Some time ago, while surfing for Florence + The Machine tour dates, I stumbled upon the website of an American indie artist by the name of Hanni El Khatib. The description for his music reads, “These songs were written for anyone who’s ever been shot or hit by a train. Knife fight music.”
My curiosity piqued, I clicked on his videos on YouTube, and for some unknown reason, his catchphrase suddenly made sense. His music did feel like it could have been the rock soundtrack to a drunken bar brawl scene or old-fashioned gang fight.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something about his sound that was both strangely nostalgic and refreshingly new—not to mention catchy as hell.
Who is this guy, I thought, while my head automatically bobbed along to song after song. A quick scan of his bio revealed that he’s a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, avid skater, and—based on the glowing reviews from Boston and LA music critics—one of this year’s hottest artists to watch out for. Oh, and he’s also half Pinoy.
‘Black, white, and blues’ all over
El Khatib’s music is a wickedly delicious throwback to the golden era of vinyl records and happy-go-lucky doo-wop, but with a garage punk twist that hits you like a welcome shot of tequila. The funk-blues swagger in his sound might remind one of The Black Keys, and perhaps a bit of The White Stripes’ Jack White during his “Icky Thump” days, only with grittier vocals.
But comparisons aside, it’s El Khatib’s raw, often-distressed yelps and raunchy rock riffs that set him apart from his indie contemporaries, and he’s steadily gaining a cult following across the West Coast and beyond.
Born of Palestinian and Filipino parents, the San Francisco native grew up fixated on three things: Skate culture, punk rock, and ’50s and ’60s Americana. Influenced by early rock and R&B pioneers like Sam Cooke and Johnny Cash, El Khatib mixes nostalgic elements of blues, soul, and even folk with modern rock sensibilities. He likes to keep it raw and simple, performing with only an ensemble that includes him, his guitar, and a session drummer in tow for live shows.
El Khatib has certainly been busy for the past few months, thanks to the ever-growing buzz surrounding him and his music. He opened for Florence + The Machine last November, and is currently part of the latter’s US summer tour.
Just recently, he was chosen over The Black Keys, Beastie Boys, and Red Hot Chili Peppers for Nike’s newest “Just Do It” campaign, whose edgy ad features some of the world’s biggest extreme sports stars strutting their stuff to his theme song “I Got A Thing.” A couple of his songs have even been featured in current TV series like “Hung,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Teen Wolf,” and “United States of Tara.” Right now, he’s shaking things up in LA and getting ready to release his hotly anticipated debut album, entitled “Will The Guns Come Out.”
Here’s an excerpt of the exclusive e-mail interview he did with Super just before he kicked off his summer tour with Florence + The Machine.
I hear you’re part Filipino. What was it like growing up?
My mom is actually the one who is Filipino. She’s from Manila. It was interesting for me growing up. I got exposed to a lot of cool things between my mom and dad’s culture. I will say that Filipino food that I ate at home and with relatives growing up is some of the best-tasting food in the world. Haha.
Why do you call your music “knife fight music”?
At times my music can be sort of aggressive. I kinda just started throwing around the term to describe the general feeling you might take away from it.
Apart from the vocals, you pretty much do everything else—guitar, songwriting, the works. What’s the story behind the one-man band?
I wouldn’t really consider myself as a one-man band, because I don’t think I could really perform the majority of my songs on my own. But, I think it happened out of necessity in the studio. I wrote all these songs just on guitar, but imagined them to be a bit bigger in scale when I started to record them. I wanted to add more sounds and instruments. I just started playing whatever I could to fill up things as I saw fit.
However, I don’t actually play everything on the record. My friend Marc Bianchi, who recorded most of the album, plays a good portion of the drums. And Nicky Fleming-Yaryan, who is my live drummer, plays drums on a couple tracks as well.
You’re heavily influenced by the ’50s and ’60s eras, down to your slick pomade hairstyle. How’d that happen?
I’ve always just liked the aesthetic. It’s real simple and pure. The era is pretty classic and seems to transcend trend.
Attracted to the lyrics
Your cover of Louis Armstrong’s “You Rascal You” is just awesome. Is there any particular reason you chose to do a remake of that song?
It was actually written by Sam Theard, but yes, Louis Armstrong did a great version too. I think that the lyrics are what attracted me to the song. When you listen to any of the previous versions, you’ll find that the music and melody are very uplifting and almost happy.
The lyrics to me are extremely dark and raw and especially considering they were written so long ago, it surprised me. I just thought it’d be cool to have the music match the mood of the lyrics in my version.
People say you sound like The Black Keys because of the funk-blues swagger in your sound. Does it bother you?
It doesn’t really bother me. Those guys are really talented and make good music. I’ve got respect for them. Personally, I feel that the music is very different, but I can see how people will make the comparison. I do perform live with a drummer only. I guess the two-piece comparison will be hard to shake as long as I perform with that setup.
How does it feel to be touring with Florence + The Machine this summer?
I feel great about going on tour with them. They’ve all become really good friends since I met them last year. It’s gonna be really exciting and I’m stoked to be able to travel and play music alongside them.
Anyone you want to collaborate with in the future?
I’m always open to collaborations. Haven’t really thought of anyone in particular. I’ll just let it happen organically.
Apart from being a musician, you’re also an avid skater. How does skate culture influence your music?
Skateboarding has greatly impacted everything I do. It’s the one constant thing besides music that has held my interest since I was a kid. Skating is raw and pure and I try to apply that same philosophy to my music.
What can we expect from your debut album “Will The Guns Come Out”?
I guess the album is filled with many different styles and sounds but all share a common theme and mood. The record should be released in September.
Lastly, any plans of dropping by the Philippines?
I think soon. There is a chance that I might just go out there for a vacation in July. I’d love to play a show there.
That’d be awesome. We hope to meet you soon!
Thanks for the support!!!
Check out Hanni’s official website at www.hannielkhatib.com.