THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 066
Greetings, friends. I come to you on day three of our self-imposed COVID lockdown. The kid was exposed to someone who had contracted the virus at school last week. Rather than take any chances, no matter how mostly fine we're all feeling, we quarantined ourselves for a few days. It's not as though I have anything I'm missing necessarily. All the concerts I've wanted to go to have been postponed or cancelled due to the omicron spread. Besides there's a new season of All Creatures Great and Small to catch up with.
Just as I was putting this edition of the newsletter together, I learned of the death of Madlaina Peer, a legend of the Swiss punk scene and one-third of the fantastic combo ONETWOTHREE, which released its debut album last year. I am honored that she was willing to answer some questions about the development of this project and her musical history for this newsletter. Click here if you'd like to revisit that conversation. She will be missed.
As ever, if you have yet to become a premium subscriber to The Voice of Energy, please consider it. I'm not taking on nearly as many freelance assignments as I have in the past, so every little bit helps keep the lights on and helps pay down the loan for our new furnace here at VOE HQ.
I knew my resolution to not buy any new music this year was going to test my resolve. I just didn't know how much of a strain that would put on my soul until I found myself — through the magic of Radio Garden — listening to Droogies Radio, a web-based station that plays nothing but punk and oi! tunes from around the world, while I was making dinner last night. Within an hour, I had a long list of new favorite bands and an indescribable itch to buy as many of their 7" singles as I could. I held firm, but once the sugar sweet garage pop of Alvilda hit the virtual airwaves, I was shaking like I had the DTs.
And now it's time for a breakdown...
This week, I have an interview with the musician / designer / archivist Sohrab Habibion (mem. Savak / Obits / Edsel) about his YouTube channel and reviews of some recent albums, including one that appeared and disappeared quickly over Christmas weekend. I hope you enjoy the read.
One of the few things that helped me get through the past two years with my sanity somewhat intact was the YouTube channel of Sohrab Habibion. I was already a fan of his from his, having followed his musical efforts from his time in the melodic rock outfit Edsel through to his current tenures in the spikier groups Obits and SAVAK (pictured above; Habibion is second from the left). And while I did know that he grew up amid the fertile post-hardcore scene in D.C., I didn't know how deep his connection to that world ran until I happened upon his presence on YouTube where he began posting videos he had shot of various D.C.-bands and touring acts that stopped by the area in the late ’80s. As someone that grew up a punk fan far away from any notable scene, watching vintage performances by some of my favorites of the time (SNFU, Fugazi, Lemonheads) and groups that I've only more recently come to adore (One Last Wish, Marginal Man, Fidelity Jones) was galvanizing and made those darker days when the live music industry was forced to stop a little easier to bear. I reached to Habibion recently via email to learn as much as I could about these videos.
When did you start filming shows? What inspired you to do so?
I started in 1985 with a video camera my mom bought for me. At the time I think I was more curious than inspired. It was a fun way of recording what my friends and I were doing, though we rarely actually watched any of the videos. I just kind of tossed the tapes into a box at my parents’ house until the box slowly filled up!
What can you tell me about the camera that you used - what kind it was and how you acquired it, etc.?
It was a Sony Beta Camcorder, which felt like cutting edge technology when I was fifteen, though obviously geared towards the amateur/home market. When my great grandmother died, my mom inherited a little money—it wasn’t enough to do much with, but apparently it covered the cost of a video camera!
From the selection of videos on your YouTube channel, it seems like you were pretty dialed into the DC punk scene in the ’80s. What was your introduction to that world and when did you actually start hitting shows?
I got into punk when I was twelve or thirteen. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but likely at school from a kid who had a cooler older sibling or something. It immediately drew me in because it sounded different than mainstream rock music and the lyrics were actually about things or just funny and irreverent. It seemed relatable and something my friends and I could do and it was exciting because it shattered all of the stock conceits about what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be and how it’s supposed to be done. It meant that the total cacophony my friend Karl and I were making in his parents' basement was as legit as Night Ranger or Quiet Riot, as far as we were concerned.
This kid Phil’s older sister would drive us to the 9:30 Club to see “3-Bands-For-3-Bucks” shows, which was my introduction to live music and things happening locally. At one show you’d get a flyer for another show and so on and so forth. But I think the first “real” show I saw with out-of-town hardcore bands was Circle Jerks and C.O.C. with Marginal Man and Madhouse at Wilson Center. According to the internet, it was January 1985, so I was fourteen. I will never forget the number of people stage diving during the Marginal Man set—it was just a constant shower of bodies.
At what point did your love of this music evolve into you playing in bands yourself?
I think I was already playing with friends at this point. It all happened pretty quickly. Somehow the band that Karl and I started morphed into Kids For Cash, but then Karl dropped out and we got another drummer, started playing shows, recorded a 7-song tape on a 4-track and sold that around town.
We were part of a small group of teenage punkers in a suburban hamlet southwest of Washington, DC, with varying degrees of interest/commitment to knowing/caring about punk. We read MRR, Flipside, Suburban Voice, XXX and the great local fanzine, The WDC Period. We learned about bands from reading interviews and mail-ordered those records from places like Systematic in San Francisco, studied the inserts in those records and learned more. Through writing to bands reviewed in MRR, I became pen pals with a bunch of folks around the world, so I was trading letters, tapes and 7”s with people in Australia, Canada and Poland. It really opened up my appreciation for how this weird, aberrant cultural blip was dotted across the globe. And getting flyers for Death Puppy shows in Norman, Oklahoma or Terveet Kädet gigs in Finland was totally thrilling. Also I could report back to my pen pals that Government Issue had a new bass player or that Ian MacKaye started a band with the guys from The Faith. A somewhat updated horses, ships and trains scenario, if you will.
But being in a band was just part of it. It was a way to be involved and meet people and was a million times more interesting to me than chasing a ball around a field or getting trashed in the 7-11 parking lot while listening to The Wall. Nothing against either of those, of course, but I found a way I preferred to spend my time. Like listening to the Meat Puppets and Minutemen super loud at my pal Brian’s house before his mom came home and I had to split to do my homework.
Let's talk a bit about the logistics of filming these shows. Was this a matter of you getting permission from the artists/venues ahead of time? Was it a free-for-all at some places or did you have to sneak your camera in?
I don’t think it even crossed my mind. Being fifteen I just went for it without ever asking. But also given the types of places I was filming bands, I’m not sure asking permission was necessary. This was all pretty fringe stuff. I never took my camera to the 9:30 Club because it was more pro and it seemed as though it’d likely be a hassle. But at local community centers or d.c. space or Hung Jury Pub it was never a problem. My only recollection of ever being given a hard time was when SNFU and Gang Green played together at WUST Radio Hall (now that building houses the “new” 9:30 Club) and the guys in Gang Green were complete donkeys, saying things like I had to pay them if I was going to film them, etc. In retrospect I guess they were just having a laugh at my expense, but it was awful and unnecessary and I still hold it against them haha. On the flip side, SNFU could not have been more lovely and quickly came to my rescue, which I still hold in their favor, so it goes both ways! And the moral of that story is to be nice to teenagers—they’re going through enough bullshit already.
What was your litmus test about whether you were going to film a show or not?
I’m not sure I had one. At least not intentionally. I think it was more about if I felt like toting the camera around all night or not. Or maybe if I wanted to hang out with my friends at the show more than gluing my eye to the viewfinder. There are definitely a few bands I wish I had filmed, like Rites of Spring, Happy Go Licky, more of the early Fugazi shows, the first time fIREHOSE came through town, etc., but so it goes.
Are you making sure to obtain the okay of the artists before you upload a show to YouTube?
Not at all. I have a disclaimer that if a band wants a video taken down, they can contact me. One thing that is very important to me is to not monetize the videos. These exist as documents and I’m using YouTube as a place to make them available to anyone who’s interested. It sincerely bums me out when I see my footage bootlegged on other channels that are running ads. I used to write and ask them to remove the videos, but it was a fool’s errand, as nobody responded and it was just making me agitated, which is not how I like to roll.
What have you heard from some of the artists that you've featured on your channel? Are they surprised/shocked to see these clips or have any odd reactions to knowing this out there for all to see?
For a decent percentage of what I’ve posted, I have a connection to the people in the group. Some more peripherally just from going to shows and playing in bands, but there’s a thread there, so I don’t think anyone’s been too surprised.
Thankfully I’ve only gotten positive feedback, which I appreciate. Enough time has passed since these shows happened that I think the lens through which they’re seen is more generous. For younger folks or fans who lived somewhere other than DC, it’s a chance to see something they weren’t there to experience. For the ones who were there, either playing or attending, it seems to trigger good memories.
As a side note, if someone makes a disparaging comment about a band, which happens a few times a year, I often delete it, depending on the tone. My feeling is that viewers are welcome to take or leave what I have provided, which is a document of a time and a place. I’m not interested in providing a forum for ding dongs who are trying to be the loudest person in the room or the brashest or most clever—that part of the internet is not welcome in my tiny corner of YouTube.
Before you started adding these to YouTube, what were you doing with the tapes - trading copies with other collectors or just holding on to them?
They literally sat in a box at my parents’ house for years. The only reason they ever even saw the light of day was because a few people from DC contacted me about using some of the footage in their movies: James Schneider for Punk the Capital, Mark Andersen for Robin Bell’s Positive Force documentary, and Jim Saah and Scott Crawford for Salad Days. I was never interested in trading or collecting other videos, not that there’s anything wrong with either, but it’s just not my thing.
What inspired you to finally digitize these and get these on YouTube?
Scott Crawford is to thank for that. And Dave Grohl. Dave’s production company, Roswell Films, was talking with Scott about clips they wanted to use for the Sonic Highways documentary. Scott pointed them to me and then, quite brilliantly, suggested that I ask them if they’d be willing to digitize all my tapes, not just the bits with Dave on them. They responded immediately, telling me to mail everything to them and even gave me their FedEx number. Not too long after I got the box of tapes back and a hard drive with everything on it. Pretty amazing, really. So thanks, Dave! And thanks, Scott!
Are you using just the audio that you captured from the camera mic with all of these or are there some where you've added a more professional sounding recording/soundboard rip?
It’s all the built-in mic. There’s one show I haven’t posted yet because the audio is warped. It happens to be a pretty great Fugazi set from December 1987 at Wilson Center, but it’s just not fun to watch because the warbly sound is very unpleasant. I bought the recording of that show from the Fugazi Live Series archive, hoping that I could marry the two, but they don’t quite match up. I’m sure someone with proper restoration skills could do it, but that person is not me! Some guy contacted me about upgrading the quality of my videos and told me he could fix the issue with that tape, but I quickly realized he was in the aforementioned monetizing model of YouTube users and so I passed. But if you know anyone who’s into doing it just to do it and get a great show up and out for people to see, please get in touch!
Is it surprising at all to see that over 8,000 people have checked out your 7 Seconds and Fugazi films?
That’s great! I don’t look at that stuff too much, but those were killer bands playing their hearts out, so the more who can see that the better. The 7 Seconds show is particularly great for people to see because it was at our local community center and the ugly overhead lights are on and the band is precariously balanced on an incredibly small and unstable, raised-platform “stage”—things which are not ideal by a long stretch and quite far from the ways in which most people experience live music, but the room is electric and 7 Seconds clearly feel it and respond in kind. The Fugazi show I love because they’d played fewer than a dozen gigs at that point and had that excitement which new bands have. They played so well together, clearly possessing an incredible internal chemistry, but mainly their shows were joyous and fun and people actually danced. Their music evolved in interesting ways and they were inspirational on multiple levels, but the positive energy and undeniable exuberance of their early shows is like nothing else I’ve experienced.
Do you have any favorites among them videos you've posted to date?
Not really, but I’ll pick one from each year that I really like.
1. Marginal Man at George Washington University in 1985. I was on stage for this and the lights are good, so the footage is sharp and you see the show from the perspective of the band. Marginal Man were a flawless live group with tons of hooks, singalongs and syncopated clapping. At one point I’m so into the show that the camera starts bouncing around and I love that unintentional blurring of the viewer/recorder.
2. One Last Wish at Chevy Chase Community Center in 1986. I was filming from the balcony, so you see the entire stage and the sound is clear. One Last Wish were an incredible band—equal parts Rites of Spring and The Damned. They deserve more accolades.
3. Moving Targets at Hung Jury Pub in 1987. I think I delivered more pizzas while listening to the tape of Burning in Water in my Chevy Chevette than any other record. That album remains a favorite of mine. Also, Kenny Chambers in a VU shirt, opening with Love’s "7 and 7 Is"?? C’mon!
4. Honor Role at d.c. space in 1988. I feel like in 2022 you either know about Honor Role and love them or—holy crap—you’re about to have a whole world open up for you. Pen Rollings’ guitar playing is so beyond anything/everything and Bob Schick’s lyrics and phrasing/delivery are incredible.
Are there more videos to come? Will you be tapped out at some point soon?
I will definitely tap out soon! I have about 20 more sets that I could edit and post, but it’s a lot of my high school hardcore band, Kids For Cash, and high school friends’ bands like Team Wattie. The only real gems left are the Fugazi show I mentioned before and Protem, which was a band with Damon Locks (Trenchmouth), Peter Cortner (Dag Nasty) and Mark Shellhaas (Beefeater). But both have issues with either audio or video, so I don’t know if they are worth posting.
You're a busy musician on top of it all - anything on the horizon for one / more of your projects?
SAVAK has a bunch of music coming out between now and April, all on our own label, Peculiar Works, which we started last summer. I also play in a group called Zwei Null Zwei with James Canty (The Make-Up), Eli Janney (GvsB), and Geoff Sanoff (Edsel) and we’re finishing up on a recording that keeps getting interrupted by COVID. Hopefully that’ll be out before too long. And there’s a group called Telematics that I play in with Robert Austin (Measles Mumps Rubella), Alexis Fleisig (GvsB), and Zachary Lipez (Publicist UK), which has a slew of material in various states of completion that we’re slowly assembling. If we can put this pandemic in the rear view mirror anytime soon, SAVAK will also do a little touring, but first things first.
What are you listening to/reading/watching these days?
The last 3 things I listened to were Celebración del trance profano by Les conches velasques, Under The Bloom by Vacant Gardens, and the most recent episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, which was about how we develop our habits.
On the book end of things, the last couple I read were Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead and The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos. Right now I’m in the middle of The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which, as a longtime used bookstore clerk, I relate to immeasurably. I live across the street from Prospect Park in Brooklyn and my wife just gave me a copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, so I hope to soon know more about and be able to quickly spot the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and Ash-throated Flycatcher, as I listen respectfully and respectively for the sounds of piklkhlk and ki-brrnk-brr.
A book/music project on the horizon I’m very excited about is Glen Friedman’s What I See, which is a massive, 256-page collection of his Black Flag photos coming out on Akashic Books in April. I worked with Glen from June through August to assemble this incredible document of the band from 1980-1983. It starts with Dez singing and Robo on drums and ends with Henry singing, Bill on drums, and Kira playing bass. In between you get tons of Chuck Dukowski and Greg Ginn, plus Dez on guitar, Biscuits on drums, and even Ron Reyes singing with them at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It’s a wonderful window into an important band and tremendous photographer and I feel lucky to have been involved.
Lou Reed: I'm So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos (RCA/Sony Music)
There's a curious wrinkle in EU law that states that the work of artists fall into the public domain after 50 years if they are not “lawfully communicated to the public," which is to say offered up for streaming or purchase in some form. That's why a wealth of Beach Boys live material has been popping up on Spotify for a brief stretch and why the Rolling Stones dropped a bunch of rare tracks on YouTube for a few days before removing them. Before last year was out, RCA pulled a similar move with a 17-track collection of demos that Lou Reed laid down in advance of recording his 1972 self-titled debut album. For a few days, the demos appeared on Apple Music in Europe and were swiftly removed days later. They've since spread far and wide through bootleg sites and mp3 blogs (some tracks from this session were already being shared through those channels). Hopefully, that will lead to a push to make these demos widely and officially available, perhaps as an addendum to a reissue of Reed's debut. There's nothing terribly mind-blowing to be found here, but it's always fascinating to hear an artist of Reed's stature working out the kinks and finer details of their work. Future classic "Perfect Day," as heard here, still needs some of the rougher edges shaved off but Reed's vision for the song is clear. The same goes for the other Transformer tracks laid down here, "Hangin' Around" and "New York Telephone Conversation," the latter of which, with its flubbed notes and squeaky acoustic guitar, somehow sounds even better than its Bowie-produced final version. Even more charming is hearing "Kill Your Sons" in its purest Dylan-worshipping form a few years before the grinding sleaze of its Sally Can't Dance incarnation. In its brief official existence, I'm So Free actually came out at exactly the right time as it works as the perfect bridge between Todd Haynes' stunning Velvet Underground doc and Reed's eventual solo career — and not only because the bulk of the songs he tracked here were already being developed with his former band. In the small bits of studio chatter included here, Reed sounds loose and elated. At the time, the band felt like an albatross around his neck. Now that that weight was removed, Reed was ready to claim the spotlight more completely, assured that it could easily withstand the continued growth of his ambition and ego.
Fazer: Plex (City Slang)
German quintet Fazer represents the modern mindset for a young jazz ensemble. They value group think and tightly connected grooves and moods over the typical inclination towards songs and melodies being merely a backdrop for virtuosic solos and improvisation. That persuasion lends itself well to sustaining an ambience throughout Fazer's latest album Plex. For 45 minutes, the music hums along like a plane at cruising altitude. Smooth, glassy melodies dot the landscape and disappear without incident, and the band's two drummers (Simon Popp and Sebastian Wolfgruber) lock together and roll forward like the gears in an engine. This also means that there are few moments on Plex that truly surprise or offer a jolt of turbulent shock. Trumpeter Matthias Lindermayr aims his horn skyward for the occasional pealing moments on the otherwise serene "Dezember" and within the tangled polyrhythms of "Cuentro," but he otherwise stays in a support role, doubling the lines of guitarist Paul Brändle. Fazer seems to be attempting to build off the collectivist work of groups like Tortoise and Ahleuchatistas, but is sorely missing the frissons of experimentalism that could push this music even farther into the mesosphere. [Bandcamp]
Jane Rigler / Curtis Bahn / Thomas Ciufo: ElectroResonance (Neuma)
The picture of the three musicians on the back of the CD booklet shows each playing an acoustic instrument — Rigler wields a bass flute while Bahn holds a sitar — but seen just as prominently are the images of laptops. Bahn's face, too, looks like it is lightly lit with the glow of a computer screen. One listen to this recording of the trio's 2019 live performance at Mount Holyoke College easily reveals the digital entanglements without the need for the picture. Rigler's flute lines are often warped and twisted into colorful parabolas. Bahn's string instruments take on the sonics of a harp in a wind tunnel with the occasional burst of clarity. And the appearance of field recordings and samples throughout having welcome jarring effect within the immersive waves of these improvised pieces. Those elements also keep the listening experience from fall too deeply into meditation or zone out, in spite of the tone of the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that adorns the back cover or the "empathetic resonance" that is suggested in the liner notes. I'm neither calmed nor left softhearted by this music. Instead, I'm acutely aware, leaning in so I don't miss a single detail or spark that these three create through their spellbinding interplay. [Bandcamp]
And there you have it. Thanks so much for reading all the way to the end. Feel free to reply with comments/questions/etc. And feel free to share this with friends/family/co-workers/etc. Back again next week with, I think, the first installment of my series of pieces looking at films made by musical artists, which begins with a look at the two feature films that Madonna has made. Keep me in your prayers.
RIP Ronnie Spector, James Mtume, Khan Jamal, Bruce Anderson, Burke Shelley, Calvin Simon, J $tash.
Artwork for this edition of the newsletter is taken from Disonancias, a group exhibition on display at Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales in Havana, Cuba through April 2022.