Creating and Recreating Again | An Interview with Disco Tehran

Over the course of one short year, Disco Tehran has become a mainstay of the New York party scene, popping up throughout the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, and Bushwick to deliver vintage bacchanals replete with live music and a tremendous vibe. The party’s staying power derives from the history of its founding members – Mani Nilchiani and Arya Ghavamian – who initially wanted to create an event that emulated the cosmopolitan, vivacious nature of the pre-revolution Iranian discotheque.

Throughout the process of creating the first official Disco Tehran event (it had gone on for several years in an unofficial, invite only capacity), Nilchiani and Ghavamian hit gold with their first show at Home Sweet Home. Characterized by a rotating band of collaborators and a working philosophy to “create a sense of community that is inclusive” of international sounds and backgrounds, DT now executes sold-out parties that boast local and touring bands interspliced with remixes of Googoosh. We sat down with Mani and Arya to discuss the project’s origins, “generational FOMO,” and what constitutes a political project.

This interview has been abridged for length and clarity.

What’s the genesis of Disco Tehran? How did you come up with the idea for the party?

Mani Nilchiani: There’s always this sense of experiencing a past you hear a lot about, passed down and handed down from previous generations that you didn’t have any part of. And so, for lack of a better word, a FOMO [fear of missing out] becomes exponentially bigger.

Kind of like a generational FOMO

MN: A generational FOMO. It was something we didn’t have, but relics of which we had seen – records that our parents had or photographs they had of when they were in college, experiencing the music scene back in the day in Tehran. And historically speaking that basically stopped post-1979 Revolution – obviously people didn’t stop playing music or partying, but everything was moved indoors. So public life took a very different turn.

In contemporary Iran, that has changed a lot, you can totally go out and see music, obviously you can’t go to a disco. But you can totally go out and see a whole bunch of concerts from local and international artists. But that original thing that happened in a cosmopolitan setting in Iran stopped or totally changed in a sense.

We were very curious about what it would mean for us to recreate that in 2018, back when we started, in New York City. So bringing elements that are contemporary and relevant to the nightlife of the city where we live. That’s what we wanted to do – I’m sure there’s personal history infused in it.

Obviously there’s a personal association with the incorporation of Iranian music into Disco Tehran, but how did you come about incorporating sonic textures from Latin America and other worldly influences?

MN: Part of the essence that we try to recreate – or rather create – is a cosmopolitan setting. Tehran in the ‘70s was famously cosmopolitan, so what it means for us to be cosmopolitan, today, in New York, is like when you hear the worn-out allegory of the melting pot

In listening to a lot of this music that was produced in the 70s, and later 80s and 90s in Iran, it’s hard not to notice the influence of South American music – you hear Salsa, you hear a lot of similarities between the rhythms that were used in a lot of Iranian pop songs, as well as Soukous, from the French colonies of Africa.

In finding those traits, we were kind of curious to take that path and discover what’s adjacent to the sound we were so used to. Because you might be playing a household pop music from the 80s in Iran and earlier that day you might have been listening to music from Western Africa, and you’re like – wait a minute, there’s similarities there. So that’s great – that’s your entry point. Let’s take it there, and let’s explore that.

Arya puts it this way, and I agree with him very much, that he wanted to create a sense of belonging, a place you felt you belonged to, and create an inclusive setting where anybody who walks in feels like they belong. And in creating that belonging you can’t be exclusionary – you have to create a space where that feeling is contagious and doesn’t stay contained to one specific geographic region. Rather it uses that region as a departure point to explore and branch out. And that has thankfully been organically embedded within the process.

How did the two of you meet and start collaborating?

MN: Arya had just moved here from the Bay Area where he lived for a few years and at the time he had just finished working on his first film. And he was just cold messaging people online, like Iranians that he thought he wanted to be in touch with, and one of those people was me. So he sent me a private Vimeo link to this movie he was working on, and was like “yeah I need a poster for this film.” And I’m a designer, so I made a poster for him, and that’s how we ended up meeting up.

This was back in 2013 I believe. We started hanging out, and he was constantly talking about throwing this public party – he had always had parties in his apartment, where he invited thirty people, crammed into this tiny Chinatown apartment. He would cook for them and people would play music; I would bring my guitar. We had other friends who were musicians and they would bring instruments, and so we would make a very tiny but energetic party inside of that space.

Last year for the Persian New Year in March, he was like, “hey man, I wonder if it’s time for us to make this public. I wonder if people will show up.” So we spoke to our friend who was working at Home Sweet Home in the Lower East Side, and he said, “we’re not doing anything on Monday night,” which just so happened to be the night of the Persian New Year. So we announced the party, we had two live acts, and people loved it.

That’s interesting that you were just randomly emailing Iranian people in 2013…

Arya Ghamavian: Oh not even emailing. Just Facebook messaging. It’s even weirder. And I think it was before the time Facebook would categorize message from people you didn’t know into this “other” box. Everything would pop up for people. It was a time when you could just cold call random people.

There’s always a live component to a Disco Tehran party, including sometimes Mani’s band, Tan Haw. How do you go about splitting the difference between live performances and a DJ set at those events?

MN: What we want is to create a space where you come to listen to both good music and new music. There are parties where we only have DJ sets, but for the most part we wanted to have this visceral, live sound experience to it. So from the first party we included that as part of the bill. My band has played a few times, we usually open for the headliner. We’ve opened for Anbessa Orchestra, a band who plays a lot of Ethiopian inspired, groovy, funky jazz tunes.

Visceral experiences and live sound have been something we were always interested in. And usually the dancing starts there and then transitions into DJ sets. If you infuse a party with an energy of live music at the beginning, it picks up in a very organic way.

Were you inspired at all by this moment of disco revival that we’re currently experiencing or did it just come about from your inspiration?

MN: Creating our own aesthetic was something we were set on from the beginning. We didn’t really know what the aesthetic was, but we had a sense of what it could be or how it could manifest itself.

AG: Really because disco is a familiar name. And also in Farsi this is what they call going to a club.

Regardless of the genre

AG: Yeah, it’s just, “we’re going to the disco.” And that just happens to go well with the event. I actually initially wanted to call it Cabaret Tehran, which didn’t make it sense. Because in Farsi the use of the word “cabaret” doesn’t mean “going to the club” in any shape or form. But here it means something completely different – like is there going to be a drag show? Like that wasn’t the main intention.

One of the defining characteristics of a Disco Tehran party is the rareness of the music. I read in an interview that [Mani] brought back some old, relatively obscure vinyl from Iran recently, and I wanted to ask about your process of finding that needle in the haystack, of finding music that sticks.

AG: Yeah, especially with that vinyl Mani brought back, it’s just such a big stack. How did you pick it out?

MN: A lot of it is random. A ton of it has personal connections, a lot of it comes from my family’s archives. My uncle has an extensive archive which he graciously allowed me to raid when I was back. Those [records] were really well preserved, tastefully collected.

But a lot of it was thrift store shopping. Obviously people have discovered that, “oh shit, we can go to Tehran to find vinyl,” and people who sell these now understand the value of what they’re carrying, whereas a few years ago it was just sitting somewhere collecting dust. But for the most part it was going from thrift store to thrift store, going through records. If they have a record player you can play a sample there, but more often than not it’s a bazaar setting where it’s super hectic, you just have to make a purchase and leave.

I was lucky because in one of those thrift stores I had my mom with me, who has so many of the songs memorized. So she would look at the vinyl and be like, “oh this is a song that goes like this,” and start singing it. My mom actually turned out to be a huge help in the process of picking out a lot of these records.

Going back the idea of generational FOMO, that was music that my mom was listening to when she was young and in her 20s, engrained in her mind. The serendipity of coming back with a lot of vinyl, going through it and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t was part of the fun. Even if those songs that aren’t dance-y tunes and aren’t necessarily for a party, there’s so many nuggets that you can sample and include in other forms.

AG: Specifically in the Iranian pop songs that I pick for my sets, I really like to put them in this context of Salsa and Cumbia, leading to techno. It’s just really fun to see how these Iranian pop producers were inspired, by Flamenco and Cumbia.

There’s a highly collaborative nature to your live performances. Tell me about the dynamic of the Disco Tehran ‘family,’ and who’s part of it.

AG: I come from a guerllia filmmaking background, which means you put everybody you knew into a work. It doesn’t matter what the qualification are, you just put them to work. Like I didn’t even know how to operate a CDJ before our first show and my friend Johnny who worked at a coffeeshop helped me. Like I met him at that coffeeshop that I went to for six years and he’s one of the first people who jumped onboard. It’s mainly people from the street, sidewalks, and coffeeshops, from our joints like Punjabi Deli and Ray’s Candy Store.

MN: A lot of it has been very organic connections, which has been conducive to actually calling it a ‘family.’ People have been extremely generous about sharing their knowledge, sharing their connections with us. When they found out we were doing something like this, they were just like, “cool, here’s how I can help.” We’re really indebted to all those folks for being so giving and so collaborative and generous.

And then after a while you start reaching out to people to book them for shows, but the foundation of it is really based on how generous all of our collaborators have been, in gracing us with their talent and their network.

In line with recreating the cosmopolitan nature of pre-1979 Iran, do you look at Disco Tehran as a political project?

AG: I don’t think we necessarily set out to do something political, but if in the course of it there is some sort of social benefit to society, that would be nice. That’s the way I look at it.

MN: There is a kind of social practice embedded within it. I think that’s as far as we go and we aspire to go, to create a sort of collective social performance. Being loyal to where Disco Tehran started, going back to creating a sense of community that is inclusive, where you can find that you belong there, regardless of where you come from and what your background is, that in and of itself is value enough. I think it would be limiting for it to be regarded as a political project, but I also think it would be liberating to be regarded as a project that has social practice within it.

AG: We’re in a state of the world where actual truth happens to be something political. In that regard, Disco Tehran is about practicing a truth, which makes it radical. But I don’t think we set out to do something quite radical.

You can follow Disco Tehran on Facebook and stream their latest ‘Nowruz Mixtape’ below.