Cliche alert: a lot can change in four years. There’s transformation on a micro scale – greying hairs, forlorn romances fucked into the ether, weight added to somewhere stupid like your chin. At the same time, financial markets crash, governments change hands – the Big Shit usually does a Big Shift. And so, looking back so far can almost feel like experiencing a thousand lives. Did that really happen? Do I exist? Or – as is pertinent here – did Ben Khan and I really speak in 2014, and is he finally releasing a debut album?
The answer to the last two questions is yes. The former took place in a swanky members club, back when Khan was being touted as the next Jai Paul off the back of releases like “Eden” that seemed to come from a similar world. But that’s the past, this is now, and this summer Khan is releasing his debut album. In essence, the record details his unparalleled ability to create futuristic yet soulful compositions that could come from Los Angeles, 2049 – a place where the replicants of Blade Runner walk the earth. Take lead single and self-directed video “2000 Angels” below as an example. Maybe it’s just me (probably?) but the sound presented by Khan has the atmosphere of a gloriously dystopian future, where the idea of robots sleeping with humans falls into the right side of sleaze.
Today, however, we meet firmly in the present, soaking up the sun on a trading estate pub near Latimer Road in west London. There’s nothing fancy here, just a few trucks, the odd pedestrian passing by in search of a cigarette or a lighter, a bartender who strolls inside each time we order another drink – the result of Khan and I being the only two people here. Still: we could easily be joined by a famous face. The pub is local to Damon Albarn’s studio, something the owners are clearly proud of: the walls are adorned with signed artwork, there’s a written dedication to Albarn – at one point the Gorillaz track “Tomorrow Comes Today” weaves its way from the speakers and into the outside patio where we’re drinking (Khan has a Blue Moon without the orange; I’ve opted for one with the slice). Our meet-up is so casual, we could be two colleagues who clocked off early to sink beers and enjoy today's rare showing of blazing April sunshine.
As we start to chat, Khan tells me he recorded in Albarn’s studio a couple of years ago. In fact, he tells me loads of things – and often with an openness belying the cryptic, reserved presence presented by himself and the press when he started releasing music all those years ago. Across an hour conversation we touch on the Solfeggio scales, how Prince would specifically retune his instruments, Brian Eno’s Apollo, Carl Sagan, old Kendrick Lamar mixtapes from when he was 18 that are still floating around the internet. It's almost like table tennis: each of us bouncing our interests back and forth. But music-head chat aside, we also spoke about the important stuff, such as:
Noisey: What’s happened between the last time we spoke and now?
Ben Khan: I can’t remember really, when was it? Two / three years ago? What’s happened?
You put out two EPs (one in 2014, another in 2015), then you didn’t put out an album. Were you wondering what to do next?
It wasn’t ‘What do I do now?’ The MO was always clear: make more music and get better. The first EP went well and I like it. Before I had a fanbase, the music was always very pure and unadulterated, just whatever I wanted to do. But as soon as it seemed to go well I found it changed me a bit. I became more aware of the fact I had to please people. I wasn’t as happy making the music.
Did it feel like work?
Yeah, there were times it felt like that. Then there was the pressure of having to speed up, but I didn’t want to speed up in the wrong direction because then I’ll flop, I’ll fuck it, and that would be it. You don’t get that many chances at getting it right. Fans don’t care that much and people aren’t that forgiving.
I touched on this with Novelist recently. He could have released an album years ago but didn’t, he took his time.
There are lots of different personalities in music and some people are capable of adapting well to other standards and paces; and some people really want to do their own thing. The main reason I like to do music is because it feels like I’m doing my own thing. I get the best stuff out it when I do that. Some people get the best stuff when they’re told ‘Oh man, you have to make a hit.’
And when that happens, it’s usually for monetary or egotistical reasons.
But some people also perform under those pressures, they get made better by those things. However I don’t personally think that I do. I’m too sensitive in that if someone [puts a time frame on something] I’m like ‘No, probably fuck off’. That’s how I react.
Right. Do you want a second cigarette by the way?
Nah, I’m cool cheers. I’ve always has a good relationship with smoking. I’ve always dipped in and out and it’s never stayed with me.
But you stopped smoking weed a few years ago, right?
Yeah, I had to. It fucked up my mental.
I’m the same – it’s been three years straight now.
Did you feel like you had that time when you had to recover your mental state?
Yeah, I did. I got really deep into it: going to support groups and reading about how things would get better as each week or month went by. There’s a Subreddit about it. People say it’s not an addiction....
That’s bollocks man.
Exactly. If I’m smoking weed every day when I wake up because I’m stressed, that’s an addiction.
It is and it’s not exactly that positive as well. I started smoking when I was 13/14 and took it like a job until I was 20, then it broke me eventually. It fucked me up in loads of ways and I had to get rid of it. Now I’m cool.
And now you’re in your mid-twenties and releasing a debut album. Were you making music in the two or so years since the last EP dropped or did you take a break and travel somewhere?
There were some moments. There was a point where I went to Kashmir to see my Dad for three weeks. I was really stressed out and not knowing what to do with [music]. It was a great reset going away from everything. You also realise things don’t really fucking matter. I’ve got a lot of family out there and the way of life is so simple.
What’s it like?
It’s relaxed. It would be like being in the countryside. Around where [my dad] lives it’s a lot of rice fields. It’s all based around the two/three meals a day and talking, relaxing with family. It’s really nice and takes you away from all the bullshit. I don’t speak Kashmiri so a lot of the time I was sitting there listening. But I still took my laptop and a field mic and went on walks, collecting some sounds. I wasn’t writing but maybe laying the very basics… trying to get inspired basically.
So having that space away from everything in London was important?
Yeah, it was. Because I didn’t feel good being here and it was a removal from being away from that. It made me realise nothing I’m doing is important.
How do you mean? Because the way of life there is so different?
It’s like if you watch a documentary about space and you realise ‘I’m beautifully insignificant – these petty worries I have everyday, in the bigger picture they don’t really matter’.
It’s interesting you mention space, because the new video gives off a dystopian, sci-fi vibe. It’s a mad video. It seems to reference a lot of films.
THX 1138 was a big influence, which was a George Lucas film he did on a small budget. The concept is: I was reading a lot about simulation theory, and I thought that was a wicked idea [laughs].
You’ve always worked closely with your music videos. Where did your interest in film come from? I started getting really into it in those long summers between secondary school and sixth form, and sixth form and university.
That’s not dissimilar to me. On an unhappy note: my mum died from cancer when I was 15, and I think after that I was in a pretty shit place – smoking weed loads; I’d already been smoking but was like ‘Fucking more!' and trying to escape the reality of ‘This is rubbish’. After that I religiously watched films and made music.
What are some films you love?
That’s like a music question isn’t it; like ‘What music do you like?’
It is! But I can say I love Kids or whatever and that was the first thing that made me interested in film... what’s yours?
It was Star Wars.
The original ones?
The original ones. I remember having them on tape. It was me and my brother and we’d relentlessly watch them – Luke was the hero, it was a fucking story, it was great. That was my entry into being like ‘Movies are fucking great’, because that’s the biggest crowd pleaser. It’s got everything: old school storytelling, the grandness of Lawrence of Arabia or something in that desert setting, it’s playing with the idea of religion, good and evil, it’s biblical in a way.
And what made you want to direct?
Yeah, because of the scripts. True Romance is one of my favourite scripts.
I love Brad Pitt’s cameo in that.
Yeah, he’s sick. Then [the original] Blade Runner was another big one. When I saw it I hadn’t taken in anything that crazy. Now, CGI is fucking good, and you can build those worlds and do them better. The Vangelis score is great as well.
And how about music? How did you get into that?
When I was ten years old or younger, I started skateboarding. I would go to skateparks and basically eat shit – I fucked up my elbow badly. But it was back in the days where you would have a Walkman, a skateboard – and those were my two go-to activities.
What were you listening to? Skateboarding, especially, involves so many different genres.
The only skater-ish thing I was listening to was Nirvana’s Nevermind – I think that’s the first album I bought. But apart from that my mum’s favourite CD at the time was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac – like most people’s mum’s [laughs] – and my dad’s was Bad by Michael Jackson. So those got the most rotation. Then I begged my parents to get me a guitar.
That’s what you do at that age, right?
Yeah. It’s a rite of passage for most kids – ‘I want to fucking play the guitar’. But I do remember there was a point from listening to the music to being like ‘How the fuck do they make this’ – and that was especially true with the Michael Jackson stuff. So I got a guitar, started playing it, never did my homework. I had a computer, a crack of Cubase, a really shitty old school keyboard – and pretty quickly I was trying to record songs. It was bad.
What would you have been doing instead – career wise?
I’m trying to think….: I don’t know about you, but I get mad memory gaps.
That’s probably weed, yeah. But I think it’s also, when I lost my mum, there’s a period from about 15 to 18 where I can’t remember lots of stuff. It’s all tucked away. Well, my dad isn’t the classical Indian parent who wanted me to be a doctor. But I think he was a bit concerned at times that I was being a bit of a twat, smoking weed and making music that wasn’t that good. Before he was concerned, like, ‘Are you going to do something? This isn’t enough’. It wasn’t recognisable for a while that music would work – I went to Leeds University for a bit to study music but within three weeks I left. I stayed on for six months to go to parties and whatnot, but it wasn’t for me.
Then [the record label] Dirty Hit came in and this summer you’re releasing your debut record. Is there a concept behind it?
I wanted to take it to the next place, and the next place for me wasn’t an EP. That’s not a challenge. To get four or five songs together I could have done on the spot. But that wasn’t going to make me better.
I like this is the full package. You’ve directed the videos, you produce all the music.
I’ve got my favourite job I could ever have. I get to make all the little bits that come along with the music as well.
I’m jealous. Thanks for chatting Ben.
You can find Ryan on Twitter .
This conversation has been edited / condensed for brevity and clarity.