In The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century poem written by the renowned Persian mystic Fariduddin Attar, a flock of 30 birds set off to find the legendary bird king Simorgh. At the end of their long and arduous journey, the birds reach the destination, only to find the king does not exist – but that they themselves have become kings in the process.
For Matthias Koch, the founder of Hamburg label 30M Records – thirty is pronounced ‘si’ in Farsi, while ‘morgh’ means bird – the story offered an enchanting allegory for his project. When Koch first flew to Iran in 2016, a landmark nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers had just been implemented, lifting multilateral sanctions on Iran and promising to open it up to the world. Various international artists began performing in Tehran, including modern classical composers Ludovico Einaudi and Ólafur Arnalds.
Then in May 2018, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and, instead, began pushing through waves of vituperative sanctions on Iran, as well as his notorious travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Shortly after the announcement, a series of highly-anticipated performances by Grammy-winning Japanese artist Kitaro was cancelled, reportedly due to concerns that the American members of his band would face difficulties acquiring future travel visas if they visited the country. More cancellations followed. The international cultural renaissance appeared to be over – or at the very least, on hold.
With ongoing sanctions prohibiting Iranian musicians from releasing their music worldwide, Koch founded 30M Records in January 2020 in order to publish some of the most exciting new electronic and experimental music coming out of the country. To Koch, it was about more than just a philanthropic gesture. “It’s not a charity thing. I don’t do it because I feel pity for the musicians,” he says. “I really think it’s great music which comes from the country – and as a secondary matter, I can help these people, because they’re limited in what they can and can’t do at the moment.”
“We’re not here to talk about us as individuals,” Hyde says. “We’re not here to talk to people. We’re here to just play music.” Evans is equally perplexed about the purpose of music interviews. “They wouldn’t care about who we were if we weren’t playing in a band, so why do they wanna know who we are as people?” he asks. “If you’re, like, a politician or something it makes more sense, because they literally say what they believe in all the time. But we don’t do that.”
There’s an argument to be made that, in the age of unfiltered access to artists and public figures, the self-styled mystery around the band offers something fresh, an antidote to round-the-clock social feeds. Then again, the masquerade is only sustainable as long as people believe there’s something thrilling – or even valuable – behind it.
Mart Avi hasn’t explicitly denied being at large in 18th century Japan, but let’s not rule anything out. After all, not only does the Estonian musician carry the air of a foppish time-traveller – the belted coat and sweeping fringe of a man who once declared he was “born in 1991, but it’s as if I come from the 50s” befitting a Tallinn-based Doctor Who remake – but he’s evidently familiar with Samurai philosopher Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
While Lucrecia Dalt’s body of work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s also not the kind of art that invites obvious comparisons. Her latest record, No Era sólida, is concerned with the interstitial zones between opaque and ethereal, tangible and lost, the silence of corridors and the howl of closed spaces.
The problem with setting your stall out as DIY punk futurologists is that eventually you live long enough to see how most of it pans out. Certainly this is true of San Franciscan racket merchants Deerhoof, who formed in 1994 and have spent the subsequent two-and-a-half decades devising and then tearing up templates for what an indie rock song might sound like. In that time they’ve witnessed a montage of horrors – social media, President Trump, the last two Animal Collective records.
“It is very funny that I’m forever etched with this old side of myself, and then this new side of myself,” Bethany Cosentino points out, referring to the bittersweet contrast of her hand tattoos: one side reads “trust no one”, the other “let it go”. The Best Coast singer is seeing a lot more of the humour in life’s dualities lately, particularly since getting sober and writing one of the best albums of her career. “Also Lana Del Rey has that tattoo, and I love Lana Del Rey, so I was like, ‘That’s sick, maybe I’ll do that too…’”
Alongside multi-instrumentalist bandmate Bobb Bruno, Bethany is extremely – and rightfully – proud of Best Coast’s fourth LP ‘Always Tomorrow’, a record released in February this year but born in a moment of wish fulfilment years ago. Lead single ‘Everything Has Changed’ was an elbow to the ribcage of critics who presumed naivety in her songwriting, but it was also prophecy to a life she hadn’t yet started: one that didn’t revolve around waking up in tears after another messy blowout.
Izzy Camina is awake, but only just. After getting up and crushing some poorly-made coffee in her LA home, she stares up into the sky, hoping the blue light outside will offer some additional sustenance. When NME calls, the laughter on the other end of the line betrays a 24-year-old for whom four hours’ sleep is entirely manageable. “I’m a ten hour girl, but fuck it,” she giggles again, freshly caffeinated and ready to take on the world.
It’s the kind of energy that burns through ‘UP N DOWN’, the singer’s first single that dropped back in December. A paean to the saturnalia of youth and all the lows that come after, the bass-driven track captured something most of us were feeling: an unshakeable impression that we might be dancing through end times. “Humanity is sick,” she sings, “but it feels so much better when you seal it with a kiss.” It’s unmistakably the work of a young artist who’s already experienced her share of highs and lows.
At the time of Katie Crutchfield’s last album, 2017’s glorious ‘Out In The Storm’, the songwriter was already talking about stepping back from that record’s adamantine energy. Having recorded as Waxahatchee – named after a creek near her childhood home in Birmingham, Alabama – for the best part of half a decade and with four albums of bittersweet indie rock by that point, the record felt like a sea change.
In hindsight, that desire for peace spoke to more than musical preference; after Crutchfield’s last tour wrapped up the singer quit drinking, something she’d been swearing to do since the age of 17. Inevitably, given that Waxahatchee has always been a relatively autobiographical vehicle for the artist, it was impossible to detach much of the art from its real-life narrative template.
Dana Margolin is not surprised that her band’s on the cover of NME. If anything, she’s wondering what’s taken everyone so long. “We’ve always been like, ‘Yeah, obviously we’re really good and we know it,’” the singer tells us from her home in London, and it’s not immediately obvious how straight she’s playing the line over the phone.
Porridge Radio, Margolin’s gang of world-beaters in waiting, have already spent five years playing DIY shows and hawking ‘zines around Brighton. “It’s funny in a way to get all this attention now,” she says. “I could have told you that ages ago!’”
And you know what? She’s got a point. Following their low-key, lo-fi 2016 debut album ‘Rice, Pasta And Other Fillers’, the band’s new record ‘Every Bad’ is set to be unleashed on March 13, and it’s spectacular. Vulnerable and vitriolic, punk rock and pristine, it’s the sound of four young people thrust into a burning planet and making sense of it the best way they know how: by writing the kind of songs that are destined to be screamed back at them from the crush barriers.
There’s a scene in Allie X’s recent video for ‘Regulars’ in which the artist wanders into a laundromat – 10-inch heels, shaved eyebrows, dressed head-to-toe in black – and picks out a plaid jacket from one of the machines. As she totters back out and tries it on, still stumbling in those insane heels, the jacket seems to say: here you go, fuckers, I’m one of you now; it screams into the suburban parking lot. “I don’t take shit anymore, I really don’t,” the artist tells NME, calling out a male-dominated industry that’s been judging every step of her career for years.
But then Allie X has always operated on the peripheries of pop stardom and goth chic, caught between one desire to be embraced as a commercial success who speaks in universalities and another to sing eerie lines about her proximity to fresh laundry. “I feel like there’s this desire to disappear into the crowd and be normal, but also this real desire to be seen,” she explains to NME over the phone from Brighton, where’s she set to continue her support slot on the latest Marina tour that night. Disappearing into the crowd feels like an unlikely option.