Siavash Karampour couldn’t begin to understand the call. In the early-morning hours of November 11th, the lead singer of the Yellow Dogs – the Iranian indie band that had relocated to Brooklyn in 2010 and was building a national following with its furiously intense post-punk – was bartending when a friend phoned to tell him a shooting had taken place at the house the crew shared in East Williamsburg. “I said, ‘What is this, a prank?'” Karampour recalls. “After a couple of minutes of just hearing his voice, I said, ‘This is serious.’ I was calling the house and no one was picking up. I was horrified.”
For Karampour and bassist Koory Mirzeai (who was also at his day job at the time), their worst fears were soon realized. Around midnight, a fellow Iranian musician, Ali Akbar Mohammadi Rafie, had attacked the band’s home with a semiautomatic rifle. Making his way through the three-floor row house, he shot and killed Yellow Dogs drummer Arash Farazmand and his brother, guitarist Soroush Farazmand, as well as Ali Eskandarian, a charismatic Iranian singer-songwriter and author who often collaborated with the band and lived in the same building. (A friend of the group was also wounded in the shoulder and elbow; four others at the house, including two Coast Guard members who were renting a room, escaped unharmed.) Rafie eventually retreated to the roof of the building, where he fatally shot himself in the head.
It was a nightmare twist for a band that was finding its place in Brooklyn’s thriving indie community. In the nearly four years since leaving their hometown of Tehran, the Yellow Dogs – all in their twenties – had recorded two EPs, toured the U.S. and been featured on CNN and in Rolling Stone‘s Middle Eastern edition. Several months ago, Arash Farazmand became the last member of the band to be granted political asylum, freeing the Yellow Dogs to begin making plans for international tours. Just three days before the shooting, they were working on new material for their first full album, with guitarist Soroush – a serious Beatles and Animals fan – leading the way. “I could come up with ideas, but I couldn’t compose,” says Mirzeai. “He was the perfect person for it.”
In just a few minutes of violence, all of the band’s dreams were destroyed. “It’s unbelievable,” Mirzeai mumbles, staring off and taking a puff on a cigarette. “It’s going to take a very long time to just understand what the fuck just happened.” Two days after the shooting, he and Karampour have taken refuge at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn; their gear and all their personal belongings remain, for now, at the crime scene. “We were closer than brothers,” says Karampour, sitting next to his bandmate at a table, his eyes wrung red. “I wish all this attention was just for a new release of an album. It took us three bodies to become famous.”
Rafie’s motives remain unclear, but they seem to be connected to his past stint with the Free Keys – another transplanted Iranian band whose members include Pooya Hosseini, one of the survivors of the shooting, and once featured the Yellow Dogs’ Arash Farazmand. In recent months, Rafie had reportedly grown mentally unstable, and was desperate to return to the Free Keys, who had fired him. Karampour and Mirzeai say they weren’t close friends with the shooter and hadn’t seen him in more than a year. “Speaking for myself, how is it legally possible for someone in that mental and financial state, who isn’t from this country, to access a gun like that?” says the Yellow Dogs’ manager, Ali Salehezadeh. “That’s not a gun for self-defense – that’s for killing people on a rampage. I can’t get over that.”
Raised on Joy Division and the Clash, the Yellow Dogs came together when the musicians were in their teens. Since the Iranian government frowns on rock, they were forced to play secretive shows in basements, warning their friends not to attract attention by parking too close by; musicians and fans alike could have faced fines and detention if they were discovered. Karampour was once confronted on the street by police who made him shave his shaggy hair. But the bandmates followed their passion anyway. “There was no fun, so it was the most joyful thing for us to listen and play music,” says Mirzeai. “It was the best feeling we could ever have.”
Interviewed in 2009 by the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, which was investigating youth culture in Iran, the band was described in a report as “astute, well-informed and resourceful 20-something musicians” with “a growing local and Internet following.” That same year, the Yellow Dogs were featured in No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film about Iranian musicians. The exposure led to an invitation to play at South by Southwest in Austin. “Now, this is punk rock,” the late SXSW programmer Brent Grulke wrote in an internal band evaluation. “Unafraid. Must invite.” The Yellow Dogs never returned to their homeland; due partly to the attention they received from the movie, they chose to stay in the States and applied for political asylum. “The movie was political,” says Mirzeai, “and I could see death for me after all that happened.”
Two years ago, the band and Salehezadeh moved into their house in East Williamsburg. The warehouses that dominate the block made it easy for them to crank their amps and skateboard up and down the street. While their asylum applications meant they couldn’t visit their families in Tehran, they stayed in close contact by phone and Internet. What little money they made was spent buying tickets to shows by acts such as Fleet Foxes and Modest Mouse. “We thought, ‘We’re living the life,'” says Karampour. “We were excited to be here.” They became friends with national bands such as Nada Surf and the Black Lips. “With their music and their look, they fit right in,” says Lips singer Cole Alexander. “They had a crazy backstory, and Brooklyn was a good place for them. I wouldn’t have known where they were from.”
As dinnertime approaches, a friend drops off two paper bags of groceries, including a frozen pizza. Others drop off clothing. The somber mood is punctuated by a burst of hysterical wailing in another room. All thoughts of a career are off the table for now. “To think about making music – it’s almost impossible,” says Mirzeai softly. “But even if we want to stop, we can’t. We are going to pursue their dreams. It’s not up to us anymore.” Both men are now left to grapple with Rafie’s motives – which at some level will always be unknowable – and the awful irony of facing such violence after leaving their home country to avoid harm.
“There are no words,” says Karampour, stepping out into the November cold for a smoke. “Time is the only answer.”
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.