The Weekly interview: Obits guitarist Sohrab Habibion

Sohrab Habibion, third from left, and the rest of Obits perform at Beauty Bar this weekend.

The name Obits might not be as familiar as Drive Like Jehu or Hot Snakes, two bands where you’ll find the heavy-rocking Brooklynites’ roots. Comprised of Rick Froberg (Jehu, Snakes), Sohrab Habibion (Edsel), Alexis Fleisig (Girls Against Boys) and Greg Simpson, Sub Pop’s Obits aren’t the post-hardcore band you’d probably expect. Instead, they opt for playing whatever the hell they feel like, and third LP Bed and Bugs is the latest result. When I called up Habibion, he was in Brooklyn, working on a movie score for a documentary and eating lo mein on his lunch break.

So, is it Obits or The Obits—I’ve seen it both ways—and is it short for obituary? You know what, it doesn’t matter actually. It started out as Obits, then we added a “The” and then we just sorta played around with it, figuring it doesn’t really matter, so might as well have fun with it. It is short for obituary. But we never go by that.

Your previous band, Edsel, broke up 15 years ago, and Rick Froberg was in Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes. Is Obits a natural progression from those bands, or was it a conscious decision to do something different? The whole thing was not a conscious decision at all. I had not been playing in bands, really, since Edsel. I’d done a couple of things, like solo tours with a band, but I wasn’t actively playing music, I was doing more soundtrack work. Rick and I were friends, and when Hot Snakes was coming to a close, he was like, “We should jam and see what it’s like,” so really it kinda came from that. We’d never played guitar together before, so just kinda playing together, seeing what it sounded like, you know, it worked out. We really just enjoyed it. I personally really like the way he plays guitar, and it was fun to have another guitar player, to try to come up with stuff that was complementary to that. So not conscious. Just kind of born of playing together, and that’s kinda what it sounded like.

How did you get hooked up with Rick in the first place? We didn’t know each other back in the day. We definitely knew people in common, but we didn’t discover that till years later when we actually knew each other. When Drive Like Jehu was around, I knew them, but I never saw them. And I don’t think he ever saw Edsel, even though we played in San Diego a bunch. But we met when I first moved to New York in 1997, or I should say I moved back to New York. I was born here, but I moved back here in ’97. We have a mutual friend who is a painter, and he took me to an art show of Rick’s, and I really liked Rick’s art so I ended up buying a painting. That’s how we actually got to know each other. So it wasn’t through music at all.

Bed & Bugs sounds like it could have been made years ago, like it’s timeless. How did you end up creating something that doesn’t fit into a particular decade? Well first of all, thanks. You know, again, it’s definitely not a conscious thing. It’s sort of more working on the songs as they go. We usually have little snippets of recording from our practices, and they kind of build up. So by the time we end up making a record, which seems to be about every two years, we usually have a bunch of these little song ideas. Some of them are more developed than others, and we just kind of focus on what seems most easily complete-able. So this group of songs ended up being, probably out of the 60 little ideas that we had, the ones that seemed like the most with a ready conclusion.

It wasn’t really conscious in that regard. The recording process we did with a friend of ours in his apartment. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. He’s just a really good sound guy, and he knows that for our aesthetic it’s just trying to get it as natural of a sound as possible, so it feels like you’re in the room with the band. Since we’re not reliant on any specifically modern technology for the way our sounds are, I could see it sounding not specific to this decade. But truthfully, who knows what these records sound like. I think we’ll all have a better idea in, like, 20 years if anybody cared. I think you actually need some real perspective, some distance to see what they sound like.

I’ve heard a lot of people call your sound “surf rock,” “garage rock” and even “rockabilly.” Do you have any comment on how people try to lump your music into a specific genre? I understand why people want to categorize stuff. It’s the way we try to make sense of things that we don’t know much about. You find a way of narrowing down the field so it’s most easily describable or digestible for people, particularly now when there’s just so much music out there. It’s a really easy way to filter out stuff you might not be interested in.

So I get it if people want to say “garage rock” or whatever. I don’t think we actually sound … I mean there might be a moment here or there that you can be like, “Oh, that’s kind of like The Sonics” or something. And then there might be a moment where it’s kind of like a Dick Dale riff. So I get both the need to categorize it and why those things come up, but the thing personally that I actually like about our band is that we’re not a specific thing. We’re not a monochromatic group.

I read that you’re 41, but I don’t know if that was up to date. I’m the youngest, and I’m 43 [laughs]. I’m a pup.

Is it different being involved in music now that you’re older? The only real obvious thing I can think of is that the longer you do something, the more comfortable you feel with it, and the less self-conscious you are about, maybe, how someone else might perceive it. So in the case of this band, we’re willing to take certain risks that we may not have in previous bands, because they would’ve seemed corny.

Like what? Well, for example, on a song like “Malpractice,” the riff is two notes away from being a bar band. It could be a ZZ Top song if played slightly differently. That kind of thing, the fear of doing that and just being seen as some lame bar band—we just don’t have that anymore. The editing process is just a much more natural process of your own aesthetics, as opposed to, aesthetics that are colored somewhat by how you feel other people might see you. We just don’t care. We just do what we like to do.

As a person, music aside, the older you get, the more comfortable you are. You’re okay with your blemishes. You’re no longer trying to cover them up. At least I hope so. I think one of the nice things about aging is shedding the kind of vanity that is wonderful when you’re 19, 22 or whatever. That age, it’s exciting and new, and everything’s fresh and awesome. But 43, it’s like, my body’s looked better (laughs) and that’s okay, you know. That’s totally fine.

I think as a band, our music sort of reflects that—the flaws, the humanity—it’s what makes people interesting, so we let it all show (laughs). There’s no costume, there’s no light show. It’s you get us, for better or for worse. I think the nice thing about that is, hopefully it lets people judge us on our merits. And if they don’t like it, they don’t like it. But they’re not judging us based off the fact that we’re trying to rip off the Ramones or My Bloody Valentine. I think a lot of bands now get really into a shtick, and they obsess over this very specific kind of presentation. It’s cool, but at a certain point, it’s a show. It’s theatrical. Sometimes people pull it off really great, but that’s not who we are. We’ll sit down and have a beer with you and talk about what’s going on in your life.

Have you played Vegas before? Never. Alexis, who is in the band Girls Against Boys, I think a bunch of years ago they played in Las Vegas. But that’s going back to mid or late ’90s or something.

So why now? Well, we’ve never done it before. It’s kind of fun to switch things up a little bit. It just so happens I have two old friends that live in Vegas, so for me personally it’ll be fun to see them. And, also I have no idea what it’s like to play our kind of music in Las Vegas. I don’t know if anybody cares. We’re not there for the casino part of it.

I read you’re vegetarian. Have you looked up any good places to eat? Well the funny thing is, one of the two people I know there, he actually writes about food there in Vegas, so I’ve already peppered him with an email, like, “Where do I go?” So I’m excited to check out a couple of places. We’re not going to have that much time, unfortunately. I know the last time I was there, I actually drove outside of the city and the nature outside of it seemed pretty spectacular. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll have much time to do that. But that’s what I’d love to do. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing the normal people who live in Las Vegas, so I hope they come out to the show. It’d be fun to see, not the lights and that sort of spectacle side of the city, but the real city for what it is—any kind of cooler older part of the city that has the real character, the personality of the city. I’d love to see that.

Obits with Gloomy Place, Cosmic Beasts. November 23, 9 p.m., $8-$10. Beauty Bar, 598-3757.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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