Hanni El Khatib: Effortless Effort

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In Zen, there is a concept called wu wei, or effortless effort. People toss it around when they’re trying to explain to a novice how to meditate—hint: there is no “how,” really—but it could just as easy be used to describe a lifestyle where nothing is forced and things are allowed to happen on their own time. Such is the kind of life Hanni El Khatib has led.

The only child of Palestinian and Filipino immigrants, El Khatib has followed a winding path from young skater boy to creative director of the skateboarding fashion label HUF to a potential Next Big Thing. Within the first year of his musical career, he became a partner and artistic director of the label Innovative Leisure and had the likes of Nike knocking on his door. A cursory glance at his curriculum vitae may give the impression that he’s lived a charmed life. But behind his good looks and down-to-earth humility is a guy who never stopped plugging away at his art, regardless of whether he knew where it would take him.

“I grew up skating and my friends owned companies. A lot of the times they were just starting out and didn’t have a lot of money,” El Khatib says. In the mid-2000s, he walked from work with ad agencies and design firms in his native San Francisco to work full-time as creative director at his friend Keith Hunagel’s HUF clothing line. The company grew quickly and now distributes worldwide and partners with the likes of Snoop Dog. All along, El Khatib played music as a hobby.

“I was kind of doing music on the side as another creative outlet, and I had a lot of fun playing shows at the local bar and inviting my friends,” he says.

The HUF gig took El Khatib to L.A., where, in 2010, the Stone’s Thrown imprint Innovative Leisure caught wind of his vintage-garage-blues and signed on to release his first 7-inch. And that’s when Florence and the Machine came calling.

“My music doesn’t really fall in the same vein, but it was sort of a random thing,” he says of being asked to tour with the Welsh diva. “I went from playing in front of 60 people to playing in front of 3,000 people every night, sold out.”

El Khatib’s gritty guitar and fuzzily distorted vocals were indeed an odd match for Florence’s witchy woman drama-pop, but the experience opened him up to the idea of pursuing music as more than just a hobby.

“I was on that tour and, like, ‘This is kind of weird, and you just don’t go from 70 to 3000 overnight. This is probably just a fluke.’ After that tour, I thought to myself that if something like that happens again, I need to take a look at it more seriously, but for now, I just consider it a cool vacation,” he says.

But shortly after the Florence and the Machine tour ended, El Khatib was already booked for another month of touring on his own. Then Nike came calling shortly thereafter, asking to use the song “I Got a Thing,” from his 2011 full-length debut Will the Guns Come Out, in a commercial. Unforced and on its own time, music had presented itself as the next logical step.

And this is the part of the story where, for those who like to keep their art and commerce separate, things may start to get a little uncomfortable.

Like the sole survivors of the early-aughts “The _________s” retro-rock revivalists, The Black Keys (R.I.P The Vines, The Hives, et al), El Khatib has shown an uncanny ability to nestle his music into the world of corporate sponsorship. Another Will the Guns song, “You Rascal You” soundtracked a TV spot for Captain Morgan Black. Last month, El Khatib curated an art show called “Family” (also the name of a single from his Dan Auerbach-produced LP, Head in the Dirt) at the Heavyweight Gallery in L.A. The event was put on “with gracious support from Converse.”

But talking to El Khatib, or listening to his music, it’s impossible to think of him as a corporate hack. His music, an assimilation of great American music traditions like garage rock, blues and folk, coupled with Khatib’s tattooed and pomaded throwback bad boy chic, makes for great marketing material because it is a rare bird—something both “retro” and authentic at the same time. An obvious heir to The Black Keys in sound and, sometimes, ethos, he’s simply been savvier about harnessing the power of capitalism to facilitate his art than they were; it took the Akron duo nearly a decade to start landing the kind of placement El Khatib started getting by accident.

And he’s certainly used his powers for good. Khatib’s world now is a carefully curated collection of words, images and moving pictures, all designed, as he says, to put his music into context. He has a surprising amount of music videos, all produced by him and his friends, that function like visual poems, providing a rich context for the music.

“I have all these talented people around and me and I keep everything super-contained,” he says. “I’d probably be a nightmare to work for if you weren’t my friend.”

Fortunately for Khatib, his earnest creative spirit makes him a lot of friends. In fact, he and Auerbach decided to record Head in the Dirt together after meeting in Paris and knocking a few back together.

“I never once thought that before meeting him, that I would work with him,” El Khatib says. But Auerbach understood his sound and helped to both fill it out and polish it up. The resulting record is a tightly coiled and lively thing, sure to win El Khatib a broader fan base and more calls from would-be corporate benefactors.

Both of which he deserves. El Khatib has earned his success as an artist and musician through sheer love of the game and willingness to give different creative pursuits a try. With such a well-laid artistic foundation and series of lucky circumstances, it’s not wonder Khatib makes the effort look effortless. In many ways it wasn’t. But, then again, it was.