Post-Punk, Post-Tehran: Yellow Dogs Perform December 13 in Williamsburg
Formed in Iran—and influenced by Joy Division—the indie band had to high-tail out of the Islamic Republic for fear of reprisals. Why the band wound up in Brooklyn.
I recently met up with one of my oldest and dearest New York friends, the poet Carol Mirakove, outside the Brooklyn Bowl (61 Wythe Avenue). Like me, Carol has a weakness for post-punk—she’d dragged me to see Bob Mould in Williamsburg Park back in September—and I’d discovered a promising-sounding band, the Yellow Dogs, originally from Iran, who were now living in Brooklyn and playing that night at the Bowl with two other groups, The Immaculates and Habibi.
We ducked into the venue and took a couple of seats at the bar. Although I didn’t say it out loud, I really only had one thing on my mind as we caught up on each other’s lives: Please, please, please don’t let this band suck. I consider myself reasonably unsqueamish—I’ve survived a highway spinout, countless earthquakes, a minor stabbing wound, and two major subway fires—but the possibility that I might drag a good friend out to see a band that just isn’t cutting it terrifies me to the bone. Carol talked about an upcoming job interview she’d recently secured as I looked around warily for the closest exits.
Finally, the lights dimmed and the Yellow Dogs took to the stage, launching almost immediately into an amped-up banshee-wail of a set that never once flagged. The sound, which had the crispness and angularity of Gang of Four but with the soulfulness of Siouxsie Sioux, filled and shook the Bowl’s performance area, coaxing the audience up out of their seats to crowd and bounce around near the stage. Carol and I looked at each other, our jaws agape. Forty-five minutes later, after the band blew through an electrifyingly tight yet almost absurdly expressive rendition of “This City,” then said their goodbyes and left the stage, Carol and I grabbed our umbrellas and bounded out onto the street. It didn’t matter that we’d paid to see two more bands. No one was going to top what we’d just seen and heard.
The Yellow Dogs formed in the mid-2000s in Tehran, the capital of Iran, a city with roughly the same population as New York. “In Farsi, we say that the yellow dog is the brother of the jackal,” Obash, who sings and plays rhythm guitar, explains. For three-and-a-half years, Obash, Koory (bass), Looloosh (lead guitar), and Sina (drums) played together for hours every day in what they called “the doghouse” (their rooftop practice space) and futilely strove to secure permission from the government to record and play publicly.
Obash describes the situation in Iran through an anecdote he likes to tell about two bands who had thrown an open-air concert in an out-of-the-way area of the city for an audience of some 600 people. “The cops came and arrested 200 of them,” he explains, including the band members, who spent the next three weeks in jail.
But stories like this never fully deterred the band. “Besides practicing music together, the only other fun things we ever did back in Tehran involved being around music in some way, too,” Looloosh tells me. “This could be anything from hanging out in our friends’ rehearsal spaces to watching cheesy music videos from India via satellite.”
Their influences ranged from the Kinks to Joy Division to Modest Mouse. They shared and listened to this music illicitly, mostly on cassette. Because slow internet service and censorship online made downloading more than difficult, almost everything that fed them musically had been smuggled into the country. When I ask if traditional Persian music had had any influence on them, they admit that no one in the band was really into it.
In 2009, they performed and acted in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats, an unlicensed film that chronicled Tehran’s vibrant but hidden underground indie music scene. Their contribution shows them in the doghouse performing a blistering version of “New Century,” which is cut off mid-song when Sina’s father abruptly kills the electricity, worried that the sound will attract unwanted attention from the authorities.
Ironic, given what happened after Persian Cats went on to win a Special Jury Prize later that year at Cannes; nearly everyone who’d been involved in the film, including the director, found themselves forced to high-tail it out of the Islamic Republic for fear of reprisals. “Leaving Tehran was pretty hard and frustrating for us,” Looloosh says, citing numerous passport issues and unfulfilled compulsive military service obligations. “But our family was very supportive, despite knowing they wouldn’t see us for a very long time.”
The Yellow Dogs wound up in Brooklyn, living in the same building as two members of progressive metal band the Free Keys: Pooya (vocals, guitar) and Arash (drums), the latter of whom currently drums with the Yellow Dogs as well. “Our first choice was either Europe or the U.K., where we thought our music would be more appreciated,” Looloosh admits, “but we’d been invited to participate in the CMJ festival in New York and SXSW in Austin, so we wound up here.”
Brooklyn turned out to be an ideal choice. “We’ve played and become friends with so many bands here,” Looloosh tells me, “bands like Fan Tan, Habibi, the Black Lips, the Oh Sees, Art vs. Science. We love going to shows and consider ourselves very lucky to have so many places right near our building: Cameo, Delinquency, and Glasslands are all in walking distance.”
Since resettling in the United States, the Yellow Dogs have recorded two EPs at a studio in Rhode Island: In the Kennel and Upper Class Complexity (both available here) and are currently finishing up all-new songs for their first full-length album, which they plan to record early next year.
When I mention the Yellow Dogs’ upcoming gig at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Looloosh ecstatically informs me that they’re spending every free moment making sure their new set is polished enough to debut with their heroes, Sacramento dance-punk outfit !!! (aka chk chk chk) and their Sudanese-born Brooklyn neighbor, Sinkane. It shouldn’t be too hard for them. After all, this band practiced for years under threat of arrest and ultimately traveled thousands of miles to get here.
Check out Yellow Dogs, Sinkane, and !!! at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (66 North Sixth Street).