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Iranian rock band members who fled repression are killed in New York

New York police say an Iranian musician killed two members of the rock band Yellow Dogs and a third person in a Brooklyn apartment before killing himself.

November 11, 2013|By Matt Pearce and Tina Susman
  • Yellow Dogs members Koroush Mirzaei, left, Siavash Karampour, Arash Farazmand and Sourosh Farazmand at a bowling alley in Brooklyn. The Farazmand brothers were two of four musicians found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.
Yellow Dogs members Koroush Mirzaei, left, Siavash Karampour, Arash Farazmand… (Danny Krug / Associated…)

NEW YORK — They said they sang in English instead of Farsi because they wanted their music to be heard by the world, but their secret performance space in Tehran was padded with Styrofoam so they wouldn't be arrested for playing forbidden music.

Their shows in Iran sometimes had lookouts, and the rockers had to ask fans to come but not to bring their friends, lest they attract too much attention.

In other words, they were as punk rock as punk rock gets.

But when the band known as the Yellow Dogs eventually fled Tehran to escape repression and claim their slice of indie glory in Brooklyn, tragedy followed.

Early Monday, two band members who were also brothers were among four musicians found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. The incident shocked friends and acquaintances in New York, where the band had built a following for their dance-happy brand of post-punk.

For unknown reasons, police said, an Iranian musician, Ali Akbar Mohammadi Rafie, 29, of Queens, took a rifle to the members' apartment in East Williamsburg, where police believe he entered from the roof.

Police said Rafie fatally shot Yellow Dogs guitarist Sourosh "Looloosh" Farazmand, 27, and drummer Arash Farazmand, 28, as well as fellow Iranian musician Ali Eskandarian, 35, who all appeared to be roommates. An unidentified 22-year-old man was wounded in the arm.

Rafie then turned the rifle on himself, authorities said. His body was found on the roof.

In a statement, the Yellow Dogs' manager, Ali Salehezadeh, disputed early news reports that Rafie had been a member of the group.

"He was in another band from Iran, and the two groups were acquaintances in the past," Salehezadeh said. "A personal conflict between the guys resulted in the dissolution of their relationship in 2012."

News of the musicians' deaths flashed around New York and beyond, with fans and fellow musicians hailing a group that was indebted to the 1970s dance-punk sound of English bands like Gang of Four and Joy Division.

"They didn't sound dated or like a nostalgia act," said Damon Campagna, a friend of a surviving band member. "They sounded fresh and energetic, which I suspect is due to the relative musical isolation of Iran compared to the avalanche of styles young musicians are exposed to here."

The Yellow Dogs fled Iran in 2010 after their music was featured on the soundtrack for "No One Knows About Persian Cats," a documentary about Iran's illegal rock scene that won an award at Cannes in 2009. A sample lyric: "Haagen-Dazs after McDonald's, there's a mind for sale. Uncle Sam's going to buy that thing.... We sold our souls to America."

The band rather fancied America, though.

"You want to be great engineer, you want to go to NASA from Iran, you study hard, try [to apply to] Harvard, Stanford. You want to go to that place where you can make progress," Siavash "Obash" Karampour, the group's dreadlocked singer, told Public Radio International in May. "New York City, and the scene here, was our Harvard University."

The band played the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, in 2010 and L.A.'s Culture Collide Festival in 2011. The group released its most recent album, an EP called "Upper Class Complexity," last spring, and played the Brooklyn Bowl on Oct. 23.

Eskandarian, the third victim, was born in Pensacola, Fla., but grew up in Iran and was the son of an Iranian air force officer, according to a biography posted on a promotional website for musicians.

"I was always around music," Eskandarian says in the bio, which details his family's flight from persecution in Iran to Germany and ultimately to America. "It's hard to find an Iranian party without dancing and singing. The Islamic revolution has not been successful in trying to stop people from having a good time."

Eskandarian, who had been in New York since 2003, was influenced by American folk music.

The shooter, Rafie, had been a member of the band Free Keys. In a Facebook profile under his name, he said he came from Tehran. Rafie was prone to cryptic Facebook updates, posting these Radiohead lyrics in September:

Red wine and sleeping pills

Help me get back to your arms

Cheap sex and sad films

Help me get where I belong.

In July, Rafie posted a photo that showed a rifle on a wall, mounted next to a dream catcher and what appears to be a drum set. A friend teased him about the gun in Farsi and asked whether Rafie had joined Al Qaeda, to which Rafie replied: "This belongs to Iran :)) ... That's the next gun."

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the Associated Press that detectives suspected that there was an argument over money between Rafie and Yellow Dogs musicians, but said that the shooting was under investigation.

Video interviews with the Yellow Dogs circulated after news of the deaths Monday, with one featuring Karampour teasingly quizzing Sourosh Farazmand about his facial hair: "What's the benefit of having a mustache in the United —"

"Girls," the late guitarist interrupted, "and respect."

The respect was apparent after news broke of the shootings. Tweeting a photo in tribute to the Yellow Dogs, a fan said: "They had the best hair in Brooklyn. Put that in your news reports."

Susman reported from New York and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writers August Brown and Saba Hamedy contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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