In Session: Sepehr - Music - Mixmag

In Session: Sepehr

Sepehr shares an era-crossing mix and speaks to Patrick Hinton about split identites, upcoming projects, and wanting more sound diversity in dance music

  • Words: Patrick Hinton | Photos: Guarionex Jr.
  • 18 October 2023

Sepehr makes music that reflects the erratic nature of the modern world and rails against trends that neutralise that chaos. He’s creatively prolific, involved in various projects with a range of sonic and conceptual influences, and sitting on stacks of unreleased music. While dance music becomes increasingly overtaken by artists making safe, club-music-by-numbers to secure bigger bookings, Sepehr wants to lead by example in inspiring people to take creative risks, diversify their sound, and represent the full spectrum of who they are in the world.

Among the projects he’s currently working on: there’s Flower Storm, the collaboration with Kasra V that recontextualiaes Iranian cultural influences in electronic frameworks, with two EPs, an album and a live AV show on the way. He has a trip hop release incoming under the name Saffron Bloom via D. Tiffany’s Delicate Records, which is themed around heartbreak and heavily inspired by Scorn, the illbient side project of Napalm Death’s Mick Harris, as well as artists like Massive Attack, Portishead and Boards of Canada. Two years ago he also became the lead guitarist and vocalist in a shoegaze and grunge band he formed with the drummer Vanessa Gomez in New York, which they’ll share with the world once a few more rehearsals and some proper recording sessions are under their belt.

Born to Iranian parents in California’s Bay Area, Sepehr has always felt a sense of split identity. “I feel super Iranian around white people, I feel super white around Iranian people,” he says. His parents were Christians and he grew up in a God-fearing environment, but began questioning those beliefs aged 15 when he discovered weed and the music of misfit bands. Experiencing the wonders of the San Francisco rave scene from the age of 17 set him down a dance music path.

He’s been releasing records as Sepehr since 2017 - exploring sludgy, low-slung sounds that fold in styles like acid, dub, industrial, techno, electro and EBM with a psychedelic tinge - across labels such as Dark Entries, EON and his own Shaytoon Records outlet, which he founded to platform artists from the Middle East and its diaspora without tokenisation. “The whole point is reclaiming identity,” he says. “To show we're also you: we're weirdos, freaks, club kids, who play crazy bangers and want to be booked at the crazy festivals.”

Having planned to move to Berlin in 2020, but rerouting to New York when the pandemic complicated international travel, he befriended Aurora Halal, and subsequently Canadian artists D. Tiffany and Priori. His first EP on the former’s Planet Euphorique dropped earlier this year, while next project - an album called ‘Pomegranate Skies’ - is landing via Garmo, a sublabel of the NAFF imprint Priori runs with Ex-Terrestrial. Befitting of his aim to diversify dance music, he’s excited about the opportunity to bring his style to these labels. which are generally more associated with a trance-infused house sound. “I think it's really cool to work with people whose sound is not even close to yours but they fuck with the vision,” he says. “I want to just keep working with people who are down to do this weird, cross-pollination thing.”

Garmo also allows artists to have full creative control over their releases - which is now essential for Sepehr. The album has themes of dealing with existential dread, playing with spirituality, and exploring his split Iranian-American identity, with artwork stylised to look like a window into the soul, with a thick black border and small rectangle of contrasting colours at the centre. “You're taking a peek into somebody's very strange, existential dread world,” he says. “It's almost like a stream of consciousness type of album. It's a smorgasbord of different realities and it's not confined to one thing, almost like a dreamstate.” The freeform approach to artistic expression emerges through the myriad of sonic and conceptual influences weaved in, from ‘Isfahan Sinistra’, which blends influence from the darkness of recent events in Iran with the Latin rhythms pumping through the streets of Bushwick that he’d reguarly be woken up by, to the wiggy acid and heavy breathing samples of ‘Blood Red Sun’, plus plenty more besides. It’s reflective of the more thought-out approach he now intends to take with his music. “I'm now in this phase of my career where I want every piece of my discography to have a concept and a sound,” he says.

He’s also a talented DJ and live performer, playing with his freeform production approach through the latter and tearing up dancefloors behind the decks, including at his residency at New York’s Public Records, where he books a mix of mind-blowing artists from across Europe, the US and the SWANA region to join him.

With ‘Pomegranate Skies’ dropping this month, and a whole host of his other projects gathering steam, it feels like Sepehr is on the cusp of a compelling new era of his artistry. We spoke to him about his influences, approach and frustrations with modern dance music. Check out the Q&A alongside his era-crossing In Session mix below.

You’re about to release ‘Pomegranate Skies’, which includes themes of split identity, duality, heaven and hell - can you talk us through those influences and how they informed the music?

The identities thing is something I've always been grappling with my entire life. I feel like since I started doing my record label [Shaytoon Records] I started taking more agency of that concept, of my own split identity between who I am as an Iranian-American person, who's always split between worlds. The label is focusing on highlighting diaspora artists and underground with the specific purpose of not tokenising it, and being more of a statement of the fact that diaspora artists from the SWANA region, the Middle East, whatever you want to call it, are deserving of a seat at the table for the general market of the club world. That's how it started to sprout conceptually, and now I've just been trying to hone in on that more, and create an entire ecosystem of music which is split dualities constantlly, and never just honing in on one area. I felt like the perfect representation of that chaotic in-between is the type of music that I make.

Growing up, I actually went to an Iranian church which is really rare, because most Iranians either come from a Muslim background or they're not religious at all since leaving Iran or being in the diaspora. I went through a very interesting Christianity phase when I was very young. I guess those themes of heaven and hell are really meaningful to me because they represent a lot of trauma that I went through. This album is like an amalgamation of using different themes from my own split identity that inform what the music sounds like.

I'm trying to continually evolve and create. I'm recontextualising different parts of my identity to inform an entire ecosystem of sonics. Represent the transitional, the liminal, the in-between identities. Using themes of heaven, hell, spirituality, in a cheeky way, in order to recontextualise one's identity, to be able to mould it to whatever you want.

I'm trying to create something that goes against the grain of what people typically do in the club world, which is 'I need to put out this record that sounds exactly like this so that I can get booked at this club, play these parties'. I'm trying to set a precedent where it's like: no, we're all in this in-between phase, this in-between place of this moment in time, and the music should reflect that. It should take pieces of everything that you feel and make it all one big sonic mess, so that it doesn't follow something and so that it represents the liminal, in-between space, that you actually represent.

What do you think the contrasting sounds in the album are and what's the effect of bringing those together?

It's definitely an amalgamation of every sort of influence I've touched on since I've started being enveloped in the world of electronic music. I definitely took influence from the San Francisco experimental scene, people like Carlos Souffront, Solar, Tyrel Williams, that were showing me very strange records that were acid-tinged, obscure, industrial-adjacent, that just had the weirdest samples in it. There's some of the new wave of bass-y, percussive stuff that's sort of the 'big sound' right now, minus cheesy elements that I tend to hear all the time that are super wonky and remind me of big room tech-house, which I'm trying to avoid. When I was growing up, I was into progressive and trance because my cousins would play weird CDs while we'd be playing computer games, there's a little bit of that. And also Boards of Canada influence is in there too, there's elements of Coil all over it, but that's just my production in general because I worship them. There's just a shitload of sounds on this record. I wanted to make it that way on purpose, and in fact I want most of my albums under the name Sepehr to be like that. I want to continually set a precedent for people to start making diversification of their sound the norm. In albums, club nights. That's why I'm trying to get all these influences in there.

The release notes also say “The music in this album is a reflection of the ever-constant existential chaos in his mind” — what effect does artistic expression have on this for you?

On a personal level, making music is a meditative process that helps me with existential dread — that I have lots of. And I suspect that many people do, but they don't ever talk about it as much, because now all of us are just following the highlight reel of Instagram and pretending to be personas of themselves that they're not. I know deep down that everybody is kind of sensing and feeling existential dread because of this. I wanted that to be a statement on this record. I want to bring back conceptual albums to the dance music forefront, where we're talking about uncomfrotable topics again. Like what some artists would do in the '90s, where they would just etch something in the liner notes talking about how fucked up something is, talk about something that represents more of what reality is. I guess all this music, specifically for this record, is a metaphor for that, because of how chaotic it is.

I tried to make this whole record basically personification of a stream of consciousness of so many different feelings: existential chaos, thinking of this liminal space in this chaotic moment of time that we're in. The chaos of using things like spirituality as a form of escapism. I'm trying to take it from a form of just pure, hedonistic escapism - which has been a cornerstone of dance music culture - to making it less about escapism and more about talking about what's causing these sounds, like the thought processes or mental dualities. I want it to be more of something where people hear it, read about it, and think 'actually yeah, I feel this way too'. I think that we should all stop following a formula and just kind of vomit your existential dread in your music.

Spirituality is a common theme but not necessarily tied to a specific faith - there’s track titles referencing heaven, Samsara, the River Styx from Greek mythology. How would you describe your personal experience with spirituality and how does it inform your music?

Like I was saying before, I grew up in a church and that was a really crazy, formative experience for me, because from a very young age I was indoctrinated by religious dogma and beliefs. I grew up being a Christian believer, like full on, until I was 15 or so, when I started to question things, probably because I started smoking weed and listening to music from bands that were making me question everything. I think that entire moment of reawakening - from realising I was being indoctrinated into something to self-liberation - wasn't a liberation in the good sense necessarily, because it comes with lots of trauma. I wanted that to be reflected in this album.

My views on spirituality are evolving all the time. In general, I would say I'm pretty agnostic, I'm pretty atheist, but I do these days like to dabbe in a cheeky version of it, where it's like I've gone so far with putting in energy into thinking that everything is bullshit that I'm sort of recontextualising that in a way where I'm not actually overthinking it, I'm using it to support or bolster my own presence and enjoyment in life. For example, I don't believe in astrology at all, but now I'm sometimes like 'yeah it's because I'm a Leo!'. Taking a non-serious, cheeky approach to recontextualising spirituality can be really powerful. It can be a really nice thing for me to use these themes and talk about them in music, because I actually have lots of trauma from being in a church and dealing with the sphere that comes along with that, and the fear of thinking that I was gonna go to hell for the first quarter of my life. Recontextualising that to be something sonically healing, to take those titles and apply them to my music now, is a form of power that I feel, and hopefully transfers to other people. We can take those spiritual themes and recontextualise them in a way that works for us, and has nothing to do with pain, or fear, or trauma.

Read this next: Iranian rapper SÄYE SKYE: “They go after us because they know the power of art”

Your label Shaytoon Records - that word is Farsi for ‘Little Devil’’, and was also the nane of your debut album. Why did you choose that word? Was it related to that control over spirituality?

That word in Farsi is more of a word that means you're being mischeivous, it's something your parents will say to you when you're being bad, in like a funny way — "you're being a little shaytoon! Get outta here!" you know? The reason I did that name for my Dark Entries album was because that was the starting point of the moment where I wanted to start baking my identity into my music, instead of following what the popular sound was. For me personally, taking that stance has been a non-linear road, in terms of: I feel like I would be further in the music game if I was just following what certain peers were doing with their concepts and sound. But it's been more fulfilling for me to start including my Persian identity on my album, starting a label where I'm focused on Iranian and Middle Eastern artists. It's not the easy route - it's really hard, because people love to take these themes and just regurgitate some trope or tokenise it. That stuff happens all the time, and it messes up the whole thing, because the whole point is reclaiming identity. To show we're also these people, we're also you: we're weirdos, freaks, club kids, who play crazy bangers and want to be booked at the crazy festivals. But it's not that easy to do, because people still have a warped view of artists like us when we're talking about our identities. We get pigeonholed still, really hard. So it wasn't the easy, linear path, but it was more fulfilling and rewarding. Now I feel like I have a platform and a following and stuff, it's been even more rewarding, because I feel like people are starting to vibe with the candidness of all the stuff.

It must be frustrating for your personal identity to come through in your artistry and then see yourself pigeonholed. People like to box off artists: ‘this is Latin music, this is Indian club edits, this is Iranian club music’. We've seen monolothic scenes constructed around artists just being themselves in a way that's authentic to them personally.

Totally. And it's really important to do that [be authentic] because, as I've have been doing this more self-professed identity stuff within the music, since I started the label, since I started doing these conceptual records, more and more people continually over the years come out of the woodwork and tell me how important it is to them. Everytime that happens, even though it's not the greater dance music community as a whole, it makes it way more important for me. It makes me feel like I'm part of something that's really important, and has a necessity to be grown right now. Talking about these concepts of spirituality, religion, culture, identity in the same context as music that makes sense in today's world and that people actually like, I think it's a really potent and important combination.

How would you personally describe the way your Iranian heritage informs the music you make?

It's a delicate balance. It's incredibly important to me, but it's also an incredibly delicate thing because of the pigeonholing we were talking about. Since I started it, I've noticed that people love to just focus on that because it's their little news, bitesize tidbit they can use for their headline. It tends to dilute the entire thing because it tends to get hijacked by questions like 'what's it like being an Iranian artist?' and 'what's your trauma?' People just scratch the surface with it instead of the whole concept of: this is where it's coming from, but this is where I want it to go.

The Iranian heritage affects everything. The culture of upbringing and the collective trauma that we all have as artists — if you listen to Iranian music in general it's always sad. There's like no happy Iranian music. Even if it sounds happy the lyrics are talking about how their soul is being crushed. We're withholding lots of generational and contemporary trauma, and all of us are split away from our families. I can never go there because of everything that's going on, or it's really risky for me to go there, so I can't see my family. All these things affect and feed into my music. The main vehicle for a lot of my music-making is the balance between trauma, a lot of which comes from the collective pain of Iranians, and the healing process behind it.

Besides that, growing up Iranian was definitely a dancey lifestyle, you're growing up in all of these gatherings that are constantly playing music, which I think definitely plays a part in why Iranians are really obsessed with music. They just didn't get a chance to grow up like the rest of the world because of what happened in Iran, all getting restricted since the '80s. It's an entire collective group of people who are dying to release energy and creativity and express themselves in music, and have never gotten a chance to. I was lucky to grow up here [in the US], so that I could be influenced by stuff like the San Francisco rave scene. I learned so much, and they all can't. I feel that from them and that affects the music I make. That's why I started my label, and why when I first did the Dark Entries record I decided to go for that theme. It affects everything, but it's not the main thing.

The female liberation protests in Iran over the past year saw solidarity from within electronic music. There were artists from Iran and its diaspora using music as a tool for protest, with the Apranik Records compilations for example. You touched upon the sadness of Iranian music there but do you think there's defiance in it as well?

100%. At the core, electronic music can be used as a tool just how punk rock and '60s folk music were. It's the antithesis to religious fundamentalism, because it's very hedonistic, it's very involved with self-liberation, drugs, alcohol. It's not always these things but those couldn't be more opposite than what their country is going through. That is like the biggest ‘fuck you’ to the government and all the religious fundamentalists.

It's kind of insane because they all used to have parties, even after the revolution, but a lot of it was at people's properties. I went to high school with my friend Ardalan who's an artist and producer also, and he would tell me about all these parties he would go to when he was younger. They would be at people's properties and they would set up DJ decks. But now, since the latest protests, they're throwing raves with soundsystems, and they've never done this scale before. I've been getting people sending me videos where it's a 300-person rave with an equivalent to a Funktion-One type of rig, and it's the most dangerous possible thing you can do, if you get caught you're completely fucked. The fact that that's happening right now is showing a crazy evolution in the whole thing.

That goes hand in hand with the things I'm trying to achieve. I'm over here on the Western front trying to create a space for all these people. They're actually on the frontlines throwing raves that they could get killed for. They're definitely using electronc music as a tool for their expression and it's so important to keep talking about what they're doing. You know people in the electronic music scene are always talking about 'we need to get to the roots of dance music and make it political again' — it's happening in places, it's happening in Iran right now. I think it needs to be talked about more, instead of whoever's flavour of the month. That ties in directly into the concepts of my album and my label.

Read this next: Raving Iran: The promoter/DJs risking their lives to party

Do you think living in San Francisco also fed into your split identity feelings? You've talked about inspiration from the rave scene there, and it's a place known for being weird and artsy, but it's also increasingly representing Silicon Valley and more ominous connotations like algorithms and how they discourage uniqueness, which you’ve touched upon.

San Francisco is the perfect metaphor and example for this split reality and split identity for me. I was going there to party since I was 2007 when I was 17 years old. Back in those days it couldn't be more different than what it is now. It was truly a utopian scene, where there was a melting pot of the weirdest outcasts, cheap rent. People were coming from all over the world to be a part of the art and music scene. There was an insane amount of psychedelic punk rock spirit, there were so many different parties, day parties, 24 hour parties happening all the time, because the weather was decent. It was a breeding ground for a lot of different sounds. My favourite DJ, Carlos Souffront, I'd see him play like every week, Solar would be throwing the Sunset parties every weekend…

Anyway — I can't talk enough about how amazing it was. But when that shift happened, when tech coming in started happening hard, it basically started changing overnight. These huge ass Google buses started blocking the road, the rent increased so much, there was a mass exodus. All of the magic and all of the spaces just went away. That can't be stated enough how that also ties into this whole thing [of my new album and its themes]. I had an identity there was feeding so much inspiration into me. I was young still. and it just went away. Anyone that experienced that era can attest to how incredible it was, and how many different influences and how much crazy music was coming out at that time. But when that ended it just all went away.

Evoking that, what I felt from that era and the sounds I'd hear, is so important for me. Especially in the era we're in right now where no one cares about things like warm up sets anymore. The people I was learning from - I hope I don't sound like a boomer raver kid - were all veterans from the '90s scene and they taught me so much. When I had my first residencies in the San Francisco scene, I was warming up floors, playing psychedelic stuff, doing long mixes - we're increasingly in an era where that's starting to disappear. The times I can experience what I learned in San Francisco and the feeling that I got keeps dwindling. Every once in a while I'll go somewhere, there'll be like a tiny little sprinkle of it, like if Carlos is playing somewhere and I feel it for a second, and then it’s gone. Evoking that spirit and keeping that alive in my music is super important to me. That's why in all of my work I try to keep that same freeform, freaky, psychedelic spirit.

The Flower Storm project with Kasra V definitely feels quite psychedelic. The name is inspired by surrealist artist Ali Akbar Sadeghi. What brought you together and can you talk through what informs that project?

In contrast to the stuff that I do under my name Sepehr, that one is hyper-focused on Iranian work. The whole point of that project is recontextualising Iranian sounds, but it's in a more strict, stringent way. Kasra V was the one that came up with the concept. He came to me right when COVID started and was like: ‘Hey I've been thinking about starting a band. I want to do all strict Iranian sample stuff, and make it an AV project where we dress crazy and play a live AV set. I was like: ‘Yeah count me in!’ I produce a lot of music, he produces music, he does a lot of the organisation behind it. He came with the concept and created a very expansive Google Drive with so many different documents in it. The ethos that we want, the inspirations behind it. Ali Akbar Sadeghi is a really incredible, psychedelic surrealist painter. We took inspiration behind that for the entire project. We wanted it to be a melty, trippy, recontextualising of Iranian sounds.

Read this next: Kasra V's retro-injected club cuts are propelling dancers into the future

We're still trying to decolonise the club. That's the point of all the stuff I'm doing with my label, decolonising it and bringing Brown, Middle Eastern artists to the forefront. Flower Storm is a more direct, more militant [approach]. The whole thing is very tight knit, it's its own label, we're not gonna have any remixes from other people, if we do any collaborations it's just gonna be vocalists. We're growing that project pretty fast. A lot of people have been playing it, which I've been really stoked with. I've been seeing Donato Dozzy playing it, Marco Shuttle, people I really look up to. To see artists like that playing music that's intensely Iranian was a big lightbulb moment for me recently. Like: ‘Oh wow, Donato Dozzy is closing a festival with this track that's heavily sampling Iranian music, and is so directly Persian sounding.’ That was very validating for us. We already have the second EP in the pressing plant and we're working on the third. Then we're going to do an album after that.

You started performing Sepehr live sets in 2017. What drew you to that mode of expression?

I always wanted to. I have so much unreleased music, I have hundrends and hundreds and hundreds of unreleased tracks. I'd have people over like: ‘Hey do you wanna hear this?’ and just sit there playing a revolving door of unreleased music. Over the years people would always tell me: ‘Dude, why don't you just play these? You should play this out.’ I'd always be like: ‘I don't know how, what do you mean, I don't know how to play live.’

It was actually my old roommate Chelsea, who goes by the name Cherushii who was unfortunately one of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire, she was one who taught me how to play live because she was a genius — literally a genius — and live act. The whole culture of SF at the time was very live act focused, there were so many people playing live. Russell E. L. Butler lived there, they would always be doing crazy, modular live sets. It was a very live act city. That influenced me a lot.

I think when I started playing live it just clicked. I have so much music that when I just stem it out into my live set it tends to just take on a life of its own really quickly. I like the way that it works when I'm playing it. It's a double-edged sword because sometimes if the people aren't feeling it then you're fucked — because you can't do much to change it, you can't be like 'ok I'm gonna play a disco record now!' It's pretty terrifying. But when people are feeling it… As opposed to DJing, where you're just like OK you have this one mix and you can't really ride it for too long. it's like two minutes max riding some crazy mix. With live, if the crowd's really feeling something, I can just keep riding that and slowly massage other stuff into it for as long as I want. It can become this super meditative, crazy thing, where I'm just layering and layering, riding and riding. That aspect of it is very amazing for me.

You also DJ. Can you tell us about your In Session mix?

This mix in particular I had fun with. Recently I've been way back into late '90s and early 2000s techno, like, the good kind: obscure, leftfield — there was a lot of trash in that era honestly, where they were just looping a weird four bars that sounded all dusty and crusty. The point of this mix was I was taking influence from old skool mixtapes where you'd hear a techno artist on a CD do a dance mix, and it was straight up, boom boom boom, late '90s techno. But I wanted to mix it with more contemporary, bassy, UK-ish percussive stuff I've been into that I hear a lot of in New York. I was trying to mix those two, and I think I did a pretty good job. I've been DJing that a lot - weird late '90s techno into that sound - and it's been yielding really good results. I tried to encapsulate that in this mix and make it feel like a mixtape from the late '90s, but with new sounds — and there's a bunch of my music in there.

'Pomegranate Skies' by Sepehr is out via Garmo on October 27, pre-order it here

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Editor & Digital Director, follow him on Twitter

Coil - The Mothership and the Fatherland (Prescription Edition)
Zerkalo - King
Nap & Linear Flux - IoHgY
Facta - Ditto (Dorisburg Remix)
Masomemos - Travel Master
DJ Who - Give a little more (Mike Parker Remix)
Otik - Dioxide (Bruce's Carbon Reduction)
Nathan Coles & Smithmonger - Untitled B1
thomas schumacher - ficken #3
thomas schumacher - eighties
Vice - Voices
Axis - Prince Apple
Sepehr - Symmetrikal
Sepehr - Cordless Desire (Swift Scythe Mix)
Kundai - Seance
Hauntologists - Brooklyn
Sepehr - Death Of Ecstasy
Maara - Magic Dark
Napoleon - C.S.K.A
Caustic Window - Italic Eyeball
Ceremonial Abyss - The Torch
Evigt Mörker - Blixt av det yttersta

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