What a difference thirty years makes…or perhaps it doesn’t. To whit: a Royal Wedding making all the headlines, frustration about unemployment, revolution abroad…is 2011 just too close to 1981 for comfort?
This week marks the release of a truly remarkable single ‘Insurrection’ by Hiatus. The vocals on the track come from the legendary Linton Kwesi Johnson, and deal with the riots that happened in Brixton in 1981. The video for the song features footage from the time, the poverty of that area of South London, the unemployment and the unrest which characterised day to day life for many in the area. Linton Kwesi Johnson had come to Britain as a child, and still calls the area home today.
As does Hiatus, the name that Cyrus Shahrad records under. I called him up for a chat about the single, his experiences of Iran and how film-making is as much a part of what he does.
First up, then, why the choice of name? ‘When I finished Uni,’ he reveals, ‘my first ambition was to start a magazine. The word [‘hiatus’] first came to my attention through a skateboard magazine. It just sounded…otherworldly.’
With the idea of a break, or a pause, almost Pinter-esque?’ I ask, thinking of the late playwright whose use of pauses characterised much of his work.
Cyrus’ family fled Iran at the time of the revolution and have lived in the UK since then. Telling him (without I hope, sounding too sycophantic) how great I think the single and video are), I ask him what his experiences of Brixton then and now are. I ask him about the riots of 1981.
‘I don’t really recall the riots…I was three,’ Cyrus points out. He adds that a lot has improved in Brixton since the 1981 riots, and he speaks warmly about his experience of living there Living there, he’s noticed a sense of pride in the area. He recalls how living in one block of flats on the border with neighbouring (and still more affluent) Clapham, the residents were adamant that they lived in Brixton, not Clapham. He also recalls how as a teenager, the area still had a pretty harsh reputation. Attending a Beastie Boys gig at the legendary Brixton Academy, he confesses that his father waited in the car outside.
The track ‘Insurrection’ – built upon from the version that appears on his debut Ghost Notes, from last year – accompanies a video made by Cyrus himself. I ask him what it was like to make the video, pointing out that the final version is one of only two to ever nearly reduce me to tears (the other is ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash).
‘It was intoxicating to work with that sort of footage,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘You see stuff in it that you wouldn’t normally see.’ As for the vocals from Linton Kwesi Johnson, Cyrus says: ‘For better or worse, I’ve been very rooted in sample culture. [the vocal] came from a recital [Johnson] did in France, I think.’ The two have yet to meet. ‘He was cool with it,’ Cyrus says of the poet, whose work is a massive insight into the experience of the Afro-Caribbean experience in the UK. ‘He’s sadly unwell at the moment, recovering from an operation.’
‘Insurrection’ isn’t the only amazing video that Cyrus has produced. The video for the first single ‘Save Yourself’ is made up of astonishing footage of how life changed in Iran in the twentieth century, finishing with the Shah leaving Iran to go into exile, and the return to Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini. As he says on his YouTube page it’s made ‘using archive footage of the last century of social and political upheaval in Iran: from the industrialisation program of Reza Shah to the revolution that unseated his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and led to my family fleeing Tehran when I was barely a year old.’ Astonishingly, the video for this really only took a few hours. ‘It was made in a morning on iMovie.’ Really? ‘Genuinely done by lunchtime.’ the video is dedicated to his father who, he says, was genuinely moved by it.
In the UK, of course, the Middle East is barely out of the news, and often for all the wrong reasons. Cyrus seems perfectly happy living in the UK, but he had always felt a link. ‘I’d lived there as a baby,’ he reveals, ‘but my Dad didn’t think there was a future there for us. At twenty-four I got this insatiable urge to go back. Anyone with two cultures,’ he says thoughtfully, ‘ is doubly blessed.’ In 2004 he made his first visit to go back there, and he’s been back every year since then.
I ask about how he sees Iran as being represented in the UK media, even from the point of view of someone who is a journalist.
‘The media portrayal of Iran is as the bogeyman in the Middle-East. 70% of it is rural and poor. Journalists go to Tehran (the capital) and assume that’s what the country is like.’
It was whilst there covering the Iranian 2005 presidential election for the Sunday Times, that he found himself exploring at his Grandmother’s house. Amongst the things that he discovered was his Father’s record collection of music, much of which was banned by the revolutionary government. Having Djed through his teens and twenties, he returned to London, and started mixing the music of his Father with that of his own experience growing up in the UK. It would still be another five years before he felt ready to release an album, the aforementioned Ghost Notes. It mixes UK bass culture with Middle-East melancholy, drum’n’bass and reggae.
And the future? ‘At the moment, I’m in transition from being a full-time journalist to being a full-time musician.’ He tells me that he’s hoping to start his second album in July. He’s in talks with Iranian musicians in London and anticipates that it will be less sampled-based.
Whatever Hiatus does next, it’s sure to be worth waiting for.