Guido Segers caught up with Narek Avedyan from Iran-based Armenian band Avarayr to talk about making metal music in Iran, Armenian identity, System of a Down and much more.
I got in touch with Avarayr and was under the impression that the band was Armenian. I was right, but the band is located in Iran. Getting in touch with bands from these various places in the world, is often a learning experience in itself. Avarayr is thoroughly Armenian, but part of the Armenians that live in Iran. They were brought there 300 years ago by King Abbas and ever since, Armenians have lived in Iran.
The Armenians as a people have been around for a long time. In antiquity, the Armenian Empire was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity and due to its wide spread territories, we can still find Armenians far out of the region that is currently the country named Armenia. This old part of the world has seen much of history and is therefore rich with stories, fables and tales to tell. The perfect soil for a great metal project that Narek Avedyan started back in 2013.
I got in touch with Narek to talk about making metal music in Iran, Armenian identity, System of a Down and much more. He was kind enough to give open and clear answers to my stream of questions so thanks to him for his time.
E&D: How are you doing?
Narek: Barev! Doing fine, hopefully everyone else is as well. Surviving, dealing with the occasional existential crisis. The usual, I guess!
E&D: Can you tell me how Avarayr got started and what inspired you to go in the musical direction you’ve taken? Which bands inspired you musically?
Narek: Avarayr started in late 2012. I kind of got tired from doing what I was doing musically at that time and decided to take things in another direction. Having a keen interest in Armenian/Persian folk music and folk music from different countries in general led me to the direction the band is currently in. There are a lot of inspiring bands and artists I guess. The classic metal stuff we all grew up with. But for Avarayr specifically, the German band Empyrium and their album Songs of Moors and Misty Fields, as well as Armenian black metal band Vahagn and of course, Armenian folk music. Particularly the works of Komitas.
E&D: What does the name Avarayr mean?
Narek: Avarayr is historically the name of a battlefield in which a battle of the same name took place between Persian and Armenian forces. It also represents the dilemma a Diasporan Armenian faces. In this case, an Armenian like myself who is born and lives in Iran, but considers himself an Armenian. It represents a clash. A battle, if you will.
E&D: As I understand you started out under the name Symphony of Silence, but in 2013 you switched names. Why so? Was this also the point where you decided you wanted put Armenian folklore in the themes of your music?
Narek: SOS ceased to exist as a project. The members took different directions and everyone except myself left Iran for good. That was the main reason. Another reason was that I thought SOS would not be an appropriate title for the direction I was about to take musically. I had always wanted to mix Armenian folklore and actually did with SOS (the only EP features renditions of two Komitas pieces, albeit horribly executed), but this time it was the main focus of my path. Finding out that there was another band of the same name out there as well as the Facebook page being hacked were the final nails in the coffin of SOS.
E&D: Avarayr is in essence your solo project. How do you go about writing and recording your music, do you get musicians to help you or is it a full solo endeavour?
Narek: I compose everything for Avarayr. There are two songs on the full-length which were written by ex-Avarayr guitarist Emin Khechoomian, but other than that everything is on me. As for recording, the first EP had sampled drums while I handled everything else. The ‘Rituals’ single also had sampled drums, while Emin did guitars and handled bass and vocals.The full-length is a bit different. It features many musicians. Armen Manukyan (who also plays for Avarayr live) handled all of the electric guitar work beautifully. My friend Peter handled drums and percussion. The bass was handled by my friend Narbe (ex-SOS) and I did vocals, acoustic guitars and keys. Additional vocals were provided by my friend Armen Shahbegian and additional winds were performed by my friend Judie (also ex-SOS). Some traditional instruments were handled by some of my Persian friends. Including the Daf, an Iranian percussive instrument performed by my friend Mehdi. By the way these are all our real names. We have names that sound weird to people from other countries anyway, so we didn’t really choose kvlt black metal nicknames.
E&D: There is a full band for live shows. Is that something you initially wanted to do with Avarayr or did it evolve?
Narek: I did not intend to perform live shows with Avarayr. I kind of dread the “getting-ready” part of doing live shows, but I do love to perform on stage. It just happened by sheer chance. I found two Armenian musicians, Emin and Ervin, in Tehran who were into black metal and tried Avarayr live. I guess it went on from there.
E&D: Can you tell a bit about the folktales you use. Most people are probably not familiar with these tales, so perhaps you can share a bit about them?
Narek: Sure. I mean, the point of using those folktales is to generate interest in Armenian folklore. Which might be a bit naive, cause very few people are into that these days, but it is still important to me. For example, there is a song on the full-length titled Vahagn, which is about the Armenian pagan deity of the same name. Vahagn is the Armenian counterpart to Heracles and is the god of the Sun, fire and thunder. The song itself uses lyrics from Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, who laments the death of Vahagn, hinting that the traditional values of a nation die with the death of their gods, who are national symbols to many. Another song is called Gelkheght which is about the Gampr, a breed of dogs unique to Armenia. The song tells the tale of a Gelkheght (roughly meaning “it who suffocates wolves”) who descends from Mount Ararat (national Armenian symbol currently in Western Armenia, or modern-day Turkey) to devour the usurpers who are driving Armenia to ruins. Pretty cool stuff, eh?
E&D: As I understand it you currently are working on new music with ‘A Symphony Carved in Stone’? And what can the world expect and what is the concept and story on this album? I’m also interested in your recent live album.
Narek: Yeah, progress on the full-length is slow but relentless. It was stuck in “production hell” but friends, especially Armen Manukyan, helped it get back on track. I am busy with my studies and have little time to work on it, but it is almost done. Two years in the making! The world can expect an interesting album because there’s everything on it. From black metal, to acoustic ballads and Wardruna-ish folk pieces, all with a specific Armenian twist. It covers a lot of ground. The concept was born naturally from my ancestral Armenian heritage, countless wanderings in nature and wanting to create something new, if not original. It is an album which sprouts from the Armenian highlands and is dedicated to Armenia, hence the name. As for the live album, it was a sentimental release to celebrate the first (and now defunct) Avarayr live line-up. It includes music which will be released as studio versions both on the full-length and future releases.
E&D: I saw on your Facebook page that you’re looking for a drummer in Iran, how so?
Narek: I’d really like to have a stable band in Tehran which can always rehearse and be ready for shows in Armenia (and in Tehran, in case of a miracle). Most of the live line-up resides in Armenia and we have little time to rehearse for shows. Everything works out great every time, but having at least a stable drummer would be pretty cool. Shout out to Arthur, our lovely drummer from Armenia and Astghik, our keyboardist. They always managed to help the band put on a kickass show. Double horns to Emin Aghajanian from Outcast Minority, Mher Azizbekyan from Araspel and Side Project (yes, that’s a band name!) and my brother Christopher Amirian for filling in on bass.
E&D: What is it like to play metal in Iran, are you allowed to play metal and isn’t it lonely as an outsider?
Narek: Well, we can play metal here, but only if concerts are performed with clean vocals or only instrumental. You also need to have permission from the ministry of culture. It’s all quite strictly regulated and people must remain seated at the show. Personally, I don’t associate much with the Persian metal scene, but I do know almost every act there is from Iran. I’m not in contact with most of them though, but one act to look out for is From The Vastland. The story of Sina’s music is quite remarkable, you can see it in the Blackhearts documentary film.
E&D: What is the metal scene like in Armenia? It seems that it’s quite a thriving scene, can you also tell a bit about its history and which bands started it?
Narek: Armenia is a small country. Hence, the metal scene is also small. Nowadays it consists mostly of teenagers and young adults who like going to shows and having a great time. My love to them all, because they truly support my music. As for the history, the origins are somehow obscured. Many consider the band Apostles (from the 70’s) to be the first Armenian rock band, and I agree.
The band Ayas was definitely one of the first metal ones. Think thrash mixed with classical and King Diamond-esque vocals. There was also Asbarez. This was in the 80’s. The 90’s had bands like MDP. Progress was slow because of this little annoyance called the Soviet Republic (until Armenia gained independence in 1991) and that’s why not a lot remains of the early years except some low-quality cassette/vinyl rips on YouTube. In the 2000’s, the scene grew because of two main promoters. MetalFront (now defunct; they brought the likes of Melechesh and Arkona) and Zhesht Events (who would go on to bring giants such as Sepultura and Napalm Death). Zhesht still regularly organizes underground shows in Armenia. Some of the prominent bands of this new era were Sworn, Sadael, Aramazd and Dogma. A company called Vibrogreipus (I probably butchered the name) has brought the likes of Jethro Tull and Ian Gillan to Armenia. Interest in rock and metal grew a lot in 2015, when all-Armenian band System of a Down performed in Armenia for the first time, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
E&D: How significant is System of a Down for you and for metalheads in Armenia?
Narek: Almost every Armenian metalhead loves at least one song from System of a Down. For me, they are idols and I think the same goes for many other Armenians. I grew up listening to their music and they inspired me in countless ways. Meeting them in Armenia was surreal. They are such humble guys man. They do and have done so much for Armenia and the Armenian cause. That’s why people react to them in such a strong way. In a world where people like Kim Kardashian are the ones representing Armenia globally, System of a Down are like gems. They have become part of our national identity.
E&D: Is everything readily available to you, like rehearsal spaces, instruments, music and places to play gigs at?
Narek: In Tehran, almost everything is available. Avarayr has always had its own rehearsal space. I also have access to a recording space, though I do most of my work from my bedroom. Places to play gigs at in Iran are very, very limited due to metal being illegal in the country. Hence why Avarayr doesn’t play in Iran that much. We can only play shows in Armenian centers for Armenian audiences only. Outside of that, you could secure gigs for a Persian audience, but with no harsh vocals. It’s a bit complicated and anticlimactic for me. Which is why I prefer to perform in Armenia.
E&D: In many places, playing black metal brings with its risks and taboos. I’m talking about censorship, politics, religion etc. Is there anything like that you have to deal with?
Narek: Well, I never add any political/religious message to Avarayr. Because let’s be honest, one wrong move in Iran and you’re done for. People might call me a coward for not speaking on taboo subjects, and I probably am. But to me, music comes first and foremost. Even though almost all metal bands from Iran are underground, and quite frankly nobody cares about what they do, even underground bands can get into trouble for crossing the line. I like being behind the line. It’s comfortable. It’s cozy!
E&D: Which bands from Armenia should people definitely check out (and why)?
Narek: Oh gods…so many to name! Off the top of my head, I’d go for Sworn, Vahagn, Dogma, Aramazd, Unaesthetic, Divahar, Eternally Scarred, Ildaruni, Symmetria, Aralez (based in Germany), Araspel, Nosferatu, Highland (based in the US), Odz-Manouk, Tork Angegh, Ghoulchapel, Sickdeer and Vox Clamantis (also from the US) and many more. Why? Because they are amazing. And you can find some very refreshing ideas in the Armenian music scene. I also recommend non-metal acts such as Hogh, The Clocker, Miqayel Voskanyan and Tigran Hamasyan.
E&D: Is there a political aspect to Avarayr? You’ve recently put out a live album titled Echoes From the Diaspora and covers of Inquisition and Burzum that might hint to a political agenda.
Narek: The answer to that is definitely a no. I do have my political ideas, but I keep Avarayr (and most of my music in general) apolitical. I focus mostly on preserving Armenian culture. People may call that nationalistic, and it might be. I don’t think it is. I don’t put Armenian culture above any other culture. It’s just highlighted in my music because that’s what I enjoy doing. I believe in the promotion and preservation of national history and heritage, but not at the cost of belittling other cultures. Cultures and races are different and that difference is what makes this world exciting.
As for the Burzum and Inquisition covers. The first Burzum cover was done simply to promote the band. It was an easy cover to do. The rest were done for the sole reason of myself being a huge fan of Burzum’s MUSIC, not the ideology behind it. I do not support nor condone the non-musical ideologies of Varg Vikernes. As for the Inquisition one, it was simply done to test my recording equipment. I needed a simple song. That one only has 4 chords which are repeated again and again. As for the ideology, I again am not in line with whatever those guys believe in. I’m just a fan of their music. In retrospect, if I could go back in time, I probably wouldn’t choose that song because a lot of people misunderstood it and misunderstood me. But what’s done is done. No point in regrets. I am, however, fond of it because it brings back a lot of great memories. The recording process for that cover was frigging hilarious.
E&D: What future plans does Avarayr have at this point?
Narek: The release of the full-length is definitely a priority. After that, a hiatus from playing live is probably inevitable. Our guitarist Armen is going to serve at the Armenian military for two years and I kind of need a break to get back into composing mode. Avarayr will definitely be active in the studio.
E&D: If you had to compare Avarayr to a dish (food), what would it be and why?
Narek: Chalaghach (Armenian pork dish), with a side of Tolma (a common dish in countries from the region) and a pint of Armenian Kilikia draft beer. If you haven’t had any of these, then I’d say a visit to Armenia is long overdue! Thanks for this interview! Let the metal flow!