Habibi embraces Middle Eastern influences on long-awaited second LP

Habibi, UFO Factory, March 12.
Habibi, UFO Factory, March 12. Bailey Robb

Habibi first hit the scene nearly a decade ago with a scrappy, lo-fi sound born out of bedroom jam sessions between Rahill Jamalifard and Lenny Lynch that mixed garage rock, Middle Eastern, and girl-group influences and quickly turned the Detroit-via-Brooklyn, New York band into indie rock darlings.

One of the songs from those first jams was "Come My Habibi," which inspired the band's name (Arabic for "my love") but was never recorded — until recently. For its long-awaited second LP, Anywhere But Here, which came out on Muddguts Records last month, Habibi headed to NYC's XL Recordings studios with Alex Epton. There, Epton helped the band flesh out its sound by bringing in instruments like the sitar, 12-string guitar, ney flute, vibraphone, and tombak percussion to the sessions.

"It was like a 180 from our last record," says Lynch. "It was incredible to finally do an album with, like, Lee Hazlewood-like lush production, Wrecking Crew-style."

Though Jamalifard (lead vocals) and Lynch (guitar and backup vocals) are both from Michigan, they didn't meet until they moved to New York. In Detroit, Lynch played in a number of local bands and was part of the UFO Factory back when it was still a loft in Eastern Market, while Jamalifard, who grew up in Lansing, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, moved to Detroit for its music. She was less of a participator and more of an appreciator, drawn equally to its hip-hop and rock scenes.

"I would go to a lot of hip-hop things," she says. "House Shoes used to do this event, and Proof used to come there. And then the guys from Slum Village used to do another event. At the same time I was doing that, I was listening to rock and went to see Guitar Wolf at the Magic Stick."

"Living in Detroit at the time was obviously pretty dangerous, but you all kind of stuck together," Lynch says. "Like, all we did was play music."

The two left Detroit for New York more than a decade ago; Lynch had a sister who had moved there, and Jamalifard visited on a lark and decided to stay. In New York, the two started jamming after meeting through a mutual friend from Michigan. Lynch hadn't played music for a while and was going through a breakup, while Jamalifard had never played in any serious bands. They didn't let that stop them.

"I was really adamant about just doing stuff right away all the time," Jamalifard says. "Like, 'Let's play a show. Let's make a song.' I had no idea what I was doing. Lenny was like a veteran compared to me."

The two quickly bonded over a mutual appreciation of Turkish rock music. "I grew up with traditional pop and folk," Jamalifard says. "I don't think I've ever heard my parents listen to anything that was American besides what was on the radio." Meanwhile, Lynch says growing up her dad loved "American Graffiti, oldies, and Motown up the wazoo." It all blended together to form the Habibi sound.

"I think that what's special about Habibi is it's not something that was contrived," Jamalifard says. "It wasn't like, 'OK, how are we going to be a band, and how are we going to sound different than everybody, or how can we make this special?' I was like, 'Hey, listen to this,' and she was like, 'Hey, listen to this.'"

Jamalifard points to surf rock guitar hero Dick Dale, whose Lebanese heritage influenced his guitar-playing. "Nobody asked him back then, like, 'Was your intention to write a song with a minor scale in homage to your roots?'" she says. "We've consistently been doing this and sometimes it shows up a lot and is very present. And sometimes it's just really subtle," showing up in just the lyrics, she says.

Once the band started playing, rounded out by Brooklynites Erin Campbell on bass and Karen Isabel on drums, things moved fast — really fast. In Detroit, they shared a bill with a band from Born Bad Records. Soon, Born Bad put out a single. Then, just as the band was taking off, Lynch's ex-boyfriend, the "Soul Clap" DJ Jonathan Toubin, was injured in a freak accident in which a taxi cab crashed into his hotel room. Lynch spent all her money on a one-way flight to visit him in Portland, and wound up staying there most of the year as he recovered. For a short time, Habibi carried on without one of its founding members, but eventually Lynch rejoined.

In 2014, the trendy label Burger Records put out the band's self-titled debut. Lynch says she had an eye-opening moment when the band agreed to play Burger Records' annual Los Angeles festival, Burgerama.

"I think it was a year after the album came out," Lynch says. "And we get there and we come out and it's, like, this sea of teenage girls that knew every lyric. And it was really this crazy moment of like, 'What?' I mean, we didn't have a PR agent, we didn't have a manager."

The band drew praise from outlets like NPR and The New Yorker, toured around the world, and soundtracked fashion shows. "I was going through a breakup, and it was such a crazy time because I was kind of like on autopilot in my head. I don't think I really fully even understood it. My personal life was crumbling, yet all this stuff was happening."

The band took a break, which Jamalifard and Lynch say helped them approach the Anywhere But Here sessions with clarity. They have a manager now, but Lynch says the band is still doing things the way they always have — making it up as they go.

"We don't have weekly practices," she admits. "But we're always on the road, and we're kind of perpetually playing shows everywhere. So it's like, a couple practices before the show, and then you're practicing every night, pretty much."

Habibi performs on Thursday, March 12, at UFO Factory, 2110 Trumbull St., Detroit; facebook.com/ufofactorydetroit. With Deadbeat Beat and Co-Stars. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 day of show.

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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