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Deep Dish article in WP Sunday Magazine

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Deep Dish

A Grammy, international tours, their own record label, a booking agency and a music store--not bad for a couple of Iranian immigrants who don't play an instrument

By David Segal

The inner sanctum of the Deep Dish musical empire is a recording studio in Georgetown perched near the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, a mid-size room with a couple of chairs, a computer and a seven-foot recording console. The place is waiting-room neat--no ashtrays, no beer, no mass tangle of wires, no day-old food.

Deep Dish--a duo composed of 31-year-old Ali Shirazinia and 32-year-old Sharam Tayebi--has been here almost nonstop for the last three days, tweaking and tinkering with a single song. The two were in the studio until dawn this morning, went home to sleep for a few hours and now are looking at another all-nighter.

"We like to set deadlines for ourselves," says Sharam, in lightly accented English, sipping on coffee. "Otherwise we'll just work on something for days and days."

Deep Dish can't afford to dally. The studio is just one part of a musical conglomerate built from scratch over the last 13 years by these Iranian-born immigrants. Some 30 employees are working at Deep Dish subsidiaries in an adjacent building, a townhouse that has the hip, modern air of a SoHo loft. There's a booking agency called Bullitt Bookings, a Web site and a record

label that releases dozens of vinyl 12-inch singles every year under the self-consciously exotic name Yoshi Toshi Records. Down a flight of stairs from the studio, there's a retail store called Deep Dish Records, specializing in dance music.

Then there are the tours--quick and exhausting jaunts, usually to Europe--in which Ali and Sharam might play four events in four cities, spread out all over the Continent, in four whirlwind days. Their fee for these gigs, which usually start at midnight and end around 8:30 in the morning, has been as high as $50,000, Ali says, but usually it's somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000, depending on the size of the crowd.

Deep Dish, in sum, is a franchise. Pop music, of course, has always been a combination of artistry and marketing, filled with business plans and carefully timed product rollouts. But a management staff and a scrum of label executives typically handle the revenue side, leaving the performers to cultivate an audience. Deep Dish represents a different kind of pop entrepreneur--one who is both CEO and star, producer and product, one part band and one part brand.

"We realized a long time ago this is a business and we have to treat it as such, if we want to make this a lasting and fruitful career," says Sharam, who is the beardless, shyer half of this team. "You have to approach it from a business standpoint."

Except that DD is not really a band, not if your idea of a band includes amplifiers, bass, piano and electric guitars. What's really odd about this M Street studio isn't that it's so tidy, but that, aside from a rarely used acoustic guitar, it's instrument-free.

Deep Dish's songs are mostly fabricated from beats and sounds culled from other records, turned into digital bytes and then stretched, chopped and transformed through gadgets and software. That's the rough, working formula for most electronica, a catchall term for the pulsing, machine-made music that is the house sound at thousands of strobe-lit clubs around the world. Though never a force on the U.S. charts, electronica--or techno, as it's also known--has a dedicated following among clubgoers, and it has fermented in a subculture of fashion and designer drugs that has nearly gone mainstream in recent years, courtesy of MTV-approved artists like Moby and Fatboy Slim.

Deep Dish stands among the most durable enterprises in this quietly expanding universe. Notably, Ali and Sharam have become the go-to guys for pop bands trying to lengthen the chart life of singles by remixing them into thumping, bumping dance tracks that can be played in clubs. Deep Dish won't discuss fees for its remix services--but top remixers can earn $30,000 per track. And over the years, Ali and Sharam's clients have included the Rolling Stones, 'N Sync, Michael Jackson and Madonna, who wanted danceability added to the title track of her last studio album, "Music."

In February, a remix of Dido's "Thank You" earned Deep Dish the Grammy for Best Remixed Recording, a relatively new category. Ali and Sharam never made it to the stage that February night to collect their trophy--they were stuck in traffic on the way to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Grammy ceremony was held--but the prize has been good for business. Clubs are calling for shows, and remix assignments are pouring in.

"We spend a lot of time together," says Ali of Sharam. "Sometimes I wish he was a really good-looking woman instead of a dude."

Deep Dish will perform 48 out of 52 weekends this year, about 100 shows, a blur of international plane rides and luggage checks that seems almost sadistic. This was the schedule for one week in July: Fly to Barcelona, play from

1 a.m. till 9 a.m., afternoon flight to Istanbul, get to the club, play all night, catnap, afternoon flight to Dublin, catnap, play all night, fly to Ibiza, play all night. Fly back to D.C. in the morning, then crisscross the United States for three more days.

The relentless touring has been even more taxing since the attacks of September 11. When two Iranian natives show up for a flight with little more than overnight bags and a box of dance music, airport friskers get curious fast.

"There's no telling how long all this will last," says Sharam when asked to explain the blazing pace. Also, electronica is super-competitive. The barriers to entry in this business are low--anyone with the right equipment can partake--and there are thousands of tiny labels cranking out CDs and vinyl. To stand out requires work, though a willingness to fly and spin constantly isn't enough either. DD joined the upper tier of

producer/deejays by being ubiquitous while cultivating the right note of mystique and cachet--in effect, building a crowd before the velvet rope of its name. When Ali and Sharam are about to release a new song, it's sent to a tightly controlled list of 20 or so top-notch deejays. Clubgoers then spread the word about the song on the Internet--these are the most tech-savvy fans on earth--at sites like NaughtyBooth.com. Radio has long ignored club music, but there's pent-up demand for every DD release.

And there are crowds at every show. In July, Deep Dish played at ARC, a downtown Manhattan dance club that is little more than an upscale, hangar-size room and a huge stereo system, plus a couple of bars. The crowd is young, mostly 18 to 22 years old, and by 2 a.m. everyone is in a sweaty spell. DD's trademark sound is on display: spare and almost geometrically rigid dance tunes with whispery vocals and shards of melody that fade in and out over a metronomic beat. The place is so crammed that if you're anywhere near the dance floor, you're dancing.

Above the masses, Ali and Sharam take turns in the deejay booth, orchestrating the party. It looks, frankly, like a pretty easy gig: Cue up a song, fade it into the mix, stand back and watch the rapture. Repeat until breakfast.

It's more complicated than that. "We tell people a story," says Ali, after the show, which ends at 9:30 a.m. "Sometimes it's like a bar chase in a movie, sometimes it's like a bedroom scene, something with more soul. Sometimes it's more aggressive and energetic. We get feedback off the crowd but you also control the crowd. The art is preventing one from controlling the other more. You want to make sure they don't get bored and they don't lose energy, but you don't want too much energy because they'll get tired."

There are deejays who showboat a bit, waving their hands or dancing, but Ali and Sharam are ill-suited to that sort of exhibitionism. They sign autographs and shake hands with clubgoers, but mostly they focus, heads down, listening to the next song on headphones and matching up beats so that the evening sounds like one seamless song whose tempo evolves imperceptibly over the course of the night. Ali and Sharam are in some kind of work trance; they are thoroughly consumed by music, though the scene around them, and particularly the illicit drugs, which many in this crowd have consumed, are of no interest.

"We don't do drugs, we don't stay out late unless we've got a show," says Arash Tayebi, who is Sharam's brother and the head of Bullitt Bookings. "This isn't like a big party."

When DD started, techno was a minuscule segment of the music business, adored by kids who lined up at downtown dance clubs, and ignored by just about everyone else. Over the years, the genre gained sales power, though it has retained a sense of outsiderdom, even as raves--those all-night, Ecstasy-fueled dance parties--flourished and as thousands of so-called "bedroom producers" began to fabricate songs on their computers in their spare time.

All these artists are taking advantage of the same technological leap. When music, in the early '80s, went digital and began to be mass-marketed in CDs as bits and bytes, it ceased being merely sound and became something like Play-Doh, which can be sliced, shaped and rearranged in infinite patterns. The tools for this new style were the tools of geeks--software and computers--and it used a different set of creative muscles than those needed to play, for instance, the guitar. All of this was revolutionary in a way that was easy to miss. Club music made pop glory a possibility to a group that a decade earlier seemed utterly unmarketable: the shy. Deep Dish today sits atop a heap of aspiring artists, a largely invisible horde whose size is anyone's guess, all angling for record deals and hoping deejays will spin their latest homemade concoction.

People like Justin Katz, a third-year law student at Catholic University who lives in a small one-bedroom apartment on Connecticut Avenue NW crammed with enough computer gear to guide a satellite. He has the wan, stubbled look of a guy who hasn't been outdoors in a week, a pallor enhanced by the dozen or so Cokes he consumes every day. When he isn't studying he composes music under the pseudonym Hook the Captain, releasing albums through a tiny label. He has a public relations agent, a ton of equipment and a pithy motto: "Hook. He's the pants."

Like a lot of bedroom producers, Katz is struggling to get his music noticed, and he's not above some pretty childish pranks to get the job done. Two years ago, he posted on the Web what was described as new songs by Aphex Twin, the stage name of a popular techno artist named Richard James. Katz figures 150,000 people downloaded the songs--actually his own work--before the site figured out that it had been hoodwinked.

"I'm hoping to do something really big with my music," he says in his bathrobe, one recent afternoon. "Really big."

Katz has agreed to a little demonstration. I've brought along three songs from three radically different albums and I've asked him to combine them into one harmonious sound collage. The first tune is "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," from the Beatles' "Anthology 2" album. It starts with an easygoing beat--made with piano, drums and the sound of Ringo Starr hitting sand with a shovel--which the band quickly drops after a couple of measures. Katz uploads these measures, then electronically whittles the edges until he has a few seconds of music, which he then loops together a few hundred times. The beat will be the background track for a "new" song.

Over that, he pastes the chorus of "Lazy Days," a song released in 2000 by Enya, a New Agey singer/songwriter from Ireland. The beats and pitches don't quite mesh, but Katz zooms through several software programs, twiddles a bit, and eventually they are in sync. The effect is eerie: Enya collaborating with the Fab Four. To make it weirder, I ask Katz to add a snippet from a new Busta Rhymes release, "Holla." Software renders the song into squiggly lines, like a lie detector readout, allowing Katz to eyeball the edits and shifts in pitch.

Half an hour later, Enya, Ringo, John, Paul and George have company. Every few bars, Busta Rhymes lunges into the mix and shouts, "Drop the bomb scripture / At your bar mitzvah!" This "tune" could never be mass-

marketed, in part because of copyright law and in part because no one would buy it. But it proves that the possibilities are limitless.

"It makes you listen to the world in a different way," says Katz, as he replays his creation. "I'm always hearing things that I want to put in my songs."

In most electronica, the source material has been electronically altered until even the people who created it wouldn't recognize it. Rendering it so--by slicing it up, then changing its speed and timbre and layering it onto beats--is the heart of the creative process. Ali and Sharam spend a lot of time browsing through their record collection and lifting tiny moments of music from bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Depeche Mode and Front 242. "People are used to the old mentality of rock-and-roll and jazz," says Ali. "It's hard to comprehend that it's just as difficult to make music with computers or keyboards. It's like the argument about how Walt Disney used to hand-draw cartoons back in the day and now the company uses computers for animation. It doesn't matter how the movie gets made. What matters is the story on the screen."

In Tehran, where Ali lived until he was 14, pop of any kind was a rarity. All he heard growing up was a few songs on the Voice of America and a handful of cassettes by bands like Boney M, acquired by his brother and sister before the mullahs took control of the government. That, plus a videotape of "Flashdance," which he played dozens of times. When he came to the United States with his family in 1985, he knew little English--"I learned the language from MTV," he jokes--and nothing about all but a handful of bands.

"For the first six months I was here, I was basically in shock," he says. "I was taking English as a Second Language classes, but I was attending regular school in Alexandria. And there was a sea of music to discover. Even the classics, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, I knew nothing about."

Ali gave himself a crash course by scooping up dozens of singles at a Dupont Circle record store. Eventually, he began to deejay local parties, and in 1989 he was invited to spin at a club in the District called Anastasia's. There, through friends, he met Sharam, who thought that he was in command of the music that night. So the two ended up splitting the deejay duties. It didn't work.

"He played totally the opposite of what I was playing," says Ali. "He was playing this really underground stuff that nobody liked. He didn't care."

Sharam had arrived in this country in 1978 at the age of 7, leaving with a family that, like Ali's, was eager to flee the Islamic revolution. Today he remembers almost nothing about Mashad, the Iranian city where he spent his earliest years. He grew up, as far as he's concerned, in Rockville.

After the debacle at Anastasia's, the pair discovered a mutual obsession and began swapping records. "We started talking about music all the time. We'd just show up at each other's gigs and play records and we were always getting fired, because we didn't want to play what the owners wanted us to play," Ali says. "So at some point we said these people don't know what they're talking about."

A friend of Sharam's owned recording and mixing equipment, and after some tutoring, he and Ai were creating their own songs. To fund a 2,000-copy pressing of their first single, Ali persuaded his brothers to max out their credit cards. Sharam's mother did the same. "A Feeling," which they composed with a friend, John Selway, under the name Moods, fared well, and by their fifth song, their phones were ringing. Within a couple of years, they had launched their own label, which they set up in Sharam's house, later moving to Georgetown as they added more businesses and hired more employees.

Now, they spend a good chunk of their time listening to dozens of submissions they get every week from bedroom producers eager to sign with their label. The Deep Dish imprint is now hugely valuable, and Ali and Sharam are careful about whom they bestow it on. When I visited their studio, they were finishing up a remix of a song called "Come Speak to Me" by an Italian pop star named Elisa. They were busy, but I asked if they would take a minute to give a new song by Justin Katz a listen. For an anonymous bedroom producer, this was like an audience with the pope. They agreed, and a tune called "Temple" filled up the room.

There was a long silence.

"This is pretty good," said Ali, looking intrigued. "Is this guy signed?

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Originally posted by cookiegirl

There's a pretty decent, lengthy article on Deep Dish in this weekend's Washington Post magazine. . .a couple of glaring errors (called the Yoshitoshi shop "Deep Dish Records") but overall it's fairly good.

:D

I don't think he was referring to the store when he said that, i think he meant the floor above that handles the stock and web orders - same one you can access on the site for yoshitoshi.com

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Originally posted by raver_mania

Thats a cool article! But, I can't believe he mentioned Naughtybooth .. haha...:laugh:

yeah, great article...except for the fact that mentions drugs within the scene 3 times. I think once was enough.

1) "and it has fermented in a subculture of fashion and designer drugs"

2) "they are thoroughly consumed by music, though the scene around them, and particularly the illicit drugs, which many in this crowd have consumed, are of no interest."

3)"though it has retained a sense of outsiderdom, even as raves--those all-night, Ecstasy-fueled dance parties--"

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Originally posted by cookiegirl

Down a flight of stairs from the studio, there's a retail store called Deep Dish Records, specializing in dance music.

:confused:

Well yeah, I mean it sounds counterintuitive n all... but I was kind of thinking that technically the website is retail as well. Then again, I may be reading too much into it...

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Originally posted by spinsaikel

yeah, great article...except for the fact that mentions drugs within the scene 3 times. I think once was enough.

I was thinking the same exact thing this a.m. when I was reading it . . . #%^@!

"they are thoroughly consumed by music, though the scene around them, and particularly the illicit drugs, which many in this crowd have consumed, are of no interest." ---> SO WHY MENTION THE DRUGS?!? It's an article about Deep Dish and their music. . .

vixen - i totally understood what you mean, he doesn't make it very clear at all does he? :tongue:

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Originally posted by vixenfoxxy

Well yeah, I mean it sounds counterintuitive n all... but I was kind of thinking that technically the website is retail as well. Then again, I may be reading too much into it...

you are reading too much into it. He made an error...this guy should be shot.

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