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Being Uncool With the Obits

Ex-Drive Like Jehu frontman's N.Y.C. band the Obits just released their third album to unanimous acclaim -- and they couldn't care less.

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    The Obits are not cool. They could care less about skinny jeans and leather jackets. They don't plan their “image,” and they certainly won't be promoting Sailor Jerry’s rum. In a way though, maybe the fact that they could give a s-- at all about any of those things makes them the most hipster band around. I’m no scholar on what’s cool and what’s not -- hello, I have seven black T-shirts and a pair of jeans in my closet (I get by) -- but if I had to guess, the Obits have got it in spades. Let’s just say there are no pre-show outfit dilemmas. 

    Bed and Bugs, the Obits' new release, tiptoes the line of garage punk and surf-y melodic rock, but these dudes aren’t exactly young bucks. They’ve been around the block a few times, and you may just recognize some of their previous bands (especially if you’re from San Diego): Pitchfork, Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu. They got their start in 2006, when guitarist/singer Rick Froberg relocated from San Diego to Brooklyn and ended up writing music with former Edsel guitarist Sohrab Habibion. Their partnership eventually led to their excellent 2009 debut album, I Blame You.  
    Continuing with their penchant for angular, biting guitar rock, their new record packs a punch. Recently, I had a chance to talk with Habibion before their Nov. 22 Casbah show about the new album and how, exactly, they fit in today’s musical landscape -- or if they do at all. 

    Dustin Lothspeich: The Obits broke out in 2006 with a seemingly fully realized sound. Did you know what the identity of the band would be -- or was there pressure to sound like your previous bands?
    Sohrab Habibion: No, actually it wasn’t fully realized at all. Our sound was genuinely born of playing music together. The way our music ended up sounding wasn’t a conscious decision by any means, but it definitely pleases us. How we sound just came natural to us. It is what it is, really. But we try not to be monochromatic. We try not to have a narrow view that "we only write this specific kind of music." A lot of bands confine themselves to a little corner, to sound like something particular where they can only work within that framework, and they’re happy to stay there. We don’t.

    DL: You’ve mentioned that the first album took a while to come out because you wanted to take the time to do it right. Did Bed and Bugs fall into that process, too? Or was there more urgency?
    SH: I think when we started out, it took a while to figure out what we were doing. We weren’t in any rush. It was more of, "Let’s just play until we feel like it’s worth sharing with our friends or families." But with each record after that first one, we’ll have backlogs of recordings that we’ll make at practices, where we’ll work on a riff or two-thirds of a song -- so then when it seems like we’ve exhausted the touring possibilities for the previous record, we’ll go back and process all those ideas we’ve worked on. But, no, we don’t really have a specific way of doing it. It does take a while, regardless. And there’s so much lag time between the time you record an album and when it actually comes out -- it’s the beginning of November and I’m discussing shows next July with our manager. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it.

    DL: It’s common for bands to say their new record is the best work they’ve ever done -- and is that how you feel about the new album?
    SH: I think when you make a recording, it’s more of a snapshot. Sometimes you get a good one, or maybe the part you were trying to focus on is flattering, but sometimes the flaws in the snapshot are what end up making it interesting. It’s hard to judge music when it’s happening. In 20 years, if anyone even cares, it’ll be interesting to hear the album and to hear what people say then. But it’s really hard to get a good sense of whether something is good in the moment. I feel like, right now, we live in a soundbite world, a six-second video, 140 characters, etc. Everything is really compressed. It’s like people need to have a response to it immediately or it just disappears. And honestly, that’s not how a band like us succeeds. We’re for people that like rock music, hang out and listen to an entire record. If you’re OK with that, then we might appeal to you. It's honest. A lot of people are really into well-presented and prefabricated stuff -- the Ikea of music, if you will -- where it’s all about the concept: Get the leather jacket, the skinny jeans, buy the right equipment and hey, you’ll end up sounding like whatever band you want! 

    DL: Do you listen to a lot of new music?
    SH: Not really [laughs]. And I say that for a couple reasons. As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s hard to judge music in the moment. There’s so much baggage with everything. And what I mean by that is: I feel like with a lot of bands, I have to work so hard to get to what the band actually is. I don’t care if a band takes off their shirts or climbs on top of the PA speakers -- that stuff doesn’t matter to me. Now, bands are sold in those ways. They have a certain look or have a certain appeal to what they do. It’s all packaging. So, really, it’s easier to find music that’s old, because it’s a genuine discovery. But I will say that one of the nice things about going on tour, is I get to watch all the bands we play with -- because I get to hear what a band really sounds like, what their dynamic is; it’s live and in the moment.  I want to experience the sound coming out of the speakers. That’s how I like discovering music. 
    DL: Do you have any reservations about the plethora of bands that seem to be popping up that kind of ape the garage-rock sound you guys have done for the last eight years?
    SH: There is stuff that I have a hard time with. A lot of bands just seem one-dimensional. Bands that are really into the Ramones or Jesus & the Mary Chain end up sounding like those bands. And that speaks to trends going on in the music industry. But our band does not live in that world. We’re really unaware -- we exist outside of popular music. And ultimately I think garage rock is a misnomer. It’s more about lifestyle marketing and less about music. You’ve just got all sorts of companies piggybacking on these bands, this lifestyle. I mean, ostensibly, you don’t start a band to sell someone else’s product. It’s not exactly a goal [laughs]. And it’s ironic for us, because the idea that a 43-year-old could sell anything to a 22 year-old is absolutely absurd. So it doesn’t bother me, specifically -- I mean, I understand the money has to come from somewhere -- but there’s a point where it feels like it’s not about the music. We’re just a band. We play music. It’d be nice if people would just focus on that.  
    The Obits play the Casbah on Nov. 22. We'll be there, doing our best to look cool. 

    Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Diamond Lakes, Chess Wars and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.