Bringing in the String Section with Sohrab Habibion
Musicians with big ideas aren’t generally known for their fantastic humility. And no artisté in general wants to admit that any part of his or her unrelentingly brilliant output was ill-conceived, painfully trendy, or borne of some drug-fueled experience on whatever Vegas comforter Lindsay Lohan’s ass cheeks stained last week.
After all, how can mundane turds drop out of the otherwise gleaming, sainted assholes of our favorite musicians? Perish the thought!
But revisiting artistic failures is about more than public shaming, or wallowing in bad choices. It’s about acknowledging fallibility, owning past mistakes, and sifting through the smoldering pile to see what, under different conditions, might have survived the freakish birthing process.
That brings us to Bringing in the String Section, a.k.a. What The Fuck Was Your Band Thinking? We talk to musicians about the worst songs and records of their career. Simple as that.
The “string section” here could be more than an orchestral turn in the studio, or the sort of genetically doomed experiment that Lou Reed and Metallica recently miscarried. It could be a new lead singer, a whole new band (nice one, Axl), a detour into radio-friendliness (Liz Phair, Lupe Fiasco, etc.), or the adorable notion that you’re creating some kind of lasting art (there there, Radiohead).
You changed it up and you fucked it up. Accept it.
And yes, getting out of one’s comfort zone into the blinding realm of possibility is often a great and necessary thing. Just know that not everything you do is going to be gold. Or even pyrite.
Finding a musician who would reopen old wounds and rub tasty rock salt into their squishy crevices was not easy. But our first victim, Sohrab Habibion, has never been in a shitty band in his career, so his missteps stand in stark contrast to his successes. (And he’s cool, too, so there’s that.)
As guitarist for Sub Pop champs The Obits, Habibion is also a former member of post-hardcore legends Edsel, and a respected Brooklyn graphic designer, composer, and sound engineer.
VICE: What's your least favorite album when you look at your bands’ past work?
Sohrab Habibion: Strange Loop, the first record I made with my old band, Edsel. It sounds very little like our group did at the time, in 1991. We were a scrappy three-piece with a real Wire/Gang of Four bent, but what came out of the studio was more like mid-’80s Killing Joke. Not necessarily a bad thing in its own right, but not particularly representative of what we were doing. And it definitely didn't highlight our strengths, so it still sounds like a mistake to me.
A few songs on the second Edsel album, The Everlasting Belt Co., really make me cringe. It was, for us, a relatively experimental recording. We had certain ideas that seemed fun to explore at the time, but they didn’t all exactly hit the mark. There’s a guitar line and vocal delivery on “Pigeon-Hearted” that makes me think of the The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” as interpreted by the most local of local bands. I don't remember what our intent had been, but I’m certain it wasn’t that.
The list goes on and on. Sometimes it can all seem pretty awful. If I’m ever in the mood to wallow in uncomfortable memories, I can put on a double-CD of four-track recordings I made in the Virginia mountains and released under the name Margo. They’re not terrible or anything, but they are unadorned and raw in a way that’s awkward and unflattering.
Where did these projects go wrong?
I’m very glad to report that none of my disappointment comes from trying to adhere to trends or hoping to please an old girlfriend or a record label or substance abuse or whatever other rock ‘n’ roll cliché that can be subbed in. The disappointments come from poor editing. One of the nice things about being in a band at the age of 41 instead of 21 is that it’s easier to feel relaxed, listen with greater accuracy, and make decisions more objectively.
Also, in Obits, Rick does most of the singing. And I happen to really like his voice. My own voice is something I still try to come to terms with.
What have your past missteps taught you?
It’s weird, but I’m not sure I’ve actively learned anything. Most of what I would consider to be positive evolution as a musician just comes from time passing. Things lose their immediate context and can be evaluated for what they are instead of where they happen to be positioned relative to what’s around them. Whatever quirks of the given moment make an impression that hopefully imparts interesting character. And it turns out that all those cheesy keyboard sounds and guitar effects don’t sound so bad after a bit. Then they do. Then they don’t. Then they do again. You just have to wait it out.
I like the fact that at the core of most mistakes is a willingness to stick one's neck out. Without that risk there may not be any embarrassing disasters, but things move toward being incredibly tedious and boring. I appreciate it more and more as the little corner of our popular culture that I’m familiar with becomes increasingly scripted and predictable. Long live the amateur!
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