“Bands Should Have to Sweat it Out”: Talking LPs, Covers, and History With SAVAK


I first met SAVAK singer/guitarist Sohrab Habibion a few years ago, when Obits, the band he was playing in at the time, were just starting to play shows. Three albums and a handful of singles later, Obits called it a day and Habibion returned to music with SAVAK, a taut and intense guitar-driven group whose members boast an impressive musical resume. Earlier this summer, they released their debut album, Best of Luck in Future Endeavors, an intense and catchy collection of songs with a number of subtle tricks up its sleeve. (They’ll be playing St. Vitus with Milemarker later this month.) I talked with Habibion via email about the band’s origins, their penchant for left-field covers, and more.

A couple of years ago, you’d begun talking about a solo project, The Forgery Series, and what you called “a King Crimson-ish prog jam” in an interview with Brooklyn Vegan. Did any of that have any bearing on the music you’re making now with SAVAK?

The Forgery Series played a handful of shows and did some recording, too. Nothing was ever released, but it was a way for me work on music with other folks during Obits’ downtime. It was all tunes that I was writing and less actively collaborative than SAVAK, which started when Michael Jaworski and I began playing together. A number of the other people involved were overlapping, though. And a couple songs or song fragments have been incorporated into SAVAK.

The King Crimson thing was for a specific project, which was a lot of fun, though it ended up sounding more like Deep Purple jamming at the Medieval fair. Alexis and Greg from Obits joined me to work with our friend Jeffrey Rotter to produce something for the launch of his first novel, The Unknown Knowns, a really great book that revolves around a delusional guy who wants to create a museum based on The Aquatic Ape Theory of human evolution. There’s a video, which is as ridiculous as the lyrics.

I’m pretty sure SAVAK will not venture down the prog path. About as proggy as I hang is early Soft Machine records and the Robert Wyatt or Kevin Ayers solo stuff. Even the krautrock albums that get too deep into the hairy German commune vibe aren’t my thing. I prefer simple and repetitive to complicated and meandering. If I’m in the mood for something complex, I’ll put on Sorabji long before I break out the Marillion catalog.

SAVAK’s lineup has two drummers, and I believe the last time I saw Obits, you were also in a two-drummer configuration for that show. What, for you, is the appeal of having multiple drumkits on stage at the same time?

Not a lot, actually. It’s a serious pain in the neck, takes up way too much stage real estate and ups the chances of having something be out of sync rhythmically. That said, in the case of the last Obits lineup, it was Alexis and Matt, who have distinctly different styles, are old friends who each like the way the other plays, and were working as hard as they could to play in a complimentary fashion, so it was pretty exciting for us and left a lot of room for the guitars to step out of the way or get a little weird without it sounding too terrible.

With SAVAK we’ve never had two kits set up at once. It happened that when we started we were playing with two different drummers: Tuesday nights with Matt and Friday afternoons with Ben. When the band became more than just a weekly jam, it seemed to make sense to pool together our resources. For local shows Matt and Ben have played the songs they were a part of writing and for out of town stuff it’s been down to whoever can do the show. Turns out Ben is moving to Chicago so it’ll just be Matt from now on. Though Matt can’t do our European tour in October due to a Holy Fuck conflict, so Alexis will be sitting in with us.

Meanwhile, for shows where Greg hasn’t been available to play bass, we’ve had friends fill in, but James recently moved from keys over to bass, so that’ll be the new normal. And, of course, when possible, we’ll have a sax player or two.

The basic idea is to not be too possessive about anything and focus more on collaboration and trying to do something we all like. People get really hung up on personnel, but I think some fluctuation is a positive thing. Music is active and should behave slightly differently depending on context, be it the players or the space. At least for me.

It seems like there wasn’t that much time between the announcement of the end of Obits and the debut of SAVAK. What was the transition like in shifting from your previous band to your current band?

There had been enough gaps in Obits’ calendar where I was just playing with Matt and Greg anyway that it didn’t seem particularly weird. Mainly it was the public side of our music that started over, which meant and will continue to mean having to work to get ourselves out there and be heard by people who might be sympathetic to our musical point of view. And that’s good. Bands should have to sweat it out and play to nobody and decide if they really want to do it or not. That’s how bands get better and tougher and more coherent as a unit. I’m into that.

If I’m reading the lyric sheet correctly, that looks like a Coffin Prick reference in there. Are there any other easter eggs that people should be keeping an eye out for?

Ha! Well, that was just a silly scribble in the margin. As for other nuggets, there’s a song that started out with me just writing down the names of Fela albums off the top of my head. Then I worked them into a narrative and went from there. I have a bunch of tricks to kickstart my imagination when it comes time to writing lyrics. I want them to be good, so I genuinely try to write and edit them in a way that isn’t just gibberish or rhyming dictionary fodder. But sometimes a little juice is required to get going. One of my favorites is to put on a record that’s sung in another language and just write down what it sounds like in English. That usually requires a lot of reworking, but it’s fun way to begin the process.

The LP packaging for Best of Luck in Future Endeavors has a very timeless look and feel to it. Was there an overarching concept for it from the get-go? What prompted the use of multiple languages on the artwork?

Thanks! I really like the way it turned out.

We asked our old bandmate Rick for help. I guess we were expecting something illustrated, as that’s his most familiar thing, but when he sent over the photo he’d taken on a trip he took to Africa with his family, we were floored. I love the saturation of the colors in the image and lettering he did for the band name.

Because it had a similar feel to old international folk albums (think “Songs and Dances from Chile” or “Mountain Music of Morocco: 1959”), we exploited that look for the back cover.

As for the language thing, given the name of our group, it was appealing to incorporate some Farsi. We asked my dad to write everything out, which he did, and then Rick redrew it, making it more cohesive with the other elements.

Late last year, your released “Christmas in Park Slope,” a somewhat altered cover of “Christmas in Hollis.” Are there any other songs that might get a similar treatment in the future?

That was for Jon Solomon’s Annual 24-Hour Holiday Radio Show on WPRB and we had a great time doing it. It was an excuse to mess around and make something for our friend. Hopefully we’ll skewer a different Yule log this Christmas. The only other songs we’ve covered so far are by MDC and The Stranglers, though neither quite in such an off-the-cuff, farcical style. A while ago we talked about combining parts of “No Silver Bird” by The Hooterville Trolley with “Everything is Right” by Velvet Monkeys. Maybe throw in a line or two from Beefeater’s “Mr. Silverbird”? We’ll see what happens.

Photo: John Von Pamer

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