Iranian artist Ata Ebtekar, aka Sote has had quite a year. In June, Opal Tapes hosted his Hardcore Sounds from Tehran LP, providing a snapshot of his incendiary, hyper-digitized live shows. Around the same time, Shapednoise fronted label Repitch released a 10” featuring two breakneck hardcore tracks, which have been hibernating on Ebtekar’s DAT tapes since the 1990s. Recently, he also released ‘Hyper Urban 20 30’, a Ge-stell released EP dedicated to the Iranian musicians he has encountered working on SET Festival in his home city, Tehran.
SET began two years ago when Ebtekar relocated back to Iran from the U.S, providing an outlet for Iranian electronic musicians to perform their work live, simultaneously encouraging more people to become engaged with the scene. SET has subsequently gained international attention and the annual festival is also subsidised with one off events across the year.
If the aforementioned releases alongside co-running his own festival weren’t enough, Ebtekar has also performed numerous live shows around the world including Berghain, Cafe OTO and Unsound Festival, where we were lucky enough to catch him a few months ago.
With the year drawing to a close, we decided to reflect on a busy 12 months with Ebtekar, discussing electronic music in Tehran, Autechre copycats and growing up with Duran Duran.
Your set at Unsound reminded me of the ‘Hyper-urban 20 30’ material. How do you go about putting your live sets together? Are they fairly improvisational or do you aim to recreate tracks from your records?
Over the years I’ve done it all. I’ve done sets which are totally improvised, but in the past couple of years, they are definitely more planned. For Unsound I wanted something between my two releases; the ‘Hyper-urban 20 30’ EP and Hardcore Sounds from Tehran. I prepare lots of loops and clips and do lots of triggering and processing live. Nothing too fancy!
It reminded me of the few times I’ve been lucky enough to see Autechre - this very granular, digitized sound. It’s hard to separate the different tracks, it all fits together very cohesively.
I love Autechre, they’re wonderful. In my opinion they’re probably the best electronic composers out there. I consider them true, serious composers, not just producers. Sonically, what I try to do and what has always moved me is very, very electronic sounds, but no matter how harsh or intense they are, them being clean is very important. No matter how distorted I go I still need that shine in there. I usually get that comment from the sound engineers at live shows. I ask them “how did the sound seem in front of the house?” When they tell me it sounds very clean, that’s when it’s mission accomplished.
I think it’s a really easy trap to fall into - just trying to be as loud and obnoxious as possible - noise for noise’s sake.
With the last few albums and EPs, ‘Hyper Urban 20 30’, Hardcore Sounds from Tehran, Arrythmia and Architectonic, the main influences have been techno and noise music really. At the same time, none of the current noise music moves me. When I used to like it, it was more experimental and more freeform. Now it all seems formulated.
Just like you said - noise just for the sake of noise - that doesn’t work for me. It’s always been part of my aesthetic; it has to be a structured musical composition no matter how noisey you get. I still have a long way to go, but I think I’m being semi-successful at reaching this goal. When people who are not into electronic music listen to my music and say “this is just pure noise, nonsense”, it’s OK. But if you know, if you spend some time and listen to the music then you’ll know there’s a lot of harmonies and melodies and poly-rhythmic structures that are very calculated.
That’s why I think Autechre are amazing. There are a lot of Autechre clones out there - they think its just about the glitches or the type of beats they use but its not. Those are just techniques. Being a composer behind the sound is the most important factor I think.
Going back to ‘Hyper Urban 20 30’ - it’s dedicated to young Iranian musicians right?
Yeah I’m talking about people in their 20s and 30s in Tehran. When I moved back to Tehran I got to know a bunch of younger artists from the scene and we became friends, and kind of colleagues when we started SET Festival two years ago. There’s ten of us, mostly experimental electronic musicians but also some visual artists. The whole idea was to provide a platform not only for ourselves but for other electronic musicians in Iran, as well as opening a dialogue with other countries.
I was so moved by those people because they are so talented. In terms of learning all the coding and sound arts software, they are all self taught because you can’t learn about those things in a school or university here. These people find everything on the internet; software, PDFs of books, or they tell their friends or family members when they go outside Iran to get them the books they need…
When I first came back, one of the guys, Siavash Amini - he noticed I had all these books from the U.S about synthesis and sound. Very specialised books that you can’t even find in bookstores in the West. He was like “I have read this”, or “I have the PDF of this one”. I was just blown away.
It must take so much motivation to overcome those obstacles.
Exactly, they’re amazing. They’re not just doing it because it seems like a cool thing at the time or a phase they’re going through. They’re really passionate and serious about it. They’re doing it from the roots up and I honestly think that in a few years Tehran is going to be a hub for experimental electronic music. I was moved by them and the energy I feel living here, so I wanted to dedicate that EP to them.
An SET event with SaffronKeira and Siavash Amini in May, 2016
Talking about SET - what are the biggest obstacles in Tehran in terms of running an event like that?
From the beginning we set rules and goals for ourselves. One of the most important things was to remain absolutely independent. We didn’t want any outside forces telling us what to do artistically, so one of our biggest problems is the financial thing. We either have to pay from our own pockets, or we have to find a sponsor who’s willing to just give us the funding without wanting to butt in on the artistic side of things.
I would say the main obstacle has been finding venues who will give us the venue for five days in a row to do an annual event. We had to find a solution this year because the venues were asking for huge amounts of money for a week lockout of the venue. We decided to do a four weekend in a row type of event instead. In two or three weeks we’re going to have two artists perform on a Sunday, then the week after that again, and so on.
I think it’s going to be interesting. A lot of our audience are in their 20s so it would be hard for them to attend five days in a row anyway. This way they can have a week off to rest and maybe come to all the events. We’ve never wanted to do anything underground - without a permit or anything like that - it’s important to us that we reach a wider audience and bring people into our scene.
How do you consume your music? Are there record stores in Tehran you can find recent releases in or do you get your music online?
In terms of vinyl there are individuals who sell records privately. There is a Friday Bazaar with some people who sell vinyl, but there’s not a huge market. There are CD stores but they mainly sell classical and traditional music… It’s pretty limited. Most music is from downloading really. Myself I don’t download anything, but you should see these people’s hardrives - it’s unbelievable!
I have an American bank account but I can’t really do anything with it here. If I login to my account from Iran, in the U.S they’re going to immediately freeze it because that’s how the big boys play their games. It happened to my nephew, he bought a 99 cent song on iTunes a few years ago and they froze his account in the U.S. It took him months to sort it out - it was just one song!
What’s the perception of something like SET in Tehran generally? Is it seen as something very outsider?
It’s a small festival so most people obviously don’t know about it, but slowly word is getting out there. The cool thing about all the performances we have done so far is the fact that we do bring people into these events who aren’t from the scene. They’re usually very positive about it and the even more beautiful thing is that they come back for other events.
That combination of the country being closed for a couple of decades after the revolution… It wasn’t totally closed but because of the Iraq/Iran War for eight years after the revolution - Iranian society went through a lot trauma. Two or three decades worth. I don’t know if it’s just from that - people were deprived of a lot of different types of music.
I personally think it’s a combination of that and the fact Iranians in general are big art lovers. Poetry for example, no matter what type of background you have, no matter whether you’re illiterate or you have a PhD, poetry is a part of your life from when your born to when you die. People recite poetry when they’re having a conversation. It’s that infused in regular life.
The feedback has been very positive and I think it’s not only SET, there’s other outlets for new music. A lot of these things are happening because there are positive reactions.
You mentioned your nephew Ala earlier. You collaborated together in San Francisco right?
Yeah we did an audiovisual installation type of thing. We did a couple of collaborations but that was a particularly good one actually. He’s a visual artist. He teaches at Stanford so he was taking care of the whole aesthetic side of things and I was taking care of the audio and sound.
Ata performing with his nephew Ala in San Francisco, 2015.
Did your interest in electronic music develop during your time in the U.S or where you already making music before?
My interest really started in Iran when I was about nine years old. I was listening to Western pop music. My favourite group at the time was Duran Duran (laughs). I remember listening to their music and what I was always interested in was the kind of strange synthetic sounds.
When I moved to Germany at the age of 11 I got into the whole synth pop thing. I started really getting into Depeche Mode - I still love Depeche Mode! Then I got really heavily into electronic body music – groups like Front 242. I covered those bands in a high school band that I had in Germany, which transitioned into making our own electronic music. We left out the vocals and made really intense electronic music.
At 17 I moved to the San Francisco area and the whole techno explosion happened in Europe. I remember being in San Francisco at one point and listening to techno thinking “this this is so amazing, and this is so close to what we used to do in high school”. Someone told me “this is techno music”. I was like “oh my god we were doing this!” So maybe if I’d stayed in San Francisco and not left Germany I would have been part of the whole thing…
…like Richie Hawtin or something?
(laughs) Yeah like the Persian Richie Hawtin or something. Eventually I studied Sound Art in the U.S and down the line I became a teacher and started teaching computer music and sound design for about seven years before I came back to Iran.
I have your Repitch 10” somewhere here… It was the first material of yours I heard that and it just sounds so different to the rest of your catalogue.
Yeah I think that’s a good thing actually. I just played in Milan and they really wanted me to do a set of Repitch stuff. I had to tell them, I’m really, really over that. I’m really glad that the Repitch guys supported my work from 20 years ago and I’m really glad it came out. I’m proud of that work but to be honest with you I can’t get into that stuff anymore! It’s always been about progress for me. At the time unfortunately nobody wanted to listen to the stuff Repitch put out this year. It needed to be 20 years later to work.
How did they get hold of those tracks?
The Repitch guys basically asked me whether I had material similar to the Warp release. I have a huge archive of music from over the years on DAT tapes. I kept sending them material and they picked those two for a 10”.
You mentioned you have a commission project for CTM, can you tell us a bit about that?
For the next couple of months that’s going to be my life basically. February 1 is the performance day. It’s an electroacoustic project - I’m working with musicians here in Tehran. I’m recording them playing traditional Iranian instruments, and I’ll be doing my electronics. On stage there’s going to be someone playing the Santur, which is a Persian dulcimer and someone playing a Persian Setar.
Hopefully in a few weeks we’ll get rehearsals going for the performance. There is going to be a visual element done by Tarik Barri who is a contemporary of Thom Yorke. He’s a great visual artist. In a few weeks I’m going to Berlin to practice with him, then I’m going to come back and rehearse with the musicians again. Several days before the performance all four of us will be under the same roof to prepare for the actual performance.
Read more about Ebtekar’s upcoming CTM performance here.