We chat to singer-songwriter Hanni El Khatib about swapping fashion for music, exploring rock’n’roll and kicking it back old school with his VHS tape album ahead of his third offering.
Most musicians spend their whole lives perpetually writing songs and recording demos, desperately hoping for their lucky break. Not Hanni El Khatib. The San Francisco native originally worked as a creative director for skate brand HUF clothing, while doing music on the side as a self-described “hobby”. Suddenly, his career took off. He released his first record ‘Will the Guns Come Out’, went on tour and seemingly turned his back on apparel. Luckily, he can now express his creativity not just through his music, but also as art director at his record label Innovative Leisure.
For his second album ‘Head in the Dirt’, Khatib collaborated with producer and The Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach after meeting in a bar in Paris. Returning to Auerbach’s Nashville studio, their collaboration resulted in a solid record filled with raw riffs and big drum tunes. Khatib’s third record ‘Moonlight’, will soon hit our airwaves in January 2015, before he embarks on a global tour to test his new material on an eager audience. On his latest record, it seems that the singer has moved away from upbeat tracks and catchy hooks in favour of being noticeably darker and experimental.
We decided to catch up with the singer to pick his brains about his evolution as an artist, being his record label’s in-house art director and pushing the boundaries with rock’n’roll music.
What made you decide to go from fashion to music? When did you decide to switch?
It wasn’t really a “when”, it was more that I had to make the choice. I was doing it as a hobby and then the music just took over. There are only so many vacation days that you’re allowed to take in the US, so I had to make that decision. A few opportunities came up that if I hadn’t jumped on I may have regretted or it may have never come again. I can always go back to designing clothes, it’s not a big deal.
Is music a better medium for you to express yourself than fashion?
Absolutely. I wasn’t necessarily a fashion-focused designer, I was very graphics-based. That being said, I’m currently my record label’s in-house art director. So with my own records I can visually express my concepts through album packaging, merchandise, accessories and other products. It’s so much better because I’m no longer limited to products that people wear. For example – I had an idea to release my new album on VHS tape. It would have a visual template matching the album, so in this case a super trippy video that’s the entire length of the record. I get to package it the way I want to. Most people don’t even have VCRs, so the fact that I’m allowed to make something that’s totally absurd, to me that’s more creatively gratifying. I’m not solely limited to apparel.
How would you describe your sound?
It’s rock’n’roll music. I’ve listened to every type of rock, so my sound is a bit of psychedelic, heavy stoner rock, a little blues and more classic rock music. I jump all over the place. But then I also listen to a lot of hip hop and old funk, so it has all sneaked its way in there. It’s difficult to describe.
How would you say your sound has evolved from your first album, ‘Will the Guns Come Out’?
To me it seems like a natural evolution. The first record came at a time when I was working for the skateboard company and I was making music as a hobby. I wasn’t a serious musician per se – I didn’t have a big time studio and we weren’t making an album. We were working on a collection of songs over the course of a year. It went from that to playing live shows. That first record sounded the way it did because it was recorded in my bedroom. You can hear the growth through the different records because my first album was the initial marker. Those were essentially my demos, it’s just that we released them.
Then for my second record I worked with Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys, and we took this very quick-style raw approach to recording. We recorded everything on the spot and it had a very organic live rock’n’roll feel, just by the nature of how we did it. My songwriting hasn’t changed that much, it’s the process that has changed. The tunes are also getting a bit more varied.
For the new record, I think this was my moment to experiment and evolve as a musician and really try to implement all the ideas that I’ve had over the past few years. I was playing my songs every night, but I wasn’t writing and recording new music. I didn’t have any time between tours to record new songs and I don’t own a studio, so it makes it pretty difficult. But this time around I booked a studio for a month and I was really fucking amped to start recording. I was given the opportunity to get introspective, get weird and work on my own to see what happens.
What can we expect from your new record, ‘Moonlight’?
I think there’s a larger palette of sounds on this album. I think that for people who are hearing it for the first time and don’t know who I am, the album will give them a good insight as to where I’m at musically. But there’s a lot of change from my previous records and I think it might be challenging for some people who just want to hear a blues riff with some big drums. I think this record is much more than that. I didn’t necessarily want to recreate the same records I’ve made in the past. The only thing I can do is to push forward and explore new sounds and keep my mind at use by challenging myself.
Could you describe me through the creative process when writing new tracks?
It starts with something as simple as one little riff or a lyric, and I just notate it using the voice recorder on my phone. If it’s any good, I’ll take it into the studio and write the other musical parts. I don’t do demos, that’s not really my thing. I find it pointless to do a full demo because if you’re recording the song, shouldn’t you just record it properly? You’re halfway there, it seems like a waste of time to me. If an idea is decent enough I’ll just start working on it as a song. So I collect all of these weird notes that I make, and then eventually I get through them all. One song on the new album was from a note that I made for my first record. It’s four years old.
Your new record is out in January, and you’re touring in the UK in March. Are you looking forward to the touring lifestyle for the next couple of months?
I am, actually. I’m excited to start playing this new music and live shows. Playing live shows after you finish a record is good closure for the album cycle process and for me to put it to rest. I’ve fully realised the music, you know?
If your listeners take one thing away from your music, what would you like that to be?
I’d like people to appreciate the fact that I’m genuinely exploring rock’n’roll music. I’m really pushing myself in that direction. When people who don’t know me as an artist get into the new record, I hope that they’ll be like “wow, this guy is into some weird shit”. But my album isn’t weird for the sake of being weird. There’s nothing too “out there” on it, but it’s definitely trying to push the boundaries of typical rock music.
Hanni El Khatib’s third album ‘Moonlight’ will be available in January and he tours the UK in March 2015.
Words: Leonie Roderick.