Tomorrow night, singer-songwriter Hanni El Khatib is performing his fusion of garage rock, blues and doo-wap at Berlin's Bassy Club. We sent Anastasia Lévy to find out about what the multi-instrumentalist and ex-skateboarder calls his "knife-fight music"
Your album Will the Guns Come Out is obviously influenced by 50s and 60s music and production. What did you listen to growing up? When I was younger I was into a whole load of stuff. My mum would play The Zombies, The Beatles or whatever. And when I started forming my own opinion on music, I really listened to all kinds of stuff, from hip hop to punk, metal... anything. I think it’s important to be open to a lot of things. I’m open to everything musically.
You just mentioned the Zombies and the Beatles, two very melodic pop bands. Your album is much more rock, and garage, and blues, soul. What were your influences on this style? Yes, I mean, as I got older, I listened to all these genres. I still really like music that has some sort of a pop feel to it. On tour, I listen to a lot of 50s music, and doo-wop, because there is some sort of catchy, danceability to it. You know, songs from the 50s that are about doing a dance or whatever. They’re kind of repetitive and they have this very simple first chorus. I take a little bit of everything that I like and I try to spin a tune out in a way that feels good to me.
Have you always sang?
I’ve always written songs. And written songs that mean something to me personally. Who’s better to sing them than yourself? If they mean something to me I can’t really have someone else to sing them. So yes, I’ve always been singing.
On your albumthere are three covers. One would think that on a first album you would have too many songs to put on. Why did you want to record these three covers? I like the idea of doing covers. I like the spirit of the jazz players, who all played the same songs, but very different. My versions of the songs are complete opposites to the originals. To me that was the writing part: I changed the melody, I restructured the arrangements… The "Heartbreak Hotel" on my album couldn’t be further away from the original. I like the idea of taking something that people are familiar with and just present it in a way that is unexpected or different.
You have a song called "Build/destroy/rebuild": can we apply this pattern to music? You have this whole heritage of songs, do you have to destroy what already exists to rebuild something new?
This song applies to music, but also to philosophies, or ideas. I think at a certain point, you peak, and rather than go on a slow downhill, you might as well smash it all to bits and start all over again. You better start something new. You should end on a high note. You see a lot of examples everywhere: artists or musicians who are at their best, and then they just keep adding, and it kind of slips away.
In the song you say "Ain’t no future in the youth/No more culture than your crew". Do you think that the youth and its culture look at the past and not at the future anymore?
Actually I think it’s a good think to look at the past. You kind of have to know where things come from to have a good grasp of it. And then, once you understand that, you can do whatever you want. People in general, they get all sorts of information spit up everyday, they check their phones, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, pass around information…it’s kind of like the game of telephone [Chinese whispers]: by the end you miss the whole point if you don’t know where things come from.
How do you compose music? There are many different ways. Sometimes a certain lyric or phrase sticks in my head, I write it down and then build a song off to that. Sometimes I come up with a melody, and I’m like at a bar or with some friends, and I have to go right outside, and sing the melody into my phone. I rarely succeed when I sit down with a guitar and a piece of paper to write a song… in fact that never happens.
What inspires you when you write music? I think mostly stories of people’s lives. Travel and meeting more and more people, that kind of inspires me. I have so much fun doing it, I want to sustain it and I have to keep making music. I like to tell stories, that’s why I write songs.
You say "you can’t be my love unless you’re crazy half the time". Are you crazy yourself? Yes, I’m a little crazy. I mean, everyone is pretty crazy: some of the people you’re around bring out some crazy sides, do some bizarre things… They’re not normally like that, and you can’t explain why but…
In The Breakfast Club one of the characters says : "Everybody’s bizarre, some people are just better at hiding it". Ah ah, yeah, exactly !
What do you feel towards life? Are you angry? I’m quite calm I guess. I feel passionate about things, of course. I’m opinionated. I have an idea of what I wanna do and pursue. When I make music I try to create a mood and an atmosphere rather than a straightforward song. It’s more about a whole spirit than a perfect performance, you know.
What does it mean for you to be on stage, performing? Playing live for me is just the place where I can be the most free, and not worry about any sort of constraints or limitations. When you play a good live show you instantly know. And I think it’s important to let yourself go and play the show and forget about all the people. I try to forget about the audience, not let it distract me.
Yes? But can't it be something stimulating, an audience? In fact, sometimes it’s really distracting. There are some places that aren’t meant for shows, but you have to do it anyway, like say you have to do a TV perfomance for example…that’s kind of weird. There’s all these people, bright lights, and everyone’s staring at you. You feel so self-conscious at that time… Or when you play in really small bars, with a bunch of people, you can easily just get carried away.
Hanni El Khatib | Wait. Wait. Wait | A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.
In everyday life, are you the type that likes to get attention? No, definitely not. I’m not really the funny guy at dinners. In music, what I really just care about is playing and recording songs. The attention part that happens with it is a componant, a side-effect. I have some friends who can’t go to bars, because too many people recognize them, and want to talk to them. It can get quite annoying. That doesn’t happen to me so I’m more at ease with that, but I’ve never seeked attention like that. And I’m surely not doing music because of that.
You feel more comfortable with the phase of recording, in the studio, than with the tour? I feel comfortable equally. I really enjoy recording music because you can do experiments, take your time… But then playing can be so spontanious, you can do whatever you want.
Do you feel close to any musicians today? There’s a few bands I play shows with in LA that I really get along with and that I like. I mean musically, I don’t know, but friendwise yes. I think the band that has left the most impact on me, and I have managed to sustain with them is Florence And The Machine. I’ve become really really close to them, and as friends, we still get along. Even though we’re both touring all the time, and they’re really really busy, we still manage to hang out and see each other and stuff.
And musically? I don’t know. I feel that I’m just doing my own thing, you know.
Can you talk to me about the car accident on the album cover? I’ve always been fascinated by old pictures, and I really like old photos of car crashes. To me it represents something so powerful and strong, virtually… you feel indestructible when you’re in a car. And then when you see it smashed up it’s like… falling up like a tin can. It’s kind of crazy looking.
You said you "write songs for people who’ve been shot by a train"… what does that mean? It’s a metaphor, obviously. If you have something rough that happens to you, sometimes music is the only answer to help you out of it. It’s a simple dedication to that.