An Iranian rock star in London: the highs and lows of Ali Azimi’s turbulent career
‘Persistence is the key to success’, my late grandfather used to say; it’s also a philosophy the London-based Iranian musician Ali Azimi keeps close to his heart. A former mechanical engineer, Azimi came to public attention in 2009 with his band, Radio Tehran, and their album 88. The group was deemed by many a fresh sound in Iran’s alternative rock scene, and the release of their album marked a new beginning for Azimi, who made the decision to dedicate his life to music. During that year, Iran had plunged into a sea of protests (having to do with the disputed presidential elections), and for all Iranians – both inside the country and in the diaspora – it felt like something was about to change. However, almost in the blink of an eye, the collective anticipation seemingly diminished and soon disappeared. Unbeknownst to him and his bandmates, Azimi had captured a renewed sense of hope in 88 (a reference to the Iranian year 1388, corresponding to 2009); but, like the fate of the protests, Radio Tehran soon became mired in problems that ultimately led Azimi to leave Iran and settle in the UK.
Songs tinged with an infectious joie de vivre and a translation of raw energy to lilting beauty – always coupled with fine musical prowess – mark Azimi as a musician of distinction. I first came across his work in 2014 when I stumbled upon the song Agha-ye Past (Mr. Mean). Its video, featuring model animation, reminded me so much of my childhood, particularly the animated film Peter and the Wolf. The feel of the music I found to be reminiscent of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sprinkled with hints of David Bowie’s iconic Ziggy Stardust phase, and the guitar work and intimate lyrics an intoxicating bundle of indie rock. I found striking how much Azimi mixed elements of nostalgia in both his music and videos, and was able to bring lost collective memories to the fore whilst igniting new feelings at the same time.
Having forever been a man of impulse, I approached Azimi for a chat. Feeling slightly nervous, I was soon put at ease by the relaxed Azimi, whose warmth provided an instant tonic. An admitted sufferer of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Azimi had spent much of the previous night working on song lyrics for his new album. ‘When I get a melody in my head,’ he told me, ‘I have to work on it there and then’. Although naturally succumbing to waves of fatigue, he never faltered in perfectly articulating his thoughts. Our conversation was one of sincerity; I wanted to understand this person about whom I had heard so much and quickly developed an artistic affection for. It soon occurred to me in speaking with Azimi that for him, music is the love of his life.
‘I’m not from a musical background – I had spent two years training as a classical guitarist in my late teens, along with studying engineering’, he began by saying. ‘At the time, I was very serious about wanting to become a classical guitarist like Julian Bream, and gradually, I began getting work from it.’ The path was anything but straightforward, though. ‘I started covering Beatles songs, sometimes adding Persian lyrics’, he mentioned. ‘It led me to write my own songs, which became popular amongst my circle of friends; it was very funny. Finally, after all that, I felt confident enough to write and play more of my own work.’
Azimi would later enter an underground music competition – the first of its kind in Iran – set up by Tehran Avenue. ‘I submitted a song to these guys, and it was my first attempt at putting my work out there in a very public way: Paeez (Autumn), a naïve long song, which suited my emotions at the time, when I was 23.’ The song became popular, but Azimi soon found himself distracted by his other work and life in general. At 26, thoughts of a career in music began to diminish, and Azimi moved to London to complete his Master’s degree, securing a job in the city soon after graduating. Frustrated with what he described as the ‘austere’ and ‘clinical’ world of engineering, Azimi quickly became frustrated with it:
It was around the time of the financial crises. There were a lot of redundancies in my field. One day, I was sat next to my boss, and we had this spat. He said, if you want to be like me, you have to act like this and that. I said to him – in front of everybody – ‘if I become like you, I’ll kill myself’. Two weeks later, I was fired.
After his less than amicable departure, Azimi returned to Iran at the age of 31. Back in Tehran, he finally decided to devote his life to music. ‘I took this grand idea to my musician friends that I had jammed with for years’, he explained, ‘and said, listen: we’re all getting old, and this dream is slipping away fast. I’ve got these songs; let’s just start a rock band … [in which] we can say what we want. Let’s just start this dream’. Azimi sold the idea to his bandmates, and off they were. It was then that their band, Radio Tehran, was born. Problems arose later on, whilst Azimi and his friends were working on the 88 album during the 2009 elections. ‘During the periods of mass protests, some of my bandmates were getting arrested and thrown into prison. Our viola player got beaten up, and in the end it got so bad that I came back to London.’ Along with Azimi came one other bandmate, while the two others were unable to join them due to visa problems. ‘It wasn’t ideal, but the album was getting some attention, and we were desperate to play gigs. The album was fresh in people’s minds,’ he noted, ‘but with the other members stuck in Iran, it was an impossible situation. So, we ended up auditioning musicians in London, essentially reforming the band.’ Things didn’t turn out so badly, after all: ‘It gave us the chance to play some gigs around the city, [and] people were finally able to see us live.’
… With me being an Iranian creating albums in Persian, I’m a rock star on a miniature scale. I mean, I’m popular with the expat community, but I don’t think I’ll be welcome back in Iran anytime soon
Azimi would later leave Radio Tehran and set out on his own, forming another band: Ali Azimi and the Needs. ‘One of my reasons for laying Radio Tehran to rest was the protests’, he remarked. ‘The final track on 88 was used by an anti-government group, and we’d told them not to [associate] our names with it, as we were fearful for our friends left back in Tehran. But they did.’ As a result, Azimi and his bandmates refrained from doing any interviews or dealing with the press for two years.
A certain air of melancholy surrounds Azimi, a talented musicians who has well and truly found his niche, despite the circumstances beyond his control that have led him to lead a life of struggles. While his songs have gained him a loyal and loving fan base, with each album and tour have come financial losses, and something not uncommon to creatives: self-doubt. As our conversation became more contemplative, he told me about his album in the works. ‘This is the third album I’m writing now, which I will hopefully release this year. I’ve gradually built up an audience: my name and work are more well-known, and my tours in Europe and North America were really successful.’ Still, as much as it’s been easier for him to believe in himself, he is not without his insecurities. ‘I never feel secure enough to say, “Oh yes, I’ve made it”. I still pretty much doubt what I do.’ Azimi also has a hard time accepting compliments, as they make him feel uncomfortable. ‘I can’t even watch my own recorded performances’, he told me, adding that ‘I’m still pretty much … desperate to get better at musicianship and writing lyrics. It’s a constant battle with myself. I’m also getting older; I started late, past my 30s, and that makes me think: is it all worth it?’
Altogether, a life in rock music has been tiring for Azimi. ‘To put together an album takes a lot of your time and energy – it drains you of everything’, he mentioned; ‘and with me being an Iranian creating albums in Persian, I’m a rock star on a miniature scale. I mean, I’m popular with the expat community, but I don’t think I’ll be welcome back in Iran anytime soon, despite that being my real market’. To Azimi, it seems the only real way of making money in the business is by touring and performing live, ‘and even that costs money’.
It has been said that hardship often gives an artist more creative zeal. I believe this to be true with respect to Azimi, a man whose strength lies in his Goliath-like stoicism. Continuing to fight battles with forces outside his control has seen Azimi become so hardened to the noxious miasma of superficiality and pomposity that so often hovers around those in the music industry. Like many artists and performers in the Iranian diaspora, Ali Azimi has managed to create a world of his own. It is one that speaks to so many of us, yet which has come at quite a cost. Somehow, though, and in some way, a striking sense of creative decency emerges in speaking with Azimi – hard to define, but impossible to miss.
Cover image courtesy Shahriar Shahamat.