Roya’s Crisp, Swaggering Indie Rock Examines a World on the Brink

Roya

Released earlier this month by Burger Records, Roya’s self-titled full-length debut features 11 songs powered by taut, chugging guitars, the crisp drumming of Hamish Kilgour of The Clean, and Rahill Jamalifard’s coolly-detached vocals. Though its roots are in garage rock and the steady bop of late ‘50 rock ‘n’ roll, Jamalifard’s lyrics are set squarely in the now. Spurred on by the political climate both in the U.S. as well as in the world at large, Jamalifard writes songs that explore the upside of apathy (“Scum Rise”), toxic relationships (“Rich Kid”), and the pitfalls of capitalism (“End Times”). The album was recorded at the former Brooklyn DIY venue Death by Audio just weeks before it was razed to make room for the offices of Vice.

We spoke with Jamalifard about her experience as a translator during the travel ban, coping strategies in the face of mass injustice, and her love for the series Master of None.

When you were recording the album at Death by Audio, were you aware that its demolition was in progress?

Yeah, I mean Jay who’s the guitarist who writes most of the songs with me, lived there. That was his home. It was hard for him. It was much more special for him than anyone else to be recording there, and to be one of the last bands recorded there. I don’t really think anyone who wasn’t a music-goer really understood what that meant for them to destroy Death by Audio, Glasslands, and 285 Kent [venues that occupied the same large building—ed.] until they were gone. They just took out a place that maybe didn’t seem important to them, but it was so important to so many people.

Vice now occupies that building, and their role in this is really bizarre, given they built themselves on the back of what they bulldozed in Brooklyn. 

Money is the number one compromiser of everything and all things. It will destroy everything or anything. I see that pattern with everything that becomes mainstream.

So is the answer to avoid mainstream at all costs?

That’s a thing I think about and struggle with all the time. With Habibi, my old band, it was ‘We don’t care, pay us.’ We had a song in Girls, and we were like ‘Yeah, whatever.’ None of those people represent us, we don’t identify. But they’re gonna pay like ten grand? Done. We need that money, and that will help us. But Trump Casinos wanted to put Habibi on their jukebox, and we were like, ‘Hell no, that’s evil.’

I don’t think Lena Dunham is evil. I don’t think these people are ill-intentioned. I don’t think what these people stand for is scary, I just think they need to live in our shoes for a minute. They need to know what a cast with diversity means. So they’re part of a problem, for sure, but they’re not the root of it. But I think Trump is evil, and I think what he stands for is scary.

Have you watched Aziz Ansari’s newest season of Master of None? I really felt this desire to find him and be like, ‘That was really amazing. You’re not doing this from any point of view. You’re like, ‘This is my life, this is my family, this is my friend, this is her life.’ I was crying during the Muslim episode [in which Ansari’s character accidentally eats bacon as a child—ed.] because I was that kid. That actually happened to me. My friend was like, ‘Eat pepperoni, try it out.’ And I was moved because of what’s happening currently, and to see an episode like that right now made me feel really good. It’s refreshing when it seems honest, when it seems like it’s coming from a place of ‘This is literally how I was raised, these are the people I interacted with, and this was my community. This is my way of honoring it.’ I watched the first season and it was fine, but this second season, maybe because emotions are so high right now, it really just struck me.

There’s the line in ‘Scum Rise’ about not caring anymore. Do you feel apathy is a suitable response for dealing with the current state of affairs?

That was a song I wrote that was inspired by a specific incident that happened with a friend, but at the time, it seemed to personify everything, and I was like, ‘I can’t.’ I’m not like super neurotic, but you get to a point where everything’s so daunting and there’s so much to worry about, and you’re just like, ‘I can’t care about it anymore.’ Because at the end of the day, every hair on my head is going to turn white if I wake up constantly thinking, say, that my neighborhood is going to change, I’m gonna be run out of my place for money, you know? You can’t do that, because you turn psycho.

I’ll come home and I’ll have been so mentally fatigued. I’m crying for no reason. You don’t realize how much stuff affects you, how much you feel that emotion, that instability. It’s really challenging. I think it’s a blessing to be aware, and to be that person who’s looking out, but you’re also handicapped by it, because it’s a defeating feeling. You’re like, ‘Society, what are you doing?’

You speak Farsi, and were doing translation work at JFK Airport when the initial travel ban went through. How did you get involved in that? 

Activism was always a part of my youth. When I was in high school and the Iraq War was happening, I was very active. So it was just sort of, ‘This is happening, it’s affecting people I know. It’s affecting my father.’ I was talking to a family friend who had moved here from Michigan. She’s very academic, a science major, super smart, but not in my social community, in terms of being in the music scene. She’s a childhood friend. She was calling because she doesn’t know that many people out here, and she was like, ‘Dude, what do we do?’ It didn’t feel right to only be protesting. So we heard that they needed translators at JFK, so we were like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s plan this day and go together.’

I ended up going back the following day, and another day after that. I never actually got to speak to a detainee, but I worked with their family members, or the lawyers who were trying to figure it out. It was a call to action, where I felt ‘I’m able to do this.’ I’m not in a threatened position where it’s dangerous for me. I’m an American citizen. There were people there who were terrified because they weren’t American citizens. And there were marshals in full dress at the airport, wearing army gear—10 of them at JFK, to make you feel inferior, or to scare you, or something. And I was like, ‘I’m not afraid of them. They can’t do anything to me. I really want to help these people.’ So that was motivation, just hearing about what was happening: ‘Oh, they need help? I’ll definitely go there.’

What was it like, being right in the heart of it?

I went there the first night, and there was this feeling of exciting camaraderie, because I was seeing all these people who had come together to fight for a cause that was really good. It wasn’t just Middle Eastern people, or people who spoke the language. It was also white lawyers and black lawyers, concerned people of the world looking out for other people of the world. I was so happy.

I came home at 11pm—I’d been there since 4pm—and I was about to go to sleep, and it all suddenly dawned on me. Like, ‘Wait, hold up. Do you understand? There was a girl who they were telling to scream and make a scene, so that the plane wouldn’t take her back. We’re fighting the craziest thing. We’re trying to resist this normalization of hate.’ And then I couldn’t sleep. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Tomorrow, it’s going to be my father. Tomorrow, it’s going to be my uncle. Tomorrow, it’s going to be friend.’ It’s unjust. At first I was just, ‘Hell yeah, a community of support!’ And then I was like, ‘That doesn’t matter. They’re going to be crushed.’ When a fucking asshole like Trump is in power and doesn’t give a shit, and has no understanding, and wants to continue to enact the normalization of hatred towards…everything, basically. It was really wild to see. I saw some gnarly stuff when I was protesting—Trump supporters attacking kids. Just heartless and scary.

You have a lyric in ‘End Times’ about turning on the TV to horrible news, but capitalism still chugging on, ‘…commercials keep us buying.’ 

I wrote that song before Trump was even a thing. It’s a blessing to be able to travel because you realize you’re not the center of the universe. America isn’t the be all end all, there are other things going on. We affect the rest of the world, and we are affected by the rest of the world. I really feel like [with] the youth here, this is the time to awaken to that. Because you have to care. Especially now that you’ve seen the repercussions of not caring.

Have you come up with strategies for staying alert and active?

That’s ongoing. That’s my question, always. For me, it’s, ‘What the hell do you do to feel like you are doing something? That you aren’t living in vain?’ Speaking up is so important. There’s so many situations where you can catch something happening that is an act of discrimination—a xenophobic act, or whatever hatred—and to not help that situation, to not confront it, is really hurtful. Correcting those things as you see them is so important. I do that all the time. And really, it’s not fun. It’s not fun. It takes courage, to some extent.

I feel like you lead by example, and when you practice justice, then these people who are practicing the anti- are going to be like, ‘Oh wow, we are going to be met with resistance.’ If you’re not being met with resistance, you’re going to take and take and take. And that’s exactly what was happening. At JFK, when they weren’t being met with resistance, everybody was being flown back. The minute people got there, we were like, ‘No, say you want to speak with a lawyer, say you have documents, say this isn’t true.’ If there was no resistance, everybody would have been flown back. People would come to us and say, ‘We didn’t know you were here. They were just sent back because they didn’t know that they had an option.’

Awareness is really important, and I try to practice that. I went to a punk show that was sold out, Hank Wood & the Hammerheads. These are cool kids who have millions of friends, and are all New Yorkers. They donated all the proceeds from that show to the homeless people in New York because they give a fuck about that. These dudes who are in a scene where they’re the ‘cool guys’ in the scene to be like, ‘Thank you so much to everyone who came. We sold out, every single cent is going to this thing. If you wanna donate more, find me, find the guy at the front’—to be able to talk from a platform, and use that voice in a positive way, I watch that, and I’m inspired. I’m like, ‘Fuck, what am I doing? I gotta do that.’ Acts like that are affirming. We can fight back and we can make a difference.

Bringing it back to the album, what would you say is the overarching theme?

I don’t know if you know Habibi, my old project. It was very ‘girl camaraderie,’ and I sang about one character and it was a female—a heroine basically. I liked that because it was empowering, but with Roya, and because of the accumulation of what’s happening… It all started when the police had been killing black youth, just recognizing that we’re living in fascist times, and that we’re going backwards.The midwest was always quietly racist—I know, because that’s where I grew up. Now, it’s being encouraged across the country because of these unjust acts that are being seen as totally OK. I was like, ‘I’m going to be fucking raw. I’m going to write something, write about the things that will probably make people feel uncomfortable. I’ll talk about death, I’ll talk about apathy, I’ll talk about how I don’t want you in my life, I’ll talk about the world feeling like it’s ending.’

It’s funny because the last song, ‘Mod with Feelings,’ was the first song we wrote for the album. It’s saccharine sweet, and it’s just a song about a friend. I think about that time in my life, and I was living a lie. I feel my attitude was catalyzed by the times. I wanted to talk about what I wanted to talk about, and not feel like I had to dress anything up.

The song ‘Dr. Death’ is about Jack Kevorkian. He was trying to help kill people who were sick and wanted to die. I was like, ‘What about punks like him, who stood up for controversial issues that really need to be pressed?’ And I’m not saying I’m pro- that or anything—that was just a thing that I remembered when I was young, but I liked that as an example of somebody defying the court, because they’re like, ‘No, this is how I feel, and I’ll go to prison for it.’ It’s a voice. Unabashedly, unapologetically, ‘This is what’s up.’ And it’s not to say I don’t think anything I say is correct or the word of the Almighty. I’m just being how I feel.

Nilina Mason-Campbell

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