Azita Youssefi has a reputation as an exhibitionist. A couple years ago she posed at O'Hare for the Lumpen spin-off Easy Listener wearing nothing but a pair of angel wings, and as bassist and front woman for the theatrical no-wave band the Scissor Girls, she performed in everything from a Catholic school uniform to a two-piece made of bubble wrap. Offstage she could be seen loping around in heavy raccoon makeup or aviator goggles, and though her look is now more demure, she's fond of practicing classical piano in the game room at the Empty Bottle.
But in her new group, Bride of No No--whose first record, B.O.N.N. Apetit! (Atavistic), will be released on Tuesday--Youssefi and her three bandmates cover themselves completely in all-white outfits inspired by traditional Islamic women's clothing. The long tunics and veil-like masks ensure that the women's personalities emerge only through their music, a heavy, strategically loose kind of denatured doomsday rock. But the masks also allow them to turn the tables on the audience, watching them as if through a surveillance mirror.
The idea for the costumes came in part from Youssefi's childhood, which was split between the U.S. and Iran. Her parents, both doctors, were completing their residencies in the U.S. when she was born, then moved back to Tehran when she was almost two. When Youssefi was old enough to go to kindergarten, they sent her to the Tehran American School, which catered to Americans who'd come to Iran to get rich in the oil business. She says she was singled out there for not speaking English well. "It's like the kids didn't even realize they weren't in America," she says. (In a yearbook from the school, a good number of her classmates are wearing Mickey Mouse paraphernalia.)
One day in late 1978, when Youssefi was seven years old, she noticed a soldier across the street from her house carrying a machine gun. The Iranian revolution had begun. Her school let out early for Christmas that year and was bombed shortly thereafter, and in early '79 the Youssefi family permanently relocated to Bethesda, Maryland.
Her parents were used to a lifestyle that included parties at the shah's palace, where monkeys would dance on guests' laps, but in the States, Youssefi says, they were "just more doctors." Still, she was sent to Holton-Arms, an elite all-girls' school where most of the students were the children of government officials. It was a bad time to be an Iranian kid in America: "You took our hostages," her classmates sneered at her on the bus. Meanwhile her home life was regimented down to the minute: her father would post detailed after-school schedules on her bedroom door, and when she began taking piano lessons, he took them too. As soon as she was old enough to drive, Youssefi took off for D.C. whenever she could, attending punk shows and hanging out with a bunch of people "who tried to outdo each other on being totally psychotic. Criminal. I mean, just out of the blue they might decide to beat you up and steal your boots."
At her high school graduation, she wore elbow-length fingerless lace gloves and a platinum-blond new-wave do. Bob Hope, whose granddaughter was in the class, was the guest speaker. "He was late," she says. "After hours of waiting, he finally landed on the lawn in his helicopter....And he told some dumb joke about when he was in high school, 'back before the wheel was invented,' he said, and everyone laughed like it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard."
In the fall of 1989 Youssefi came to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute, where she studied drawing and sound, but she found the relaxed atmosphere unfulfilling. "Basically," she says, "if you showed up you passed." She says she lost interest in visual art as a primary medium because there was no way of telling how people were responding to it, and in 1991 her craving for more immediate audience interaction gave birth to the Scissor Girls. For her thesis project she created an intimate sitting room, placed so people had to seek it out, and decorated the walls with her paintings. Her solo record, Music for Scattered Brains (rereleased in 1996 by Atavistic), lay on a nearby turntable, waiting for someone to deliberately set it in motion.
Around this time, Youssefi says, "there was a lot of potential. A lot of things were happening around Wicker Park before all the gentrification, so many bands and so much inspiration. There was the idea that anyone could be in a band....And there was no hierarchy to getting a gig." But in 1996, after five years and two guitarists, the Scissor Girls broke up--just as Atavistic released their second full-length record, We People Space With Phantoms. The scene, which had expanded exponentially in the mid-90s, no longer seemed as exciting, and "there was this feeling of 'What are we doing this for?' No one really seemed to have long-term musician goals."
In the years following the Scissor Girls' collapse, Youssefi played music with several women in hopes of forming another band. But Bride of No No didn't officially form until April 1999, and at first it was even more mysterious than it is now. Shows weren't announced in advance, and the costumes were part of the act from the start. "This isn't 'Azita's band,' like a lot of people are saying," Youssefi explains. "This is the first band I've been in where we're all equals, all strong individually, all take initiative. We're all interested in studying what we're doing and developing as musicians."
Youssefi says the lineup's no longer a deep secret, but that her bandmates are enjoying the anonymity and don't want their names published. (They're identified in the CD booklet by initials and what seem to be surnames.) "When people know who you are, they automatically think they know what you're all about," she says. "We don't want anyone to have preconceived ideas based on who we are as individuals....We want to present ourselves as an entity. It probably won't be like this forever. The way we are now is just a millisecond in Bride of No No history."
Peter Margasak is on vacation.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.