Hanni El Khatib: Expanding Sonic Horizons

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“Excuse me. Can you spare 80 cents? We’re short. If you have a dollar bill, I can give you 20 cents back. Please.” A man and a woman, 20-something and possibly under the influence or otherwise disoriented, approach Hanni El Khatib, who’s sitting outside a restaurant adjacent to Oakland’s Fox Theater on historic Telegraph Avenue.

Skuzz-blues guitarist El Khatib, the Bay Area native who now calls Los Angeles home, pulls out a dollar from his wallet and lets the pair keep their change. They thank him, not realizing that the tattooed man with the slicked back hair is taking the stage tonight, and continue on their way.

“They’re probably like … I mean, dude,” the 33-year-old pauses. “I used to live here when I was 18, and I kind of remember…”

A little earlier, El Khatib glanced up and down Telegraph and at the lit-up marquee of the theater. The area was once a gritty part of the city. Gang shootings and brazen daylight robberies were the norm here before the area was revitalized. Even in 2011, when he opened here for Florence and the Machine, a riot connected to the police shooting death of Oscar Grant shut down several blocks outside.

“Oakland seems real safe these days, huh? I used to live on 31st, and it was a different zone,” he remembers.

El Khatib released his third album, Moonlight, in January on Innovative Leisure, the Stone’s Throw imprint he runs with two friends. Besides touring in support of his own record (a headlining trek is planned for April), he is involved in the big-picture management and project decisions at the label, which now has about 20 artists on its roster. He’s gotten into production, working with Parisian psychedelic band Wall of Death. He’s also teamed up with several hip-hop artists, including Freddie Gibbs. And if that isn’t enough for one man, he’s now consulting for skateboarding fashion label HUF, his previous employer that brought him from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2010 and was his last day job prior to jumping off into a music career.

“I didn’t think I [missed that work], but then I started working with them again just these past few months,” he says. “I was doing some work backstage for them just now.”

El Khatib’s first album, 2011’s Will the Guns Come Out, elevated the singer-guitarist’s stature from bedroom recording musician and bar performer to opener for Florence and the Machine, writer of TV and commercial placement-friendly tunes, and a big name in Europe, especially France.

“The French have a love for rock ‘n’ roll music. They still have people like Johnny Hallyday, who is like their Elvis,” El Khatib says. “They still have that, where we have people like rappers and R&B singers. They have rock ‘n’ roll bands who are selling out stadiums.”

It was a French bar where he met Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who produced his second album, 2013’s Head in the Dirt. His work was more polished than his debut album, but failed to generate the buzz of a radio hit.

El Khatib doesn’t mind, and further still, is glass-half-full about the experience. It took the pressure off so he could create a third album of whatever music he felt like writing.

“It was a green light to make any record I wanted,” he says. “I didn’t have any pressure to follow it up with anything. I didn’t even have pressure to make another album. No one was telling me I had to make another record.”

Of course, that’s exactly what he wanted to do. After concluding his Head In The Dirt tour, he took a month off to focus on work at Innovative Leisure and then spent a month recording what would become Moonlight. He had no end goal, but knew he wanted to write and produce as much as he could by himself before deciding whether to bring in any other musicians or producers.

El Khatib found the writing process easy. Thematically, Moonlight is more personal than his previous album. But because of his habit of blending stories from different points of view, times in his life and locales, it might not come off that way to listeners.

Case in point, the title track, which might be the closest thing to a mission statement from the songwriter (“All my life I’ve been fighting for the moonlight”), was written from a stream of consciousness viewpoint, trying to capture more of a mood than a specific story.

“It’s struggling with the push and pull, the yes and no, the good and evil things that I have come across. You have a point where you can make the right decision or the wrong decision, and trying to write to that was the aim.”

Conversely, there’s album closer “Two Brothers,” a straight story, written from the perspective of El Khatib’s father, about the back-to-back deaths of his two uncles—one to a heart attack and the second to cancer. He said the nearly six-minute-long song is the most connected he has felt with any of the new material.

“Two Brothers” is the most unique song on the album because it veers away from his greatest influences of raw blues, hazy psychedelia, ’50s and ’60s American garage rock, early R&B, soul and Motown melodies.

“As I’m doing it, I’m realizing I’m making a disco song,” he says. “It kept musically kind of pushing that way. I went with it. I had a string section come in. It was a little bit more involved in that sense. Coming from a trashy guitar and drum set-up to doing a thing like that, where it’s five minutes of instrumental, it’s a little different for me.”

The rest of the album has El Khatib’s reverbed vocals mixed with simplistic, hook-driven drums and bass and staticky guitar. El Khatib played nearly every instrument (other than percussion), but did bring in guests, such as the aforementioned string section, guitarist Matt Sweeney (Adele, Jake Bugg, Tinariwen), as well as Florence and the Machine guitarist Rob Ackroyd.

El Khatib’s musical influences haven’t changed since he was young. The same guitar- and vocal-driven melodies that captured his imagination—everyone from The Animals, Sam Cooke, MF Doom, the Cramps and girl groups like the Shirelles—still drive him to make music.

But never one to become completely content, El Khatib collaborated with Freddie Gibbs because he wanted to add another element to his sound. He’s listened to hip hop since he was a kid, but never figured out a way to incorporate it into his music.

“I’m not trying to be rocker-turned-rap-producer. That doesn’t interest me; supporting a rapper with rock beats,” he says. “Collaborating and working with other people—that’s really the exciting part.

I think every artist should just push themselves to the end of what they can do at that time.”