Noisey

The Savage Times of Hanni El Khatib's American Dream

The LA garage rocker opens up about his visceral new project documenting the chaos of 2016, and what it means to be an American when you're born brown.

by Andrea Domanick
Mar 6 2017, 3:00pm

Hanni El Khatib was supposed to take last year off. As 2015 drew to a close, the garage rocker was in the home stretch of a months-long touring cycle behind his third LP, Moonlight, which itself punctuated about five straight years on the road and intermittent studio visits. Drained from night after night of the fitful, high octane performances that drew his routinely sold-out crowds, the singer-guitarist looked forward to one last gig in Paris before returning home to LA for 2016. 

But that gig never happened. Days before his scheduled performance, a group of gunmen opened fire on the crowd at Le Bataclan during Eagles of Death Metal's performance, killing 137 people in the now-infamous terrorist attack. 

El Khatib was at a best friend's wedding. He found out the way most did, in a surreal flurry of news alerts and text messages. There were people he knew at the concert, others he knew playing shows nearby. His friends in The Arcs had just stepped off stage at another venue down the street. "We're getting out of Paris immediately," they wrote him. 

If the experience hit home for El Khatib, it also left him without closure. Back in LA, the San Francisco native's base for the past eight years, the tranquility and steadiness he sought post-tour continued to elude him; he was finally home, but its meaning had changed on him. 

"There was this kind of anti-immigrant sentiment going around," says El Khatib, whose mother is Filipino and father is Palestinian, on a sun-beaten February morning at the VICE LA office. "I mean, my name's Hanni El Khatib, it's pretty unavoidable. If I go into the South and use a credit card with my name, I'll get a look. And frankly, there's confusion on what kind of music I make sometimes. I think just my name alone positions me in a place in some people's minds that I make world music or some shit like that."

El Khatib soon found himself back in the studio, though with no intent or direction beyond that; he didn't want to make another album. But the unscheduled year ahead would nonetheless yield Savage Times, a collection of the 19 songs and five EPs that El Khatib would churn out over the course of 2016 in an alternatingly steady and fraught flow, rough-hewn tracks knocked out in the moment and released online just as impulsively. 

"I think that the fact that the record isn't cohesive sonically makes it cohesive in a way," he says, explaining that he and producer-collaborator Johnny Bell (also of Crystal Antlers) focused on emotion and immediacy, rather than technical prowess or musicianship. "I tried to make every song sound different from the next. I wanted to try things so that I wasn't bored and so I could push myself into places that [I couldn't] in an album context. So I felt that this was the perfect time to just try that." 

Savage Times, out now on El Khatib's own Innovative Leisure, is a sort of anti-album; in many ways, it feels more like a mixtape: a linear document of a year marked, as its name implies, by uncertainty and upheaval, one of sharp personal turns and broader existential flux. It's intimate, the way that such a stream-of-consciousness project only can be, but will resonate with just about anyone knocked on their feet by 2016. That's also what makes it such a refreshing, and effective, proper album. 

The record sheds the semi-fictional blues noir storytelling of El Khatib's past in favor of his most personal, and visceral, work yet. Songs explore everything from his first generation identity to gun violence to his lifelong struggle with panic attacks that resurfaced last year. It's also a helluva lot of fun, jumping from punk to electro, garage soul to disco-funk. El Khatib is at his most adventurous  as a multiinstrumentalist and vocalist, at times, as on the searing "Born Brown," to the point of being nearly unrecognizable--or perhaps his most self-honest yet. The details may be personal, but they—and the music that carries them—amount to an unequivocally American experience. 

"It should feel like it is a collection, at least thematically it feels a certain type of way," he says. "When I listen back to it, you know, I really know what I was going through during every track. And, you know I'm proud of that because I was able to capture what I was feeling at the time."

Noisey: On your past albums, how did the process compare to this one?
Hanni El Khatib: In the past, I've made records in, you know, under two weeks and that forces you to be really concise with what you're doing, and you set out with a plan to make a record. This was kind of the opposite, in that there was no plan to make a record and I had unlimited time to work on it, and no one was even expecting me to put out a record. The label didn't care if I put out a fourth record, I didn't care if I put out a fourth record, alI I knew was I wanted to put out music somehow, some way.

How did that kind of lack of a narrative end up influencing the songs that you ended up writing?
Strangely, not having a full vision or concept of a record, I was able to just keep exploring things that were happening at the moment in my personal life, or musically, or whatever at the time and I could just react really instinctually on that feeling. And so, you know, if one day I wanted to make a disco song I would just go ahead and make it. The next day, if I wanted to make a techno song, I would go and try that. I ended up with maybe 40 to 50 ideas and, you know not all of them made it obviously but it was a good exercise in exploring production, sound, lyrics. It was just a good thing for me to do this time around. A lot of rock musicians aren't putting out music as instantly as, let's say, rap artists are. And to me that was a big thing, and I kind of got fixated on the idea of doing mixtape style, you know? Just going straight to the internet and getting it out to fans as quickly as possible. I mean about as fast as I was doing it. To the point where I was putting up records, like putting up these EPs and not knowing the track list. And so it was happening in real time in a sense.

It also gets a lot more personal than you have before.
I think when I first started I was really like interested in storytelling, and a lot of the people like Tom Waits or Nick Cave, where they're blurring the lines of fictional and real life stories interwoven in song and I kind of patterned myself after that. Whereas on this record I barely even wrote the lyrics down. I would really just either have an idea for the music and the vibe and then start singing on top of that and see what would happen lyrically. And often times whatever I was saying in the scratch vocals take ended up being the song.

What was going on? I mean you could've ended up screaming about a lot of different things. Why do you think lyrics about your skin color and immigrant parents is what came out? 
With the Bataclan attack, or even just subtle things I experience with my name... I've been kind of living with for a long time. I've never spoken about it in songs, I rarely talk about it. It's not really anything to dwell over or talk about but it started coming out in a lot of these songs. You hear it in the song "Mangos and Rice." That one, you know, again, simple lyrics. It's just kind of a nod to my Filipino heritage and how I grew up and how my parents raised me. It's really about feeling sort of like an outcast. Because I remember growing up as a kid, I'd be having lunch or in the yard or whatever, and looking at everybody with their peanut butter sandwiches and their Lunchables and their Go-gurt or whatever it was, and my parents filled my lunchbox with straight up cans of sardines and rice and mangoes. You know, I didn't think it was weird at home, but in the context of a schoolyard with other kids, it gets looked at as kind of weird.

It starts to delineate where you fit in at a very early age.
Yeah, and I never really quite understood where I fit in as an American because I was, you know, American born but my parents were not from the country and not American, but I didn't really know how to relate to your typical white American household. I would just feel a little off sometimes. I related way more to, you know, I was like super close friends with this Chinese kid at my school. I felt more comfortable there than I did at some of my other friends' houses. I just have like, grown accustomed to it and I think it makes you better because I can kind of relate to anybody. You learn how to adapt from a very young age and you get put in situations that are strictly based on ethnicity or culture. Me being American, I've managed to kind of like, bounce around. I don't know what they call it, but it's kind of moving through different types of identity. Like, throughout my whole life. And I think this is the first time that it's coming out in lyrics and through my music. I never really focused on it or even bothered to talk about it before.

If anything, those subjects have only become more salient. So those two songs were recorded how long ago?
They were recorded almost eight months ago. I mean definitely pre-election. It's funny how that it's so fitting for where we're at globally and just the sentiment of the world at the moment. You know I did one of the songs at a show the other day, and there was like a big wave of immigrant pride in the audience.

What were you seeing?
Just like, people were hyped. I don't know. Small little things, like people were coming up after the show and were like, "Yo, I grew up on mangos and rice too" or "I grew up eating this". People definitely made fun of me at school. And you know, to me like saying three little words may not be... I don't know, I wasn't really thinking about it, but people take something away from that.

What about as far as the personal stuff you were putting out there?
Basically we always had a mic on. So it was kind of like if we ever had an idea, he would just send me into the booth and I would record it, good or bad. So I got really used to being really vulnerable, at least in that setting. And you know, I can kind of see it come out in shows because I actually have to perform. It's funny because I avoid the idea of performing some of the songs because it just makes me uncomfortable. And I kind of got past that with a couple of them but there's still certain songs that I don't even wanna sing because it's just... puts me in a weird place. There's a song called "1 AM," and that's like a pretty straightforward account of what happened one night in my old apartment. My girlfriend was coming home late from a bar and I was home, I heard some screaming and I ran down. She was on the ground with all of her purse all laid out, all of her stuff and I heard a car peel out and then I saw three dudes with guns. And she's just crying, a friend sped off in her car. They were getting held up at gunpoint, you know. And they were basically getting carjacked in front of my house. Which, you know, I thought I lived in a decent neighborhood, you know? So that next morning I recorded that track and things like that, I don't really feel like reliving it, again. I recorded it, documented it, put it out there. It's already out there so you know sometimes I choose to kind of just let it be. I mean, there's a couple of songs that I've done that I just don't really feel like singing or wanna sing again.

Would you call your music political? Everything's political now.
Yeah, exactly. So, I think with that, I'm inherently contributing to that kind of dialogue that's going on in the world right now. Even though I'm speaking about it in the first person, how it directly effects me and how it affects me personally. It can't, you know, I can't help but acknowledge the fact that other people are going to take it a certain way and you know, assume that i'm speaking out for all immigrants or something like that. But truthfully I'm just trying to express kind of what I've dealt with and identity has been like a huge thing that I've been personally dealing with. Because you know, again, American born with two different cultural backgrounds, it's just a bit confusing where you fit in the world.

On the other hand, you're about as American as it gets.
That's the ironic part about it. That's what I always used to say before. I just feel American. When I compare myself to some of my relatives, I'm pretty fuckin' American. And I can't help that, you know, I grew up here, so that's just what it is.

It's a very personal record, but it also sounds very 2016 in terms of the tumult and freefall it captures. What else was going on for you while you were recording?
I was really just focused on trying to get a grip on my life and having a normal, non living out of a suitcase, tour van, hotel kind of life. And so I really got involved doing a lot of work, I kind of recently went back on as creative director for this skate brand called Huf. I started producing other bands. I did a record with Clean Spill and I started working with this new group called Pinky Pinky. I chose to just keep myself busy creatively, as opposed to busy on the road. And I think that helped me get kind of more in tune with where I was at when I first started doing music. Over the years I sort of lost the creative spark due to worrying about performing and playing shows, and worrying about the process of making records and how that rolls out and paying attention to how my music's being perceived and I think that did something weird to me creatively. I think it stifled me in a way that I was just not feeling. And so this year I was just like, focus on yourself in different ways that are more creatively gratifying and maybe that will lead the way, you know?

Let's talk about "Paralyzed."
Oh yeah, Paralyzed was actually the first song that we recorded along this process where I played every instrument and that was one of those things... I've been obsessed with learning how to play the drums. It was always like an instrument that haunted me. Because I love the drums, I really like love breakbeats and I love old Funk drummers and stuff and it's just, I can't play it at all. So I started playing that beat which is a four on the floor disco beat which anybody who starts out playing the drums can play. But, it's classic so whatever, and I started building a song around that. I got really into Funk bass and Disco bass so I started playing that and a song just totally came together. And I can't help but like, feel kind of the energy of... when I was recording it and we were playing it back I was like, this is that shit that after late night Grace Jones after party. Like everybody's coked out listening to this song, that's the vibe. And so that's kind of the attitude I was trying to think of. LIke the attitude of the lyrics and, you know, that song is really about having panic attacks and anxiety but I wanted it to sound like just a little disco dance song. But yeah, I don't know, that's my favorite one to play live. I can't speak for Johnny but I think that might be the bass line he likes to play the most.

Were you having panic attacks around when you wrote it?
Yeah totally. And I was dealing with a shitload. I was having serious anxiety at the time. Just everything, like I was just coming down with a bad case of anxiety and paranoia.

What was some of the stuff that was getting to you?
Just life, nothing particular I could really pinpoint. I've had waves of it since I was a teenager and so it just started coming back and... I don't know. People who are dealing with anxiety don't really know where it comes from either, so, ironically I have bad social anxiety. I totally freak out and get weird, yet I have to go to shows like almost every day, so it's a total curse.

Yeah, and then you're on stage and have a huge crowd before you.
Oh my God, what's crazy about that is it goes away when I go on stage, all of that kind of goes away. But the moment the show's over, I'll have like a full on panic attack in the backstage dressing room or whatever.

Maybe it's a control thing. You're on stage, you're in control. There's a certainty to having everyone there listen to what you say and dance to your music.
Yep, I was listening to this thing with Bruce Springsteen and he was saying how, on stage you have so much control. You know what's going on, you know how the lights are gonna look, and that in itself kind of relieves anxiety for you.

For a moment you can be heard. And especially right now there's this sense for a lot of people of not being heard. Or being heard, and nobody caring. Screaming into the void and all that.
Nobody caring, yeah. It makes you feel like, crazy. I think maybe that's where my head was at when recording this stuff. I felt like, maybe I've never really spoken out for myself. You know, maybe I've written songs for other people and stuff, and I kind of speak on stories that are for them, but this was kind of like very much a personal thing so some of those songs, it is kind of like very cathartic and it helps a lot.

We've been talking about the meaning of being American, and I think that the sound of the album is also very American. There are a lot of different musical traditions it nods to. Did you set out to explore some of those specific styles or did it just emerge in the moment?
I think that me being influenced by so many different types of music inherently makes me think about music in this kind of blurred, mixed up kind of way. And I'm very much into taking an idea and then putting something else that doesn't belong in that same idea. So like, on the one hand I'll do like a Bo Diddley beat or something, and then I'll have an 808 on top of it. And you know, you don't really associate a 50s Bo Diddley beat with like an 808 drum, it doesn't really make sense on paper but it can sound good together, you know. And I sort of view everything as... all my reference points were just all across the board this time around. With Johnny I was like, "alright on this song rather than me playing this, I'd rather sample. Play this music and then we'll sample it and then we'll run it through this and then I'll mix these electronic sounds on top of these organic sounds. And then ok, for the vocals bring up the same. Figure out what auto harmonizer Young Thug uses. Find out what his engineer uses on that and we'll try that on my voice here." And so a lot of my references were just coming from all these places where I was just pulling little things that I liked out of songs and just putting it together. And that's why I think that a lot of the music came out the way it did.

Hanni El Khatib's Savage Times is out now via Innovative Leisure.

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter