Home and away with Habibi

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With almost unanimous adoration pouring in after the release of their self-titled debut album, New York’s Habibi are at something of a crossroads, navigating the new unstoppable force of becoming a big deal. Their debut album’s clever instrumental and thematic experimentation has deep roots for these women, who each bring a distinct music lineage to the table, not to mention a work ethic that makes it easy to root for their success. Across eleven tracks, the range of styles reflects a real understanding of the influences at play: Motown, garage, and Middle Eastern traditions of guitar and bass work in tandem to show a large breadth of musical understanding.

I sat down with the four women at Champs’ vegan restaurant in Williamsburg during one of New York’s last bitter blizzards, a welcome respite from slogging through oceanic slushpiles. But, with a lot of ground to cover, there wasn’t too much talk of the dismal weather, and in one sitting—over red-nosed sniffles and focused tea-slurping—four bright, magnetic personalities came through. They’ve honed their sound alongside their professionalism, and they all agree that a big part of that comes from having full lives outside the band and the music. Judging by their spirited snow-day hangouts, that enthusiasm surely translates in a live setting the same way it does on the record.

How did you all meet?

Rahill Jamalifard: Lenny and I are both from Detroit, and we knew all the same people there, but we met here. We instantly got along really well, and meanwhile, my ex was friends with Karen and Erin, who were in the same music scene in New York, having both gone to LaGuardia High School For the Arts.

What was Detroit like?

Lenny Lynch: It’s a lot of fun! Or, it was fun until I lost my driver’s license from sleeping in my car. Taking buses in Motor City . . .

How often do you guys see each other?

Lynch: At least once a week. Too much! Just kidding.

Jamalifard: We all have really crazy work schedules, and two of us are in school; Karen’s studying history, Erin is in a pattern-making program at FIT, and Lenny and I work.

Does that make it hard sometimes to coordinate and make time for the band?

Lynch: Since all our schedules are different—all kinds of day jobs and night jobs to work around—it’s so hard. We actually just got onto Google calendar, so hopefully that will make a difference. When we first started, it was a lot easier to practice. Things were slightly less expensive, so there were more eligible spaces. Now, by the time we get to practice, we’re like “Do we have to?!” But then once we start it’s awesome and the stress goes away.

Karen Isabel: And we have a fifth member now—a bassist—so it’s another schedule to contend with.

Erin Campbell: Yeah, we started writing songs that have two guitars and realized we had to figure out how to execute it live. There were so many places on the album where we wanted to work in another guitar part, and now we can finally do that.

How do you guys feel about the response you’ve been getting to the album release?

Jamalifard: I actually just read a review of the album that made me cry. It talked about how the lyrics are really personal. I knew they were for me, but it’s moving to know that they translate. We’re super thankful for the unanimous support we’ve been getting.

Isabel: That’s half the reason for our scheduling trouble, because so many things are coming up. Now it’s not just practicing and playing; it’s radio shows, and signing contracts, and doing a music video before we leave for tour, and figuring out the touring schedule. It went from like hobby to SERIOUS hobby. No goofin’ around.

Lynch: We need a staff.

You should hire interns.

Lynch: We need an agent, a lawyer, etc. All this stuff is taking over. We always had it in our mind that this time might come, but were like, “Okay, guys, it's here now!”

The songs feel very tight and concise. They tell really detailed, rich stories in a short time. Is that a function of your editing process or do they come out that way in the beginning?

Jamalifard: Well yes, I think our longest song is like three minutes and some change.

Campbell: I’ve never been a fan of songs that are super long anyway—you can totally get done what you need to get done in around three minutes.

Lynch: With “Tomboy” on the album, it’s almost four minutes. But live, we edit it down to about two minutes, so we have to compromise some of the story, which is hard because we want to keep that energy.

Jamalifard: “Tomboy” is funny because it’s so long—I had a lot I was trying to get out with that song, but . . .

Campbell: . . . but then we were like, “Rahill, it’s not a novel!” I remember on “Detroit Baby,” Rahill came in with something written, and we tried to figure out how to work it so that it would sit more precisely.

Jamalifard: That’s pretty standard for us.

The characters on the album are really distinct, especially the “She/Her” figure that’s referred to throughout, in different iterations. For instance, the contrast between the character in “Tomboy” and in “Let Me In.”

Jamalifard: That’s for sure. With “Tomboy,” I think people get hung up on how she’s this rebel badass, but then the last line is, “When she gets home, she sets her mask down, and she asks 'Mom, do you need me?'” So she's really a sweet kid who has to deal with a lot of bullshit from the outside world. She puts on a hard front because she’s dealt with hardship, but she’s soft on the inside. Whereas “Let Me In” is really raw for me. It reflects a very vulnerable time in my life. I wrote it about an ex, so you could say it’s a little more personal.

It’s raw and personal, but then there’s also this level of detachment, as if you’re speaking in different voices.

Jamalifard: It’s always somehow reflective of how I feel, but I do play with it. Sometimes, the stories are just there and not dressed up, but in “Sweetest Talk” or “Gypsy Love,” which isn’t on the album, it’ not really a specific character, but more of a composite woman of heroine qualities. I really admire the women in my life, and their experiences as women have really informed my songwriting. I think I romanticize them while trying to bring in real-life qualities.

If you were looking for a new member and you found someone who, musically, was totally perfect, but he was a guy, would you go for that, or is it important that it's all girls?

Lynch: It’s happened, actually. Funnily, when you are a “girl band,” everyone’s like “it’s a girl band, it’s a girl band” and that fact becomes a huge presence in people’s perceptions of the band, but if you’re in a band with all guys, no one ever says, “It's a guy band.” So that can be frustrating because our all-girls profile isn’t totally intentional, we just like playing together. On the other hand, we are just so comfortable with each other, and I’m sure that stems from being all girls, like changing in the car and the hotel rooms—I think a man would be scandalized!

To this day, rock and roll tends to be very male-dominated, especially genres like punk and grunge. Do you ever feel a tension?

Isabel: There are small things, like then you get on stage and a guy says, “Hey, you want help setting up your drumset?” I’m like, I’ve been playing for nine years, go away.

Lynch: Maybe he just wants to help! [Laughter]

Campbell: Someone once asked me, “Are you the drummer’s girlfriend?”

Isabel: Overall we really don’t have a bad time of it, just the occasional comment. I do feel like we have to work twice as hard, and not look amateurish, because if we do, people aren’t going to think, they’re an amateur band. They’re going to think it’s because we’re girls. You have to hold yourself to a different standard. The album was the first thing we put out, and we knew we couldn’t half-ass it. We don’t wanna give anyone fodder for those types of criticisms. We ask ourselves, “Would we listen to this? Do we feel truly good about it?” That’s important.

Lynch: Maybe it isn’t as gendered as this, but sometimes on tour, I’ll listen to bands we play with, made up of all guys, and I’ll think “Where’s the song?” Thats the thing with us; the song doesn’t get lost.

Can you think of an interesting or memorable experience you had with a fan or audience member, someone that stuck out?

Jamalifard: Man, this just happened and I haven’t even told you guys yet but one of my personal heroes—Hamish Kilgour from The Clean—just wrote me an email saying he really loved our album and wants to play a show with us. I was completely floored.

Lynch: That reminds me, the same thing happened to me with Kyp Malone and Kid Congo.

Campbell: Also recently, the drummer from Nada Surf, Ira Elliot, told me Habibi reminded him so much of The Pandoras, whom he toured with in the eighties and who I’ve been listening to since I was 15, thinking how I would want to have a band that sounded that good.

Lynch: How have we not told each these?! We need to be better about this.

Do you guys have a reset button in case, leading up to a show, or at practice, something feels off?

Jamalifard: Oh god, we need one. I think we play the best when we’re all really in our relationships with each other.

Lynch: We need to throw pie in each others faces, and be like, “Come on, let's fucking do this!”

Sounds like a good pre-show move. You guys seem to have a lot of fun together.

Jamalifard: For a while, Lenny had to leave the band and we had a different guitar player. It never felt right. I never felt like I could be myself onstage, like our juju was off. Now that she’s back, I never have to worry about that, it makes it more spiritual.

Lynch: Six months after we started, my boyfriend was in a really crazy accident in Portland so I went out there, not knowing how long I’d be gone. It was so unexpected, and it turned into five months. Then, by the time I came back, I had no money, no job. I felt like that whole year was me trying to get my life together, and I wasn’t really thinking about if I could do the band thing again. We recorded a little, and I thought that would be the end of it, but then it went so well, I realized how much I missed playing, how big a part of me it was. And being with these girls is so comfortable and fun.

Now that the album is out, what’s on the horizon?

Lynch: Well, it’s so rare that the record label (Burger Records) you’re on is made up of people who are as stoked on music as you are. Business is a part of it, but the quality of the music always comes first, and they do it so effortlessly.

Jamalifard: It’s an enterprise built on love, and wanting to spread the word about good music. They’ve made us feel like we have a lot to look forward to as a band. And we’ve got a bunch more stuff to to record.

What’s it like trying to make all this happen in New York? Is it sort of an uphill battle?

Lynch: Even with the other bands on our label, it’s sort of hard to find people to play with us. We love the New York bands that are here, but there just aren’t that many of them. It’s difficult here. You really have to hustle if you’re trying to focus on music, but also keep a full-time job.

Isabel: And it’s not like we can practice at our houses—practice spaces can fall through, and they can often not line up with people’s schedules. All this money goes toward the littlest things.

Jamalifard: We have friends in Nashville who all live together as a band, and it’s their livelihood.

Do you see yourselves doing that?

Isabel: No, I think we are all maybe a little too ambitious in our own different ways. Not just about music, but about our jobs and educations.

Lynch: Some people say if you wanna make it in music, it has to be the most important thing in your life, but there are so many other things we want to do. And, actually, I think those external ambitions really add to our music and camaraderie. It makes the band more grounded. We always want to make sure that each other’s individualism is respected because if you aren’t careful about that stuff, there can be resentment.

What was it like before?

Lynch: I have to say, there isn’t really a youth culture in New York anymore. There’s obviously a lot of young people that move here, but I was shocked recently when I was in California, where teens can really do what they want and have their own culture. Here it’s all about bars and 21+. There isn’t enough all-ages stuff.

Jamalifard: It seems like when Erin and Karen were growing up in New York, there was a more supportive culture. I never see flyers for shows like I used to see back in the day.

Isabel: But even then we were sort of out of place. I remember when i was 15, trying to go see Bad Wizard at Arlene’s Grocery, and the bouncer goes to me, “You’re too young for rock and roll.” I pretty much lost it.

Campbell: I used to get dragged out of shows at Lit by my collar. There were a handful of places where they’d have all ages shows, like Nightingales, or Abc No Rio, or C-Squat.

Isabel: Also The Red Zone in Queens.

Lynch: I can imagine being too old for rock and roll. Honestly, it started with teenagers!

Jamalifard: I wanna know where the kids are hiding that look like this little girl [shows a photo on her phone of grungy, 15-year old Lenny].

Lynch: I never lived in New York, but my sister moved here when she was 17. She was all like, “I hate my parents, I’m gonna move to New York.” You don’t see a lot of that now, that real teenage rock and roll spirit. When I visited her, she’d bring me to these Shout parties—they were these late 90s/early 2000s mod parties on sunday nights at Bar 13, where you never got carded. My boyfriend used to DJ there. Moving to New York when you were young used to be this “FREEDOM!” moment, and I don’t think people perceive it that way anymore, or they can’t.

Campbell: You can’t even fucking pee on the street now!

Lynch: And mixtapes! Mixtapes, oh my god. They basically changed all our lives. Any time you got a new boyfriend, you’d be like, “I’m gonna give him this mixtape.” It was such an expression of yourself. I remember I gave mixtapes to these girls when we were 15, and I was so disappointed to learn that, years later, they were still listening to my mixtape. I was like, “You’re still listening to that stuff? You’re supposed to take that and find other stuff!” The thing about mixtape culture was this attitude of “keep digging.” What you found was great, but it was supposed to inspire you to get into something new. Of course it’s okay to like stuff forever—you’ll always like the Rolling Stones, the Ramones—but you can’t just stop there.

How did you come up with your name? Did you want to lead with the idea that there were Middle Eastern influences on the album?

Isabel: “Habibi” was just a casual mention while we were playing. Rahill suggested Evil Eyes; she wasn’t even that into Habibi at the time, and we were like “Eh, well we’re not a metal band.” We didn’t start the band thinking that we wanted to be pigeonholed into having to use certain influences over others. We’re all very strong personalities, so that’s going to come through the music more than cultural influences.

Lynch: Though that’s where Rahill and I came together a lot, on our shared appreciation for Middle Eastern musical traditions and techniques. We were into a lot of the same bands and singers. For instance, there are some things you can do with two guitars that we haven’t been able to do yet, to add in certain textures. There are also some pentatonic scales elements we experiment with. A lot of people think this whole genre of music—exotica, in general—is really racist. And I mean, sometimes it is. With exotica from the 50s, people were being influenced by Hong Kong, or some by Middle Eastern melodies, and they made these songs about pharaohs and sheiks or “fujiyama mamas,” like really stereotype-y stuff like that, and it’s amazing, because now you could never pull off that kind of stuff. But at that time, everybody was doing it, and every album of The Contours or bands like that would have a song about “being in Egypt land.” Now, that would be considered completely offensive and politically incorrect. There are so many melodies from those songs that influence what I think I want to do in the way of mixing those pentatonic scales with pop influences.

Jamalifard: I was just listening to the Rex Rex Rex compilation, which is an old compilation of Iranian psych, and this is my idea of perfect music—taking Middle Eastern influence and plugging it into Western garage, or psych. With Habibi, you’ll never hear that on every song, but it’ll definitely figure in.

At a certain point, you start to hear the same thing over and over again from a lot of bands that are going for a particular aesthetic that might sound great but it gets repetitive. What’s invention if you can’t mix things and take influences, and do something risky?

Lynch: This might be a horrible analogy but, with Bob Dylan, everyone was so mad at him when he picked up the electric guitar, but really, that was the best business decision he could have made. He knew that the folk thing was not gonna last that long. He couldn’t expand his musical boundaries by always playing folk, so that allowed him to do so much more, and then he became an actual rock and roll star.

Campbell: Neil Young got bashed a bunch for all the changes he made as well, and look how far he’s gone in his career.

There’s a big range of sounds and styles on the album, which seems smart, because you’re almost giving people a teaser for what’s to come.

Jamalifard: We thought a lot about the song transitions, and the ordering, and we like that it’s hard to pin down.

Campbell: Also, I think it’s easy to throw out the term “girl group” in the absence of another description or category for the music.

Lynch: Music critics can be very formulaic when they talk about bands, where they’ll compare you to another band or ask you who you think you sound like. We’ve gotten everything from Black Sabbath to The Beach Boys.

It must feel really weird to get written about, more and more all of sudden.

Lynch: Very bizarre, the things we get. One review referenced arpeggios while talking about the guitars . . . and I don’t arpeggio!

Isabel: Of my drumming, someone once wrote “. . . none of that high-hat clickity clack for Karen.” It’s super weird, like someone trying to describe what you look like when you’re standing the in the same room.


Habibi's self-titled debut LP is out now on Burger Records.