Since the start of the latest round of protests in Iran last year and across the globe among the Iranian diaspora, Tehran-bred, Los Angeles-based heavy metal group TarantisT has released seven songs — thus far — specifically about the current political climate. Their songs are performed in both English and Farsi and include a call to arms in “Revolution”; “Bizaram Az Dine Shoma”, which translates to “I Have Had Enough of Your Religion”; and the hopeful “Kabootar e Azad” or “Free Pigeon”, as well as their snarling cover of a classic Iranian song, “Iran Iran”. Vocalist/bassist Arash Rahbary’s growling lyrics reflect the anger, frustration, and despair that not only TarantisT, but many Iranians have felt since the establishment of the Islamic regime back in 1979.
On a quiet autumn evening in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley at TarantisT’s rehearsal space, Rahbary’s snarls are replaced with niceties. Wearing head-to-toe black, Rahbary is solicitous and hospitable — and along with two of his bandmates, his guitarist brother Arsalan and drummer Omid — serve tea, fragrant with cardamom and hints of rose water along with slices of yellow cake.
As Gen-Yers, the Islamic Republic is the only Iran TarantisT has known. The country enforces the traditional tenets of the religion, which means no music, no movies, and no performances of any kind, essentially, a darkened existence devoid of art, which has been a pillar of Iranian culture from its inception.
Against this backdrop, the Rahbary brothers were raised with English lessons, music lessons and sport. Their parents played Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin at home, and they listened to even more modern Western music by checking out the cassette and VHS tapes their friends and relatives brought back from overseas. They were also further exposed through a clandestine network, where a gentleman with an unmarked briefcase would deliver bootlegged music and movies to their home. Which is how they first heard Metallica.
“It was speaking to us,” says Rahbary. “It was our language. When we started playing music, being a teenager, being under a lot of pressure, we sounded like metal. It wasn’t a conscious decision to play that type of music — that’s just what came out.”
TarantisT formed as an extension of the brothers performing together in the basement of their family home, two storeys beneath the ground floor. They began to play secret shows, despite the risk of being found out.
“If someone heard us, we could have gotten arrested,” says Rahbary. “Playing music, carrying an instrument in the street, having tapes or CDs of Western music, wearing a heavy metal band T-shirt, long hair — any of these things could have given us problems. We got pulled over many times for playing metal in our cars. We had some minor situations with [the morality police] coming to our basement a few times, but we paid them off.”
TarantisT’s performances coincided with the early days of digital cameras in the 2000s. Their jam sessions were filmed by their friends and they posted the footage on Iranian message boards, messenger services, and later on MySpace where they grew a fanbase of more than 100,000 globally.
With their growing following, they attracted media attention, and international reporters visited the group’s basement to tell the story of Iranian teenagers writing and performing metal in secret, far beneath the surface of the capital city. From this media attention, TarantisT performed gigs in Europe and were invited to SXSW — a trip that took two years to organise.
Eventually in 2009, the band arrived in Los Angeles and using the same grassroots approach they had in Iran, got on social media, put on their own shows, invited their new LA friends, and began building a local audience that later caught the attention of LA Weekly and the rock radio station KLOS.
Whether in Iran or in the US, TarantisT’s music focuses on socio-political issues, specifically about Iran. As the group’s songwriter, Rahbary’s writes in English in a bid to reach non-Farsi speaking people. TarantisT has released a song or album for every upheaval in Iran since they began; their discography and releases can be directly correlated with disruptions in Iran.
Last year, TarantisT teamed up with other Iranian musicians to create the HOMANITY compilation. Because music in Iran has to go through a vetting process conducted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance before it can be officially released, the collection of songs aims to raise awareness about the persecution and censorship of artists in Iran.
“You need to get permission for so many different things,” says Rahbary. “Lyrics, your sound, the way you’re singing, the subject you’re singing about, your face, everything. All the music coming out of Iran is a product of the IRI.”
Although the government keeps a watchful eye on Iranian artists who are not sanctioned by the Ministry of CIG; many are very vocal about life in Iran.
“There hasn’t been any fear since day one,” says Rahbary. “If I was going to be scared, I would have been scared when I was in the basements of Tehran.”
He says it’s the same bravery Iran’s Gen-Zers, who are the driving force of the protests, display: “They don’t take orders from anyone, not even from God.”
He explains further, “The difference between them and the generations before is that they were born with smartphones and tablets. They wake up in the morning and they check what’s happening in Australia, Mexico, Spain. They know what’s happening everywhere and they are fed up. You cannot force them, and you cannot tell them anything. They don’t listen to anything. They have made up their minds. They have divorced the government, the theology, the society. When something like that happens — when the society comes to one collective conclusion — nothing can resist that.”