habibi melds middle eastern psych with catchy 60s pop
Brooklyn’s garage alchemists sound off on 'Cardamom Garden,' their first EP in four years (featuring a Cramps cover in Farsi).
Lenny Lynch thinks she first met Rahill Jamalifard at Zebulon, a shuttered Williamsburg jazz cafe. Karen Isabel knows she met Jamalifard at Don Pedro, an Ecuadorian-restaurant-turned-punk-bar that closed its doors last year. Lynch met Leah Beth Fishman (a friend of Isabel’s through the NY punk scene) when Fishman was DJing at Lower East Side basement bar Home Sweet Home. “You played Wimple Winch, and I freaked,” Lynch reminds Fishman. “Oh yeah,” she replies, “We totally bonded over obscure psych records. I met you,” Fishman says, turning to Jamalifard, “when I was singing in a soul band.” Somewhere along the way, Habibi was born.
The Brooklyn band’s origin story (however tangly) enshrines its kaleidoscopic sound. Habibi is best known for its collision of psych rock riffs and harmonious 60s girl pop. You’ll find both (plus echoes of surf, folk, post-punk, and Motown soul) in spades on its debut LP, released in 2014 by Burger Records.
This March, Habibi will reveal its long-awaited follow-up, Cardamom Garden. Like the self-titled effort that precedes it, this three-track EP is full of charged-up garage rhythms and infectious hooks. But here, they interact with elements of Middle Eastern psych. The results are unexpected, exciting, and, as always, catchy as hell.
“From the beginning, [Habibi] has always been an homage to Middle Eastern psych,” says Iranian-American Jamalifard, who sings in Farsi for the first time on Cardamom Garden. “If you listen to the lyrics on our first album, it’s about nomadic gypsy women in the mountains. [Singing in Farsi] felt like the next step in a natural progression.”
Digging deeper into these hypnotic grooves, Habibi evolves its own sound, and others’. Cardamom Garden closes with the band’s cover of “Green Fuz,” the sole output of Texas-based late-60s garage group Green Fuz. (The Cramps gave the track its signature psychobilly twist in 1981). Habibi’s harmonious Farsi version kicks up the tempo and lays the rumbling riffs on thick.
Ahead of the EP’s release, we chat about high school hair do’s and Coney Island.
This record is your first in four years.
Lenny: We’re finally doing something that we’ve always wanted to do, and going into a direction that expands our sound.
Rahill: But a lot of the material we’re working on now is stuff we’d already started. We drafted a song on the next album while on tour three or four years ago.
Karen: A lot of songs on the back burner that we’re now enhancing.
Leah: We hadn’t been playing together for years, so it’s all been marinating.
Lenny: One of the songs on the EP, “Nedayeh Bahar,” was a complete practice space song — something we were just jamming on one day.
Leah: I had it saved in a recording from a practice from four years ago. The audio was so bad, we had to piece together what the song was.
Rahill: It was a good obstacle, because it challenged us to build the song out more, and finalize it.
On the opening track, there’s a moment where a classic surf riff becomes a propulsive, Sonic Youth-ish idea. I’m curious about the influences each of you bring, and how they transform.
Rahill: That’s a cool way to hear it, because I don’t think any of us are limited by a specific sound.
Lenny: Totally. It’s a bunch of influences coming together. We love Middle Eastern music, but we’ve got a pop sensibility. I was in a glam band for a while.
Rahill: I was super into hip-hop growing up, too. I’ve lifted a riff from a Brand Nubian song. It’s funny. You don’t listen to our music and think, ‘Yeah, these girls really love hip-hop!’ [Laughs].
Karen: But it’s true!
Leah: We really wouldn’t have a song like “I’ve Got the Moves” if you weren’t into hip-hop. I met Karen growing up in the New York punk scene. We didn’t even know each other, but we were probably going to the same shows in the 90s. I mean, I had a mohawk all through high school.
Karen: I had a Chelsea! [Laughs]. Punk and salsa music have been heavy influences for me, growing up in a Puerto Rican family. Also, the way our influences come together sometimes has to do with how each of us are feeling when we’re working on something. I might be playing drums in a poppier manner, but you might be in a more Middle Eastern state of mind.
This is your first record with songs in Farsi. How did these songs develop?
Rahill: When people have asked us about our future plans, we’d always said we’d like to do some stuff in Farsi. Industry people would be like, “Oh, really? I don’t know… You’re taking a risk.” But we never cared! We’re just making music that we like. I’ve always been so inspired by aspects of my culture, so when we had the encouragement between us in the band that the stuff was killer, we just kinda went for it. Hearing other people’s reactions to our Farsi cover of “Green Fuz” made me want to do it more.
Lenny: One of the first times we sang in Farsi was at our friend’s benefit. We did this Kourosh Yaghmaei song — he’s the godfather of Persian rock — that was so beautiful, and it felt magical. We realized then we needed to do it more.
Rahill: “Kodayah,” the introduction song on the EP, is something we’ve been playing for years, we’ve just never recorded. If we had jumped the gun and just began writing songs in Farsi from the start, I don’t think it would have felt as natural. We needed to build that confidence and trust within ourselves.
Some friends caught your set at Burger Beach Bash and they really dug it. How did you become part of the Burger universe?
Rahill: [Habibi’s longtime bassist] Erin Campbell is now in the process of becoming a nurse, but will always be a part of the band. Her previous band had done some Burger stuff, so we connected with them through her. It was just, click. They really loved us, got us great shows. Lee, who runs Burger with Sean, took us on our first tour of the West Coast.
Lenny: And we were impossible. [Laughs].
Rahill: We stayed at Burger. Like, at the record store.
Lenny: They’re like our brothers. One thing about Burger that’s so exciting — and I didn’t realize it until we went out there — is that they do all-ages shows. We’re all in our early 30s now, when we toured we were in our late 20s, and we were like: ‘Where are all these kids from?’ They’re so little, and they love rock and roll! You see less of a youth culture here in New York because it’s much more expensive.
Karen: And a lot of the venues here are 21+.
Rahill: It was wild. All these kids know our lyrics? What?
Lenny: It’s so exciting to see. If girls pick up guitars and start writing songs because they came out to a Burger show, or to our show, that’s gonna be amazing. It’s so much fun to be in this band, and that made it feel even better. So big thanks to Burger.
What was it like playing at Coney Island?
Lenny: That was the coolest day.
Rahill: Randy from the YMCA —
Lenny: The Village People!
Rahill: Ha! Could you imagine: Randy, the front desk guy from the Y. Sorry, Randy from The Village People introduced us [it’s true: Randy Jones, The Village People’s original cowboy MC’d the show], and then we went on the roller coasters.
Karen: It was so much fun.
If you could play anywhere in New York City — somewhere that still exists, or is extinct — where would you pick?
Leah: Max’s Kansas City.
Lenny: Good one. Studio 54, Carnegie Hall.
Rahill: The Apollo!
Karen: Oh I’m down with the Apollo.
Leah: I’ve played at the Apollo! With Sharon Jones. It was honestly the best night of my life.
What are you looking forward to this year?
Rahill: I really think it’s our year. We really feel like “hell yeah” about everything. And this is such a personal project. I’m so excited to release it.
Lenny: It’s been four years, and we’ve all grown into our skin — with each other and as individuals. It’s such a healthy, amazing place to be.
Rahill: I also really hope this record gives the broader audience a different way of looking at Iran, or the Middle East. An appreciation for or an awareness of a culture that’s under siege. I hope it does open up some closed ears.