I adore NYC post-punk garage band Habibi! So much so, that as soon as I heard their debut single – Sweetest Talk – online I ordered the 7″ from France, and after it arrived, put it straight on my turntable and was compelled to pick up a guitar and taught myself the tracks simple yet hypnotic bass line. There was also much dancing around my lounge room with my dog pal Vincent!
Habibi may well be one of the ‘sweetest’ bands I’ve discovered all year. I recently interviewed Habibi’s frontwoman, Rahill Jamalifard. Not only the group’s vocalist but also a visual artist, Rahill makes amazing collage art (collaborations with her guy Ritchard Swain). She lovingly curates mixtapes too, brimming with radness such as obscure Middle Eastern psych music, that feature her art on the cassette covers, which Habibi sometimes sell at their merch table. Ok, enough gushing from me, check out our chat…
Habibi was formed by yourself and Lenaya Lynch; how did you both meet?
RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Well, Lenaya and I met initially at a show I was booking for a mutual friend of ours from Detroit. We both lived in Detroit for years, but never met till we both moved here to NYC.
Was it important to you to have an all-girl band or is that how it just how it ended up being?
RJ: It wasn’t really a set formula we were going for, it sort of just became a band made up of girls. For me personally it was mostly about feeling comfortable with the people I was playing music with.
What does your band Habibi mean to you?
RJ: Sanctuary. It’s how I channel all my feelings, emotions, and inspiration. It’s a real creative outlet for me. And it also means family with my girls, Karen, Erin, and Caroline, we’re really close, it’s sort of like a sisterhood.
You’re of Persian ancestry; do you draw on your heritage and its culture/music/art for inspiration in the music that you create? I’ve noticed that Habibi’s lyrics can be quite mystical and there seems to be an eastern kind of vibe through your music that I’ve heard.
RJ: Very much so. Although I was born here in America, I identify as Persian. I grew up heavily influenced by the arts and culture of Iran, the poetry, the miniature paintings, the traditional music, the architecture, all of it! One of our songs is called Persepolis, which is a tribute to both my grandfather, and the ancient ruin of Persepolis, just outside my father’s native city of Shiraz. Once upon a time Persepolis was the capitol of the Achaemenid Empire.
How much time do you spend working on your lyrics? How important are they to you? Are there any techniques you use in writing them?
RJ: The lyrical process takes less time than the instrumental process. I’ve always written, so the transition from poetry/prose to songs wasn’t very difficult. I don’t really have any techniques; I am just very tapped in to my emotions and channel them through writing. So it’s really all based on emotions and whatever I’m feeling at the time.
What was the last song you wrote and what was the story behind it?
RJ: A song called Misunderstood. I feel really cheesy saying that, such an angsty title [laughs]. But it was basically just a day where I felt really disconnected and misunderstood, you know those days when no one gets you and you feel like everything you’re saying/doing is being misinterpreted? Well I have those often, so I decided to write a non-apologetic anthem about how it’s frustrating and I don’t mind solitude all that much. I had GG (Allin) and Flipper heavy on my mind.
Who are some of your favourite songwriters? What is about their words that move you so?
RJ: Favorite song writers? Lemme preface this with saying Ism probably forgetting a few. Man… Well Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, GG Allin, Hasil Adkins, Daniel Johnston, Syd Barret, Sam Cooke (though he didn’t write all his songs, the few he did were enough). Although the group is pretty damn diverse I think the consistency among them is that I appreciate how sincere and original they all were. Obviously in varying degrees some are more freakish and eccentric than others, but all their music touches me as sincere and from a true place.
I noticed a post on Habibi’s Facebook from July that said you were recording; was it for a new release?
RJ: Yes! We have been taking our sweet time recording for our upcoming single, which we are now finally wrapping up!
In an interview I read with you earlier this year you said “I am largely influenced by the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.” I wanted to ask you if you’d consider yourself a spiritual person and what that means to you?
RJ: I definitely consider myself spiritual. I feel it is important to be connected on a deeper level. I read a lot about Sufism when I was younger, I was fascinated by the mysticism and the transcendence of one’s self. Not to get all philosophical, but I sort of see life as a quest to find ourselves through purification of our hearts and minds.
In that same interview you also mentioned “I feel like so much of the music out there right now is a watered down result of a homogenized Internet age” which I found very interesting. Could you talk a little more on this and elaborate please?
RJ: Sure, what I basically meant was that because of the internet I feel like there is a more uniformed international sound. We basically can hear what everyone else is doing everywhere and I feel that that has great impact on the creative process, it’s sort of handicapping in a way. When I was a kid I didn’t even have cable let alone a computer, I basically had no outside influence on anything, I feel like music would be completely different if that were still the case
A Village Voice review of a Habibi live show commented they found you to be “shyly charismatic”, would you say the shy part is accurate? Have you been performing for very long?
RJ: Ha, embarrassing. Yea, I get that a lot. I’m pretty bashful onstage. If I had it my way I’d be singing to my drummer the whole time. This is actually my very first band, so no I haven’t been performing long, and it’s something I’m still getting used to.
I’ve read that Habibi are big believers in the DIY ethic/way of doing things; what was your first exposure to DIY?
RJ: My first exposure to DIY would have to be my amazing mother. I grew up going thrifting with her, and she would always come home with clothes that weren’t quite our sizes but she would tailor them to make sure they’d fit us perfectly. Sometimes she’d even buy decorations for our house, and when we’d get home she’d break out paints and cover them in her own designs. I learned a lot from my mama!
I noticed in a Habibi Tomboy Tour diary from earlier this year that you had a pretty gnarly bruise from a skate ramp incident; is skateboarding another passion of yours? Were you a tomboy growing up? I know I was, ha!
RJ: Oh man, yes. I grew up skating. Loved it with all my heart, always wanted to be as good as all the boys, never was. Definitely was a super tomboy. I’ll never forget this memory I had from 5th grade on the playground when a bully was hitting the girls too hard during dodge ball at recess and John Folino (the class jock) shouted out, “Hey Timmy I swear if you hit another girl one more time I’m gunna beat you up, EVEN RAHILL.” Haha, that about sums me up.
What was one of your fondest memories from the tour?
RJ: To SXSW? Man so many great memories. I think the very first show we had there was such a special moment between all of us. We had no idea what to expect and the crowd totally loved and embraced us. Speaking of skateboarding, Jake Phelps editor of Thrasher happened to be there rocking out. Talk about 17-year-old dreams coming true.
Habibi collaborated with Les Weirdettes to make a film clip for your song Sweetest Talk; how did the collaboration come about and what’s your favourite thing about the clip?
RJ: The collaboration came through the record label that put our first single out, Born Bad Records, they put us in touch with Les Weirdettes. I really love the whole thing my favorite image is the green lasers shooting out of king tuts eyes, looks rad!
As well as being the frontlady for Habibi you also make some amazing photomontage art; when did you start making this kind of art?
RJ: Aw man, thank you! Well I’ve always sort of collaged, since I was young but I just started doing it more seriously with my boyfriend.
What is it about this style of art you enjoy so much?
RJ: I really love collaging because it is so expressive. I love the idea of using different images out of context and creating a piece with a whole different meaning. It’s challenging in a different way than painting or drawing.
What’s your process for putting together a piece of photomontage art?
RJ: Well for example the cover of our first single was a collage I did. I used a black and white photograph I took of my cousin years ago and blew it up, I drew onto the image and then behind it I assembled a collage made up of different patterns and fabrics from a book of Qashqai nomads in Iran.
Where do you source your images from?
RJ: Well through the years I’ve collected many photography books, but there is a place in Detroit I recently went to and stocked up on old national geographic books, along with other old editions of world photography.
I noticed that at some of your shows you guys sell mixtape compilations that feature your artwork on the cover. What kind of music/artists would I find on your mixtape?
RJ: Yes I made a limited run of mix tapes that featured a bunch of obscure Middle Eastern psych music. I feel like it was a genre that wasn’t given too much attention at its time, so it was my way of sharing their music with foreign ears.
What’s next for you?
RJ: We have our second single coming out this fall and we have an east coast tour planned with our San Francisco pals, The Mallard! Stay tuned everybody!