I live in, where I make music, when I make music, the music I listen to, the dreams I have, the thoughts I think, and so on. I can go on with the list forever! I was into punk rock as a teenager and played guitar and drums in some local bands. Later, my taste in music expanded and I was introduced to electronic music, which made me astonished. It was like opening a door to a whole new world of possibilities!

SE: My background is totally different from Behrang’s. I come from hip-hop culture, which I got familiar with when I was a kid. My brother had some 2Pac tapes and I listened to them and got interested in hip-hop. Between 2005 and 2010, a hip-hop scene was emerging in Iran, and I started writing lyrics, making some beats and producing music with the computer. A few years later, I heard some IDM-stuff like Amon Tobin, Autechre, Aphex twin, and so on, and it blew my mind! So, I changed path and it led me to where I am now. I totally agree with Behrang about the ‘influence’ topic – although I think I am still influenced by hip-hop, and we both feed this influence into Temp-Illusion.

I am particularly interested in the impact of the internet, which you already mentioned briefly. In a recent interview, my friend, the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani (who is now based in the US), referred to the internet as a ‘generation spaceship’ that suddenly brought him and his likeminded into contact with a new world beyond the small groups of thinkers and scarce amount of philosophy-texts available in Iran. How has the internet impacted both your own engagement with music, and the ability of people within the local electronic music-scene to reach out globally?

BN: You pinpointed a great subject! The internet has had a huge impact on everything music-related in my life. It was there I first found the experimental-/IDM-stuff that led me to electronic music, and it also allowed me to pirate DAWs and new music as I could not purchase that legally due to local unavailability and global sanctions (because of monetary sanctions against Iran, we do not have access to international banking services and thus cannot purchase such things online from Iran). When I first started producing music, I had no idea that there were other Iranians who also were doing it – but I found those likeminded people thanks to the internet and social media. So, it was on the internet where I learned most of the stuff that I know today, and it really helped the local scene grow.

SE: As I mentioned earlier, access to the internet was a huge catalyst for us and our scene. Due to the lack of learning resources like books and courses on electronic music and digital art, it was hard to learn and get more familiar with all of this before the emergence of the internet. And it seriously helped us in shaping our community. Indeed, our scene has been shaped around friendship and many of us found each other through social media. For example, we did not know Mohammad Zarei (mHz), but we became friends with him through Facebook. We also became friends with other people from other countries around the world, and this really helped us and encouraged us to take things more seriously. Many of us also started to collaborate with musicians from other countries and different cultures, and the results were totally insane (e.g. albums by Siavash Amini and Zenjungle)! And we got connected with different labels and magazines thanks to the internet and especially social media. So, despite all the negative impact of social media on people’s lives today, it really helped us a lot!

The SET-festival sounds like an amazing initiative that also has been very successful. What role do you think it (and other initiatives) has and will have in terms of building and expanding a community (or scene) centred around experimental electronic music in Iran? How does that community look like today?

BN: SET is like a bridge between artists, but also a platform for experimental artists to present their work. The thing I personally like about SET is the quality of the performances and the general music taste of the festival.  For even though each of the founders produce different kinds of music, there still is a unique taste that we all have in common.

SE: I think running events like the SET-festival was and still is a necessary thing for our scene. In the early years, there were some events that were organised by people outside of our community – and it caused many problems and limitations for the artists. We were not free to do what we wanted, and there was a serious lack of quality sound systems, venues, and so on. This led us to thinking about running an artist-based festival where we could present our art as we wanted, and about how that would be a great opportunity for other artists as well. So, nine of us who were in Iran and were available and willing to do executional tasks started working on it – and we did the first SET in 2015. Since then, it has become a good platform for artists and it also encouraged many others to get involved in experimental and electronic music. The community is still shaping today. It is still very small and young despite all activities, and there is a long way to go to turn it into a ‘proper’ community, or scene (i.e. a more active community with more events, more labels, more releases, and more platforms for knowledge sharing and for encouraging others to get involved).

I am also interested in what kinds of people attend events like SET. Are they already interested in electronic music, or do you also have an audience that have never heard anything like what you are doing before? In that case, how do they react to the music?

BN: The audience is very diverse: old, young, women, men, people who know about this kind of music and people who do not. The feedback also covers a broad spectrum. There are people who hate it and say that it is not even music, and there are people who say that they had the best time! Also, our line-ups are usually so diverse that the audience can get to know different kinds of sounds and music.

SE: The audience is not that big, but there is a huge gender and age diversity. An interesting and amazing point about it is that they are all looking for something new! Many of the people in the audience have never heard this kind of music before, but they are open to hearing and experiencing new things. I remember at the first SET-festival, after our show a woman came to me and asked me what this kind of music is called, how we make it, and that she was going to search for it on the internet later. Many of the people in the audience find us on social media, ask us about the things we do, and to introduce them to more music and artists to listen to.

Moving on to your own work, in the introduction I mentioned that your album made me think of both IDM and deconstructed dance music. What I am mainly alluding to here is the similar difficulty (in a positive way) of linking the album to a specific genre of electronic music insofar as it rather seems to synthesise many different genres in terms of various rhythms, elements of ambient and distortion, and so on. In particular, I think that what is most compelling about both the best forms of IDM (Autechre in particular) and deconstructed dance music (e.g. Lotic, Aïsha Devi, Lee Gamble, Demdike Stare, etc.) is the genre-bending rhythmic constructions – and listening to your music, I got a similar impression. Is rhythm something you are specifically interested in, and what are the main inspirations to your own rhythmic methodology?

BN: Yes! Rhythm is something that we both are very interested in – especially complex beats that are hard to follow. I was 14 or 15 when I started to play guitar, but when I later started to play around with drums it did not take me a long time to realise that I am much more interested in rhythm. And, somehow, I felt that I have more talent with rhythmic than with melodic instruments.

SE: Yes, definitely. Even though we insist on not having a specific framework and methodology when making music, I still think our music almost is shaped around rhythms. There are a lot of times when we are jamming in our rehearsals and unconsciously both go for rhythms and spend a lot of time on it. We always try to put a lot of details and dynamics in our rhythms, and we love it when there are some differences in every single bar. We both started out on this path after first hearing IDM-stuff, so we are influenced by 90s IDM, hip-hop and techno for sure.

I just recently became familiar with the term ‘deconstructed dance music’.  I have been a fan of Demdike Stare and Lee Gamble for a long time – and I have also listened to M.E.S.H and Amnesia Scanner and find it amazing – but I did not know that what they make is sometimes called that. This is just my opinion, but I think that it is more interesting and music-oriented than regular dance music. It seems to me that it is not fully formulated yet and that the musicians are experimenting on it in their own way – and that is what makes the output really varied, personal and interesting.

Crucial to the construction of the music associated with 90s rave – and more recent dance music such as footwork – was that it evolved in synergy with people dancing, often intensified by artificial stimulants such as MDMA. So, you had this positive feedback-loop between bodies and music that acted as a massive chemical and rhythmic laboratory. In contrast, both IDM and deconstructed dance music have been criticised for an implicit elitism and withdrawal to pure listening (i.e. without the dance component). Yet because public dancing does not take place in Iran, your music does obviously not fit into this narrative. Thus, I am wondering – also because you refer to yourself as mainly a live band – if, and in that case how, playing in front of audiences that do not dance has affected the construction of the music? Do you still think of what you are doing as a kind of dance music?

BN: Our live shows here may be a bit weird to the eyes of people outside of Iran. The audience always remains seated, even though what we play these days can somewhat be categorised as dance music, and we move a lot behind our laptops. The best kind of feedback that we get from the audience is ‘it was really hard to sit still!’ That is when I realise that we have done a good job! Yet the audience never had much impact on our music. We would love to see people enjoying it more physically, but it is not something that we adapt it for.

SE: We got to know this kind of music in a different way. We heard it alone in our rooms, not in clubs, so because of that maybe our perception of it is a bit different. We are always listening to it very carefully, and we are in love with how it sounds and how it breaks the standards by cleverly playing with forms and structures. I think it makes sense to our audience as well. Frankly, we never thought of our music as ‘dance music’. We never talked about it like ‘let’s produce dance music’, and it is not impossible that our next release turns to something totally drone! So, it is not dependent on the location that we play. There are a lot of elements that influence its structure – and if they change, obviously the music will also change – but we do not consciously change it just because of the interaction with the audience.

On the same topic: you recently played outside of Iran for the first time, at Berlin’s CTM-festival? How was that like, compared to playing in Iran?

BN: It was a really amazing experience. The whole thing was totally different from the shows in Iran. The mood and vibe were totally different (people were dancing!). It was a great opportunity to play our first show outside of Iran, but it does not mean that we are not interested in playing in Iran anymore. We are even more encouraged to play shows, here or elsewhere.

SE: Yes, it was a superb experience playing in Berghain in front of like 800-900 people! I was already interested in the CTM-festival and being a part of their 20th anniversary was amazing. The quality and atmosphere and people’s feedback to our music was great. It was indeed a totally different experience from Tehran. Again, we did not change the music (for instance by making it more club friendly) – we performed the same set that we did in Tehran six months earlier – except for some modifications of the mix, because we wanted to present our music independently of the setting.

Finally, I am also curious about your thoughts on both your own future and the future of the electronic music-scene in Iran. What are your ambitions with Temp-Illusion? Are you planning on going more global (e.g. touring or working abroad)? One of the things that struck me about the current situation in Iran is that there on the one hand clearly are interesting things happening locally in electronic music – yet at the same time, there also seems to be a desire among artists to relocate to other countries. What do you think about the possible tension between on the one hand building a strong local community, and on the other hand Iranian artists dispersing globally? Is perhaps the key to find a balance between the two?

BN: I think that you answered your own question: the key is to find the balance. We would love to play more shows abroad – yet we still want to stay here and grow alongside the local community, play and help organising shows, and create paths that make it easier for new artists. We are also planning to play in other cities in Iran than Tehran.

SE: The local scene has received a lot of international attention over the past few years, also thanks to the efforts of our fellow artists, so we realise how important our local scene is. Our ambition is to stay in Iran and try to expand the local scene, and at the same time present our work in different locations around the world. So, as you said, the best way is to find a balance.

Image Credits: Amir B. Ash (top) and Malthe Ivarsson (middle and bottom).