When a colleague of mine wrote that the album "The Gray Line" is the best progrock album in the beginning of 2021, it ignited my interest in Iranian band ATRAVAN. That culminated in this interview with guitarist, composer, lyricist and music teacher Shayen. In addition to the current album, we will talk about how the scene works in Iran, how concerts are made, why Shayen left IT engineering and started to devote himself fully to music. And eventually, we'll talk about Batman as well.
Hello Shayan. First, I would like to ask about your band’s name. Does the word Atravan (and the spiral triangle) mean something?
Hello and I hope if everything’s fine with you. Well, ATRAVAN means “The Protector of The Holy fire” and yes, it is related to Zoroastrianism.
That's interesting, Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions and it is still alive in Iran. What was the reason for this name? Is somebody from your band Zoroastrian?
No one in our band is Zoroastrian, we just loved the name, plus it is a 100% Persian name which we really liked. A friend of mine suggested the name and we all fell in love with ATRAVAN.
You record „The Grey Line” was published by Californian label Zand Records. What could you tell me about the cooperation and how did it start?
Actually, Zang Records really helped us along the way to publish our new album through international platforms. We found them on an Instagram live while a friend told me about them. I contacted them through email and we talked about how should we release the album and our previous songs through a Zang Records contract. For an Iranian band, they gave us a great deal.
What was the added value for the band? From your point of view, what are the biggest advantages for a band from Iran when you publish music this way?
The biggest advantage, as you can see, is that the world will hear you, they will see you and I think that’s an important step to become a professional band. You have to spread your fanbase, you have to grow your music business and you have to introduce yourself to the world. People have to know that there are bands out there, who are working their asses off to finally get into the spotlight, to grow in their path, and finally to be heard.
But there are many things ahead of us. We can’t tour the world which is a huge step to make a living and to grow our music, we can’t get a sponsor, so we have to manage our financial issues by ourselves.
Where did you record „The Grey Line”? What are the possibilities in Teheran and how many studios are there?
We recorded the album in our home studios. For example, I recorded the guitars in my home studio, we’ve recorded the bass guitars there too, our keyboard player recorded the lines in her own home studio. We only went to record acoustic guitars and vocals in a studio, which name is AjoriArt Studio. So, actually, we recorded most of the album in our homes because of the high price of the studios here in Iran – but we tried to get the best quality out of it.
There are plenty of studios here to record or practice. We have some old ones that are still working, and we have new studios that have been built in recent years. But the problem is the quality that we wanted. And also, we needed to be aware of the financial stuff and we had to manage that as well because we had no sponsors to help us.
One thing is to record music, another is to mix and master it. What was your approach to postproduction? Did you manage to do it by yourselves?
First thing was that we went to a very professional sound engineer, Hadi Kiani, who is also a great vocalist and a fantastic keyboard player. We wanted to work with him but he got involved in some migration plans for himself so he couldn’t make the time. So, he introduced us to Ehsan Imani who is in the UK right now and he really helped us to put great quality into our album. Although we tried so hard to record our lines very clean so we could be sure that the mix-man can do whatever he wants with the lines.
I would like to ask one more question about the title song from your record. Can you explain the meaning of the song? What does the grey line mean to you?
The Grey Line came to us when Shahin, our drummer, talked about an experience he had during recent years. He saw a wall between a place where people were working very hard and they had tired and sad faces but on the other side of the wall, there was a park where people were happy and they were trying to enjoy their lives.
It inspired him with an idea of a very thin grey line between two different situations so close to each other.
The song “The Grey Line” is about post-war events, about how war will change the life when it’s over, about how the soldiers will be or how their commanders will act during the war.
Is war as a topic still actual for your generation? You are a generation which didn't live in a time of war, aren't you?
We haven’t lived our life in war but we were so close to it with ISIS near our borders and also our fathers fought in the Iran vs Iraq war so we heard and we saw many things. But the most important thing that inspired us with the concept of war is the chaos in the Middle East, Syria, ISIS (which is not an issue for now but it was an issue as we were writing the album).
We saw destroyed cities in Syria, sad faces of children, wanderers who lost their homes and many more.
How did you (personally) get to the rock music?
Well, I remember it was 15 years ago when it was the first time I heard “Meteora” by Linkin Park. It was my first experience listening to a rock band and I loved it. About 12 years ago, again I watched a video clip from Linkin Park “What I’ve Done”. I can say it completely changed my life, my vision to life, and my taste in music suddenly changed. I started to listen to metal and rock music, I started with bands like Metallica and System of a Down. But then, when I found Dream Theater, it was another big change for me. I fell in love with progressive music. bands like Riverside, Anathema, Pink Floyd, Rush, Neal Morse and many many more, they all changed the way I look at music and life and many other things.
What music do you listen to nowadays? Did you discover something interesting during past year?
I always try to keep myself up-to-date with new bands or new albums. In the recent year I’ve found a progressive metal band which was an old band named “Ocean” and I Loved them. New records are always on my list, like Accept, Epica, LTE, and many more new albums from my favourite bands. I always try to check Spotify playlists to find new bands.
ACCEPT, EPICA... these are old and well-known bands. I hoped that you could mention some new bands as well. You play a mix of instrumental prog metal and djent in your other band, OCTAVERSE. Do you listen this kind of music as well?
I can say I love Haken, they are one of my favourite bands of this new generation. I can mention Periphery, Tessaract, Skyharbor, Bad Wolves, Leprous, Myrath, Caligula’s Horse.
OCTAVERSE is the Metal side of my musical journey, as I have grown with bands like Metallica and Dream Theater and as I went forward I’ve become familiar with much newer bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch, and then I’ve heard of modern bands like Meshuggah and Periphery. So, yes, I always try to explore this kind of bands too.
Are you looking for vocals for OCTAVERSE? Or is your intention to have an instrumental band?
Well, we are looking for vocals for the band, but we want a good and strong voice. Unfortunately, we haven’t found that voice that we want to be in our music, but definitely, we are looking for it.
Oh nice, and what kind of vocal are you looking for?
Kind of a voice like Dio, which I think we will never find. He has a legendary voice and that is why he is a legend.
What kind of music did you start with ATRAVAN? Was it this type of progrock in the beginning?
Of course not. We started covering Metallica, Anathema, Riverside, Opeth, Tool, but the music you’re listening to on “The Grey Line” is the result of seven years of being a band, playing and working together. We’ve done lots of rehearsals for concerts or shows or just to practice, to write the album.
Wow, Tool as well? Have you witnessed any live concerts of these bands?
Unfortunately, no. We haven’t seen these bands live but our keyboard player went to see Anathema in 2019. And yes, we’ve covered Aenima or Vicarious from Tool back when we started the band.
Is there any Iranian band or person which influenced you?
We have some professional bands here who are really good, but I can’t say any names of Iranian bands which influenced us in our music.
Iranian music scene is a bit hidden from the rest of the world. But I know very well that there are many excellent musicians. Could you recommend some bands from Iran which deserve to be known more? For example: are KAHTMAYAN from Tehran still active? I have been waiting for a new record for 12 years already.
There are so many good bands here that the world needs to know about, for example, there’s a metalcore band named “Our Of Nowhere”, such cool guys and talented musicians with amazing music. Or I know a progressive metal Band named “The Ravel” and I know that their upcoming album is going to be great. Great musicians, fantastic guitarists “Soheil Zarin Kelk” and “Andre Khachikian” and bass Player “Mohammad Nik” with amazing vocalist “Hadi Kiani”, who I believe is one of the best singers in Iran.
I haven’t heard anything about Kahtmayan for years but I know that they had an album or two ready but for some reasons they haven’t done it yet.
I have seen several photos of your rehearsal room and I must say that none of the rehearsal rooms I visited in Iran looked alike. Yours is so luxurious. What is that space?
Hahaha. Well I don’t know which photo you are referring to but through the years, many beautiful studios and rehearsal rooms were built here with great tools and good quality, and recently we started to build our own rehearsal room in our drummer’s house which is a really nice place to practice and play music in.
How many shows have you had with ATRAVAN? And how difficult is it to organize concerts in your country?
Our last concert was about 4 years ago but I remember that we’ve had about 10 shows in 6 months just in our hometown. It inspired us to write an album and we hoped for a better situation, but it didn’t happen and it became too difficult to organize concerts or to get permission from the government to hold a concert. But after those shows, we were so busy to write and produce the album and now that the album is released we can’t do any shows because of the Covid situation and also the same government problem.
Before that we’ve had one or two shows 6 years ago.
Can you describe how organization of concerts is done in Iran?
First of all, you have to not be an underground band so that you can try to get permission for your lyrics, music, the name of the band; you have to send them a video to show them how you’re going to perform the songs. Then you have to reserve a place for your gig. And, finally, the Ministry of Arts (Department of Music) may give you the permission, but they are very strict with their criteria.
I have seen that once the concert is permitted it is usually sold out very quickly. On your instagram you announced a show on 27 August. and it was reportedly sold out 3 days later. My friend from Esfahan told me that if a big rock or metal band would come to Iran they would experience their biggest concert. Is there so much “hunger” for live music in Iran?
Yeah, we experienced that with Octaverse, our show was sold out so fast and we were really surprised, I believe there is so much hunger for good live music here. You may have a live concert but it may not be as good as you’ve expected it to be. But when you know a band and their music and their performance is good, you don’t want to miss that show. Also, the restrictions made people hungrier for live shows which results in shows selling out really fast, especially when people know it’s a good band.
Also, the concerts seem to have a high quality of sound and lightning. I have a DVD of THUNDER concert from 2014 in Teheran and I was fascinated by how professional everything is. By the way: great Southern country rock! In Europe, you play wherever you can and such level of organisation is rare. In case of ATRAVAN I have seen concerts where you have a projection or you play from a metal structure. When your concert is permitted, do you choose the place and details or is it organised by someone else?
For our shows we didn’t design anything, and it was not the way we wanted it to be or how we expected it to be. I believe it needed so much more work but unfortunately we were not in a position to design or to comment on anyhing. Although it was not bad at all, but it was far from our own expectations.
You mentioned that authorities are evaluating lyrics during the concert approval process. Is it a big advantage if the band plays instrumental music only?
Not really because here in Iran, people love vocals and they like to hear lyrics, they would like to sing along, so singing in Persian language is the best advantage for any musician here in Iran. Usually if the music is popular or if it’s really good, people will love it. When you sing in English it is a disadvantage and if you don’t sing at all, you will attract less attention to your band and your music because instrumental music does not have that a big fanbase here.
Who writes the lyrics for ATRAVAN?
It is usually me and Masoud (our singer), we try to talk to each other and get to a concept that we had in our minds and bring our ideas, make them one and try to talk about them in a lyrical way. Then we explain our ideas to other members of the band so they can understand what our point was. Plus, someone may have an idea for a song, they share it with us, and we go through it to see what will come out of it. But usually it’s just me and Masoud.
What is your main inspiration for the lyrics?
Real life events, society events or the things that are going on with the world, for example on our EP “Salvation” my inspiration for the lyrics were the events that I went through after I lost my father 8 years ago. I tried to talk about the process of grief.
On our latest release we tried to be more sociable and talk about society and world events.
What do you for living? What is your occupation?
I used to be an IT engineer for 5 years but during the past year I quit that job & became a full-time guitar tutor, because of the coronavirus we couldn’t hold concerts but before it I used to be a session player for various bands & artists.
That is a big life change. What was the reason? Is there such a big demand for guitar teachers? What was the reaction of your family?
It is a big change indeed, there is no big demand for guitar teachers. I just love guitars, I love music and as I am a patient guy, I love teaching. In addition, it helps me to learn more about music and guitars. It helps me to stay connected to the music.
It was a bit hard to be a guitar teacher and make a living at first. And my family, they thought it’s a temporary job but my wife (who is the keyboardist of our band) really supported me along this way. And now, I am happy with my job. Less stress and more focus on what you really love makes the life more interesting. Plus, you are almost a full-time musician which is what every musician would love to be.
Did the Covid pandemic change the way music is taught? My sister is a professional musician and teacher and she needs to use video calls in order to teach music. In Czech Republic we have a hard lockdown now. What is your situation in Iran regarding this?
Exactly! Since Covid started, many classes turned to online classes with video calls and in a way that was a good change because we’ve learned that you can learn things even in an online class. Here in Iran, it’s not a good situation, we are all getting tired of it and it is really annoying. Although the statistics got lower comparing to previous months but still, you have to be careful a lot and wear masks. I hope we get through it as soon as possible.
One year ago, I read a lot of information regarding the number of infected people in Iran. Nowadays, Czech Republic is a leader in the list of the most affected countries and there are many restrictions in place. Could you tell me what is the current situation in Iran? And how was your 2020?
They are talking about the 4th wave of coronavirus spreading in the country and we have to be more careful about everything. Because after the Nowrooz (pozn. Perské svátky jara) and holidays, many people went for trips and now they are coming back and they may have the virus with them and they will spread it. I think isn't going to be good in the upcoming months.
I often say that Iran is a great country with a bad reputation. When I informed my family that I’m going to visit Iran, they were worried. Although my great-grandfather visited Persia several times as he worked there as a civil engineer. No matter this historic family experience they didn’t like the idea and tried to talk me out of it. According to my experience, Iran is a country with a very rich culture, interesting history and extremely polite and friendly people. I question myself how to present this to people and convince them that Iran is not a dangerous country. Do you have any idea?
As you have mentioned, we have great culture and history although these days we all have forgotten it. I always ask myself about it too, because the media and the news show many things that might not be true, but it affects the way people think about us Iranians. But we can’t avoid it. It’s inevitable because whatever we do, we can’t change it unless people step in and see how our people really act and who they really are. I am really glad that you liked our country and have enjoyed your trip here.
What if you were asked to give a recommendation regarding Iran to someone who has never been to your country... What should he try to experience? Where to travel? What to see? What to taste?
We have lots of historical places like Kashan, Hamdean, Shiraz and Isfahan. We have beautiful nature in the north of our country like Chaloos, Rasht, or Azarbayejan. We have amazing deserts here in Kashan and Yazd. We have amazing nature in the south of our country, so there are lots of places to visit.
Lots of great foods as every district has their own traditional dishes. In the north of Iran they have their own dishes, in the south of Iran they have their own dishes. I think they are all delicious.
Let's turn the page to another non-musical topic. You're a fan of comics so I just have to ask: What is better: DC or Marvel?
(Laughs) I grew up with Batman. Since I was 5 years old I had Batman’s action figure and still I love him. But I can say Marvel did a really good job with their Cinematic Universe which made me fall in love with their superheroes. Great casting, great stories, lovely movies – so entertaining. On the other side, except for Nolan's movies and the Joker movie, I think DC is not in a good shape when it comes to their movies.
But when it comes to graphic novels I believe DC has lots of thing to say especially in their recent series where they reloaded the whole universe.
Regarding comics, I was personally very influenced by Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi and her work. She introduced me to the world of autobiographical comics and authors such as Guy Delisle or Kchun-wu Li. I'm sure there are other great creators from Iran that I don't know at all. Could you recommend someone?
I am not really into this kind of arts. Of course, I would love to see if anyone suggest me anything, but I never went in deep. But since my brother, Soroush Dianati, who has done almost every cover for our band, is working as a graphist and an animator, I can say that here in Iran there are great artists in that field, stop-motion field, animation or other creators in other fields.
Actually, this is another very interesting topic. For a long time, I've been thinking about what the picture of your last record actually represents. And I asked myself the same question with your album Man With No Dream. Can you tell us how the visual ideas for the albums are born and what they should express?
Our former artworks were Soroush’s idea. For example the man with no dream was a man with no face so you can see that dreams are likened to be a part of our faces. On our latest release, “The Grey Line”, many people see what's on the cover just as an eye but I can say it is not only an eye, it is an eye that is scared. Also, you can say it is a black hole. It is all referring to that Grey Line concept that we talked about. A thin line between salvation and falling apart.
Thank you for your time, if there is anything what was not mentioned, go ahead. Last words belong to you.
Thank you for your time and for this great and comprehensive interview. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.