Habibi: Motown Meets the Middle East
By: Melody Berger
Photos by Ikue Yoshida
Brooklyn based band Habibi, whose name means ‘my love’ in Arabic, are riding high off the buzz of their amazing self-titled album which came out on Burger Records earlier this year. With trippy sweet vocals and fuzzy guitars laced over raw pounding drums, you’ll find yourself wanting to shimmy shimmy shake and head bang at the same time. This is the first musical outing for lead singer and songwriter Rahill Jamalifard, who is heavily influenced by classic Iranian psychedelic music and poetry, along with her Detroit upbringing. (and, hey, half the Habibi ladies grew up in NYC, the others in Detroit. So thems a bunch of tough broads.) When I chatted with Rahill and drummer Karen Isabel the group was preparing for a summer filled with shows and laughter and an exciting fall tour with mainstays Shonen Knife.
Tom Tom Magazine: I keep on reading articles that refer to Habibi as an all girl punk rock band. It’s bizarre, I’m like have you heard them? You’re actually more 60s surfer rock, pretty mellow. Maybe they just hook on to some rebellious aesthetic of the group?
Rahill Jamalifard: Our attitude is pretty punk. I mean, Karen is punk. She grew up a New York City punk kid, through and through. Don’t let the cardigan fool you. So, I think it’s maybe the attitude. But on record, in terms of the songs…
Karen Isabel: On record we’re not punk.
R: Yeah, on record it doesn’t make sense.
K: The most punk rock song on the album is the Tomboy song…
R: And that sounds like a Blondie song.
Rahill, your visual art reminds me of Marjane Satrapi (author of graphic novel Persepolis). There’s obviously the Middle Eastern connection, but you also both have this kind of edge, and young, feminine vibe.
R: That’s rad, I’m glad that it translates like that. When I found out about her I was just like, that’s so cool. I don’t identify all that much artistically, or even just as an individual, with many people from Iran because they have this whole ‘my brother’s a doctor’ kind of attitude. It’s so cool to have this badass Iranian girl who likes punk.
Tell me about your songwriting process.
K: Rahill writes the lyrics and comes up with the tunes in her head. Then she calls us girls and we create our parts.
R: Karen’s like, oh, yeah, I can hear drums.
I hear them everywhere! I love your drums. They’re very caveman thumpy.
K: When we started out thinking about drums that was always kind of what we wanted to do, you know, very Moe Tucker, minimal. I’d been playing in hardcore bands my whole life before this so it was kind of a nice change of pace.
R: And she has a very cool innate style of going for tribal. Very minimal but very interesting.
How long have you been playing drums, Karen?
K: Since I was 17, I’m 27 now. I used to do construction at this place that was being built into a record store and they were building a recording studio downstairs. The woman never really paid us but she had a drumset and said we could use it. Then she decided she wanted to start an all girl misfits cover band, and handed me a CD and said learn how to play that. And that’s how I started playing drums.
R: And your mom’s boyfriend played drums?
K: Yeah, my first stepfather played drums in the Victims. I kind of grew up with him on tour a lot, and I looked up to him so I wanted to be a drummer too. Also, I’m Puerto Rican so we’re really big into the whole tribal rhythm thing.
You’ve only had one temporary lineup change in the three years you’ve been together. That’s amazing.
R: We’re really lucky. A lot of bands aren’t fortunate enough to have it be this consistent. For the album a few of the songs have two guitars, so because of that we’re looking to expand. We’re not sure who’s going to become the fifth member and it’s really hard because we’re so sisterly at this point.
K: We’re also four really strong personalities, and we’ve managed to somehow work together. And now to bring in a fifth one… they’re kind of walking into a gang.
R: Ha! Yeah, a gang, a straight up gang. I think we’re really kind of intimidating. So now I get why people say we’re so lucky. It’s really hard to find this perfect mix. I wouldn’t say any of us are perfect but we work together perfectly.
Well, that could bring us to the inevitable girl band question. Or the ‘What’s it like being a man in rock’ question…
R: Ha! Exactly.
K: The last time we did a radio interview we were hanging out with our friend Allison (Busch), she plays drums in Call of the Wild, and she said, ‘Does anyone ever ask Animal how it feels to be a puppet drummer? No, he’s just a drummer!’
I love your song ‘Tomboy’ and that you all identify as tomboys. Do you think it’s a rebellious gender category or does it reify things? You know, this little girl doesn’t fit into the gender binary, but one day ‘The tomboy grows up!’
R: Like the ugly duckling who is suddenly a swan!
Why can’t the tomboy growing up just be me in my boxers watching a movie and eating chips?
K: You know as a girl when you grow you’re told to cross your legs and don’t talk to too many boys, that kind of thing. When you’re a tomboy you’re going to do whatever the hell you want. We’re all definitely that way.
R: I was my dad’s first kid… he definitely wanted a boy. So, I played sports and was super athletic. I was also really ostracized as a Middle Eastern girl at school. I was like, alright, I don’t identify with chicks. These girls are weird, they all get to shave their legs, and I have a mustache. I’ll never forget this story: in elementary school this kid Tim, who had been held back a couple of years and was just huge, was making all the girls cry during dodge ball. John Folino shouted out, ‘Hey, Timmy, I swear I’m gonna beat you up if you hit another girl, even Rahill!’ That was f***ing 4th grade for me. And I was like, f***, I’m not a girl?? And then I sort of embraced it because I was like, I don’t want to be like them. But I’m girlie too… it’s like what you’re saying, it isn’t like, ‘I was a tomboy, but now I’m this beautiful woman!’ I was born with dirt underneath my nails. I’m far from perfect, and if that’s your idea of womanhood then I’m the farthest from it.
K: Yeah, being ladylike. What’s that about? I used to get s*** for it all the time. I’d go to shows and get into fights with guys. And girls next to me would be like, ‘What are you doing? Why’d you punch him? You don’t do that, you don’t hit people.’ And it’s like, what’s the point of being at a punk show if you can’t hit somebody?