Armen Ra On His Shocking Documentary, Favorite Nightlife Stories, & Theremin

In this holiday-shortened week, with the spring pushing and pushing and pushing its way to free us from this winter of discontent, I am writing about the unusual suspects who toil or play in the clubs as they define their crafts. Yesterday it was FLXX. Today it’s Armen Ra, the master of the theremin. The theremin is a rare, eerie-sounding musical instrument, with its foremost astonishing trait explained by Armen in our interview below. Right now, Aremn is raising loot on Indiegogo for a theremin-infused feature documentary about his life: one of growing up in Iranian aristocracy and, after going on vacation in the United States, being forced to stay there due to the Iranian Revolution. A man from wealth and in exile, his story takes flight when he discovers the magic of the theremin and its effect on people. The fundraiser has six days left, and $4,000 to go to get the feature released.

Armen Ra is a well-known face and figure in the posh NY nightclub scene. His story is of ups and downs and all-arounds. It will shock and awe you. I asked him to tell me all about it
It’s been a long road. You are an exile,  being forced to leave Iran and live in a foreign land. Tell me about that transition.
That transition was a complete nightmare. I literally thought it was a nightmare for years. Coming from a sheltered aristocratic background, growing up in the opera, traveling the world yearly, submerged in music and art and literature. Being stuck here was like Gilligan’s Island from Hell. I started making jewelry, doing puppet shows with sets and costumes, learning about the power of beauty. We had been to the US several times already, but I didn’t speak any English. My mother and sister were fluent though, so they helped. I adapted quite fast in every way possible. I had to. It was a sudden survival, and I was unprepared at that age, but you figure things out when you have to.

Drugs, prostitution, alcohol, a zillion demons – not exactly the American dream. How’d you get out of that?
Divine intervention, self discipline, and believing in my own intelligence to eventually conquer the demons that were in reach. The light is always there. We are all light. The substance abuse was knocking holes in my aura, diminishing the light. It was not easy to get a regular job for someone like me at the time, especially when the club scene collapsed. Sometimes I had nowhere to sleep and was living in my friend’s multi-million dollar mansion. I worked at Patricia Field doing make-up, did reception at hair salons, drag shows, and whatever else I had to do to survive. I even worked at Show World in the old Times Square! Until I found a voice through the theremin, I was spiraling downward. I wanted to be great at something, and drag and clubs and doing make-up did not satisfy that urge, that quiet knowing that something else is in store, but what? A gift from the gods…waiting for me to open my eyes, to look up.

Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, Vali Myers, Salvador Dali met you, checked you out… you guys rubbed shoulders.
Being in NYC at that time and living in the East Village, it was inevitable really. I’ve always been lucky in attracting interesting people, and I was just amazed that such incredible people and artists wanted me around. It wasn’t that I had low self-esteem; I was just coming out of years of school and abuse, so it was a fabulous shock. I tell the stories in the film. It really is like mythology, and thankfully its all documented and witnessed. Being 16 and spending hours a day with Vali Myers in her room at Hotel Chelsea with people like Ira Cohen,  Andy Warhol, and Debbie Harry coming and going was insane. Vali would constantly take Polaroids of me and send them to Dali. Befriending Leigh Bowery and Thierry Mugler, dancing with Grace Jones in the Limelight DJ booth,s itting on the floor of Frankie Knuckles’ DJ booth at the World… going to a tranny hooker club with Tim Burton and Francis Ford Copolla. Yes, really. Doing the 1999 MTV VMAs in the Madonna Drag Queens segment; I represented the frozen video, that’s a story! I COULD go on! 

The theremin. You have mastered it, and yet I’ve never heard of it.
The theremin is the first electronic instrument ever. Invented by Russian Physicist Leon Theremin around 1920, it is the only instrument that is played without touching, and one of the most difficult to play. Many people use it as a sound effect. I play it as a classical instrument and a voice. My theremin has an eight-octave range, so she is like the ultimate opera singer. She sounds like Maris Callas from beyond. The theremin was used in many sci-fi and horror movies in the background. I think it fell into obscurity because it was difficult to play properly and was not easily accessible. My intention is to bring this instrument to the foreground where it belongs. It has taken me all over the world and onto some of the greatest stages. The sound affects people, it brings out emotion, and touches the heart like a beautiful voice does.

What is the film about?
The film is channeling sadness and horror into beauty, and music is the alchemy. It’s about being clear enough to receive. We are in THE LAST WEEK of our Indigogo crowd-funding campaign. We’re asking anyone who is interested in seeing this fabulous film made properly to please help support us by making donations and/or especially spreading the word about the film and the campaign. We are working very hard to create a meaningful, beautiful, high-quality work of art. Any and all support is welcomed and much appreciated.

And thank you, Steve. You helped me when I first started working in clubs by believing in me and giving me work of all kinds, and you continue to support what I am doing. I really appreciate it. You’re a real gentleman.

Correct Culture: Hairy Eyeballs, Aetherphone Blues

Shop Till You Drop – One day as I was wandering around Williamsburg looking for random street art to photograph I literally stumbled upon the most insane jewel box of a store filled with most eye-catching hairy eyeball graphics imaginable. Everything that makes a super skate geek happy can be found at Mishka, from signature print jeans to rare collectible toys to the aforementioned hairy eyeball pillows and caps. Plus, when you need to take a shopping break, you can chill and challenge your buds to a round on the in-store video arcade or just kick back and ogle the Adam Wallacavage squid chandelier that hangs almost menacingly in the center of the store. The clientele is as captivating as the merch, and the sales staff are so laid back you might not even realize they’re there. In other words, the perfect shopping experience.


Blog or Die – My absolute everyday must-read-or-die blog is Eitel Thoughts by Reavis Eitel. Always visually arresting and bitingly ironic, Eitel takes you into his world and serves up his personal take on everything from his health to Sundaze at Vandam with tongue planted firmly in chic. Here’s a brief Q & A I recently conducted with him.

What is the purpose/inspiration for your blog? It’s characteristically without purpose! I started it because I wasn’t feeling well. I had no idea that anyone would ever read it. If I had any idea, I wouldn’t have made it so confessional and personal, but I just continue to go with it.

What are your favorite things about living in NYC? At this point, just convenience and anonymity. You’re also still pretty protected from how banal and slow the rest of the world is when living here. If you don’t think so, then try going an hour or so outside of Manhattan. Whenever I cross over the bridge to return, I can breathe again.

You have made an incredible personal transformation — what inspired you and what are you aiming for? Thanks. I switched to whole grain. Just looking to further my all-natural healthy agenda in personal maintenance and fitness pursuits.

Is there an underground scene still in NYC and what/who are your favorite parts of it? No.

Give me a brief bio — the usual, where you’re from, what you’ve done, what’s in your future? I was born and raised in Manhattan where I went to school through college. I intend to retire in the future.


Style Exiles – Twenty-eight-year-old Nicholas Gorham is a Vancouver transplant specializing in cabaret-based performance art, but that’s putting it lightly. Filled with the kind of sassy bravado that few can actually pull off, his performances have become known not only for his side-splitting humor, but the way-over-the-top visuals he serves. A regular at the Inbred/Hybrid book club burlesque reading series, his recent reinterpretation of the classic Tin Tin was a hodgepodge of larger-than-life hair, major make-up and theatrics taken to terrific extremes. In his spare time, he designs one-of-a-kind hats that run the gamut from leopard-print mini-saucers perched on the tip of your head to more involved and abstract black mesh numbers that are architectural and stylishly accurate, although I chose to photograph him in a cap by Kangol cause I’m confusing like that. But you can check out Nick modeling his headgear here.


Street Treat – I caught up with performer extraordinaire Armen Ra ({encode=”” title=””}) sneaking a ciggy after his breathtaking performance at the Participant gallery on Houston Street. Besides possessing an unending capacity for fiercely personal style statements, Ra is one of the few souls on this planet truly gifted enough to master the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument controlled without actual physical contact from the player. The controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas which sense the position of the player’s hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand and amplitude with the other. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker. To watch Ra perform is like a love making session as he sensuously maneuvers and strokes the air around the instrument, creating arresting musical interludes that are as seductive and spellbinding as an opium-induced trance. If you’ve never witnessed this live and in person, you truly do not know what you’re missing. Ra always serves up a super correct visual, melding masculine and feminine overtones like no other.


Style Child – Denise Azira has a penchant for urban-oriented style staples given a fashionable twist. Her knuckle rings are lady-, not thug-like, but still leave a tough impression — almost like chic self defense jewelry. But her silver millipede necklace really hits the mark, wrapping itself around the neck as if it were actually alive.


Tag You’re It – I’ve noticed that a lot of my favorite random street art sightings as of late are almost like abstract paintings, eclipsing their graffiti origins and taking things up a notch to an almost painterly level. It seems as if the days of just bombing your name are truly a thing of the past as a new posse of urban artists prefers to leave their mark with visuals that could just as well hang in a gallery when not being uncovered on the side of a wall or in a dark, skanky alley.

Photographs (except for Reavis Eitel and Denise Azira) by Walt Cessna. See more from Walt Cessna on Facebook.