Hanni El Khatib’s got a hot hot thing

MTV Iggy, August 4, 2011

Somewhere on a side street in the vestigial industrial precincts of Manhattan’s Far West side, the rocker Hanni El Khatib interrupts a photo shoot—he was getting portrayed roaming these blocks and checking out the High Line elevated park—and pulls out his camera phone to take a few snaps of his own.

The sight that attracts his interest is a nondescript heap of old car tires, piled up at the edge of an auto repair shop lot. “I just like stuff,” El Khatib explains. “I like piles of s**t, old TVs or electronics. A pile of tires is really cool to me. I don’t know why.”

Clad in black jeans, a blue work shirt with a white undershirt, and a bunch of tattoos visible, El Khatib almost looks the part of a warehouse or parking lot greaser, but not quite. A bit too clean. The beard moderate and trimmed. Most of all, the fresh face with the open, curious look and wide eyes. A 30-year-old manchild checking out random urban materials while rocking a cultivated but sincerely worn style.

[Photos by Nichole McCall for MTV Iggy]

By every relevant standard, this is the breakout year for El Khatib, who honed his particular brand of retro-leaning but unorthodox garage rock in his home city of San Francisco before recently relocating to Los Angeles. He’s vaulted from beer-drenched holes in the wall to top-flight venues with an unexpected touring gig as opening act for the massive British act Florence and the Machine. In his own right, in his pared-down live act backed only by drummer and close pal Nicky Fleming-Yaryan, he’s played the 2011 SXSW andBonnaroo festivals and a constellation of hip dives in the United States and Europe. “I Got A Thing,”his liberal take on a 1970 Funkadelic joint, got picked up for a skate and surf-themed Nike commercial. And buzz is growing for his debut album, Will the Guns Come Out, due in September from Innovative Leisure, an offshoot of the LA label Stones Throw.

But it’s a breakout moment in other ways too—the kind a musician recognizes not in bookings or record and merchandise sales, but in the room midway through a gig. The night before our conversation, El Khatib had played the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan and was surprised to find people from outside his San Francisco clique who knew the words to his songs. “Some people were singing along and stuff, which was really weird,” he says. “I’m not used to that. The vibe was right. There was a mosh pit that started. People were knocking each other over. Someone lit firecrackers at the end of the show. Security was not too thrilled. I thought it was cool.”

The audience demographics offered another sign that El Khatib’s music isn’t just reaching a narrow niche anymore: “On this tour I’ve noticed a lot more women, which is weird — it was a dude show for a long time. I’m not complaining.”

None of this was planned, really. Not the festivals, not the album, not the prestige tour opportunities, and not even being a musician — at least not the full-time, professional kind. Until recently, El Khatib was the creative director for the skateboard fashion label HUF, making a burgeoning career out of his lifelong skate passion, just playing music on the side. “I’d been a designer for so long that that’s what I thought would be my job forever,” he says—now enjoying a hanger steak and Pimms Cup by way of late lunch. “I played in other people’s bands here and there but never in a way that I would abandon work.”

It was a pal, Marc Bianchi (who records as Her Space Holiday) who caught a whiff of the folky, grungy, muscular little songs El Khatib was writing on the side and who convinced him to record them properly. Then a CD El Khatib put together for a San Francisco art gallery project landed, oddly, in the hands of Sarah, the one-named creative director of the trendy Paris boutique Colette, and then, through her, with Florence and the Machine’s manager. Another copy found its way to Jamie Strong of Stones Throw and just like that, a music career was born.

Yet none of this could have happened without the skate world, El Khatib says – not least to show him the way in music and hone his tastes. And the revelations he credits to the skate scene function as a handy guide to his influences. “Skate videos are the first time I ever heard good music,” he says. “The first time I ever heard an Agent Orange song, it was a skate video. Fugazi, a skate video. Stevie Wonder, a skate video. The Mamas and the Papas, a skate video. The first time I heard the Hieroglyphics”—the iconic 1990s San Francisco hip-hop clique—“it was a skate video.”

All these strands are apparent, if typically in oblique ways, on the tight little songs—none of them cross the four-minute mark and several are barely half that length—that make up Will the Guns Come Out, against a backdrop that’s drenched in the sound and sensibility of early rock-and-roll and the esthetic of the time before the Sixties went haywire: that Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, blues and beatnik energy.

But not all the way, and definitely not on some kind of purist revival trip. In concert, El Khatib will lace into his own songs lyrics from “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to “Millionaire” by Kelis with the Andre 3000 cameo. “I don’t feel like I’m that retro or throwback,” El Khatib says. “My music isn’t authentically Fifties or whatever. It’s just one of those things I like a lot, so it finds its way into everything I do, but the music I make is a bit more contemporary.”

If El Khatib feels a refreshing license to at once adopt the aesthetic trappings of an earlier period and at the very same time subvert it and stray from it, that too is the skater’s irreverence at work. But that skater ethos—everything’s cool, as long as it’s good—did more for El Khatib than just breed his music tastes. Crucially, it offered him a home.

“The cool thing about the skate community is that no one gives a s**t what your background is,” El Khatib says. “It’s just, you like skateboarding? Cool!”

And with that, obliquely, the topic of origins comes up. Because American garage rockers of the 1950s—or doo-wop or R&B players, for that matter—didn’t have names like Hanni El Khatib. Their immigrant roots—or internal routes, whether Southern African Americans on the Great Migration or East Coast Beat kids riding the rails out west—didn’t yet stretch as far as El Khatib’s origins. Which are… what, exactly?

El Khatib offers this synopsis: “My dad’s Palestinian, my mom’s from the Philippines. They were both born in their countries and moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. They met each other there, and conceived me to a song by Sade.”

We pause to review that last notion, and determine that it had to be fanciful, as Sade’s first album came out a few years after El Khatib was born. “Well, maybe it was the first song I remember hearing,” he says. “But either way, my parents were really accepting of everything. They pushed me to skateboard, to do art. My mom’s pretty eccentric, artsy and stuff; she paints. My dad’s an engineer. He grew up in Kuwait.”

Moreover, El Khatib is an only child, so he did not even have siblings with whom to cultivate a particular mixed identity. This makes his immigrant narrative different from the standard feet-in-two-worlds story. For El Khatib, growing up, there was really just one world, and that world was the City by the Bay.

“I’m like this super-American San Francisco kid,” El Khatib says. “I don’t speak the language” — either his father’s Arabic or his mother’s Tagalog — “because they’re trying to speak English to each other. Middle Easterners are always bummed on me, because I don’t speak Arabic. I’m like, I didn’t learn it, and my parents didn’t speak it to me!”

Nor has he had the chance to explore these alien yet “home” cultures. Not that he lacks the curiosity, he says. “But it’s a bit intimidating to just walk into these cultures, say if I went to the Middle East by myself I couldn’t do it, it’d probably be really difficult to get things done.”

When he speaks of San Francisco, though, this recent transplant to Los Angeles reminisces with all of an immigrant’s nostalgia. He grew up in the Sunset district — “where there are Catholic schools everywhere,” he says, one of which he attended before transferring to public high school. Just months before leaving for LA — a move prompted by his design job and now reinforced by his music career — he had found his dream apartment in a Panhandle Victorian; tearing himself away was difficult, he said.

“It’s just comfort,” he says of the city. “I know that I could go get a beer at this spot on Sutter, walk up the street with my skateboard, bomb down Hyde Street, hang out with friends that I’ll probably see skating at the library, go to the liquor store and get a tall can, hang out with them, go back home — it’s just the thing you do.”

He pauses, as if to ask himself the follow-up question that he wanted to answer. “I think it was important for me to move,” he says. “Because I needed to drastically change something.” In the year or so since moving, he said, he has deliberately limited his time in San Francisco — just a couple of quick hops to play gigs. His parents no longer live there. “I don’t really need to go back,” he says, as if admitting he’s now facing the future.

It’s noteworthy that the America El Khatib references most of all in his music and aesthetic is one that not only he was not alive to experience, but also that predated his parents’ arrival. His mining of the 1950s and 1960s has a latter-day, archivist quality that is, for better or worse, unaffected by family anecdote or cultural memory. He covers Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” for example—it’s an eerie piece, set like all his covers to entirely new music, but it’s still the song the King made famous—but without bothering to take a stand on Elvis as symbol or Elvis and the politics of rock’s origins.

“Elvis is like, another musician,” El Khatib says. “He is an icon to many people, and in general to American music, but I don’t look to him as my source of inspiration.” The Delta blues, Sam Cooke, doo-wop, sixties girl groups, all come up in the course of conversation, but attempts to draw El Khatib toward the political and social context of the period—segregation, the early civil rights movement—lead nowhere.

Instead, it’s a sense of craft and artisanship that he detects in the 1950s that draws him to work made in that period, he says—not just to the music but also, in his design work, to the iconography and aesthetic of that time.

“It’s about the people and the craft,” El Khatib says. “I like tools; I’m not a handyman, I don’t know how to work on cars or a motorcycle, but I really appreciate the tools of the trade, people who can use their hands to build stuff. Nowadays, if something’s broken you call someone—or just replace it, f**k it. Back then it’s like, if your toaster breaks you try to fix it. That’s really cool to me. Everything had a purpose back then—it was function over design, yet the design was really cool. Nowadays it’s design over function.”

His critique applies to today’s sounds—“I hate all the s**t pop music that’s on the radio now; it’s really bad for music,” he says, in what feels like an uncharacteristic moment of crankiness. But mostly it informs his own songwriting, those compact little pieces with no wasted moments, and indeed his approach to recording, which favors the first take.

“The songs I make, I guess they’re pop structures,” he says. “So after the second verse and the final bridge and chorus I’m probably not going to go back into more of the song. I also tend to do pretty mid-to-fast-tempo music, so it’s pretty in and out.” Even as a listener, he favors efficiency — “It has to just initially jump out and speak to me. I have to have an emotional connection to the song immediately. You know, the first two seconds in, you know a good song. That’s the kind of song I like.”

That’s a high standard to hold, but on Will the Guns Come Out, Hanni El Khatib does a fine job meeting it, spinning nervy tales about mostly messed-up people and situations that he says are inspired by his own life or those of his friends. Bad relationships, people drifting around the country, emotions perched precariously between crippling sadness and not giving a s**t—it’s the same feedstock as the blues, fundamentally, with the same melancholy laced with boozy, macho aggression.

“Darker stories are just more interesting to me. And I feel like they’re very familiar, very true and real.” Besides, he says, songs about happiness almost never work, unless you’re a writer on the caliber of Stevie Wonder. “There are very few songs I’ve heard where they talk about happiness and love and where I’m like, yeah, I can relate to that. So I guess it’s easier to write about torment.”

On the road this year with Florence and the Machine, El Khatib’s punchy attitude, lean songs and spare two-man stage set-up have contrasted with the British group’s big, lusher sound. Not every audience has appreciated the dichotomy, and some reviewers have—while saluting El Khatib’s energy and craft—questioned the choice to program the two together. There’s no such issue on the tour bus, El Khatib says; he’s become fast friends with Florence as well as sharing advanced music geekery with her guitar player.

And if he’s booed or feels the crowd fidgeting? “I honestly don’t give a s**t,” he says. “We were asked to play, so we’re going to play.” And playing audiences of thousands instead of his customary bar crowds, he doesn’t need to make believers of a big percentage of the room. “I do know we sell more merch at these shows than at our own shows,” he says. “Maybe I didn’t convert 3,000 of them, but I’ll take 30.”

Not that El Khatib is having trouble gaining fans. And the energy he’s picking up on the road is feeding right back into his mood and playing. “It’s cool to see people get stoked about listening to music,” he says. He may come from everywhere and nowhere — the rootless mixed kid with San Francisco as accidental homeland — but it’s at a gig, just like in the skate scene, that he and everyone in the room can simply be and belong.

“Not to get all mushy over music, but it’s pretty cool because anybody can relate to it no matter where you are,” he says. “It’s one of the very few things that you can have in common with somebody and have no other interests — you don’t even share the same beliefs, but you like whatever song. That’s what’s cool to me.”