King Khan interview

Tarot photo by Matias Corral.
Words and interview by Jono Coote.

 Hide Arish Cartas Tarot Jodoroski by Matias Corral

Last week was a belter of a music session at the Brudenell Social Club, starting on Monday with Tommy Guerrero and then continuing through the week with Mike Watt on Wednesday and the over the top rock ‘n roll, soul extravaganza of King Khan and the Shrines on Friday.

Working a long shift on Friday alongside a couple of writing sessions well into the night on the previous couple of days hadn’t left me at my best, but I’d heard too much about the band’s stage reputation to write a night off and the chance to interview the man himself was the icing on the cake.

I arrived at about the same time as the band’s curry order so after some time spent eating, acting out scenes from the movie Kingpin, discussing the health problems arising from soft drinks and decrying the flagrant false advertising of the magazine Uncut (a cover mount CD with a Ramones photo but absolutely no Ramones tracks contained within is not an acceptable way to carry on, we agreed), we headed to the van to talk about where Khan was currently at.

For those who don’t know, who is King Khan and who are The Shrines?

My name is King Khan and I play psychedelic rhythm and blues music with the Shrines. I put together the band in 1999 and yea, we play revolution rock…and soul!

You’re in the midst of a far ranging European tour at the moment so, as someone known for intense live shows, what’s the strangest thing to happen so far on this one?

I guess maybe not one of the strangest but one of the greatest was when we played in Athens. Our promoter invited us the year before to this festival and I was doing a lot of chanting and getting the audience to chant against the Golden Dawn, the fascist party there. It turned out the security were from the Golden Dawn so then he got death threats for that show…he was happy though, it meant that it was hitting them where it hurts. We played again this year and things got pretty crazy, the reaction of the young kids was really beautiful. I dedicated the whole set to Killah P, a hip hop artist who was murdered by the Golden Dawn. It was pretty wild to see kids ready to fight against the police and try to do something…especially nowadays when it seems that most people are very lazy and try to revolt against the system through the internet. Which I guess does work in some ways!

It’s got its place, but I suppose sometimes you need real action.

Yea, sometimes you need to hit the streets. I mean I come from Montreal which was notoriously a riot town when I was growing up. It was funny, they would riot if they won the Stanley Cup or if they lost but the punks would also take the opportunity to riot. I remember seeing a riot when the Exploited didn’t make it across the border, and I saw maybe 5,000 punks just tear into the streets. I remember seeing a toilet bowl ripped out of a bar and thrown into a cop car, it was great. So I really admire cities that still have the riot gene.

Carrying on from that thought, there is a running social commentary throughout the new record. How important do you think music is to raising political awareness? I once saw Billy Bragg say to a crowd that music can’t change the world, but I took that as bullshit.

I definitely think they go hand in hand, especially the music which inspires me the most, the music inspired by the civil rights movement. Free jazz as well – I’ve been thinking about this a lot, the whole idea of Black Power, it’s a very strong and beautiful thing which people misunderstand. You can’t compare it to white power; black power has much more to do with…

I guess for a start, it’s born of oppression…

Yea, but also there is a very big spiritual aspect; it comes out of oppression, but also out of freeing yourself from that oppression through other means. For example Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and a lot of free jazz artists at the time, they found an almost alchemical way of freeing their souls from the shackles of being in America. They tapped into another universe that was waiting to be discovered. You know, music is ultimately the universal language, a mystic language and it can take you to far places within your consciousness. I think people forget that, especially because of the way pop music numbs the masses and praises mediocrity – that never changes and seems to get stronger and stronger. But there will always be that 1% of people that are creating. I can also see with my two daughters and the way me and my wife have raised them, they have great taste in music and they understand the roots of revolution. They’re gonna be great human beings and it has to do a lot with just teaching them the right things – and I know there’s enough parents out there who are doing it right to counteract the majority of parents who are doing it wrong. So in summary, I guess you’d say I disagree with Billy Bragg on that one.

Me too! On the subject of the Black Power movement you are also working on the soundtrack for The Invaders, a documentary about a militant black power organisation – how did that come about?

I was asked by the founder of the Invaders, who were a militant black power group from Memphis in the late 60s…it was a couple of guys who were working for government programmes, but at the time the FBI was basically getting newspapers and journalists to write articles against people who were helping the movement with community work, stuff like that. I won’t go into the whole story now but the director played my music to John B Smith, the founding member, he loved it and asked me to do the soundtrack so I got to do all the music supervision and write some original score and that was really beautiful, a great experience.

The Invaders is an untold story, these guys got all the youth in Memphis, all the teenagers and all the young adults, to fight the police. They got blamed for a lot of riots but it wasn’t there thing; they were organising the youth, feeding children and helping them with their homework. They were an amazing team who managed to unite all the gangs, north, east, south and west in Memphis. Martin Luther King was impressed by their whole organisation and asked them to be a part of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, then the day after that he was shot. This was an untold story for a long time.

So they were within an inch of becoming part of the mainstream history of the civil rights movement?

Yea, and King knew that he needed to work with the militants and this was one thing that the ministers wanted to keep hush hush, because they didn’t want King’s name to be tarnished by militants or something similar. So there is a huge untold story that is finally being told and I’m really proud to be a part of it. I think it’s coming out later this year or maybe next year.

That sounds fucking awesome! (I’d woken up a little by this point). Going back to the new record, what influenced its sound and has that differed much to what has influenced previous work?

I think that the influences pretty much remain the same…to be able to combine soul music, punk and psychedelic elements, some free jazz. I was never a purist, I like to record in an old fashioned way maybe but in terms of song writing and stuff I like to be really free

I guess with each of your bands you’ve combined similar, but noticeably different musical elements from group to group.

Exactly, with me and Mark for example we’re so inspired by doo-wop and old rock n roll but at the same time we also love GG Allin and punk rock…which is also totally revolutionary. Yea, the elements are all earth, wind, water and fire, they never really change! (Laughter)

Moving on, who makes up the Kukamongas Death Cult, and what are its aims?

It started off in the beginning when the Deadly Snakes asked the Spaceshits to go on tour with them around the States. I was booking the tour and I told them there wasn’t gonna be any money and they had to fend for themselves and find somewhere to stay. We wound up, there were twelve of us on tour and it was like a roving gang. This was when we were teenagers, maybe 19 or 20 years old, it was then that we most started enjoying a gang mentality. We wanted to be the Kukamongas MC – not motorcycle club, but musical club! That later evolved in to a death cult when the Black Lips joined the whole thing and it became a little bit more cultish.

At the time I’d started using tarot cards so we mixed in all these weird, mystical ideas. I remember it was the tour with me, Mark Sultan and the Black Lips in the South, doing two weeks or something –we went to Memphis and Jackson, we went to where Robert Johnson met the Devil, the crossroads…Clarksdale, Mississippi. Me and Cole went to the crossroads, I had my tarot cards and Cole grabbed them, threw them on the floor and started mixing them in the dirt. The game was to try and find the devil, we kept flipping cards on at a time but after about twenty times we hadn’t found him. But then later, every morning Cole would grab my cards, focus and try and pull the devil out of the pack and I swear every day for the next four days he did it…and Cole I guess in some way is pretty connected to Beelzebub. That became a game, if people wanted to be a part of the death cult then we’d put the card out and see if they could pick out the devil card, which they never really did [laughter]…sometimes maybe!

It’s basically just a family, a chosen family and there have been people all over the world. In some ways I think of it as a lost tribe of rock and rollers, although I haven’t really been initiating new members or anything like that. I guess it had to do with growing up too, when you experience these things when you’re young, then you don’t need to add more people. It’s not about spreading it like some kind of club, it’s more just a cool family of great people. Right now we’ve got The Spits, the Gris Gris were in it, Jay Reatard, great people who are still brothers and sisters.

(This is followed by some comedy Khan flatulence!)

Cheers to the death cult!

Oh god, it stinks, sorry! It’s gunna leave a stain on the windows!

Pre gig curry will do that! You mentioned the Spits, who I know skate. I think the first time I heard you was via the Creature video Hesh Law where the BBQ Show song Zombies was used on the soundtrack. Do you or any of the members of your bands skate?

Actually you know what, there was actually a board company that made graphics out of my paintings, Lurkville out of San Diego. I always wanted to skate, my parents got me a banana board and I dunno, I just never really got into it. I hung out with a lot of graffiti kids as a teenager. When I was with the Spaceshits, a lot of us were into doing graffiti, and they all skated but I’m…I’m very clumsy.

Me too! (Brandishing my bandaged and cast covered arm) I was going to ask about the collaboration that started to happen with the GZA – did anything more come of that?

I played two shows with him, NXNE and at a Texas festival in Austin, playing guitar for him. The way we met was really cool actually; I was playing in Toronto with Mark and the BBQ Show and Fab Five Freddy was in the audience, he was freaking out and then the next day he invited me to go and meet him and GZA at a press conference. I went there, they were discussing the history of hip hop and that was amazing to just watch. During the conference Fab Five Freddy gave me a shout out, he was like ‘Yesterday I saw a great rock n roll band, King Khan and the BBQ Show’.

It doesn’t get better than that!

I know, it was badass! Anyway before the conference we were drinking Bloody Caesars, me and GZA and Fab Five Freddy. We were talking about all sorts of stuff, GZA invited me to his hotel room and I took my guitar so we were hanging out jamming. Then he asked me to come and play on about five songs from Liquid Swords so that was really badass. Unfortunately we talked a bit about doing some kind of collaboration stuff then, I dunno, all sorts of stuff happened with my brain. I went through a breakdown and stuff, and never got back in touch about doing stuff. I got a Wu name though, which is Lord Khan!

Right, as I can hear the first band starting to play, let’s have the final question – how did Lindsay Lohan take getting a face full of arse at the Cannes Film Festival?

That was really hilarious, because shortly afterwards she invited us all up to her hotel room. Me and the Almighty Defenders were all hanging out, I did her tarot cards up there, it was funny because she got the card…it was an old deck I used to use and it was a woman, covering her face in a boat sailing far away, which actually kind of happened to her – she got arrested not long after that. She was really nice actually and we were having quite a lot of fun. It’s kind of sad when people like that are turned in to targets. I even saw it with Jay Reatard, people used to go to his shows to do something bad just to make him angry and see him explode. It’s so sad when that becomes a trademark of your existence; you wind up getting in a lot of trouble all the time. I’m glad I have nothing to do with that…I think if you approach music in a certain way and are open about who you are, what you are, there’s no mystery about you…a lot of people, especially in music hide that their married, or have families and stuff and it’s so idiotic. That’s one thing I’m happy about – I’ve been so open about my life so I don’t get these crazy stalkers and shit like that.☮ ✌

King Khan & The Shrines have a killer album out right now on Merge Records that you should check out. Khan has re-united with long time partner in crime Mark Sultan to record a brand new King Khan & BBQ Show album which should be released later this year.

Look forward to that with bells on, but in the meantime, indulge yourself into this ‘Road Tape’, stacked with a bunch of amazing tracks that King Khan & The Shrines play whilst on tour. Miss them at your peril at the Scala in London tomorrow evening 24/4/14.