Indie-rock veteran Rick Froberg was sure of one thing as his latest project, Hot Snakes, was disbanding. He wanted his next project to be a collaboration with his best friend, Sohrab Habibion.
“But we had no idea,” Habibion says, “what form it would take. It could have been two banjos and a bongo at that point.”
Froberg is best known as a veteran of San Diego's early-'90s indie-rockers Drive Like Jehu and the short-lived bicoastal act Hot Snakes (he played in both with Rocket from the Crypt founder John Reis).
His current group's genesis began when Froberg followed a girl to New York City about 11 years ago. “Me and the girlfriend didn't last,” Froberg says. “But my career”—in multimedia and web design—“did.”
Through doing album art, he forged a quick and lasting friendship with Habibion, former guitarist for Edsel, the influential alt-rock band from Washington, D.C. Since the two guitarists hosted those first post-Snakes jam sessions in 2006, they've mined their collective indie-rock résumés for inspiration. The result was Obits.
With underground buzz almost ridiculously obsessing over them since bootlegs of their first show went viral on the web, Obits' debut for Sub Pop, I Blame You, arrived relatively over-hyped in March. But their sound delivers on the hotly awaited promise: Obits' quirkily appealing songs on Blame are as vital and muscular as anything in each member's past.
Doing a show at The Casbah might seem like a homecoming for Froberg, but ask him about Drive Like Jehu, and it sparks little nostalgia.
“You know, I really don't have a good memory at all,” replies Froberg, now 40, with a sincere chuckle.Habibion, on the other hand, has little problem describing the early-'90s foundation he laid with Edsel.
“Edsel was very much coming out of that D.C. scene,” he says. “Sorta the post-punk, post-hardcore, influenced by what was like the triumvirate of bands to us: Wire, Gang of Four and Mission of Burma.”
Froberg eventually finds a Jehu memory.
“I don't really know why, but Jehu just sort of vanished,” Froberg says. “We just stopped ever playing shows again, and that was it. No one ever said, ‘Let's break up now.' And I've had other bands where we knew exactly why. So, that was kind of weird.”
Thankfully, Froberg's true genius is in the music, not his memories. And Brooklyn-based Obits, rounded out by drummer Scott Gursky and bassist Greg Simpson, are smartly synchronized with his gift. I Blame You is a post-rock, intelligent-pop exploration of kinetic disarray framing one shiny hook after another.
One can perhaps chart the maturity arc from Drive Like Jehu through Hot Snakes to Obits: Overdrive, acceleration, elegant abandon.
Froberg can see dividing and uniting lines throughout his career, too. But he claims it's more about the tools in his hands than the sounds in his head.
“With Jehu, it was a sound that came naturally from what we were playing on, the Marshall stacks, etcetera,” he says. “It was a very over-driven, clangy sound… dirty, crunchy power or sustaining chords. But with [Obits], it's a very loud, clean sound—with the Fender amps and single pickups. So it's all built around totally different equipment.”
Habibion, meanwhile, says the surf-based and cinematic textures on the record are intentional.
“I think we all love the surf stuff, but also the movie soundtracks of the '60s,” he says. “And that, like, [Ennio]
Morricone, spaghetti-western soundtrack sound. It's so grand and sweeping and you can spread out with it when you play it—and yet it's still a little corny, too. It's very effective.
“In fact, at practice last night,” Habibion adds, “Rick brought in this idea—just a short riff. It sort of fell somewhere between a Can riff and a spy-movie theme. It was really easy for us to get to work on that.”
Habibion claims shrunken heads are crucial to Obits' chemistry.
“One of the great things with these guys is that no one is really precious about their particular contribution,” he explains. “The older you get, the more willing you are to let your ego take a back seat. When we're in our 20s, we feel more driven to push our ideas and agenda out there—like we have to fight for it.”
Froberg says the band's warm and fuzzy fraternity isn't surprising. “It's just a totally different place and time and everything,” he says. “Of course, it's not like a bunch of [20-somethings]. But in a sense, there are some constants, too: like just strapping on a guitar and doing what you like doing.”
Habibion sums it up with one guiding principle:
“Part of the reason it took us so long to play our first real show is that we agreed from the get-go to not do anything that didn't come naturally or feel comfortable to all of us. That's why it works so well, I think. If it doesn't feel natural to all of us, we don't do it.”Obits play on Saturday, May 23, at The Casbah with The Lights and Drug Wars. www.myspace.com/obitsband.