From Fighting Neo-Nazis with Sawn-Off Shotguns to Becoming Lorde's Favourite New Popstar
The unbelievable story of XOV.
Damian Ardestani has been trying to record some vocals today, but the cold is so harsh his voice won’t stop shaking. There has been a cold snap in Stockholm, and the temperature has dropped to 4 degrees celsius. When I speak to him he’s wearing an eskimo hat, scarf and jacket, sitting indoors at his desk, cradling a hot tea.
I first heard his music just days earlier, whilst looking over the announced soundtrack for the forthcoming Hunger Games movie. It’s a list of songs hand-picked and commissioned by the chalky princess of contemporary pop, Lorde, and his was the only name I didn’t recognise: XOV. There is only one track on his Soundcloud page, “Boys Don’t Cry”: a simple pop beat with hyper-emotional lyrics that come across a little like an embittered Enrique Iglesias doing The Weeknd. It was enough to ignite my curiosity anyway, and seemingly Lorde’s too.“It’s a crazy story with her,” laughs Damian. “I got this shady Twitter message from some Lorde account. I thought it was fake, and then I realised it was actually her verified account, so I sent an email. She answered saying she was a fan of my stuff and told me about her role in the movie and the soundtrack. She was so passionate about the soundtrack, and I liked that she wasn’t really talking about what type of song she wanted, but more what kind of mood she wanted. There was no limitations to what you could do. We started sending songs and ideas back and forth. At one point she would even send me recordings of her singing how she wanted me to do it.”
The first I heard about Damian was that he grew up as an Iranian refugee in the Swedish suburbs, was involved in gangs and eventually moved to an island to live with his dog. But my conversation with him would prove that this abstract summary barely leaves a bruise on the reality of his inconceivable tale. And understanding the context around his music certainly makes for a more enlightening experience...
In 1986, Iran was six years into what would become an eight year Iran-Iraq war that devastated both countries. Damian was one when his family decided to flee for Sweden. Both sides in the war had begun to use irregular warfare, and growing attacks on populous civilian areas meant things had gotten too bad for many to stay. Unfortunately, most Iranian refugees arriving in Sweden during this wave found that their middle class backgrounds mattered little, and often ended up on welfare. “I grew up in a suburb called Tensta” explains Damian. “It’s 90% immigrants there. People see it as a rough ghetto, but I loved it because I grew up with so many cultures. My best friends were Eritreans, Arabs, Turks, but not so many Swedes actually.”
I could identify with Damian’s story. As a half-Iranian myself, I’ve heard too many tales about those who fled during the 80s and struggled to rebuild their lives. After settling in the Tensta's plattenbau structures - brutalist state-owned housing projects common in northern and central Europe - his father became a drug addict, and their family life was quickly shattered. “By the time I was 12, I felt very lost.” Not really identifying himself as Swedish or Iranian, he started to express himself negatively: stealing donuts from canteens and nicking stuff from school. It didn’t take long for that to escalate into more serious crimes, and then worsen into tribal forms of youth violence.
“Me and my friends had a war going on against a Swedish neo-Nazi group in another school. You should know stuff like this because Vice recently did something on Sweden’s neo-Nazi problem. It is still happening now, and racism has always been a big part of my life. One time they turned up at our school with a sawn off shotgun, and bats and chains. Nobody got shot though.”
His childhood wasn’t only characterised by violence, though. Damian’s great grandfather in Iran had been a poet, and though he denies reading any poetry before he started to write it as a child, you can assume some of that cultural lineage was transposed through his parents. By fourteen, inspired by tapes of Tupac and Biggie, he began turning his poetry into raps, before learning piano so that he could rap over simple chords. By the age of 12 and 13 he was in a kids hip-hop group, opening for bigger Swedish rap groups. But at the same time, the more nefarious side of his life in the Tensta suburbs was reaching boiling point.
Damian told me plenty of stories about confrontations between his gang and the neo-nazi kids, but it was the day they caught him alone that changed everything. “The whole thing escalated when I got jumped by them on my own,” he begins. “My face got totally fucked up. I couldn’t eat for three months and I lost all my teeth. I had surgery for fifteen years to repair it, which only finished two years ago. The surgery was painful - the most horrific thing I’ve been through in my entire life. My mum decided to send me to America to live with my uncle, and that’s when I got a break from it all. I realised I didn’t want to be part of that anymore. I wanted a happy life. I have had friends who were later shot and stabbed, but I got out before all that.” Damian was fifteen at this point.
Some time in the US with his uncle helped him sort out his priorities, and at 16 he decided to return to Sweden. His aim was to get a job, and make some money so that he could make a small studio and resume his obsession with music. At this point, I expected the story to naturally sojourn through him becoming more involved in music, and eventually land at present day, on the eve of his EP. Instead, we rolled into the second part of his life, the New Testament, which, somehow, doesn’t get any less strange.
“When I got back from the US, I decided to change my life and get my shit together” he starts. “I wanted a job, so I could use the money to build a studio. I got a job as a telemarketer. First day at work, I broke all the sales records. Somehow, I had a natural skill for convincing people to buy shit. At 17, I became a sales coach. By 18, I was the sales manager, managing 10 people and making a shit load of money. At that point, I just got stuck in the money-making game. By 23 I was CEO at one of Sweden’s biggest event companies.”
Yes, I thought it sounded far-fetched too, but it wasn’t hard for me to find an article about Swedish events corporation Stureplansgruppen from 2008, which mentions Damian Ardestani more than once as CEO, and predicts company turnover of SEK 40 million (equivalent to around £3.5million).
So, here’s Damian, an Iranian refugee from the tenements, rising above youth crime and street-level race wars to assume his unlikely position as the early twenties CEO of a huge events agency. He’s partying as a VIP every night, in the clubs his company runs, and positively rolling in krona. What could go wrong?
Well, first of all his dreams. Freud dubbed dreams as the efforts of the unconscious to resolve conflicts of the mind, past and present, and he would have had a field day with Damian.
“I went to Greece for a break, and I kept getting this reoccurring dream where I would go into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. I smile, but my reflection doesn’t smile back. I touch my face, slap it, hit it, but all I get back is this dead stare. I woke up screaming. I realised then I was fucking miserable. I was partying every night, but deep inside I was miserable. Music was always number one for me. I started working because of the music, to build the studio, but that somehow became lost. It became a secret. Nobody there knew I was a musician or that I made songs. At 24, I decided to fuck the whole CEO thing, and I left it all.”
We’re into his mid-twenties. Damian has jacked in CEO life. He’s cocky. Everything he has touched has turned to gold so far, and against all the odds that his upbringing had stacked against him. Damian, it seems, can’t fail.
“I decided to invest all of the money I had earned from my career to start a record label, because I was so certain I couldn’t go wrong. I started signing people and producers, and building studios. I thought the music business would be like every other business. But it isn’t. It’s a fucking jungle. People in it are crazy. Everything bad, and every trap you could fall into, I fell into during those two years. I got fucked multiple times, sued and stolen from. I lost it all and owed millions. I had nowhere to live, and people chasing me - all the things that come with the bankruptcy. Everyone I signed - songwriters, artists, partners in the company - they were all gone. Gone from the face of the earth.”
He found himself on the verge of suicide, but turned it around by questioning what he wanted from it: to get away. So he removed himself from society, and took up tenancy in a small cabin on the Swedish island of Rindö. The island can be popular during the summer, but Damian arrived during the ghostly abandonment of winter. He bought a puppy to keep him company and met nobody, except his mother, who would visit by boat once per week. “I’ve always thought I was an artist, or wanted to be an artist,” he reasons, “but that was when I became an artist. I was sitting there, in millions of debt and I had lost everything, but it was the first time I’ve felt happy and free in my whole life.”
Between his remote cabin and intermittent visits to the States, he’s spent two to three years cultivating a sound, with a laptop, a microphone and the periodic beatmaking assistance of relatively unknown producer KONO. This sound - a purple shade of ornate, emotional pop built on a foundation of rap beats and an air of masked desperation - is what caught Lorde’s attention earlier in the year.
From the few early tracks available, people might assume, in Damian’s words, “that I’m going to be a cosy pop artist”, but there is a multitude of directions yet to be revealed. “Boys Don’t Cry” explores the crash of his life via swelling synths, an '80s drum beat and warped vocoder, but other forthcoming songs - including “Animal” for The Hunger Games - are set to traverse the dirty saunas of lust, sin, sex, violence and much more.
And that pretty much brings us to the here and now, to the Damian on the other end of my phone line - sitting at his desk, eskimo hat on, readying an EP that will drop in January, and beginning work on a debut album. It is staggering to conceive how he will be able to fit a life of such conflicting experience and emotion into a single record.
"When I was a child everything was anxiety, darkness, violence. Then from the age of 16 to 24, I never failed with anything. Everything I had touched, had become gold. I was so cocky and confident at time that I invested all of the money I had earned and borrowed millions. But then my company crashed, my finances crashed and my relationships crashed. I hit absolute rock bottom, but I found happiness there. It has been such a process finding that sound that really represents me. One thing is for sure people are going to be surprised.”
Follow Joe on Twitter: @cide_benengeli