Hanni El Khatib’s world is a dangerous place. The San Francisco-raised Los Angeles resident prefers to fill his musical terrain with outlaw characters and disastrous circumstances.
At least three of Khatib’s releases, including last September’s full-length debut Will the Guns Come Out, have covers adorned with the mangled remnants of car wrecks. His influences are “knife fights and train wrecks,” and he’s dedicated his songs to “anyone who’s ever been shot or hit by a train.”
In his version of “You Rascal You,” an oldie that’s passed through the hands of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis Jr., Khatib masters the art of the death threat. The rapscallion in the song’s title has apparently been sleeping with the singer’s wife and the vocalist relishes the prospect of sending this adulterer to his grave. Khatib delivers his warnings in a woozy, uneven voice as a creaky guitar line shuffles behind him. If you’re curious as to whether he finishes the job or not, these closing lines should clear things up: “I’ll be standing on a corner full of gin/When they bring your dead body in/I’ll be glad when you’re dead/You rascal you.”
The above details indicate that he clearly has some interest in the concept, but does he consider himself a violent person at all?
“Hmm, no, but I think everybody has internal aggression that people deal with in different ways,” says the 30-year-old frontman who currently plays alongside drummer Nicky Fleming-Yaryan and multi-instrumentalist Hayden Tobin. “I just feel like (violence is) the perfect metaphor for lots of different things in life, you know? I guess it conjures up feelings and emotions instantly. You see a car wreck and instantly, you’re like, ‘Fuck. Dude, are they dead?’ (or) ‘Oh shit, I wonder if someone’s hurt’ or you think of the family who is related to the person in the accident. To me, that’s the perfect image to exploit those emotions.”
Those destructive visuals aren’t the only things that define Khatib’s aesthetic. His music is a distinctly retro blend of Doo-Wop, Garage Rock and Blues delivered with a glammed-down production style. Fashion-wise, he very much comes across as a greaser — you’ll typically see him in sunglasses, short slicked-back hair, a white T-shirt and a denim jacket — even as he doesn’t identify with that subculture. (“To me, I think of it as things that are just not going to go out of style.”) His visuals make heavy use of retro chic, too — the wrecks mentioned above come from old photographs Khatib plucked from archives, a recent batch of Khatib-designed posters promoting his South By Southwest shows could pass for concert flyers made by a 1950s letterpress and the video for “Dead Wrong” appears to use footage shot in a big city around the same decade.
Khatib, however, considers himself “pretty contemporary.”
He’s had old cars and his house is mostly decorated with vintage things, but he also mentions his fondness for the iPhone, the Internet and Hip Hop. His aesthetic choices as a musician appear to come from an interest in old, classic-looking stuff instead of him believing he has to absolutely commit to the style and ideals of a certain period from the past.
Khatib got his first electric guitar when he was about 12, first learning how to play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and he veered back and forth between electric and acoustic for a while. When he began assembling his old-school-influenced songs some five years ago, he began focusing on the electric.
“The thing I really like about that kind of music is it’s really honest and super pure, and there’s not much to it in terms of production or song structure or whatever,” he says.
Even with this fundamentally aged school of sound, he tries to write contemporary lyrics and “make one thing weird” in every song, such as taking a stomping acoustic Blues number and adding a four-on-the-floor drum beat and a fuzz tone from the ‘60s or ‘70s.
He is less concerned with trying to differentiate his take on vintage sounds from the work of contemporary nostalgics like The White Stripes and The Black Keys.
“I don’t really think about how I can separate myself from anybody else,” he says. “I just think of ‘What can I make that is very true to me and something that I actually can stand behind and really believe in and feel good about?,’ you know?”
HANNI EL KHATIB plays MOTR Pub Friday with Sundelles.