The Obits story plays out in turns both modern and old school: The band has been practicing discretely since 2005, never playing a live gig. Two members brought extended lineages in independent rock to the fold: Singer/ guitarist Sohrab Habibion was in D.C. band Edsel, and singer/ guitarist Rick Froberg splintered himself over the years in Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes and Pitchfork.
They were a band of rock 'n' roll men doing their thing, either oblivious to the public or intently focused on tightening the screws to their sound before going public. Froberg's complex voice strikes through his own and Habibion's guitar, a pinched yowl that's got a punk get-off-my-back urgency and the soulful heart of the blues. While their history points to neo-punk and angst, Obits feels that spirit of early rock, too, like they've had a few shots with Dead Moon and took a few bad vibe lessons from Don Howland, he of the Gibson Brothers and Bassholes.
A decade or so ago, when some of Obits' members were touring small clubs in their respective bands, a band like Obits could have toil away undisturbed until they wanted to turn the gears toward a record themselves. But the Internet pushed Obits along: After release a single on their own label, Stint, a bootleg of their first live gig emerged on the web. Once word got around, fans of their precursor bands began drooling, and labels started taking notice, too. And who reined them in but Sub Pop, a label who'd been around since the days when rock bands like theirs were championed by small labels and devoted punk followings. Asked to play the label's 20th anniversary party, Obits signed to the venerable indie to release its debut, I Blame You.
I caught up with Sohrab Habibion as the band prepared to kick off its tour.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Much has been made of the several great bands—Edsel, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes—that comprise the background of Obits. How did it all come together?
SOHRAB HABIBION: I knew of Rick's previous bands in San Diego, but I met him here in New York through a mutual friend who took me to an art show of his. I really liked Rick's work, bought one of his paintings and, over time, as we started hanging out more, we became good friends. He somehow knew Scott [Gursky], and Scott knew about a practice space, so a drummer and a place to play came into the picture simultaneously, which was quite fortuitous. From that point, which was maybe in the fall of 2005, we rehearsed two nights a week, as we still do, desperately trying to figure out what our sound actually was.
At one point we went through our Molly Hatchet phase, though maybe it was more of a Molly Hatchet-meets-Flat Duo Jets phase, as we had three guitars and no bass. Unfortunately, that did not work, though there were moments that were kind of interesting, one song in particular we may resurrect called "It's A Mighty Long Road To Randy Rhodes' Graveside." Anyway, I'd met Greg through freelance graphic design work, and we were always talking about music. I remember long conversations about 13th Floor Elevators and mid-to-late '80s New York bands on Homestead. One day I asked Greg if he wanted to play with us and see how it goes, and he was game. He came down and plugged in. It was instantly obvious that the way he plays and the sound he gets was exactly what we were looking for. Things started to move much more quickly then and about 8 months later we played our first show, which was in January of last year at the Cake Shop in Manhattan.
What changes have you made in your life since that original bootleg came out three years ago and Sub Pop practically demanded you sign with them?
To clarify the timeline a bit, that bootleg was from our first show, about 14 months ago. And, as much as I like the idea of Sub Pop demanding for us to work with them, the truth is that they approached us before anybody else and were exceptionally friendly and sincere about their interest. We were quite flattered. We all own a ton of records on Sub Pop and feel very lucky to be in a band that can call such a fine entity our home. They also promised us a lot of product endorsements and access to Jonathan Poneman's yacht, so right now I am writing this e-mail from the middle of the Red Sea, just off the coast of Jeddah, covered head to toe in platinum-studded Escada denim. It's pretty sweet.
You seem to be pacing the growth of the band as you want. What drives you to work on songs these days?
We are not a band of young, attractive men with chiseled jaw lines. The good part about that rather sad statement is that we can make our decisions based on experience and patience. Those very same things inform the process of our songwriting. We like a lot of music and are curious to explore our abilities and interests as we see fit. We also have a lot of limitations, but we're OK with that. Sometimes inspiration comes from hearing something in someone else's music, and sometimes it comes from a random riff generated in our practice space. Hopefully in another couple of years, we're still doing this, and each time out continues to feel fresh and full of possibility.
On "Light Sweet Crude," there's a bit of an end-days feeling. Does this same tone carry over to what you're doing as a band?
Well, we are a bit long in the tooth. And the times we are in can seem rather bleak. But I think our music sounds like walking home late at night, with a few dim streetlights scattering shadows along the city street—calm, but with an underlying tension.
How do you work out the stifling guitar sound of the band?
Hopefully, it's not too suffocating. We try to balance dense passages with more open sections. I really like playing guitar with Rick and Greg. Everybody is very sensitive to what the other is trying to do. Suggestions are welcome across the board, and we're all willing to sacrifice our part—however cool it may seem in the moment—for the sake of what we perceive to be a better song.
Do you feel free to do things in Obits you couldn't in others?
I guess so. I can't speak for Rick, but in Edsel we were reasonably open to new ideas and encouraged them. I think the main difference is just being older, being a better listener, having egos take a back seat and being open to certain risks musically.
Obits play Local 506 Monday, March 16, with Bear Hands and Orphan. The show starts at 9 p.m. and costs $10.