The Brooklyn psych-rockers want to show the world the beauty of Iranian culture—and so much more.
Brooklyn five-piece Habibi haven’t stopped pushing boundaries since 2011, when vocalist Rahill Jamalifard and guitarist/vocalist Lenny Lynch started fusing Iranian music with ’60s girl-group harmonies and psych-rock riffs. The pair have resurrected the first song they wrote together, “Come My Habibi,” a mesmerizing slice of Middle Eastern-inspired surf-psych-garage bliss, to serve as the lead single off their forthcoming record, Anywhere But Here. Sung in both English and Farsi, it comes complete with a breakdown that includes celebratory ululations.
While Habibi pay homage to Jamalifard’s heritage, she says their work explores more than her “cultural ties.” On Anywhere But Here, the group sounds even more expansive than before, experimenting with 12-string guitar, ney flute, vibraphone, and sitar on songs that take us through deserts, mountains, and cityscapes—all with a pervasive undercurrent of unease. Tracks like “Born Too Late,” “Misunderstood,” and “Hate Everyone But You” are about feeling lonely and out of place, but as Lynch and Jamalifard tell it, Habibi have found a sense of belonging in each other.
Anywhere But Here is out February 14 on Muddguts Records, and “Come My Habibi” and “Angel Eyes” are out now. Get a sneak peek of the rest of the record with an exclusive behind-the-scenes video (filmed and edited by Nick Noyes)–which AdHoc is premiering below–and don’t miss Habibi’s record release show at Market Hotel on February 15.
Including both English and Farsi was an integral part of your 2018 EP, Cardamom Garden, but almost all of the songs on Anywhere But Here are sung entirely in English, with the exception of “Come My Habibi.” What made you decide to write primarily in English for the album?
Rahill Jamalifard: There was no deliberate decision to include less songs in Farsi. When it creatively strikes, it strikes. This group of songs just didn’t have as much of a tie into that. But we are including a special surprise with the record, so if you’re a fan of the Farsi stuff, we got you.
“Come My Habibi” was the first song you wrote together. What inspired you to revisit the song?
Lenny Lynch: We had always wanted to develop it, but it didn’t seem the right fit or the right time to do that on the first album. After working for months in the studio at XL and having all these musical avenues available to us, we decided to give it a whirl and see if it worked. [Bass player] Leah [Fishman] had the idea for the round at the end, and it all came together magically.
What was that first experience of writing together like?
Lenny: It was kismet! I had taken a break on music and was questioning myself a lot, and when I met Rah, it just was a natural thing to come over and start working on songs again and getting excited about writing. We both encouraged each other on our ideas.
Rahill: I didn’t actually think of it as songwriting, because it came about so naturally. We had such a shared love of music that switching to writing songs felt like another mutual interest instead of a creative exercise.
“Angel Eyes” is also a song from Habibi’s earlier days. How did that one end up on the album?
Rahill: A few years ago, I had been watching a lot of spaghetti westerns and was pretty inspired by them. I loved the antagonist from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly—Lee Van Cleef—so I wrote the song as a love note to him. I sat on the idea for a while and let inspiration of a newfound romance bring it back and write itself into the song. Side note: It’s my favorite song on the album.
Was it a challenge working with new instruments, like a 12-string guitar, ney flute, vibraphone, and sitar?
Lenny: We had these wonderful friends come in and play ney, the 12-string, and the tombak. Rah got to experiment on vibes, and I got to fool around with the sitar. It was heaven.
Rahill: Rock can be so one-dimensional. We all listen to so much more outside the rock realm. I love jazz, experimental, and folk from Iran, so being able to include more unconventional instruments on this record was truly a dream!
How did your Duke University residency come about? What sorts of conversations were you having on the campus?
Rahill: We were connected with them by Todd Walker, an agent at Paradigm. Their program featured artists who grew up in Muslim communities, inviting them to speak with classes about their cultural ties and how it inspired or informed their musical process. I was honored to be a part of the program as someone who culturally identifies as Muslim. My upbringing has had a great impact on me. It was especially cool to talk directly to young WOC about finding my heritage empowering and meaningful. I had a few students thank me after class, saying they felt moved and inspired to hear another WOC talk about their culture and incorporate it into their passion.
Lenny: We had a women’s studies class where we talked about the new frontier of women in bands and how you can continue what you love to do as you age, despite it being more male-dominated. In another class, we talked about the roots of rock and roll and how it affected us growing up in Motown, and we discussed Middle Eastern influence on Western culture in another class.
Each one was uniquely special, and we came out of it being inspired by the kids. My favorite day of the week was when we took part in a Girls Rock workshop where the ages ranged from 5 to 60 years old, and this little 5-year-old wrote a killer song about sleeping on the beach! We had the time of our lives.
Rahill’s other project, Roya, came out with an overtly political record in 2017. The press release for Anywhere But Here says it “responds to a current global climate of unease,” but it’s not as direct lyrically as that album was. What’s your thought process behind not including more explicit critique in your Habibi material?
Rahill: You’re asking me this question on the wrong day (Trump is tweeting threats of attacking Iranian cultural sites), so this isn’t easy for me to respond to. I think with Habibi, it’s been a very obvious journey from the start—this project serves as a vehicle to bring me closer to my heritage. The art, the lyrics, and the instruments are all an homage to where I come from. I don’t need to speak to politics with Habibi, because I don’t want to inspire anything other than awareness in the beauty that I know to be true.
Also, Habibi isn’t a solo project; there are five of us, which is great, and that allows Habibi to be inclusive to all things: love, lament, hate, sadness, and apathy, not only my cultural ties. I think of Roya as a separate entity—me on my own, and nasty and pissed off, because I’ve felt nasty and pissed off since Trump was elected. With every passing day the man’s been in office, my revulsion grows. Roya felt like a vehicle for releasing that frustration and contempt, so I went ahead and did it.
“Born Too Late” laments being born in the wrong time. What about our present moment makes you feel like you were born too late?
Lenny: My best friend growing up’s grandmother was in a girl group called The Poni-Tails and they had a song called “Born Too Late,” and that concept resonated with me. Now, who doesn’t romanticize about simpler times when people actually got bored and didn’t have phones attached to their bodies or social media hindering their creative processes? Don’t get me wrong—I’m very happy to be a woman living right now and having the freedoms that we have, but [there’s] that feeling that you have as a kid, when you’re watching old movies or reading about the artist circles of the past. You think, “Well, damn, this is so unfair that I didn’t get to see Carnaby Street in the ’60s or hang at Max’s Kansas City with Warhol superstars!”
“Misunderstood” is a cool upgrade from the version that appears on the La Luz split. Were there any particular misunderstandings that inspired the song? Are there any common misconceptions about Habibi you’d like to address?
Rahill: You wanna know the secret behind that song? Ha—I wrote it because I got into a fight with an ex on a Greyhound bus on our way from Detroit to NYC. No worse place in hell exists when you are at your wit’s end with a person you’ve grown to truly resent and are crammed into a very turbulent, loud, and obnoxious bus for 14 hours. I felt so betrayed by the world that day, I wrote the song in protest of everything that was going on around me.
Lenny: I think one common one that we get from people is that we’re in a band, so we must be party animals. While we can karaoke our asses off and we do like a nightcap, we have been put in party jail many times by well-meaning fans that capture us and wanna rage all night.
Rahill: Yeah, I barely drink, have never done drugs, and I think my curfew is usually a solid 12 AM, haha.
On “Hate Everyone But You,” you say you “wanna move far away” and “get out of the USA.” What would be your dream country to move to?
Lenny: I love Portugal! Great wine; amazing seafood; cheap; nice people; the beach. I’m ready to retire now.
Rahill: I’m up every night thinking about this question. I’m still unsure. I love Mexico, and I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to the land and people there, but there are so many countries I still want to visit before I answer that question.
That song is also a really charming tribute to the friendships within the band. How do you usually cheer each other up when you’re feel misunderstood or like you hate everyone?
Lenny: We all talk and laugh. A lot. But when you’re stuck in a van all day with little sleep and trying to subsist on mangoes and coffee and your feet are sore from wearing frickin’ platforms on stage, believe it or not, sometimes even we get annoyed with each other. We can weather the storms because we’ve all been friends for so long, and we can usually get it out with a quick fistfight, and then we’re good.
Rahill: No one makes me laugh harder than Lenny besides my dad. All we do is laugh—at each other, at ourselves, at innocent bystanders, ha. We’re real pros at it. I think that’s kind of the secret to our friendship—and definitely the remedy to any bad feelings and moods.