Interview With 9T Antiope

Photo by Malthe Ivarsson

The “9T Antiope” duo band consists of Iranian musicians “Nima Aghiani” and “Sara Bigdeli Shamloo (SarrSew)”. Working since 2014, their debut album “Syzygys” was released in December 2015. They have released three albums (including Nocebo), one EP and five singles ever since and have participated in festivals such as Sonic Acts 2019 – Amsterdam, CTM 2019 – Berlin, SETxCTM Festival 2018 – Tehran, Mutek Festival 2018 – Barcelona, CTM 2017- Berlin, Fuchsbau 2017 – Hanover, etc.

Hi Sara and Nima, thanks for taking time to answer a few question for Fluid Radio. To being with, you both come from classical music, could you describe your formative years and your musical trajectory. Also curious to find out what types of music you grew up listening to?

Nima: “Well in my household music has always been present, with my older brother and my parents who listened to different things. My parents had a huge tape collection from which I have no vivid memory, but I remember my relationship with tapes was both playing with them like legos and eventually starting to go through them one by one. My older brother, like every other teenager from his generation used to listen to certain pop hits from that era, since there were usually a limited number of tapes which got duplicated and shared between everyone, therefore people eventually crossed path.

But when it reaches that certain point where you really start to distinguish different genres, that’s when I first entered “Tehran Music School” when I was 12 and started playing the violin. So it has all been classical music since, later around the age of 16, I went to Armenia and then after two years, I went to Odessa -Ukraine- to continue my studies and returned back to Iran by the time I became 18. So until the time I found my personal interest in music it has all been classical, also because in the classical world there is this sense of not listening to anything else but classical!

Then I started getting into bands like Massive Attack, Portishead, Depeche Mode and such, developed a love for American minimalists, namely Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, etc., joining Camerata Orchestra, then to form Migrain Blvd. and Migrain Sq. bands, later releasing my debut solo album and all leading to 9T Antiope.”

Sara: “Everyone in my family played an instrument as well, music did play a big role, my mother is also a poet and an author; two of my brothers (out of three) used to be in metal bands therefore my formative years have actually been listening to metal! I have a recorded tape of the 2 year old me singing a metal song and later being the lead head banger in their bands!

On the other hand my eldest brother who’s from the same generation of Nima’s brother, used to listen to tapes of rock bands that were available at the time. I started playing the violin at the age of 8 and classical music then became the major part of my listening habit. Gravitated towards hiphop a lot in my teenage years – all because of my love for English – while still listening to metal and eventually landing on jazz and falling in love with it. Throughout all of these years singing has been my main passion and jazz also gave that passion a boost. Then I met Nima and Pouya and started to know about electronic music -around the age of 17- joined their band Migrain Sq., studied theatre at Tehran university while focusing on composing music for theatre and eventually moving to Paris and forming 9T Antiope with Nima.

If I am not mistaken, you met playing at the Teheran Camerata under Kayvan Mirhadi, who is one of the foremost promoters of contemporary music in Iran. How has this experience affected you both? Also, what role does contemporary music play in Iran in general – and I am thinking of composers like Alireza Mashayekhi here, for instance?

Yes, that’s true…

Nima: Kayvan, has been one of the few people who has been the most open and progressive in the closed off, dogmatic atmosphere of music school. He opened up a whole new world to me personally, when it comes to contemporary classical music.

There have only been a few people that have done so much work, namely Alireza Mashayekhi, who has been an icon for an older generation; most of the now-active contemporary composers are a product of his courses and teachings and for my generation that person has been Kayvan Mirhadi. They have both shone a new light on all the old practices of “the classical world” in university and music school, since also at the time the resources were very limited – even for modern music, let alone the contemporary ones – and Kayvan wrote and translated so many books and articles.”

Sara: I’ve been quite lucky to have another friend playing at Camerata Orchestra who introduced me to Kayvan Mirhadi, and her being friends with Nima and Pouya, eventually led me to meeting them whilst joining the orchestra and that’s mainly when I started learning about the contemporary world.

As of now, there’s a new generation active in the contemporary scene which of course includes a number of great musicians but could also head towards a tricky path because in order to start in contemporary classical music, a proper background in classical music is needed and what’s going on now, is that so many times, random irrelevant pieces are labeled and presented as contemporary classical and since there is no real standard, it’s becoming a new hype to make money off of, where no one really knows what they’re doing and everyone fits in and a of course a number of people are always there to abuse this situation.

Since the definition of contemporary music in Iran is still quite vague, there are now a few people who have formed their versions of “mafias” and try to say that everything they produce is the definition of contemporary music, calling their work “serious music” and anything other than theirs is “cheap”; these are the sort of dangerous situations that are worrying…

Other than that, there are of course a number of organisations, some outside of Iran, IFCA (Iranian Female Composers Association) for example, promoting this music and its composers properly -with a focus on female composers- collaborating with different venues, organisations and orchestras around the world.

What are the main challenges you’ve had to contend with, and I’m especially thinking of playing live in this case, and also in terms of financial support and distribution? What is the audience for experimental music in Tehran and what is the situation like in the rest of the country? What are the current misconceptions about the “Tehran scene” you’d like to dispel, if any?

Well, the friendships of the people of this scene, or better to say this community, we’re talking about dates way back. We all knew each other and were familiar with each other’s works, so many of the names you’ve mentioned were in bands together and also the support was always consistent to whatever it came to, being sharing music, techniques, softwares, etc.. then around the time we were about to move to Paris, SET Experimental Art Events took a formal shape and it all came together.

The culture of this all, has always been a DIY culture, funding is non-existent, all you do is out of your own pockets and the venues where you can have proper shows are very few, being due to having improper equipments or such matters. So, up until this latest SETxCTM collaboration were the guys managed to get funding and get a major venue, everything has been from their own pockets. The whole live performance scene is in hands of the mainstream pop bands at the moment, so the rest need to and their luck with smaller private venues.

Also when it comes to releasing albums and distributing, this becomes a whole different problem. There are very few labels that are in general releasing music other than the mainstream ones and these mainly prefer to fit within that general assumption of “music coming from Iran” in order to have a saying in the international scene, therefore that’s also another issue, especially since now artists tend to release outside of Iran and they lose a huge audience at home, because their audience simply can’t purchase anything from outside of Iran due to sanctions. So you also don’t make any money off of it.

Although the scene is yet quite small, but a new generation of younger musicians are one the rise, who now have access to teachers, different courses and all in all an easier path ahead when it comes to learning at least, because for all of us this has been DIY. This new generation now takes courses inside Iran or studies abroad and stays in contact with Iran, therefore it looks quite hopeful…

It’s very much centralised in Tehran though, there are a number of events happening in some bigger cities, but eventually it mostly takes place in Tehran still. In Shiraz or Rasht – were we have a lot of electronic musicians- and a few bigger cities, you could find proper communities forming, but size-wise it’s hard to compare to Tehran for now.

Regarding any misconceptions about the Tehran scene, we could say that honestly there are more “expectations” than misconceptions. If we look at this scene within the bigger whole music scene, there we find the misconceptions, where we’re still expected to sound Iranian, be exotic, use certain melodies or sounds, etc. We’ve all been called “Not Iranian enough!” in a review on the compilation “Absence”, we’ve been called liars and were then compared to stories the media prefers to tell and to generalise all Iranian musicians.

But, when it comes to this “scene” we keep talking about, in our opinion throughout the years we’ve all took the time with such care and obsession, to explain and repeat the dynamics of the scene, in order to open it up, get into details, to present it as it is and prevent any false interpretation that we’ve left a much smaller room for error and misconception; at least that has been the goal, but we’re probably close to it. Still, the problems lie within the expectations of the outside world and how the average audience wouldn’t want its image of “Iranian Musician” to be disturbed!

The audience is a very young, diverse, curious, open audience though. People from different mediums keep going to as much events as they can, in order to have a glimpse of the ongoing happenings. It’s very enjoyable to play for this audience, who watches and listens very closely and is very attentive.

You are now both currently based in Paris. What is your relationship with the music scene in Paris? I understand you have been unlucky in terms of playing live gigs in Paris. What jinxed it?

We’re in quite a complicated relationship with the music scene in Paris honestly. From what we see the scene is quite a bipolar one, at one end we have the very academic side and on the other end we have the mainstream side and anything in the middle falls into a very narrow space where its difficult to exist within. Also the few people who are active in this middle area, don’t seem to be keen on sharing it with anyone else. Therefore we can say we have no real relationship with it and in the past 4 years we’ve only performed one gig. Although we’ve properly toured with the theatre and dance projects that we’ve made music for and with whom we perform live and that is still ongoing.

By being in the audience in different major festivals in Paris these past years we’ve realised that when it comes to bringing acts from different countries, they do a good job of bringing the same people with whom we ourselves might share a stage outside of France, yet they don’t even let their few local groups within the line-up, so maybe then we become a victim of being looked at as “locals” as well? We do not know and do not understand.

We definitely wish for this curse to be broken though.

Also, you were scheduled to play at Londons Café Oto last year but were denied a visa. What are the challenges facing Iranian artists in terms of performing abroad?

Yes we’ve been denied a visa for the UK twice in the past 2 years thus we’ve missed shows, one of them being Café OTO amongst a number of others, which has been quite annoying. Ever since, we’ve also said no to other proposed shows in the UK since we just can’t be bothered with that exhausting process of applying for a visa and being denied again.

Keep in mind that we are now living inside the EU on artistic visas and in general are free to move and face no problems while touring, therefore our problems are minuscule in comparison with what you have to go through if you’re coming from Iran! It’s a long, fatiguing process of facing a cluster of not-people-but-walls who don’t consider what you do as a real job and from there it’s a series of dead ends. Also the people on the other side, inviting you to come over, just cannot wrap their heads around the malfunction going on, therefore can’t really understand what they could do to help you manage. Imagine you have a tour in different countries, you have to get an invitation letter from each and every one of the venues, also anywhere you spend in between those, have to prove exhaustively that you have every right to all of these shows, etc. eventually it gets to a point where either the artists give up or the places supporting them gradually stop bringing people from such countries and go for easier ones.

Apparently recently the cultural offices of the embassies in Iran cannot help with the visas for artists anymore, which was a different case in the past… now add that on top of all the things mentioned before.

Our situation with the UK visa has been weird, it’s as if there’s an un official travel ban on Iranians, because we’ve heard the same case from a number of other people, so we probably just have to wait and hope for it to resolve somehow.

You’ve started working together as 9T Antiope back in 2014 with the album Syzygys being released in December 2015. From the outset, a strong narrative seems to be one of the main motors of your music, and not just because of your use of lyrics. What would you say are the most important elements for you in terms of constructing an album?

Yes, narrative is a strong motive for both of us. We usually have a solid basis of the concept in our minds before we start making the album; we discuss all its details, the colours, the textures and everything that exists within the texts or the back stories of characters, everything that’s written and that eventually gets chopped up and turned into lyrics, before, during and after the process of making.

Sara: But for me, it all comes to my love for story telling and for poetry; pure solid love for words… and the challenge of weaving lyrics and melodies.

Nima: And eventually I think we have a strong structure when it comes to making music. No matter how drastically the sound design or the concept changes, we almost always have a structure we abide to, which probably comes from classical music. I think we do it within a form.

Along with other principles, like we’ve always believed in the importance of existence of ugliness alongside beauty. We don’t want to just make beautiful, enjoyable, comprehendible music; it has to be brutal and ugly and uncomfortable as well to make sense and to satisfy ourselves first… and we know that we’re not easily affected and moved and awed.

For us both, the process is an extremely emotional process, not only in the sense of enjoying what you are doing, but in the sense of being heavily affectedly by what we’re talking about, since it mostly has it roots down somewhere in our own personal experiences and the fact that we both actually do tend to push our mental boundaries and dig deep, which sometimes is scary and uncomfortable, but in the end pays off when we look at the final product and we know all its aspects and pieces by heart; then we also easily move on.

You have a new album coming out on PTP called Nocebo, which is the second part of a trilogy comprised of Isthmus / Nocebo / Placebo. Nocebo refers to the self-inflicted coma of individuals in a state of isolation. It is a dark and angrier album, or perhaps I should say noisier, than its predecessor. Gone is the sustained violin of Isthmus, replaced by a more fractured and desolate sound. But not all is doom and gloom, theres a “celestial” coda (for want of a better word) to the album that seems to point to an alternate plane of reality. And yet it is still nihilistic in its outlook (“the sound nothing makes… I know nothing very well, it tastes and smells like wet paper… wet concrete… and rotting flesh”). Is this your “dark” and pessimistic album?

Yes the path shows that with each album we tend to get noisier and darker, this probably shows the path of our lives on its own but there are no intentions for it, therefore we don’t know where it goes; so far we’re just being very reactive to our experiences  in the world we’re living in.

Nima: “This also might have something to do with the fact that Nocebo – initially made to be a live performance – was going to receive its premiere in Tehran at SETxCTM and our relationship with Tehran rose its own conflicts. Again, we were being reactive about the environment this album was being made in.”

Sara: “For me this has been along the ongoing path I started 3 years ago as an attempt to make my solo album; having lost 2 brothers around 6 years ago, I eventually found refuge in writing about my relationship with death very openly and excessively.

Nocebo for me has been finding the audacity to explore all the things I took away with me during the time I had one of my brothers in coma after his accident and the other in a comatose state after his cancer medications.

I’ve had the image in me, but never dared to explore it, had all the details buried deep in me but never wanted to talk about it. After reading about a rare disease named “Uppgivenhetssyndrom” and the experiences of the people who have survived this state, I just found a chance to reflect on my own experience of having a loved one in coma, in my own way and it has been a great experience. All I’ve written about has been about death in the past couple of years, but only recently I have been able to face it with wide arms and wider eyes.”

It probably is a nihilistic album, we both are definitely not optimists, we just can’t be… 

What are we to expect from Placebo?

As one can tell from its name, Placebo is our search for a cure; not that we know for sure if there is one! We’re just looking for it… the cure might not necessarily be a “happy ending”, or happiness in its bare meaning… It might eventually just be a placebo or at least a chance to give the finger to everything we consider fucked up!

Could you describe your current set up for live performances and studio recording? Also, current favourite piece of gear?

It varies from set to set. For Nocebo, we have a laptop each (as we normally do), Ableton live on both of them, alongside with a quite basic modular synth and vocals, and we process… When it comes to studio recording, we have a few number of synths, also acoustic instruments like the violin, a saxophone, a piano -if we get out hands on one- and vocals.

Our favourite gear has always been our instruments, nothing ever beats those.

You both also have solo musical outputs and distinctive pursuits. Sara, you seem to be working more with theatre and soundtracks whereas Nima you seem to veer more towards abstraction in your solo releases, fracturing prepared piano lines and interweaving drones onto malfunctioning violin melodies on Pacific Ocean, while you plunge into outright glitch and noise with REMS. What would you say are your strongest and weakest points as solo artists?

Nima: “The strongest point for me is when I can be as abstract as possible in my solo works; I’m not waiting for anything else to be added to the work, which is the case when Sara is going to add her parts to the composition. I’m in full control.

On the other hand throughout all of these years I’ve always had something to add on top of everything and not having that is also a big challenge.”

Sara: “Exactly the same situation for me, on the other side of the spectrum. With my personal project SarrSew I can plunge into lyrics and melodies and my personal inside world, whereas in 9T Antiope I always find a way to latch onto the noise and the world that is being created mainly by Nima’s sound design, therefore lacking that on one hand gives me the ability to work with the bare minimums, being my own voice and maybe a saxophone, which I enjoy very much and on the other hand creates the big challenge of doing a proper job at sound designing and living up to the standard I have in mind.”

But these things aren’t issues we even consider when we work together, we barely have to talk, we’re always on the same page and that’s why it all probably works.

Finally, you also play together with Pouya Pour-Amin as Migrain, a band that saw many different incarnations and that falls more into a folk-pop-rock category with Sara currently singing in Farsi. Does your latest track Habak signal the beginning of a new era of Farsi pop?

That has been the aim! We wanted to be very innovative with Habak – both with lyrics and with composition – and to create something that hasn’t been there in Iranian pop. No matter how hard we try to call it pop though, still so many have mentioned that it sounds experimental to them, but to us it’s definitely pop…

Hopefully this goes on, there has never been an ending to Migrain Sq. honestly and probably never will be. It has had its fair share of success and then silence, yet depending on the time and the necessity, it normally finds its way of coming back. We’re planning on continuing in Farsi though.

Ok, last thing, since we mentioned narrative earlier on, any books, novels, poetry or maybe films that you find particularly inspiring?

It is genuinely difficult to pin point certain names honestly, not that we are being lazy. Also probably many things that might have moved us in the past, even a year ago, might not have the same effect now and that’s what makes this hard.

Sara: “At the moment I’ve just finished reading “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson and I find it a very beautiful book. “The Wasp Factory” is a piece of gem, both the book and the album by Ben Frost. I would also always suggest everyone watch “Sweeney Todd” if they like musicals, but especially if they hate them!”

Very last thing, name three things you like doing when not listening and recording music?

Sara: “I’m a big time gamer… I also do illustrations from time to time. Love editing videos and watch one too many gaming channels on youtube!”  

Nima: “I’m a professional gatherer of terrible first short films. I have a beautiful terrible   collection of the worst short films. I also watch a great deal of videos of modular synthesizers in action! Which usually sound awful…”

Nocebo by 9T Antiope is out on PTP on February 15, 2019

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