The small Iranian experimental music scene has been expanding and evolving greatly in the past decade. Perhaps no musical project exemplifies this development better than Xerxes the Dark, Teheran’s dark ambient guru. For well over ten years now, Mohamadreza has been weaving increasingly complex and strange dronescapes, exploring the psychological, the dark and the divine. We conducted this lengthy interview to find out more, and in the process covered methods for making dark ambient, the problem of being an Iranian musician releasing music on a US label, storytelling and God.
Hello. Could you begin by explaining the background of yourself and Xerxes the Dark?
Hello, I’m Mohamadreza, music producer and engineer (MSc in Nanomaterials Science and Engineering) from Tehran. I’ve been in love with sounds and music since childhood. When I was 8, I received a magical gift: a mini keyboard. It was absolutely amazing for me at the time, playing around with those keys and tones. When I was 17 I decided to make my own music and experiment towards new horizons. I started the Xerxes Project in 2005 (I changed the project name to Xerxes The Dark in 2010). In the beginning, Xerxes was a Dark Ambient/Noise project, but after releasing my first album (DIM/ Amduscias Records + Smell The Stench), I decided to make another project for Noise experiments so in 2007 I established the first Iranian Noise project named Nyctalllz. Up until now, I’ve released many albums with these two projects. Also I’ve participated in some music bands and duets, as well as written and produced in other styles and genres like Neo-Classical Post-Rock, IDM, Down Tempo, Ambient, Electroacoustic, etc.
So… Dark Ambient in Iran. Given the somewhat exaggerated image of Iranian society prevalent in the West, the fact that you can even do what you do is probably surprising to some. Do you think it’s any different doing ambient, industrial etc in Iran than elsewhere? You’ve mentioned in an old interview that it is not possible for you to play live in your native country for legal reasons, if I’m not mistaken.
Well, I don’t know about western insights, but Iran is the Cradle of Civilization, the Heart of History, Iran is a primal symbol of art and culture throughout mankind’s story. We have great talents here, many artists in different fields of art, and we have great minds in science and engineering as well.
But, we have some limitations too, Yep, in my last interview in 2013, I told a Swedish journalist that we can’t do live performances in certain genres like Metal, Rock, Electronic, Rap and so on, but the situation has improved a lot in recent years. We even have some International Music Festivals. The atmosphere is much better now, but before 2010, the number of listeners and fans of electronic music was much lower. Nowadays we see new artists everywhere, and even in bleak genres like Dark Ambient we see many newbies and newcomers both inside and outside of my country.
Regardless, is there a dark ambient and/or industrial “scene” – by which I mean friends, possible collaborators and so on – in Iran?
Yep, surely every genre has a community here, although Dark Ambient has a small one. Xerxes the Dark and Alphaxone are well-known in thw worldwide DA scene, but we have some new DA producers here that we are connected to through the internet, and me and Mehdi (Alphaxone) help them to find a proper label. Regarding collaborations I must say that me and Mehdi are old friends, and we’ve collaborated on some live performances (Tehran Sessions and TADAEX). We also participated on the “Tomb of Seers” album on Cryo Chamber. Besides that, I am a partner of Unexplained Sounds Group and I invited some Dark Ambient artists for our compilations. In the future we will also find and introduce many more Iranian talents to the worldwide Dark Ambient, Industial and Experimental Electro Scenes.
What is it about dark ambient that attracts you?
Nice question, Dark Ambient is not just a genre, it’s a journey, full of feelings: strange feelings I would claim that you can’t experience in other genres. From bleak and cold visions to horror and bizarre atmospheres, Dark Ambient can provide a great foundation for telling a story. I use DA to tell my stories, to release my inner thoughts, struggles, tensions, concepts, etc.
Which bands have influenced the work of Xerxes the Dark? What about non-musical sources of inspiration – books, movies, history, spirituality, etc? The band name obviously has a historical connotation.
Yes, the project’s name was taken from one of the most famous Iranian Emperors: Xerxes The Great (519–465 BC). Beside this, I really love alchemy, since I’m a modern alchemist of sorts. My field of study – “Metallurgy and Materials Science” – is very similar to ancient alchemy. Because of this, alchemy and some fringe sciences have influenced my work. After that, modern science like Quantum Mechanics, M-Theory, String Theory, Astrophysics, Extraterrestrial Life, Deep Space, Parallel Worlds, Black Holes, Wormholes & Quasars are other sources for inspiration. Metaphysics and Quantum Mysticism, Spirituality and Unknown phenomena affect my thoughts as well. Also I experienced several overdoses, fainting spells (some of which were very serious) and anesthesia in my past surgeries, all of which have made a strong impact on me, and have become strange sources for me. Basically all of my songs/albums are conceptual and are about these different themes.
You’ve had a few side-projects throughout the years – Nyctalllz, Nahan and Morego are the ones I’m aware of. Tell us about them.
Nyctalllz is the Noise/Electro-acoustic project I established in 2007. I have released 5 albums with this project, the last one of which is named Hypnograph (2016) and was released on my friend’s label Toxic Industries. One of the albums is called In Depth of Nought (2009) and was a collaboration between me and artists from Greece, USA and Malaysia. Nyctalllz is my serious side project.
Nahan was a Ambient-Black project from 2007 to 2009 and is now closed down. MOREGO is my “work-in-progress” project, with which I released some demos in 2010 and 2013. If I ever get some free time I will focus on this project and complete a full length album. Blind Owl was a Dark Ambient band from 2008 to 2010 – in fact it was a tribute duet to Sadegh Hedayat, a well-known contemporary Iranian writer. We release a Demo called … For My Shadow on Smell The Stench and Amduscias Records in 2008. The demo was very successful inside Iran and attracted many fans, and we wanted to continue and release a full-length album, but my band-mate (Arang) was forced to leave our city and we were faced with budget issues as well as depression, so we were forced to disband. Ostanes was another band I contributed to as a keyboardist and producer. We released a single in 2009 named Random Sacrifice, and began working on an album, but suddenly the vocalist left the band and we were forced to break-up. At the time, being in a band was very difficult. I was very serious about all things, but the other members were not very aim-oriented guys, so I decided to leave the band and refuse other suggestions. I prefer to work solo, because when you work alone, everything will be done in the exact time you want it to be done. You shouldn’t waste your time for your band-mates’ sake. Maybe if I find some guys more like myself, I will establish a band in a certain genre I really love, but it’s not clear that such people even exist.
How much time do you spend making music? What do you do when you’re not?
It really depends on my mood, deadlines and general life conditions. Sometimes I work on music for 6 months, sometimes I’m focused on a concept and album a whole year. From 2010 to 2012 I was suffering from serious depression, a form of shit I’ve been fighting for years even before that. In that period I composed some songs, but I lacked any motivation to release anything. In the middle of 2012, my father passed away. This was an awful time, I was really fuc*ed up, and I basically experienced the utter and ultimate darkness. After recovering, I released Capricornus Exotica on Kalpamantra. I was then forced to continue my studies at university and finish my thesis, so from 2013 to 2015 I had no time to release a full-length album. So, everything really depends on life’s conditions. When I don’t make music, I work on my thesis, study, translate, read books and watch movies or TV-shows.
Your music is inspired by metaphysics, nature, science, the cosmos and also God. What is your view of Deity?
It’s an odd question. From my childhood I was very curious about metaphysics, God, religion and spirituality. When I was young I read many books, and plowed through many fields like philosophy. I was very serious about it, and for a period of time I was lost in time and space. I felt like I had looked everywhere to find God, and had a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness. But we have a proverb in Persian: “he who seeks, will find”. Suddenly, when I was totally pale and depressed, I found my way, through a magical-personal experience, I realized. It’s hard to explain, but somehow I found my God within myself, and after that within every particle. So, I found that I’m connected to the Universe and that God exists in everything and nothing. My point of view is very close to Eastern and Iranian mysticism, and also close to quantum mysticism. Fortunately I’m living on a fruitful and fertile soil: Iran has too many great philosophers, thinkers, and mystics like Khayyam, Molavi (Rumi), Hafiz, Abū-Sa’īd Abul-Khayr, Sa’adi, Attar, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari , Avicenna, Azizuddin Nasafi, Sohrevardi and so on, so I can easily access the treasures and gems here. After all I try to respect every thought, every soul, mother nature and the whole universe. In short, here is your answer:
که یکی هست و هیچ نیست جز او
وحده لااله الاهو
(There is only the One, and none but He / He is the one, the only God to Be)
~ Hatef Esfahani
Dark ambient can be created in many different ways – field recordings with reverb, old-school synthesizers, computers… Which method(s) do you use? Any preferred mode of creating?
Sure, I experienced these methods in different releases, my preference is the mixture and blend of them, and for me it depends on my concept for producing. Sometimes I use Strings and Keys for a piece and sometimes I use my waterharp to make a pad, sometimes I design my SFX with a Synth and sometimes I just modify some VSTs and add my field recordings. In some opuses I use my analog FXs and my guitar to make pads or SFX, and sometimes I just use my laptop and DAWs. Usually I use a mixture of different techniques and methods to reach the desired sound. And the sound itself is more important than the methods I used to create them.
You’ve worked with Cryo-Chamber, Eighth Tower Records, Kalpamantra and many others. Has any of these labels been better or worse than the others? Any special stories about these collaborations?
Sure, I remember that when I sent out my first demo to find a label, back in 2006, one of them wrote to me “Oh, you live in desert with camels, what the hell do you know about Ambient music”. This one really made me angry, since the label disrespected me and my soil. In fact we live in cities, and not Sahara or the desert, we drive cars and not camels, so I motivated myself with a simple aim: some day labels must ask me make albums for them, rather than me asking them to release my stuff. From that day, I began working harder and harder. I released my first stuffs with net labels, but today I work with great labels and many of them email me and ask me to join their compilations and many indie labels ask me to release a LP or EP on their labels.
Eighth Tower Records is my friend’s label, although I did not release an album with this them. I participated on a couple of their compilations, though, and they were good releases. Kalpamantra is a digital label which released some of my albums and EPs, such as Capricornus Exotica, Astral.Code.Connection, Xenophillis, Quantal and Transmutation. Looking at different labels like CVLMINIS, Black Mara and D.M.T. Records and Cryo Chamber, I must say that every labels have their own conditions. For example, my experience with Cryo Chamber was perfect, they have a great community and distribution after Simon Heath’s Atrium Carceri, but unfortunately I didn’t receive my copies because of the international/American sanctions/boycott against Iran. The label can’t send physical stuff from USA to Iran. Black Mara is another fantastic label, They are famous for their special packages and high quality DA releases. And my current label, D.M.T. Records from Canada is another good label, they rarely release DA, but have a good community and distribution.
And there is an old-crazy story, we can’t receive our money from labels. Due to sanctions, PayPal banned Iranian users, so we just receive some copies or download codes. It means that most of the times we work for free! We work for our hearts and our souls!
You’ve done many digital releases, a few CDrs and some splits/collaborations. When will the official Xerxes the Dark CD (or perhaps even vinyl LP) album finally see the light of day?
Maybe D.M.T.Records will release a vinyl version of [Ab]Solution album, and actually I did release some limited edition CD’s via CVLMINIS, but in the near future I will release physical album. Although most labels prefer digital releases because of budgetary constraints, and if they print CDs the edition is around 200 or 300 copies – or even 100.
What about future plans for Xerxes the Dark?
I will participate on several compilations, also I’m working on some live performances in Tehran. And I will begin working on a new album in Autumn.
Thank you for your time. The final word is yours – promote, quote or say whatever you’d like.
I wish human stupidity comes to end, we must protect our planet and nature, if not, we will be punished so hard… And thank you, and thanks to my fans and friends…