Hanni El Khatib: Still In the Dirt

Hanni el Khatib is one of the last Californian rocker specimens: kind of honest, unlike some of his fellow being. After his first album Will The Guns Come Out, more garage than anything, he came back with a second album: Head In The Dirt. Bluesier than his first one, it was produced and recorded by Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys’ leader. His songs and video clips still flirt dangerously with sex and porn.

He stopped by for a gig in Paris, at the Trabendo, the occasion for us to ask him a few questions. As he seemed a little bit touchy about sex or porn, I didn’t insist on the topic too much. Not mentioning him of course that my ears were two tiny vaginas, which his music penetrates violently. Such a pity for someone who kindles asses and hearts with his brutish rock. At least, he and his sound are a lot alike: wild and coy.

You’re a musician, you also run a record company, you have been a designer… What are you most attracted to among all these things? Which is the one you prefer ?
I don’t know if I prefer anything or the other one. Just maybe I enjoy doing music for a living a little bit more. There is just a bit more feelings there. When I was a designer, I just had to go to the office every day. But the point of all these things is: you come up with an idea and do it. With the song, you come up with an idea, write the song, record it and then put it on a vinyl. With designing it’s the same thing. You come up with an idea, or a graphic or an image or something. Create it, put it on a t-shirt. Anything you do is whatever you want. At least in my scenario, at the moment, there is nobody to tell me what I can, what I have to do.

Can you contemplate the idea of getting really famous in the music business and touring all over the world?
Touring all over the world part, I relate to. It’s been stacking of building. I started at home, doing shows in San Francisco. That spreads to LA, then that spreads to few majors cities in America. Then all of a sudden, I was going in Europe and that’s just grew organically. The famous part, I don’t feel famous at all so I don’t know how it feels. I have some friends that are famous, and it looks like really annoying. They are bothered all the time.

What was the main thing that Auerbach brought to your music? Did it change your sound?
I don’t know that he changed my sound. The one major role he played was in studio. He is really good in the studio and recording. He has a lot of knowledge about recording and a lot of experience. There is a lot of stuff I learnt from there, lots of technical things I just didn’t know. And then the other thing he opened up my eyes to was to pay more attention to the melody and editing. Like editing myself, that kind of things. When I wanted to do a certain section on the song, kind of turn into really weird, we kind of “valuated” that. There is a lot of that. I guess that because of his experience, he knows how to capture the point a little bit faster.

What are your musical references? The artists that inspire you?
There is a lot of music that inspires me. Old soul music, old funk. I like it. The Meters, for example. When I listen to that I’m like “oh shit I love that”. The drums are tight, I wish I could do that. Lately I’ve been getting into different movements, in different parts of the world. Sixties stuff or seventies, like psychedelic music from Cambodia. I don’t know all the names or artists, they probably put out one record. But there’s people who found out about all this stuff, who’s been collecting it… Really finding out this thing and discovering it. And it’s kind of pretty cool.

Your album is named after the song Head In The Dirt? Why this one and not an other?
I felt like the title of the song summed up the general mood of the album. It was the first song of the album and on my first album, that was also the first song that was the title. On the first album, the first song was kind of the general vibe. Same with this one.

So what is the general mood of this album?
It’s just about being like a drifter and travelling and all this kind of thing. Experiences, like being alone, on the road.

Could you define the dirt? Your definition of the word? Is it literally dirt or is it something else?
It’s something else. Like reality, turning away from reality, not trying to fix it. That idea of turning blind on what’s really going on.

I’m under the impression that your lyrics are a lot less raw and explicit than on your first album, is there a reason?
The first album felt more stream of consciousness. I guess I have more anger behind it or some of the stuff before. I’m not an angry person but there is more of this anger with some of the songs. And on this record, I wanted to concentrate on, it’s still stream some consciousness. I want to tell stories like created images. I guess it’s a product of the fact that I wrote the album in a really short time frame and I recorded it in a short time frame too. The first album was a really long process: I recorded one song in two weeks.

Roach Cock & Family are two big references to Japan, the whole thing in a sexual and suggestive atmosphere, why these gimmicks? Like these references that come and go…
That’s a coincidence. For the first video, one of my best friend, Ricky Saiz for Roach Cock, was in Japan. I’ve been in Japan, few times. But he goes there all the time for work. He happened to be in Japan, and he loves that song Roach Cock. He said “hey I got this idea for a video” and he just texted me “I want to do it tonight”. He sent me this in the morning and that’s what he did. I think he was just in Japan, he had the idea he could do it that night.
Another very good friend, Nick Walker, made the other video. He wrote his ideas in a notebook four years ago, when he was in college. And last year, he gave me this notebook of all this really weird ideas. And he was like “hey if you ever see here anything that you like and you want to use, let me know“ And then I did Family. So basically, it’s kind of coincidental. I think it’s funny…

I don’t want to use music clip for selfish purposes, like put myself in a video to like be in movies or some shit. I only appear in the music video if it’s like funny or for a reason. If not, I’d rather just not be in it.

Whay do you like in the idea you take from the notebook?
Because I know the reference to these old japanese sexploitation and the Biker Gang (the Bosozokus -ed.). So I already knew the references and I knew his style and what he was going go for. And then it was just weird. The story doesn’t make sense. It’s pretty stupid. Those crazy guys meet girls. We couldn’t film everything. The rest of the idea is even crazier. And we didn’t have enough time. But at the end, the guy with the octopus, it’s like “what the fuck”.

What’s your next video clip, Penny, going to look like?
It’s like prisoners in jail, performing Penny. And we have another, really good one: Simon Cahn, he did another one for Pay No Mind. We already shot it in LA and it’s going to be sweet: it is like a rap video, with a lot of booty dancing.

HANNIHELKHATIB_02 © Guilhem Malissen

Your music and your vibe arouse wild and dirty behaviours, is it the way you see music?
Some old music are really crazy, the singers were really nuts. There is a lot of that kind of stuff. I never wrote a song thinking about it. It appears because maybe it’s a primal thing. I was making music spontaneously, with my guts. If that sound is working for me, I will just continue that song. People get that sense because it’s one of those primal urges.

Are you trying to show it through your videos or in your music?
It’s just made in a spontaneous way. On my first album I didn’t really write down the lyrics. So I made the music and then I get ideas from what I mean to say to recorders or something, and still recording until I said the right lyrics. Second album, some songs were written in thirty minutes, and then fifteen minutes to record it, and then done. Any of the song that we work on for too long we stop working on them.

On this album you worked with Dan Auerbach, what’s the next step?
I just focus on touring this album. When I get back home from this touring, I want to spend some time collecting songs until I make my next album. When I get back home I‘m going to start writing songs again and recording them. But I don’t know when, I have so much touring going on. Probably don’t have time to, I will get around to eventually. But I want to continue to write songs, when I’ll be free.

This album, I started working only 2 weeks before I get to studio, that’s stressful. I want to be a little more prepared, spend a little more time. It’s really fun to record music super fast. But when I listen to this album, there’s some stuff I wish I had added, different styles or sounds I wish I was able to record.

Photos by Guilhem Malissen

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