It’s been said that you can’t know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been.
Such is the case with Obits.
The Brooklyn-based quartet—guitarist/vocalist Rick Froberg, guitarist Sohrab Habibion, bassist Greg Simpson and drummer Alexis Fleisig—is certainly a band with pedigree. Froberg was a co-founder of influential post-hardcore acts Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, and Habibion helped create D.C. indie faves Edsel. Though the influence of those earlier bands is discernible, Obits have forged a sound that is all their own.
On past releases I Blame You (2009) and Moody, Standard And Poor (2011), Obits demonstrated sheer mastery of garage rock, flaunting a dual-guitar attack drenched in surf and rockabilly twang. And despite the punk ethos inherent in its DNA, the band eschews pure aggression for an expansive, roomy sound that’s more mood than mosh.
Bed & Bugs, the group’s latest offering, retains the sonic sensibilities of the first two records, while dabbling in some different sounds. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Habibion and Simpson about the making of the third Obits record.
Your first two records were recorded in Brooklyn and produced by Geoff Sanoff and Eli Janney. What were your reasons for going with a different producer (Nikhil Ranade) this time, and recording in Virginia instead?
Sohrab Habibion: Geoff and Eli are old friends, so it was an easy thing to work with them, but we wanted to try something different. With Nikhil, it was the most casual recording experience we ever had. It was basically in his apartment. We went down for three or four days and had such a great experience, we booked a second session to finish the album. He got really good sounds very quickly, and he understands that bands don’t want recording to be a long, drawn-out process. It was really unhurried and non-stressful.
Greg Simpson: The other thing that made it casual is the fact that it wasn’t an official recording studio, where you feel sequestered and cut off from the rest of the world, and there are no windows and you only go outside for brief periods.
SH: Also, there was no ticking clock. When you’re in a normal studio environment, you’re painfully aware of how much things are costing. Nikhil’s ability and his attitude made us very relaxed, so I think the performances are very natural and off-the-cuff, which is cool.
One of the real strengths of Obits’ music is that your songs have a lot of space in them, they’re not overly dense, and you can savor what the individual players are doing. When you first started the band, was it a conscious effort to have this type of vibe?
GS: Dynamics—yes, I think it’s something we’ve always driven toward, and, as you said, not having the songs be so dense. We try to find space in there for the listener to find something. Also, what I think is cool about Sohrab and Rick’s guitar playing is that there isn’t one guy playing lead and one playing rhythm—they’re weaving different parts. Sometimes they cross over with each other and sometimes they’re independent.
SH: One of the things we work on when we’re writing songs is finding out how to utilize that space, and how to do the “most with the least,” so to speak. It ends up being about restraint, which I think is a really cool exercise, and also good listening-wise. Our goal is to make music that we want to listen to ourselves.
Your new record features an instrumental called “Besetchet,” which is really unique sounding, and is a cover of a song that appears on a compilation of Ethiopian music. How did that come about?
SH: It’s a recording from our practice space, so it has a different sound quality. When we were first doing the song, our initial idea was to mess with it and make it our own. There’s something more complicated about the song than something we would ever write ourselves. But we just opted not to tinker with it. It was cool to just leave it as is.
I notice that former drummer Scott Gursky plays the drums on “Besetchet.” Was that song a holdover from way back?
GS: It was a holdover. It’s one that we worked on quite a bit during Scott’s tenure. I was always pushing to do that song. When it came time to do this record, I think we were looking for something to add a little variation, and we usually like to use at least one instrumental. So we put in on the record, and it was perfect.
Obits have some terrific original instrumentals, too. Do you write them as instrumentals, or are they songs that you intended to have vocals on, but just couldn’t come up with lyrics?
SH: When we’re working on songs, for the bulk of the time they are all in instrumental form. At some point, close to when it’s time to record, Rick will come up with the vocal melodies. It might come down to the end, and he feels there’s no room for vocals. We all enjoy listening to instrumental music and surf music and I think the idea of having at least one song per record without vocals is appealing.
Your band seems to wear its influences on its sleeve; for example, Wipers, Television, Wire, the heavy surf twang evident in your guitar sound. But I get the sense that all four of you are true fans of music and have broad listening tastes.
SH: We listen to everything, honestly. It makes it more interesting to me to be in a band where the ideas aren’t all coming from the same well.
GS: For me, it’s always fun to mine the vaults for old stuff that sounds fresh to your ear, but also music that’s not rock at all, but sounds like it could be turned into a rock and roll lick somehow.
In 2009, your band appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. What was that experience like?
SH: It’s a pretty surreal environment. On that show, they have a mezzanine of fans behind the band, on a raised platform, but you can’t see those fans as you’re playing because they’re behind you. Then they have these giant cameras that are sweeping in, right in front of you, but the actual audience is about 80 feet away. It’s also really cold in the studio, because they don’t want people to sweat on camera. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the only one who had makeup on for tv. (Laughs) They asked, “Do you guys want make up?” and I was like “Sure!” (Laughs)
The band is pretty active on its Facebook page, but I find your page unique because you frequently post videos of other bands that you enjoy. Most artists only post things about themselves. Are you just trying to spread the word about good music, or acts that inspired you?
SH: We’re big music fans, and my first reaction when I hear something is I want to share it. I personally don’t want to be bombarded by self-promotion. I figure if people are into our band, they might have an interest in those other artists. It at least creates a dialogue for talking about different kinds of music.
Describe how your tunes come together. Do all four of you contribute songwriting ideas?
GS: It’s all very collaborative. Sometimes one person has a riff or an idea, or sometimes it’ll start out with just a bass and drum thing together.
SH: Also, there are times when Rick will come in with most of a song already done, and it’s just us figuring out how to complement it. One of the joys of this band is we’re playing music with other people who bring their personality to their instrument. The nice thing is that we record all of our practices, so if there’s a part that we like, we can pull it out later down the line. It’s like having a bunch of notes jotted down that we can refer to later.
GS: Another thing that can happen in the process, and makes it good that we have those practice tapes—sometimes we’ll be taking a song apart and putting it back together, over and over, and we’ll feel like we killed the spirit of the thing, and we’ll go back to listen to the first time we ever rehearsed it, and we’ll find something that was lost and try to revive that.
Sohrab, you sing lead vocals on one Bed & Bugs song, “Machines,” a tune that sounds very different from typical Obits fare and is almost ballad-like. What was your inspiration for the song?
SH: It was something I was working on at home. I did a recording to play for the other guys and see how we’d approach it in a band setting. When we were doing the record, Rick thought it was cool and wanted to put it on. Alexis and Greg had came up with a really cool drum and bass thing, so we wanted to overdub them coming in about halfway through the song. That’s one of the things that, for me, is exciting about this record, that there are some different types of sounds. I like our first two records, but I like the fact that this one doesn’t sound exactly like those. And hopefully the next one will sound a bit different still.
Bed & Bugs is available now through Sub Pop Records. For more details, visit obitsurl.com