Advertise with The Big Takeover
The Big Takeover Issue #93
Interviews
MORE Interviews >>
Subscribe to The Big Takeover

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs


Follow us on Instagram

Follow The Big Takeover

Interview: Savak

1 April 2024

Photo by Taylor Sesselman

Brooklyn brought a twist of fate for indie rockers Michael “Jaws” Jaworski (vocals, guitar) and Sohrab Habibion (vocals, guitar). After sharing a stage at SXSW in the late 90s, their paths diverged. But a casual “Let’s jam sometime!” in 2015 sparked a creative fire. Fast forward: six albums, annual tours (day jobs and kids permitting!), and a recent whirlwind recording session at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio birthed their latest, Flavors of Paradise. We dug deep with Jaworski and Habibion, exploring Savak’s journey, the new album’s soul, and their upcoming French tour – all in a jam-packed conversation.

How did Savak start?

JAWS: Sohrab and I first crossed paths at South by Southwest many, many years ago, in the mid-to-late ’90s, when he was in his band, Edsel, and I was in a band from Omaha, Nebraska, which is where I’m from, called Shovelhead. We both played the same stage at a South by Southwest showcase. I think Bash & Pop, Tommy Stinson’s band, was the big headliner that night, or maybe it was his band, Perfect. We probably said hello and introduced ourselves but didn’t really keep in touch.

Fast forward 25 years, circa 2015, Sohrab was playing in Obits and I was working in Brooklyn at a venue called the Bell House. We had a nice bar there and we had a good crew of regulars and Obits would come in before practice and have a beer. I got to know all those guys in the band. Obits were a band on Sub Pop and I had lived in Seattle for about 18 years, worked at a record store, and played music there. I ended up booking a club and got to know a lot of the Sub Pop people. Sohrab and I were talking and it was like, “Oh wow, we have tons of mutual friends.” We discovered that we both played the show together in Austin 20+ years ago, so we struck up a friendship.

One evening, the show was getting done early at the Bell House and Obits were going to go over and rehearse and Rick Froberg, the singer in the band, was like, “Come on over, Jaws. Come jam with us.” I was like, “I’m tired.” I had a late night the night before and I was tired from work. He was like, “Don’t be lame.” I was like, “Why am I telling Rick Froberg ‘no’?” I’m like, “Alright, let me get a six-pack of beer.” We ended up going over there and making some music, just hanging out with the Obits guys, sort of jamming, having a good time. Sohrab and I had fun doing that.

Eventually, as the Obits were on their way out, Sohrab and I decided we would start something new. We found a drummer that was a friend of Sohrab’s. He was actually Sohrab’s son’s second or third grade teacher. This guy, Benjamin Van Dyke, played in a band called Silent Majority, a Long Island hardcore band that’s actually pretty popular. I think they’re still playing these days, doing some shows here and there. The three of us got together and started working on some tunes. Greg Simpson, the Obits bass player, joined us for a little bit. And then Matt Schulz, who is the longtime Savak drummer, he was sort of the second drummer Obits at that time at their very end, started joining the fold. It came together organically.

Eventually, we’re like, “We’ve got songs we should probably record” and we did just that. We recorded our first record, Best of Luck in Future Endeavors, with two different drummers, Ben Van Dyke, who now lives in Chicago, he played drums on four of the songs, and Matt Schulz, a drummer from Dayton, Ohio, from bands like Enon, and now he plays in Holy Fuck, and he’s a cousin of Tyler from Brainiac, played drums on the other six songs on the record. We did a show or two with both of them as drummers. Ben, at that point, had made the decision to move to Chicago and Schulz was kind of the guy.

That’s how the band formed and we’ve carried on with Matt, Sohrab and I being the three constant members. We’ve had an array of bass players. On this new record, we recorded as a three piece with Sohrab and I trading off playing bass. Matt doesn’t always tour with us, but he’s been the drummer for every record so far.

How much of your day-to-day life involves Savak? Is it every waking moment or is it just when you have time to get together?

SOHRAB: As far as Savak being an every waking moment endeavor, I would say the balance for me is that I think about music every day of my adult life and as much as I can make room for it to actually do it, that’s kind of where the Savak part of it comes in.

Jaws and I are both married, we both have kids, so there’s an element of needing to keep it as family-friendly as possible. We usually do it in chunks. We’re going to go to France in April. That’s 11 shows in 11 days. And then we’ll play long weekends and things like that that are manageable within the framework that we can do it. It is not a professional endeavor in the sense that this is how we make our living. But, in the best possible way, it’s an all-encompassing hobby.

I would say every year, COVID years aside, we’ve managed to do at least one two-week tour as well as playing long weekends throughout the year. We end up playing maybe 30 or 40 shows a year. And then we get together every week to practice and work on new music or just hang out and enjoy each other’s company.

JAWS: Guacamole and margaritas are a big part of the Savak chemistry.

Recording an album in just three days seems to be just about impossible. How did you manage to do it?

SOHRAB: There’s a lot of familiarity and comfort in being around one another. It did involve a lot of rehearsals and a lot of planning and we were really organized about it. We literally had an Excel spreadsheet with every song, what overdubs we wanted to do, who was going to play bass. It was all charted out so that we could be as efficient as possible in the studio because there’s no big bank account behind our band. We couldn’t spend three weeks at Electrical Audio to make a record. So, we were like, “Let’s just go in there and be really strategic about it.” I think it worked to our favor because we were really well rehearsed, we knew what we wanted to do and we had the liveliness of it feeling spontaneous and the three of us playing in a room together, so it wasn’t super labored over in that regard. We had put a lot of work into the pre-production.

JAWS: That’s a different sort of way than we’ve done it. For the first five records, we’ve had the luxury of doing a lot of recording in our own studio/practice space in Brooklyn, and also working a lot with our friend, and sometimes bass player, Geoff Sanoff. He works for Little Steven’s studio, Renegade Nation. We’ve done a lot of recording there, kind of during off hours when Geoff’s had some free time.

On the previous records, we didn’t really have to make pre-production demos or go in and have things rehearsed. The songs were written and arranged, but we had time to explore and see where our muse took us. This record was very focused in the old school way where songs are written and arranged, we have everything ready to go, we go into the studio. We knew we only had three days and we wanted to finish basically everything in three days. I think we ended up doing just a handful of overdubs after the Electrical thing, just to tie up some loose ends. It was a cool experience. I quite enjoyed this way of doing it. It’s kind of nice to have this specific set of time where you go in and work and make the record as opposed to, “It’s four months later and we could still do some overdubs here.”

SOHRAB: The only record where I’ve actually been able to spend an inordinate amount of time in the studio was for the last Edsel record because we were on Relativity Records so they gave us a budget. We went to England and spent five weeks in this really beautiful live-in studio. I think about it now and I think of all the time that we wasted. In five weeks, Savak could have made five records (laughs).

There’s something about spending so much time someplace. The time ends up being stretched out, it has a gauzy quality to it and you’re like, “We’ll get to that tomorrow. We’ll do that later.” I really appreciate the efficiency of our band. We know we have these limited resources, limited opportunities, and we want to make the most out of them so we really try to be as ready as possible to take advantage of them for our own pleasure.

JAWS: This three-day stretch is really the most concentrated, consecutive time we’ve ever been in the studio that way. Previous records, the actual recording process may take two to four months and if you tallied all the days together, it would probably end up being a week or 10 days by the time you record and mix everything. To Sohrab’s point, you don’t really need to do it that way if you’re prepared, and you go in and you know what you want to do and you have your vision mapped out ahead of time. It was really cool to be able to do it this way. I’ve always fantasized about, “Wouldn’t it be great to go into a studio like Electrical with some big-name producer?” Like, “Let’s go record with Rick Rubin for two weeks.” I don’t know if that’s really my fantasy, but just an example. It would be cool to have that experience. Sohrab had that experience with Edsel and it sounded like it was really amazing and fun.

SOHRAB: We both really enjoy the recording process. One of the things about making the previous records is that we were very much involved in the nuts and bolts of the recording, the engineering, making certain choices about how things were going to be edited or layered. In this case, we decided not to do that. Our friend, Matthew Barnhart, is the one who recorded it, who mixed it, who mastered it. I think part of having done so much that was very detail oriented and very layered was that we wanted to do something a little bit sparser, a little bit more open this time.

I love production. I love the way some modern records sound. It’s like going to a really fancy meal sometimes. There are all these layers to it that are really satisfying in this ear candy way but I also like stuff that’s really immediate as well. I don’t think every dining experience has to be a Michelin Star experience. Sometimes it’s really great to have something that’s very direct. It’s about the person that made it, the person who’s bringing it to you and that’s what gives you the enthusiasm about what you’re experiencing.

You recorded at Electrical Audio but Steve Albini wasn’t involved with your record. Is that pretty common? I just assumed he worked on everything since it’s his studio.

SOHRAB: He was in the building. He was recording in the other room. And I think if we had wanted to record with him, it would have been a possibility. But we don’t really know him. And Matthew is somebody that we know. He’s one of the house engineers so we thought in terms of ease of production, it would be great to work with somebody that we know. Steve seems like a lovely guy, honestly, but I didn’t want to spend one of three days getting to know him.

JAWS: We’ve worked with Matthew in the past. Matthew’s mixed some of our stuff before. And Sohrab’s known Matthew just as a friend for many years. It was comfortable. If you’re going to do a three-day thing, it’s nice to go on and already have a little bit of familiarity. Even though I’ve met Steve before and think he’s a lovely guy, it probably would have maybe felt a little bit intimidating at first. We might have needed five days if we recorded with Albini. He makes you feel very much at ease the times I’ve met him, but he has quite the track record of success with working with some big bands.

There are a few house engineers there. Matthew is not a house engineer there, but he and his wife actually live in Steve’s old apartment above the studio, so he works there on a pretty regular basis. There’s two studios, the B room, which is where Steve was working in at the time we were there. We chose the A room because the drum room is a little bit smaller and we didn’t want big bombastic Shellac-sounding drums, even though those drums are totally awesome for Shellac, but not for Savak. It’s such an incredible studio. Everybody there made you feel very comfortable. It’s not super flashy or glamorous, but it has everything you need to make a really, really great sounding record.

SOHRAB: The equipment is really top quality and very well maintained. One of the things that I thought really speaks volumes to the studio and which I think is a reflection on Steve Albini is that the interns there were made to feel very included in the process. Sometimes when you go in the studio, there’s a very hierarchical element to it where the interns can only go fetch the tea or the coffee and they’re not allowed to talk to the artist or whatever. This was not like that at all. The people who were the interns were young people who wanted to learn about the recording trade and they were allowed to participate in the process. I thought that was great. It was reflective of the way that Steve does business, it’s about learning and creating an environment that’s conducive to making good art. And the vibe is like it’s your buddy’s recording studio.

You’ve very consistently released material. When you’re starting a new record, do you consider a continuation from the last record or do you start fresh with each album?

JAWS: This time I think we had about 16 tunes that we had written over the course of a few months. Some of the ideas, I think Sohrab and I had before that. This new collection of songs came together and we’re like, “Let’s focus on these and let’s figure out how to make the best 10-or-12-song record out of it.”

I don’t really feel like there’s like a thematic continuum happening from record to record, not to say that couldn’t happen with us. Prior to this record, we weren’t really sure what we were going to do as a band. Matt had moved to Ohio so it was just Sohrab and I still living in Brooklyn. We have our touring rhythm section, Jeff Gensterblum on drums and Matt Hunter on bass, and we had talked about maybe recording a record with them and we still want to, but those guys also play in a bunch of other bands and are really busy so it didn’t quite come to fruition as quickly as we would have thought. Matt just happened to be coming to town for work because even though he now lives in Ohio, he still has his Brooklyn job and mostly works remotely, but he comes into Brooklyn every month or two. We got together a few times in early 2023 and we’re like, “We have another 16 songs. Let’s focus on these and make a record.”

Sohrab and I very much like to stay busy. We enjoy having something to show for our work. As much as we love the process, I think it’s important to put stuff out in the world because, if not, what else are you doing? This is not hobby rock for us even though this is not our professional career. We take making music and making our art very seriously and we do it because we want to share it with people.

SOHRAB: In the case of this new record, because we got together a couple times with Matt and had these spontaneous jams, a lot of the ideas that came out were brand new things. Once the thing starts to take shape, you have a better sense of what it might be and then I start thinking about that thing that I had a while ago that would fit in really well. There are things from the past, but it should feel very present. I wouldn’t want it to feel like there’s some relic component to it. We listen to a lot of music and so part of it is our conversation about what we’re listening to and I mean that both literally conversationally as well as musically. It’s always going to sound like the music that we make but we’re still bringing in ideas from outside of the rock-punk world just because I think it interests us to try to expand our vocabulary a little bit.

JAWS: While we grew up on a lot of punk rock and rock and roll music, as we’ve gotten older, it’s safe to say that we listen to so many other types of genres much more than we listen to punk these days so it’s hard not to have those influences seep into our mix.

The album is called Flavors of Paradise but there’s no song called “Flavors of Paradise” nor does that show up in the lyrics. Is it just the title or do you consider the collection of songs the different flavors of paradise?

JAWS: I’ll tell you the origin of it and then I’ll try to piece it together in the thematic sense. There is a bodega very close to our rehearsal space called Lil’ Spicy and there’s a wonderful guy who runs it. Every time we go in and buy a six-pack of beer before practice, he gives a couple bananas. He makes great sandwiches and falafel for us.

I was in there one time before practice and I looked in the counter and they had this little display of some flavored rum drinks that were called Flavors of Paradise. Lil’ Spicy is your classic Brooklyn bodega. It’s not a high-end deli by any means. It’s a lovely place and the guy’s great and has everything you need, probably for $2 more than you need to spend on it. I just thought it was so funny that, in the Lil’ Spicy deli, which we always used to joke about that everytime you go there, when you walk out you leave the deli with this smell on your clothes because they’re always frying falafel, something about that just struck me as funny. Flavors of Paradise in Gowanas, Brooklyn at Lil’ Spicy deli. I brought it up to Sohrab and Matt and they were like, “That sounds cool.” After that, we gave it our own meaning. We try to make sense of it in our own way. I can’t really say exactly what it is and what it means to us.

SOHRAB: We had a long conversation about our idea of what paradise is or how it’s presented to us versus what we ourselves think of as paradise. In this case it’s this really crummy rum chemical cocktail. But the idea that that’s a flavor of paradise, like being incredibly hung over in the worst possible way, is funny. Even the packaging, it’s all sort of tropical, you’re supposed to be on a beach somewhere sipping a cocktail or whatever. We were both saying that is not paradise. The world that Jimmy Buffett inhabited is not paradise to me.

JAWS: It also shows how easily people are influenced and led to believe something is great, even though it’s not. I think that’s something that drives Sohrab and I a little bit crazy in the corporate capitalistic society we live in. People are led to believe via marketing and social media influencers that if you dress a certain way or have these certain accoutrements, that life is going to be fucking fantastic. Well, guess what? Those things don’t mean shit. They really don’t.

The idea of paradise is so often the idea of some sort of tropical beach setting. We love those types of vacations just as much as the next person. They’re wonderful. But usually after about three or four days on a beach setting, I’m like, “Get me out of here, man.” I’ve had too much sun. I’d rather have a beer and a shot in the bar and watch a band play at this point. Paradise is bullshit, essentially. We have to be honest with ourselves and create our own visions of it. If we’re good people looking at ourselves in the world around us, it’s going to be something that’s more meaningful than some sort of marketed thing that’s shoved down your throat.

What about the song “Up With the Sun”? I read that you’re R.E.M. fans and that sounded like the name of an R.E.M. album to me – I was close, they had an album called Up. I did see there’s a book called Up With the Sun. Did that inspire the song?

JAWS: No. We were putting together the material for the new record. We both probably have hundreds of voice memos on our iPhones when we’re at home writing songs on guitar or piano. And I was like, “I’m going to go to the very first voice memo on this phone that I’ve had for three years and see what it is.” It was the riff that we eventually morphed into this song. At the time, I think it was early spring and the sun was rising really early in the morning. Every time the sun would creak through the shades, I’d be like, “I’m awake now. I’m a 53-year-old man and when the sun comes up, I’m awake. I grew up in the Midwest. This is what farmers do.” Symbolically, it took hold of me in this idea of getting older and coming to terms with what that means in our life.

At the beginning of “Let the Sunlight In,” you sing “1953, 1961, 1972, 1985.” What are those numbers? Am I missing something obvious?

SOHRAB: Those are the addresses of weed shapes. Just kidding. The theme of the song, in my head, was sort of the idea of this spy who was aging out of his field but instead of doing it with any dignity, he was put into a distant location to send his dispatches back to HQ. There’s that John le Carre book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I wanted to flip it – the spy who died out in the heat. I thought of Western spies who get put in near East locations.

My family is half Iranian. In 1953, the CIA overthrew the prime minister, at the time, in a coup. In 1961, the head of Savak, which was the secret police in Iran, met with Kennedy in DC. In 1972, Nixon and Kissinger visited Tehran. And then 1985 is the year that my high school hardcore band put out our 7-inch. If you look at the timeline of Iranian history, 1985 is really crucial, Kids for Cash 7-inch comes out (laughs). Because the first three years in the song had genuine significance, just for my own amusement, I wanted to throw in something that was totally ridiculous so that’s what that is.

It’s partially born out of the idea of how nation states communicate with each other and how a lot of times it’s done through back channels. There’s so much going on that we as citizens are unaware of and we take for granted that everything is okay. We’re encouraged not to actually actively think about it. That’s the stuff I’m fascinated by. I love espionage. I love the idea of countries spying on each other, infiltrating communication systems. I’m not sure how much of that actually comes across. The verses are only a couple of lines each, but they are trying to set up a scenario. The spy is there in a cheap motel. He wakes up, opens the curtains. At this point, he’s kind of a hack. He’s got his bottle of gin but then he’s got his list of names of people, where they’ve been.

You’re playing 11 shows in France. What is the significance of France to Savak?

JAWS: I’m married to a French woman and have some family in France, which is cool. It’s a wonderful country with delicious wine and food and cheese and they like rock and roll. It’s a really geographically diverse landscape there from beaches and mountains to cities.

Our initial idea for this tour was to do more than just France. But as it turned out, we started working with this booking agent in France and the shows started coming together. You can do a two-week tour in France and still not cover every town that has a music scene. I think that’s the cool thing about it.

We love to tour, we love to leave the United States to tour. We’ve only been to Europe, which is incredible. There’s obviously so much to see and explore there. The great satisfaction for us in this band is to actually have an opportunity to go out and experience different cultures, meet people in different countries, hear languages that we don’t normally hear, eat and drink the local culinary delights and beverages and whatnot. So why just France? It should be more. But as it turns out, you can fill out two weeks in France. We’ve never played Spain or Portugal. That was maybe going to be a part of this tour, but we just didn’t have enough time. These are all goals of ours. We want to go to Spain, we want to go to Portugal, we want to get back to the UK. We’re talking about maybe doing that this fall. We’ve had this standing offer to go to Japan for a while so that’s something on our radar too. We just have to figure out the timing of everything.

SOHRAB: One of the nice things is the drives are short which means we have more time to explore each place. Being on tour is a lot of fun but if the drives are long then you’re spending your time in a van which is okay but that’s your experience. We all would rather be walking around, checking stuff out, and sipping espressos and whatnot.

JAWS: Savak hasn’t done more extensive U.S. touring because we have a limited amount of time available for us to get away and tour and to be away from our families or our jobs. I’m from the Midwest, Matt’s in Ohio. We have had a lot of friends and support in Chicago, Minneapolis and things like that. We’d love to go back to Chicago and play Omaha again and hit Columbus and Dayton and Cleveland but that’s a two-week tour to do that from New York City because there are a lot of six, seven, eight hour drives in there to get to Omaha and back as opposed to two weeks in France where we get to drive for two to four hours a day, go see some castles, have some nice French Bordeaux. It’s a rewarding experience, nothing against playing those cities in the Midwest. We try to create an experience where it’s going to be a little more fulfilling. Sohrab and I have done all the U.S. tours multiple times in our musical career so it’s fun to see some new territory.

SOHRAB: When I was in Edsel, and a little bit as well when I was in Obits, the touring was very much a part of a promotional schedule. You have a new record out and you go and play these cities. Savak isn’t really like that so much. We try to put out records as often as we can. We try to tour when we can. They don’t necessarily have to correspond. We’re not on like a promotional junket. If I think about how I want to spend two weeks, the idea of spending two weeks in France is pretty appealing as opposed to spending two weeks driving the 95 corridor here on the East Coast. A lot of our decisions are based around how we would like to spend our time because we’re not beholden to any kind of product promotion.

************

Tour Dates

APR 10 – La Mecanique Ondulatoire – Paris, France
APR 11 – Melody Maker – Rennes, France
APR 12 – Bar La fosse – Laval, France
APR 13 – Duchesse – Nantes, France
APR 14 – Crossroad – Angoulins, France
APR 15 – Municipal Cultural Centers – Limoges, France
APR 16 – L’Antidote – Bordeaux, France
APR 17 – Moulin Du Rousseau – Périgueux, France
APR 18 – Trokson – Lyon, France
APR 19 – The Message Bar Disquaire – Troyes, France
APR 20 – Brasserie Coopérative Spore – Gravigny, France
MAY 9 – The Avalon Lounge – Catskill, NY, United States
MAY 11 – O’Brien’s Pub – Boston, MA, United States