Rock and roll is a dish best served live. It relies on the body heat and energy exchange between the band onstage and a sweaty audience to create a magic you can only experience, and lose yourself in, when you’re watching it unfold in person. Emir Mohsseni knows that cardinal rule, but to his unending frustration, the 28-year-old Iranian musician hasn’t been able to share the trippy psychedelic grooves of his band The Muckers with American fans.
And now, thanks to President Trump’s controversial temporary 90-day ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — his dream has been deferred yet again on the eve of what was to be his first American tour. With no U.S. embassy in Tehran, each time he’s tried to book a tour, Mohsseni has been forced to leave the country in search of a visa, a lengthy, expensive process that involves securing lawyers, undergoing numerous background checks and, as he’s learned over and over, the very real risk of rejection. He knows that music has the power to cross cultural and international borders and create a unique connection. He just wishes President Trump would realize that.
Billboard spoke to Mohsseni via email on Wednesday, and he shared his feelings about the new president’s executive action and how it has muddled, and once again delayed, his rock and roll fantasy. (Comments have been edited for clarity and length, but not for language.)
You were planning an upcoming U.S. tour. How has President Trump’s order impacted that?
The order impacted us directly, and I think it’s not gonna happen at least for 90 days. But we are planning for another date, and maybe it’s not a good time to come to America. We are trying to apply for some festivals and book shows in Canada right now.
What did you think of President Trump’s order? The administration has said it is not a Muslim ban, but others have characterized it that way.
I think it’s not going to secure anyone from terrorist attacks in the U.S., instead increasing hate, racism and destroying many lives and careers and hopes for a better life. And I think it’s a wrong decision by President Trump and his administration to divide people from each other for their faith and religion. I mean, is it necessary to talk so much about religion when the problems come from different directions? All the problems come when you talk about religion! That’s why I don’t have one!
This actions will cost too much and help less than what people think. We have seen this before. We had Ahmadinejad as our president for eight long years, and we the Iranian people know better than anyone how having these type of people in power could damage your reputation and destroy everything. And it’s very scary, ’cause this time the guy is the president of the most powerful country in the world, United States. This scares me to my bones. I was in total shock for two or three days when I heard the news. I still think it’s a bad dream and I will wake up soon. But it’s real!
Have all these problems created issues in the band?
It’s just me right now. Once we were four, but it’s just me and all the other members left the band because the problems that we had getting out of the country to play our music. Visa problems. The situation forced me to do all the things and play all the instruments in the band and record new songs! But for upcoming tour, I talked with my friend who is in New York to play with me in North American tour.
Has the band ever played in America? Weren’t you booked for SXSW a few years ago? And what is the process of applying for a visa to travel here to perform?
I’ve never been in the U.S. before, but I [was] invited and tried to come three years ago in 2014 to play in SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas. But due to the long process of background check, my visa got canceled, and the year after, same thing happened again. But this time I started working with great American lawyers in the U.S. to come to the U.S. for a North American tour in March. We filed a petition for P1 visa (recognizable alien, artist) to go to the U.S. Embassy sooner than before because I knew that we will face another long process of background check. That’s why we started to file the petition with our lawyers in April 2016 and the petition got approved on 22 October 2016. I went to U.S. Embassy for my interview on 9th December and the interview went very well and my visa got approved once again, but the officer said they need another background check on me! This is my third check in three years and I don’t know what will happen yet.
You said you were booked to play some festivals (Savannah Stopover, SXSW, Treefort), but given that they’re in March I assume that’s not happening?
Yup, we already have some shows in different states and should [be] playing…alongside with great musicians like Mac DeMarco, The Growlers and so many great musicians from all over the world, which is more like a dream for us. And it will remain as a dream by this executive order. And yeah, it is our first extensive tour and we had plans to release our album when we are touring with sister label of one of the great record labels in the U.S., Burger Records. All the plans are suspended right now. It was like a dream for me to play with so many great American bands and musicians who inspired me all the time to go forward, but I think it’s not gonna happen again!
Being turned back like that over and over must be disappointing.
I’m really tired of this process! As a musician, why should I have to face these things? It’s really frustrating and it’s just the beginning!
How is the atmosphere in the U.S. different now than it was the last time you tried to tour the U.S.? And how is it different in Iran?
To be honest, things have changed in Iran after President Rouhani came in the office. Right now there’s so many concerts happening in Iran and musicians can release their music after they get permission, and these days it’s not a hard thing to do but there is still some big problems that I don’t like to publish my music here and one of the biggest reason[s] is that you will not have a professional career as a rock musician in Iran. So many personal problems and quality problems that keeps me away from the scene here. My friends believe that I sold my soul to western music and western culture and I think that’s true and the main reason is that I have parents who both are music lovers and I started listening to western music when I was 5 and I don’t regret that. It’s my life and I love it and will keep doing it!
Iran has long been a place where Western music is frowned upon/illegal to play in public. How have you been able to keep your career going there? When was your most recent concert?
The last time we played a live show in front of the crowd was three years ago. We [were] supposed to play two nights. We played the first night and people go crazy, jumping and clapping, and the show promoter canceled the second night [because he] said the police said that they will come and arrest all of us if we keep playing but things have changed since then. Not for my music though.
Have any fellow Iranian bands (or Western ones) reached out to support you in the wake of Trump’s actions?
No, not yet. All of ’em is in shock and don’t know what to do and what to say about these orders.
What would you say to Trump if you had a chance to speak directly to him?
At the end of day, these things are not going to divide the new generation and youth of my country from our friends and fellow Americans! With these things we will be closer to each other every day to fix the problems together! It’s our job and our responsibility to do so. We will not do the things that our governments want us to do. We are the opposite of their way of life and their way of thinking and seeing the world. We have the internet, we see and we take action to what is going to divide us and we never let these things affect our way of life.
Do you still have hope for making it over here?
I have so many plans for the future. The album is done and I need to re-record some of the songs with better quality and searching for a record label that wants to release my album. Right now I’m planning to tour in the U.S. and Canada despite all these new problems. I will never give up on this. With Trump or without Trump.
Check out some of The Muckers’ music: