Punk Hooks and Rare Books: An Interview With SAVAK


Since their formation in 2015, Brooklyn’s SAVAK have been on a tremendous run, releasing album after album of blistering garage-punk at an admirable pace. Their latest album, Flowers of Paradise, is a fantastic addition to their discography, blending a postpunk urgency with the sense of warmth that longtime musical compatriots can summon. I spoke with Sohrab Habibion and Michael Jaworski about the genesis of their new album, the rare book trade, and my inability to identify an EBow.

You’ve been making and releasing music at an impressive pace, and while most bands have seemingly been slowed by the pandemic, that doesn’t seem to have been the case for you. Did Flavors of Paradise find you changing anything about your approach?

Sohrab Habibion: We did come at this one differently. After our first 2 albums, Best Of Luck In Future Endeavors and Cut-Ups, which we did mostly in a very nice Manhattan recording studio with our comrade, and occasional bass player, Geoff Sanoff, we ended up investing in equipment to make better recordings at our practice space. So Beg Your Pardon, Rotting Teeth In The Horse’s Mouth, and Human Error / Human Delight were all tracked in the room where we have our weekly rehearsals. For the new full-length, Flavors Of Paradise, we wanted to step into a completely different zone and decided to go to Chicago to record at Electrical Audio with our pal Matthew Barnhart.

Michael Jaworsk: Also our approach ended up being different than the past albums in that we did everything as a trio, with just Sohrab, Matt and I doing all of the writing and recording. Our drummer, Matt Schulz, moved to Ohio during the pandemic, but was still coming back to Brooklyn for work every other month or so, and we got together 2 different times in the early part of 2023 to improvise and jam out some new ideas. After two sessions we realized that we had 14 solid song ideas and decided to focus on those for “Flavors Of Paradise” with the intention of recording everything live, together in the same room, which was something we hadn’t done since our first and second LPs. We also didn’t have any guest musicians and this is the first SAVAK record that’s absolutely horn free! We ended up embracing the lean-and-live, 3-piece aesthetic. It’s amazing how “big” a record can sound when you resist the urge to add more and more layers to everything.

I’m curious – what are the significance of the dates heard in the lyrics of “Let the Sunlight In”?

Habibion: 1953 is the year that the CIA overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in a coup. In 1961 General Bakhtiar of SAVAK, the feared and despised secret police of Iran, met with President Kennedy in DC. Nixon and Kissinger visited Tehran in 1972. And in 1985 my high school hardcore band, Kids For Cash, released its lone 7″—I wanted to undercut the seriousness of the other dates with a very trivial event and including this particular one cracked me up.

The theme of the tune is how little we know about the way nations actually communicate with each other and how often we are encouraged not to even care about it. We live in a world of highlights where there’s not enough room on the crawler for the most interesting part, which is the “how” and “why” things happen.

The verses are set up as little vignettes. Each is only a few lines. But I was picturing an aging intelligence operative sent to a far-flung post in the Near East, left to wonder if his dispatches were being read or even received. The silly twist being that instead of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold you’re getting The Spy Who Was Left to Die in the Heat.

There’s a memorable use of organ in “Living Will” and “Attribution.” Would you say that it has more of a presence on this album?

Jaworski: It’s an interesting question because I feel like a lot of the song arrangements on our previous records were more layered with organs, synths, horns, etc., and we consciously made an effort not to do that as much on this one. That said, a fake Mellotron organ did show up on “Living Will.” I think it might stand out more because the song feels less cluttered to me. We did end up adding some synth and piano parts on a few other songs too. I guess we can’t help ourselves… ha!

Habibion: On “Attribution” it’s actually an EBow on the guitar. You can only use it on one string at a time, so I overdubbed a couple of passes to create the harmonies, which in this case end up sounding more like an organ when you hear them all together.

You’d mentioned that you have a background in antiquarian book buying — has that had any bearing on the music you’ve made since then?

Habibion: In the ’90s I was employed for several years by Second Story Books in DC. I was in the band Edsel then and there were lots of other musicians behind the counter. My first day on the job I rode around in a dented cargo van, picking up and dropping off books with Mike Fellows of Rites Of Spring. Mark Haggerty (Gray Matter), Amy Pickering (Fire Party), Alex Daniels (Swiz) and Ian Svenonious were at the Dupont Circle store. Ian was vying for the Sassiest Boy in America title at the time. If someone still has it, there’s a very funny tape of Ian asking other people why he was indeed the Sassiest Boy in America. Anyway, most of the punkers were at the Dupont Circle branch, but I also did time at the Bethesda location, which is where I ended up really learning about old, rare and out-of-print books. John Pamer from Tsunami and I would work together on Sundays and Daniel Kessler (later in Interpol) would bring us treats from the bakery next door, where he was slinging bread pudding and croissants. This was a job that, despite its low hourly wage, had tons of benefits and influence on my life. The social element of it was great for bonding with other people who were part of the same music community—we would recommend various authors to each other and I learned an incredible amount. It was my exposure to Jane Bowles, John Fante, Naguib Mahfouz, William H. Gass, Cynthia Ozick, Mohamed Mrabet, etc. It was also just when everyone was getting rid of their LPs to buy CDs, so the records coming in were pure gold. I was listening to Don Cherry, Alhaji Bai Konte, Meredith Monk, The Ray Draper Quintet, and Townes Van Zandt for the first time. All of that was crucial in helping shape who I am even 30 years later.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you had any good stories from that period….

Habibion: Well, aside from goofing around with the other young music people I worked with, undoubtedly the weirdest single thing that happened was the time I found the diary of woman who had committed suicide among the boxes of a book buy I was doing. A regular customer who ordinarily hunted for and picked up multiple copies of the same early ’70s records in mono, stereo and quad—replacing covers or discs with ones in better condition—brought in about 8 boxes of books to trade for store credit. It was enough stuff to go through that I told him to come back in a couple of hours. I came across a notebook as I was sifting through the boxes to figure out what we could actually use [side note: people don’t seem to understand that their decrepit science textbooks from high school or a heavily underlined and dog-eared paperback of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is actually better suited for the recycling bin]. I opened it and saw the scribbled words, “Dear Goddess…” which seemed potentially ripe for comedy, so I started reading it aloud to my coworker. Then it got weirder and weirder and the entries were progressively more chaotic and the writing itself started to change as well. It was clearly the same hand at work, but the letter shapes were getting smaller, the words were closer together, and the direction of the lines became erratic. By this point I was reading it in silence. There were paranoid paragraphs about the diarist’s husband, crude drawings of faces and limbs. The last page with any writing on it just had a few short lines about needing to stop the pain. It was awful. I felt terrible. I was also struggling with what to do when the guy came back. Should I give him the notebook? Should I just throw it away? Had he read it? Did he even know it existed? I’m not happy with the decision I made, but I also don’t know that there was a good one available.

Did I see correctly that one of your songs is used in Marc Masters’s podcast? How did that come together?

Habibion: Yes! He emailed me to ask if he could use our song “Sick Of War” for his podcast, the very aptly named The Music Book Podcast. He’s a great guy and the program is excellent, so we couldn’t be more pleased to be a part of it. Also he gave us a little bit of money, which I only mention because it’s a reflection of his integrity. But, as I write this, I realize that I’m a few episodes behind, so thanks for the reminder to jump back in…


Photo: Taylor Sesselman

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