Interview: Clash Talks Art With Hanni El Khatib

The man behind Elton John's favourite LP of the last five years...

Confirming that rock remains a visceral proposition, Hanni El Khatib is a multi-disciplinary creative who has moved away from a career in art direction to generate no-nonsense garage-rock on his own terms. He’s rapidly gone from playing to bars of 30 people to audiences of 3,000-plus, supporting Florence + The Machine in the US.

“I’ve always played music, but guess I’ve always been a realist about how things work out for most the musicians that I know at least,” the LA-based artist tells us. “At the time everybody joined bands I had the opportunity to design for a skateboard company and I took that path, but I never stopped making music.”

He retains an admirably holistic DIY approach to his work, which extends further than the music itself. “I feel that it’s really important to stick to your guns and be relentless with your ideas and concepts. For me it’s not just the music, it’s the visual aesthetic, the idea. The vision and the mood stretches way beyond 35 minutes of music.

“I did the artwork for my current record. Typically I do all the artwork all by myself, from start to finish. With this one I had the idea that I’d incorporate a bunch of people that I like and respect… then after the record came out, instead of a standard record release party I had a gallery present a group show. We’re like one big, unified art collective family.”

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Hanni El Khatib, ‘Family’, from the album ‘Head In The Dirt’

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His retro sound is primitive, urgent and engagingly straightforward, much like the man himself, who places great stock in the musical forms of the past.

“It’s going back to the idea of when people were pressing 45” singles; the time frame was two-minutes-20, or whatever, and you couldn’t go over. There’s something to be said about that because it’s kind of been ingrained in people’s subconscious, musically, for the past 50 years or more.” 

Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys produced and recorded his 2013 album, ‘Head In The Dirt’, in Nashville, which was an unexpectedly pleasurable experience.

“I met him at a bar. He knew my music, I knew his music, and it was very simple. We stayed in touch and became friends so when it came to working with each other, we have such a similar taste in music that our points of reference were all pointing to the same place. I was surprised at some of the sessions on those days – Dan would be so easy going about it, like, ‘I think we got it, let’s get coffee.’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on, we’ve been in the studio 15 minutes… that’s it?’” Which was in direct contrast to Hanni’s own experience of producing psych bands. “That was a new thing for me, and the exciting part of making that record.”

Clash’s guest editor Elton John named ‘Head In The Dirt’ as his favourite record of the last five years – high praise from an icon, and something which leaves Hanni incredulous but thrilled.

“It’s the ultimate compliment. I’m a fan of Elton John’s, of course. I’m aware of his vast catalogue of work and aware that he has his finger on the pulse of new music. Through the course of his career he’s been very aware of what’s going on and that part alone is exiting; to know that someone who’s been around as long is still so aware, so current and excited to learn about new music and discover new stuff… I think that is awesome.

“That kind of praise is something else… I was like, ‘Hang on, what, are you sure? How did he even hear this record?’ But that’s the world we live in today.”

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Hanni El Khatib, ‘Penny’, from the album ‘Head In The Dirt’

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Words: Anna Wilson

Find Hanni El Khatib online here. Get more information on our special Elton John-guest-edited Fashion Issue here.

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