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An Interview With Varkâna

It’s been a few weeks since we last checked in with Fólkvangr Records – right before Sojourner’s The Shadowed Road came out in early March, to be precise. And now the time for April’s batch of releases is nearly upon us, and this time out Mark has decided to throw us all a couple of curveballs: Funerary Descent’s Ov Chasms Beyond, a blackened funeral doom album that may well be the heaviest thing the label has ever released, and Rite from Iranian pagan/dark ambient/dungeon synth project Varkâna.

Both records are excellent, but the Varkâna grabbed me the most – I mean, a pagan project from Iran? How could I not want to interview  the dude behind it? Luckily, he agreed to do it, and we had a pretty good talk about some of the elements of Iranian history and folklore that inspired Varkâna, and a bit about Iranian culture as a whole.

Rite will be available for order on cassette from Fólkvangr Records on April 27, but the entire album (minus the exclusive bonus track) is streaming on their Bandcamp page right now.

Indy Metal Vault: Hey, dude. For starters, thank you for the interview. This one is a first for me on a couple of levels – I’ve never interviewed a dungeon synth artist, nor have I ever interviewed a musician from Iran, and I’m pretty excited about both. So let’s begin with a question that addresses both: most Americans likely have a view of Iran that’s heavily influenced by Jimmy Carter’s decision in 1980 to sever diplomatic ties between the two countries. I’ll be honest, though: I was like 6 when that happened, and I’m guessing you weren’t even alive yet, so I don’t really care. I want to talk about music, not politics – however, it’s difficult to completely avoid the topic. What I’m most curious about is this: given that Iran is an Islamic republic, how much western music actually makes its way into Iran? How did you first encounter dungeon synth? I’m guessing it was the Internet, but was it in Iran or abroad?

Varkâna: To answer this question I have to describe a few things. Iran is an Islamic republic, but that’s the government. Most people don’t practice Islam in their daily lives, even though they consider themselves Muslim, which is a ridiculous thing for me but obviously not for them. So yeah, I guess Iranians are a bit more “liberal” compared to other Middle Eastern countries like Turkey.

Western music does get in here, mostly through the Internet and social media. I mean the actual decent music, not the popular crap most people listen to. For example, a couple of months ago we had Ólafur Arnalds visit Iran for a live show, and in January we had a Nu-Jazz trio over here, but let me be clear – there aren’t many metal shows or dungeon synth shows going on here. We had some Iranian bands playing live, and that’s about it. No foreign bands have played here, so most of the music I’m interested in I’ve found wandering the music blogs and Internet radios and podcasts and through hours of listening to music on YouTube. We don’t get black metal/folk CDs or tapes here (which is mostly what I listen to) and I usually can’t order stuff from foreign websites because it’ll be way too expensive to ship the music for me.

The first dungeon synth I first listened to was Mortiis when I was about sixteen or something. I remember I was so amused by Håvard’s face.

IMV: I’m not sure if this is really a separate question or a continuation of the first one, but I’ve seen on Varkâna’s Facebook page that your next release is going to be a black metal album, and “Marg E Yazdgerd,” the bonus track on the Fólkvangr cassette release of Rite, certainly seems to display a black metal influence. Considering the theocratic nature of the government, how accepted is black metal in Iran? How accepted is metal in general? Metal Archives (which isn’t necessarily always correct) says there are fewer than 70 active metal bands in Iran right now. Does that have more to do with metal not really being a large part of Iranian culture, or is it because metal is still fairly underground in Iran due to pressure from the police and/or religious leaders?

V: I have to say that metal is way too underground here. I think I kinda answered that earlier so there’s no need for further explanations, and I have to say that I recorded my black metal album and decided to not release it yet, at least not for a while. I’m currently working on a funeral/black/drone doom album, because I think that’s more related to the whole atmosphere of my music project.

IMV: Okay, that’s enough politics for one interview – let’s switch gears and talk about Varkâna and Rite. From what I’ve been able to find online, Varkâna is the Old Persian name of a region in Iran now called Gorgan, both of which roughly translate to “Land of Wolves” in English. Since you named the project after that region of the country, I’m guessing you feel some sort of connection to it – is it the kind of thing you can explain? Is Gorgan the “vast lands and forests of northwestern Iran” where you told the Stranger Aeons blog back in October that you wrote most of the material on Rites?

V: I first encountered the word “Varkâna” when I was reading about the Hyrcanian Forests (Hyrcania is the Greek form of Varkâna). They start from the northeast and continue to the northwestern part of Iran. I fell in love with the word when I saw it and decided to choose it as my project’s name. Also, Gorgan right now is a city in the northeast of Iran. I am not from Gorgan, though my ancestors lived in the northwestern part of the Hyrcanian forests, which is called Azerbaijan (Ardabil is the city), and I visit my village rather frequently during the summer to help my grandparents. Last summer I decided to take my laptop with me and make music.

I do need to clarify, though, that it is wrongly assumed that people from Azerbaijan are Turks. They are Iranian, they just speak the language because the Mongols and other Turkish tribes forced them to do so.

IMV:  On Varkâna’s Bandcamp page, it says that Rites is inspired by “Iranian paganism and history.” I’ve been able to piece some of it together from my own research—“Verethragna,” for example, is the Zoroastrian God of Victory, and “Papak” was a Persian Prince—but since your music is all instrumental, I’m curious as to how those themes might appear in your music aside from the song titles?

V: I have to say that even though I’m not that much of a spiritual person, my music is highly spiritual. I have read a lot about Zoroastrianism and Iranian mythology and history. I’m so proud of my heritage and I feel like I have to pay respect to my ancestors. So for example, I read about Papak then I thought about him for hours, and then when I felt inspired I got behind my setup and instruments. Either that, or I simply finished a song and felt like it suited one of the many names.

IMV:  From a musical perspective, Varkâna sounds fairly unique compared to most of the dungeon synth I’ve heard. I generally associate the genre with Medieval-sounding musical themes, but I don’t hear a lot of that in your sound. Instead, Ritessounds more like a combination of ambient synths in the vein of a Tangerine Dream and more Middle Eastern (for lack of a better terms) motifs and possibly instrumentation. What is your musical background? Do you have any formal training that informs the music you make as Varkâna?

V: Well, I love the Medieval sound of dungeon synth, and I listen to a lot of folk music.

I personally consider Riteto be some mystical ritual folk ambient with dungeon synth influences. And yes, it does sound “Middle Eastern,” but I’d rather call it Iranian. Most Middle Eastern music is driven from Iranian music.

And no, I have never been educated in music, though I’ve read books about it and played instruments. I have an electric guitar that I occasionally play, I have a keyboard, a recorder flute, a classical guitar, and also a bunch of other stuff. I have to say that I listen to a lot of Iranian traditional music and ambient music, which is what influenced Varkâna, and for the new album I’m looking forward to mixing the current Varkâna with funeral doom, as I said earlier.

IMV: Most dungeon synth artists I know of tend to record DIY – is that the way you approach recording as well? What does your setup look like, both in terms of your instrument(s) and the way you record?

V: Uh, I have a laptop and an iPad, and that’s it. I mostly use Cubase and my AKG K52 headphones.

Original cover for Rite

IMV: The cover art for the Fólkvangr cassette release of Riteis considerably different than it was on the original digital release. You were responsible, however, for choosing both, correct? Why did you make such a drastic change between the two releases? Can you explain a bit about what the art on the cassette version represents? And since we’re on the topic of Fólkvangr, how did you hook up with the label for the cassette release?

V: The first cover was a photo I took in my village, but for the cassette I wanted something more elegant and yet as much Iranian and pure as it could be, so I decided on a page from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. As some of the readers might know, Shahnama is the Persian epic of the kings and the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp is one of the most valuable works of Persian miniature, so I decided to have one of it’s pages as the cover. I believe Shahnamais one of the most important things that was left for us from our ancestors and the great Ferdowsi, who gathered the stories and turned them into an epic poem. Honestly, I kind of felt like the painting fit better with the atmosphere of my music.

Oh…and for Fólkvangr, I discovered them a bit before I talked to the owner. I posted in a Facebook group that I was looking for a label and he responded, and that’s all I guess. I’m so glad my music is among so many great artists.

IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I like to leave the last word to the artists – anything else you want to add?

V: It was a pleasure, and I’d like to add that I hope not all people think that Iranians are Muslims. We have our own heritage and many of us are proud of it, and even though the government turned our motherland into as Islamic state, we will never forget our roots.

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