ABOVE: HANNI EL KHATIB IN SANTA MONICA, MARCH 2013
“Commentary on pop culture in the form of music” is how Hanni El Khatib describes the fractured fabric of his new sophomore album, Head in the Dirt (Innovative Leisure), a collection of contagious garage-punk-cum-pop-art freak-outs that scavenge the back alleys of vintage rock-‘n’-roll and 1950s switchblade cool with a contemporary bravura. “I kind of view songwriting as curation,” the Los Angeles-based El Khatib says. “I’m more influenced by visuals than anything. I’m into the physical products of different eras. I get more inspired at the flea market than I do listening to records. I want to give you the sensation of bringing you back into the past—but minus the kitsch.”
An art-school refugee, the 31-year-old El Khatib first found himself on a creative path thanks to a wayward youth spent skateboarding in his hometown of San Francisco. “Skating is 100 percent responsible for my art,” he says. “That aesthetic has been ingrained in the fabric of my personality.” In fact, when El Khatib first commenced with music-making in a more serious way a few years ago, he was still working as the creative director for the streetwear brand HUF. He recorded some songs on his own, burned some CDs, and packaged them with a hand-numbered, limited-edition zine that eventually made its way to such rarified environs as the Parisian boutique Colette. By the time El Khatib released his first proper album, 2011’s blazing Will the Guns Come Out, he was already opening up for Florence + the Machine. “I went from playing for 50 drunken skaters to 3,000 people,” he says. “That’s when it dawned on me that this could be real.”
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys wound up producing Head in the Dirt after he and El Khatib bonded over Maker’s Mark in a Paris bar. “I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Dan and I have similar approaches,” El Khatib says. “I made the first album in my bedroom, but weirdly, my second album was even more spontaneous.” On a track like “Low,” El Khatib explains, “I’ve managed to take all of my inspirations and morph them into one song. It’s got a super-funked-out bass line, a weird African beat, an electric sitar on the hook—it’s just bizarre.” He adds, “If I told you I played rock ‘n’ roll and just gave you that track, then it would seem a little . . . off. But it’s all about context: The Smiths had miserable lyrics over happy music, but if it was the other way around, then no one might’ve cared.”
T-SHIRTS AND BOOTS: PALACE VINTAGE. JEANS: 7 FOR ALL MANKIND. NECKLACE AND RING: VINTAGE. WATCH: ROLEX. GROOMING PRODUCTS: BUMBLE AND BUMBLE, INCLUDING SUMOTECH. STYLING: EILEEN HAYES. GROOMING: FRANKIE PAYNE/OPUS BEAUTY.