L.A. Rocker Hanni El Khatib on Why Karaoke Terrifies Him More Than Performing
Guy Lowndes Hanni El Khatib
Los Angeles rocker Hanni El Khatib comes off like a badass. Car crashes adorn his release covers, his songs are inspired by '50s blues and '60s garage, and in at least one tune ("You Rascal You," a cover), the song's narrator stalks an adulterer with murderous intent.
Khatib's image -- that of a mysterious stranger with slicked-back hair, shades, artful tattoo placement, and a denim jacket -- is the crucial centerpiece of this realm, and his music tends to project a coolness that makes its listeners feel cool by proxy. (Speaking of listeners, his website notes that his "songs were written for anyone who's ever been shot or hit by a train.") But despite the noirish vibe and brusque sonics, Khatib is easygoing and approachable. Before the San Francisco native plays Cafe Du Nord this Saturday, April 7, with Tijuana Panthers and Sundelles, we picked his brain about a smorgasbord of subjects, including his favorite S.F. skate spots, the first songs he played, and that time The Little Mermaid killed a night of karaoke.
You were around 12 when you got your first electric guitar. What was your level of emotional investment in it? What kind of guitar was it?
Well first, the guitar was a Gibson Nighthawk. I really wanted a Les Paul or some shit like that -- a Les Paul Junior Melody Maker or something like that -- and the guy at the guitar store talked my parents into getting me that [Nighthawk] because [it's] smaller... In hindsight, that kind of sucked because Nighthawks are pretty lame, but when I first got the guitar, I had been bugging my parents about it forever.
Y'know, when you're 11 or 12, all you do is ask your parents for shit, and so they were like, 'Okay, well, play this acoustic guitar' -- the one that we had in our house -- 'seriously for as long as you can.' I was really, really into it. I thought for sure that's the instrument I wanted to play forever, y'know?
Do you remember the first song you tried to learn?
It's a song by Cream. It's like a beginner song in every fucking guitar songbook. [He later recalled it as "Sunshine of Your Love."]
What about the first song that you really got good at?
I don't know. "Lithium," Nirvana? I think that was the first one I could play along to the track start to finish.
You're an L.A. guy. Do you know Nite Jewel?
Not personally, but I know of her.
She did an interview for Latina magazine where she talked about her favorite period of music, which was 1978 to 1982. That's a pretty defined period. Do you have something similar for yourself -- a period of music that you thought was particularly fruitful or that you look to for inspiration?
No because I can cite tons of inspirations from literally every decade of music. Okay, the '20s, Ma Rainey or something. The '30s, Robert Johnson. You can just go on and on. Every decade, there's someone fucking awesome. '70s, Thin Lizzy or whatever, y'know?
That vaguely brings us to the next question. How did you find "You Rascal You"? It's been done by Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., and Clarence Williams. It's been around forever.
I listen to a lot of jazz when I work. I'm also a designer, so when I design shit, I listen to a lot of jazz. I was listening to a jazz station -- jazz and big bands -- and I think a Cab Calloway cover was playing. It just didn't make sense how dark the lyrics were, but the music was super happy, like uptempo and upbeat. I was like, 'Man, I bet you this has to be an old Delta blues song,' so I tried to research it and find out who wrote the original, and sure enough, it wasn't a Delta blues song, it was just a jazz song.
It's such a threatening song. It's vaguely sarcastic and dry at times, but it's very violent. You're basically threatening to murder this guy for sleeping around with your wife.
Dude, I even took out the lyrics that were the most gnarly lyrics. There's actual lyrics in there saying the process of going into his house and pulling out his gun and shooting him. I was like, 'Holy shit. They used to write some crazy shit back then.'
After first seeing a picture of you and maybe hearing a song from you, you totally seem like a greaser. There's an image of you in a car where you have the slicked-back hair, the sunglasses on. You're wearing a white shirt. Your sound is definitely kind of an older thing. Did you ever have any interest in greaser culture?
No, I've always kind of dressed like that. I've had old cars and stuff. I've always been kind of the same. It's just that in the context of everything, it starts to be like, 'Oh, okay, I get it. I make this kind of music, I have photos like this or whatever,' and I don't really see those things necessarily defining me or making me be like, 'Oh okay, yeah, you must be a rockabilly dude because you're into that shit.' I kind of just see it as classic stuff. Okay, white T-shirt -- what's wrong with that? Or jeans and boots and sunglasses, okay, that's what everybody wears. To me, I think of it as things that are just not going to go out of style. Levi's -- I'll just probably wear those forever. I think of it that way as opposed to a personal choice to be a certain specific genre, because I know there's a lot of people out there that really focus hard on staying true to what they think is 1967 or whatever. But I'm not really that way.
You're an avid skater, and San Francisco is where you started. Back in those days, what was your typical skate soundtrack?
Back then, it was like Fugazi, Van Morrison, Souls of Mischief, and Guru, like Gang Starr. That was definitely skateboarding-in-the-early-'90s music.
Where did you skate when you were younger?
I skated EMB. Let's see, the Piers and Fort Miley. Downtown, there's a million spots. Brown Marble -- that went away pretty fast. I skated all that stuff. Mostly Embarcadero, though, for sure.