September 26th, 2011 | Interviews

Photography by Lauren Everett

Hanni El Khatib plays bluesy garage rock with a lot of soul and a little folk for Highland Park’s Innovative Leisure label. He destroys live with only an electric guitar and drums played by his best friend from high school. From Café Tropical in Silver Lake, he speaks about preferring amps to humans, a memorable mushroom experience in the snow and his various encounters with strippers. This interview by Lainna Fader.

Why do you want to marry Lil’ Kim?
A: She’s fucking nuts. B: She’ll forever—probably when she’s like 60 or 70—will forever play the cutesy Barbie.
It’s not going to be so cute when she’s 70!
No, but it’s going to be awesome. She’ll just get more plastic surgery and more nuts. She’s tight. I saw her recently at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco. It was an 80-person capacity hotel lounge. It was fucking awesome. She came out in lingerie and had backup dancers. It was so bad. I mean good bad. She fucking killed it. She did Biggie songs. All her classic songs.
You should cover Lil’ Kim next!
I know, right? Shit.
Except no one will recognize it.
I know. I don’t know why I keep covering songs that no one recognizes. We just started doing that Kelis one. We started doing it when we were on tour with Florence and the Machine. We would play her after-parties and at Don Hill’s in New York, after one of the Terminal 5 shows—it was like fucking 1 in the morning and I was playing out of some crazy Marshall stack amp thinking, ‘This is fucking nuts.’ I looked at Nicky [Nick Fleming-Yaryan, drums] and just started playing Kelis and he had to figure it out right there. I like playing with only a drummer cuz I can throw a curveball like that at him and I’m not throwing the whole band off; I’m just throwing him off.
Has he ever not been able to figure it out and catch up?
Totally. We used to get really fucking drunk at all our shows and it was always a mess. At some point we were like, ‘Damn, this isn’t acceptable.’ Who wants to see two idiots scream and fall over?
People pay a lot more money than what your shows cost to see two drunk idiots fall over.
We need to get back on it. We kick-started that mentality at the L.A. RECORD holiday party. …That show was something. We got there at what, 6? Nicky and I were just sitting in my car drinking a bottle of tequila. We walked so fucking far in the rain to get that bottle. We invited these dudes that work at the motorcycle shop on the corner. They were working on motorcycles and called us over and were like, ‘Ey, what’s up at that party? Are there any girls? Any booze?’ We said, ‘Yeah, there’s all that,’ and then they were like, ‘So why are you leaving?’ We wanted to get a bottle of whatever. They wanted to know if they could go dressed like that. They were all greasy. ‘Yeah—whatever!’ … Sure enough they were fucking there! I could not believe it. It’s so rare when you tell a stranger to go to something that they actually go.
How can listening to more Black Sabbath solve the world’s problems?
Dude. How can it not? Sabbath in the morning is the best way to start your fucking day. It puts you in the right frame of mind, always. You don’t even have to be a Sabbath fan to feel it. Sabbath is a great band because you have all these preconceived notions about what it sounds like but when you actually listen to it, it actually has a pretty fucking broad spectrum of what it sounds like.
Why is listening to Sabbath in the morning better than in the evening?
It just gets you in the right frame of mind. It allows you to be in whatever mood you feel like. If you feel like being an aggressive dickhead, sure—fucking Black Sabbath. Drive to work and be an aggressive dick. If you want to roll a joint and sit back and relax and sip coffee really slow, Sabbath. It works!
How did you get on Innovative Leisure?
It was really weird. I didn’t make my music with the intent to do anything with it. I’ve always been working as an art director or in advertising as an art director/designer. From there I transitioned into working for this clothing label/skating company called HUF.  I’ve always been really busy doing that nonstop but I’ve always played music and one of my best friends, Marc Bianchi—
Her Space Holiday?
Yeah—he’s one of my best friends and he recorded my record. He played on it. As a creative outlet for myself while I’ve been working, he’s thrown out opportunities for me to play on tour with him. Play guitar. Play keyboards. Whatever. We’re buddies so it’s just adding another body on stage that you’re friends with. I did that on the short tours but it wasn’t until I was itching to make my own stuff and started recording at home. I was making acoustic music—whatever I could make in my apartment—and I started hanging out at his studio and he wanted to record one of my songs. We got into it and he suggested I do it with an electric guitar. I never really thought about doing that because I’d only get to play in my apartment. I thought, ‘Shit—fuck yeah!’ and he had drums and other instruments just lying there so that led to a full recording session which turned into a full album. Then I thought, ‘Now what? Carry on with my normal life?’ This gallery in San Francisco was doing a book fair type of thing. They closed their gallery down for a month and turned it into a kind of books/zines/music store. They asked a bunch of artists to do a bunch of shit so I made a zine—I’ll probably do a small-scale version for the CD but a full version for the 12”. I burned a couple of the CDs and put them in there and gave it away. After that—you know that store Colette? Sarah Colette asked me to send her some—
How’d she find you? That shop is in Paris!
I worked with a person she’s worked with and I guess she heard it over at the studio. From there, that was it. I ran into Jamie [Strong] and he came into the HUF store in San Francisco. I happened to be in the office. My friend said, ‘Jamie from Stones Throw is here! You should give him your CD.’ ‘Whatever! I’m not going to fucking bombard him with a CD! He probably hears CDs every fucking day!’ I went out and turns out I knew him already. We met through a mutual friend months before. We were really drunk, I don’t really remember. … He gave it to Nate, who owns Innovative Leisure, and they partnered up on the record.
You’ve said you write songs for anybody who has ever been shot or hit by a train.
Yes! Though that’s more of a metaphor—but yes, I do. A kid I went to high school with actually got hit by a train and survived without a scratch or a scar. No bruises.
How is that possible?
His car turned into a cocoon. The car kind of crunched into itself. He was perfectly untouched in this whole thing. Also, an accidental gunshot. No, an innocent passerby gunshot. In the leg. A friend of mine. That has nothing to do with that statement though! Just, coincidentally, I do know people who’ve been hit by trains and shot.
What internationally known criminal would have made a genius musician?
One who is a genius musician is Charles Manson. He’s already there. I don’t know that many criminals!
Why don’t you have a bass player?
First, it was out of necessity because Her Space Holiday was going on tour and I didn’t have a band. He was like, ‘You’ve recorded all these songs—you can definitely play a show.’ I told him I’d figure something out. One friend I’ve had since high school, Nicky … it dawned on me that he played the drums. But I kind of forgot because he never had his own drum set. He just stopped playing drums when he moved out of his parents’ house cuz he didn’t have any anymore. I told him, ‘If I get a practice space, will you get a drum kit?’ and he said OK. From there we did it, and he said, ‘Well, where’s the rest of the band?’ But I said, ‘Fuck it, it sounds fine.’ It’s funny cuz Marc was telling me that I don’t need another bass player—just add another amp! That’s a good idea! Next band member is going to be an amp.
Do you consider yourself a minimalist?
I like simple things. Things that are straightforward. It is what it is. For what I do—everything I create or make—function is most important. Song. Lyrics. Guitars. Drums.
What technology do you want invented just for your personal use?
It’d be great to have—this would never exist—a box that you go in and think about the outcome—like the technical sounds—and you go to the other side, and this little disk spits out the music you pictured. You just go in and do a record in a day and that’s it.
What was your first experience with mushrooms like?
I was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, snowboarding, which I don’t really do. I tend to stick to skateboarding. A bunch of friends and I took a bus. We were cooped up in a hotel room. One of my friends did a bunch of mushrooms, and I ate too much myself because I didn’t think it was working. That happens. I thought, ‘Fuck, this isn’t working! It’s been an hour already!’ and we fucking tripped out. The very early beginnings of Pixar movies were out and everything looked like that. I looked like that, my friend looked like that, the room looked like that. We were on the second floor of this hotel. We opened the window and saw a pile of snow that looked about five feet away. I said we should jump out the window into the snow! My friend was like, ‘No way, you’re nuts. I’m not doing that.’ I was totally fucking doing that. I swear I could touch it. The snow was that close. Then I jumped out and it totally wasn’t five feet away. But it wasn’t that bad.
What’s the worst harm you’ve ever done to yourself?
Skateboarding. Wait, you want emotional? Emotional scars?
There’s too much self-destruction here.
We love self-destruction at L.A. RECORD.
I’m sure.
What is the best way to charm a stripper?
Food stamps! You know, I think just listening seems to work. I’ve been told about their children—about their dreams as a real estate mogul. What else have I heard? Oh they’re all fashion designers!
That’s the common denominator?
Aspiring fashion designers. Always. It always involves cut up T-shirts. So random. Strippers are weird.
I don’t have as much experience with them as you do.
I’m not a pro!
What was your first McDonalds experience in a foreign country like?
Tastes the fucking same. Oh, shit! Well, this isn’t my first, but one that is really funny. I was in Germany, in Nuremberg. Kind of a blurry trip but I think I was in Nuremberg. We went to a McDonalds super late. It was the only thing open of course. It was me and five guys who also run clothing labels. We were out there for a project with Adidas and we had nothing to do at night so we were getting drunk and running around reckless. Everyone was like, ‘Why the fuck are we in McDonalds?’ The only comfortable thing overseas. They had the most insane uniforms.
What did they look like?
You know that brand Evisu? Those were the pants. But instead of the Evisu logo it was McDonalds on the pants. And they had a lot of flair. Embellishments and shit. Totally looked like Johnny Blaze. That fucking Method Man clothing line. It was like 1998 and we were in a rap video. That’s how they were all dressed and it was so crazy. Nuremberg is a funny place.
You just went out for karaoke. Did you end up doing R. Kelly or Wanda Jackson?
Fuck! I was seriously ready to go—and R. Kelly would probably have been my go to—but I got kinda bummed out cuz this girl did some fucking song from The Little Mermaid. You know, the Disney movie. It totally bummed me out. So I was like, ‘Fuck it—can’t bother with Wanda Jackson or R. Kelly now, it’s over.’
Too real!
Yeah, I was like, ‘That’s it, it’s time to go now, we’re done here.’
What do you think about Wanda’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”? Would you ever cover that?
Yeah, I heard that. I probably wouldn’t but it’s cool that she did.
We interviewed Wanda in this issue too and she said singing is her golf game. Why do you sing?
I don’t even know. Shit, I don’t know why I sing cuz I’m not that good. I think it’s out of necessity for the songs I write. I write songs, and who the fuck’s gonna sing it? No one, I gotta sing it.
Would you write songs for other people?
I haven’t. As of now, it’s just been for myself. I would though.
You say you throw curve balls at Nicky and sometimes he catches on and sometimes he doesn’t. Do you ever do that with your audience? Like the Sonics—when they opened for the Beach Boys, they thought they’d win more fans if Gerry used a British accent.
I’ve never done that, but that’s pretty fucking sick actually. I’ll just start lying all the time. It’ll be my new thing—I’ll just lie constantly.
What record did someone force you to listen to that warped your mind?
Oh, shit. This Comus record. I was forced to listen to a Comus record. It’s psych/folk but
the singing on it is unreal.
Who forced you to listen to it?
My girlfriend. She’s a big record nerd and collects all sorts of records. She was going through a heavy psych/folk/’60s side of her collection and said I needed to listen to this album, and this song in particular. ‘It annoys everyone, but you might like it.’ That’s a hard sell! So the song that blew my mind is ‘Figure in My Dreams.’
Jonathan Richman said he started playing music when he was 15 because he heard the Velvet Underground and said, ‘They made an atmosphere, and I knew I could make one too.’ What kind of atmosphere are you trying to make?
I think I’ve read that too, and I sort of believe that as well. I try to make music to get a feeling as opposed to a sound. Something that sounds like a place in time that’s familiar but make it at least current. I see themes in my mind—I always think of dirty bars, or places I frequent, where if I were to be stuck in the desert with $5, a knife, and a muscle car—what is the music that’s playing? Think of like, ghost towns off Route 66. A shitty weird little ghost town out of Laughlin, Arizona, or something. I want to create a vibe rather than a sound, though the sound is inherent.
What were you like when you were 15?
I was a total skaterat. I skated and cut class and drank beer and smoked weed. I was looking at girls. All I cared to do was skate and lurk around.
How much has changed since then?
It’s exactly the same but now I have a hectic day job. I somehow manage to get the lurk in at work though!