Embassies, LSD & cough syrup

Chasing the Iranian underground #2

Matchcuts during their concert at the Austrian embassy in Tehran. Photo by Amir B Ash.

On a bustling street near Khomeini Square, embassiessit in a conspicuous huddle. I’m looking for one in particular: it’s the Austrian embassy. In a country like Iran where so many freedomsare limited, extraterritoriality takes on a whole new meaning. The Austrian embassy used to be a place where rock bands and other cultural events were held.

For the indie rock band Matchcuts formed in 2008, playing a show inside their home country has been one of the greatest experiences of their lives. As we sit drinking tea in their house in Istanbul, Shervin, the enigmatic singer and guitarist of the band, recalls: “It was such an amazingexperience. The adrenaline was so intense because we were doing a fucking concert in Tehran and no band ever, ever, expects to play an actual gig here”.

The four band members, Shervin, Arya, Archie and Hamid are full of youthful energy and tell their story with passion. Before they left Tehranto Istanbul in March 2010, the band played two sold out gigs at the Austrian embassy. Shervin says organizing a concert at the embassy wasn’t illegal, but wasn’t quite legal either. Embassies are often places where parties and gigs can be held relatively free from any regime’s interventions.

The band is not likely to forget these experiences any time soon. “It was just magical for us, and people were actually singing along with our songs, which you don’t expect in Iran because usually, only your friends listen to your music,” Shervin tells me, eyes gleaming as he remembers his excitement.

Arya, the bass guitarist, also performed at the gig of The Yellow Dogs with another band, Free Keys. He says that because there are so fewshows in Iran,the audience was particularly ecstatic: “They’ve never been to a gig where they could just openly do anything they want. So they just show up high on acid or on cough syrup and smoke joints.” For Arya, these performances were also a defining moment in his life: “I was like ‘this is so going to piss the government off’ and it just felt like one of the greatest moments of my life”.

We later move to a back alley bar in Istanbul near Taksim Square, and Shervin tells me how he came to spend the night in jail on his 18th birthday. “We had been drinking and then we decided to remove the roof of my friends’ car, just as a joke. Some police caught us and locked us up.”

Matchcuts playing in Line club in Istanbul, 20 April 2010. Photo by Dave.

Shervin and his friends were later sentenced by a judge and about to be sent to the notorious Evin Prison. Only at the last moment did the judge grant them bail and Shervinavoided staying overnight in jail. Fortunately the case went on appeal to a kind Mullah, who waived the charges completely. “At one point, Shervin recalls, the Mullah leaned forward and said with a smile on his face ‘How did you get the roof off the car?’ He was more interested in that element than in anything else”.

Now,even embassies are no longer the safe havens they once were. In November 2010, a party held inside the French embassy was raided by the Iranian police.

The Matchcuts, like many Iranian bands before them, left the country to play music around the world.Shervin says with a wistful glance that through all the hardship that they’ve endured in Iran, it’s still home: “It’s one of the ugliest and greyest cities in the world, but there’s something about Tehran, it’s kind of a love hate city. Our music is about life in Tehran, falling in love in Tehran, breaking up in Tehran, being angry in Tehran. It’s a protest love song.”

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