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Like a lot of ’70s kids, Shahin Shahida and Sepehr Haddad played Led Zeppelin songs together in high-school bands. A reprise of “Stairway to Heaven” at an upcoming reunion is unlikely, however, since the two friends went to high school in Teheran. Besides, they don’t play heavy metal anymore.
Billed simply as Shahin and Sepehr, the D.C.-based duo is now a sensation in the genre known variously as “adult alternative,” “new adult contemporary,” and even—involuntary shudder—“new age.” The twosome’s first album, One Thousand & One Nights, has sold about 100,000 copies since it was released a year ago, and the initial response to its just-released successor, e, has been strong. Shahin and Sepehr haven’t exactly entered Hootie and the Blowfish territory, but—as the former notes—“We got ahead of Enya for a few weeks,” peaking at No. 6 on Billboard‘s new age chart.
“We’re not really new age,” cautions Sepehr, inevitably. “People are constantly asking us what kind of music this is,” he says, noting that different record stores classify their albums as jazz, new age, or international.
“To me, new age doesn’t have rhythm to it,” adds Shahin.
The duo’s label, Higher Octave, is preparing a club remix of e‘s “October Moon,” yet the album is not highly rhythmic. Though synthesizer player Sepehr provides a steady pulse and experiments with samba and calypso beats, the lilting music is dominated by Shahin’s folk- and classical-style acoustic guitar. It’s an instrument he decided to emphasize simply because, after 15 years on the local club scene, he was tired of “lugging my amp around.”
Shahin had played in such D.C. bands as Amsterdam and Feast or Famine, whose music he describes as “alternative rock,” while Sepehr went to college in California and then moved to Washington to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. About three years ago, after a label deal eluded Feast or Famine, the group split. “At that point,” Shahin remembers, “I was not interested in putting a band together.”
Instead, the two friends made a home-studio tape that they sent to local radio stations and sold on consignment at Olsson’s. “We didn’t even plan to send it to record companies at first,” says Sepehr, but after the now-reformatted WLTT started playing it, the duo re-evaluated the tape’s commercial possibilities and sent it to 15 labels. Two responded favorably: Sony Global Pacific and Higher Octave.
“We wanted Higher Octave because that’s the label Ottmar Liebert was on,” says Sepehr.
The label is based in Malibu, and the twosome headed to southern California to re-record the songs on that first tape for One Thousand & One Nights. The second disc was recorded much the same way: Sepehr programmed all the non-guitar parts here, then traveled to a studio near the Ojai home of co-producer William Aura for the actual sessions, in which some of his synth-generated riffs were handed off to such session musicians as Tower of Power horn players Jeff Eliot and Gary Herbig. (They play on the jaunty “October Moon.”)
Also heard on the album is Steve Eastham, who plays the santur, a traditional Persian instrument. Eastham had been a member of Amsterdam, then vanished to Japan. He and Shahin ran into each other unexpectedly as Eastham played the santur at Adams Morgan Day. “He’s quite the street performer,” says Shahin. “He goes to Japan and makes a lot of money on the street.”
Shahin and Sepehr plan to get Eastham off the street, however. They hope to sign him to S.O.S. Productions, the management company they run with Cyrus Kehyari from Shahin’s Dupont Circle town house, and then get him a recording deal.
The duo also has plenty of plans for its own career, which contractually includes at least three more albums for Higher Octave. “We’re open to ideas; we don’t want to close any doors,” says Sepehr. “We wouldn’t mind incorporating a bit of vocals, but in a unique way. We have to figure out what that way would be.”
“I’d love to get into some soundtrack stuff,” declares Shahin.
More immediately, the duo may tour this fall if the album continues to sell strongly. “To be honest, we haven’t had time to practice or get our band together,” says Shahin.
So far, Shahin and Sepehr have played only one gig, at a wine festival at the Patriot Center. That would seem to fit the profile of the upscale, middle-aged, suburban listener who buys new age music, and the duo admits that one of their most successful outlets is the Tower Records at Tysons Corner. One Thousand & One Nights also sells well at the Nature Company, which has been very successful in merchandising the new breed of easy-listening music.
Still, Shahin says their audience “is a wide range.” When the musicians signed copies of their work at the Nature Company in Pentagon City, “we had three or four really young kids.” They also claim as a fan Chelsea Clinton, who expressed her admiration for the album when she heard it at a Georgetown restaurant (and was promptly sent a free copy).
Sepehr attributes the music’s wide appeal to Shahin’s strongly melodic playing. “The same way we wrote songs then, we still write that way,” Sepehr explains. “His voice became the acoustic guitar.”
“It’s sort of difficult to write music that you can relax to, that you can also dance to if you turn it up,” he adds.
The duo’s cross-cultural sound has also reached audiences in South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. “We’re top 10 in Beirut,” along with Elton John and Nirvana, says Shahin, and the musicians have recently completed an“electronic press kit” for foreign TV stations to use. They’ve also done radio IDs for Middle Eastern radio stations. “We do it in English,” Sepehr explains, “but we throw in some Arabic, even though we don’t speak Arabic.”
Through the Internet and other connections—both men have relatives in Teheran as well as Washington—Shahin and Sepehr have learned that their music is popular in some countries where it hasn’t been released. It’s been widely bootlegged in Kuwait and played without permission on Iranian radio and TV.
“I hear that it isn’t that bad,” says Sepehr of Teheran, which he left in 1975, two years before his partner. The two seem thoroughly Westernized, though, a process that began before they left Iran for good. Sepehr was born in Washington, where his parents were students, while Shahin lived as a child in Vienna, where his father was an OPEC lawyer.
“We really draw from the fact that we’re Washingtonians. We’ve lived here for such a long time,” says Shahin. Among e‘s song titles are “East/West Highway” and “Skyline Drive,” and the seemingly ancient backdrop for the album photo is actually St. Thomas Episcopal, the Dupont Circle landmark whose back wall was left standing after the church burned. (“Everyone’s like, “Did you guys go to Greece?’ ” laughs Shahin.)
Despite their hard-rock heritage and those solid Washington roots, Shahin and Sepehr see their music as a kind of East/West highway and consider the music’s Persian legacy an essential component. After Sepehr discourses on the theory behind naming the album e—he mentions the letter’s role in language, music, physics, and mathematics, but not ecstasy, the drug celebrated as “E” by British neopyschedelicists—he notes a final significance. “e,” he says, “kind of stands for East.”