"It’s funny, says Obits guitarist and (very) occasional lead vocalist Sohrab Habibion. “Years later, I’m playing with the guy who wouldn’t let me sleep.” Habibion recalls the sleepless nights on tour back in the 1990s with his old band Edsel, when Obits frontman Rick Froberg’s former group, post-punk favorites Drive Like Jehu, would be playing in the background.
“If we were staying at somebody’s house,” Habibion explains with a chuckle, “at 2 a.m., the person would go ‘man, you gotta check out this record!’ I would want to do nothing but go to sleep at that point, so I associate Drive Like Jehu with not being able to sleep.”
Listeners still partial to Drive Like Jehu’s moody, angular drone might have a hard time grasping how Habibion could have willingly overlooked their work, especially as Edsel was mining similar territory. But it’s partly because Edsel was mining similar territory that Habibion makes an ideal partner for Froberg to distance himself even further from the sound he himself once described as “ponderous.”
“Yeah,” agrees Habibion with a laugh. “That kind of music as a whole, even at the time I was making it, I wasn’t actually listening to other bands like that so much. I listen to music based on whatever mood I’m in, and it’s not the kind of music that fits into my home. But it’s fun to go out and see live. If I want to listen to music like that at home, it’s probably going to be Wire or The Damned, not a ‘90s indie-rock band.”
Fans of Drive Like Jehu, Edsel or Froberg’s celebrated pre-Jehu group Pitchfork should know that barely a trace of those bands’ styles can be heard in Obits’ sound. Instead, Obits have opted for a straight-up garage sound — at least that’s what it sounds like at first.
About three songs or so into the band’s debut, I Blame You (out on Tuesday, three days before the band plays The Bell House), myriad shades of punk, post-punk, new wave and even ‘80s pop begin to materialize from amidst the ‘50s-evoking sheen of guitar reverb. As one listens more closely, other influences (such as Devo, Husker Du, etc.) come into sharp focus, even as they remain discreetly tucked into the (relatively) straight-ahead sound that the record maintains until it’s over.
It is in this initial deceptiveness that Obits will grab some listeners, turn off others and ultimately reward anyone who listens more closely. Because I Blame You lands far from yet another tossed-off stroll down the same retro-decorated path we’ve all been dragged down a million and one times before.
“We definitely can’t hide our backgrounds and have no interest in hiding them,” says Habibion. “So it’s going to come through that Rick grew up playing in punk rock bands, and I grew up in the [Washington] D.C. scene going to see the D.C. hardcore bands.That’s always going to be part of our musical vocabulary. It just may be more or less pronounced in any given song.”
Of course, where Jehu and Edsel were characterized by the brittle two-guitar frost of the era, where single-note melody lines intertwine to create a tense kind of harmony, in Obits Habibion and Froberg lean more toward the more traditional rhythmic strumming of rock ‘n’ roll. As we move farther away from the ‘90s, and indie-rock hallmarks that initially appeared to be aging into clichés have arguably begun to acquire new charm, fans may wonder why Froberg and company have opted to go in the opposite direction—or why it took the band two years of rehearsal to arrive at what is, essentially, a simplified approach. But therein lies the appeal of Obits.
“It’s not a self-conscious or conscious thing at all,” says Habibion. “It just took us a while to find that voice, which is why we were in the practice space for so long before playing a show. It’s probably the first time, at least for Rick and for me, where we can experiment with a more traditional component and feel pretty comfortable with it. As long as it doesn’t make us cringe or feel too corny, we don’t mind embracing a cliché now and again.”
Mar. 27, The Bell House, 149 7th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.), Brooklyn, 718-643-6510; 8, $10/$12